Hello again, world. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’ve not spent the last 3 months vegetating in front of the goggle box (although Westworld is rather good, isn’t it?). I have in fact been quite busy writing, working on bits and bobs, the usual.
I’ll be talking more about all of that in future updates. For now though, just to ease back into the routine, here’s a quick update on one of the things I’ve been tinkering with.
The Big Film Spreadsheet Project
Over the last four years I’ve maintained a list of every film I have watched. It used to just be the basics – the date I watched the film and its title.
That was all well and good for the best part of three years. Then, back in July, I decided to move this information into a massive spreadsheet. I also planned to expand on the data I recorded.
Thus, the big film viewing spreadsheet project began. Whenever I had a spare five minutes I would transfer information from my text documents into the spreadsheet. After separating out my viewings by year, I decided I wanted to track directors, the year of release, whether it was a cinema viewing or a rewatch.
At that point I considered the project to be complete. This is, apparently, never the case. Creative minds always find more work to do, it’s inevitable.
Then, having already moved this information into the log, I decided to add even more data. As you do. This led to me adding columns for my rating of the film (using my rather boring 0.5-5 scale) and also the film’s running time. I would now know, almost precisely, how long I have spent sat watching through movies.
As it turns out – quite a lot. At the time of writing, it stands at 152 days if you watched every film back to back. A not insignificant amount.
Finishing The Project (Sort of)
And this has led to today. Apart from new film viewings and the odd movie I’ve seen before but forgotten to add (likely because I haven’t owned it), the list is complete. Sure, I’ll probably find other ways of pulling out reasonably cool facts and information and may tinker with the format here and there, but for all intents and purposes, it’s done.
This will be an ongoing project for me now, and will most likely replace my long-form movie reviews. To be honest, writing 500+ words for every film I see has gradually become more untenable as the months have passed. Time is at a premium these days, more so than it was in 2013 when I first started writing the reviews.
I’m tempted to re-purpose my film viewing so that I’m only writing about certain films. It’s certainly something much more manageable than trying to churn out 3500+ words a week on top of everything else. My zombie fixation might be a good place to start with that. Watch this space. Or possibly even this one.
I’ll be back next Friday with another batch of random thoughts, and an update on my fiction writing.
Until then: what do you think about the spreadsheet I’ve created? Drop me a line via the Contact page with your thoughts.
One of the key things a writer should do is read plenty, read far and wide, read and learn. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever. As long as you’re reading then you’re absorbing information.
I’ve extolled the virtues of reading and how it is perfect research for your own writing elsewhere, so I won’t bore you with that here. Instead, here is the first in a regular run of posts listing and quickly reviewing books I’ve read between 17 July and today.
Future updates will be just for that month, this one’s to get me up to date from when I first started drafting this post!
And yes, before you say anything, I do read quite a lot. That said, my update for the end of September may not be quite as impressive!
The Lost Temple – Nick Harper (read 17 July)
A random book I picked up in The Works’ 3 for £5 deal. The blurb oversells this one, a Da Vinci Code style romp across post WW2 Europe, complete with lots of shooting, running and intrigue.
The final product turns out fine,, although I would have preferred it if the characters had driven the plot more rather than the other way around. Apart from that, it does end up being an enjoyable romp, even if the villain of the piece is obvious from the start.
(Link to the book)
The Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick (read 19 July)
This one didn’t take very long to read at all. In fact I finished it in a couple of hours over two days. I’d previously watched the film and enjoyed it, but that made a few changes that significantly improved the film over the novel.
Pat’s father is much more sympathetic in the film, whereas here he only accepts his son when their football team (American football, that is) are doing well.
The core relationship between Pat and Tiffany remains the same in both the book and the film, two messed up people who are perfect for each other. The finale here also differs from the film. In the film it made the point that it doesn’t matter if you win, it’s the taking part. In the book, the dance competition isn’t the resolution, but it ends with an equally important scene.
(Link to the book)
The Deep – Nick Cutter (read 29 July)
Another random book I picked up in The Works in their 3 for £5 offer. An enjoyable ocean floor thriller, if a bit overly reliant on flashbacks to pad out the story. The blurb says that everybody is getting a disease like Alzheimers (called “The ‘Gets”), so I was expecting something with a vague zombie apocalypse tone. It turns out that this is just the starting point for the story.
Instead it becomes The Abyss meets Sphere and a dash of The Shining, with a dysfunctional brotherly relationship at its core. There were a couple of moments that stood out – Luke, our lead character, squeezing his way down to the lower portion of the base, his relationship with the dog – but it relies on his flashbacks and the loss of his son to push events forward.
I did enjoy the setting, his descriptions and the characters, I just feel that the story could have used more focus.
(Link to the book)
Hitler’s War – Harry Turtledove (read 01 August)
Back in the 90s I discovered and enjoyed Turtledove’s Worldwar series, where an alien invasion takes place during World War 2. I went on to read the follow-up series, Colonization, and an alt-World War 1 series where the United States remained divided after the civil war (The Great War, I think). Since then I haven’t read a single book of his.
It turns out I haven’t been missing much.
Turtledove uses a huge cast of characters, but none of them stand out. Most are front line troops, all of whom have a dislike for their superiors and furiously dig holes when the shelling begins. Their names quickly became irrelevant. The only time the story picks up is when real historical figures, like Hitler, make an appearance. Otherwise this is one where you enjoy the alt-history more than the characters involved in it.
(Link to the book)
Dad’s Army: The Story of a Classic Television Show – Graham McCann (read 06 August)
Another reasonably quick read. It turns out most of the content of this book featured in the BBC’s dramatisation of the series’ beginnings, so I knew most of the story already.
Despite the obvious lack of first hand comments on the show (McCann does pilfer the archives for what he can), and the history of one of our best loved sitcoms is explored in enough detail to justify reading this. Those looking for an element of scandal or backstage tension will be disappointed.
I didn’t go through it in any detail, , but there is a full episode guide provided at the back of the book. It’s an all-encompassing piece that even includes the radio sequel, It Sticks Out Half A Mile (nowhere near as good as the TV series, for what it’s worth).
Overall, a warm, fuzzy recollection of a great sitcom.
(Link to the book)
The Enigma Strain – Nick Thacker (read 08 August)
This book was a freebie on Kindle. Set in and around Yellowstone Park, a bomb goes off and releases a virus into the atmosphere. Park ranger Harvey Bennett joins forces with a member of the CDC to work out who did it and why.
For a freebie this was enjoyable. It’s something I might have read anyway if I’d seen it elsewhere, but wouldn’t have gone out of my way for. The characters had enough definition to make them stand out from one another, and the plot moves along at a logical pace. There are a couple of interesting twists and turns dotted throughout, and there is enough here for me to consider reading the next book in the series.
(Link to the book)
Carrie – Stephen King (read 13 August)
I had never read a Stephen King story until this point. I figured if I was going to do it I might as well go back to the start and work my way forwards.
I’ve seen the film remake (sadly, not the original yet), so I kind of knew the plot going in. King uses a mixture of traditional third person storytelling mixed with interviews and news pieces about the prom tragedy and its survivors.
While this isn’t common from start to finish (in particular the third person narrative sections), King seems to be a writer compiling a book on Carrie White and the events both leading up to and after the prom. I enjoyed this mixture of styles and it built up a nice picture without the need to dwell too much on specific detail.
(Link to the book)
Doctor Who: Vampire Science – Jonathan Blum (read 15 August)
In the absence of a TV series starring Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor, I’ve started reading the original novels starring his version of the Time Lord. Three books in, and the quality is variable to say the least.
This story takes place in modern day Earth, where a coven of vampires find themselves up against The Doctor.
This one didn’t do much for me. The characterisation was fine, but with a couple of minor exceptions the plot didn’t have the feel of a Doctor Who story. In many respects it felt like one of the old serials that the series used to do, dropping a few random cliffhangers in here and there to push the plot along. In isolation this is fine, but it doesn’t lend itself to a coherent novel.
(Link to the book)
Right now I’m drafting the novel I wrote in the summer of 2015. I’ve posted about this project elsewhere on this site ( a long time ago!), but for now I wanted to update you on my drafting progress.
And I have to say that it’s going rather well.
After putting the first draft away for nearly a year (and a failed submission attempt to Gollancz in early 2016 – more on that perhaps another day), I’ve come back to it with fresh eyes.
That awkward first chapter
The whole first chapter has been ripped out and I’ve started again. In my opinion there was too much in the way of scene setting.
Instead I’ve changed focus, bringing in my lead character immediately. This establishes the story without waffling on about why the Eden (that’s the ship) is in space.
From a narrative perspective it is much better, getting into the story as quickly as possible. I think when I first wrote that opening it was more so I could get a feel for the world I had created more than anything else.
So, in the interests of trying to make sure the reader is entertained (and I include myself in that category), that section will be completely different to the first draft.
The Editing Process
As of this moment I’m also making slow progress on editing the rest of the book. I’ve read through the first draft and there are characters that don’t need to be there. Plus, I’ve written scenes that either don’t make sense or don’t contribute to the plot, or where character motivations aren’t as clear as they need to be. A good start. This links to my piece about first drafts. I know full well that this one was not appropriate for people to see.
My editing process in this instance is relatively simple. I’ve read through each of the chapters and noted down the characters in the scene, the purpose of the scene, and highlighted any inconsistencies – these could be plot, characterisation or anything in the middle.
Then I spent a bit of time away from the draft, jotting down my first thoughts on how to resolve the issues I’d found. For example, I had introduced a highly religious group whose opinions were at odds with the rest of the ship.
Then I introduced another group who would be responsible for widespread damage later on (no spoilers!). On review, iit made sense to combine those two groups into one. It’s a little cliche that the religious group have a background of terrorism, but hopefully I balance that out with a few of the other characters in their group who are not so inclined.
The hurry towards the finishing line
Then there is the final act of the book which, again, I’m not going to spoil for you. In general terms I’m happy with the last couple of chapters, but the climactic moment was lacking. It seemed that the plot was driving the characters rather than the other way around.
It’s also entirely possible that I was hurrying towards the finishing line on the first draft and not giving the narrative the attention it deserved. But then, this is the first full length novel I’ve ever written, so it seemed appropriate to at least finish the draft.
In any case, it was another change that I needed to make. It took quite a while to think up a suitable finale, but I think I got there in the end.
There’s opportunity for strong character moments and a much more interesting action element to it. Both of these things are, arguably, missing in the first draft.
At least I have this first draft as a reference point. For my first attempt at a novel I don’t think it’s that bad on the whole. True, there are some admittedly awkward problems to resolve, but that’s common across most authors I think.
So, now I have to just finish my second draft. Then it’s time to get the story out to beta readers before a final polish. Then I can start thinking about the equally scary prospect of releasing the book into the wild. But of course, if anything of interest happens before then you’ll be the first to know.
Welcome to the first Film Review Roundup!
I used to upload these reviews every day, but that was getting a bit much for both you and me. I’m trying something different going forward, it might make life easier for all of us.
Rather than bombard you with daily posts, I’m now compiling them in, at most, weekly drops. This means I can still write my film reviews as and when I have chance and not worry about maintaining a regular schedule.
The posts will still be available individually, the only difference now is that you won’t get daily updates as I post each one. Much better all round, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In future I’ll do a few themed drops, but this will depend on what I’ve watched recently and/or written up. For now here’s the first batch of links to a few random reviews. Click the title to visit that review.
The threat of nuclear armageddon is explored when an American bomber suffers a technical malfunction and prepares to drop its bombs on Moscow. Released around the same time as Dr Strangelove, this is a chilling take on the subject.
Four people cross paths in London and their increasingly complex love lives are explored. This started life as a stage play from one time The Day Today collaborator Patrick Marber. The stage play structure is all too obvious, but otherwise there’s some good performances to enjoy.
John Cassavetes stars and directs as he focuses on the messed up lives of a brother and sister. It’s an interesting piece, and not necessarily one I would go out of my way to watch again.
Tobe Hooper and Stephen Spielberg’s supernatural classic. Who actually directed it, though? And, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Well, if you’re Tobe Hooper then perhaps, yes.
A demon is summoned in WW2 but is raised by the good guys. He has to fight undead Nazis and Rasputin. You know, standard.
I’ve said before how I don’t fully appreciate John Cassavetes’ work, and Love Streams is no different. There’s something about the features he directed that don’t quite gel with my appreciation of cinema. It’s entirely likely that I misunderstand the purpose of his films, what he’s trying to say in each of them. On the other hand it could be as simple as saying that we don’t get along.
In the case of Love Streams, it feels like a meandering, confused mess. There’s a plot in there somewhere, something about a drunken, cigarette smoking playboy type Robert (Cassavetes) and his genial but equally broken sister Sarah (Rowlands). They haven’t seen each other for years, so their reunion is a bittersweet moment. More so when he immediately gets out of the house and disappears for a short while. To be emotionally close to somebody else is inviting more pain into your life. Better to be distant, to drink, smoke and sleep with a random assortment of women.
The only thing that really stood out for me was the characterisation. There is a real depth to Robert and Sarah at the very least, their sorrow and malaise mixing to form what would otherwise be a nonsensical and completely obtuse production. Sarah’s the opposite of Robert in some respects. She’s coming out of a messy divorce, marriage being a subject that he would never entertain.
But then even this fails in some instances. Robert’s introduction to his son is handled well, but the boy’s reaction to his long absent father is a mess of contradiction. At first he hates him then, after an impromptu trip to Vegas (thus proving Robert is incapable of looking after anybody except himself), and Robert gets a punch in the face from the stepfather, the boy suddenly loves him. I think it was the punch that sealed the deal, but it doesn’t ring true.
In other areas it does work, if only for being completely loopy and off the wall. Sarah returns from one trip with a cavalcade of animals in tow, as if owning them all will somehow fix whatever emotional pain she is experiencing. The answer of course is that it won’t. For most people one pet, perhaps two would be enough to set you on the right path. When you’re basically bringing the whole zoo home with you, something is clearly amiss.
As it happens I’ve watched four Cassavetes films including this one, and it is perhaps my least favourite of the bunch. If it hadn’t been coloured by Cassavetes discovering that he had six months to live then it’s arguable that it wouldn’t have as much character as it does.
Judging by the high praise that Love Streams received in other quarters I am perhaps in the minority in not hailing this as a classic. It has its positive aspects for sure, but ultimately I was left cold, stood on the doorstep peering in and wondering why all of the people inside looked so depressed.
I’ll admit, I did go about this the wrong way round, watching the remake when it came out in 2015 before I’d seen Tobe Hooper’s original. The story and imagery are both things that most are now familiar with. A family are haunted by a poltergeist; the static noise on the television; the house being built on an old gravesite. These have since become significant horror tropes that have been played to death in other pictures.
The fact it’s a PG rated horror film from Tobe Hooper, with Steven Spielberg attached as executive producer, almost goes by you without being noticed. It’s still a scary film, no matter what rating it received.
In context the Tobe Hooper original makes much more sense than the remake, what with it being from the age of VHS, television static and burgeoning commercialisation. It also plays out much better – in the 1980s the structure of the family unit hadn’t changed all that much, not when compared to its structure here and now in 2016.
The special effects, too, are impressive for the era. The touchy feely tree, as I shall now dub it, is particularly impressive, as is the similarly touchy feely clown doll. These are important set pieces, if nothing else than for setting up the horrors to come.
Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams are a strong and resilient presence as parents Steve and Diane Freeling, determined to protect their three children from whatever it is that is haunting them. Intrigue at the poltergeist’s ability to stack furniture and move objects from one side of the kitchen to the other is soon replaced by terror as youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is abducted and taken to the other side.
Communicating with Carol Anne through the television, a group of paranormal investigators are brought in to try and recover her and return her to her family. It’s another thing that has since become a genre trope, but here it feels fresh.
Zelda Rubinstein is a wonderful presence in the story, a tiny, squeaky voiced presence as the paranormal expert intending to get Carol Anne back to this world. As great as Jared Harris is (in general and in the remake), Rubinstein is just better for this character. Time hasn’t been kind in that she’s been parodied left, right and centre, but that if nothing else shows how important a role and a film this was.
It’s not necessary for us to travel through to the other side and see what lurks there – the power of the imagination makes it all the more horrifying a notion. It’s a classic Spielberg approach to the unknown.
And on that note it raises an interesting point. Historically there’s a discussion around who truly directed Poltergeist. Did Spielberg ghost direct the film (no pun intended), or was it a full-on Tobe Hooper venture? It’s an argument that’s inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the tragically early deaths of both of the actors playing the daughters.
Still, with that unfortunate situation to one side, Poltergeist is a classic of the genre.
Hellboy began life in the pages of a Dark Horse comic written and drawn by Mike Mignola, a demon baby brought to Earth but rescued by the forces of good and tasked with protecting the world from evil. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, 2004 saw the release of a live action film featuring the character. And an enjoyable film it was, too.
We meet Hellboy on his first arrival on Earth during World War 2, an unexpected addition to our world after the plan of Rasputin (you know, the mad monk) to bring forth a demon from another realm and instigate Hell on Earth goes wrong. Standard villainy, right there. His initial efforts are thwarted and the story picks up decades later in the present. Hellboy is now working for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) alongside the fishy Abe Sapien and the fiery Liz Sherman (Selma Blair).
Ron Perlman, a regular collaborator with del Toro, is perfectly cast as Hellboy. He is sardonic and generally insecure, yet more than capable of being an action hero. Unless another Ron Perlman emerges, he is almost exclusively the only person capable of playing character in my book. Rather cannily, the fact he is a big, red demon is almost of no importance. Hellboy that is, not Ron Perlman.
Del Toro is a notable director for both his extensive attention to detail and bringing to life the wild reaches of his imagination, and Hellboy is yet another example of how creative his mind can be. Much of the film is presented in a washed out, grim and grimy vision of the world, stemming from those initial scenes of Hellboy’s discovery during World War 2.
The supporting cast are no less excellent. His voice may be dubbed over by Frasier’s David Pierce Kelley, but it’s the live action performance from Doug Jones that brings resident water dweller Abe Sapien to life. Thankfully he was allowed to voice his own dialogue in the second film. Selma Blair is Liz Sherman, a woman who has telekinetic powers that have a tendency to get a bit… fiery. Our way into this world is through Rubert Evans’ turn as John Myers, an FBI agent who joins the agency and has a thing for Liz. That gets awkward because so does Hellboy. That’s not going to end well.
More often than not this sort of film is let down by a lacklustre villain. Not so here. In fact you get three for your money. The mad monk Rasputin, Ilsa von Haupstein and Karl Kroenen. I’ll throw in Sammael as well for giggles, the hell demon who has the ability to re-spawn and multiply after every death.
It is, thankfully, an example of a comic book adaptation that has everything working for it. In terms of cast, script, director and visual flair. It’s dark when it needs to be, but always remembers to balance this out with a cracking fantasy adventure story and real depth to the characters.
The threat of nuclear armageddon was a very real thing throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, what with the United States and the USSR stockpiling enough nuclear missiles to guarantee mutually assured destruction at the slightest provocation.
And so the plot of Fail-Safe was a genuine possibility back in the 1960s, if not quite for the same reasons depicted here. There’s even a message at the end of the film from the US government stating that such a technical glitch would never have occurred. In any case, it was a scary prospect indeed.
Adapted from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, this Sidney Lumet directed cold war thriller sees an electrical error give a US bomber plane the appropriate codes to begin a bombing run on Moscow.
I could wax lyrical about the cast here. Walter Matthau, Henry Fonda, Dom DeLuise, Larry Hagman… All great in their own way.
The droll Walter Matthau as Groet… Groetes… that political scientist guy is superb. He’s a realist, not driven by emotion. It’s arguable that his cold world view is just as dangerous to the situation than the more emotive views held by those in power. In fact it seems to be the military’s position that to engage in any aggressive manner is tantamount to destroying the world.
Dom DeLuise I only mention because he would later go on to bigger things (mostly comedic) but here he’s in a bit part role. Likewise, Larry Hagman would go on to wide fame but here puts in a solid performance as a translator for the President, played by Henry Fonda.
It’s clear why Mubi paired this up with Dr Strangelove. Both films cover miscommunication that could result in nuclear war. Both films are classics from the period, but they differ in that Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies whereas Fail-Safe plays it completely seriously.
While it mostly consists of lots of men standing around looking at display screens with concern on their faces (no women – this was 1964 after all), there’s increasing tension as the unwittingly rogue craft gets closer to Russian borders. Some of the better moments come from a telephone call, of all things – one in which we only see the President’s side of the discussion. At no point do we jump over to Moscow to see their side of things. We hear snatches of conversation, interpreted by Hagman’s character, as negotiations become more tense.
It asks a lot of very pertinent questions about the strength of the Communist belief system, the moral implications of unwittingly attacking the Russians first, whether retaliation is likely to take place or if surrender will occur. It also provides a genuinely surprising ending, one that has an incredible amount of power to it. What lengths would our leaders go to in order to avert a full scale nuclear war? There is always an element of compromise, as horrifying as that might seem. It is this message that gives Fail-Safe its power.