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Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011) August 27, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Han Solo/Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a western fused with nasty aliens, directed by John Favreau (Iron Man), with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive producer Steven Spielberg.  In terms of expectations, they don’t get much higher than Cowboys and Aliens (adapted from the graphic novel of the same name), which could explain the lukewarm reception the film has received thus far.

But was it really that bad?  No.  I actually thought it was okay.  Big stars, freaky monsters, large-scale battle scenes and some well-executed action sequences.  But given what this film could have been, Cowboys and Aliens was ultimately somewhat of a disappointment.

The story is relatively simple — Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with an alien bracelet on his wrist and no recollection of who he is or where he has been.  Stuff happens, and along with Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown (everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank), he goes on a mission to rescue some humans while trying to piece together his shattered memory.

All the requisite elements for an engaging motion picture are there.  Craig is excellent as the kick-ass, “don’t mess with me” protagonist, while the supporting roles are adequately filled by legend Ford and rising star Wilde.  The film has that dusty, gritty western feel, along with old fashioned bravado and gun fights — plus the strangeness and unknown feel you get from alien invasion films.  The special affects are fine by current standards.  The story is formulaic enough for a typical summer blockbuster but not to the extent that it becomes a distraction.  The character development and subplot boxes are also ticked.

And yet Cowboys and Aliens feels like an empty blockbuster — all style, (to be fair) a little substance, but no soul.  If I had to pinpoint what went wrong, I would probably say that the biggest problem lies with the aliens, who are menacing but that’s about it.  They’re just there to kill and be killed, monsters with no personality whatsoever, and as a result don’t invoke genuine suspense.

Another problem is that everybody in the film seems to play their roles too straight — there are some elements of humour but for the most part it’s all about being cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, though I feel with such a potentially fun premise they should have had more fun with it than they did.

(And I’m not sure if it was just the cinema I attended, but many of the night scenes in the film came across as incredibly dark, to the point where it became irritating.)

Having said all that, Cowboys and Aliens is better than a lot of the criticism suggests.  I was never disengaged during the 118-minute running time, and I almost wished they could have dedicated more time to certain plot points (especially those involving Ford).  As far as action blockbusters go, it’s certainly a lot better than say Transformers 3, but given the crew involved I should never have even considered comparing the two films.

3.25 stars out of 5

What kind of fantasy novel are you writing? August 26, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
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5 comments

Source: readingbookinfo.com

It’s been an exciting few weeks around here for an assortment of reasons I won’t go into, which means my catatonic fantasy novel is being pushed even further back in my list of ‘things I must work on soon’.

I started this novel about 10 years ago as a bored student who had read little fantasy and had zero idea what made a good fantasy novel and even less of an idea on how to write one.  And yet I wrote slabs here and there, developed character biographies, planned, planned and planned some more.  Most of the writing took place over the space of two years, but it’s been one of those projects that can get neglected for years at a time — and it has been.  I guess I am one of those millions of people out there who would love to reach their goal but haven’t yet been willing to (or developed the discipline to) put in the hard work necessary to get there.

My dreams of becoming a fantasy novelist are still very much alive, but the expectations are no longer the same.  Having now read more fantasy and with a better understanding of what makes a good book and how to produce one, it has actually gotten much harder to write.  I also know now what a difficult industry it is, how poorly the industry is performing right now, and how bleak the future is looking for the majority of aspiring novelists.   Not to say it can’t be done, but hard work alone won’t be enough.

Simply being a good writer and writing a great book isn’t going to cut it.  These days, it’s all about the market — and the marketing.  You really have to identify your target market and write specifically for that market.  Sometimes you get lucky and the book has cross-market potential (say Harry Potter), but if you don’t have a clear target market you’ll find it difficult to find a publisher willing to take you on (especially if you are not an established writer).

I find it’s a catch-22 situation: you want to write something that is different to what is already out there at the moment to distinguish yourself from the pack, but publishers are seldom willing to take on books that they can’t comfortably squeeze into a particular genre.

And that’s just to get published.  What about sales?  Of course, paranormal romance has been big since Twilight, and I suppose that’s not really fantasy any more because it kind of become a standalone genre.  It seems every second book on the shelf involves vampires, werewolves or other mythological creatures these days.

More recently, thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones, epic fantasy is starting to really pick up again, especially those with dark plots that feature demented themes and characters.

When I was in writing workshops, the general consensus was that if you want to sell these days, you ought to target the ‘young adult’ market.  According to Wikipedia, that’s roughly the ages of 14 to 21.  But apart from the Harry Potter clones (ie teenagers playing around with magic and magical worlds) and Twilight clones (ie teenagers falling in love with magical creatures), I can’t really think of any young adult fantasy sub-genres that have been hugely successful in recent years.

Every week I am coming across more and more people who are writing fantasy novels, and the majority of them either doing something generic or one of the above.  And that got me wondering — where the heck does my fantasy novel fit into all of this, and should I be doing anything to change it?

Back before I knew anything about anything, my intention was just to write a good fantasy yarn.  I thought I had a good story, a few interesting characters, and didn’t think about much else.  I suppose if I had a particular slant, it was to make the novel less like the sprawling fantasy epics that give me headaches just trying to decipher the blurb on the back cover.  I wanted to write something lighter, more straightforward and action-packed, like a thriller with a fantasy setting.  I wanted to appeal to the RPG geeks who like the idea the these fantasy worlds but are either too lazy or find it too tedious to read 1000+ pages for a good story.

I still want to keep that idea in tact, but I’m wondering whether I need to rewrite the damn thing so that it fits more into a particular category.  Because right now, it’s not really anything.  On the one hand, I could go ‘George RR Martin’ and make it a more ‘adult’ fantasy with more violence, gore, treachery and sex (and let’s face it, the geeks love that kind of stuff).  On the other hand, I could go the ‘young adult’ path and make my protagonists younger, make the story slightly more sanitised, and maybe even throw in a little more romance.

They would make completely different books, but I can’t figure out which one would be more appealing to the wider market.

Anyway, that’s my aimless rant for the day.  If you too are writing a fantasy novel, what kind of fantasy is it?  Does it follow the trodden path of those before you, or is it something drastically different?  Are you writing with a specific target market in mind or do you not care?  And what makes you think your novel is special enough to be published or potentially become a bestseller?

Brodburger: Freaking Delicious Burgers! August 24, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Canberra, Food, Reviews, Travel.
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The Brodburger food caravan

I like my burgers, and few places make burgers like Brodburger in Canberra.  I was sceptical at first, considering that Brodburger is served out of a dodgy looking ‘food caravan’ in the parking lot of Bowen Park.

But we were on a high after Questacon and in need of a good feed, so we drove down by Bowen Park in search of the conspicuous red caravan.  And there it was, right at the edge of the parking lot, a perfect spot for nearby workers who want to enjoy a burger down on the grass overlooking Lake Burley Griffin.

It was 11:45am and Brodburger doesn’t open until 12 noon, but there was already a line of about 10 to 15 people, some regulars, others tourists, and all with a ravenous hunger plastered on their faces.  The clock ticked over to 12, and the line increased to about two dozen, and yet the owner of the van was nowhere to be seen.  At around 12:10, stomachs started grumbling and patient customers were wondering whether the delicious burger would elude them on this sunny day.

If you want to eat a Brodburger you have to get there early!

At 12:15, some rumblings could be heard behind the van, but less astute customers hadn’t noticed.  Fortunately for us, a group of about five decided it wasn’t worth the wait and departed, moving us up the queue just in time for the van to open up.

On this day, Brodburger was run by two friendly, carefree dudes — one serves and the other cooks.  Their menu is displayed outside on a wooden board, and contains an assortment of burgers, including beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian, as well as fries.  The prices are reasonable and bottles of water are given for free (if you ask nicely).

Finally! Open for business!

After a short wait we reached the front of the queue and went with the classic Brodburger (according to the website: A grade gourmet beef patty, flame grilled. Fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and Spanish onions. Includes homemade aioli and tomato relish) and a BrodChicken Burger (Succulent chicken breast in a secret marinate, flame grilled. Topped with bacon, avocado, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and Spanish onions. Includes homemade chilli aioli).  A lot of people went with the Brodburger Deluxe (which contains an extra patty, egg and bacon), but it looked like a coronary waiting to happen, so we passed.

The great thing about Brodburger is that their burgers are made fresh to order, but because of a shortage of facilities and staff, you almost certainly have to endure an agonising wait before you can devour your burger.  There weren’t that many people before us, but some of them ordered entire boxes of burgers and fries to take back to the office, and consequently we ended up waiting a further 30 minutes or so before our two burgers were ready.  And trust me, when you’re already starving, waiting for 30 minutes while surrounded by tempting burger fumes borders on torture.

Eventually, the burgers were ready, nice and hot in our little hands, and we took them down like prized jewels to a cozy spot by the lake.  A few birds looked like they were eager to be friends, but I barked at them for the safety of the burgers.

You know, photos rarely ever do burgers justice. This is the BrodChicken.

The Brodburger

So how was it?  You know I don’t like to exaggerate, but the burgers at Brodburger must be amongst the best I have ever tasted.  The buns are so soft and fluffy, and the meat is fresh, juicy and full of flavour.  The lettuce and tomato balance out the saltiness perfectly, but it is the generous amounts of the insanely delicious, tangy tomato relish and home-made aioli that elevated the burgers to a whole new level.  The Brodburger featured the green chive aioli and the BrodChicken featured the pink chilli aioli — both were to die for.

The half-eaten burger usually isn't a good look, but I simply couldn't resist

Bloody hell, just writing this post is making me super hungry.  I’m going to get some food.

10 out of 10!

Brodburger
Address:
 Bowen Park Carpark, Bowen Drive/Wentworth Av, Barton ACT
Opening Hours:
Tuesday: Dinner: 5:30 pm – 10:00 pm
Wednesday: Lunch: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm; Dinner: 5:30 pm – 10:00 pm
Thursday: Lunch: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm; Dinner: 5:30 pm – 12:00 am
Friday: Lunch: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm; Dinner: 5:30 pm – 12:00 am
Saturday: Lunch: 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm; Dinner: 5:30 pm – 12:00 am
Sunday: Lunch: 12:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Website: http://www.brodburger.com.au/

PS: Apparently the Brodburger van is not situated in a legally approved location and the council has been trying to get them to move, but petitions from customers have managed to keep them there, for now.

Irritating Authorial Hiccups August 22, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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I’ve been reading a fantastic book called Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb to review for a trade publication.  It’s a collection of insightful and wonderfully written ‘profiles’ (some are closer to reviews of biographies) of a wide array of celebrated entertainers, artists, writers and public figures over few hundred years.

Gottlieb is the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, the president and editor in chief of Alfred A Knopf and the editor of The New Yorker (!).  You don’t get a resume more impressive than that.

My review of this book for this blog will be coming in a couple of weeks, but I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal — not just about the people profiled in the book, but also in terms of writing and editing skills.

I was reading the profile of Elia Kazan (one of the best known directors of the 50s and 60s) and in it Gottlieb criticises a particular book that is peppered with ‘irritating authorial hiccups’.

Examples:

  • It must be said
  • Be that as it may
  • It is not too much to say
  • If you will
  • Frankly
  • Of course (which Gottlieb calls ‘the lazy writer’s crutch’)

Reading that list made me sweat because I’m certain I use those terms all the time, especially the last two.  And in a way (is that an irritating authorial hiccup too?), I suppose he is right in that they are not really necessary and can come across as lazy and too ‘loose’, especially in what is supposed to be a well-crafted piece of writing.

On the other hand (what about this one?), I think whether such terms are appropriate may depend on the type of writing it is and the audience it is intended for.  For instance, I like this blog to be conversational, informal, kind of chatty — and I think some of these ‘hiccups’ may help achieve that purpose.  Then again (this one too?), I could be way off the mark and it might be that this type of voice is achievable without these lazy crutches.

The bigger question is whether the terms (when repeated regularly throughout a piece of writing) are irritating only for experienced writers/editors, or do they annoy the casual reader as well?

I love Questacon! August 19, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Canberra, Technology, Travel.
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2 comments

I’ve always loved science museums.  In fact, a visit to a science museum as a child may have prompted me to tell everyone that I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up.  Having the worst science teachers (one threw a metal dust pan that narrowly missed a student’s head) and performing poorly in science during my formative school years (I was told to stand in a corner after tracing light rays on the table instead of my workbook during an optics experiment) quickly put those dreams into a permanent coma.  But my passion for science museums remains alive.

And so during our recent trip to Canberra, my number one must-visit was Questacon, Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre.  Questacon is located at King Edward Terrace, home to a bunch of other galleries and museums such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Australian Democracy, and is adjacent to Parkes Place, which is where the High Court of Australia current sits.  By the way, Australia’s highest court of law is a dump.

Questacon is undoubtedly designed for curious children, but that didn’t stop me and many other adults from trying out the 200+ interactive exhibits across the 8 galleries in the museum.  The layout is uniquely designed.  You start off on the first exhibition hall on the top floor, then slowly make your way down the circular walkway through the various halls until you reach the eighth and final one on the ground floor.  Reminded me a little of the astoundingly good aquarium at Osaka (Kaiyukan), which has a similar design.

Burn your shadow onto the wall!

For us, we started off with a dry ice show in one of the theatres on the ground floor (there are a few throughout the day, and this one was supposed to be the best), which was very cool.  I learned a few things and was surprised by how many children were willing to volunteer to answer questions they clearly did not know the answer to.

The famous free fall slide!

I’m not going to bother going through all the exhibits they had — you can check them out for yourself at the Questacon website.  For me, the coolest were the ‘Perception Deception’ gallery (especially the ‘phantom limb’ — that was freaky!), the ‘Awesome Earth’ gallery (where you could experience earthquakes and massive lightning strikes) and the ‘Sideshow’ gallery (like a free theme park with those rotating clowns, roller coaster simulators and a six-metre free fall slide!).

The only clowns that don't scare me...ok, maybe just a little bit

Questacon was a lot of fun.  It was hygienic too, with free hand sanitizer pumps in every gallery.  We went during school holidays, so there were a lot of kids (though I imagine not as many as there would be on the weekend), but the good thing is that as an adult you can just shove them out of the way.

Questacon is open 9am-5pm every day except Christmas Day
Adults $20, Concession $15, Children (4-16) $15, Family (2 adults+3 children) $60 + $7 for each additional child. 

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