Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Just this second handed in a script, to find that Big Finish have announced the Graceless mini-series. The three CD box-set is written by me and stars Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington as a pair of troublesome sisters packed with special powers.

Graceless by me
I created the characters for the Doctor Who mini-series the Key 2 Time; this is them gallivanting off on their own.

Guest stars include David Warner, Patricia Brake and that nice Alex Mallinson in the pivotal role of "Nicholas Payne". Alex has also designed the rather lovely cover.

All very exciting to be able to speak of it. And the series will be launched at the HurricaneWho convention in Florida in October. Dang, I'll probably have to be there.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

11th floor

View from the 11th floor of Tower Wing at Guy's Hospital.
View from Guy's Hospital

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fantastic PR, Fox

I don't think I'd ever read Fantastic Mr Fox, though I knew it backwards from an audio version released on tape in the early 1980s. It's another lively, exciting adventure full of simple yet vivid descriptions. Good manners and pluck help our heroes get revenge on the horrid villains.

The hero is Mr Fox, a cravat-wearing fop who calls people “Darling” and who might be related to Basil Brush. (The recent BBC Four documentary Sidekick Stories pointed out the gag of making a fox part of the landed (i.e. hunting) gentry.)

Mr Fox has been thieving his meals from the stores of three local farmers, Messrs Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The farmers take revenge by shooting off Mr Fox's tail then attacking his home with diggers. Mr Fox and his family dig for their lives, but the countryside is covered in the farmers' men, waiting to kill anything that moves. Soon the Foxes are starving. Until Mr Fox has a rather splendid idea...

The short book – 82 pages with a lot of illustrations – is largely a great long list of all the things Mr Fox then provides for his family to eat. That's especially evocative after all the stuff about them starving.
“The table was covered with chickens and ducks and geese and hams and bacon, and everyone was tucking into the lovely food.”

Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox, p. 75.

There are also carrots for the Rabbits to eat. It might strike us as odd that Fox has invited Rabbits to the feast, and as guests rather than as main course. It's also odd that these wild animals are such fans of roast dinner. But there are a whole lot of things going on in the story which struck me as propaganda.

All the humans are horrible. All the humans we see carry weapons – guns and sticks and, in the case of Mr Bean's maid, Mabel, a rolling pin. When the farmers eat and drink the produce of their farms it is greasy, greedy, smelly and ick. When Mr Fox does the same, it is a lovely feast. The farmers are rude and disgusting. Mr Fox belching is such a good joke he does it again.

(The only good humans are the children in the first chapter who have a rhyme about the farmers being “horrible crooks”. Having dispensed this authoritative verdict, they are not seen again.)

Almost all the other animals love Mr Fox. They don't blame him for the trouble he's got them all in. Mrs Fox never blames him for risking their sons' lives. Badger and Rabbit don't point out that this argument is nothing to do with him.

The one animal who doesn't love Mr Fox is Rat, who is drunk on Mr Bean's cider. Badger remarks,
“All rats have bad manners. I've never met a polite rat.”

Ibid., p. 72.

Which is not what he says in the Wind in the Willows.

The animals on the menu are not given voices. The chickens do not have characters. Mr Fox is also careful about killing them – selectively, quickly, humanely. That's really not what foxes do (as my mum, who keeps chickens, has to lament all too often).

Mr Fox not only endangers his children, he also encourages them to drink cider.
“You must understand this was not the ordinary weak fizzy cider one buys in a store. It was the real stuff, a home-brewed fiery liquor that burned in your throat and boiled in your stomach.

'Ah-h-h-h-h-h-!' gasped the Smallest Fox. 'This is some cider!'”

Ibid., p. 64.

For all Mr Fox is a daring rebel, the depiction of women is a little old skool. Mrs Fox is left behind to cook dinner while her husband and son have adventures. Mrs Badger is likewise too weak to do anything but turn up at the end. Mrs Bean and her maid Mabel stay at home while the farmers are out hunting, their only job to provide supplies.

And there's an odd attempt to square the circle in chapter 14, “Badger Has Doubts”. He's a more sensible, reasonable fellow than the hot-headed Fox, and tries to articulate his disquiet about what they're up to.
“Suddenly Badger said, 'Doesn't this worry you just a tiny bit, Foxy?'

'Worry me?' said Mr Fox. 'What?'

'All this... this stealing.'

Mr Fox stopped digging and stared at Badger as though he had gone completely dotty. 'My dear old furry frump,' he said, 'do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn't swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?'”

Ibid., p. 58.

Fox goes on to argue that, unlike the humans, the animals are not planning to kill their foes, merely to take food they won't even miss. But it's Mr Fox's stealing that has started this whole mess. His actions have endangered his own family and also his friends and his neighbours. There's no suggestion of their anger at him, let alone their considering handing him over to the farmers.

His brilliant wheeze of building a community underground, with shops and schools, is a cause for celebration. But it struck me that the animals are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in a bunker. And surely the farmers won't wait for ever...

A fun and richly told adventure, but I can't help wondering what happened next and feeling we were only told half of the story. I know it's a kids' book but I'd argue that makes worrying about this stuff all the more important.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

And I call myself a hack

To quote my wise chum Toby Hadoke, “Who needs facts when you've got an opinion?”

First, in the Independent, Gerard Gilbert slags off the forthcoming new series of Doctor Who without having seen it. He admires Russell T Davies – who is not involved in the forthcoming series – “not least in resisting what you might call a glossy Americanisation of the property, and in retaining the show's essential, and very British, spirit”, but then decides Doctor Who would be better were it, er, more like a glossy American TV show called Caprica.
“Caprica delves into some pretty meaty themes, from religion and racism to terrorism and what it means to be human, while it directly addresses current developments with the internet and its virtual worlds. It's light years more ambitious in scope than Doctor Who, and it's still not too late to catch.”
Except, recent Doctor Who – a fun family show as opposed to a tediously dour one for tediously dour grown-ups – has also covered religion (the faith of people in Gridlock, the Doctor meeting the devil in The Satan Pit), racism (in the experiences of Martha Jones, but also in the way humanity treats aliens), terrorism (from the Slitheen attack on London to the Government deciding which children to give to the aliens in Torchwood: Children of Earth), what it means to be human (all of Season 3, especially Human Nature / Family of Blood) and the future of the internet (come on, the Doctor Who did that in 1966).

The article is petty, lazy and factually wrong. The comments that follow it afford the usual edifying spectacle of the public speaking their brains, but include a beautifully polite reply from Doctor Who's producer Piers Wenger.

Second, the Dr took me to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo this afternoon. She'd read the book (and is on to book three now) but I have not. So obviously I'm now qualified to lecture on both.

No, that would be ridiculous wouldn't it? So I'm baffled by Viv Groskop's blog for the Guardian (an edited version also appeared in print in the Review section yesterday). Groskop admits avoiding the book to begin with because of the hype.
“I imagined clichés and extreme violence. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover it is neither formulaic nor disturbingly graphic. And it was indeed Larsson's take on feminism that made it stand out as an original read.”
So she liked it, then? But Groskop goes on to quote from a number of reviewers who found the book sexist or misogynistic – though, note, that's not the view Groskop herself had of the book. She then says the film, which she has not seen, has been “universally panned”, and quotes criticisms of “Larsson's misogynistic fantasies” and scenes “glibly indulgent of those visual horrors”. Groskop concludes:
“In the novel Larsson spares us many graphic descriptions, leaving a lot of the worst to our imagination. It seems, then, that the film has betrayed not only some of the book's original subtlety but also its feminism. I waited too long to read the book. I think I'll give the film a miss altogether.”
Again, the argument is based on not having seen the subject. Having seen the film, I thought it showed remarkable restraint in its depictions of violence. We know what's been done but the camera avoids explicit detail. The events are not pleasant, but the point seems to be that the specific brutality of the killer here is part of a wider misogyny. The violence done to women and men – it is done to both – is shocking and horrific, but never celebrated or dwelt on. It's really not there as titillation.

The Dr also feels the book contextualises the violence – before each chapter Larsson provides real statistics on domestic abuse and assaults on women in Sweden. The point made is that though the events are fictional, these are not “misogynistic fantasies” but grounded in reality. Liberals, says the Dr, tend to think of Scandinavian countries as having all the answers, but this book and things like Wallander suggest something nasty lurking under the surface. The secrets of one rich and influential family stand for the whole country. That's what makes it so disturbing.

Groskop says she took from the book the message that, “gender is irrelevant”. But I wonder whether there'd be anything like this criticism had Larsson been (or written under a pseudonym as) a woman.

For a more sensible opinion, see Nyssa's review of book and film.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Some photos

Four images for your delight and excitement.

1. Bernice Summerfield toy

Bernice Summerfield toy

A fantastic surprise present from Monster Maker yesterday, a custom-made toy of Bernice Summerfield in the cat-suit she wears when drawn by the splendid Adrian Salmon.

Benny's creator, Paul Cornell, is also in receipt of a more old-skool Benny, as off the cover of the novel Love and War. Apparently, there is also a toy of her in Frontier in Space style shoulder pads.

2. Moo
My new business cards from Moo
Nimbos has been raving about the glories of online printer for some time, and I've envied his collection of prettily printed, prettily packaged cards and stickers. So, with permission from Red Scharlach for the use of her picture of Archibald the space-pirate badger, I have got some new business cards done. And they are a magnificence of beautiful, tactile coolitude. I want to hug them and squeeze them and call them George.

3. The Guardian

Doctor Who: The Guardian of the Solar System

You can now order my Doctor Who story The Guardian of the Solar System, out in July. And this is the magnificent artwork by Simon Holub.

4. Acrostic apostles

And the church down the road has new signage.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Film Focus: The Great Escape

The last of my old Film Focus reviews, this done for a special edition DVD of The Great Escape (1963).

The Great Escape
Reviewed 13 May 2006

Everyone knows the Great Escape. We know it’s based on true events. We know that McQueen doubled for one of the Nazi motorcylists pursuing him – meaning he’s chasing himself.

We’ve heard Eddie Izzard point out that Hilts reaches the Swiss border on his motorbike before two guys in an airplane, and that it’s only the British who get shot.

(You haven’t heard it? For shame! Go buy Dressed to Kill now.)

With a new deluxe-edition DVD out this week, here’s a few more top facts for the next time you watch it.

“Every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.”

The film is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, who’d himself been a prisoner of war in the Stalag Luft III camp and taken part in the great escape there on 24 March 1944. Various things have been changed – characters combined, their nationalities changed, and some stuff with a motorbike added.

The real forger was James Hill who – having neither gone blind nor been shot – later became a director. His credits include The Man From ORGY and episodes of Worzel Gummidge.

The actors, too, could base their performances on real experience. Donald Pleasance and James Garner had both been prisoners of war while Charles Mason had been a miner.

Steve McQueen’s prior experience was that… well, he was keen on motorbikes. So the script got rewritten to have Virgil Hilts on a motorbike.

Hilts doesn’t like to be called by his first name. Presumably he’s named after the 1st century BC poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whose Aeneid covers the mythic origin of Rome. Since the early United States based much of its legal and governmental structure on Rome, there’s an argument that his name makes him an archetype for American values.

Then again, his embarrassment may just mean he had pretentious parents – though Virgil was also a popular name. Less pretentiously, Virgil Tracy is the pilot of Thunderbird 2.

“Mole” Ives is played by Angus Lennie, probably most famous for his six years as Shughie McFee in the soap opera Crossroads. In 1975 he leant his voice to another great movie – Bob Godfrey’s musical, animated, Academy-award-winning biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Great!

Which makes it all the more odd seeing Lennie chummy with Hilts. Think about it: super-star idol Steve McQueen best mates with the strange little man from the Crossroads Motel.

(Nearest equivalent in movies: Bruce Willis shoulder-to-shoulder with comedian Lee Evans during a gunfight in the Fifth Element.)

Some other fun cast stuff: Nigel Stock would later play Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes for the BBC. David McCallum, after starring in the Man From UNCLE (note: not ORGY), was Carter in another Nazi-foxing caper, the BBC’s series of Colditz. And William Russell went on to more daring escapes, too, leaving the Great Escape to become one of Dr Who’s very first travelling companions. He can also be seen as one of Marlon Brando’s polo-necked courtiers in the opening minutes of Superman.

The cast includes Englishmen of different classes, Scots and Americans. James Coburn plays an Australian (though I’m not sure he bothers with the accent) and Charles Manson plays a Pole. It’s interesting that while Coburn later meets up with French and Spanish resistance, we see nothing of Germany’s allies. It implies that Germany fights alone against the rest of the world.

“We may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible?”

There’s some interesting stuff going on with the Germans. Von Luger, the Kommandant is seen to be a reasonable man, who regrets any violence. We feel for Werner as James Garner’s Hendley plays him for a sap. The Luftwaffe come across not as evil people but as genial jobs-worthies, doing the best at their jobs.

This is all the more evident when we know that the Kommandant doesn’t lose his job because of the escapes but (in scenes omitted from the film) because the investigation into the escapes discovers his black marketeering. As far as the film is concerned, he’s a decent enough bloke.

It’s the Gestapo who are the villains. Thuggish and vicious, it doesn’t justify the killing of 50 prisoners that Bartlett had been given due warning at the beginning of the film. The implication is that they’re responsible for his scars, and the great escape is his way of getting back at them. He makes no distinctions between Luftwaffe and Gestapo – he tells Ramsay that they’re “all the same”.

“Two hundred and fifty!?!”

Bearing in mind it’s all based on true facts, there’s some peculiar things about the plan.

If the tunnel’s using up all the cross-beams from the bunk-beds, where does everyone sleep? The guards would surely notice them sleeping on the floor… So are they sharing bunks?

The home-made clothes, stitched from blankets, old uniforms and boot polish, would have been less noticeable in time of war, as everyone was having to make do and mend. But where did Hendley get all the materials from? (That’s actually a question asked in the film, to which the response is “Don’t ask.”)

The escapees are all very immaculate for people who’ve scurried through 300 feet of dirty tunnels. Did they have time to wash and brush up prior to boarding their train?

Why isn’t Hilts in uniform? If he’d just been prepared for being shot down over Germany, he’d surely have packed something less conspicuously American than slacks and a tee-shirt.

And where did he get his baseball glove from?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Film Focus: Dave McKean

Another old Film Focus thing, this time an interview with director Dave McKean to go with my review of Mirrormask.

Was thrilled to speak to McKean over the phone, having long been an awed fanboy. I even got on to my Art A-level course (having not done the GCSE) by showing the tutors a sketchbook mostly comprising cut-and-pasted bits of Signal to Noise from my sisters copies of The Face. Excitingly, I've since met and been on a panel with McKean at a convention. He signed a copy of Mr Punch for the Dr (I chose that one 'cos it's about a wife beater.) Anyhoo...

Dave McKean interview
Conducted 27 February 2006

As I understand it from Neil Gaiman’s blog, Henson’s found that they had two million quid stuffed down the back of the sofa and wondered if you could make a film with it. Is that roughly how Mirrormask came about?

It’s almost that, yes. That’s the funny version. The slightly less funny version is that somebody at Columbia/TriStar – who released Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal – just noticed that those films, over the years, had done very well. Actually, when they were released they did not do so well because they were expensive. But over the years they have been around all the time, and people still like them and watch them.

Is that on video and DVD?

Yes, and they’re still showing at science-fiction festivals and fantasy festivals. They are just constants, and new generations of people keep finding them and enjoying them. So they offered Henson’s the chance to make another one, but they only had the aforementioned two million quid down the back of the sofa. So yes, that’s how it came about.

How much was it to be a conscious continuation of Dark Crystal and Labyrinth?

I think those sorts of conversation carried on before Neil and I were involved. I think the very first possibility-type conversations between Lisa Henson and the folks at Columbia/TriStar were, ‘Well, maybe it could be a sequel to Labyrinth or something like that…’ Those conversations had gone by the time we came aboard. At that point it was just a fantasy film, non-specific but for a family audience. So not a blood-and-gutsy adult film. Other than that, anything we liked.

So that gave you a lot of freedom then?


I know you principally as an illustrator, I think as most people will. You used to illustrate for things like The Face, back in the eighties…

Yeah, we did a story called Signal to Noise, which I’m hoping to make as a film next.

I’ve read interviews with people like Terry Gilliam talking about the difference between being an illustrator and making moving images. How much more difficult is it to get the same effect from a moving image?

Um… it’s actually not difficult, I’ve found.

So you don’t feel you’re compromising your vision at all?

It depends. I’ve made some short films, and am continuing to make short films here, literally on my own. In that respect, there’s no compromise at all. When you get to the level of a film like Mirrormask, there are compromises but they tend to be creative ones, meaning that the budget is fixed and that becomes your wall, the box that you’re in. Actually, that’s really liberating in a way, because it forces you to be resourceful. You can’t just continually throw money at problems, you have to use your brains a little bit.

When it gets up to Terry’s $80 million mark, you’re really dealing with a ton of money. You’re dealing with people who are very nervous and twitchy about spending all that money. That’s where it starts to get much more compromised and difficult. Obviously the possibilities are huge because you’ve got all this money to throw at the show, but you’ve also got people looking over your shoulder constantly, people who may not be sympathetic to your whim at that particular moment. Whereas on Mirrormask we could almost make it up as we went along. Obviously we didn’t, but we had a very free and easy, improvisational, ‘let’s make the most of this’ attitude to the making of it.

Is the final version of the film then as you envisaged it from the beginning?

It is, but obviously in the making of it all kinds of things happen that are not necessarily in your control. Actors do things that you weren’t expecting – good and not so good. Things work, things don’t work, actually what we set out to do in the first place maybe wasn’t any good, and then you have to rethink that. All of those sorts of creative things have compromise, but it’s free of people changing it just for changing it’s sake, or in real opposition to what we wanted to do. There’s none of that in it. Its problems are our problems, and down to our inexperience or things not working so well, those sorts of things. But basically, it’s the film we set out to make.

You say about actors. The film is grounded in reality, quite different from the hippy, slightly pantomime feel of Labyrinth. How do you get the actors to understand where you want to go with this, and the tone of it?

A lot of it is just the nature of the script. We wanted, at every turn, to try and keep the actors very naturalistic. Even though you’ve got Gina McKee dressed up in a huge wig, with black eyes and her gold skin, and in this ridiculous throne and everything, we had her dialogue be basically that of a worried mum. That was very important, to always ground it in reality.

So there’s that, and then the whole thing was story-boarded, so I could explain where we were – where they were walking through, what they were talking to. But I think very quickly they realised that it was only going to work if you connected to the human elements. Even though they were surrounded by these ridiculous things, if you don’t connect with Helena – Stephanie – and her worries and feelings about her mum, and where she is in her life at this particular point, then no about of pretty picture-making is going to be worth sitting through for an hour and a half.

It just gives it a point, as far as I’m concerned. I love looking at these baroque fantasy films. They’re enjoyable, but if I’ve got to spend two years making one, I want to know that at the end of the day it is actually about things that are important to me. Just on a basic level, my daughter is now twelve, and I know I’ve got these sort of feelings, battles and whatever coming up with her. Just on a personal level, at that point it really means something to me.

As well as the monsters, a lot of the sense of threat is from Helena just growing up – throwing away her old drawings, snogging the wrong sorts of boys and wearing punky clothes. Is that a reflection of you as a parent?

I think so. It’s probably more, at this point, a reflection of Neil’s experience. He has two grown-up children now, and they’re both great. They’ve grown up wonderfully, but I know that he went through all of these anxieties. And at that age, just because hormones are raging and you’re very confused in life – you’re not a kid any more but you’re not an adult yet – you’re really at a crossroads. You can go either way in about two minutes. One minute you’re wonderful, caring, helping with the cooking and doing all these things, and then something happens, you turn on a dime and become a horrible, spiteful and selfish brat. And you barely have control over it. That’s the state of mind.

So to deal with somebody at that age is interesting in itself, and then you give them a little life-push. Her mother getting ill, the circus off the road and everything falling around her ears: then we’re into some sort of drama that means something.

Did you have a particular audience in mind?

Families. Pretty much anybody. We didn’t have the children in mind – we didn’t want to make what you could call a kids’ film. I’ve sat through enough of those, getting nothing out of them at all and being talked down to because they’re just for five-year-olds. I didn’t want to do that.

I didn’t expect everyone to like it. Far from it, I think it’s always going to have a pretty small audience. But that small audience would, I think, be made up of people of any age, including kids and older people.

Do you have to think differently about illustrating for kids? Is there a difference between drawing for Varjak Paw and for Sandman?

I think it’s fairly obvious. It’s pointless putting in references to some obscure film or piece of literature on a kids’ drawing because you’re just being pretentious. And obviously I wouldn’t put tons of violence or nudity in a kids’ book because it’s just not appropriate. Other than that, I don’t really draw much of a distinction. I don’t like second guessing what kids will like, as much as I don’t like second guessing what adults will like. Doing signings, talks and Q and As for the children’s books, adult books and for this film, it only seems to confirm that. I have no idea who is going to show up. It seems to be any age, any sex, and social group. The statistics don’t mean anything.

I don’t like second guessing all that stuff, I’m just doing what I’m doing. If I hit a run of a few years where people are telling me I’m doing absolutely appalling work that nobody’s buying, maybe that’s the point when I rethink what I’m doing. For the moment we seem to be doing okay. I’m happy just to send these things out there, and whoever likes them likes them. I don’t expect everybody to like them, but maybe a few people will.

Are the responses you get to things surprising? Do people read in things you never knew were there?

Sure. That’s kind of part of it, really. It becomes a conversation. You think you’ve thought about it from every conceivable angle, but there’ll always be something, some connection made, that you have no control over at all. It goes out into the world and it has its own life. That’s the point. Doing the work is only 50 percent. The other half is the connection with the audience.

Where do you go next? You’ve designed a musical for Elton John…

Yes… That wasn’t quite where I planned to go next. But it came up and I’d never done anything like that before so it seemed like a fun thing to try and tackle, and a world I knew nothing about. I love to learn new things, so those were the reasons for doing that. At the time it involved making some film clips to project on the set, and that was fun to do. I was doing that last year, so again that feels like old news now.

Is that physical prop design?

Yes, it was designing all the sets, and then the physical pieces were adapted from the drawings that I did and made by a physical-set designer in New York.

The projections were of my artworks and photographs. The films changed drastically. It’s a very troubled project, actually. It will open on Broadway in late March, but it’s gone through a lot of changes and a lot of different people coming in, so it was a very confused and a difficult way of working.

That’s a project with compromise, is it?

That’s a deeply compromised project. To be honest, it had to be. It was in such a state in San Francisco where we did previews, it really needed somebody else to come in and try and give it some shape and order. But I guess you live and learn. In the meantime I’ve just been writing other films. I’d like to make another film so my plan is to try and get four or five projects up and running so that they’ll hit in the years down the line. It takes so long to set up.

As well as taking a long time to set up, Mirrormask has been waiting for release for months and months.

It’s taken longer to release it than it did to make it, which is really ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s just a reflection of the fact that Sony really didn’t know what to do with it. It just confused them a little bit. I think they had in mind that it would just be a little, straight-to-DVD nothing, and then it got accepted into Sundance and they had to rethink that. Then we weren’t really with one department. We started with Columbia/TriStar, then that label collapsed or was absorbed and we were put somewhere else. We were up to the theatrical release department, and kept on being bounced around. It just meant that everything’s happened one after another after another, end to end, rather than all of these things happening concurrently. Usually on a film the DVD release is worked out and planned before the film even starts shooting. But all of our little blocks of time in the release of it have been laid end to end. That’s why it’s taken such a ridiculously long time.

So when did you finish the film?

We finished the film in November 2004. Is that right? It’s all a blur now. Yes, that’s right. We finished November 2004, we did Sundance 2005 in January, and then the whole of last year was trying to tease out some sort of campaign or release plan from Sony. So only now is it being released. Strange. Time flies.

And doing interviews now, it feels like old news?

It feels like such old news, I can’t believe it. I feel like I’ve been talking about this film my whole life.

Do you know how long it’s likely to be in cinemas?

It’s getting a limited release through Tartan. To be honest, no I don’t. It depends to a degree how it does. There are some places that have booked it for three weeks, but I don’t know. All of this seems to be a matter of wait and see, play it by ear.

And is the DVD release fixed on how long it’s in cinemas?

It will be influenced by that, but to be honest I think it will be out pretty quickly. The DVD is already out in America, and they’re keen to make sure that people buy the English version. I would much rather people bought the English version.

Is that because it has different things on it?

No. For other reasons that I’m being rather cryptic about, that I can’t really tell you, I’d rather people buy the English version.

Vulgar reasons like money?

No, nothing to do with money.

You talked about setting up films for the future. Will those be of a similar fantasy bent, and working with Neil again?

All of the films I’ve got planned certainly have a strong visual component to them and a surrealistic bent or fantasy element. But some are just human, adult dramas which have strange sequences in them. One or two of them are complete fantasy pieces. Some with Neil, some not. I’m interested just to write something on my own right now, just to see how it goes. The next film I’d like to make is based on a book, Signal To Noise, that Neil and I did together, but I’ve ended up writing the script.

To be honest, the book was always a favourite of mine even though it didn’t work. I always felt that we could do much better. I think the script for the film is much better, it’s a much bigger, wider story and you really understand what’s going through the character’s mind.

According to Neil, when I saw him speaking in London late last year, you and he had “discussions” about how to write Mirrormask from the off. You had cards to lay out the plot, and he wanted to just crack on and write it.

We have very different ways of writing. We found out on Mirrormask – I don’t think we ever realised that before.

So how much did working on the film change your relationship? I have this idea that usually an illustrator starts where a writer finishes.

For the books that we’ve done, that really is the relationship. Neil writes a script. Depending on the book, we talk about it beforehand, and then talk about it again afterwards. But basically Neil’s free – absolutely correctly – to just write what he wants to write. Then I come in and try to see how best to make it work visually. The trouble with the film was that Neil is used to just writing anything, and we couldn’t afford to do just anything. We couldn’t afford to do armies of orcs, the sky full of battleships and things. We just couldn’t do it. So I felt I just needed to be in the room.

I didn’t want to write it particularly, but I just wanted to be around when we were planning it to make sure that what he was writing I understood. It’s very important for me to understand it completely because I’m going to be asked 300 questions every day by different people in the cast and crew, and I’ve got to be able to know the answers, or at least have an opinion. I needed to make sure it was technically feasible, and it was not always obvious what was expensive and what was cheap. That’s why I ended up in the room.

Then, just because I was there, inevitably you start kicking ideas around, so some of the story ideas ended up being mine, and some of the scenes I ended up writing because it was just easier for me to write them because I had a good sense of them.

So does that change the “power relationship” between you?

I think it does, really. The books are much simpler and we have a strict demarcation. The words are Neil’s and the pictures are mine, and I think that’s pretty evenly balanced. Unfortunately it’s the nature of film that it comes down to the guy on the floor talking to the actors at the time, and that’s the director.

I think if you listened to Terry Gilliam talking about Tom Stoppard on Brazil, when they would have arguments about this, that and the other, Terry Gilliam would say, ‘Yeah, I appreciate all that. But at the end of the day I’m the one who’s going to be directing it, so I’m just not going to do it. I don’t understand it, and I need to direct something that I understand.’ Unfortunately, that is the nature of it. I think that is the big difference, and often the big frustration, of writing film scripts.

They are not finished objects, they are blueprints. You’ve got to understand that – Neil does understand that, because he’s written enough of them now. They are just sketches. You may fall in love with the words or this or that, but if an actor can’t say it, or if when he does it sounds completely wrong, or for whatever reason, it goes. And it goes there and then, it’s brutal. When you’re shooting a film, you’ve got a certain amount of time to do each scene. You’ve just got to make those decisions. Unfortunately it’s down to the director to do that.

Was it a quick shoot? Was it hurried?

It was hurried. It was 30 days, so six weeks: two on location and four weeks in a blue-screen studio. It’s funny, some scenes felt like we had time to really make the most of, to look around the locations and find interesting shots and angles and ways of doing it, to play with actors a little bit. But some of it felt awfully rushed, and that’s no fun at all because you end up just throwing anything at the wall, hoping to pick it up in the edit later on. Inevitably you get yourself into problems. So it would be nice to have just a little bit more money and therefore more time, next time to be able to relax and really think properly about everything.

Were the actors playing animated characters – like Lenny Henry and Andy Hamilton – on set with the actors, or recorded later?

No, they were all done later. On the set, it was just me doing an impersonation of a monkeybird, a mask on a stick for the Gryphon, or things like that, with somebody off-camera reading the lines. It was very difficult to bring all these elements together in the actor’s mind. They struggled, but I think Stephanie Leonidas got it immediately. It took her about a day to be able to just stand in the big blue room and imagine this street and the mist, surrounded by cats. She could just do it. It’s a bit of a knack, I think.

Was she cast through an audition process? Did you have people in mind when you were writing it?

I had Gina McKee in mind, but she was the only one.

Is that true of the voices for the animated characters as well?

That’s pretty true of the voices. Maybe we had Stephen Fry in mind – an incredible, wish-list hope that he might do it. But no, I don’t think any of the others we had in mind while we were writing it. Obviously they came to mind pretty quickly once we were into shooting it.

With Stephanie, my producer, Simon, just saw her in a TV film. We were gearing up to do this huge sort of trawl of theatre schools and God knows what to try and find a girl who could do this, and he just taped this film called Daddy’s Girl which she was in, and she was fantastic. So we did one day where our casting director brought in girls, and there were a couple of really good ones. So I thought we were in good shape. And then Stephanie came in at the end of the day, and just blew them all away. She was in a league of her own.

Excellent, well that’s our time up, I think. Dave McKean, thanks very much.

My pleasure. Is that really half an hour?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Film Focus: Mirrormask

More of my old reviews from Film Focus. This one got me mentioned on Neil Gaiman's blog - with a corresponding explosion of hits to this one. I'll put up my interview with director Dave McKean tomorrow.

Reviewed 25 February 2006

[In brief]
Helena craves a normal, everyday life like all the other kids have. But her parents run a circus and when she’s not performing with them her only escape is her drawing. When her mum becomes seriously ill, Helena finds herself venturing even further into her strange, troubled pictures…

[In full]
A beautifully eerie and twisted vision to enthral children and terrify their parents.

While Mirrormask looks extraordinary, the story and plot both seem familiar. Following in the tradition of the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, a not-quite-an-adult explores a strange and illogical fantasy world, encountering very odd people on the way.

Even those who aren’t actually evil are unwittingly dangerous, like adult-sized children capable of great harm. As in Labyrinth, it’s our heroine’s burgeoning maturity that sees her through – choosing her friends carefully and not snogging the wrong boys.

There are also recognisable elements from writer Neil Gaiman’s other work: the twisted mirror-world from his novella Coraline; the protagonist’s fear of embarrassment by their parents from his new novel Anansi Boys, as well as spying spiders and flocks of evil birds. The vast and strange library with its impossible books is right out of his best-selling comic-book, Sandman.

But Mirrormask is implicitly about the familiar reflected in a new and strange way. Even the real Brighton seems unreal through Helena’s eyes – the view of the beach from her home bleakly gothic, and Auntie Nan no less peculiar than the old woman with the sphinxes and cake.

Every strange and sumptuous frame is a work of art – those who’ve loved Dave McKean’s covers for Sandman and Varjak Paw cannot miss this. Mirrormask definitely rewards a second viewing just to pick up on missed details. This is a real achievement for a film made so – relatively – cheaply.

The CGI is awesome, full of brilliant creatures and textures till the end. There are occasions when the real cast don’t quite seem to be there – floating rather than touching the floor, or not seeing the wild things right in front of them. This is a minor quibble, though, and in some ways adds to the strangely dreamy effect.

All kinds of warped influences make up Helena’s world. We hear a twisted version of Bacharach and David’s “Close to you”, and see Helena and her new friend Valentine chase through a street like a Jean Miro painting. In another nice twist on the familiar, bulky Henry Moore-like sculptures float as weightless as clouds.

What becomes increasingly clear though, is that it’s Helena’s own world that’s being warped: the Prime Minister looks like her father, and is just as ineffectual in stopping the decay, while Helena’s torn feelings for her very sick mother produce two doppelganger queens, one perfect and one utterly terrifying.

This strange and inventive world is under threat from the Queen of Shadows, who vomits all kinds of monsters to help scour the land for her errant daughter. As well as the freaky spiders and monkeybirds already mentioned, there are thick, nightmarish roots to entangle even the strongest-seeming characters. However fast Helena runs, destruction and death remain close behind.

The film is full of darkness, with the intangible dread of a nightmare. Though there are some fun gags about such things as herrings, there’s little that’s nice in this world. Reality is seen to be just as random and brutal, too, with sudden sickness and fights about money.

The realism of the performances grounds the story in bleakness, and the put-upon Muppet-esque hedgehog, Small Hairy, adds to the general sense of misery rather than distracts from it. As a result, the film lacks the hippy charm of the Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, and so might not be as accessible to audiences. It’d certainly freak out younger kids.

I suspect that it’s a film more about adults than children anyway. Helena’s horror at seeing a twisted version of herself wearing make-up, snogging boys and throwing away her old, childish drawings, seems more the concern of her parents, struggling to accommodate a child wanting to break away from them. The evil, anti-Helena only wants to get away from an overly controlling mother.

At the beginning of the film, Helena longs to escape the circus and is told that she can’t spoil her father’s dream. Helena’s drawings and her adventures inside them don’t speak of a want of normalcy, but of a need for a dream of her own.

In seeing her own world differently through the distortions of the mirror world, Helena’s able to find her own space. And, of course, the right sort of boy…

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Being there then

Eddie Robson kindly bought me Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, a history of the Beatles song by song. This was after he'd seen what I got the Dr for Christmas. Eddie's also blogging about the Fabs and is much wiser on these things than me. I've always struggled to write about music.

But MacDonald quickly explains sort of why.
“[Some, mostly US critics] expect lyrics to make a certain sense and, if not to carry significance or responsibility, then at least to have the decency to be authentically rooted in their appropriate sub-cultural contexts. The Beatles, though, like so much English pop/rock, are too given to artifice and effect to be sociologically grounded in this way. Lennon and McCartney moved from thinking hardly at all about words to treating them as collages scraps to be pasted onto their music much as Picasso placed newspaper cuttings into his paintings.”

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head, p. xxiv.

That's it exactly! I always felt literal interpretation of lyrics missed the point. Music isn't, or isn't necessarily, a poem or thought set to a tune. It can be the other way round – as the Beatles seems to do it, the name of the haunting Yesterday for a long time merely “Scrambled Egg”.

I also don't have the technical knowledge to understand the detailing of chord changes and keys, which MacDonald furnishes in some detail. Instead, my critical faculties shut down to an instinctive level: it's not what a song has to say but whether it pushes my buttons, making me want to dance or snog or even sit along, gazing at the sky. It's tied up in personal memories or experience – a time or place or person is attached to certain songs. It's not what the song means in itself but what it means to me.

So it's a bit of a surprise to find this book so engrossing as it searches for context and meaning in every one of the 188 Beatles recordings. We hear what the Beatles were doing or listening to at the time or thought of the songs afterwards, or what other people said or did. It's also good at explaining what marked the Beatles out as different – a good band who wrote their own very good music, and for years and years. As MacDonald says, only David Bowie has been able to so successfully reinvent himself and keep up with the times.

There's fascinating detail on the emergent drug culture of the Sixties, of the differences between the pop scene in the UK and US, and of the both competitive and supportive creative rivalries between the Beatles themselves and with other bands. It's an impressive and rich bit of modern history, the Beatles embracing so many modish styles and influences that the book covers a great wealth of ground.

MacDonald is good on the naivety and also the honest intentions behind hippy love, but is also good at puncturing the rose-tinted dream with the reality. At the Roundhouse, for example, Jimi Hendrix had his guitar stolen and gangsters on the door demanded protection money. I was also surprised by revelations – to me anyway – about the Beatles retreat at Rishikesh: it wasn't such the paradise of love that has sometimes been made out.

MacDonald tells the story song by song in order of recording – or at least, the first day of recording as some songs took several days to record, sometimes months apart while others are finished in between. There's overlap and re-recording of the same songs, and – famously – Let It Be was released after Abbey Road though (mostly) recorded first. MacDonald sums up each album as all its tracks are recorded, but I felt a little that he was imposing his own brackets on the work.

He is at his best when invisible, detailing facts or conflicting testimony, letting the Beatles and those around them speak for themselves. But I tired of hearing his own opinions, waspishly noting the worthy tracks and also the failures. I don't need him to tell me which songs to like. Indeed, part of the joy of the book is to hear the songs afresh with the added context. Constant reappraisal and finding new things to appreciate is the good bit of being a fan.

(Having listened to a lot of Beatles stuff over the last few months, the “new” tracks Free As A Bird and Real Love compare – I think – pretty well with most of the previous stuff. I know a few chums would consider this heresy.)

That imposition includes the structure of the book – and so of the Beatles' career. There are four chapters: “Going Up” is 140 pages from 1957 to the end of Rubber Soul (1965); “The Top” is 68 pages on Revolver and Sergeant Pepper; “Coming Down” is 118 pages to the recording of I, Me, Mine in early 1970; the coda covers the post-split bitterness, recriminations and Anthology.

As a result, there's a sourness about the last few and post-split years. MacDonald has many explanations for what happened: the Fabs' age, the money, the times, that they'd had a good innings anyway. And he also explains the context of the Beatles' return to favour in the pop scene in the late 80s, and their influence on so many modern bands. But his version sees the Beatles completing Sergeant Pepper and then tumbling from grace. It's far more remarkable, surely, that they sustained such an incredible output for so long, and were still producing amazing music even when they weren't speaking to each other.

The Beatles were, evidently, an exceptionally talented and influential group. This book rightly celebrates and explores that amazing success. But it also feels a little glass half-empty, disappointed and hurt, even so many years later, that all things must pass.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Film Focus: Kidulthood

Another old Film Focus review. I worked with Noel Clarke just before Christmas, so it's probably just as well I said nice things.

Reviewed 22 February 2006

[In brief]
Six messed up, West London teenagers, coping with the shitty hand life has dealt them. There’s vicious bullying at school, and little but petty crime, sex and drugs waiting outside. They’ll be lucky if they make it…

[In full]
A brilliantly played and bold film, mixing pace and sharp wit with horrific social commentary, Kidulthood will be a highlight of the year.

There’d been some worry in the press about a film claimed to celebrate happy-slapping. Nor did a ‘City of God set in Ladbroke Grove’ bode well. But this is not a hip movie about asbos. Oxford Street and the Victorian terraces of west London, so iconic and beloved in other British movies, seem soulless and oppressive here. It’s up-to-the-minute and streetwise without ever being glamorous.

If the story and events feel familiar, it’s because they’re taken from real incidents, all-too often to be read in the papers. Keeping it real, the film nicely avoids too much melodrama – even the final confrontation which the whole thing’s been leading to is wisely under-glamorised and played.

There’s plenty of sex, violence and swearing throughout, but it’s soiled and everyday. There’s something grubbily matter-of-fact about the sex in particular. Instead of special and liberating, it’s all a bit rubbish and messed up. Like the poor kids themselves.

The film offers little in the way of escape for them. A glimpse of Paul Putner’s put-upon schoolteacher says it all – there’s little he can hope to change. Especially when the parents can’t see what’s going on under their noses. Katie’s parents wilfully ignore her bruises, while when Claire’s in real danger from Sam, her mum thinks she’s being cool mentioning condoms and leaving them to it. It’s a scene that’s both funny and harrowing.

Other grown-ups are even worse role models. Becky and Alisa are sexually abused – as the law would see it – by three men who clearly know better. Trife gets caught shoplifting by men who’ve already decided he’s guilty. Then there’s his terrifying uncle…

There are only two examples of ‘positive’ adults – one shop assistant who stands up for Trife, and another who lets Alisa feel pretty. Otherwise, they have to sort it out for themselves.

Alisa and Trife give the film its heart, and it’s through them we begin to see a way out from this cycle of abuse.

Alisa’s pregnancy makes her rethink priorities, and shows up the selfishness of her peers. At one point she snaps at her best friend Becky, ‘Do you ever think of anything buy yourself?’ Becky’s response, meant in all seriousness, is telling: ‘Yes! Clothes, shoes, money, sex… Wait – sex involves me though, doesn’t it?’

This is about money, and class and status. We see inside the well-off homes as well as the council flats, and crime and prostitution is done on the promise of clothes and widescreen TVs.

But Alisa and Trife’s ultimate breakthrough is not caring what others think of them. Unlike anyone else, they forgo the respect of their peers, and don’t care what lies Sam might tell about them.

The newcomer cast are all excellent, keeping it sharp and surprising, and really making us feel for them. No one should live what these kids do. Expect to see everyone in this again, and soon.

As Sam, Noel Clarke delivers a stunning performance as a fairly mundane bully, who shows his ‘strength’ by punishing girls and boys younger than him. Clarke’s script, based on his own life and experience, really sparkles and surprises as it deftly explores the myriad power relationships.

The film compares well with City of God, and also Crash (though that makes much more of race). But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a new phenomenon – Kidulthood more readily echoes A Clockwork Orange in its violence and street slang and music.

It’s just not science fiction any more. It’s not even fiction.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Underground movement

Yesterday, I got to walk through the very first tunnel built under the Thames. Built between 1825 and 1840 by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, it was bought by the East London Railway Company in 1869 and made part of the East London line.

It's been closed since 2007 for major refurbishment and opens again in May as part of the Overground network (which runs about 600 yards from my house). I hope it will then be tweeting.

Yesterday was a last chance to walk under the river. This was, of course, magnificently exciting.

Me in the Rotherhithe tunnel
Photo by Nimbos. More photos of the tunnel on Facebook for those as fancy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Film Focus: King Kong

Another of my Film Focus reviews. (Something a bit different tomorrow, promise.)

King Kong
Reviewed 6 December 2005

[In brief]
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is an unknown young actress, suddenly out of work during the worst of the Depression. She’s little choice but to take a job on a new movie spectacular, to be shot on location. Though the director’s a swindler, the crew seem rogues, and Ann’s so in awe of the writer she can’t speak to him, things really get difficult when she reaches the mysterious Skull Island where the film’s to be shot, and meets her leading man… 

[In full]
Spectacular, terrifying, and genuinely affecting, Jackson’s brilliant remake of the classic monster flick is a perfect date movie. It could just do with being a bit shorter.

What makes “King Kong” win over other monster movies? In terms of basic story, it’s similar to other, lesser monster flicks, and owes something to Conan-Doyle’s “The Lost World”. Intrepid explorers find prehistoric beasts and monsters, bring one back to civilisation to parade before the masses, and it escapes and causes havoc. Kong, though, differs by not merely making the monster sympathetic, but making him the romantic lead. This is a tragic love story. No, really.

Kong (Andy Serkiss) is beautifully realised, and it’s difficult not to fall for his deep, sultry stare. As one girl sighed afterwards, “If only a man could look at you like that.” The cast are all very watchable, with suitably-arched but well-judged performances all round. Carl Denham (Jack Black) could easily have been a one-note character, but Black makes him real.

Once on the island, things pick up quickly, and the film just gets better and better. There are so many excellent sequences. Ann Darrow not seeing the dinosaur creeping up on her, and the ships’ crew being lunch for a nest of huge insects, had a core of hardened hacks squealing appreciatively in their seats. The fleshy worms that befriend Lumpy (Serkiss again) are some of the best, most convincingly textured CGI ever managed.

There are so many great moments, this could easily have been a five-star movie. However, it’s too long by an hour. It takes an age actually getting to Skull Island, with too many vignettes where we get to know the monster-fodder crew. Jamie Bell, for example, though good, gets two plots. There’s the red-herring of his mysterious background (he’s found on the ship as a boy), and his surrogate father’s efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow. Neither, though, really go anywhere, and the film would miss little without them. We don’t need to be told the significance of his reading Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – just seeing the book in his hands would have been just as effective.

And yet there are questions the film doesn’t answer. Where do all the islanders go? They vanish the moment they’ve introduced Kong to Ann, never to be mentioned again. Then there’s the ease with which Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and Ann escape back to the town. A party of gun-totting sailors is soon eaten up by Skull Island’s monsters, but two naïve arty-types get away with hardly a scratch.

In New York, the special effects run the risk of being too cartoony, mostly because, unlike with the sailors, we don’t see the bodies. Kong’s easy killing of women-who-aren’t-Ann would be all the more striking if we saw any of the dead victims up close. It would also make more sense of the city’s response to this monster-gone-mad.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a creature feature like this to worry too much about realism. Yet it does make the effort to confront elements in the original that are difficult. In the 1933 version, Denham’s a hero, and there’s no question that Kong’s a great prize to be shown off in New York. Jackson makes Denham more of a monster than the titular ape, doing whatever he has to just to get his own way. When members of his crew get eaten, rather than taking the hint he grandly eulogises that they’ll finish the film in their memory. And in capturing Kong, as Driscoll says, he’s only able to destroy the things he loves. (A risk Jackson also ran in remaking this beloved movie.)

This is made all the more plain in the film’s callous ending, with the ignominy of flat-footed soldiers having their pictures taken by Kong’s body, the press climbing all over him. Ann and Driscoll, refusing to go to the show in the first place, retain their integrity. Both work in the same “entertainment” industry as Denham, but Ann’s juggling and prat-falling are innocent pleasures that helped her win over Kong in the first place, and on the night of the gala performance she’s taken an anonymous role in another play. Driscoll, who’s written plays Ann so admired, has also by the end discovered the simple pleasure of light comedy.

Again, though, this thread isn’t fully resolved: why isn’t Denham arrested after Kong escapes? He grandly blames “beauty” for killing Kong, as ever refusing responsibility for all the people being killed. Jackson could have had the same, classic last line of the movie, only with Denham being carried away by the police, protesting his innocence. It feels like they’re torn between updating the original and yet not changing it…

But this really is nit-picking. “King Kong” is a hugely enjoyable, eye-popping movie that pushes all the right buttons. If they could only have been as bold in the editing as they were in the making, it would be without doubt the film of the year. The only problem with Kong is there’s just too much of him.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Film Focus: The Constant Gardener

Another old Film Focus review. I also blogged about the book in August 2005.

The Constant Gardener
Reviewed 6 October 2005

[In brief]
The wife of a British diplomat in Nairobi is brutally murdered, and at first it looks like a crime of passion committed by a man Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) was having an affair with. But Tessa’s husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes) suspects something else, something to do with his wife investigating drug trials. And the more the local police and British High Commission threaten him, the more determined he is to unearth the awful truth.

[In full]
A gripping thriller that dares to confront truths we’d all rather ignore.

Tessa Quayle first meets Justin at a lecture he’s giving about foreign policy. She asks awkward questions about Iraq – Jeffrey Caine deftly bringing John le Carré’s 2001 novel up to date. The other students in the class groan and get up from their seats. They’ve heard all this stuff before. Next she’ll be on about Africa…

Justin is left floundering, unable to save her from embarrassment. His answer in the book – which he admits is “metaphysical fluff of the worst kind” – puts the story’s moral dilemma explicitly:
“You have put your finger on precisely the issue that literally none of us in the international community knows how to answer. Who are the white hats? What is an ethical foreign policy? […] When does a supposedly humanistic state become unacceptably repressive? What happens when it threatens our national interests? Who’s the humanist then?”

John le Carre, The Constant Gardener, pp. 158-9.

Caine has trimmed the book considerably, cutting much of Justin’s detective work to trace his wife’s work and killers. He travels less widely, pursuing just one doctor – Pete Postlethwaite’s Lorbeer – not three. Likewise, the truth about Tessa’s “affair” is given early on in the film, in a throwaway line.

The struggle then is not to solve the mystery but to find proof of things already known or suspected, proof with which to change things. However, the revelation of both the drug trial scandal and the story’s chief villain are less subtly handled than in the book. The reduction also makes everything rather tidy: it’s all a conspiracy, not the end result of incompetence and human weakness.

On the plus side, the high-calibre cast is uniformly excellent. Fiennes and Weisz spark off each other, while Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite vie to steal the most scenes. The film is peppered with nicely-played small roles. Hubert Koundé, in particular, lends Arnold Bluhm a nobility and wit that’s only guessed at in the book.

It’s also telling how Caine has cut back on the ex-pats. Ghita Pearson and Gloria Woodrow are only glimpsed in the film, where in the book much of the action in Kenya is from their perspective. We’re spared their filtered views not only of Justin and Tessa, but also of Africa. Where the book scrutinises the British diplomatic service, the film is much more about Kenya itself.

The stunning light and colour of Kenya, even in the shanty towns, contrasts with the drab greys of London and Berlin. The music is also very effective, and the sometimes-dizzying steadicam gives the film a documentary feel, crucial to its sense of realism. As they did with City of God, director Fernando Meirelles and director of photography César Charlone make setting as much a character as the cast.

It’s remarkable that the film was actually shot in Kenya itself, which shows how much the country has changed since the book was published. Democratic elections were held in December 2002 and – to many observers’ surprise – President Moi ceded authority to the victor, Mwai Kibaki. Yet crime and corruption remain widespread, the Kenyan economy weak. The drafting of a new constitution (hoped to limit presidential powers) led to violent confrontation this summer. The Constant Gardener is released as Kenyans prepare to vote on that new constitution.

There have been various, passionate efforts this year to raise awareness about Africa’s economic misery, imposed by western governments and multinationals. It’s a sign of the competence of everyone involved that The Constant Gardener never feels hectoring or self-righteous.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Film Focus: Revolver

Another of my reviews for Film Focus. This one got quoted all over the place at the time - perhaps cos unlike so many of my peers I sat through to the end, or cos it's a fine old bit of ranting. And note that all the things I didn't like about Revolver do not apply to Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes - I like to think he was listening.

Reviewed 19 September 2005

Cast: Jason Statham, Ray Liotta, Vincent Pastore, Andre Benjamin
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Guy Ritchie
UK Release: 22 September 2005. Certificate: 15. Runtime: 115 mins.

[In brief]
Jake Green (Statham) has learnt a few tricks while he’s been in prison. In fact, nobody can beat him at the games he plays. Which is bad news for gangster Dorothy Macha (Liotta), who’s the reason Green went to jail in the first place…

[In full]
Tedious, humourless, pretentious and nasty, Revolver is not the hoped-for return to form from the writer-director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). It’s not just that the film lacks the lightness-of-touch and black comedy of its predecessors – this is clearly meant to be a grittier, more serious sort of film. What really lets it down is that it’s nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is.

The film is ostensibly about game-playing, and the psychology of the big con. It opens with portentous quotations from a chess manual, a banking text book and Machiavelli. These suggest there’s some great combat of wills to come, rather than Ritchie’s trademark fast-cutting, soundtrack-led shoot-‘em-ups. Guess which we actually get? Even though the same lofty quotations reappear through the film, as if we’re making some kind of philosophical progress, this is a film that’s all style and no substance.

The camera work is eye-poppingly opulent, but feels more self-indulgent than clever. When Green (for no very good reason) tumbles headlong down some stairs, we’re treated to a slow-motion pan, looking down on him. Yeah, it’s kind of pretty, but, er… why? Likewise, there’s a bit when he’s suddenly hit by a car, smashing through the windscreen to land dead in the back seat. It’s a shocking, audacious moment – one of the few times the film makes you sit up and take notice.

And then we rewind, in (you guessed it) slow motion. Green unsmashes his way back through the windscreen, is unhit by the car, and then – time playing forwards now – he gets a call on his mobile, which just stops him walking out in front of the car. It’s a tortuously long sequence all in all, and to tell us what? That Green’s too stupid to look where he’s going; that whoever it is calling on the phone is magic; that the writer-director is pissing about.

There’s more, like the cartoons on the telly matching what’s actually happening in the hotel room, or subtitles that pop up in different places round the screen. These flourishes only distract us from the story, rather than adding to it. For a film where the lead character fights with himself, it’s ironic that the director seems embarrassed by the writer.

Statham makes for a dull lead, though that’s hardly the actor’s fault. A pivotal scene in a lift, with him coming unhinged, ranting and boggle-eyed, is a glimpse at a much more exciting performance and film. As it is, he plods around moodily, his growling narration a litany of clichés. Liotta is similarly a one-note thug, a comedy grotesque played, for some reason, straight. Goofing about in unflattering states of undress, or pinned right in the line of fire by the men trying to protect him, he just seems pathetic. Which means Green turning out not to be scared of him doesn’t really work as a revelation.

There’s really only one character who elicits our sympathies. Mark Strong perfectly plays “Sorter”, the brilliant, cold, nerdy assassin whose crisis of conscience is more gripping and emotionally charged than Green’s kidnapped niece with a gun to her head.

Revolver wants desperately to convince us of its own cleverness, without ever showing us proof that it’s smart. The plot contrives miracles and coincidence to suggest there’s something deeper going on behind the free-wheeling mess onscreen. The ending offers some kind of resolution to the game Green was playing all along, but we’re long past caring, and there’s still so much left unanswered.

Was it all a dream? Was it all inside Green’s head? Why didn’t I just get up in the middle and leave, like the girl right in front of me?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Film Focus: Batman Begins

Between 2005 and 2006 I wrote seven reviews and one interview for the website Film Focus, which sadly has gone to the great Internet Archive in the sky. Thanks to Joe Utichi for employing me in the first place and letting me re-post the stuff here, which I’ll be doing over the next week.

Batman Begins
Reviewed 14 June 2005

[In brief]
Bruce Wayne has messed it up big time. He’s dropped out of college, fallen out with his girl, run off from home, even started thieving… Now he’s ended up in some miserable little prison thousands of miles from anywhere, and the inmates all want him dead. And why? Well, when he was little he had a nightmare, and it got his mummy and daddy killed. If only someone could help him face his fear, to control it, use it… That way he could get back home and sort stuff out. And not just his inheritance and that nice girl he liked. He could probably clean up the whole city...

Even in fancy dress.

[In full]
To a large extent, superhero movies – like Bond flicks, or romantic comedies – are about reshuffling standard, generic elements. They promise something familiar yet new. Batman Begins is no exception. A lot of the ground – Bruce Wayne’s efforts to be better than those he battles, to face his parents’ killers and choose justice over revenge – were well-covered in both Batman and Batman Forever. There are overlaps with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and not just in how he (literally) learns the ropes, wins over the authorities and keep his girlfriend sweet. Batman Begins boasts a remarkably reminiscent fistfight aboard an inner-city train, and the final one-on-one with the baddie is similarly emblematic of the bigger battle for the city itself.

So it’s all very well being well-written and directed and acted, and exciting and funny and cool… What’s actually makes this one different?

For one thing it’s far bleaker than Spider-Man, perhaps more so than even Tim Burton’s arch-goth vision of the Dark Knight. It’s not ‘magical’, not ‘comic-book’, less Batman + Robin as it like Christopher Nolan’s previous, bleak movies, Memento and Insomnia.

In that, it owes a lot to the comic book Batman: Year One, by David Mazzucchelli and Frank Miller – prior to his creating Sin City. Wayne and Jim Gordon seem the only men left in the city with scruples, the only men willing to make a stand against the endemic corruption of everyone – judges, policemen, everyone. Gotham City, like Wayne himself, needs to recover its soul.

The villains of Batman Begins aren’t costumed freaks, even if their plans are a bit whacky. Dr Jonathan Crane still has his work clothes on as Scarecrow; he just pulls on a mask, like any other hoodlum. Wayne’s parents aren’t gunned down by the Joker (this time), but by a down-on-his-luck crook called Joe Chill.

But what makes the film especially ‘realistic’ (compared to other superhero movies) is the muted use of CGI. Oh, it’s still spectacular: watching it at IMAX, the car chase, with the cops in hot pursuit of the Batmobile, is eye-popping! Yet, while Spider-Man’s web-slinging though New York had a comic-book gloss, here the effects are rarely ostentatious. The car chase looks like they really are chasing about in cars. Real ones. Scarecrow’s nightmarish mask is probably the worst CG offender, but we only ever see it sparingly. That’s the secret. Batman, likewise, appears onscreen only fleetingly for his first few appearances, which just makes him that much more powerful. The shadows and sound effects do all the work for him. As they should.

The film is keen to deal with the actual mechanics of being Batman. As well as seeing the military labs from where all his crime-fighting gear comes, as well as seeing his suit and his car and his weapons as military hardware, we’re even told how the invoicing is done, and why he’s always got spare bits of Batsuit when he needs them. The biggest explanation of all, though, and the one that really grounds the film in ‘reality’, is just why a bloke dressed up as a flying rodent might not be such a silly idea.

Yes, it’s stuff we’ve had before in previous Batman movies, but Batman Begins really tries to make it credible. Fear is the motivation of both goodies and baddies alike; overcoming their own and exploiting that of others. We see tough guys rendered imbecile by too much of a nasty scare, while a room full of ninjas is nothing to Bruce, so long as he’s conquered his nightmares. They’ve even changed his parents’ last night out to fit in with the theme – they’ve not taken their already traumatised son to a cheesy old Zorro film, but instead to some weird, scary opera.

It’s good, though, that the Jedi-like stuff where Bruce learns his tricks is dispensed with early on. Montage of ninjas, and training out in the wilderness, and hard-won zen wisdom usually comes in the middle of rights-of-passage films, and it’s always rather humourless, dour and macho. Batman Begins is done with them in the first half hour, and when Alfred (Michael Caine) turns up to collect Master Bruce, a much better movie kicks off.

Alfred’s straight-forward, keep-buggering-on attitude is the film’s real heart. He shares the best gags with the other careworn older men – Morgan Freeman’s Fox and Gary Oldman’s Gordon. And yes, Oldman is easily in the same class as the other two. Still, for all it’s grounded in this good-naturedness, the film is still extremely male. There are strong supporting roles for Liam Neeson, Linus Roache, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson and Rutger Hauer – enough to keep you guessing about which of them might get most of the plot – but there’s only really one woman in the whole thing.

Katie Holmes is fine as the stubbornly-moral district attorney, disappointed by Bruce’s wild lifestyle. The mix of love and anger and despair she feels for Bruce works very well. But Bruce’s mother gets less to say than his blink-and-miss-her nanny. And then there are only the window dressing ladies Bruce chats up or takes to dinner… women who are playthings, not people.

It also loses points for misjudged schmaltz. Batman stops to give one of his gizmos to a wide-eyed little boy (worried his friends won’t believe who he saw), and the boy then turns up again later (conveniently), to be saved from the midst of a riot. Yeah, the child actor is okay, does the wide-eyed thing well, and manages to act his lines rather than just repeat them. But it feels too much of a sop. Yes, we can believe that the streetkids would love Batman, but not that he’d stop for them, or – much worse – volunteer his top-secret toys.

Bale, however, is excellent. He does looks a bit podgy and uncomfortable in the Batman mask, but this is the first film where the Bruce Wayne persona doesn’t seem as tortured and messed-up as the Dark Knight. It’s a delight to see him work just as hard, to think just as quickly, in maintaining his playboy persona as he does when beating the crap out of villains.

The film nicely dovetails the gains made to the city by Wayne as businessman with Wayne dressed up in rubber, hitting bad guys. It ties it in with his family history – his father helping ease the city’s troubles (even, it seems, with his death), and his ancestors helping freed slaves during the Civil War. That sense of public duty offers a more realistic solution to urban decay than we might have gathered from just the fighting. On first appearance, Batman saves the day by… well, despite everything the film seems to have been saying, it’s all solved by someone firing a gun.

But the fight isn’t over. As Gordon says, Batman making a stand as he has will only escalate the problem. We’re left with the promise of bigger fights to come, with crazy villains. And in costumes. Maybe there’ll even be some women, as well.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

You too can kneel before Sutekh

The What's On page for UCL Museums and Collections has announced a date for your diary in May:

Date: Thursday 6 May 2010 | Time: Drop-in from 5 - 8pm
Location:The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Price: Free | Age group: Any

Time travel back to Ancient Egypt to see monsters and aliens pitted against the Egyptian Gods. From the Daleks, who visited the building of the Pyramids, to the Stargates which reach across space and time, the history of Egypt has been a rich source for science-fiction. Grab a free trail, written by Dr Who books author Simon Guerrier, on Egypt's use in sci-fi. explore the Petrie Museum and ‘Kneel before Sutekh.’ Drop in!"
I should add that I had help in the research from fellow sci-fi hack Scott Andrews and the clever academic John Johnston - seen in this YouTube video outing Sutekh as both gay and author of the first ever recorded chat-up line.

Incidentally, two years ago I introduced a screening of Pyramids of Mars.

Friday, March 05, 2010

One and two

Those splendid fellows at Big Finish have announced more Doctor Who stuff what I wrote. "The Guardian of the Solar System" is my third go at writing for Sara Kingdom, as played by the amazing Jean Marsh. It's a never-before-told adventure of the First Doctor - or, as the youths on LiveJournal know him, One.

(I am also absolutely thrilled by the news that Andrew Smith is writing a Companion Chronicle, too. Smith wrote Full Circle (1980) - one of my favourite Doctor Whos, and my earliest memory of anything ever. Can. Not. Wait.)

Speaking of One, I've also got the newly released DVD of The Chase, which features some entirely delicious extra documentaries and ting that are a joy to behold. Well, all but the staring, over-earnest fanboy who should learn to sit up straight. Was thrilled to be there at the filming as William Russell read the extract from my book, The Time Travellers.

Doctor Who: The Second Doctor Box SetI have also written for the Doctor the youths know as Two. On the Big Finish Facebook group - now packed with exclusive goodies - you can also see the glorious artwork for The Second Doctor Box Set, featuring "Prison in Space" by Dick Sharples and adapted for audio by me. (Small version of the artwork, right.)

As well as Facebook, those on Twitter can follow Big Finish and the DVDs of old-skool Doctor Who.

This week has mostly been about the number 2. I did two days reporting, filled out two applications, wrote two comic strips and am currently into the second of two lots of rewrites. Last night, allowed a brief fall off the wagon, I was in two pubs. Now back to the wurk...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Power of the dahlesque

“‘It’s a Snozzwanger!’ cried the Chief of Police.
‘It’s a Whangdoodle!’ yelled the Head of the Fire Department.”

Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, p. 141.

Finished this last night having not read it for at least 20 years – and was anyway more familiar with a fab dramatised version on tape from circa 1983. Young James is a lonely orphan living with two beastly aunts when a strange little man offers to transform his life. All James must do is brew up a tonic from a bag of fizzing green thingies. But in his excitement James trips over and the green things disappear… into the roots of the old, dead peach tree.

This, the first of Dahl’s books for children quickly establishes the form. There’s the grotesque and funny people and incidents, the love of word play, lists and rhymes, and the simple, vivid imagery. It’s an exciting, wild adventure, embracing strangeness and danger. But all sorts of things struck me reading it now that never struck me back then.

James, unlike many of Dahl’s later heroes, is exceedingly good. He never does anything even a little naughty. He’s less consumed with a thirst for adventure than a wish for other children to play with and perhaps the odd trip to a beach. He appears feels no savage thrill of revenge – or indeed anything at all – when his horrid aunts are splatted. And we constantly see his good manners – he helps the creepy crawlies no matter how daft or difficult they are, he freely shares the peach flesh with the children of New York and he holds open house in his peach-stone home.

Yet, like many of the heroes to follow, James is smart and resourceful. He knows all the answers when needed, able to identify America from its skyscrapers and to put names to Cloud Men and rainbow-paint. (He might just be saying what he sees there, but his naming comes with authority and is taken up by the other characters.) He’s also the one who comes up with all the plans for getting the peachers out of peril.

I was conscious reading the book again of the comment on my post about Matilda, that Dahl,
“clearly had some issues with women”.

Mr K, 1 February 2010.

And I simply don’t agree. Yes, there’s the two grotesque aunties, but they’re balanced by the kind and nurturing Ladybird, Spider and Glow-Worm. As in plenty of Dahl, there’s much to be said about good parents – both the Mum and the Dad. The loss of James’ parents is what starts this story; in others its bad parents that drive things. Think of the spoiled children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or of Matilda’s philistine crooks. But there are examples of good parent-figures and bad – in Matilda there’s Miss Honey and the women at the library – and the good ones can be silly, difficult and even spiteful. For dashed off sketches of character, they’re rather rounded characters.

In fact, I’d dare suggest that one might accuse Fawlty Towers similar “issues with women”, because the female roles are so exaggerated and mad. But it’s true of the men too. The twisted worldview is not gender specific

The number of distinct voices in the book is an issue if you’re reading it aloud. There’s James, his two aunts and seven giant creepy-crawlies to begin with. Then there’s the crew of a ship in the mid-Atlantic (I made them all posh), the Cloud Men and – just as you reach the finale – a whole bunch of Jen-yoo-ine Noo-yor-kerz. (The Dr asked me, please, to stop doing those.)

These distinct characters have complex inter-relationships. The Earthworm and Centipede bicker the whole time, the Spider has spent her life living with human prejudice, while the Ladybird ends up marrying the (human) Head of the Fire Department - a few pages after we’d seen him cowering at the sight of her. That’s almost like something from Torchwood, the odd juxtaposition made part of the happy ending, with no judgement passed or comment on the impracticalities.

There’s a great swathe of coincidence and good fortune involved – but having had his parents eaten by an escaped rhino and then ending up with aunts Sponge and Spiker, I suppose it could be argued that James’ luck had to drastically improve. It’s almost a return to the mean.

But that’s not quite the point. The book celebrates the visceral and strange. The peach itself is a Freudian paradise, all soft flesh and soppingly juicy. The simple, vivid imagery is constantly arresting, Dahl’s world lurid and tactile.

That’s aided by Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which have been added to more recent versions. I don’t remember the original book too well so am less affronted here by the replacement of earlier pictures by another artist. But my memories of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator are indelibly tied up with Joseph Schindelman’s worm-like vermicious Knids - a formative strangeness in my early childhood, now sadly lost from new editions. (The Knids get a mention on p. 142 of James and the Giant Peach.)

There’s little to suggest the book is 50 years old, just a reference to the King of Spain not being on the Spanish throne (as he was before 1976). Perhaps a more recent book would shy away from kids freely accepting strange gifts from even stranger little men, or of mixing up and drinking down fizzing “magic” potions (something I remember being levelled at George’s Marvellous Medicine when it was first published).

A book written in the last nine years might also ditched the arresting image of the peach hanging above New York like a gigantic bomb while the President eats his cereal. The bomb then drops because a plane crashes into it.

A wild and witty madcap adventure that has stood the test of time. (We’re onto Fantastic Mr Fox next.)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Pulpable hits

It's that time again. wants your nominations for the best TV tie-in wossnames of the last 12 months. Some ingenious wag described this last year as "top of the pulps".

By "the best", obviously, they mean "my". The things I wrote what would qualify are:
Other knock-off merchandise is available.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Friends indeed

This morning I was wearing my dump hat. The binmen declined to take our rubbish last week 'cos there was a former shower cubicle stacked neatly beside it. So I cajoled the helpful neighbour/boss G for the use of his car.

He's bought a new, shiny car since last time we did this, so there was some careful preparation of plastic sheets. But we cleared his shed and my shower, and all in time to be at work.

Where, courtesy of Psychonomy, this beauty was waiting. It shall take pride of place on my desk at home, next to the baboon.

Ackbar the great