Saluting Bryce Courtenay

December 6, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing

I’ll admit, I’ve never read any of the 20 or so books written by Aussie legend Bryce Courtenay, who passed away late last month. I haven’t even seen the movie based on his first and most famous book, The Power of One. All I know is that there the film launched the career of Stephen Dorff, that Daniel Craig played a young Nazi in it, and that there is a “young reader’s edition” of the novel, which must mean it’s a pretty big deal.

A young Daniel Craig as a Nazi in The Power of One

What has prompted me to write this post is the Walkley Award (the highest journalism award in Australia) winning article by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend, which provided some fascinating insights into the life of this professional writer and the amount of dedication it requires getting to and staying at the top. Hard work and determination are common themes seen in almost all the success stories I have come across, and it has me wondering if I’ll ever be able to be even half as dedicated as some of these people.

The article paints Courtenay as a fascinating fellow who is probably one of the biggest bullshit artists Australia has ever seen. Even the people closest to him admit that he embellishes (to put it in the kindest way possible), but Cadzow effectively tears apart most of Courtenay’s fanciful claims about his life.

It may be his ability to lie that makes Courtenay such a brilliant storyteller, but it’s his background as an advertising guru that helped him break out from the pack in the first place. As the article says:

When Courtenay decided to become a novelist, his marketing nous stood him in good stead. “There are writers in this country who are better than me,” he says, echoing the words of many a reviewer. But no one disputes that when it comes to pitching a book to the paying public, the former adman is in a class of his own. Who else tests cover designs with focus groups, distributes sample chapters at railway stations and hires sky-writers to emblazon titles high above cities? With one of his novels, he went so far as to launch a tie-in beer (Tommo & Hawk Premium Ale). “Bryce is, beyond anything else, a promoter,” says Hamill. “There are some great authors in Australia, and I know many of them, who won’t get off their bums and sign books in shopping centres.”

Whereas Courtenay is never happier than sitting in-store with a pen in his hand and a queue of fans in front of him. Owen Denmeade, another of his old advertising mates, salutes him for the enthusiasm he brings to the task. How many title pages has he autographed over the years? Denmeade hates to think. “We used to say, if you’ve got an unsigned copy of a Bryce Courtenay book, it’s worth a lot of money.”

Sometimes all you need is a break. Off the back of the success of The Power of One, which he was apparently terrified would fail, Courtenay became one of Australia’s most successful writers, with his books selling 9.5 million volumes (including almost 8 million in Australia) since 1997. In better times, a new Courtenay book would apparently sell 250,000 copies, whereas now it’s around 200,000. That’s simply incredible considering what a small market Australia is.

The other thing about Courtenay that impressed me was his tenacity. He apparently worked 12 hours a day, from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. For you mathematical geniuses out there, that’s 84 hours of writing a week, 4,368 hours of writing a year. Of course, it’s likely he bullshitted about that as well, but the fact of the matter is that he had been launching decently-sized books just about every year. As the article says:

Courtenay takes seven months to write a novel. He starts work the day after Australia Day [January 26] and finishes on August 31, delivering each chapter to Penguin on completion to ensure that the book can be edited, printed and in the shops for the Christmas rush. “The last six books I’ve finished within an hour of each other,” he says, “right to the point of having a courier waiting for the last chapter at the front door.”

To help him keep to such a tight timetable, he employs a full-time researcher, his brother-in-law Bruce Gee. “Like a lot of people, he’s not a terribly quick reader,” says Bruce. “My job is to get information to him in a predigested form.” Also entrusted with checking each day’s output for errors, Bruce points out that he isn’t the only one on the payroll. “People advise us on music, for instance, and on esoteric things like historical railways. All sorts of stuff … Bryce is almost a cottage industry.”

Courtenay’s deteriorating health prevented him from delivering his final book, Jack of Diamonds, on time last year, and the disappointment he expressed is remarkable for a guy who supposedly wouldn’t have had to make another dime had he lived to 100.

Courtenay was inconsolable about missing his first deadline in two decades. “I know how stupid it is,” he says, “but when you have one of those A-type personalities where achievement is important, and you have my kind of background, then … failure is unthinkable.”

Then again, it could be because Courtenay needed the money (though he says money doesn’t interest him), which is a frightening thought for all struggling writers out there. According to his brother-in-law, Courtenay was not as wealthy as might be imagined.

“He’s lost it, given it away, made bad business decisions, whatever.”

So the moral of the story, I suppose is to work really really hard, be a perfectionist, spend extra time marketing your work and take care of your money if you ever make some. In any case, I salute Bryce Courtenay for all he has achieved throughout his life and for being such a great inspiration to all aspiring writers out there.

Cadzow’s full–length article can be found here.

Bryce Courtenay’s final book, Jack of Diamonds

Movie Review: Skyfall (2012) (IMAX)

November 10, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The buzz surrounding Skyfall before I went to watch it was that it’s “the best Bond film ever.” I’ve never been a huge fan of the franchise, even though from memory Casino Royale, the first of the Daniel Craig era, was pretty darn good. Naturally, with 23 Bond films in the overall series, saying that it is the best ever is setting it up for unreasonably high expectations.

And I think it was my expectations for Skyfall that had me coming out of the cinema doubting the “best ever” claims. In fact, I don’t even know if it was better than Casino Royale.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Skyfall because I absolutely did. It had an amazing opening sequence — by far the best of any Bond film I’ve seen and probably the best of any film I’ve seen this year. The title sequence which followed was also sensational (I usually tune out during those opening credits but this one had me riveted) and the Adele-performed theme song might just be the best Bond song I’ve heard.

But after that blistering start, Skyfall slowed down and fell back down to earth a little for me. The plot is actually simple but feels overly and unnecessarily elaborate. A bad guy steals the list of the true identities of MI6 undercover operatives around the world. And he wants to make Bond’s handler, M (Judi Dench), suffer. Or kill her. Or whatever. Bond wants to stop him. People get shot and stuff gets blown up.

In other words, I didn’t think Skyfall had a very strong storyline or script. It was held together by the strong performances of Craig, Dench and Javier Bardem, the rugged realism of the action sequences and the confident direction of Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who infuses the film with many beautiful and memorable images (none of which I can or should spoil here). But to be honest I didn’t find the action or the drama to be particularly outstanding. Very good, occasionally exhilarating, but not outstanding.

The Bond girls this time around were underutilized in my opinion. Naomie Harris has little chemistry with Craig as a fellow agent and fades in and out of the storyline, never really finds her place. The sultry Berenice Marlohe excels during the splendid Macau casino sequence but her part of the story is never properly wrapped up.

One part of the film I did enjoy was its take on technology and Bond’s interactions with Q (Ben Whishaw). It asks the question of whether field agents like Bond are necessary anymore given the power of modern computers and the skills of hackers, and it also makes fun of those cool gadgets the Bond franchise is so well known for. It’s a sign that Bond is moving on with the times and may continue to evolve in the 24th and 25th films, which Craig is apparently signed on for.

Perhaps those who are more emotionally invested in the Bond franchise or character will have a different take, but unlike the critics who are heaping unqualified praise on the film, I personally foundSkyfall to simply be a very-well made film that impressed me more with its dazzling style than its substance.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: It used to be blasphemous to even suggest this, but apparently many now think Craig is the definitive Bond? I’m not sure, but I reckon he kills Pierce Brosnan.

PPS: I watched this film in IMAX. I don’t really get it. Bigger screen and louder sounds. Is that it?

Movie Review: Dream House (2011)

January 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

At first glance, Dream House appears like your run-of-the-mill haunted house movie.  A young couple moves into a new house, spooky stuff happens, yada yada yada, you know the rest.  But while Dream House is not a particularly good horror film (in some ways it’s not even a proper horror), I do have to say that it is different to what you would ordinarily expect from a movie of this kind.

Daniel Craig is Will Atenton, a successful book publisher who leaves his profession to move from New York to New England with his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and his two little girls.  Everything is fine until weird stuff starts happening and Will starts to believe that their dream house has a past that will come back to haunt them.  Someone who knows more than they are letting on is their neighbour, played by Naomi Watts.

Up until this point it’s all pretty cookie-cutter stuff, but Dream House breaks away from the expected trajectory by throwing a curve ball midway through.  It’s not an unexpected twist, but the timing of the twist is curious as it’s usually reserved for the final act.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do a whole lot for the film, which is, for the most part, plodding and lacking in both scares or thrills.  It takes the wind out of the sails too early and shifts the focus to melodrama, which simply doesn’t work without the character foundations required.  I guess the only benefit is that it keeps you interested in how they are going to fill up the remainder of the 92-minute running time.

I really wanted to like Dream House because I’m a fan of the genre and all three leads (in fact, it’s where Craig and Weisz fell in love and ended up getting married — which explains their solid chemistry), and despite not expecting very much out of it I still came away disappointed by the stale pace and dearth of scares.  The negatives could have been somewhat mitigated had the drama been more moving but it failed in that regard too.  Strangely, the film has a pretty awesome soundtrack, but when that’s the most redeeming thing about a film you know it can’t be good.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin (2011) (2D)

November 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I’m not ordinarily a big fan of animated films and I know almost next to nothing about the adventures of the titular character or the original comics on which they were based (apart from a short visit to the Tintin Museum/Shop in Brussels) — which is why it surprises me to declare that The Adventures of Tintin is one of the most exciting and enjoyable movies I’ve seen this year.

Facts about the film I probably should have been aware of before the opening credits:

  • directed by Steven Spielberg;
  • produced by Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg;
  • uses performance capture technology (made famous by The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and features the performance capture king, Andy Serkis; and
  • an all-star cast including Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the protagonist Tintin, Serkis as the hilarious Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as the sinister Sakharine, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the duo from Shawn of the DeadPaul) as Thomson and Thompson, the bumbling detectives.

This film, hopefully the first of a trilogy, is based on three of the original comic books, and tells the story of how young journalist (and essentially detective) Tintin and his beloved dog Snowy become embroiled in a wild adventure involving model ships, secret riddles, pirates and sunken treasures.

Thanks to Spielberg’s masterful storytelling and the amazing visual effects (made possible by the performance capture technology), The Adventures of Tintin is an engrossing, clever, humorous, exciting and wonderfully spectacular animated film.  It is no coincidence that the film reminded me a lot of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies (especially the superior earlier ones), where the sense of adventure was genuine, fresh and thrilling.  It is the type of film both children and adults can enjoy.

The look of the film is fantastic — everything but the human characters look real, and my guess is that they held back a little so that the human characters can closer resemble their comic counterparts and avoid looking ‘spooky’ (like say Polar Express or Beowulf).  The combination of performance capture and ultra-realistic, high quality animation is spot on — it is impossible to imagine a traditionally animated film (or even a purely computer animated one) or a live action version of Tintin having the same atmosphere or effect.  It looks real but not too real, allowing the film to utilise techniques and storytelling methods that work well in animated films but not live action ones.

The performances were fantastic.  Rather than just providing voices, the subtleties of the actors’ body movements and expressions were also encapsulated in the characters they portrayed.  It made a difference.  Serkis’s Captain Haddock in particular was a standout, even if he might have come across as excessive at times.  Daniel Craig was practically unrecognisable, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s unmatched chemistry brought a certain harmony to Thomson and Thompson.

Although the 107-minute running time might have been 10-15 minutes over the ideal length of such a film, on the whole I was immensely impressed with The Adventures of Tintin.  This is coming from someone who had never read a Tintin comic book and previously had no interest in ever reading one.  Now I can’t wait for them to make the sequel, which will allegedly by directed by Peter Jackson (as soon as he is done with The Hobbit).

I don’t know if the film did justice to the original character or the comic books.  But to me it doesn’t matter.  A good film is a good film, and The Adventures of Tintin is just that.

4.5 out of 5 stars!

PS: I am continuing my stance of ‘no 3D’.  I don’t think 3D would have necessarily ruined this film, but I don’t think it would have helped.  2D was perfectly fine, and it was good enough for me.

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

August 27, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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