Yep — that’s right. Three of my poems have been published in the Winter 2014 edition of Open Palm Print, a small literary print journal based in mid-Michigan. It’s a publication put together with obvious love and care and you can order a copy online so you don’t have to live in the Mitten to treat your eyes to the wonderful work it contains. It probably helps, though.

The three poems in question – Riding in Cars with Werewolves, Not All Hamsters Die in Unusual Circumstances, and Press Conference for a Missing Son – were all written within days of each other during last year’s National Poetry Writing Month. Or NaPoWriMo for short. Or NaPo for even shorter. NaPo is a bit of a misnomer as it is an International event where poets from around the globe commit to writing a new poem every day throughout the month of April. 2013 was my first attempt at NaPo and while I didn’t manage to hit the target of thirty, I managed fifteen new poems and I count that as something of a success. As a result, my list of Titles I’d Really Like to Use at Some Point took a serious hit.

The thing about NaPo is that it forces you to find inspiration from sources one would probably overlook and it really means that anything remotely approaching a kernel of an idea has to be popped and bathed in sweet, sweet buttery drizzle. It’s amazing what comes out at the end of this process. Of course, not all of the fifteen make the grade but I’m happy with enough of them to convince me this was a worthwhile endeavor and this year, twelve days in, I have eleven poems down.

Press Conference is without a doubt the most solemn of the trio and was inspired by such an event I saw on the local news, the finer points of which I’ve long forgotten. What I do remember about that real-life conference was the strange things the mother said about her missing son. There was nothing particularly controversial, but there were some odd details mentioned, things that probably meant quite a bit to the poor woman. Either way, it highlighted to me the various ways we deal with stress and some of the words that leap from brain to mouth without filter under these extraordinary circumstances.

Hamsters is far more light-hearted. The previous day’s poem — No Long Books – was about the (continued) impending demise of my elderly dog and still in that cheery frame of mind, I set about writing something of a eulogy to a beloved family pet. Because they seem to frequently pass on as a result of various household accidents, I imagined that such an impassioned speech about lowly Brer Hamster may be quite amusing, even more so if the hamster in question’s passing was unusually devoid of drama. It just died. I toyed with, and ultimately dismissed, the idea of having a goldfish being the focus but ended up using it as a punctuation point to a poem later in the month. For your information, that goldfish also died. Baked in a plastic bag. Lovely.

The last poem — Werewolves – is a spin on the whole Twilight nonsense and tells the tale of a father coming to terms with the fact that his teenage daughter is dating a supernatural hairy beast and planning on inviting him over for dinner. This title sat on my list for more than a year and is basically a rip-off of the 2001 Drew Barrymore movie, Riding in Cars with Boys. I’m particularly happy with the outcome of this one and there are some individual lines I’m rather surprised that I managed to write: the vampirish “those pale high school boys/ who led their Xbox Lives/ buried in windowless basements/ shrinking from daylight/ to feed a 64-bit bloodlust” and the dual meaning that’s found in “They’d understand each other’s cycles” probably being my picks of the bunch.

So there you have it. Three poems. An embarrassment of riches.

You can order a copy of Open Palm Print at four bucks a pop and check out a preview of an edition by heading over to http://www.openpalmprint.com/.

captain_america__the_winter_soldier_poster_fanmade_by_timetravel6000v2-d5b9but-582x800Remember the good old days? You know, when every movie didn’t need to be a comic-book tie-in? Yeah, so do I.

Anyway. Marching on.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest in a seemingly inexhaustible stream of Marvel comic-book translations, which judging from the accompanying trailers (Guardians of the Galaxy, and the unbearably pretentious sounding X-Men: Days of Futures Past) is being mined for all its worth. Surprisingly, for me at least, this outing isn’t all that bad. It has a strong story and is well enough acted by a cast who have no qualms at some of the ridiculous lines the team of writers insists they say.

Set a couple of years after the Battle of New York, Captain America aka Steve Rogers (a ridiculously buff Chris Evans) is settling quite nicely into contemporary life with his wee notebook of pop culture things he needs to look up on the internets. Along with Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), he’s sent off to rescue hostages, including members of SHIELD from a ship in the Indian Ocean. Once there, it seems like head good guy, Nick Storm (Samuel L. Jackson) has given Romanoff a sub-mission of her own — to steal some data on a USB stick from the ship’s computer that will eventually prove that some members of SHIELD aren’t perhaps the good guys we’ve been led to believe. All this happens with a backdrop of surveillance and approved drone strikes as SHIELD plans to launch three really, really big helicarriers (innocuously titled Operation Insight) into the air that can read a terrorist’s DNA remotely and so has a capability of taking out anyone on the planet it deems to be a target. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a storyline very much of the age and asks the question if a society can ever be free once it’s surrendered its liberty. “Trust no one,” Cap is instructed once the bad guys start coming out of the woodwork and while Cap and Romanoff run around trying to decrypt the data on the USB stick, it maintains a very credible level of paranoia while not taking itself so seriously that it can’t laugh at itself. The cameo from Stan Lee is great and there’s a grave stone inscription that pleasingly nods its head to an indirectly related movie that will surely coax a smile from those who spot it. Visually as well, it’s very strong. Those helicarriers really are exceptionally big indeed and when one of them is accidentally backs into a skyscraper, it’s difficult not to be impressed before thinking about the insurance costs.

It’s not all good news, though.

Robert Redford is oddly distracting as the head bad guy, his wrinkled face now providing a shocking counterpoint to a head of hair that would be quite at home in One Direction.

It’s also very, very long. Not in terms of the whole — it tips the scales at 136 minutes, which isn’t all that extravagant these days — but in its component parts. Pretty much every scene feels a good minute or two longer than it needs to be. The opening movement where SHIELD storms the ship in the Indian Ocean goes on for so long that I developed scurvy. The scene where Cap is sitting at an old friend’s bedside felt like visiting hour at the hospital. And do we really need to see a thousand nameless evil henchmen shooting at the shield (rather than Captain America’s kneecaps, for example) every time a fight scene breaks out? Wouldn’t nine hundred do?

Perhaps most damning, for a movie which seems to be based around freedom and due process, it’s a little contradictory that one of the characters who bestows these values shoots a bad guy through the heart when surely he could’ve been arrested and tried, essentially stamping on the moral compass that had guided the movie up to that point. Did I say “little”? I meant “entirely”.

But for yet another comic book movie, it’s entertaining enough to get pass marks, even if it does insist you sit through to the end of the credits for a ten second scene that isn’t worth the wait but will have fanboys and girls squeeing in delight because it’s the done thing.

Muppets_Most_WantedVery early on in the latest Muppet movie, in the first of many musical numbers lacking in soul and humour, they turn their satirical peashooter in the direction of sequels and announce that this movie probably isn’t going to be as good as the first one. They’re not so specific as to define whether they mean the very first Muppet movie, or the one from a couple of years ago, but whatever the intent, there’s hardly a more thematically accurate song in the history of cinema.

In a move than manages to be simultaneously meta and fourth-wall-breaking, the movie picks up about four seconds after the last one ended. The crew are packing up equipment, extras are wandering off to do whatever it is extras do when they’re surplus to requirements and our cloth heroes are left to wonder what to do next. Enter promoter Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who talks the gang into taking the show on the road. Meanwhile, in a Siberian gulag, a frog named Constantine, who looks exactly like Kermit save for a Monroe-esque mole and a Russian accent, is performing an audacious jailbreak to hook up with Badguy with the intent of stealing the crown jewels. For some reason. Cue mistaken identity which leads to Kermit being sent to Siberia while the Muppets go on a very concentrated European tour.

The reboot Muppet Movie from 2012 wasn’t perfect but it was decent fun. It had hilarious cameos, witty songs and great performances from Jason Segel and Amy Adams. This effort has none of those things. It’s an oddly plodding affair, lacking in pace and urgency. It’s nearly two hours long and it’s impossible to articulate why.

The whole Russian angle, despite Tina Fey’s best efforts as Nadya the gulag officer, feels quite awkward given current events. Gervais is comfortable in a role he’s played more than once. But it’s the script and songs that really disappoint, both lacking the heart and magic from a couple of years ago. Those expecting another Man or Muppet will still be waiting for it long after the end credits have rolled. There’s no magic. But this is Disney! Magic is what Disney does! Well, in this case, it disney.

In the absence of magic, there are some smiles, if not laughs, to be had. There’s a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal that’s more clever than funny. And Constantine’s constant referring to Miss Piggy as “Pig” in a thick Eastern European accent did make me grin. But these moments are few and far between and there aren’t enough cameos in the world that can turn a dog into a triumph. Perhaps they should have done a song about that.

malkyRarely have I had as much fun writing a short story as I did with The Book of Malky, which goes live today over at McStorytellers.

One Sunday, I happened upon the first chapter of the book of Malachi in the Bible and its opening, which is pretty much transposed into the first sentence of the story, made me wonder about writing a modern book, telling a modern story, in a biblical style. Within a few seconds of this question entering my mind, I had a very clear image of an old Scottish down-and-out, languishing in his local bookmaker when he saw a vision of God. From that point on, the story really wrote itself. I’m not claiming much of an original idea here, but as I was writing, I was conscious that I hadn’t read a story told this way before, which made it a very exciting experience. The title calls back to the original source while managing to keep to the Scottish setting and the rhyming slang influence of its protagonist.

As I have lamented on these pages before, there really are only a few out and out Scottish markets for short fiction out there. Four rejections later, I sent it on to Brendan Gisby at McStorytellers who snapped it up.

Brendan has been a real champion of my work in the past. He’s published a few of mine in the past and showcased The Scottish Book of the Dead at the Edinburgh eBook Festival. If I’m honest, I really would have liked to see Malky in a publication that was new to me, but with those doors closed, I’m happy that it found a home so welcoming.

You can have a read of The Book of Malky by maneuvering your mouse to the following link and then clicking the left mouse button, or tapping on your tracking pad, or just by jabbing your finger at it: http://www.mcstorytellers.com/the-book-of-malky.html

The_Nut_Job_posterSigh.

If the first computer-animated release of 2014 succeeds in anything, it’s to remind us of how good films like Toy Story and the first few Shrek movies really are. That’s about it. In fact, that’s it entirely. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare every movie in this genre with the finest that Pixar and DreamWorks have to offer. Well, too bad.

The Nut Job follows the story of Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), an annoying purple squirrel anti-hero who, even at the movie’s opening, is something of a pariah to the other critters who live with him in the park in the fictional town of Oakton in the early part of the 20th century. At least, it looks like that’s when it’s set but it’s confusing because the makers insist on putting two, yes two, Gangnam Style gags in there.

Surly is a pariah because he steals the food from the others. And he’s pretty annoying. When he tries to usurp the annoying red squirrel named Andie (Katherine Heigl has never sounded more Peggy Bundy) and the über-annoying grey squirrel Grayson (Brendan Fraser who seemingly is still alive) in their attempt to nick some nuts from a peanut cart, he inadvertently causes the destruction of the park’s big tree and is therefore banished by the park’s leader, a hugely annoying raccoon named Raccoon (voiced by Liam “I’ll Put My Name to Anything” Neeson). You wouldn’t think a pariah would take this so badly, but he does. With his not-particularly-annoying sidekick, he takes to the town and finds a nut factory across the street from a bank, which he tries to infiltrate in order to steal an awful lot of nuts. In a semi-interesting twist, the human occupants of the nut factory are actually planning a heist of their own, their target being the aforementioned bank across the street. Meanwhile, with a hungry park to feed, Andie and Grayson are sent into town to find food, much like the banished one, except they can return as heroes. Annoying heroes. Paths are crossed. Blah-blah-blah.

The mirror of human life and animal life working concurrently towards different, although similar, goals is pretty much all the deceptively long running time of 86 minutes has to offer. In a packed holiday movie theatre, the laughs were so thin on the ground that I was able to fall asleep twice. The kids didn’t laugh at all as far as I can remember but they had about as much trouble as I did keeping their eyes open.

Computer-animated movies can’t just get away with having stunning visuals, and to be honest, that’s been the case for a number of years. As technology advances, even rubbish movies like this one can look utterly incredible. But these days, it really needs a story to back it all up and this is where The Nut Job falls flat on its chubby-cheeked face. The farcical dual-heist element is so thin it barely manages to cover the running time and with no truly heroic character to hang one’s interest on, it becomes such a tedious affair that sleep really is the only option.

It’s a poor offering and it doesn’t even have the good grace to be poor enough to be interesting.

Sigh.

Kid-on-BusAlthough it may seem unlikely to anyone who reads my movie reviews, my fiction, my poetry, or to James Franco, but I’m a cheery wee soul. Really, I am. The fact that most of my short stories are populated by lonely, isolated characters, challenged to fit their round frames in the square holes of society really is just a coincidence. Well, maybe.

Of course, that’s not all I like writing about. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fond of a quirky voice (as seen recently in The Peculiar Incident at Otter Creek amongst others) and I very much enjoy writing what first appears to be an everyday sort of tale but when we slowly zoom out, it becomes clear that not everything is what it seems. At the start of 2013 I was able to combine these two elements with Nevergreen, a story that goes live at Menda City Review today.

The story was written during a bit of a frenetic three or four months during which I was to write the majority of my 2013 new work. To the best of my recollection, it was born after hearing someone bemoan how children are growing up too quickly these days. These words, or words like them, are said all the time but on this occasion they stuck and a few hours later, I’d pecked out the 3,000 words that I imagined were about the right amount needed to tell the story. It’s such a simple idea, I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it before.

I really like this story. It’s one of my favourites. And as is usually the case for stories of mine that I really like, it proved to be quite a difficult sell.. As is usually the case for stories of mine that I really like, it picked up a fair number of rejections. And as is usually the case for stories of mine that I really like, it was eventually picked up by Terry Rogers at Menda City. I was about as confident as I could be that it would be a good fit for them. Thankfully, it was.

I’ve mentioned my love of Menda City Review more than once on these pages so I’m suitably chuffed that this is the venue of my first publication of 2014.

You can read about children growing up too quickly these days by clicking on this link, or by getting an eight-year-old to do it for you: http://www.mendacitypress.com/24Broom.html

grudge-match-posterIt’s good to do things you don’t enjoy every now and then, and going to see a bad movie is no exception. A bad movie is the sliver of ginger you get with sushi. It cleanses the cinematic palate. It readjusts the benchmark so that good movies, movies without James Franco, can be enjoyed to their fullest. But sometimes, the bad movie doesn’t have the sense to keep its end of the bargain.

Grudge Match is one such example. On paper, it looks like someone watched Rocky and Raging Bull back-to-back and wondered who would win in such a match-up if the two were to fight today. Inside that person’s head is where the idea should’ve stayed. Instead, it got into the hands of director Peter Segal, who must have photos in a safe somewhere because people keep on letting him make movies, and he somehow convinced Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro to sign up, and would you believe it, the idea has made it to the screen.

De Niro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp. I was Gavin “Not Holding Out Much Hope” Broom. The two boxers had something of a rivalry 30 years ago. The Kid destroyed Razor in their first match-up. Razor got his revenge in bout two, although everyone knew The Kid wasn’t fit. And then right before fight three, Razor retired for reasons unknown. This stalemate sits uncomfortably in The Kid’s craw for three decades until the two are inadvertently reunited when they turn up in dotted suits at the same studio to record animation for an Xbox boxing game and get into an actual fight while their computerized avatars try to keep up. Cutting an already long story short, circumstances contrive to allow the rematch to take place with both pugilists in their sixties. With a curmudgeonly Alan Arkin turning up to train Razor, it’s The Kid’s estranged son BJ, so-called because they need to use it in a batch of obvious gags at later points, who reunites with dad to put him through his paces and rebuild their relationship. Throw in Kevin Hart as the fast-talking promoter and Kim Basinger as Razor’s lost love and BJ’s mom and there you have all the set-up you need for a 90 minute sporting comedy. Segal, in his wisdom, stretches it out to two hours.

The fact of the matter is, though, that in places it is actually pretty funny. Admittedly, it takes a while to get to its fighting weight, but when it does I was pleasantly surprised at the chemistry between Stallone and De Niro and I laughed out loud several times, especially when Arkin was on the screen being offensive to people.

Although it has its moments — the best of which comes during the credits with a couple of cameos that will make your jaw drop — there’s no getting away from the fact that, as sure as Rocky III follows Rocky II, it’s desperately predictable, it’s too long, it has an annoyingly cute kid with too many lines, and while both leads genuinely look like they’re having fun, De Niro is operating at 70% and Stallone … well, Stallone can act. He really can. But when he’s asked to sell a big ticket moment in a movie, he’s not that reliable, even in a boxing movie where one would imagine him being at his most comfortable. Give him some mumbly asides, give him some natural dialogue and he’s pretty good, but that speech just before the montage simply doesn’t work. Perhaps most damning of all is the fight that the whole movie is working towards is as dull as actual boxing.

So while it’s not bad enough to be true sushi ginger, it’s not remotely good enough to be wasabi. It’s somewhere in between and I’m afraid I don’t know enough about Japanese cuisine to know what that is.

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