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Much of author JG Ballard’s work tends to be described as conjuring up cold, slightly strange worlds that look familiar but are far more brutal and perverted than the worlds they are derived from. It could be argued they are less ‘worlds’, than visions born of an imagination that has grown bored with – if not disgusted by – the stifling routines and rituals of suburban life in the South East of England.

Intriuiging enough premise…

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

The feature film High Rise is based on Ballard’s 1975 novel and asks us to accept a vast modernist skyscraper containing a 1,000 apartments as an analogy of modern society, or more accurately a concrete embodiment of how deluded we are for entertaining the idea that the divided classes might ever live happily together.

The tower pretends to offer a sort of microcosmic universe the equivalent of a giant spaceship in search of new galaxies.  Captain of this static spaceship is the architect, Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who like the architect who designed the famous Balfron Tower in East London, lives in the top floor apartment, or penthouse. Unlike the Balfron Tower’s architect, Royal’s world boasts beautiful gardens like a cross between an Alice in Wonderland world and the gardens of Hampton Court. Royal himself seems dissatisfied with his creation and appears to be working on an updated prototype that will, presumably, take into account the failings of version one of his high rise.

The apartments have been awarded according to rank, with the public school types getting the top floors and the working classes the lower floors. However, everyone has access to the tower’s gym, swimming pool and, less surprisingly, the supermarket. Nice idea, you think at first, warming to some sort of allegorical model, till you realize that this makes absolutely no sense in real life: ask any tenant who lives in a high rise and he or she will groan about life on the top floors; everyone wants to live closer to the ground floor. What’s more, far from being inspirational and even remotely ethereal, the upper floors of any tower block I’ve ever visited feel isolated and alienating; they are harder to access (think of those days the lifts don’t work and you live on floor 24!) and are buffeted by howling winds.

highrise_Hiddleston paintsTwo thirds of the way up the titular high rise, our lead protagonist, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) lives in a minimalist concrete den with few trappings of any kind. He is a brain surgeon, (stereotypically) reticent and remote, equipped with polite smiles and highly polished deflective responses that feign interest and a minimalistic sort of indifference in equal measure. In real life, of course, you would never find an inscrutable man like this in a place like this; even accounting for the fact that he has somehow rejected his ‘class’ and is seeking some alternative life style, this place wouldn’t be a place he’d withdraw to, not in the real world at any rate.

We might be more prepared to play along if the writer – or scriptwriter – Amy Jump (Jump writing a piece called High Rise? oh, never mind) took the trouble to provide us with some hint as to why Laing is the way he is, or even give us a clue as to what he wants.  Rule number 1 in scriptwriting: the protagonist should want something and that something should be tangible and specific; it’s difficult to sustain any real interest in a hero who is merely a laconic voyeur. He bumps into equally shallow characters who, in contrast to himself, lust after sex and meaningless violence. Most of the adults in this film behave like disgruntled or confused hangers-on at a party they gate crashed, and all seem to be waiting for some kind of explosion to deliver them to an alternative world.

Characters without depth

Not only does Laing lack anything remotely like a character – he’s really just a type, and a thin one at that – all the other people in the building are types: the drunken toff (James Purefoy), Wilder (Luke Evans) the brutish working class philanderer and filmmaker listlessly searching for an elusive truth about the building’s purpose (and raping women while he’s at it), Royal’s spaced out wife (Keeley Hawes) and hangers-on; the single mum (Sienna Miller) who is torn between looking after her geeky son and finding a man to replace Royal, the man who dumped her for younger totty. Not one of them has a discernible backstory beyond that which a type might have, nor a plot or subplot that leads to any kind of remotely interesting denouement.

The point here seems to be social ennui and the grotesque stupidity of human vanity – let’s see how low people of all classes will stoop when social experiments pretend that we can all live happily together – and seems to find its earliest embodiment in the film with a completely pointless party scene with tenants dressed up as French aristocrats – as if they could afford the costumes!

HighRise_anarchist_Evans

Luke Evans plays an angry anarchist and misogynist intent on rock ‘n roll destruction

To hell with plot

As for a plot, there’s not much sign of one outside of the laborious imploding of the social fabric of the high rise. For at least thirty minutes we get a mid section of one example after the next of people losing it. A pornography of growing dysfunction. Scenes of falling out are really no more interesting than watching a bunch of teenagers running a farting competition – and probably much less amusing.

I can’t help feeling Ballard isn’t any more interested in plot than character – to take on plot and, therefore, structure would work against his central theme, which is to show us the social fabric is but a thin veneer and ugliness and anarchy lie just beneath. Ballard’s point here, surely, is to show, in a vaguely surrealistic fashion, that all social experiments only turn us into a bunch of vacuous phonies, largely because we are so driven by base needs, (if only we’d be honest enough to admit it.)

This is Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange meets post 1984 but without any real teeth. As with A Clockwork Orange a similar kind of sadism and misogyny prevails but it is far less compelling because it lacks any real urgency or street authenticity. The author is playing with the same premise: that us uptight Brits, with our vulgar lower classes and our prissy middle classes and fascist upper classes, all share one thing in common: we secretly lust for a breakdown in social order – we are, at heart, anarchists.

High-Rise_Jeremy Irons

Oh dear, it’s all going terribly wrong for Jeremy Irons’ High Rise project

This kind of attitude may have struck more of a chord in the mid seventies, during the 3-day week, but feels dated now. Today most of us haven’t much patience for the kind of art that merely rubs our nose in sloppy directionless anarchy and its one note tune. At least the so-called anarchy of punk bands emerging at the time of the publication of this novel wanted to shake things up and set people free – this kind of lawlessness only feeds an appetite for more gestures of self-disgust.

To my mind High Rise is victim of the Brit’s innate tendency to indulge in theatre and style for the sake of it. With its polished sets, beautiful photography, its striking colour grade, hair and make up and an embarrassment of costumes that insist you sigh nostalgically for the seventies, we are really in the world of advertising – we’re being sold a look, a cool Britannia, skirting a story with any resonance to it.

 

Tom Hiddleston_High Rise

Cue the slow motion as Laing, the brain surgeon, finds himself in a Virgin Airlines recruitment ad

This is world in which every bit of detail is a clever reference to ‘the big idea’.  The problem is that without people you care about, it’s all a lot of vainglorious posturing. The ‘big idea’ here is far thinner than it pretends to be and devours everyday suburban paranoia only to cough up an empty melodrama. This massive dichotomy between visual panache and talent and writing intelligence is an abyss of pretentiousness into which we find ourselves being sucked into. About half way in, you may start to resent the cloying energy of the experience. I wasn’t surprised to see several people leave the cinema long before the end credits.

Worryingly, you can’t help feeling that the director, Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill List) takes Ballard’s view seriously; he seems to share entirely Ballard’s vision of people quickly turning into murderous, adulterous morons the second we have a power failure. Oh, yes, this is exactly what would happen, he seems to be saying with ghoulish relish. Really? A power failure? I’ve lived through the blackouts in the seventies and there were no riots, on the contrary, the country had never seemed more quiet and stay-at-home sober. And perhaps a minor detail here: but if you’re going to show people getting up to all night parties and orgies, at least remember there would be no stereo blasting out music if there was a power cut.

Royal’s building is both glossy and grubby and, once the tenants start trashing everything, it all begins to look like a bunch of extras trashing a film set. What you get is flashy rock ‘n roll, an empty, even passé sort of brutalism; the action lacks dramatic tension and feels overly choreographed; disembodied from any meaningful statement.

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Mad Men Episode 3 Season 7

Don Draper gives a junior creative some fatherly advice – which proves counter-productive

Something rather strange is going on with Mad Men – it’s becoming oddly theatrical. The opening episode of Series 7, and final series, although somewhat muted, still had much to recommend it – certainly to fans, anyway. Episode 2 picked up the pace and promised a return to form. But then along comes Episode 3 and the whole thing looks suddenly rather staged and shabby.

The dialogue in 3 has become so tidy and written I have the distinct impression I’m watching the actors run their lines at rehearsal. There’s far too much walking in and out of doorways, for one thing. I don’t know if this is meant to pay homage to TV directing of forty odd years ago, but it just looks sloppy now – it also grates when you consider the seductive attention to detail of the costumes and sets.

Earlier in the series we were given interesting stories to follow about creatives and their ad campaigns and what became of them, now the creative stuff is thrown in merely as context, so we don’t forget this is an ad agency, it’s not any old office; it serves mainly as filler between the dissolute love affairs that populate the series.

Don has pretty much lost his way, looks perpetually hungover and indifferent, and mildly bemused by anyone’s pique or lack of cool. He’s become a sort of punchbag for the frustrated people who barge in and out of his office or apartment. Even when his daughter accuses him of being a sleazebag, he barely registers hurt. He’s still capable of punching back, but mostly we feel his weariness and indifference when given a poke in the eye.

No fun in Ad Land any more?

Sadly the show’s intimacy of earlier has become claustrophobic now. We’re in advertising, and yet we never get invited to a big photo shoot or an industry event. We seldom even hit the road, everything takes place in the office, a corridor, the bedroom. The shots are static, the editing predictable, cutting back and forth like a tennis match. The side-on two-shots expose below-class acting – such as the scene between the young teen trying it on with Don’s ex wife in the kitchen before he enlists for duty in Vietnam – and even great actors like Greenwood are made to look third rate when asked to end a scene with a polite smile and leave frame as if on stage.

People in the agency no longer jostle for power, they just bicker and bitch. You wonder why they don’t all just get out of the business and find something more wholesome to pursue.

Toward the end of 3, one of the junior creatives storms into Don’s office and cries, “I tried your little saying – and I’m off the business! … I made your joke and it failed – miserably… The one where I told them they were assholes!” Don, quite reasonably says, “You could have thought of something yourself, you know.” To which the whingeing creative says, “I did, it was ‘apologize’. But guys like you don’t understand that, because guys like you don’t have to do it.” Don bites back with, “Guys like me, know how to do it.” And right there, I want to interject and say, ‘used to – we haven’t seen it in a while.’ Don tells the junior he has no character, the other guy sneers back saying, “You don’t have any character, you’re just handsome, stop kidding yourself!

Don takes a moment and tells the guy he’s fired. The junior walks out the door leaving Don vaguely troubled to be told ‘he’s just handsome’, but doubtless another whisky at midday will wash down that familiar impediment soon enough. Presumably this passes as drama, but it’s not, because there’s no real threat to Don’s authority, and this junior is just a naïve and invidious asshole anyway. The issue at hand – the handling of the clients – isn’t all that important to the story, either. The whole scene is just symptomatic of the show’s collective awareness that the writers and producers appear to have exhausted all the good Ad Land stories.

The doors are closing behind Don – but do we care?

It’s very difficult to identify any kind of through-line to the slowly unfolding, limp narratives of this series and there’s no sign of a climax to remember. The series appears to be headed for a whimper of an ending, not a big bang.

In the final scene Don arrives home to be told by the real estate agent that she’s finally sold his soulless apartment. As he slowly takes this in – end of an era – the camera pulls back to leave him alone in the corridor outside his flat, seemingly with nowhere to go. The doors are closing for Don. And perhaps soon, the coffin lid as well.

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Nightcrawler - Lou Bloom

Louis Bloom learns on the job from mentor Nina in Nightcrawler

 

 

 

There are plenty of explicit messages in writer/director Dan Gilroy’s superb Nightcrawler but there’s one beautifully written and directed scene in the film, just over half way in, that sums up the modern media professional’s moral dilemma almost entirely through subtext – and it’s the bar scene when Rene Russo’s producer, Nina Romina, finally meets her protégé, stringer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) for dinner…

Having been granted his first break by Nina, Lou has been true to his word, feeding her the kind of footage she wants, night after night – “urban crime….creeping into the suburbs.. graphic.”– and in return Nina has begun to favour him above other freelancers.

They soon have a good thing going professionally, but Jake wants more. He keeps pumping her newsroom with enough gory footage until finally he’s in a position to stand her his carefully crafted ultimatum: either she gets more involved with him, professionally and romantically, or he’s taking his business elsewhere.

What’s so brilliant about the scene in the wine bar – their first ‘date’ – is the menace it conveys without ever resorting to histrionics. Most writer directors would have had the woman blow up when presented with Lou’s sociopathic demands for a more integrated connection. What makes the scene so compelling is that Russo’s character sits there, sucking it up while trying to navigate her way through this minefield without losing a leg, metaphorically speaking, in the process.

You can feel her pride stand up and swish its tail – her reactions shift from wry amusement to disgust and back to something strangely submissive in just a couple of minutes – but she is also wise and mature enough to know that what Lou is saying about her – that she’s not had a contract for more than two years in a long time and her contract is about to come up for renewal – is undeniably true and she might soon be looking at late middle-age in a dead end job with a pay cheque too thin to pay for her hair do, let alone a comfortable life.

But this is truly a Faustian moment: does she prostitute herself and become party to Lou’s murderous new coverage to stay in a job that still gives her a buzz, or does she walk away from this creeping danger and hope that Jake is wrong about her chances?

Media professionals hanging in there with teeth and claws

Nightcrawler - Rene Ruso

TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo) describes the kind of footage she needs to push up tired ratings

For me it was Russo’s character that said so much more about the media today than Gyllenhaal’s – because at the end of the day she is the one pushing for more gory, sensational content, he is merely the supplier. Typically her kind of character would have been driven by greed or lust for power, but we don’t feel she is at all – she’s just hanging in there, desperate to survive the changing times.

In many ways this is a tale about survival in America. Lou tries stealing to begin with. Doesn’t pay. Having become a sort of scavenger, both materially and intellectually – he devotes hours and hours to not only devouring but memorizing entire tracts from self-help and marketing blogs – he is always on the look out for a new opportunity – and a way out. When he finds it in a camcorder and torchlight, he goes great guns to make it a success.

Lou Bloom tells competition he's not 'fucking interested' in teaming up

Lou Bloom tells competition he’s not ‘fucking interested’ in teaming up

And it must be his success, his business, he won’t share it with anyone else, no matter how sweet the deal offered by his competition, say. He is the self-made man, answerable only to his own measure of what success means. This has always been true in America, but this man is a new breed, a man who talks like a law abiding entrepreneur, but lives, sleeps and feeds off broken bodies in a twilight zone where what is legal and what isn’t are blurred by the fear of being a nobody, the demands of a free market.

What you see in Lou’s sallow face when he reviews his stories is much less greed than an artist’s joy in creating a fine piece of work. He takes pride in creating a gallery of his work. His ‘art’ comes first; it becomes a sort of code to live by. He is in some sense exemplary as an artist, sacrificing sleep and even innocent lives in order to capture the ugly beauty of everyday human disasters wrought by guns and cars.

With chilling control, not a flicker of a smile or hint of a blush, he tells Nina  that he watches his stories over and over in order to learn from them. He bargains hard for his stories much less for material gain than to prove to himself and the world that his stories have true value, that he is the best at what he does. He doesn’t blow his new gains, either, he ploughs everything back into his business, while maintaining a miserable one bed apartment in a tough area of town. Even the flashy souped up red car (a Dodge Challenger SRT) that he buys later in the film is an investment in his business, because he needs the speed if he’s to arrive at the crime scene before the cops and other more seasoned freelancers.

Lou’s quiet pitter-patter displaying all he has learnt about his trade is eerily reminiscent of Anthony Perkins’ ‘helpfulness’ in Psycho. His dedication is manic, his commitment unwavering throughout. We feel he must surely come unstuck as a result of setting up a dangerous situation purely in order that he can be there to film it – but he doesn’t. He has planned it to the last detail, even putting his hapless and now potentially treacherous assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) in the firing line so that he can run his story without ever having to worry about being shopped to the cops.

We can’t help but admire his cunning and strategy. For instance, the footage he gets of a triple homicide minutes after the killers have left. He not only has the audacity to wander through the house filming the aftermath (a crime scene), he withholds the footage he got of the killers leaving in their SUV. Why? Because he is going to track them down by running an internet check against the SUV’s licence plate with the specific intention of calling the police only when both killers are in a public place where a shoot-out is likely to cause maximum collateral damage – in other words, provide him with big bucks news footage, which he will be well positioned to capture. His assistant Rick is appalled when he learns of Lou’s plans, but even he shows he is willing to go along with it – for a price. Everyone here has his price.

Scene from Nightcrwler - police visit Lou BloomScene from Nightcrwler - police visit Lou Bloom

Suspicious detectives visit Lou Bloom at his apartment

Whenever he encounters the police, Lou is polite and smiling, preemptively cooperative but slyly insolent too. Following the mayhem that ends with Rick getting shot by a killer they have been chasing, he is interviewed by a detective who already has her sights on him. Unsurprisingly he has a perfectly rehearsed lie to deliver that details quite meticulously how he came to follow and locate the wanted killers whose murderous work he had filmed just days before. Once again his gift for planning ahead and memorising detail keeps him one step ahead of the enemy.

All credit to the writer/director Dan Gilroy for not opting for a melodramatic ending so typical of third acts in Hollywood films. In fact the ending is eerily – almost comically – ironic: Lou now gets to give his straight-from-an-employer’s handbook speech to a new crew of interns before a new fleet of vans bearing his new logo that promises ‘professionally’ delivered news. When he tells them he would never ask of them something he wasn’t prepared to do himself, we can’t help but smile because we’ve just seen that he is prepared to bend every rule in the book and will even eliminate his new interns should they ever decide to turn against him. And so, Lou is allowed to spread his gospel further afield – and more nightcrawlers will ride out onto the streets of LA, seeking blood at the end of a shortwave radio.

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Shiona Penrake applies Blake Snyder’s ‘Beat sheet’ to Monsters’ Inc. in this wonderfully illustrated video made under her new Screenwriting Hamster channel, now on YouTube. Enjoy!

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Silent Witness - the bodies soon pile up

Silent Witness – the bodies soon pile up

The opening scene of the new series of Silent Witness aired Tuesday 6th January sees Emilia Fox’s pathologist Nicki Alexander out on a jog in the beautiful English countryside, a place that is soon to become a place where snipers will make their ‘nest’.

She stops for a breather just as a potential date also on a jog takes his. They sneak a look at each other while catching their breath. He manages to break the ice with a vaguely poetic observation: “The kind of day that makes you think anything’s possible. You could climb Everest, fall in love, learn origami.” It seems such a well rehearsed chat-up line, but of course in terms of the plot, at least, it is to prove ironic, because what ensues is a day of mass murder…

Big viewing figures for Silent Witness 18 series in

This is now the 18th series of Silent Witness and it still pulls big viewing figures. For Episode 1 it clocked up 6.7 million viewers, only a million less than its ITV rival, Broadchurch, which had plenty more ad spend behind it. So it’s got to be doing something right, you’d think. Then again there are lots of brands that keep on making money even when their ingredients have become if not past their sell buy date, very stale.

Forensics who get to play cops and society’s guardian angels

Forensic man Jack plays murder detective

Forensic man Jack plays murder detective

The storylines often start with sufficient credibility – murder followed by forensics turning up and dazzling us with their powers of deduction – only to deteriorate quickly into melodrama and nonsense as the forensic team become not so much the cops leading the investigation but rogue private investigators on a mission of self and public cleansing.

Ten years ago most of us knew very little about the role of the forensic investigator and were prepared to believe he or she got actively involved in criminal investigations, marching into buildings alongside armed detectives who had just knocked in someone’s front door to save a kidnapped woman or child.

CSI very successfully sold us this idea that the forensics team were also the cops who went out with guns to catch the killers. We’re not so keen on guns over here, but we too insisted on pushing our forensics out into field work – for the sake of raising the stakes.

Ask anyone who works in forensics and he or she will tell you it’s a lab job, a desk job. Yes, they collect stuff and give evidence in court from time to time, but they don’t join the police chasing criminals over fences and they certainly don’t conduct illegal searches.

So, for a good ten years now, we’ve been willing to play along with this fiction because it was diverting, but it’s got beyond a joke surely – we simply feel we’re being lied to.

But what is more tiresome is the unremitting dourness of the show. And not just this procedural but nearly every procedural that is made in Britain.

The UK’s predilection for unlikeable characters

Every principal and support actor in these primetime UK cop shows is directed to play their part in a state of heightened anxiety or bitchiness.

The detectives are invariably uptight, unsmiling, overworked, beset with men or women issues, have a default position of sarcasm over kindness and humour, and never stop frowning. Really nice bunch of people to spend 60 minutes with, eh?

Their helpers are invariably anxious work slaves, striving every second of their waking lives to prove their worth, underachieving do-gooders we must feel sorry for.

Is this what plays for catharsis these days? Do we watching thinking, Oh, at least my boss isn’t that bad.

We seem generally better at playing and writing for bad guys – but even they are so washed out and miserable. Take The Fall, another recent procedural with the emphasis on the killer’s procedures. Full kudos for daring to look closer at what makes a psychopath tick… and yet, the entire series lacked any light and shade – it was all just stone faced cut your wrists sort of grey.

Even the killer, Paul Spectre (Jamie Dorman) we’re asked to spend so much time with never seems to show any evidence of having enjoyed the power that he claims he’s enjoyed over his victims – his ‘work’, if we can call it that, seems nothing but the feeding of a dreary compulsion without end. I realise this passes for deep and sophisticated, but what is it we’re supposed to be fascinated by exactly? It’s a sort of bloodless torture porn.

And Spector’s opposite – the detective – is another bundle of joy: borderline alcoholic, utterly disillusioned by men, yet weirdly drawn to the man killing lots of women, and, as played by Gillian Anderson, utterly humourless, languid, my god have you ever seen a copper so languid, and just really depressing to be around.

In this last Silent Witness of our main characters only the forensic woman in the wheelchair isn’t overwrought and anxious all the time.

Never a smile from this week's embattled DCI

Never a smile from this week’s embattled DCI

The lead detective DCI Jane De Freitas (Zoe Telford ) is a thirty something careerist who lives in perpetual fear of being shat upon. She not only throws a sulk when her superior and lover DCS Robert Drake (Steve Wall) calls it off, “We’re no fun anymore…” – no kidding! – she has to stab him in the hand with a pen. Ouch. (Can you imagine the complaints if he’d done that to her hand? Anyway…)

She then spends the rest of the show getting her knickers further in a twist over a killing spree she fears will ruin her career and make her look even more foolish in front of her now former lover’s eyes. When she’s not bickering with her ex, she’s spitting venom at a tall Scottish PR woman who stalks her every move with incendiary condescension spitting directions at her about how to handle the media.

Trotting behind our embattled Jane is Sean Gilder’s bored DS Jim Clout, who would once have been your token lad’s mag interest (as a geezer, that is) and is now offered up as fodder for feminists on the hunt for yet more unreconstructed male chum to feed on. Clout – who has little, er, clout – is given to making smart arse sarcastic remarks about female co-workers because of course that’s what older, out-of-shape guys think about younger more attractive women in positions of power, isn’t it. Yawn.

Raising the stakes often has an undesirable side-effect – melodrama

By the time we get to episode 2, all this steaming, brewing, festering resentment among the powers that be starts to erupt into bouts of ludicrous melodrama. For instance, Sean Gilder’s DS Jim Clout going from sarcky old timer bored of being overlooked to a sort of King Kong screaming from the rooftops of the police station when he fails to catch the sniper who just killed one of his colleagues. I think the word is ‘ham’.

Who's next?

Who’s next?

And as the plot gathered pace, it also became less and less plausible. For instance, what were the police and forensic team hoping to achieve by standing in the school playground, looking out at the surrounding woods and the many possible ‘nests’ for the sniper when the last bell went? Catch a kid when he or she is hit by a bullet? At the very least they could have been been combing the woods for the man instead of looking at them.

Toward the end, one of the snipers not only somehow activates the police fire alarm without anyone having a clue he’s in their midst (this in spite of the fact they have a photo fit of him by now), he then takes up position on the school roof with his sniper rifle and shoots one of the coppers who has evacuated the building. And escapes. Really? All those coppers in the yard and they can’t catch the man who just popped a shot at them from their own roof?

But the writer’s focus appears to be elsewhere: he’s less interested in the sniper story about a gun-head who pops at people cos he didn’t fancy a course in anger management, a story cribbed in some detail from the real life Washington sniper, I believe, he’s more interested in his subplot about a 16-year-old boy whose dad used to beat him and his mum up, and who has now joined forces with the sniper so he can hide his planned assassination of his father in a heap of bodies (a neat plot idea which just happens to open Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher).

And it’s an interesting enough set-up of itself, the boy’s story, I mean. Except that we are asked to believe that he is at first super smart avoiding phones and email by using only SOS signaling with a torch, then super dumb when he lets his pride get the better of him and reveals to forensic guy Jack Hodgson (David Caves) exactly how he shot his dad.

Oops, teen sniper shows his real feelings to Jack

Oops, teen sniper shows his real feelings to Jack

Not only is the boy smart then stupidly smug, we’re also asked to believe that super sharp Jack, our forensic guy, had figured the boy as innocent, in spite of all the evidence suggesting otherwise. Why is Jack like this? Because the script editor and team, would tell you, this is jack’s learning curve, his story arc. He has to be shown to LEARN something, he can’t just be savvy and smart the way Jack Regan was back in the old days of The Sweeney, for instance, that’s too straightforward. 180 degree plot twists are as mandatory as following brand guidelines these days.

Returning to this minor issue of credibility, what on earth was Jack doing visiting the boy in the first place? He’d just been suspended for allegedly assaulting the boy. No police force in the land would have let him anywhere near a suspect under such circumstances. I have to wonder if it wasn’t actually illegal for Jack to go within 100 yards of the boy. But again, the Silent Witness format demands that our forensics guy catches the bad guy.

Why is it, you have to wonder, UK procedurals have to be so lacking in light and shade?

They aren’t in the States, where guns are ubiquitous. They pepper their procedurals with laughter and snappy banter, quirkiness and gestures of kindness, and although many wind up their stories with sentimental and often far too convenient resolutions, they positively glow with human warmth – and a sort of optimistic longing – compared to ours.

The tone of British procedurals is almost invariably and unremittingly bleak and morbid. I can just hear one of the editors talking about brand values of the show and tone of voice at every juncture in the scripting process – as if directing a funeral. Well, sorry, but it’s boring and draining. And to underline how boring it really is, take a look at the refreshingly honest and revealing documentariy 24 Hours in Police Custody, on Channel 4, examining ‘in unprecedented detail the inner workings of a [Luton] police station as captured by more than 80 cameras’.

What comes across so well in this documentary is the mixture of humour and even jollity among these coppers of all ranks. They aren’t all pent up and angsty about every damn crime that hits their desk, not even when it comes to gruesome stabbings. How could you possibly work in the police if you were!

These Luton officers see some pretty ugly things, but they have a smile for each other, they josh with each other, as well as sighing in despair from time to time. And being very much fly on the wall in style, there’s nothing to suggest that these coppers are under their best behavior for the camera – they’re just being themselves.

Of course drama is going to be more stylized than documentary, but perhaps our police procedural writers and directors might draw on these kinds of documentaries to give us more rounded characters, people we can actually like, and truly warm to.

 

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Shiona Penrake writes: If you’ve read my analysis on David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’, then you’ll probably know what I’m going to say about Rowan Joffe’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’… but anyway…

Before I Go To Sleep_Kidman_Eye

Scary memories, scary men

Once again, we have a film that is based on a woman in jeopardy novel; this one is written by a British male writer called S.J Watson. Christine (Nicole Kidman) suffers from severe anterograde amnesia due to an “accident”, and has to be reminded of who her husband (Colin Firth) is every single morning. She meets a doctor (Mark Strong) who reminds her every morning to use her camera as a diary to reconstruct her memories.

As the film progresses she recalls and works out new information about herself; she finds out that she has a son, a best friend called Claire (Anne-Marie Duff), and that her that her “accident” was actually an attempt on her life by a boyfriend, who attacked her and left her for dead, then changed his mind and took her home to pose as her husband.

A clever concept that doesn’t quite stack up

40-year old Christine has no useful memory of her past after the event that damaged her memory, so she must check the diary she keeps and believe the words of the man who lives with her in order to make sense of her existence.  Even if this were scientifically feasible, how is it that the rest of the world has forgotten about her?

Nice, clean Colin becomes crazy sociopath. Really?!

Colin Firth as dubious husband in Before I Go To Sleep

Colin Firth as dubious husband in Before I Go To Sleep

It makes me cringe to see Colin Firth as this crazy, clingy sociopath. Hollywood thinks we’ll be surprised to discover such a squeaky clean actor revealed as a sociopath or murderer – but this is exactly what we’re expecting! Colin is just too academic and sensible to be a highly controlling narcissist. He might have a temper as he shows in ‘The King’s Speech’ but it’s not the murderous kind. It’s hard to believe that someone like Colin Firth would brutally attack his girlfriend because she wouldn’t reveal the affair to her husband.

Also his character is such a mix of craftiness and complete stupidity they don’t add up to a character we can take seriously:

  • He dumps Christine’s bloody body near an airport hotel in PLAIN VIEW. No concern for CCTV, or being spotted by witnesses.
  • “Ben” later picks Christine up from the hospital, pretending to be her husband, and expects the doctors to believe this. No security? No request for ID?
  • There seems to be no follow-up by police checking on the fake Ben’s background.
  • It seems “Ben” expects Christine to remain at home all day while he goes out to work. Has it never dawned on him that she might go off and find out more about herself? Or get in contact with her family and friends again? It’s easy for him to separate Christine and Claire, but what about her parents, her brothers or sisters? It’s impossible for “Ben” to completely isolate Christine from society, unless he were to lock her up in the house.
  • He takes her to the same airport hotel where he attacked her 10 years ago for an “anniversary”. Why? To jog her memory so she remembers him attacking her? Duh.
  • After revealing the truth, “Ben” wants Christine to move on from the real Ben and her son and love him as Mike. What, after he struck her, raped her, and left her for dead 10 years ago?

A Strong presence but not much of a hero

Mark Strong in Before I Go To Sleep

Mark Strong in Before I Go To Sleep

Mark Strong’s character Dr Nasch is the most likeable of the main characters. His character is very similar to John Washington’s in the movie ‘Anna’. It’s a shame we don’t see much of him. He’s never properly involved with Christine and “Ben” – he only guides Christine in her journey toward finding the truth.

As a man with an analytical mind, he shouldn’t he have identified Christine’s kin, friends and lovers. His job is to help reconstruct Christine’s memories so he should know her family members’ faces.

He would have known by then that the man who came up to him and told him to stay the fuck away from his wife is not Ben, due to his appearance. He could then have taken steps to intervene and rescue Christine.

Why must ‘woman in jeopardy’ movies be so melodramatic?

‘Before I Go To Sleep’ is such a paper-thin mystery. We all know it’s the ‘husband’, even though the story offers another likely suspect. If you bore this story down to its essence, it’s basically saying that women shouldn’t trust their husbands or lovers. And to add drama, the story has a helpless woman as a protagonist.

I’m not surprised that Joffe cast Nicole Kidman in this role. I saw her looking paranoid in ‘The Others’. But it’s becoming tiring. Haven’t we moved on from identifying these sorts of women? These days, we love strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen from ‘The Hunger Games’. What’s the social therapeutic value of this kind of woman in ‘Before I Go To Sleep’?

In the newspapers, we read columns that demand strong women. But here we are in 2014, watching a film that depicts the female protagonist as helpless as a woman from a 1960s Hitchcock thriller. What I find curious is that most of the readers of that kind of fiction are female. Why is it that female readers, who demand equality and more opportunities for women, want to read a novel that shows a woman as a victim of a predatory man? With two films in one year riding on the same topic, we seems to have hit on some sort of mental split between 21st century aspiration and traditional values of the woman as housewife and sex object.

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Jeff Daniels gearing up for another tizzy fit

Jeff Daniels gearing up for another tizzy fit

Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom is back in the UK for a third series – like a boat without a rudder. Although that’s maybe not an accurate simile, because it’s still making a heck of a noise, like it’s fitted with a very big engine, and yet where’s it going… and who cares?

The first and second series had story spines which gave the show, consisting of many characters, some real shape and urgency. Characters’ actions would affect the lives of their colleagues, lovers, husbands, and the company. We cared. If only a little. And the quickfire patter of the dialogue was a lot of fun.

But like a lot of people who come to the table talking at speed, maybe fidgeting with their nose rather often, the alluded to excitement soon starts to bore you. It sort of sucks the oxygen out of the air. You begin to feel your existence being displaced by sheer chatter…

The opening episode of season three could have been episode 4. Yes we had the big event of the Boston Marathon bomb, but the real world aspect of this event swallowed up the bickering world of the Newsroom. There was no sense of a fresh set of problems for our main characters that urgently needed fixing, the way they did, say, in the new Homeland series. The real jostled with the fictional without giving us any real drama – just angst.

And when the chief anchor McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) had a tizzy fit over ratings and stormed off declaring he was gone, only to come back like an overgrown three-year-old and admit that maybe he’d bee a bit rash and he’d stay, you felt he was probably just venting some frustration that he’d got to the end of the opener and there was no discernible dramatic tension to be found anywhere. Truly ridiculous stuff that was so close to Ianucci’s superior VEEP it tipped the whole show overboard for me. Not even bad comedy, just self indulgent arm-flappingly preposterous and vain.

The second episode limped along with the Snowden-like conundrum of what to do with leaked files – hand over to the FBI so their agents wouldn’t be executed in the field, or become a hero for the newsroom and leak it on air? Drum roll. And yet we just couldn’t care less, because everyone is bickering so loudly, we’re chopping from one peripheral scene to the next and this bigger issue is tangled up in it all and it’s getting just too tedious to put our minds back in there and unwrap it to get a better look at it.

The overacting in Newsroom

Now that Jeff Daniels has no discernible storyline to march to he has to resort, on the evidence, to fits of temper and just sheer noisy bickering with his team in just about every scene he’s in. And now that the team’s producer, Mac (Emily Mortimer) is no longer playing courting games with Daniels, it seems she too has to resort to overacting as she exercises her feminist credentials reigning in the excesses of overgrown boys like McAvoy and their boss, the increasingly eccentric Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston). She’s almost invariably given the smarter answer than the men and sounds both whiny and smug even when she’s being nice, which is seldom.

Come to think of it, smug pretty much sums up the whole feel of the show. OK, it was probably smug from the beginning but now it’s smug with many fewer redeeming features. Even when up against it, there’s something smug about the Newsroom team; even their moments of vulnerability have about them the seed of some new expression of smugness.

Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue no longer engages

So to the often celebrated dialogue of Sorkin… In this third series it’s more like ping pong than real dialogue. Perhaps that’s because it’s not being written by Sorkin but his disciples? Anyway, it goes back and forth at such speed we only register anything vaguely resembling emotion or understanding when the words either hit the net or fly off the table. It must be the first TV drama in ages when I actually wanted a commercial break!

Then it starts again. You don’t even listen to the words half the time because you’re so distracted by the rhythm.

Define a 'couple' and other semantics

Define a ‘couple’ and other semantics

Everyone seems to be pontificating, about to pontificate or tired of pontificating or looking tired of being pontificated at. Lovers sit at tables and talk loudly about the semantics of being a couple, each trying to outwit the other, like judo wrestlers trying to floor their opponent. It’s almost scary.

Characters repeat back words to each other as if they were all masters of some kind of verbalization technique for brainwashing consumers into buying your product – in this case the Sorkin brand, presumably.

The entire Newsroom all look super self-aware – chewing away at the inner doubt that they might not be up to the heroics expected of them – as if their entire raison d’etre was secretly all about exercising high brow irony. It must be exhausting being any of these people – coke snorting marathon kind of exhausting.

And almost invariably these people are so brilliantly rehearsed. When asked a question, every character has an answer, delivered with such fluency it’s robotic. What this kind of dialogue reminds me of is Mamet, not Mamet big screen, but rather Mamet on the stage, especially his play about the sales team in Glengarry Glenross. Dah dah dah dah da-da-da-da-dah! Sales pitching that is meant to grind your audience into submission, till they roll over and buy.

No one listens to anyone else for more than a second in Newsroom before they have to spout off again. You can’t possibly be listening to the other person if you’re firing back an immediate reply, not at this speed anyway. It’s not believable as communication. Well of course it’s not communication, it’s all just a game, a sport, a venting of angst among white collar, self-aware city-smart Americans.

The writers seems to be trying so hard to show the rest of us and themselves that Americans can be smart, can be ironic and oh so snappy with it all, they are not all stoopid overweight baseball caps… Sadly, what it reveals – or reminds us of – is America’s perceived tendency to elbow people in the face as they mount the steps to take a Gold medal and beam at the cameras.

 

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Ben Afleck as Amy's disenchanted husband

Before going to see Gone Girl with my daughter, Shiona,  watched David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, both of which she was totally gripped by. She also read and watched a few reviews, which were all very positive, so she had high hopes of the film.

Half way through and she was hooked, she said. Leaving the cinema, she wasn’t in the mood to discuss it with anyone. She was a little surprised I wasn’t quite so taken by it but as we talked she began to accept that maybe she’d been seduced by Fincher’s dark melodramatic style and not the sense of his film… What follows below is her analysis of the film after I’d stirred things up a bit and got her asking more questions than she’d thought to ask on leaving the cinema…

Shiona writes…

Gone Girl is based on Gillian Flynn’s “best-selling” novel of the same name. While the set up is intriguing enough – husband, Nick, (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing and everything is beginning to look like he murdered her – there are a lot of gaping holes in the story that makes the whole film unbelievable.

A not so perfect crime

Amy fakes her own death and disappears, waiting for the day her husband will be found guilty for her murder. But while her preparations for the fake crime are clever, it would appear she didn’t have much thought to her life after her disappearance:

  • She hasn’t acquired any new legal ID, which means if she’s pulled over by the authorities she’ll be identified as the ‘missing Amy’.
  • She can’t use debit or credit card and has only taken $2-3000 to live on – after that she’s going to have to earn money under the table, not so easy these days.
  • She booked into a motel next to trailer trash and stupidly hit her face with a hammer to look like an abused woman, presumably hoping for sympathy, but only succeeded in making herself look like a woman on the run who would never seek police help if she ever was to be robbed.

The stalker boyfriend

When she is robbed, Amy drives off in her secondhand car and winds up by chance, or by design, we’re never sure which, in a bar where she runs into her stalker ex-boyfriend, Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) after 10 long years. The moment he sees her, he’s besotted all over again, as if no time had elapsed. He sees her disappearance as the perfect opportunity to have her all to himself and never lose her again.

This is where it really becomes ridiculous: how could she possibly know after all these years that this ex would be in this bar, on this night and still want her – and be single? How could she be so sure he wouldn’t turn her in? How can she possibly predict that he wouldn’t then introduce her to people from her past who would also be likely to call the police to say they’d seen the missing Amy? She’s been very clever up to this point, so this inconsistency is hard to believe.

So the creepy ex offers to keep her hidden away… and she starts plotting another murder, this time a real one. Really?! The guy has cameras everywhere inside the house AND watching the house, 24/7! In spite of this she goes about preparing to cut Desi’s throat with a box cutter which he rather carelesslly leaves lying around.

Even supposing the cameras missed her hunting about the kitchen for a boxcutter, they wouldn’t have missed the time she entererd the house, and the manner in which she entered it – willingly. Knowing that these cameras will have clocked and daed her arrival at this man’s house, how could she possibly be so stupid to invent a story later on that she’d been abducted by Desi on the date she ‘disappeared’? She arrived at his house more than two weeks after her disappearance.

Media frenzy turns cops into monkeys

Smart forensics doesn't last long

It seems the media are in such a frenzy of relief when amy reappears that the police completely lose any interest in scrutinising her story. Not only do they swallow the self-defence story she sobs up, they fail to takea fresh look at the original crime scene and evidence.

For instance, the pool of blood on the kitchen floor revealed by luminol. That’s a lot of blood and would likely have been caused by a serious wound. The police believe they have found the weapon that was used on her in causing such blood loss, but then do absolutely nothing to check her over to see where she was struck. No one even asks her the question, Where were you hit? If it was a head wound, where was the gash in her head?

Besides, according to her she was never hurt by Desi when he kidnapped her – he just took her. So why the huge pool of blood on the kicthen floor? Answer: She put it there to fake her own disappearance; there was no kidnapping, it’s all a lie! Having been pretty shrewd at the beginning of the film, the police have turned into a bunch of monkeys.

It’s hard to believe that media’s thirsty for sensationalist outcomes would have the power to completely shut down detective Rhonda Boney’s (Kim Dickens) investigation – but it does. Why? Because this story was written to show a cunning female criminal can get away with murder. But it’s just not believable.

Amazingly not one eye witness come forward to give testimony relating to Amy’s disappearance. We are supposed to believe that cutting your hair a bit shorter and putting on some specs makes you invisible, even though your face is plastered all over the news. What about the motel receptionist, the other people staying at the motel, the local shops, the gas station where she would have filled up her car…?

Amy’s psychological profile

Gone Girl Clues

No Real Clue To Amy's Motivation

What about Amy’s motivation? This is difficult to work out. She grows up to become a successful children’s author in her early twenties. She appears to have had a charmed childhood. Her only regret is that her character was brighter and more confident than she was – hardly the basis for a sociopathic mindset. The moment she runs into a few money problems and experiences her first adultery, she goes to great lengths to plan a deeply vindictive crime which has little chance of coming off favourably.

The profile doesn’t stack up: adults who behave like this typically have very controlling abusive parents and they don’t go from being successful very wealthy creatives to highly manipulative vengeful killers, even if they have had a few weird experiences with stalker like men. I was half-expecting the final act to reveal that she had been abused by her father, but there wasn’t a sign of this.

Hearsay

Amy claims in her diary that her husband Nick is violent and distant. But we don’t see any real evidence of this. Nick is laid back and languid. The only time, prior to her disappearance, when we see him get ‘violent’ with her is when he pushes her in the hallway for nagging him about having a baby. She writes in her diary that what frightened her the most was that she saw in him a desire to hit her again. All I saw was utter exasperation on the man’s face that she had driven him to push her and hurt her. Added to this, these accounts are all Amy’s say-so – hearsay in other words, designed to set Nick up for her ‘murder’, so nothing she says in her diary is actually reliable.

Nick tells his sister and, later the detective, that Amy is a control-freak. Amy’s first date, whom Nick meets in a bar, says the same. But, even here, there is little evidence of her actually being a control freak – it’s another case of someone’s hearsay. Maybe this is the point of the story – you can’t believe either side in a marriage. This is an interesting theme, but it’s so steeped in melodrama it’s never explored convincingly.

Spoilt brats

Another thing: their alleged debt problem. We hear they have credit card bills of $117,000 – but amazingly they carry on living in a huge house as if they merely had to cut back on fashion luxuries and dining out. The interest on a credit card bill of $117,000 would bankrupt any couple. And why isn’t Amy writing any more? Why’s she stopped, given up, lost so much money? It’s never explained. Is she just one helluva spoilt bitch? In fact this couple are both spoilt brats.

Nick is hard to sympathise with less because he has an affair, more because the film’s raison d’etre lies in the whodunnit aspect of the story; Nick is less a real man, more a cypher in the mystery.

Also Ben Afleck isn’t all that convincing as a potential wife killer: he just looks so laidback and just kind of cheesed off all the way through. You get the feeling he went for the needy student he has an affair with purely out of boredom and lust, it was never the beginnings of any kind of motive for killing Amy.

So that’s my analysis of Gone Girl. Sorry if I killed the twists for you, but I suspect you’ve already seen this movie by now!

*

Guest post by Shiona Penrake

 

 

 

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Nic Cage and Tye Sheridan in Joe

The new Nicolas Cage movie, Joe, directed by David Gordon Green, tells the story of a troubled middle-aged loner who befriends a 15-year-old boy who is in urgent need of a job and a role model. He gets the job easily enough – poisoning trees – but Joe as a protective father-figure is going to be hard work…

Poisoning trees? I hear you say. Yes, Joe and his troop of mostly uneducated African American men are poisoning trees so the old trees can be easily chopped down and replaced with more useful trees. 

Right there you’ve got the theme of the film: here is a bunch of people who must be ‘poisoned’ till they can be later disposed of to make way for better people. Joe is the Christ-like figure among them who has had to imbibe so much poison from this world that he is destined to unleash a cleansing violence upon the poisoned people around him and save the few good ones so life may finally improve. Does that sound like it may be a story set in the deep South? Y’all know it does.

The world of low wage and low life greener-than-usual Texas is captivatingly described with camera and assured direction. But what is missing is a plot, or at least one that has some coherence and urgency to it.

The catalyst comes when the boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), goes to Joe (Cage), asks and is granted a job. Having nothing but a deadbeat drunk for a father, Gary is in need of a dad. Cage having no family of his own, except maybe a ferocious American Bulldog, might be seen to be in need of a child to look after.

When Gary’s dad, Wade, played by Gary Poulter, finds out his boy has got a job, he wants in. Joe rather unwisely gives the old man a trial run, which turns out to be a disaster because of course the old man does very little except piss off the other people on the team.

Charging into this potentially interesting family and surrogate family triangle comes a completely random antagonist, Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) “some asshole at a bar”, whom Joe beat up prior to the opening of our story. This Willie-Russell dude now bears an unhealthy grudge against Joe and takes a pop at him one afternoon as he’s stepping out of a freind’s house. 

The script progresses trying to knit these two story threads together, but not very successfully – and this is where the film’s main weakness lies.

The shooting incident – Cage is only wounded in the shoulder – is doubtless there to add some urgency to the otherwise slowly unfolding action of the Joe-Gary-Wade story, but after the initial thrill of seeing someone shot at, we drift off into a swamp of off-screen stories that are never satisfactorily explored or even revealed.

For instance, is he a veteran? Is he suffering from PTSD? Was he an abused child? He clearly has a problem relating with women (“What’s the point of it all?” he says to a girl running from an abusive dad or step dad, i forget which, wanting to look after and be looked after by him.) And why does he have such a deep-rooted fear of losing it and killing someone? We later learn he spent 18 months in jail for assaulting a police officer. He claims the officer was about to shoot him and he acted in self-defence. This may well be true, but it happened off-screen and it’s just so moot that we quickly lose patience with it as a source of character motivation.

This asshole with a grudge taking a pop at Joe not surprisingly really stirs him up. And now he’s getting into scraps with the local police. We can see where this is all heading – another loss of ‘restraint’ on Joe’s part.

The brooding tone of the film tells us this is going to end – predictably – with Joe going Rambo. Let’s kill some bad guys and lowlifes, it just might give the boy the chance for a new start. So this is Joe’s noble sacrifice, but oddly it doesn’t move us all that much.

I think the reasons for this are essentially two-fold: one, we’ve become distracted by the story strand that is about a grudge that started before the film’s opening and, two, the person Joe goes to rescue at the end isn’t the boy, it’s the boy’s sister, who has been traded by the father for some back-of-a-truck sex deal with – guess who – our scar-face asshole, Willie-Russell and some other lowlife mate of his.

So, on the one hand, we don’t really understand the conflict between asshole and Joe and two, we’ve barely caught a glimpse of the sister in the whole film. Having heard from Gary that she hasn’t spoken a word in years we can safely assume she’s been physically and mentally abused by her dad, very likely sexually abused as well, but we haven’t gotten remotely acquainted with her. She’s more or less an object of pity, barely a character.

For me, the script’s biggest weakness is that the sister is brought in far too late. She’s virtually an after-thought, a plot device that finally propels Joe into one last act of losing his ‘restraint’, sacrificing himself for the boy and his sister.

There’s also a lot of repetition in the script that stifles plot and character development – and therefore our interest. It’s not so much the slow pace as the lack of any dialogue or even interaction that makes us a little more curious.

In True Detective, you have a similar world of lives apparently sinking in a sort of mental swamp – dysfunctional middle-aged men with drinking problems and lots of mental scars. The pace is slow, the mood even more brooding, and yet the men talk about what ails them, they show us an awareness and humanity that is layered, nuanced, and because they give us enough of themselves for us to hope they might one day come to a less troubled existence, we remain interested in their development and the way in which they affect the lives of others.

Not only does everyone mumble in Joe – and it gets even more impossible when the mumbling has to compete with the score – no one talks about anything at all interesting really. Doubtless the writer’s point would be, well, this is true to this kind of life. Maybe so, but this sort of sleepy alcoholic outback is no longer novel and without a spark of intellect watching it grind on langurously becomes as soporific an experience as the humidity.

Whereas, if the Joe-Gary-Wade dynamic had been explored more fully in the first half and had included the sister and the mother, we might have had a more challenging story about family and the role of a godfather-like figure. 

Instead, that stronger story gets sidetracked by the grudge storyline, which involves the scar-face asshole and Joe, an off-screen incident and history that we remain fairly clueless about. What’s more, the scar-face ‘asshole’ is pretty much a southern-fried cliché. Yet another leering, drunken nihilist, who preys on the weak and is secretly seeking his own self-destruction. He’s less a character than a sort of irritant that unhinges an otherwise good man turning him violent.

By far the most memorable thing about the film is the performance by Gary Poulter as the boy’s dissolute dad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone play daytime drunkenness so convincingly. Given that he was a homeless actor the casting crew picked upon on the streets of Austin, I suppose it’s quite possible he was actually drunk during some of his scenes.

His performance is more layered than Cage’s: Wade is a bully but not a sadist; he is a man who has lost his pride and yet still wants to be a good father in spite of everything – and is that not the definition of tragedy right there, knowing you are doing wrong but unable to help yourself? Poulter played the part with menace, pathos and the kind of indifference and lassitude many trained actors overcook. Such a shame to read that he has since died. RIP Mr. Poulter. He was a rare find indeed.

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Couple of days ago I put out an ad asking for writers to send in scripts at around 3 minutes’ length. Scripts could be in any genre. Typically, I got a whole bunch of scripts that were 8 minutes and above. It’s amazing how few people actually bother to read the brief. If you wrote a 60 second script for a 30 second spot at an ad agency, you’d be shown the door, but for some reason most scriptwriters – or wannabe scriptwriters – believe that their story is so good at 8 or 9 pages or even 15, they’re convinced you drop your stupid 3 minute requirement and go big. I’m sorry, but that’s kinda stupid, if you ask me. If not bordering on arrogant.

What characterised the majority of the scripts was the lack of an IDEA.  Almost every writer jumped in with frenetic descriptions and breathless dialogue that quickly described a scene, but with no idea in sight. Whenever I paused to hunt around for an idea, all I got was ‘context’.

Short films must have an intriguing idea! In a feature you can take 5-10 minutes with your set-up, with a 10 minute short you have about 2-3 minutes and 3-4 to deliver a catalyst or inciting event. In a 3 minute film one has to follow the next in 120 seconds and the pay-off should be there in the third minute.

As a writer of a short, you are not writing a mini feature – you have to appreciate the form demands that you are succinct and singular-minded. If you can’t really say what your script is about – that’s to say, if you can’t describe the idea you are working with – your short is going to play like an anecdote from a rambling diary.

For me ‘the idea’ in a script is a lot more than a clever twist or an intellectual demonstration of ingenuity – a strong idea should be simple yet resonate with our heart.

I’m amazed at how many writers, who actually write well or even stylishly, cannot describe what their script is about. Their loglines state a set of circumstances, rather than hint at a conflict to be worked out, an ambition to be accomplished.

Make it ironic

If you want to be a writer of quality you will hopefully have understood by now the importance of irony.  Without irony, your idea, assuming you have one, will lack layering, humour, life. Without irony, your idea will lack a sense of cohesion. Because it is irony above all else that gives us a sense of a writer’s consciousness, without which a script tends to be formulaic and flat. Irony works like a mirror in a room, extending your ideas beyond their apparent frame. We all crave novelty and irony is the most effective means of creating it because it is multi-dimensional.

In the internet age, more than ever we expect the immediately exciting and sensational from everything we see. And yet having become such sophisticated readers of visual communication, we now tire quickly of dramas that trade on the very sensationalism we seem to crave in small doses – in our advertising, for instance. So we are ever more restless for both the sensational and the very opposite of sensational – the more meaningful and deeper response to what we watch. As a writer working now, your aim should be to reconcile – or perhaps fuse – the two together.

Coming from an advertising background I have learnt to appreciate the discipline of striving to produce logical and cohesive ideas that communicate clear, singular messages in a sexy and stimulating fashion.  As a result all of my short films have had strong ideas. They have clear, concise ideas which raise certain questions. You may not like them, but you are very unlikely to feel indifferently about them. And that’s surely got to be one of the main objectives of any writer – even a non-political writer should strive to provoke some kind of argument in his or her viewer, because anything less is just a passive reception of your message.

A good short should be more than a gag, or an anecdote or demonstration of visual cleverness; it should raise a question about the experience you are bringing to life. The question, What is it about? should not confine itself merely to the narrative, but rather to some precious and, possibly, highly specific knowledge about the human condition. Whatever your subject, choose an extreme and very specific situation that raises urgent questions straight away.

I would even go so far as to say a good – or great – short should leave an impression on the viewer that is equivalent to a much longer film – it should hint at stories and ideas within itself, not unlike a movie trailer, but more fully formed.

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