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The Win Bin: Starting a new book

Hello! I’m Joshua Winning and I write things. As I start work on a new book, I’m going to chart my journey from concept to completion. Wanna come? This week: ideas.

idea

Is it possible to have too many ideas?

This is the problem: it’s been a while since I’ve started something new. Last week, my YA thriller Vicious Rumer was published by Unbound. In July, the third book in The Sentinel Trilogy – Splinter – is being published by Peridot Press. I’ve been editing both projects for roughly a year, with no time to write anything from scratch.

So the prospect of starting something new is both terrifying and exhilarating. I feel like a clown in a costume shop. Which curly wig will I choose? Which enormo floppy shoes will prove the most rewarding?

Most of the time, I’m worried I don’t have any ideas. But the weird thing is that, as I start thinking about what I might want to write next, I find I’m drowning in little proto-concepts. I’m talking tiny book nuggets that could grow into full manuscripts, or could merely be brain farts that amount to nothing more than smelly, passing distractions.

Apparently this is a problem lots of writers contend with. And it has a name: TMIS, Too Many Ideas Syndrome. There’s a great post at Writer’s Digest here about how to overcome the trauma of having a brain just TOO FULL of the good stuff.

I currently have four (yes, four) ideas kicking around in my head. I’m not saying any of them are good, and I certainly don’t want to be all ‘poor me, I have so many ideas and my diamond shoes won’t come off’. But I really want to write something new and I honestly don’t know which one of the four I’d enjoy writing most.

Ideally, I’d like to thrash out a first draft of something by December. Not because anybody’s waiting on me or anything, but because it’s good to keep the ball rolling. You learn by doing, right? And I feel like I’ve learned A LOT in the past few years.

So this is what I’m going to do…

  • Write character profiles for all four projects. These will be as in-depth as possible (their fears, their loves, their favourite music) because stories are nothing without well-rounded characters. If a particular character really grabs my attention, that’s a great reason to tell their story.
  • Write single-page plot outlines for all four projects. This is the toughie because plot details can be tricky and I’m not hugely specifics-oriented. I’ve been both a planner and a panter – I planned Splinter meticulously but I wrote Vicious Rumer on the fly and really found the plot in the first edit. In that case, though, the character of Rumer was so clear in my mind that the plot almost came naturally. I know, living the dream, right?
  • Brainstorm titles. Sometimes coming up with a killer title can really make an idea come to life.
  • Create Pinterest boards. I’ve only ever played around with mood boards once, on Splinter, and it was fun but felt sort of like procrastinating. I’ve noticed a lot of writers using Pinterest to create mood boards as they prepare to write, so I’m giving it a whirl to see what happens.

Once I’ve done this, I’m going to leave them for a few days. And then I’ll figure out which one gets me most excited. I know, that’s a fair bit of work, so I’m aiming to have all four ideas plotted by mid-May so I can start writing.

70,000 words by December is doable, right? RIGHT?!

I’ll report back in the next Win Bin.

Wish me luck!

Are you starting something new? How are you tackling the ‘ideas’ problem? Let me know below!

Visit The Win Bin archive here

Vicious Rumer by Joshua Winning~Interview and Ellen’s Review

Bibliophile Book Club

Hi everyone,

Today I’m thrilled to be able to share a Q&A I did with Joshua Winning, author of the Vicious Rumer, AND Ellen’s brilliant review 😊

About the author:

Joshua Winning Sentinel Shoot 2014

Joshua Winning is an author and film journalist who writes for TOTAL FILM, SFX, GAY TIMES and RADIO TIMES. He has been on set with Kermit the Frog, devoured breakfast with zombies on The Walking Dead, and sat on the Iron Throne while visiting the Game Of Thrones set in Dublin. Jeff Goldblum once told him he looks a bit like Paul Bettany.

In 2014, SENTINEL – the first book in Joshua’s SENTINEL TRILOGY – was published by Peridot Press. The second book, RUINS, followed in 2015. Joshua’s short story DEAD AIR appeared in SPEAK MY LANGUAGE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF GAY FICTION and Joshua’s new novel, VICIOUS RUMER, will be published by Unbound in 2018. He also co-wrote ’80s teen…

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Vicious Rumer blog tour – with exclusive audiobook!

vicious_blog_tour

The time has finally come to get this show on the road! Yep, Vicious Rumer is out THIS MONTH – cue screams even louder than those reserved for Justin Bieber fans. Want to get exclusive interviews, insight into the writing of the book, and more reviews than you can shake a tattered old paperback at? Just follow along with the blog tour, which will be rolling out over the next 20 days at the above locations. Yeah, count ’em!

To kick things off, I have a very special treat – the first three chapters in audiobook form! My very good friend Bobby Brook offered to lend us her rather lovely pipes, not to mention her considerable experience of working in the theatre, to give Rumer a voice! It was pretty surreal watching her record this (I couldn’t help peering over her shoulder a bit, much to her horror), but she made the book sound SO GOOD. Way better than I ever imagined it could.

So, without further ado, plug in, put up your feet, and say hello to Rumer…

Thanks also to Robert Gershinson for his impeccable editing skills.

And now on to the rest of the tour. What terrors will it bring? Well, only one way to find out…

Charmed Rewitch: Episode 11 – The one where everybody’s a superhero

It’s been over 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…

Episode: 5.05 ‘Witches In Tights’
Writer: Mark Wilding
Director: David Straiton

505

It’s crazy to think that it was in 2002 – six years before Marvel unleashed Iron Man and took over comic-book moviedom – that Charmed let its geek flag fly with a superhero episode. With its glittering cityscapes, smokey alleys and cool costumes (punk-chick Paige FTW), ‘Witches In Tights’ is an unapologetically camp love letter to comics that has fun sending up things like Adam West’s classic Batman TV series, all while giving the girls a chance to raid the dress-up box for possibly their coolest ever transformation.

This is also one of the busiest ever episodes of Charmed, which has a tendency to make it feel like it’s stuck on fast-forward, like one of the newly superpowered sisters. First up, Piper’s worried that her pregnancy is making her boring, particularly when she discovers Phoebe and Paige have been checking out a hot new club without her.

Meanwhile, Paige is having problems with a hot guy who she can’t seem to relax around, and Phoebe is attempting to take down a villainous landlord; but with Cole determined to prove he’s good, things get more than a little complicated. On top of that, Leo (remember him?) has been charged with bringing an actual live Elder to the manor as the Elder prepares to pass on his powers.

And we haven’t even got to the A-plot, about a bullied teenager with the ability to bring his sketchbook creations to life. Yeah, this is one seriously over-caffeinated episode of Charmed, but for the most part, it all coalesces into an entertaining 40 minutes, particularly when the Halliwells are transformed into superheroes by the sketchy teenager, Kevin (Andrew James Allen).

Ignoring the fact that we have no idea how Kevin knew the Halliwells well enough to draw their super selves, the superhero stuff is handled with a perfectly judged side of cheese. There’s a thrilling moment where Piper catches a bullet with her bare hand (naturally – Holly Marie Combs’ hand choreography was always excellent), and Paige’s slow-mo fist-fight with a supervillain in the manor is hellacool.

Mark Wilding only wrote three episodes of Charmed (he returned for underwhelming season seven eps Freaky Phoebe and Ordinary Witches), and he went on to write regularly for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. That perhaps explains the episode’s soapy feel, especially with regard to Paige’s bedroom bother and Phoebe’s tenancy crusade. Soapiness has always been part of Charmed’s DNA, particularly during its second season, which is probably why ‘Witches In Tights’ really resembles early Charmed.

505-2Easily the most interesting parts of the episode, though, are Leo’s conversations with Ramus the Elder (Gerry Becker). This is the first time we’ve properly met an Elder, after they briefly appeared (avec hoods) in season three’s ‘Blinded By The Whitelighter’. Ramus is every bit as enigmatic and snippy as you’d expect, and there’s a lovely scene in which Leo asks if his and Piper’s baby will be healthy. (That scene wasn’t originally in the script, but the episode ended up running short, and it was added in later.)

‘Witches In Tights’ was broadcast two years after the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable, at a time when comic-book movies weren’t really a thing. Clearly, though, Charmed was ahead of the game – it probably helped that showrunner Brad Kern previously worked on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman.

Perhaps the episode’s funniest and most philosophical moment comes when Paige removes her superhero mask. “I don’t like it,” she says, discovering that the mask gives her more self-belief. It echoes a conversation Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) has with Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” he says. Luckily, we know the Halliwells are more than the sum of their powers; it’s their bond, brains and bravura that see them through.

Although, actually, Tony and the Halliwells… now there’s a team-up I’d like to see.

Missed an episode? Catch up on the other Charmed Rewitches here.

The Friday 56: Vicious Rumer

Such a fantastic idea. Thanks for having me, Kate!

The Friday 56 is a weekly blog meme hosted by Freda’s Voice. The idea is to share an excerpt from a book you’ve been reading every Friday, to promote the book or simply just to showcase your current read!

Friday56Rules:
*Grab a book, any book.
*Turn to page 56 or 56% in your eReader
(If you have to improvise, that’s OK.)
*Find any sentence, (or few, just don’t spoil it)
*Post it.
*Add your (url) post below in Linky. Add the post url, not your blog url.
*It’s that simple

This week I’m reading an ARC of a new thriller, Vicious Rumer.

Vicious rumer

‘I remember reading the article as a teenager. Kobayashi was the monster who formed the Divine Order, the cult my mother joined before she fell pregnant. She worked for him.
It all comes back to my mother. A snake eating its own tail.
‘I should go.’

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New Sentinel novella Witchpin now available!

Witchpin COVERHey everybody! I hope you’re all having a fun 2018.

Earlier this year, I promised some exciting things in the Sentinel camp, and today I’m thrilled to reveal that Witchpin, a new Sentinel novella, is now available on Amazon!

Set before the events of the Sentinel Trilogy, Witchpin dives into the past to reveal the secrets of Jessica Bell and Isabel Hallow. Ever wondered how they met? All will be revealed!

You can head over to the Witchpin page on the ST website to read more about the book (including a Q&A with yours truly), or if you can’t wait any longer to get your hands on the book, head over to Amazon UK or Amazon US to grab your copy.

And be sure to leave a star rating and/or short review on Amazon and Goodreads when you’re done.

Thank you and remember, the Sentinels are always watching.

Videodrome (1983)

videodrome

★★★★

David Cronenberg’s seminal 1983 body horror Videodrome begins with a shot of a TV screen and ends with its main character re-enacting what he’s just seen played out on another screen. In-between, there are scenes of extreme brutality, physiological weirdness, philosophical debate, and sexual ambiguity, but Cronenberg repeatedly returns to the relationship between the screen and the viewer, assembling a caustic appraisal of society’s growing reliance on technology, and the uneasy way it infects and affects our everyday behaviour. Though the film is now over 30 years old (and, for the most part, looks it), its relevance only grows with the passing of time.

Max Renn (James Woods) is president of local TV station CIVIC-TV and on the hunt for something groundbreaking to offer his viewers. “It’s soft. Something too… soft about it,” he opines of content brought to him by his staff. “I’m lookin’ for something that’ll break through, you know?” That something turns out to be Videodrome. Plotless, shot in Malaysia, and depicting seemingly real scenes of sexual torture, the show borders on snuff, but Max wants it. Meanwhile, he defends his philosophy on a talk show where he meets radio host Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame), explaining that he provides a safe outlet for society’s darker fantasies.

As Max and Nicki strike up a relationship, their sadomasochistic encounters signal a queasy journey into a circus of body horror. Released just two years after Cronenberg made Scanners (with its exploding heads and sinister psychics), and eight years after Rabid (with its phallic mutations), Videodrome is a distillation of everything the Canadian director represents. At the time, Videodrome was by far Cronenberg’s most sophisticated offering, and saw the writer-director expertly navigating themes of voyeurism and violence through a prism of intelligent horror.

With the help of special effects expert Rick Baker, Cronenberg draws us into a terrifying nightmare where technology and flesh combine. After discovering Videodrome is broadcasting out of Pittsburgh, Max attempts to track down its creators, then encounters the mysterious Bianca (Sonja Smits), who’s continuing the work of her father, Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop culture analyst who dreamed of a world where TV replaces reality. And when Max returns home, he suffers horrific hallucinations in which a gaping slit like a VCR opens in his torso. Bianca tells him that watching Videodrome causes viewers to develop brain tumours in which reality and fiction become horrifically distorted.

“We’re entering savage new times,” remarks one character in Videodrome’s mindfuck third act, and he’s not wrong. There are pulsating, groaning betamax tapes, guns welded to hands, and fleshy arm-grenades, all lovingly crafted by Baker’s team of effects mavericks; schlocky but they stand the test of time. Under it all, though, runs a sinister undercurrent that tackles ideas about violence against women, our culpability as viewers, the power of the voyeur, and even the question of what defines reality. It makes for an uncomfortable watch, and Cronenberg’s film is at times unbelievably quiet and restrained, which could test some viewers’ concentration spans.

If Videodrome sets out to do anything, though, it’s to test its audience. It wants to provoke and question; it demands we confront ourselves and ask why we keep watching. In the early ’80s, most viewers weren’t ready for something so self-aware (Videodrome bombed on release, making just $2.1m on its $5.9m budget), but modern, media-savvy audiences will appreciate its febrile subtext. Now, we really do rely on technology to survive, and most of us have our phones welded to our hands in much the same way Max’s gun becomes welded to his. In that respect, Videodrome is shockingly prescient, predicting how we have become physically and psychologically bonded with technology.

While Woods and Harry are fantastic, they inevitably play second fiddle to the impressive prosthetics and hotbed of ideas. Woods plays Max as wide-eyed and naïve even as he chases dark dreams. He’s almost a noir detective, navigating our nightmares and shuddering at what he finds. It’s also through Max that Cronenberg continuously challenges us to distinguish the real from the artificial. His film refuses to do so, shooting the ‘real world’ and Max’s hallucinations in the same way so that it’s impossible to tell them apart. That’s sort of the point. Nowadays, we’re unable to distinguish between a piece of plastic and the real world, existing in social media bubbles, emotionally attached to our inboxes and news feeds.

Ahead of Pixar’s WALL-E (with its tech-reliant space humans) and even the more recent Nightcrawler (with its carnage-obsessed TV execs), Videodrome offers a chilling glimpse into a possible future – and it’s a future that seems more and more possible with every passing year. At 87 minutes, Videodrome is a short, sharp jab to the solar plexus. Cronenberg has called making the film “cathartic”, but watching it is another matter. A bracing, unnerving watch, Videodrome is packed full of stark, intelligent ideas. It wriggles under the skin and stays there for days.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

The X-Files – Examining The ‘Essential Episodes’

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Over a decade after The X-Files closed the door on its cabinet of weirdness in 2002, creator Chris Carter revealed there are 10 episodes X-Files groupies and newbies needed to watch before they dove back into the adventures of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). Pretty handy, considering the entire nine-year run amounts to a whopping 202 episodes. We decided to check those 10 episodes out ourselves and see how well they hold up all these years later…

Pilot
★★★★
“The following story is inspired by actual documented accounts,” we’re told at the start of the very first X-Files, and boy does Chris Carter make us believe it. In just 48 minutes, he introduces a great number of the key elements that will define The X-Files for much of its nine year run. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson share great chemistry from the off as FBI agents Mulder and Scully, the latter a scientist and sceptic, the former a believer. With a plot that feels part Twin Peaks, part something else, this is a fun, mysterious and creepy introduction to the world of alien abduction. It’s dated really well, too. Though it looks its age, the storytelling and performances remain hugely compelling, and it’s not hard to see why this grew into a phenomenon. (Season 1, Episode 1)

Deep Throat
★★★★
Pretty much picking up where the first episode left off, this second X-File ramps up the conspiracy angle as Mulder meets ‘Deep Throat’ (Jerry Hardin), a shady informant whose motives remain unclear. Meanwhile, he and Scully investigate the case of a test pilot whose erratic behaviour has his wife concerned. Of course, that leads them into a case involving alien abduction, culminating in Mulder (sans Scully, naturally) encountering a strange, triangular aircraft. Is it a spaceship? Though not as strong as the pilot, Deep Throat builds on its predecessor and boasts an infectious paranoid atmosphere. Hardin is fantastic as the enigmatic informant, and there’s even an appearance by a young (and shaggy-haired) Seth Green as a UFO-obsessed teenager. (Season 1, Episode 2)

Beyond The Sea
★★★★★
An unbelievably dark delve into the aftershocks of grief, this episode from writers Glen Morgan and James Wong puts Scully front and centre as she reels in the wake of her father’s sudden death. Determining to keep working, she attempts to debunk a supposed psychic, death row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif), only to find herself believing he really can communicate with the dead. It’s easy to draw comparisons with Silence Of The Lambs as Scully finds herself both drawn to and repulsed by Boggs, who has answers she needs, and with Mulder out of action for much of the episode, the episode takes full advantage of . It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill as an actress that she’s not eclipsed by the fantastically creepy Dourif. By episode’s end, Scully emerges wiser – critically – more complicatedly human than ever. (Season 1, Episode 13)

The Erlenmeyer Flask
★★★★
It’s finale time, and The X Files’ first season draws neatly to a close, ending with a scene that mirrors the final sting from the pilot as Cancer Man places a pickled alien in a box in the Indiana Jones-esque file room at the Pentagon. He’s not the only one making a return, with Deep Throat back and crazier than ever, finally offering up some answers – and they’re juicy as prime steak. Scully discovers ET DNA (you can actually freeze frame her mind being blown) and Mulder attempts to chase down a doctor whose DNA has been spliced the ET’s. The stakes have never been higher, and this is a thrilling end to the first season. The conspiracy deepens (just who are these lackeys working for Cancer Man?), the techno-babble is on top form (we learned something about the structure of DNA, woo) and with the FBI threatening to close the X Files, it’s cliffhangers ahoy. This is how you do a season finale. (Season 1, Episode 24)

The Host
★★★
With the X Files closed at the end of the first season, this episode deals with the fallout of that while also delivering as an entertaining monster of the week. Mulder goes on the case of a “giant bloodsucking worm” that’s making its way through the sewers of New Jersey, calling on Scully to lend her scientific eye to proceedings (perform an autopsy, receiving mysterious tip-offs). It’s no coincidence that Mulder’s told he has “a friend at the FBI” within minutes of Skinner assigning him a case that looks suspiciously like an X File, and while this episode’s monster plot is relatively routine (albeit with some great prosthetics), the clever handling of the conspiracy keeps things interesting. Meanwhile, there’s genuine affection in Mulder and Scully’s handful of scenes – it’s Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry that gives the show its lifeblood. (Season 2, Episode 2)

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
★★★★
A relatively talky episode, this third season highlight is buoyed by a fantastic performance by Peter Boyle as Clyde, a psychic with the ability to predict how people will die. He’s brought in to help with a murder case being investigated by Mulder and Scully, and many of the episode’s best scenes involve Clyde and Mulder discussing fate, determinism and the nature of free will – the head-spinny dialogue is a Christopher Nolan wet dream. There’s also a brilliant bit of effects work in which we watch Clyde’s body decomposing, surrounded by flowers, and some fun horror visuals – including a corpse’s face replacing that of a doll’s. While an episode like this probably felt groundbreaking back in 1995, now it’s simply a performance-driven curio that has interesting/intelligent things to say. (Season 3, Episode 4)

Memento Mori
★★★★
Four of The X-Files’ biggest writers (Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz) combine to script this busy episode, which deals with the repercussions of Scully discovering she has cancer. While she ends up hospitalised, it’s up to Mulder to attempt to figure out a way to save her, which leads him down dark new avenues, encountering clones, more people floating in glass boxes, and that deadly assassin who reduces people to green goop. Oh, and he’s given a hand by the Lone Gunmen, always a welcome addition to any X-File. In the eye of the storm, Anderson gives a series-best performance, though her narration (she’s writing a letter to Mulder) adds little insight into her suffering. Meanwhile, it’s great to see Cancer Man back, with Skinner striking up a surprising deal that could save a certain redhead. In all, this is a zippy episode that furthers the conspiracy while deepening Mulder and Scully’s emotional connection. He even kisses her on the forehead. Gulp. (Season 4, Episode 14)

Post-Modern Prometheus
★★★★★
Frankenstein meets The Elephant Man in surely the oddest and most audaciously entertaining X-Files episode ever made. Setting out to smash the series mould to smithereens, Chris Carter writes and directs a black-and-white ode to Hammer horror in which Mulder and Scully find themselves in “Hicksville” when a woman wakes up pregnant after blacking out for three days. It’s not long before they’re bouncing between weirdo locals and yet more pregnant women as a monster stalks the town, but who is the monster and what does he really want? Boldly trying something new, Post-Modern Prometheus begins with a woman being attacked while Cher plays on the soundtrack and ends with Mulder and Scully slow-dancing to ‘Walking In Memphis’. It’s weird, lovingly crafted and, possibly, the moment the show jumped the shark. Because, really, what could they really do next? (Season 5, Episode 5)

Bad Blood
★★★
What could they do next? Well, keep the comedy coming thick and fast, as with this vampire-themed instalment, which is told mostly in flashback as Mulder and Scully attempt to remember exactly what happened led to them staking a pizza guy wearing fake fangs. Scully goes gooey-eyed over Luke Wilson’s lawman (then gets hungry for pizza for performing an autopsy), while Mulder’s attacked by the glowy-eyed pizza guy. Funny sights include Scully enjoying a vibrating bed and Mulder singing the Shaft theme tune, but despite this episode being scripted by Vince Gilligan, it’s oddly flat, dealing in goofiness instead of the show’s trademark grittiness. (Season 5, Episode 12)

Milagro
★★★★
Less obviously self-referential than Post-Modern Prometheus and Bad Blood, but still effectively taking an inward look at the merit of paranormal stories like those told in the X-Files, Milagro delves into the power of storytelling, exploring how passion often dictates our judgement. This being the X-Files, we also get ripped-out hearts aplenty as John Hawkes’ lonely writer works on a novel that bears a striking resemblance to real events. We’re not in puppet master territory, though, Milagro revelling in atmosphere and ambiguity while laying bear Scully’s secret passions. The episode’s notable for neatly switching her and Mulder’s traditional roles as skeptic and believer, and while this isn’t the showiest X-File, it’s a fine example of its measured, thoughtful approach to storytelling. (Season 6, Episode 18)

This article originally ran at Frame Rated.

Agent Carter – Season 1

agent-carter

★★★★★

There’s been a lot of chatter over the past few years about Marvel’s inability to release a female-led superhero movie. Despite having a roster of comic-book superheroines prime for a trip to the big screen, the studio won’t unleash its first female-led movie until Captain Marvel debuts in 2018. Thank heavens, then, for Agent Peggy Carter. She may not possess super-powers or a snazzy super-suit, and she may not be in cinemas, but with her sharply written and hugely entertaining TV series, she proves what we’ve always known – Marvel women are more than a match for their male counterparts.

Created by showrunners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Agent Carter is set in 1946, three years after Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) disappeared in the Arctic. Attempting to get on with her life, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) works at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) in New York City, a pseudo-detective agency where she’s frequently undermined or just plain ignored by her male colleagues. When madcap inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is accused of selling deadly weapons on the black market, he becomes a “fugitive from justice” and asks Carter for help clearing his name. Pretty soon, she’s drawn into a plot involving terrifying technological gizmos, undercover assassins and Russian mind manipulators.

What’s most impressive about Agent Carter’s eight-episode first run is how confidently it hits the ground running. Its opening moments set the tone as Carter kicks ass and cleans house, all to the foot-tapping neo-jazz of Caro Emerald, and the show’s mission statement is clear: we’re here to have fun, take names and revel in the period detail. Much of that early confidence is down to Atwell, more than comfortable in the role, with this being the fourth time she’s played Carter (after appearances in her own Marvel One-Shot short, she also turned up in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier before reprising Carter in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man).

“I’m capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at me,” she says in episode one, and we’re never in any doubt of that. Sharing sparky banter with the other agents, who treat her like a secretary, she’s a woman constantly coming up against the brick wall of patriarchy. That she handles it so pragmatically is part of Carter’s charm, and she’s genuinely likeable – a grounded heroine who doesn’t need super-powers or (gasp!) a man to rescue her. Her friendship with waitress Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) adds an interesting wrinkle, too – this may be a show about a woman’s fight against patriarchy, but it’s also about one woman empowering other women.

There’s one quite conspicuous man whose presence is felt throughout, though. That Agent Carter opens with a replay of the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger is fitting; the ghost of Steve Rogers haunts this first season. Carter never refers to him as “Captain America”, and her grief over the man behind the shield threads every episode with sadness. Carter is struggling to accept Rogers is gone, and her emotional response to uncovering a vial of his blood is hugely moving. It’s these moments of affecting fragility that gift the series vital humanity as it crashes through noir-ish conspiracies and action set-ups.

In fact, for all the explosions and whirlwind fights, it’s Carter’s relationships with the other agents of the SSR that carry the most impact. Over the course of the season, she butts heads with swaggering Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), shares a bond with crippled war vet Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) and is constantly infuriated by SSR chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham). All are alternately her foes and her friends, and there’s a constant undercurrent of tension in their scenes, especially as all three men are determined to bring Howard Stark to justice – which would also mean exposing Carter as a double agent.

Speaking of, Dominic Cooper is brilliant as the playboy inventor. Though his appearances as Stark are kept to a minimum, he’s a bright addition to any episode (even if his American accent occasionally comes off like Nathan Lane after a few G&Ts) and the perfect foil for Carter, his womanising ways never failing to rub her up the wrong way. On the flip side, his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) becomes Carter’s partner and confidante, and the pair’s burgeoning friendship forms much of the show’s emotional backbone. Showrunners Markus and McFeely wisely keep Carter free from romantic entanglement, instead exploring the men in her life as anything but love interests. Some are her equals, some her inferiors and superiors, but all tease out different aspects of Carter’s personality, affording us a varied insight into the woman Steve Rogers fell for.

Not that the action isn’t thrilling. Like this year’s Man From UNCLE reboot, Agent Carter has great fun with retro tech. Between a self-typing typewriter and boxes full of Stark’s weird inventions, there are cool gadgets aplenty, and many of the episodes revolve around what craziness each new gizmo will unleash. Atwell’s game for the action, too, taking demanding fight scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bourne film in her stride. She’s clearly having great fun in the role, dressing up in silly disguises (blonde wig, lab coat) and delivering pithy one-liners with a delicate touch. Whether trading quips with Stark or reminiscing about Rogers, she’s just fantastic.

It’s rare for a TV series to deliver such exceptional entertainment in its first season, but Agent Carter makes it looks easy. Unlike sister series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which wobbled during its early episodes before finding its feet at the close of its first year, Agent Carter starts off strong and only gets better as the season’s arc unfolds. Meticulously planned, it tells a proper, self-contained story, impressively sure of its world and characters. It’s as close to a person first season as it’s possible to get.

And with season two of Agent Carter relocating to Los Angeles, it’s clear showrunners Markus and McFeely are keen to keep Atwell busy with new and interesting challenges. That’s been a hallmark of the show throughout its impressive first season. Its breakneck pace keeps the kicks coming, but some fantastic twists also ensure it’s almost impossible to predict where the complex plot will go next – as with one shock character demise. And though it’ll be sad to lose gorgeous ’40s New York as a backdrop next season, it feels right that Agent Carter will go on to explore new territory. She’s earned her wings, now let’s see her fly.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.

Krampus (2015)

krampus

★★★

It’s impossible to talk about Christmas horror movies without referencing Gremlins, and Krampus knows that. Boasting a similar ‘family fight festive critters’ premise to Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, it’s got a similarly dark sense of humour, not least when its menagerie of creatures are finally unveiled after a shadowy build-up. While director Michael Dougherty (who previously made decent 2007 Halloween anthology Trick ‘R Treat) is clearly enamoured with Gremlins and seems to want to recapture that film’s mischievous sense of fun, Krampus ends up being a very different beast, for better and worse.

We meet xx-year-old Billy (xx xx) in the days leading up to Christmas. Billy’s at a difficult age when he’s starting to question Santa’s existence, and his parents’ inability to give him a firm answer either way only contributes to his morose spirit. When his extended family arrive to stay for the holidays, things worsen, particularly when Billy’s bully cousins (xx and xx) get their hands on his heartfelt letter to Santa, which contains personal (and not particularly complimentary) observations about pretty much every family member.

Despite Dougherty’s form in horror territory, Krampus is most confident in these opening moments, which introduce our central family in all their warring glory. Great aunt xx (xx xx) is a mouthy alcoholic, while Billy’s aunt and uncle (xx and xx) rub his mother xx (Toni Collette) and father xx (Adam Scott) up the wrong way by merely existing. Only Billy’s German grandmother, Omi (xx xx), keeps to herself, but her silence comes heavy with the suggestion she’s hiding something from her family. Recalling the manic domestic scenes of Home Alone and any number of other John Hughes movies, Krampus’ opening 30 minutes are assured and funny, expertly making us care for the family despite and because of its obvious disfunction.

When Billy’s letter is read out at the dinner table, though, Billy’s so upset he tears it up and throws it out the window. The next morning, the entire street has lost power and a fearsome blizzard has transformed the neighbourhood into a frozen wasteland. Stranded in the house, the family continue to irritate one another, until one family member goes missing, prompting an unsuccessful search and, eventually, the revelation that Billy’s actions have inadvertently summoned Krampus, an anti-Santa straight out of German folklore who preys on anybody who’s given up on Christmas.

As horror premises go, it’s a doozy, and Dougherty goes to great pains to squeeze every drop of tension out of it. Initially, the tension-cranking is effective, particularly during one scene from the trailer in which Billy’s sister xx (xx xx) hides under a car only to be confronted by a creepy jack-in-the-box. After its assured opening, though, Krampus hesitates, and its second act becomes a tiresome exercise in over-long tension-building (even if it is punctuated with a brilliant bit of chimney barminess that finally gets the snowball of terror rolling).

It’s a good hour before Krampus’ alternately giggling, slavering, shambling monsters are finally revealed. The horned Krampus itself is genuinely horrifying, accomplished using puppetry and prosthetics (with a dash of CGI), while its army of scampering menaces are both ridiculous and terrifying. They’re also, for the most part, lovingly created using old-school prosthetics, which adds the kind of grounded weirdness to the film surely last seen in the Child’s Play series. When these bizarre anomalies break out, the scenes of carnage are impressively handled, providing just enough gore, levity and goo to sate horror appetites.

Part of the problem, though, is that Krampus gets confused over who its lead character is. After sticking closely to Billy and establishing his conflict, the narrative constantly switches between different family members until we’re left in something of a muddle. Meanwhile, Krampus ends up being more freaky than truly scary, and it’s most surprising just how bleak Dougherty’s film quickly becomes. The director has talked about Krampus as a horror movie in the Amblin mould, citing films like Gremlins and The Goonies as tonal touchstones, but despite Great Aunt xx delivering sardonic quips between sips from her hip flash, Krampus isn’t afraid of striding headfirst into pure horror terrain, and when that happens, the chuckles all but disappear completely.

When you throw in a beautiful but unnecessary animated segment, characters doing frustratingly silly things (would you send /your/ daughter out into a blizzard alone?), and an ending that tries too hard to be clever instead of settling for genuine emotion, Krampus winds up being a mixed bag of toys. There’s no shortage of chill-inducing weirdness (see the snowmen), but Dougherty seems so intent on creating something unpredictable and unsettling that he forgets what made the film’s first 30 minutes so strong – the bond between its dysfunctional family.

With Gremlins 3 looking more likely than ever, Krampus provides an entertaining diversion as we await Gizmo and co’s return. Dougherty comes so close to greatness that it’s upsetting when he comes up short. Still, between Krampus’ monster set-pieces, domestic banter, and a spirited turn by young xx (Billy), there’s much to love here. A few years from now, Krampus will have earned its place as a festive cult classic, which is just where it belongs.

This review originally ran at Frame Rated.