"Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol" (review)

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

I got Blockbustered tonight!

It’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds, trust me. Well ok sometimes it is torturously awful, like every last gram of life force has been sucked from you molecule by molecule. You despair of ever gaining back those hours lost to entertainment so vapid, it makes some of our bimbo and himbo celebrities look like Nobel prize winners.

But occasionally, oh so occasionally a Hollywood blockbuster comes along that draws you in, suspends all your belief so comprehensively it’s like it never existed in the first place, and takes you on a ride so unthinkingly fun that you will never truly enjoy mere rollercoaster rides again.

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (MI4: GP) is just such a movie, and what a thoroughly engaging ride it was, even with Tom Cruise occupying far more of your retinal time than is recommended by health authorities in most Western liberal democracies.

In fact, and I daresay I could be drummed out of the Cynical Moviegoers Club for even saying this – it wouldn’t matter much since I am an occasional member at best, usually when a recurrent meme amuses me – I actually enjoyed Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. He managed, quite against my expectations, to be vulnerable and real, in a movie which usually called for him to be brave, hung-ho, fearless, [insert stoic leading man quality here]. He was, yes, I must say it, quite good.

Now I have made that searing confession, in all seriousness, this was a brilliant action thriller. It was a consistently rewarding return to the blow-em-up, bash-em-up, chase-around-the-globe action thrillers I remember from my younger days. Movies which like Die Hard, Under Siege, and any one of the Schwarernegger movies. Movies which defied any reasonable grasp on reality, rolled like a pig in mud in a great messy pile of cliches and stereotypes, were chock full of characters with so much bravado they were just as likely to burst all over their enemies as slay them, and yet… and yet… they were absolutely brilliantly entertaining.

IM4: Ghost Protocol had all of those qualities. It was bombastic. Hyperbolic. Gloriously deliriously over the top. And it was a total delight to watch with some added post-modern touches to add to the classic action movie gloss.

The bad guy for instance, Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyquist), wasn’t some pantomime cliche, over-explaining his elaborate scheme mere moments before Ethan Hunt foiled him. I mean, he was even Swedish for goodness sake! These are the people who bring you snow bound pine forests, ABBA and IKEA (to draw on a few random cliches of my own), not potential nuclear armageddon.

There were lovely touches of humour too in a movie which wore its bad ass credentials in a chunky gold chain around its neck with matching knuckle busters on its bulging right hand. The source of pretty much all of it was Simon Pegg, who reprised his role from Mission Impossible 3 (2006) as Benji Dunn, but this time as a field agent, something that initially catches Ethan Hunt off guard. But he managed to be funny and restrained at the same time, and once again the producers of the movie, which included the incomparable J. J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Star Trek reboot), don’t go overboard, and Benji is allowed as much credibility as an agent as he is the fount of comic goodness.

The rest of the team were allowed their brief emotional moments in the sun too. They were as well-rounded as you can reasonably expect of any character in any action movie, especially secondary characters. Naturally Mr. Cruise got the lion’s share of Significant Emotional Moments but the team weren’t neglected and the movie was all the stronger for it since a lot of what the team did after that made much more sense since you believed they were, you know, a team.

If all that wasn’t enough, the movie even had a reasonably believable narrative. The idea that someone could gain control, with frightening ease, of a nuclear weapon, launch codes and a satellite isn’t all that 1960s James Bond-ish fantastical anymore, and while it was thwarted (like that’s a spoiler – of course Ethan wasn’t going to leave the world a smouldering ruin!) with a little too much ease, you didn’t mind because everyone played it straight. Even swept up in all the nonstop full-on action, the story had some degree of authenticity and so the suspension of any disbelief didn’t spend the entire movie desperately trying to stay aloft.

Yes, this is a classically good action movie, updated with a good heaping’ helpin’ dose of post modern sensibility, emotional gravitas, reasonably well rounded characters and a plot that actually had a modicum of consistency and believability to it. That meant that you totally bought the Kremlin blowing apart, or Ethan plunging 100m down a car park in a BMW (oh yes there was product placement – a whole garage of Beemers for instance) or abseiling 113 floors above the desert floor of Dubai.

Well… mostly.

Build an over the top action movie like MI4: GP with a foundation of truth, or at least truth as Hollywood perceives it, and the crowds will love it. At least the one I watched the movie with did even in occasional downpours of rain (Open Air Cinema, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Sydney). We didn’t mind getting Blockbustered one bit, and I suspect neither will you.


ABBA "The Visitors" Deluxe Edition coming soon!

Where will I be on April 23?

Why inside a JB HiFi store thank you very much snapping up a copy of the Deluxe Edition of ABBA’s final album, The Visitors, released in 1981. As with all the other deluxe editions that have been released to near universal acclaim, and yes, let’s be honest, frothing mouths of excitement, it will contain a whole host of extra goodies from B-sides (including one of my favourite ABBA songs ever Should I Laugh or Cry), the final singles (The Day Before You Came, and Under Attack), and mall the TV show appearances a fan boy could want.

But what really sets this release aside from all the deluxe editions that have preceded it is the inclusion of a song called From a Twinkling Star to a Passing Angel. In reality it’s not a song as such; rather a collection of the various demos that eventually became the breathtakingly sad, poignant song, Like an Angel Passing Through My Room. It’s the first time the ABBA vaults have been opened since 1994 when the 4 CD collection, Thank You For the Music was released with a 20 plus demos medley titled Undeleted that included the never released gem, Just Like That.

Am I excited? Oh yes. Any doubts that the overly excitable fan boy of the 70s is dead and gone are erased well and truly when news like this emerges. I cannot wait!

First impressions: "New Girl"

Well thank the TV gods – New Girl is as funny as hyped.
You’d expect it would be somewhat funny since it does star the comedically-talented Zooey Deschanel, who is best known as the flaky but good-hearted, if self-centred on again, off again girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer. She brings much of that neurotic, quirky persona to this role, as Jess, a teacher who, after a nasty heartbreak moves in with three straight guys she finds on the internet. They find her unusual behaviour, such as obsessively watching Dirty Dancing for days on end while sobbing into mountains of tissues, or inventing a theme song for herself on the spot, disconcerting, but something about this energetic young teacher attracts them enough to take her in as their new house mate.
Let’s be honest. The show revolves primarily around Zooey Deschanel, and her gift for Lucille Ball-esque goofiness, and that is not necessarily a bad thing to begin with at least. Frasier started off as a star vehicle for Kelsey Grammer, who is a gifted actor and was a point of familiarity for viewers getting used to a new show. However, it sensibly, and quickly evolved into a superb, cleverly-written ensemble comedy than ran for 11 years with characters who were very bit as fleshed out and well-developed as Frasier himself.
I hope much the same thing happens with this show. Don’t get me wrong. The two episodes I have seen so far are very funny and promise a consistently funny show to come. The writers have wisely given the three male house mates some mild quirks of their own to save them from simply being the straight men to Jess’s adorable quirky take on life. Let’s hope though that they continue to pay as much attention to all of these characters as they do to Jess since while her idiosyncratic musings on life, and one-of-a-kind approaches to heartache, dating and love are hilarious, the show could become a one-trick pony if it relies on Zooey Deschanel formidable comedic talents alone.
I doubt though they will make that mistake. Frasier became as well-loved, and popular as it was because all of the characters were as watchable as Frasier and drew elements out of Frasier that a weaker sitcom simply couldn’t have managed. In the same way, I expect the ensemble will grow around Jess, matching her overwhelmingly unique character with characters who accent and enhance her and are every bit as compelling as she is.
One thing I particularly liked is the way it countered any over-goofiness with some touching moments which gave it a depth I wasn’t expecting, at least so soon. It’s off to a very promising start and if reports from the USA are anything to go by, it maintains and builds on this to great effect.
11 years for New Girl? Too early to tell but this episode lays the foundation for a show that has the potential to keep us laughing for quite a while to come.

"Conatus" – Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus, or as her mum calls when she’s angry, Nika Rosa Danilova (from oft cold and frigid Wisconsin which explains the Icelandic sensibilities), is a woman who, like Kate Bush and Bat For Lashes, treads her own musical path, heeding not the siren song of mainstream ordinariness.

And that my friends is a very good thing for all of us.

Her music, which dares any one genre to come and call her their own, possesses a haunting pop-influenced spirit that is almost more art than music. But even so, it’s not pretentious or precious; just heart-achingly beautiful.

It is entrancing music. It is anthemic in parts, moody and obtuse in others, but always rich, full and powerful. Listening to it, you can imagine her standing on a mountaintop, drums in hand, hair flying wildly behind her, calling out to the gathering dark. Yes, much like a weird Ukrainian Eurovision entry with the strange grandmother and her pet goat who walks on at a completely narrative-challenged point. But with music that is so good, so unusual, so pagan and tribal, that it connects with something inside of you that wants to join her on that windswept snowbound mountaintop.

Yes it’s animalistic . But it’s also passionately beautiful music. It’s been described by some as electro-industrial-pop-punk which is the world’s way of saying we couldn’t categorise you if our lives depended on it but we like your music more than we can say. “Seekir” is the song that most categorically sits in the pop firmament. It starts off with a sparse, almost ghostly chant before building to the sort of beat that would be happily at home on a retro dance floor. Granted a song that houses two such discordant musical directions should sound like some Dr Moreau-like sonic abomination but it doesn’t, and it is testament to the giftedness of Zola Jesus that it is captivating beyond reason.

In contrast, but just as much a delightfully odd melange of pop and otherworldly darkness, “Hikikomori” is all softly pounding synth beats, with Zola’s powerfully yet almost voice fracturing through the melody like a mourning spirit seeking solace by calling out its pain. It is starkly poignant and yet beguilingly poppy.

And that is what sums up Conatus perfectly. It defies genres, skips merrily between remote but accessible ice-cold melodies and almost danceable pop, and possesses an elegance and grace counterbalanced by more raw animalistic sensibilities. It is a glorious cocktail of contradictions, and one of the most unique albums you will ever own.

Your music collection will never be ordinary again.

"Women on the 6th Floor" (review)

Women on the 6th Floor is a movie obsessed with class, race, money and power.

But wait, it’s not as grim as that sentence makes it seem. In fact, the movie is a delight focusing on the great changes that many Western societies saw take place in the early 1960s, when the movie is set.

While most film makers shy away from issues like class or race, especially in what is ostensibly a comedy, not so writer-director Philippe le Guay. His semi-autobiographical tale of a young Spanish maid who quite by accident upends a set-in-its-ways upper class Parisian household manages to weave a whole host of thorny untouchable topics into its story, and do so without being patronising or relying on superficial stereotypes. That’s quite an achievement.

It would have been so easy to rely on cliches, and plenty of movies have done that constructing movies that coast along on cheap laughs, and lightly constructed characters who are essentially one joke wonders.  But Women… charts a different course, touching on the cliches of course since it’s impossible to avoid them, but using them to construct a clever and engaging portrait of a society, and a family in upheaval.

The family in question is that of the Jouberts, headed by pedantic stockbroker, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini), who is desperately bored with his existence, though he doesn’t know it yet. The barometer of how good his day will be is how well his boiled egg is cooked in the morning, which sounds petty but means the world to him in his suffocating sclerotic world.

His relationship with his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a mere shadow of its former self, and her world is filled with exhaustion, ennui and endless shopping trips. Her life in particular has become so predictable that Jean-Louis is able to tell her at one point exactly what she did when, simply because he knows what day it is. It is emotional intimacy so much as it is over familiarity.

Their relationships with their sons is equally emotionally distant with the boys away at boarding school most of the time. Even when they are at home, the family is at odds with itself, with no one party really knowing the other, or if the truth be told be told, caring to know.

Into this fossilised existence comes the bright force of Maria Gonzalez (Natalia Verbeke) who arrives in Paris to join her aunt and a host of other Spanish maids, who are now in vogue as domestic helpers among the idle rich of early 60s Paris. She moves into the 6th floor of the Jouberts’ building, which they have owned for seeming millennia, where laughter and camaraderie are plentiful but the toilet is broken and other amenities are few.

Thanks to the departure of the Jouberts’ old maid from Brittany, who leaves in disgust at the family’s coldness towards the death of the family matriarch, Maria quickly scores a job, and thanks to her winning ways with boiled eggs, scores the approval of Jean-Louis and his family.

But while she is a force for change in the Jouberts’ lives, she is no Mary Poppins, and harbours secrets, and sadness, of her own. Even so she and Jean-Louis, begin to see in each other the person who might be the key to the expression of the unspoken longing for a better life that neither can quite articulate.

It is however a long road to the realisation of change and involves upper class Jean-Louis growing closer and closer to the maids on the never visited 6th floor. It is not necessarily an attempt to gain the attention of Maria; Jean-Louis is, at heart, a decent caring man who treats the maids as equals to the surprise of those around him.

The joy of the movie is that no character descends into the murky depths of stereotype. Yes Jean-Louis’s wife is drifting aimlessly through life, and emotionally estranged from her husband, but when both she and Jean-Louis realise what changes are unexpectedly in train, she doesn’t revert to a ‘bitch’ stereotype. Her feelings and responses are treated with just as much validity as the more sympathetic characters like Jean-Louis and Maria, which is a rare thing indeed.

Similarly the maids are not treated as simply Spanish peasants come to the big city to make good. While they are presented as the ebullient antidote to the Jouberts’ joyless existence, they are not portrayed as celebrating simpletons, unaware of the dark complexities of life. Their lives are shown to be as complex and layered as anyone else’s in the movie and they are never simply caricatured foils for their Parisian employers. They ‘rescue’ Jean-Louis in a great many ways it’s true, but he also goes to great lengths to change their lives too, and their interactions throughout are those of equals who simply happen to be from different countries and societal strata.

But this is no preachy movie despite the lessons learned. Yes it is about class, race, money and power. But it’s also funny, touching, and heart-warming in that non-syrupy sweet way that Europeans seem to manage so effortlessly. Above all you will appreciate that regardless of the differences that divide, that it is basic humanity that, in the end, will always out and that binds us together.

And you will laugh while doing it. You can’t really ask for more.

"Hugo" (movie review)

Hugo, by famed director Martin Scorsese, is first and foremost a creation of great beauty.

Filmed in 3D, which is used to great effect to draw us into the magical world of 1920s Paris, and specifically the Gare Montparnasse, where an orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) scurries around, sight unseen fixing the clocks which dominate the massive railway station. Naturally he is pursued at every opportunity by a nemesis, the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose entire sense of self worth is invested in discharging his duties as the upholder of the law. For both of them, the Gare Montparnasse is the beginning and the end of their worlds, the place they’re safe, after both have suffered traumas that have caused them to retreat from the world of large.

Of course, in a movie that looks and feels like a fairytale sprung to glorious technicolour life, their small flawed worlds don’t stay that way for long. For the station inspector, this revolves mostly around wooing the flower seller, Lisette (Emily Mortimer) but for our protagonist, Hugo, the tableau opens far wider, and far more gloriously, after what seems to be a disastrous development – being caught thieving from the shop of George Melies, once an innovative and legendary film maker, now simply a shopkeeper selling small clockwork toys.

While the man, who is simply called Papa George for much of the film, immediately brands Hugo a thief, and takes away a beautiful notebook that Hugo guards with his life (the only thing he has left of his father, played by Jude Law, along with an automaton they were both fixing when his father died), this traumatic event opens up a whole new world of possibilities for both characters.

This happens largely through the intense friendship Hugo develops with the girl who is revealed to be Papa George’s god daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). She agrees to help save the notebook from the fire, but only if Hugo takes her on a grand adventure.

It turns out to be the grandest adventure of both their lives. Secrets are revealed, lives are restored to their full glory, and people who were searching for a purpose and a sense of who they are, find that happy endings are possible. It’s all done though in a way that isn’t mawkishly sentimental, or so corny you can make popcorn from it; rather the emotional interactions are believable, the discoveries poignant, and the redemption of flawed and broken people heartwarming.

Best of all, it is told in a style that is utterly engaging. You are drawn fully and completely into the small busy world of Gare Montparnasse almost from the start as one continuous camera shot takes you along a platform, bustling with passengers and then into Hugo’s furtive, hidden world, which opens up to reveal a station of people all searching for somewhere to belong. Scorsese, a master film maker if ever there was one, evokes a visual style that is lush and light-filled when it needs to be, and a closed and dark at others. But whatever the mood being evoked, it is never less than all engrossing, and you feel like you are walking through the world these fully 3D characters, in every sense of the word, inhabit.

It is world you are loathe to leave, so beguiling is it, but when you are forced to leave it behind, it is with a skip in your step, and a song in your heart, as all of the characters, through trial and tribulation, bravery and emotional leaps of faith, find some form of the happy ever afters that all of us, after all, seek.

Hugo is a delight and a triumph, both visually and emotionally a movie of great beauty and one that will delight anyone who believes life can snatch hope and redemption from the jaws of grim reality.

"The Muppets" (Review)

“Wacka Wacka!”
“Mee mee mee…”

I have had Muppet voices talking in my head for over 24 hours and I couldn’t be more delighted. After much too much time apart, I have spent quality time with the delightful icons of my childhood, and it was, without exception, every bit as good as I remember it.

I was a little worried, I’ll be honest. While there is no doubting the dedication of Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), one of the producers of the movie, and lifelong fanatical Muppets fan, to bringing the Muppets back front and centre into the zeitgeist, I wasn’t sure if it would be like old times. Sure, the reviews had been good, no great, so that inspired a great deal of confidence. But I had tried to go back so many times to re-visit cultural touchstones of my youth, to mixed results. I really wanted this to be one of those reunions I would place in the “It’s Good to Be Back” file.

Thankfully it was, and a whole lot more. Jason (who plays Gary in the movie) and his fellow producers have captured the sweetness and plain silly humour of The Muppets to dazzling effect. It was like meeting an old friend, and finding out that while they have largely stayed much the same, they have also updated in small and culturally relevant ways without sacrificing an iota of who they essentially are (Animal is a perfect example; he’s still Animal but undergoing that most modern of rituals – self help).

The movie is a joy. The opening musical number alone, “Life’s a Happy Song”, is worth the price of admission. It celebrates the joy of having someone special by your side to go through life with, and features some inspired moments of hilarity such as when Gary and his brother Walter (a Muppet, although no one really come out and says that till near the end) try to rhyme the next lyric with “fishes”, or when Gary, Walter, and Gary’s girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams) get on the bus to Los Angeles, and the towns people, who have danced up a storm in the centre of town collapse from exhaustion and say “Thank goodness they’re gone!” (or words to that effect).

From that point on, the movie, which centres on Walter’s attempts to get his idols, The Muppets, back together again for one last show to save their now decrepit theatre from an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), leaps gleefully from a funny or touching song to hilarious sight gag (Kermit’s first appearanceto laughter-inducing fourth wall jokes (where The Muppets acknowledge they are in a movie) such as “travelling by map” (which is faster than normal travel) or the suggestion being made, and naturally taken quite seriously, that it would speed up the regrouping of the rest of the gang if they did by montage rather than rounding up everyone one by one.

Granted the humour isn’t postmodern hip and clever, but frankly, if it had been, I would’ve been disappointed. That type of humour, if cleverly written, works wonder for Shrek and Despicable Me. But this movie works because it doesn’t attempt to needlessly update The Muppets to make them “relevant”, and focuses instead of showcasing why Jim Henson’s creations were so popular in the first place. They are sweet and likeable sure, but they are just a little crazy in the best possible way, and even dare I say a bit subversive. They aren’t like everything that’s around right now and that’s just the point.

I think it was a masterstroke to play to The Muppets classic strengths. They are delightfully silly, joyfully daggy (to use a delightful Aussie term for slightly old-fashioned), and innocent in an age of porn and HBO, but that’s why people keep coming back to them. There is a tendency these days to update everything whether they need to be or not, but the thing is, The Muppets don’t need updating. Throw in a few up-to-the-minute meta jokes sure, but what works for this movie is playing The Muppets as they are.

Of course you can’t escape that they have slipped into a cultural irrelevancy of sorts with the younger generation. While anyone over 30 will remember them with fondness, the younger generation, if we’re honest, has little affinity for them. But that’s where the movie succeeds too. It acknowledges this decline in zeitgeist relevancy, plays on it beautifully as The Muppets have all scattered to the four winds, forced into seedy obscurity by a world that’s left them behind.

But it doesn’t then confront it by wilfully changing who The Muppets are, or making them the object of some sort of knowing post modern spoof. It simply lets The Muppets be themselves, and a world sorely in need of their whimsical humour embraces them wholeheartedly as the movie’s finale gloriously celebrates.

Yes folks, the gang is back together, they are still very much loved, and this movie is testament to the fact that classic characters never truly die. Especially, if you’re The Muppets. All you need is a wacka wacka here and mee-mee-mee there, and you’re back in gloriously silly technicolour as if you never left.

Welcome back guys!

I want to write it big in the movies!

You write a best selling novel that sweeps the world. You are feted and adored as a creative wunderkind, speaking to your generation. The press adores you. Readers hang on your every word. Everyone is beating a path to your door.

Including Hollywood. They come a-calling, and buy the rights to your story for a squillion dollars. Surely the next step is to craft a screenplay befitting your literary masterpiece?

Possibly. Often they use their own screenwriter but what if they offer you some say in how your book translates to the silver screen? Do you take it? 

Surely the question doesn’t need to be asked since everyone wants to make it big in Hollywood right? So wouldn’t a writer, especially one with a novel atop the New York Times bestseller lists, be exactly the same?

Not necessarily. And it’s got precious little to do with whether you want recognition for your artistic efforts. Of course, you do. You’re a storyteller at heart and you want to know that the stories you tell matter.

So how do you decide how involved you get with Tinseltown? There is, of course, no hard and fast rule but perhaps the following examples can help you work out what you would do should you ever write the novel to end all novels and Hollywood comes knocking at your door.

No screenplays please, I am an AUTHOR.
Taking this position doesn’t mean that you are a militant revolutionary, clinging nobly to the purity of creating art for art’s sake. Yes there are some literary snobs out there, but what it usually means is that you are happy to be an author of books, and only of books, and you are perfectly content to leave the screenwriting to the movie professionals. 

If you are of the opinion that neither art form is superior to the other and are happy to let your book be interpreted as the screenwriter sees fit then you are in good company. 

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the book, now movie, Never Let Me Go was quoted as saying to the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland:

“Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.”

For Kazuo, there was no conflict, no artistic angst to resolve. He writes books, Alex Garland writes screenplays and they would, by definition, create two different artistic statements. As it turns out, the movie captured the book’s subtlety of emotional expression beautifully but that was never Kazuo’s concern. 

Kazuo’s hands off approach is echoed by Lionel Shriver, author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, who was quoted as saying about the adaptation of her book into a film:

“…I didn’t have a lot to do with this film. I was glad to have someone bring a different vision to something I had crafted to the best of my ability.”

Both these authors chose to adopt a hands-off approach to collaboration with Hollywood, and remain sanguine about the fact that the movie they will see will not be a slavish adaptation of the book they wrote.

I am ready for an exact close up of my book, Mr DeMille
For some authors though it is vitally important the film adaptation is as faithful as possible to their book. They are willing to be actively involved in the whole process, sometimes simply as a consultant, other times as a screenwriter, but always as close to the heart of the film’s production team as they can manage. 

Sometimes this works well, with the author and those involved in making the movie finding a harmony of vision. One author who clearly fell into sync with the people bringing his book to cinematic life was Michael Morpungo, whose book, Warhorse was just released into cinemas. While he didn’t end up writing the screenplay, despite some initial attempts, he remained closely involved with the film’s production saying of Steven Spielberg who produced it:

“He was warm, kind and open, and utterly without ego…Spielberg was like a conductor with a very light baton. He hardly had to wave at all. I was in awe.”

Clearly it was a happy working relationship, and one that resulted in a successful movie. The movie does differ from the book in some respects, with the point of view moving from that of the horse to the riders, but it was obviously close enough to what he had written to make Michael Morpungo satisfied that his creation was in safe hands. 

William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, and in the unique position of being both a screenwriter and an author, also enjoyed a close collaborative approach with the producers of his book’s movie adaptation. As did Melina Marchetta, of Looking For Alibrandi, even penning the film’s script to great acclaim.

Artistic goodwill gone with the wind
But not all authors are as fortunate. Stories are legion of authors who demanded a say in how their movies were produced, got involved in some fashion only to fall out later on with the film’s producers.  Clive Cussler, who was shut out the process of making his novel Sahara into a movie famously derided the movie adaptation, suing the film’s producers, which led to a protracted legal battle which has dragged on for years with neither party emerging victorious.

Similarly, Anne Rice, whose novel, Interview with a Vampire, was made into a movie in 1994 remarked “I was particularly stunned by the casting of [Tom] Cruise, who is no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.” While she did eventually paper things over with the film’s producers after seeing the movie, it was only ever an uneasy truce borne, some say, of financial considerations. 

But the most famous case of an author not liking his books cinematic adaptation in the least would have to be Stephen King. While the movie of his book The Shining, was almost universally feted by audiences and critics alike as a cinematic masterpiece, he detested it, despite Stanley Kubrick going to great lengths to seek his input.

One thing is clear from these examples. The success or otherwise of an author’s input into their book’s step into the Cineplex is not a given, and comes down to a complex mix of personality, artistic visions and varying degrees of iron will. If you decide you must be closely involved with the creation of your book’s movie, it may be best to remember a collaborative approach will achieve far more than a my-way-or-the-highway strategy.

The end
So now we return to the main question at hand. Just how involved should an author get when they hand their precious book over to Hollywood to get the Tinseltown treatment? It would seem that the main thing to keep in mind, regardless of whether you are happy to let the movie professionals work their magic alone, or insist on going so far as to pick the caterer to be used on set, is that the two art forms are chalk and cheese. 

There is a very good reason why the “movie is never as good as the book”. It was never intended to be the book. Nor vice versa. It seems that the authors who heed that truism are the ones who emerge happiest when the world adores you, and Hollywood comes a-calling.

"Manhattan in Reverse" – Peter F Hamilton

Britain’s premier writer of grand epic sci-fi has returned with his first collection of short stories since 1998’s A Second Chance at Eden. Of course calling any of the stories ‘short’ isn’t entirely accurate; the first story in the collection, ‘Watching Trees Grow’ goes for almost 90 pages, and the author is the first to admit in the books introduction that he doesn’t usually observe the traditional parameters of a short story.

“Looking through them I’d be the first to admit they’re not particularly short, with the exception of ‘The Forever Kitten’, which was written for the excellent Nature magazine, and had to be kept to less than 1000 words. I can do it, but that’s a rare event. Very rare.”

I daresay none of his fans are complaining. Peter F Hamilton is such a gifted writer than he could likely write out a telephone book in Swahili and we’d all attempt to read it. He has an impressive gift for expounding on ideas, especially to do with human nature and technology, that don’t leave you drifting off into unconsciousness at the sheer density of the ideas. He is endlessly imaginative, and expresses it so beautifully and with such fulsomeness, that you are subsumed into his storytelling so completely that you feel as if you are a citizen of one of the amazing worlds he has created.

This gift for taking an idea, and giving it a complete and multi-layered expression is on full display in this collection which was previously published in various anthologies and magazines. The only exception is the titular short story, ‘Manhattan in Reverse’ which features my favourite character from his epic millennia-spanning series about the Commonwealth, the indefatigable Paula Myo (who also features in ‘Demon Trap’, another story in the collection).

Each of the stories is suffused with a common theme in all of his work which is that mankind, though optimistic at heart, and more apt to reach for the stars than not, is fundamentally flawed. This doesn’t mean he has a pessimistic view of our future; in fact all of his stories exemplify a bright, shiny future where mankind has taken its gift for vaulting ambition and flown to the furthest reaches of the universe with it.

Rather, he nuances this optimistic view of the future with the idea that mankind, though clever and innovative, is also cursed with hearts that don’t always follow up our lofty dreaming of a better world with equally lofty actions. We may invent wormholes, travel to the stars, and find a way to seize eternal youth by manipulating DNA, but we can also still murder our fellow citizens (‘Watching Trees Grow’), and deceive those we once loved in the cruellest ways possible (‘Footvote’).

In essence, mankind is inherently flawed and no amount of shiny skyscrapers or interstellar travel can erase that. Again, not pessimistic, just factual. No amount of progress through human history has ever eradicated our lust for death, destruction and mayhem, and while we are now far more self-aware of others’ rights, and our responsibilities to uphold them, we can all be mindlessly petty and cruel too. This is all Peter F Hamilton is saying. Not for him the utopian idealism of Star Trek creator, Gene Rodonberry who believed that mankind’s ascent to the stars would bring endless perfectionistic bliss.
No, Peter F Hamilton is wise enough to realise that though life will improve for many people as technology takes us to places that previous generations couldn’t even begin to imagine, that mankind will not erase its less attractive features. It would be lovely if that happen, but history has shown that it likely won’t. That is, I think, what makes this author’s writing so compelling. It dares to postulate a flawed future. Not a utopian, or dystopian one; just flawed. It is real, visceral, and while you’re drawn into the exciting possibilities conjured up by his visions of the future, you’re reminded without malice, or jaundice, that we will still be us.
That actually doesn’t depress or disappoint me, and makes the epic short stories, for that’s what they are, all the more compelling. They are real, and grounded even as they talk about us soaring to the stars, and it’s that inherent humanity, and his pragmatic view of what it is and isn’t capable of, that makes the stories in this collection so rich and rewarding.
That, and compelling characters, simple but intricately realised narratives, and an innate ability to tell stories that draw you in and do not let go till they reach their always satisfying conclusions. It’s a great way to spend your present, and even, dare I say, your flawed future.