Archive for November, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted: November 25, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello.

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It’s 1970 and immigrant college student Farrokh Bulsara dreams of being a rock star, though he’s mainly earning money as a baggage handler at Heathrow. He’s been following a band named Smile for some time, and fortuitously approaches them with some lyrics just after their lead singer has quit to join another band. Although initially sniffy about the odd-looking Farrokh, guitarist Brian May (Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Hardy) are won over by his voice. On the same evening Farrokh catches the eye of a young shop assistant, Mary Austin (Boynton).

With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Mazzello) the band become a success, changing their name to Queen even as Farrokh changes his name to Freddie Mercury and becomes engaged to Mary.

As the band go from strength to strength however, it becomes increasingly clear that despite his love for Mary, Freddie needs to come to terms with his sexuality. As friction builds within the band, and Freddie’s hedonistic partying threatens to get out of hand, can Queen come back together in time for the Live Aid concert, or with this band bite the dust?

 

Ok, let’s lay cards on the table right away. Bohemian Rhapsody is a cheesy story, told with broad brushstrokes, clunky dialogue and a cavalier attitude towards historical fact. This is a film with a troubled history, and a film that couldn’t be more on the nose if it were Pinocchio.

And I bloody loved it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a great film, yet somehow it manages to surpass the sum of its parts, thanks in no small part to a fine performance by Mr Robot’s Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Given what a larger than life showman Mercury was, it’s to Malek’s testament that he manages to not only to strut his stuff in an eerily accurate way, but also imbue Mercury with a vulnerability that forms the heart of the film. Yes the teeth get a little getting used to, but once you acclimatise Malek inhabits Mercury’s skin effortlessly, and if you get a chance watch the side by side movie Live Aid and real Live Aid to truly appreciate how good his performance is, and whilst you can see why Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast, and why Ben Whishaw was considered, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role now.

DF-26946_R.jpgMercury cuts a sad figure, suffering racism and having to deal with being gay at a time when homosexuality might have no longer been a crime, but was still frowned upon, especially by the media. His relationship with Mary is heart-breaking at times, because he so clearly loves her, just not in the way she would want him to, and Boynton is also very good as the person who grounds Freddie.

Lee, Hardy and Mazzello are all good as the bandmates, each of them doing a good job of aping the real May, Taylor and Deacon, and despite the fact that the film is primarily about Mercury, the rest of Queen are more than just background (as you’d expect given May and Taylor’s involvement in the film).

There’s sterling work from solid performers like Tom Hollander, Aidan Gillen and Allen Leach, although a cameo by a heavily made up Mike Myers and a gag about Wayne’s World plumbs the depths somewhat.

bohemian-rhapsody-3.jpgIt’s amazing the film is as coherent as it is given the troubles on set, with Singer eventually stepping aside for personal reasons after clashing with the cast and repeatedly turning up late. Dexter Fletcher came in to finish the film, but Singer retains the directorial credit and I guess we may never know how much a hand Fletcher may, or may not, have had in salvaging the film.

The film’s at its clunkiest early on, and some of the dialogue is risible. “Ah you’re Brian May, astrophysicist, and you’re Roger Taylor, dental student.” It does get more fluid as it progresses however, and even in its down points the music of Queen is always a joy to listen to, especially if Malek and co are strutting their stuff at the time, and there are genuinely heart-breaking moments, and the recreation of Queen’s Live Aid set is a glorious set piece worth the price of admission all on its own.

The film does take liberties with the truth however; Freddie didn’t meet the band and Mary on the same night, he didn’t get his HIV diagnosis until after Live Aid and the band hadn’t effectively broken up before Wembley, but artistic licence isn’t exactly unheard of in biopics, and despite concerns that the film would sugar-coat Freddie’s life, his sexuality and partying are front and centre. Of course it could go a lot further (by all accounts one of Baron Cohen’s reasons for exiting was because he wanted an R rated film) but Freddie’s promiscuity and drug taking aren’t ignored so much as softened for a more audience friendly rating.

In the end the film is much like Queen themselves. As one of the characters remarks early on, we’re a band of misfits playing music for misfits, and yet they became much, much greater than the sum of their parts, much like this film.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

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Save the Cat!

Posted: November 20, 2018 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
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By Blake Snyder

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We’ve all sat in a lousy film at some time or another and thought, I could write something better than this. And so a whole industry has sprung up, with a multitude of gurus offering their patented way to million dollar script’dom…for a price, and even though the spec boom of the 1990s has long since passed, plenty of people are desperate enough to pod out as lot of money to learn the so called secrets of success.

Some books on script writing have gained more cachet than others of course, take Syd Field’s seminal work, and Save the Cat! Is one of those books, with its slightly arrogant subtitle as The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need it’s been the go to book for millions of aspiring screenwriters.

Well a million and one because obviously I’ve bought it too.

To be honest it’s only the second book on screenwriting I’ve ever bought, and the first was decades ago, because there’s a lot of great advice and guidance for aspiring screenwriters out th ere that doesn’t cost a penny, or certainly doesn’t cost very much (The University of East Anglia runs a free course through Futurelearn, and I’d also highly recommend the Scriptnotes podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. If you want to access the back catalogue it’s $1.99 a month, but the most recent 20 episodes are always free). But having said that I’d heard enough about Save the Cat to be intrigued, even though some of what I heard wasn’t that complementary.

You see what Snyder (who sadly passed away in 2009) promised was a fool proof blueprint for writing a successful script, and given the book cost less than a tenner I figured, what the hell, reasoning there was bound to be some useful information in there.

And to be fair, there is useful bits to be gleaned from this work, but I don’t think it’s the scriptwriting panacea it claims to be and certainly isn’t a skeleton key to unlock movie writing success.

The title refers to the act of having your lead prove they’re a good guy or gal by doing something worthy early on in the script, like saving a cat, although the odd thing is that he based this on Ripley saving Jones the cat in Alien, which she doesn’t actually do till near the end? It’s also worth noting that for much of Alien Ripley comes across as an officious jobsworth, none of which stops us rooting for her (especially once we realise that if she’d been allowed to keep the others outside nobody would have died…well apart from Kane obviously, but you can’t always save everyone). Anyway, the point is that even the title of the book seems a little erroneous if you give it some thought.

Snyder provides some interesting thoughts on genre, even going as far as to create his own list which is surprisingly useful, so rather than comedy/romance/horror movie etc. He lists ten genres, and here’s just a few: Buddy Love (which covers not only romance but buddy comedies) Dude with a Problem (think Die Hard) Monster in the House (which covers not only horror but a lot of thrillers) and Institutionalised (which covers anything from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Police Academy).

Now we get into the meat of Snyder’s work, when he starts talking about the format of a screenplay, but this isn’t just about a three act structure, Snyder goes way deeper than this, micromanaging a script to the point where he claims that there’s effectively a tried and tested formula for writing a successful script.

He identifies 15 ‘beats’ and if you look online you’ll find numerous versions of his patented ‘Beat Sheet. This is all well and good, and structure is an important thing to get your head around, especially when you’re fairly new to screenwriting, so there’s “Theme stated” “Catalyst” “Fun and Games” and “All is Lost” to name but a few. The problem is the anal lengths Snyder insists you go to, even down to specifying exactly when certain things should happen! The catalyst must happen on page 20, you must introduce all your main characters in the first ten pages etc.

To be honest it’s a trifle ridiculous. In fairness Snyder did sell a lot of scripts, although only two of them ever got made; Blank Check (no I’ve never seen it either) and Stop or my Mom will Shoot (which again I’ve never seen but I have at least heard of) so he must have been doing something right. Even if this is the sure and certain path to success (and clearly it’s unlikely to be given how many copies of the book have been sold and the finite number of screenwriters out there) I’m not sure I want to write a cookie cutter script that hits all the right marks to impress some Hollywood reader who’s just looking for an identikit script.

But it was still an interesting read. Snyder’s prose is amiable enough (though he gets a trifle annoying at times when he becomes obsessed with how successful—or not— he feels Memento was) and there’s interesting stuff around loglines (those mini elevator pitches beloved of Hollywood) genre, structure, and the basis business of screenwriting, but I feel I’ve learned more about screenwriting from listening to John and Craig and from just watching movies/reading scripts so read it by all means, but don’t treat it as the be all and end all.  

By Alastair Reynolds

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It was a real honour to be declared runner up in the National Space Centre’s short story competition last year, but it was just as awe inspiring to meet Alistair Reynolds, and to learn he’d read and enjoyed my story! Part of my prize was a book signed by the man himself, a huge collection of short stories the size of which, to be honest, put me off at first, but I finally set a few months aside to work my way through it and what a treat.

As with any anthology some stories are better than others, some stories hit an emotional note with me and some didn’t, but all demonstrate a master of his craft. Anyway here’s a brief review of each of the stories within…

 

The book opens with Great Wall of Mars, a tale of enhanced humans and Martian terraforming that it took me a little while to get into, but once I had intrigued me greatly.

It’s followed up by Weather, a story set later in the same universe. It’s an interesting tale of space farers menaced by pirates, and the extreme measures they need to go to in order to escape, relying on an augmented human who they’re not sure they can trust.

The titular Beyond the Aquila Rift is next up, an unsettling tale of lost travellers that merges the Twilight Zone with the Matrix.

Minla’s Flowers is a neat tale of political expediency and features a character trying to save a less advanced civilisation, popping himself into cryogenic storage for a few decades at a time in order to monitor their growth. It’s a story that starts out quite sweet and winds up somewhere rather dark.

Zima Blue is probably the first story not to grip me, there’s an intriguing idea at its heart about an artist who’s now more machine than man, and his obsession with a particular shade of blue, but I’m glad it was one of the shorter stories in the collection.

Fury is about an incredibly old robot who serves as the personal protector of an equally ancient galactic emperor. When an attempt is made on the emperor’s life the robot goes in search of those behind it, but discovers secrets about himself and his emperor in the process that will change their relationship forever. It’s a story that didn’t remotely go where I expected it to, and the end is nicely done.

The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice is a gloriously gory story about cybernetically enhanced space pirates. It’s bloodthirsty and just plain bloody, but if you have a strong stomach it’s fun too.

The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter is more of a fantasy tale, albeit one with clear science fiction overtones. Set in a future Northumbria trapped in a mini ice age it features a young woman struggling to avoid the machinations of a vile suitor, and an old woman who may or may not be a witch. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and if I had a problem with it it’s that it feels like the prologue for a more epic story, rather than a self-contained story.

Diamond Dogs is a very long story, and another quite gory one, merging Steven King with films like The Cube as a group of explorers try and get to the top of an alien spaceship through room after room, each of which contains tests of increasing difficulty and penalties of increasing severity. It goes on a bit too long, and I found the eventual end a little unsatisfying, but it was delightfully devious for most of its length.

Thousandth Night was a bit of a joy, featuring as it did the characters of Campion and Purslane from House of Suns. I was already au fait with the characters and their world, and an enjoyable murder mystery ensued.

Troika is an evocative tale of a soviet cosmonaut who escapes from a hospital to try and reach an old scientist in order to tell her she was right in her theory about a mysterious alien artefact. It turns out he is the only survivor of a Russian mission to explore the artefact, but the story has an unexpected twist in the tale. I liked this one a lot, especially in its depiction of a snowbound Second Soviet. Very Quatermass.

Sleepover is the one story I didn’t read, because I read it a few months ago in The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF!

Vainglory is another story about art, and oddly another one I couldn’t quite engage with, although it’s central theme of people chiselling asteroids and creating rings around planets wasn’t uninteresting.

Trauma Pod, like Diamond Dogs, is another one that relies heavily on body horror, as a wounded solider is kept alive inside a robot which goes to increasing lengths to keep him safe. It’s very unsettling.

The Last Log of the Lachrymosa is another story featuring characters risking death to explore an alien artefact, in this case something buried in a cave system on an uninhabited planet. There’s a rough and ready piratical edge to the story I quite liked.

The Water Thief is okay, but only really interesting in that it doesn’t go where you expect it to as we follow the story of a refugee barely earning a living as a teleoperator remotely controlling robots, who eventually ends up involved in a political struggle on the Moon!

The Old Man and the Martian Sea has some wonderfully evocative imagery, and winds up being quite sad as a young girl runs away from home and meets up with a grizzled old man who takes her to one of Mars’ original settlements, now a city sunk beneath a lake.

The final story, In Babelsburg, has an interesting premise, that of a sentient space probe, but I feel it didn’t really go anywhere so it wasn’t one of my favourites.

All in all though a wonderful, if somewhat impenetrable at times, anthology that I’d recommend, maybe I should have interspersed it with other books in between every few stories though because it was like reading three novels bound together in terms of sheer size.