Why I Review Books and Films (among other things)

Cookbook HelixThere are millions of reviewers out there, all typing out their opinion on whether a book or a movie is any good. And people want to read them because they are wondering if that book or that movie is in fact worth their time. The quality of these reviews differs greatly. But the questions, is it any good, and, what is it about? are what most of these reviewers are writing about.

But I’m not like these reviewers. I am not like them because I am reviewing for a different reason. So if you are reading for a different reason too, then you’re in the right place.

My reviews are short studies of how a story is told, how it is written and why the writer wrote it the way they did. I am doing this because I am an autodidact and I am teaching myself how to be the best writer I can be.

Do you want to know how good writers become great writers? They study. Hard. Some do it as part of a formal eduction. Some others do it without realizing they are doing it.  And some, like me, self-teach knowing full well what they are up to.

I read slowly. This year I will probably read more books than I have ever read in a single year. My target is only twelve. I read slowly because I am analysing. Sometimes I am analysing each and every word choice. But I basically pay attention to each granular level of the writing from single word up to whole book, the style, the structure, the unfolding of the story. And I am also looking at individual character paths and character development, the ebb and flow of the tension, emotion, mystery, what questions the reader is thinking and whether the writer intended this, or not…And this last one is perhaps most important, because I try to get inside the head of the author. Why does he make the choices that he makes? What influences him? Can he get inside his reader’s head? Where did his ideas come from? What went through his mind?

Because if the writer is worth reading then something did pass through their head, hopefully a lot, and you have the clues right in front of you; the traces of his thoughts. With a little effort you can become a fly on the wall as the author or screen-writer sits at their desk, ideas passing through their head before being selected and turned into words. Words that are also chosen just as carefully as the ideas they convey and the characters they show you.

Despite only reading a small number of carefully selected books a year — chosen to aid my study, but also to entertain — I do sometimes, much to my frustration, come across one that is badly written. But I try to finish it because it is an opportunity to understand what made the book bad and to explore how it could have been written better.

And it is the same with movies. As much as I love the cinema, I prefer to watch at home where I can pause, rewind, watch again, think…and then conclusion reached, allow the movie to continue at the standard pace till something else captures me. Getting a movie wrong is easier, I feel. There is less room for error; less space to redeem one’s mistakes. But I watch good movies over again, until watching stops being productive to my learning.

So my reviews, as I have said, are studies of the DNA of a story. Often my reviews don’t contain much in the way of spoilers, because I am not focused on telling you what the story is about, I am focused on telling you how it was told.


Image credit: hjl on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

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A Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.)

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Only minor spoilers

So I watched The Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s pretty good. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), it is better than I expected it to be and it should have pulled in more at the box office than it did.

It’s based on a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka originally called All You Need Is Kill. I do like to read the novel and watch the movie usually because it is a good opportunity to learn about the differences in writing between the two mediums. There is an English translation of the original Japanese novel available, but reviews suggested that the translation could have been done better, so I haven’t read it.

The idea is pretty well summed up by the film’s tagline: Live Die Repeat, though this does sort of under-state the film a bit, so maybe it wasn’t the best marketing choice. But the core idea is simple and I don’t think it takes much effort to figure out what inspired Hiroshi Sakurazaka. No, it was not the classic Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. It was video games.

I’m certain that Hiroshi Sakurazaka was procrastinating one day, playing Halo on his X-box rather than writing, and he got to a hard bit where no matter what he did he just kept dying over and over again repeatedly. And then it stuck him (while his save was reloading): this would make a good premise for a story! He turned his X-box off and sat down to write.

The actors suit their roles well, the screenwriters took the trouble to make things more complicated toward the end at the right part and the story is told in a deliberate, thought-out manner. There are no major faults in the logic of the story to annoy the viewer as there often are in stories where time loops or time travel is central to the plot.

As Cruise repeats his loop day (reset each time he dies) he retains his memories from previous loops and so the story provides a realistic opportunity for the character to go on to become the hero, as he has infinite opportunities to train and learn how to do all those superhuman things without it being unbelievable.

I like movies that find a way to do this because it provides an opportunity for character development (one that is often not used as effectively as it might be). In this case the writers start out with a coward who tries to blackmail his way out of going anywhere near danger. Great, I thought, a writer who gets it!

This was a decent performance from Tom Cruise, who clearly put in a lot of effort in this one. I thought Emily Blunt was good too; you believed she had been hardened by her experience.

Some effort is made to create authenticity, with some British actors and a whole chunk of the film is set in London (where it was also filmed). The script is good, and the film’s well edited.

One thing that bugged me a little was the technological device that allowed our heroes to work out where the Omega was that they needed to take out. It’s a bit of a primitive plot device really, but in fairness films can be hard to tell without them because of the condensed format. I imagine that the novel puts more weight behind that idea to make it less like Dr Who pulling out his sonic screwdriver to save the day.

The aliens, as they often are in movies, are a little bit too Starship Troopers for my liking, but in fairness, the aliens are really not the focus of the film; the story is told around them. This was the only other major weakness but my guess is that the novel provides a back story and a bit more flesh in this area. In the movie, they get away without it.

7/10 stars.

What we can learn from Robin Williams

Following the sad news that Robin Williams died earlier this week at the age 63, I can’t help but write something about one of my favourite actors, and the best at his particular brand of performance. There is really no other out there who can make you laugh out loud one second and the next have you in tears of sadness.

My first appreciation for Williams was his portrayal of Peter Pan in Hook (1991). I watched this on VHS probably in the school holidays when I was about ten or eleven. A few years later I watched his legendary performance in Mrs Doubtfire; I watched a rerun of it on TV about a month ago, and it still made me laugh. Here’s a short clip. Poor Pierce Brosnan, LOL.

It was around the early 90s when I got cable TV when it was rolled out across much of the UK and I got to see reruns of Mork & Mindy. In truth, I didn’t really get this American comedy which started filming before I was born, and I didn’t really recognise until much later that Mork was played by Williams.

The-language-of-love-Robin-Williams-in-Dead-Poets-SocietyBecause of my age, it was only years later that I watched his other early films, such as Dead Poets Society, and I can well understand why it inspired some to become teachers, or better teachers, perhaps. I only wish the teachers at my school had taken the time to watch it. I can say with certainty that none did, and I wish pages were ripped out of the crappy books I was asked to read.

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
That was the core message given by the character played by William, Professor John Keating in The Dead Poets Society and it seems to me that Robin Williams achieved that extraordinary life, and that core message may have reached my ears later than those boys but when it did, it resonated!

Hook, Good Will Hunting, and Jumanji, all excellent films and from an influential period in my life. These were the lessons in my education which hit home (at home). I have the Hook movie tie-in novel on a bookshelf, written by one of my favourite authors, Terry Brooks. In fact, a Terry Brooks book (The Scions of Shannara) was the first book I ever read, and it hooked me on books forever after, and Terry Brook latest book, The High Druid’s Blade arrived on my doormat from Amazon only a short while ago.

Most all of Williams’ films are a little underrated if you ask me, none more so than Bicentennial Man. They pitched it wrong, the advertising makes it looks too childish and the robot looks too plasticky. Had they got that right they’d have made a much better success of it. The film was never going to be ground-breaking, but otherwise, it was well put together, well filmed and well written and of course, well-acted. If you haven’t seen it, go ahead and do so.

As you would expect, there are many good obituaries to Williams in the media at the moment.

Williams apparently grew up in the Episcopal Church, the origins of which, for my non-American readers was the English Anglican Church, and was formed following the American Civil War (because the Head of the Church of England was the King, George III of England, which of course, would not do.

They’re considered one of the most liberal of the Anglican churches, evidenced by their female Bishop being the first in the Anglican Communion. You can read Williams’ witty “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian” here.

RobWilWilliams and his former wife, Marsha, founded the Windfall Foundation, an organization which raises money for other charities, and he did work for Comic Relief and other worthy causes.

It seems he was struggling with alcohol, depression and financial worries in recent years, and those who paid attention to his more recent work can probably see some of those issues reflected there. The most recent film I saw, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, was pretty awful but you can you see to Williams that some of it was real. He deserved better parts and characters like these probably did not help his mood. But I’m going to remember him for the good stuff, for all the laughs and the genuine depth of emotion that he brought to many a story, no matter their type.

I’ll leave you with a few of his great quotes:

‘Never fight with an ugly person, they’ve got nothing to lose’

We’re dealing with fundamentalists. The Amish are fundamentalists, but they don’t try and hijack a carriage at needlepoint. And, if you’re ever in Amish country and you see a man with his hand buried in a horse’s ass, that’s a mechanic. Remember that’

And finally, one I wholeheartedly agree with:

‘No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world’

And I finish with these last words, having taken my laptop’s place on the desk, “O Captain! My Captain!”

Readers who wish to seek information and/or support on suicide prevention can call 08457 90 90 90, or visit the Samaritans website