The end of a long year

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So that is almost the end of 2015. To be frank, it’s been an odd and a slightly disappointing year. We like to imagine that this is going to be the year that things happen, that the turning point is just ahead, but sometimes it’s just…a year. I’ve spent a great deal of it in limbo, stuck somewhere between the UK and Sweden, not really sure how things were going to work out. So far, it seems to have worked out okay, as these things do. We’ll just keep on plugging away at it until we sort the formula out.

I’ve had the as-new kidney almost a year and a half now, with no issues. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, it should continue merrily on that course for some time to come.

I’ve been pretty vocal about Kingdom’s Fall on Wattpad. Sorry if you got sick of it, but it seemed to do the trick. Almost 115k reads the last time I checked, and it got up to #4? in the overall charts. Considering the venue, I think it did really, really well. I’m not exactly certain what to do with it next. I’ve still got the outlines for the sequels sitting, although considering Wattpad is free I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to 300,000+ words of fiction that would basically be “exposure” and not much else. I’m glad I did it, though. I didn’t have much going on with the traditional publishing aspect of things, and only very late in the year broke the drought that my back and forth life seemed to impose on my writing and actually getting anything out there. The Pseudopod story went splendidly and I’ve got a story in the latest Fox Pockets book, Things in the Dark.

Re: the header image, I got to go and see Star Wars yesterday, which was pretty much exactly what I hoped it would be. It was really fun and I am really looking forward to the next few years of movies and adventures in the Star Wars Universe. There’s a moment in Return of the Jedi that is Lucas on his best day: when Luke refuses the Emperor and Palpatine replies, “so be it, Jedi.” It’s a perfectly tuned piece of delivery. A huge amount – the movie, the trilogy – turns on four words because even if the Rebel fleet is destroyed and Vader kills his own son it means nothing because Luke has *won*. In a Universe where to have power is to be constantly nagged by doubt and the fear that it will consume you, he masters himself. The Force Awakens has that same spirit of storytelling behind it, giving talented actors (young and old) big moments to deal with and trusting them to manage it without words, without overselling it. I didn’t cry, but it was a damn close thing. If you’re not sure about it? Let go of your feelings. Go see it.

So I’m looking forward to 2016. I’ve got a book in progress, lots of work to be getting on with, a flat to finish furnishing, and a list of museums and books the length of my arm. It might not be a turning point, but it’s a step on the road.

Now a real killer…would’ve immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.

Zorg Oldies-but-goldies

Almost 20 years since The Fifth Element came out? Man. Still a great film, though. Visually speaking it’s as mad as a sack of badgers but somehow that works wonderfully in it’s favour.

I don’t do writing advice. It’s not a thing I feel qualified or comfortable doing, chiefly because as far as my writing goes (and if you’ll excuse the layered puns that add a special level of cringe to the cliche) I’ve been literally making it up as I go. But this week I was asked to advise a student who is doing Creative Writing as a project, and I felt honour-bound to at least try. The gist of it was that he was going to write a novel. Or a novella. He wasn’t sure which it would be, but he was certain he would do it. Although first he had a plan to write. And an outline. And character profiles. And an essay on the themes of the novel. Because how else would he evidence it, if he didn’t have all these things?

I got the feeling there was an expectation of validation attached to the proposal more than anything else, but I tried my best to be honest. Here’s what I said.

– Put your arse in a chair, your fingers on the keys, and write. Keep doing that until you finish the book, because you will learn more about the process of writing a novel-length piece of fiction by finishing one more than anything else. And when the time comes to present your evidence, that stack of words – even if it’s a first draft, even if ninety percent of it is trash that you hate on a second reading – is worth more than essays and profiles of a novel that doesn’t exist.

– Don’t say it’ll either be a novel or a novella. They are different things, and you write them in different ways. A novel is a deep-sea dive. It takes skill and stamina to do it, and you spend a long time on that dive slowly uncovering something that was thought lost and bringing it back, whole, to the surface. Writing a novella – writing all short fiction – is like freediving. You dive down with nothing but the gasp of breath you took when you started. Every sentence simmers taut with the desire to surface, and the need to go deeper.

There was more, but it was on the specifics of his pitch and isn’t really mine to repeat. I thought what I’d said was sensible enough; he looked at me as though I had grown an extra head.

I can’t blame him. At that age, I wouldn’t have listened either.

Any excuse to post GIFs, really.

So! Let’s get off on the right foot here. I really enjoyed the Agents of Shield pilot. As a bridge between the longer format (and canon) of the movies and a weekly tv show, I think it did really well. It was fun and didn’t take itself too seriously and Coulson was exactly what a show like that needed to give it that twist that lifts things above the standard level of tv fare.

But.

it did lose me at one point. Very close to the end, and no, it wasn’t the flying car (although I did suddenly get an urge to watch Kopps again.*)

There’s a kinda, sorta maxim in fantasy writing** that magic should be consequential. I’m paraphrasing a lot of other people here because generally the saying goes that magic should have rules, or magic needs to have limits. I don’t agree with either phrasing, because I’m kind of fond of the idea of magic being this wild and limitless thing, but I do agree with the concept that whatever you do with it, there needs to be something else going on.

The same thing applies (for me) to science-y woo in tv and movies. I am perfectly happy with credit cards that can open any lock, cameras that enhance beyond their resolutions, “computer hacking” as an essentially meaningless thing that can be done in seconds by rattling out a few lines of code. I am fine with all that because they are nothing more than window dressing.

Here’s an aside. I watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol the other day. You know what I love about that movie? The Renner stretch.

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(This one’s for you, Lou!)

Okay. Renner aside, the movie is packed to the gills with science woo gadgets and – here’s the fun bit – most of them don’t work. The corridor gag dies when more than one guard is in Line Of Sight; the rubber mask machine dies on its arse; the contact lens camera irritates Brandt’s eyes and gives them away; the climbing gloves slowly fail as the sandstorm begins to pick up around the building. Nothing goes right for the disavowed IMF team and every time it happens the stakes are raised.***

Back to Agents of Shield. Near the end, Science Bod Leo Fitz informs Coulson that there is no way of stopping the reaction that is consuming Mike’s body. Either they kill him, or he will explode and cause a major incident. Coulson retorts that it’s unacceptable – that they need to find a third option and find it fast. This is all fine. We’re racing unstoppably towards two conclusions, both of which are – to achieve viewer satisfaction – just not on. Everyone has to live, and the team have to find a way to make that happen that (according to Fitz) defies their expertise.

But then we see Fitz and Simmons in the lab. Fitz is running a sim and panicking****, Simmons is telling him to calm down, and in the foreground a magic fucking bullet is being loaded in a press. That single shot lost me. Right there I knew there would be no difficulty in succumbing Mike. There would be no consequence, no price to be paid. Science woo would pull through – an impossible solution in an impossible deadline – and all that we had to do was wait.

Which was a shame, because I enjoyed the rest of it. Apart from Skye’s excessively perfect hair, of course. Did she park her van next to a salon? What the fuck was that all about?

 

*Swedish comedy from 2003. It’s hilarious. Trust me.

**I say kinda, sorta because if you’re REALLY, REALLY good then you can just do whatever the hell you like and still have it work.

***also the bit with Simon Pegg’s inflatable arm kills me. The simplest tricks are the best.

****side note – if they can run simulations of that complexity, how about Coulson being an artefact of a SHIELD training sim used to prep potential agents (Ward, Skye, Fitz, Simmons) for the field under the supervision of a desk-bound field agent (May)?

Reign of Fire

An edited version of this rant review appeared on the very lovely Geraldine Clark Hellery’s blog during the build-up to the Nun & Dragon release (*cough* still available! still has a story by me in! *cough*). I thought since Gerard Butler popped up in a post the other day, I’d do the full version on here now that a suitable period of time has passed.

Fair Warning – I do go on a bit about a movie that appeared in 2002 and promptly sank like a fucking rock.

So. On with the show. What’s the deal with Reign of Fire? Is it really a bad movie, or is it a sadly underrated gem?

Awkwardly enough, the truth lies somewhere in between. Things were never going to go well for it. Prior to its release the marketing team made some terrible mistakes in promoting the film, the most damaging being the creation of a poster that made the apparent promise of a helicopter versus dragon dogfight.

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There *is* a helicopter in the movie – an Agusta A109 – and I count eight distinctive silhouettes of fully-armed Apaches in the poster. Failure to deliver is the worst crime that we can weigh against Reign of Fire, and it’s not even the movie’s fault.

Poor marketing isn’t the end of the world, but a myriad of smaller flaws combined to drive nail after nail into the coffin of what could have been the definitive dragon/apocalypse film.

The characterisation is weak.

The men are caricatures, with Christian Bale as Quinn, who we meet as an adult (following his VO narration of the dragonocalypse) digging away at the foundations of a castle. Contractual obligations being what they are, he has his shirt off and is working away with a muscular vigour that seems somewhat at odds with the idea that the last of humanity is scratching at the very limits of survival.

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“Bad news. We’re out of chocolate protein shakes. Only got cherry and hazelnut left. War is Hell.”

Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), summoned into the tale by the Plot Gods, is even worse: a grimy, sweat-soaked Techno Viking who demonstrates his tenuous grip on what sanity he has left by leaning forward a lot and fixing people with his boggle-eyed stare.

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Whatever you say about Denton van Zan, you’ve got to respect a man who is happy to Wil. E. Coyote himself off a building. Yes, that’s a verb now.

The sole exception is Creedy, played by Gerard Butler, who serves as Jiminy Cricket to Bale’s Pinnochio, a lone voice of (admittedly sarcastic) reason in a world given over to ridiculous idealogical clashes.

The women, by comparison, are non-existent. Alice Krige gets maybe a minute of screen time, including a memorably brilliant establishing shot of her flagrantly ignoring all forms of workplace safety by using a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher underground to flash-chill a can of beer. Added to the fact that her twelve year old son can get on-site and down the work lift with only the offer of a cigarette by way of challenge, the appearance of a dragon can be perhaps read as less a sign of the end times and more a fast-track past the red tape of an industrial tribunal.

Izabella Scorupco appears later as Alex: helicopter pilot, inexplicable Van Zan devotee, and token love interest. What little dialogue she gets is mostly spent in defence of one man, or expressing sympathy for the other. I guess we’re meant to be happy that she gets to fly the helicopter?

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“Whee! This is symbolic of my agency! Did you know I’m also a successful singer?”

What it gets right, though, is the thing that should have been promised in the marketing – a post apocalyptic vision where people are just trying their absolute best to cope and survive. In the face of the setup – dragons burninating everything until there’s nothing left to burninate – Quinn has taken the course of action that makes the most sense. He’s gathered as many people as he can, taken them to the most remote and defensible point he can safely reach, and he has started digging. Ultimately, he’s hoping that the dragons will run out of food and the matriarch will go back into hibernation before he does. The fact that she will eventually return is immaterial – the scale of her sleep/wake cycle is so vast that it is – on the timeline of the thirty or so families he’s trying to protect – essentially meaningless.

It’s a great concept, and it’s a shame that more time isn’t spent on it. The balance of people to food and the constant risk and consequences of exposure are touched on briefly in a very satisfying and surprisingly well-handled way. The group that disobey Quinn aren’t rebels – they’re just hungry. As much as they let the collective down, he cannot bring himself to punish them because he understands their desperation. The atmosphere and character of the community shines when it is shown as being just that – a community. By far the most memorable moment is seeing Bale and Butler act out the climax of The Empire Strikes Back to an audience of wide-eyed toddlers (bonus marks for Butler for his reassuring “it’s okay, I’ve still got my hand” wave) and it’s a genuine shame that we don’t see more of it.

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Instead, we are passed over to a traditional Hollywood arc for the final third. Creedy is dispatched in an act of sacrifice that prevents him from picking holes in anything that follows, and Quinn throws every belief he has out the window before flying down to London to fight the dragon.

There’s a saying that goes, no-one ever sets out to make a bad movie, and yet bad movies still get made. In hindsight, it’s easy to see where Reign of Fire went badly wrong. It’s also easy to see where it went right, and could have gone much better. A little less man-versus-dragon and a little more of the human side of things and it could have become a classic.

Don’t believe me? Look at 28 Days Later, which also came out in 2002.

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Putting aside the incredibly weak setup (even the most ardent of animal liberators would know that opening a cage to an animal that’s been sorely abused, sticking your face in and smiling at it is a bad idea), it is a brilliant movie about how people try to cope with the end of the world. Yes, there are zombies, but the zombies are not the main event. It’s how everyone else reacts that drives the story forward, and it’s that difference that makes 28 Days Later the classic, and Reign of Fire the almost-ran.

Kung Fu Origin Stories

I woke up this morning wondering about how Kung Fu origin stories come into being. There’s always some sort of legend, or a young, unformed talent who does something or witnesses something that forms the seed of their school of kung fu – like the classic Wing Chun story of the nun Ming Na watching a crane fighting a snake and being impressed by the economy and beauty of their movements.*

These stories all invariably take place in the far distant past, with a hazy lineage of teachers stretching down to the present day, or at least until 1970 when suddenly they branch out faster than a pyramid sales scheme.

It amuses me to think of someone in China opening their first martial arts school back in the days of yore** and trying to sell this kind of story.

“How did you become a master of the wandering bun fist, sifu?”

“One day, I was running across the city with a delivery in my arms when I saw a man being attacked by four cutthroats. I set about them, using only my kicks to strike as my arms were full of packages for the delivery. I defeated them, and seeing the man was okay, I ran as fast as I could to deliver the food. The man who was attacked was a city official, and seeing me defeat those men so easily convinced him that I should be elevated from the level of humble baker to master…that is how Wandering Bun kung fu was born.”

“Come off it, sifu! You tripped over someone’s dog four weeks ago and hit your head – when you came to you’d decided to open this place. The only reason they let you, and the reason everyone comes here, is because your wife is super hot and she can make those dumplings that have dumplings inside the dumpling.”

“Yeah…those are pretty tasty. But can we stick with the mugging story? Sounds a lot better.”

Not sure why all this occurred to me…but it did.

*Personally I always found that odd because birds tend to go apeshit over the slightest threat, so unless economy and beauty is a mistranslation of “start flapping its wings like mad, screaming so loud my dog’s ears started to bleed and jumped up and down on the snake until it was not just dead but flat” then there’s something deeply wrong with the analogy.

**unspecified, like a fantasy novel.

Classic movies you’ve never seen, but should really watch.

Don’t worry – it’s not a diatribe…rather more of a request.

Talking to my brother tonight on the phone, he mentioned having ticked The Graduate off the list of films he should have seen some time ago, but simply hadn’t.  I saw it years and years ago, long before any comparison between Ben and Ross from Friends could have been made (but oh, so very apt – except Ben doesn’t visibly swell as the movie proceeds, oil-sheened skin distending glossily with the pressure of impossible real world riches), and honestly don’t remember the balance of it – but as I recall it’d be a better use of my time to just watch Marathon Man again instead.

So, I started thinking about movies that I should have seen, but just haven’t, and decided to follow that line of thought by inviting the world to suggest ones that I (or indeed my brother) might have missed.  My Lovefilm queue needs a bit of padding out, if we’re going to be honest, and I don’t think Lisa would smile too kindly on me popping the entire collection of Best of the Best movies on there just for the sake of numbers.

One of the first I’ve added tonight is Five Easy Pieces.  It’s a classic piece of 70’s cinema, a story about identity that resonated with the era of it’s creation – a difficult story of frustration and resentment that offers up no Hollywood-style resolution to the question of Dupea’s ill-at-ease rebellion – and yet I’ve never seen it.  I’ve even quoted one of the most memorable scenes – “I want you to hold it between your knees” – and I’ve never watched the bloody film.

Well, that’s easily fixed.

So – what else should I queue up?

Hispotal! Haspitol! I mean, uh, place with the sick people.

OK, so a little while ago I had to go into hospital for a kidney biopsy.  I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the operation itself, which I would list as highly unnerving, nor am I going to detail the six hours I had to lie on my back, not raising my arms, watching daytime t.v.  Lisa has already had to sit through that, and the glassy stare my rant precipitated was a fairly solid indicator that it sucked as potential ‘blog material.

What I am going to say is that anticipation of the event was a mixed bag.  On the one hand, I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience of having a large needle pushed into one of my internal organs, no matter how fine the gauge.  On the other, I was rather looking forward to the offer of “something to calm me”.

I never really got into the casual drugs thing in my formative years, as I was so tightly wound that just the prospect of using an illicit compound paralysed me with fear as I considered all the terrible things that could happen.

So, as an adult, the very reasonable promise that I’d be given something to send me off into another plane of perception was quite tempting.  You have a slight risk of bleeding internally, was the message, and if you do happen to do so, we’ll need to stick a long wire with a bristly tip up a blood vessel in your groin to try and stop it, but it’s okay – whatever happens you’ll be higher than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide.

Sadly, I was cheated on the promising front.  The doctor decided that I was sufficiently calm while discussing both the procedure and the sensations that would be part of it that I didn’t need anything other than the local anaesthetic applied to my biopsy site.  As a result, I didn’t even get the offer of “something” to calm me.  Just a brief warning that, should I move or breathe sharply, it would increased the chance of “suddenly piercing the large artery” and off we went.

By the way, when they stab you a couple of times after applying local, I now understand it’s to check sensation, so gritting your teeth and steadfastly not moving is very very bad because what happens then is they stick the biopsy needle in and you find yourself inadvertantly alerting the doctor, nurses and the corridor outside of your not-quite-anaesthetised state by going “FUCK” very loudly, after which a nurse comes into the room and bollocks both you and the doctor for scaring the next patient who happens to be on a trolley outside.

So that was me in hospital.  No results back as yet, or at least no one has communicated results, which is an entirely different thing.  I’d imagine if it was something terrible they’d get in touch with me sharpish, but maybe I’ll have to phone this week just in case.

Not my best day ever.

I noticed the PC was running a little slow; slow enough to really put me off typing anything because there was a distinct half-second of lag between keypress and changes on-screen. Suspecting the worst, I did a virus/spyware/etc scan and found the system to be clean, my protection up-to-date. I did a disk cleanup, defragged, installed all updates, restarted and…

Blue screen of death.

Pissers, thought I.

Today I spent the entire morning going through the motions of trying to rescue my boot cycle. Five hours later, I gave up, backed up all my writing and pictures to a USB stick and reinstalled Windows.

Stupid machine.

In other news I’m still waiting for my appointment with the renal consultant, which the GP was annoyed that I haven’t got yet. Also, we may have a house to move into! Joy!

Missing the point.

I really didn’t enjoy Grave of the Fireflies.  Enjoy is probably the wrong word to use for a film like this one, actually.  ‘Moved’ is probably more appropriate.  I wasn’t moved by it.

I understand that there are differences between Japanese culture (especially prior to the end of WWII) and Western culture, specifically surrounding the way people maintain pride and honour, but nevertheless I was at a loss as to why Seita, the main character in the film, behaves in the way he does.  I should probably note (before someone else does) that it was a semi-autobiographical novel before being made into a movie, and thus some portions reflect real events, although I don’t know how the novel differs from the movie itself and the particulars of the original history.  Even though it has a link back to reality, the whole thing annoys the hell out of me because of Seita’s increasingly contradictory actions – all of which contribute first to the death of his sister, and then to his own demise.

Basically, it all boils down to his relationship with the aunt who takes him in.  She scolds him for not doing anything; he explains that the steel works he was working in got bombed (but then doesn’t explain why that stops him looking for anything else).  Following an argument about food, which stems pretty much entirely from his unwillingness to say to his sister, “this is all we have”, he refuses to apologise to his aunt and instead goes to live in the wild, taking his four-year old sister with him.

I don’t get it.  Why couldn’t he apologise?  Why can’t he go out and look for work; even the meanest, most menial tasks to bring something to the table?  If he’s so concerned about that, why does he end up stealing?  Isn’t that worse than having to suck it up and eat humble pie?  It annoyed me so much that I completely refused to accept the film’s message about the personal consequences of war.  Everything that happened to them after their mother died might well have been irrevocable, but Seita didn’t exactly put a lot of effort into preventing it.