Monday, 29 December 2014

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 1)

So in a sense I'm only doing this because I did one last year, and in another sense the fact that I did it last year means that a part of my brain has been planning this post for the entire last twelve months.  Which makes it particularly disappointing that 2014 has been, well, ever so slightly disappointing.

Now I hasten to admit that there are some major and not so major releases I've yet to catch, and it's possible the film that would otherwise have been my number one was among them.  I mean, there's a chance that The Hobbit Part 27 will turn out to be the classic that the first however-many chunks lumberingly failed to be (it won't) and that Under the Skin was the best Science-Fiction movie that I failed to catch (it just might.)  Therefore I make no bones about the fact that the following is completely personal and largely arbitrary.  Heck, I celebrate it.  That may even be the point!

Also, due to the fact that this post has got so wildly out of control that it's making Blogger creak, I'm splitting it into two parts...

10)  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1

Oh how I wanted to love The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1, and oh how hard the crass, money-grabbing decision to split one book needlessly into two movies made it, and then oh how confused that left my feelings when I got to the closing credits and realised that almost everything I genuinely did love in the movie was a direct result of that undeniably wrong-headed decision. 

Because if you once get past the fact that Mockingjay Pt 1 is a film whose primary reason for existing is to set up another film containing all of the actual events that should have been in this one, there's an awful lot to like.  Its enforced slow pace makes it feel almost like a director's cut of another, shallower movie, padded with functionally superfluous but visually and emotionally thrilling odds and ends, and the subjects it dwells heavily upon - the nature of grief, propaganda, the impossible moral conundrums of conflict and social upheaval - are as far from the stuff of usual Hollywood fare as you could hope to get.  Mockingjay, Pt 2 will no doubt get all of the things happening that were missing from Pt 1, and will likely be objectively better for it, but it's hard to imagine it being quite this odd and interesting.

9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

 My hopes for having Singer back on the X-Men franchise - X-Men 2 remains perhaps my favourite superhero movie of all time - were tempered by the fact that he just hasn't been making particularly great movies of late.  And sure enough, Days of Future Past turned out to be neither as wonderful as I'd hoped nor as lousy as I'd feared: infinitely superior to the aptly named and almost franchise-killing X-Men: The Last Stand, a touch ahead of First Class, about a thousand times better than Singer's half-baked Jack the Giant Slayer, and yet still undeniably a letdown.

In the end, though, Singer's direction proved to be neither Days of Future Past's salvation nor its major failing, as it ended up being a good and solidly fashioned film about characters that the franchise has already explored to death - in a couple of cases, literally.  It's impossible to imagine how this wouldn't have been more interesting had it followed the comics in having Kitty Pryde as its time-traveling protagonist and left Wolverine to sit one out; likewise, even with four of my favourite actors playing them, the Professor X / Magneto storyline is surely about tapped out by now.

Nevertheless, 2014 was the year that the X-Men franchise finally got back on track and retconned its greatest failing* out of existence, and for that I'm all sorts of grateful.

8) Godzilla

On paper this was very nearly as dumb and futile as every other attempt by Hollywood to repackage and Americanise another nation's beloved intellectual property.  Read in synopsis, its plot is all sorts of lazy and culturally imperialistic and by-the-book. And perhaps it's only my huge affection for his debut Monsters making me say this, but I can't help feeling that the only thing stopping it from being all of that was the presence of Gareth Edwards behind the wheel.

It seems to me that there are basically two ways you can go with a tentpole giant monster movie: either you take the route favoured by Pacific Rim and show off your monsters as much as you possibly can, or you pretend like all those other giant monster movies never happened and approach your subject with the sense of awe and terror that a 350 foot tall radioactive lizard would really inspire.  Both approaches make sense, but given that we already have Pacific Rim, I'm glad that Edwards' chose the path he did.  Because for me, despite its leaden script, despite its rote plot, that earns the new Godzilla its place at the table: I've never seen a film, perhaps excepting Monsters, that conveyed so determinedly the sense of teeny, tiny human beings facing off against a threat of plain unimaginable scale.

Still, that's really only a trick that you can pull off the once.  So Godzilla 2?  Maybe a bit more of the giant monsters punching each other.

7) Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow, you came so close to being the best Science Fiction movie of the year.  You were tremendous fun, you were smart, you were slick and shiny and exciting and you had some excellent action sequences, two great leads playing entertainingly against type, and getting past that whole "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" thing you were surprisingly novel.  So why did you have to blow it all in the last twenty minutes, huh?  If ever there was a film that cried out to not have a traditional Hollywood action movie ending, with a traditional Hollywood idiotic last minute "twist", it was this one.

On a side note: it still sure as hell didn't deserve to flop.  As long as people keep not going to see films like this, Michael Bay is going to keep making Transformers movies.  Is that the world you want to live in?  Responsible film-goers, only you can save mankind.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy

There's not much to be added about how great Guardians of the Galaxy is, is there?  It won almost everyone over, critics and audiences alike, proved that Marvel can basically make films about whatever the hell characters they like and people will pay to see them - my long dreamed-of Moon Knight movie draws one step closer! - and made a sex symbol out of Andy Dwyer, which is just never going to stop being weird.

So why aren't I rating it higher?  Well, mostly for personal and nitpicking reasons, it has to be said.  I'm one of those people who think Star Wars was an entertaining popcorn movie that killed off the greatest period of Sci-fi film-making ever seen, so my affection for this sort of bubblegum space opera is always going to be a touch muted.  I find it all a bit low stakes by the end, and unnecessarily so; who would really have cared if, say, Xandar had been exploded?  I'm growing entirely bored with Marvel movies that end with either spaceships or helicarriers crashing into the ground and / or buildings; that is just not a versatile enough formula that you can use it to end every single movie.  And a strange criticism but one that I couldn't shake on a second viewing: there's nothing anywhere in the film as powerful as that gut punch of an opening sequence, and in my imagination there's a version of GotG that somehow manages to carry those emotional stakes through to its end, and it's a masterpiece for the ages.

But hey, let's end on a positive, shall we?  I can't think of another film this year with such a flawless opening quarter of an hour, and for sheer, unadulterated fun this was surely the highlight of 2014.

Right, that's it for Part 1.  Yeah, all of those words and we're still only at the half way point.  Can you tell I've over-thought this?  Check back in a couple of days for the final five...

* Actually I'd argue that X- Men Origins: Wolverine is an even worse film than The Last Stand, but hey, that's also now out of continuity as well, right?  Bonus points, Mr Singer!**

** Although presumably X-Men and X-Men 2 are also now defunct.  Aargh, time travel paradoxes!  Damn you, Singer, I think maybe.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Research Corner #8: Medievalism

This is a sad thing to admit in public, but one of my big regrets in life is that I dropped History in favour of English Literature in my first year of university.  To this day I have no idea why I did it, because I find History fascinating and studying English Literature just gave me an enormous inferiority complex that put me off writing my own work for years.

Point being, it's been weirdly thrilling to become an amateur historian this year, sort of an insight into a life not lived, and it's been great too to be learning stuff again; how weird that that's become a privilege rather than an obligation!  On the other hand, that isn't exactly to say that it's been easy.  And perhaps the most difficult thing so far in researching next novel White Thorne is that I don't yet have enough of a plot worked out to know exactly what I should be researching.  Unlike pretty much everything else I've written, White Thorne began with a character - a young witch in the late Middle Ages forced to turn her abilities to solving a murder - and has spiraled from there. 

This may sound like a crazy way of writing a book, and a year ago I'd have probably agreed.  Hell, I'd probably agree right now.  Nevertheless it's what I'm doing, and I'd hesitantly call it a success so far, in that a plot is slowly taking form out of the murk.  On the other hand, I've pushed back my start date by two months to accommodate, so perhaps this isn't a method I'll be quick to pursue again.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that it's taken me down some unusual avenues.  Here are just a few...

Dreaming the Middle Ages by Steven F. Kruger

That should be an interesting subject, right?  I mean, dreams are interesting.  The Middle Ages are interesting.  So probably people in the Middle Ages had some wacky dreams that would be good for an anecdote or two down the tavern?

Well, maybe, but if they ever existed then this book would want nothing to do with them.  If two people told this book about their dreams, and one of them dreamed about being kidnapped by ninja pterodactyls and the other one dreamed about doing their accounts on a wet Tuesday, it sure as hell wouldn't be the ninja pterodactyl dream that made it in.  This, in short, was my wake up call that a lot of what I'd be reading would be really goddamn dull.  Dreaming in the Middle Ages?  Sliding into a coma while you read about dreaming in the Middle Ages, more like.

Oh, and if you fancy a copy in hardback it'll set you back £90.  One other thing I'm learning as an amateur historian ... academic history books are a rip-off.*

The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg

Conversely, this doesn't at all sound like an interesting subject and turned out to be really good.  Landsberg is more than usually passionate about the practicalities of her subject, digging deep into just why and how medieval horticulture must have worked, probably because she's been involved in recreating medieval gardens herself - something the book explores in depth towards its end.

Another thing I'm learning is that coming at the period from oblique angles like this, or looking at it through the lenses of very specialized topics, can be more revealing than trying to get a sense through more generalized text books.  Oh course, that was my thinking with Dreaming in the Middle Ages too, so maybe it's not going to work out so well every time...

Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History by Owen Davies

I'm pretty certain I'd read this before, as research for my MA dissertation, which was on the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, (hence, I guess, a large part of why I'm now planning a novel with a witch as the protagonist.)  Anyway, I remember because, coming back to it, I was annoyed and frustrated by all of the same things that annoyed and frustrated me the first time round.

Witchcraft is a fascinating subject, and a surprisingly under-researched one, and Davies spends his entire book coming tantalizingly close to saying truly interesting things - before either shying away or tripping himself up by being a monumental pedant.  Most exasperating for me was the lengthy section where he dismisses connections between English cunning-folk and European shamanism because the former don't meet his crazy-restrictive definition of the latter.  (Basically ... they can't be shamans!  They don't play drums!)  But the whole book, really, suffers from the same flaw: it's the story of a whole lot of phenomena that don't conform to what Davies has decided cunning-folk were and a very few that do.

All of that said, this would probably be massively eye-opening if you didn't know much about the subject of English witchcraft, and there's no getting around the fact that it was a revolutionary text when it came out.  So, as much as it personally wound me up, I guess I find myself still recommending it.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone.  Of everything I've read so far, this was surely written with exactly me in mind.  When I was studying History there were signs of a trend towards focusing on how actual people actually lived rather than the bleak, narrativeless, traditional approach, which tells you about as much about people's day to day existence as a spreadsheet would.  Based on what I've read so far, I'm not sure what happened to that, but at least Ian Mortimer took it to heart.

So, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England has a fair go at doing exactly what it claims to do: it pretends that you the reader have gone back in time and then does its very best to prepare you for that (frankly, horrible) experience.  And if Mortimer doesn't quite pull that nigh-impossible goal off perfectly, he at least does a very good job.  As such, if you write European-modeled Fantasy, or are at all interested in how other human beings have lived in other times, then this is surely a must-read.  It's fascinating stuff, and as entertaining as any History book you're ever likely to come across.

* This being where library's come in useful.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

How To Make Lulu Work For You

And no, I don't mean the singer.  Because honestly, that would be a whole 'nother post, and if I knew how to bend aging former celebrities to my will like that then you can be sure I wouldn't be wasting my time with this writing lark.
Not likely to work for either of us ever.

No, the Lulu I'm talking about is the Print On Demand service.  You know, the one that's not CreateSpace.  The one that I sort of get the impression no one uses much anymore, and that I'm probably only still using out of habit.  Still, that stubborn refusal to explore alternatives despite the fact that Lulu frequently makes me want to strangle myself (again, the POD service rather than the singer.  Although...) has meant that I've managed to get quite a good handle on how to make the most of it.

I should say at this point that what I use Lulu for is mocking up copies of my early drafts of novels, because I don't much like proof-reading from electronic copies and I know a lot of other people don't either - and because there's a certain psychological benefit to having your book-to-be in a form that makes it look and feel like a book when you're trying to hammer it into a book-like shape.  So my emphasis has been on making something readable and cheap, although a couple of disastrous early attempts have had me lean a little towards aesthetically pleasing too.  The main point, though, is that I wouldn't have a clue how to use Lulu to self-publish, although my experiences so far have made me wonder if such a thing would be feasible; I think I've bashed down the costs about as far as they'll go and it still isn't exactly cheap.

Probably not the final cover.
So anyway, the book that I just Lulued was Degenerates, this year's novel number two, which I finished in first draft at the end of October.  I chose Digest from under the Value options, which gives a book 13.97 by 21.59 cm, a ratio somewhat wider and taller than the average paperback but that nevertheless produces something looking and feeling very much like a proper book.  Degenerates, at a whopping 470 pages, came out at £6.25 a copy, which was about acceptable for my purposes; but you see my point about how this might not work for self-publishing.  Because that £6.25 is before P&P, and boy are Lulu's P&P charges on the preposterous side.   With that in mind, be careful to opt for the cheapest option; Lulu will try and convince you that this means your books will turn up in about four years time, but in my experience this is a fib.

A few other thoughts.  If you're planning on doing something similar to what I'm doing, make sure to set your project to "make available only to me" on the first page of options, otherwise you may end up with complete strangers reading your draft novel.  Unless you're ready to create your own cover from scratch, Lulu's cover designer is very much on the rubbish side, and it's exceedingly fussy about the quality of images it will accept; I've gotten around this by using the fantastic and free IrfanView to crank up the resolution and dpi.  Oh, and something I probably shouldn't mention but will anyway: it's very easy to find money off coupon codes for Lulu, which they appear to give out like candy, and they don't seem terribly bothered when you misuse (or reuse) them.  Five minutes of hunting will probably save you at least 15% off your blatantly over-priced order.  Lastly, something I plan to experiment with when I have the time is the options to create an e-book; since Lulu appears not to charge for this and their software sounds quite robust, it might well prove a straightforward and cost-free option.

Those, then, are my experiences of trying to bend Lulu to one specific task.  Has anyone out there found ways to drum that price down even further that I'm missing?  And am I wasting time anyway?  Should I have moved over to CreateSpace long ago, or are there other, better options that I'm not even aware of?