Category Archives: Reviews

George A. Romero’s Living Dead Legacy

“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
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Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
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Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero turned what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
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The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as the humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
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Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
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“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
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So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
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Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
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1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
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The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
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(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier, “Shoot Burt Reynolds!, and tighter.)
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Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
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Romero with writer Stephen King

 

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Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.

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“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
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Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
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A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
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By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.
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Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Trainspotting 2 & The Return of 90s Culture

The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.

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One of the gang. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.

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Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.

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It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).

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Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…

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Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.

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It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.

I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.

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Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.

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If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

5-Star Vampires

The latest 5-star review of my novel  # hails it “a classic in the vampire genre” with “incredible imagination.” Get it here and see for yourself; getBook.at/TheVorbingAmazon

R.I.P. David Bowie: From Space Oddity to BlackStar

David Bowie died of cancer yesterday aged 69. I’d like to pay tribute to him in some way.

Where on earth do you start with the legend that was and is David Bowie? You don’t, as he was not of this earth. His first hit was “Space Oddity” in 1969. At a time when people were writing hippy-dippy songs, Bowie was thinking of space travel and the future. Nobody else was doing what he was doing musically at the time. He truly was a visionary.

Despite that first hit, he struggled in the very early 70s to find another one. When he hit upon the persona of Ziggy Stardust, his fame exploded. “I’m going to be huge,” he said in 1972, “and it’s quite frightening in a way.” He went on to dominate the 70s the way Dylan had the 1960s. I can’t think of another performer who challenged himself and his audience as Bowie did, drastically deconstructing every successful look and sound and rebooting it with the next album. Something was popular? BOOM! He’d moved on to something else. Oh, you like that now? POW! He did it again. (Bowie said the one thing he hated journalists saying was: “You’re a chameleon that’s always ch-ch-changing.”) In an age of one-hit-wonder X-Factor wannabes, he looks even more of giant.

Nicolas Cage: “You have to stay uncomfortable. I learned that from David Bowie. I said, ‘How do you do it? How do you keep reinventing yourself?’ He said, ‘I just never got comfortable with anything I was doing.’ I knew those were words of wisdom from a great artist and I took those words seriously.”

My favourite Bowie story is the time he went to see Elvis Presley perform at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Bowie arrived late to his front row seat in full Ziggy Stardust gear as Elvis and the band were powering into “Proud Mary.” “He must have thought Mary had arrived,” Bowie joked. Yes, he was weird and wonderful, but people forget how funny he could be. (Just check out his “Chubby Little Loser” song from Extras with Ricky Gervais)

This is how he recalled writing the classic Life On Mars: “I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”

Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest performance of all-time at Live Aid. Bowie had to go on after them and he was still magnificent. That’s a true testament to how good he was.

Bowie At Live Aid

It’s a cliche to say when someone famous dies that there will never be another like them again but it’s true in Bowie’s case. Not just because of his groundbreaking, daring abilities but also because the music business he became a superstar in during the 1970’s just doesn’t exist anymore. Albums were king then but not now with music sales dropping. Live touring is where the money is. If Bowie was starting out today, he would never be given the time or creative space to develop even one of his personas let alone the many he did (can you imagine One Direction ever tampering with their smash-hit formula as drastically as Bowie did even once? Nope, neither can I.) Nor would Bowie be given a chance to come back from less successful albums. Presently, if you’re not an instant success, you get dropped by your record label. The patience of executives and their belief in the artist is gone. Young Bowie in this world would have to lower himself to entering reality talent contests like X-Factor or American Idol where his baritone wouldn’t be appreciated. He would probably be eliminated early in favour of the glass-shattering screamers who tend to win. I can’t see how Bowie or anyone else could have a 47-year musical career starting in  2016. It’s all about making a quick buck and moving on to the next teeny-bopper sensation before the kids get bored.

“Who wants to drag their old decaying frame around until they’re 90 just to assert their ego? I don’t,” he said in 1977. He didn’t, he left us at 69 with a staggering, diverse body of work. Hard to believe one man came up with all that but he did. The world was lucky to have him as long as we did. Go, David, fly Starman beyond the bounds of time and space to your true place in the Heavens.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

 

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens

“It is a time of sacrifice…good and bad.”

This is the first sequel in the Star Wars franchise in 32 years. A long time ago in an era far, far away.

The First Order, the new Empire, is set up awfully fast in The Force Awakens. The last time we saw the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi, it was defeated and destroyed. Here, somehow, it is at full strength again and even has Star Destroyers and a battle station that dwarfs the Death Star. I think the writers have missed an opportunity to show The First Order as underdog fanatics plotting to overthrow the New Republic in a patient build-up. But nope, we get one line that they have risen from the ashes of the Empire and, that’s it, they’re back, just like that.

The writing is shorn of George Lucas’s interest in diplomacy. For all his flaws, Lucas always grounded the Star Wars movies in a political context. He was very interested in how the states he had created operated. Granted, in the prequels there was far too much talky politics that bogged the movies down in clunky exposition (taxation anyone?). The new script sacrifices depth for pace, humour and a lightness of touch that is reminiscent of A New Hope. The pulling back from full-on CGI aids the realism too.

Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back returns as co- writer here, but The Force Awakens is nowhere near as good as that masterpiece. There were so many great lines in the original trilogy “The force will be with you…always,” “I am your Father” and “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Some of them are repeated in The Force Awakens but there is nothing new to challenge the old lines. That is a pity. (In the age of the instantaneous internet, could the “I am your father” moment be kept secret now? I doubt it. I accidentally saw a major spoiler for The Force Awakens while typing in a hashtag on Twitter.)

Michael Arndt gives lectures on the original trilogy and wrote the first draft of The Force Awakens script. Perhaps he’s great at analysing why Star Wars works but not so great at creating something new. The script is okay, nothing more (there is a nice riff on the father/son theme that runs through every Star Wars movie and Han Solo finally accepting The Force as being true is a nice payoff to his “hokey religion” dismissal in 1977).

Harrison Ford brings weary charisma and some much-needed gravitas to the film in reprising his old scoundrel Han Solo. He’s given some better lines and more to do than in Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but, just as in that film, the older stars are shoved aside in favour of the newcomers who aren’t that interesting.

Carrie Fisher looks like she’s been at the Botox. The only parts of her face she can move are her lips and even that’s a struggle. It doesn’t look like her and it is a shock seeing her as a shrunken old woman.

We know Daisy Ridley is miscast in the lead role. We know because J.J. Abrams told her on set that her acting was “wooden.” If you’ve cast someone that can’t act in the lead role of the biggest franchise in film history, you’ve hired the wrong person. Ms Ridley compensates by overacting horribly, shouting every line with her eyes as wide as possible. She runs (a lot) and cries (a lot). Apart from that, the jury is still out on her. Then again, Star Wars has a history of not-great acting, so she’s probably keeping up a great tradition.

Muhammad Ali-lookalike, John Boyega, took some criticism in early reviews, but I actually thought he had good comic timing, the audience liked him and he even struck up a buddy rapport with old grumpy pants himself, Harrison Ford. Let’s hope we see more of him in the sequels and spin-offs, he’s the best of the new breed.

John Williams returns to score the picture and it’s okay, nothing as unforgettable as Vader’s Theme from Empire. Darth Vader himself is, for me, the greatest villain in movie history and he is sorely missed. Vader choked people to death by breaking their necks if they defied him. Whereas new baddie Kylo Ren takes his frustration out by incinerating inanimate objects with his lightsaber to keep the rating kiddie-friendly. There’s also some predictable PC casting. Everything that was white and male before now has to be rebooted as female, ethnic and/or LGBT (we’re getting an all-female Ghostbusters reboot and possibly a black James Bond in the future.)

The Force Awakens isn’t as good as I thought it was going to be and I doubt it will stand up to repeat reviewing as the original trilogy did but it is perhaps the best that can be expected now George Lucas has bailed out on his film company. It will no doubt break box office records. No film could probably live up to the hype anyway. It is good to have Star Wars back in whatever form it’s in (I think I know the big plot twist in the next movie too but I won’t spoil it for you, dear reader.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved. (Star Wars ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

 

The Segregation of Shock

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness” – Pablo Picasso

I have written a fantasy/horror novel about war with vampires called The Vorbing. It is hard to deal with either of those subjects without dealing with bloodshed. Yet, I have discovered, to my great surprise, that there is discrimination by book reviewers against books with “gore” (which they find “tacky” and on the same level as porn) and “extreme violence” (which they find “offensive.” That’s strange as fiction isn’t about real pain or suffering so there’s nothing to be offended by. It’s all make believe). They had better not read The Bible then or anything by Shakespeare.

In Act III, Scene VII of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the elderly Earl of Gloucester has his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall with the words: “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?” Pretty graphic stuff but it perfectly illustrates the upside down nature of Lear’s kingdom once he mistakenly divides it up between his three daughters.

The crucifixion of Jesus in The Bible also has scenes of graphic torture followed by the slow death of Christ that follows. Again, this is deliberate to make the reader or the listener in church live every wound with Christ as he dies for our sins (or so The Bible says, believe or don’t believe what you want, dear readers).

Where did this ludicrous squeamishness appear from suddenly? Why are books being prejudged for their content without being given a fair chance?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the old adage goes. Equally, don’t judge a book by its content until you’ve read it. If you dare to write extreme scenes, you are essentially barred from getting not just a fair review but ANY review. This is wrong on all levels. It is holding back writers that want to try new things and push boundaries. You don’t get great art by playing it safe but that is the message being sent out loud and clear by these reviewers. Conform and be unimaginative is their coda.

It is a form of censorship and all that entails (I always get images of Nazi book-burning in my head when I think of censorship) My old acting teacher told me never to censor myself as that’s when all the good stuff happens. She was and is right. I never have censored myself and I never will. Nor will I allow others to censor me either. The glorious freedom of writing is a beautiful thing that must never be stifled.

I am not saying be outrageous or controversial for the sake of it. That is petulant attention-seeking. Some writers are acutely aware that there are two ways to get your message out there – advertising (which costs money) and publicity (which is free). Being cynically controversial is the cheapest and fastest way to sell anything. The media and chattering classes see to that. I am saying take risks because your characters and their world take you there or demand that you do. Even if these lily-livered reviewers want you to water down your work, I say don’t. Why? I’ll give Shakespeare the final word: “To thine own self be true.” Amen.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

In Pursuit of the Mighty Whoosh: The 21st Century Writer

Being a writer in the 21st century is like being the driver of a very jerkily-driven vehicle. You’ve dreamt up ideas, written them, shaped them, rewritten and edited them and published them. Then you have to switch hats and sell your work. Now you find yourself measuring your book’s merit and your own self-worth by reviews, ratings, rankings, likes, shares, follows, analytics and sales. If they rise, your confidence rockets with them. If they mysteriously drop, you become frozen with doubt. You can control your writing up to a point. After that, it’s up to readers, reviewers and bloggers to spread the word. You can’t make people buy something they don’t want no matter what social marketing gurus say (who are biased witnesses involved in the hard sell).

It is healthy to get away from that draining stuff for a while. Major writers have people to handle sales of their work. They have agents, managers and the might of publishing houses behind them with their huge advertising budgets and key media contacts. Self-published writers only have themselves and their savings to rely on. That only goes so far unless they have great connections or access to bigger sums of money. If not, they may have to accept defeat on their beloved project when the cash runs out.

Some people say make your own luck but if everyone could do that, we’d all be successful. Life is never that simple or easy. Luck is mostly being in the right place at the right time. The wind catches your sails and whoosh, you’re off. Nobody can plan for that. It just happens. Word of mouth is another way. A neglected work slowly begins to pick up. Sales rise, reviews become more plentiful and positive and you’ve caught the Mighty Whoosh again.

Being an author now is a marathon, not a sprint. The idea that you could hit the send button, publish your book and it would become an instant bestseller really is a fantasy. It will take many months, if not years, to build up a loyal readership and a solid body of work. There is even the possibility of posthumous recognition Van Gogh-style. To become rich and famous when you’re no longer around to enjoy it would be cruel but better late than never. At least your heirs may benefit from your delayed Mighty Whoosh.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.