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Sunday, 20 July 2014

Right About Dragons

Some of the 'kids' over at Reading Excuses (self included, not as a kid, of course!) are about to embark on a collaborative trawl through Brandon Sanderson's writing course. His 2013 lecture series at Brigham Young University is available online at Write About Dragons (http://www.writeaboutdragons.com/), it's fifteen lectures long, but we're not in a hurry (which is smart) and are planning to take from Monday to October to complete the course.

There are eight of us and we'll be writing a 30,000 word novella over the 15 weeks, circulating 1,000 to 2,000 word submission each week and critiquing the other submissions. There's a good buzz in the group already, as evidenced by the thread over at Reading Excuses (http://www.17thshard.com/forum/topic/13073-sandersons-write-about-dragons-creative-writing-course/), and some interesting ideas coming out of the melting pot. A prequel to Mandamon's 'Seeds of Dissolution' won't mean anything to you perhaps, but having alpha (beta?) read the first novel, I'm looking forward to that almost as much as writing my piece.

Currently titled "Waifs and Strays", my aim is to write a story that subverts some of the well-worn fantasy tropes that we're probably all getting a bit tired of, and in particular some of the tick-box character stereotypes that are still lurking in Cliche Corner even now. That said, subverting things is a bit of a trope in itself these days, but that's what I'm going for, so sue me. (Please, don't sue me).

As well as trying to learn from Mr. Sanderson's excellent course (I've started on Lecture 1 before Monday's deadline, cheater!), I'm also hoping to incorporate some of the Writing Prompts from the Writing Excuses podcast along the way (birds and stone, etc.). One that I've tackled already is from Season 5, Episode 22 "Come up with an eight-word tag line for your novel or short story. It needs to be pithy, punchy, memorable and easily comprehensible." My offering is the following:

 - The greatest threat to success is their friends -

If Rubik Wrote a Thriller...

Guillaume Canet writes, directs and appears in 'Tell No One' from Harlan Coben's novel, a dizzyingly complex thriller that will keep you guessing right to the end. There is a big cast of characters to keep track of, to the point that confusion will definitely creep in if you are not concentrating, but Canet's excellent film deserves your full attention. François Cluzet is highly watchable as the pawn at the centre of the mind-boggling machinations that spiral around him (French crime drama pun intended), and there is an excellent array of Gallic thesps all in good form. Worthy of particular note are Marie-Josée Croze very engaging as Cluzet's screen wife; André Dussollier as his terminally grumpy father-in-law; Kristin Scott Thomas his sister; a beautifully laconic François Berléand as the dogged cop; and the wonderful Gilles Lellouche with a convincing gangster turn. The film's plot is every bit as labyrinthine as LA Confidential or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - if crime thrillers are your bag, this is an excellent example.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Writing Excuses, Season 7, Episode 4, 'Brevity'

I was in a hurry to write this, but it still took three days, off and on. It appears that WE might have closed commenting on old threads, which is a pity for people catching up, like myself. So, anyway, for no particular reason, I thought I would post my response to the Writing Prompt in the S7E04 cast, the subject of which was brevity. The prompt, given by Howard, was 'Give us a group of people on a long trip in space with a problem, which they solve. Do it in 150 words.'

***
 
In years of planning and modelling, they hadn’t considered this. Auto-docs monitored health, coordinating diet and exercise, recommending leisure based on psychometrics. Four crew awake for four weeks annually, rotating with the other forty-four in stasis. Research confirmed that it suspended ageing. The scientists had green-flagged the mission. Progress had been optimal.

Ten years gone, sixty-four remaining, yesterday, Miller had lifted the first corpse from its capsule. Of four, only Dreyfus had been alive. Of the next twelve, only Mai Jong-Won lived. Five anxious faces stared at Miller.

‘Remaining life signs are A1, as were yours.’

‘What’s the arithmetic?’ Powell snapped.

‘At the same attrition there would be nine of us. With stasis, we’d age thirty-two years, without it, sixty-four.

Powell shook her head, ‘Too old, or dead.’

‘There is an answer.’ They all looked at Dreyfus, their slow panic becoming desperate hope. ‘We need to breed a new crew.’

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Bad Moon Rising

In the increasingly regimented parlance of modern film criticism, Bad Neighbours might be described as a post-gross-out, frat house shock comedy. Lowering your expectations to accept casual bawdiness and a careless disregard for the consequences of ones actions will certainly help you enjoy this film. There are plenty of laughs to be had, but most of them are guilty ones. While great comedy is about subtlety, timing and emotional response, Bad Neighhbours is not, relying instead on the current penchant for shock, awe and improv. The film's problems are clear to see. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne's new parents are not as sympathetic as they could be, and the conflict seems to go from an amiable 2 or 3 to all out war 11 very quickly. This is probably just about dealable-with, but seeing the joins in the improv sail past as some gags outstay their welcome is unnecessary. Zac Efron probably emerges with the most credit, eschewing his heart-throb image to get his hands (and mouth) dirty as the frat king, ably supported by Dave Franco, and there are some other familiar faces to spot, including an underused Lisa Kudrow and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who also has little to do. That Bad Neighbours does not pull its punches is a good thing, and there is sufficient to like and to laugh at (guiltily or otherwise) that shortcomings can be forgiven, especially after a glass of wine (or a keg). Watch out for a blink-and-miss-it cameo from Andy Samberg of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and SNL fame, although fans of Officer Peralta might be left wishing for more of the excellent cop comedy instead of the Bad Neighbours' schlock.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Out of Excuses


I plan to start posting about writing on this blog, but first, some context.

I have long been an aspiring writer of fantasy. I suppose it comes from being an avid reader from a relatively early age, from a first introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien and Larry Niven (God bless you, Dad) - and from always having had an urge to create (thank you, Mum). I had dabbled with writing, written short stories and the first novel in a trilogy. That took the best part of 15 years (on and off, of course!!) - it's now 225,000 words and not fit for publication. How do I know that? Because about 3 years ago I discovered the excellent Writing Excuses podcast.

I am a long time fan of Robert Jordan and his excellent Wheel of Time series. With the sad passing of Mr. Jordan, some bloke called Brandon Sanderson was brought in to write the last book from Mr. Jordan's notes. Well, one book became three, but it was clear straight away on reading The Gathering Storm, that this Sanderson fellow warranted further investigation. Having read his Mistborn books and started on the other Cosmere series, I am now an big fan, and it was a short step from Brandon's website to Writing Excuses (WE), the excellent and deservedly award-winning podcast for aspiring writers by Sanderson and his friends Dan Wells (horror writer); Howard Tayler (cartoonist and now published author) and Hugo Award winning ;o) Mary Robinette Kowal (author and puppeteer).

Writing Excuses is a hugely useful, entertaining and educational weekly podcast, now in its ninth season, which exposes listeners to the sage advice and wealth of experience of the casters, but also to the limitless expertise of their guests, who appear from time to time to discuss specialist subjects, as it were. I cannot began to relate how much I have learned about writing from this quite rightly lauded podcast. That learning alone is worth its weight in gold, but I have

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Dish of the Day

Jon Favreau's film Chef is a simple joy - confirming that less is usually more effective and that it is okay to make a film that leaves the audience smiling, laughing and tapping its feet. However, arguably, Chef is deeper than first glance suggests. It touches on very modern themes of the power of social media (constructive and destructive) and the impact that glib online criticism (positive and negative) can have on real lives, and it's to Favreau's great credit that he does not gloss over these things. The film's use of Tw***er is ingenious and effective, if somewhat similar to at least one previous treatment of texting (the BBC's extraordinary Sherlock), but it is not a throw-away gimmick, rather an important part of the story, showing that - like a loaded gun - social media's power derives from the will of the user.

Chef has a highly likeable cast in great form. Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Fav's Iron Man mucker Robert Downey Jr. provide very effective cameos. RDJ is his quirky self, and Johansson is at her most charming, while Hoffman's superbly forceful turn ensures that it's not all sweetness and light, as do chef's scenes with Oliver Platt's restaurant critic. Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale and the excellent John Leguizamo provide enthusiastic and likeable support, but it is Favreau and Emjay Anthony's delightful central relationship that is the beating heart of the film, their scenes are so wonderfully natural that you can only root for them both.

The film features something of a flying foodie travelogue through the southern states, but it is much more than that. Favreau's direction feels light and empathetic, a man confident in knowing exactly what he wanted, and Chef is clearly a film made with great care and affection. The soundtrack is superb, infusing the film with a rhythm that makes it difficult not to be swept along, but why would anyone not want to be carried away by Favreau's wonderful film, which tells us it is okay to take pleasure in what we do, feel the rhythm and love life.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Captain America: World Police

As the Marvel superhero with the richest history, and linch-pin of The Avengers, Captain America was perhaps the most eagerly-awaited of the comic book behemoth's properties to come to the big screen. The First Avenger resoundingly delivered on Cap's pathos, even pulling off the re-branding Chris Evans from hothead Johnny Storm to the steel-nerved Steve Rogers, chief among an across-the-board casting masterclass, from the spunky Hayley Atwell, thru square-jawed Sebastian Stan; gravel-toned Tommy Lee Jones; specky Toby Jones; via fatherly Stanley Tucci; and dashing Dominic Cooper to Hugo Weaving's devilishly evil Red Skull. Joe Johnston's film nicely evoked a never-say-die attitude and drab wartime aesthetic to the benefit of it's jarring final scenes. So how to follow TFA's success? The challenge

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

22 With a Bullet

Sometimes, after you've transcended the reality of physical existence; experienced two-faced deception from a companion and witnessed a 500 foot monster lay waste to the western seaboard, you're ready to sit down in front of a balls-out comedy and laugh your ass off. Enter 22 Jump Street, the latest somewhat manic creation directed by the somewhat manic Phil Lord and Chris Miller of 21 J.St., Meatballs and Lego fame. There's no rocket science going on here, but the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum carries the film, delivering belly laughs aplenty. The screenplay by Michael Bacal (Scott Pilgrim, Project X, 21 J.St.), Rodney Rothman (Grudge Match) and Oren Uziel is chock full of side references, adopting a heavily meta approach that is not new, but has never been so blatant or effective (staying through the end credits is essential). The script on its own could not carry this, and the ‘waffer-thin' plot verges on insulting, but that is not the point of course, it's all about the gags and Hill & Tatum deliver these with gusto as their relationship is put under the spotlight to hilarious effect. Lord & Miller deliver a pacey, punchy film that is just plain funnier than any other comedy this year. It’s perhaps a tad baggy in places and suffers slightly from a couple of gags stretching beyond the punch line (you know, that awkward moment of standing looking at each other for an instant - let's call it Improv Lag), but this never detracts from the whole, which sweeps logic and structure aside in a glorious typhoon of uproarious laughter. Don't analyse this film, just let yourself go and jump in with both feet.

Nought but Crosses

Despite writer/director John Michael McDonagh's film being centred firmly on the relationship between Brendon Gleeson's troubled priest and his belligerent flock, you needn't worry about being force-fed a pious stream of catholic dogma. McDonagh ably carries off the heavy allegory, despite peopling his film with caricatures,  because they are so wonderfully spiteful, their dialogue so charmingly vitriolic, that it's impossible not to be swept along. McDonagh's second directorial feature after The Guard is just as assured, and there are diverting performances by Chris O'Dowd and a pathologically cynical Aidan Gillen among others, but it is Gleeson's Father Lavelle who remains the centre of the film. His relationship with his daughter (played by Kelly Reilly), his attitude to his congregation and his predicament all present challenges to him, and yet he persists in trying to reconcile these while battling the prejudices of almost everyone around him.  Wherever you stand on the outcome, you'll find it hard not to be affected and there's a good chance you will still be considering this thought provoking film when McDonagh's next effort comes out.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Everything is Awesome

With his first Monsters, Gareth Edwards proved that he is a capable and inventive film-maker, and it was very pleasing to see Hollywood recognise this so quickly and give him a shot at a major motion picture so early in his career. Edwards has rewarded that confidence by bringing all the skills apparent in his guerrilla debut to a very large property indeed, and making a highly accomplished and enjoyable film. Godzilla has, of course, seen numerous interpretations over the years, but Edwards' take is still fresh. He recognises that the human aspect is how the audience relates to the film and its hero, and there is no better actor working today at carrying the audience's empathy than Bryan Cranston, whose presence and performance ensure that the viewer is on board. The relationship conveyed by Cranston and Juliett Binoche in a few short minutes of screen time is immediately convincing and provides an emotional platform for the film. It's a pity that Aaron Taylor-Johnson does not seem capable of taking this emotion forward, and his stock action protagonist with stock get-back-to doctor wife Elizabeth Olsen and son arc is the most disappointing aspect of the film. Thankfully, we need not dwell on this, as the main event is Edwards' highly effective handling of the monsters. Their design is excellent, clearly the subject of careful consideration, but Edward's peerless talent is in his recognition that these creatures are governed by the same biological imperatives as humans - eat, reproduce and compete. The Mutos' laying waste to human cities is just a by-product of this. It is the key to the film's success, and the reason Godzilla deserves to be seen, as much for the monstrous performances as the human ones.

Flawed Perfection

Film critics should no longer be talking about unfilmable books, but if any still are, they will consign that tired old epithet to the dustbin after seeing Jonathan Glazer's film Under the Skin. His visualisation of Michel Faber's book of the same name is startlingly bold, both visually and in its vision, it is dazzlingly inventive, challenging and visceral, in other words, everything you would want from a good book. Scarlett Johansson's performance is extraordinary, accomplished and brave, and must have increased her stock no end as an actor capable of so much more than she has been given credit for, certainly by cinemagoers. It is a tribute to Glazer that the BBFC passed Under the Skin as a '15' uncut. There are numerous difficult scenes, several involving nudity, sex and sexual assault - not to mention even more harrowing moments - but never is there even a hint of sensationalism, everything serves the context and the central narrative. Under the Skin is an enthralling piece of cinema, surely the best yet of Glazer's short feature filmography. Not an easy watch, but rewarding and inspirational (if not uplifting) for those willing to push the envelope of their cinema experience. Outstanding.

Congressional Medal of Weird

The Congress, Ari Folman's film based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem (The Futurological Congress) - follows five years after Folman's equally inventive and thought provoking Waltz with Bashir. Like Waltz... The Congress also combines animation with live action footage to great dramatic effect, propelling the viewer into an increasingly psychedelic other-world that presents huge challenges to Robin Wright's state of mind. She is playing an alternate univers-ion of herself, and is surrounded by a very fine cast including Harvey Keitel; Paul Giamatti; Jon Hamm; and Danny Huston (a stand out) who are joined by Kodi Smit-McPhee (still to cast off the ineffectuality of Let Me In) and Sami Gayle. The Congress is a bold attempt to visualise what clearly must be a challenging novel. There is a lot to admire in the attempt, including some good performances, grand animation and an effective score, again by contemporary composer Max Richter. It's a pity that The Congress did not find a bigger audience, since Folman is a very interesting filmmaker, clearly not afraid to take on what must be difficult projects. His next film should be eagerly awaited.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Rack and Ruin

As there is nothing new in Blue Ruin (underdog, violence, revenge, crossbows), it would need to be very good to deserve your attention, and it is. Writer/ director Jeremy Saulnier's second feature film is packed with raw tension, inventive quirks and fresh perspectives on its central tropes, also benefiting from Saulnier's evident appreciation of less-is-more in the film's compact 90 minute running time, which generates a lively pace. Macon Blair is another name to watch for in the future. His central turn as Dwight is highly effective, conveying a powerful determination in refusing to accept his own vulnerability and ineffectuality as barriers to reaching his goal. The performances around Blair are good, the off-mainstream cast contributing significantly through Saulnier's direction to the impact of the film, but it's Blair's performance and Saulnier's creative flair that deserve the highest praise. Go and find this film now, because we will all be talking about Saulnier in five years' time.

Longed-For Originality

Actually, LFO is an acronym for Low Frequency Oscillation, but it is also the delightfully Heath-Robinson story of the excellent Patrik Karlson's troubled acoustician and his increasingly obsessive behaviour. Writer/ director Antonio Tublén (who also wrote the electronic score) has fashioned a fine morality tale that (as good writing dictates) is plausible after the initial conceit is accepted. The film's tone is cold, it is almost emotionless and often claustrophobic, but this only multiplies its effectiveness in provoking the viewer's contemplation of increasingly challenging events. Karlson is ably supported by forthright performances from Izabella Jo Tschig and Per Löfberg as his neighbours, and Ahnna Rasch as his wife. In a landscape of modern cinema in danger of becoming dominated by endless high-rise multiplex  pap, it's refreshing to discover such oases of intelligent and thoughtful film-making as LFO, and you owe it to yourself to see this film, if only to recharge the batteries your Bay-sh-t detector.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Lunch in A Cold Climate

The most stunning feature of How I Ended This Summer is its Arctic setting, the glorious wilderness presenting a grand, yet harsh spectacle every bit as sparse as the film's dialogue. It's a two-hander between Grigoriy Dobrygin's callow youth and the seasoned meteorologist played by Sergey Puskepalis. Writer/ director Aleksey Popogrebskiy does an excellent job of conveying the pair's isolation and the monotony of their existence, and there is a convincing tension created by the gap in their ages and experience, although Dobrygin's young adult antics, which highlight the disparity, are a bit 'on-the-nose'. These strands form a solid tripod for the conflict that follows, however it's the catalyst for that conflict that introduces a wobble which, for some, might topple the whole construct, one decision that some viewers might struggle to reconcile with previous events or any kind of sensible human instinct. At this juncture it seems that nothing more complicated than a moral compass is needed to keep their mission on track, but its lack, along with the absence of an actual compass later on, causes no end of ructions. Despite common sense saying that their difficulties could have been avoided by a straightforward conversation, the end result is a convincing escalation and a compelling third act. If you can accept the single, arguably inexplicable (and certainly unexplained) failure to communicate, How I Ended This Summer is a highly satisfying watch and, either way, these three are ones to look out for in the future.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Oui, Ministre!

Quai D'Orsay (retitled The French Minister for some markets) is a likeable and highly amusing French political farce from director Bertrand Tavernier, perhaps best known for 'Round Midnight. Quai D'Orsay presents the shenanigans within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a wonderfully straight face, while delivering laugh-out-loud moments by the portfolio-ful. Thierry Lhermitte's turn as Minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms is delightfully effective, every bombastic centimetre the Gallic Jim Hacker, with no sense of the events around him, yet, unlike Hacker, he is brimful of arrogant confidence in the face of every disaster. His foil is not a scheming Parisienne Sir Humphrey, but his long suffering chief of staff Claude Maupas, excellently portrayed by Niels Arestrup. Enter Raphaël Personnaz as  the youthful and politically naive Arthur Vlaminkck, then sit back and chortle as young Arthur learns the workings of the ministry the hard way, doing his best to manoeuvre through the eccentricities of the minister's characterful staff. Quai D'Orsay is an enjoyable film with plenty of smiles and laughs, yet at almost two hours, it does begin to feel a bit baggy after the first half, still well worth seeing however.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Resistance is Futile

Borgman is queer piece of cinema, challenging right form the off with the opening scenes of pursuit which point in a certain direction, but be prepared for your feelings to change as the story progresses. Writer / director Alex van Warmerdam's film bars very few holds, and yet it does not sensationalise increasingly troubling and occasionally brutal events, presenting them in a frank and open way, inviting the viewer to judge the participants and their respective fates. You would do well to prepare yourself to feel little sympathy for any of the characters, and yet there is something compelling about the spartan direction and the economy of the performances that will hold your attention to the end. Jan Bijvoet as the titular Camiel Borgman and Hadewych Minis as Marina are stand-outs, and deserve to be seen by a wider audience. One possible conclusion is that Warmerdam's script presents a black-and-white position in reaching a verdict, but in reality there are Lynchian levels of grey and plenty of scope for interpretation over a glass of wine (or two) afterwards. Well worth seeking out for those of a less delicate sensibility.

Turning Things Downside Up

Up In The Air is a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking drama starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Clooney’s corporate ‘hit-man’ is gloriously uncaring, but still exudes charisma in a way that is difficult to take one’s eyes off. Clooney’s chemistry with Anna Kendrick’s character is very entertaining, and the corporate (and personal) carnage that they wreak, while wince-inducing, is inventively captured by Jason Reitman through the device of talking heads. This is a superb follow-up by Reitman to the excellent ‘Juno’ , almost looking at the opposite end of the human condition for its inspiration, it should send you off to look for Reitman’s other films ‘Thank You For Smoking’ and ‘Young Adult’. There are clever and thoughtful twists in the third act; it is ultimately a very satisfying and enjoyable film that should leave you with something to think about if you are on a professional career path.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Bravo, Maestro!

The themes are familiar, the characters are interesting but not complex, the script is uncomplicated, the humour comfortable – the story itself is straightforward, but the sum of these largely unremarkable parts is a truly uplifting piece of cinema. It is a great pleasure to discover that a film like The Concert can still exist in a cinematic landscape over-shadowed by violence, sexual objectification, product placement and the commercial imperative. Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds, Now You Seen Me) is probably the best known face in a largely eastern European cast, but it is Aleksey Guskov who steals the show as the Maestro with an endearing performance. Thank goodness (and thank Rumania director Radu Mihaileanu) for cinema with a good heart and a positive message, and characters motivated by kindness and artistic vision. The finale is a heart-warming emotional crescendo. It is genuinely satisfying to see a happy outcome, and well worth the modest investment of time to experience entertainment that is life-affirming, which, sadly, cannot be said about the majority of cinema these days.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

King of the World

Princess Mononoke is a delightful anime from the man who has come to define everything that is best about the genre, arguably, this was Hayao Miyazaki's calling card to the world outside Japan. The English voice cast boasts Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillan Anderson and Keith David - a considerable volume of talent for an animation back in 1997 (Toy Story was 1995), arguably marking the beginning of another trend - for big names to be heard and not seen. There are familiar anime tropes here, but all handled with such sensitivity and style that they still feel fresh on viewing today. The theme of environmentalism is strong, but not stereotyped - character motivations going far beyond cardboard cut-out in their complexity, and it is refreshing and enjoyable that Miyazaki finds room for nobility and honour in his protagonists given the present penchant for anti-heroism. Cinema is the poorer for the recent news that Miyazaki has retired at the age of 73. Here's hoping that the art of animation and of film-making properly acknowledge the debt that it owes him.