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.

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

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.