Archive for January, 2018

Directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

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Just when would the costume designer pay for their crimes against fashion?

Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is angry. It’s been seven months since her daughter was raped and murdered, and the police in Ebbing seem no closer to finding out who killed her. Consumed by rage and grief Mildred rents three abandoned billboards and uses them to very pointedly ask why the police haven’t solved the case.

The appearance of the billboards upsets the local sheriff, Bill Willoughby (Harrelson) who feels Mildred’s ire is unfair. He feels there’s a limit to what the police can do when there’s no evidence and no witnesses. Though he tries to assure Mildred that they haven’t given up on the case she is not to be dissuaded and has no intention of bringing the billboards down.

The locals are sympathetic to Mildred’s loss, but they’re more sympathetic to their sheriff, and as time passes the locals become more and more angry at Mildred, none more so than Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell) an angry, racist cop who idolises Sheriff Willoughby.

As tragedy strikes Mildred finds an increasing array of obstacles in her path; is there any hope of getting justice for her daughter?

 

It’s hard to believe that Three Billboards (yeah I’m not gonna type the whole title each time, so sue me) is only the third full length film written and directed by McDonagh in almost ten years. He burst onto the scene with In Bruges in 2008, a wonderfully spiky gangster film that established him as a man who could make even the coarsest curses sound almost poetic and who could marry humour and extreme violence seamlessly. He followed In Bruges up four years later with Seven Psychopaths. Whilst not up to the standard of In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths was an enjoyable film that followed a similar path to McDonagh’s first work; it was spiky, foul mothed, violenct and a lot of fun.

Now three years later we have Three Billboards. In many respects it follows the pattern of the first two films, it’s a film that bristles, it deals with a cast of engaging characters, it’s a drama that revolves around a violent crime and, of course, it’s incredibly funny and foul mouthed. In all other respects however, Three Billboards is very different, this is a more grown up affair.

It’s a difficult film to pigeonhole. Yes it’s a very black comedy, but beyond this it’s a tale of grief and the extremes it will push people too, and it’s a story about how nobody is all good, nobody all bad, and how some people can surprise you.

McDonagh’s script is excellent, every word seeming chosen with meticulous care, and his overarching message that violence begets violence is never far away. In his casting he has actors each of whom is able to take those words and do something wonderful with them, and it’s in the dialogue and acting that the film primarily succeeds.

McDormand is a great actor, and she will forever be Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Mildred is about as far away from Marge as you can get, where Marge was innocent, Mildred is anything but, and McDormand wrings every drop of emotion from the role, swaggering around town like a female John Wayne (a metaphor ably supported by her own twangy Western theme) she’s angry, grief-stricken, tough as nails and yet also incredibly fragile. I don’t think there are many actors who could have pulled this off without either making Mildred too sympathetic, or making her too unlikable, and however much we might be rooting for Mildred, the film never shies away from the fact that she’s going too far. I won’t be at all surprised if McDormand ends up with another Gold statue in a few weeks’ time.

 

Harrelson imbues Willoughby with a huge amount of humanity, and in many respects he’s the most sympathetic character in the film—though special mention must be made of Peter Dinklage who excels in a cameo role as the local car salesman with something of a crush on Mildred—and Harrelson’s performance helps the film enormously, he’s so darn nice that it makes Mildred seem all the more extreme.

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“I’m telling you, sheriff, she’s that pregnant cop from up north!”

Rounding out the main case is Rockwell, who I’ve been a fan of since Galaxy Quest. He has great comic timing, but also essays Dixon’s anger management issues to a tee, and it says something about Rockwell as an actor that he can make Dixon sympathetic.

You can probably tell I enjoyed this film, but that said I don’t think it’s quite as fantastic as a lot of critics would have you believe. There are plot contrivances that are a little too convenient, one of which relates to the Ebbing police station’s opening hours, and whilst many have singled out the reading of some letters as a masterful scene, I’m not so sure. They seemed a little too eloquent, and though the character’s voice is heard I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was really hearing McDonagh. There’s also the small matter of one character’s evolution, they’re overplayed as an idiot to begin with, which makes where they eventually end up stretch credulity a little, although the actor’s so good they manage to pull it off. I also found the eclectic soundtrack jarring, skipping from Spaghetti western to classical, to showtunes and pop; who knows, perhaps that was supposed to be jarring?

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You shouldn’t need a magnifying class to see what’s great about this film.

Overall the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, though it won’t be a film for everyone. The language is beyond fruity, and the lack of a neat resolution will infuriate some. Me, I loved the cursing, and as for the moral ambiguity, that was another one of the strengths of the film, and for me the final scene as one of the most note perfect endings I’ve seen, for some reason evoking the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing (from the perspective of a weary “Let’s see what happens” kind of way, I’m not suggesting anyone in this is an alien shapeshifter!)

Sharp, funny, heartrending and incredibly foul mouthed, it’s not perfect by any means but I will certainly be paying another visit to Ebbing soon.

 

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2017: A Year in Film

Posted: January 21, 2018 in Film reviews
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So I’ve now seen my first film of 2018, but before I publish that review I thought it might be nice to list the films I saw in 2017 and place them in some kind of order. So here it is, all 29 films I saw at the cinema last year, ranked from the best to the worst.

A couple of points to make clear, the first is that all placings are, of course, subjective, and I know not everyone will agree with me, they’re also quite fluid, so whilst it’s unlikely Blade Runner will plummet too far in my affections, obviously in most cases I’ve only seen each film once, and a second viewing may alter my perception, so no positioning is fixed.

And finally, it has to be said that I enjoyed the vast majority of the films listed here on some level, so don’t take Logan at 18, for example, to mean I hated it, far from it. In fact realistically I can safely say it’s only the bottom three that I actively hated. I mean the Mummy is terrible, but Russell Crowe’s ridiculous accent alone almost makes seeing it worthwhile.

Anyway, goodbye 2017, hello 2018 so watch this space because reviews are coming!

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Ryan Gosling rocking that General Leia look!

1              Blade Runner 2049

2              Dunkirk

3              La La Land

4              Paddington 2

5              Thor Ragnarok

6              Raw

7              Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

8              Star Wars: The Last Jedi

9              John Wick Chapter 2

10           The Death of Stalin

11           The Lego Batman Movie

12           T2 Trainspotting

13           Get Out

14           Wonder Woman

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And yes, she was indeed a Wonder!

15           Fast and Furious 8

16           Baby Driver

17           Spider-Man: Homecoming

18           Logan

19           Kong Skull Island

20           Kingsman: The Golden Circle

21           Atomic Blonde

22           Victoria and Abdul

23           Wind River

24           Split

25           Justice League

26           The Mummy

27           Ghost in the Shell

28           Assassin’s Creed

29           Alien Covenant

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I guess he didn’t like Covenant either…

The Long and the Short of it.

Posted: January 16, 2018 in Regarding writing
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Ok so this is actually Margaret Hamilton standing next to the computer code she helped write for NASA’s Apollo program, but you get the idea!

So, my 2018 writing resolution was to step back from writing short fiction and to focus on a novel and, hopefully, a screenplay. It’s now the middle of January and I currently have four short works in progress and have done very little towards novel prep, and nothing towards a screenplay!

So, to further procrastinate, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the difference between short and long form, the positives and negatives inherent with each.

Each format has its appeal, each format has its limitations.

The first thing to discuss is perhaps financial reward. Most writers dream of becoming best-selling authors, of million pound, multiple book deals, of Hollywood throwing millions of dollars at you to buy the film rights etc. Now let’s be honest, the chances of this happening are thin, for every Stephen King or JK Rowling there are thousands of writers who never make it, but of those who do it will probably be the novel that makes their fortune.

There are exceptions of course, back in the 1980s Clive Barker became a household name on the back of his Books of Blood anthologies, and writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can still shift anthologies, but these are the exceptions, and even the three writers mentioned above found their greatest success with novels, screenplays, comic scripts etc.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that even most authors who write novels will never make the big time, and it’s eminently possible that having some short fiction published could lead to greater things.

So, lets look at some plus points to short stories over novels. There’s a sense of immediacy for one. One of the problems I’ve had recently is a surfeit of ideas, and some of them have demanded to be written there and then. Depending on its length a short story doesn’t take too long to write, a few days, a few weeks, hell on some occasions I’ve written a complete first draft in a few hours. By contrast novel writing is akin to marathon running, with the best will in the worst you’re probably not going to churn out a novel in a few days or weeks without calling in sick from work and snorting a lot of cocaine to enable you to write 24/7. No, writing a novel takes time, and whilst writing is a lonely job/hobby at the best of times, it’s even more isolating if you’ve got to keep your motivation going for months, sometimes years without validation. That’s like running a marathon alone, with no competitors to chase and no crowd cheering you on, and all the while you brain will keep generating other ideas to distract you. Evil, evil brain…

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Few short stories will take so long to write that you have to abandon them for a new idea, and the other good thing about short stories is that after you complete them you can release them into the wild whilst you start work on something else, because that’s perhaps the other advantage of the short form, there’s potentially a much bigger market for short stories than there is for novels; anthologies and indie publishers aplenty, and in the end isn’t it better to be a writer with publishing credits than the person who wrote a novel that went nowhere? Of course, there’s always the self-publishing route, and I’ve gone down that myself, but it’s not the same as someone choosing to publish you.

How about short stories versus novels from a craft perspective? I remember Lawrence Block saying that you could get away with a lot more flaws in a novel. When you’ve written 90,000 words an editor will likely be more forgiving of some creaky dialogue or some clunky exposition because it’s the whole that matters. When it comes to a 2,000 word short story on the other hand, every word matters, and the whole thing should be as meticulously crafted as a swiss watch. Or, to go back to the running analogy, if you’re sprinting you need to run as fast as you can for as long as you can, but running the marathon? You’re more likely to be able to get away with slowing down for the odd mile, just so long as you make your time up later.

Which isn’t to say you can afford to be sloppy with a novel, just that the long form can be more forgiving.

So, in conclusion I’m not sure you can argue either is really better. Sure, you’re probably more likely to accrue fame and fortune with a novel, but the odds are still stacked against you (sorry, if its any consolation they’re stacked against me too). At the end of the day the form you choose may be out of your hands. Perhaps you have a short attention span, or perhaps you only come up with ideas that require 120,000 words to do them justice, or maybe all your ideas only require flash fiction to get them across.

Ideally you’ll find a way to do both, working long term on a novel, whilst allowing your imagination free reign to drum up the odd short story while you’re slaving away on your epic fantasy trilogy, this will allow you to hopefully get the odd publishing credit to keep your motivation up, and hopefully writing those finely crafted short stories will make you a better novel writer into the bargain…maybe…

That’s my plan, but first there’s a short story I need to finish!

Beatnik Literature

Postcards from the Edge

Posted: January 1, 2018 in Book reviews
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postcards-from-the-edge-9781439194003_hrBy Carrie Fisher

Movie actress Suzanne Vale is trying to put her life back together after a drug overdose, but this proves harder than she thinks, a stint in rehab helps, but the vacuous nature of Hollywood and her romantic and career interactions keep her off kilter enough to ever wonder if she can be happy again.

There’s something very poignant about reading this book a year after Carrie’s untimely death, though not an autobiography this novel is clearly autobiographical, with Suzanne Vale, with her drug problems and famous mother, a fictionalised stand-in for Carrie herself.

The first thing to note is that this is nothing like the film. I haven’t seen it, but I know that at its core is the relationship between Suzanne and her mother and so it took me by surprise to realise that Suzanne’s mother barely appears in the book—seems there were a lot of changes when Hollywood decided to film it (though Carrie also wrote the screenplay).

The structure of the novel took a little getting used to as well. Split into five sections (plus prologue and epilogue) the book shifts between first person and third person narrative and even the point of view changes. After the prologue, which is in the epistolary style in the form of postcards, the first section is told first person, and from the perspectives of Suzanne and Alex, a screenwriter with a major drug problem. In this section Suzanne is in rehab where, after a major bender that almost costs him his life, Alex joins her. In many ways I think this was my favourite section of the book, if only because it’s the rawest. By the time we enter Suzanne’s life she is off drugs, and so Carrie uses the character of Alex to give a glimpse at how Suzanne likely ended up in rehab.

The Suzanne sections are humorous and hopeful, but interchanged with these the Alex sections are incredibly, almost frighteningly manic (and given the nature of Carrie’s diagnosis with bipolar disorder one can’t help but see the parallels between the calm Suzanne and the manic Alex).

Alex’s descent towards overdosing is terrifying, as is his refusal, initially at least, to accept he has a problem, and even after he does he sees rehab as research, grist for his writing mill. Not for the first time you get the feeling that in this book life imitates art which in turn imitates life, and so on. As a window into Carrie’s mind I think this book is a doozy.

The next section is told in alternating monologues between Suzanne and Jack, a film producer with whom she’s having a relationship. Suzanne is talking to her therapist, Jack his lawyer, and though their relationship is consensual it’s easy to see a low-level Weinstein like vibe in Jack’s attitude toward women.

The book shifts into third person for the rest of its sections (bar the epilogue). The first section deals with Suzanne’s first post rehab job on a B-movie, this section is quite amusing but also depressing, and again the position of women in Hollywood is at the forefront.

The final two sections detail Suzanne’s day to day life, her relationship with her friend Lucy, and an incredibly shallow Hollywood party. I found these parts my least favourite to read, although Carrie does a good job of showing how shallow most of the people in Hollywood are, she almost does too good a job. Plus, without a clear idea of who characters might really be representing none of them come alive enough for this satire to work to the fullest.

The epilogue at least is a neat and amusing return to the start of the book.

I can’t say for sure that I enjoyed the book, and if I did this enjoyment waned somewhat towards the end. It’s perhaps at it’s most engaging while Suzanne is struggling, and limps a little towards the end. What is clear is that Carrie was a talented writer, in particular the scenes of Alex’s drug fuelled bender are incredibly harrowing, and this certainly hasn’t put me off reading some of her other books.

As a thinly veiled description of a specific time in Carrie Fisher’s life, and a snapshot of Hollywood, this is incredibly insightful, and as an example of her literary skill it’s enlightening, but as a narrative it all ends up feeling a little hollow and unfinished, but then that’s probably the point, because it’s clear in so many ways that Carrie was probably a little too switched on for Tinsel Town, a place that doesn’t always value introspection and prefers the shallow, something she so clearly wasn’t.