Sunday, 22 May 2016

Batman v Superman by Terrio and Goyer

This movie was not as bad as I expected — I really didn't like Zack Snyder's previous Superman movie. No effort was made to get the audience to care for the characters and consequently all the fight scenes and special effects just left me cold.

But, as I say, this new effort is not as bad as I expected, and not bad in the same way I expected... but still pretty terrible. Shall we go through the headline mistakes?

Like so many movies of this ilk, it begins with a big action sequence which means nothing because we don’t care about the characters yet. I am developing a maxim for film writing: a car chase is only interesting if we care about the characters in the cars. 

Well, that's not the case here. So much so that there is a car chase during which I actually fell asleep.

Where was I? Oh yes, the other things wrong with this movie: the bullet of a mystery design which is shot into Lois Lane’s notebook, and which is a major plot point, doesn’t look like a bullet. Everybody in the audience (or at least I) thought it was another one of those little tracking devices which we just saw in the earlier scene. 

I must concede that the cast is excellent. Indeed Jeremy Irons as Alfred is far and away the best thing on the screen during the endless two and a half hours of this movie. Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Lex Luthor is a lot fun, until it begins to grate... Plus, I could have done without the revelation that he's an abused child. Oh well, that's you off the hook, then, Lex. 

But what is really unforgivable is that the "end of level" monster  (i.e. the one at the movie's big climax) is truly, unbelievably crap. I really mean I couldn’t believe it — I was absolutely sure it must metamorphose into something more interesting. But it didn’t. Guys, since H.R, Geiger created the Alien in 1979, this kind of crap is no longer acceptable.

Also, making your big shock ending the death of Superman is stupid beyond belief. Because literally nobody is going to buy the notion that he’s really dead. So there goes your ending. 

Oh, and Gal Gadot, who was supremely wonderful in Criminal, is wasted here as Wonder Woman. 

(Image credits: No shortage of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Written in Dead Wax: Going Underground

Okay, it may not surprise you to learn that it's been a hectic week. As I described in last Sunday's post, my debut crime novel Written in Dead Wax has just been published. In case you're intrigued, here's an account of what's been happening since...

Right, well on Monday I recovered from throwing the launch party on Sunday (which I catered myself; I also did the cleaning up afterwards — I'm multi-talented). 

Tuesday was the official publication day. I say 'official' because bookshops had already been selling copies for over a week, bless them.

Once upon a time books used to be "embargoed" until the publication date and it was a big no-no for a bookseller to break that embargo. 
 
Nowadays things are much more relaxed — unless it's a huge publishing event like, say, a new Harry Potter. And shops can start selling a book as soon as they get copies.

Publication week also saw the beginning of the poster campaign in the London Underground. I'm eternally grateful to my publishers, Titan, and my wonderful publicist Lydia Gittins for swinging this. Trust me, not all first novels get this kind of publicity push.

Officially the campaign runs from the 9th to the 22nd of May, but friends began to report sightings a few days early.

It's an amazing, trippy sensation to see your own beloved book on posters all over the Underground, or the Tube as we Londoners affectionately call it. I still can't quite believe it's happening. Indeed, when Lydia told me she'd got me some Tube advertising I thought she said "cheap advertising."

I celebrated the event by going on a pilgrimage with a list of poster sites. I didn't manage to visit (or even find) them all, but I did pretty damn good job. 

And here are the cream of the photos, all taken with my primitive phone camera, including a shaky portrait of the author obtained by importuning a passing commuter. I'm also oddly fond of the one with graffiti on it.

But — one of my absolute favourites — is the Bakerloo Line corridor at Oxford Circus which has a poster on both walls.

We're going to get them coming and going.

(Image credits: Mine, all mine... Maniacal laughter...)

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Written in Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel

Today I'll be laying out plates of food (cooked by my own fair hands) and putting on ice bottles of wine (rather a nice Rhône white), because I'm throwing a party. 

It's to celebrate publication of my novel, Written in Dead Wax, which is published in two days time — 10th May 2016, by Titan Books. The story of Waxy (as I affectionately refer to the book) and its journey from concept to publication is both straightforward and hellishly complicated...

When my friend Ben Aaronovitch became a bestselling author, he suggested to me that I should follow his lead. The important thing, he said, was to write about what you genuinely love. I thought, well... I love crime novels, and I love looking for rare records in charity shops...

And so the Vinyl Detective was born. I won't bore you with how it took six months to get an agent to read the first book, Written in Dead Wax. Or how I maintained my sanity in that period by writing the second novel, The Run Out Groove. 

And then, having fallen in love with the characters, I wrote the third one, Victory Disc. 

Or how the books were turned down, seemed to be dead in the water, years passed, and then my good friend Guy Adams put me in touch with a brilliant editor at Titan called Miranda Jewess and she fell in love with them...

Whoops, I guess I did bore you with all that. Anyway, thanks to Miranda — and Guy — I now have a three book deal, and the first novel is available in a couple of days time.
 
I hope you like it.

(Image credits: All of the pictures, come to think of it, are from me. Including the cover I commissioned from a talented designer called James King, back in the dark days when I thought I might have to self-publish.)

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Criminal by Cook & Weisberg

I was going to quip that any movie which kills off Ryan Reynolds in the first 15 minutes has to be a winner, but actually Criminal is much better than that and doesn't deserve to be dismissed in such a smart-ass way.

This is a thriller with a heavy element of science fiction — it involves technology developed by scientist Quaker Wells (Tommy Lee Jones) which allows a dead man's memories to be transferred to the brain of a living subject. The complication is that the living brain has to be undeveloped — stunted — in a certain way. And the ideal candidate is a dangerous criminal called Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner in a comeback role).

Ryan Reynolds has played a similar role in Self/less, one of the better films of last year, in which he was the recipient, rather than the donor, of someone's personality. But Criminal is even better.

This kind of story has its antecedents in the 1966 Frankenheimer film Seconds. And there are also echoes of Daniel Keyes's sf classic Flower for Algernon. I could go on to mention Ralph Blum's novel The Simultaneous Man, but that would be showing off.

The Reynolds character, Bill Pope is an intelligence agent who has — or had — vital knowledge of a deadly terrorist plot. His memories are duly downloaded into Jericho, who then escapes from the authorities but, as you might imagine, eventually ends up foiling the plot.

This is a fine thriller, with genuinely great use of London locations, but what really makes the movie is that Jericho is a sociopath who has never really experienced any emotional connection with another person — and he has to deal with the fact that the dead man's love for his wife and daughter (Gal Gadot and Lara Decaro, both dazzling) begins to surface in him.

Adding urgency and poignancy to the plot is the fact that Jericho only has Pope's memories in his head for about 48 hours — this is where it's similar to Flowers for Algernon, which told the tragic story of a mentally subnormal man who is given superior intelligence, only to gradually lose it again. In this case, what Jericho is going to lose is his humanity.

This is a truly terrific movie, with what used to be called a star-studded cast, which also includes Gary Oldman and Michael Pitt. And I was particularly impressed by the work of director Ariel Vroman (who previously did the Michael Shannon hitman movie Iceman).

But the real prize here goes to the writing team of Douglas Cook & David Weisberg who also wrote Double Jeopardy, another clever thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones. Here they truly deliver the goods in a complex, engrossing script with real depth.

My only quibble is the scene which depicts a London black-cab driver using GPS instead of relying, as is required, on his memory (ironic in a movie where memory is the theme). He's promptly shot dead, which is the least he deserved.

(Image credits: as usual where movie posters are concerned, Imp Awards comes up trumps.)

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz (pronounced "bunch-key-a-vitch") is a distinguished series of supernatural thrillers which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over the last seven years. The concluding mini-series has now gone out and the entire range of episodes were available online for a while here.  

Sadly these have now expired, but some of the adventures are available for download, and the whole thing will soon be available on CD (here and here).

I'm going into such detail about where you can hear these dramas because they're genuinely terrific and well worth searching out. 

They tell the story of William Palmer (superbly played by Paul Hilton), a stone mason in the 12th Century who was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury when he inadvertently offended the king of the Grey Folk (the fairies), who cursed him to life eternal. In the succeeding centuries Palmer has become a kind of fixer in conflicts between the Grey Folk and the Hot Bloods (humans). (Incidentally, Palmer is often referred to as 'Pilgrim', or Billy, suggesting that Baczkiewicz might be a Kurt Vonnegut fan — Billy Pilgrim.)

The series is made distinctive by its emphasis on regional locations and accents, and also its great use of popular music — usually to eerie or unsettling effect. Baczkiewicz is very talented indeed and has clearly learned from Harold Pinter in the way he writes taut dialogue which he pointedly invests with the jaunty menace of everyday cliché


I'd heard bits and pieces of Pilgrim over the years, but thanks to the recent BBC bonanza I was able to enjoy a week-long blitz of listening to all seven series (29 episodes), at a length of over 20 hours. The downside of this kind of 'boxed set' approach is that one detects certain element of repetition (people kept saying "What's that when it's at home?"); the much more substantial upside was seeing subplots slot neatly together and vivid minor characters recur in a welcome fashion.

My favourite episodes include Lyall Park, which combines elements of the Shining with the Lord Lucan case; Daventree Mansions, in which a magician disappears into a painting, and St Lewin, which features the priceless Mister Truffles.

Pilgrim is full of wonderful characters, like the were-fox Handley played by Joel MacCormack, the vivaciously dangerous Coral (Cassie Layton), and the seductive and lethal Mirabella (Janice Acquah). Baczkiewicz has a particularly strong line in villains including the aforementioned demon cat Mister Truffles (Zubin Varla) and the delightfully evil Birdie (Kate Fleetwood) who describes Pilgrim as "raggedy but kissable". 

In that regard the German CD cover is more accurate than the BBC ones — which stupidly seem to assume that Palmer is still wandering around dressed like a 12th century pilgrim. He isn't. Palmer's very modern in some ways, and the clash between the old and the new, and our hero's long-term world view, make for some interesting observations — he casually mentions that Picasso was a messy eater and some keenly amusing dialogue: "What did your last slave die of?" "Dysentery."

Or, when Palmer describes a troubled spirit he found inhabiting a well: "Inhabiting it how?" asks a sceptical young woman."Well, he didn't have a fitted kitchen," says Palmer.   

Baczkiewicz writes great dialogue: "If that face could talk..." "That face can talk." And I admire his descriptions of supernatural beings: "...a giant." ... "What kind of a giant?" ... "An I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman kind of a giant." 

I loved listening to this entire saga. Or, as one of Baczkiewiecz's sinister grey folk puts it, "A sausage dancing in a frying pan could not be happier."

My only regret is that it was over so soon. I feel it could have easily run for ten or twelve seasons instead of seven. There is a ray of light, though. Pilgrim hasn't been as emphatically concluded as Sherlock Holmes was when he went over the falls. And, like Holmes, I hope he'll be back by popular demand.

The Pilgrim dramas were directed by Marc Beeby or Jessica Dromgoole (a great name for this material.) 

(Image credits: .The groovy tree monster is from Rare Share. The cave is from the episode Jackson's Mill at the BBC. The wonderful cat Mr Truffles is from a gallery at the BBC. The 'Complete First Series' is from Audible. The rather cool painted cover of the 3-CD set, and the two images derived from it, are from the German publisher Christoph Merian.)

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Dune — the Folio Society Edition

Dune is one of the great science fiction novels. Many people would maintain it's the greatest. It's certainly one of my favourites, and I've written about it before.  What has prompted me to return to it is the release of a beautiful new version from the Folio Society.

With original first printings of the hard cover selling for $10,000, I'm always up for deluxe new editions of Dune at a more reasonable price. A few years ago the American bookstore giant Barnes & Noble added it to their range of collectible editions in a leather bound, illustrated hardback. This goes in and out of print, with the price fluctuating accordingly. But when it's available at the standard rate of about twenty bucks it's a tremendous bargain.

However, the Barnes & Noble Dune has been trumped by the gorgeous Folio Society edition, published in 2015. Far from cheap, with a retail price of seventy five quid, this is nevertheless the definitive hardcover version of Frank Herbert's 1965 masterpiece to date, and if you can afford it you ought to splash out.

The illustrations by Sam Weber are impressive — which is far from always the case with Folio Books, which suffer from wildly erratic art direction. Weber's style is sympathetic to the story and there are 12 full colour plates. The Barnes & Noble Dune had no plates, just illustrated endpapers, rather classily using the work of John Schoenherr, the greatest Dune illustrator. The endpapers of the Folio volume are devoted to some very nice maps. And Weber's embossed cover is just a beauty.

But where this edition really scores is with its excellent supplementary text. Michael Dirda has provided a notably perceptive introduction in which he talks about the sand worms surfacing in the desert "like Moby Dick rising from the depths." He correctly observes the parallels with Lawrence of Arabia and notes both are stories of "a young man caught up in a myth." And he makes a fascinating — and fresh — comparison between Dune and Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword.

Dirda is amusing on the "idiotic misjudgements" of the 23 publishers who turned down Dune, is insightful on Herbert's prose style and the way his short paragraphs drive the narrative; he sensibly equates the Bene Gesserit witches with the Jesuits (even the name is an echo) and makes an effective point about a single-product economy when he says "for 'spice' read 'oil'."

I'm seriously impressed by Dirda and I am going to seek out his Conan Doyle biography (a winner of the Edgar Award).

The Folio edition also features an afterword by Brian Herbert. I have the traditional suspicion of a son cashing in on father's writing (Brian has co-written a horde of Dune sequels) but he, too, has some compelling observations. He says his father "spent more time with Paul Atreides than he did with me", suggests that the Beast Rabban Harkonnen is "essentially a fool" archetype and finds an intriguing comparison with Beowulf.

Importantly both foreword and afterword make clear that science fiction writer Sterling Lanier is the unsung hero of the Dune saga. 

As an editor at the publishing house which finally accepted Dune, he was absolutely pivotal in the book getting into print at last
 
Without Sterling Lanier there might not be a Dune for us to covet in deluxe editions today.

(Image credits: The Folio images are from Gizmodo where you can find an excellent appreciation of this edition. The picture of the Barnes & Noble Dune is from a thread on NeoGAF.)

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Bone Tomahawk by A. Craig Zahler

The horror-western is an interesting hybrid, and one with considerable potential. So it's surprising how rare examples are. Of course, there's the proverbial — and silly —  Billy the Kid vs Dracula, but serious attempts at cross-splicing the genres are few and far between.

The best examples which come immediately to mind are a Harlan Ellison script for a 1968 episode of the TV show Cimarron Strip, called A Knife in the Darkness, which explored the idea of Jack the Ripper relocating in the Old West. 

And then there's a Richard Matheson novel called A Shadow on the Sun. Matheson was a specialist in horror who also wrote a considerable number of Westerns, so he was ideally situated to explore this specialised territory.

Well, sadly Richard Matheson is gone and Harlan Ellison largely inactive now, but a guy called A. Craig Zahler has fashioned an excellent film with the evocative title Bone Tomahawk (though I must admit that at first I thought it sounded like a porno comedy).

Without giving too much away, the premise of Bone Tomahawk is that a clan of highly primitive cave dwelling proto-Native Americans (referred to as "troglodytes") are discovered. They're ferocious and cannibalistic... and they've kidnapped the hero's wife. A posse sets off to rescue her, and a great deal of satisfying mayhem ensues.

The movie is a kind of cowboy take on The Hills Have Eyes... which is actually a great idea. Zahler does a commendable job of directing, but the strength really lies in his script. He's obviously done a lot of research, and his dialogue has an unerring sense of the period. Also, it's just good dialogue: "What's the time?" "It's about nine, but it feels like next week."

The characters are imaginatively conceived and well rounded, with a good cast to bring them to life, notably led by Kurt Russell as the sheriff, with Patrick Wilson as the aggrieved husband, Lili Simmons as his wife the local doctor and Matthew Fox as a gun-slinging dude. The music, by Jeff Herriott and Zahler is also memorable.

Zahler is a talent to watch. This film is extremely well made — and well worth checking out — assuming you don't have an aversion to westerns, or horror movies.

(Image credits: The posters are from Imp Awards.)