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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Victoria

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Victoria is, quite simply, one of the most exhilarating pieces of pure cinema I have seen in a long, long time. If you were impressed by the lengthy single shots that open The Player or Touch of Evil, director Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria will blow you away. Or perhaps I should say cinematographer Sturla Brandth’s Victoria, given that his name appears on the credits before Schipper, no doubt because the film is genuinely shot in one single continuous take. Yes, really. Not pseudo one-take ala Birdman or Hitchcock’s Rope (where the end of reels were covered by obvious tricks such as moving the camera into the back of someone’s jacket), but absolutely authentically in one-take, for two hours and eighteen minutes. Perhaps in some cases there are benefits to shooting digitally instead of on 35mm.

If Victoria was an elaborate single take and nothing else, for all it’s technical prowess it could be dismissed as a gimmicky cinematic stunt. Yet the film’s beating heart centres around two superb performances: Laia Costa as the eponymous Victoria, and Frederick Lau as small time, in-over-his-head crook Sonne. Spanish Victoria is introduced in the pulsing, strobe lights of a Berlin nightclub, where she encounters Sonne for the first time. Via awkward conversations in English, he introduces her to his gang, and persuades her to join them in a tour of the “real” Berlin in the small hours of the morning. Victoria senses a kindly soul beneath Sonne’s arrogance and bluster, and they are immediately attracted to one another. This culminates in a wonderfully touching moment involving a piano in a café, but afterwards Victoria is drawn into the planning, execution and aftermath of a heist.

It is the characters that make this film work so well. Sonne and his gang are not necessarily the brightest bunch. In fact, in many ways they are highly annoying, especially in the first hour or so. Yet they are completely believable. Victoria herself may at first seem foolish, but there are important keys to understanding why she falls in with these crooks – piano keys, to be precise. Her sheltered life, loneliness and desperation for something outside of the mundane makes her, in my mind at least, an absolutely winning protagonist who you end up desperately rooting for.

Schipper has been influenced by everything from Before Sunrise to A bout de souffle yet the film nevertheless feels utterly singular. To be completely fair, the one-take thing has been done before (in films like Russian Ark for instance). However, this is the first time it has been used in such a challenging, visceral way, travelling to multiple real Berlin locations in a manner that genuinely adds power (and breathless exhaustion) to the story. Victoria doesn’t exactly contain any new or profound insights, and follows a well-worn genre path, but the largely improvised screenplay gives it real distinction, with some moments that were strictly speaking errors merely adding to the authenticity (for example, a wrong turn during a getaway sequence was apparently totally unplanned). Although the film starts slow, it builds to faster sequences that feel more dangerous and nail-biting than any number of slicker Hollywood action productions. Above all Victoria rises beyond the level of a first-rate genre piece simply by being really, really, really cool. Perhaps I should add here the standard warnings about swearing, drug use, some violence, etc, but to my mind everything was contextually justified.

Ultimately, this is an emotional rollercoaster of a film. It moves from talky improvised drama/comedy to romance, heist movie and thriller with a gut-wrenching power that will leave you reeling. I certainly felt like I’d been through the wringer by the end, and boy is this a film that makes you feel. It could well be a film that scars, given how upset I felt at the end to be leaving the company of Victoria and Sonne. Perhaps Victoria might even one day be considered a classic, but for now it is a vital, vibrant, cinematic out-of-body experience. And please, please do see it in a cinema. One thing Victoria proves is that despite the naysayers gloomily predicting the demise of the big screen due to the rise in television binge-watch drama, cinema remains the true faith.

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Books

Grown-Up Scooby Doo

I once wrote a ghost story short film for a friend to direct, which he affectionately dubbed “Grown-up Scooby Doo”. This phrase recently returned to my consciousness when attempting to describe some of my supernatural thriller novels.

For example, The Birds Began to Sing definitely falls into this category, because whilst it is emphatically for grown-ups, many of the Scooby Doo conventions are contained therein.

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For a start, The Birds Began to Sing features a central (possibly) ghostly mystery, and a plucky protagonist determined to get to the bottom of it. Solving said mystery involves a great deal of suspenseful creeping around shadowy corridors. This activity in any spooky setting, whether gothic mansion (as in The Birds Began to Sing) or even a modern London office building (as in my as yet unreleased novel The Irresistible Summons) is an essential component of Grown-up Scooby Doo (as opposed to “Adult Scooby Doo” which has altogether different connotations).

Other conventions of Grown-up Scooby Doo include the obligatory unmasking of the villain. Although the villains of The Birds Began to Sing and The Irresistible Summons are not literally unmasked, their position as villains are essentially unconfirmed until late in the narrative, much like any whodunit, but more importantly, much like Scooby Doo.

My soon to be released novel The Thistlewood Curse might be a detective story/supernatural thriller/horror hybrid, but again it unquestionably falls within the purview of Grown-up Scooby Doo, a term which I feel really now ought to be an official subgenre. Describing a novel as “Grown-up Scooby Doo” informs the reader that whilst the novels may contain more disturbing or serious elements, the mechanics at least will be puzzling, gripping and fun.

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Books

Download Love vs Honour FREE

For five days only, you can download Love vs Honour for FREE from Amazon Kindle!

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I wrote Love vs Honour almost ten years ago and sat on it for some time, as it lay outside my usual genre fiction writing. Certainly young adult romantic drama isn’t something I specialise in, yet the story felt so strong in my mind, I had no choice but to ultimately release the novel.

It begins as a boy meets girl story, with a potentially controversial religious twist. It then evolves into a drama of deception, with many twists, turns and ironies, before a much darker finale which has taken some readers by surprise. I must emphasise that this novel is as much for grown-ups as teenagers, as the subject matter is not just romantic but embraces a number of complex and hopefully thought-provoking themes and ideas. I cannot say too much more for fear of spoilers.

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?

Here are a few review snippets:

“This book is one of the few that made me cry. I love it.” – Splufic, Goodreads.

“The premise of a Christian and a Muslim pretending to convert to each other’s religion to be with each other for the sake of pure, unadulterated love creates a strangely addictive narrative.” – Graeme Stevenson, Amazon.

“The ending of the book really made the whole thing. I kept wondering where this was headed, if it was an apologist piece or would go to a more realistic place. I won’t spoil the ending except to say, read this book. It is surely worth your time!” – DM Miller, author The Religion of the Heart and The Agony of the Heart.

If you want to purchase a print copy of Love vs Honour, you can order from here.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Eye in the Sky

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Eye in the Sky is a gripping, thought-provoking and powerful thriller from director Gavin Hood. As a film examining the ethics of drone warfare, it would make a good double bill with last year’s Good Kill or even Hood’s previous film Ender’s Game, which shares a lot of the concerns presented herein despite being in an entirely different genre.

The action covers a single British led mission, with US and Somali co-operation, against a terrorist group. Initially an attempt at capture, the mission then becomes a shoot-to-kill scenario, attempting to destroy the terrorists in their home before they can carry out a suicide bombing. But questions of legality and collateral damage frustrate the military personnel in the form of Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), and General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), with the order to proceed being constantly “referred up”. In the meantime the situation on the ground becomes more complicated as both civilians and ground agents are increasingly in danger.

Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert get full marks for suspense, delivering both a nail-biting thriller and an even handed meditation on the no-easy-answers moral dilemmas presented by the use of drone strikes. On the one hand the film accurately points out the kill one to save dozens argument, yet at the same does not duck the appalling consequences of pulling the trigger, both on the civilians and on the young pilots in those in the horrible little drone booths.

One of the film’s greatest strengths, for me, is the way Hood quietly sets up the young girl who may or may not end up blown to bits by this operation; showing us her daily routine of selling bread, covertly playing and educating herself (her kindly father furtively stops her doing both when her fundamentalist neighbours show up). In addition, the film at times veers into satire in almost Dr Strangelove style, as the constant “referring up” exposes both political cowardice and questions of whether or not they should allow the attack to go ahead in order to be ahead in the propaganda war.

Performances are all very good, with Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Jeremy North, Monica Dolan, Richard McCabe, Barkhad Abdi and Hood himself included in the supporting cast. Mirren is also particularly good in what essentially amounts to the lead role. However, special mention must go to the late, great Alan Rickman. His performance here is as brilliant as one had always come to expect from him, and as a film to bring down a curtain on a great career, Eye in the Sky serves him well.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Jungle Book

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Pointless remakes are frequently the bane of the seasoned cinemagoer; especially when such remakes are either 1) terrible or 2) add little or nothing to the original. In the case of The Jungle Book, there are a few previous adaptations of interest, most notably the 1942 Zoltan Korda live action take, an intriguing product of it’s time, and more obviously the 1967 animated Disney version. Technically Jon Favreau’s new version is also an animated Disney version, given that most of the film is digitally created. At any rate, I am pleased to report it is a pleasingly satisfying concoction for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Favreau treats not only Rudyard Kipling’s original as source material, but also the 1967 version. This is a highly shrewd move, given the place that film has in the affections of many. Taking this approach allows Favreau to not only put his own spin on the tale, but also enables him to cleverly work in some of the elements that made the 1967 film so memorable, including key songs. However, this version of The Jungle Book is not a musical, but more an out-and-out adventure story.

The familiar tale of abandoned man-cub Mowgli, raised by wolves, who becomes increasingly endangered by vengeful tiger Shere Khan, hardly needs reiterating here. However, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks make clever choices in terms of where they return to Kipling’s text and where they borrow from the 1967 version. For example, the wolf pack plays a much greater part here, including the recitation of the Law of the Jungle, and their dealings with Shere Khan. Elephant buffoonery is also eschewed in favour of something more awe-inspiring, and the finale of the 1967 version (with Mowgli following the girl into the village, a concept Walt himself came up with) is eliminated entirely.

Yet in other places, the film wisely follows the 1967 film, especially in terms of Mowgli relationships with Bagheera and Baloo, and the use of songs such as Bare Necessities. Speaking of songs, when King Louie is introduced, his appearance brings to mind Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, before he sings an altogether more alarming version of I wanna be like you, then finally chasing Mowgli through the ruined city in a sequence that both pays homage to the 1967 version, and also stands on it’s own two feet as a much more frightening take.

Not that this is too frightening. Although Favreau restores some of the darker edges of Kipling, he still keeps things the right side of family friendly. His direction, incidentally, is spot-on. The opening Disney logo seamlessly moves into a jungle setting akin to the 1967 version (complete with the music from the ’67 opening titles) in a single shot, immediately signalling to the audience that the story is in safe hands. The first sight of Shere Khan is also brilliantly realised, appearing with the glare of the sun behind him, and other key characters are introduced just as memorably.

Newcomer Neel Sethi makes a good impression as Mowgli, and the supporting vocal cast is great too. Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela) and Christopher Walken (King Louie) all provide brilliant versions of their respective characters. It hardly needs saying that the visual effects are superb; live-action realistic, yet also with that slightly heightened fantasy edge that allows for suspension of disbelief. John Debney also contributes a fine score that blends well with what has been borrowed from 1967.

In short, The Jungle Book is a rare case where the remake was genuinely justified. Not only does it compliment the beloved 1967 take, it also stands alone as a terrific film for all ages.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Anomalisa

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To begin with, I thought I might really take to Anomalisa, the Oscar nominated stop-motion animation feature from writer/directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman. The opening, as author Michael Stone lands in Cincinnati for an overnight stay in order to give a speech at a conference on his book about customer service, brilliantly depicts and satirises the miseries of work related travel. A grim catalogue of chatty fellow passengers, obnoxious cab drivers, hotel manufactured courtesy, key cards that don’t work and so on are laid out in a way I found all too relatable. Like Michael, I often put on headphones to drown out the outside world in such situations.

However, Michael isn’t just miserable due to being an introvert on a work trip. He is also a selfish narcissist having a mid-life crisis of sorts (as Kaufman’s characters invariably do). His indifference to his wife and son, combined with deep loneliness prompts an awkward and immediately aborted reunion with an old flame based in Cincinnati. This in turn leads to a peculiar moment where he meets a young girl called Lisa, who read his book and has travelled to hear him speak. The two form an immediate connection, but is this love at last? Or is Michael simply manipulating the naïve Lisa, feeding his ego?

This seemingly mundane premise is made intriguing by the animation itself – stop motion whereby the joins that piece the faces together are deliberately showing. This allows an immediately compelling visual underscore to the idea in the film that the world is barely together, that people fall apart easily, that (in Michael’s eyes) everyone, except Lisa, is essentially the same. This latter point is important, as whilst David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice Michael and Lisa respectively (very well, incidentally), every other character – male or female – is played by Tom Noonan, and they all have the same facial features (as seen through Michael’s eyes).

However, despite these strengths, one cannot ultimately escape the feeling that the film thinks it is a lot smarter than it actually is. For all its surrealism and cleverness (especially in one dream sequence that directly recalls Kaufman’s Being John Malkovitch), Anomalisa has very little to add to what has already been seen countless times in films about middle aged men having a breakdown, or films whereby the protagonist has an existential crisis and ponders the apparent meaningless of life, only to (possibly) find hope in the form of a much younger love interest. It is also worth adding warnings here about strong sexual content, nudity and bad language, for those who appreciate them.

Quite honestly I am surprised at the level of acclaim that has accompanied the film. Despite fine animation and a vein of dark, surreal humour, Anomalisa feels like much ado about nothing, ending rather abruptly with a whimper rather than a bang. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it will have appeal beyond Kaufman completists, but for me it strives too hard to stare ruthlessly into the abyss of the human condition, at the expense of a satisfying story.

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Books

Post book blues

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When putting the finishing touches to a novel, I experience a brief moment of euphoria, followed by an alarming feeling of emptiness. This occurred again recently, as I finished the second draft of my most recent novel, The Deviant Prophet.

I call this feeling post book blues, and I expect the feeling applies to all artists, not just writers. Having put your heart and soul into a project, having undergone a lengthy mental journey with imaginary characters, one suddenly has to say goodbye to these characters. The problem is, by then I have often fallen in love with them, and don’t want to say goodbye.

There is, however, a cure: go onto the next project as soon as possible. I normally have my next three novels lined up in any case, but I appreciate some writers do not operate that way. I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone in such a predicament. Mercifully, I don’t typically have that problem. Otherwise, I think might sink into despair. Writing can be so addictive. Writing is like heroin.

Ultimately, if experiencing post book blues, I have to ask the question, why do I write? In my case, it is to silence the voices in my head by putting them on paper. Furthermore, it is because I have a pathological need to entertain. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing your story has brought pleasure to the reader (or even displeasure, because if so you have nevertheless got under the skin of the reader).

In such cases, a book can be like a gift that keeps on giving. That is the author’s greatest reward.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Midnight Special

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I desperately wanted Midnight Special to be, well, special. Alas, Midnight shows-promise-but-must-try-harder might be a better title. There are some genuinely intriguing ingredients in director Jeff Nichols’ science fiction drama, but quite honestly it fails to bake into a satisfying whole, mainly because certain elements of the screenplay remain undercooked.

Alton Meyer, as the poster tagline goes, is not like us. He has powers strange enough for an entire Texas cult to adopt him and build their teachings around him. At the outset, Alton has been abducted by his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon), former State Trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). The cult wants him back, as do the FBI, who are also interested in his peculiar gifts, particularly their consultant Sevier (Adam Driver).

This genuinely intriguing first act gives way to a ponderous mid-section that short changes the viewer on key plot elements, for example regarding the cult. Performances are all good and the direction is strong, yet Nichols fails to captivate here the way he did in his earlier films Mud and Take Shelter. This is a shame, as the film really has its heart in the right place – especially in it’s depiction of sacrificial parental love.

Nichols’ obvious inspiration is Spielberg, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. John Carpenter’s Starman is also a key inspiration, but despite this being a grown-up film, I also detected shades of Escape to Witch Mountain, DARYL, Flight of the Navigator and other more family friendly sci-fi outings. There’s also a slightly Terence Malick feel to proceedings, as well as a pinch of Brad Bird’s noble failure from last year, Tomorrowland. Unfortunately all of the above films – from the classics to the misfires – are better than Midnight Special.

Really this is one for sci-fi completists only. Most viewers are likely to feel as dissatisfied as I did.

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Books

What have I been up to lately?

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Some of you might be wondering when I am releasing my next book, or what I am currently working on. My apologies for the lack of news on that front lately. The problem with writing is it sometimes occupies the mind at the expense of remembering to communicate properly on the blog.

At any rate, besides writing obvious April Fool posts about giant spiders, I have been working on a new novel, tentatively entitled The Deviant Prophet. I have almost finished a second draft. It is a grown-up fantasy tale, tonally akin to something like Pan’s Labyrinth. Other influences I would cite include Coraline, Alice in Wonderland and Spirited Away. It has been a very interesting novel to write, as it functions as a kind of companion piece to Children of the Folded Valley on a thematic level, if not a genre level.

I am about to start work on my second novel for 2016, something that has been gestating in my consciousness for since late 2012. All I will say at this stage is that it is a contemporary thriller for grown-ups, and involves mysterious suitcases, a treasure hunt, a love story, Oxford and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The next novel I plan to release is still The Thistlewood Curse. Blending elements of detective story, supernatural thriller and horror, this Lundy Island set nail-biter occupies a similar space to my previous novel The Birds Began to Sing, though it is decidedly heavier on the horror aspects. I hope to have release dates and a proper announcement very soon, so watch this space.

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Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Eddie the Eagle

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Apparently it isn’t the winning that’s important, but the taking part. That and other sporting clichés fall thick and fast in Eddie the Eagle, director Dexter Fletcher’s well-meaning but utterly predictable tribute to the eponymous Olympian circa the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

For optimum enjoyment, I recommend taking a feel-good sports movie cliché bingo sheet into the cinema. Childhood ambition? Check. Massive underdog? Check. Initially less than supportive paternal figure? Check. Washed-up former athlete coach? Check. Resistance from the establishment? Check. Sneering from professional athletes? Check. Perseverance against the odds? Check. Last minute crises? Check. Triumph of the human spirit finale? Hey, you don’t want me to spoil the entire plot, do you?

In fairness, the film is well acted and directed, particularly by Taron Edgerton and Hugh Jackman as Eddie and his coach Bronson Peary respectively. There is decent support from the likes of Keith Allen, Tim McInnerny and Jo Hartley, and an all-too-brief appearance by Christopher Walken adds a little depth to Peary’s background, albeit nothing particularly unexpected.

I suppose the film is enjoyable, and it is sometimes fun to see our protagonist overcome resistance from English snobbery, German bureaucracy and Norwegian mockery. But Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay’s screenplay never really allows the characters to rise beyond the two-dimensional. Yes, I know it’s based on a true story, but if the film is accurate then life is very clichéd.

In short, there is nothing here that you haven’t seen countless times before, regardless of the fact that certain tabloids have ludicrously proclaimed this the “feel good film of the year”. However, if upbeat sporting movies that praise the virtues of “taking part” are your thing, by all means give Eddie the Eagle a go.