Miami Twice… a Week By Roger Crow

Boom. Boom. Boom. 

No, it’s not a Black Eyed Peas track, but me bouncing from wave to wave, the Miami skyline a backdrop to my latest sun-kissed adventure. 

So while Jan Hammer’s classic title theme played on a loop in my head, and Ocean Force Adventures’ Captain Matt guided my RIB (rigid inflatable boat) over the next wave, the reality behind that 30-year-old fantasy was happily overwritten. 

  
Skimming around the Everglades days earlier had been just as thrilling, soaking up the sights before experiencing (from a safe distance) a few of the 2,000 eponymous stars of the Everglades Alligator Farm. 

I’d witnessed how badly this sort of thing could be done in Orlando years ago, so it was reassuring to see a well executed version. 

  
Contrary to what i’d seen in many bullet-strewn films, TV shows and carjacking video games, Miami is far friendlier than I could have hoped; more like locally shot comedy classic There’s Something About Mary than Al Pacino’s OTT remake of Scarface. 

  
Or at least it was for the week I was there, happily gracing Thomas Cook’s inaugural flight from Manchester to Miami. 

A smooth, comfortable jaunt with great staff, state-of-the-art touch screen entertainment and delicious food. 

(Unlike some airline meals which I half eat, the main James Martin dish in Premium Economy was so tasty, it left me craving more). 

  
As an adopted northerner with an insatiable passion for all things Floridian, the bi-weekly new route is great news for me, my bank account and my six foot one frame. I’m of an age where I’ll happily pay extra for decent leg room on long haul flights. 

  
My last trip to Miami was around 2007 on a day trip from Orlando. Given the few hours my wife and I spent gracing South Beach or the odd restaurant, it was great to see how vibrant and diverse the area is when you have a few days and guides spotlighting those places most Brits have never heard of. 

  
Okay, I’ll admit the Miami Design District left me as cold as LA’s Rodeo Drive, which it resembled, but don’t let that put you off. 

As someone who prefers bookshops to designer labels, I’m unlikely to shop there, unless I win the Lottery. 

However, I can see the appeal for socialites, star-spotters and my better half (as long as I hide her credit card). 

  
More affordable were Bayside Mall and Dolphin Mall, perfect spots for getting those suitcase-straining bargains. 

Half of my trip was spent at The Biltmore, a National Historic Landmark hotel you might recognise from Will Smith’s first Bad Boys movie. 

  
Given its elegant setting, great food (the Fontana Ristorante and Courtyard is a must), spacious gym and pool (recently named in the world’s top seven coolest by one major web site), there’s little wonder film and TV makers love it as much as travellers. 

  
The Grand Beach Hotel (off Miami Beach) also boasted an uber comfy bed and fine facilities. Ironing the wrinkles out of my suit while overlooking a rainbow-kissed Miami beach is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. 

  
Of course, shopping, sun, sea and sand are a huge chunk of any annual holiday. However, as a lover of quirky attractions, Coral Castle, a wonderfully bonkers tribute to one man’s epic garden folly, (later inspiring Billy Idol’s song Sweet Sixteen) lingered long after I left. 

The story behind the attraction is the greatest Tim Burton film never made. 

  
If wildlife rather than wild love stories is more your thing, Miami Seaquarium offers plenty… and the chance to swim with dolphins. 

Though I’d done it before in Orlando, the experience never gets old, while watching manatees, rays and conversing with assorted parrots is always a bonus. 

  
We all know America is synonymous with epic food portions, and I experienced a wealth of great meals, whether a fine steak at the posh Meat Market (on Lincoln Road, the main shopping street); crab cakes at Gianni Versace’s beloved News Cafe; a great South Beach restaurant-to-diner trek courtesy of Miami Food Tours, or a fine veggie burger at the PAMM (Perez Art Museum) gallery. 

  
The latter was a top attraction for a rainy day, albeit a little too ’Tate Modern’ for me in places; some sublime exhibits in one room and some that are more Foundation level in others. 

  
Art will always be a divisive subject, regardless of how spacious or well funded the setting. However, as much as I loved my visit to PAMM, Wynwood Walls and arts district – a thriving urban neighbourhood filled with beautifully painted murals, galleries, breweries and cool bars -proved far more on the money. 

  
Basically it was a checklist of my favourite things, and the street art doesn’t cost a penny. I highly recommend it. 

Getting around town on foot is all very well, and as much as I like a good walk, I adore a Segway tour even more. 

  
A few years ago in Baltimore, I fell in love with the simply controlled gizmos, subtly controlled by weight shifted from toes to heels. 

They were just as much fun touring the streets of Miami, care of the superb Bike & Roll company. 

First timers might be stressed as they get used to the scooter-like vehicles, but after a few minutes, chances are they’ll be a natural.

  
As my wife and I usually default to a Manchester to Orlando return trip most years, the fact our regular October pilgrimage is now cheaper to include a Miami diversion is a welcome incentive, not to mention a change from the norm. 

After 15 trips to Florida over a dozen years, I never cease to be amazed by the magnetic appeal of its attractions. 

  
Miami is my new favourite haunt, blending the best of the Sunshine State and that Cuban influence. It’s as intoxicating as the cocktails I sampled, purely in the interest of research. (The taste of Maple syrup and alcohol now permanently associated with Miami). 

  
Given the relatively healthy exchange rate (at the time of writing), it’s hard not to enthuse about jewel in Florida’s crown. 

After a few stressful, exhausting months, Miami did a terrific job of recharging my batteries, like the U.S. always does. 

  
It’s never a case of ’if’ I return, but when, and that new Manchester – Miami route means it’ll be sooner rather than later. 

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The Man With Lee Child in His Eyes – an Exclusive Interview by Roger Crow (Part one)

The last time I chatted to Lee Child, one of the world’s most successful crime fiction authors, I was so inspired after that a few minutes on the phone, I wrote half a novel. 
Within a couple of minutes of arriving at Harrogate’s Crime Fiction Festival, I seized the chance to grill him in person about his new Jack Reacher book, and the pending Tom Cruise sequel. 

“Where’s the other half?” He asks me when I tell him about my unfinished masterpiece.

“I’m hoping this second chat will give me enough inspiration to finish the job,” I tell him.

He smiles, and we sit down in the library at The Old Swan hotel in Harrogate, England.

Lee is in town with a few days to kill. Actually he is here as part of The Old Peculier Crime Writers’ Festival, an annual event which has attracted some of the biggest names in the literary industry.

  
Tell us about your next novel

“Yeah, the next one is released in September. It’s called Make Me. (Jack) Reacher’s back in his natural habitat. The undiscovered backroads of America. Last year’s book, Personal, which took him to Paris and London and so on, so this time I thought I’ll have him back in the dusty Mid West. 

This time he’s in… The state is not really named but really it’s Kansas; hundreds of square miles of wheat fields, a strange little town with a rail road stop and something bad going on there that he gets involved in.” 

You don’t go back and edit your work. Is that through sheer confidence as you’ve written so many of these books now?
“Yeah, well it’s not exactly confidence. It’s sort of the theory of storytelling. To me this is… In one half of my mind I know this is a made up, but on the other hand I imagine this is really happening and so you can’t go back and change it. If this is what has happened has happened, so it would be dishonest to go back and alter it. So in the morning what I do is check what I wrote yesterday and make sure it makes sense; make sure it’s smooth, and then I move on and I don’t go back and revisit it ever, no.”

Inside Out – The Review

As a rule of thumb, when I’m feeling depressed Pixar movies usually do a good job of cheering me up. 
So, fed up over rubbish weather and assorted life matters, I’d hoped Inside Out would lift my spirits. 

Given the media saturation and ad budget capable of clearing Greece’s debt, chances are you know the story. 

Elements of the key characters’ personality power them from control rooms overlooking assorted islands, whether it’s family, goofball or otherwise. 

Two of the key protagonists are Joy and Sadness. The former, as you might expect, is super positive and cheery, while the latter is depressed. Little wonder I wanted to slap her. (I don’t normally condone violence against personified cartoon conditions but in this case I’ll make an exception).  

In the first act we see a little Minnesota girl form memories which are stored in different coloured spheres like a huge collection of marbles. She also forms core memories which reside in a special area of her brain, soul, personality, whatever. 

  
After moving to San Francisco, our young heroine is out of her comfort zone and starts experiencing the usual conditions of first world kids dealing with first world problems, like how to get by in one of America’s most desirable areas. 

The problem is Sadness winds up infecting some super happy memories so Joy kicks off, and after a convoluted plot twist, she and Sadness are projected miles away from their control room. A bit like Wreck It Ralph.  

Getting the core memories back to where they need to be forms the backbone of the story. Which is fine. 

Along the way we meet an imaginary character reminiscent of a Dr Seuss creation, and the trio encounter assorted perilous problems to get “home”. 

Classic story structure then, so why did the movie annoy me so much?

Was it the fact the ’Inside’ characters looked so generic and uninspired?

Was it the plastic character ears which looked like they’d not been developed since The Incredibles 11 years ago? 

Could it be that The Numskulls comic strip had done this all 40 years ago?

All of the above. 

It’s not a bad movie, and little kids should love it, but, like Finding Nemo, it’s essentially an adventure wrapped around a ball of middle aged neuroses. 

Can’t a kids’ adventure just be fun instead of projecting anxiety, fear and grown up traits onto its young heroine?

There is one sucker punch moment in the third act which made it semi worthwhile, but while it wasn’t as bad as Cars 2, or as humdrum as Monsters University, this was light years away from the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles and director Pete Docter’s previous masterpiece, Up

Worth a look, especially for that preceding short Lava and the final cat shot, but far from classic Pixar. 

Toy Story – An Exclusive Chat With Jordan Hembrough by Roger Crow

  

 

For anybody who has ever collected toys, memorabilia, action figures, models or cuddly toys, Jordan Hembrough is living the dream. 

Getting paid to travel the world, buy and sell toys for celebrities and collectors is the stuff that dreams are made of for some folks.

As somebody who spent all of their pocket money on a Palitoy Han Solo action figure back in 1978, and hasn’t looked back since, I wondered what his favourite toy was.

   
“I’m like you. I’m a vintage Star Wars guy. I’m 45 and it was all the Vintage Star Wars.”
When you left college, what was it you wanted to do? Was it blind faith?
“It was sort of blind faith. When I left college, I got a job as a buyer for a chain of retail stores called Starlog; even in the UK it was huge. We had a chain of retail stores around the US. We actually had one in Kingston on Thames over here too. So I was the buyer for this chain of retail stores, and I went and bought all of the antique collectable toys. 

“When the company wrapped, being the buyer, I had everybody ship the inventory back to the corporate warehouse and I bought it all for a liquidation sale for 10 cents on the dollar and started my company.”

Jordan admits there was a little more to it than just taking a leap into the unknown like that invisible bridge moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“Actually now I’m telling the story, it wasn’t blind faith. It was more fear. I was afraid that I couldn’t do anything else,” he laughs. “I truly loved the toys and that’s what my passion was”. 

As anybody who has seen Toy Hunter will know, Jordan spends a lot of his time jetting around the States, but I was wondering how he gets on in Birmingham England rather than Birmingham Alabama?

“Oh it was great. I consider England like my second home. My wife is from Kent; she is from south London. My whole family is from Nottingham, so I’ve got family here. The hardest part about everything was doing the conversion rate.
“I’d ask somebody, ’How much do you want on that’? 

’£8000.’

’Okay, right how much is that?’

“It was kind of funny sometimes, I am sure I spent more money than anything else,”.

With Toy Hunter touching a chord with collectors and sci-fi fans alike, does he ever fancy doing a UK or global version?

“I do. I would love to do one. I have fans and colleagues and everything all over the world. All I can say is, if people want me to be there, I will be there.”

  
With thanks to Jordan for his help with this blog post and image. 

Neil Diamond- Live in Leeds

Whether you have a certain amount of ’delirious love’ for Neil Diamond or if you’re new to the party, chances are the shy New Yorker has provided part of the soundtrack to your life. 

He has mine, a fascination that’s endured since 1980 when my dad bought The Jazz Singer soundtrack on cassette and it was played on a loop during a family road trip. 
  
Neil Diamond plays Leeds – July 21, 2015. Photo: Roger Crow

My love of that gloriously awful film stems from the fact that at least six good songs can keep a bad movie afloat like yellow barrels fired into a Great White movie shark. 
Adhering to the fact few rock stars can act, Diamond retained an admirable degree of dignity in a film where he was too old to play the conflicted protagonist, had little chemistry with either of his leading ladies, and had to put up with Laurence Olivier’s hammy performance as his dad. 
Yes, the crowd scenes are just as bad, but those songs are timeless, especially Love on the Rocks. Bad guy co-star Paul Nicholas may have intentionally given him short shrift in the studio, but it remains one of Diamond’s finest works – creating screen alchemy by transforming the dull iron pyrite script into screen gold. 
  Neil Diamond plays Leeds – July 21, 2015. Photo: Roger Crow

Diamond’s work seems to have been around forever, from the melancholic Song Sung Blue, feel good Sweet Caroline and Cracklin’ Rosie to his more recent collaborations with Rick Rubin, 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. 
In 2008, an era when I’d lost faith in mainstream music, Pretty Amazing Grace reminded me of what a craftsman Diamond can be with just a guitar and that voice which sounds like warm audio honey dripped into your ears. 

Then there’s the string of other classics, Daydream Believer, Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon and Red Red Wine, recorded by different artists, which took on a life of their own. 

I’ve long yearned to see the award-winning tunesmith live, and last night I got the chance in Leeds. My biggest fear was that unmistakable voice would have been diminished with age, but thankfully not a bit of it.

  
Neil Diamond plays Leeds – July 21, 2015. Photo: Roger Crow

Rattling through a string of his classics, as well as some of his lesser known works, Diamond put on a hell of a show. It’s quite something to see one man and his band get 11,000 people on their feet whooping and cheering, but Diamond managed it with relative ease.
He’s as multi-faceted as the surname suggests, a talent forged in the unforgiving crucible of New York’s songwriting factory the Brill building, before shining on the world’s stage. 
He’s penned no end of love songs over the years, but it’s often his more ’out there’ work which sticks in the mind. 
  
Neil Diamond plays Leeds – July 21, 2015. Photo: Roger Crow

Who else could bemoan the fact a chair didn’t hear him on his homesick LA-based oddity I Am…I Said? Then there was his glorious score for flop movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which, as you may have guessed, centres on a feathered protagonist. The film dive bombed but his soundtrack soared. 
It may not have been a hot August night, but his latest gig generated no end of summer love for one of America’s finest artists. 
  
Neil Diamond plays Leeds – July 21, 2015. Photo: Roger Crow

At 74, he’s inevitably slower than his Jazz Singer days, but that voice is still as strong, and just one of the many reasons he’s shifted 125 million albums. 
A beautiful noise indeed.  

Ant-Man – The Review 

Ant-Man

Two years ago I asked Edgar Wright what the tone of Ant-Man would be like. 

He was a little cagey naturally, but I had no idea within months he would have left the project and Marvel bosses would be left trying to find a suitable replacement.  

However, you don’t become one of Hollywood’s biggest money spinners without being a dab hand at crisis management, and with a $130m project at stake, it’s little wonder they salvaged a decent movie from the wreckage. 

The plot is simple: ex-con Scott Lang tries to win his young daughter over by getting a job… but when he’s sacked, reverts to type by stealing stuff. 

Not the wisest of parental moves for a dad trying to get back on the straight and narrow, especially when his ex is dating a cop and he needs to become Mr Reliable to ensure he can see his own kid. 

However, pinching Hank Pym’s special miniaturisation suit, and then joining forces with the seasoned superhero means he does get to become the hero we all knew he could be. 

Given the chaos caused by Wright’s departure from his long cherished film, this could have been a train wreck of a movie, but Peyton Reed does a good job of keeping it on track. 

Yes, I am alluding to one of the funniest action scenes of the year involving a toy train which set the tone in the trailer. 

Like Pym’s dabs in one clever safe cracking scene, Wright’s fingerprints can be detected here and there, notably in the engaging gossip scenes which land Lang the job in the first place. 

Given Wright’s problem with third acts in recent years, it might not be a bad thing that he moved on. 

Although Ant-Man does resort to the usual face off finale, here it’s handled with a refreshing lightness of touch as the eponymous hero and villainous Yellowjacket clash. 

Big isn’t always better and given the choice between this and the more obvious Marvel tent pole production Avengers Age of Ultron, there’s a chance this will steal your heart instead of that sprawling top heavy epic. 

(As any geek will tell you, Pym created Ultron in the comics rather than Tony Stark). 

Paul Rudd is a likeable hero, The Strain’s Corey Stoll a great villain and solid support comes from Michael Douglas as Pym, the seasoned mentor. 

Evangeline Lilly – Pym’s daughter Hope – adds “much needed glamour” amid the clever insect set pieces. 

At this point, a good friend of mine remarked that I’d used that phrase before. And I hold my hands up, I have. But in a film like this, which is mostly male oriented, it’s frustrating that there weren’t more female roles. So many of the Marvel movies, whether it’s Iron Man versus Whiplash or any other generic villain, it nearly always comes down to alpha male versus alpha male.

Sadly, it seems we will have to wait until Captain Marvel hits the big screen in a couple of years, before one of the biggest movie studios in Hollywood takes a chance and bucks that trend.

(It does seem strange that Scarlett Johannson has proved her worth on the big screen time and again as Black Widow, but has yet to land her own standalone movie. Given the underperformance of movies like Supergirl and Elektra, it seems that Tinseltown executives are a little wary when it comes to throwing millions of dollars at a female-led superhero flick.

Back to Ant-Man, and the tone is just right. Funny, exciting and irreverent. 

Slotting into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a welcome B movie compared to the A list antics of Iron Man and Captain America. 

You’ll probably not remember much about it a day later, but it brightened up my grey Sunday a treat. 

Knock Knock – The Review

The shadow of two superior films looms large over Knock Knock, the new movie from director Eli Roth and star Keanu Reeves. The first act is promising, even if Reeves gives a leaden performance as Evan, the DJ architect family man with a successful Spanish artist wife living in California. 

When the wife and kids head off on an inevitable trip somewhere – I didn’t really care where as they weren’t that interesting, the meat of the movie arrived in the form of two beautiful drowned rats. 

Evan being a nice guy invites them in, they get to dry off and find where they’re supposed to be while waiting for a cab. 

Of course it’s not long before Evan is being seduced by the femme fatales. 

I’ve seen some annoying films in my time but Knock Knock took the grand prize for the most toxic. 

One third interesting psychological thriller, the rest a screaming headache of a film with some of the worst characters ever committed to celluloid. 

Reeves’ downward descent into movie purgatory continues at a breakneck pace. I actually felt like I needed a shower… two hours after a bath. 

Ted 2 Review 

Remember Ted, the foul mouthed stoner answer to Toy Story? 

Of course you do. It was a great idea well executed with a good plot structure. Yes, it was erratic in places, but the dynamic between Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and Seth Macfarlane’s eponymous toy was great. 

A sequel was inevitable, but once you get past the first half hour, Ted 2 comes off the rails and doesn’t recover. 

The backbone of the story is Ted’s legal fight to be recognised as an individual rather than a piece of property.

For such a lovable, fun character, the plot structure is incredibly serious at times with Morgan Freeman’s hotshot lawyer playing it straight. Sometimes that works, but here it sits uneasily, a little like the tone of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Credibility is key to any fantasy, but get the balance wrong and it feels like a stodgy cake instead of the light meringue it needs to be. 
Thankfully Ted 2 is better than Macfarlane’s Western comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Amanda Seyfried adds glamour and charm to the proceedings. However, it’s overlong and lacks the freshness of the first movie. Hopefully the inevitable third film will set the franchise back on track. 

It scraped through the six laugh test, but that was about it. Sloppy in places, dull in others. 

Courtroom comedies are usually yawn some and this relied too heavily on the usual legal cliches. 

Liam Neeson’s cameo is arguably the funniest thing about it, and there’s an obvious attempt to get an Oscar nom for best song, which admittedly was great. 

I managed to grin and bear it. 

Turn it on again: Terminator Genisys – The Review 

Thirty years ago, a nervous 16 year old bought a ticket for the 18 certificate The Terminator. In an age before VHS, this was a major event. (The first 18 was like your first beer in a pub, legal or otherwise). 
Writer/director James Cameron at the time was a relative unknown, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie stardom was yet to burn supernova bright and Stan Winston’s iconic robot was a terrifying presence. 

It was stunning stuff. Low budget yes, but a simple story (inspired by an old Harlan Ellison Outer Limits episode) brilliantly told. 

Eventually that 18 was dropped to a 15, and we all know what happened with the sequels. 

The 1991 mega bucks T2 was a great spin on the first movie, but then the third film proved that robot enemies smacking each other through walls for a while can grow tired very fast. 

But compared to Terminator Salvation, that looked like a masterpiece. Christian Bale shouting into a microphone and a bunch of so so characters plodding through assorted action scenes led to six years of waiting. 

While Arnie was governing California, it looked like fans would never see another chapter in the franchise. However, Terminator the movie series is built to last, and in the hands of Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor, the fifth movie in the series, Terminator Genisys, falls into similar traps as the other films. 

Following a clever first 20 minutes in which fans of the original see the heroic Kyle Reese sent back through time to rescue resistance leader John Connor, again, scenes from the original movie are recreated. Some effectively, others less so. 

Having ruined Die Hard and Insurgent, Jai Courtney is at it again, sparking with Emilia Clarke’s Sarah and forging an awkward bromance with Jason Clark’s John. 

While the toothy British actress is fine as (deep breath) the eventual mother of the human race’s last hope against killer robots Skynet, Jason is just plain creepy and annoying as the scarred series regular. 

And Arnie? Well, the age thing is handled well, with “Old, not obsolete” being the new “I’ll be back.”

The fact his skin ages means the T-800 looks like he’s been round the block a few times. 

Which is fine and dandy. We feel for the highest paid actor’s alter ego, but there’s so many explosions, droid on droid action, not always in a good way, that after a while, about 30 minutes, it stops being an event and just turns into a tiresome series of incendiary set pieces. 

I didn’t really care about the budding romance between Kyle and Sarah, hated John with a passion, and yearned for more JK Simmons, who was in full on comedy mode rather than searing, acting all over the screen Whiplash mode. 

Arnie has five words of dialogue in the third act that sent a genuine frisson of emotion through me. It was the first time I’d been moved by the saga since the T-800’s thumbs up finale in T2

Matt Smith has a key role, though I’ll not reveal it here. I will say there was an I Robot/Resident Evil sense of déjà vu about the personified OS integral to the plot. While Genisys is no classic, it ticks over like one of those clockwork droids from Tennant era Doctor Who

But many of his episodes usually told a better story in half the time on a fraction of the budget. 

The fact Arnie spouts a load of dull technobabble explaining the convoluted timelines is one of the problems. 

In the original, Michael Biehn did a brilliant job of delivering key exposition as his character was the only one that really knew what was going on. It was thrilling, fresh and understandable. Here it’s just leaden and barely coherent. 

With very little tension in this updated version of the story, this seasoned fan wonders if the saga should have been left well alone.