Les Misérables

What's this, two trips to the cinema in one month? I only saw four films on the big screen in the whole of last year (and one of those was Prometheus, which doesn't really count).  But Sam was at a sleepover on Saturday, so we ventured out through snow, wind and rain to watch Les Misérables (or Lez Mizrubbles, to give it its correct English pronunciation).

I've been hearing people bang on about Les Mis for more or less my whole adult life - I can't recall when the show opened, but I can remember reading in the Observer in about 1986 that there was going to be a movie, starring Mick Jagger and David Bowie (crikey, heck!). That never happened of course, but the show has been cluttering up one West End theatre or another ever since, and has finally made it onto the screen, and I've still never seen it, or heard any of the songs.

It turns out that the reason for that is that there aren't really any songs in it. Well, that's a bit unfair: while watching the movie I noticed three. There is a rousing revolutionary march which goes 'Can You Hear the People Sing/Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum/It is the music of a people who will dum-de-dum-de something' you know the one. Then there's a comic number called 'Master of the House' which is not quite up to Lionel Bart standards, but stomps along quite catchily. And there's a soupy sort of solo called 'I Dreamed a Dream' which sounds as if the composers scraped it off the very bottom of Andrew Lloyd Webber's dustbin.  The rest of the three hours, as far as I could tell, was filled up with reprises and a lot of recitative, which sounded a bit absurd (as recitative always does to my heathen ears).  Maybe if I listened to the soundtrack a few times I could pick out some other tunes - but I don't think I will.

HOWEVER, while the songs never really rise to the levels of musical achievement you'd hear in the average elevator, the way they were filmed seemed quite ground-breaking to me.*  When Anne Hathaway sings the aforementioned I Dreamed a Dream, it's all captured in one long take, with the camera close in on her face, which is covered in tears and snot and ACTING.  Despite the naffness of the tune and lyric it's surprisingly powerful, and not quite like anything I've seen before. It made me wonder what a film would be like which took this live-singing approach and applied it to a real opera - amazing, I should think. But I doubt the big name actors you need to make a film on this scale would have the singing voices to handle Wagner or Verdi.

Poor old Russell Crowe can barely handle the songs in Les Mis: he stands around on parapets and sort of hoots.  But Hugh Jackman, as the put-upon hero Jean Valjean, is magnificent: he looks so right, and acts so well, that I didn't really notice whether he could sing or not (Sarah, who Knows These Things, tells me that he can.)  Anne Hathaway, who seems to be mostly made of eyes, was good too, though I think its fair to say that the female characters are a droopy, doomed, lachrymose lot, like Victorian watercolours done on wet tissue. Helena Bonham Carter, doing her mad-haired panto schtick as the thieving innkeeper's wife, is the only one who's allowed any fun at all.

What I mostly enjoyed was the huge, mad, 19th-Century-novel sweep of the story, its revolutions and moralising and its coincidence-driven roller-coaster of a plot.  Coincidences are terribly out-of-favour in modern stories - I think most authors try to avoid or conceal them, and critics, both the professional sort and self-appointed ones like me, tend to point and laugh if they catch a whiff of one - but I'm starting to think there's much to be said for them. There's a moment in the film (and I presume it's in the novel too, though it's decades since I read it** ) when Valjean is on the run and in desperate need of shelter, and the stranger he appeals to for help turns out to be the very same man he saved from death by cart-related squishing in an earlier scene.  It's a Bit of a Coincidence, to say the least (though it might have not seemed like that to Victor Hugo and his readers, who were perhaps readier than we are to see the Hand of the Almighty in such things), but it seemed to me as as neat as the teeth of two gears meshing, driving the story onward.  I think we need more coincidences in fiction.

So: Lez Mizrubbles: it bangs on a bit, but it was worth seeing, and while I can appreciate the justice of this rather patrician article from The New Yorker, I can also understand the enthusiasm of Sarah McIntyre, who reviews the film here (and she and Stuart do their own re-enactment of the Paris Uprising on the film's Greenwich locations: HOORAY).

*Admittedly I haven't seen a movie musical more recent than Cabaret. Maybe they're all like this now?

**...and I'm afraid I never got all the way through Vol II.

Images swiped from IMDB and the official Les Misérables website

Snow Business


I do like a bit of snow. On the down side, I haven't been more than about two miles from home for the past week, but on the up side, Dartmoor looks beautiful, and I feel quite manly going out to fetch firewood and feed the alpacas every morning.  The forecast is saying the weather will turn warm'n'wet again this coming weekend, so I took this morning off and had a good long stomp over the hills near my house before it all melts. Here are some of the photos I've been boring my Twitter followers with...

Bonehill Rocks

Tracks of William Bell's tractor in the field below our house.

Ice on the grass stems, up on the hill this morning

Sam's school was closed, so we got lots of tobogganing and snowball fights in. And I gave him a quick history lesson about Anglo-Saxon England. How King Alfred Burnt the Cakes was something Every Schoolchild Knew when I was little, but the modern curriculum doesn't seem to touch on it. I know it's apocryphal, but it's pretty much the only thing I knew about King Alfred, so I thought it a shame not to pass it on...

Chinkwell Tor


Snow, Reddit, Mossy Hares

Our pond on Friday. Thanks to Frank Kelly for pointing out that the trees look like three frosty trolls ...

Winter finally reached us on Friday last week, with a heavy fall of snow overnight.  I gather it's mostly melted down in the lowlands, but here on Dartmoor it's not going anywhere.  It's very picturesque, but the lanes around our house are all quite bad, so I think we may be stuck here till it thaws. At least we've sorted out the pipe from the borehole, which used to freeze every winter and leave us without water at the coldest times of year.  And the new studio is toasty warm with the woodburner ticking over, so I have no excuse to slack off. I've completed three projects so far this year - the text for the second of my OUP books with Sarah McIntyre (keep watching her blog for updates on the first, Oliver and the Seawigs) and a couple of short stories which I'll tell you about when the anthologies they were written for are published. I suspect that rate of productivity will tail off pretty sharply now...

Last night, as mentioned here previously, I did an AMA session on the Mortal Engines sub-Reddit.  I was a bit worried that nobody would log on, but quite a few people did, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable interviews I've done: there were good questions about the books from all sorts of angles, and people could come back with further responses to my answers, so it was like half a dozen conversations going on at once. I hope I didn't miss any of the questions: I'll check in a moment in case I did.  You can read it all here, but because of the way Reddit operates, with people voting things up and down, it's all got cut up and rearranged in the manner popularised by William Burroughs, with some of my replies appearing long before the question to which they relate...  maybe that makes for a more interesting read, though.

Finally, thanks to everybody who shared or re-Tweeted my posts last year about Mossy Hare Productions, and all who contributed to their quest to fund their documentary about the making of John Boorman's Excalibur.  They raised very nearly two thirds of the $30,000 they were aiming for, which will enable them to at least start the post-production work.   I look forward to blogging my report from the star-studded Dublin premiere in due course.

Mortal Engines on Reddit


I learned last week that there is a forum or 'subreddit' of the Reddit website devoted to all things Mortal Engines. Unfortunately it's not very well attended - but the nice people who set it up are hoping to change that.  You can find it here, and on Saturday 19th January I'll be doing an AMA session between 6pm - 9pm (UK time).

I think AMA stands for 'Ask Me Anything', so feel to do so, within reason. (The question I am most often asked is 'Will there be a movie?' to which I don't know the answer, but I shall do my best to answer anything else.)

So I'll talk (or type) to you then, I hope, and if you can't join in on Saturday, it's still worth checking out the Mortal Engines Subreddit.

(And I'm happy to try and answer your questions over on Facebook at any time.)

February Festivals

I'll be quite busy next month: not one, but TWO festivals to attend (and my friendly local SF convention too, if I can find the time).

One of the festivals is also local: Animated Exeter has been running since 1999 and is now one of the biggest animation festivals in the country. There will be all sorts of screenings and workshops going on Exeter from the 18th - 24th February, as well as a schools programme.

I've been asked to write a short story for the Festival, and I've come up with something called The Exeter Riddles, in which a boy has to try to stop the time slip which is causing bits of the city's past to leak into the present.  It was initially inspired by some of the saints and gargoyles carved on the elaborate front of Exeter cathedral, but the time-slip idea allowed me to pack in other bits of local history too, from the Romans to the Blitz.  The story is being used as the basis for some of the workshops, and as the jumping-off point for a live-action game to be played in various sites around the city.  And on Saturday the 23rd my friend and Seawigs co-author Sarah McIntyre will be joining me for a character design session and comics jam at the Phoenix Arts Centre in the city.  

Meanwhile in London the Imagine children's festival will be running at the South Bank from the 11th to the 24th, and Sarah and I will be part of that too: our Monsters vs Goblins Drawing Battle will be on Sunday 17th, details here.

And back in Exeter (if you're still with me?) MicroCon will be taking place on the 23rd and 24th at Exeter University.  I was a guest at this small SF convention last year, and it was great; highly recommended if you are in the area. I shall drop in if I can, but unfortunately it clashes with my Animated Exeter duties, so I may be elsewhere. You can find out more about it at the MicroCon Facebook Page.

Spot the Difference

Back in the eighties I bought a bunch of stills from Excalibur at some convention or other, and they came complete with a 'Distributor's Information Pack', containing various different sized press ads which cinema owners could run in their local newspaper - and this rather odd 'spot the difference' competition.  Yes kids, this is how violent AA (15) certificate films were publicised before the internet arrived.

There's one week left to contribute to the Excalibur 'making of' documentary Behind the Sword in the Stone, by Mossy Hare Productions.  They're about half way to their target, and all sorts of rewrds are still available on their Indiegogo page, which is here.

The Hobbit - Unexpectedly Enjoyable


I don't usually bother reviewing films I've watched here any more - there are so many other reviews sloshing around the internet that it's hard to imagine why anyone would be interested in mine.  But most of the reviews I've seen of The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey have been bad, so I thought it might be worth posting my own minority report.  I saw it last Sunday - a final treat on the last day of Sam's Christmas holidays - and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It may be, of course, because I had read all those negative reviews and went along with very low expectations.  I love The Lord of the Rings but The Hobbit has never held the same place in my affections, and the idea that it was going be chopped into 3 parts and stuffed with bits from the LOTR appendices and the completely unreadable Silmarillion was far from attractive.  Also, I'd heard it was three hours long! (I think a film needs to have a very good reason to last much over 90 minutes.)

Anyway, I only went to see The Hobbit because Sam wanted to - all his friends had seen and enjoyed it - and I was quite surprised to find, almost from the kick-off, that I was charmed by it.  Perhaps because I know The Lord of the Rings so much better, I found the film versions of it hard to watch: it didn't look how it looks in my head, and I winced at all the cuts and changes.  The Hobbit means less to me, and my memories of the text are vague, so I was happy to sit back and enjoy the film.  I can see why others don't, of course.  Structurally, it's a disaster.  It might work better as a TV miniseries, spread over three or four nights, than viewed in one bum-numbing chunk in the cinema.  But Peter Jackson and his cohorts have presumably made a deliberate choice to sacrifice cinematic structure in order to delve in depth into the book's story and its world, and if you can accept that, there is much to enjoy.

The opening sequence about the fall of the Dwarvish kingdom works well enough, and serves to set up the dwarves' back-story and hint at things to come in the later films.  Its followed by a redundant scene between Bilbo and Frodo, which made my heart sink, but is presumably just there to hammer home the point that THIS FILM IS SET BEFORE THE OTHERS - it's soon over, and from then on things pick up pretty quickly.  Scene succeeds scene in a sort of leisurely, picaresque procession, some taken straight from the book, others borrowed from the LOTR appendices, and a couple presumably made up out of thin air.

The most prominent of the latter involve Sylvester McCoy as the wizard Radagast, and I suspect your attitude to them will colour whether you like or loathe the film.  Many people have spoken (or at least Tweeted) disparagingly of this Radagast, with his rabbit-drawn sleigh and urgent quest to save a sick hedgehog.  But Tolkien's The Hobbit is first and foremost a children's fantasy, and a pretty old-fashioned one at that - an odd, whimsical mash-up of The Wind In The Willows and Beowulf.  I thought Radagast and his rabbits fitted in pretty well. He's certainly no sillier than cockney trolls or the revelation that one of Bilbo's ancestors invented golf, both of which come straight from the book.

There's also a new sub-plot involving an orc called Azog, who seems to be there to make Thorin more of a badass action hero* and tie the various episodes together a bit (which sort of succeeds, though I don't know if it's necessary). And there's a Council of the Wise scene, bringing in Galadriel and Saruman at Rivendell, which  is much less fun - wise people should never be allowed to get together in stories . Still I suspect it's setting up the big events of the second movie, and was pretty to look at, at least, being set in a lovely Arts&Crafts /Alan Lee summerhouse with streams running around it. (Having seen the way the streams on Dartmoor rise after heavy rain, I wouldn't want to live in Rivendell.  But then I wouldn't want to live in Rivendell anyway; the elves are insufferable, spooky-eyed, Spocky-eared vegetarian types who lounge around tootling sub-Enya folk tunes on their flutes and all vote for the Green Party, it is worse than Totnes, my deres.)

Anyway, the elves are soon left behind (yay!) and it's onward to the Misty Mountains, where there is a battle between some stone giants which doesn't really work (boo) before we get to the best bit; the long sequence set inside the caverns, as the dwarves escape from Goblin Town and Bilbo meets Gollum and acquires the Ring.  The ramshackle goblin colony is a wonderful creation, although the battle there bangs on a bit (like all filmic battles in these days of CGI - or am I just getting old?).  But Gollum  is great, even if he does look disconcertingly as though an experiment to clone Steve Buscemi has gone Horribly Wrong. It's interesting that in a film full of battles, chases, escapes, monsters, and swooping helicoptery shots of New Zealand the most memorable bit is still these two characters swapping riddles in the dark.

Oh, and Martin Freeman was great as Bilbo Baggins. Just as he was as Arthur Dent in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, another film I didn't expect to like, about another comfortable, fussy Englishman dragged off on adventures by weirdos.

So anyway, that's what I thought of it, and Sam, who isn't exactly the Attention Span King, sat through it all agog and wanted to know when the second one was coming out as soon as the credits rolled. My advice is, read the bad reviews, then give it a try anyway: you might be pleasantly surprised.

(Incidentally, I saw the film in 2D, so I can't comment on the controversial 3D version.  I don't think I ever have seen a film which has been much improved by 3D though.)

*Or a Superhero: there's a very interesting take on that in Entertainment Weekly.