Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is an instant classic scuzzball character. He echoes the memorable sociopaths played by Robert DeNiro in his prime (Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver), but he’s less sympathetic than either of those. A parasite on the prowl, Bloom soon fixates on a career ideally suited to his amoral loner/ go-getter character—as a crime journalist during L.A.’s night hours. He listens for crimes in progress on his police scanner, speeds to the scene, and then angles for the most shocking, risque footage he can possibly get away with.
New colleagues Nina (Rene Russo), the struggling news producer he goes to first, and Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate “intern” railroaded into the nightmare, are exploitable because they want what Bloom can give them—money, work, success. The risks he takes and the lines he crosses are mainly ethical ones at first, but he quickly realises the quickest way to make a name for himself is to get truly sensational footage. The kind that requires taking bigger risks, eventually endangering lives.
Bloom is the most detestable character I’ve seen in ages. He’s a soulless cockroach rummaging through the misfortunes of others, ravenously feeding off violent crimes, sometimes while they’re still happening. But the news station keeps on buying what he’s selling. Viewer ratings spike with each successive horror scene that hits the air.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes us squirm from start to finish here because Bloom is so queasily familiar. We all know people who share his traits, even if they don’t take them to such extremes. He’s society’s Frankenstein’s monster, made from all the worst parts of capitalism. He’ll achieve success by any means, and he’s proud of that.
With End of Watch and Prisoners, and now Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal is finding the sort of edgy, dangerous roles relished by great actors of the 1970s, and he’s attacking them with gusto. This might be his best performance yet. The film itself is a darkly comic treat. It’s tense and unsettling as a thriller, but the most fascinating part is seeing how far this scumbag will take his obsession, and how much we’ll allow him to get away with.
For some reason, I read most of my favourite books at the start of the year and watched nearly all the best films at the end. Overall, it was an excellent year on both counts. Reading-wise, I delved into historical non-fiction and couldn't get enough of it. A host of novels (mostly Victorian/ Edwardian adventures) made my keeper shelf, while Patrick O'Brian and Stephen King continued to impress.
Of the summer films, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z and The Conjuring all worked for me, but they were all eclipsed by the incredible end-of-year releases. While there are still several of the latter I've yet to see, including 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club, the following blew me away in 2013.
Top 5 Movies
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson)
Recommended for: The breathless barrel ride sequence. The wicked, preening dragon. Tauriel, the hottest she-elf warrior in Middle Earth. Gandalf’s detour into darkness. The Wagnerian scale of pretty much every scene.
Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Recommended for: Long, dazzling, seemingly impossible visual effects shots. Inventive use of 3D. Sandra Bullock’s completely believable performance. A terrifying 90-minute simulation of life hanging (sometimes literally) by a thread.
Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Recommended for: An unusually intelligent and elegant screenplay. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones. Sally Field. The many touches of filmmaking poetry throughout.
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
Recommended for: Tom Hanks’s heartbreaking acting. Some of the most tense, brilliant filmmaking of the year. A powerful, no-nonsense approach to the true events. The capacity to incite debate afterwards.
Rush (dir. Ron Howard)
Recommended for: Its sheer energy and virtuosity. Great work by Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and (especially) Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda. The superb racing scenes. A sharp, insightful script by Peter Morgan.
Top 5 Books
Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
Recommended for: Its fascinating four-pronged narrative leading to the Lincoln presidency. The wealth of historical detail. A fully rounded examination of the man himself and what made him great. A brilliant account of the Civil War and politics of the era.
Exploration Fawcett (Percy Harrison Fawcett)
Recommended for: Great old-fashioned storytelling. A wicked sense of humour. Endlessly entertaining anecdotes. Chilling observations on the nature of “civilization” among the Amazonian people. A real spirit of adventure.
11.22.63 (Stephen King)
Recommended for: King’s peerless storytelling. The way he brings 1950s and 1960s America to life, with a mix of eager nostalgia and hardbitten modernist. Well thought-out time travel elements. A touching love story. A very human protagonist.
Untold History of the United States (Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone)
Recommended for: A blistering account of twentieth century politics, both American and foreign. Inspired muck-raking across multiple administrations. A look at the unsavoury, Imperialist tendencies of a nation mostly unaware of its true legacy. Impressive wealth of evidence to support assertions.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Recommended for: Its broadening of the story’s scope, upping the ante. A gallery of interesting new characters. An ingenious new Games—The Quarter Quell. Good, solid writing throughout. Collins’ patient building of tension, leading to an explosive main event.
With ticket prices so high, and funds so limited, I'm a lot pickier than I used to be when it comes to cinemagoing. Consequently, I tend to rely on filmmakers I trust, or if a film's received great notices and I kinda like the sound of it, I might give it a try.
Rush is directed by the versatile Ron Howard, who's been world-class for years now, and he's on top form here, generating propulsive energy from nearly every scene, whether on or off the racetrack. The film chronicles the famous rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
It's a fascinating relationship. The two couldn't be more different, in life, in their approach to racing, and it's this constant friction that powers their individual--and combined--excellence. Without the other, neither would be as determined to excel. In their many brief scenes together, Hunt and Lauda seem able to instinctively pick each other's ego apart, as if they know what makes the other tick in ways that even their wives and friends do not. They're two sides of the same coin. Hunt can't stand his Austrian rival's stoicism, while Lauda despises his British opponent's flamboyant lifestyle; yet when they're behind the wheel, all that disappears, and it comes down to raw driving talent, of which both possess an equal amount, and moreover, they know it.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl match each other acting-wise as well. They're brilliant as Hunt and Lauda. Not a false note in the entire film. Scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) weaves the parallel stories cleverly and punctuates his scenes with dialogue exchanges that chip away at what makes these two characters tick. Terse, pungent interplay is frequent and memorable.
Finally, the races themselves are some of the best I've seen. They roar to life, and would be downright frightening if they weren't so thrilling to watch (and hear). Lauda's stance against the more dangerous aspects of Formula One was admirable; lives were lost when they needn't have been, and the other drivers should have backed him up.
I can't recommend Rush highly enough. It's a gripping character study, a sophisticated sports movie, and is impeccably made and acted by all. In short, it's the best film I've seen so far this year. See it the first chance you get.
My new sci-fi adventure novel Alien Safari (read an excerpt there) is out now on Kindle! The print version is almost ready and will be available within the next few weeks--look for a giveaway contest on Goodreads. All other e-book formats, ETA January 2014. As ever, feel free to email me at email@example.com with any questions, feedback, or just plain old interstellar banter. I always love hearing from my readers. Hope you enjoy the safari!
With the spectacular reception of blockbuster 3D movie Gravity (opens here in the UK on November 8th), it feels like a missing piece of the SF moviegoing experience might finally have been brought to life. It's always irked me, why filmmakers have felt the need to embellish what's already the most extraordinary trip man has ever undertaken. Aliens, asteroids, black holes etc. are all fascinating, but to reach them, storytellers tend to take for granted the miraculous--and terrifying--achievement of man existing in space.
Existing. A lone man or woman floating out there in an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) suit encapsulates so much--daring, fear, hope, humanity, technology--it's an experience I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't really tried to simulate in any meaningful way before now. Sure, we've had a handful of gripping scenes *featuring* that isolation, that sense of claustrophobia. 2001, 2010, Sunshine, Deep Impact, and others have touched on it. But we've never had a movie ABOUT that.
If it sounds like a boring subject for a film--and it clearly has until now--then we're lacking the very ingredient science fiction supplies in abundance: imagination. Only it needn't be science fiction. Astronauts have been braving mind-boggling perils for half a century now, yet we know precious little about what it feels like to be in space, the actual experience. All the drama and emotion is there, tightly wound inside those conditioned men and women. It's been waiting for a filmmaker with the imagination, tools, and storytelling brio to unleash it onscreen.
By all acounts, Alfonso Cuaron has done just that in Gravity.
Tom Hanks was involved in two brilliant projects in the 90s--Apollo 13 and Earth to the Moon--that successfully chronicled events in the Apollo Space Program. The former, a nail-biting thriller about the near-disastrous aborted moon mission, is one of the most realistic space-themed movies ever made. Three men in a confined space, running out of air, time, and hope: its hard to see how director Ron Howard could have improved on his recreation of the spacefarers' experience during that fateful voyage.
But the crew of Apollo 13 never left their ship(s). They were isolated, but they were inside, and they were together. There's something truly terrifying about being *alone*, outside in an EVA suit, and hanging by a single tether line. One slip and you will float away into eternity. Hanks's character, Jim Lovell, experiences that in a quick dream sequence.
But to recreate that dread tension, that sense of fragility, requires a prolonged simulation of EVA solitude. I've been waiting for a major filmmaker to attempt it. With today's effects tech, and 3D, it's an exciting prospect. I caught Magnificent Desolation 3D on an IMAX some years ago, and found it very immersive and impressive. That was a documentary.
Fingers crossed Gravity achieves that and much more. Nov 8 can't arrive soon enough!
Everything came together ahead of schedule and like clockwork for Yuletide Miracle, so I decided to release it on Kindle a few weeks earlier than anticipated. It's available for free until May 1st, so grab it in the next few days.
It's had a rather strange road to publication, but then my best stories often do. I wrote it for Carina Press's Christmas steampunk anthology back in early 2011, knowing it probably wouldn't have much of a chance without romance. To my surprise, the Carina team loved it, and while it didn't fit the anthology itself, they signed it for solo publication.
I hadn't planned on including it as part of The Steam Clock Legacy series--it's set in that universe, but it arguably works better as a standalone tale. So when my editor suggested I find a place for it in the series, I knew I'd have to write a couple more books first (you'll realise why when you read it). Unfortunately, Carina decided to discontinue the series in order to focus on my regular science fiction instead, which left Yuletide Miracle homeless.
Rather than seek out another publisher half way through the series, I chose to retain complete control, to make sure the subsequent books reached my readers exactly the way I intended. And here it is, after a two-year delay, with all its Victorian holiday magic intact, for your enjoyment:
By day, London's Steam Emporium is a bustling Christmas market, an all-ages
toyshop full of technological marvels. By night, its volunteers assemble--a
ragtag community of wounded servicemen and women--under the tallest Christmas
tree in Europe. They are the empire's forgotten heroes, fallen on hard
But this year they have an exciting addition: old Red Mulqueen,
newly arrived from abroad, has fighting spirit and the most extraordinary
clockwork leg. He is here on a mysterious mission, and is wanted by the
Leviacrum, Britain's tyrannical authority.
Red's plans take a turn,
however, when he saves the life of a troubled young schoolboy, Edmond Reardon,
and becomes the object of the lad's incorrigible curiosity. They strike up
an unexpected friendship. But when danger descends on the emporium, Red, Edmond
and their veteran friends must band together to fight for what matters most
during Christmas--each other.
A quick heads up--it will be available for FREE from April 18-22, so be sure to grab your digital copy. The paperback version will be available within the next few weeks.
The story begins in 1913, and covers the events that unfold whilst Professor Reardon is imprisoned in the Leviacrum tower, so it runs parallel to the final few chapters of Book One, Prehistoric Clock, rather than being a direct sequel. It also introduces two intriguing new heroines. Here's the description:
Facing a time of great turmoil across the Empire, Meredith
and Sonja McEwan are the teenaged daughters of a disgraced scientist in
Southsea, England. They've grown so close, so insular over the years, despising
the world that despises them is all they know. But things are changing. Sonja
has caught the eye of a dashing young teacher, and is falling in love, while
Meredith, jealous, throws herself into solving the mystery of a powerful secret
society in London, with devastating consequences.
assassins, mind-boggling steam technology and women's denim trousers are about
to arrive in a big way. Meanwhile, the legacy of Professor Reardon's time jump
continues to throw up surprises in an age where nothing is certain. And no one
is who they seem to be.
I also have a release date for Yuletide Miracle, the holiday-themed novella I wrote for the same series. It will debut on May 14 on Kindle, then I'll see about putting it out in paperback, maybe with a couple of other steampunk shorts. I'm dying for you all to read this one as well. It's magical.
Robert Appleton is an award-winning author of science fiction, steampunk, and historical fiction. Based in Lancashire, England, he writes for various publishers. In his spare time he hikes, kayaks, and reads as many Victorian adventure novels as he can get his hands on. His mind is somewhat mercurial. His inspiration is the night sky.