December 2009


2009 has been a good year in terms of punting my words around the place. In total, twenty pieces of fiction and poetry have found homes, which is by far the best haul since my first hit back in March, 2006.

Recently, numbers nineteen and twenty in that list were picked up and will make their appearances next year.

Getting Past The Receptionist will feature in the January issue of Wilderness House Literary Review while Emma’s Verruca will be in amongst the work on view in February’s Fiction at Work.

I’ll give you all a nod when they go live, because I’m good that way.

In the meantime, to the hundreds and thousands of people who’ve landed on these pages this year, I hope you all had a nice Christmas, have a happy and prosperous 2010 and, more than anything, you found that District 9 poster you were searching for.

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There are lots of gaps in my reading; so many books I’ve tried to read but not quite managed despite the best of intentions. For example, I’ve read very little Dickens and I could only manage a few pages of Huckleberry Finn before giving up. I have, however, read every Asterix book at least ten times each.

So I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve never bought one. I’ve never borrowed one from a library. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the exploits of his most famed creation are a mystery.

Despite this blind spot, I’m almost certain that the new Guy Ritchie movie doesn’t feature the same sort of hero that Doyle imagined in the fifty-six short stories and four novels I couldn’t be bothered reading. I can’t imagine any paragraphs dedicated to Holmes’ ripped bod or bulging biceps. I’m on equally sure footing to suggest that this latest outing isn’t aimed at purists.

For everyone else, though, it’s tremendous fun. Robert Downey Jr, whose umpteenth career resurgence continues unabated, is excellent as a Holmes who’s as much action hero as super slueth and is portrayed in a far edgier and more modern light. He’s flawed. He’s a bit sleazy. He’s petty. And while he’s at no time reigned in by the source material, he puts a sufficient stamp on proceedings to make the idea of a sequel or two rather appealing. Downey Jr has had his share of demons and he seems to transfer that kind of history into the role.

The somewhat contrived plot starts with Holmes and Watson in full Riggs and Murtaugh mode as they burst in to a black magic sacrifice to save the girl and slam the cuffs on our villain, Lord Blackstone, ably played by Ritchie veteran. Mark Strong. From there, we descend into occult hockum, large French bruisers and a hideous plot to rule the world. If it sounds a bit Jimmy Bond, well yeah, it is. It’s also part buddy movie with Jude Law in Watson’s shoes who, despite what Rachel McAdams brings to the party, is really Holmes’ main love interest in the film. Strangely, this is something that avid fans will approve of. From what I can gather, the books had Watson in a more important role rather than being a simple-minded device there to give Holmes an excuse to explain his magnificence.

Victorian London is brought vividly to life and full of characters who are able to be real and believable and completely over the top all at the same time, which has always been a strength for Ritchie. A little more unusual is the rather narrowed aspect ratio, which felt far more constricted than the 1.85:1 claimed on imdb, and as a result left some of the wider shots looking a bit squished and the action sequences too busy.

My only real criticism with the film is that the pitch, at times, was a bit confused. What we have at the heart of it all is Sherlock Holmes on steriods. He’s a bareknuckle fighter as well as deductive genius and as you might expect with such ingredients, there are laughs to be had along the way. However, at other times, we’re asked to take it all quite seriously, which occupies a rather awkward middle ground that probably wouldn’t have been too much of a problem had the laughs been more plentiful. The fact that the audience is given no chance whatsoever to solve the mystery isn’t really a problem … after all, we’re not Holmes. Not even this version.

And I got through all that without resorting to an elementary my dear blog reader remark. Personal triumph.

So. Avatar, then. And not just any old Avatar. This was Avatar with 3 of them thar Ds. It’s the blockbuster of the year, possibly the decade. Where to begin?

Well, they say there are seven types of plot. No matter what the movie, book, TV show, whatever, when you boil it down to its constituent parts, it’s going to be a story of Rebirth, Quest, Comedy, Rags to Riches, Overcoming the Monster etc etc etc. After watching Avatar, there are still seven types of plot. That’s not particularly a bad thing, but it does lead me on to quite a bad thing. I’ll save that for later.

In case anyone reading this doesn’t know, Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a wheelchair bound ex-marine who flies out to the moon-planet of Pandora where he’s been chosen to fill his dead twin’s boots (yeah, I know. And it’s never really explained) to become an avatar of the planet’s humanoid Picasso-tinged inhabitants. Essentially, he lives as an alien in a Virtual Reality type way, only here it’s Reality Reality. Once there, he’s to infiltrate this band of tree-hugging hippies and spill all their juicy secrets because hidden below the planet’s surface is some very valuable material. All good Sci-Fi is really an analogy to the real world. You don’t have to be particularly alert to spot the message here and you may well leave the cinema hating your own species. Which is always nice.

Good news, then. It’s an incredible visual experience. It’s stupidly beautiful and in many places it is literally breath-taking. The hybrid of CGI and reality is a quantum leap. Never before has something you simply know can’t be real been so convincing.

Now, I had my reservations about watching a 3D movie at the cinema, for the following reasons:

  • Jaws 3D.
  • Friday The 13th Part 3.
  • Jaws 3D again.
  • sitting in a cinema with 3D glasses on makes me feel like I’m part of an audience witnessing nuclear tests.
  • it makes an expensive experience that little bit more expensive.
  • did I mention Jaws 3D?
  • it drains something like 30% of the colour from the film.
  • it was never really 3D, was it? It was always more like watching the Duck Shoot game at the fair … there was depth between the planes, but the people occupying the planes were very much as flat as the pancakes you could wrap round a freshly shot duck.
  • it was used as an excuse by the film makers to include shots they would never think of using in a regular film, eg. poles getting thrust into the camera, eyes popping into the camera, all of which just served as a reminder that we’re in a cinema, watching a film.
  • fuck it. Jaws 3D.

I don’t know if 3D’s just evolved or if Avatar is truly groundbreaking, but the 3D here is awesome. There’s depth, contours, the occasional thrusted pole and it feels about as close to hologramatic cinema as we’re likely to get.

Continuing with the good news, it absolutely flew in. Two-and-three-quarter hours have never passed as quickly.

If there was a sense that through all of this good news there was going to be a “but”, well here it comes.

But.

As hinted at when I was going on about plot types, this isn’t the most original story in the world. The first section is Dances With Smurfs. The second section is Episode 3: Revenge of the Smurf. It borrows heavily from James Cameron’s own work and others. Tick the boxes when you see the robotics from Aliens, hear the soundtrack from Titanic, spot a Hippogriff from Harry Potter or transporters from Halo. There’s déjà vu round every corner of this brave new world.

Performance wise, it’s a bit hit and miss. Sam Worthington — he of Terminator Salvation fame — is solid in the lead role and Giovanni Ribisi, who I’ve always liked since he was Kevin Arnold’s pal in The Wonder Years and Phoebe’s half-brother in Friends, might have been missing the wicked laugh and twirlable moustache but is an enjoyable, if overplayed, hench baddie. Sigourney Weaver, who I expected to be a safe pair of hands, was strangely wooden throughout. Given her experience in the Alien quadrilogy, she should be pretty much at home with stupid lines of dialog, but I didn’t find her believable at all. That said, the dialog doesn’t help her. In places, it could curdle tar. Perhaps the best performance comes from someone who doesn’t actually get any screen time in her own right. A blued-up Zoe Saldana is perfect as Neytiri and she was very believable.

My main gripe may be precisely the point James Cameron wants to make, but it made me question the role of cinema. Cameron says he couldn’t have made this movie 12 years ago. I say, bollocks. Of course he could have made it. He could’ve used animation in the true sense of the word and made a cartoon. It wouldn’t have looked as nice but I bet with the world’s best artists at his disposal, it could’ve been close. I guess my point is, he could’ve told his story, and what’s more important; the story or the telling? So instead he waited 12 years, spent foomftillion-gargillian dollars and made a film whose prime objective was to wow its audience with visual smoke and mirrors, which it does exceptionally well, and hope that distracts from the fact that the story it’s telling is well worn.

There’s another but coming.

But.

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not perfect, but I loved the ride. It made me smile twice for every time it made me roll my eyes. Cameron has created something of incredible detail and beauty, a vibrant world full of flaura and fauna where it would be forgivable to come away thinking these creatures actually exist somewhere. For that he deserves all the praise he’s going to get. It just seems a shame that for all the innovation, time and money spent on the aesthetic, they forgot to come up with a storyline to match.