Film Review – Wonder

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If Wonder proves anything, it proves that having a Star Wars obsessed protagonist is no guarantee that I will give a film a free pass. Having been told that Wonder would make me laugh and cry, I can inform you that I neither laughed nor cried. Instead for most of the running time of this saccharine laden disfigurement weepie, I flitted between irritation and apathy.

Based on the novel by RJ Palacio, this story of a disfigured ten year old boy going to school for the first time has obvious heartstring tug potential. But although it has its heart in the right place, Wonder has the depth of one of those ghastly inspirational memes. Early in the film a teacher started asking the class about precepts they each lived by, and one character said “always choose being kind over being right”. At which point, I pretty much lost the will to live. As Alan Ruck’s character said in Speed: “It’s alright. If you need to you go right ahead and vomit.”

This kind of reductive superficiality continues throughout much of the rest of the film, with nothing of substance beyond the usual cliché messages about being beautiful on the inside. Attempts at showing everyone’s point of view (even the bullies), feel preachy rather than nuanced, despite good intentions. By the time the manipulative and predictable finale is reached, replete with trite “everyone is special” platitudes, I began to wonder if the plot had been mapped out by the same kind of committees that give out participation trophies. As Dash says in The Incredibles, when responding to his mother telling him “everyone is special”, “That’s another way of saying no-one is”.

I suppose the film is competently directed (by Stephen Chbosky) and well-acted by all concerned. Jacob Tremblay is fine as the young, but rather too-good-to-be-true lead character, Auggie. Some of the other child actors are good, and it’s always nice to see Owen Wilson and particularly Julia Roberts. Heck even Mandy Patinkin (aka Saul from Homeland) crops up at a couple of points, playing the kindly head teacher at the school. The most interesting subplot was that of Auggie’s older teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), who feels constantly overlooked due to her mother’s attention always being on Auggie. But again, that theme isn’t explored in any real depth.

Again, I should stress that this isn’t a terrible film. I didn’t hate it. I was just deeply, deeply indifferent to it. And a little nauseated at times during the inevitable slow-piano moments. I suppose there might be some value in showing it to children to discourage bullying. However, if you really fancy a disfigurement weepie, I suggest checking out the underrated Mask instead, or even better, The Elephant Man. That one did make me cry.

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Wolf of the Day: Kiana

To celebrate the release of my new animal fiction adventure Echo and the White Howl, I am introducing a new character from the novel each day here on the blog, using “Top Trumps” style data.

Today’s wolf: Kiana

Kiana

Strength: 6

Intelligence: 7

Hunting skill: 7

Wisdom: 9

Fear Factor: 1

Hidden Power: 3

Kiana is Echo’s mother and the Alpha female in Aatag’s pack. When Echo and his siblings were cubs, Kiana told them many stories of ancient wolf legend, including the tale of Kaskae the Cunning, of the Wolf goddess Akna, and the evil of the Dark Realm.

Echo and the White Howl is out on Monday 11th December, available as a download or paperback from Amazon. You can pre-order the novel here.

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Wolf of the Day: Aatag

To celebrate the release of my new animal fiction adventure Echo and the White Howl, I am introducing a new character from the novel each day here on the blog, using “Top Trumps” style data.

Today’s wolf: Aatag

Strength: 9

Intelligence: 8

Hunting skill: 9

Wisdom: 7

Fear Factor: 4

Hidden Power: 4

The strong Alpha male who leads Echo’s pack, Aatag has obtained the respect of almost all in his care. Balancing strength with wisdom and an understanding of the balance of nature, Aatag’s rule is tough but fair. But when humans are seen to the north of his territory, Echo begins to worry his father is making the wrong decisions.

Echo and the White Howl is out on Monday 11th December, available as a download or paperback from Amazon. You can pre-order the novel here.

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Wolf of the Day: Saphira

To celebrate the release of my new animal fiction adventure Echo and the White Howl, I am introducing a new character from the novel each day here on the blog, using “Top Trumps” style data.

Today’s wolf: Saphira

Saphira

Strength: 6

Intelligence: 7

Hunting skill: 6

Wisdom: 7

Fear Factor: 3

Hidden Power: 10

A brave, clever, fiercely loyal female wolf Echo encounters on his adventures, Saphira has been banished from her original pack. She proves both a voice of reason and a great fighter, but there is more to Saphira than meets the eye.

Echo and the White Howl is out on Monday 11th December, available as a download or paperback from Amazon. You can pre-order the novel here.

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Wolf of the Day: Echo

To celebrate the release of my new animal fiction adventure Echo and the White Howl, for the days leading up to the release I intend to introduce some of the characters here on the blog. To start this very special “Wolf of the Day” feature, here is the novel’s main protagonist, Echo, complete with “Top Trumps” style data.

Today’s wolf: Echo

Echo

Strength: 6

Intelligence: 6

Hunting skill: 7

Wisdom: 5

Fear Factor: 2

Hidden Power: 9

Echo is the son of Aatag, the pack Alpha. Although brave and a keen hunter, he is initially uneasy with his father’s belief that he will one day be an Alpha himself. When his brother Malakai has strange visions of the White Wolf of Akna, and humans are seen on their borders, Echo believes something evil is coming from which the pack should flee.

Echo and the White Howl is out on Monday 11th December, available as a download or paperback from Amazon. You can pre-order the novel here.

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NEW RELEASE: Echo and the White Howl

Exciting news! My latest novel, Echo and the White Howl, is out on the 11th of December.

Set in the vast Alaskan wilderness, this epic story of wolves will thrill and delight. A tale of vengeance with hunts, chases, blizzards, dangerous journeys and a mysterious, supernatural edge, Echo and the White Howl is an animal fiction adventure for all ages.

Here is the blurb from the back of the book: 

When a wolf pack discovers humans lurking near their territory, Echo senses dark times ahead. 

Despite the warnings and omens, Aatag, the pack Alpha, refuses to flee… leading to a cruel turn of events that forces Echo into exile, and a quest for revenge that will change the pack forever.

Echo and the White Howl is out on Monday 11th December, available as a download or paperback from Amazon. You can pre-order the novel here.

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Film Review – Battle of the Sexes

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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.

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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.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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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

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.

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