Film Review – The Amazing Spider-man 2

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Another week, another comic book movie. Marc Webb’s second take on the webcrawler is a fairly entertaining, if uneven piece of work. However one excellent element makes it worth seeing: the relationship between Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey.

Even though fans of the comics will know where The Amazing Spider-man 2 is headed, the banter between the afore-mentioned characters has wit, chemistry and is easily the strongest part of an overcooked plot. Emma Stone in particular really shines as Gwen, a character whose independence, intelligence and kindness is properly explored here, making her far from a mere damsel in distress.

The stuff about Electro is reasonably well handled too, with Jamie Foxx’s take on the supervillain an admirable cocktail of loneliness, social awkwardness and repressed anger (as well as a deeply scary comb-over that rivals that of Christian Bale’s in American Hustle). However, it all gets a bit bogged down elsewhere in frankly obvious backstory developments concerning Peter’s scientist father. Also the Harry Osborn subplot really should have been explored in a separate film as it feels rather tagged on.

It’s worth adding that the fault with the Osborn character is in the script, not in Dane DeHaan’s excellent performance. Elsewhere it’s great to see Felicity Jones pop up in a minor role, along with Sally Field’s Aunt May as well as Paul Giamatti in what amounts to little more than a cameo.

The usual morality of the Spider-man universe is present and correct, with plenty of stuff about responsibility, personal sacrifice, good vs evil, the dangers of playing God, the triumph of evil when good people do nothing, etc, etc… Frankly these themes are explored more interestingly in the Sam Raimi Spider-man movies, but it is good that Marc Webb remains true to the comic book ideals of Stan Lee (whose cameo here, incidentally, isn’t quite up to the usual hilarious standard).

Obviously the special effects are amazing, but so what? Great visual effects are commonplace. What I loved about the first two Raimi films was the way they built everything (including some great action set pieces) around the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s comedy of errors. Here Webb could have pulled a similar trick if only he’d simplified things a little instead of trying to cram so much into the bloated 142 minute running time. This is an error of judgement that the series has suffered before, in Raimi’s third offering in the series.

I feel I should add that the film contains an Avengers style mid-credits scene from the upcoming X-Men movie. Frankly this had me scratching my head. Unless the plot of that film somehow intersects with this one (which I doubt, as the rights are owned by rival studios) this is little more than advertising within a film’s end credits, almost akin to those infuriating “coming next” things you see on TV all the time where they shrink the screen down. Boo!

Like its immediate predecessor, The Amazing Spider-man 2 almost feels superfluous in an overcrowded market. However, what saves it is the romantic sparkle between the leads. For that alone, the film as a whole just about passes muster.

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Dr Gribbles inspiration

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My latest novel Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge was inspired by a very imaginative nightmare that my youngest son experienced. The book is dedicated to him.

There were two particularly vivid images that arrested my attention. First: the monster itself, which my son described to me in great detail. Secondly, a white helicopter that chased him across Dartmoor. From these two images an ending suddenly occurred to me and I worked backwards from there.

Earlier outlines of the book were far more densely plotted and suffered from a surplus of craziness in what was already a very wacky and slightly scary adventure story. The original version contained Stonehenge, Nazis, druids, angelic beings, time travel and hidden caches of Bronze Age treasure in addition to the haunted houses, monsters, mad scientists and spies that formed the basis of the final version. The elements I stripped out may emerge in a separate story or stories at a later date, though they will not necessarily be a sequel to Dr Gribbles.

The book shares some DNA with my earlier novel Uncle Flynn, which was dedicated to my older son. In both stories the protagonist joins forces with an older, mysterious and possibly dangerous character on a quest that takes them across Dartmoor. Some of the same territory is covered in both books, including the Two Bridges area and Wistman’s Wood.

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I took the name Gribbles from a butcher on the Ridgeway in Plympton, Plymouth. Incidentally, if you live in the area, I particularly recommend their sausages. The people who run the shop are very friendly too.

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Setting the story in 1987 performs two functions. First, it gets me out of the whole mobile phone problem, as several of the hair-raising predicaments featured in the story would be escapable in a contemporary setting, assuming the character’s phone battery wasn’t dead (a cliché that has frankly been done to death). Secondly, as someone who grew up in the 80s in the final phase of the Cold War, it provided an opportunity to revisit not the genuine political situation of the time, but the perceived political situation of a 12 year old child raised on a diet of James Bond. It is no coincidence that The Living Daylights was also released in 1987, which went down in history as the last proper Cold War Bond movie.

I didn’t intend any particular message in the story, although obvious morals about curiosity killing the cat and the dangers of playing God could be drawn I suppose. But they aren’t intended to be deep or serious. The book is meant as an entertainment, nothing more.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is now available from Amazon, Smashwords and other platforms in various digital formats.

Print copies can be ordered from Lulu.com.

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Film Review – The Raid 2

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“Ouch! Ow! Oooh!”

Profound critical insights such as these issued from my lips during the first Raid film a couple of years ago. Similar exclamations could be heard last night during director Gareth Evans’ second round of bone-crunching, blood-spurting ultraviolence. The Raid 2 is not for the faint of heart. It is, in the totality of its 150 minute length, probably even more staggeringly brutal that it’s predecessor.

In spite of this, the film didn’t feel quite as relentless and breathless as the original, simply because this one takes place on a much bigger scale. The first film was a stripped down, claustrophobic, relatively low budget tale set entirely in one tower block with one spectacular fight after another. By contrast this one has a bigger budget and a bigger plot, although the maverick-cop-undercover-in-prison-to-get-in-with-underworld-bigwigs angle has been explored many times in many other frankly better films. There are shades of Hard Boiled, The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs and Infernal Affairs amongst others, and as such the outcome of events feels very predictable. For example, one particular subplot involving a vicious but honourable machete wielding assassin who only cares about his wife and children feels as though it’s been lifted wholesale from the world of Quentin Tarantino.

Given the presence of such contrivances, the film really stands or falls on the strength of its action, of which there is plenty. It is extremely stylish throughout, and this hyper-reality aesthetic is one of the reasons why I think complaining about the insane levels of violence is rather missing the point. However, not every set piece convinces. One early prison yard free-for-all is too muddy and confusing to follow properly. Another sequence on a train, involving a female assassin with claw hammers, gives a whole new meaning to the word ridiculous. Thankfully things improve in the final act, with a terrific vehicular chase, and a series of exceptionally brutal fights (particularly one set in a kitchen) that reminded me why the first film felt so fresh and ouch-worthy.

It only really remains for me to compliment the exceptional stunt work and choreography of the cast – particularly Iko Uwais, returning from the first film. I am sure that he and many others were harmed in the making of The Raid 2, even if no animals were.

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Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge – print copies now available

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front cover

For those of you (like myself) that prefer your books printed on dead trees, print copies of Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge can now be purchased from Lulu.com.

CLICK HERE to buy your copy now: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/dr-gribbles-and-the-beast-of-blackthorn-lodge/paperback/product-21564790.html

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is a thrilling adventure for the young or young at heart.

If you enjoyed Uncle Flynn or George goes to Mars, you’ll love this exciting and slightly scary tale of monsters, spies and mad scientists, set in South-West England towards the end of the Cold War.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

September 1987.

Curiosity lands Tim Rawling in a world of secrets, spies and a desperate race against time.

The haunted house, the monster and the mad scientist are only the beginning of a terrifying adventure.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is also available in various digital formats.

You can buy it on Kindle at Amazon.co.uk for 75 pence (or for $0.99 at Amazon.com):

It is also downloadable FREE from Smashwords, in Kindle and lots of other formats:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/424046

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Film Review – Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

I’m not surprised that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah caused a storm of controversy amongst Christians (particularly American Christians). After all this is Aronofsky we’re talking about. His films are like Marmite. For every person who loves, say, The Fountain (including me), there’s someone who hates it. Noah is a deeply flawed work, to be sure, yet it is also magnificent, thought provoking, and enjoyably deranged in equal measure. A great deal of artistic licence has been taken in terms of material that has been added to the Biblical text, but this isn’t something Christians should get hot under the dog collar about, since people are being driven back to the Bible in droves. Online downloads of the Noah story in Genesis have soared over the last week in the US alone.

Aronofsky’s direction is audacious and foolish in equal measure, whilst Ari Handel’s screenplay makes a good job of seriously wrestling with the heart of the story, ie the nature of sin, the judgement and mercy of God and so forth. On a technical level the film passes muster, even if some of the more fantastic imagery isn’t entirely convincing, and Clint Mansell contributes a fine music score. Russell Crowe makes a suitably dark, brooding Noah, driven by visions of the first apocalypse to build an Ark. Jennifer Connolly also does well as his wife Naameh, alongside a supporting cast that also includes Emma Watson as Ila in what proves to be a pivotal role. Elsewhere Ray Winstone plays the villainous Tubal-cain, Anthony Hopkins mutters wisdom as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah and Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis provide voices for a couple of fallen angels.

From this point on, I must issue SPOILER WARNINGS as I intend to discuss the finer points of the film in some detail.

As I mentioned earlier, where it really matters, the film pretty much sticks to the Biblical account, but loads of creative licence is taken in terms of adding stuff in. For the record let me state that I have no problem with this whatsoever. A film is not a sermon or a basis for theological belief. If Aronofsky wants to give Noah climate change overtones then so be it. Besides, how do we know the First Age wasn’t an environmental ruin ravaged by industrialisation and greed? Some have even moaned about Noah being depicted as a strict vegetarian, but this is actually Biblically supported, since according to Genesis God did not tell humans that they could eat meat until after the flood.

Aronofsky also delves into the Book of Enoch to include the Watchers (fallen angels), or at least his version of them. These angels are supposed to have led mankind astray by introducing unauthorised technological advances, so God punished them by imprisoning them in rock. Said Watchers eventually help Noah build the Ark, before (it is implied) returning to heaven. Putting on a “theology police” uniform for a moment, for me, this element of the film was the most problematic. The Watchers were not redeemed. According to Enoch (and the Bible) what they were involved in, along with other fallen angels, was the interbreeding of human and angelic DNA that led to the Nephilim (giants) mentioned in Genesis chapter 6. My personal belief is that this was the primary reason for the flood. Man’s genetic code had become so corrupted that God literally had no choice but to hit CTRL/ALT/DELETE, so to speak, and start again. When Genesis talks about Noah “being perfect in his generations” it doesn’t mean he was perfect (we know he wasn’t from his post flood drunken antics), I believe that verse means he and his family were genetically pure humans uncorrupted by Nephilim mischief. If I had made a film about Noah, I certainly wouldn’t have given him fallen angels to assist him. I would however have had the fallen angels/Nephilim side with Tubal-Cain. On the other hand, to be fair to the filmmakers, they never say the Watchers sided with Satan, so perhaps they are less “fallen angels” and more “naughty angels on God’s equivalent of a time out”. Certainly this issue in itself is no reason to condemn the film. However, I highly recommend checking out Wendy Alec’s Chronicles of Brothers novels (specifically the first book The Fall of Lucifer) for an alternative perspective on the flood that bears out my above theological position – and incidentally also depicts God as utterly heartbroken over what he has been driven to do.

Returning to Aronofsky’s version, the film depicts Noah as essentially a man tormented by visions who undergoes a horrific experience that ultimately turns him into a dangerous homicidal fundamentalist. This didn’t bother me one bit. Who is to say Noah wasn’t deeply traumatised by his experience? Who is to say he didn’t experience a kind of madness? At one point it looks like Noah believes the human race should not survive at all, which almost causes him to murder the unborn children being carried by Ila. Is this some kind of anti-abortion statement? If so, surely the American Christian right ought to be applauding Aronofsky? Equally, I cannot understand why so many American Christians are upset by the scene where Noah gets drunk, collapses naked and winds up cursing his middle son (although not verbally in the film – it is implied). Again, why is this such a problem?

Included within the film is an extraordinary flashback depicting the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Man. There are shades of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life here, as Aronofsky tries to appease both evolutionists and creationists. However the sequence is astonishing, vivid and very powerful. It again grapples seriously with the nature of sin and its consequences – again, something Christians ought to be thankful for.

Ultimately, that Aronofsky’s Noah has touched so many raw nerves is a good thing. It reminds us that art can provoke and infuriate. It reminds us that two people can watch the same film and come away with something entirely different. For that reason alone, despite its undoubted missteps, I recommend Aronofsky’s Noah, warts and all.

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Film Review – Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Under the Skin, the new film from Jonathan Glazer, has received rave reviews in certain quarters, many proclaiming it to be a masterpiece. Personally I think that’s overstating the case a bit, but it’s certainly a highly singular, disturbing, divisive work that will no doubt enthral and infuriate in equal measure.

The plot – such is it is – concerns an alien disguised as a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who stalks lonely, single men in Scotland, luring them to a grisly and decidedly baffling demise for reasons that are never explained. Then she starts to develop an interest in what it means to be human. Sort of.

This highly flimsy premise is saved from being an artier version of naff 90s sci-fi flick Species by Glazer’s astonishing direction, as well of his eerie use of music and sound. Brilliant camera angles employ every inch of big screen space, particularly in some stunningly conceived long shots depicting the rainy Scottish landscapes. In addition there are many other extraordinary directorial flourishes; from the deeply weird opening to the frankly extremely unsettling sequences involving the seduction of Johansson’s various victims. There are a couple of moments so nightmarishly distressing that even I found them difficult to watch. I haven’t seen scenes of such hellish weirdness for quite some time – or at least, since that “rope” scene from A Field in England. At least you know where you are with blood and gore, but this? The pervasively dark, oppressive atmosphere throughout means bad dreams are all but guaranteed.

All of which will turn off one audience and turn on another. Certainly not everyone will want to view such a slow, surreal, deliberately paced film with such spare use of dialogue – not to mention the fact that events are seen entirely from the point of view of a murderous alien trying to make sense of human culture. I should also add warnings about sex and nudity, though whilst it was shocking, none of it felt particularly salacious.

What’s it all supposed to mean? I have absolutely no idea. In the end, I suspect this is destined for cult status. It will be shunned by many audiences for being too avant-garde, but serious students of cinema and horror fans who relish Lynchian weirdness will find Under the Skin gets under their skin.

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Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge – available today!

My new novel Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is now available in various digital formats.

You can buy it on Kindle at Amazon.co.uk for 75 pence (or for $0.99 at Amazon.com):

It is also downloadable FREE from Smashwords, in Kindle and lots of other formats:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/424046

Print copies will be released on the 6th April.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is a thrilling adventure for the young or young at heart.

If you enjoyed Uncle Flynn or George goes to Mars, you’ll love this exciting and slightly scary tale of monsters, spies and mad scientists, set in South-West England towards the end of the Cold War.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

September 1987.

Curiosity lands Tim Rawling in a world of secrets, spies and a desperate race against time.

The haunted house, the monster and the mad scientist are only the beginning of a terrifying adventure.

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Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is released tomorrow

DrGibbles_1600x2400_front cover

Tomorrow, my new novel Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge will be available for digital download.

Print copies will be released on the 6th April.

If you enjoyed the adventures of Max Bradley in Uncle Flynn or George Hughes in George goes to Mars, you’ll love the slightly scarier journey taken by Tim Rawling in Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

September 1987.

Curiosity lands Tim Rawling in a world of secrets, spies and a desperate race against time.

The haunted house, the monster and the mad scientist are only the beginning of a terrifying adventure.

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Marvel’s superhero mega franchise enters an interesting, self-questioning phase in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In stark contrast to the fantasy of Thor: The Dark World this is a film informed by recent worrying headlines of NSA snooping, the Edward Snowden case, erosion of civil liberties and wars on terror.

Of course, it is still a superhero movie first and foremost, but what makes this such a satisfying one is the way directors Joe and Anthony Russo use the conspiracy thriller template as a hook on which to hang the big action scenes. Said scenes are tense, and surprisingly gritty – at least by this franchise’s standards. You may feel reminded of the Bourne movies more than once.

The plot itself deals with Steve Rogers aka Captain America adjusting to life working for SHIELD and life in the 21st Century (he has a list of things to catch up on which includes watching Star Wars). But before he has a chance to adjust too much, he finds himself at the centre of a murky and Machiavellian plot unsure of who to trust. Everything SHIELD stands for is called into question, and amid all of this lurks the mysterious, masked assassin known as the Winter Soldier.

I’d better not say anymore, in case you don’t predict the twists and turns as easily as I did. But just because I could predict them didn’t mean I didn’t find the film an immensely satisfying concoction. Chris Evans is still great in the lead, with Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as cool as ever. Newcomer Anthony Mackie is quite fun as the Falcon, and the great Robert Redford has a very significant role as SHIELD boss Alexander Pierce.

The presence of Redford obviously evokes memories of the great 70s conspiracy thrillers – All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor and so on – and amid the comic book fun there are some serious messages of sorts. Captain America pretty much spells it out by saying that SHIELD’s plan to launch pre-emptive strikes against perceived threats is not about freedom but fear, and it is through fear that people will surrender their freedom, hoping for security. Such a theme is extremely relevant given the kinds of current events I mentioned earlier.

That said, having touched on a serious point, the film quickly switches to running, fighting and blowing things up again. It is perhaps a little overlong, though all things considered, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superior addition to the Marvel canon. Don’t forget to stick around for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

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Suspension of disbelief

Die Hard

One vital element needed to enjoy any piece of storytelling – whether in a book, a play or a film – is the ability to suspend disbelief.

This does not mean every event portrayed should be strictly realistic, complying with all laws of physics and with characters acting and responding in entirely realistic ways. Striving after realism for realism’s sake is nearly always a trap.

The late great director David Lean said that films ought to be feel like dreams, even when dealing with historic subject matter (such as TE Lawrence’s military exploits in North Africa). Just because Lean was dealing with events that really took place did not mean he could not lavish the subject with all the cinematic embellishment at his command. A Lawrence of Arabia steeped in gritty realism would be a dull beast indeed, but it does strictly adheres to its own internal logic, with all the majesty, poetry and occasional satire inherent in Robert Bold’s superb, spare screenplay.

Internal logic is the key. Any story in any genre must stick to its own internal logic, not violating the laws of its own universe. Suspension of disbelief is easy when watching Star Wars, because the rules of a galaxy far, far away are rigidly obeyed. Complaining that the space battles don’t obey the laws of physics (audible explosions in space and so on) would be churlish idiocy. Frankly I pity anyone who can’t enjoy the film for that reason.

The question for writers is how far can credibility be stretched before it breaks? Truth is often stranger than fiction, which is why films like Lawrence of Arabia are able to get away with quite a bit that would feel unbelievable if the film were not based on fact. Other good examples of this principle include Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling, Touching the Void and 127 Hours. If it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t believe it.

Conversely, an action film has a very difficult balancing act. Stretch credibility too far and suspension of disbelief vanishes, along with any emotional investment in the characters.

Consider the original Die Hard. What makes that film an action classic is the way the audience senses the John McClane character could go under at any minute. Bruce Willis was not a huge star when he made the film and did not have the action movie baggage he now has, which meant audiences did not view him as another Schwarzenegger. McClane is trapped inside a high-rise building playing cat and mouse with extremely tough and well organised terrorist thieves. This incidentally is something he does in bare feet throughout (at one wince-inducing point, over broken glass). The many thrilling action scenes take place just on the right side of suspension of disbelief (for me – the one brief exception being when he falls down the lift shaft and manages to grab onto a ventilation shaft by his fingertips).

Compare that with the sixth Fast and Furious movie. That has spectacular stunts, unquestionably. But they are so ludicrous (and CGI enhanced) that it is simply impossible to buy into anything that happens, much less care about any of the characters. This is particularly true in the finale, as a plane is chased on a runway at great length. Whilst watching the film, someone actually calculated that considering the running time of the sequence and average speeds of the vehicles involved, that runway would have been about twenty four miles long! If that is what you’re thinking about when watching a film like this, then suspension of disbelief has well and truly gone out of the window.

Another problem that can ruin suspension of disbelief is when a scenario inappropriate to the genre is introduced into the story. For instance, during the second series of the otherwise excellent sports drama Friday Night Lights, a wildly misjudged stalker subplot is introduced. Not only does said subplot feel as if it has been crowbarred in from film noir, the persons involved behave in a manner that is completely out of character. All subsequent anguish and emotional complications fail to hit home, because the scenario is so utterly ludicrous.

I have used films and television to illustrate my point here, but the principle applies across all storytelling mediums. Although it can be difficult to pull off, suspension of disbelief is vital to telling a good story. The last thing any writer wants to hear is that the reader/viewer, say, didn’t think the love story was plausible, or that the action scenes were so ridiculous that emotional involvement was lost.

I’ve had that said of my own writing a few times, prior to rewrites of course. As Robert McKee says, never add vanity to folly by exhibiting your failures.

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