Film Review – Cinderella


Several years ago, I attended a job interview where I thought the person interviewing me was asking sarcastic questions. I promptly delivered what I felt were suitably witty, sarcastic answers until I suddenly realised, mid-interview, that my interviewer was in deadly earnest. I had something of a similar experience during the first ten minutes of the new live action Cinderella. The Timotei commercial visuals immediately gave me a sugar headache, and the opening lines felt so saccharine that I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a layer of irony that I was somehow missing, especially given recent deliberately unconventional fairy tales such as Maleficent, Frozen, or Enchanted.

Shortly afterwards, I realised that irony, sarcasm and cynicism would not feature in any way during Kenneth Branagh’s deliberately by-the-book take on Cinderella. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did take me a while to adjust before finally being bludgeoned into suspension of disbelief somewhere in the middle of the movie. As a fairy tale, Cinderella is all but bullet proof, but it has been done before, definitively, in Disney’s 1950 animated movie and more recent revisionist versions including the massively underrated Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Sadly Branagh’s film is not sufficiently distinctive to be regarded as anything other than passable. Those looking for the darker elements of the original text (including foot mutilations) definitely need not apply.

That said, Branagh’s direction is good, and so are the leads. Lily James looks the part, and Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother is great casting. There are also interesting bit parts for the likes of Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgard, but what lets the whole thing down for me is Chris Weitz’s screenplay – not because it is overly earnest, but because frankly this Cinderella is just too good to be true. The key to making a role like this work is to add a touch of self-mockery, akin to adding that pinch of salt to a cake recipe. For example, Errol Flynn remains the definitive screen Robin Hood because he sends himself up a little, knowing that without that humour he would just be too heroic to be believable. Here Cinderella is just too angelic, even though Cinderella is meant to be angelic. I hope that makes sense.

Thankfully, Branagh does just enough to make the film work by including humorous moments such as the royal artist who paints the Prince, Alex McQueen’s amusingly pompous town crier, and Helena Bonham Carter’s agreeably eccentric fairy godmother. Richard Madden is a bit of a non-entity as the Prince, but like his co-star he looks the part, and he does get one, genuinely affecting moment with Derek Jacobi. So kudos to Chris Weitz for that scene at least.

On a moral/spiritual level, this embraces the usual family friendly themes. Emphasising courage and kindness is certainly admirable, but I couldn’t help thinking Cinderella might have struggled a tiny bit more to eventually forgive her stepmother, even if the forgiveness message is well intended.

I know some will read this review and think I’m too cynical and not the target audience, but nothing could be further from the truth. I love many of the Disney fairy tales, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and more recently Tangled, which after repeated viewings I now consider as good as the afore-mentioned stone cold classics. I also enjoy the afore-mentioned versions of Cinderella, so I really wanted to like this film.

In the end, what we have is an adequate take on a classic story that will certainly find an audience, but one that for me could have done with just a hint of edginess to distinguish it. After all, a spoonful of salt helps the sugar go down.

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NEW RELEASE: Love vs Honour out on the 31st of May

This May I am releasing a new novel entitled Love vs Honour.

It is available to pre-order from Amazon (see link below).

Love vs Honour is a novel I wrote almost ten years ago and have sat on for some time, for reasons I will explain in subsequent posts.

It exists entirely outside of my usual genres; being neither a thriller, nor science fiction, horror, or a children’s adventure, but a young adult romantic drama aimed primarily at the Fault in our Stars demographic (although it isn’t about life-threatening illness). It will, I suspect, also be appreciated by grown-up readers, or anyone who enjoys a gripping, provocative drama.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

Two Religions. Two Deceptions. One Love.

From the author of Children of the Folded Valley

When Johnny meets and falls in love with Sabina, their bond proves stronger than a teenage holiday fling.

Fearing the disapproval of their strict Christian and Islamic families, they undertake an elaborate deception to continue seeing one another. Johnny pretends to convert to Islam whilst Sabina pretends to covert to Christianity to appease their parents.

But how long can this deception last before it unravels?

Love vs Honour is released on the 31st May on Kindle. Pre-order your copy now!

Print copies will be available from the 7th of June.

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Film Review – The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


The latest, and possibly one of the last films to come out of Studio Ghibli is the Oscar nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; an unhurried, spare, astonishingly beautiful piece of work.

Based on a Japanese fairy tale, the plot concerns a bamboo cutter, who finds a mysterious being that resembles a tiny human princess inside a magical bamboo stalk. The girl takes human form, and once adopted by grows at an accelerated rate, discovering a special connection with her earthy, rural surroundings, befriending local children and becoming the pride and joy of her adoptive parents. But when the bamboo cutter subsequently discovers gold and fine clothing in other magical bamboo stalks, he becomes convinced that heaven wants the girl to become a princess, so against his wife’s advice he takes her to the capital and uses the money to transform her into royalty. She becomes Princess Kaguya, but reluctantly, only doing so to please her adoptive father. Gradually the separation from her countryside childhood home takes its toll on her happiness.

This is a lovely film, stunningly animated by director Isao Takahata, and hauntingly scored by Joe Hisaishi. It also looks like nothing Studio Ghibli have released before. Superb use of watercolour, charcoal and deliberately impressionistic, unfinished backgrounds make for highly imaginative viewing, adding to the ethereal, fairy tale quality. Perhaps it is the use of these techniques that enable the outlandish, surreal finale to somehow work – although I do acknowledge that for some it may be a stretch.

Ultimately as with all fairy tales, one can apply many interpretations. It can be viewed as a melancholy coming of age story, a feminist critique of Japanese culture, a warning about parental burdens of expectation on children, a Buddhist fable, an environmentalist statement, or a combination of the above.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will prove too long and slow for some tastes, but it has many hugely memorable scenes, from the early simple moment where the baby princess imitates a frog, to the afore-mentioned left-field finale. If you are fan of Studio Ghibli, you will almost certainly love it, as I did.

Simon Dillon, March 2015.

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Download Uncle Flynn FREE for five days only!

For five days only, you can download my debut novel, Uncle Flynn, absolutely free from Amazon.

Uncle Flynn was received very positively. On the surface it is a properly old-fashioned treasure hunt adventure, but it contains underlying themes about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The book is dedicated to my eldest son, and was largely inspired by our many excursions over Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here is the blurb from the back of Uncle Flynn:

When timid eleven year old Max Bradley embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious Uncle Flynn, he discovers he is braver than he thought.

Together they decipher clues, find a hidden map and explore secret tunnels in their search. But with both police and rival treasure hunters on their tail, Max begins to wonder if his uncle is all he seems…

Here are some reviews:

“Harking back to the wonderful adventure stories of Arthur Ransome, Uncle Flynn is a welcome return to the excitement of outdoor exploits in wild surroundings. Excitement, tension and peril combine in a well-written tale where The Goonies meets Swallows and Amazons. The evocative descriptions of treasure seeking on Dartmoor will have you longing to visit and explore for yourselves. Action-packed puzzle-solving pleasure for children and adults alike, with a neat twist in the tale to keep you guessing.”

Mrs Alice R Brewer.

“A treasure for all ages. Kids and teenagers would love this fast-paced adventure story. Most adults would also find it a light and enjoyable read.”

B Fraley, Amazon.

“Really enjoyed this book. Had read Folded Valley and thought I would try this by the same author. Kept me reading well past my bedtime.”

Simon Smith, Amazon.

“Don’t pass this one by. I have been burning through the free NOOKbooks and this is the absolute BEST. Doesn’t matter what type of fiction you like to read, I can imagine this would capture just about anyone’s attention – and heart.”

willreadanything, Barnes and Noble.

“Could not put the book down, so enjoyed the journey. Recommended it to my 12 year old grandson who now wants me to be his book reading adviser. Loved by three generations.”

Brinney, Barnes and Noble.

“What a wonderful book for young readers and anyone else who loves a book with a great twist on an amazing story of courage over fear.”

Beansie47, Barnes and Noble.

“I’m an 83 year old woman. Your book was a joy to me. I felt I was having all the adventures myself at this ripe old age. Your book was like a cold drink of water on a hot day. Thank you.”

Joan McLaughlin, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

“I downloaded the book for my boys to read, and thought I’d just read the first few lines… Needless to say I read to the end! Well written and most enjoyable – great adventure with life lessons woven into the story.”

Cecile Weyers, commenting on the Uncle Flynn blog.

If you prefer print copies, they can be ordered here (but are not free, sadly):

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Film Review – Insurgent


Insurgent, the second segment in the Divergent trilogy (based on the novels by Veronica Roth), is actually not bad. It’s certainly no worse than the first film, which was passably entertaining, assuming you could get past the ridiculous premise, ie a future shock world where people are divided into social groups – Abnegation, Amity, Candour, Dauntless and Erudite – based on massively reductive character traits.

Those who fall through the cracks of this system, the “Factionless” and “Divergents”, can’t be neatly sorted into the above categories. They are considered a threat for reasons that really don’t hold up under scrutiny (something vague about humanity being dangerous and destructive if they aren’t sorted in this oddly OCD fashion). Anyway, the story picks up where the first left off, with our heroes Tris (Shailene Woodley), her boyfriend Four (Theo James), along with various others from the Dauntless faction, on the run from the forces of the villainous Jeanine (Kate Winslet). What follows is a lot of running, jumping and shooting. And some virtual reality. Oh, and some running, jumping and shooting within virtual reality.

In spite of obvious echoes of frankly better stories like The Hunger Games, Insurgent does have some very well staged action sequences, courtesy of director Robert Schwentke, who proves particularly adept at vertiginous set pieces. The leads are also appealing, particularly Woodley, and also Miles Teller (recently seen in Whiplash), who has a memorable supporting role.

There are even a few nods towards Roth’s Christian worldview, such as Candour’s refrain of “May the truth set you free”. I haven’t read the novels, so can’t judge whether the films are a good approximation of the source material, but on a moral/spiritual level at least, there are themes of sacrifice and certainly quite a lot of death and resurrection metaphors.

Ultimately though, the best thing about Insurgent is the running, jumping and shooting both in virtual and actual reality, despite the silliness of the premise.

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Movies with Mum

I have written extensively in the past about my happy memories of going to see this or that film with my father – or indeed of the books he introduced me to. So as its Mother’s Day here in the UK, here are five movies that make me think of my mother rather than my father – either because I went to see them with her, or because they are inextricably linked with her in my memory for some other reason.

Annie – Obviously I mean the 1981 film, not the recent supposedly dreadful remake. Actually, I don’t think the original is much cop either, but I do have a certain affection for it for one, simple, sentimental reason: I remember going to see it with my mother.

Robin Hood – Not my favourite Robin Hood (that would be the peerless 1938 Errol Flynn picture) but this animated Disney version is still rather good. I saw it on a re-release at the cinema with my mother and really enjoyed it. Peter Ustinov’s King John is a highlight.

Superman – Again, a treasured memory. Superman remains my all-time favourite comic book movie, and the first time I watched it was on television one Christmas. I distinctly remember Mum passing me chunks of Toblerone whilst we watched, and to this day I associate that kind of chocolate with Superman.

The Remains of the Day – This is a bit of a cheat, as I didn’t see this with my mother initially. But after catching a screening on its original cinema release, I rang her repeatedly, urging her with evangelistic zeal to see it. When she finally did, Mum loved it, as I knew she would. Regular readers of this blog know I have an obsession with this film (and the book it is based on) – for many, many reasons. But above all, the film always makes me think of my mother.

The Godfather – I will never forget sitting down to watch this as a teenager, and for some inexplicable reason my mother, who is usually timid about 18 rated films, decided to watch with me. I inwardly predicted that she would leave during the horse head in a bed scene, but astonishingly she not only watched to the end, but insisted we watch part II as well. Mothers are full of surprises.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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How do I handle bad reviews?

One simple fact any writer has to face is that you cannot please all people all the time. Often the very reasons one person loves your work is the reason another hates it. The important thing is to provoke reactions.

That said, no matter how thick skinned writers claim to be, or how much bravado they put across, bad reviews can be seriously discouraging. How then do I deal with this?

Fortunately, I have not yet been in a position where any of my novels are universally or near universally reviled. I can imagine such an occurrence would be deeply disheartening. For the most part, reaction to my work has been overwhelmingly positive. Such a good/bad ratio means it is very easy to dismiss bad reviews with a “can’t please everyone” shrug.

Yet some bad reviews have actually proved instructive, either to confirm that I succeeded in my goals (eg, when reviewing a horror story if someone says “I hated this book because it was too scary”), or to legitimately highlight areas I can improve.

Ultimately a review is simply an opinion, but it is very gratifying when a large amount of opinion is positive. My novel Children of the Folded Valley has almost entirely five and four star reviews on Amazon, and clearly the majority of readers have really embraced the novel.

But if you click on the link below, you will note that despite such apparent success, there are still a couple of bad reviews.

So how do I handle bad reviews? Depending on what they are saying and why, I either am discouraged or encouraged. I either disregard them, or see (sometimes through gritted teeth) where valid points have been made. They can hurt, but they can also be vitally important.

In short, they should not automatically be dismissed.

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Film Review – Still Alice


I expected to find Still Alice, the Alzheimer’s drama Julianne Moore recently won an Oscar for, thoroughly depressing. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it only rated around a 5 on the Alzheimer’s drama scale of 1 to Amour (the nuclear weapon of Alzheimer’s drama, in terms of how thoroughly depressing it is). Instead, I found the film oddly compelling and touching rather than out and out miserable. Yes, it’s undoubtedly Oscar bait and prone to a certain disease-of-the-week-TV-movie-ishness in terms of the subject matter. But even this is offset by directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s subtle cinematic touch.

For example, we experience the story (based on Lisa Genova’s novel) entirely from the point of view of the eponymous Alice (Moore), a University linguistics professor. As she battles early onset Alzheimer’s, the action around her goes out of focus – a very effective, if obvious, way to depict her confusion. The screenplay also cuts from scene to scene, sometimes with a rhythm that says to the audience “the following morning”, when in fact it is a month later and Alice has forgotten everything in between.

Of course, Alice’s condition takes its toll on her family. Because she has had a happy marriage, great career and loves her children, the sheer cruelty of losing these memories is depicted with heart-rending brilliance by the award winning Julianne Moore. I expected Moore to be excellent (she always is). I also expected fine support from Alec Baldwin as her husband. What I didn’t expect was Kristen Stewart to be good too, as Alice’s sort-of estranged daughter Lydia. Her part brings her total of performances that I actually like up to two (the other being Adventureland).

For me, the relationship between Stewart and her mother is the best thing in the film. Their relationship provides a redemptive and very touching element, and is certainly destined to bring a tear to many eyes. Ultimately, the film does not duck the issue of just how awful Alzheimer’s is, but it also celebrates a life well lived in a very moving way.

In short, Still Alice is still depressing, but not nearly as depressing as I expected.

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Film Review – It Follows

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Fans of John Carpenter are in for a treat with this interesting homage to his work. It Follows echoes his best movies visually, aurally and thematically.

Plot wise this is scary campfire story horror, with teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) stalked by a demonic presence after she loses her virginity – a presence she is told will kill her unless she has sex with someone else and “passes on” the curse.

This demonic presence can appear as anyone but can only be seen by the person under the curse, as a figure walking slowly and inextricably towards them. They can flee this presence, but of course then they rest, and the demon catches up. Also if the demon catches them and kills them, it then goes back to stalk the previous person who was cursed.

Director David Robert Mitchell helms the piece well, makes good use of locations, and milks maximum menace from simple shots of people walking slowly in the corners of the frame. Performances are pretty good too, as is the use of sound (always an essential factor in a horror movie). The Carpenter-esque electronic score provides the icing on a pretty effective piece of work.

I know Christians often object to horror movies, sometimes on grounds of sex, nudity, violence and bad language – of which there is a fair bit here. But if you can see past the blood and boobs there’s a long tradiition in the genre of sex equals death. Here that idea is given an interesting spin as the demon that follows can be seen as a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease, especially in the way the entity works backwards through the sexual chain like a domino effect. Additionally, on a spiritual level, this could be taken as a metaphor for what Christians call “soul-ties”, in which one remains spiritually tied to one’s sexual partner, whoever else they have slept with, and so on. In that respect, It Follows amounts to an abstinence endorsement of sorts, something Christians ought to applaud.

On the other hand, I seriously doubt that was the conscious intent behind the film. In spite of such spiritual ponderings, this really amounts to little more than a blast of disreputable genre fun for those with an inclination towards this sort of thing. It Follows is hardly a groundbreaking masterpiece, but it works fairly well in a Ringu meets John Carpenter’s Halloween sort of way.

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Getting under the skin of the reader

Every writer desires that their work will somehow affect the reader, getting under their skin as it were. In fact, sometimes bad reviews are preferable to good ones if the writing has made the reader frightened, sad, angry, offended, or otherwise provoked them in some way.

Occasionally I read reviews of my work that clearly demonstrate I have achieved this with a particular reader. For example, here is a review from an Amazon reader, David MacGuire, reviewing my novel Children of the Folded Valley.

“I generally review only the books that I really love or hate passionately. I neither hate nor love the book, it has its flaws, but the story has stuck with me. This is a good, original story. The concept and characters are engaging and appealing. There are places where the writing gets a little thin, but I hope to see many more books by this author. It has a happy ending, of sorts, and yet left me profoundly depressed. I think it was that the author hit it right on the head; even in a perfect paradise, people are going to be perfect s***s to each other, given half a chance. Even so I recommend it.”

Mr MacGuire’s review sounds as though he is still struggling to figure out what he really felt about the novel, which I am pleased about because it demonstrates the story got to him. I am not ashamed to admit that reviews like this provide great encouragement, so thank you David MacGuire.

Children of the Folded Valley is available to download for Kindle (see below link):

Print copies are available from

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