Archive for July, 2017

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I’ve talked about rejection before, and I think anyone who talks about writing (however infrequently) has to address rejection, because for the majority of writers it is just one of those immutable facts of life. As always there are exceptions, but they are rare, and whilst one may feel an annoyance with the lucky buggers, I do wonder if not getting rejections— if having your first story/book picked up, then the next one and the next one, without ever getting that hit of disappointment— is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Rejection is horrible, I’ve talked before about how being a writer is a bit like being a boxer getting pummelled by punch after punch, but can you imagine a boxer who never takes a hit? Some kind of inhuman pugilist who’d make Muhammad Ali seem flat footed, a preternaturally fleet-footed ninja who no one could lay a glove on. Know what, eventually even such an individual will take a hit, and I’d be willing to bet that one punch, however light, will drop them like a stone.

Nietzsche’s assertion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger is naïve in the extreme, but on occasion there is some truth behind the notion, in particular when it comes to rejection. Just as eschewing shoes (eschoeing?) will eventually lead to the skin on the soles of your feet hardening, then hopefully rejections, assuming you don’t buckle and quit after the first few (and I would never begrudge anyone who does that because rejection is like a knife to the heart) will harden your heart and mean future rejections maybe won’t hurt quite so much.

Don’t get me wrong though, they’ll still hurt, and maybe they always should, but as counterintuitive as it sounds rejection can be a positive, I know I’ve channelled the despair I’ve felt over having been rejected in many ways. There’s the visceral “well, I’ll show you!” response to rejection, and often one of the best ways to handle a rejection is to take that story and fire it off towards someone else, and I think that’s a perfectly acceptable way to respond. The only note of caution I’d sound is that before you do you should always give a moment’s consideration to whether you can make it better first. Have you proof read it enough, could you polish some more? At the end of the day with any work of art, be it a sculpture, a musical composition, a painting or a story, there’s always a danger of it never feeling finished, but by the same token it would be annoying if a great story kept being rejected because publishers felt your grammar and spelling weren’t up to scratch.

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J.Kitten. Rowling suddenly had a new idea…

Rejection can prove a positive in other ways. In the last week I’ve been hit with a double whammy of rejection. Both were stories I felt were good, and both were stories that had been with publishers long enough that I’d started to feel overly hopeful (never a good idea, but there is some truth in the notion that the longer someone holds onto your story the more they like it) so in both cases it was a hard pill to swallow when the “Thanks, but no thanks,” came back. What’s curious is that in both cases, within an hour or so of getting the rejections my mind came up with new story ideas, one for each rejection, almost as if subconsciously I was saying; “Ok, you didn’t like that story but how about this one?”

As a wordsmith it’s quite obvious that the word rejection and the word injection are the same if you remove the first two letters, so next time you get a rejection take away the RE and add an IN, make it an injection of something; whether it’s a desire to polish your story further, whether it’s a sheer bloody minded belief that someone else will like your story so you send it somewhere else, or whether you channel your disappointment into firing your imagination to come up with a brand new story.

Oft times I find rejection prompts all three of those reactions in me, and I’m not sure this was always the case, but being a writer is often about evolution, not only in what we write and how we write, but also in how we react to what people feel about our work, whether that’s a positive or a negative.

In conclusion I’ll circle back to the use of my boxing metaphor once more. In Rocky 3, Rocky was beaten by Clubber Lang, and in order to come back and reclaim his title he had to learn to fight a different way, knowing he couldn’t beat Clubber in a lengthy fight, he had to change his approach and beat him quickly. He took his defeat, his rejection, and turned it around, used it to inject something new into his technique.

Keep punching folks, and if they do knock you down, just make sure you get back up again before the count hits ten!

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I pity the fool that rejects my stories!

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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted: July 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton and Robert Downy Jr.

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I’m sure Deadpool would have a witty remark about teenage boys and sticky fluid to mention here but thankfully I am more mature.

After helping one set of Avengers against the other, Peter Parker (Holland) is eager for Spider-Man to become a fully-fledged Avenger, but Tony Stark (Downy Jr) feels that he’s too young and inexperienced, and suggests that he concentrates on being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man for now.

Undeterred Peter neglects his studies and social activities to concentrate of crimefighting, included within this he quits his school’s academic decathlon team, despite having a major crush on one of his fellow students, Liz (Laura Harrier). His decision to leave opens up a space for Flash (Tony Revolori) a smug bully who has a dismissive opinion of Peter.

Whilst patrolling the streets of New York Spider-Man comes across a group of criminals selling high tech weapons retrieved from some of the Avengers’ major battles during the last eight years. The group is led by a man named Adrian Toomes (Keaton) a salvage expert who feels he was cheated out of a fortune when he wasn’t allowed to salvage alien technology after the Chitauri invasion of the first Avengers movie. Toomes has a high tech set of mechanical wings and an alter ego as The Vulture.

As Spider-Man tries to bring down the Vulture, he also has to contend with his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovering his secret identity, and has to confront the possibility that, as Stark says, he isn’t ready to be a fully-fledged hero.

 

The word Homecoming in the title has something of a dual meaning. Ostensibly it relates to the Homecoming dance at Peter Parkers high school, an event that resonates in the background throughout the film, but it also refers to Spidey coming home. The character is owned by Sony these days, and so until now hasn’t been able to play a part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually quite liked the last two Spider-Man films, and for me Andrew Garfield made for a better Peter than Tobey Maguire, but the absence of Spider-Man from the Avengers films has left a noticeable gap, and although the introduction of Spidey to the MCU seems a little complex (with Sony retaining some ownership and effectively loaning the character out) it is great to see him return.

Of course people wondered if we really needed a third version of Spider-Man in just fifteen years (and the second version in just the last five) but Homecoming answers that question very easily. Obviously we did, and I think most people understood that once we saw Spider-Man cameo in Captain America: Civil War.

The makers of Homecoming have delivered a film that is at once simplistic, yet also one that goes out of its way to differentiate itself from the previous two incarnations of the character. Sure, Holland is playing younger than his years, but the high school scenes feel more realistic than they did with either Maguire or Garfield, and it’s nice to see the character return to his roots as a very young man who winds up with a heck of a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.

The decision to play the film like a high school comedy means it is by necessity a touch lighter than many recent Marvel offerings, but this is no bad thing. This is Spider-Man if John Hughes had made it.

In a clever touch that does something new, whilst remaining faithful to the character, the film manages to ignore Peter’s angst over the loss of Uncle Ben, whilst retaining the idea at the core of the character that with great power comes great responsibility. This time rather that Peter wrestling with his failure to capture the criminal who would then go on to kill his uncle, he instead has to deal with the fact that he puts people’s lives at risk by getting ahead of himself and running before he can walk (or maybe that should be web swinging before he can walk?)

Holland is very good, both as the geeky high school student, and as the wise cracking superhero, managing to portray the weight on Peter’s shoulder without allowing the film to dip too deeply into angst, and Peter and Spidey are in safe hands. It’s especially encouraging that the young man can act toe to toe with heavy hitter like Downey Jr and Keaton without looking overwhelmed.

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“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get…oops wrong film.”

As the villain of the piece Keaton does a good job of imbuing the blue collar Vulture with a genuine sense of menace—there is a reason he remains my favourite Bruce Wayne because he’s the only actor to really hint that a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime might have a few screws loose, and though Vulture clearly isn’t mad, he lets enough of a hint of malevolence out to prove a worthy adversary, but pitting Spider-Man against Vulture is another canny move by the producers, because he isn’t one of Spidey’s more powerful foes, best to leave them for when Spider-Man is a bit more experienced (judging by the end credits sequence it’s easy to guess who his next enemy might be).

 

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“What do you mean you wish you’d been on Captain America’s side?”

Downey Jr has Tony Stark’s personality down to a tee now, and it continues to be impressive that he can make Stark so arrogantly snarky, whilst also making him empathetic and likeable, and he and Holland had a nice chemistry as mentor and mentee. I had feared that Stark and Iron Man might overshadow Spidey, but thankfully this isn’t the case. It’s also nice to see Paltrow back as Pepper and Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan.

There’s a nice sense of diversity about Peter’s peer group, and whilst Flash’s shift from jock lunkhead to smug rich kid takes a little getting used to, it’s a believable change. As Ned, Batalon is a genuine find as Peter’s wingman/man in a chair.

It is a shame that the female characters aren’t as well served as the boys in this, and it seems to be about Peter having multiple father-ish figures in his life in Stark, Happy and even Toomes, and as such Marisa Tomei as Aunt May feels short-changed, similarly Harrier barely gets to rise above the level of love interest. The only bright spot, although she doesn’t get much to do, is Zendaya as Michelle, another of Peter’s friends. She’s wonderfully sparky and owns every second of her limited screen time and one presumes/hopes she’ll have a bigger part to play in any sequel.

There are some nice set-pieces; the Staten Island ferry bit is good, but for me the Washington Monument set piece is the best. The final showdown between Vulture and Spidey is to be lauded for not going down the route of a city destroying conflagration (Marvel seem to have learned their lesson somewhat on this) but is let down by the night-time setting which swathes much of the fight in darkness and means you struggle at times to see what’s going on. I’m also not sold on Peter’s suit featuring an AI, although it does seem like the sort of thing Tony Stark would build in there.

A somewhat flawed but still hugely enjoyable outing for the character, and proof that Holland’s scene stealing cameo in Civil War wasn’t some flash in the pan. Hopefully this version of Spidey will be around for a long time to come because he’s great.

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Baby Driver

Posted: July 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx.

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Jamie Foxx was not happy when he discovered there were none of his albums on Baby’s iPod

Baby (Elgort) is a young man with preternatural driving skills. He also has a bad case of tinnitus courtesy of a car accident as a child which means he near constantly listens to music. In order to pay a debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey) Baby has to use his skills behind the wheel as the ultimate getaway driver, much to the chagrin of his deaf foster father. When his debt to Doc appears to be paid off, and when he begins a tentative relationship with waitress Deborah (James) Baby thinks his life as a wheelman is over, but fate has other ideas.

 

And so, after walking away (being fired?) from Ant Man, British director Edgard Wright, the director of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, plus Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy (not forgetting one of the greatest sitcoms of all time—Spaced) revisited an idea he first had more than twenty years ago, an idea that would become Baby Driver.

In some ways it’s an easy film to categorise, but in others it’s difficult to pigeonhole. First and foremost it’s a driving movie, and a heist movie, but Wright uses Baby’s near constant need to listen to music to provide a soundtrack that makes the film almost play like a musical, and with the central romance between Baby and Deborah more than one critic has highlighted similarities with La La Land.

So let’s get one thing out of the way straight away, Car Car Land this ain’t. Which doesn’t mean it’s not hugely enjoyable, it just maybe means it isn’t quite the work of genius some people are saying it is.

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Baby had the strangest feeling they were being followed…

A car chase film lives or dies by the choreography of its car chases, and every chase in the film is exceptionally well handled and, more to the point, appears to have been done with actual cars rather than with CGI imposters. There’s a balletic beauty to the carnage here, and it’s certainly one of the best car related films I’ve seen for quite some time (even if some of Baby’s tricks aren’t quite as subtle/clever as those employed by Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, on the plus side compared to Drive which felt like it didn’t have enough driving, Baby Driver never short changes you in this department.) Along with the driving the eclectic soundtrack complements the action perfectly.

As Baby, Elgort does a good job essaying a young man in way over his head. Despite allusions to it, he isn’t exactly James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause however, but though his strong silent savant genius shtick does get a little annoying at times, on the whole he’s a very effective lead.

Spacey puts in a good turn as Doc, even if it isn’t anything we haven’t seen him do before. As always he manages to be avuncular and slightly scary all at the same time. As Deborah, James gets little chance to shine until close to the end, and its shame she couldn’t be elevated to more than mere love interest.

Foxx over does it somewhat as Bats, one of several crazy criminals Doc employs. It’s possible this over egging was intentional but it never feels like anything other than Foxx playing a role. Far more effective as Buddy is Jon Hamm who really plays against type and manages to flit behind likable and terrifying, and he might well be the stand out of the cast. As his wife Darling, González gets a meatier role than James and handles the role well, again it’s just a shame the part never lifts much above cliché.

The film is exciting, at times hilarious and messes with your expectations on multiple occasions (though at other times characters behave exactly how you expect them to).

On the downside the films sags in the middle, and whilst Elgort and James have chemistry, it’s nothing like what we saw between Gosling and Stone. The first and third acts are fantastic though, although the ending does go on a bit.

Other than that I think my only slight issue with the film was one of tone. The film walks a fine line between frothy romantic teen action comedy, and something altogether darker. Of course, Wright has walked such lines before, but whereas with something like Hot Fuzz he was aided by the comedy being so broad, and the central plot so ridiculous, with Baby Driver being somewhat more grounded it means that on occasion the flit between violent crime thriller and light romantic comedy is a little jarring.

All in all though the positives of the film far outweigh the bad and I heartily recommend you head on over to your local drive in theatre.

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Groovy, Baby!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Posted: July 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote.

In 1940s New York an unnamed narrator moves into an apartment in a brownstone and soon becomes enraptured by one of his fellow tenants, the carefree Holly Golightly, a woman who’s card on her mailbox advises that she is “travelling”, and so she is, though she doesn’t quite know where to, only that she’s looking for a home, and she’ll know it when she finds it. She has a cat with no name and a penchant for rich, often older men, including, amongst others, an imprisoned gangster, a possibly gay millionaire playboy, and a Brazilian diplomat.

Holly is a former actress turned socialite and looking for a rich man to marry, though there’s more to her than meets the eye as the narrator discovers more and more of her background, including her humble origins, she is more than just a gold-digger, she’s a beautiful bird that refuses to be caged, but will she ever find happiness?

 

It’s strange how life goes. I was aware of an individual named Truman Capote, but I didn’t really know much about him, and I had no interest in reading any of his works. Odd then that in the space of half a year I’ve now read, and enjoyed, his two most celebrated works. Enjoying—if that’s the right word—his seminal true crime tale In Cold Blood prompted me to seek out Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I enjoyed this just as much, though can two books be so different?

Never having seen the film (actually that’s a lie as I think I’ve seen the final moments in the rain several times) I think I actually had a more romanticised notion about what Holly Golightly’s story was about, so it was a surprise to discover it was quite racy, with a dynamic female lead.

It’s hard to quite pinpoint what’s so good about it. Is it Capote’s prose, which is superb, each word seemingly chosen with utmost care, and yet never pretentious, never a chore, or is it Holly herself, a flighty girl about town who should be all rights be annoying, yet whose refusal to bow down to what society expects of her is somehow refreshing, especially when married to her clear fragility (and now I understand why Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part), or is it Capote’s decision to give us a narrator who we know barely anything about (other than that he’s a writer) a man whose name we never learn, although Holly christens him Fred after her brother. It’s an interesting narrative choice, which allows Holly to remain the focus of the story, although Capote leaves just enough breadcrumbs to ensure we know full well that Fred loves Holly just as much as every other man she meets.

In the end I think the story’s strength is its sheer effortlessness, and the fact that it manages to be both flimsy and profound, much like Holly herself. Because it’s a novella it’s a slim tale, but it packs a lot in, and the ending is poignant. Holly may or may not find her forever home, but at least someone does.

The novella is supplemented by three short stories, and each in their own way is very different, and engaging. Of these the first is House of Flowers, the tale of a poor young girl living on the island of Haiti who’s torn between her love of a country man, and her former life as a prostitute. Of all the stories in the book this was probably my least favourite, and the one whose ending was least satisfactory, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting.

A Diamond Guitar focuses on the relationship between two prisoners, a grizzled old lifer, and a passionate younger man. It’s a really well-crafted tale of a platonic love affair between two men, and features betrayal, hope and regret in equal measure, and Capote really gets inside the characters, making them believable human beings despite the story’s brevity. I really enjoyed it.

The final tale, which I’ve heard some describe as autobiographical, is A Christmas Memory, and tells the tale of a seven year old boy, and his elderly female cousin and their preparations for Christmas, which mainly revolve around a tradition of baking fruitcakes. I won’t say too much except that I found it a beautiful and incredibly touching story of love and friendship, and I’d rank it alongside the titular novella as my favourite story in the book, and it was the only one that very nearly moved me to tears at the end.

Highly recommended and I suspect I will be searching out more Capote before the end of the year.