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Film Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Like his earlier film Kick Ass, director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of graphic novel Kingsman: The Secret Service is a delightfully disreputable blast of stylised ultra-violence with a smattering of knowing crassness that is most emphatically not for the easily offended. Whilst it lacks the satirical bite of Kick Ass, Kingsman is definitely cut from the same iconoclastic cloth.

The story, scripted by the always excellent Jane Goldman, concerns Gary Unwin aka Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a disenchanted youth from a rough London high rise who gets arrested for a spot of joyriding. His case comes to the attention of gentleman spy Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), who decides to take the young whippersnapper under his wing for personal reasons, enrolling him in a deadly training programme for “Kingsman” agents. Meanwhile, billionaire Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), a squeamish megalomaniac with a speech impediment, is kidnapping various celebrities, including Scandinavian princesses and a scientist who looks suspiciously like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for nefarious, world-endangering reasons. Together Eggsy and Galahad join forces to quash Valentine’s, as Galahad puts it, “far-fetched theatrical plot”.

Essentially this is a pre-Daniel Craig James Bond film with the violence and swearing dialled up to 15 (arguably 18) certificate levels. Yet in spite of these affectionately spoofish elements (according to Galahad, present day spy movies are just too serious), this is a very funny and exciting thriller in its own right with some breath-taking set pieces and a real sense of jeopardy. There are one or two genuinely unexpected twists, and one sequence in particular involving a Westboro Baptist type church is so eye-poppingly violent, so audacious, and so downright shocking, it alone makes the movie worth seeing – again, it must be stressed, if you are not easily offended.

Yet beneath all the knowingly lurid elements, Kingsman is concerned with what it really means to be a gentleman, ie how it has nothing to do with class or privilege and everything to do with how one should conduct oneself with politeness, courage, loyalty and honour. This rather quaint but nevertheless laudable underlying morality sometimes seems at odds with the relentless profanity, cartoon violence and one particularly crude gag near the end. Nevertheless, Vaughn dedicates the film to his mother, who apparently taught him to  be a gentleman.

The cast are all good, with Firth displaying both wit (expected) and physicality in action scenes (unexpected). Samuel L Jackson is terrific, and there are a few good bit parts for the likes of Michael Caine, Mark Strong and Jack Davenport. Sofia Boutella also deserves a special mention as Gazelle – a deadly henchman with razor sharp bionic legs. However the film ultimately belongs to Egerton, whom I suspect could go on to great things after his breakthrough role here.

All things considered, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a blast of ridiculously violent fun for those who won’t be offended by it.

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Books

George goes to Neptune delayed

Regular readers of this blog will know I had planned to release the final novel in the George Hughes series, George goes to Neptune, in the early part of this year.

However due to various circumstances, some of which are beyond my control, George goes to Neptune will now be released later in the year, in or around the month of October.

I am very sorry if you were waiting for this book. I can confirm the novel is finished and ready to go. so rest assured that it will be released this year. You’ll just have to wait a little longer to find out exactly what that epilogue at the end of George goes to Titan was all about.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Ex Machina

Ex-Machina

In one sense, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is nothing new. Themes of artificial intelligence have been thoroughly explored both seriously and not so seriously throughout the history of science fiction. Yet for at least the first half of Ex Machina, Garland manages to breathe fresh life into the genre in a diverting and incisive manner.

Having won a company lottery, computer programmer Caleb (Domhnal Gleeson) flies to a remote location to meet his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has been busy constructing a prototype AI in female form called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan instructs that Caleb perform a “Turing” test on Ava, whereby in a series of interviews he will determine whether she is a true AI or not. Caleb is drawn to Ava, but is he simply a pawn in a bigger experiment?

Ex Machina explores the usual themes of the genre. Can a machine feel like a human? Can it learn and evolve? If so what separates human from machine and – the hoary old question at the heart of science fiction – what does it mean to be human? Garland marries these themes to contemporary concerns such as privacy, search engine hacking and internet pornography. It’s all very interesting, until…

Well, let’s just say the second half is a lot less cerebral, and instead resembles a 70s revenge exploitation flick. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, but it’s worth adding as a warning since the film contains swearing, violence and a more than strictly necessary amount of nudity.

Performances are all solid, particularly from Vikander who was so good in A Royal Affair and who is finally getting the wider acclaim she deserves. Soon to be Star Wars alumni Gleeson and Isaac also acquit themselves well, ensuring what is essentially a straightforward genre three hander is raised a good notch or so above that level – at least, before it descends into pulp, which as I mentioned earlier, is likely to bother some audiences more than others.

Concerns that the film was overreaching somewhat, striving to be Westworld or even Blade Runner, had long since evaporated as the end credits rolled. In other words, Ex Machina proved a lot less thought provoking than I initially expected.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – American Sniper

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Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering American Sniper, based on the memoir of the deadliest military sniper in US history, Chris Kyle, is something of a mixed bag, despite being nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. The war scenes in Iraq are gripping, but the Stateside stuff is frankly rather dull. It also features the worst “fake baby” scene in recent memory.

Bradley Cooper does his best to get under the skin of his subject, but in doing so loses much of the edginess and charm that he brings to his other performances. As his wife, Sienna Miller’s role seems boring and clichéd, through no fault of her own. The afore-mentioned “fake baby” scene really does ruin what is supposed to be an emotional moment, because one cannot take one’s eyes off what is obviously a prosthetic.

Mercifully, these Stateside scenes are kept to a minimum. American Sniper really comes to life in a number of tense set pieces in the combat zone. In these sequences the film recalls The Hurt Locker, and there is something in Kyle’s obsessive nature that invites comparison with the Jeremy Renner character in that film. Three scenes in the Iraq sections really stand out – one involving a sandstorm, another a child picking up a rocket launcher, and one involving a drill wielding terrorist. The latter is particularly upsetting and shocking, and now perhaps is the appropriate time to add warnings for strong language and violence.

Clearly American Sniper aspires to be non-political and personal, like The Hurt Locker. However, it is a film that ultimately errs on the side of patriotism, in spite of attempts at showing the appalling damage caused by prolonged exposure to armed conflict. Regardless of what one might think about patriotism, The Hurt Locker remains the superior film for many reasons. One of which is the finale, which skims over an important time in Kyle’s life and leaves a key event offscreen – a mistake in my view.

Ultimately I can’t help but feel a little frustrated with American Sniper. It is a good film, in spite of its uneven tone, but with a true story this fascinating, it ought to have been a great one.

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Books

Are you a “process” writer or a “product” writer?

My wife, who is a knitting enthusiast, recently made me aware of an article that asked whether people were a process or product knitter. The point being, do people knit to achieve the end product, or for the joy of the process itself.

That got me wondering whether or not the same was true for writers. Do I write because I love the process or because I am keen to have a finished product?

I imagine the answer will be different for every writer, and in many cases it will be a mixture of both. For me, I write because I feel an addiction to the process. Yet at the same time, I am always keen for the process to be finished, particularly the first draft. Although I do enjoy the process, I prefer to write quite quickly, otherwise nagging self-doubt and what I call George McFly syndrome (“what if they think I’m no good? I just can’t take that kind of rejection”) sets in.

After I have written something I am particularly pleased with, I miss the characters and worlds I have created, and am loathe to say goodbye to them. Obviously I do want people to enjoy the finished product, and I am very happy when they do (for instance, the success of Children of the Folded Valley was most gratifying), but once I have finished a story it isn’t long before I begin the next.

The process, as I said earlier, is just too addictive, too compulsive, too much fun for me to stay away from for any length of time. I suppose overall that makes me a process writer, although that isn’t to say I’m not proud of an ever growing product pile.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Whiplash

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JK Simmons is an obvious shoe-in for best supporting actor at the Oscars for his turn as extreme music mentor Terence Fletcher. He dominates every scene he is in to the point that his really feels like a lead performance, not a supporting one.

Despite this, the main protagonist in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s extraordinary film Whiplash is promising young drummer Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a recently enrolled student at a prestigious New York music conservatory. Nieman is desperate to become one of the greats, so when he successfully joins Fletcher’s jazz band, he submits to every humiliation and abuse – including the physical – aimed in his direction. As time goes by Nieman’s drumming inevitably improves, but can Fletcher’s methods be justified, or is he merely a bully taking out his own frustrations on students?

How much the end justifies the means is the key theme here, along with that age-old debate about whether great art can only be achieved through the path of denial, pain and suffering. Nieman clearly believes in this path, as he is quite happy to chuck his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), remain friendless and alienate his family, including his father (Paul Reiser) – not to mention practise drumming until his hands bleed.

Some of the drumming sequences on display here have more in common with a boxing movie. Drums are duly pounded in graphic, perspiring, slow-motion close-ups with blood and sweat falling on the instruments. There is, unquestionably, a madness to what Nieman allows himself to go through. Yet at the same time, the film is ambivalent enough to let the audience make up its own mind. Terence Fletcher may be a monster to some, but there is an argument that he might be a necessary monster for great individuals to truly rise to what they are capable of. On the other hand, Fletcher is also shown to be abusive, manipulative and vindictive, having arguably lost perspective entirely. Whilst some great artists do emerge from the crucible of such extreme tough love, how many that needed just a bit of encouragement might have been crushed by it?

All told, Whiplash is a brilliantly acted, stripped down, utterly compelling film that will grip you to the final frame. In other words, it’s a must-see, albeit one with the usual warnings for strong swearing.

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Books

Research: How far is too far?

Some writers have, in the course of their careers, reached a terrifying and occasionally impassible point when they realise they have nothing left to say. I’m not merely talking about writer’s block. I’m talking about the inability to write or even get fired up about any future project.

Truman Capote is a particularly stark example of someone who reached the end of himself in this respect. The book that provoked this (to my mind) horrifying state of affairs was In Cold Blood, published in 1966. Why after penning such a seminal text was Capote unable to write another full length book? There were short stories that followed, the odd television screenplay, and attempts at longer works (with one early novel published posthumously), but it is definitely true to say that he was never the same man after In Cold Blood. The question is why?

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In Cold Blood details the appalling true story of the how the Kansas Clutter family were murdered and the killers subsequently tried and executed. The events are known to the reader from the outset, so what keeps the reader interested is the rather grisly and ghoulish knowledge that at some stage the killers – mainly Perry Smith – will spill the gory details of their senseless massacre.

It was this interaction with the killers – particularly with Perry Smith – that Capote considered essential research for the book he was writing. A great book ensued, obviously. But what was the cost to him personally? Capote became increasingly obsessed with Perry. Furthermore, Capote emotionally exploited Perry to get him to talk. As a homosexual it is possible Capote felt an attraction, and used that to draw out the details he desired. Yet in spite of his feelings for Perry, Capote also knew the only thing that could bring closure to the story was the eventual execution of the killers – an event he felt compelled to witness, again for research purposes. His ambivalence over his feelings for Perry on the one hand and his obsession with completing his masterpiece on the other permanently scarred Capote, and he never wrote another book.

(Incidentally, much of this story is covered in the film Capote, for which the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar).

The lesson to be drawn from this is simple: research can be taken too far. In the same way that Lawrence Olivier took serious issue with Dustin Hoffman’s method acting during the filming of Marathon Man (when he famously quipped “Why not try acting dear boy?”), I have a similar issue with “method” research. For example, is it really necessary to become a prostitute in order to write about one? I believe it is possible to take research too far, and experience for experience’s sake will not necessarily provide any greater depth of knowledge and insight for the reader in the end product.

Besides, as can be observed from the experiences of Truman Capote, the price of such dedication can be very high. In his later life, Capote fell into a spiral of depression, turning to drink and substance abuse. He increasingly despaired of life, right up until his death in 1984.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Foxcatcher

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Foxcatcher is a perfect film for January in that it is depressing, but a fact of life. That’s a little harsh maybe. After all, it contains a trio of brilliant central performances, a superbly subtle screenplay, and understated but assured direction from the director of Moneyball and Capote, Bennett Miller. However, as with Capote, Foxcatcher is quite far along the sliding scale towards only-a-critic-would-love-it.

I make the flippant fact-of-life comment purely as a clumsily inadequate way of explaining that the film is based on a horribly sad true story. In 1988, ludicrously wealthy wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carrell) decides he wants to fund and help train the American wrestling team for the Seoul Olympics. He invites Olympic gold medalists Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) to a specially built facility on the grounds of his estate, along with their fellow team members. But the unusual relationships that develop between John, Mark and David ultimately lead to tragedy.

This is a profoundly upsetting story that nonetheless touches on some important spiritual themes. On one level the film is about stunted male emotion, but most frighteningly it demonstrates how wealth and privilege can lead to a life of self-delusion, paranoia and madness. In one key scene, John explains to Mark how he ultimately discovered his only childhood friend had in fact been paid to be his friend by his mother. Later scenes show John’s handlers discreetly making pay-offs to manage John’s deluded expectations – for example, paying off a wrestling opponent in a friendly contest so that John wins, or a documentary filmmaker who subsequently asks David to state that John is a mentor to him on camera when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

All of this works extremely well due to the sheer brilliance of the acting from the leads. There are some good supporting bits and pieces too, from Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother, and Sienna Miller as David’s wife. In fact, on an artistic level there is nothing to criticise in Foxcatcher. As a slow burning psychological drama it is a genuinely compelling piece of work.

However, all of that doesn’t stop it from being really, really depressing.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Theory of Everything

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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are the two main reasons to watch The Theory of Everything, a biopic about the life of renowned scientist Steven Hawking. Both give compassionate performances, and their relationship at the heart of this admirable but otherwise largely conventional film certainly makes it worth a watch.

But let’s face it: The Theory of Everything is Oscar bait. True story? Check. Inspirational, physically challenging lead performance? Check. Debilitating disease? Check. Triumph of the human spirit? Check. I find it very difficult to keep cynicism at bay with this kind of film. Steven Hawking is certainly a good subject, but screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh play things fairly safe. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but with the singular and brilliant Birdman still rattling around my subconscious, I wanted The Theory of Everything to be a little more cinematically daring.

On the plus side, at a spiritual level, the film is interesting in the way it grapples with Hawking’s disbelief in God versus his wife Jane’s belief. Hawking is portrayed as being someone who, whilst he doesn’t believe, is perhaps open to being proved wrong because, as he puts it, his personal beliefs are irrelevant in physics. This is clearly demonstrated in the way he tries to disprove his own theories. What Steven Hawking actually believes in real life, who knows? A brief Google search tells me contradictory things. But whether God was or wasn’t involved in the creation of the Universe remains a major  part of his ongoing research. As a Christian, I for one admire Hawking, because he is simply asking questions as any good scientist should.

All things considered, The Theory of Everything isn’t a bad film. It is well acted, moving and does contain some thought provoking subject matter. But it is, unquestionably, machine-tooled to seek Oscar glory.

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Books

Children of the Folded Valley FREE from Amazon Kindle – for five days only!

Get Children of the Folded Valley absolutely FREE on Kindle from Amazon – for five days only!

Starting today, my most successful novel to date can be downloaded for precisely zero pence. But hurry! You only have until the 11th January.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood growing up in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

Here is a sample of the many raves reviews (mainly from the Amazon page):

“I don’t usually leave reviews but I felt so strongly about encouraging people to read this fantastic book. It had me captured from start to finish. At one stage in the book I actually thought it was a true story.” – Paul, Amazon.

“The use of re-written religious doctrine to control, govern and frighten is particularly chilling… Full marks to Simon Dillon for this creative and highly readable novel.” – Around Robin, Amazon.

“Creepy and unnerving. Kept me gripped the whole way through.” – Lucyboo, Amazon.

“I couldn’t put it down.” – Bukky, Amazon.

“Really well written, well thought through, compassionate… Full of empathy.” – Over, Amazon.

“So well written, you could believe it was a memoir.” – Shelley, Amazon.

“A perturbing and very original story… The ending is magnificent.” – Joan, Goodreads.

Of course, if digital books aren’t your thing, print copies can be ordered here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21812308.html

Enjoy!