Film Review – The New Girlfriend

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A difficult one this. On the one hand, the less you know about Francois Ozon’s The New Girlfriend the better. On the other hand, it is impossible to talk about the themes in any detail without getting into major spoilers. I shall attempt the impossible and write a review anyway, in the hopes that those with a penchant for this kind of thing will give it a watch and those that don’t won’t.

Adapted from a Ruth Rendell story, the drama centres around recently widowed David (Roman Duris), whose best friend Claire (Anais Demoustier) promised his late wife Laura (Isild Le Besco – seen in flashbacks) that she would watch out for David and their baby girl Lucie just before she died. So one day Claire turns up at David’s house unannounced, and finds…

No, I really can’t say anymore as it would spoil the film, even though said incident occurs a mere ten minutes in. Suffice to say, David and Claire subsequently develop a highly unusual, intriguing relationship, much to the chagrin of Claire’s suspicious husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz). Themes of identity, gender and sexuality crop up, and speaking of the latter this is a rather sexually explicit film. However, it is fair to say that the sex and nudity do actually advance the plot.

Beyond that I can’t really say a great deal more without spoiling the film. From a moral/spiritual perspective I personally I found the subject matter was tackled in a refreshingly non-judgemental manner, in spite of the issues I have with the ultimate outcome, about which I can’t say more here for fear of spoilers.

In short, The New Girlfriend is a well-acted, well-directed and challenging piece of work.

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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 (see link below).

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncle-Flynn-Simon-Dillon-ebook/dp/B004HO5LYU

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

Max Bradley is a timid eleven year old boy with many fears. But when he embarks on a hunt for buried treasure on Dartmoor with his mysterious and dangerous Uncle Flynn, Max’s life looks set to change forever.

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.

A gripping and thrilling adventure for all ages, Uncle Flynn is a classic treasure hunt narrative, but it is also about overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling. The novel dedicated to my eldest son, Daniel, and was largely inspired by our many expeditions on Dartmoor, as well as a bit of local history.

Here are a few reviews from various readers:

“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, Amazon.co.uk

“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.com

“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.

Print copies can be ordered here (but unlike the download are sadly not free): http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/uncle-flynn/paperback/product-21165126.html

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Film Review – Knock Knock

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Watching Knock Knock, I got the distinct feeling of being told “do as I say, not as I do”. Such hypocrisy is always irritating, and in this context director Eli Roth seems to think he can pile on loads of sleazy misogynist exploitation, then have the film lecture the viewer about misogyny, paedophilia, child abuse and infidelity with superficial pretentions of serious feminist subtext.

I generally avoid Roth’s movies, but on this occasion I heard he had attempted something more along the lines of a Fatal Attraction or The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Sadly this completely lacked the entertainment or suspense of either, and in fact has more in common with 1970s exploitation movies like I Spit on your Grave, which also had pretentions of feminism – at least according to many film academics I have read or listened to over the years.

This home invasion movie centres around architect/retired DJ Evan (Keanu Reeves, whose committed performance is the sole good thing about the movie). One rainy night when his wife and children are away, two flirtatious young girls named Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas respectively) knock on his door, claiming to be lost. He tries to help them, and initially resists their increasingly blatant seduction attempts. However he eventually succumbs to temptation, leading to a truly hellish ordeal as the girls turn out to be sociopathic, femme fatale honey traps out to punish infidelity, paedophilia and child abuse.

Of course Evan is none of the above – except unfaithful, which he wasn’t initially. This immediately makes their targeting of him preposterous. Although he succumbs, the film is clearly on his side throughout, in spite of what Roth and the filmmakers might pretentiously claim. Therefore there is no feminist subtext but merely a revelling in gratuitous sex and nudity, some of which wants to come off as disturbing but instead plays out as lurid and pointless (and no doubt offensive to many audiences). It seems redundant to further warn about tons of bad language and some violent scenes, but I mention them purely for the sake of detail.

I am no prude, and do not get put off by sex, nudity, violence, bad language or problematic themes in films. I have also said in the past that I would rather be offended than bored. The problem is, I actually found this film rather boring. It had absolutely nothing interesting to say, nor was it even a properly committed piece of reprehensible exploitation. I ended up hating the film, purely because it thought it could wag a finger at the audience in a student filmmaking kind of way, without realising it was celebrating the very thing it half-heartedly claimed to condemn.

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Favourite Films by Favourite Directors: James Cameron’s The Terminator

With the latest instalment in the Terminator franchise due in cinemas next week, I thought now was an opportune moment to continue my occasional series on favourite films by favourite directors, with James Cameron.

An action director par excellence, Cameron has helmed some truly great movies, including Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is also generally true that the bigger his budgets, the less interesting his movies get. He has held the claim on the most expensive movie ever made no less than five times – with The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic and the current most expensive, Avatar. But with the exception of Terminator 2, it is true to say that each of those films is less interesting than its predecessor. By the time you get to Avatar, you get to the first James Cameron film that simply fails to satisfy. However, for me his finest hour remains The Terminator. Here are just ten reasons why.

NOTE: spoilers from this point.

“Nice night for a walk.”

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The arrival of the naked Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger in a role he has never bettered) is dark, mysterious and brutally violent, as Bill Paxton’s punk discovers after refusing to surrender his clothes. A cyborg sent back through time to kill Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), mother of the future saviour of the human race, the Terminator is immediately established as one of the greatest screen antagonists of all time.

“Come with me if you want to live.”

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Sent back to defend Sarah from the Terminator is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). His suspenseful arrival in the tech noir nightclub set piece is hugely memorable; as he goes from apparent stalker to protector, culminating in the above iconic one-liner.

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Reese

The essential plot exposition is delivered via intense exchanges during a car chase. Cameron’s direction and scripting is superb. Not only are the action scenes brilliantly shot, but the exposition is so breathlessly delivered, the entire movie feels non-stop and relentless in an entirely appropriate way – just like the Terminator itself. The film has an economy, a tightness, a leanness that is sadly lacking in some of Cameron’s later, more expensive films.

The surgery scene

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Stan Winston’s stop motion visual effects and the appealing lo-fi Terminator make-up are gruesomely appealing throughout. In particular, the scene where the Terminator performs wince inducing surgery on his arm and eye is very well done. The sequence also has a wonderful little moment of humour where the Terminator adjusts his hair in the mirror afterwards. It appears this cyborg has also been programmed to be a little vain.

“I hate the weird press cases.”

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Police detectives Vukovitch (Lance Henriksen) and Traxler (Paul Winfield) find themselves investigating the Terminator murders, and at the same time Cameron pokes fun at police movie clichés (jokes about coffee and cigarettes, for instance). Although the detectives are essentially one-note characters, the script and performances enable them to be memorable (Vukovitch talks too much, Traxler is warm and humane). Their banter and dark humour provides an amusing counterpoint to the grimness of the situation that will inevitably eventually kill them.

“I’ll be back.”

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Speaking of which, the Terminator’s assault on the police station remains one of the most brutal and frightening sequences in the film, even though it kicks off with the oft-quoted comedic line that Arnold Schwarzenegger is most famous for.

“I came across time for you.”

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People often talk of The Terminator being a great action or sci-fi horror movie, but they never speak of it being a great love story. I actually really like the romance that develops between Sarah and Reese. It never feels contrived, and their relationship is compassionately and sensitively handled. Of course it ultimately proves to be essentially to the plot; the big twist being that unbeknownst to him Reese is in fact the father of John Connor, the future saviour of mankind.

“Get out.”

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The chase sequences in the finale are still some of the best action scenes in the James Cameron back catalogue. I particularly love the huge tanker explosion that burns the Terminator to its metal skeleton, thus providing a terrific false ending.

“On your feet soldier!”

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When Sarah yells the above to a wounded Kyle Reese, it is a vital moment in her character arc, where she stops being the hunted victim and becomes the Sarah Connor of legend. This plays out subsequently in the resourceful way she finally puts an end to the murderous pursuit.

“A person could go crazy thinking about this stuff.”

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The final scene of the film manfully admits the time travel paradoxes inherent in the material by having Sarah speak them aloud to get them straight in her head, then essentially give up trying, subtly signally the audience to do the same. The gambit pays off, not least because the scene is a very emotional one, with Sarah coming to terms not only with the coming nuclear apocalypse, but also the death of Reese. This is underscored by the beautiful moment when it transpires the photograph Reese saw of Sarah in the future – the photo he fell in love with, where he always wondered what she was thinking – that she was thinking of him when it was taken. I’ve always been a sucker for doomed romances, and that is another reason why for me the first Terminator film nudges ahead of the second in my affections.

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Film Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a stark, beguiling and utterly extraordinary Iranian film from director Ana Lily Amirpour. It is emphatically not for everyone. But if it is, boy are you in for a treat.

Blending western, horror, offbeat humour and surreal romance in such a fashion is risky to say the least. Yet Amirpour somehow manages to create something unique. Perhaps she has magic powers. After all, watching this film, I felt like I was being hypnotised, gradually succumbing to a dark and delicious cinematic spell. And make no mistake, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is pure cinema.

The plot – involving a lonely hijab clad female vampire stalking the streets of Iranian ghost town “Bad City” – is merely the deceptively simple hook on which hangs Lyle Vincent’s drenched-with-atmosphere monochrome cinematography, and Amirpour’s subtle and brilliant set pieces. Said set pieces are played out at a trancelike pace, with woozy, hypnotic long takes adding to their hugely understated power. Two scenes in particular, one involving a long shot of two people listening to a record, the other involving ear-piercing, are infused with some of the most poignant and heart-wrenching romantic longing I have seen in any film for a long time – even though Amirpour’s vision is a dark and twisted one.

In spite of its uniqueness, cineastes will spot several influences present in the film, from movies as diverse as Sergio Leone’s Once upon a time in the West, Michael Almereya’s Nadja, Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, as well as David Lynch films including Eraserhead, and the films of Jim Jarmusch in general (particularly Down by Law and Dead Man). Oddly, it also contains echoes of Iranian animated film Persepoplis, especially in sequences where “The Girl” (a splendid Sheila Vand) listens to transgressive, western pop music in her “lair”.

Not that this is a political film. It’s message appears to be more an understated feminist one, albeit one with a very dark love story at its centre. Perhaps this would be a good point to warn about violence, drug use and some sexual content (the latter a particularly brave inclusion for an Iranian film), but for a sort-of horror movie it isn’t really that scary. It is also worth reiterating that this isn’t a film for those whose appreciation for cinema doesn’t extend beyond the latest multiplex blockbusters. Even amongst the art house crowd, I suspect for everyone who loves it there will be as many who hate it.

I belong firmly in the former category. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a truly mesmerising experience. It is bold, absorbing, beautiful and dangerous, as all great art should be. If you watch just one Iranian monochrome, spaghetti western, skateboarding, vampire love story this year, make sure it’s this one.

Simon Dillon, June 2015.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

The release of Mr Holmes in the UK this week provides an incredibly tenuous reason for me to write a love letter to one of my favourite novels of all time: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Existing almost as a spin-off compared with other Sherlock Holmes stories, it takes an interesting sidestep from crime fiction into gothic horror. Another reason it feels like a spin-off is because Holmes disappears for a vast chunk of the narrative, leaving Watson with the bulk of the investigating.

The plot – about a supposedly cursed family line stalked by a bloodthirsty hellhound – is ripping, gripping stuff. The death that sets the story in motion is vividly and terrifyingly related, as is the subsequent background of Sir Henry Baskerville’s ancestor – a “profane and godless man” who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for assistance in abducting a woman.

The text positively drips with atmosphere and intrigue, and no matter how many times I read it, I get shivers. After I first read the novel, I managed to scare myself silly by camping on Dartmoor and imagining the hound stalking around our tent in the shrieking winds. A recent late night re-reading caused me to feel slightly unsettled even now, and I had only reached the end of chapter six, which is hardly the scariest part of the tale. Here’s an excerpt from the end of said chapter:

“I drew aside my curtains before I went to bed and looked out from my window. It opened upon the grassy space which lay in front of the hall door. Beyond, two copses of trees moaned and swung in a rising wind. A half moon broke through the rifts of racing clouds. In its cold light I saw beyond the trees a broken fringe of rocks, and the long, low curve of the melancholy moor. I closed the curtain, feeling that my last impression was in keeping with the rest.

And yet it was not quite the last. I found myself weary and yet wakeful, tossing restlessly from side to side, seeking for the sleep which would not come. Far away a chiming clock struck out the quarters of the hours, but otherwise a deathly silence lay upon the old house. And then suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. It was the sob of a woman, the muffled, strangling gasp of one who is torn by an uncontrollable sorrow. I sat up in bed and listened intently. The noise could not have been far away and was certainly in the house. For half an hour I waited with every nerve on the alert, but there came no other sound save the chiming clock and the rustle of the ivy on the wall.”

Anyone who has ever found it difficult to sleep in a strange house will relate to the above. As for the rest of the novel, practically every sentence oozes menace. It is a truly remarkable piece of writing.

I contend that there has not yet been a fully satisfactory film version of the novel. Some have been better than others, and one or two have come close, but all have fallen short in some way. Perhaps there simply is no way to full convey the gnawing sense of dread one gets from reading the text. For instance, the above passage where Watson is unable to sleep on his first night in Baskerville Hall somehow just doesn’t come across in the same unsettling way in any of the film versions.

The earliest version of The Hound of the Baskervilles on film is a German serial from 1914. The first British version is from 1921, and the first version with sound is from 1932. These are little remembered historical curiosities, as is the Nazi Germany 1937 version. However, the first version to really grab the audience was the 1939 take starring Basil Rathbone. It works well enough, and more or less sticks to the novel, omitting a number of elements. This version also features a censor-baiting and hilarious reference to Holmes’ drug habit in the final line.

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Subsequent versions worthy of a watch include the 1959 Hammer Horror version (featuring late, greats Peter Cushing as Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville), and a faithful TV movie version starring Jeremy Brett (whom many consider to be the definitive Holmes). Versions to avoid unfortunately include Benedict Cumberbatch take, because whilst other Holmes stories can be effectively updated to the present I don’t think The Hound of the Baskervilles can be due to the genre hopping into the gothic. I enjoy Cumberbatch’s Holmes immensely, but this one didn’t work for me.

However, nothing for me tops the prose in the original novel. It’s a truly masterful piece of work well worthy of a read, even if you’ve seen film or TV versions of the story and know the plot backwards.

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Film Review – Jurassic World

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In the opening moments of The Lost World, the first Jurassic Park sequel from 1997, Steven Spielberg included a wonderfully self-deprecating piece of cynicism by cutting from a screaming girl to a yawning Jeff Goldblum. Essentially the edit was an admission that yes, you are about to watch more of the same, and don’t expect groundbreaking, iconic cinema this time. A similar, albeit far less subtly amusing moment occurs near the beginning of Jurassic World when a character says that no-one is impressed with a dinosaur anymore.

Well, count me unimpressed. Jurassic World isn’t a bad film by any means, but there is nothing of great interest here, beyond a decently assembled monster movie. Colin Trevorrow picks up the directorial reins from Spielberg, and does a fair job at emulating the great man, but despite his noble attempts at jumpstarting a moribund franchise, Jurassic World fails to top The Lost World (in retrospect, a somewhat underrated film), let alone the peerless original. To his credit however, Trevorrow does surpass the waste of celluloid that was Jurassic Park III.

Trevorrow and his various screenwriters ask the question what would happen if Jurassic Park had actually opened to the public. Would they end up under pressure to genetically engineer new species to keep things fresh? It would appear the public has become bored with plain old dinosaurs, and wants something extra scary. Therefore the In-Gen company, under the leadership of Operations Manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), decide to engineer the Indomitus Rex – a hideously dangerous hybrid creature that represents new levels of weapons grade stupidity, even for the let’s-play-God-because-we-can crowd. Speaking of stupidity, there’s also a half-baked subplot involving an ill-conceived attempt at weaponising velociraptors.

Amid this mire of hubris and greed we also get the inevitable characters-talking-common-sense-that-are-ignored-until-it’s-too-late, including pseudo-velociraptor whisperer Owen (Chris Pratt – fun, but not as fun as he is in Guardians of the Galaxy). We also get the regulation pair of imperilled kids, and a lot of obvious dino-bait that would be wearing red shirts if this was Star Trek.

Trevorrow clearly loves the franchise, and does his best to try and recreate the sense of thrilling wonder inherent in the original. Many set-pieces essentially act as variations on those in the first Jurassic Park – for example children are attacked in a vehicle, and the finale has a real sense of deja-vu. Yet despite the fact that one can hardly leave the cinema feeling short changed on dinosaur action, Jurassic World feels like an oddly empty experience.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, at half a billion dollars worldwide and rising, the audience clearly enjoyed the film (and there is a set-up for further sequels). There are a couple of genuinely inspired moments worthy of Spielberg himself (one involving a reflection). It also goes without saying that the special effects are spectacular, and Michael Giacchino contributes a decent score when he isn’t quoting sections of John Williams’ original themes.

In short, Jurassic World is big, loud and expensive. But you’ve seen it before, better, in the magnificent 1993 original. In the golden summer of that year, I felt compelled to revisit Jurassic Park at the cinema no less than four times. I doubt Jurassic World will inspire the same level of affection in many viewers.

Simon Dillon, June 2015.

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The most important thing I need in order to write

What’s the single thing a writer must have in order to write? The answer will vary from writer to writer, but for me the answer is very simple: my wife, Zara.

Before I got married, I had written very little except a couple of screenplays and a few short films. I had major writing ambitions, but my quest to find a soulmate overrode all other concerns. Once that quest was fulfilled however, I suddenly found myself writing and I have barely stopped since.

It isn’t merely the presence of my wife that allows me to write. She has also been a hugely important critic of the early drafts of my work. In addition, since the death of my father (who acted as both editor and general “Eye of Sauron” in terms of scrutiny), that mantle has also passed to Zara in a somewhat spookily supernatural way.

Not only does Zara act in the above capacity, but she also puts up with my many mood swings during the writing phase – whether they be fits of “George McFly” syndrome, peculiar habits (such as getting up and writing in the middle of the night), obsessiveness, temporary insanities and so forth. She is also brilliant at calling me out on bullshit when I blow things out of proportion, and bringing the vital, much needed perspective.

Needless to say, many characters in my writing have been inspired by Zara or aspects of her. For instance, the fiercely loyal Meredith in the George Hughes novels is unquestionably a version of her. Suzie, a peripheral but important character in Children of the Folded Valley, is also very much Zara. She also crops up in other as yet unpublished works – including a major fantasy epic I have been working on for years – in various guises.

I know this all sounds a little nauseating (you may vomit if you wish), but it really is true that without Zara I wouldn’t be writing at all. I would still be on a quest, looking for her.

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Film Review – Spy

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Spy, the latest comedy from Bridesmaids helmer Paul Feig, is something of a mixed bag. Whether or not you like it will largely depend on your tolerance of Melissa McCarthy and Feig’s frequently infuriating mixture of lowest common denominator humour with genuinely funny writing.

Frankly I’m somewhat torn with this film. On the one hand, Spy works reasonably well as a spoof, but only to a point. The first half is certainly better than the second, wherein slick and smug Bond-esque spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is murdered on a mission involving a stolen nuclear weapon. Desk bound CIA analyst Susan Cooper (McCarthy), who had a painful crush on Fine, is sent undercover to recover said nuke. Hilarity ensues for about an hour or so, particularly in the form of her own back-up analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart), and ludicrously aggressive but inept rogue agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham).

The best scenes all involve Statham, who is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but the film is at least thirty minutes too long. Also the violence is gratuitously graphic, purely because it feels out of place. I am not a censorial person by any means, and absurdly graphic violence can be funny (think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but here it just comes off as tiresome.

At first, one feels the film has its heart in the right place, but there are definitely moments here that will offend some – the afore-mentioned graphic violence, very strong language and a running sexual harassment gag, to name just a few elements. As the film progresses, I found myself caring for the characters less and less, and just wanted the thing to be over with. Performances are all decent enough (Rose Byrne makes a laughably nasty villain), and the action scenes are certainly well done, but all things considered, Spy is just too inconsistent.

All that said, reviewing comedy is a notoriously difficult business, because humour is in the eye and ear of the beholder. I have no doubt Spy will prove a big hit with many. Just not me. Well, with the exception of the Jason Statham scenes.

Simon Dillon, June 2015.

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Love vs Honour – print copies now available!

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My new novel Love vs Honour can now be ordered in print from Amazon Create Space (see link below) for those who prefer hard copies to downloads.

AMAZON LINK (Print)

Love vs Honour is also available for download from Amazon Kindle:

AMAZON LINK (Download)

Love vs Honour is a young adult romantic drama, but it will also be appreciated by grown-up readers, or anyone who enjoys a gripping, provocative story.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

Two Religions. Two Deceptions. One Love.

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?

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