Archive | December, 2012

The Best of 2012

29 Dec

Gerhard Richter

Ah… 2012. The year when Britain stopped huffing and rolling its eyes sarcastically and saying “Mustn’t grumble” for a whole month. When the Apollo-Mission-doubting, climate-change-questioning and Roswell-believing masses who’d been waffling on about the Mayan Calendar for years were (finally) heard to say, “We didn’t mean an actual apocalypse… We were talking about the spiritual realm…”. When Noel Edmonds’ beard got another shade more terrifying…

Seriously. What the fuck is up with Noel Edmonds' beard?

Seriously. What the fuck is up with Noel Edmonds’ beard?

I’ve already written about my top 5 boys’ films of the year, but here’s my best of (almost) everything else from 2012.

TV: The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown

Despite the Olympics straddling our summer schedules like a morbidly obese 30-year-old riding a child’s tricycle, and far too many hours of Nicholas Witchell speculating pointlessly about a family of German-Greek tax spongers, there was some great television in 2012. After one or two uneven series Doctor Who was back on consistently excellent form and BBC 4 continued to provide safe refuge from Channel 4’s ongoing obsession with sneering pseudo-documentaries (eg., “Hey, Everyone, Look! It’s a Poor Person!”).

"We are aware of... cultural sensitivities..." Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Nick Hornby

“We are aware of… cultural sensitivities…” Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Nick Hornby

The Hollow Crown topped everything. A four-part adaptation of the plays Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V (known collectively as the Henriadit certainly helped that they had Shakespeare on script duties, but this epic drama also gave us one of the best ensemble casts in living memory. From Ben Wishaw’s petulant and messianic Richard through to Tom Hiddleston’s preening and often callous Prince Hal/Henry V, The Hollow Crown was a showcase of excellent British acting. Richard II alone featured Patrick Stewart, David Suchet, Lindsay Duncan, David Morrissey, and the brilliant Rory Kinnear. Both parts of Henry IV were a beautiful reminder that Jeremy Irons (playing the title role) can act, can really act, and not just turn up and growl.

From 'Dungeons & Dragons', the reason Thora Birch's career is no longer a thing.

From 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, aka The Reason Thora Birch’s Career Is No Longer A Thing.

If and when Channel 4 or Sky Arts produce anything as good as The Hollow Crown, there may be a good case against the TV licence.

I won’t hold my breath.

Music: Django Django by Django Django

Django Django

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not exactly the country’s leading authority on contemporary music, but a few acts caught my attention this year, and catching my attention is an achievement in itself. I thought Sam Lee’s debut album A Ground Of Its Own was excellent (thanks to Gareth Roberts for introducing me to that one), but my album of the year was, without a doubt, Django Django by Django Django.

I was turned on to this band by my friend Ben (he likes music) who suggested I give it a go, earlier in the year. At the time I was working on the script to a kind of sci-fi western and listening to an awful lot of Ennio Morricone. As their name suggests, Django Django songs often sound like the soundtrack to a weird western, mashed up with a sprinkle of The Dandy Warhols, so they were ideal listening while I finished working on the script.

There isn’t a duff song on the album, and it’ll remain a source of bafflement until the sun goes cold that they lost out on this year’s Mercury Music Prize. On the plus side, this means they will at least release a second album and still be around in 5 years’ time.

Film: Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone Poster

I’ve already written about this movie, but if forced to pick one standout film from 2012, this comes barging its way to the front of the queue every time. There were many other excellent films this year, but Rust and Bone stayed with me for days and weeks after I’d seen it in a way few others did. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts make an engaging and sympathetic – though never schmaltzy – onscreen couple, and director Jacques Audiard navigates the treacherous path  between drama and melodrama with breathtaking skill.

Book: On The Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War – Bernard Wasserstein

On The Eve

Despite loving books and being a writer I’m rubbish at keeping up to speed with what’s happening in the World of Contemporary Letters. I only got around to reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall in 2011 (meaning I should get around to reading its also-Booker-winning sequel Bring Up The Bodies in 2014), and have yet to read anything by the David Mitchell who isn’t on Peep Show, let alone his Booker-shortlisted-and-soon-to-be-a-blockbuster-movie-from-the-team-that-brought-us-The-Matrix novel Cloud Atlas.

Fortunately, I have read a few books that were actually published this year, most of them non-fiction, and my favourite was this fascinating and often heartbreaking account of Jewish history and culture in the first half of the 20th Century. Full of interesting characters and eccentrics, this endlessly illuminating book further exposes the myth that Jews were ever an homogeneous mass with a clear-cut list of aims, objectives and desires. There are timely lessons here for those who would tar entire peoples with one brush or downplay that period of Europe’s history altogether, but more than that this provides us with an essential record of peoples and cultures that could all too easily have been wiped from the pages of history altogether.

Art: Gerhard Richter: Panorama (Tate Modern)

Gerhard Richter 2

I may be cheating with this one, as I can’t remember whether I caught the exhibition late in 2011 or early in 2012, but it ran until January 8th 2012, so it’s in, and big fat raspberries to anyone who complains.

Before seeing Panorama, I’d heard of him but hadn’t seen any of Richter’s work. The Boyfriend, a painter, is a big fan, and was eager to go. He told me Richter’s work spans five or six decades, and encompasses a wide range of styles and techniques, from pop to photo-realism and abstract, and from large canvasses to sculptures and installations, but nothing prepared me for the sheer breadth and scale of this retrospective. Richter’s paintings are among the most beautiful and skillful I have ever seen, and there’s something deeply moving about seeing so much talent and experimentation from an artist willing to engage with the world. Though some of his work can be almost surgical in its precision, there’s nothing cold about Richter. He’s unafraid of emotion in a way that all too few contemporary artists are. Of all the blockbuster exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years, this is the one to beat, and I’ve a feeling it’ll stay that way for many years to come.

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My Top 5 Boys’* Films of 2012

17 Dec
Films of 2012

*and Girls who like this sort of thing

So we’re nearing the end of 2012, and I’ve tried to compile lists of my favourite things from 2012, but kept hitting snags. When it came to books, I realised I’ve only read only one or two books published this year, and only a handful published this century. It’s a similar story with music. I listen to way too much Radio 3 to list my “top 5 albums/bands/singles” of 2012, but fortunately I have a friend called Ben for that.

As far as I'm concerned, this man represents everything that's wrong with popular music.

As far as I’m concerned, this man represents everything that’s wrong with popular music.

With films, I was on a better footing, but I’ve still not seen many of those which top everyone’s “Best of 2012s”, like Silver Linings Playbook, Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Making a list of the movies I saw this year, it became clear I’ve excelled in watching a certain type of film. Namely: Boys’ Films.

Now, I know this is a patronising term, and that there are plenty of men who don’t enjoy this sort of film and plenty of women who do, so you’ll just have to accept that “Boys’ Films” is my shorthand for “Films in which Things Go Bang, People Get Punched, Cars Go Fast… Preferably All Three, and Preferably at the Same Time”. Not necessarily “Action Films”, but films with action in them, and predominantly male casts doing man stuff in a manly fashion.

Not that kind of man stuff.

Not this kind of man stuff.

So here are my Top 5 Films for Boys (and Girls who like that sort of thing).

5) The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble)

The Avengers

Let’s get one thing clear. The Dark Knight Rises is not on this list. If you’d told me in January 2012 I’d make this list, I’d have put a tenner on TDKR being on it, and it’s not. And that really bothers me. Because it should have been, and it’s not, and the reason it’s not is that despite looking great and sounding great it’s got more holes, inconsistencies and emotional dead ends than a block of Swiss cheese that tastes funny and leaves you emotionally numb after you’ve eaten it.

SPOILER ALERT: "My death, for example, was like a gruyere made of cardboard by your least memorable ex-girlfriend."

SPOILER ALERT: Bane’s death, for example, was like a gruyere made of cardboard by your least memorable ex-girlfriend.

Instead, my superhero movie of 2012 was The Avengers. Now, I’m sure it’s also riddled with plot holes and wouldn’t stand up to intense scrutiny, but do you know what? I don’t care. Unlike Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy it didn’t invite intense scrutiny by presenting itself as a mature take on an often immature genre. Marvel Studios spent five whole movies building up to it, and in doing so earned the right to deliver a film that was one great big computer-generated roller-coaster of people getting punched and things exploding. And what’s more, Mark Ruffalo.

Yeah... Little bit of a crush going on here.

Yeah… Little bit of a crush going on here.

If you’ve seen the film, you know I need say nothing more.

4) Skyfall

Skyfall

Good lord, I enjoyed Skyfall. Okay, so since watching it I’ve seen or heard friends and reviewers point out its flaws, and I’ve taken them all on board. The female characters, save Judi Dench’s M, are a little thin. It’s a rehash of The Dark Knight. Javier Bardem’s character turns from “cyber-terrorist” to “deranged gunman” at the drop of a hat. Plus, he looks like “Constable Honey-Monster”. I know all that, and yet it’s still one of my favourite movies of the year.

Fuck. Yes.

Fuck. Yes.

For one thing, despite an unconventional last act (in Bond movie terms, at least), it’s just so Bond. It touched all the bases I want a Bond film to touch, avoided the excesses and pitfalls that the worst Bond movies slip into (yes, Die Another Day, I’m talking about you), and though it has a running time of 140 minutes didn’t bore me for a second. It’s not the greatest Bond film of all time, as some have suggested, but I’d argue it’s the best since Goldfinger or, at the very least, Live And Let Die.

3) Dredd

Dredd 2012

I really wasn’t looking forward to Dredd, for three reasons.

  1.  I was a little obsessed with 2000AD as a kid, and loving something that intensely is usually a shortcut to disappointment with any adaptation.
  2. The character of Judge Dredd doesn’t exactly have a rich cinematic legacy behind him, having appeared only in a 1995 turkey starring the woefully miscast Sylvester Stallone in the title role.
  3. The script was written by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine), who seems incapable of crafting a last act that makes any sense whatsoever.

Those fears were blown away within the first 2 minutes. Mega City One looks amazing. Not quite as chaotic and futuristically Hogarthian as in the comics, but still nothing like any film dystopia I’d seen before. It looks so uncomfortably like now, with only minor tweaks in scale and disorder, and as the 2005 movie Children of Men showed, it’s the strangely familiar dystopias that are often the most disquieting. The plot – Dredd and rookie Anderson are trapped in a hellish skyscraper of nightmare proportions – may be simple, but it’s tighter than a snare drum. The minimal effects are handled brilliantly, and 3D was – for once – entirely justified and used to jaw-dropping effect.

Tower Hamlets, circa 2006

Tower Hamlets, circa 2006

Karl Urban – who was similarly impressive as Bones in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot – is perfect as Dredd, and Lena Headey is brilliantly nasty as the film’s sociopathic villain, Ma-Ma.

Dredd reminded me of 1980s and early ’90s sci-fi action movies like The Terminator, Robocop and Total Recall, and in a good way. It clocks in at a lean and flab-free 95 minutes, it’s blisteringly violent and hasn’t been edited for an audience of teenagers, and it plays everything straight without resorting to too many 21st Century ironic nods and winks.

2) Argo

Argo

Like Skyfall, I’ve already written at some length about Argo elsewhere, and wouldn’t want to repeat myself, but this was another surprise stand-out of the year. Okay, so Ben Affleck now has form as a director, having turned in the impressive Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but Argo really ups the stakes in terms of scale and ambition. The nail-biting reenactment of the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran was one of the best opening scenes of any film I saw in 2012. Okay, so I know some found its depiction of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath a little simplistic, but the movie – which tells the story of a rescue mission concocted by Hollywood filmmakers and the CIA – isn’t really an investigation into the revolution and its causes. It’s a caper movie, in the mould of Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, only this time there’s more at stake than George Clooney’s cufflinks or a bus full of bullion.

1) The Grey

The Grey

Liam Neeson’s career in the last couple of years has been fascinating. On the one hand, he’s probably working harder and is more “bankable” than at any other time in his 30 year career. In 2012 alone he starred in five major movies with a combined box office of $2.1billion. That said, when you look at the titles of those films, which include Wrath of the Titans, Battleship and Taken 2 you realise many of them are tosh, and the days of more heavyweight stuff like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins seem very distant.

This is understandable. In 2009 Neeson lost his wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, in a tragic accident, so you can see why he might have turned down the chance to play the demanding title role in Lincoln in favour of more lightweight fare like The A-Team and Clash of the Titans.

"Remember when we were working with Spielberg?" "Shut it, Fiennes."

“Remember when we were working with Spielberg?” “Shut it, Fiennes.”

With all this in mind, I thought The Grey was going to be awful. I’d read somewhere it featured a scene in which Neeson punches a wolf. I was expecting Taken 2: Taken In The Tundra, or something to that effect.

Oh, how wrong I was. The Grey is a brilliant, edge-of-your-seat thriller with emotional depth. It’s a stunning return to form for director Joe Carnahan, who gave us the excellent Narc and the terrible and presumably cocaine-or-Sunny-D-fuelled Smokin’ Aces. The ensemble cast, which includes an almost unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney, is brilliant. The cinematography and use of location is outstanding. If I had to describe it in the style of a corny movie pitch I’d say it was Alive meets Jaws, with wolves instead of a shark.

The Grey

The Grey wasn’t a flop, by any standards, but it’s $77million box office was considerably smaller than any other Liam Neeson film we saw this year, and that’s a crying shame because he gives an excellent – and particularly poignant – performance in what is undoubtedly his best film in many, many years. People should have been raving about this movie. I can only hope it gathers a cult following in the years to come.

A Misanthrope’s Guide to Christmas Movies

8 Dec

Gremlins

It’s December. The night’s are both very, very dark and very, very cold, and every pub, bar and club within a 50 mile radius of your house has been commandeered by drunken office workers wearing Santa hats. What better time to settle down to a good movie? And, better still, a Christmas movie?

Except, of course, most Christmas movies are so sentimental they make Little House on the Prairie look like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. They’re all shot in a kind of nauseating soft focus that gives every character’s festive jumper an eerie glow and makes their smug and cloying smiles all the more retch-inducing.

So here are five Christmas Movies for you misanthropes out there; the ones who thought Miracle on 34th Street should have ended with Kris Kringle being sectioned and sent to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, or that whatever the fuck this is should have ended with Cthulhu ripping everyone’s heads off.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"

“Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”


In fifth place, what may for some be a controversial choice. Many might argue it’s not as good as its immediate predecessor (I think it’s actually better), or that it’s been nudged out of existence altogether by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but in at number 5 is…

5) Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns

Clearly Tim Burton has a thing for Christmas. Oh, he might pretend to be all gothy and Halloweeny (in a way that’s not entirely dignified in a 53-year-old man), but three of his films (if we’re to include Henry Selick’s A Nightmare Before Christmas) have been set during the Holidays. And why, I hear you ask, didn’t I choose A Nightmare Before Christmas? Well, mainly because for all its ghosts and ghoulies, ANBC is still a very warmhearted movie, whereas Batman Returns is 126 minutes of sadomasochism and murder dressed up as a family film. Remember, this was the summer blockbuster of 1992, and it opens with a scene in which Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens hurls his hideously disfigured baby son into a sewer, but the festive highlight of the movie must be the moment when a beauty queen falls hundreds of feet to her death, landing on a plunger that in turn lights up Gotham’s Christmas tree.

Festive.

Festive.

4) Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins poster

Nowadays, when almost every film aimed at a younger audience is based on either a successful book, comic or toy franchise, it seems incredible that producers like Steven Spielberg took so many risks back in the 1980s. Take Gremlins, for example. Here we have a Christmas movie in which an army of tiny reptilian monsters wreak havoc upon a small town, murdering potentially hundreds of its inhabitants. It wasn’t based on a novel or an existing Hasbro toy range, and yet it was green-lit. That just wouldn’t happen these days. Neither would a family film now get away with telling its young audience that Santa doesn’t exist via a story in which a man slips and breaks his neck while climbing down a chimney, and is only discovered by his wife and daughter when his rotting corpse begins to smell.

Jolly.

Ho ho ho.

3) Home Alone (1990)

Home Alone

Not so much a knockabout, slapstick comedy as a remake of Straw Dogs aimed at the under-12s, Home Alone came from the stable of the late, great John Hughes, and features great performances from Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the bungling burglars, and a lovely cameo from John Candy as the kind-hearted leader of a Polka band. It’s a shame, then, that Macauley Culkin can’t really act (imagine how much better this movie would have been had they cast a then-9-years-old Elijah Wood), but that doesn’t really matter, because it’s the stunts and pratfalls that are the stars of the show. Yes, it descends into schmaltz in the last ten minutes, but this remains a Christmas film in which a small child sets fire to a man’s head. For laughs.

Merry.

Jolly.

2) Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged

I can almost guarantee that this Christmas Day, unless you’re the one tasked with making dinner, you’ll see at least three versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Last year, by mid-afternoon we’d watched Alastair Sim, Michael Caine and Kelsey Grammar all have a pop at playing Ebeneezer Scrooge, but for my money Scrooged is one of the most enjoyable – and, for the best part, misanthropic – versions around. For one thing, it stars Bill Murray, as almost every film should. And okay, so Murray talking to the audience during the end credits not only breaks the “Fourth Wall” but seems a little weird when you’re watching it on TV, and the Tiny-Tim-alike character saying, “God bless us everyone” is more sugary than a Mr Kipling French Fancy dunked in golden syrup, but this is still a film whose oh-so-sentimental climax takes place while a crazed, drunk guy threatens a room full of people with a shotgun.

Comfort and joy.

Comfort and joy.

And finally, in first place, a movie that’s widely considered the greatest Christmas film of all time. Indeed, when many of us think of Christmas movies, we picture this story of an American Everyman who comes to understand, one Christmas, just how chaotic and terrible the world would be without him. I’m talking, of course, about…

1) Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Festive

Okay, so I’m kind of cheating by including two films, but seen back-to-back Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder aren’t so much a movie and its sequel, as one great big, festive four-hour action epic. For the none of you who haven’t seen it, Die Hard tells the story of how maverick New York cop John McClane finds himself at a Christmas party in a Los Angeles skyscraper on the one night when a group of opportunistic terrorists-cum-thieves decide to hijack the joint.

Opportunistic terrorists-cum-thieves with amazing hair.

Terrorists-cum-thieves with amazing hair.

Given the excesses of the later films (yes, Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0, I’m talking to you), it’s easy to scoff at the original Die Hard, but I’d maintain that it’s the leanest and slickest action film every made. Seriously, the opening 5 minutes should be studied by anyone wanting to be a screenwriter. By the time McClane rocks up at the party, we know he’s a cop from New York, we know he’s carrying a gun, we know his wife and kids have moved to LA, and we know things are frosty between them. That’s within the first 5 minutes of the movie. And at no point do you feel as if you’re being clobbered over the head with exposition.

It goes without saying that Die Hard also features, in Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, one of the all-time great movie villains. The test of a good movie villain is if, by the end of the film, you find yourself asking, “But why did he/she go to all that bother?” Take, for example, Dennis Hopper in Speed. What exactly does he want? Does he want the money? If so, why plant a bomb that’s more likely to go off than not? Does he just want to blow up a bus? Well, why not plant a bomb on a timer, rather than one that’s rigged to go off based on the speed the bus is going? Nothing about his scheme makes any sense whatsoever.

"I have literally no idea why I'm doing any of this."

“I have literally no idea why I’m doing any of this.”

Now, while there are plot holes in Die Hard, on first viewing (and second, and third) Gruber’s scheme makes diabolical sense. And he’s debonair, likeable. We’re almost upset to see him tumble to his death.

"You and I could have been friiiieeeeeeeennndds..."

“You and I could have been friiiieeeeeeeennndds…”

William Sadler’s Colonel Stuart in Die Hard 2: Die Harder may not be as debonair as Gruber, but he more than makes up for it in cold blooded kick-assery. This is a man who crashes an airliner full of passengers just to prove a point. Plus: He does naked karate.

Hans Gruber preferred "Swimsuit Tai Chi".

Hans Gruber preferred “Swimsuit Tai Chi”.

Okay, so Die Hard 2: Die Harder is when the silly really begins to set in (for one thing, it’s called Die Hard 2: Die Harder), but this remains a cracking action film in which the exciting stuff starts happening within the first few minutes, and doesn’t stop happening pretty much until the end credits.

Both films are spectacularly violent in a way the PG-13-conscious studios would no longer dare (the most recent Die Hard was trimmed of blood and swearwords to make it suitable for children), making them the ultimate Christmas movies for anyone who’s sick of seeing cute little gap-toothed moppets’ dreams come true.

"You want a pony? I want the CIA to stop stealing my thoughts."

“You want a pony? I want the CIA to stop stealing my thoughts.”

The Next Big Thing – Ibrahim & Reenie

4 Dec

Shining Typewriter

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been tagged by both Scott Handcock and Scott Harrison in this ‘Next Big Thing’ chain blog. The basic premise is that it’s a chance for writers to talk about whatever they’re working on right now, answering a set series of questions before passing the baton on to other writers.

You can read about Mr Handcock’s ‘Next Big Thing’ hereand Mr Harrison’s right here.

Sadly, almost all of my writer friends have already been included in the chain, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to pass it on any further than its already gone. But here are my answers…

What is the working title of your next book?

Ibrahim & Reenie.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

My Auntie Chris. I was visiting her and my uncle, I think it was Christmas 2008, and she told me about an old woman who was attempting to walk from Cardiff to London. Apparently she kept all her belongings in a convoy of supermarket trolleys and was camping next to a dual carriageway. I tried looking into the story but couldn’t find anything about it online, and my auntie couldn’t remember the woman’s name, or the outcome of the story. Originally I’d thought I might write a factual account of it, a piece of non-fiction, but I couldn’t find enough information, so it stayed as a single line in one of my notebooks until around August 2009, when I worked out how I would turn the basic premise into a novel.

What genre does your book fall under?
That blandest-sounding of all genres… General fiction. I don’t want to say “literary fiction”, because that’s a horrible term, and it sets you up for one hell of a fall if people think it’s not very “literary”, but it’s definitely not sci-fi or any other specific genre.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d love to say I hadn’t given it any thought, but of course I have. If he was 10 years younger and a few stone heavier, Kayman Novak (Fonejacker) would be great as Ibrahim. Reenie was based in part on a friend of mine from East London who always reminded me of Laila Morse (Mo in Eastenders), and she was fantastic in Nil By Mouth, but they’d have to make her look 75. There are some flashbacks to Reenie’s childhood, and I think Mark Rylance would be perfect as Reenie’s father.
Left to right: Kayman Novak, Laila Morse, Mark Rylance

Left to right: Kayman Novak, Laila Morse, Mark Rylance

So, you know… If I get trampled to death by stampeding cows between now and when the book’s published, and my untimely death results in it securing a movie deal, let it be known that these are my wishes.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s impossible to summarise a novel in one sentence without it sounding unbearably cheesy, but here goes:
A 75-year-old woman and a 24-year-old man meet on the 160-mile road from Cardiff to London and while making their way on foot from one city to the next discover they have much more in common than they think.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I wouldn’t know how to self publish even if I wanted to! I haven’t got the business head for it. No… Thankfully it’s being published by the same people who handled my first two novels.
Did I mention I've written books?

Did I mention I’ve written books?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A very first draft? Two, maybe three months. A first draft I was happy with? About a year and a half. And even after I’d sent it to the publisher and they’d given it the thumbs up, I still carried on making changes to it before receiving a single note from my editor. You could argue it’s a first draft right up until you’re reworking it following feedback, in which case the first draft took closer to two years.
It looked exactly like this.

It looked exactly like this.

 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I hate questions like this, because as soon as you compare your book with another, people will measure it against that work, and if it’s an established, critically acclaimed  novel (and why on earth would you compare it to something else?) you run the risk of coming a very poor second!
It mops the fucking floor with all of these.

But it mops the fucking floor with all of these.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The feeling that my second novel, Everything Is Sinister, was a relentlessly nasty book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very proud of it. For one thing, it’s a novel written in 2007 that predicts a near-future in which tabloid newspapers are out of control and behaving like a kind of salacious secret police. But it’s just so negative, and it’s so heavy with irony, and it’s all a bit arch. I think I’d read far too much J.G. Ballard and Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk in my twenties, and it shows.
I wanted to write something very different to that, something that wouldn’t leave the reader thinking the world was a terrible place populated only with awful people. And I wanted to write something more ambitious, with characters who weren’t just thinly-veiled versions of myself. There are bits of me in Ibrahim and Reenie, but for the best part they’re both very different, and I really enjoyed the challenge of that.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s epic. And it features a cockatiel called Solomon.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” – My Top 5 Zombie Apocalypse Movies

3 Dec

Zombies!

Next year sees the release of World War Z, a big budget adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel, starring one Mr Bradley Pitt. Now, I still can’t decide whether it looks like a pile of shit or the Greatest Movie Ever Made™. Like all CGI-dependent blockbusters, it’s something of a Schrodinger’s Cat. Fortunately, even if World War Z is terrible there are a whole host of great zombie apocalypse movies to enjoy. So here, without further ado, and in chronological (rather than preferential) order, are my personal top 5 zombie apocalypse movies. (Or, for the pedants among you, my top 4 zombie apocalypse movies and favourite zombie apocalypse TV show.)

1) Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

Yes, it’s the granddaddy of modern zombie films. Oh, I know Hammer released The Plague of the Zombies two years earlier, and that the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie was released a whole 34 years before that, but they were old school zombie movies that explained away their walking dead with old-time, borderline-racist voodoo.

Interpret this as you see fit.

Interpret this as you see fit.

The closest George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead comes to offering an explanation for its flesh-eating reanimated corpses is the brief mention of a comet passing by Earth the night before. (So the Night Before The Night of the Living Dead, or just Night of the Dead, if you will.) Mostly, it’s not concerned with the whys or wherefores of a zombie infestation. Instead, it uses the breakdown of society in a zombie apocalypse (and it was the first film to suggest that zombies might cause an apocalypse) as an allegory for the oppression of civil rights.

"Emancipate this..."

“Emancipate this…”

For a film made in the 1960s that didn’t star Sidney Poitier, it was almost unique in having an African American (Duane Jones) as its hero, and its bleak ending packs a punch to this day. What’s more, a good nine months before the release of Easy RiderNight of the Living Dead showed that low budget movies could not only turn a decent profit but make a fortune and paved the way – along with the movies of Roger Corman – for the renaissance of American cinema by the so-called “Movie Brats” in the 1970s.

2) Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Dawn of the Dead

Ten years later Romero was back with a kind-of sequel to his 1968 classic. I say “kind-of”, because while none of the characters from the original return (they’re all presumably zombie poop by the time Dawn… kicks off), it’s set in the same universe. The zombie apocalypse is well under way, society is falling apart, and there’s nothing on TV except a pirate version of Francis Ford Coppola.

"Arrrgh. Me next film will be called 'The Godfaaarghther'. Arrrgh."

“Arrrgh. Me next film will be called ‘The Godfaaarhther’.”

Now, there’s plenty wrong with Dawn of the Dead. Its full, 139 minute US cut is probably about 20 minutes too long, the acting is almost uniformly lousy, Francine (Gaylen Ross) is possibly the weakest female character ever committed to celluloid, and there are plenty of giggles to be had at the expense of the bright blue zombies (Hare Krishna Zombie is my personal favourite) and the even brighter red fake blood.

Even so, Dawn of the Dead is still arguably the greatest zombie movie ever made. Why? Because, despite its shortcomings, it’s still a deeply unsettling film. Here, the apocalypse isn’t an endless roller coaster of adventure; it’s a gradual falling apart of everything we take for granted. Romero has a real sense of how things would collapse, and in what order, making all the background detail (the last, shambolic TV broadcasts; the armies of trigger-happy red necks) feel utterly convincing. What’s more, in setting much of the film in an abandoned shopping mall Dawn of the Dead ups the allegory by suggesting it’s not just racist hicks from the deep south who are the zombies; we’re all zombies.

Seriously. Once you’ve watched Dawn of the Dead you’ll never look at early bird pensioners waiting for Primark to open the same way again.

3) Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead

Whether or not you approve of this choice depends on if you still find Simon Pegg and Nick Frost funny, or if you’ve jumped on some hipsterish bandwagon of saying they’re, like, totally overrated. You may also have to forgive director Edgar Wright for making, in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, a film that’s impossible for anyone over the age of 21 to watch, let alone understand.

It’s probably important to remember that for about 15 years prior to Shaun of the Dead there were two types of British comedy film:

What 22nd Century Cultural Historians will call "The Mirthless Age".

What 22nd Century Cultural Historians will call “The Frown Age”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against well-written, nicely acted, socially unrealistic romantic comedies, and there’s nowt wrong with smut, but the former gets tiresome if it’s all we get, and if the latter’s both badly written and in your face it’s just embarrassing.

Shaun of the Dead achieved the miraculous by being several things. It was a successful “rom-com” that didn’t star Hugh Grant, it was side-splittingly funny without being particularly crude, and it was a horror comedy that was both funny and scary. It was also spectacularly gruesome, which in those pre-Saw days was refreshing after a decade or so of horror movies that resembled nothing so much as a series of bloodless, Dawson’s Creek Halloween Specials.

The "horror"... The "horror".

The “horror”… The “horror”…

Shaun of the Dead paid homage to the George A. Romero movies without being a spoof, and maintained a great level of suspense while never forgetting that it’s a comedy. The cast are spectacularly good, from Pegg and Frost as our likeable if unlikely heroes to Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s shellshocked mother. And if all that wasn’t enough, it changed forever the way we listen to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

4) Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Dawn of the Dead 2004

In recent years, director Zack Snyder has become a popular whipping boy for many film critics. And yes… When you’ve sat through all 110 baffling minutes of Sucker Punch, it’s easy to see why. And yes… 300 was ridiculous. And yes… Watchmen was all style with only what little substance survived from comic book to movie screen. And no… I haven’t seen that one he did about the owls. But… but… I maintain that Dawn of the Dead is not only one of the best zombie apocalypse movies ever made. It’s also one of the best remakes of all time.

Hear me out. You see, what it loses in the original’s bleak satire it gains in pace, acting, production values and tension. Whereas the original – or certainly its 139 minute cut, mentioned above – runs out of puff somewhere in the middle, Snyder’s 2004 version has a very strong structure of “We’re going to the mall… We’re in the mall… How the Hell do we get out of the mall?” It might not sound like much, but by the last act it makes for a nail-biting horror action film; think Black Hawk Down with zombies. The opening 10 minutes are jaw-droppingly good, worth seeing for this shot alone. (And yes… That is the whole film on Youtube. But, you know… Finish reading this first before you watch it.)

5) Dead Set (2008)

Dead Set

On paper, Dead Set should have been the worst thing Channel 4 has ever shown: A zombie drama based upon the popular reality show Big Brother, starring real-life former housemates and a zombified version of the show’s host, Davina McCall (pictured above). It should have been neither funny nor scary. It should have been car crash TV; self-referential, gimmicky and glib.

Instead, it managed to be one of the most exciting and disturbing pieces of drama on British TV in the last 10 years. It helps that as well as giving some of his characters cracking lines (I’m thinking in particular of Andy Nyman’s vile TV producer), writer Charlie Brooker takes it all very seriously, and plays it absolutely straight. Even Zombie Davina – something which at the very most should have been a brief, only mildly amusing gag – is genuinely scary.

Though, admittedly, not the most disturbing thing to ever come out of 'Big Brother'.

Though, admittedly, not the most disturbing thing to ever come out of ‘Big Brother’.

Like the Romero films to which it clearly owes so much, there’s some gentle, not exactly razor sharp satire about reality TV and the media obsession with celebrity, but most of all it presents a terrifying vision of society descending into chaos. The desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape is as detailed and believable as anything in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, and the characters’ desperation is all too convincing.

Okay, so strictly speaking it’s not a film (it was broadcast over 5 consecutive nights for Halloween 2008), but take away the ad break titles and “Previously” intros, and what you have is a gripping and often hilarious 140 minute zombie epic which – amazingly, considering Big Brother is now shown on the abandoned funfair that is Channel 5 – hasn’t dated a jot in the 4 years since it was made.