Monday, 30 April 2012

The Graveyard Book by Disney!

Neil Gaiman's brilliant book The Graveyard Book has been picked up by Disney!

It will follow the amazing Coraline (also a Neil Gaiman story) and be brought to us as an animation.  This means there's a very good chance it will be in stop motion as Henry Selick of Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach fame will be directing. 

Apparently Selick is currently working on a big Disney-Pixar project but will be starting on this when finished.

This is exciting news!  The Graveyard Book is a fantastically written story about a boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard.  It manages to strike a perfect balance between darkness and warmth and is a must read.  Although marketed as a children's story, please be warned young children may find the story disturbing.

I wonder if it'll be renamed The Graveyard Film...

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Bad Teacher

This week’s premier on Sky Movies is Bad Teacher starring Cameron Diaz, Jason Segal and Justin Timberlake.

Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth, a teacher who is looking for a rich husband to keep her.  She believes that a boob job will help her land a man and so starts using every trick she can think of to get the $10,000 to pay for it.  She learns of a $5,000 bonus that is given to the teacher whose class gets the highest marks in the state exam and soon she is in direct competition with sticky-sweet teacher Amy Squirrel (played brilliantly by Britain’s own Lucy Punch).

Bad Teacher is the usual story of a superficial person learning that there is more to life than money.  This is a very common plotline but when done well, it is also watchable.  Bad Teacher is very funny with likeable characters making it a good, fun romp.

For the romance lovers there is a love triangle in this film as Elizabeth tries to convince the new teacher from a wealthy family, Scott (Justin Timberlake), to date her and the gym teacher, Russell (Jason Segal), tries to convince Elizabeth that he’s the one she wants.

This film was made after Diaz and Timberlake ended their relationship and I did find myself wondering in certain parts (you’ll see which parts) how they coped with working together on this.  However, both are great professionals and give excellent performances.  It always comes as a small, pleasant shock that Timberlake can act.  I last saw him in In Time and it was nice to see him able to play something completely different and, I imagine, a character very unlike him in reality.
I’m also pleased to announce that the song he performs in Bad Teacher was a song he actually wrote; what a talented man!

For the people who aren’t enjoying their jobs right now, you must watch this film.  It will fill you with dark inspiration and hope that perhaps you too can do as you want, play the game and bend the rules without getting fired.  For that reason, Bad Teacher has been added to my list of ‘Career Motivational’ films along with Officespace (this list is a little lacking, I’ll have to keep working on it, any suggestions welcome).

Bad Teacher is funny, full of bad taste and rude jokes, inspirational with minimal heartfelt chick flick slush, therefore it is brilliant and I highly recommend it.  This film has not only been added to my ‘Career Motivational’ list but also to my favourite ‘Women’ films.  This film left me walking tall, feeling brave and confident and anything that leaves a woman feeling good about herself and like she can take on the world is a good thing.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The First Avenger: Captain America

Tonight I wanted to celebrate the release of The Avengers at the cinema by writing a review.  However we had a change of plans, stayed home and watched Captain America, which premiered on Sky Movies last week, instead.  It’s still quite fitting; Captain America is one of the Avengers.

Captain America is about a home grown all-American hero during the Second World War.  A small, weedy man who is bullied and beaten and rejected by the army is accepted into an experimental programme to create a super soldier; Captain America is born.  He then takes it upon himself to rid the world of the story’s villain, a crazy super strong German who wants to take over the world.

The first ‘Avenger’ film I saw was Ironman, a film that sent shivers of apprehension through me.  Next was Thor, a good romp through a comic book world of fantasy.  I wasn’t sure about Captain America when it was first released but I thought I should give it a chance.  A film of war with supernatural artefacts and Nazis?  Well, I enjoyed Indiana Jones so why not.

There are some good names in this film; Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and, of course, Samuel J Jackson.  I also feel as if George Lucas may have had a hand in there somewhere; the film wreaks of Indiana Jones and R2-D2 is even in there (watch it closely!).

One of the highlights of the film, other than Stan Lee’s courtesy cameo, is the presence of Harold Stark.  Tony Stark’s (Ironman) father with possible hints at Ironman’s future.  Like Tony Stark, Harold Stark is charming, amusing and highly intelligent.  It isn’t the only film to have a crossover – Hawkeye features uncredited in Thor.
There are a number of good one-liners throughout the film which kept me laughing.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Captain America himself yet.  What makes a good comic book hero?  What do Wolverine, Ironman and even Thor have in common?  The anti-hero element, the concept of rebellion, charm and intelligence.  Captain America may be intelligent but he is a stickler for the rules, he’s a clean cut American and he is all too willing to sacrifice himself.  In other words, he is boring.

So what about the villain?  Hugo Weaving is an excellent actor – he’s a Matrix agent and elf for crying out loud.  He is wasted in this film as a red faced skeletor, something that not only doesn’t fully make sense but also makes the film look a little tacky.

The plot line was weak was massive gaps.  Captain America is made into a super soldier and immediately knows how to fight without any training.  This is incredibly unbelievable; a person does not get new legs and immediately know how to walk.  If something is unbelievable, it is difficult for the viewer to stay interested.  I repeatedly zoned out in this film and often caught myself staring out of the window at the night sky.  I would like to say that this is why I didn’t understand some parts but honestly I think this is because the story was poorly told.

My favourite part?  The end.  Not because it was the end of the film, but because of where it left Captain America.  This is a predictable but bearable film with some very redeeming features but the end promises a new side of Captain America and left me still eager to The Avengers.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Iceberg the white whale

Today I read with interest that a fully white, mature, male Orca (Killer) whale has been spotted in a family pod of 12 whales.  I was already aware of the fully white Humpback whale, Migaloo, a photograph of whom was submitted to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2011 (a stunning picture that I saw at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery).  This Orca whale is thought to be 16 or more years old and he has been named Iceberg.

Iceberg is the oldest white Orca whale recorded by scientists.  Many young albino Orca whales have been recorded but scientists have never recorded one who has lived though to maturity (15 years old).  Iceberg has not yet been confirmed as an albino, despite him being white all over.  Scientists have said that a biopsy would confirm this, which horrified me.  However, they are going to try and verify it by noting the colour of his eyes.

No more information was given on this but albino’s eyes can be blue, hazel or, in very rare circumstances, red, so I wonder what the colour of his eyes could tell scientists.  Unless they are blue or red, a biopsy may be required to confirm his albinism.  That is, if he’s still alive.  The Guardian reported that the last time he was seen was in 2010 and scientists are now back in the same Russian waters, keeping an eye out for him, which begs the question why this is suddenly news two years later.

The piece in the article that bothered me was the fact that Iceberg has been fully accepted by his family.  Why should he not be?  We already know that whales are incredibly intelligent creatures and with every new piece of information comes more evidence of their intelligence and empathy.  This led me to think about the role of albinism in human society.

Albino’s have a negative reputation.  They are often portrayed as the villain in Hollywood or with red eyes which are also commonly associated with possession and demons, for example Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (Paul Bettany’s albino has red eyes in the book, something that the movie producers were warned to steer clear of).  There is a historical problem in Africa with the association of albinos and magical powers, leading witch doctors to kill and dismember albinos.  The first case of this sort was brought to trial shockingly recently.

Basically what this stems down to is a reaction to something that is different.  Prejudice against albinism is the same as racism or homophobia – it is the fear of what is different; something that will probably always exist in human society and is the result of poor education and ignorance.

This led me to wonder if whales can suffer from poor education and ignorance.  Would Iceberg be bullied for his colour if he were to enter a new pod?  Do whales have their own superstitions and would they view Iceberg with fear purely because he is white?  When put this way the notion is laughable and yet it happens every day in the human world.

Does this mean that whales are more intelligent than humans?  That they can accept difference amongst their own kind?  Or that they are less intelligent and perhaps haven’t even noticed that Iceberg is different to them.  Maybe, they are the same as us and only his family would ever accept him because he is their blood.

I hope the scientists have asked the question of whether Iceberg is breeding – do the females view him as weak or is he actually too weak to vie for the females’ attention? 
Just what is life like for an albino adult male whale?

Can anyone else feel a children’s book coming on?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Battle vs The Games

At the beginning of this year my mum spoke with a book reviewer online and told her that I was having trouble finding a dark fantasy female author who could write strong, independent women (who don’t go funny at the sight of an attractive man).  The reviewer recommended The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (not dark fantasy – I wonder what this says about dark fantasy writers) and my mum promptly ordered it for me.
A month or so later the hype of The Hunger Games movie started and with it came the accusations that The Hunger Games is a rip off of Battle Royale.
I hadn’t heard of Battle Royale so imagine my surprise when I discovered that my non-film loving husband had a copy in his meagre DVD collection.  We watched it immediately.
I have just finished reading The Hunger Games and couldn’t help but make a list of the similarities between this novel and the Battle Royale film.

Please note, I haven’t seen The Hunger Games movie or yet read the Battle Royale novel.

I’ve done some internet research on this subject and have discovered that this argument is becoming Twilightified; are you Team Games or Team BR?
Before I go into the similarities and differences between these two, I would firstly like to say that I enjoyed both immensely.  Both have their strengths and weaknesses and both are compelling and fascinating stories (possibly because they are the same story).

Battle Royale is a movie adaptation of a novel of the same name.  The novel was published in 1999 and the movie made in 2000.  It is about a class of Japanese teenagers who are taken to an island, given bags with weapons and provisions and made to fight to the death.  The last one standing wins.

The Hunger Games was published in 2008 and the movie was released this year, 2012.  It is about a group of teenagers who are taken to an arena, allowed access to bags of weapons and provisions and made to fight to the death.  The last one standing wins.

So it’s very easy to see why people would accuse The Hunger Games of being a rip off of Battle Royale.  The basic concept is exactly the same, but this happens all of the time.  There are only so many stories in the world.  It may be that Suzanne Collins is lying and has seen Battle Royale, but then it is equally plausible that this is all her own work.  At the end of the day, we are all humans with limitations of the mind, it is natural that certain minds will have the same ideas. 
When I was a teenager and suffered from writers block, I would spend my time reading articles on writing to give me inspiration and I read a quote that has always stuck with me;
‘Originality it the art of hiding your source’.
Using other people’s ideas is ok, as long as you make them your own.

At a first glance the main differences between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale are fairly obvious; Battle Royale’s main character is a boy and The Hunger Games’ is a girl.  In BR, Shuya’s mother is dead and his father commits suicide upon hearing that his son will be fighting in BR.  In Games, Katniss’ father is dead and her mother essentially dies upon his death, leaving Katniss to look after herself and her little sister.  If Katniss hadn’t done this they would have been put in a home.  In BR, Shuya’s best friend is in a children’s home.

In BR, Shuya creates an alliance with a girl, Noriko, who has a crush on him.  They both survive at the end by tricking the organisers of Battle Royale into thinking only one person has survived (notably, there is a third person in this alliance).  In Games, the boy tribute from Katniss’ district is in love with her, they form an alliance in the games and end up tricking the organisers into letting them both win.

Hmm…so what about the games themselves?  Battle Royale was started because of a problem in society.  In a heavily populated country, the youth have no respect.  They boycott school and are not playing their part in society.  Battle Royale is created to stand as a reminder, to keep children in line.  There are issues with this, which I will come onto later. 
The Hunger Games is set further into the future where invisible hover crafts and huge screens in the sky exist.  North America (naturally) is ravaged by war and out of the ruins the Capitol city is built and around this 12 districts are created, each specialising in a trade (jewels, agriculture, coal, etc).  Every year a boys name and a girls name is pulled from a lottery in each district and these 24 teenagers are put into The Hunger Games.  A whole class of students, 48 in all, are taken in BR and put into the battle.  There is no mention of how they are chosen but they are labelled boy 1 and girl 1, boy 2 and girl 2, etc similar to The Hunger Games.

The Capitol city of The Hunger Games is filled with over the top, colourful, fast talking people with high pitched accents and I couldn’t help being reminded of some Japanese television, especially the training video in Battle Royale.

So, there must be some differences between the two games.  The Hunger Games is a heavily televised event that the whole country is forced to watch.  Battle Royale has media coverage but not through the battle itself, which leads onto questions regarding its position in society and how this would work as a tool to frighten children into behaving.  This concept is worked out more thoroughly in The Hunger Games but I must state that many plot points in Battle Royale have been lost in translation.

One of the differences that really stuck with me is the tributes themselves.  In The Hunger Games they don’t know each other; they may not even know their counterpart from their own district.  They undergo training, they have come from either poor backgrounds where they must be strong to survive or they come from prosperous backgrounds where they are well fed and physically able.  In BR all of these teenagers know each other.  They have grown up together, formed friendships and relationships.  They are teeming with hormones and sexual tension as all long formed groups of teens are and now they are forced to kill one another without any training (they are shown a video explaining the game and the rules before being sent out onto the island).
For me this makes Battle Royale a lot more powerful.

Battle Royale is a lot bloodier than The Hunger Games – although this may be down to a question of visuals.  I do know that The Hunger Games was cut before its release to make it less violent, taking away the main point perhaps.  Both of these stories are about society turning their teenagers into violent animals for sport.  Perhaps it is also a question on the teen age itself, don’t all teenagers feel violent?  I wonder if The Hunger Games or Battle Royale would work with adults.

Battle Royale is grittier and more realistic than The Hunger Games.  It has loud speakers, technological threats (exploding head collars) and a city and society that we can recognise.  The Hunger Games have mutated experiments and a world that we don’t know, making it more science fiction and a little departed from reality.  When looking at it from this point of view, the stories are very different.

You only get to The Hunger Games themselves half way through the book and by that point I was beginning to feel that this was fan fiction for Battle Royale, the similarities were so stark.  I also wondered how Suzanne Collins would keep up the danger in the Games without the use of BR’s collars that explode if a teen wanders into the wrong zone.  BR keeps its tributes on their feet, always moving, in a very simple but terrifying way.  The Hunger Games does this by creating obstacles, controlling the weather, creating a wall of fire to herd the tributes and creating mutated creatures to tear them apart.
Actually, that was possibly the only gory moment in my opinion and I would assume it didn’t make it into the film in all its gory glory.
In this way, BR is superior.  I found this truly scary whereas there is nothing clever about a wall of fire or thrilling about a group of mutated creatures (I found this a little too much).  But then, perhaps the organisers of The Hunger Games are not clever.  Maybe this was the point.  Without reading the two sequels it is hard to judge this.

The Hunger Games is well written in the sense that I felt compelled to keep turning the pages.  The characters are much better developed than in BR, but then they often are in books, and there was more scope with Games.  However I found the writing clumsy in parts and dumbed down in others.  The talk of boyfriends and girlfriends always makes me uneasy but this is a book for teenagers so must be forgiven.  Battle Royale is dark, gritty and painful but there are plot holes and strange twists that the translation doesn’t necessarily explain.

Apparently Suzanne Collins asked her publisher if they should go ahead when she was informed of Battle Royale.  This makes me feel very angry towards the publisher.  I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t have happened if Battle Royale had been written by an American.  There is such a division between the East and West of the world when it comes to books and films, it is disgusting in this day and age that people are not credited with something on different sides of the planet.  Before The Hunger Games were made, a Western remake of Battle Royale was being planned but was blocked because of the images of violent teenagers.  Why on earth, then, did The Hunger Games get made?
In my opinion, Suzanne Collins is not to blame, she just wrote what was in her head.  It is the industry that is at fault, for not asking her to rewrite it until the concept was entirely different and for being hypocritical in allowing a Western idea to be made into a franchise rather than an already successful identical Eastern idea.

I had to read to the end of The Hunger Games to see if the endings were the same.  Would Katniss and Peeta make it out alive?  They don’t have the third counterpart like Shuya and Noriko do and they don’t trick the organisers in quite the same way.  The conclusion of BR is also missing from Games, naturally because Games is a trilogy.  As Shuya and Noriko become fugitives, always running in case they are caught, Katniss and Peeta return home and instead of fearing for their lives as with BR, I was left with a feeling that it was about to turn into a romance story.

So what can writers take from this?

I enjoyed the structure of the chapters and this is the main piece of writing advice I’ve taken from this book.  Katniss is indeed the strong, independent woman I was looking for.  I don’t mind that she became confused with her emotions for the boys in her life towards the end; this is what happens in life.  At least she wasn’t gushy and her feelings never compromised her which is all I wanted.  Still, I missed the grit and blood of BR and I was a little disappointed that it felt like the romance building became the focus towards the end.  I won’t be reaching for the sequel just yet nor will I be rushing the see the film but I would gladly watch BR again right now. 
Take from that what you will.

Below are a couple of links to other well informed opinions that I’ve found;