mjhearle

Lune Diary: An introduction

I started this blog with the best intentions. The idea was to create worthy content, not just blather on senselessly about the mundane minutiae of my life. There’s enough of that sort of navel-gazing stuff already out there. I wanted to write articles, not just posts. Thought pieces, editorials, critical essays – the kind of writing I liked to read online.

As I comb back through the archives, re-reading scattered posts here and there, I’m pleased to discover a couple of pieces that fit that description. I wish there were more but the reality is, serious writing requires serious thought which more often than not translates to time spent thinking said serious thoughts. If the last couple of years on this blog have a through-line it seems to be this: there’s never enough time.

And so, I’ve decided to take action. I don’t want to spend weeks pulling my hair out while I try to write a lone blog article of literary merit. This seems like a misuse of time and effort. I should be pouring those energies into the books. Why not abandon the blog altogether? Well, I don’t want to do that either. I enjoy blogging, especially the immediacy it offers. Also, this blog allows me to engage directly with you, dear reader, so for this aspect, if nothing else, I won’t be abandoning it soon.

In the interest of being more prolific, however, I’m going to try and treat this blog as a diary. This doesn’t mean I’m going to be writing about what I have for breakfast (I still find such stuff pretty grating). Instead, this diary will be focused on the creation of my next book, tentatively titled LUNE.

Lune is a fantasy novel about about a boy who travels to a magical world where he must undergo a perilous quest to defeat the forces of darkness. Don’t worry, I am thoroughly aware of how generic this logline sounds and can assure you I am endeavouring to avoid or invert every cliché I can. For one thing, Lune is resolutely not about ‘a chosen one’ or ‘prophecy’ or any such thing. In other words, Lune is not Harry Potter, nor would he probably be friends with Harry Potter. He’s that weird kid standing in the corner who mysteriously draws your gaze.

I’d go into a more detailed synopsis but the truth is I haven’t figured it out. The story is still trapped in a metaphorical block of marble. I can vaguely sense the shape of the beast within but won’t know exactly what it looks like until I begin chipping away. This diary will be an attempt to chart that process in all its panicky, self-doubting glory. I’ll be writing in a stream of conscious style replete with grammatical and spelling errors so don’t expect sparkling prose. Hopefully, though there will be the occasional valuable insight. Maybe, you’ll learn something? I hope I do. If nothing else, it will keep me honest. After all, I can’t very well keep a ‘writing diary’ without writing.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

M.J.

Where is Australia’s Doctor Who?

Recently, I spoiled myself and bought a Doctor Who DVD boxset. The set included the first five seasons of the rebooted Doctor Who beginning with Christopher Eccleston‘s run, and continuing all the way through David Tenant‘s. I didn’t watch the show during its original broadcast. It was on Saturday nights and I was rarely home to watch it. I figured I’d eventually catch up when it was released on DVD. Nearly ten years later, I have. 

I was a big Doctor Who fan when I was a kid. It used to scare and confuse me in equal measure but I loved the show. I loved the scope of it, the monsters, the chintzy special effects. I loved K9. My favourite Doctor was Tom Baker, though I had a special place in my heart for Sylvester McCoy. This was probably because his series had an unabashed horror focus (remember the vampires rising from the sea in The Curse of Fenric? I do.).

The Curse of Fenric

The Curse of Fenric (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the reasons my interest for the reboot remained piqued over the ensuing years between its airing and my eventual DVD purchase, is the general consensus that it was (is) a pretty great show. A fine successor to X-Files, Buffy and Angel by all reports. So it was with a certain amount of excitement that I slipped in the first disc of season one and waited to see if this new Doctor would honour the timelord of my youth.

The first few episodes were enjoyable but didn’t blow my socks off. The pace of the show felt artificially sped up – as though the producers were particularly conscious of appealing to kids with short attentions spans. Everyone seemed to be running everywhere all the time and while the cardboard sets and paper maché monsters of the original series had been replaced by abundant cgi, the effects still looked chintzy, but less charmingly so. Still, it was Doctor Who and I enjoyed Christopher Eccleston’s vaguely bi-polar take on the character. He felt like he might snap at any moment. Billie Piper brought a much appreciated spunkiness to the traditionally marginalised companion role and I enjoyed her banter with the Doctor even while I questioned the sexual tension. The Doctor is supposed to be an immortal alien. It seemed a little odd that he’d be lusting after a nineteen year-old chav. Then again – Billie Piper. It wasn’t until I hit the episodes, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances that my tempered enthusiasm became decidedly less tempered.

The Doctor Dances

The Doctor Dances (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The episodes were beautifully written, well acted and managed to spark the old fear that kept me cowering behind the couch when I was a kid. That boy walking around with a gas mask fused to his face still haunts me. The Doctor Dances also managed to introduce a healthy dose of sexuality to the Doctor Who universe in the form of the delightfully bi-curious Captain Jack. I was glad he stuck around for the rest of the season.

By the finale, I was so invested in the characters that I admit to being a little choked up by Christopher Eccleston’s demise. He’d proven himself an able Doctor and a compelling presence to hang the reboot on. I wasn’t sure the newly regenerated Doctor of season two, David Tenant, would succeed in his shadow. I was wrong. From his first scene, David Tennant owns the role, keeping a little bit of Eccleston’s manic edge whilst bringing his own sly wit.

I have yet to complete this season yet, but so far the Girl in the Fireplace and The Satan Pit are standouts, equal to anything in season one. Overall, the show seems to be going from strength to strength and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next. This may not be the Doctor Who from my youth but dammit if it isn’t just as good. If not better.

Which brings me to the point of this post, and a wistful one it is – where is Australia’s Doctor Who? By that I don’t mean why hasn’t Doctor Who been played by an Australian (though if an Aussie can be James Bond, then why not a timelord?) but where is our tv genre equivalent. I’m sure Australians have created science fiction or fantasy themed shows in the past though honestly nothing springs to mind (feel free to correct me in the comments). And certainly nothing with the cultural impact of Doctor Who. Shows like The X-Files, Buffy and Battlestar Galactica garner solid ratings here so why has no enterprising producer decided to create a homegrown character to capitalise on this genre love.

Currently, our local TV landscape is a depressingly sterile affair – the odd comedy, perennial soaps, and hours and hours of reality shows dedicated to either singing, building things or cooking. Where is the magic? The imagination? The visions of worlds undreamt of? Where is our Doctor?

M.J.

A Gambling Man

My wife was away for work recently so I found myself with a free night. Unsure what to do  I decided to try for a cliché – poker night with the boys. This, despite the fact I’d never played poker before. So the boys came round and we started playing poker – texas hold ’em to be exact. The first few rounds we played for nothing but our pride and then, once we were all comfortable with the rules (I wasn’t the only naif) we started playing for money. Not a lot of money but enough to keep things interesting.

An image of a person playing the poker varient...

An image of a person playing the poker varient, Texas Hold’em (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was keeping my head above water until midway in the game when I decided to gamble big. This was my hand – Ten of Hearts, Queen of Hearts, King of Hearts, and Ace of Hearts. All I needed was the Jack and I would have had a royal flush. A pretty much unbeatable hand. Three cards had yet to be turned over and I became convinced one of them was going to be the Jack.

Why, was I so certain? In every movie I’d ever seen about gambling when the hero was faced with a similar set of odds they bet big and won. Fate, according to Hollywood, rewards the brave and I had no reason to doubt Hollywood. It’s telling of my generally whimsical state of mind that I was shocked and disappointed when the Jack didn’t magically appear. Of course, it didn’t appear. The odds that it would have appeared were ridiculously poor. Not for the first time I was punished for confusing Hollywood reality with actual reality.

When I revealed my cards, Lee, one of the more experienced players, was shocked I’d bet so high when I had such a rubbish hand. I explained to him that I was banking on the Jack being turned over and geez, well wouldn’t that have been cool? A royal flush! How often does that happen? Lee shook his head sadly and offered me this advice – ‘Play the hand you have. Not the hand you hope to have.’

This struck me as being probably the greatest, most sensible advice of all time. For a while, anyway. And then I started thinking how often in my life I’d played the hand I hoped to have. When I asked my future wife out on a date, I had no reason to believe she’d say yes, when I bid at an open auction for our future house there was very little chance we’d win, when I decided to write my first book the chance of ever getting published was slim to none. And yet here I am married to a wonderful person, living in a beautiful home and two books sit in the shelf with my name on them.

So, I think I’ll keep I’ll keep betting big on nothing but a dream. Sooner or later that old Jack will turn up. I know it.

M.J.

Write great scenes

I’m not a big Tumblr guy. It’s nothing personal, I just feel with Facebook, Twitter and this blog, I spend enough time on social media without adding another platform to procrastinate with. There are a few Tumblr accounts I keep tabs on, however, one of them being Joe Hill’s Thrills.

Cover of "Heart-Shaped Box"

Cover of Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill, for those who don’t know, is the incredibly talented author of the spookfest Heart-Shaped Box, the magical realist novel Horns (soon to be a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe), and the upcoming NOS4R2. Say that last title aloud and if it makes you smile you’ll probably dig his stuff. Joe’s Tumblr page is a cornucopia of geekery – Doctor Who, Star Wars, Victorian book illustrations, and comic books feature heavily. He also uses his tumblr to answer fan questions and post writing advice.

One such response to a fan’s question really stuck with me. The question asked of Joe (I’m paraphrasing) was ‘should you spend two years writing a novel that might not potentially sell?’

Joe’s response:

The first is to stop thinking about writing a novel that’s going to take you two years. That’s too overwhelming. Instead, just focus on what you’re going to do today, which is write another great scene: a scene that does something unexpected and fun and is going to make people want to read on. Something that explores the characters in a way that’s real but surprising. Don’t write about someone waking up, unless they’re waking up to find a dead body next to them. Don’t write about someone making breakfast unless there’s a head in the fridge… or his wife is going to call halfway through his eggs to tell him she’s leaving his drunk and lazy ass for an alligator wrestler and part-time evangelical preacher. That would be a great scene to write and that’s all the job comes down to. Your job is to write one great scene… and then write another great scene. When you have a whole stack of them, it’s a short story, or a novel.

The whole ‘Your job is to write one great scene…and then write another great scene.’  might seem obvious but it hit me with the force of an epiphany. You see, I’ve never approached my writing like this. Instead, I’ve focused on writing a great story. The individual scenes were less important than the whole overarching narrative. Pick-up Winter’s Shadow and you’ll see, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, plenty of, what I call, ‘bridging scenes’. These are scenes where nothing particularly interesting happens but they’re necessary to move the story forward. Most of the scenes of Winter at home, listening to music, brooding etc fall under this category. I don’t enjoy writing bridging scenes and try to add flavour when I can but sometimes it’s impossible. Or so I thought.

After considering Joe’s advice I’ve come to the conclusion that these bridging scenes might have been unnecessary. Ill-planned. I should have approached every scene with the same goal – make it great. Make it dramatic, unique, quirky. Make it pop. When I was going through the editorial process with my agent and publisher the critical feedback I consistently received was that the first half of Winter’s Shadow lagged. I could never figure out why or how to rectify this problem. Now, I think I can. There were too few great scenes and too many bridging scenes. I’m just about to start writing my third book and Joe’s advice will be at the forefront of my thoughts. Write great scenes and trust that a great story will follow.

M.J.

A glass and a half of full cream magic

Open any book and chances are you’ll find a dedication. I dedicated Winter’s Shadow to my wife, Greta, and Winter’s Light to my Dad. The third Winter book will be dedicated to my Mum (if not, she’ll kill me). These dedications are more than gestures. They’re gifts. A way of immortalising a sentiment. Authors don’t dole them out willy nilly. Which is why it might come as a surprise to readers when they open my next story, Claudette in the Shadows, and see a dedication to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut Chocolate.

Cadbury's Fruit & Nut

Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut (Photo credit: Prato9x)

Let me explain: I hate getting up in the morning. Absolutely loathe it. If I had my way, I’d stay in bed till noon. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that…well…no, I’m just lazy. Unfortunately, the morning is the only time I can write. The day job occupies 9 to 6.30, and most nights I’m busy eating, having a relationship with my wife and sleeping. So basically I have from 6am to 8am to get anything done. Those precious two hours (more like an hour and half when you subtract showering, coffee making, and dressing) is guaranteed to be ‘my time’ so long as I can get to my desk and utilise it.

Which is where I hit a snag. I can set my alarm for 6am but that doesn’t mean I’m going to acknowledge it. Or even hear it. In the past, I’ve slept right through only to be woken by a well placed elbow courtesy of Greta. Even then, I’m more likely to go back to sleep. Some people spring from bed full of energy ready to tackle the day. I hate these people. It’s always a struggle for me. The Sandman is a wily jailer.

In the past, a publisher deadline has been enough of a motivator to get me out of bed. Something about knowing there are people expecting your work by a due date – have actually already paid you for it – can really light a fire under your arse. Laziness or not, with a deadline I generally get things done. Without one…there’s a reason the third Winter Book won’t be coming out this year. I watched 2012 slide by with an increasing sense of guilt and frustration as stories went unwritten. Yes, I had a wedding to plan for which ate into a lot of my free time and sucked my mental energy like a greedy vampire, but I wrote Winter’s Light under similar stressful circumstances (changing jobs, living with in-laws, buying a house).

The simple truth is, I didn’t write last year because I muster the discipline to drag my lazy arse out of bed, and plop it down in front of the laptop. Over the Christmas break I had a good long think about how to remedy this situation. Here I was, afforded this amazing opportunity to write books and have them actually be published and I was squandering it due to bad discipline. Something needed to change. I needed to change. And so we come to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate.

I don’t like candy. I never have. You can keep your boiled sweets, milk bottles, and jelly snakes. Chocolate, on the other hand, is my vice. I love the stuff. A good book/movie, a block of chocolate and a hot drink is a perfect night in. Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is my brand of choice. It’s a little fancier than your standard Milk, Dark or White chocolate but not as outrageous as your Top Decks, Rocky Roads, or Bubbly Blocks. Just like bread, milk and butter there is generally a block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in our fridge. It’s a standard item in our grocery inventory.

During my long dark tea time of the soul during Christmas, I tried to create various incentives for me to get up in the morning. Coffee was fine, but didn’t work on its own. Neither did peanut butter on toast. Watching a half of hour of TV wasn’t any good because that half hour inevitably became two hours. Whatever I tried, I was still left feeling groggy and tired and miserable. And then during one attempt, while I was getting the milk to make my morning coffee I spied the block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Lacking serious impulse control, I broke off a row and took it with the coffee to my writing desk. As I munched on the delicious fruit and nut filled chocolate squares reviewing the feeble hundred or so words I’d typed of Claudette in the Shadows, something amazing started happen. I felt happy, energised – the combination of sugar, flavour and caffeine was kickstarting my brain.

I began to write.

The next day, when my alarm went off I felt the familiar reluctance of having to climb out of bed, except this time I had the happy memory of the previous day’s writing session to bolster my resolve. I stumbled downstairs, made myself a coffee and broke off another row of chocolate. Again, serotonin levels soaring thanks to Cadbury’s cocoa I experienced a productive and satisfying writing experience.       Claudette in the Shadows was starting to take shape. Even better than that, I was actually enjoying writing it. The process wasn’t the grind it usually was. The words were coming more easily.

A month and a half later, I’ve finished two drafts of Claudette, an outline for a children’s fantasy novel, and the first third of a horror movie screenplay. I’ve accomplished more in this short period than all of 2012. Every morning I wake up, have my chocolate and coffee and sit down to write. I no longer feel frustrated and unfulfilled. Perhaps, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate is a Dumbo’s feather. Maybe I had the capacity to be this kind of writer all along. I don’t know? What I do know is every block of Cadbury’s chocolate contains a glass and a half of full cream dairy milk. Milk has calcium in it which is good for your bones and stuff. So eating Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is healthy. If it also helps with your writing, then that ain’t bad.

M.J.

Tropfest, Amateurs Need Not Apply

I watched the Tropfest telecast on Sunday night and was struck by just how professional most of the shorts looked. Recognisable actors from TV, slick camera work, orchestral scores, top notch sound mixing, special FX and stuntwork were the norm not the exception. Thankfully, all this technical polish was at the service of some pretty great storytelling. Most years, Tropfest is a bit of a mixed bag with one or two genuinely effective shorts, plenty of middling efforts, and a couple of headscratchers but this year the finalists were uniformly strong. My favourite was the surprisingly emotional zombie film, CargoWho would have thought you could mine fresh material from such an overexposed monster conceit?

Despite the high standard of Tropfest flicks, I was left feeling a little disappointed. Something was missing. The first time I went to Sydney’s Domain to watch Tropfest was in 1997. The sixteen finalist films were largely shot on off-the-shelf camcorders, featured bad sound and even worse performances. Yet, they were charming and a couple of them were even ingenious. The poor production values certainly didn’t detract from the experience. They felt hand-made and personal. These were movies anyone could have made so long as they had a decent idea and a couple of mates they could rope in to helping them out.

I left that first festival feeling inspired to make my own Tropfest film. My film turned out pretty rubbish (the ‘story’ involved a couple of flatmates making a friend dance for beer) and suffice to say I didn’t make it into the final sixteen but that didn’t matter. The act of making the film with my friends was such fun that the process became the reward, not the end product. This is what was so great about Tropfest. It didn’t matter how good your movie was, just that you were making one. And if you were talented enough maybe you’re DIY film might end up being screened in front of 100,000 people and you’ll get a chance to shake hands with Russell Crowe or Samuel L. Jackson.

As the years went on, I watched the Tropfest finalists become more and more polished. Advertising agencies and production companies began entering work, professional actors cameo’d in their mates movies almost guaranteeing a spot in the final sixteen. The movies started looking better and sounding better but something was lost along the way – that DIY spirit that infused the earlier years. I can’t imagine a young person watching the Tropfest finalists last night and thinking to themselves they could go out tomorrow and shoot something of commensurate quality. It wouldn’t be possible without a couple thousand in the bank and friends in the industry willing to donate equipment, time and expertise.

Today, Tropfest seems less of a launchpad for struggling outsiders than it is an opportunity for film students and ad-land creatives to get a leg-up in the industry. Hopefully, next year the Tropfest organisers will remember their roots and not feel bashful about putting up someone’s backyard cinematic endeavor next to the more polished fare. The audience doesn’t mind if the seams show, if the acting is atrocious, or if the music score is supplied by a toy piano. All we care about is whether the film makes us smile. Think. Feel.

M.J.

How to make the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie

I’m a geek.

Not that this should be surprising considering the sort of stuff I write, but I thought I should put it up front as we’re about to get into some particularly geeky territory. How geeky? Well, let’s just say if you know the difference between Hawkman and Hawkeye you should be okay. If you don’t, then I apologise in advance.

Now, many of you probably caught Joss Whedon’s The Avengers last year. Personally, I found the movie a little flat, save for any sequence featuring the Hulk. Sue me – I dig a big green guy beating the crap out of people. Clearly, I was in the minority with my luke warm response as The Avengers went on to become the number one box office hit of the year. Hollywood tends notice when a particular movie makes piles of money so news of a proposed similarly themed superhero team-up movie, Justice League, hit the interweb soon after.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, The Avengers was based on a pre-existing MARVEL comic book that dates back to the sixties. Justice League will feature superheroes drawn from the DC comic book series which also began in the sixties. Both DC and MARVEL publish stories about muscular men and women in tights yet the ethos behind the comics are quite different.

As personified by Superman, DC stories typically feature character-types who represent hyper-idealised notions of courage and strength. DC superheroes are more than human, unimpeachable – ‘super’ in every sense of the word. MARVEL stories, on the other hand, generally depict superheroes as all too human and having to contend with real world issues. The MARVEL mascot, Spiderman, is just a poor kid struggling to pay rent and keep his girlfriend. Fighting supervillains is just another pain in his ass. This characterisation is pretty far removed from the ‘lonely god’ archetypes of the core DC trio: Superman, Wonder Woman and (despite his mortal frailties) Batman.

When MARVEL first started making movies as a fully fledged studio (after watching Hollywood muck it up for years) they were careful to establish a real world aesthetic for their first film, Iron Man, that was in keeping with their grounded storytelling approach. Certain narrative aspects strayed into the realm of science fiction but the characters remained recognisably human. When Iron Man became such a resounding success, it set the template for the following films Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Moreover Iron Man gave Marvel the clout to employ a production strategy never before attempted in cinema – they would produce a series of origin movies featuring characters from Marvel comics existing in a shared universe. The ‘shared universe’ aspect of their plan was the revolutionary part of their plan. While Iron Man could appear in Thor or The Incredible Hulk’s comics, nothing like that had ever been done before in the movies. What first seemed to be a cool gimmick actually turned out to be a narrative device that paved the way for  The Avengers.  

MARVEL had no way of knowing audiences would embrace characters like Thor or Captain America but charged on ahead anyway. Even when a film stumbled (cough* Incredible Hulk cough*) it still served to strengthen the Marvel cinematic universe. As The Avengers box office receipts indicate, Marvel’s gamble paid off, which brings us to the proposed Justice League movie. I can see how on paper this production makes sense. After all DC characters like Batman and Superman have arguably much more traction with the movie going public than MARVEL players like Iron Man, let alone Hawkeye or Black Widow. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie featuring the two of them plus a bunch of other beloved classic superheroes?
However, Warner Bros. (the studio that owns DC Comics) doesn’t seem to understand that the reason The Avengers succeeded was not because it featured a bunch of superheroes in the same movie but because it felt like the culmination of one gigantic overarching story. Without Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America,  The Avengers wouldn’t have been half as well received because audiences wouldn’t have cared about – or even been able to identify – the characters (Who the hell is that blonde guy with the big hammer? Why is Robert Downey Jr dressed up like a robot? Where’s Eric Bana?).
Making Justice League an even dicier proposition is the previous cinematic success of DC superheroes. Green Lantern, was a massive failure, both critically and at the box office. Superman Returns bombed. Movies featuring Wonder Woman and The Flash have never even made it past the development stage. Sure, the Batman films have always been huge moneymakers but I’d  suggest that while Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are brilliant, his version of the character does not lend itself to a Justice League movie. It’s far too mired in it’s own complex mythology to be easily dropped into universe where a man flies around in blue leggings. No, if Warner Bros. are smart – and by announcing that they will release Justice League head to head with Avengers 2 this remains doubtful – they’ll leave Nolan’s Batman alone and start from scratch with the character.

I have recently given this proposed Justice League movie significant thought (see first sentence of this post). Probably, too much thought considering I have absolutely no power whatsoever in effecting its outcome. Fan wanking I believe it’s called. Nevertheless, I offer my suggestions here on the off chance that these words will find their way onto a Warner Bros executive’s BlackBerry and help avert not only a financial disaster but a storytelling one.

First of all, don’t release Justice League against Avengers 2. That’s just a colossally stupid move. At best you’ll be the year’s Deep Impact, to The Avengers Armageddon. Why not wait a year to have that summer spot all to yourself? Or hell, why not wait six years and spend the interim time following the Marvel model by crafting a series of origin pictures featuring the revamped Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman existing in a shared universe. Oh that’s right, you want to make your cash quickly before this whole superhero thing goes the way of the Western, which lets face it, is only a matter of time. Just like denim cut-offs, movie trends fall in and out of fashion with frightening abruptness.

Okay, so you’re locked into the Justice League movie – the first thing I’d do is hire the guys and gals behind the Justice League cartoons of the early naughties to oversee the script. Folks like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini who were also responsible for arguably the greatest Batman movie, Mask of the Phantasm. Clearly they know the DC characters inside and out, and more to the point understand good storytelling. I’ve been re-watching episodes of Batman Beyond recently and am constantly struck at just how well written these episodes are. It baffles me that Warner Bros. animation consistently outshines the live-action division yet goes unrewarded. Green Lantern would not have happened under Paul Dini or Bruce Timm’s watch.

Now as for the movie’s story, internet rumours suggest it involves the Justice League facing off against Darkseid, an intergalactic superbeing. This sounds pretty interesting and nothing at at all like The Avengers 2 which has Iron Man and co facing off against Thanos, an intergalactic superbeing…oh wait! It’s the same story! I dearly hope this rumour turns out to be false because while releasing a superhero team film against another superhero team film is bad strategy, releasing a film with the same basic storyline as your competitor is borderline retarded.

Don’t use Darkseid. DC has a roster of fantastic villains including the ever-charismatic Lex Luthor. Get Gene Hackman out of retirement or even bring back Kevin Spacey and his kryptonite shiv. I sincerely believe audiences would rather watch superheroes facing off against human foe rather than a CGI monster. It’s an empathy thing. Monsters made of pixels will never be as compelling as a human character portrayed by a charismatic performer. If you use Die Hard as your model and create a villain worthy of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, then you’re already ahead of The Avengers in my book.

Finally, my big suggestion for the Justice League movie is an aesthetic one – make it a period piece. Superman and Batman first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. By setting your story in this decade not only do you immediately imbue the film with a timeless quality, but it’s also befitting the characters. Superman’s old fashioned boyscout persona will certainly play more comfortably in this decade (I dread to think of the studio notes suggesting the character be made *ahem ‘edgy’ to better suit these cynical post-modern times. See Man of Steel trailer for evidence of this. Or don’t.) Also, who wouldn’t want to see an art deco Batman? We’ve already had the gothic Batman (Burton), disco Batman (Schumacher), and techno Batman (Nolan).

Perhaps most importantly, from a marketing position a 1930’s aesthetic will also allow you to visually differentiate the film in audience’s minds from the inevitable brushed steel, lens-flare heavy look of The Avengers 2. It doesn’t have to be sepia toned, hire a talented production designer to create something stylish and beautiful. Continuing this aesthetic, think of the poster/banner/billboard campaign you could run – classic character portraits of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman painted in the art deco style. As for multimedia, how about this – instead of derivative Inception BWAMM! scored teaser trailers, you could release period appropriate black and white newsreels featuring Batman/Superman’s/Wonder Woman’s exploits. It would be a great way to introduce audiences to this particular cinematic re-imagining of these properties. Hell, put them on YouTube and watch them go viral. Don’t worry about chasing The Avengers – let them worry about being hip. Hipness is temporary. Justice League can be classic.

M.J.

My Favourite Books of 2012

Authors should read books as well as write them. That seems like a no brainer, but when you’re in the middle of a first draft sometimes picking up a book to read isn’t that appealing. Maybe it’s the fear of having one’s voice polluted. Maybe it’s just laziness. Whatever the case, I generally feel like I don’t read as much as I should. I tried to rectify this in 2012 by forcing myself to read – if only for ten minutes – every night before going to bed. As a result I made it through thirty books this year which is approximately twenty five books more than I read the year before. That’s a win.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favourites though please pay no attention to the order. The books are relatively disparate in terms of style and genre so putting them against each other just seemed redundant.

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King (5)

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King (5) (Photo credit: Travelin’ Librarian)

The Wind Through The Keyhole by Stephen King

There seems to be a commonly held perception in the blogger community that Stephen King isn’t as vital a writer as he once was. Bullshit. I’d point to 2011’s Full Dark, No Stars and his most current release The Wind Through The Keyhole as  some of the best stuff he’s ever written. The latter in particular is a wonderfully creepy fable full of the kind of suspenseful horror sequences and vivid characterisations that King excels at. You don’t have to be a Dark Tower fan to appreciate the book, but it helps as there are numerous references, both direct and oblique, to King’s magnum opus.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

After learning this is one of Neil Gaiman’s favourites I had to pick up a copy. It’s not that I’m a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy it’s just…well…er – no,  I am a slavering Neil Gaiman fanboy. That said, this book is a blast. While the heft of it is slightly formidable, the sly wit of Clarke’s prose makes diving into the story a breezy pleasure. Separate from the compelling central drama between Strange and Norrell, history buffs will appreciate the way Clarke artfully weaves her mythology of the Raven King and Faerie into significant English historical events such as the Battle of Hastings. I am not a history buff though feel like I know a lot more about 19th century England after finishing this book than I did before. The BBC have just announced they’ll be turning Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell into a TV series so I suggest you jump on the bandwagon now before it inevitably becomes a pop culture phenomenon ala Game of Thrones.

Cover of

Cover of The Corrections

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’ve read quite a few online interviews with this Franzen fellow and the impression I’ve formed is of a hyper-intelligent, deeply sensitive, and distinctly misanthropic character. Keep in mind this is only my impression, and the real Franzen might be the sort of guy you’d happily share a few beers with at the local pub. Doubtful, though.

This is why I’m constantly surprised at how much heart is evident in his novels. Both Freedom and The Corrections are filled to the brim with neurotic, selfish and objectively unpleasant characters, yet Franzen writes them with such affection it’s hard not to love them. He’s also surprisingly hilarious for such a serious author, displaying a propensity for scatological humour that make his frequent digressions into wanky intellectualism a whole lot easier to swallow.  The Corrections doesn’t end on quite the same beautifully bittersweet note that Freedom managed, but by the turn of the final page I felt like I’d read some worthy and great and human which is more than I can say for most books.

Cover of "The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Ma...

Cover via Amazon

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Reading Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) was one of the most thrilling and intellectually satisfying literary experience I had this year. Not only a compelling adventure rendered in sparkling prose, this series is also about ideas. Big ideas. Audacious ideas. Wonderfully challenging ideas. One of Pullman’s motivations for writing His Dark Materials was for the books to serve as a refutation of the Christian propaganda in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. And so His Dark Materials is about a man who sets out to kill God.

Yes, God. Harry Potter, this aint!

While taking down Christianity may be his central agenda, Pullman doesn’t stop at this, also layering in complex references to metaphysics, theology, gender politics, string theory, and philosophy but never at the expense of the narrative. This isn’t a book weighed down by its ideas but one that uses them to scale heights rarely reached by fantasy fiction. It’s exciting heady stuff and should serve as a benchmark for any writer working in the genre. By that, I don’t mean every fantasy writer should seek to destroy organised religion, only that every writer should strive for the same level of intellectual and creative curiosity in their work. 

This is the sort of book that makes me wish I had children so I could give it to them  to read. There would undoubtedly be questions afterwards. Questions I might not have the answers for but the sort of questions that lead to healthy conversation. Which is precisely what I think Pullman intends. He’s not trying to convert the reader into an atheist – despite what I may have suggested, I don’t think these books are anti-spiritualism or even anti-God (only this book’s God) – instead, I think His Dark Materials is more interested in starting a dialogue about free will and the dangers of blind faith.  

And so we reach the end of my ‘2012’ posts. I hope you enjoyed them. I had a ball writing them. Please feel free to drop by the comments section to share your thoughts or any suggestions you may have for books I’ve missed. 

M.J.

My Favourite TV Shows of 2012

I need to watch more television.

This might sound like an odd confession from someone who constantly moans about not having enough time to read books but the truth is there’s no shame in wanting to watch TV these days. Delving into a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be just as rewarding as cracking open a novel. There’s a reason wags have labelled this a golden age of television.

Mad Men

Mad Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the scene in the pilot episode of Mad Men that made me realise this show was something special. Don Draper, stressed and hungover, lies down on the couch in his office and glances up at a fluorescent light. A fly is trapped behind the plastic guard desperately trying to escape. There’s no music – just the low hum of the light and the frantic buzzing of the fly. In retrospect, the imagery might be a little heavy handed – yeah, Don Draper’s the fly trapped in a prison of his own making – but it’s the sort of elegantly wordless scene that rarely pops up in television. Mad Men isn’t that concerned with plot, instead it rambles down narrative avenues and cul-de-sacs, more interested in the journey than the destination.

One episode stands out in a season of brilliant episodes – I’m talking about episode four, MYSTERY DATE. Mad Men has always had an undercurrent of simmering tension, however this episode really ramps it up by including a real-life serial killer, Richard Speck, into the proceedings. Again and again, the seemingly unrelated murder case intrudes on the narrative, appearing in newspaper headlines or overheard conversations. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic theory that suggests if a gun is introduced in Act 1 then the audience expects it to go off in Act 3. And so we viewers are kept on the edge of our seat during MYSTERY DATE, waiting to see how this serial killer stuff is going to impact story. For a show that prizes character over action it’s a surprisingly suspenseful episode, and one that culminates in a typically obtuse, though satisfying, manner.

Breaking Bad (season 1)

Breaking Bad (season 1) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While Mad Men had a particularly strong season, Breaking Bad has remained consistently strong throughout it’s five seasons. Still, I find myself waiting for the upcoming final season with some reservations. These stem from the fact that I don’t really like Walter White anymore. When  Breaking Bad first began, it was thrilling watching this mild-mannered high school teacher outwit violent drug dealers and gangsters but now Walter has transformed into such a cold and despicable character I find myself caring less about his plight. The show’s called Breaking Bad, so I shouldn’t be surprised by this turn of events but I can’t help but think it would be better if Walter showed a glimmer of remorse from time to time. The moments of black comedy which once alleviated the oppressively dark tone also seem to be coming in shorter supply. That stated, I’m committed now and will follow Walter White’s story to the bitter end if only to see how the whole tragic mess plays out.

Perhaps because it’s filtered through the lens of the fantasy genre, I find the similarly grim Game of Thrones to be a much easier watch. GOT, survived the loss of Sean Bean’s noble Ned Stark to deliver a second season just as strong as the first. For my money, Tyrion Lanister (brilliantly performed by Peter Dinklage) stood out as the most compelling character of the season, closely followed by the plucky Arya. And that last shot with the White Walkers marching on The Wall – Wow! Talk about a rousing way to close out a season. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

From hour long dramas to half hour dramedies, I watched Lena Dunham’s GIRLS after having my curiosity piqued by no small amount of online controversy. Because Dunham is only 26, there was much written about her being given a TV show to write, direct and star in, with the general thrust of the arguments being she didn’t deserve it at such a young age. Nonsense. Dunham was given this opportunity because she’s damn talented. GIRLS is clever, hilarious and peppered with scene after scene of emotional honesty. At times cringe-inducing in its rawness, the show nevertheless consistently entertains and I can’t understand why it would provoke such scorn when bland entertainment like How I Met Your Mother is infinitely more risible.

True Blood, was okay this year. I’ll stick around for next season but it’s not appointment TV. Jason Stackhouse still cracks me up, and I do love mimicking Bill’s ‘Sookie’. The ample gore and nudity is, as always, appreciated but the showrunners better whip something special up or I can’t see it surviving much longer.

Dexter (season 2)

Dexter (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was writing my Favourite Movies post, I included a bit of a wildcard (John Carter) and suspect my next choice will be equally controversial but, dammit, I enjoyed the hell out of Dexter. Isaak Sirko was a great antagonist this season, rich in pathos and acted superbly by the always reliable Ray Stevens. I was disappointed he didn’t make it to the end. Deb is still an annoyingly emotional basketcase, but it was a smart move making her aware of Dexter’s true nature (still think the incest stuff is boneheaded) as this complication added some much needed drama. Dexter’s central romance with Hannah was surprisingly sensitive and compelling. I suppose, it didn’t hurt that the Aussie actress (Yvonne Strahovski) playing Hannah was absolutely gorgeous – I’m gonna have to check out Chuck. It will be interesting to see how her character impacts the next season. Hell hath no fury like a sociopathic poisoner scorned.

Community, was patchy but when it worked there were few comedies that could compete with it. Much better than The Big Bang Theory and its canned laughter ilk. In terms of reflexive, post-modern comedy Arrested Development is still the reigning champ

One of the shows I loved most this year actually finished in 2006. I discovered Deadwood on BluRay and hungrily devoured all three seasons over a couple of weeks, luxuriating in the profane/poetic dialogue and marvelling at the exquisitely grimy art direction. In a perfect world we’d get a new season of Deadwood every year. As it stands, I’m grateful to have three.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story.

Promotional poster of American Horror Story. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally, we come to a show which probably shouldn’t be on this list, as it is in no ways ‘good’ but I include it to be honest with myself and with you, dear reader. American Horror Story: Asylum ramped up the lunacy of the first season by introducing all manner of shenanigans. Ghosts, demons, breast-obsessed serial killers, madmen, madwomen, nymphomaniacs, horny nuns, nazi scientists, zombies, exorcists and aliens all popped up, sometimes overlapping each other in a single episode. The result was perhaps not what the creators intended. Instead of terrifying, American Horror Story is often hilarious in its desperate urge to horrify and titillate. While, this may not be the classic genre series I initially hoped, I’ll gladly accept more American Horror Stories if only to see if the creators can maintain this fever-pitch level of crazy.

That’s it for my thoughts on TV in 2012. Let me know if you agree with my selection or if there’s any great shows I missed out on.

M.J.

My Favourite Movies of 2012

2012 was maybe the best year for cinema since 1999, which saw the release of modern classics The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty and my personal favourite Being John Malkovich. Sure, there were a few stinkers like Battleship and Ghost Rider (which even crazy old Nic Cage couldn’t save), but there were so many other quality releases that it was easy to ignore them. What follows is my rambling attempt to encapsulate the best movie experiences I had during the year. You won’t find a top ten list or anything so formal, however in the interest of establishing some kind of hierarchy I give you my two favourite films of 2012: Looper and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Despite being completely different in terms of subject matter and aesthetic, both films left me with the impression that I’d witnessed something special.

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