Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Change = Success

My last week at the BBC... Come Friday I'll be officially unemployed!

I veer between excitement and nerves in equal measure. I don't want to be melodramatic, people have done much bigger things than leave a job, change flatmates and return to University. But you know, everything is relative right? And for a cautious, some may say unadventurous soul such as myself, such change weighs somewhat heavily. I get so excited by the possibilities sometimes. I've been writing steadily for about a week and a half now. I hit a bit of a wall yesterday but nothing insurmountable. It's one of those bridging points where I'm at a particular stage, I know where I need to get to, I'm just not sure of how to get there. I keep writing scenes to think of ideas of working through then deleting the scenes when they're no good. That's just how I work. Hopefully it won't be long before the bridge is built and then I'll be in the home straight, I'm on page 78 at the moment. After that it's a little rewriting, another professional read, and then hopefully I can start sending it out. I really want it out long before I start the MA as I want to put this script to bed once and for all and I don't intend to make it the script I work on for the year.

I'm rambling a little bit here, this started out by my saying I get excited by the possibilities and this is compounded by my writing going well at the moment. It's always good to change, if not the direction, then certainly the route you're taking. It's just funny because the people you're leaving behind always assume it'll lead to success. Everyone here has been saying to me how good it'll be (even the cleaner this morning in her limited English, while also making sure I'm not yet 40, told me how good it is) while lamenting their own apparent lack of progress. Maybe it's a grass is always greener thing. Maybe people genuinely see potential in me and are happy to see me do something about fulfilling it. Maybe people always like the idea of changing everything to do something different, which isn't strictly speaking what I'm doing but you know what I mean. It's the romance I guess, the excitement of the unknown. And that is certainly true. It's just when people follow it up with the "it'll be great and you'll do so well and we'll see you on TV in a couple of years..." I always get a bit uncomfortable. It's the old, "You'll take me to the Oscars won't you?" that my friends do alot. I know there's nothing really behind it and the problem is mine, but that doesn't stop me hating it! Of course it's good to make a real go of something, of course it's good to make changes and mix things up. But there's nothing inevitable or certain at the end of it. Certainly not chat shows or award nominations. Though my answers and acceptance speech have been prepared. Because, well you know, it doesn't hurt to be prepared right? It's just me I suppose. I'm an odd mix of being a dreamer, of living anywhere but on planet Earth, and then of thinking quite pragmatically and logically about other things. I still haven't been able to discern how different things fall into which category. When it comes to my future, both categories house various elements. On the one hand, I live in my script worlds sometimes, I can pass whole tube journies lost in a variety of film/script related scenarios. Then at other times I think completely rationally and while I can happily dream about accepting my oscar I know that it's so far from being inevitable that I just get really awkward when people say these things.

Yes, yes I know I'm overthinking and I know people are just being nice. And then there's the fact that I don't take compliments very well. Nothing's ever easy is it? I think subconsciously what happens when people say stuff like that is that, I'm reminded of the potential that exists for me, I'm reminded of how much I want this, and I'm reminded of how I'll feel if it doesn't happen. Not how devestated I'll be if I never end up on Parkinson, but if I one day aren't simply making my living by writing films. Again, I know I overthink. And truth be told I think it's a moment of self doubt creeping in. Plus it's an ego thing. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve a bit about certain things and anyone remotely close to me knows how much I want to write scripts so there's always that thing of, "what'll everyone think if I don't make it?" The logical part of me knows that is rubbish however and at the end of the day the only person that really matters in all this is me. I guess all I'm saying is that change can bring great reward, particularly when done in the kind of determined frame of mind I find myself in these days. Certainly without a willingness to change, no one will ever succeed at anything. And I'm happy with myself for instigating it. It's just that it won't necessarily bring about the desired result. And that's the first thing that goes through my head whenever people tell me what a success I'll be having left the Beeb and returned to college. Nothing will necessarily bring about that result. Well, nothing except writing a killer script that falls into the right hands at the right time. Come to think of it, it doesn't even have to be all that killer. But that's what I'm aiming for.

At the end of the day, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I think it's just that today is more a day of nerves than of excitement.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Nostalgia Saturday Takes a Darker Turn... With Travis

No not the "Why does it always rain on me" singing band. Though their blandness would have made for a darker turn of events. No I'm talking about Travis Bickle. The geat anti hero of cinema. After the jubilation of Raiders of the Lost Ark came the despair of Taxi Driver. And I loved it.

Taxi Driver remains one of the great films. A phenomenol performance from De Niro which only makes his fall from cinematic grace in recent years that much more depressing. A great script by Paul Schrader, wonderful direction by Scorsese, a great score by Bernard Herrmann... I find that film grabs me and shakes me around for two hours, like it's a desperate parent trying to shake some sense into its child, then finally lets me go. But it's so eminantly watchable, which in some ways is a paradox given how dark the film is. I think it's De Niro's performance that's so compulsive. That anger, rage, just below the surface. Bubbling away. The script of course achieves this also and is fantastically structured. Travis expends his pent up energy and his attempts to connect with people, firstly on trying to woo Cybil Shepherd's Betsy, in one of the film's standout scenes, by taking her to a porn film. When that fails, his energy increases, his anger increases, he tries to confide in his colleague Wizard (Peter Boyle) that he's having "bad thoughts" but Wizard just tells him he'll be okay. He then turns his attention to 12 1/2 year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). He tries to save her aswell as cleaning up the streets a little bit by killing all the scum he sees around her.

Driving his taxi, Travis is privy to the very worst New York has to offer. He's sickened by it, disturbed by it. Yet what's interesting is that he does this by choice. At the start of the film he is explicitly asked if there is anywhere he won't drive to or any days he won't work. His answer is the same both times. "Anytime, anywhere." He doesn't necessarily have to be surrounded by all this but his own self loathing and his abhorrence at what he sees all around him are inextricably linked. At the end of his shifts he has to "wash the cum off the back seat". He then goes to a porno theatre, comes on to the woman selling the sweets etc, and, having his advances refused, sinks low into his chair to watch the film. The link between sex and violence is ever present, both in Travis and in the city around him. When Betsy finally spurns Travis for good, he confronts her in her work place. Attempting to escort him out of the building, Tom (Albert Brooks) finds himself receiving karate gestures from Travis that, while somewhat comical, nonetheless hint that this is a person who will always react outwards rather than looking in to see how his own behaviour may have contributed to his predicament. A short time later, his passenger is a deranged man (Scorses himself making a cameo) who is watching his wife cheat on him. He talks at length to Travis how he's going to kill the man with a .44 Magnum, the gun Travis ends up doing much of his own killing with. Sex and violence, always interlinked.

So much has been written about Taxi Driver and I don't really feel I have very much new to add. Nor do I have a nostalgic anecdote about this film. Somewhat unsurprisingly I didn't watch it with my Dad and brother at the age of nine. But it's a visceral, arresting film. From the early images of the cab emerging from what looks like Hell, with the red neon and the steam erupting from city grates, to the final images of carnage Travis has caused in an attempt to make a statement, to make a difference, to in some way belong, the film never lets up. And what's interesting is that the ending allows him a chance to belong with the letter of gratitude he receives from Iris' parents that they now have their little girl back. Of course we know it's a pretty meaningless redemption. He was trying to save her, yes. But not because it was her specifically. It could have been anyone. It happened to be her because she stumbled across his cab one night when she looked like she was in trouble. Interesting also is the allusion to, but never explicitely stated idea that, Travis is a scarred Vietnam vet. His clothing indicate military background. With his shirt removed, we see a battle scarred body and of course he is more than competent with firearms. At his interview at the start of the film he tells his employer that he has been honoroubly discharged from active duty. But the film never directly links his disturbed nature with his military background. Is that the cause of his current state? Presumably not, which is why I've always assumed the film doesn't make a clear connection. Indeed, it's reasonable to assume Travis joined the military in the first place as another way to connect, to make a difference, possibly even to provide himself an outlet for his violent tendencies.

You'll never see a better portrayal of a man lost, a man searching for something, for what he doesn't even know himself, than Taxi Driver. A picture of alienation, Travis Bickle remains one of cinema's most riveting characters, written by a writer at his most raw, portrayed by one of the greatest living actors back when he still gave a shit. I had never before seen Taxi Driver on the big screen. After yesterday, it'll be hard to watch it any other way.

Nostalgia Saturday Continues

What a treat. Last week it was Back to the Future the Empire was showing. Apparently continuing the trend of showing older movies, they had a truly awesome double bill this week. The second film I'll devote another (much more difficult) post to. The first? Only the film I would choose as my all time favourite if a gun was ever put to my head to force me to choose an all time favourite film. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This might come off as one of those irritating, soundbite stories stars tell on chat shows in order to get across just how much they love films and why they were inspired to get involved and how they're not just vacant models in it for the money, but seeing as how I'm not famous or a model or indeed on a chat show I hope you'll believe the sincerity of the tale. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those films that I just love and, as good as it is, the logical part of me knows it isn't as good as I think it is. Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans is another such film. In the case of Raiders, I think it's that, it was the first film that switched me on to films. And here's the romantic story... I reckon this was the first time it was shown on TV. It was probably 1984/5, I would have been 8 or 9. My Mum was in hospital, my eldest brother wasn't at home (I'm not sure if he was in the States yet or not), I was at home with my brother Brian and my Dad. In our living room there's a chair and a couch that sit opposite the TV and there's a gap between the end of the couch and the wall. Well as a child, I would sit on the floor in that gap and play with my lego or cars or whatever I happened to be playing with that day. Bed time was either 8pm or 9pm, this was a long time ago so I'm a bit sketchy on some of the details. For the sake of this post we'll say bedtime was 9. So about 7.50 both Dad and my brother tell me that there's this film coming on TV that they're looking forward to watching and I can't make noise while it's on, as I would be if I were playing. My choice is simple. I put away the toys and either, A go to bed an hour early, or B sit quietly and watch the first hour of this film until 9.00pm comes and then I go to bed. Well you know what it's like when you're a child. Death by torture is preferable to going to bed early so I put my toys away and sit dutifully on the couch. Now I didn't have much of a clue of what films were, other than being vaguely aware they were long and, though I would have had neither the cognissance nor the vocabulary to verbalise this, beyond my attention span. So I sat there, sullen, ready to be bored, but unwilling to relinquish an hour of waking life. And then it started.

The jungle, cool. Who is this guy wandering around the jungle? Hey that's cool, what did he just use to take the gun from the guy who tried to shoot him? A whip? Wow. Look at this, they're in a cave and his friend's covered in spiders!! What's his name? Indianna Jones? Coool! Oh my God the whole place is collapsing around him and there's arrows flying at him and LOOK AT THAT BOULDER!!

Of course it's a great opening sequence but to an imaginative, creative, impressionable child it was mesmerising. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing and how I was seeing it. How was this possible? Dad had explained how they use cameras to film things and that they then put it all together and I always remember thinking during the opening sequence when the boulder is after him, the camera must be in front of him in this shot. But now it's behind him... Why can't I see the camera in front of him? But I didn't have time to think as he was then outside and facing Belloq and the Hovitos. And really that just didn't cut it anyway. How was this possible? I was so excited by this thing, it couldn't just be cameras. Who was doing what to make me feel like this? Well bedtime came and went. Wild horses could not have dragged me from the couch. There was a shoot out in a bar, there was a chase around the streets of some strange looking city with really narrow looking streets, there was a bit with some kind of laser from the sun I didn't understand, then, "Snakes... Why'd it have to be snakes?" which made me laugh. There was a cool fight between Indy and this huge guy...

I'll quit the second rate Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time writing style to talk about the truck chase. That still ranks in my top 5 favourite action sequences of all time and any thoughts that it's there purely for romantic reasons were dispelled seeing it on the big screen yesterday. Here's why it's so good. It means something. It's not an action sequence thrown in for the sake of it, because it's between too long since the last action sequence and the audience might be getting bored. We've spent around 80 minutes watching Indy do what it takes to get the ark before the nazis do but he's just lost to them. They have the ark, they were going to transport it via plane but Indy scuppored that plan so now it's loaded onto a truck and what's he going to do now? This means so much to him and so it means so much to us. Of course it's an exciting sequence in its own right. The fight in the cab of the truck leading to him being thrown out and sliding beneath the truck to climb back in the back is still one of the great heroic moments in film. But what really makes it work is that we care about its outcome. What happens here matters. It's the same reason the car chase in the French Connection is so good (and is still my favourite car chase from any film). We've watched Popeye Doyle become obsessed with catching Alain Charnier and when he's speeding through the streets, risking his life and that of many an innocent bystander chasing the elevated train, we are gripped because the outcome matters so much. The truck sequence in Raiders is just wonderful. Nothing else in the three films comes close, good as they are.

I was a very nervous child. Really, this nervousness has carried into adulthood, but as a child everything would scare me. Every family has their stories they like to laugh about. In mine, it's the one about how I was in the room when Michael Jackson's Thriller was first shown. Despite my brother's warnings, I stayed put as it had been such a hyped event. Also on TV at the time, Robert Powell was playing Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth. So when Michael Jackson's eyes turned red at the start of the video, I started screaming and was heard to yell, "Turn over Jesus of Nazareth!!!" So with this in mind, my Dad and brother were quite alarmed when I was still up to see the finale of Raiders with the angels turning to skeletons, the fire shooting into the nazis and of course the famous melting and exploding heads. They may have asked me if I wanted to go to bed now as this was a bit scary but I was too invested in it. And the odd thing is I wasn't scared. I was just in complete awe of how something had managed to grip me this much for 2 hours. I was very sorry it ended and I didn't sleep much that night. I also remember visiting Mum in hospital maybe the next day or a couple of days later and all I was able to do was babble on about this film I had seen.

So seeing the film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen, was such a joy. I guess now when I watch Raiders all of what I've just described is still at the back of my mind. I'm reminded of the excitement of childhood discovery and the impact things have on you at that tender age. I remember the feeling I had when I saw it for the first time, and every trip to the cinema since has had accompanying it, the hope that I'll recapture that feeling. This attempt to get into film writing carries with it the hope that I'll one day have a hand in making some kid feel equally excited about a film. I know how that might read and I really don't care. Raiders of the Lost Ark holds alot of feeling and passion for me. And I do not allow myself to notice its faults. Just to bask in the unashamed glow of sheer entertainment. Of a wonderful hero, of great storytelling, of superb action set pieces. Of cinema at it's very best.

Of course this isn't the logical part of me talking. It never is when it comes to Raiders.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Man Of Steel? Patience Of Steel More Like...

...Are what's required if you're going to inflict Superman Returns on yourselves. I beg you, don't do it! Stay away in your droves! Only then will they learn! Bryan Singer is the biggest one hit wonder currently working. Usual Suspects is a phenomenol film, very well directed it must be said. Apt Pupil for me doesn't work. X Men is lame, X Men 2 set a new benchmark in dull films that has only now been surpassed with Superman Returns.

The "story", such as it is, picks up 5 years after Superman 2 finishes, conveniently ignoring the flops that were Superman 3 and 4, though on more than one occasion I found myself praying for a Nuclear Man to arrive and liven things up. Superman has been away looking for his home planet of Krypton after astronomers think they have found bits of a newly destroyed planet. Now back in Metropolis, his alter ego Clark Kent picks up his old job at the Daily Planet. Old flame Lois Lane (gone from the craggy, 40 a day but spunky and believeable Margot Kidder to the offensively bland Kate Bosworth, one of an entire generation of actresses that seem to come off a conveyor belt in Hollywood) now has a new man and a son. And a Pulitzer. Clearly time waits for no superhero. Meanwhile old nemesis Lex Luthor is out of prison and seems intent on creating a continent from crystals he steals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole (where Christopher Reeve hitchhiked to wearing nothing but a little jacket to keep him warm in Superman 2. Fuck being able to fly, that guy's hard!) and some kryptonite he steals from a museum. Yes you read that right. The plot really is that he's creating a continent.

Things get off to a good start. Singer and co have made the smart move of retaining John Williams iconic, bombastic 1970s score. The opening of the film sees Krypton destroyed, Marlon Brando return from the grave and THAT music kick in, complete with titles reminiscent of the original film's. So far so nostalgic. But like a car that just won't start despite having $200 million thrown at it, so Superman Returns goes absolutely nowhere. And takes 2 1/2 hours to get there. It's a good 45 minutes before Superman makes an appearance, but the time leading up to it is not build up. It's not set up. It's not anticipation. It's weirdly bland, scenes come and go without any real point or urgency. Then it's as if someone shouted, "Holy shit lads this is Superman. Shouldn't we introduce him? You know, maybe have him do something?" There follows a sequence in which Superman saves an out of control shuttle attached to a 747 on which Lois is trapped. The sequence is fantastically realised but it just isn't anything new. It doesn't set the pulse racing. And worse, it is basically the only action sequence in the film. There are one or two other minor moments of action. At one point a gang of criminals are robbing a bank with a huge fuck-off canon mounted on the roof of the bank. Why? Seemingly because Singer and the writers think it'll look cool to have them fire it at Superman as he walks towards them. He then stops a bullet with his eye. Again it looks very impressive but there's nothing behind it, no emotion. In total the heroics of the film maybe add up to 20 minutes. It feels as if everyone is going through the motions of what they think a Superman film requires but they've missed the sense of fun the original films had.

Don't misunderstand me, the original films are far from perfect. At well over two hours long, they're both in need of a trim and have their share of dull stretches. But they always bounce back with something great to keep us on side. Gone is the chemistry between Clark and Lois, gone is the fantastic glint of Superman in the eyes of Clark Kent Christopher Reeve was able to deliver. And crucially, gone is the variey of action the original film had. Saving Lois in the falling helicopter, becoming a human drill to tunnel down to Luthor's layer, capturing criminals at work, sending the Earth rotating backwards to turn back time. In the second film, saving the child at Niagra Falls, all those great moments in the battles with Zod and co. Different things to mix it up, show the range of his powers and keep us entertained. In Superman Returns, the only type of heroics the writers and Singer can come up with is to have Superman continually prevent heavy objects from falling on people's heads. Indeed gone is the action, full stop. The new film is dull, dull, dull. Over serious, laboured, a masterclass in how to not entertain people. Kevin Spacey is probably the best thing in the film and he's clearly doing his best but he just isn't serviced by the script. He doesn't have one memorable line or action. Indeed none of the cast do. And what of Brandon Routh? Certain angles and certain expressions he makes are eerily similar to the late Christopher Reeve and, particularly in his scenes as Clark Kent, he seems to be riffing on Reeves' performance. He's okay in his own right, serviceable, but once again, ultimately let down by having very little to do. The visual effects are stunning for the most part. But it's strange because it just amounts to Superman flying around, going nowhere, doing nothing. But hey look, he's flying again!

Whenever the old Superman theme kicked in I felt absolutely cheated. This film and its hero does not deserve such a rousing anthem behind them. However I was very grateful for it because without it, I would have surely been asleep the whole time.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Back In The Saddle

Not literally. I went horse riding for the first time about 5 years ago. It was in North Dakota with my brother and his then girlfriend and we were supposed to do a 5 day trek through the badlands. The scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen, it was so spectacular. Almost as spectacular as the pain in my testicles, arse and lower back. The 100 degree heat and the fact that we were riding on paths barely the width of the horse, 1300 feet above sea level with a sheer drop on one side, did not add to the fun! I wish I was built for the outdoors. Alas I'm not and a 5 day trek became a 1 day trek. I cannot recomend a trip to North Dakota highly enough if what you seek is beautiful scenery and clean air. Just don't go on a horse.

No what I mean is that today was the first day I did any proper writing in many weeks and it felt really nice. I wrote about 12 pages, rewrote it, repositioned scenes and deleted a few bits and pieces. It's a dark horror film, about God and the Devil, guilt and redemption and the idea that the final battle of time will be fought by 1000 souls, chosen by Satan and tormented by him until they give him their souls and end up on the side of evil. The only way to end up on the side of good is to live through the torment. The Vatican has teams of specialised priests roaming the planet searching for the chosen. When they find one, they take him or her back to the Vatican, drug them and make them live out their life in solitude, the idea being they are unable to give themselves to Satan so will end up on the side of good. Our central character, Bill, is one of these priests and one of the chosen. When he discovers he is chosen, he has to go on the run as the priests are after him to take him back to the Vatican, as well as survive the horror of the torment and patch things up with his Mother who he thinks plays a key role in proceedings. There is of course a terrible twist... Mwa ha ha ha!! It's an interesting idea I think, it's the kind of horror I like, good and evil, plenty of psychological repercussions, not much gore or violence for violence sake, and it takes itself seriously. Comedy horror is really big these days and it's fine in small doses. Shaun of the Dead is probably the best for me, Tremors is fun too, maybe one or two others, but really I prefer my horror played straight. I want to be scared, on the edge of my seat, looking at the backs of people's heads or at the exit sign, anywhere but at the screen!

I think part of why I haven't been writing is because I know that when I do write again, I'm doing so armed with new weapons to make the script really work and if it goes wrong, it won't be out of ignorance but out of plain, old fashioned fucking up! I sat down in front of the computer this morning with a little trepidation but then I remembered that I enjoy writing, that I like the story I'm working on, and that I know a little more now than I did a while ago. It's just about not making the old mistakes. Presumably I'm making all new ones instead.

But at the back of my mind all the time I was thinking, Bill is willing to do anything to achieve his goal (to find a way to stop the Devil attacking him without being caught by the Vatican), just don't ask him to do the thing he's most afraid of, ie to forgive his Mother for the wrong she did to him as a child. Hey, guess what? So far it seems to be working...

Monday, July 10, 2006

In Need Of A Broken Heart

It's funny the things that stick with you. Some time ago I gave a script of mine to a friend of a friend to read. She's a producer and of course there was the initial excitement followed by the inevitable disappointment as she rejected it. Her feedback was good, honest and, for the most part, made sense to me. More interesting was what she said to our mutual friend who, unable to hold water, of course retold the conversation to me.

"She said you write well but you need to have your heart broken."

Hmm... Immediately I knew what she meant. I can write but the subject matter is dispassionate, there's no real emotional depth, none of the raw honesty and pain informed by life experiences. I haven't travelled the world. I haven't been in love. I thought I was once but I know now I wasn't. The biggest thing that's happened to me was the two or so years I spent really struggling with my sexuality. Breaking up with my then girlfriend, admitting the truth to myself, struggling with feelings I had for one of my closest friends (He's straight but I eventually told him how I felt causing some awkwardness for quite a while, awkwardness I'm thankful to say has gone), anxiety attacks, coming out to my family, dealing with it in religious, personal and social contexts. And then having my first boyfriend.

God it's all gone a bit Dawson's Creek...

My point, and hers, is that you can't fake that stuff. Only by really living can you aquire the experiences that will add depth to the writing. But what does that really mean? How do I "really live?" Do I drop everything, pack a backpack and head to Darfur? Is it really that simple? And that dramatic? I don't make huge efforts to meet people, truth be told I don't enjoy meeting new people. A good trait for a writer... But should I do that too? I know what you're all thinking, why don't I write about what I've documented above. I do want to, I do intend to. I've spoken with my mate about it and he's happy for me to include it in a script, as long as the names are changed. He's experiencing troubles of his own at the moment, troubles that are unfortunately here to stay, and that has affected me quite alot too. Without being callous or opportunistic (though perhaps any writer is inherently both. Watch Capote), I want to include that element in a script too. But I haven't written it yet because I want to do the story justice. Not just that, I don't want a straightforward document of what happened. "He was a straight laced catholic boy. His friend was a free spirit..." Who cares? I want the essence of what happened in the context of a story that is free of the constraints of my actual experiences. And I want the characters to be slightly older than I was. I keep turning the characters and story over in my head and I keep coming back to it and when it's ready I will write it.

What of the meantime? I keep writing horror stories, making up dramas and creating thrillers until my Mother dies or I get testicular cancer or I have my heart broken and then, and only then, will I start to really write anything of any significance. Is that it? I'm just not sure I believe that. I can't believe that what I write now is devoid of real meaning in the absence of cataclysmic personal disaster. How many people write scripts in all kinds of genres that don't involve such things? Surely quite a number.

Of course if it wasn't on my mind, I wouldn't be devoting a whole post to it. And of course I know that such things will inform my personality, my world view and subsequently my writing. I guess I just need to believe that my 30 years thus far have not been devoid of meaningful life experience. And going back to what started this all off, it shocked me a bit that this person called me on it because immediately I was wondering, are my scripts that transparent? Do I have that little to say? With time to reflect I don't think that is the case. But it's always at the back of my mind. Experience vs imagination. Which is the most important?

I'm in need of a broken heart. So come on fellas, do your worst. I'm also in need of a good script.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Thank You For The Wind That Shakes The Pirates

What a truly awful title for this post. I will never do anything like that again.

One of the things I thought I would do when considering how to fill the blog was to write reviews of the films I see, to give a sense of the kinds of things I respond to. I am normally at the cinema a couple of times a week. Typically, for various reasons I haven't been to the cinema in three weeks! I can't remember the last time I experienced such a cinematic drought. Thankfully the drought was alleviated by a downpour this weekend. I saw Thank You For Smoking, The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Pirates of the Carribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest. Here goes...

Thank You For Smoking is painfully dull. From the trailer I thought it might be good but at the same time there was a sense that it may not quite happen. Understatement of the year. The script, by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, falls flat at every turn. I really can't be arsed going into much detail. Suffice to say, not only is it nowhere near as biting as it thinks it is, it fails even at raising a smile. Gags are signposted, predictable and unfunny. Moments that attempt quirky or worse still "cool" irritate. The cast, let by Aaron Echkart, do their best but are ultimately undermined by pedestrian writing and directing. More than anything however, it's a bitterly disappointing opportunity missed. And why is it every time I go to the cinema these days I see that pesky kid Cameron Bright?

Next up and much better was The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Ken Loach's Palme D'Or winning take on the Irish Civil War. Set predominantly in West Cork in 1920, the film stars the ever gorgeous Cillian Murphy as Damien, Padraic Delaney as his less gorgeous but you still wouldn't say no older brother Teddy. Would you say no? Hmmm... I've been single a long time and maybe I'm losing perspective. A quick google picture search confirms that in fact I would say no. Apologies for the facietiousness. The film is set during the height of English occupation in Ireland when, to bring order back to a defiant population, Lloyd George, the then English PM, sent over a group of soldiers, the Black and Tans, so-called for the colours of their uniform, to suppress the population. Atrocities by the Black and Tans are well documented throughout Irish history but the English are perhaps less aware of them and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the film. Damien is a young, intelligent lad about to embark on a bright future as a doctor in England. At the start of the film, Damian witnesses a friend beaten to death in front of his mother by the Tans. At the train station about to leave Cork, he witnesses yet more violence and so he joins his eldest brother Teddy and a band of locals in the fight against the occupation. The film expertly documents the nature of the guerrilla warfare, with the Irish rebels outnumbered, outgunned and always in danger of the near psychotic retribution that awaits them at the hands of the Tans if they are caught. Weary of the violence, England called a truce and Irish delegates went to England to negotiate a treaty. The resulting treaty, which defined Ireland as a "Free State", which called for an oath of allegience to be sworn to the Crown and which partitioned 6 counties in Northern Ireland, splintered the country in two, despite being ratified by the Irish people in a national referendum. The pro-treaty group hailed it as a stepping stone to full independence, saying that they were never going to get the full independence demanded by the government in waiting. The anti-treaty side saw the treaty as a sell out of the struggle that had been raging in Ireland for centuries but which had come to a real head in the previous few years with the 1916 rising and the success of the IRA in bringing the British to the negotiating table, albeit at the barrel of a gun. There followed a bitter civil war that pitted former allies against each other, the pro-treaty side armed and aided by the British, the anti-treaty side the overwhelmed rebels of old. Brother literally fought brother and this is the route the film takes as Teddy advocates the treaty and Damien is simply unable to.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley works much better intellectually, as a slice of Irish history and as a parallel for world events today, than it does emotionally. When the film is in gear it really is excellent, thanks to a strong script by Paul Laverty, a cast on form and assured direction from Loach. A scene in which Damien is forced to execute one of his own group as a traitor is gripping and heartbreaking. The ever present threat of violence from the Black and Tans hangs over the film like a dark cloud and you're never completely relaxed as a result. Little moments light up the screen, like a simple but wonderful scene when a young messenger boy with an apparently vital message, arrives on his bike with the message lost somewhere en route. However the film is less successful in the second half. Throughout the whole film I found myself watching with a strange detachment but this was less of a problem when atmosphere and historical and intellectual argument were compensating. When the treaty is signed and Damien and Teddy are on opposite sides of the civil war, the emotional stakes should be at their highest and our emotional involvement should be at its peak. Yet the detachment remained. This isn't helped by the fact that no time is spent at the start of the film building up the brother's relationship. A love story between Damien and a local girl, Sinead, is unconvincing and the tragically inevitable ending fails to resonate as it should. This is a real shame because the film works so hard in other areas and generally succeeds. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is flawed but is generally good and worth seeing.

Finally we have Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I have to say from the start, I seem to be the only person on the planet who wasn't won over by the first film. Johnny Depp was a joy to watch, the film's highlight, one of the most diverse actors at the top of his game. The script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio was universally hailed as being witty and fun. Fun, maybe, structurally sound and (just about) sufficiently imaginative. Yet to me, the success of the humour almost always derived from Depp's performance, his inflections, swagger, the way he carried himself. The actual gags as scripted I found frequently lame. Supporting characters were horribly bland, not helped by the casting of Orlando Bloom who is wetter than the Atlantic (though I don't need a google search to confirm I wouldn't say no there. Whoa Mama...!) and Kiera Knightley, the death of acting as we know it. Geoffrey Rush did well but again because he is a great actor, not because the script was doing him any real favours. Yet I am definately in the minority and $600+ million dollars worldwide and an oscar nomination later, here we are at the sequel which for me is pretty much exactly the same, only without the surprise factor and with a ludicrous running time of 2 1/2 hours. The plot sees Davey Jones (an unrecogniseable Bill Nighy, buried under some impressive CGI tentacles) calling on Captain Jack to fulfill a bargain they struck which calls for Jack to now give Jones his soul and serve on Jones' ship, the Flying Dutchman, for 100 years. Being a pirate and a scoundrel, Jack of course tries to get out of it by locating the key to the dead man's chest which contains the beating heart of Davey Jones. Whoever has the chest, controls Jones and his terrifying digital Kraken. All manner of double and triple crossing ensues as the writer's go to great pains to give every character their own motives for getting to the chest first, with Keira Knightley's Elizabeth probably having the most interesting character development.

But who cares? Certainly not me. By the time the cliffhanger finale and surprise cast addition occured at the end of the film's 145 minute running time, my arse was aching and I was desperate to see sunlight. Yet again for me the script was lacking that extra spark required for a film like this to really fly. The visual effects are generally impressive, though by the third time the Kraken's tentacles are tearing through a ship I was completely bored. Much more interesting is the effects work on Bill Nighy and his crew of half men/half sea creatures. Little script moments and ideas like that are nice and the film would benefit from having more of them. Also deserving of mention is whatever software package that was used to digitally graft expression onto Orlando Bloom's face. A three-way swordfight atop an enormous out of control wooden wheel is probably the best set piece in the film though by the time we get to it it's too little too late. If you've read my post about Back To The Future you'll know what I think a film like this requires. Wit, character, a sense of fun and a great story. Like its predecessor, this film lacks all of those. Still, what does it matter when I've just read on Rotten Tomatoes that it now holds the record for the highest one day gross ever of $55 million. Maybe in a time when films like this rarely work, we'll accept the closest thing and I would grudgingly conceed that POTC is that. That doesn't mean however that it's any good.

When Blockbusters Were Blockbusters

Aah nostalgia... Its inherent comfort (I remember when things were better...) is also its biggest danger. Were things really ever that good?

Yesterday I went to a screening of Back to the Future at the Empire, Leicester Square. Amazingly I missed BTTF when it was first released at the cinema so it was an even bigger treat to finally get to see it on a big screen in what is arguably London's best cinema. (Take that Odeon One with your big box shape and incomprehensible leopard skin seats!) As an interesting aside, the original film was supposed to be a stand alone film, it was never conceived as the first part of a trilogy. The "to be continued" was added to prints after the film had been on release for a few weeks and the studio realised they had a huge hit on their hands which demanded sequels. The print I saw yesterday was one of the worst prints I have ever seen of any film. Scratched, dirty, dialogue rendered inaudible by the hideous scraping noise, it was the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Then at the end, as the newly converted (and surprisingly well animated) flying DeLorean flies at the screen, cutting to black to the strains of Huey Lewis, there was no "to be continued" and I realised just how old the print was.

Let's get back on track...

BTTF encompasses everything a blockbuster, or a film of that kind, should be. Fun, funny, exciting, characters you love or hate, imaginative, a great story well told. And of course, all this begins with the writing. The script, by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, is absolutely fantastic and is the main reason for the success of the film if you ask me. The first fifteen/twenty minutes sets up Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) as the "slacker" as the Principal, Mr Strickland, (James Tolkan) is so fond of calling him. Dreaming of success with his band The Pinheads, he is told by Huey himself that he's just "too darn loud" and so won't get to play in the school competition. With tremendous economy of writing we meet his family. His father George (Crispin Glover, arguably the film's best performance), weak, put-upon, bullied by his boss Biff (Thomas Wilson), never standing up for himself. His Mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), an alcoholic, living in the past, disapproving of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) mainly because (as we will discover later) she sees in Jennifer the mistakes she made in her youth that have led her to where she is now. Marty's siblings haven't amounted to much either, their uncle Joey is in prison, this is the quintissential family of underachievers. Marty's main friend is "Doc" Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd), social misfit and eccentric inventor who invites him down to the local mall at 1.15 in the morning to be a witness to his latest experiment, the now legendary time travelling DeLorean. When the Libyan terrorists from whom Doc stole the plutonium (necessary to create the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity required to fuel flux capacitor... yeah you all know the drill!) turn up for revenge, they shoot Doc dead, and force Marty to escape in the DeLorean, accelerating to the required 88 miles per hour and accidentally going back in time t0 1955. So begins Marty's journey to get back to the future, make sure his parents fall in love and learn a thing or two about himself and his family along the way.

BTTF's script is a model of set up and pay off. The whole thing is founded on a great central idea, what if you could go back in time to see your parents when they were your age. But far from sitting back on this central conceit, the writers run with it, piling on idea after idea and obstacle after obstacle and making each pay off wonderfully. The time machine runs on plutonium, without it time travelling is impossible. In 1955 plutonium is a little difficult to locate and the only thing capable of generating the energy required is a bolt of lightening. We know that lightening struck the clock tower in a terrible storm in 1955 so now it's up to Doc to come up with a plan based on this information to send Marty back to his own time. But when he first arrived in 1955, Marty interfered with his parents meeting. Instead of Lorraine's father hitting George with the car (he falls out of a tree because, as Marty puts it, "He's a Peeping Tom") and Lorraine taking George in and falling in love with him, Marty is hit with the car and, in a Freudian nightmare, she falls in love with him instead. Marty now has to stave off his own Mother's advances and orchestrate his parents first kiss or else he will disappear from existence. Meanwhile Biff keeps turning up to throw a spanner in the works.

The humour and tension come from well drawn characters and situations. We know George is weak, so Marty hatches a plan whereby he will take Lorraine to the dance. In the car outside the school he will turn nasty, George will come along, punch him, save Lorraine, George and Lorraine will live happily ever after and Marty's life will be saved. Except that Biff turns up, his gang drags Marty away, he starts to tussle with Lorraine in the car, George turns up and now is facing Biff. After several tense moments of Biff having the upper hand as always, George has enough, sees red and punches Biff's lights out. This is a fantastic way of resolving George's self confidence issues, his torment at the hands of Biff, and of course making more believeable Lorraine's transition from being besotted with Marty to falling for George. But things are far from over. Biff's gang throw Marty in the boot of the car owned by the band who are playing at the dance. Trying to free him from the boot, the guitar player badly cuts his hand, meaning he can't play the guitar. If he can't play, there'll be no music, if there's no music there's no dance, if there's no dance Lorraine and George won't have their first kiss and Marty will still be erased. It's another superb pay off as Marty, unable to cut it with his own band in 1985, now takes to the stage to fill in for the guitar player and ensure George and Lorraine have their first kiss, which, after another tense sequence, they finally do. At the request of the band to do something that "really cooks", Marty leads the band in Johnny B Goode, one of the film's standout sequences as he goes increasingly mad on stage, performing a ludicrously over the top guitar solo.

And all this occurs before the finale which involves the DeLorean speeding towards a cable suspended from the clock tower across the street, with a large hook coming out of it that will harness the power of the lightening and send Marty back to the future, with Doc hanging from the clock tower trying to reconnect the cables that have come loose in the storm. I realise this has been a somewhat lengthy description of a plot most people feel they know backwards but it's worth investigating what makes the film so good as it's easy to take it for granted. The script keeps piling on the tension, piling on the plot and character points that need resolving, then resolving them in creative, satisfying ways. Every character wants something and is doing something to achieve it. It's a witty script, the dialogue (for the most part) crackles well between the characters, it's based on a solid idea and each character is individual. The film of course succeeds for other reasons. The cast is uniformly fantastic, Michael J Fox, Crispin Glover and Christopher Lloyd in particular stand out. Zemeckis' direction never lets the pace flag. Dean Cundey's photography and Alan Silvestri's score are also worthy of special mention. It isn't perfect by any means. What film is? The ageing makeup used on Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas Wilson for the sequences in 1985 is really ropey. Also the whole thing is painfully 80's at times. Marty's pre-orgasm like excitement as he sees the truck of his dreams, only relieved at the end when he actually has the truck smacks of 80s materialism. Only 2 years later Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko would sum this up in Wall Street by saying, "Greed is good." On a lighter note, check out Jennifer's leggings when she comes to see Marty as he is hugging his truck. They truly belong a long time ago in a decade far, far away.

But I keep coming back to that script. It's not easy to write something that entertaining, that imaginative, that technically proficient, and make it look that effortless. The pieces slide into place with an ease that suggests there could be no alternative. But that right there is testement to how good the script is. Because there are always alternatives. Always other routes and temptations and with every turn here, the writers make the smart choice. Never afraid to write themselves into difficult situations, they always come up with a great and believeable way out. One of my favourites is how Lorraine and George were supposed to have fallen in love in the first place. George McFly is a loser, permanently bullied and doing nothing for himself. Who is going to fall for him? Yet obviously the script demands that he married Lorraine. So, as I mentioned, the writers come up with the idea of sympathy. Her Dad hit him with the car and as Doc reasons later on, "It's the Florence Nightingale effect. When nurses fall in love with their patients." And we buy it. But it's important that we're not irritated by George, frustrated by his lack of courage. And indeed we are rooting for George, we feel sorry for him and wish he would stand up to Biff. This comes in part from Crispin Glover's charming performance. But it also comes from the script. After George's first confrontation with Biff, he acknowledges his lack of confidence to his son Marty, saying he knows what Marty will say and he's right to say it. He's self aware, he's not hiding behind a persona, and we at least can respect that. Later on, we discover George is creative, he has a talent for writing sci-fi, and again this earns some respect. There is always the feeling that Geroge could be someone if he just stepped out of himself a little. This is unfortunately hammered home by characters repeating, "If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything" in one of the script's few clunky moments. Marty will learn the same message.

Every year I'm excited by the Summer blockbusters. As I said in an earlier post, I'm a sucker for the hype and I love the promise of adventure and seeing the impossible, these films hold. And every year without fail I am disappointed 90% of the time. Is this due to my tastes changing? In part it is. I'm not a child anymore. But I loved the Lord of the Rings films. Minority Report and War of the Worlds were great (flawed certainly, but ultimately for me, very good) Spiderman 2 had some great stuff in it. And more to the point I still get as much pleasure from the blockbusters of old as I always did. Indianna Jones, Terminators and of course, Back to the Future. If things really weren't that good all the time (which of course they weren't), at least Back to the Future demonstrated, and still demonstrates, one thing. You don't need a $200 million budget and 1500 special effects shots (BTTF has something like 20) to enthrall and captivate an audience. You need flair, imagination, a great story, and always, always, always to give the audience characters to root for.

Let that be a challenge for you. It is for me.