Film Review – Burning

burning.w700.h700Burning is a very long, glacially paced, but weirdly compelling Korean film from director Chang-dong Lee that defies easy categorisation. It begins as a quirky love story, evolves into a psychological drama and then becomes something of a low-key, oddly nightmarish thriller. Those with an aversion to ambiguity would do well to steer clear, but those with an interest in deep-cut serious cinema will find much of interest.

Based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, the film begins amiably enough with shy, lonely wannabe writer Jong-su (Ah-in yoo) meeting outgoing, free-spirited Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) when he wins a raffle in a shop. She presents him with his prize – a garish pink watch that she suggests he give to his girlfriend. When he tells her he doesn’t have one, a brief but quirky courtship ensues, and soon they’re having sex at her cramped apartment. Jong-su clearly can’t believe his luck and is utterly smitten.

Shortly afterwards, Haemi informs Jong-su that she is going on a trip to Africa. She asks him to feed her rather shy cat whilst she is away. Jong-su has never seen her cat, but leaves food out nonetheless, and notices that the litter tray has been used. These details are important later in the story for reasons I won’t get into here.

Whilst Haemi is away, Jong-su desperately misses her. However, when she returns, she has a new, more confident and affluent boyfriend in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su is understandably put out, but says nothing, and becomes something of an awkward third wheel as he is invited to meals, parties and so on.

To say too much more would spoil things, suffice to say things get stranger and stranger. The film has the pace of a snail, but it is never boring; delving into themes of social inequality and class divisions, destructive male envy, sexual longing and paranoia. Performances and direction are excellent, and whilst I should add a warning for sexual content and one scene of strong violence for those who appreciate such things, none of it seemed gratuitous to me.

I’d also like to add a special mention for cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, whose rich, atmospheric compositions – for example one shot at dusk that lingers outside in the disappearing sunlight whilst Haemi dances topless – brilliantly underscore the melancholy yearning and sinister unease simmering beneath the surface of this multi textured gem. The final shot – too good to spoil here – is also nothing less than masterful.

In summary, Burning isn’t for everyone. Some will dismiss it as a shaggy dog tale, but once seen this haunting and unsettling film can’t be forgotten.

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First Love: Now Available For Pre-Order

You can now pre-order First Love on Amazon Kindle. I have contributed a short story entitled Papercut to this Dragon Soul Press romantic fantasy anthology, and even though I say so myself, it is really rather good.

Papercut concerns a lonely teenage boy living with his ultra-strict Jehovah’s Witness mother. One night a mysterious girl made entirely of paper appears in his dreams, who takes him on a magical journey into… Well, you’ll have to read more to find out.

First Love is released on the 28th of February.

To pre-order click here (for the UK) and here (for the US).

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Film Review – The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


As “awesome” as the first. Yes, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s unlikely 2014 triumph is repeated in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. Like that first film, this is no mere corporate commercial, but a hilarious, subversive, satirical joy. The deliriously surreal, meta-textual themes of the original are revisited in fresh and interesting ways, with sibling rivalry being the principal idea underpinning this wonderfully demented sequel.

(SPOILER AHEAD for The Lego Movie) With the big twist at the end of the first film no longer under wraps (ie, the characters in the story are being played with by people in the real world), the second film opens with a the Duplo “alien invasion” that destroys “Bricksburg”. This alien invasion from the “Systar System” is clearly intended to be a younger sister playing one game, whilst the battle against these seemingly invulnerable Duplo bricks that keep returning is played by the older male sibling. This doesn’t make sense when I type it in a plot synopsis, but believe me it makes perfect sense when you watch the film.

Five years later, the characters of the original movie – principally Emmet, Lucy and Batman – are now living in a Mad Max style post apocalypse landscape that has hardened everyone, except the terminally cheerful Emmet. When Lucy, Batman and a load of other characters from the first film are kidnapped by these “aliens”, it is up to Emmet to “toughen up” so he can save his friends. Along the way he meets “Rex Dangerfest”, a grizzled adventurer in a spacecraft crewed by velociraptors. Rex isn’t a master builder, but a master destroyer. Will Emmet and Rex be able to save Lucy and the others, and will Emmet take lessons from Rex, so he can be the tougher person he thinks Lucy wants and needs?

The returning vocal cast – Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett and so on – all do well. The animation is clever and engaging throughout, with endless nods to films including Back to the Future, Die Hard, The Lord of the Rings and one particular 2001: A Space Odyssey gag which is worth the price of admission alone. There are also knowing and amusing ear-worm, brainwashing pop tunes (including a self-fulfilling prophecy song entitled “This song is going to get stuck in your head”). Speaking of songs, whatever you do don’t leave during the credits. The words to the song that plays over the first part of them made me laugh more than anything else in the film.

In addition to the laughs, there are some genuinely surprising plot twists. The messages – about siblings learning to get along together, not hardening your heart, being yourself and so on – are all laudable and appropriate to a family audience. In short, this is a lot of fun, and if you liked the first film, you’ll like this one too.

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Spectre of Springwell Forest: Simple Relatable Fears

SSF coverAll great horror stories have, at their core, a simple and relatable fear which is then explored, exploited and exaggerated. In my opinion that is what makes for a really memorable scary tale, not blood and gore.

My new novel Spectre of Springwell Forest asks this simple question: how far would you be prepared to go, to protect your child? Would you run away from a possible supernatural threat? Or would you stand up it? What if you didn’t understand the evil force you were up against? Would you research it to try and find a way to defeat it, or would you think some questions don’t have good answers and run for it?

Lily Parker, the protagonist at the heart of the story, faces all the above questions. She is curious, but inwardly battles against a second instinct urging her to flee. In addition, her investigations take her to an increasingly lonely place. As she gradually asks questions, a breakdown in communication occurs within her marriage, alienating her from her sceptical husband.

The novel isn’t all mystery, suspense and scares. I make room for a few slightly satirical moments. For instance, the competitiveness of parents of primary school children and related playground politics, as well as some jokey nods to UK political history.

In addition, Spectre of Springwell Forest touches on the folly of mob justice, and one or two other questions concerning the precise nature of the supernatural force at the heart of the tale. I have always enjoyed horror stories that include enough ambiguity for the reader to bring their own interpretations. Despite the apparently inexplicable nature of events in the story, there are a few hints here and there that might just offer a more rational explanation, for those that want such a thing. Yes, it all builds to a shocking and unexpected finale, but even then… Well, I shall say nothing more, for fear of spoilers.

Spectre of Springwell Forest is out now. Pick up your copy here (in the UK) and here (in the US).

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Film Review – Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a modestly successful celebrity biographer living in New York who, after falling out of step with current tastes, turns to forgery with her loyal friend Jack (Richard E Grant). Said forgeries took place circa 1991, with Israel faking letters from the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, and selling them to collectors of memorabilia.

This is the second fact based odd-couple drama I have seen this week, and frankly it is the superior one. Darkly entertaining though the fraud scheme is, what really elevates Can You Ever Forgive Me? are the brilliant performances from McCarthy and Grant. Their drinking buddy, mutual-screw-up dynamic is surprisingly poignant. Israel is foul-mouthed, embittered, self-destructive and despises the company of most other humans (preferring her cat). Jack is a promiscuous, hedonistic, small-time drug dealer, but hints of his own deep pain beneath the bravado and con artistry are conveyed with brilliant subtlety. Both characters alienate others in relationships, but take solace in one another’s friendship, even though said friendship is also tested to the limit.

As a writer, I was predisposed to like this film, and oddly I took from it a moral that perhaps non-writers will miss, namely the dangers of not exposing your soul in your writing. Israel is told by her agent that because she refuses to do publicity, and has hidden behind the lives of other celebrities instead of writing about herself, she is fast becoming irrelevant. Her fear of revealing who she is in her writing, which any good writer must ultimately do, is by implication partly what gets her into trouble in the first place. Ultimately Israel overcame this, and wrote the memoir telling the true events that this film is based on.

But of course, one doesn’t need to be a writer to appreciate this film. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very well observed drama about human frailty with superb performances and fine direction from Marielle Heller. Some may find it a tad depressing (and here I should add a warning for very strong language), but I didn’t see it that way. The more melancholy elements are countered by the vein of rich black humour displayed throughout, and the warmth of the genuine friendship at the core of the story.

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Film Review – Green Book


Two fine performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali elevate this otherwise fairly inconsequential Oscar-nominated road movie. Based on a true story, Green Book explores the bond that develops between refined African American classical pianist Dr Don Shirley (Ali) and his uncouth working class Italian American driver Tony Lip (Mortensen), on a concert tour in the Deep South, circa 1962.

The spark and banter in the afore-mentioned performances provides good entertainment value, as each learn life lessons along the way. When we first meet Tony, he is something of a casual racist, even to the point where he throws away two glasses that have been handled by African American plumbers working in his home, much to the dismay of his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini). However, as he and Don hit the road, they gradually develop a mutual respect, and Tony’s character arc is then as predictable as can be. In fact, the entire film feels very light, despite the fact that it delves into themes of racism, casual and not-so casual, throughout. Incidentally, the green book of the title is a travel guide for African American, listing hotels for “coloreds” in segregated areas of the Deep South.

Director Peter Farrelly provides unfussy direction, albeit with a rich sense of time and place. There are also one or two genuinely funny and touching moments, particularly in the way Don helps emotionally constipated Tony write letters to his wife, Cyrano De Bergerac style. This running theme has a cute payoff in the finale.

All things considered, Green Book is relatively little to write home about, but the winning chemistry between the leads raises it to just above average.

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Spectre of Springwell Forest: Trees, Tunnels and Toadstools

SSF coverFor all their supernatural shenanigans, I try to keep an air of realism (if not reality) in my horror stories, and my most recent novel Spectre of Springwell Forest is a case in point. To that end, I have tried to base the story locations on real places with which I am familiar. I have also conducted whatever research is necessary to try and maintain this illusion of realism.

I have had it pointed out to me that Springwell Forest is a real place in Northern Ireland. However, my Springwell Forest is not based there but in the south-west of Britain, in Devon near Plymouth, on the southern outskirts of Dartmoor. The village of Springwell draws inspiration from sleepy hamlets and villages such as Hemerdon and Sparkwell, which are located near where I live. It is also partly based on Aston in Oxfordshire, one of the places I lived as a child.

Springwell Forest is inspired by the woods near my house where I often go walking (deer are regularly seen there), but the abandoned railway tunnel is inspired by an area in Plymbridge woods, slightly further from where I live. I have never discovered magic mushrooms in these woods, but I undertook research into hallucinogenic fungi for the novel (no, not that kind of “research”).

Another question I am often asked concerns the subject of witchcraft, and how much research I did for those elements of the story. The simple answer is very little (at least, for this novel). The witchcraft element of the narrative is mostly made-up (and as far as I know, there is no secret society called the Pridwen Order in real life). However, because I wanted the story to have that afore-mentioned air of realism, I researched a few related subjects, such as differences between Wicca and witchcraft, and a handful of other elements that I won’t bore you with here.

Spectre of Springwell Forest is out now. Pick up your copy here (in the UK) and here (in the US).

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Film Review – How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


The law of diminishing returns applies to How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and final entry in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, based on the books by Cressida Cowell. The good news is said diminishment is very small. Whilst this doesn’t quite match the standard of its predecessors (especially the first film), it is still a vivid, colourful and moving adventure that brings the saga of Viking Hiccup and his “Night Fury” dragon Toothless to a satisfying conclusion.

Picking up a year after the last film, Hiccup has now taken over from his late father as chief of the Viking settlement Berk. The place is getting rather crowded with rescued dragons, and Hiccup is considering proposing to long-term girlfriend Astrid. However, when Toothless finds himself romantically drawn to a female “Night Fury”, and a new threat to their idyllic world appears in the form of dragon hunter Grimmel, the scene is set for a showdown that will change everything.

Despite a slight and predictable plot, the coming of age themes present in the first two instalments are continued here, in resonant ways that progress the narrative and character arcs, ensuring that this doesn’t fall into the trap of repeating itself. Vocal performances – from the likes of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, F Murray Abraham, and Cate Blanchett – are all very good, and John Powell’s music score builds on his previous magnificent work, adding some wonderful new themes.

Writer/director Dean Deblois’s collaboration with superlative cinematographer Roger Deakins (as with the first two, Deakins is credited as visual consultant) is as stunning as ever, with the animation scaling new, even greater heights. Gorgeous sunsets, jaw-dropping cloudscapes, epic storms and the fabulous neon hidden world of the title all combine to make this the most achingly beautiful entry in the series, well worth seeing on the biggest cinema screen you can find.

Themes of embracing change are explored in an understated, though not especially profound way, but they are shot through with wit and melancholy, especially in the pleasingly tear-jerking finale. I don’t think How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is going to change the course of cinema, but you (and any children you bring) will emerge from it with a big smile on your face.

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Film Review – Vice


The opening caption in writer/director Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney satirical biopic Vice points out that although the story we’re about to watch is based on truth, given that Cheney was such a secretive leader, it’s hard to be sure of the facts. Still, the caption goes on to say, “we did our f***ing best”.

Funny yes, but although Vice features fine performances and is darkly entertaining throughout, this disclaimer does not give McKay a licence to play as fast and loose as he does. This is clearly a film with an agenda (what political film isn’t) and amid its determination to paint the Machiavellian Dick Cheney in the worst possible light (understandable), it overreaches somewhat towards the end by attempting to imply that conservative points of view are stupid, and liberal points of view are well-informed. I laughed, but the reality is there are both stupid and well-informed conservatives, and stupid and well-informed liberals. Not to mention corruption on all sides of the political spectrum.

That said, the film is still worthwhile, primarily for Christian Bale’s astounding performance in the lead. Bale is ably supported by the likes of Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne, who is quite bone-chilling at times, although a sequence where they both quote Macbeth is a little too on-the-nose, even for a satire like this. Elsewhere the supporting cast includes strong turns from the likes of Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W Bush Jr, the President, whose strings Cheney pulled to remarkable effect, if this film is to be believed.

All things considered, despite warnings for swearing, disturbing scenes and a few bloody images, Vice is a good watch and recommended with the afore-mentioned caveats, to those who enjoy an entertaining political satire. One scene involving a waiter played by an uncredited Alfred Molina is darkly hysterical, and worth the price of the ticket alone.

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Film Review – Free Solo


Those suffering from a fear of heights will have their nerves soundly tested by Free Solo, widely considered the frontrunner for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars. I’m pleased to have finally caught it on the big screen, because this riveting account of Alex Honnold’s attempt to be the first person to scale Yosemite’s 3,000 feet high El Capitan rock face without ropes really, really needs it.

Alex is a monomaniacal enigma; a man whose pathological obsession with flirting with death seems psychotic. Yet he is entirely sane, as a medical scan of his brain proves (although it also reveals the area of the brain that registers fear is remarkably under-stimulated). In attempting to get under Alex’s skin, the film dredges up a few introvert-who-lacked-affirmation-growing-up clichés, but in the end I couldn’t help but conclude he was destined for greatness in his chosen field. He continually speaks of how not being able to climb free solo would make him miserable, and is disturbingly blasé about the fact that this could eventually kill him (as it has many other free solo climbers). His (perceived) lack of emotion and ruthless honesty alienates people (at one point he is referred to as “Spock”), yet he also attracts Sanni McCandless, an unfailingly kind, supportive girlfriend who nonetheless is terrified he will fall to his death. Their touching relationship provides the heart of the film.

The documentary is also about the filmmakers themselves, specifically directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and their camera crew. We see them discussing at length how they are going to film, with roped crews both above and beneath, and with drone footage. More interestingly, we hear them discussing the ethics of what they are doing. What will happen if Alex falls? Can they live with themselves, knowing their presence might have disturbed his concentration?

When Alex finally makes his ascent, the effect is as nail-biting and spectacular as you would expect. I was somewhat reminded of similarly themed documentaries such as Man on Wire, but in the end Free Solo is a unique piece of filmmaking in its own right. Highly recommended.

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