It’s been a bit of a lean year for quality cinema. Or at least, I haven’t seen a heap of great things. When I sat down to think about my top films, it was a bit of a struggle – the main couple stood out, but it was hard coming up with even five that I thought were memorable. There were a couple that were okay (‘Inherent Vice’, ‘Kingsmen’) and a few that were really bad (‘Focus’ – so bad), but I had to rack my brain to come up with a good, five deep, list of my top films. Maybe I missed something, maybe I’m not in the loop on some of the good stuff. I don’t know – what I do know is that, of what I’ve seen, these are my top films from the first half of 2015.
- Ex Machina
Really, Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is so far out in front, it’s not even close. The story of a guy winning a competition to spend time at a brilliant, but eccentric, billionaire’s secluded mansion – which turns into something totally different – is an brilliantly executed story, and one which forces the viewer into the very moral quandaries being faced by the narrator. It reminded me of Denis Villenueve’s ‘Prisoners’ and Gregor Jordan’s ‘Unthinkable’, films that force you to question what you would do in the same situation, how you would respond. It’s smooth, methodical and compelling, keeping you held there till the last. Definitely worth checking out.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
I really don’t understand the fuss about the early Mad Max films. I’d watched them many years ago and not fully understood them, being too young to get the complexities, but they were recently re-run in a late night slot on Australian TV. And I still didn’t get them. They’re overly stylistic, there’s not a heap of story or character development. Yet, people are drawn to George Miller’s post-apocalyptic world. With all that in mind, I wasn’t expecting a heap from Fury Road – and really, there’s not a heap to it, in terms of storytelling complexity. But it’s just so good, it’s so enthralling and crazy and it just keeps coming at you. As a friend noted, it’s basically a two-hour car chase, but the fact that your heart’s still beating fast right through to the end is a pretty big endorsement for how well it’s put together. Just, madness, some of the best examples of modern special effects, tied together with a story that’s basically “we need to get from here to here”. That’s it.
I think Interstellar may have come out last year, but I definitely only caught it in 2015, so I’m counting it. I’d heard and read a bit about the film before I saw it, I’d seen debates about its scientific accuracy and such. I don’t know much about all that, but I do think that the ‘science’, within the world of the story, works well enough to pull it together. Mostly. Either way, it’s a compelling story that really draws you in as it gains momentum – and some of the emotional peaks are very well done. Similar to Nolan’s other big, non-Batman film, Inception, there are things that don’t quite fit, particularly in retrospect, but he certainly knows how to put together an entertaining film.
- The Drop
This is a lesser known one, I think, or at least, I haven’t seen many people discussing it. The Drop is about a bar tender who’s involved in organized crime money drops, one of which has gone wrong. Fingers are being pointed, threats are being communicated in non-verbal cues, while the guy at the middle of it all is just a normal guy, trying to get out without any trouble. Kind of. Tom Hardy’s better in this than he is in Mad Max, though similar role, in that he doesn’t say much, plays the quiet type (in fact, that’s him in every movie). Written by Dennis Lehane, the story rolls along at a good pace and develops the main character well. It’s a well done crime drama, above the normal, popcorn cinema type fare.
- The Jinx
Due to the aforementioned drought of good films, I’ve actually gone with a TV series in slot five. But in TV terms, The Jinx is certainly one of the most cinematic experiences you’re going to get. The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, a billionaire who may or may not have killed his ex-wife. And his housemate. And some other woman, and a former friend and… the list goes on. But he’s not in jail. The documentary series, which runs over six episodes, highlights the power of money over all else, how a rich man can, apparently, get away with pretty much anything. In case after head-shaking case, Durst subverts the law and goes on his way, left to his own, questionable devices, when it’s pretty clear that something’s not right. If it weren’t true, no one would believe it – it’s just too much. But it is, and it’s amazing.
Hopefully the second half of 2015 brings some better stuff our way, but these ones were good, they’ve definitely stuck with me after seeing them. And there is, of course, Star Wars on the horizon, a film which has millions of hardcore fans both stupidly excited and supremely nervous at the same time. I’m pretty sure that, at least, will be great. Probably. Hopefully.
I’ve been catching up on some films recently, and got into a stretch of great ones that I wanted to share. So rather than write individual posts for each, with us now at the midway point of the year, it’s a good time to go over the best films I’ve seen, thus far, in 2014. Some of them I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but here’s my top five from the last 6 months:
There’s so much I could say about this film, so much I’d love to go on about, but it’s one of those ones you’re best not knowing anything about going in. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film ‘Prisoners’ was on my ‘Best of 2013’ list), Enemy is a lesson in film-making. Everything about it is precisely placed and planned, everything is deliberate. All I can say about Enemy is the film you’re watching is not the film you think it is. It’ll make sense in the end. Probably.
Under the Skin
Another one I’d love to go on about for pages and pages. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Under the Skin starts off with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Scotland in a large, white van, looking for directions. But then she’s looking for something else, a phone, a different road. Then you realise, she’s not looking for directions at all, she’s trying to lure each man she speaks to into the van. From there, she seduces them, then takes them to abandoned buildings. What happens next, in terms of the way it’s shot, the set design, the music, is mesmerising, and so great, and the story leads on from there. Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber – though it’s a loose adaptation, major sequences and plotlines are altered from the book. It’s a great example of restraint, of allowing the plot to develop on its own, combined with some amazing visual elements. A great, great film, one I’ll no doubt be watching over and over.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
I already geeked out over X-Men: Days of Future Past in a previous post, so I won’t go on about it again. For me, this is the ultimate superhero film – of all the ones that have come before it, X-Men: Days of Future Past has the strongest combination of amazing visual effects, solid story and deep characters (in superhero film terms, at least). People will praise Chris Nolan’s Batman films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers as the best superhero films, and to some degree, it depends on which comics you grew up with. For me, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best – it sticks to the real roots of the comics, it brings characters to life you never thought possible and it all just looks so great, no expense is spared on the detail.
I came across this film recently, one I hadn’t heard a heap about. Blue Ruin is the story of a broken man who returns to his home town to enact revenge, and the consequences of his actions then spiral further and further out of control. Blue Ruin pulled me in pretty quick and I had to know how it all ended. It’s well acted (by relative unknowns) and plotted and, most importantly, it moves. The story pushes ahead at such a pace, remaining compelling and engaging throughout – it’s a good lesson in plot development and raising the stakes to sustain engagement. It’s an intriguing, violent film, but one that’s well worth seeing.
This one sort of crept up on me. We watched About Time, essentially, because I thought my wife would like it – she’s into romantic films, The Notebook being her favourite, and this has McAdams in it and it’s by the guy who made Love Actually – it has all the makings of a film she’d love. But I actually really liked it. It’s got depth and heart, a reflective element to it, which is normally non-existent in romantic dramas which play out the obvious notes. About Time is about a guy who can travel back in time. Not anywhere he wants though, only back to places he’s been and experiences he’s lived – like, if he embarrassed himself the first time he spoke to a girl, he can go back and change it. That sounds really amazing, right, and slightly difficult for a film (how do you create tension in a scene when the audience knows he can just re-do it?), but it actually moves in a direction I didn’t expect and ends up being an interesting reflection on life and how we approach it. About Time isn’t going to go down as an artistic masterpiece, but it raises really interesting questions, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
So there they are, my top films of 2014 (so far). In terms of writing, all of these films have great written elements, great plot development points that are worth taking note of. I really loved that most of them went places I didn’t expect, opening my thinking to other angles in my own plot development efforts. It’s like when you read a great book and it opens up all these possibilities in your mind and then you get that electricity, that momentum that compels you to just get writing. All these films had elements of that for me, all triggered ideas and tangents, new perspectives and elements I could consider. Each one got me thinking – especially the first two on this list – and anything that gives your creative mind a kick is worth taking a couple hours out of your day for. If you’re looking for inspiration, seeking out a great film is always a worthy avenue to try.
It’s the dream of almost every writer to have a book published. But close behind that is the dream of having your book turned into a Hollywood movie. I got somewhat close to having this, sort of. Here’s what happened:
When my novel ‘Rohypnol’ was published in 2007 we were contacted by a couple of groups interested in the film rights. I had no idea about this stuff, I still had stars in my eyes about having my book in Borders, so I took the advice of my publishers on what to do, who to listen to, etc. There were four groups trying to buy the rights to ‘Rohypnol’, which was awesome, and in my head, it meant it was definitely getting made. But the film world is incredibly complex, there are so many variables when seeking film funding – you’re asking investors (producers) to put up millions of dollars on the promise of a return, I can understand why there are many hoops to jump through.
I met with one producer and director combo in Melbourne. The director was Amiel Courtin-Wilson, who has gone on to do some fantastic short and feature film work in recent years. Amiel was a really cool guy and seemed really into the project, had a good vision, I liked everything about him. But there was one other group who had got in contact with us late in the piece which were pretty much the winner as soon as we heard them mentioned. The group was Seed Productions. Seed Productions was owned by Hugh Jackman, his wife, Deborah Lee Furness and their business partner John Palermo. They were working on a a couple of major films (Deception and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so they had the contacts – and it was Hugh Jackman, of course he knew people who knew how to get a film made. Seed were the safest bet to go with – they had a clear funding plan, they wanted to get moving on the project straight away. They were the ones. So I signed the film rights over to them.
I started working with John, who had asked me to take a shot at writing the screenplay. I hadn’t written a screenplay before, but I’d read all the books and who’s going to say no to having at writing a Hollywood screenplay? We went through a few drafts, with John giving me regular feedback and sending me reference books and DVDs to help get the story down. By the end of that process I was reasonably happy with the screenplay. I was pretty sure it needed work, but it felt okay as a starting point – it didn’t feel way off. Seed then signed up a director for the project, Kris Moyes. Kris was best known for his music video work, but he’s always working on major art projects, amazing stuff. I was a big fan of his video for ‘Are You The One?’ by The Presets. In fact, when I saw that video had won the ARIA award for best video I thought it would be awesome to get that guy as the director of ‘Rohypnol’. And there he was. Kris is one of those guys who’s way cooler than you. Not in a bad way, he’s one the most down to earth, easy going guys you’ll ever meet, and I really liked him, but he’s cool in that he can, say, wear some outlandish kaftan in public and totally pull it off without looking like a douche. The sort of guy who you’ll run into in the strangest of places and it’ll seem completely normal that he’d be there. ‘Cause he’s cool, he can just do whatever and make it cool. His ideas were great, he was keen, everything was moving in the right direction.
Of course, this is over the course of a year or so by now. John was based in LA wo we’d go back and forth via e-mail and I’d write and re-write and wait for his feedback, like everything in publishing, things take time. After probably a year and a half we got to a point where we needed to get an expert to go over the screenplay and fix it up. Andrew Bovell was one of the names put up as someone who might be able to go over it, which was great – Andrew wrote the screenplay for Christos Tsiolkas’ book ‘Loaded’ (the film was called ‘Head On’) and ‘Lantana’ which was a great film. But that never came about, Andrew was working on something else and wasn’t able to do it. I met with Kris and John at Seed’s offices in Fox Studios in Sydney and we went over where everything was at then things got real quiet for a long time. ‘Wolverine’ was getting close to release so I figured they had a heap on, so no problem. Both Kris and I got VIP tickets to the cast and crew screening of ‘Wolverine’, which was pretty cool then after that nothing. For ages and ages.
Kris and I stayed in contact for a little bit, but he had other projects overseas so that sort of faded out and I’d heard nothing from Seed for months and months. Then one day I read on a news website that Seed Productions had shut down. The guys had decided to part ways, with Wolverine being their only major production credit. After I read this, I sent an e-mail to the Seed guys saying I guess this means the film is no go, and thanking them for their time and efforts and for giving me a chance to be a part of the process. Hugh sent me a polite e-mail back, wishing me all the best and that was it. By now the book was a few years old, no longer in stores – the ‘heat’ of the book was gone and the film offers had died down. It’s been under offer a few times since, but it’s never gone any further. It’s disappointing, but that’s how it is with film stuff, so I’m told. A whole lot of things have to align for you to get the green light, even if you are working with a major company or a company with major contacts. I still hold onto the dream that it might one day get made, but it’s pretty unlikely now. I never met Hugh Jackman. People always ask this, but no, I never met him. I think one time I was in the Seed offices just after he’d left, that’s the closest I got, other than via e-mail.
So despite the disappoinment, I really did enjoy the process. Being able to work with John and Kris and just the excitement of working on the possible film adaptation was amazing. John went on to produce the excellent ‘Drive’ with Ryan Gosling – which was interesting to see because after reading the book of ‘Drive’ I could relate the transition from book to screenplay to some of the advice John had given me as we went through ‘Rohypnol’. Kris is always working on something ridiculously amazing, living a life of creativity we can only dream of – you can see his stuff here. And Hugh Jackman is doing something, somewhere, I don’t know, he faded out a little bit after that.
And that’s the story of how my book nearly, almost got made into a real movie. I’d already imagined myself in a tux on opening night too. That’s how it goes.
I’ve been following with interest the production of Kevin Smith’s latest film ‘Tusk’. As you may be aware, Smith’s first steps into this project began on his weekly podcast ‘SModcast’, which he hosts with producer Scott Mosier. The idea came from an article about a man who posted a hoax ad online seeking a room-mate. The ad told the tale of a man who’d been isolated on an island for many years, whose only friend in that time was a walrus, and went on to say that the room was available rent free, provided the new tenant be prepared to wear a walrus costume on demand to remind the owner of the time he’d spent with the walrus, which he considered his true friend.
Along with the many thousands of SModcast listeners, I was witness to this first conversation Smith and Mosier had about the project. That conversation evolved into a ‘what if?’ discussion about a possible horror film, and that has now progressed into an actual Hollywood feature, ‘Tusk’, which Smith is currently editing. The progression has been amazing, not only because of how fast it’s evolved into a living, breathing thing, but that we, as the audience, have been there for every step of the ride.
Kevin Smith is a truly inspirational character. Whether you like his work or not, you have to acknowledge his place as a pop-culture icon. Smith stands as a beacon for all the would-be film-makers out there – a guy who came from nothing and made his own way to major success. Many film-makers working today quote Kevin Smith as an inspiration, and his speaking tours always sell out around the world. Smith has succeeded as a film-maker, but more importantly, Smith has succeeded as an inspirational figure.
I’m not a fan of everything Smith does – even Smith discusses his dislike of some of the films he’s made – but I am a fan of Kevin Smith as a person. He genuinely cares about his fans and about providing them with authentic content and experiences. He looks to provide opportunities and support for others (including his high-school friends who still feature in his projects). He regularly calls for his fans to start doing podcasts, start making films, spruiking the freedoms and opportunities we all have available to us in the digital age. With the progression of ‘Tusk’, he has once again shown how an idea can be realised – no, we don’t all have Smith’s connections, but the process is very similar, albeit with more hoops to jump through.
Smith has been saying for sometime that he is retiring from film-making. That he wants to make way for the next generation, that he doesn’t have anything more to say in film. He said this about ‘Clerks 3’, which is still going through the pre-production process. He said it about another film before that (‘Hit Somebody’), then ‘Tusk’ came out of nowhere. I sincerely hope Smith doesn’t retire from film-making. I hope Smith continues to go with the flow, see what opportunities come up, flow with them right through. Maybe he makes ten more films, maybe none, but just having Smith out there working, showing the next generation how things can be done, how you need to follow your heart and ideas and produce content, whether it goes somewhere or not, is something, I think, many people need. Just having Smith as an example of what can be done if you give it a shot provides so much benefit to not only his fans, but anyone working in a creative field. Just try it. Just send it out. Just have a shot, get your work out there. If you feel passionately about something, if you really want to do it, then you should do it.
One of the things Smith always says is you should be a ‘Why not?’ person, not a ‘Why?’ person. You need to surround yourself with ‘Why not?’ people. You say you want to make a film – why not? You want to write a book – why not? Why not you? Why can’t you be successful? Why can’t this thing you’re working on now be the thing. This is excellent advice and one I think we should all try to apply to our day to day lives, and not just in creative work. Anything is possible, but it has to start somewhere. Why not with you, right now?
Kevin Smith shows us that following your heart and sticking with what you love can lead to success. Working with the people you want, being true to yourself, expressing your own voice – sure, not everyone can make a career out of this, but Kevin Smith is a living example what is possible. I sincerely hope he continues to create and shine light on the path for generations to come.