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Film Review – Battle of the Sexes


The famous “Battle of the Sexes” 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King and former champion Bobby Riggs is dramatised to very agreeable effect in this satisfying drama, co-directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Featuring outstanding lead performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, I think the film stands a good chance of Oscar nominations all round.

Standing up for equal pay, Billie Jean formed a separate women’s tennis tour after being blackballed by the Lawn Tennis Association, and at the same time came to question her sexuality as she slowly fell for hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Sensing an opportunity to bounce back and relive past glories, Bobby Riggs played the part of the male chauvinist, challenging Billie Jean to the titular tennis match. At first she said no, but after world number one Margaret Court lost to Riggs in a similar contest, Billie Jean felt she had no choice but to strike what she hoped would be a blow for equality.

As Billie Jean, Emma Stone is excellent, embodying her character with the expected confidence, focus and vulnerability. But Steve Carrell is equally excellent as Riggs. The film takes great pains to show that his male chauvinist act was essentially theatre, and that gambling problems, feelings of emasculation and his complicated relationship with his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) were much more at the core of his character. Billie Jean’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is also portrayed very sympathetically, as indeed are most of the characters – save Bill Pullman’s Lawn Tennis Association President Jack Kramer, a genuine chauvinist as opposed to Riggs’s theatrical hustler, and Jessica McNamee’s Margaret Court, who comes off as a prudish bigot.

The film is well directed, with a first-rate screenplay from Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the 1970s with a real sense of colourful time and place. Certain facts are sugar-coated or overlooked entirely, such as the later toxic fall-out between Billie Jean and Marilyn, which included a suicide attempt and acrimonious lawsuit. However, I can understand why the filmmakers wouldn’t want inconvenient facts to get in the way of a good movie.

Also regarding my earlier point about Margaret Court, she is now a Christian (and indeed has her own church and congregation in Australia). As a fellow believer, a part of me wants to kick off about the way she is portrayed in the film, but unfortunately she often comes across unreasonably regarding the issue of homosexuality in real life, so the depiction is probably fair. Don’t get me wrong, obviously I defend freedom of belief, and I understand she feels she is standing up for what the Bible says, but I submit that it is possible to hold uncompromising beliefs without coming across in the way she often does (for example, she has suggested that Christmas, Easter and so on are under threat from gay marriage, which is preposterous). Despite Court’s views, Billie Jean King has always defended Court’s right to disagree with her, and even stood up for her when public opinion suggested a tennis court in Australia named after her should be renamed, in view of Court’s stance on gay marriage.

None of the above changes the fact that Battle of the Sexes is an entertaining, well-made film, and well worth a watch.


Interfaith Romance: An interview with DM Miller

In the next in my occasional interview series, I caught up with author DM Miller, whose interfaith romance Heart series, chiefly concerning the relationship between Muslim Abdul and Jewish Catherine, caught my interest some time ago.

The Religion of the Heart, Agony of the Heart and Secrets of the Heart are now joined by the latest entry, Holiday of the Heart, and this seemed an opportune moment in the run-up to Christmas to delve deeper into the series.

What initially inspired the Heart series?

Believe it or not, it began as a dream. I’d always been a writer, starting out with poetry, then journalism, and I even wrote a manuscript at the ripe old age of 20. But later, the writing took a backseat to real life until I had this dream, which was the catalyst to get me writing again. At the time (2011), the Arab Spring was on the news every night, and it got me thinking about Egypt. Then the story took on a life of its own.

How much of you is in Catherine?

A little, but probably not as much as people think. I actually have more fun writing Abdul’s character.

Why are you drawn to the clash of the monotheistic faiths as a major theme?

The three main Abrahamic faiths claim to worship the same God, and yet He’s characterized so differently in each religion. I love to compare and contrast because we have a great deal in common, but the differences are fairly profound if you really think about it. Otherwise, there would be no need to separate the religions. So why do Jews, Muslims and Christians see Him so differently? There’s a lot of history and culture influencing our belief systems, politics as well.

I like to explore these things because I find it fascinating to analyse our differences honestly and without the hindrance of political correctness, while also highlighting our shared views.

And why these monotheistic faiths in particular? Well, they say to write what you know, and this is what I know. If you ask me to write about Hinduism, I’d have to start researching from square one!

Are any of the other characters based on people you’ve met?

Actually yes. None of them are based on one single person but a combination of various people I know or have known in the past. For example, Abdul is a health nut and obsessed with exercise, he is controlling and has issues with his father. All of these traits and problems are exaggerated versions of my own friends and family, and in this case, they’re put together in one character.

What inspired the most recent entry, Holiday of the Heart?

Even though I love books that make you think, I also enjoy Christmas love stories. Last year I read several, but most were fluffy and forgettable. They’re fun to read, but then I brain dump them. So it came to me last December, what if I were to write an interfaith holiday book, one with real substance and grit, one that people would not be as likely to forget? The Shadids and DiMarcos were perfect for this!

Did you base any of your novels on experience, or on stories you have heard?

Just like the characters, the stories are a mixture of imagination and various real life events mashed together. But I will say this: a great deal of research has gone into every single one.

Are you going to explore the complications of raising children in interfaith marriages in later novels?

There may be a little more of that in future Heart series books. As for other novels, I’m not sure yet. My next release will be a novella in January 2018. It is romantic suspense, and my signature interfaith theme is subtly woven into the plot but takes a backseat to the action this time. It’s like no book I’ve ever written, and at the same time, you will still recognize my style.

Do you think interfaith marriage can work in real life?

It’s tricky. If both partners are extremely religious, they’re better off marrying someone who shares their beliefs. If one or both are secular, it’s a lot easier, but either way, raising the children is challenging. This is something I wrote about in my nonfiction book, Half-Jew: Searching for Identity. I was raised interfaith myself and therefore know a thing or two about it.

How long will this series continue?

It could potentially go on and on. In my head, I have the characters’ lives planned out for years to come, and then there are their children and their lives as they grow up. However, I’m thinking of taking a little break from the series for now so I can write some other things and hopefully attract new readers. Once I grow my readership and subsequently, the readership for the Heart series, I will be able to continue writing it.

How much does your initial draft change before you get to your final draft?

The Religion of the Heart was the first book, and that one changed dramatically over the course of four years. The rest of the books don’t change a whole lot, but I keep tweaking them and often get lost in the details. You know when you rewrite something so many times, you eventually come full circle and end up where you started!

What is the best thing about being a writer?

Catharsis. It’s my vice. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs, but I write. We all need a release, and this is the healthiest release I can think of.

What is the worst thing about being a writer?

Marketing. I hate it so much, I’ve been thinking about maybe, possibly, if I don’t change my mind… looking for an agent. So far I haven’t done so because I enjoy having full control over my work.

To what extent do you agree with the statement “write what you know”?

There is some truth to that, but you can put your heart into anything you feel passionate about and do enough research to make up for what you didn’t know before. If you are inspired to write about something for whatever reason, and you don’t know a thing about it, you can learn. It depends on what it is. With that said, when you know a topic inside and out, the words flow freely, and I’m sure that comes across far better to the reader.

Which writers inspire you?

Too many to list! However, recently I’ve come to the conclusion that my absolute favourite writer is Jan Ruth. It’s a little odd because she’s a British author who focuses on Northern Wales and horses, neither of which having anything to do with the constant themes of my books. But even though I’m not Welsh, have never been to Wales and am not a rider, I find similarities in our realistic family themes. And as passionate as Ruth is about Wales, I am about Israel and my Jewish roots.

Orit Arfa is an Israeli author who writes about some of the same issues as me, I love your work, Joel Hames, Maria Gibbs, A.M. Khalifa, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Gilbert, Mary Campisi… I could go on and on. My original inspiration was poetry: Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Edgar Allan Poe… But I also read the commercial darlings like Debbie Macomber, Jackie Collins, Nora Roberts, etc, to see what they’re all about. I don’t always love their work but still find inspiration in their writing.

You thought I’d give you one or two names, right? It’s hard to narrow it down!

How important is social media if you are a writer?

Extremely. I have a love/hate relationship with it, but it has definitely helped me to market my work. Lately I’ve dedicated a little more time to Twitter (which I’d practically ignored in the past), my blog and Youtube, in addition to Facebook, and I think it all helps to get your work out there to the public and find that elusive readership we all seek. I wish I could spend the day holed up and focused on my writing, but unfortunately, marketing is a must. Social media is a free but time-consuming marketing avenue available to those of us who don’t have a stash of money to spend on getting our names out there.

What are your future writing plans?

Like I said, I have a novella coming out in January, then a new poetry book in April, and I’m thinking of writing another interfaith romance that’s not part of the Heart series in the upcoming year. However, that one might go to the agents first, which means its publication date is up in the air for now. We’ll see what the future holds.

Check out DM Miller’s novels here.

Film Reviews Films

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, based on a memoir by Peter Turner, is about the brief but passionate relationship between Peter and Oscar-winning but fading Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, who had memorable supporting roles in films like It’s a Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat. Peter and Gloria met in 1979, two years before Gloria died, when Peter was a much younger struggling stage actor in Liverpool. After striking up an unlikely friendship they fell in love.

Exceptional performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in the lead roles more than make up for the occasional feeling that their story is somewhat rushed and disjointed. Bening is particularly wonderful, and I predict an Oscar nomination. There are also fine supporting performances from the likes of Julie Walters, Stephen Graham and (in one memorable scene) Vanessa Redgrave.

Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay flashes between in 1979 and 1981, and Paul McGuigan’s direction effectively switches between the two time periods by having Peter literally open doors into the past. McGuigan’s directorial flair is also demonstrated in a later pivotal scene, which is shown twice – once from Peter’s frustrated point of view, and again, more movingly, from Gloria’s, as she attempts to hide her illness from him and deliberately drive him away.

The sense of time and place is very well done. For example, early in their relationship, Peter and Gloria attend a screening of Alien and are seen amongst the shocked audience during the notorious chest-bursting scene (“Well that was f***ing terrifying” is Peter’s verdict, in the pub afterwards). Liverpudlian terraced housing contrasts with more glamourous LA and New York settings, and somehow the combination of grit and glamour makes the love story more credible. The chemistry between the leads is excellent, particularly in Gloria’s occasional moments of insecurity about the big age gap, and the tender, heartbreaking way Peter looks after Gloria as she becomes ill.

I should add the usual warning about bad language and sexual content for those who appreciate them, but all things considered, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a very fine weepie, brilliantly underpinned by two outstanding leads.

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Film Review – Justice League


A very troubled production history has beleaguered DC’s Justice League film. It had already been plagued by reshoots when personal tragedy meant director Zack Snyder had to be replaced by Joss Whedon. Another round of rewriting and reshoots ensued and, quite frankly, the resultant film is a mess.

The big problem isn’t so much the casting. After all, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the finest superhero casting choice this side of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and her solo film from earlier this year was a blast. But here she is hamstrung by a deeply uninvolving narrative. Ben Affleck’s older, more jaded Batman is also less impressive, and most of the time simply reacts to special effects.

Elsewhere Ezra Miller crops up as Barry Allen/The Flash. His turn is amusing, but I prefer Grant Gustin from the current TV series. There’s also Ray Fisher as Victor Stone/Cyborg, a character with a sorely underwritten backstory. Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman is equally underwritten, and as for the villainous Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), he’s an utterly one-dimensional bore at the centre of yet another thingy-of-ultimate-power-that-will-destroy-the-world plot. Not even the quips of Alfred (Jeremy Irons) make much of an impact. Think Avengers, but far less fun.

It’s really, really hard to care about any of the characters, because they spend the entire film in swamped in ludicrous, weightless visual effects. There is no sense of real jeopardy, and the utterly inevitable return of one key character following the events of the equally dull Batman v Superman looms heavily over proceedings in a get-on-with-it sort of way.

To be fair, I did rather like Danny Elfman’s music score, especially when he quoted his own Batman theme from the Tim Burton movies, and John Williams’s iconic Superman theme. However, such incidental pleasures aside, Justice League really is, at best, a deeply indifferent experience. Superhero fans or younger viewers will probably derive some enjoyment from it, but wider audiences would be better off steering clear.


Download The Birds Began to Sing FREE – for five days only

Love a gripping, page-turning psychological thriller? Download my novel The Birds Began to Sing absolutely FREE – for five days only!

Here is the blurb from the back of the novel:

When aspiring novelist Alice Darnell enters a competition to write the ending for an unfinished manuscript by late, world famous author Sasha Hawkins, it appears she might have her big break at last.

However, upon arrival at Sasha’s former home – the sinister Blackwood House – Alice is unsettled by peculiar competition rules, mysterious dreams and inexplicable ghostly visions. She begins to question her sanity as she is drawn into a terrifying web of deceit, revenge and murder.

Some review snippets:

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The Birds Began to Sing can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle FREE here – for five days only.

Film Reviews Films

Film Review – The Death of Stalin


Very loosely based on the political tumult following Stalin’s demise, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a superb, darkly hilarious historical satire, and a must-see for Iannucci fans.

Amid the chaos and paranoia after Stalin’s death in 1953 Soviet Moscow, different members of the Committee plot and scheme, going from sycophancy to mad power grabbing. Vain, inept Deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the natural successor, and is backed by Stalin’s unspeakably evil secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). However, jester turned player Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to swing things in his favour, by getting the rest of the Committee to side with him, and take down Beria in the process. Weaving in and out of these schemes is Molotov (Michael Palin), an unhappy, rather pathetic individual who sold his soul to Stalinism to the point that he still insists his wife deserved incarceration, even after she is returned to him from prison. Stalin’s traumatised, near-suicidal daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and his boozing, useless son Vasily (Rupert Friend), lurk uneasily in the background, unsure of their fate. Bouncing obnoxiously around everyone is aggressive war hero Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose military assistance is required for any potential coup.

The cast are uniformly excellent, the script razor-sharp and the direction inspired. Frankly, this is the best political black comedy in years, brilliantly satirising the climate of absolute fear that existed in Stalin’s Russia. For example, Paddy Considine appears in a small role as the radio producer of live piano concerto. Towards the end of the broadcast he receives a call from Stalin himself, asking for a recording of the event. Upon discovering the broadcast wasn’t recorded, he has to tell the tired musicians to re-perform the concerto, detain the audience to maintain correct acoustics (absurdly dragging a few people in off the streets, since some people had already left), and find another conductor (who mistakenly believes he is being rounded up to be sent to a labour camp) when the previous conductor accidentally rends himself unconscious. It’s an hysterical, farcical opening that perfectly sets the tone (I should add the usual warning here for very strong language).

Yet what makes the film truly great is that the laughter often dies on our lips. No attempt is made to shy away from the genuine atrocities – ludicrously unfair arrests, incarcerations, torture, executions and so on – making the point that whilst the film is funny, Stalin’s Russia most emphatically was not. The Death of Stalin has terrifying relevance in today’s world where certain nations could well end up gripped by a similar climate of fear. One wonders what a certain Mr Putin would make of this film.

Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Paddington 2


Every bit as good as it’s predecessor, Paddington 2 is an absolute blast for the entire family, and one of the best films I have seen this year.

After the events of the first film, talking bear Paddington is happy in his London home with the Browns. When he decides to buy his aunt Lucy an antique pop-up book for her birthday, he gets a job in order to save up. An hilarious and disastrous stint as a barber leads to slightly more gainful employment as a window cleaner, and soon Paddington almost has enough to buy the treasured book. But has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) also has his sights on the book, for his own nefarious purposes, and a convoluted mix-up leads to Paddington being framed for the theft.

The cast are as superb here as in the original, with Ben Whishaw voicing Paddington perfectly. Hugh Grant is a terrific, hugely entertaining, master-of-disguise villain, every bit as boo-hiss as Nicole Kidman’s psychopathic taxidermist in the first film. The Brown family return too, in the form of Hugh Bonneville’s Henry (decidedly miffed at being passed over for promotion in favour of some young upstart), Sally Hawkins’s Mary (as wonderfully kind, imaginative and courageous as ever), Samuel Joshlin’s Jonathan (peer pressure causing him to hide his love of steam trains), Madeleine Harris’s Judy (getting over a boyfriend by starting her own newspaper) and Julie Walters’s Mrs Bird (still telling it like it is, and having tremendous fun into the bargain). Jim Broadbent returns as antique shop dealer Mr Gruber, along with mean-spirited Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi), and new characters in the form of Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) and a particularly harassed judge (Tom Conti), both of whom add to the tremendous, whimsical fun.

Director Paul King helms some splendid slapstick action set pieces, notably the break-in sequence when Paddington gets framed, and the train chase finale (a thrilling stand-out). It goes without saying that the special effects are great, but in addition to laughs and thrills, the film is perfectly pitched for just the right level of Mary Poppins-esque poignancy, particularly in the tear-jerking, note-perfect final scene. The Greek chorus  Calypso band return too, materialising in increasingly surreal places. But this doesn’t feel at all odd in a film that features a tour-de-force sequence with Paddington inside a pop-up book.

On a moral and spiritual level, there is an understated, non-preachy but clear message about how seeing the best in people can help them change for the better, reflecting the themes in the Michael Bond source books. Paddington’s effect on people is often akin to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Without his presence in their lives, things could have gone horribly awry. The London Paddington lives in may be nothing more than a fantasy, but it’s a beautiful fantasy. Yes, we might wish life was like the world of Paddington, but we can all determine to see the good in people, and if that isn’t a positive message to send in a film aimed at all ages, I don’t know what is.

Unquestionably the must-see family film of the year, Paddington 2 is that rare thing: a sequel that equals the original. There are absolutely no excuses for not going to see it. Oh – and make sure you stay for extra hilarity during the end credits.


All my novels now available as paperbacks from Amazon

At long last, I have stopped procrastinating, deferring, delaying, dilly-dallying, putting off, hanging fire, dragging my feet, beating about the bush and taking a rain check (or a “precipitation verification” as I sometimes call it, since the expression, American in origin, uses the spelling “check” rather than “cheque”). At any rate, I have finally decided to get off my backside and do what I should have done long ago and, to finally come to the point, ensure all my novels are available in paperback from Amazon Create Space, complete with physical pages that you can actually turn.

With that deliberately silly paragraph out of the way, to be more succinct, all my novels are now available from Amazon in dead tree format. Simply click here, and you’ll find them all listed accordingly.

Film Reviews Films

Film Review – Murder on the Orient Express


Hercule Poirot’s luxuriant moustache is depicted far more as described in the novel in Kenneth Branagh’s new take on the Agatha Christie classic. Here the sheer volume of exquisitely groomed whiskers are endlessly distracting to quite amusing effect, far more so than the relatively austere moustaches depicted in previous Poirot adaptations, from Peter Ustinov to David Suchet, and of course Albert Finney’s take in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of this same title. Moustaches aside, this new Murder on the Orient Express is an adequately entertaining ride, certainly worth a watch even if you already know the famous twist ending.

The set-up is familiar, with Poirot on the eponymous train alongside a glittering cast of suspects, any one of which could be the killer. A soon-to-be-dead Johnny Depp brushes shoulders with the likes of Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer and Josh Gad.  Some of these actors get to do more (Pfeiffer for instance, who is superb), but others are left with little to work with. As Poirot Branagh provides an interesting take, focussing on the character’s famous fastidiousness but emphasising his moral quest, wanting to see the world as it should be and therefore noticing whenever something is amiss.

Directorially, Branagh provides some agreeable visual flourishes with the 70mm format, including swooping CGI enhanced aerial shots of trains passing through spectacular, mountainous landscapes (trainscapes?). There are also a couple of cleverly executed overhead shots in the carriage at key moments when the body is found and examined, which I can’t decide whether I liked or not. On the one hand they are technically very proficient, but on the other hand I felt they were drawing attention to themselves at a time when I’d quite like to have seen the character’s faces.

Still, on the whole this is a solid, entertaining adaptation of a very well-known mystery. I prefer the 1974 version, as I loved the more sinister opening, and the notorious denouement felt more unsettling than it does here, but I will concede that it has dated somewhat. Besides, whichever version one prefers, there can be no doubt that this new version features the most spectacular moustache.

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Film Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer


I’ll cut to the chase:  director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a stone cold masterpiece. Capitalising on the promise shown in his previous works, Dogtooth and The Lobster, here he crafts his best film yet; a mesmerising, profoundly uncomfortable tale guaranteed to have you squirming at the off-kilter atmosphere of awkwardness and dark humour, giving way to sheer oppressive dread and building to an unimaginably horrible finale.

With that introduction, I have probably turned off one audience and turned on another, which is all to the good. The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly isn’t for everyone – and here I must add the regulation warnings for sexual content, violence and bad language – but it is an absolute must for any serious fan of cinema. I don’t want to spoil too much about the plot, but the initial set-up concerns a somewhat unusual teenage boy Martin (Barry Keoghan) who insinuates his way into the life of cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), their teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and their younger son Bob (Sunny Soljic). At first it appears Steven feels sorry for Martin, following the death of his father on the operating table, and has taken him under his wing. Yet every exchange feels off somehow, and the viewer immediately senses something is wrong. Gradually, as terrible events befall Steven and his family, it becomes apparent that he is being subjected to a terrible revenge.

This revenge plays out like the tale of Iphigenia from ancient Greek mythology, which is continually alluded to in the brilliantly spare screenplay. Every scene drips with unseen menace, and whilst I would hesitate to describe this as a full-blown horror film, it is disturbing almost to the levels of something like The Exorcist. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis composes exquisitely precise shots with meticulous framing and eerily sterile, clean lines that echo the cinema of Stanley Kubrick (particularly The Shining). High angle tracking shots and God-like overhead angles give the impression of something else, possibly supernatural, watching events. For example, one early sequence when Steven addresses a hall filled with medical colleagues is filmed with wide-angle lenses that make the scene feel just that slight step outside of reality, subtly hinting at something infuriatingly out of reach yet lurking, waiting to strike.

Performances are uniformly superb, especially from Farrell. Kidman is also terrific, particularly in one terrifying moment of icy logic where she explains to her still-in-denial husband what must be done to extricate themselves from their predicament. In addition, Alicia Silverstone is quite brilliant in one hideously unsettling scene, as Martin’s mother. The use of sound adds to the nightmarish atmosphere, as do the eerie musical choices (which includes snippets of Ligeti). Not only did this film have me on the edge of my seat throughout, but it has disturbed my dreams and waking ever since the end credits rolled. Be warned: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that most splendid and alarming of things, a film that scars.

Again, I suspect I am putting off one audience, and making this a must-see for another. With a film this incisive, challenging and rigorously cinematic, that is exactly as it should be.