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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Mud

mud-film-still1-LST111120

Matthew McConaughey continues his recent streak of interesting, meaty roles after a prolonged period of playing bland romantic leads. Here he gives a terrific central performance as the eponymous Mud, a fugitive hiding on an island in the Mississippi discovered by young teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).

Ellis and Neckbone decide to help Mud try and communicate with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who lives nearby. Cue all manner of atmospheric, contemporary Huckleberry Finn shenanigans. It isn’t just Mark Twain being evoked either. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (who made the excellent Take Shelter) also explores thematic ground previously explored in Great Expectations and Stand by Me, with perhaps just a dash of Whistle down the Wind. In other words, this is a coming of age story.

And it’s a very good one. Performances are all solid, especially from McConaughey, and Adam Stone’s cinematography positively oozes with the sweaty menace and beauty of the Deep South. Do see it in the cinema if you can.

But what really causes the film linger in the mind are its melancholy themes. For instance, the transition from childhood adventures to more adolescent concerns; including the painful awkwardness of discovering the opposite sex and the crushing discovery that nothing lasts forever.

Most emphatically, this is an empowering film dealing with the pain of divorce. Ellis’ parents are going to separate, so when he discovers Mud’s quest to get back together with Juniper, he helps because he desperately wants to believe in the power of true love. Ellis is a romantic, an idealist, who learns some bitter realities about the fallen world in the course of the story. But he also learns to at least begin to come to terms with his feelings and situation.

In summary, Mud is a very fine piece of work. It perhaps lapses into predictability in its final sections, but the film is nevertheless eerie, evocative and absorbing.

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Books

Character Motivation

uncle-flynn_cover

When furnishing characters with motivations, backstory and so forth, I often find that the more one tries to pin particular actions down to a specific incident in a character’s past, the less convincing it is. A classic example of this is the abused-becomes-abuser principle. To be fair, it is sometimes done well, but more often than not I’m unconvinced.

Sometimes the most compelling characters can be defined by their lack of backstory or baggage – particularly characters in stories about obsession or revenge. Examples from film include Get Carter, Vertigo, Zero Dark Thirty and A Fistful of Dollars (or just about any gunslinger western for that matter). Even a story like Schindler’s List does well to avoid pinning down a precise moment or reason Oscar Schindler decided to bankrupt himself to save Jews rather than continuing as a war profiteer.

I find characters more interesting if their actions aren’t necessarily easy to explain in a pat way. Human beings are complex, irrational creatures and their actions and motives are erratic. A person’s actions can often be explained simply by the mood they happen to be in. They don’t necessarily stem from a great dark secret in their past. And even if they do, it isn’t strictly necessary to reveal it.

A close study of the various drafts of the Chinatown screenplay reveals the famous incest revelation at the end of Act 2 was somewhat softened in an earlier draft by a lengthy backstory concerning complicated emotional reasons why the villain acted the way he did. This explanation was wisely excised and replaced with a simple exchange wherein the Jack Nicolson character asks Faye Dunaway whether she was raped by the man in question, to which she chillingly replies no. The denial is brilliant, because it maintains the cruelty of the villain whilst introducing all manner of ambiguity as to how the terrible state of affairs came about.

In a similar way, I have often found myself excising great chunks of backstory from my novels simply because they are too “on the nose”. In the first draft of Children of the Folded Valley (which I hope to release soon), my antagonist also had a lengthy history that gave specific reasons for his behaviour. But ultimately I felt he was a much more compelling character without that detail in the text of the novel – partly because the narrative was meant to be seen through the eyes of the protagonist who would have no knowledge of these events.

At the end of Uncle Flynn, Max’s Father changes quite a lot. Originally I wrote an entire chapter explaining how he experienced his own peculiar adventure at the same time as Max, which taught him (frankly in a rather heavy-handed way) that he was missing what was important in life. But I ditched the entire subplot after I concluded that the book was meant to focus on Max. Besides, simply finding his son alive after all the dangers he had gone through would be enough to make any father question his priorities and rekindle the important relationships he had neglected. The change in Max’s father is inherent in the story – a given that doesn’t need to be explained.

On the other hand, in my sequel to George goes to Mars (soon to be released), there is a character who is prejudiced against Martians for a very specific reason that is later revealed – a simple cause/effect piece of character development. For every rule I have, there is an exception…

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Byzantium

byzantium

About a year ago, during a visit to the cinema with my eight year old, a trailer for one of the interminable Twilight films came on. My eight year old asked: “What’s that Daddy?” My reply: “I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not a vampire film.”

Thankfully, Byzantium is a proper vampire film, and a much better one than I expected. I missed its initial run in the multiplexes and have just caught up with it at my local Arts Centre. I was very glad I did. As a director I find Neil Jordan a bit hit and miss, but in this, his second trip to the vampire well after Interview with the Vampire, he has crafted a gripping, thoughtful and satisfyingly gruesome bloodsucking pic.

Of course, I should warn more sensitive viewers upfront that this has blood and gore to spare, not to mention very strong language and some sexual content. But all of this plays well within the context of the film, which is less outright scary and more disturbing. The plot involves vampire Clara (Gemma Arterton) prostituting herself to provide for her vampire daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) in a seaside town. Both are on the run from a patriarchal vampire Brotherhood that disapproves of female vampires.

Eleanor is highly conflicted about their lifestyle, and only feeds on those who give their consent. These are mostly the elderly and infirm, who allow her to perform what is in effect a kind of vampire euthanasia. By contrast Clara generally feeds on pimps and lowlifes who torment vulnerable women, but has no compunction about killing individuals who discover too much about their secrets. Details of how mother and daughter arrived at their present predicament are revealed in well employed flashbacks.

Jordan’s direction is stylish and atmospheric. His use of locations – whether seaside arcades or housing estates – drives home the aching loneliness of the protagonists in a very powerful way. He even uses everyone’s favourite Gregorian Chant Coventry Carol to beautiful and melancholy effect throughout the story.

In addition, Moira Buffini does a great job adapting her own play. Lead performances are very strong, particularly from Ronan who just seems to get better with each film she stars in. The supporting cast also includes notable turns from the likes of Sam Riley, Jonny Lee Miller, Daniel Mays and an uncredited Tom Hollander.

Ultimately the vampire subculture is used as a metaphor to explore sexual inequality and class snobbery. When Clara initially becomes a vampire, the Brotherhood disapproves of her because she is 1) female and 2) not “well-bred”. Consequently they forbid her from having children, but by this point it is already too late. Not only has Clara already given birth to a now teenage daughter, but she defies the Brotherhood by causing her to become a vampire as well. All of this comes to a head in a brutal and dramatic finale, which has more to say about gender politics than the curse of immortality at the expense of one’s soul.

All things considered, Byzantium is a very fine piece of work for horror fans. Even if you think you really don’t need another vampire film, this is well worth checking out.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The World’s End

worlds end

The final film in Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto trilogy” has arrived, and it’s pretty good. Well, perhaps not as good as Shaun of the Dead, but I preferred it to Hot Fuzz. It is less laugh-out-loud funny than both (though it is funny), but it is also more poignant.

The plot involves five men all around aged around 40, returning to their home town to undertake a pub crawl that will culminate in the eponymous World’s End pub. Gary (Simon Pegg) recounts in the opening moments how this particular pub crawl was attempted the day they all left school, but they didn’t quite get to the final pub. Considering the crawl unfinished business, Gary persuades his initially reluctant old friends to join him, only to find along the way that the occupants of their home town have been body-snatched by robotic alien beings.

It’s all extremely daft (and incidentally full of swearing and what the BBFC calls “strong sexual references”), but beneath the comedy-alien-invasion-apocalypse-during-a-pub-crawl premise lurks a serious message about growing up. There is also arguably an anti-globalist subtext; possibly anti-EU but most definitely anti big corporations/chains taking over local businesses (especially pubs).

Performances are all good. Cornetto regulars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are joined by Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Cosidine and Rosamund Pike. Like Hott Fuzz, this also features a supporting role from an ex-James Bond, in this case Pierce Brosnan. Bill Nighy pops up too (sort of).

Special effects are limited but very well done, and anyone who was in their late teens in the early nineties (like me) will greatly appreciate the pop soundtrack. The likes of Blur, Suede, Pulp, Charlatans and Kylie Minogue all punctuate key scenes, and one track by hilariously overblown late 80s gothic band Sisters of Mercy also plays an amusing role in the plot.

All things considered, The World’s End is well worth a look if you enjoyed the previous films.

Simon Dillon, July 2013.

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Books

My favourite comics: Tintin

tintin

NOTE: I wrote the following article around September 2011 prior to the release of Steven Spieberg’s Tintin film (which turned out to be very good), but didn’t publish it anywhere. I’m adding it here, for anyone who is a fan of the comics, or for anyone who is unfamiliar with Tintin and would like to know more.

To celebrate the long awaited upcoming release of Steven Spielberg’s take on Tintin, here’s a rundown on his adventures and an explanation for the uninitiated as to why they are quite simply the greatest comic books ever.

Overview:

The Adventures of Tintin comprise twenty four comic book albums featuring intrepid young reporter Tintin, his faithful fox terrier dog Snowy, and later equally iconic characters such as Captain Haddock, the incompetent Thompson twin detectives, the highly intelligent but deaf Professor Calculus and opera singer Bianca Castafiore. The stories are a series of superbly crafted adventures, meticulously researched and beautifully drawn in a completely unique visual style that has captivated children of all ages across several nations.

The initial Tintin stories appeared in Le Petit Vingtieme, a children’s supplement for Belgian newspaper Le XXe Siecle. Creator Georges Remi (who wrote under the pseudonym Herge) initially devised them as a form of anti-communist propaganda. Indeed, the first adventure, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, is little more than that. It is also the only time the eponymous young reporter actually files any kind of actual newspaper report, despite the fact that journalism is his stated profession throughout all twenty three subsequent stories. Tintin was an instant hit, and as the popularity of the comics grew, both the overt anti-communist stance and the subsequent casually racist French colonial attitudes of the second album Tintin in the Congo were dropped in favour of straightforward adventure storytelling. Later Herge spoke of both of these initial stories as “the sins of his youth”.

With The Blue Lotus Herge created his first Tintin masterpiece; a riveting tale of espionage and drug smuggling set against the Japanese invasion of China. Subsequent Tintin adventures, including classics like The Black Island and King Ottokar’s Sceptre, were also critically acclaimed, although the advent of the Second World War and its aftermath brought more controversy for Herge. He was allowed to continue publishing by the Nazis, but was accused of collaboration after the war. Herge protested, insisting he was simply doing a job like a plumber or carpenter, and all charges were dropped. Nevertheless, it is particularly interesting to study the stories he wrote during the war. The Shooting Star in particular has a somewhat apocalyptic tone with its tale of a meteor hitting the Earth. In the subsequent race across the ocean to find the meteor and lay claim to the new elements it contains, the villains in the original version are stereotypically Jewish Americans. In later versions of this album, the nationality of the rival expedition was changed to that of a fictional country.

It was around this time that the greatest figure in the Tintin stories was introduced: Captain Haddock. By far the most interesting and fully-fleshed out character in the series, Haddock stands out in stark contrast to Tintin. Whereas Tintin seems an ageless, almost sexless everyman character with no family background that is ever explained, Haddock has a fascinating character arc that lasts throughout several stories. Herge takes him from drunken, washed-up freighter captain (in The Crab with the Golden Claws, where he is unaware that his own vessel is being used to smuggle drugs), to someone with a mysterious and fascinating ancestry (The Secret of the Unicorn), after which he ultimately comes into his inheritance as the master of the magnificent Marlinspike Hall. In spite of this, his penchant for whisky is never really cured, and is played – with politically incorrect glee – for laughs throughout most of the remaining stories, along with him being incredibly accident prone and bad tempered.

The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure are considered amongst the very best in the Tintin canon, along with the subsequent two album story The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. The latter epic is a truly riveting adventure that rivals any Indiana Jones film for sheer thrills; not to mention a few more scares than usual, especially in the first part. It came as no surprise to me to learn that if the Spielberg Tintin film (based on elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn) is a success, then Peter Jackson will direct a version of The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun duo. His horror movie background makes him an ideal choice for the voodoo plot. Here I might as well add that between them these two – The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun – constitute my favourite Tintin story of all time.

After this came further classics, including Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (written before the moon landings of 1969), and The Calculus Affair, another personal favourite of mine involving an arms race for sonic weapons. Herge later experienced a nervous breakdown, and in the aftermath produced Tintin in Tibet, perhaps the most emotional Tintin story. It features no villains, and the plot contains a number of direct visual references to what he experienced. For instance, much of the action is set in the snow covered Himalayas, and Herge described his nightmares at the time as “all white”.

The Castafiore Emerald was a fascinating narrative experiment, in that Herge desired to tell a suspenseful story in which nothing actually happens. For me, The Castafiore Emerald is easily one of the absolute best Tintins, though its sophisticated humour is more aimed at adults than children. This was followed by the intriguing Flight 714, which involved a hijacking and later UFOs. The final complete Tintin album, Tintin and the Picaros, was a disappointment. There was also a final unfinished Tintin story, Tintin and Alph-Art, published after Herge’s death in 1983.

Interestingly, Herge always saw his comics as movies, and was thrilled when Spielberg bought the rights in 1981. Thirty years later, the question as to whether Spielberg can do Herge’s iconic creation justice is about to be answered, but the comics remain. I commend them for discovery (or rediscovery, for those who haven’t had deprived childhoods).

Book by book:

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets – The first Tintin adventure sees him visiting communist Russia to report on the situation there. The plot is little more than a series of propaganda vignettes, and features little of the superbly judged mixture of thrills and slapstick comedy so prevalent in later Tintin albums. For completists only. Rating: 3/10.

Tintin in the Congo – The controversial one that remained un-translated for decades. Tintin’s adventures in the Congo are a largely crass affair, with racist stereotypes galore and a rambling plot that lurches all over the place. Again, for completists only. Rating: 2/10.

Tintin in America – Tintin goes to Chicago to take on Al Capone and other gangsters. Packed with thrills and spills, it’s a fast paced affair that doesn’t quite scale the heights of later adventures, but still worth a look. Rating: 6/10.

Cigars of the Pharoah – Tintin takes on a particularly nasty drug smuggling organisation, and globe trotting thrills ensue. Features the first appearance of recurring villain Rastapopoulus, although because the story was extensively redrawn by Herge, an apparent continuity error is introduced when Tintin refers to it not being the first time they have met. Rating: 8/10.

The Blue Lotus – Following on from Cigars of the Pharoah (an afterthought as Herge redrew the beginning pages), Tintin goes to Shanghai to investigate espionage and drug smuggling at the time of the Japanese invasion. The Blue Lotus also incorporates elements of the Mukden railway bombing incident, and other genuine historical events into its superb plot. Probably the best of the non Captain Haddock Tintin stories. It is also one of the few Tintin stories (along with The Broken Ear and Explorers on the Moon) where the main villain ends up dead as opposed to in police custody. Rating: 10/10.

The Broken Ear – A museum break in leads to a hunt for a stolen South American fetish in this cracking adventure. Recurring character General Alcazar is also introduced, and there are other characters (the explorer Ridgewell and Pablo), who later return in Tintin and the Picaros. A personal favourite, and in my view somewhat underrated by Tintin fans. Rating: 9/10.

The Black Island – Another classic that was also extensively redrawn, this adventure sees Tintin take on a gang of counterfeiters based on a sinister island near the west coast of Scotland. It is interesting to note that Herge did very little actual travel, but relied on research photographs of real places for many of the cells that appear in the comics. As such, The Black Island is full of “real places”. Rating: 10/10.

King Ottokar’s Sceptre – The first of a few Tintin stories to be set in the fictional Balkan countries of Syldavia and Borduria. Tintin attempts to rescue King Ottokar from a particularly unorthodox coup, in which the King is forced to abdicate if he doesn’t appear in public with his sceptre on a certain day of the year. When the sceptre is stolen, Tintin has a fiendishly difficult puzzle to solve. Absolutely cracking. Rating 10/10.

The Crab with the Golden Claws – The story that introduces Captain Haddock is not only a first rate thriller, but it sets up the relationship between Tintin and Haddock for the adventures that followed. It’s worth noting that Haddock is a particularly edgy character here, and unlike subsequent stories his drunkenness is not played for laughs. At several points in the story he attacks Tintin either as a result of drinking or – in one sequence in the Sahara – because he hallucinates that Tintin is a bottle of booze. Such moments were watered down in the otherwise largely faithful early 90s cartoon series, and will no doubt also be absent from the upcoming Spielberg film. Rating: 10/10.

The Shooting Star – A meteor hits the Earth, and two rival expeditions race across the seas to lay claim to the valuable new minerals it contains. Controversial because it was produced under Nazi occupation and contains villains that arguably resemble anti-Semitic caricatures, this is nevertheless an exciting albeit hugely implausible adventure which ultimately includes sci-fi elements like giant insects. Captain Haddock also makes a welcome return and this time really takes charge (despite his continued love of whisky). Rating: 9/10.

The Secret of the Unicorn – When Tintin happens upon mysterious clues to buried treasure hidden in a model ship, a link with Captain Haddock’s naval ancestry emerges. Regarded as one of the absolute best in the series and I agree. Rating: 10/10.

Red Rackham’s Treasure – The sequel to The Secret of the Unicorn works very well, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as its reputation suggests for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the villain Max Bird fails to make a return, despite the fact that he escapes from prison. Secondly, there’s a sense of much ado about nothing, in that the ocean voyage and diving expeditions are ultimately rather pointless. That said this is the story that introduces Cuthbert Calculus, and the way he goes from an irritating man who simply won’t take no for an answer to trusted friend is very nicely handled. Captain Haddock also comes into his own here, as he gains his inheritance – both his ancestral home Marlinspike Hall and the treasure obtained by his ancestor. Rating: 9/10.

The Seven Crystal Balls – A curse of the Inca type plot ensues after seven archaeologists fall into a seemingly irreversible coma only to awaken at the same point every day screaming in apparent agony. Known as the “slightly scary” one by Tintin fans, it is also a prelude to Prisoners of the Sun, when Professor Calculus is kidnapped by members of an ancient Inca cult. Rating: 10/10.

Prisoners of the Sun – Tintin and Captain Haddock journey to South America to try and find Calculus. When they discover he is to be sacrificed the Inca sun god, they undertake an epic quest to rescue him across mountains and jungles and through secret tunnels to the hidden temple of the sun. Predating Indiana Jones by several decades, this is thematically similar and an absolutely stunning adventure story. Rating: 10/10.

Land of Black Gold – A slightly all over the place adventure involving petroleum sabotage, this only features Captain Haddock briefly. His appearance feels very tacked on, no doubt because this was a comic that was started before the war, abandoned, then redrawn after the war once Haddock had become a regular character. The villain from The Black Island makes a return too, and Emir Ben Kalish Ezab and his spoiled brat child Abdullah also are introduced. Rating: 6/10.

Destination Moon – The two part moon race adventure is more of an espionage tale in the first part, although certain mysteries are not answered until the latter installment. Fascinating in that it was written before the moon landings, yet is as brilliantly researched as ever. Possibly too well researched, as there is a fair bit of scientific detail that bogs things down a bit. Rating: 9/10.

Explorers on the Moon – Part two of the moon race story sees Tintin and our heroes actually fly to the moon in a rocket, to mostly satisfying effect. Rating: 9/10.

The Calculus Affair – A personal favourite, this one sees Calculus kidnapped again. Rival faux Balkan countries Syldavia and Borduria want his research into soundwaves to build their own sonic weapons of mass destruction. Inspired by Nazi war experiments, this is a first rate thriller marred only by the somewhat irritating introduction of recurring character insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg. Rating: 9/10.

The Red Sea Sharks – The Emir and Abdullah return in this entertaining if somewhat flawed tale of arms dealing and modern slave traders. Much stronger in the second half, particularly when Tintin and our heroes are under siege from a submarine. There were some accusations of racism in the portrayal of Africans as very simple people, but Herge’s moral disgust at slavery is worth applauding nevertheless. Rating: 7/10.

Tintin in Tibet – Prompted by a dream, Tintin goes to search in Himalayan mountains for his friend Chang (from The Blue Lotus), who was previously believed to be dead in a plane crash. Supposedly inspired by Herge’s nervous breakdown, this is a more cerebral and emotional survival story without villains. Even the Yeti Tintin encounters Herge refuses to make an outright monster of. Rating: 9/10.

The Castafiore Emerald This wasn’t a favourite of mine as a child, but now I would place it in my top three Tintin albums. Packed with red herrings, satirical references and comedy of errors humour regarding a gossip magazine’s mistaken belief that Haddock and Castafiore are romantically involved, this also breaks with the globe trotting tradition by being set entirely in Marlinspike Hall. Furthermore, it again develops Captain Haddock as a character as we see him magnanimously allowing gypsies to camp on the grounds of Marlinspike, against the advice of more prejudiced characters. Of course, the gypsies come under inevitable suspicion once Bianca Castafiore’s prized emerald is apparently stolen. Rating: 10/10.

Flight 714 – Tintin and friends find themselves hijacked and flown to a desert island at the behest of arch villain Rastapopoulus, only for UFOs to complicate things. Atmospheric and thrilling, though perhaps not entirely satisfying in the finale. Rating: 8/10.

Tintin and the Picaros – Tintin and friends make a disappointing return to territory previously explored in The Broken Ear. The military coup conspiracy plot is overshadowed by too many silly jokes and pointless returning characters. Rating: 4/10.

Tintin and Alph-Art – A very odd story which ends with Tintin about to be killed in Perspex and be presented as a work of modern art because Herge died before he could finish it. Interesting, but for completists only. Rating: 4/10.

And…just to be extra nerdy, here they are in my personal order of preference:

  1. The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun (both 10/10)
  2. The Secret of the Unicorn (10/10)
  3. The Castafiore Emerald (10/10)
  4. The Crab with the Golden Claws (10/10)
  5. The Blue Lotus (10/10)
  6. King Ottokar’s Sceptre (10/10)
  7. The Black Island (10/10)
  8. The Calculus Affair (9/10)
  9. The Broken Ear (9/10)
  10. Red Rackham’s Treasure (9/10)
  11. Tintin in Tibet (9/10)
  12. The Shooting Star (9/10)
  13. Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon (both 9/10)
  14. Cigars of the Pharoah (8/10)
  15. Flight 714 (8/10)
  16. The Red Sea Sharks (7/10)
  17. Tintin in America (6/10)
  18. Land of Black Gold (6/10)
  19. Tintin and the Picaros (4/10)
  20. Tintin and Alph-Art (4/10)
  21. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (3/10)
  22. Tintin in the Congo (2/10)

Those of you who already know and love the Tintin books, no doubt you’ll be dusting them down to re-read them prior to the film. Those who haven’t read a Tintin book in their lives, I strongly recommend at least checking out the top three in the above list to give you an idea of what to expect. Enjoy!

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Monsters University

monsters university

Firstly and most importantly: Monsters University is not as good as Monsters Inc. But although it is less funny and more predictable than its illustrious predecessor, this story of how well-loved monsters as Mike and Sully actually met isn’t without charm. The strength of the characters alone ensures the film does just enough to keep audiences engaged.

Mike has always wanted to be a scarer, so when he enrols at Monsters University he thinks his dream is about to come true. Unfortunately for him, no-one else believes he is remotely scary, including his best-pal-to-be, James Sullivan. Undeterred, Mike teams up with some equally unscary monsters and enters the Scare Games to prove himself. Along the way other minor plot points from the previous film are elaborated on, such as the origin of the rivalry between Sully and villain-to-be Randall.

Director Dan Scalon ensures the animation is at the usual ridiculously high standard. Vocal performances from Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and newcomer Helen Mirren are all superb, and there are lots of fun background in-jokes (my personal favourite being Randall’s “Winds of Change” poster on his dorm bedroom wall). A few sequences recall the greatness of the previous film, such as a hilarious set piece in a library, but in spite of all this, Monsters University is ultimately nothing more than a curious afterthought.

Morally this is a straightforward tale of teamwork and discovering what you’re good at (as opposed to what you think you’re really good at). Nothing particularly profound or insightful, nor is it anywhere near as poignant as the films from what I am now calling the Golden Age of Pixar, namely the last decade.

That said Monsters University is diverting enough for a family trip to the cinema this summer. It is good, but nothing more.

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Books

Inspiration in Locations

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Since I moved to the South West of England, I have written six novels set in this part of the world. They are:

Uncle Flynn A treasure hunt adventure story which I have already published.

Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge – Another adventure story for the young adult market which I hope to unveil next year. It is set in 1987 and involves spies, haunted houses, mad scientists and a monster.

Honour (working title) – A teenage romantic drama concerning star-crossed lovers from different religious backgrounds. I’m going to remain tight-lipped on this one for now.

Children of the Folded Valley – A more grown-up tale concerning a man looking back on his childhood growing up amid a mysterious cult. I had planned to publish this one earlier in the year, but it could well turn up soon so watch this space.

The Wormcutter (working title) – Definitely one for grown-ups, this is the darkest, scariest, most disturbing thing I’ve ever written. It begins as a detective story but gradually evolves into full-blown horror. Details are top secret for now.

The Birds Began to Sing – The closest I’ll ever get to an Agatha Christie, murder-in-a-country-house type scenario, but it isn’t really that at all. Again, for now details are top secret.

The first of these to be written was Honour. As I mentioned in a previous post, this story came to me almost fully formed whilst stuck on a bus in a traffic jam. However, the setting, and some of the second act details, only came to me once I moved to the South West. The various locations in the story – including Plymouth and Dartmouth – provided the necessary inspiration.

And therein lies the point of this post: the right location provides inspiration. The above books would never have been written had I not taken time to explore my stunning surroundings here in the South West, especially Dartmoor. I count myself very lucky to live in this part of the world as it is very beautiful (assuming one gets the good weather we are presently enjoying).

Many of the details in the above books are based on local knowledge – not just of geography but history. To take an example from Uncle Flynn, there really was a William Petre who dissolved Buckfast Abbey on behalf of Henry VIII. Whether or not a monk outwitted him by burying treasure on Dartmoor is another matter, but I always like putting a few facts in as a foundation in such stories.

In summary: if you have an idea for a story, but can’t quite put flesh on the bones, explore where you live and check out local history. You might just find the ideal setting and the necessary inspiration to put pen to paper.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM

First, a recommendation: my eight year old absolutely loved this film. For children of a certain age and temperament, it is an absolutely thrilling night at the cinema. Giant robots versus giant monsters, what’s not to like? For grown-ups? Well… That’s where it gets a little complicated. It depends on the grown-up.

The premise is nifty: huge monsters from another dimension called Kaiju cross to Earth via a portal under the Pacific, only for Earth to fight back with gigantic robots called Jaegers. They are so complex they have to be controlled by two human pilots sharing a consciousness. This process, called the Drift, is a fascinating Phillip K Dick-esque idea, as pilot compatibility becomes a serious issue. For one thing, total trust is required, as each pilot will have full access to the other’s memories.

Certainly director Guillermo Del Toro is in touch with his inner eight year old, and his passion for Japanese Godzilla movies, Anime and the films of Ray Harryhausen is very evident. As a fan of all the above, I also greatly enjoyed this loving tribute to such films – a gleefully escapist piece of utter nonsense. Yet in the back of my head I hear critical voices which I long to suppress: wafer-thin characterisation, leaden dialogue, not enough humour and so on.

Actually that’s not quite true. There is some humour, and stock characters are a staple in this genre. Furthermore, said characters have a Del Toro-esque spin that’s just different enough to mark this out from, say, the stock characters of Michael Bay’s Transformers pics. There comparisons with Transformers must stop, because this is a vastly superior work to anything in the Bay canon. For one thing, the direction is coherent and cinematically interesting, resulting in some tremendously memorable imagery. The production design and visual effects contain all the usual Del Toro artistic flair that made his Hellboy pictures and Pan’s Labyrinth so distinctive.

Furthermore, there are scenes here that would never exist in a Michael Bay movie, such as a powerful and very well acted sequence involving a little girl’s memories of a traumatic Kaiju attack on her city. Acting in a film like this is never going to attract Oscars, but that little girl (Mana Ashida) looked genuinely terrified. Elsewhere performances from the likes of Idris Elba and relative unknowns Charlie Hunnam and Mako Mori play second fiddle to special effects, though comic support from Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and the legendary Ron Perlman fare a little better.

From a moral perspective this is a straightforward tale of heroism, teamwork and sacrifice, but it was a bit more sweary than is ideal for the target audience. Furthermore, the idea of the Drift has potentially fascinating spiritual implications (“One can put a thousand to flight, two can put ten thousand to flight” is the Bible verse that springs to mind), yet it is not explored in any really interesting ways.

Ultimately, those with eight year olds or inner eight year olds will have a blast. If you’re expecting anything remotely profound, forget it. This is a gloriously superficial, spectacularly designed, stunningly directed helping of hugely enjoyable mayhem.

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Books

The Hound of the Baskervilles not included: My ten favourite Sherlock Holmes stories

I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. Here then, for no particular reason at all, are my ten favourites from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary stories.

I am deliberately omitting The Hound of the Baskervilles from this list, brilliant though it undeniably is. The main reason is that it reads far more like a gothic horror novel, and feels almost like a spin-off set apart from the other crime fiction classics in the Conan Doyle back catalogue. It is also interesting that of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one that really doesn’t work when updated (see the recent misjudged Steven Moffat take on the BBC), whereas the rest can be.

Anyway, without further ado, and in descending order, here is the list (spoiler free):

10. The Naval Treaty – A top secret document of huge strategic importance is inexplicably lost by the Foreign Office, in spite of the fact there appears to be no way for the thief to have gained access to it.

9. The Devil’s Foot – A sinister and chilling installment set in rural Cornwall concerning a particularly terrifying series of murders. Holmes is supposed to be recovering from illness at the time, but gets drawn into the investigation.

8. The Problem of Thor Bridge – A woman insists she is innocent of murder, in spite of a Mount Everest of evidence to the contrary. The solution of this episode is particularly ingenious.

7. The Bruce Partington Plans – Holmes is engaged by the British government to recover stolen top secret submarine plans. Again, the solution is fiendishly cunning.

6. The Red Headed League – A masterpiece of misdirection and red herrings, as a man is offered a hugely lucrative job by a truly bizarre society under extremely mysterious terms.

5. The Musgrave Ritual – A good old-fashioned treasure hunt with a fascinating historical background.

4. Silver Blaze – A prized racehorse vanishes in a mystery that contains my favourite exchange in any Sherlock Holmes story:

“‘Is there any point to which you would draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”

3. A Scandal in Bohemia – Yes, it’s that Holmes story. The one with Irene Adler. I will say no more for fear of spoiling it for the uninitiated.

2. The Final Problem – Obviously any list of the greatest Holmes stories has to include this hugely memorable installment, wherein the great detective confronts his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

1. The Speckled Band – My absolute favourite; a truly baffling and inexplicable murder mystery where there appears to be no possible way for the perpetrator to have gained access to the victim. The solution is absolutely superb, and it has a great final line that cannot be revealed as it would spoil the surprise.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – A Field in England

a-field-in-england

Ben Wheatley is making a name for himself as one of the most singular new British directors. Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers all contribute to his bid for the auteur league. His latest, A Field in England is no less distinct.

This is a bleak and disturbing piece set during the English Civil War, wherein four men seem to desert the front lines to find an alehouse, only to wind up at the beck and call of an alchemist searching for treasure in the eponymous field. From there, things get really, really weird.

Shot in eerie monochrome, this will well and truly test audiences. Performances are all decent, but the refusal to explain any of the film’s peculiarities will infuriate many, and some will no doubt dub it pretentious. On the other hand, if you have a taste for the enigmatic – and can stomach the violence and swearing – there are plenty of interpretations that can be contrived. Wheatley has completely refused to say what the film is about in any interviews, so my guess is as good as anyone’s. It seems to pit Christianity against Neitzschean philosophy whilst taking a long, dark look into the human soul and the horrors of war via magic mushrooms. Some have argued the characters are all in some kind of purgatory, which explains why certain individuals inexplicably return from the dead. But I’m not sure I agree with that interpretation. Judging by his films, Wheatley seems to have strong views on the non-existence of God and any kind of afterlife.

All things considered, A Field in England is a very dark and divisive work that nonetheless contains remarkable and unforgettable images – most notably a dark sun and a genuinely nightmarish scene involving a man tied to rope. Obviously I disagree (I think) with what the film is attempting to say, but I still found it fascinating and gripping. Definitely not for everyone though.