Tag Archives: Martin

A note on Faulks on Fiction


I used to be a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks. And I’m still a fan. But as with most things greater wisdom comes with age. Faulks is far from a faultless writer, despite the eagerness with which I devoured his works and the undoubted merits many of them have. With Engleby, a disturbing first person narrative, he proved he is capable of versatility. But many would accuse him of churning out almost identical historical tales. Birdsong was the perfect fusion of history and literature, but other novels have been weighed down by excessive research. Balancing storytelling and a fascination for history is a problem I sympathise with greatly, but nevertheless a damaging weakness.  However he seems to take to presenting rather naturally.

Last night the first episode of a new series entitled Faulks on Fiction aired on BBC2. Overall I found it immensely enjoyable and refreshing to see such a marrying of literature and history given pride of place in the television schedules. It focused on enduring, iconic characters of fiction. Faulks and those he interviewed made various insightful and valid points. But the programme was also often necessarily simplistic. On the whole this didn’t matter because it allowed an engaging chronological sweep; history through the lens of characterisation. What did matter was the weakness of the entire premise behind the series.

Faulks argues that characters can be divided into heroes, villains, lovers and snobs. This first episode was on heroes. And you can’t help thinking Faulks himself doubts the strength of his point. The programme works best when it’s simply exploring great characters, not when crudely grouping them together; categorising and labelling in a forced, basic manner. Some of the staggering generalisations really undermine the more thoughtful, original points Faulks makes.

 In interviews Faulks has piqued the interest of many by classing the character of James Bond as a “snob”. In many ways this seemed like a publicity stunt to hook viewers. But if Faulks genuinely believes this it might explain the disappointment of his tribute Bond book, Devil May Care, when he was supposedly “writing as Ian Fleming”. Faulks cites Bond’s love of brands as the reason for his snobbery instead of heroism and would no doubt, if pressed, point out Bond’s sexist attitudes too.

The fascination with brands and even the outdated prejudices are products of the time and the author, not the character of Bond. Fleming peppers his narratives with luxurious products to stimulate the rationed masses of 1950s Britain, not purely for Bond’s love of them. The moments of prejudice are also clearly when Fleming’s own voice shines through, over and above that of his adored creation. Having watched this episode, Bond would undoubtedly have slotted in alongside countless other flawed heroes.

My views on the programme pale into amateurish bias when set against those of a fellow blogger however. Last night an interesting, thought provoking, funny and spot-on live blog analysed Faulks on Fiction as it happened. The start of the post suggests doubts in this particular reviewer’s mind; doubts I believe to be absurd given the depth, accuracy and skill behind previous entries. Read and support this valued writer:

http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/faulks-on-fiction-an-on-the-fly-review/

James Bond will (FINALLY) return…


Big news. Bond is back. Well he’s on his way. After all the financial uncertainty surrounding the fall from grace of MGM, the 23rd Bond adventure, and Daniel Craig’s third outing as the suave secret agent, will be released on the 9th of November 2012. Yup it’s still quite the wait for 007 fanatics, myself included. But on the plus side a larger gap between films in the past tends to produce more satisfying results.

The recent road has undoubtedly been rocky for the seemingly unsinkable franchise. Few ever seriously feared it was the end of Bond forever, but it was looking a real possibility that Daniel Craig might not get the chance to make amends for the disappointments of Quantum of Solace in the famed tuxedo. The actor who kicked 007 back into shape with a leaner, moodier spy in 2006’s Casino Royale reboot, following Pierce Brosnan’s dismal, ludicrously fantastical final straw Die Another Day in 2002 (complete with invisible car), has been in great demand and taking on heaps of work. This year Cowboys vs Aliens is an anticipated release and Craig is also due to play a key role in David Fincher’s reworking of Scandinavian hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  He’s now finally confirmed to reprise his role as Bond to the relief of most fans.

Elsewhere production problems have also hit the most important ingredient; the script. Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen, was signed to work on the 23rd adventure last year, only for his involvement to end before it really began due to the MGM crisis. Now attached to the project are regular scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as new addition American John Logan. Logan was responsible for the script for Edward Zwick’s Tom Cruise epic The Last Samurai and also helped with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator screenplay. He’ll replace Paul Haggis, who’s been the third contributor for the first two Craig movies. The fan community will have mixed reactions to the departure of Haggis. On the one hand he seemed to make a real difference for getting back Bond’s Ian Fleming roots in Casino Royale. But recently he’s only masterminded turkeys as a director in Hollywood and has sought to take his new emotional additions to Bond too far, with rumours of his preference for a plot involving a baby and lost son in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which were rejected.

Most of the blame for Quantum of Solace is now pinned on director Marc Forster. He talked a good game about the importance of story prior to the film’s release, only for the 22nd film to look great and start well, but to ultimately lead to a disappointing villain and rushed plot. The criticisms aimed at him are probably too harsh and a recent article in The Telegraph makes a good point that Bond is not a director’s franchise; the producers, the writers and the cast are more influential to a film’s success. However considerable interest and opinion was still inevitably generated by the eventual confirmation of Sam Mendes as director for Daniel Craig’s third Bond picture. Mendes too was in doubt after initially agreeing to direct the picture, due to other work commitments, with an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach starring Carey Mulligan rumoured in the press and fuelled by comments from the author. Many Bond fans view Mendes as too arty like Forster and would rather see the film in the hands of a seasoned action director like Martin Campbell, who helmed Goldeneye and Casino Royale.

Having said this most fans recognise the franchise needs to continue along the new path set by Craig’s Casino Royale, whilst being considerably better than Quantum of Solace. The problem now is the lack of original Ian Fleming source material to work from, which leads to weaker, predictable plots. There’s a difference of opinion as to the best way of overcoming the weaknesses of Quantum: does the franchise return to a more classic format with a dastardly villain hatching world domination, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of first Dr No in 2012, or do something new again? Whatever the answer, with a release date now firmly set in stone, the rumour mill will once again start churning at full speed. So far the only concrete casting rumour is that of Simon Russell Beale in a “good guy” role. But these shall only multiply until every attractive actress around is linked to the untitled film. And of course that’s the biggest question of all; what will the latest 007 adventure be called? Only a handful of Fleming story titles remain unused; The Property of a Lady? Risico? My money’s on the former. Bring on 2012!

The Disappearance of Alice Creed


The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.

That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.

The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.

Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.

Burke and Hare/Shutter Island


A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.

The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.

As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.

However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.

If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.

Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.

It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.

Booker Longlist 2010


I’ve been closely following announcements relating to this year’s Booker Longlist and indeed public interest in general seems to be up. According to this BBC article sales of those selected in the initial 13 are at their highest since Ian McEwan’s Atonement was among the nominees in 2001.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-10951497

Interestingly McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is one of a number of high profile omissions from the list, with Martin Amis also missing out. There has been debate as to whether this indicates that more humorous storytelling is not being recognised by a judging panel headed by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. Solar has been well received critically elsewhere, with McEwan winning a prize dedicated to writers following in the tradition of comic writer P.G Wodehouse. I’m a fan of McEwan and quickly digested Solar, but disagree with the way it has been portrayed as a purely comic novel. There are some delightful comic set pieces in the book which are beautifully crafted and provide a refreshing contrast to the usual content of McEwan’s diverse work, showcasing a side of his writing repertoire rarely praised. However most of the humour is less direct and subtly layered over the rich characterisation of the bumbling protagonist Michael Beard, with a lot of serious comment on our culture of waste and the greedy nature of mankind as an obstacle to tackling climate change. McEwan also makes us feel pity and other emotions for Beard; we are invited to empathise with an ordinary man of simple needs hounded by the media as well as cringe and giggle at his stupidity.

Ultimately the Booker judges may have perhaps ignored Solar because it lacked the epic sweep present in some of the other nominations and which was certainly there in the “fictional panorama” that was Atonement in 2001. I have only just finished reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer from last year’s longlist and that was a novel that perfectly demonstrated how grand scales and themes can add to the likelihood of recognition. A story about minimalist architecture and ideas largely taking place in the grim turmoil of Eastern Europe, The Glass Room may not seem ideal “summer reading” material if there is such a thing, but I found it easily readable divided as it was into manageable chunks and driven by compelling human relationships. At times the focus on interlocking loves and sex lives became repetitive but the opening portion of the book in which the idea for a striking, modern home is conceived and then lived in by a complex family driven away by the Nazi menace is so gripping that you are carried to the end of the book by acute curiosity as to the fate of the house and its former inhabitants. Mawer grapples with themes such as fidelity, homosexuality, friendship, the permanence of architecture, the perfection of ideas and the problems of expression when translating between languages. Overall the novel also covers vast historical ground, charting the physical and emotional scars left by seismic political change.  I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s winning novel from last year, Wolf Hall, which sits expectantly in my room but it too was suitably epic and historical and I would guess superior to The Glass Room, despite its strong points.

This love of the epic and grand and historical continues into this year’s longlist, if not literally then in the depth and intensity of content. The Room by Emma Donoghue and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas both deal with particularly intense or extreme experiences for example; a child’s captivity in The Room and a child slapped by a stranger in The Slap. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the latest and most conventional offering yet from one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, is set in colonial Japan. It is the only title from this year’s list I have read so far and it was suitably epic whilst less engaging and cinematic than his previous offerings. I have ordered The Slap as I am intrigued by its differing narrative perspectives, the gripping nature of one moment in time rippling outwards with consequences and a view of Australian culture I am not familiar with. Generally I am surprised with how tempting I find most of the books selected for this year’s longlist, judging by extracts I have read via the Guardian website.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booker-prize

C by Tom McCarthy also interests me as it is supposedly experimental whilst also continuing that theme of grappling with grand ideas such as communication, science and discovery. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson seems to be excellently written and contain that humour some thought to be lacking after the exclusion of McEwan and Amis, going by the Guardian extract. All the others, as you would expect, seem well crafted and I encourage you to take a look at the previews. Here is the full 13:

  • Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America
  • Emma Donoghue, Room
  • Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
  • Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
  • Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • Andrea Levy, The Long Song
  • Tom McCarthy, C
  • David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
  • Lisa Moore, February
  • Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
  • Rose Tremain, Trespass
  • Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
  • Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky

Pre-Season Crossroads


What was meant to be a glorious summer for English football fell apart as always, crumbling into dust in the corners of history. The signs of disintegration began to show far too soon, making way for the traditional war of words between the believers and the pessimists. The sceptics may have been proven right by England’s capitulation in Bloemfontein but it was not a victory anyone wanted to savour.  With good reason football fans turn expectantly to the approaching juggernaut of the new Premier League Season, wanting to fall in love again with the game, happy to consume the product many say ruins the national side’s chances before a ball has been kicked. The best league in the world stands ready to blast aside the cobwebs of defeat and national humiliation.

Inevitably in this lull before the stormy rebirth of football changes are made, estimations reasoned and expectations adjusted. Every single team has its issues to resolve, its weaknesses, its reasons for optimism and its irreparable limitations. Decisions made in this vital period of preparation are likely to determine whether or not a team embarks on a path of progress or a slide to disappointing underachievement.

The traditional title contenders are examined in particular detail of course. On Sunday the two main protagonists flexed their muscles on the familiar, somewhat pedestrian battlefield of the Community Shield. Manchester United emerged victorious over Chelsea, with a two goal cushion that seemingly sent a defiant message to the new Champions that the trophy shall not be permitted to stay in London for long. And yet the experts and pundits doubt United’s title credentials and the Chelsea fans remain confident despite only modest moves for the likes of Yossi Benayoun in the transfer market.

Those who doubt United and praise Chelsea do so on the evidence of last season. Chelsea will start this campaign with essentially the same strong squad and finally have a consistent, capable manager at the helm, whilst United start the new season with glaring gaps, deficiencies and accidents waiting to happen. It would be wrong, on the basis of Paul Scholes’ dominant display in the Community Shield and Ryan Giggs’ continual class, to say that many of the key cogs in the machinery of the Red Devils are decaying and rusting into ineffective scrap. It is more accurate to describe these Old Trafford legends, preserved from the golden era of the treble in 1999, as priceless antiques capable of the highest quality but only now on rare occasions, due to an increasingly fragility that requires they be handled with the utmost care. And when Scholes and Giggs sit wrapped in protective cotton wool on the sidelines the burden falls all the more heavily on Wayne Rooney. Last season United were reduced to a one man team for long, dangerous spells when Ronaldo’s absence was acutely felt and the likes of Berbatov and Owen continually failed to step up and contribute sufficiently. No one is backing United for the title because the perils of an overreliance on Wayne Rooney’s brilliance were well and truly exposed at the World Cup.

One of the principle architect’s of England’s demise in South Africa was Mezut Ozil, the marauding young German midfielder who carved counter attack after counter attack. I believe that the outcome of Ozil’s future shall reveal a great deal about the true strength of not only United’s title challenge but future success. For recent coverage in the press has made it clear the Fergie is interested in the player and also that his contract issues at Werder Bremen provide a bargain. If United were to fail to sign Ozil, one of Europe’s most exciting prospects and a long term replacement for the creativity of Giggs and Scholes in midfield, it would expose a lack of support from the board and a step backwards in ambition that would not bode well for the future. This time there would be no excuses about wasting money with the sort of prices being discussed for a player of such potential. In the future United will need to replace the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar and Rio Ferdinand and if the Glazers cannot find the funds for a shrewd midfield acquisition now then the club’s finances must truly be in peril and the quality of the squad destined only to deteriorate.

Having said this no one has been foolish enough to discard United from the title mix, perhaps at the expense of big spending local rivals Manchester City. City have brought in high quality players and will have an excellent squad once again. Yaya Toure was once the solution to United’s lack of grit in midfield and David Silva the wing wizard to replace Ryan Giggs, but now both reside in the blue of Eastlands. The doubts remain over whether Mancini is the right man to lead a title charge however and whether he can possibly mould such a glittering squad into a productive starting eleven. United also have some fresh reasons for optimism, in particular the young Mexican Javier Hernandez, which will continue to ensure their presence in the title run-in. Hernandez’s pace will give United the threat of a genuine striker for the first time since Louis Saha left the club and the fans will hope he quickly contributes goals, as he has done in pre-season, to ease the burden on Rooney. The youngster certainly seems set to provide a more reliable threat than Michael Owen’s handful of appearances last season and provides another option for bringing out the best in Dimitar Berbatov, which is still surely yet to come. Overall though the critical consensus seems right to insist that unless United surprisingly strengthen before the end of the transfer window another season of magnificence from Rooney shall be needed for them to prise the title from Chelsea’s grasp.

If progress at Old Trafford has stagnated then things at Villa Park appear to have taken a wrong turn. The resignation of Martin O’Neil has left the club leaderless just days before the new season and groping around at uninspiring alternatives such as the American coach and Sven Goran Eriksson. After achieving a regular sixth place finish and a few impressive cup runs O’Neil leaves with his own reputation intact, perhaps wisely before his team’s limitations begin to show. The imminent sale of James Milner, following the previous saga of Gareth Barry, was understandably the final straw for O’Neil as he sought to take Villa to the next level of European football, despite the ever present obstacles of the Big Four and emerging powers with financial clout such as Spurs and Man City. If O’Neil was ever going to achieve that he needed backing in the transfer market as well as his motivational qualities. Frustratingly for him in the time it took Villa to admit to their lack of ambition exciting challenges like the Liverpool and England jobs slipped away. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever get his big break.

Fabio Capello meanwhile certainly received a big let off. He has admitted that he would have understood had the FA dismissed him following the World Cup debacle and it is difficult to see how he can recover his position. Prior to the tournament he was hailed as a cold disciplinarian with the tactical genius to steer England to glory. Now public admiration has turned to suspicion and derision and his new squad reveals a lack of ideas for reviving the body of English football from a paralysis inflicted courtesy of counter attacking German boots. The international resignations of Paul Robinson and Wes Brown following the squad announcement for this week’s friendly with Hungary have added further lashings of humiliation and embarrassment to Capello’s feast of failure. Whatever happens in this futile friendly fixture, the England players shall be deservedly snubbed in favour of the return of club football and any new hopes shall take much longer to create and younger, visionary squad selection from the Italian in the future.