Category Archive for ‘film and tv’

Recent TV

Posted on July 27th, 2015 in film and tv

Sons of Anarchy Season 7: Sons of Anarchy has been a frustratingly mixed bag for me right from the start.  At its best it’s been tough and twisty as a mean rattler with some great characters and jaw dropping shocks.  At its worst it’s been nonsensical, melodramatic, and really quite silly.  Without Ron Perlman’s gravelly presence to counterbalance idealistic Charlie Hunnam there’s a sense that the Harleys may be running on empty as this final season commences. The engines do start to rev after a while, and it builds up to a suitably Hamlet-like bloodbath in the penultimate episode, but just when you’re thinking they might end in a gritty fireball, it retreats into a disappointingly sentimental swan song. Compared to the savage and uncompromising ending of The Shield, with which it shares a lot of great writers and actors, Sons of Anarchy ends up looking decidedly lightweight.

Sense8 Season 1: The Wachowskis have been responsible for some brilliant stuff (1st Matrix) and some risible stuff (other Matrixes (Matrices?)) so let’s say I didn’t have particularly high hopes for their foray onto Netflix. To begin with it seemed more risible than brilliant, but after a couple of episodes I was curious, and after eight or nine I must admit I was loving it despite myself. The science-fictional premise, of groups of super-evolved humans able to communicate and share skills over vast distances is kinda nonsense, but the wonderfully diverse characters and human dramas are (mostly) great. Don’t know how it’ll develop, as I’m really not that arsed about them teaming up to fight an evil governmental telepathic mega-corporation, but, much to my surprise, I could sit and watch them comfort, advise, and develop deep feelings for one another all day…

Vikings Season 3: Yes, yes, and thrice yes. The scale increases as history’s shiftiest and most piercing-eyed barbarians lay siege to Paris while the even shiftier King Egbert tightens his grip on Saxon England.  Treachery, violence and great antiheroic characters abound, tempered by historical detail though not too much historical detail, strong visual style and some nice takes on spirituality. It’s great.

Black Sails Season 2: After a very mixed first season it feels as though the producers hauled this one into dry dock and gave it a thorough going over, tossing out the weak and focussing on the strengths to very positive effect.  Things move at breakneck pace now, with shocking twists, explosive deaths, alliances that shift on the wind, a lot more sea based action, and a general focus on shit blowing up. Yaaaarrrr me hearties.

Peaky Blinders Seasons 1 and 2: Stone the crows but this series about Brummy gangsters just come back from fighting in the 1st World War and with big plans to found a criminal empire across Her Majesty’s not so green and pleasant land is a bit of alright.  Excellent performances all around, including a ruthless, calculating Cillian Murphy, a ruthless, sanctimonious Sam Neill and a ruthless, lunatic Tom Hardy. Punctilious period detail is combined with a  modern soundtrack and visual style to produce something thoroughly original and arresting, and with only six episodes a season it keeps the forward drive and never outstays its welcome. Recommended.

Hell on Wheels Season 4: I enjoyed the first couple of seasons of this tough western following gritty railroad man cum confederate survivor Cullen Bohannen as he struggles to keep the Union Pacific headed west while looking handsome yet grizzled and maintaining the right balance of threat and nobility.  I thought the 3rd season lost its way, to be honest, but this fourth one gets things back on the right track.  It starts a little slowly, with Cullen captured by Mormons, but before you know it there are megalomaniac carpetbaggers turning up from Washington, Irish gangsters arriving from New York, and southern psychopaths tracking up from Mexico, culminating in some of the most grimdark few episodes of TV I can remember seeing. This shit is bleak. Like, people-sitting-on-coffins-screaming-out-their-mindless-hatred-of-an-uncaring-god-that-made-the-world-this-way bleak.  Bleak.  But actually very good, and promising a cracking finale in the next season…

Recent TV

Posted on March 1st, 2015 in film and tv

Sons of Anarchy Season 6 – My love/hate relationship with the Sons somewhat continues, but hey, I’ve made it this far, so they must be doing something right.  It’s still an odd mix of the rather cliche, silly and wearyingly sexist and the utterly clever, shocking and unpredictable.  Charlie Hunnam has grown into his increasingly darkening role, somewhat, and the surviving members of the biker gang are thoroughly comfortable there.  The violence is, if anything, dialled up a notch and there are some really spectacular shocks in this season.  I expect the next and final one to be an absolute bloodbath.

Walking Dead Season 4 – Yes. Tough, sweaty, shocking, uncompromising, zombies, even worse people, etc. etc. A slightly bitty season which spends the first half tying up the last season, in a sense, and the second on a set of scattered story lines of somewhat varying effectiveness, but the core values remain in place. Good stuff.

True Detective – I must confess that I found this a bit less impressive than some of the gushing praise on twitter led me to expect. Undoubtedly it’s good, with a great pair of central performances from the lately rehabilitated Matthew McConnaughey and Woody Harrelson, plus much beautifully filmed deep south strangeness, long-drive philosophising and one particularly cracking one-take action sequence.  I found the central thread of the case more than a bit meandering, though. Maybe that’s the truth of detective work but a show like the Wire managed to seem just as true while delivering much more narrative payoff.  Your mileage may vary, evidently.  I’ll certainly watch a second season.

Marco Polo – Netflix exclusive historical hischmorical programming with hot young Italian Marco Polo abandoned among Kublai Khan and his various Mongol and Southern Chinese friends and enemies and their poisonous politicking.  Early episodes seem intent on out-boobing game of thrones.  Boobs everywhere, like a collision between two boob trains.  Like an explosive accident at a boob factory.  But the boob quotient reduces later in favour of riding around, catapults, mysticism and some odd kung fu.  It looks pretty, there are some good performances, and it’s interesting to see a western-made series with only really the one white actor and an otherwise pretty diverse cast, but it’s not exactly electrifying.

Attack on Titan – My mind was blown by Akira when I first saw it – on a massive screen at Glastonbury festival 23 years ago, funnily enough – and there will always be a place in my heart for the overwrought insanity of Fist of the North Star, but despite the occasionally gobsmacking ideas my history with anime has been a rocky one.  Death Note was my last effort a few years back and it didn’t really work for me, but when I was in Detroit recently there was something on the screen that kept drawing my eye and someone said, ‘oh, yeah, that’s Attack on Titan, that’s supposed to be brilliant,’ so when I noticed it on Netflix I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m very glad I did.

Humanity have been herded into a walled compound beyond which lurk herds of gurning, brainless giants. Who eat people. Horribly. When they start coming over the walls, the outclassed military must try to find a way to fight them. And get eaten. Horribly.

These things often can’t sustain, and there are are perhaps worrying signs towards the end that it’s going to go in a slightly more familiar special-teenagers-pilot-giant-robots-to-save-the-world direction, but the first half of the season is great, horrifying, with some crazy ideas, and communicates a really powerful sense of what it’s like to fight an implacable, incomprehensible, undefeatable enemy.

Knights of Sidonia – the horrifying charms of Attack on Titan led me to look for more Anime. Knights of Sidonia has similar special teenagers taking on an implacable alien enemy, but this time from the confines of a generation ship in space rather than a walled compound. Not nearly such an edge on this, though, and the slightly weird art style, though pretty, is a bit distancing.

Arrow Season 2 – watched the whole season on flights to and from Australia, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I must say.  They’ve maybe dialled back the pretensions of depth and I think the show feels more comfortable in its own skin as a result, with an extensive cast of mildly absurd heroes and villains now well established and striking nice sparks from one another.  It all looks a million bucks, there’s some nice patter, some nice action, some nice split narrative between past and present.  If you don’t like watching really pretty people work out a lot you may be bored, but hey, if you don’t like watching really pretty people work out what the fuck is wrong with you?

2014 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2014 in announcements, appearances, film and tv, games, news, reading, reviews, whisky deathmatch

New Year’s Eve, my friends, and you know what that means?  Yes, indeed, I am 40 years old today.  You would never think I used to be young.  Truly horrifyingly, this is my 6th yearly review post. I’ll have to have a review of my best yearly review posts one of these new year’s eves…

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Again, in spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain. Partly due to the ongoing success of Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books continue to chug along very, very nicely.  I had a short story in Martin and Dozois’ highly successful Rogues anthology in June.  Then Half a King came out in July and made no. 3 on the Sunday Times hardcover list, which matches the ranking of The Heroes way back in 2010 but at a much more competitive time of year.  I toured more extensively than I ever have before, with some 15 events in the UK, all of them pretty well attended, and I did a few bookshop events down the west coast of the US for the first time too and made it to Comic Con in San Diego, to Sicily, to Lucca, and a third visit to my old friends in Aviles, Spain.

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – The heavy touring schedule through July and August got in the way somewhat, but even so it was a good year in the writing department too, if a pretty demanding one.  I wrote the last quarter of Half the World, revised and edited it, then wrote a first draft of Half a War, and gave it a fair hammering this month to produce a second draft that I’m starting to get happy with.  I’ve a few more things to do and another pass through focusing on the secondary characters to get to a decent third draft which I can hand in to my editors mid January, but the book’s mostly there.  Seems like only yesterday I was pitching this series to publishers and now it’s nearly done…

BOOKS – I really am hardly reading at all these days, it’s a disgrace.  When I finish Half a War I desperately need to take my foot off the gas and start reading again, hoover up some ideas and inspiration, catch up on the truly massive backlog I’ve got sitting in tottering heaps all around me. But two things I read this year that I’d certainly recommend are Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Neither the kind of thing I write, particularly, but then who wants to piss where they eat…?

TV and FILM – Boy, the cinema has barely registered this year.  I think the only film I reviewed was Fury, which was OK but ultimately a gritty wrapper around a rather traditional, sentimental war movie.  Guardians of the Galaxy was good fun but I was a little underwhelmed after all the nerdgasms I’d seen about it – seemed like more of the Marvel same in the end, if with a few more laughs.  Gone Girl was a very well-made film but seemed a bit hamstrung by a really odd casting choice in Ben Affleck – the guy just comes across as too much of a likeable lunkhead and I felt they needed someone much darker and more dangerous to really balance the central relationship and make us unsure what was going on.  Rather than equally evil couple of bastards reap the whirlwind they sow for each other, we got mildly unpleasant idiot is totally screwed over by his psychopathic wife, and that’s a lot less interesting in all kinds of ways.  For me the TV standout was the searing climax of Breaking Bad, which has to be one of the greatest pieces of TV I’ve ever seen, about as close as you’ll get to a single 5 season story arc with novelistic coherence of theme and character.  Highly honourable mentions to a bloody, strange and gritty second season of Vikings and the punishing 3rd and 4th seasons of The Walking Dead after its slightly limited 2nd season.  Justified continues to be elevated way above its rather banal set-up by great script and acting in which every character overflows with Elmore Leonard-y detail.  Orphan Black was good largely thanks to its brilliant central multiple performance.  Suits is entertaining if a little lightweight.  The Good Wife continues to be highly watchable and always that little bit darker than you expect.  Arrow was enjoyable enough superhero hokum but fell short of its gritty ambitions.  Black Sails was enjoyable enough pirate hokum, good when it put to sea but too often foundering on land.  The 1st season of House of Cards was very strong, with a great mood and super central performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, but I felt the 2nd season was a lot less believable.  Hell on Wheels sadly crashed off the rails for me in its 3rd season after an action-packed 2nd.

GAMES – Last year had some splendiferous stuff in the form of The Last of Us, Bioshock, Tomb Raider, Telltale’s Walking Dead etc. as developers pushed the last generation of consoles to their limits and stretched unused storytelling muscles while doing it.  This year began on a high with Dark Souls II, more ultra dark, ultra hard Japanese/Western hybrid roleplaying but with the difficulty softened just a little this time around.  Moving over to PS4, the results have been a little more pedestrian than last year.  Destiny was pretty and compelling and did give me a hell of a lot of gaming hours but ultimately was a slightly empty experience.  Diablo III I found rather by-the-yard-y.  Far Cry 4 good, but very much like Far Cry 3.  Which leaves Dragon Age: Inquisition as my personal game of the year.  One could criticise the gameplay, the voice acting, and the somewhat vanilla plot line, but the world, characters, detail and sense of immersion were top class.

WHISKY – Lack of time meant my planned Whisky Deathmatch: Islay Bloodfeud never happened.  Well, it happened in the sense that I drunk the whisky, I just didn’t get round to writing about it. In brief, though, bottles I’ve particularly enjoyed this year: Lagavulin 12yo cask strength (smashed in the face with a sack of burned lemons), Ardbeg Supernova 2014 (Ardbeg, only more so, and with a touch of sweetness to it), Laphroaig Triple Wood (salty medicinal goodness with a sherry-wood softening), Amrut Fusion (awesome whisky distilled in India from Scottish and Himalayan barley), Talisker 30yo cask strength (full fathom five thy father lies).

CONTROVERSIES – I noted last year that after 7 or 8 years in the business I’m getting less and less interested in the cyclical nature of genre commentary.  I’ve already expressed my opinion one way or another on most issues of note, and when they come up again, I find a world weary sigh gets across most of what I feel, an attitude reflected in my post on this year’s controversial Hugo Awards.  That’s part of the reason for the greatly reduced blog presence of late, though that’s also a function of the sheer amount of stuff I’ve got going on.  I’m finding twitter (@LordGrimdark) a better medium for general conversation, and I’m tending to use the blog only for more considerable announcements and reviews.  This relatively thin level of posting may well continue next year, because…

THE YEAR AHEAD – My, oh, my, but 2015 is shaping up to be a busy one. I’ve already got visits confirmed to Detroit in Jan, Australia in Feb, Dubai in March and St. Petersburg in April. I’ve got not one but TWO books coming out: Half the World in February and Half a War in July, the first time I’ve done a publishing schedule anything like so densely packed.  Since I toured in the UK and US only a few months back there probably won’t be a lot of events for Half the World, but expect another full-on tour in July for Half a War.  Writing-wise, I’m going to be kept fully busy until the end of February with edits and revision on Half a War, then I’ve got a few short stories to write to complete a collection which will hopefully come out some time in 2016.  It’s looking as if the main part of next year may be given over to some exciting non-book projects, of which more in due course, but I also need to lay the groundwork and do some thinking for another trilogy in the First Law world, although the publication of that looks like it will be some way off…

Happy new year, readers!

Fury

Posted on October 27th, 2014 in film and tv

Fury, ladies and gentlemen, is a war film. Of this there can be no doubt. Some heavy spoilers ahead though, I would argue, nothing you can’t see coming from the opening few scenes…

Hard-bitten Brad Pitt steers a tank-crew of dehumanised veterans plus one raw recruit through a World War II shitty, gritty, and horrible even by the standards of World War II.  The crew are pretty horrible.  Being in a tank is really horrible.  Warfare is extremely horrible.

It’s a pretty good film, too.  Performances are strong.  The mud, the blood, the horrifying ruination are highly convincing.  The tank interior suitably claustrophobic.  The action is crunching.

But, for me, it was far from a great film.  It touts itself early on as unflinching, ultra-real.  It shoves the viewer’s face in the slaughter the way Brad Pitt shoves his raw recruit’s face in it.  Bodies are bulldozed into trenches.  Civilians dangle from lamp posts.  Corpses are splattered by tank tracks.  LOOK AT IT.  CORPSE.  TANK TRACKS.  SPLAT!  HOW HARDCORE IS THAT?

Well, yes, I suppose that is very hardcore, except that, as it goes along, the core of the film seemed to me to end up being very traditional. Tightly-knit group of tough veterans lead wide-eyed recruit through the war-torn country, dribbling casualties, to a violent and ennobling last stand is about the most classic 2nd World War film plot going, and Fury hits all the expected beats, but Saving Private Ryan, for all its occasional soft-centredness, seemed a more honest treatment of the material, with a lot more to say than Fury about warfare and what it does to the men caught up in it.  Fury lacked any theme, really.  Religion wandered in and out but to what purpose it was unclear.

There was negligible effort to treat the german soldiers like people, even up to the point that their tactics seem rather dumb – more intended to service the needs of the plot than to make any sense.  Unsupported Tiger crews drive straight at the enemy to expose their one weak spot.  Unsupported infantry swarm pointlessly into optimum mowing-down positions.  ‘I have a family!’ one prisoner shouts desperately in subtitles before Brad Pitt flings their photographs in the mud and forces his recruit to shoot him in the back.  This is deeply nasty at the time, except it’s presented in the long run to have been at worst grimly necessary.  The dehumanisation of the veterans is offered up as a real bad thing early on, but it’s not long before our reluctant conscience-ridden green recruit has been converted to a one-man slaughterhouse, literally dubbed ‘machine’ by his comrades, snarling ‘die motherfuckers’ as he mows down nazis by the dozen.  Nuanced it is not.

By the time of the climactic final battle, pretensions of deep hardcore-ness and realism seem to have been abandoned in favour of strangely traditional gung-ho noble last stand-ness.  Even the visuals and the editing go strangely dark and muddy, as though everyone ran out of ideas a bit.  Every significant death is accompanied by a little pause in the savage action for the crew and audience to contemplate the significance of that death.  Brad Pitt can get shot four times by a sniper and still slither back into the tank to growl his last lines.  ‘You’re a hero,’ murmur awestruck rescuers to the one survivor.  Finally, when we pull back from the ruined tank to show a veritable sea of German corpses, I felt I was invited to see this as a good, even a noble and heroic, even a religiously righteous thing.

It’s full of sound and fury, no doubt, and at times highly effective, but when the smoke clears I’m not sure Fury is signifying very much…

Recent TV

Posted on September 8th, 2014 in film and tv

Recently watched, that is…

Vikings Season 2

It’s as if a set of TV Executives sat down with the express purpose of making a show Joe Abercrombie would really like, and they largely succeeded. Love, hate, violence and pagan strangeness abound as Scandinavia’s shiftiest opportunist, Ragnar Lothbrok, becomes embroiled not only in Viking blood-feuds but Saxon politics.  I doubt they’d make any high claims of historical accuracy but there’s vastly more authenticity on the bone than one might expect from a Hollywood treatment of the material and lashings of drama, shocks, shield-walls and wonderfully strange, inscrutable, and morally dubious characters. There’s a real stylistic boldness creeping into this second season as well, with gripping dreamlike sequences and whole episodes in which Ragnar barely speaks, communicating all that is necessary though his trademark unblinking wonky death-grin.

Orphan Black Season 1

Whenever Tatiana Maslany isn’t on screen this sfnal thriller looks decidedly wobbly, but she’s usually on screen at least once, and often more than twice, in a barnstorming multiple performance as a set of clones caught up in a sinister conspiracy.  The first few episodes are driven by breakneck pacing and the dialogue can seem pretty creaky, but soon enough we get almost soap-operatic glimpses beneath the skins of the characters.  You never for a moment doubt you’re watching a set of entirely distinct people who happen to look the same.

Hell on Wheels Season 3

I’m a sucker for a western, and I enjoyed the first and especially the second season of this railroad-based effort in which an ex-confederate soldier hell-bent on revenge gets drawn into the efforts of the Union-Pacific to cross the continent with ensuing political shenanigans, gunslinging, fist-fighting, Indian entanglements and moral ambiguities. This third season was a bit of a disappointment, though. Still some strong characters but while the pace was always full steam ahead before here things slowed to a crawl, with an awful lot of circling around, great attention given to sub-threads that never amounted to much, and a slightly baffling turn at the end.  I’d watch another but, boy, they need to get themselves together and strike for the Pacific.

House of Cards Season 1

This is just as great as it looks on paper, a re-invention of the classic British series based on the books by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘baby-faced hit man’ Michael Dobbs (who is an exec on the US show). Ian Richardson’s supremely manipulative tory whip Francis Urquhart has become Kevin Spacey’s supremely manipulative majority house whip Frank Underwood, and the skullduggery has been updated for the mobile-phone and internet generation, but otherwise the basic formula of ruthless political manoeuvrings translates easily from Whitehall to Washington, along with the central character’s almost Shakespearian soliloquies to camera, coaxing the audience very much into complicity. Kevin Spacey makes for a hugely charismatic and likeable Machiavellian megalomaniac but there are plenty more strong performances, including Robin Wright majestic as Underwood’s equally ruthless wife.  Well into Season 2 now and enjoying it just as much, particularly a masterfully executed shock in the first episode.

Suits Seasons 1&2

This was a very pleasant surprise, I must say. Hot-shit doesn’t-play-by-the-rules New York corporate lawyer Harvey Specter is asked to interview for a new associate and the only candidate who interests him turns out to be a genius drop-out who wandered into the interview to avoid the cops when a drug deal went south. Sounds like a recipe for cheese and indeed the pilot is pretty wobbly, but the writing quickly finds its feet and I ended up burning through two seasons of this in nothing flat. It won’t change your world but it’s hugely watchable, with some zinging lines and some great characters, especially Harvey’s bitter, pedantic, tragic, weirdly loveable nemesis Louis Litt. There is a tendency to run over and over the same ground, though, with endlessly will-they-won’t-they relationships that nearly do then don’t, and rivalries that become friendships that become rivalries that become friendships that etc. etc. At some point you have to crap or get off the pot and I wonder if they can get enough variety into the formula to keep it fresh.

Arrow Season 1

Enjoyable enough superhero hokum based on the Green Arrow comics, in which pampered rich boy Oliver Queen is shipwrecked on a mysterious island and returns after 5 years with superhuman powers of archery, handsomeness, looking troubled, and working out, powers which he is determined to use for (kind of) good in ridding his city of a deadly conspiracy and etc. etc. I guess they’re going for a comic book over-the-top shininess but the result is that everyone is so improbably pretty they all end up looking strangely average. Attempts to complicate the standard superhero narrative are somewhat hamstrung by, for example, our hero’s habit of ruthlessly slaughtering three dozen bodyguards who one supposes are just doing their job before he lets their malefactor boss off with a harsh warning.  Still, an enjoyable, if relatively predictable, way to while away a few hours…

Breaking Bad

Posted on March 24th, 2014 in film and tv

Phew.

I have, of course, entirely missed the boat on this, as ever, and no doubt it’s all been said already and the Sauron’s eye of popular culture moved on to fresh pastures.  But I just saw the final episode of Breaking Bad last night, and felt the need to muse a little on this extraordinary show.  I’m going to try to avoid major spoilers in the text but I can’t say the same for the comments, so if you haven’t seen it, just go and watch it.  Then come back.

There’s been a true revolution in television drama over the past decade or two.  It’s becoming almost old hat to assert that the small screen has taken over from the big as the place where exciting work is aired.  But even so it’s hard to think of long-running tv series that maintain their consistency, let alone present any kind of coherent arc from beginning to end.  Indeed the commercial imperatives of US TV make it likely shows will be kept going at least a little bit past their best.  The Shield had a fantastic first couple of seasons and a dynamite last, but sagged in the middle.  Battlestar Galactica produced two superb seasons, one reasonable one, then wandered off into the philosophical desert.  Deadwood was brilliant but meandering.  By the end it was clear the writers of Lost had been lost all along.

Breaking Bad’s first season – somewhat hamstrung by the writing strike – was maybe no better than promising, but since then it’s been brilliant, and the fifth and final season was truly stupendous, more or less every episode a proper corker packed with shocks, horrors, big moments and huge payoffs.  And it maintained its focus throughout, kept a steadily mounting pace in spite of the commercial pressures of tv, had a thematic purity that you very rarely see.  Bold in concept and meticulous in execution, it’s maybe the most impressive example of a single, focused story brought to long-form TV.  The closest you’ll come to a televised novel.

It’s an absolutely towering central performance from Bryan Cranston – hard these days to imagine as the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle – by turns pitiful, vile, likeable, self-defeating, terrifying, and yet somehow combining into a totally coherent and believable human.  You believe in him as a harassed and hopeless chemistry teacher.  You believe in him as a ruthless criminal mastermind.  By the end of the final series he’s done some truly appalling things but when he’s finally portrayed as a monster unmasked you feel his sense of injustice at it because each step along the path has been natural, believable, even inevitable, his righteous motives of providing for his family after his death mutating by deft degrees into greed, ambition, self-preservation and a driving desire to win by any means necessary, the nature of the show changing with him to cover new ground, a grander scale, and an ever darkening moral climate.

The  style undoubtedly developed over the course of the five series run, and became something truly exceptional I think.  It often seems understated because what the camera is pointing at is so humdrum, banal, routine.  There are long pauses, endless silences, in the desert of New Mexico, and in the deserts of the character’s emotional lives.  Wide shots are sometimes left punishingly long (often the mark of great editing is not intricate cutting, but the confidence to let one shot breathe).  There are strange, unsettling angles, weird fish eyes and points of view taken of smoke, equipment, cameras, faces looming disconcertingly into shot, distorted, monstrous.  There are concentrations on odd details, ultra close-ups, recurrent motifs that in some way encapsulate the message or theme of a given episode.  There are frequent glimpses of the past, reinterpreted with hindsight, and hints of what is to come whose horrible significance only becomes clear with time.  There are occasional barn-storming grandstand sequences, like the one in which ten witnesses are murdered in prison within two minutes to the merciless ticking of Walt’s lovely new watch, the use of sound reminding me of a classic sequence from John Boorman’s Point Blank, in which tension builds to the tapping of Lee Marvin’s shoes as he strides implacably to a reckoning.  Sometimes the visual inventiveness is far quieter – a brilliant moment in the final episode when Walt’s wife Skyla, sitting in her kitchen in static wide shot near a faux wood clad pillar, receives a phone call warning her that Walt might be on the way.  You begin to suspect that Walt is in fact already in the house.  In a more typical show he might have stepped out of a doorway or moved into shot as his wife put the phone down.  Here the camera begins to crawl inexorably forward, so that Walt is revealed, behind the pillar, as having been standing in the middle of the room the whole time.  

But, as with any great tv, or film, or books, it’s the characters that really make it.  The acting, and the writing, is great throughout.  It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t convince.  Walt overcomes a raft of psychos, thugs and gangsters through his ill-starred criminal career, but his most dangerous and memorable antagonists – Fring, Mike, Jessie at various times and in various ways and finally, awfully, inevitably, Hank – are all fully realised people, often admirable in their own ways, usually considerably more sympathetic than is Walt himself.  Walt is at times truly loathsome – small, vicious, selfish, manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious – and yet he remains human right to the end.  Indeed there is a kind of redemption in his desperate attempts to hold things together that his own actions have irrevocably blown apart.  He retains our sympathy because he remains utterly believable as a person, despite the fact he has done unforgivable things, then worse, then worse.

A masterpiece.

The Walking Dead Season 3

Posted on January 8th, 2014 in film and tv

I like the fundamentals of the Walking Dead a lot (zombies and extreme cynicism, what’s not to like?) but found the 2nd season, though enjoyable, not without its considerable flaws, chiefly some annoying characters, some treading of water, and a lot of attempts to squeeze drama from extreme stupid.  I’m pleased to say they cut out the dead wood, brought in some strong new characters, and amped up the tension considerably for a largely gripping 3rd season as the Andrew Lincoln-led survivors – leaner, meaner, more hardened, and with ever-dwindling reserves of humanity – take refuge in a zombie-infested prison and come into deadly conflict with the nearby town of Woodberry and its sinister Governor (a chilling performance from David Morrissey).  The dead are less and less the true danger, but the living always to be feared.

There’s still a slightly stagey sense about things – action mostly occurs in a couple of distinct locations with a lot of non-specific woods in between – but those locations have become bigger and more interesting than last season’s farm, at least.  The technicalities of zombification, and why some areas remain dramatically empty, others dramatically infested, are perhaps not best thought about too closely.  But they don’t make Battlestar Galactica’s mistake (or at least haven’t yet) of trying to explain what’s better left as the unexplainable threat, and instead concentrate on the effect on the characters of the constant pressure to survive.

Some of the weaker cast members (including one I thought would be with us for the long haul) are quickly and ruthlessly purged, and a lot of the stupid behaviour has been purged with them, the whole made tougher and more believable as a result.  There’s a welcome return for redneck troublemaker Merle and a great addition in emotionally stunted neo-samurai Michonne.  Some of Andrew Lincoln’s moral quandaries do feel somewhat contrived (if your struggle is between a realistic option and a moral one your realistic option has got to actually make sense), but in general the show is admirably hard-headed, unpredictable, unsentimental, and savage with its cast and audience.

 

 

2013 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2013 in film and tv, games, opinion, process, progress, reading, reviews

Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE.  Three cheers, anyone?

Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today.  It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001.  Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe.  Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer…  An interesting year this has been.  Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.

Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain.  No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women.  The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now.  Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever.  Which is nice.  I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail.  I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here.  It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end.  Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time.  I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories.  Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…

BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom.  Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity.  I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth.  Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back.  Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher.  Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…

TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days.  Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January.  Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me.  I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much.  Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep.  Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way.  Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching.  The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE.  Ah, well.  TV was a great deal more promising.  Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start.  Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising.  Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series.  Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock.  The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing.  The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned.  Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more.  Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6.  I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to.  Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights.  You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions.  Brilliant Stuff.  I’m tearing up again!  Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man!  Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year.  Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative.  The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines.  For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls.  Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it.  The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time.  In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.

BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to.  Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more.  It seems more honest in the main.  I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics.  Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…

CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument.  There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer.  That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year.  I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…

Happy new year, readers!

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

Posted on December 28th, 2013 in film and tv

Well, overall a pretty entertaining way to spend an afternoon at the cinema, and a good deal better than An Unexpected Journey, I would say, which I found pretty disappointing about this time last year.  This second two and a half hour instalment has some great sequences, some good performances and a stupendous Smaug, but follows a pretty similar formula, namely taking the bare bones of Tolkien’s really quite slight original and bloating them up, steroid-popping bodybuilder style, to twelve times their original size, losing their charm and personality along the way and replacing them with MASSIVE SPECTACLE to rival the MASSIVE SPECTACLE which was PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.  Hand me the script pump, cause we’ve got us some serious inflating to do.  Things scarcely alluded to in the text are laid out before us in ponderous and often rather unconvincing detail.  Sometimes with bird poo in their hair.  MASSIVE BIRD POO.  New characters are tossed cavalierly into the mix and familiar ones are backstorified like there’s no front story to worry about.  Every trip or minor scare becomes a lengthy CGI-heavy action interlude.  And everything is made TWICE DOUBLE AS HUMONGOUS AS IT WAS IN PETER JACKSON’S TOWERING ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.

I must confess, though, the additions, though probably a good deal more offensive to the purist than last time, were at least a great deal less tedious, sometimes even quite sensible.  The introduction of ass-kicking elf-maiden Tauriel and her attendant elf/dwarf love triangle could have been cringingly bad, but actually I didn’t mind it, and if you’re going to go off-piste, then adding maybe a female character or two in the entire world is not a bad thing to do to the Hobbit.  Additional time with Thranduil and Bard was well spent.  There also seemed to be a bit more sense made of the Arkenstone, Thorin’s hunger for it, and Bilbo’s decision not to give it to him.  A suicidal trip by Gandalf to find out something he was 99% sure of already made absolutely no sense and was totally pointless, mind you.  The design was predictably brilliant, one would have to say, though Beorn looked a bit weird, didn’t he?  And what about those prosthetic dwarf hands?  In mid shot the dwarves would all be standing about rather awkwardly looking as if they had hairy pink washing up gloves on.

What I found a lot more peculiar than the additions were the subtractions.  You’d think, with so little material to work with and so much time to fill, they’d damn well clutch every straw Tolkien wrote for them.  But gone was the black stream in Mirkwood, gone was Gandalf’s trick of introducing the dwarves to Beorn two by two, gone were a lot of the subtleties.  In their place we got ACTION.  ACTION TO RIVAL THE TOWERING ACTION OF PETER JACKSON’S ACTIVE ADAPTATION OF LORD OF THE RINGS.  It really didn’t rival Lord of the Rings, though.  Generally there was way too much CGI for my taste, and the action had lost any sense of shock, impact and danger, often it was pretty hard to really follow what was going on with the plunging camera angles and writhing CGId heroes.  The barrel ride became an interminable white water barrel-themed fight with super-graceful hopping elves and roley-poley funny dwarves getting the best of what struck me as not very well CGId Orcish Hordes.  Then we had the weighty additions of an interminable fight between super-graceful hopping elves and not very well CGId Orcish Hordes on the rooftops of Laketown which I must have missed last time I read the book, and an even lengthier fight between roley-poley funny dwarves and a brilliantly voiced and CGId dragon, with the forges of Erebor re-imagined as a gigantic theme-park ride which I definitely missed in the book, and which ended inexplicably with Smaug deciding to leave the dwarves in possession of the mountain and flapping off to Laketown.  A MASSIVE DRAGON FLYING AT A MASSIVE LAKETOWN TO RIVAL THE MASSIVENESS OF ETC. ETC.

Everything was outsize.  Smaug’s hoard has become a veritable mountain under the mountain.  I mean that dragon really has got himself A METRIC MOTHERFUCKTON OF GOLD DOWN THERE.  Dol Guldur ain’t so much a ruined tower as A SPRAWLING RUINED SORCEROUS ULTRA-CITY full of skulls and spikes and crumbly bridges and cages from Evil Wizards r Us that leaves you wondering why Sauron chose to downsize to Barad Dur.  Bard’s Black Arrow, rather than being, you know, an arrow, is THE LAST GIANT RIFLING HARPOON TALLER THAN A MAN which has to be shot not from, you know, a bow, but from THE LAST OF THE GIANT DWARVEN FOUR-ARMED MEGA BALLISTAS ON TOP OF A HUGE TOWER.  One scratches one’s head because, quaint though this may sound, bigger really isn’t always better.  The best moments were often the small things – Thorin’s profile matched against the great stone profile of his grandfather’s statue as he says he’s nothing like his grandfather, Thranduil getting all tetchy and elven-weird in his tree-root halls, or the nimble details of Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo which might actually have worked even better if the hoard behind him was, I dunno, just the size of a large hill.  Everything was made EPIC.  Rather than just following Bilbo, and when people leave him, letting them go, we followed Thranduil after we left the elf kingdom, followed Fili and Kili when they were left behind in Laketown, followed Gandalf on his ridiculous one man expedition into Dol Guldur.  Loads of weighty strands all going on at the same time?  That’s not really the Hobbit, that’s Lord of the Rings.

Look, it’s better than the last film.  Look, it’s a fun way to pass an afternoon.  Look, it has some wonderful design, and some great visual ideas, and some pretty creditable performances.  But it’s not very memorable.  It doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  A childish tale of fun with the funny dwarves and their naturalistic charming hobbit companion?  A weighty and pompous prequel Lord of the Rings doesn’t need?  A stirring action adventure with a short leading man?  In the end what I loved about Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings was that, in spite of what he cut and what he added, in spite of the small liberties and the amped-up action, he somehow achieved the alchemical balancing act of making the films feel like The Lord of the Rings.  What I don’t like about Jackson’s adaptations of the Hobbit is that they just don’t feel like The Hobbit.

AT ALL.

Recent TV

Posted on December 23rd, 2013 in film and tv

Long time since I went over my telly watching, particularly considering how much telly I watch.  What have we seen of late?

The Killing Season 3: Hmmmm. The first season of this Danish procedural was great, the second pretty good, with the obsessive personality of Sarah Lund, the central character, always the backbone.  But it always did suffer slightly from spinning the wheels too long, sending you off down different blind alleys endlessly until you reached the point where no outcome was really surprising.  With this final series they managed to come up with a surprising ending, alright, but not in a good way. It worked well enough up until the final 10 minutes, at which point everyone suddenly behaved in a completely bizarre manner, utterly out of character, to create one of the most frustrating and disappointing non-endings I’ve ever seen on a series…

Borgen Season 3: More from the Danes, this time a third season of West Wing style political hijinks.  They change things up admirably this time around, with central character Birgitte Nyborg suddenly out of power and facing a whole new set of challenges in her attempts to get back in.  Some occasionally obvious outcomes, some sub-plots that work better than others, but generally there are strong characters and performances throughout, and rarely any simple answers.  During its run the West Wing seemed to become more and more absurdly idealistic, deviating further and further from what was actually going on in american politics at the time.  Borgen is all about the centre ground – about deals, about compromises, about grey areas – and it’s all the stronger for it.

Hell on Wheels Seasons 1 and 2: I was expecting this slightly offbeat western series, centring on an ex-confederate soldier who gets caught up in the violence and politics surrounding the attempt to link the east and west coasts by rail to be, well, a bit shit. But actually it’s pretty good, on the whole. Colm Meaney is always reliable as the scheming tycoon in charge, and a chilling turn from Christopher Heyerdahl as his nutcase sidekick the Swede. Not every character, subplot or, indeed, accent, is equally compelling, but once you’ve accepted that it ain’t no Deadwood it bangs along pretty nicely, with some snappy dialogue and philosophical digressions along the way.  Looking forward to the next season, and I hear it’s already been renewed for a fourth.

Grey’s Anatomy Season 3,261: I don’t watch it, but my wife assures me it goes from strength to strength…