Film Review – The Call of the Wild

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Jack London’s classic adventure novel The Call of the Wild has been adapted a number of times before, and as such, the story is pretty much bulletproof. The treatment is another matter, and this latest adaptation, courtesy of screenwriter Michael Green and director Chris Sanders, has been criticised in some quarters for over-reliance on CGI. Whilst the computer-generated animals didn’t exactly sink the film for me, I must confess to the politically incorrect opinion that real animals (and occasional animatronics) just look so much better, and I wish they had used them here.

Staying with visual effects for a moment, what’s been remarked on less – and indeed, something that irks me a great deal in general these days – are computer generated or computer enhanced landscapes. With this film, the landscapes may look fabulous, but I can always spot one that’s been digitally tinkered with, or one that is entirely unreal. Increasingly I long for the yesteryear of cinema, where it was harder and more expensive to photograph real locations (not to mention work with animals and their handlers), but the results looked so much better.

Well, no matter. CGI quibbles aside, the good news is that this latest take on The Call of the Wild works very well in other departments. The story of Buck – half St Bernard, half shepherd dog – retains its power to grip, enthral, amuse, move, and tear-jerk in equal measure (despite a few tweaks and changes which blunt some of the savagery of the novel). Buck is initially the pampered pet of rich Californian Judge Miller, but he is abducted during the great gold rush of the 1890s, and taken to the frozen Alaskan Yukon region, where he is sold to a mail-delivery dog sled team. Buck gradually acclimatises to his new job, and throughout the story passes from owner to owner – some reasonable, some cruel – before finally ending up the hands of kindly but bereaved John Thornton (Harrison Ford). Together they head out into the wilderness on an adventurous journey Thornton had originally intended to take with his dead son, to do a bit of casual gold prospecting. At the same time, Buck feels increasingly drawn to his wild surroundings, especially when he begins to interact with a wolf pack.

I’m sure most are familiar with the plot, and as I’ve already stated, it’s pretty much bulletproof. However, a big plus here is Harrison Ford’s performance. Another is regular Spielberg lenser Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography (which Iooks particularly great when not obviously tweaked by CGI). Yet another is John Powell’s stirring score. In fact, there is much to enjoy in this film, and it is – if you’ll forgive my use of an obscenity – “fun for all the family”.

UK Certificate: PG

US Certificate: PG

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Uncle Flynn Revisited – Influences and Inspirations

Over the next few months, I’m highlighting some of my earlier novels. This month, continuing my series on treasure hunt adventure Uncle Flynn, here are some key books and films that influenced or inspired parts of the novel.

Treasure-IslandTreasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) – The granddaddy of all treasure hunt adventures, the influence of this classic could hardly be overlooked. In particular, the character of Long John Silver and his relationship with Jim is a key inspiration. Silver is a compelling character, but he is dangerous, and you are never quite sure whose side he is on, or if he will suddenly turn on Jim. There are hints of this danger in the relationship between Max and Flynn in my novel.

nintchdbpict000106548352Five On A Treasure Island (Enid Blyton) – I’m a big fan of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Whilst Five Go To Smuggler’s Top is my absolute favourite, this initial entry is also a cracking tale of children finding the treasure of local legend. It also illustrates one of the key principles of a great treasure hunt narrative (whether aimed at adults or children), in that the discovery of the treasure is ultimately and ironically secondary to obtaining something of even greater value – in this case, lasting friendship between the children, and the restoration of relationship between George and her parents. In my book, the treasure is important, but the restored relationship between Max and his father is the much greater prize.

2356417Pigeon Post (Arthur Ransome) – Arthur Ransome’s superb Swallows and Amazons series are shamefully neglected by many these days. They normally concern boating adventures, but in this instalment, our heroes go prospecting for gold in the Lake District, whilst dodging the attention of a rival prospector. Other books in this series are more famous, but I always had a soft spot for this one. Peter Duck was another Ransome influence, incidentally.

IMG_0429The Goonies – A gang of children follow a map to buried treasure to save their neighbourhood from being torn down by smug property developers who want to build a golf course. Yes, it’s all rather noisy and obnoxious, but for children of a certain age (ie my age), this film can do no wrong. Packed with maps, cryptic clues, secret passages, booby traps, villainous rival treasure hunters, and so on, this is an obvious influence on my book that it would disingenuous to ignore.

IMG_7214Mary Poppins – The Disney film rather than the PL Travers’s novels are the inspiration here. Mr Banks routinely ignores his children (and to be fair, so does Mrs Banks). The magical Mary Poppins then appears, taking the children on extraordinary adventures whilst work drives Mr Banks to a nervous breakdown. However, upon realising what is important in life, Mr (and Mrs) Banks then are reunited with their children – at which point Poppins exits stage right. This theme is echoed in Uncle Flynn, with the establishment of the estranged relationship between Max and his father, which then gives way to adventures with Flynn, ahead of the big twist in the finale.

Uncle Flynn is available on Kindle and in paperback here. Another article about it will appear next week.

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Film Review – Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

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Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn isn’t a title I can be bothered to type in full whenever I mention it in this review. I went with low expectations, but am pleased to report that I enjoyed it a lot more than anticipated. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is for the most part a satisfyingly lurid, anarchic, colourful concoction of mindless violence, bad taste, and anti-heroic comic book mayhem.

A spin-off from the largely dismissed Suicide Squad (which I also didn’t think was as terrible as most made out), Birds of Prey focuses on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and her misadventures following a break-up with the Joker. She finds herself clashing with villainous Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor on splendidly villainous form), drawn into a complicated web involving a stolen diamond, and a disparate group of other female characters in their own revenge/emancipation arcs.

The build-up to the inevitable team-up/showdown is rather laboured by over-extended, slightly irritating sub-Tarantino non-linear jiggery-pokery, but once said finale arrives, it is a lot of gleefully violent, if predictable, fun. Director Cathy Yan stages some well choreographed crunchy fights and action scenes, and performances are strong – not just from Robbie and McGregor but also the rest of the cast. I particularly enjoyed Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s take on Black Canary.

Birds of Prey isn’t a particularly serious examination of female emancipation and empowerment, but there is just enough subtext amid the mayhem to provide a germ of thought. The most effective moment in this respect is a telling line when Harley is taunted that she can’t stand alone without someone like the Joker protecting her. She responds that such protection amounts to fear, and is therefore no protection at all. It’s not particularly profound, but it rings true.

In summary, engaging characters elevate this a little above average, making Birds of Prey well worth a watch for connoisseurs of comic book antiheroes, despite its flaws.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content warnings: Violence, swearing.

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Oscars 2020: A Belated Opinion

oscars-universityobserver-ieThis is now old news (well, a week old), but I deliberately held off commenting on this year’s Oscar winners, until I’d seen the final of the nominees in the Best Picture category, Parasite. Having now seen this remarkable film (check out my rave review here), I am now in a position where I can comment properly.

Here then are my thoughts on the main winners:

I had previously hoped Little Women might clinch Best Picture, instead of the widely predicted favourite 1917. However, having now seen Parasite, I must concede that much as I adored Little Women, Parasite fully deserves the top prize, and also Best Director, Best Foreign Film, and Best Original Screenplay. With the latter, I had previously hoped Marriage Story would win, but again, seeing Parasite has caused me to rethink that opinion.

With the acting winners, I was a lot less satisfied. Adam Driver in Marriage Story would have been my preferred choice over Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Phoenix was certainly good, but his performance was the kind of very showy, obvious Oscar bait (complete with “committed” physical transformation, losing weight, and so on). For me, Driver’s work was more subtle and effective, although he got to chew a bit of scenery too in some of his more emotionally charged scenes with co-star Scarlett Johansson (also rightly nominated). Phoenix ought to have won for his more subtle performance in The Master a few years ago.

In the Best Actress category, Renee Zellweger won for Judy, but I can’t offer an objective opinion as I’m yet to see the film. Of the other nominees, Scarlett Johansson was superb in Marriage Story, but I’d have opted for Saoirse Ronan in Little Women. Yes, I’m a bit biased here as I love the character she plays, but for me Ronan’s take on the role was definitive. Indeed, Greta Gerwig’s film is the best version as far as I’m concerned. (Gerwig ought to have been nominated in the Best Director category. I’d have happily lost Quentin Tarantino or Todd Phillips to make room for her.)

Supporting Actor and Actress categories were won by Brad Pitt for Once upon a Time in Hollywood, and Laura Dern for Marriage Story. I disagree with the former choice, and would have opted for Joe Pesci playing against type in The Irishman. However, Laura Dern definitely deserved to win.

Elsewhere, Best Adapted Screenplay ought to have gone to Little Women, much as I enjoyed Jojo Rabbit. For Best Animated Feature I’d have chosen How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World over Toy Story 4. 1917 ought to have snatched Production Design from under the nose of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to go alongside its thoroughly deserved win for Cinematography (Roger Deakins, so often criminally overlooked, now recipient of two wins in as many years, pretty much).

The much underrated Ford vs Ferrari (aka Le Mans 66 here in the UK) made welcome wins for Best Editing and Best Sound Editing, and 1917 rightly won for Best Sound. Music score I’d have given to Little Women (Alexandre Desplat) or 1917 (Thomas Newman) over Joker (Hildur Guðnadóttir), but the Joker score was still very effective. Visual effects I’d have probably given to Avengers: Endgame over 1917, but I don’t mind too much.

That’s it for another year. I’m still savouring the sensation of actually agreeing with a Best Picture choice for once, but I daresay I’ll be back to my usual bitter Oscar rants next year.

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Film Review – Parasite

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The best advice I can give anyone seeing Parasite is to urge that you know nothing going in beforehand. This is a film best experienced with no foreknowledge or expectations. And boy, is it a superb film; a Best Picture Oscar winner that for once deserves the accolade. Parasite is like nothing you’ve ever seen. The fact that it is the first non-English language Best Picture winner is certainly significant too, but this is such a damn good story, it will appeal to even the most subtitle-phobic of viewers.

I don’t really want to discuss the plot at all, suffice to say it explores themes of the rich/poor divide present in some of director Bong Joon-Ho’s other films (Snowpiercer for instance), but with much more potent effect. Parasite is part social satire, part dark comedy, part Hitchcockian thriller (there’s some tremendous, nerve-shredding suspense), and even puts a toe in horror territory. But it is so much more than all of those things, and there really is nothing else quite like it. Many other films look bland, predictable, and insubstantial by comparison.

Featuring sublime performances, superb direction, and a slow-burn narrative that tightens a vicelike grip over the viewer, I really cannot recommend Parasite enough. Do go and see it. It will rattle around in your subconscious, and you’ll want to see it again.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content Warnings: swearing, sex, strong bloody violence.

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The Tangent Tree Series Three – Episode 7: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (Time Travel)

In this week’s episode of The Tangent Tree podcast, Samantha Stephen and I talk time travel films. I can’t remember if we mentioned Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (ie the one with the whales that’s basically the best one, if you don’t pick The Wrath of Khan). We should have done. Sorry if we didn’t. I don’t think we did actually…

As usual, listen on Spotify, Podcast Addict, iTunes, etc, or just click here.

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Uncle Flynn Revisited – Locations and Local History

Uncle Flynn_CoverOver the next few months, I’m highlighting some of my earlier novels. This month, continuing my series on treasure hunt adventure Uncle Flynn, here are some details about the locations and local history that informed the text.

The novel was initially inspired by the many walks I had taken with my eldest son on Dartmoor. We had visited several memorable locations, including Cater’s Beam, Sherberton Stone Circle, the “Crock of Gold” Bronze Age tomb, and Wistman’s Wood. These all turn up in the novel, even if I am somewhat liberal with the geography.

It might surprise readers to discover that some of the dangers faced on Dartmoor by the characters in the novel are not entirely fictional. There are deadly mires, especially the notorious Fox Tor mire and Raybarrow Pool. In addition, there are wild boar in the west (now documented fact). There have also been several panther sightings in the area, though most of these were on Exmoor rather than Dartmoor. The sheer number of these (and a few dubious photographs) raise eyebrows on a regular basis, although how they got there is a mystery. Some suggest that the UK Dangerous Pets Act in the 1970s caused eccentrics who owned big cats to turn them loose, and that they somehow bred in the wild. And yes – you can see adders on the moors at warmer times of year, though they typically slither away if you get anywhere near them.

p05w2g4gBuckfast Abbey was another key location used in the book. Much of the history of the abbey works its way into the novel, especially regarding how Henry VIII burned priceless Catholic books, closed the abbey, and had its gold and other treasures transferred to London. William Petre, who is mentioned in the novel, oversaw this process. He later retired in the south-west, purchasing a couple of manors. Uncle Flynn moves beyond these facts to suggest William Petre had other motives for returning, namely that he had become obsessed with tracking down the treasure hidden by a few clever monks that had slipped through his fingers.

I always enjoy combining local history with fiction in my writing, and Uncle Flynn is a very good example of this. To find out more about the story in the novel, click here.

Uncle Flynn is available on Kindle and in paperback here. There will be more articles about this novel throughout the month.

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Film Review – The Lighthouse

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Robert Eggers’s unsettling psychological drama/horror The Lighthouse has had a lot of rave reviews. It’s only fair that I burst this bubble a little, as this is absolutely not a film for everyone. Those searching for fright-a-minute jump scares will be sorely disappointed, as will anyone who lacks the patience for what is, unquestionably, an uncompromising, offbeat, slow, surreal, but compelling watch.

Shot in claustrophobic monochrome in an almost square 1:19 Aspect Ratio by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the threadbare plot involves little more than lighthouse keepers (or “wickies”) Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Winslow (Robert Pattinson) taking charge of a lighthouse off the Canadian coast, sometime in the late 19th Century, and slowly going round the bend. Wake is the superior officer; a flatulent old sea dog type who insists Winslow has all the gruelling skivvy work whilst he tends the light. This proves a bone of contention, but amid their quarrelling and fighting, they also bond when drunk, telling stories about their past that may or may not be true. They also ruminate over seafaring superstitions – most importantly the lore that states killing a gull is bad luck, as they carry the spirits of those killed at sea. Their bleak, mundane, isolated routine gradually gives way to a madness that recalls The Shining, in that the previous wickie supposedly went crazy and disappeared.

With very strong central performances, dialogue that at times recalls Melville or even Shakespeare, and the kind of disturbing images that lodge deep in the consciousness, The Lighthouse certainly isn’t a film you’ll forget in a hurry. The descent into madness is vivid and visceral, and features some left turns into the bizarre that recall everything from David Lynch to Greek mythology and more. I must confess I preferred Eggers previous film The Witch (that one really rattled me). However, The Lighthouse oozes atmosphere to the point where you can all but smell the sea salt amid the fog horns, and howling, rain-swept winds battering the remote, weather-worn outpost. That you may long to escape this peculiar lighthouse purgatory as much as the characters is testament to how strong the film really is. No easy watch then, but another very strong piece of work from Eggers.

UK Certificate: 15

US Certificate: R

Content Warnings: Sex, nudity, violence, gore, strong language, disturbing images.

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Uncle Flynn Revisited – An Introduction

Uncle Flynn_CoverI’ve decided to revisit some of my earlier novels in a series of articles this year, with a monthly spotlight on some of these works. To begin with, for the month of February, I’m putting the spotlight on Uncle Flynn.

Uncle Flynn was in fact the eighth novel I wrote, but was the first I decided to self-publish. Having been turned down by agents and publishers, my brother-in-law suggested this thing called Kindle on Amazon, and I decided to give it a go. The book was a modest success, and received some very good reviews – although I’m sure the fact that it was free at that time helped.

A treasure hunt adventure story for children, the novel is, like all my children’s books, also aimed at adult readers. The story concerns eleven-year old Max, a boy who suffers from crippling phobias and anxiety. Estranged from his workaholic father, Max’s life gets interesting one day when his mysterious uncle Flynn – an archaeologist normally working in South America – comes to visit.

During his stay, Max and Flynn discover clues pertaining to a local legend – a treasure buried on Dartmoor by monks, during the sacking of Buckfast Abbey at the time of Henry VIII. Following these clues lead to the discovery of a map. Max begins to put aside his many fears and hang-ups due to his obsession with finding the treasure. Flynn is equally obsessed, despite the dangerous presence of rival treasure hunters.

Complicating matters even further, once they set off across Dartmoor, Max discovers the police are on their trail. What has his uncle done to put himself at odds with the law? Flynn urges Max to help him evade his pursuers. Because he is so desperate to beat their rivals to the treasure, Max agrees, despite his uncle’s refusal to tell him why he is on the run.

I hope that has whetted your appetite.

Uncle Flynn is available on Kindle and in paperback here. There will be more articles about this novel throughout the month.

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The Tangent Tree Series Three – Episode 6: Will Media Be The Death Of Us?

In this week’s episode of The Tangent Tree podcast, Samantha Stephen and I delve into the debate around violence in film, cause and effect, chicken and egg, and so on. Tangents ensue. And some comparison between Joker and Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

As ever, listen on Podcast Addict, iTunes, Spotify and so on. Or just click here.

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