Harry Potter 7.2 – the end of an era

July 20, 2011

We went to see the latest and last film installment in the Harry Potter series yesterday, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. The film is pretty good, even if it is pretty much one long action scene. With a story there are normally three acts. There’s a setup, with questions asked and situations created, then there’s some kind of action and usually some extra problems thrown in, and finally there’s resolution. I recently saw something that sums this up beautifully:

I found this via Chuck Wendig’s Tumblr, and I love it so much I want to punch it in the face.

So, the problem, if you can call it that, with the last Harry Potter film is that it’s all the last cup. It’s all resolution, action-packed climax. But that’s okay. Because seven previous films have done all the work of the first two acts.

Say what you will about J K Rowling and the Harry Potter stories, there’s something truly amazing about the achievement. Sure, the stories may be derivative, distillations of so much fantasy that’s gone before. But everything is informed by something. Sure, Rowling may not be the greatest writer on the planet, but she does spin a yarn that keeps you reading, and what more do we really want than that? These aren’t wanky literary explorations of language and word form. They’re rollicking yarns, aimed mainly at young people. And Rowling does have a dab hand at naming things. She comes up with the best names.

I was a bit of a critic at first, especially of the first couple of books. Poorly written, derivative stories that insult the genre, blah, blah, blah. Yes, I’m blah, blah, blahing myself. It’s true to some extent, but Rowling kept going, she created a remarkable world and truly interesting characters. Well, mostly. Ginny Weasley, for example, was always a bit of a glyph. But Rowling got young people excited about books again, and for that she deserves a knighthood or a statue or something. We can forgive the small things in the face of the big achievement.

And that achievement is seven books that sell better than the Bible. A merchandising empire that makes nation states weep. Rowling is worth an estimated £500 million. That’s pounds sterling. That’s a mental amount of money from writing about a boy wizard. On top of that, we’ve got the films.

Never has a film franchise like this happened before. Sure, there have been film series’, though none with a single story that runs to eight full-length episodes. There have been characters who have cropped up way more than seven times, like James Bond. But each of those is a seperate story, and there have been many actors playing Bond. To have a story like Harry Potter extend over eight films, over ten years, with the same cast literally growing up as their characters is something we may never see again.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (Harry, Hermione and Ron) from the first film and the last.

It would be fantastic if some other great book series’ received the same kind of treatment, but it’s unlikely. Not often does a prospect like Potter come along. Very few stories will guarantee a return on investment like Harry Potter does. It’s beyond mainstream; it’s ubiquitous. Producers and financers knew they could pretty much spend carte blanche on Harry Potter films and guarantee getting their money back several times over. Nothing is a safe bet like that in this world. Rowling created that – a guaranteed massive return investment. And you thought her magic was all fiction. This last installment shattered box office records worldwide, with US$169.2 million in US and Canadian ticket sales over the opening weekend. The opening weekend! And they’ve yet to truly milk it, with the rest of its cinema run, then DVDs, then special edition DVDs, then 8 film boxed sets. Not to mention all the associated merchandising.

Then there’s Pottermore to keep the whole thing monetised. Then there’s always the possibility of more books. The whole 19 Years Later thing at the end of the story is there as some kind of cap, but there are loads of ways around that if Rowling chooses to write more.

Of course, the real test of Rowling’s skill will be to write something else. Amazing as the Potter success is, she’ll always be measured against it and may not be able to write any other stories. I hope not. I hope she comes up with something all new, completely unrelated to Harry Potter and his world of wizards and witches, though I doubt she will.

So, for now at least, it’s over. It really is the end of an era. Children started reading books with the success of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They grew up alongside their favourite characters while film stars grew up playing those characters. I’m glad to have seen it through. There’s a good sense of closure now and the books and films will stand as one of the greatest storytelling achievements of all time.

I’m still left with one question unanswered. Why does Harry Potter, or any other witch or wizard, wear glasses? They can regrow bones, for goodness sake. Surely they can fix a spot of myopia. Then again, perhaps it’s good to be left with some questions. Well done J K Rowling, and well done Harry, Hermione and Ron. You all did good.


The Dark Knight Rises – official teaser poster

July 12, 2011

OMGOMGOMG! Christopher Nolan, who art our Bat-master, please please please make it three from three. (Click the image for full-size glory.)


Game changer – J K Rowling, Pottermore and ebooks without a publisher

June 24, 2011

The internet has been abuzz lately since mega-billionaire-super-author, J K Rowling (of Harry Potter fame, in case you’ve been a monk in a cave for more than ten years) announced Pottermore. In a nutshell, it goes like this:

After seven books and eight films and more merchandising than you can fit in George Lucas’s ego, Rowling has now announced a website which will be a complete interactive experience for all ages based on her stories. Along with that she’s announced that for the first time ebook editions of the Harry Potter series will be made available. Well, legal ebook editions that is. Rowling truly is the master at monetising her ideas and characters, having turned some books about wizards at school into an international behemoth across all media.

With Pottermore, as the press release says:

For this groundbreaking collaborative project, J.K. Rowling has written extensive new material about the characters, places and objects in the much-loved stories, which will inform, inspire and entertain readers as they journey through the storylines of the books. Pottermore will later incorporate an online shop where people can purchase exclusively the long-awaited Harry Potter eBooks, in partnership with J K Rowling’s publishers worldwide, and is ultimately intended to become an online reading experience, extending the relevance of Harry Potter to new generations of readers, while still appealing to existing fans.

It’s a pretty inspired concept. Of course, Rowling with her riches and business partners is the kind of author with the kind of clout you’d need to make something like this happen.

The real game changer among all this, however, despite the partnership comment above, is that the ebooks will be essentially self-published. Her publishers, Bloomsbury, Scholastic, etc., don’t own the eletronic rights – and I bet they’re really happy about that. So Rowling is planning to make the ebooks available directly through Pottmore. Of course, when Rowling self-publishes, she’s has a team of people behind her and her own company on the case, so it’s not like she sits there on her own and uploads files to Amazon. But the key here is the lack of a third-party publisher.

The Kindle will accept epub format ebooks soon and the announcement that the Harry Potter ebooks will be available from October seems to fit in with that, so it’s likely the books will be in epub. That certainly does seem to be the prominent format and, aside from Amazon’s mobi format, has been the industry leader all along. Once the Kindle accepts epub too, we have the first stage of industry standardisation and that’s a good thing for all of us. Perhaps we have Rowling to thank in part for forcing that change – who knows who talked to who while this was getting off the ground.

Authors leveraging their existing print success to manage their own ebook releases is nothing new – just see J A Konrath’s example for one. But nothing on this scale has happened before and we can see things shifting a little more on the axis. I’ve said it before – we’re living in exciting times in writing and publishing and the ride ain’t over yet. I wonder how many kids will get an ereader with a set of Harry Potter books on board for Xmas this year? This will be a big step in mainstreaming ereaders, which are becoming more and more mainstream anyway. On a recent flight to Melbourne I noticed several people reading from Kindles and Sony Readers while waiting for my plane.

The kind of cross-media storytelling and promotion which Pottermore represents is certainly not new, but we’ve seen nothing on this scale before. Just the official announcement video is better than any book trailer a lowly author like myself could hope for. I wonder where we go from here?

Here’s the official release video from Rowling herself:

And here’s the Pottermore site.

Interesting times indeed. What do you think? Is this a good thing or not? Where do things go from here?


X-Men: First Class – review

June 19, 2011

X-MenI’ve been getting a bit tired of the X-Men movie franchise. You may remember how disappointed I was with the Wolverine movie. So I went into this one with some trepidation, but also a secret hope that it would be good. After all, it’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who previously directed Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass, so we have good reason to expect quality from him. And I wasn’t disappointed. X-Men: First Class was absolutely brilliant.

It’s a genesis story and tells us how the whole X-Men thing began. In essence, it’s really a Magneto story, focussing more on what made Erik Lehnsherr into Magneto than anything else, but it manages to be so much more than that. It touches on how the mutants are the children of the nuclear age and not an aberration but the evolution of humanity, thereby setting the stage for the stand-off between humans and mutants that we’ve seen in the other films.

Charles Xavier, excellently played by James McAvoy, discovers Raven (Mystique), played by Jennifer Lawrence, when they’re children. They realise they’re not alone in their weirdness and thus begins Xavier’s interest in genetics which leads him to become a professor. He’s a genius and a telepath and, through a few connections with the CIA, begins to gather other mutants together. He shows them they’re not alone and gives them a safe place and a purpose. I’m deliberately skipping a MASSIVE chunk of the story here, as it’s far better experienced through the film.

Alongside this story we see Erik Lehnsherr, forced through horrible methods by Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, to embrace his own mutant powers, and there the seed of his genesis is planted. It turns out that Shaw is up to no good in a massive way and is trying to trigger a nuclear war. In this way the film manages to weave the plot of the mutants into the real world history of the Cuban missile crisis and it does a superb job of that. If you’re a serious history buff you might have trouble with some of the liberties taken with events surrounding the Cuban missile crisis. To this I would point out that there aren’t really mutant people with incredible super powers, so if you can suspend that disbelief and accept a young man who flies by screaming at the ground, you can let a bit of alternate history go.

The film is set in 1962 and the faith to the era and environment is really well done. The performances are top notch. I’ve already mentioned that James McAvoy was excellent as Xavier. Other stand-outs are Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast. Kevin Bacon is excellent as Shaw and creates in that character a very convincing bad guy. But the entire film is stolen by Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. His performance is true brilliance.

The film largely focusses on Magneto’s genesis, and an integral part of that is the friendship between Xavier and Lehnsherr and how that grows and then fractures. The film does a great job of exploring that dynamic. Some of the best scenes in the film are conversations between Xavier and Magneto, which is some going for an action flick.

The political backdrop of the missile crisis provides an excellent crucible for the bigger issues explored by this film. Always the X-Men have been about accepting difference and this film is no exception. This is particularly well explored with the relationship between Mystique and Beast, with her spending all her time trying to conceal her true appearance, while he does all he can to cure his. Eventually, of course, they face the truth of who they are and make decisions based on those realisations. The film manages to get its messages across in entertaining ways, with plenty of humour thrown in and some stellar action sequences. Also, talking of humour, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in this one that will have fans nerdgasming all over the place. It’s hilarious and brilliant. You’ll know it when you see it.

So there’s new life in the X-Men franchise and this is perhaps the best X-Men film yet. Well worth your time and money. I already want to see it again.


Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Review

June 12, 2011

Pirates Of The Caribbean On Stranger TidesI went into this movie with very low expectations and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The basic premise for all these movies is fairly bulletproof. You’ve got your standard mythological pirate, the original lovable rogue, sailing the high seas, carousing and pillaging, but always with a heart of gold and only really killing the bad guys. Which is bollocks, of course, but all tremendous fun. Then you wind that in with a decent supernatural story, a few good chase scenes and some shit blowing up, and populate the movie with actors guaranteed to draw a crowd. Win.

But the Pirates movies have suffered something in the way of diminishing returns with each new release. The first one was excellent and the next two, while good fun, very clever with their special effects and excellent fantasy escapism, didn’t really hit that high again. This installent, however, did. I don’t necessarily want to suggest it’s the best of the lot, as a several people I know have said, but it’s definitely a return to form.

Essentially, Captain Jack Sparrow meets up with an old lover, Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz, and she has a plan to find the Fountain Of Youth. There’s a Spanish fleet also looking for it, and King George has got Captain Barbossa to turn over an honest leaf and captain a ship to find the Fountain for Britain. Turns out that Angelica is actually on board ship with Blackbeard, the pirate that even pirates fear, and the whole thing gets very complicated. But therein lies one of the strengths of the film. The plot is complex and characters have agendas other than those we initially believe and so on. It’s not so complicated that we can’t keep up, but it’s not simplistic either. It’s a good, convoluted story, and you all know how I appreciate some good storytelling. There are some issues that crop up. A few times there are characters who do things completely out of character, or purely for convenience. There are some twists that don’t really make sense and are obviously there to shoe horn the next twist or create a set piece that’s expected in the franchise. But these are all small niggles in an otherwise good yarn.

Pirates Of The Caribbean On Stranger TidesThe performances are excellent as always, especially Ian McShane as Blackbeard. And, on a side note, I want Blackbeard’s coat. I mean, I really want it. If you’re reading this and you know how to get it, I want to know! Geoffrey Rush is excellent as always playing Barbossa, Cruz is good as Angelica, Depp is perfect as Captain Jack Sparrow and Keith Richards has a brief cameo return as Jack’s dad.

The story comes from Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, On Stranger Tides, with the Pirates Of The Caribbean characters woven in. There are zombies, though they are a bit unexplained in the film, other than being the voodoo kind, and turned that way because they obey better and Blackbeard likes his crew to be easily controlled. There are mermaids, and part of the problem the characters face is getting a mermaid’s tear to make use of the Fountain Of Youth. This led to the best scene in the film for me – Sparrow, Blackbeard, et al travel to Whitecap Bay, famous for being the kind of place from which people never return. This is where they’ll find mermaids and they set a longboat of crew out as bait, with a spotlight from land lighting the water, to attract the mermaids. The mermaids themselves are the nasty siren kind, that start off all lovely and desirable, then grab you and eat your face off. Which is, of course, the best kind of mermaid. The scene with the sailors in the long boat as bait and the first appearance of the mermaids is a proper creepy bit of film-making and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

To be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole film. The required Jack Sparrow escape scene at the start was contrived and not very well done, some of the plot was a bit too convenient, some people did mystifying things, but on the whole it was a clever and creepy yarn, well told and well played, with the expected level of special effects eye candy. And a nice line in drumming as part of the score, which I noticed on a few occaions. If you like your pirates and your supernatural adventures, you’ll like this.

Seriously, I want this coat. Badly. Get it for me.


On episodic storytelling – A Game Of Thrones

May 4, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different styles of storytelling. This was triggered mostly by watching the incredible TV adaptation of George R R Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. The TV show is named after the first volume in Martin’s masterful epic, A Game Of Thrones. When it comes to epic fantasy, nothing comes close to A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF). There are many reasons for that. Mainly it’s Martin’s superb ability as a writer, but it’s his ideas and characters as well. Of course, any good story can be spoiled by a bad writer and any good writer can make a decent job of a bad story. All the really good books out there are the ones that combine great writing with original ideas and well realised characters. By those criteria, ASOIAF stands head and shoulders above so much other epic fantasy storytelling.

A Game Of ThronesOf course, your mileage may vary. I’ve even come across people that don’t like ASOIAF at all. I can only imagine they also hate puppies. There are some very weird folk out there. Others may think that ASOIAF is good, but they have other favourites. Regardless, the majority view is that it’s brilliant. The majority are right.

The HBO television adaptation is a no-expense-spared homage to the books. After three episodes it’s clear they’re not cutting corners and I’m enjoying seeing a visual interpretation of the books more than I thought I might. They’ve got some details wrong, they’re missing stuff here and there, but it’s an adaptation, not a facsimile. But it’s not a patch on the books.

Rarely is the TV or film version of a story better than the written one. You can draw some examples where the film is better, the most obvious to me being Blade Runner, the greatest film of all time. It’s based on the Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. I prefer the movie to the book, but they’re actually vastly different things. The influence and inspiration is obvious, but Ridley Scott did very different things with the film than PKD did with the book.

Even so, to return to ASOIAF, a ten episode television adaptation of an 800 page novel should move at a pace and be enthralling and intense. It should grip the viewer, make us desperate to see the next part. Certainly it should have a faster pace than a novel that could prop up a table with three legs. Now while the television series is brilliant, it’s not as compelling as the book for me. And I couldn’t figure out why.

I know the story, so reading the book was new while watching the show isn’t. That’s certainly part of it. No matter how detailed and carefully made the television show is, it can’t possibly contain the detail and characterisation of the book. And here we start to see the issue at hand. Martin’s massive story – and it does almost redefine the term epic – is not one of those long, meandering big fat fantasies. It’s a fast, powerful big fat fantasy. And it’s like that because of the method Martin employs in his storytelling.

It’s episodic, just like a ten part television series. Except each part is very short. In ASOIAF every chapter is titled with a character name. We know immediately that the chapter in question is going to be told from the point of view (POV) of that character. By doing this Martin manages to tell his story with a huge cast of characters. Every POV chapter contains numerous other players, all important to the plot. But Martin is able to focus each of those sections through the eyes of the chapter character in question. We then quickly develop favourites – Tyrion, Jaime, Brienne, Arya to name a few of mine – and we desperately want to get to the next chapter told through their eyes.

This turns an 800 page novel into a huge collection of 10 page (or so) interlinked short stories. And Martin writes them that way. Each chapter is almost self-contained, like a good short story, while being an integral part of the whole.

A Game Of ThronesI love short stories. I love reading them and I love writing them. I particularly like selling them. And most other people like short stories too. Even people that don’t really think they like short stories, because they want a bigger narrative with less left untold, can still appreciate a good short yarn. Just some people read very few of them and prefer to immerse themselves in a novel with their reading time. George R R Martin makes ASOIAF so compelling because he gives us that massive, epic story, told in hundreds of short stories. Faster and more intense than episodes of a television show. Deeper and more detailed than a television show could ever be. He tells stories within stories and takes us on a journey of intrigue and politics that would bore us silly in an historical textbook. And he does it with tight, episodic storytelling.

Because we switch POV with every chapter, the story never slows down. We know that once this chapter ends, we’re going somewhere else. Sometimes Martin cheats – for example, he’ll have a Jaime chapter and Cersei will be involved. Then he’ll immediately follow it with a Cersei chapter, then maybe another Jaime one. He’s just managed to stay in one place for three chapters with only two POV changes between two characters. Clever stuff. But he very rarely does that.

By having a key character POV in each of his theatres of action, we keep track of what’s going on. We might not remember all the names of all the players, especially when there’s a long gap between visits to certain characters or scenarios, but that lynchpin character holds us in place and we can follow along. And each of those chapters is a little self-contained slice of a far, far bigger tale. You can tell by the way the chapters start. I’ll give a few random examples from the first book in the series:

“It’s the Hand’s tourney that’s they cause of all the trouble, my lords,” the Commander of the City Watch complained to the king’s council.

Through the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes upon the walls where the heads of dragons had once hung.

The Karstarks came in on a cold windy morning, bringing three hundred horsemen and near two thousand foot from their castle at Karhold.

Each of those is quite random – I just leafed through A Game Of Thrones and picked the opening line of three different chapters. Two of them are even the same character POV. But any one of those sentences could be the start of a novel or a short story. There’s no reference to the previous chapter because we’ve shifted from those events to somewhere new. There’s no presupposition of place or situation until we’re several paragraphs in and discover where we are and what thread we’re picking up. And even then, it could be hours, days or weeks since we were last in the company of this particular POV character.

Any good book will keep you turning the pages, even a massive, fat fantasy in multiple volumes. But no one does it so well or so consistently as Martin does in ASOIAF.

Honestly, Martin is a genius, a proven master with what he’s achieved with ASOIAF. The next volume is due out in July and I believe there are two more volumes after that slated to wrap up the whole thing. The TV show is going to have one series for each volume. So Martin had better keep writing so the actors don’t outgrow the story before he’s finished. Regardless, whatever he does, the books will always be more powerful and more compelling than the television series. And not just because we get more in the books – more characters, more detail, more history – but because of the way Martin has chosen to tell that story. The method that so often had me bleary of a morning because the night before I sat there reading saying, “Oh, just one chapter before bed.” Then it was another Tyrion chapter. Then an Arya chapter. And then… and then…

There’s a lot that makes Martin’s masterpiece so good, but it’s the way he tells the story that makes it so addictive.

What do you think? Is this why you love it too? Or why you hate it?


Source Code – movie review

April 28, 2011

Source CodeHopscotch Films were kind enough to send me a double pass for a pre-screening of the new sci-fi thriller Source Code. So I hooked up a good mate and we went along last night. Source Code opens with Jake Gyllenhaal snapping awake in a train carriage, clearly unaware of where he is and what’s happening. The girl opposite seems to know him well and he’s the only one confused by the situation. After a few minutes of running around the train in a state of anxiety, a massive explosion rips through everything, killing everybody. Pretty powerful opening. Gyllenhaal awakens in a pod and we discover that he’s Captain Colter Stevens, a military helicopter pilot, whose last memory is flying in Afghanistan. He’s told through a screen to go back and find the bomber. He fails again and is blown up again. So they tell him he’s wasting time and has to find the bomb, the bomber, or something they can use. They send him back again. That’s right – it’s Groundhog Day On A Train, with extra explosions.

But it’s way better than that.

I’m going to review this film with as little spoilerage as possible, but it’s one of those films that is hard to explain without some exposition. To be honest, if I wanted to give nothing away, that first paragraph would be all I could post! I’ll describe the overall premise very briefly here and then go on to a review after the next picture. I really won’t give too much away anywhere here, but if you want to know nothing about this film, skip to the other side of the next image.

The basic premise is this: When someone dies their brain retains a latent glow of information, like a light bulb filament after you turn it off. That “glow” lasts for eight minutes. A certain compatible brain type, with the help of Dr Rutledge’s incredible science, employing quantum mechanics and some stuff or something and a clever machine, allows this military team to send a person back into the source code – essentially a program generated by the latent brain image of the dead. But every time a person goes back, they only have that eight minute window to work in.

Clear? No, not really. Turns out that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Captain Colter Stevens, is an air force captain and he’s in the machine, being sent back into the source code memory of a victim of a terrorist attack. A train was blown up on its way to Chicago and more attacks are imminent. If Stevens and the team can go back into the source code often enough for him to find the bomber and/or any information about the bomb, the military could conceiveably prevent the next attacks by catching the people responsible. They can’t do anything about what has already happened, because it’s just a program, just Source Code, but they can learn things to act on future attacks.

Source Code is a slick, classy movie. It’s directed by Duncan Jones, the man who brought us Moon, so you know it’s in good hands, and written by Ben Ripley. The performances are all excellent, particularly Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, who plays Christina Warren, and Vera Farmiga, who plays Colleen Goodwin. I thought Goodwin was a particularly powerful character.

The science in this sci-fi thriller is very much on the lite side. If you read the paragraphs above you’ll realise that it’s not clearly defined. I wasn’t vague about it because I wasn’t paying attention. I was vague because the film is vague on the science. Something about quantumm mechanics, a clever kind of machine thing and a smarmy, self-important doctor. But the science isn’t really the relevant part. If you want that properly explained, you’ll be diappointed. If you have a solid grasp on quantum mechanics and the like, you’ll probably cringe at the liberties this film takes with those ideas. But I didn’t let that bother me. It’s a strong action thriller and should be enjoyed as such. The premise and development of that idea are really well done and the film is powerful for its focus on subjects like fate, duty and the meaning of life.

This film is in a similar vein to Inception and I’m really pleased to see these films being made. There’s a distinct return, most evident in Source Code and Inception recently, to intelligent, challenging storytelling. In Source Code they play with time (but it’s not really time travel) and the whole plot plays with your mind as you try to unravel it along with the characters. I did see most of the little twists coming and I imagine most people with even a simple familiarity with sci-fi would anticipate them too. But none of them were forced and they all worked well.

Source CodeImmediately on leaving the theatre my friend and I began chattering in earnest about the ending and how it happened. The film made us think while we watched and kept us thinking. We figured out a timeline that seemed contradictory but actually isn’t and is really very clever (quantum mechanic liberties aside). Source Code is a mind-bender. It’ll keep people interested long after the film is finished and won’t just leave people with the old adage, “Well, it looked good. Amazing effects!” Sure, the effects were really good and very convincing, but you know what? They were only used to advance the story. Imagine that! There was me thinking Hollywood had forgotten about that.

The film takes its ideas from a number of sources. I mentioned earlier that it has a distinct Groundhog Day feel to it. It also has clear influence from a number of other sources, including most notably the premise of Quantum Leap. As an aside, there’s a clever Scott Bakula cameo (he played the main character in Quantum Leap). Don’t cheat, but I bet you a hundred bucks* you don’t spot his cameo appearance. Watch the credits afterwards to get the answer.

* Not a real bet. I don’t have a hundred bucks!

This is a film that’s well worth your time and money. It’s clever, brilliantly shot and constructed, neatly avoiding a lot of potential paradoxes even if it is light on the science, and exciting from start to finish. It grips just as a thriller should and will challenge your thinking all the way through. As a last note, when you do watch this film, spare a thought for poor old Sean Fentress. When you’ve seen the film, take a minute to think about that and you’ll see what I mean.

Have you seen it? What did you think? Did the potential problems with the science bother you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(NB: Source Code opens nationally (Australia) on 5th May 2011)


Battle: Los Angeles – review

March 18, 2011

Battle LA 1Battle: Los Angeles is brought to you by the US Marine Corp Board of Recruitment. Hoo-rah!

At least, it’s hard not to think so having watched the film. Battle: Los Angeles is about an alien invasion. Basically, these bizarre meteor showers suddenly appear in Earth’s atmosphere and within hours they’re crash landing in the ocean near major cities all around the world. Except they’re not really crash landing. They’re slowing down before impact, they’re of uniform size, their appearance is synchronised – obviously, it’s an alien invasion.

The military is mobilised.

We see the story from the point of view of one squad of crack Marines, led by one grizzly Staff Sergeant, two days out from retirement, and a fresh faced Lieutenant, green straight from the academy. As you can see, the whole film is cliché-powered. The Cliché Squad consists of one dude about to get married in three weeks, a guy barely recovered from shellshock, desperate to be cleared for combat duty again, a bitter young chap who’s brother died in a mission with the same Grizzled Staff Sergeant who now leads him and so on. Help me, I’m choking on clichés! So anyway, our erstwhile mob is sent into the war zone to rescue five civilians trapped in a police station several clicks inside the battle lines. They have three hours before the Air Force drop bombs to raze the place to rubble.

Wait a minute, what’s that screeching noise? Oh, it’s the last vestige of credibility, spinning off Disbelief Suspension Highway in a cloud of tyre smoke and broken logic. And we’re barely ten minutes into the film.

Let me get this straight – aliens have starting smashing major cities all over the world simultaneously. The military has a chance to bomb the intergalactic shit out of them before they can get too far inland as they seem to be ground based only and have no air support (which we’ll come to in a minute), yet they’re going to wait three hours before said shock and awe campaign? Bollocks are they. Aliens, destroying the world = coastal population: collateral damage. The only reason they would wait three hours to start bombing is to give a fairly ridiculous squad of marines a chance to have a film made about them while they move in to rescue five civilians. FIVE! There are already thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, dead. Dudes, bomb those fucking aliens back to Alpha Centauri! Quick!

So yeah, it’s pretty stupid. Actually, it’s really stupid.

They fly Cliché Squad into the war zone – i.e. the area that the aliens have already advanced into from the coast. That’s right, they fly them in by chopper. Yet they land them a couple of Ks out from the police station where the civies are. That’s because we then get to see the marines do their street by street thing, all cool and efficient. But, of course, that goes wrong. Yet they prevail briefly. When the marines find the civilians, they call in a chopper to get them out. WHAT!? Why didn’t they just fly all the way in then? Of course, at this point the alien’s air support is mobilised and the chopper is taken out and the marines have to escape again on foot.

Well, of course the aliens have aircraft. THEY CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! Did the US military really think they flew here from another planet, but only had ground troops on board? That’s just mental.

So Cliché Squad starts trying to get out again, Young Lieutenant loses it, Grizzly Staff Sergeant pulls him back together, Young Lieutenant does the honourable thing and gives his life to save the squad, Grizzly Staff Sergeant has to lead them, but he’s the one that got all his men killed before! “Don’t you think I think about those young men every day?” Oh, he’s actually pretty cool and he’ll lead us well. Hoo-rah, let’s fight those alien scum! Wait, all these flying things are unmanned drones, that means they have a mother of a command and control centre (because that’s how we humans would do it). If we can only take that C & C centre out, we could have a chance in this godforsaken war! Wait, what’s that? A large area with the power out? That must be where the C & C is, sucking up all the power. (Wait a minute, this entire city is being destroyed by an alien invasion force, wouldn’t pretty much everywhere have the power out by now? Quiet, you – you’re spoiling the tenuous plot. Well, I say plot…) Look at us go, Cliché Squad to the rescue! Hoo-rah! Yay, we’ve taken out the C & C, now we’re showing those alien scumbags who they’re messing with! Look at all the drones falling out of the sky. The aliens are retreating, we’re so super cool! But the war’s not over yet. No, we don’t need a rest Captain, we just need to refill our ammo and get back out there. HOO-RAH!

And that’s only a fraction of the stupidity. I haven’t even mentioned the bit where they capture an alien and repeatedly stab it everywhere looking for “the vital organ” so they know where to shoot. Or the fact that an entire alien invasion seems to consist of disparate groups of half a dozen or so alien infantry scattered here and there throughout LA. Or the seemingly indestructible Marine laser targeting device. Or the clearly structured nature of events identical to the increasing difficulty levels of a computer game. And… and… I can’t go on. The shooting barely stops, yet the plot holes still outnumber the bullet holes.

Battle LA 2To make matters worse, the whole thing is shot in the worst handicam style. It makes the Blair Witch camera work seems Oscar-worthy. It’s as if the whole thing is being filmed by an embedded journalist that’s lost his camera so he’s running around trying to capture it all on his phone. I know it’s a device to make us feel like we’re in the action, but it even happens right at the start with two dudes having a conversation in an office. It’s like the cameraman is on one of those 60s weight loss machines where you stand on a platform with a bigger rubber belt around your arse and it vibrates the flab away.

And worst of all, this film once again employs that most annoying of alien invasion conceits – the aliens underestimate the tenacity of the human race; they have no idea who they’re messing with. You know, this is an alien race that’s spanned the galaxy. They’ve got here and they’re taking over the planet. It’s quite possible that they’re some pretty fucking tenacious creatures themselves. I bet they’ve got squads of warriors every bit as tough, determined and brave as the humans. We like to think we’re awesome, but an invading alien army would probably be pretty awesome too. And far better equipped. They came here through space, after all.

Really, this film is utter shite. It has no redeeming features. It would be an impressive visual display of effects if the cameraman wasn’t having an epileptic fit throughout the movie. It’s just action and mayhem and American hoo-rahism, wrapped up in a complete lack of plot and a thoroughly implausible premise. For two hours when you can switch your brain to neutral and see if you can avoid your own epileptic fit while watching, give it a go. Otherwise do something more constructive with your time, like sit in the garden and eat grass.


Real Life Superheroes – the saga continues to continue

March 15, 2011

I’m sure you all remember the bizarre RLSH – Real Life Super Hero – thing that blew up here back at the end of 2008. If not, refresh your memory with this post (that I had to close after more than 150 comments, many from “super heroes” themselves). That saga continued with this post. Now, I’m happy to report, the saga continues to continue.

You know when you read something and you think those time honoured words, Only in America! Well, now we can’t apply that to the RLSH thing any more as Britain and Australia are getting involved. That’s right. We have our very own Real Life Super Hero. He’s called Captain Australia and this is him:

(Picture from

Now seriously, how can that guy not strike fear into the hearts of villains everywhere? Although, by his costume, I think he’s actually Captain At. He probably deflects evildoers with his super belly. He patrols for crime around the Brisbane area apparently.

According to Captain At, “During one patrol, I stopped two sexual predators from taking advantage of a very drunk woman at a taxi rank. Unfortunately, I was unsure of my ability to conduct a citizen’s arrest and the two predators ran away before the police arrived. But I was able to prevent a near-certain sexual assault.”

You’d think a super hero would have some idea of the law regarding citizen’s arrests. You’d also think he’d just kick their arses, vigilante-style, but regardless he did do a good deed. So more power to Captain At!

Britain’s caped crusader is no less… well, less. Called The Statesman, but dubbed the Phan-Tum by the The Sun newspaper (that unquestionable paragon of quality news), he fights crime in Birmingham. Seriously, between Captain At and The Statesman, I’d take the Captain’s beat any day. The Statesman is one of at least 16 amateur crime fighters in Britain, according to researcher Tea Krulos, who is writing a book on the subject. Here’s The Statesman:

(Picture from

The News of the World lists The Statesman’s crime fighting CV as “He helped three other superheores and Police Community Support Officers capture a drug dealer and managed to scare off burglars breaking into builder’s merchant.”

Along with people like Vague, Swift, Black Arrow, Lionheart and Terrorvision, The Statesman is keeping the streets of Britain clean. (Incidentally, what kind of super hero name is Vague? It’s a little… vague, isn’t it?)

When Krulos was told of the British heroes he said, “In America we have many, but they tend to seek publicity.

“In Britain it is a very secretive underground society. They do all they can to avoid publicity and communicate online. Whole forums are set up and often they operate in groups. I have spoken extensively to The Statesman, and he takes what he does very seriously.” (Source)

According to Krulos, “These are normal people wanting adventure and to improve communities. They achieve more than you’d think.”

I have to admit, I bloody love this whole thing. I just can’t leave it alone – it’s like picking at a scab. There’s a part of me that wants to laugh my arse off at these overweight comic book lovers running around the streets at night in costume. Then again, another part of me has a lot of respect for people that would run around the streets at night and put themselves in danger for the good of others, silly costumes or not. I love reading super hero comic books. I’ve been a regular Batman reader for decades. I’ve dreamed of what it would be like to fight crime, vigilante-style. But I’ve never followed through and done it.

I most certainly have stepped in on a few occasions when I’ve seen injustice done. I’ve got into fights before by getting involved when someone else was getting a beating, I’ve interrupted people that were clearly trying to break into a car and some other stuff like that. I’m also a career martial artist, so I’m probably less vulnerable than most in situations like these. But those were events I happened to stumble across. Going out and deliberately seeking this stuff is another matter entirely. And, let’s be honest, walking around the streets dressed like Captain At or The Stateman is the kind of thing that’s likely to attract a beating on its own.

I really hope these guys can stop a bit of crime and help some people. I hope they have adventure and a sense of fulfillment doing it. I really hope that more people will stand up for the oppressed when they see injustice instead of just walking by, and maybe one day we won’t need the super heroes that we don’t really have anyway. I just hope I don’t read about one of these guys eating a bullet or a blade in the meantime. We’ve all seen the movie Kick Ass. If you haven’t, you really should.

What do you think? Ever wanted to be a super hero? Do you think these guys are heroes or total fucking nutcases?


A world-shaking idea, yours for 3 mill

February 28, 2011

Hat tip to my friend Cat Sparks for this one. She pointed me to this Bleeding Cool post on the subject. There’s an offer on ebay at the moment that must have film producers all over the world fighting each other to get the mouse click in first. Or maybe not. Seriously, this is more than hilarious. It’s actually a little bit sad, but it could also be a hoax, so I’m going to roll with it and rip the piss out of this bloke. It could be his internet 15 minutes of fame either way, but I really don’t think it’s going to be his retirement fund. Basically, this dude is offering an idea for sale. The bidding starts at $3 million with a Buy It Now option at $10 million. Yeah, you read that right. He’s trying to sell an idea.

According to him it’s:

a STORY to topple Star Wars, Harry Potter investment

At least, that’s the title of the ebay offer. We can see immediately why he hasn’t written this idea himself. He admits as much:

I am by no means a writer.

That’s right, folks – he’s an ideas man.

I am selling my story that I have been creating for 10+ years. (not constantly writing, but of piecing everything together in a cohesive manner) It can be compared to stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Indiana Jones and other titles in those categories. This is a really great story I have. This story needs to be completed by a professional writer or Ghost Writer.

Firstly, what categories exactly? There’s a general genre vibe about it, but he’s clearly just looked up the highest grossing movies to force home his point. He’ll be kicking himself when he realises he left Avatar off the list.

I would rather not sell it at all and just find investors to help hire a celebrity Ghost Writer, which would cost 250,000. The company that hires these writers out, guarantee the book to be a New York best seller.

Apparently there’s a company (just one by the sound of it) that can hire out ghost writers, celebrities no less, and guarantee a best seller. Fuck me, I need to find out who this company is and send them a CV. Sounds like any idea can be ghost written into a best seller if you can just find this company. Maybe their office is on Atlantis or something.

This is a serious auction, I’m not looking to rip anyone off. If you win this auction and decide you don’t like the story, then you don’t have to pay, and you will be refunded fully.

So you basically need to have $10 million to hit the Buy It Now button, hear his idea and then say, “Nah, it’s shit. Don’t want it.” Then you get your 10 mill back. And if it is some world-shattering idea, you can go and write the book or make the movie anyway, given that there’s no copyright on an idea. After all, he’s no writer, hasn’t written anything down. Of course, this would be fairly unethical, but when have ethics ever had much sway in Hollywood?

This story will bring in endless fame and money to anyone who takes it.

Endless money? Guaranteed? But he’s willing to let it go for 3 mill. The man is clearly mad.

If it sounds like too much money then you are not the kind of buyer I’m looking for.

Actually, it sounds like too much stupid. But thanks for the entertainment.

You know, there are a million people out there with great ideas. I get people suggesting ideas to me all the time. They’re usually fairly lame. Or someone hears that I’m a writer and they say, “I have this great idea for a book. I wish I could find the time to write it!”

You know what? That’s what makes someone a writer – finding the time to write it. If you really aren’t a writer, you can learn, or you can collaborate with someone. You can pitch an idea to a film company. You can contact someone that is a writer and ask them if they’d be interested in developing your idea. (They almost certainly won’t be, but you could try.) You know what you don’t do? You don’t try to sell the idea on ebay.

It’s the treatment more than the idea that makes a blockbuster. Even a brilliant idea can be ruined by a crappy novelisation or script. On the other hand, a really lame and weak idea can be a blockbuster with the right treatment. Yes, I’m looking at you James Cameron. When you get the great idea combined with the great treatment, you land one of those rare and awesome gems.

Still, I’ll be watching this one closely. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here. The fact that so many of us online are mocking the poor bastard might backfire – if he gets enough press someone might pay to hear the idea. It might turn out to be the greatest idea anyone ever had. But I’ll bet you three million dollars it isn’t.



The website of author Alan Baxter

Alan Baxter, Author

Author of horror, dark fantasy & sci-fi. Kung Fu instructor. Personal Trainer. Motorcyclist. Dog lover. Gamer. Heavy metal fan. Britstralian. Zetetic.

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