Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Review (of sorts) - Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Anyone who has been following me on Twitter, or for anyone unfortunate enough to have encountered me personally today, will know that I have spent the day in a ridiculous state of excitement about the release of a certain movie.  Almost from the moment I opened my eyes this morning I was counting down the hours till the 6.50pm screening of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Yes, really.

I dutifully went along to the cinema this evening to see…well, mostly to see Jeremy Renner but let’s not dwell on that.  I’ve been raving about going to see this movie for weeks now, so I fully expected people to ask me what may seem like a very reasonable question – ‘was it good?’

Well, it depends on your definition of good.

Whenever I go to see a silly movie – and there is no getting around the fact that this is a very silly movie – one of my favourite things is later reading all the terrible reviews.  The best ones are from people who not only thought the movie was silly, but were surprised by this.  It’s called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – the clue is in the title.

It's very much a movie of the Ronseal variety.  The story catches up with the now-adult siblings who have grown into leather-clad, gun-toting Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, saving the world with dubious one-liners and inexplicably American accents.  They are drafted in by the mayor of a village tormented by some witches with a sinister plan of some kind but honestly by the time you get to that kind of exposition you’re probably not listening any more.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

The action is suitably bloody, if a bit repetitive, and thanks to the 3D most of it seems to be hurled in the general direction of the audience.   There’s a decent amount of humour – mostly snickers as opposed to laugh out loud moments – and there’s some enjoyment to be had from the fact that the leads do seem like they’re in on the joke.  No one seems to be taking themselves too seriously.
It’s not without faults (clue’s in the title, remember?) – with a premise like this there’s scope for it to be funnier, more outrageous and generally more chaotic, and I would argue it could have benefited from an 18 certificate instead of 15.  It is also seriously lacking in the bad guy department – Hansel and Gretel seem so capable in their roles as hunters that Famke Janssen’s Grand Witch never feels like a match for them and they never seem to be in any real danger.
With a movie like this, it’s all in the expectations (see also: Drive Angry, Battleship, Snakes On A Plane) - before seeing this movie, I expected to see Hansel, Gretel and witches.  I expected to enjoy the performances of the two leads, to laugh a little bit, to be entertained for a couple of hours and to come out of it thinking it might be cool to be a witch hunter.  All boxes ticked.

Anyone expecting more than that, remember, it’s called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Unleash The Armchair Critic - My Oscars Roundup

It’s all over…for another year, the deliberation, speculation, armchair analysis and ‘who are you wearing’ is put to bed as another Oscars all-nighter comes to an end.

As a movie lover, the Oscars are the biggest night of the year for me.  It’s also become tradition for me to watch the entire ceremony, a decision that I usually question on an existential level somewhere between 4am and 5am every year.  Now that I’ve had four hours’ sleep and a chance to review which parts were real and which parts were semi-conscious hallucinations, here’s my roundup of my highlights and lowlights of this year’s ceremony:
The Highlights

5.  Channing Tatum dancing across the stage; Daniel Radcliffe and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a song-and-dance routine; Seth MacFarlane belting out a bizarre movie twist on Be Our Guest.  What’s not to love there?

4.  The legendary Christopher Plummer showing everyone else how awards are supposed to be presented.

3.  The Avengers partly Assembled – even if their skit was a little under (or over) rehearsed, awkward and not half as funny as someone obviously thought it was, I still get a kick of seeing them, um, assembled.

2. The cast of Les Misérables – I could actually leave it there as just seeing them on the red carpet was a highlight but the musical performance was one of the best things I saw all night.  It was a real (cliché alert!) goose-bumps moment and is the only thing I’m likely to re-watch on YouTube more than Channing Tatum’s dance number.

1.  Jennifer Lawrence.  It’s rare that the person who most deserves to win actually does.  I know a lot of people predicted – and were rooting for – Emmanuelle Riva for the Best Actress award but in the opinion of this armchair critic this was Jennifer’s award.  Also, how classy does one need to be to fall up the stairs and still look that cool?

The Lowlights

5.  The Jaws gimmick.  What was that?  I am usually the first person to cringe when the speeches go on too long, but this was a dire way of dealing with it.  To be fair, if I’d known about it before hand, it probably would have sounded like a funny idea, and in many cases it worked, but when it had to be used to full effect it seemed crass, rude and just a little bit arrogant.

4.  Live from the red carpet.  This would be fantastic if any of these shows were actually, um, live from the red carpet.  It’s an unwritten law of awards season that we must endure ceaseless inane questions about dresses, which becomes quickly tiresome as we creep past midnight here in the UK.  What is the point, though, of being ‘live from the red carpet’ when you are in fact in a studio, looking at photographs of dresses, or in the studio, looking at clips of the nominated movies and only occasionally recalling that there are movie stars arriving who are infinitely more interesting than the ‘experts’ hired to talk about them.

3.  Bandwagon alert – Ben Affleck not being nominated for Best Director.

2.  Award presenters – what was going on this year?  Timing seemed off, jokes were weird and seemed to constantly miss their mark, and then there was Kristen Stewart.  Given that she is possibly the most sullen successful actress of all time, she’s an odd choice for an event that’s meant to be a celebration, but pairing her with Daniel Radcliffe, who oozes charm without even trying, just made it that much worse.

1.  The speeches – some people keep it short, coherent, funny and relevant.  Others, well, don’t.

Following the Oscars example, I’m going to declare a tie – step forward Seth MacFarlane.  Hours later I’m still on the fence about his performance as host.  His jokes ranged from the very, very funny to the ‘did he really just say that?’, the audience didn’t always seem to get him and the over-long, terribly self-aware opening with William Shatner was over-the-top.  On the other hand, he was, at times, hilarious, the section with Ted was movie-magic at its best (yes, I totally thought the bear was real), and he is far more handsome than Billy Crystal.  Overall, I wouldn’t be sorry to see him back next year.

Finally, it wouldn’t be an Oscars ceremony without a little bit of outrage from me (I still haven’t recovered from the Toy Story 3 injustice) so I’m just going to say it – Hugh Jackman was ROBBED!

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Songs and Scenes

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that this weekend is New Phone Weekend for me.  In other words, it’s a weekend of updating contacts, figuring out how stuff works and basically trying not to throw anything expensive out of any windows.  Tonight I discovered one of the best things about New Phone Weekend - the music.

New Phone Weekend for me is usually the time when I’m putting together new playlists – discovering new songs and stumbling across old favourites.  The process is normally followed by what's known in my house as a 'musical interlude' – an hour or so when everyone else gets some peace and quiet while I drift off into other worlds, accompanied by whatever soundtrack the random selector picks for me. 

These are some of my favourite nights because this is when most of my writing is done, with my eyes closed and my computer off.  

Writers have different ways of bringing characters to life.  Some write full biographies, some measure their characters by how they would react to a particular moral dilemma, some probably even have conversations with that character just to see what they’d say.  Maybe some, like me, write the characters without even realising they’re doing it.  My way, as it turns out, is through music – the way I get to know my character is by knowing how they react when they hear a particular song.  Does it remind them of something wonderful, or something painful?  Do they sing along like no one can hear them, do they dance only when no one is watching, do they imagine themselves on stage at the X Factor or do they just want to turn down the volume?  Rock?  Pop?  Country music?  The answers to these questions tell me everything I need to know.  Through the songs that come on when I least expect them, I begin to see snapshots of that character’s life at different points inside and out of the story I’m telling, and some of the most important scenes in every story have taken shape during a musical interlude.

Whether I’m on the bus, walking to work, or, like now, just sitting on the sofa listening to some music, a lot of my ideas come from the music in some way or another – not from the lyrics but more from the way I feel when I hear those songs.
I wish I could tell you I have some hugely impressive catalogue of respectable bands that provide the soundtrack when I’m writing, but anyone who knows me at all – and knows that I can recite all the words to The One And Only – would guess that’s a big fat lie.  In fact most of the songs with the highest play count are firmly in the Guilty Pleasure file.  Still, I’m sure all crime writers listen to Glee, right?  Right?!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Pros and Cons of Plotting

I know, it’s been a while.  I offer no excuses.  I have been a (whisper it) bad blogger.  I aim to be better.  I will be better.  Probably.  Maybe.

So, the title of today’s post is of the Ronseal variety.  As the beginnings of a new novel take shape in my head, I’ve been contemplating the pros and cons of plotting.  Now, for the purposes of clarification, I am not referring to the pros and cons of having a plot.  Of that, I am more or less in favour.  I could write something without one, it would be entertaining and indulgent but much like this paragraph, it would ramble on endlessly without much of a point.  For the purposes of this post, when I refer to plotting I’m really referring to planning. 

So the question really is to plan or not to plan?  Do you write a one page outline or fifty- page manifesto that documents every movement of your main character and half a dozen subplots?  Or do you just wing it and see what happens?

I have a foot in both camps.  For my last novel I did a mixture of both.  I had an idea of beginning, middle and end but had a stronger idea of my main character and the situation she was in and built a plot around that.  Once the story had grown arms, legs, additional heads, tails and the neck of a brachiosaurus it was time to do some planning.
I’ve used various methods, ranging from the sensible, bullet-pointed, double-space Word documents, to the “where is that bit of paper with that thing written on it?” approach.  I’ve used the colour-coded post-its, the spiral-bound plot notebook, the ‘keep everything in my head and let it flow’.  All, except that last one which almost never works, have their own merits, and have been useful exercises between drafts and edits, but what about before the first draft?  How much plotting do you do before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?  How much plotting is too much?

Although I have already used the phrase ‘pros and cons’ several times, for me to present such a list might give the impression of some kind of specialist knowledge.  Since I am an expert on almost nothing (unless you count Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which if you don’t, you should) I will amend my criteria a little to Plotting – Reasons I Think It’s An Ingenious Idea and Reasons It Probably Isn’t.

1.        Direction – it’s always good to know where you’re headed, isn’t it?  Being lost is no fun.
2.       Motivation – for writer and character both.  How many hours are lost to sitting in the dark, wondering where in the world this story is headed next, with nothing being written in between?  That’s just me then? Right, moving on – it’s also useful to know where the characters are headed as it helps feed into their actions throughout the story.
3.       Continuity – plotting prevents that 2am panic as you realise that Character A couldn’t possibly have done that terrible thing to Character B because that terrible thing happened before they met and so on.  I hope.

But then again:
1.        Being lost can be fun, especially when you find your own way out.  Plus, I’ve never been very good at reading a map.  Sometimes it feels good to not to know where it’s all heading and just see what happens.  If, like me, your characters become like real people to you, they’re just as capable of growing and changing as we are, and things might head off in a direction you didn’t intend.
2.       Sometimes not knowing how it all ends can help make your characters more believable.  If I don’t know something, neither does my main character, which sometimes helps if they’re meant to be clueless.
3.       Demotivation – isn’t it a bit like reading the end of a book first?  Do I still want to write a story once I know how it ends?
4.       It’s not really going to stop that 2am wakeup is it?

I’m hoping other writers will chime in here with their thoughts, particularly as it varies depending on genre, but for me I think it falls somewhere in the middle.  I’m writing character-driver crime fiction so a balance is good – I want to let the characters develop but at the same point I need to create suspense, tension and above all I want to make these characters suffer (I’m nice when I’m not writing, honest!) so I think some kind of outline is important to ensure I’m throwing everything I can at them.  On the other hand, I’ll probably change my mind about that again in an hour.  That’s the beauty of plotting – there’s always room for change.