Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

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No. No. No.

Enough.

I am officially calling time on this whole let-split-the-last-book-in-a-lucrative-franchise malarkey. It didn’t work with Harry Potter, and it doesn’t work with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. There is absolutely no clear and compelling artistic reason to split the novel. Let’s call a spade a spade and recognise that this has been done purely to rip off audiences.

Of course, that isn’t to say the whole to-be-continued thing can’t work. The trick is to make a satisfying film in its own right with a proper ending. For example, The Empire Strikes Back finishes with unresolved plot threads, but no-one comes out of the cinema feeling short changed because it has a proper climax. Mockingjay Part 1 does not. Oh, it tries to. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and director Francis Lawrence valiantly attempt to forge some extra action and something resembling a conclusion, but ultimately there is no escaping the fact that this is an adaptation of half a book – a book that should never have been split in two. Suzanne Collins’ fantastic novels deserve better.

That said, there is praiseworthy stuff here. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific, particularly in the hugely dramatic “if we burn, you burn with us” scene. She is ably supported by heavyweights like the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and the always good value Jeffrey Wright. The Lawrence behind the camera conjures an appropriate mood of dystopian gloom, and the film at least attempts to say vaguely interesting things about the nature of propaganda. But in the end, this third instalment – which picks up directly after the Quarter Quell games of the previous film, in the rebel District 13 – feels like much ado about nothing. In a bunker. Given what is to come in Part 2 (including an absolutely fantastic, hugely satisfying finale), the collective groan that arose from the audience as the credits rolled felt like an entirely justifiable expression of outrage.

Of course, this will still prove to be a hit. If like me you want to see these films in the cinema then obviously there is no choice but to kowtow to the bean counters with the full knowledge that we are, in effect, paying for the same film twice.

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How to make tragedy tragic: add comedy

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I recently re-watched Schindler’s List and was astonished at just how many funny bits were peppered amid the horrific events contained therein. Scenes such as Schindler’s secretary montage to his darkly comic asides with Nazi bureaucrats (“I think I can guarantee you’ll both be in Southern Russia before the end of the week”) got me thinking that humour makes tragedy all the more powerful. If Schindler’s List can have humour, anything can. Heck, even The Passion of the Christ has a funny bit near the start.

The reason is simple: humour is a part of life and should not be omitted even from the most serious drama. The most tragic situations often contain moments of dark comedy. For example, at my father’s funeral I experienced a farcical “shoe malfunction” that would have had Dad in stitches. Perhaps he was laughing up in heaven.

I can think of many other examples where humour has leavened tragedy/darkness and made it all the more powerful. There is a great deal of humour in Dead Poets Society, making the final tragedy all the more powerful. The Remains of the Day (both book and film) would be nigh-on unbearable were it not for the gentle humour dotted throughout. Romeo and Juliet contains some great humour, as does Breaking Bad, The Godfather, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Thomas Hardy’s most famous novels (although perhaps not Jude the Obscure so much) and many others.

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One of the most effective examples I can think of is Blackadder Goes Forth – a hilarious and brilliant TV series that nevertheless ends in one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies I have ever seen. Seeing these characters we know and love meet their deaths in the big push of World War I is absolutely shattering. It is because we have laughed at them so much that we are heartbroken when they die.

Humour provides a crucial counterpoint to tragedy or darkness. Consider The Empire Strikes Back – widely regarded as the finest entry in the Star Wars series. The darkness of the narrative, especially the terrible secret of the Skywalker family line, is leavened by the hilarious, screwball comedy humour of the Han/Leia relationship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”). Compare that with the well-intended but overwrought tone of Revenge of the Sith, and it is clear which film has the more believable heart of darkness.

Deliberately omitting humour from tragedy makes for a one-note tale that is depressing for all the wrong reasons, especially if said tale consists of little more than the repetition of endless tragedy. Such stories actually end up becoming unintentionally comic because they are so absurd. A good example from the world of film is Legends of the Fall – an unrelentingly serious and utterly excruciating piece of work that squanders a good cast and big budget on tragedy after tragedy until eventually you laugh because it is all so preposterous.

Anyone who has ever chatted up a girl will know that if you make her laugh, you’re halfway there. I submit the same is true for writing tragedy. If you can make your reader/audience laugh at your characters, they will like them. Therefore they will really feel for them when you put them through tragic situations.

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Film Review – The Imitation Game

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Unsung war hero Alan Turing gets the Benedict Cumberbatch treatment in The Imitation Game. The result is another brilliant, awards-potential Cumberbatch performance and a riveting film, courtesy of Headhunters director Morten Tyldum.

(HISTORICAL RECORD SPOILERS AHEAD) For those unfamiliar with Turing’s extraordinary achievements, he was largely responsible for cracking the Nazi Enigma coding device in a top secret operation which shortened the war and led to a conservative estimate of around 14 million lives saved. Not only that, the machine he invented to decode Nazi transmissions essentially paved the way for modern computers. Sadly however, Turing’s work was so secret it remained classified for 50 years. Worse, in the early 1950s he was arrested for homosexual activity (a crime in the UK in those days), and offered a choice between prison and chemical castration. He chose the latter, the side effects of which arguably led to his mental demise and eventual suicide.

That a war hero of Turing’s magnitude was treated in such an abominable way is obviously appalling. The fact that he has not yet been properly honoured on film is a wrong The Imitation Game clearly hopes to right. Some have criticised Graham Moore’s excellent screenplay (adapting the book by Andrew Hodges) for skimming too much over Turing’s sexuality and instead choosing to concentrate on his relationship with fellow Bletchley Park mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). I disagree with this criticism, especially given the screenplay’s flashback structure which juggles three time periods: a pivotal early relationship with Turing’s best friend during their school days, the war, and his subsequent arrest and prosecution. Moore and Tyldum approach The Imitation Game – rightly – as a thriller, but they in no way duck the issue of Turing’s sexuality. Furthermore, they have crafted Turing’s story in a way that is as accessible to as wide an audience as possible, something that pays tribute to Turing and remains wholly satisfying in its own right, regardless of the inevitable nit-picking of factual veracity bores.

The supporting cast – which includes Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode and Rory Kinnear – are strong, and Knightley is also very (some might say surprisingly) good. Yet the film ultimately belongs to Cumberbatch. His Turing is wholly convincing; every bit the “odd duck” his mother described him as, with occasional flashes of Mr Spock, but also demonstrating a vulnerability and bewilderment at how different he was that I found very moving indeed. From a spiritual perspective, this is a film with an important positive message – albeit one shot through with deep melancholy – that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”. Those around us that we find odd, awkward or unsociable might just save the world one day.

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Film Review – Mr Turner

MR TURNER

A wonderful variety of grumps, groans and growls accompanies Timothy Spall’s central performance in Mr Turner, in his role as the eponymous artist. It is a superb turn that subtly embraces the warts and all complexity of a character who is by turns cantankerous, grouchy yet kind, unrefined but sociable, stubborn yet quietly wise, without vanity but confident, loving yet neglectful, and equally at home with rich, poor or anyone in between. In spite of his flaws, you can’t help liking him and that is largely thanks to Spall.

The rest of the cast are good too, particularly Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s housekeeper, and Marion Bailey as his mistress. Eschewing anything approaching a conventional biopic, director Mike Leigh avoids both the ambitious plod through an entire life from childhood to grave, and also the focus-on-one-specific-incident approach as in, say,  Lincoln. Instead, what Leigh focusses are Turner’s autumn years, specifically his relationships with the various women in his life, including the first mistress and daughters he generally ignores, his second mistress and his housekeeper. His touching relationship with his father (Paul Jesson) is also a key part of the film. In terms of what is important to Leigh, the final shot is very telling, and there are no onscreen pre-end credit remarks eulogising Turner’s achievements and subsequent place in the artistic pantheon. Less a story then, and more a series of observational vignettes that also includes, briefly, his famous rivalry with Constable (in an amusingly terse scene) as well as his up and down relationships with other artists, politicians and dignitaries (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert famously despised his work).

Leigh’s loose, observational style comes into play here, just as it does in all his other work. I must be honest and say I am not a big Mike Leigh fan, with the notable exception of the deliciously dark Life is Sweet. Of his back catalogue even his more popular films (such as Secrets and Lies) generally leave me cold, although I will grudgingly acknowledge their cinematic merits. As a result Mr Turner is not for everyone, and I suspect some will find it boring and/or inconsequential (not to mention long). I didn’t find it boring, but that was mainly due to the fascination I already had for the subject.

A film of limited appeal then, but one strikes an appropriately melancholy tone and looks gorgeous (courtesy of cinematographer Dick Pope). It also contain some absolutely splendid grunts in what is possibly Timothy Spall’s finest performance (grunt-tastic, if you will). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is rewarded with an Oscar next year.

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Quality vs Quantity

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How important is it to be prolific?

For some, one great novel is enough. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an obvious example. But if you are writing as a career, just one novel isn’t going to put food on the table. What then? Should everything you write be considered a masterpiece?

Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton were both hugely prolific. Was everything they wrote gold? No, but some of it was. I wonder just how much of the great stuff would have emerged had they not been as prolific (and therefore practiced) as they were. Although they both enjoyed writing, they wrote for a living, to survive. William Shakespeare was the same. He churned out play after play to pay the bills.

No-one argues the greatness of Shakespeare, but I despair of the snobby attitude some display towards Blyton and Christie – not just because they wrote genre fiction, but because they churned it out so regularly. Personally, I consider Five goes to Smuggler’s Top (Blyton) and Murder on the Orient Express (Christie) amongst the best books ever written.

Obviously all writers are different. Some have a sparser body of work, others write more. But being prolific does have one big advantage: whatever your successes or failures, you continually improve as a writer.

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Film Review – Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars

Strong sex, strong language, strong violence… Strong pretty much everything permeates Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg’s brilliantly nasty peek beneath the Hollywood veneer. Non-Cronenberg audiences, consider yourself duly warned.

Still here? In which case, you are probably either a Cronenberg fan, or at least cinematically curious. The Hollywood-as-hell theme has been explored in many memorable movies, from stone cold classics like The Player and Sunset Boulevard (to which this owes a huge debt) to lesser known pictures such as Swimming with Sharks or cult favourites like The Day of the Locust. However Cronenberg has put his own spin on this subgenre, delivering his best film since Eastern Promises.

Two separate plot threads are initially set-up – self-obsessed, has-been actress Havana (Julianne Moore) looking for a comeback role playing, in effect, her own mother, and spoilt child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) emerging from drug rehab – before they are unified by two factors. First Benjie’s father, therapist Stafford (John Cusack), who has Havana as a client. Second Stafford’s estranged daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who is recommended by Carrie Fisher (playing herself) as a “chore whore” PA to Havana. Agatha is a burns victim whose dark past is eventually revealed, whilst co-incidentally Havana’s actress mother died in a fire.

Havana is regularly tormented by manifestations of her dead (and much younger) mother, but that is merely the beginning of a downward spiral of hallucination, madness, incest, murder, more murder and more incest. In fact, Cronenberg’s tremendous achievement here is that the most sympathetic character in the entire plot is a schizophrenic pyromaniac killer. That the Hollywood types around this character are so much more abhorrent is, alas, all too believable. This is clearly a cautionary morality tale of sorts, although the weapons grade cruelty on display is also savagely funny if you can stomach Bruce Wagner’s sulphuric acid screenplay. Performances are uniformly excellent, with Julianne Moore a particular stand out. In addition to the afore-mentioned supporting cast, there are good bit parts for Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson.

All that said, I must re-emphasise that there are many bitter bills to swallow in Maps to the Stars. It is absolutely not for everyone, but it is a very good film for the not-easily-offended crowd. Come armed with a very dark sense of humour.

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In Defence of Genre Fiction

I have never been able to abide the snobbery that exists in some literary circles regarding genre fiction. For example it dismays me that anyone can dismiss The Lord of the Rings because of some pretentious, elitist literary ideal that completely disregards Tolkien’s extraordinary, ground-breaking achievement. Even if you hate The Lord of the Rings, it is undeniably a landmark of literary fiction. It is a masterpiece.

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Yet in certain elite circles there still seems to be snootiness not just about fantasy writing but genre storytelling in general. In the same way that Oscar voters often disregard genre movies and typically pick winners that are worthy but dull, Booker prize winners are sometimes (but not always) of a similar ilk. By contrast, an examination of the bestselling books of any given year will provide a list that includes many genre writers – many of whom have also been dismissed by the so-called literary elite – that are clearly beloved by the general public.

In my view, genre writing at its best is just as important as any so-called serious literary endeavour – if not more so. Authors who master genre bring just as much piercing insight into the human condition. The difference is they often do so far more entertainingly and therefore far more effectively.

Sticking with The Lord of the Rings as an example, that novel is not just about a bunch of hobbits trying to chuck a ring into a volcano to destroy an evil Dark Lord. It contains profound insights into the horrors of war, the nature of good and evil, friendship and – in my opinion most importantly – growing up. There is more “truth” in The Lord of the Rings than in many non-genre texts that these elitists seem to prefer.

Germaine Greer once dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “Nazi tosh” on the BBC. She was then challenged by the presenter as to whether she had actually read the book, and forced to admit she hadn’t. Leaving aside the fact that Greer’s ridiculous comment can be disregarded because she hadn’t read the book, accusing Tolkien of being a Nazi sympathiser is profoundly offensive to the memory of the great man. This is particularly galling considering his own well-documented condemnation of Hitler as a “ruddy ignoramus” and the way he told publishers that a German version of The Hobbit could “go hang” because he refused to sign a piece of paper saying he had no Jewish relatives.

Yet this kind of smear, not to mention snobbery about texts like The Lord of the Rings, still seems to persist in these elite literary circles. Other fantasy authors besides Tolkien have suffered a similar fate, with JK Rowling being particularly singled out by some, in spite of the fact that her Harry Potter canon is unquestionably an extraordinary achievement. This snobbery isn’t just directed at the fantasy genre either. Romance, thrillers, whodunnits, science fiction, horror and other subgenres are also routinely dismissed as lowbrow by the literary elite.

Of course, in one sense this doesn’t matter. Genre fiction remains as popular as ever, and the authors are justifiably rewarded. Yet this snobbery really sticks in my craw. Somehow when the literary elite have a go at one of my favourite books (such as The Lord of the Rings), it feels like they are having a go at a friend. Therefore I feel honour bound to go on the defensive.

Incidentally, my most recent novel The Birds Began to Sing touches on the power of the written word in general, and the power of genre writing specifically. Click on the link below to order on Kindle from Amazon.

Print copies are also available from Lulu.com:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/the-birds-began-to-sing/paperback/product-21878694.html

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Film Review – Interstellar

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I am running dangerously low on superlatives for Christopher Nolan’s films given the ludicrously high standard he sets himself. Interstellar is his most ambitious project yet: an epic, mind-bending, emotional sucker-punch of a science fiction movie that paints on a vast canvas of space and time.

The less known about the plot the better, but it is safe to explain the basic premise without risk of spoiling things. Essentially an ecological disaster on Earth means crops are failing and the human race is doomed. Then a mysterious wormhole appears by Saturn (with who put it there being a key question), offering the tantalising possibility of exploring planets in another galaxy to which the human race could be relocated. The problem is that NASA’s preferred pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) would need to leave his children behind. Due to relativity, wormholes, black holes and other quantum complications, time will pass far quicker on Earth than on his voyage, meaning his children – and indeed the human race – could be dead and gone before his return.

The architect of Cooper’s voyage, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), says that because he is a physicist he is not afraid of death. He is afraid of time. And time in this film is viewed as a critical, finite resource like oxygen or food. Yet the heart of the story is not brain-testing science (though there is plenty of that), but a touching relationship between father and daughter, and a sentimental but admirable belief in the power of love as a force that can take the human race beyond the three dimensions we are limited to. Critics of Christopher Nolan have in the past claimed his films are cold and without a unifying emotional force. I have always thought such claims to be false, but it is hard to imagine that hoary old line being trotted out for Interstellar. One scene alone – involving Cooper viewing video messages from Earth – will resolutely put paid to that idea.

McConaughey delivers a fine leading performance as Cooper, a widowed farmer with prior piloting experience dismayed to find himself part of a “caretaker generation” of farmers when his heart secretly yearns to explore the stars. This is made abundantly clear in a brilliant early scene which also sets up his close relationship with his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy – also brilliant). In said scene, a school teacher berates Cooper for allowing Murph to believe the “uncorrected” version of space race history. Textbooks have been altered to make the Apollo missions appear nothing more than an attempt to get the Soviets to spend money on something that will never work, by faking moon landings and so forth. Cooper and Murph (and by extension Christopher Nolan) reject such conspiracy theories out of hand, instead clinging to the romantic notion of mankind’s destiny to explore.

Elsewhere there are decent supporting performances from Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck and even Matt Damon in a small but pivotal role. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema replaces Nolan regular Wally Pfister, and shoots (on gorgeous 35mm) some spectacular visuals – particularly the dust storms that blight the cornfields back on Earth. There is also some brilliant location shooting in Iceland, doubling for a place I won’t spoil. Most of the visual effects were achieved in camera, using the bare minimum of CGI (mainly wire removal), and as such the film has a physicality to it that looks and feels completely believable. The sound department do an incredible job – with the occasional use of complete silence being as effective as any sonic rumbles – and Hans Zimmer contributes a terrific music score.

As far as Nolan is concerned, to call him ambitious is an understatement. He and his brother Jonah have fashioned a screenplay that owes a great deal to The Right Stuff, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and particularly Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet Interstellar is also sufficiently original in its own right to feel like a proper successor to such movies. Nolan’s singular direction means comparisons to the likes of 2001 are never made unfavourably, and he conjures enough vivid images of his own (which I daren’t discuss in this review for fear of spoilers) to suggest that Interstellar might latterly be considered a classic of the genre.

If the film has a flaw, it is that it contains too much to take in, certainly in one viewing. Nolan has to hand-hold the viewer through a number of difficult-to-grasp concepts which requires brain in gear at all times. As a consequence, the big emotional stuff – some of which is arguably overly sentimental – doesn’t quite hit the target simply because one is still getting one’s head around how and why. Of course, it might just be that I’m not clever enough and that on repeat viewings I will see this for the masterpiece that many claim it to be.

Obviously it goes without saying that to be properly appreciated Interstellar must be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system. Whether you understand every iota of quantum physics or not, you certainly won’t leave the cinema feeling short changed on spectacle.

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Film Review – Nightcrawler

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Jake Gyllenhaal gives a career best performance in Nightcrawler. His portrayal of shock news footage merchant Louis Bloom recalls the sociopathic, delusional characters of Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy respectively. But Bloom is also a unique character in his own right – a truly alarming embodiment of the dark side of the American Dream in the 21st Century.

It is clear from the very beginning that Bloom will go do anything to achieve his aims. His ambition to own a successful news footage gathering business immediately puts him at odds with competitor Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who at first dismisses his amateur efforts. But Louis Bloom is a fast learner and soon gets to scenes of accidents or police incidents quicker than anyone else. He finds an eager buyer in local news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo), and from there begins to achieve success. He subsequently hires the initially naïve Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an assistant, who increasingly becomes wise to the insane lengths his employer will go to – everything from rearranging corpses in car crashes to get a better shot to withholding vital information from police.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes terrific use of LA locations and the film is dark and atmospheric courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit. James Newton Howard contributes a fine score and the supporting performances are all good.

But it is Gyllenhaal who dominates, really bringing Gilroy’s incisive and uncompromising screenplay to life. Nightcrawler is both a satire of a fearmongering, hysterical US news media and a pleasingly scathing examination of modern corporate culture in miniature. Amid Bloom’s increasingly immoral actions, he lectures Rick using corporate nonsense-speak about performance reviews and the like, even in one hilarious moment promoting him to “vice president” in a company with two employees.

I have to add the usual warnings for swearing and violence but nothing was gratuitous or out of context. In final analysis, Nightcrawler is a surefire awards contender (expect Oscar nominations – especially for Gyllenhaal) and a superbly gripping piece of work.

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The Birds Began to Sing – Print copies now available

Print copies of my new novel, The Birds Began to Sing, are now available from Lulu.com. Click below to place an order.

http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/the-birds-began-to-sing/paperback/product-21878694.html

The Kindle version can also be bought at Amazon:

 

Various other downloadable formats are available from Smashwords FREE for a limited time:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/487865

The Birds Began to Sing is page-turning mystery novel influenced by the likes of Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with a dash of Susan Hill, the Bronte Sisters, Michael Crichton and obviously a lot of yours truly.

Once more, here is the blurb from the back of the book:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

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