Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Big Mac and Fries, or ‘Still Scary’

Yup, this face just SCREAMS well-adjusted

Yup, this face just SCREAMS well-adjusted



I’ve written before about Stephen King  – I mean, let’s face it, the man is easily one of the most prolific authors in recent memory and his books (mainly thanks to the frankly bonkers amount they sell) have been adapted over and over again. Now, I’m well aware that King has his flaws – the rapid pace at which he churns out novels is not necessarily conducive to decent quality control and and his nigh unshakable devotion to the New England milieu can get trying but I think, and have thought for a very long time, that King has been seriously under-appreciated critically.

He’s somewhat hampered as a genre author – literary critics tend to be quietly dismissive of those who cling to rigidly to the tropes of a genre and King himself self-deprecatingly compared himself to the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, which strangely, makes me respect him even more as he seems to be aware of the criticisms against him and, y’know, not really care about them.

Whilst the limitations and tropes of his genre do sometimes affect the quality of the final product I’ve always felt there is more ambition and scope in King’s writing than is acknowledged, and it’s one of his more interesting novels I wanted to talk about here as it shows one of the prevailing concerns of King’s writing that often gets glossed over.

The 1987 novel ‘Misery’ is a book about a writer and the struggles of writing – immediately echoing some more well known of King’s fiction. The main character is Paul Sheldon a successful romance writer who, after finishing his first non-romance novel gets caught in a severe snow-storm and is severely injured, shattering both of his legs. His is rescued by a reclusive, obsessive former nurse called Annie Wiles who just so happens to be his biggest fan. Of course Annie is none-too-happy when she discovers that in the last of his romance novels Paul killed off the beloved protagonist and wants to write more ‘serious’ fiction. It turns out that Annie isn’t just obsessive but is seriously insane, prone to homicidal rage and she has a background steeped in murder the weak. This writer with the broken legs is then forced by his crazed captor to write a new book bringing back his formerly killed off character under threats of torture and physical pain.


The beard hides his writerly pain

The beard hides his writerly pain

Alright, so it isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor but what shouldn’t be overlooked is that this is a very well put together horror tale. The characters are compelling – (if this is King being a little autobiographical he should be commended for his honesty), the set-up and environment does not strain credulity too much and it manages to generate some very deep scares. (more on that later)

It may not be subtle but it is highly effective and compulsively readable. Paul Sheldon as a character is identifiable and as with other works King manages to construct an interesting tension between love/hate, need and fear, not just in his relationship with Annie but in writing itself too. With Annie he fears her but at the conclusion of the novel finds himself missing her and her narcotics that she dosed him with, his good ‘Annie-dope.’ His insights on writing aren’t shallow here, even if they aren’t subtle and it’s clear that King genuinely does have an interesting relationship with his craft and how a writer produces something in a creative way when writing has become more and more about business and keeping fans happy at the expense of your own creative energy.

This is something that has gone through King’s work, as far back as the Shining, a weird tension between love and fear that King seems to be fascinated with and is a mainstay of Gothic horror fiction for as long as the genre has existed.

The book was a success though King was reluctant to sell the rights thanks to how previously films had been adapted. Thankfully Rob Reiner got hold of the film rights after King had been persuaded by how he had treated ‘Stand by Me.’ This is a very faithful adaptation but it manages to stray away from being self-indulgant. Much of the gore is skipped over and the focus of the film is on the psychological contest that emerges between Paul (played by James Caan) and Annie (the magnificent Kathy Bates.)

Would YOU turn her down for an Oscar?

Would YOU turn her down for an Oscar?

This tight focus really does help the film as instead of getting distracted by the musings on writing that worked in the book what we’re left with is a battle of wills. The gore being minimised doesn’t affect things much either as there is one scene which is different from the book, but in my view actually better done.  At one point Annie becomes aware Paul is attempting to escape – in the book she cuts off his foot with an axe and then cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. The writing is close and intense and Paul’s terror is very well done. The key is the film didn’t aim to recreate the book but rather translate it. In the film Annie uses a block of wood and a sledgehammer to ‘hobble’ him. Watching the scene you can’t help but notice the effort that has gone in to telling something that was originally literary in cinematic language. Annie Wilkes is all sweaty, wide eyed close ups, and the choice of perspective makes us, along with Paul look up to her. The expert editing and shooting makes this not just a great horror thriller but a great example of how to adaptation well. Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her performance, proving that even if it’s a Big Mac and fries, occasionally that can be just what you’re hungry for.



Commissioning Ideas, or, Don’t Screw These Up


Given how utterly risk averse the big studios have become in recent years the number of literary titles that have been adapted into one form or another. By and large though the results haven’t been good. Quite often they’ve been very not good and to be honest it’s getting more than a little frustrating. Reboots and remakes have been dominating the box office and it would be beyond nice to see an adaptation done well. It can, after all, happen even if lately it seems to be only classics that can be translated from one medium to another with any skill. So I kicked around a few ideas for new films and TV shows based on books that could work well in a different format. Any ideas of your own? Think I’ve missed something obvious? Let me know and join in in the comments.

Brave New World

Yeah, this just about does it justice...

Yeah, this just about does it justice…


I’m not sure what’s behind it but has anyone noticed that recently we’ve stopped doing sci-fi? And I don’t mean pieces of disingenuous lens flaring fan service but proper high concept film making that tried to do something smart. I mean, Blade Runner is widely considered to be one of the best films ever made, and whilst the Matrix trilogy had serious issues it was at least packing some serious philosophical and intellectual ideas. Lately though it seems like the ideas have just dried up a little – Oblivion was dull, Source Code and In Time were good ideas but not given nearly enough attention and the Ender’s Game movie? Yeah, I wouldn’t hold your breath if I were you…

That’s why Brave New World could be a great idea – first published in the 1930s by Aldous Huxley it’s the dystopian vision of a world were humanity has achieved happiness. Sex, drugs, technology and genetic engineering has made the world stable, safe and completely horrifying. The one person who seems to feel out of place is the intellectual Bernard Marx, who goes to the Savage reservation to find someone who doesn’t live the way that everyone else does. I’m reluctant to spoil it as this is one of favourite novels and if you haven’t read it, you really should. It’s a high concept work of art that contains a powerful warning against mindless consumption, the benefits of language and solitude, the power of poetry and even the upside of being unhappy. It would have been hard to make because of the high level of world building necessary and, as it’s a dystopia, it does not have the traditional happy ending but there is a smart, scary intelligent thriller here waiting to get out – (and be better than the made-for-tv movie starring Lenard Nemoy, yes, really…)

Potential Director: David Cronenberg and his skill with body horror could be an interesting choice or failing that, Duncan Jones deserves the chance to do a real sci-fi epic


From sci-fi to the very mundane and the setting of small town Scotland. Following his recent announcement of terminal cancer the Scottish author Iain Banks won’t be around for too much longer so it would be nice to see an adaptation of one of Scotland’s brightest literary talents. Banks first came to national prominence on the back of The Wasp Factory, a deeply unpleasant and unsettling portrait of a disturbing young man called Frank. Reading it is like stepping into another world, and it’s the same here with Stonemouth. The story follows a young man who returns home to a small town in the North of Scotland for the funeral of family friend after being forced to flee town years earlier by the local crime lords. It’s a Scottish soap opera, full of sex, drugs and violence. Banks captures what it’s like to go home after leaving and the strange combination of familiarity and melancholy, especially if you’ve never fit in all that well in the first place. The book is compelling readable thanks to Banks’s ability to ratchet up tension and the story is told from the point of view of a flawed, but sympathetic protagonist trying to deal with the one night where he made an incredibly bad decision.

Potential Directors: Given his work in Scottish cinema Peter Mullan would be the obvious choice. It’d just work.

Don't let the smile fool you...

Don’t let the smile fool you…

The Little Stranger

Described as 'charming' by any estate agent who looks at it

Described as ‘charming’ by any estate agent who looks at it


If there’s one thing that there just isn’t enough of on TV it’s something that can provide chills and scares for the whole family. Yes, I know there’s Doctor Who but when that’s off the air the choices are few. This novel from the exceptionally talented Sarah Waters would be perfect. Set in rural Warwickshire in the 1940s the story follows a young doctor called in to help the family who own the dilapidated stately home. Strange things start happening as the family, and the doctor himself start to entertain the idea that the house is haunted. The story is aching for the BBC treatment, elegant costumes, beautiful but faded locations and things that go bump in the night. It helps that Waters’s has had book adapted previously – the excellently received Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were both done so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for this to be put into production. With some great characters, strong dialogue and a setting that could(would) look stunning if done right this could be a brilliant six part series to liven up a schedule somewhere.

Potential Directors: Tom Hooper. After the success of Les Mis he may well be too much in demand but with his penchant for beautifully arranged and artfully shot films something like this would be the ideal project to return him to the small screen where he started.


If there’s one thing that has been popular at the box office it’s the idea that we need someone to come and save the world. That life as we know it is on the brink of completely falling apart and the only thing that can stop it is some heroes (masked or otherwise…) Still, an interesting question to ask is what would really happen if the world really did ‘end?’ Jose Saramago breathtakingly brilliant book could be the wake up call that the horror genre needs. The premise is wonderfully simple. Everyone starts to go blind. A man goes to the doctor but the doctor loses his vision when he tries to read his textbooks. The afflicted are rounded up and imprisoned but escape when the asylum they are trapped in catches fire. Society collapses and chaos reigns. There have been a few films that have tried to look at society in this way but they tend to get respect rather than audiences. The Road was probably the last film released that looked at societies collapse but audiences found it hard to watch, too bleak and too small scale. Given the bloated and butchered World War Z it seems that there is appetite for a horror film that tackles these themes but the execution has thus far been lacking. Blindness could be a chance for a filmmaker to experiment with translating literary language into cinematic language and making something new, fresh and scary – it may have been done once already but it didn’t quite hit the heights it could have and it ended up being rather predictable and slightly staid. So, given to an auteur filmmaker it could be exceptional rather than just another mediocre thriller.

Potential Directors: John Hillcoat would be the best bet. After all, he’s already documented the end of the world once – maybe he’d be up for doing it again?

Note to would be director. NOT THIS

Note to would be director. NOT THIS


So, what do you think? Do you have a favorite book you’d love to see on the big or small screen? Join in!



GUEST POST: The place beyond fine

So I wrote another guest post here. Let me know what you think!

(I promise I’ll get back on to just doing adaptations soon – promise!)

Oscar Winners in Review – Lincoln

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff...

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff…


Let me begin in what might well be quite an unusual place for a review of an Oscar winning movie. I don’t like Stephen Spielberg very much. Or at all actually. It took me a while to actually work out what my problem with him was.  I always knew he was a competent film-maker and he seemed to be able to marry the tricky partnership of blockbuster and critical success but still I wasn’t quite OK with him. It was watching Schindler’s List that made things click for me. The whole film is filmed in monochrome apart from one scene. In the midst of a ghetto clearance the camera focuses on a little girl in a bright red dress. It’s an emotional manipulative trick that bypasses any sense of intellectual, political outrage you may have felt at watching the actions of the Nazi’s and replaced it with gooey, cloying sentiment. It’s a theme that runs through a lot of his work; from Saving Private Ryan to AI he seemed incapable of dealing with serious topics without that same overly cloying sentiment getting in to ruin things. Essentially I had Spielberg written off as a purveyor of perfectly packaged emotional pornography. He might have been popular but was never going to be someone that I took seriously. (Actually – thinking about I do like the first two Indiana Jones films but seeing as they are heavily based on the adventures flicks of Spielberg’s youth – yes they are both very good films, but hardly original stuff…)

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

Then I saw Munich. Far from a perfect film it actually seemed to be an artistic step forward for it’s director as it managed to engage with some seriously weighty issues about geopolitical history without taking the easy way out and getting overly sentimental. In fairness when I checked out the credits I shouldn’t have been surprised as the screenplay was co-written by Tony Kushner. For those of you not familiar, Tony Kushner is probably one of the most important figures in modern American theatre, producing the two part Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America. It, and the rest of Kushner’s work is a combination of the highly dramatic, the beautifully characterised and the wholly dramatic. He manages to combine genuine emotions and big ideas in a way that Spielberg can’t and his work on Munich gave the noted director one of his most interesting films.

This was their follow up collaboration and came into the Academy Awards nominated for pretty much every category going (including the highly prestigious ‘Best Beard’ award) but it only managed to scope one – Best Actor for Daniel Day Lewis.

Let’s be blunt for a second, Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor in the world and has been for a very long time. The film is made by his presence and there is not a single actor alive who could have pulled of a performance of such depth, clarity and nuance. Out of everybody nominated there was not a single person who came close and he thoroughly deserved the award.

So, how is the film?

It’s…good. The film follows the final four months of Lincoln’s life as he tries to get the 13th Amendment passed in the dying days of the civil war. As expected Spielberg handles the action and the period detailing very well. It’s also heartening to see him handle the war and the politics of the story so well, and you get a good sense of Lincoln the great orator and political titian. It’s a film that was crafted to win Oscars and awards and you can see the effort put into every aspect of it’s making. The supporting cast is stuffed to the brim with talented character actors and some serious talent including Tommy Lee jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley. At this stage in his career Spielberg didn’t have to scrimp to get this done and if you enjoy historical drama that doesn’t neglect from either part of that combination this really should have been one you’ve seen already.  The only downside is that Daniel Day Lewis is so good that when he isn’t on the screen the film noticeable is not as good. Yeah, seriously.

"Don't take it personally. I'm just better than you two"

“Don’t take it personally. I’m just better than you two”

There have been the usual and expected critiques from the historians who have criticised the story for making things too simplistic, and it might well be true that real events were more complex and intricate than Kushner and Spielberg portray, but they aren’t historians. They’re a writer and a director trying to tell a story with iconic characters. The American mythologizing does grate a little I won’t lie but thanks to the Kushner’s script and a truly incredible performance from Daniel Day Lewis this is easily my least hated Spielberg movie ever.

No wonder it won an Oscar.



Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – Lit Reviews

It's an awesome jacket. Seriously, just look at that

It’s an awesome jacket. Seriously, just look at that



Firstly this one is kind of embarrassing for me. I’ve been running this blog for about twelve months now and this is the first time I’ve actually just reviewed a book. Not an adaptation, not a book and a film but just a book. Normally I wouldn’t do this – I like having a blog that fits a specific niche and a strict focus as it means that this blog can talk about things that maybe don’t get talked about elsewhere. However, this is a special case and I hope you’ll allow me to bend the rules a little here.

I’ve said before repeatedly actually that the internet is a great place. It allows artists and creative to distribute their art. It allows people to question and learn from people who have found success and it allows people to offer advice and criticism on things that others put out into pop culture. You only have to look at the popularity at sites like channel awesome and an explosion in ebook publishing to see how people both love advice and love criticism too. I’m optimistic about this because it forces those who offer advice and critique to be willing to put their artistic money where their mouth is. So, let’s talk about Chuch Wendig.

I first became aware of Chuck thanks to Twitter and his own blog where he dispenses some incredibly foul mouthed writing advice. He’s also the author of the following

–          500 ways to be a Better Writer

–          500 more ways to be a Better Writer

–          250 things you should know about writing

–          500 ways to tell a better story

And when I saw that he published fiction too, I’ll admit there was a thought that crept in from the ugly little lizard part of my brain, ‘Oh yeah? You had better be good at this, or I’ll tear you a new one’



So I bought Blackbirds, ready to roll up my sleeves and give It a good critical beat-down. And then I read it. I read it in one sitting, devouring it like nothing I’ve read lately. And I’m in the middle of a degree where I have to read all the time.

Let’s cut to the chase. It’s good. In fact, it might just be great and you all need to go read his blog, follow him on Twitter and go and by his books. But before you all do that I should probably explain a few things. So, firstly a rundown of the set-up – Miriam Black is a young, rootless woman who spends her time hitching rides around the highways and by-ways of America. She has the unique ability that any time she makes skin on skin contact with someone she sees how they are going to die. After meeting a trucker she sees that he’s going to die in 30 days, tortured to death and calling her name. There, we begin.

I’m not going to give away any more about the plot because that would be unfair because it’s something I shouldn’t spoil. Wendig writes like a man possessed – his narrative style is like a bull in a china shop, a big rampaging tornado of profanity, blood, sweat and tears that makes Miriam an incredibly compelling character to be with. As an anti-hero Miriam in less skilled hands would be clichéd, flat and irritatingly passive but here the writer is skilled enough to make her vulnerable, violent and philosophical. It’s a hard thing to pull of the mix of philosophy, violence and fragility but Wendig manages it better than anyone, (perhaps Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf comes closest in terms of similarity) With his narrator it’s like Chuck met Carrie White after she left home and spent a few years drinking whiskey from the bottle whilst getting into bar fights together.

Technically and structurally Wendig proves that he more than knows what he’s doing. The book is meticulously planned so that not a single sentence is superfluous and the narrative is a lean mean fighting machine. Everything is characterising, every action is consistent and everything is about driving the plot forward.

For those seeking slow languid writing, this isn’t for you. This is narrative, served black, strong and straight up. It won’t be for everybody but for those who are looking for a shotgun blast of narrative that has brains, a heart and a liberal sprinkling of profanity you need to get this guy’s books.

As someone who is studying Gothic fiction, there is something really cheering to see in what Wendig is doing. Blackbirds is defined on its jacket as urban fantasy, which to be honest is a slightly unhelpful genre description. There are elements of the fantastic here but the dark, moody and viscerally violent tone makes it much closer to a modern Gothic horror and thriller.

Of course he writes Gothic horror. I's obvious

Of course he writes Gothic horror. I mean…it’s obvious

It isn’t a perfect book – the unabashedly hyper narration slips just occasionally into something I struggled to take seriously and the whole thing is a little rough around the edges. That works though, as it feels like a book that was written honestly – not by someone  who had researched his markets and target demographics, but someone who had a story that he had to get out.

It’s raw, honest uncompromising storytelling. Get it.



Oscar Winners in Review – Silver Linings Playbook





For all of the incredible stuff that the movies have produced, radically shifting how we view, interact and understand our world and respective cultures there are still things that films genuinely struggle to portray well – one of the most prevalent being mental illness.  It turns out that trying to represent complex, subjective things can be really quite difficult, especially when they don’t translate well to the language of cinema. It isn’t easy to portray the complex, often abstract language of someone’s inner mental and emotional life without being overly reductive so when a film manages to do so well, it’s something that should be celebrated.

As a preemptive defense I should say that the film does still feature a quirky romance, a couple of attractive leads and an older respected actor holding down the supporting cast role but it does genuinely try to engage with complicated  issues around mental health. It’s garnered quite a cult following and proves that the good looking lead might just have some serious talent as an actor in provocative material.


Not Pictured Zach Braff's quirkiness

Not Pictured Zach Braff’s quirkiness



Oh, alright I’m being a little facetious but this is all by way of perspective. Silver Linings Playbook is a good film, a refreshing look at personal problems and a genuinely outstanding performance from Jennifer Lawrence. The film follows Bradley Cooper playing Pat, a man with bi-polar disorder who is released from a psychiatric hospital after forming a close friendship with Danny (Chris Tucker! Playing the comedy relief character? WHATEVER NEXT) Pat moves back home, determined to get his life back together and reunite with his estranged wife. Through a friend he s introduced to the recently widowed Tiffany Maxwell (played by Lawrence) and the two develop an odd friendship due to their respective weird neuroses.

She offers her services as go between for Pat and Nikki as long as Pat will partner her in an upcoming dance competition. Pat ends up getting a typed letter from Nikki that drops hints that maybe the two of them could get back together. As Pat and Tiffany grow closer Pat’s father gets into gambling trouble after some bad bets at a football game and needs his son to score well at the competition to get him out of trouble. The only way Pat Snr and Tiffany persuade Pat to dance is by telling him that Nikki will be there at the contest. The twist is that Nikki never wrote the letter – Tiffany did, and of course, she shows up at the contest any way. Thankfully it ends up all coming out OK as Pat realises that he doesn’t want to get back together because he is love with Tiffany.

And they all lived happily ever after.

If there is anything that the film shows it is the potential of the individual, and here I am not referring to the cast, (as excellent as they are.) The film works solely because of the involvement of director and writer David O. Russell.  He’s somewhat of an odd duck in American cinema, with the ability to pull together strong and interesting films – “quirky” but without the negative connotations that word deservedly carries. He’s gained a reputation as a bit of a hot head too, getting into arguments and fights during at least two of his films.

That said it’s the screenplay that makes this work and the direction adds the shine. Yes, the leads are charming but they behave precisely how they SHOULD behave because they are leads in a screwy rom-com. Thanks to the quality of the writing and directing this isn’t that noticeable as Russell manages to keep the film dancing the fine line between bittersweet and romantic.

So, did it deserve its Oscar win? Tough to say really and whether Jennifer Lawrence is really the best actress of the year, based on this film alone, is a genuinely close call. She’s unmistakably a serious acting talent but I would like to see her in more challenging and interesting roles as here all she needs to do is be charming and sort of kooky (Zooey Deschanel should be worried…) Added to that the fact she has managed to get the internet to fall in love with her and a star was deservedly born when she won. It might sound like I’m not giving the film enough credit but what I do like is that this is a film that manages to tackle things like mental and marital breakdown, football and romance with deft writing and great direction.

The most epic face any Oscar winner has ever pulled

The most epic face any Oscar winner has ever pulled

Russell has always had an interest for trying to combine blockbuster mentality with interesting ideas and he is the only film-maker I know of who would try and make an ‘existential comedy.’ That said, I don’t think this is the best thing he could do.  Which means that even when he hasn’t hit his stride yet he still manages to win Oscars.

That’s actually kind of impressive…



Never Scene It – Volume 1

Oh look., we're both too old for these roles.

Oh look., we’re both too old for these roles.


There is an inevitable side effect of being a movie geek, which is after a certain amount of time you acquire a reputation for being ‘that guy.’ You know ‘that guy’ – the one who’s seen all the right films and owns the right DVDs. Well, I thought for a while I was going to be ‘that guy’ but I’ve started to realise that there are some serious gaps in my movie knowledge. I’m not just talking about films that you’re supposed to have seen, (we’ve all got a few of those after all) but rather films so popular that when I crestfallenly admit I haven’t seen whatever classic slice of cinema is in question that the response is usually something along the lines of, ‘BUT HOW CAN YOU HAVE MISSED THAT!’

The implication, of course, being that maybe I was raised by wolves, or inside a small steel lined box which no culture could penetrate because anyone who hasn’t seen whatever classic is in question CANNOT EXIST, right? So to spare the pitying glances of some I’ve decided to cure myself – to mend the gaps I my cinematic knowledge and actually sit down and watch some of these films.

First up, Grease.

(But HOW can you never have seen Grease!?)

See that ^ don’t do that again…

So, here we go. Grease is a 1978 musical film based on the 1971 stage musical of the stage name. It’s also just an awful, awful piece of work and doesn’t deserve anything approaching the veneration and plaudits it seems to have garnered. Allow me to explain, the plot, (such as it is) follows Danny and Sandy who meet one summer and then have to navigate the path of adolescent ‘true love.’ After a frankly bizarre series of sub-Python credits we see a couple frolicking on a beach, both of whom are clearly completely unaware that frolicking hasn’t been non-ironically committed to celluloid ever. And frolicking isn’t a thing.

But enough nit-picking.

So, who are these people? What are their names? Wither is their motivation and why should we care? These are all reasonable questions and questions that the film has no interest in answering. Through dull, exposition heavy dialogue we learn their names are Danny and Sandy and that, far from breaking up, this is ‘only the beginning.’ Placed at the beginning of the film it is hard to see how anyone could have figured that out for themselves and it is truly considerate that the amount of cognitive energy the audience has to extend is kept to the absolute minimum.

Danny, it turns out, is a greaser, which is apparently 1950s style slang for preening ass that wears leather and constantly cracks misogynistic jokes. He hangs around with a bunch of guys who wear the same thing and do the same thing. At the same time as he goes back to school with his awfully unlikable friends, guess who turns up at the same school? Why, it’s the girl he met over the summer. And talked to. And both of them, in the time it took for them to fall in love, never communicated the tiny insignificant fact that they both attended the same school, they managed to establish she might be going back to Australia but never got round to asking where they both lived!. Look at the way the coincidences are just PILING up in violation of any rules of good story telling. Well, you better get used to that because if you don’t like contrivance and poor story-telling, then you are watching the wrong film my friend!

On working out who they two of them are and the fact they both like each other Stockard Channing (by far the best person in this) arranges for the two to cross paths again. So, they can catch up and we can finish things here, right? Ready…


Danny acts like a complete douche because he can’t let his group of friends see that he might have *gasp* FEELINGS and Sandy runs off confused and humiliated. Here’s a thing though – he didn’t have to do that. At all. I mean come on; he couldn’t let his friends see that there was a girl he liked? They all just finished a song talking about the hot girl he met over the summer (including the first of many lyrics that include horrible rape jokes – y’know, for kids!) I know things were different back in the dark ages of 1959 but what would have happened if Danny had admitted he knew who Sandy was? The film would have ended. Instead he acts like a total jerk, which doesn’t make him a compelling protagonist – it makes him an irritating tool. And stupid. And a tool.

Everything about this screams punchable.

Everything about this screams punchable.

So, there you have it folks, that’s the set up and the rest of the plot is a contrived attempt to get the two back together. Yes, there are a few sub-plots thrown in, including one where Frankie Avalon turns up to sing about staying in school, but the main story line is whether Olivia Newton John (30 years old, playing a high schooler) will get back with John Travolta.

Seeing as this film is about that, let’s pause for a second and talk about the sexual politics here. I’m not going to say that this aspect of the film is bad, but that is only because it regularly plummets down to horrible levels. The lyrics are amongst the worst aspects (*did she put a fight?* ewwww) with the guys being universally portrayed as sexual predators and girls are mocked if they aren’t giving in. This film gets angry when a woman turns down a man’s sexual advances – the guys get furious when “chicks” don’t “put-out” like they should. The best example of the rape culture of the film is the drive-in scene, where if this film hadn’t been so insanely happy-go-lucky and upbeat, where if it had been any other film, that scene would be the one where Olivia Newton John fights off a guy who is trying to sexually assault her.

Finally the two DO get together though but only after Sandy has transformed herself from the kind hearted non-smoker who Travolta professed his love for at the beginning to a Greaser girl in skin tight leather. Thus the film ends with the moral that yes, you can find love if and ONLY if you change everything about your appearance to keep the man happy, if you start smoking and look skinny.

Oh, and then the two of them fly off in a car.

Because screw you physics. Screw you

Because screw you physics. Screw you

That was the thing that got me, and it’s here people tell me to stop over-thinking things. ‘It’s a musical Jon! Suspend your disbelief!’ No. No, sorry but you can’t pull that out of the bag at the last second. “Look, they’re together ohandbythewaycarscanflyinthisuniverse ROLL CREDITS.” Is it a magic car? A car that is in any way explained to be special? No, it’s a car that we’ve seen do a street race. And now it can fly.

Sexist. Contrived. Poorly written. And cars fly.

Screw you Grease.



Oscar Winners in Review – Paperman


I imagine a few of you may well be taken aback from the title. Oscar Winners is this supposed to be? Oscar winners, you say, but what the HELL is Paperman? Well, allow me to explain slightly angry hypothetical reader – ‘Paperman’ is beautiful, short, animated and Oscar winning film making. Rather than spend all of my time in this little retrospective review series focusing on the big awards, the one that get all the attention I thought I would also try and give some (albeit limited) publicity to films that win the awards but have the bad luck to win the awards that nobody really seems to care about.

So ‘Paperman’ is the winner of the Oscar for best animated short, and as with most “minor” awards the best animated short is usual a good place for higher-ups at studios and in the industry generally to keep an eye out for promising talent and maybe give some of the struggling future success stories their first big break. Somewhat unusually, or maybe just counter intuitively that wasn’t the case here as the film had the backing and production money of Walt Disney and was directed by John Kahrs. For those of you not intimately familiar with the hierarchy and inner workings of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood (that would include me but thank the Lord for google) Kahrs is one of Disney’s animators who has taken a leading role in animating things like Tangled (2010) all the way back through Disney’s history to ‘A Bugs Life.’

So, rather than be a break-through piece maybe the best way to think about this is a respected creative artist being given a little more freedom to try something outside the limitations and demands of producing a smash, big-budget Disney movie. Then the question has to be, what’s new about this? Is it the writing?


The plot follows a business man who falls for a woman that he sees and then spends the rest of the film trying to get back in touch with. It’s a sweet, but rather slight story but that isn’t what makes this film so good. What makes this film so good is that it quite possible changed how animated movies are made from now on. I mentioned before that the director was one of Disney’s animators and one of the reasons that Disney has been so successful for so long when it comes to their animated features is that they are constantly developing new techniques. Back in the early nineties they were at the fore-front of CGI  animation and ‘Paperman’ uses a brand new in house piece of technology called Meander. In the director’s words what the new technology was there to do was to bring together ‘the expressiveness of 2D drawing immersed with the stability and dimensionality of CG.’

Now, brace yourselves because here comes the technical bit…

The technique that makes the difference is called final line advection and results in every artist having much more control over the final product. Starting from a CG ‘base’ animation things like folds in fabric, hair and textures all come from a 2D drawn design process. In effect animators can ‘erase’ the CG and draw in things by hand – changing profiles, changing how clothes look and so on.

To make up for the somewhat dry technical detail, here’s a picture of a cat.

Oh look, final line advection put him to sleep too

Oh look, final line advection put him to sleep too

The end result is that this is a gorgeous looking film, perfectly matching the sweet romantic plot with heartrendingly romantic drawing and animation. There is an edited down version on YouTube which gives a good sense of what this is like but if you get the chance please check out the proper version. It’s a great movie and an incredible example of matching form and content that Disney are getting better and better at in their animation. It’s wonderful to watch because it was clearly done by people who really cared about the film they were making, and how it was put together. I may not have said much about the plot, but it is a well written and imaginative take on what could have been something quite generic.

So, does it deserve it’s Oscar? HELL YES.

What’s more is nice to see yet more evidence (where it needed) that 2D drawn animation doesn’t just match CGI but can, when done well, actually be better than using just technology. On another note, it’s all too easy and far too common for film fans to become hipster about good cinema. Y’know the sort, who sniffily declaim the work of big studios as just there to generate profit and not really ART. Well, those people finally have a short designed to shut them up. It was made by one of the biggest studios in the world, by a man who has worked on some of the most commercial successful animated films ever made. Together, they produced this – which wasn’t just a critical and commercial success but it’s great art too.

Well done Disney, good work.


Now if you can just somehow find a way to NOT make the Monsters Inc prequel suck, that would be great too.




I recently did a guest post for my friend and his great new film and theatre blog, talking all about adaptation. Let me know what you think!

Oscar Winners In Review – Django Unchained

It's Quentin Tarantino...What did you expect?

It’s Quentin Tarantino…What did you expect?



Let’s start with this – Quentin Tarantino is a self-aggrandizing, controversial and loud-mouthed movie nerd who pisses off as many people as he makes fans. He’s also a genuine genius and I don’t think he’s made a bad film in his life. He’s a cultural powerhouse, a real-life cinema auteur and one of the few film-makers whose new films are treated as both commercial and critical events. The common wisdom was that the man went off the boil in later years and only found his way back with ‘Inglorious Basterds’ but I’m one those who never lost faith in his ability to produce smart, exciting entertainment.

So, last year he released his latest piece, the bloody funny ‘Django Unchained.’ As with most of Tarantino’s films it’s yet another piece where he gets to show off his ability as a cinematic DJ, someone who can mix together genre, style and influences and create something genuinely unexpected. Here, what should ostensibly be a relative straight-forward historical drama in Tarantino’s hands a Grand Guignol style, spaghetti Western with gunfights, gratuitously racist language and hyper-violence.

So, as per usual I’ll attempt to give a brief outline without spoiling the magnificently fun plot. The action follows the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who is bloodily emancipated by the German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz. The unlikely duo then team up in order to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda who is held captive by the horrifyingly racist Calvin J. Candie.

As befits someone with QT’s reputation the cast is all genuinely fantastic though the stand-out is probably Christoph Waltz who after his Oscar winning turn in both this and ‘Inglorious…’ is seemingly turning into Tarantino’s latest muse. His Dr Schultz is a wonderfully portrayed creation; violent and quite happy to exploit the slavery system but also pragmatically invested in helping Django. He bounces incredibly well of the slightly more stoic Django. The two central characters form the crux of the story and Jamie Foxx plays Django with a subtlety that balance the slight more hyper Waltz. As with other Tarantino film’s some of the best characters are those who only appear briefly and here Samuel L Jackson is probably the best playing the racist Uncle Tom style stooge, Stephen, of the villainous Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio).

So, the main point of any review – Is it any good, and more importantly, did it deserve to win at the Oscars? Good? No. Tarantino doesn’t do good, rather he does films like this; it’s big, brash, offensive and utterly exhilarating to watch. Yes, before going on any further let me sort out something I may have been dancing around. This is a great movie. It’s also one that to many people will be deeply, deeply offensive. Because of…language…Yup, I’m talking about the ‘n word.’ It’s used. A lot. In contexts that might well be historically accurate but will also be hard for a big portion of the audience to listen to. When you add to that the concerns articulated by people like Spike Lee, who said that slavery wasn’t a Western, it was a Holocaust. As a result, it wouldn’t be right for me to talk about this film without pointing that there are several important reasons why this is what critics like to, somewhat euphemistically, call ‘problematic.’

However, that doesn’t stop this being a great movie. The director himself said that he wanted to make a film about the serious issues of American history but without making an ‘issues movie’ but rather he wanted to make a genre  movie that included all of the dark things in American history that have never been dealt with because ‘Americans were ashamed of them.’

Whether he succeeded or not is probably answered in the slew of debate and occasionally stoked controversy around the film. It became the highest grossing film of his career and it managed to make talking about America racial history something that could (and had) to happen precisely because there was a big, violent piece of cinema doing just that.

It won deserved acclaim for its energy, humour and occasional brutality and Quentin kept his streak of being notorious when he accepted his writing Oscar he claimed this year was the ‘year of the writer’ as a way of getting back for not getting the nod for direction. Like Tarantino himself it’s a film you just can’t ignore, whether it’s the Academy or the box office people had to pay attention to it. Art that’s impossible to ignore or silence will always gain plaudits. I could have touched on much more than I have in trying to review this but really the best place to finish is here – go watch it yourselves and make up your own mind.