Warning: ultra-nerdy fanboy post about Star Wars ahead, please excuse this indulgence
The new Star Wars trailer came out last week, bringing with it a wave of euphoric nostalgia, the likes of which the web has never seen (it’s already broken pre-sale ticket records and the trailer has been viewed more than 48 million times). But one of the most amazing and skilful aspects of the new trailer – along with the preceding two – is that it tells you virtually nothing about the actual story. For all the droids and wookiees and light saber poking out the sides of the handles, there’s little-to-no linkage from one scene to the next – no one has any freakin’ idea what’s going on. And what’s more, with the film-makers noting that all the extended Star Wars universe comics and novels are not officially part of the new universe of the films, really, anything could happen. Ultra-fans are as in the dark as everyone else.
But of course, being a massive Star Wars geek, I can’t help but try to piece it together and think through what the story of Episode VII might be. Where is Luke Skywalker? Who is Kylo Ren? What’s that dude from ‘Attack the Block’ doing? Here’s what I think might, possibly, be the storyline of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’:
In the preview we see that The First Order, or the new Empire, have a heap of soldiers and vehicles – there’s no way these guys are in hiding with that much stuff, right?
My speculation is that The First Order is re-establishing the Empire, and is winning the battle in taking over the galaxy by force and placing themselves into a new position of power. The events of the original trilogy – now thirty years past – were a major setback for the Empire, but there’s obviously many who believe they need a uniting authority to oversee the galaxy. Chief among them is Kylo Ren, whose effectively the new Darth Vader.
So who is Kylo Ren? You’d think he has to be associated with either Luke or Leia, as they were the last living links to The Force that we know of, so the assumption would be that Kylo Ren is either Luke’s or Leia’s son. I think he’s Leia and Han’s son and, for whatever reason, he’s decided to go to the dark side – that’s why we see Leia looking upset in the trailer, and how Han, Leia and Chewbacca end up getting tied into the new storyline. There has to be a reason for them to come back into it, they don’t just rock up for something to do. I think Han is coming back to try and reason with his wayward son, but that he also knows his son is beyond logic. This leads Han and Chewie to the new characters – Rey and Finn.
I don’t think Rey or Finn are linked back to the original characters – some think that Rey saying ‘she’s no one’ in the trailer is an indicator that she’s trying to hide out in the desert, and that she must be Leia or Luke’s daughter, but I just don’t see that family ‘hiding’ another kid after the trauma they went through by being separated from their father in the original trilogy.
My speculation is that Rey is no one, but like Luke in the original series, she dreams of getting out of the desert and doing something more. I think Rey runs into Finn, who’s crash landed (as per the trailer) and wants to help him because Finn represents adventure. Rey shows Finn the wreckage of the old Empire, the old Star Destroyers and such, and in amongst that wreckage they come across Luke’s lightsaber – this is one of the original story notes JJ Abrams said would trigger the events of the new films, that someone would find Luke’s hand (which Darth Vader cut off at Bespin) and his lightsaber. I think that discovery is the ‘awakening’ mentioned in the second trailer.
Why is that an awakening? As noted in the latest preview, the people of the new Star Wars universe seem to be under the impression that the Jedi and the events of the past are something of a myth, they don’t believe they actually happened. This, I think, may be how the First Order is gaining power, because the people don’t believe they can fight back – resistance seems futile because The First Order has all the power, and they have this mystical, intimidating leader in Kylo Ren who simply seems undefeatable. As such, I believe this is what is enabling The First Order to re-establish the Empire, by sheer force and fear. But what if those old stories were true? What if the Jedi really did exist and there were a way to defeat this growing evil? Maybe the discovery of a lightsaber – a rumoured weapon of these mythical legends – would confirm their existence, and thus, empower the rebellion, or new rebellion, to believe they could actually win, giving them a massive boost. It’s like in ‘A Bug’s Life’, when the crickets note that if the ants ever worked out they out-numbered them, they’d be able to defeat them. Maybe a similar psychology is at play, and the confirmation of the existence of the Jedi would be enough to fuel them.
This is why it causes a disturbance – an awakening – and this is why we see Kylo Ren coming at Finn, who clearly has no idea how to use a lightsaber, in the preview. Kylo Ren’s come to take the lightsaber back and ensure no one knows about its existence.
This then leads to the wider journey of the story, where Han takes Finn and Rey with him on a mission to find Luke, because is the only one who can save them. Luke, meanwhile, has dropped off the face of the… universe. I’m not sure why, but he appears to *possibly* be on Mustafar, the volcano planet where Darth Vader originally fought Obi-Wan and lost.
For whatever reason, Luke has opted to stay away and go into hiding, like Obi-Wan and Yoda before him. But now, with Kylo Ren getting deeper into the dark side, and The First Order taking hold, Luke is their only hope to stop him, to talk sense into him to keep him from becoming the next Darth Vader.
Eventually, they find Luke, but so does Kylo Ren and here’s where the big conflict will happen – in order to stop him, Luke has to face off against his nephew, Kylo Ren. And Ren wins. This would then set up Ren as the key bad guy for the next three films, the key presence. The question then is how do they challenge him? Who’s left, with knowledge of the Force, to oppose Ren and Co. on their destructive path?
This is where the ‘the force is calling to you – just let it in’ line comes in. Maybe Rey is somehow more ‘open’ to the force due to some… thing I can’t think of. I believe Rey will become a Jedi, somehow, and will be the driving force behind the new resistance, with Finn at her side. But Rey will be the next Jedi, the leader, of sorts. It’d be an interesting twist, to have a female protagonist in such a major movie – and somewhere, maybe, there’s some link revealed between her and the previous trilogy, don’t know what that is yet. But that’s why I think Luke’s not featured prominently (because revealing anything about him might signal that he ends up in the ultimate battle with Ren) and why we’ll also see Luke go out like Obi-Wan only to be a guiding spirit in death (‘strike me down and I’ll become more powerful than you can possible imagine’).
There’s obviously other elements in there to tie in also, but that, I think, will be the main storyline. Either way, I can’t wait to see it play out.
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.
Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.
So, there’s still a few weeks left in 2014, but I’m pretty confident that nothing mind-blowing’s going to be released in that time (I think ‘Inherent Vice’ will be good, but that’s not out till February in Australia). Given that, I’ve put together a list of my top ten films of the year. I caught some really great movies, a couple that might make my top ten of all time – but no one really cares about the intro section of a list post like this. So, here they are – my top ten films of 2014.
Enemy is so good. It didn’t get a lot of hype, and it’s not widely known, but it’s my favourite film of the year, by far. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a guy who’s bored with his life – the same routine, everyday, the same stuff. Then, while watching a movie at home, he sees a man who looks like him in the background. He searches on the internet to find out who the actor is and finds that the guy looks exactly like him. So he locates his details, calls him up. A woman answers he phone and asks him what he’s doing – she thinks it’s the other guy calling – and the film just gets weirder and weirder from there. It’s almost impossible to decipher ‘Enemy’ once the credits roll, you need time to think about it, to consider it, then you’ll start to unravel just how brilliant it really is. I can’t recommend it highly enough – the director, Denis Villeneuve, is definitely one to watch.
Under the Skin
This is one of those films that reminds me of what cinema is all about. Under the Skin starts with a man on a motorbike picking up the dead body of a woman from the roadside. He takes the body to another woman, who removes the dead woman’s clothes and puts them on, then she drives out in a large van, pulling up to ask random people on the street for directions to a freeway, then to something else, then you realise she’s not actually seeking directions at all. Under the Skin is compelling, fascinating, and visually amazing. There were scenes that hit me so hard, just based on their visual impact, scenes like nothing I’ve seen before. Jonathan Glazer, renowned for his music video work with bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack, does an amazing job with this film, and it’ll stay with you for some time after the credits.
Guardians of the Galaxy
My son is four years-old. I envy the calibre of superhero films he’s going to grow up with. Granted, I had Star Wars, which was pretty great, but it’s possible he could have that too. Comic book films have evolved so much. It started with Nolan’s Batman films, which proved that comic stories could be done in a legitimate way, that you could treat the fantasy worlds of comic books seriously and not have to make up hokey plotlines or unusual character twists. Because Nolan’s films succeeded, it paved the way for things like Iron Man and Whedon’s Avengers, which, itself, took superhero films to the next level. Along with that, studios are now looking to make big, high-impact movies that need to be experienced in a cinema to maximise return on investment – people don’t have to go watch arthouse films at the movies, they can get the same experience at home. But you can’t replicate that big screen experience for big films – and thus, we have films like ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ and now ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. There’s so much to like about this film – everything works, all the details are correct. Even the little things – in one scene, Gamora is running at a prison guard and she jumps, and when she does, she goes just a little bit higher than what’s humanly possible. Because she’s not human – it’s those subtle details that make it Guardians so great. They don’t overdo the retro references, Chris Pratt is excellent in the lead role and nothing ever gets loose or out of synch with the internal logic of the story. And also, Groot.
I’d almost forgotten that Her was a 2014 film – I caught early on in the year. Director Spike Jonze is a true master of his craft, and Her is no exception. There’s so much depth to the film, so many layers and so much genuine feeling. It’s a film you just can’t ignore – you think a movie about a man falling in love with his computer can’t make you feel deeply? Think again. Jonze covers the subject with such passion and such delicacy that it’s a powerful love story, albeit a very unconventional one. Jonze made a short film just before working on Her which captures the same sort of feel (you can check it out here), and that too is totally worth your time. The dude is just tuned into the emotional core of his work, a central heartbeat that he’s able to communicate and share with his audience. Few directors can do so at the same level.
Another one not many would’ve heard of – it got limited coverage and was met with mixed reactions. But it’s a pretty interesting piece of cinema, and worth seeking out. Two young guys and a girl are driving across the US – the girl is moving to another state. Along the way, the guys get an e-mail from a hacker whose been harassing them for some months. They manage to track down his location, based on his IP, and it happens to be on the way, so they decide to take a detour and confront him. Then things get weird. I loved how this film switched up, almost out of no where. It’s moving along as a normal road movie, with relationship dramas and a real simple sort of feel in the cinematography, all as you’d expect, but then the special effects shots come in at random. And they’re amazing. The storyline, in the end, didn’t feel full, like it could have had more to it, but it’s definitely worth checking out, there’s some excellent twists and changes that go against what you might think.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
After the disaster that was ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, it was great to see the franchise come back with Matthew Vaughn’s ‘X-Men: First Class’. Days of Future Past takes that to the next level by integrating the old and new casts and building one of the best comic book films I’ve ever seen. There was a heap going on in this film, and none of it felt clumsy – there was no machine to turn everyone into a mutant or a key plot point dropped in some random conversation. Basically, Days of Future Past felt like a comic book film without compromise. As noted above, I think Guardians of the Galaxy was able to pull this off slightly better, but along the same lines, in that the detail was not compromised, the creators were given freedom to make the story and worlds they needed. The Sentinels are bad-ass (like they are in the comics), the characters did cool stuff, while the bad guys remained bad, driven by their personal agendas – there was no softening or out of character turns. It’s films like these that have me excited for the possibilities of things like the new Star Wars films and the long slate of Marvel features coming out in the next few years. These films are making big money, and while that’s happening, the creative teams will get more leeway to create what they envision.
I could go on and on about Dom Hemingway – and I kind of did already, writing this post about it after watching it earlier in the year. Dom is a charming but frightening character, which, in my experience, is what many of those types of people are. I loved the first sequence in the film, where Dom gets released from prison after 12 years and immediately rushes directly into town to beat up the man who’s since married his ex-wife. Dom Hemingway does a great job at showing the balance of the fun of the character’s total disregard for… everything, whilst also reflecting the impact that sort of recklessness has on his life. Things don’t go well for Dom – while it may look like fun to be smashed at 11am and out every night with random women, there are consequences, and the ramifications of his behaviour are never too far from the surface. Dom Hemingway is reminiscent of Trainspotting, with it’s likeable no-hopers trying to get by – they’re fun to be around, but things aren’t always so free and easy. Dom Hemingway reflected this, and moved in line with what you’d imagine the actual character’s reactions would be – the emotion would be there, and you’d feel it for a moment, then he’d be off onto something else, taking the viewers along for the ride.
All is Lost
There’s, maybe, ten lines of dialogue in All is Lost. The original shooting script was, reportedly, 31 pages long. Yet, it’s a fascinating and enthralling film – it holds you in till the last. All is Lost is about a man setting out on what appears to be an around the world sailing mission, or something of that magnitude. The guy is old, and through voiceover at the start, it sounds like not everyone agreed that he should attempt it. But he sets out anyway, only to run into an jettisoned shipping container which rips a hole in the side of his boat. It floods the radio and the electrical system. He’s stuck. The film documents his ongoing struggles to stay alive in the middle of the ocean. It’s an amazing film – I always have a predisposition for films where the characters are out on their own in the middle of no-where, so it was always likely I’d enjoy this. There’s just something haunting, yet peaceful, about the whole thing. Redford, while he looks a lot different, is still a great actor.
I came across Blue Ruin almost by accident. It’s the story of a guy who, broken by the murders of his parents when he was a kid, comes back to his home town to seek revenge against the man who did it, whose just been released from prison. But there’s no Hollywood gloss to this film, no normal, ‘revenge flick’ vibe. It’s uncomfortable and difficult and highly compelling, in that you just need to see what he does next. It’s well acted and shot and takes turns you’d not expect. The ending I was not fully sold on, but it’s a great film, worth a watch, particularly as an antidote to overdone Hollywood revenge cinema. Reminded me a bit of ‘Winter’s Bone’ in it’s ‘small town cliques’ feel.
Edge of Tomorrow
I’d pretty much written Tom Cruise off. I think a lot of people have – all the weirdness and the couch jumping and the religious talk, he just got a bit too much, and I figured he was out of the game. This was reinforced with that Jack Reacher film – I saw enough of that to know I didn’t want to see any more. With that perspective, I wasn’t really interested in Edge of Tomorrow. I left it a long time before bothering to check it out on DVD, so I was pretty surprised to see how good it actually is. Directed by Doug Liman – who normally makes very good stuff – the film moves away from what you might expect and actually takes a pretty unique, original angle. Emily Blunt was excellent – though I was disappointed at the implied romance between the her and Cruise’s characters – like, why couldn’t she just be a cool female character? Why did there have to be a romantic element? The very end felt slightly off, and I’ve heard the original source material is much better overall, but this was still a great popcorn flick, and different to most others in the same vein.
And that’s my ten. I’m sure there are others I didn’t catch that are standouts. Which ones did I miss? Which were your favourites of 2014? Leave a note in the comments if you wanna criticize/contribute/question my taste and sensibilities.
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.
I have to restrain myself in talking about Dennis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ because… it’s quite possibly my favourite film of all time. That’s a big call to make, and as soon as you do make it, people will scrutinize the film in a different way and instinctively try to tear it down, moreso than they would if you’d just said ‘yeah. It’s good’. Not that I don’t think the film holds up, but I hesitate only because I want everyone to see this film and experience it for all it is. Enemy is so well made, so well done and so amazing – it’s something that you need to let yourself be absorbed into.
Every element of Enemy has been planned to the nth degree. Every scene, background to foreground, is deliberate, all the pieces fit perfectly into where they should be. What might seem like nothing is actually carefully positioned to achieve best effect and the cinematography perfectly captures the feel of the film. The performances are great, and the way the story builds and shifts drags you further and further into the rabbit-hole-type story. Some have criticised the film’s heavy handed use of metaphor, but I think it’s exactly what it needs, at exactly the right times, in order to let you know there’s more happening than what you see. I can’t talk about the story, but I will say that it expands a whole different way of viewing it, outside of the film itself.
Enemy is exactly what I look for in a film. It’s storyline is intriguing, the film construction is thorough and it has an extra layer to it that forces the viewer to think about its meaning and subtext. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and while it won’t work for everyone, it was definitely one of my favourite viewing experiences of all time. Writers, in particular, can learn a lot from the story’s clever construction.
When I was a kid living in Kinglake – about an hour or so outside Melbourne’s CBD – the most exciting trip we ever took was the one into the city to visit Minotaur. Minotaur’s a comic store, the walls of the store covered in latest editions of The Punisher, Ghost Rider, X-Men, etc. The place is amazing, I’d to be able to spend hours wandering around, taking everything in. Even before that, I remember the first trip my brother and I ever took to the city without my parents. My brother was two years older than me and he wanted to go to a comic convention. This involved getting driven half an hour to the train station in Hurstbridge, then catching a train in to the unfamiliar surrounds of the city, all by ourselves. I didn’t want to do it, I was afraid to go in without the security of my parents, but my brother couldn’t go if I didn’t, so I caved. It was the one of the best days of my life. We went to this convention, which was mostly just market stalls of comics and comic related merchandise, all of it pretty well priced. There were back-issues as far as the eye could see, all those ones in the series you missed, right there, for $3 each. We bought as many as we could, got comic artists to draw us pictures, got free showbags with an array of random merchandise inside. It was amazing.
Being around comic books was so exciting back then, finding that one section in the newsagents where the comics were filed away was like discovering gold, and I remember curling up in the corner of the couch, reading through the latest adventures of Wolverine – his epic battle with Mojo was a standout. And even though I couldn’t understand the full context of the storylines, I was so drawn in, so enveloped inside those pages. Reading comics was such a great part of being a kid.
Every time a new comic book movie comes out I get a hint of that same excitement. Whenever Hugh Jackman flicks out his Wolverine claws, it takes me back to that time, just a little bit. Even when the films haven’t always lived up to the hype, there’s still that nostalgic allure, something that ties me to it, just seeing those characters come to life. This is, of course, part of the marketing strategy, the reason you see so many old toys being made into films is because people like me are gonna’ watch them, because of that nostalgic link, and definitely, it’s a strong selling point – I even went and watched G.I. Joe at the cinema. There’s always that link, that moment that reminds me of the smell of fresh comic pages and pulls me in, but for the most part, that feeling has come and gone in moments, in great sequences in comic book films. The Wolverine cage fight scene in X-Men. When Collossus appears in X2. These moments make me remember what I loved so much about comics, but overall the films are their own entity – like the comics, but different. The storylines don’t quite relate, the characters play out in their own way. The film versions are made with compromises, alterations to translate the comic book world to a mainstream audience. This makes perfect sense, I understand the producer negotiation and marketing input aspects of how films are made, but inevitably, that’s going to mean some things are altered in adaptation process, which means there’s always going to be a separation. While the films bring with them moments of childish excitement, they’re overall not what I want, not as engrossing as I dream they could be.
X-Men: Days of Future Past has changed that. It’s been coming for a while, we’ve seen the shift in focus from The Dark Night to The Avengers to X-Men: First Class – comic book films have become less about mainstream audience and more about adhering to the original sources themselves. Darker storylines, deeper characters, the things that had been watered down or altered in previous film-versions are starting to come out, with studios putting more trust in their creative teams, letting them build the stories they want. Chris Nolan’s Batman series was the catalyst – these films took a serious edge, a dark turn, and they were so much more successful for it. They weren’t trying to sell toys or win the hearts of kids and adults alike – they were telling a story, and Nolan was given more creative licence than ever before to tell it his way. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was another, highlighting the value of telling a story and creating a real-world superhero film, and how, given the budget, these films could produce amazing box office results. Joss Whedon’s Avengers was the pinnacle – Whedon not only wrote a great script, but the studio went all in, allowing him to utilise amazing special effects unmatched by any other super-hero predecessor. In these days of declining movie audiences and internet piracy, people need a reason to go and see things on the big screen – massive super hero films provide just that, and the revenue numbers for Avengers had every studio scrambling to buy up every super hero franchise they could find. This movement is what set up Days of Future Past – a film that delivers on every level, over and over again.
The storyline of DOFP is the one I always wanted to see – The Sentinels was such a great series in the comics, the most epic X-Men battle of all time. It frustrated me that they were making these odd storylines in the first X-Men films when they were sitting on such great material in The Sentinels saga. It’s possible that budgetary constraints meant they couldn’t do it – but there are no constraints in DOFP. The film is epic sequence after epic sequence, tied together with a storyline that works – there’s no gaps in logic or hastily introduced plot devices. After the opening sequence, I was happy, I thought ‘this was worth the price of admission alone’, but that was only one of the many amazing scenes in the film. The special effects are the best I’ve seen in a super hero film, and the bad guys are so bad, so frightening, that they raise the emotional stakes with every sequence. Just wait till you see the terror inflicted by The Sentinels. I could go on all day about the scenes – Quicksliver in the Pentagon, Mystique’s transformation’s mid-action, Magneto’s defiance and single-minded obsession – to say anything more would risk ruining it, and this is a film you really don’t need or want to know much about going in. Just go watch it, take it in, and revel in it’s excellence.
DOFP is everything I’ve ever wanted a comic book film to be. It took me back to Minotaur, back to reading in the corner of the couch and being totally engrossed by the world of the X-Men. It felt like home, like being with friends from your childhood. DOFP is a superhero film without compromise. That is what puts it over the top and makes it so amazing. There’s one scene where they’re waiting for The Sentinels and Blink comes through a portal in the background – that special effect wasn’t necessary to the main storyline and added little to what was happening, but it added a lot in terms of overall depth. Those sort of things usually get cut out because it’s too expensive to put in a special effect like that for no significant purpose. The fact that Bryan Singer has been allowed to go all out, to add in things like this that build the world, this is what makes DOFP so deep, so real and true to the comics.
As you can probably tell, I could go on about DOFP for hours, but my words won’t ever do the film justice. Go see it at the movies, don’t wait, don’t think you can just grab it when it comes out on DVD. DOFP is amazing, the best super hero film I’ve ever seen. Everyone should go check it out.
I recently watched the film ‘One Chance’, a film based on the life of British mobile phone salesman turned opera star Paul Potts. If you’re not aware of who Potts is, he won the 2007 iteration of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ after he blew everyone away with his pitch perfect performances on the show, the first one, in particular, gathering him worldwide attention.
Like Susan Boyle, Potts is a poster-child for the talent show format – an unknown, unrecognised talent plucked from obscurity and given a chance to shine on TV’s biggest stage. There seems to be one of these stories in every season of these shows, and they are great – I challenge anyone to remain unmoved by Potts’ initial performance (above), where the judges had clearly expected way less from this unconfident, overweight and plain-looking gent standing before them. Potts’ rise to fame is probably the most successful transition of it’s kind, given Boyle’s challenges with fame ever since. It’s a great story that deserves to be told, and ‘One Chance’ is a solid film, though not quite as good as it had the potential to be.
The main issue I had with the film was the portrayal was a little too light. That was intended, they wanted to hit as wide a demographic as possible, so it needed to be a feelgood film, but the greatest aspect of Potts’ rise was encapsulated in that first performance – you could see in his body language and the expression on his face, this was a man who’d been kicked one too many times. He’d lost faith in himself, in everything, you could see that he was bracing himself for more anguish. I didn’t feel the film truly captured this, the defeated nature that Potts exhibited – James Corden, who plays Potts, was very good, but he couldn’t quite capture that uncomfortable nature exhibited by Potts in real life. This was the key reason why Potts’ story was so great, because you could see that he’d almost given up – but then he won. It’s a great example of persistence in doing what you love in the face of constant opposition.
But the key message I took from the film was the importance of having support from your loved ones in what you do. All through the film, Potts’ dad is telling him to give up on his dreams of being a singer, to face reality and get on with life like everyone else. There’s a scene where he’s really down, where nothing’s going his way and his wife realises that if he can no longer hold onto the dream of being a performer, that he really sees no point to his life. It’s part of who he is, he needs to do it, needs to hold onto it in some way or he just falls flat, lays on the couch, gives up. I think that’s true in everything – if you’re not true to yourself and not pursuing what you’re passionate about, at least in some form, your life purpose can be eclipsed, and you face a dreary reality of just being, just doing what you have to do. A life of obligation more than exploration of being alive. That’s no way to be, you always need to keep searching for what makes you happy, what drives you as a person, and you need to keep chasing it – sure, there’s certain things you have to accept, and yes, you’ll probably have to work a job that’s not exactly aligned with your dream path, but as long as you continue to pursue your passions in some form, as long as you have the support of people close to you to do that, that’s a big key to maintaining balance. And the moments of clarity you can get from pursuing your dreams make all the effort worthwhile. People should never give up on chasing what it is they’re most passionate about. Everyone has something.
And as a parent, it also underlined to me the need to support your kids in everything they do. If they feel strongly about something, parents need to be supportive, foster it as much as they can. Your mother and father have a profound influence on your psychological make-up, just having them back you, being aware that they’ll be behind you no matter what, it’s such a huge pillar of strength. It can change your life. My parents have always been supportive of me, and while there are certain realities we have to face, I’ve always known they’re behind me and they’ll be there for me, no matter how unrealistic my goals. Knowing that I’ve made them proud at certain times has been one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life.
Stick with what you love, find that thing that makes you happy, and surround yourself with people who won’t ask ‘why?’, but ‘why not?’. It’s one of the keys to maintaining happiness in life and feeling complete in everything you do.
I was once asked for my thoughts on writing controversial content, where you balance between ‘confronting’ and ‘gratuitous’. My novel ‘Rohypnol’ has a lot of graphic scenes, and it’s something I was criticised for in a few reviews, that it was gratuitous, violent for the sake of it. Some felt there was no need to go into that level of detail, that much of the horror could’ve been implied and left to the imagination. But I disagree. There was a definitive purpose to what I wrote, and there is, I believe, a reason why people need to include such detail, where warranted, within the context of their work.
One of the inspirations behind ‘Rohypnol’ was a French film called ‘Irreversible’, directed by Gaspar Noe. Noe is well-known for his controversial films and has received much the same criticism, that he glorifies violence, rather than exposes us to it. This is most evident in the extreme violence of ‘Irreversible’. In the opening scenes, there are two guys looking for another man, called La Tenia. They’re in a nightclub, looking for Le Tenia and (if you ever want to watch the film, stop reading now) when they do locate him, they get into a fight and kill him. More specifically, they kill him by beating his head in with a fire extinguisher. And you see every single hit, every detail. You feel everything in this scene. There is no escaping the violence – it’s sickening, it’s so bad you have to look away. It’s horrific and it just gets worse and worse. The viewer has no context for this scene, it’s two guys getting in a fight with another. There’s no lead-up or backstory, you’re just thrown in. The violence is the most extreme you’ll ever see on film, everything about the scene is horrific – the camera moves and swirls round amidst strobing nightclub lights and grinding bass music. The whole sequence is designed to make you sick. Not a great way to start a film, right? Why would a director want to make the audience ill, especially so early in the film?
There is method to Noe’s madness. The film is called ‘Irreversible’ because the storyline moves in reverse – we start with the horrific ending to tragic story. The point Noe’s making is that violence cannot be justified. Responding to violence with violence is not an answer, in any context – but that is exactly what Hollywood films glorify. We’ve grown up seeing revenge films, feeling for the wronged man, siding with him and hoping he’ll make the bad guys pay in the end. That’s justice, that’s what we want to see – that’s what we want to do when we’re wronged. And that’s wrong. That shouldn’t be the way violence is presented. It’s not an answer, it doesn’t solve problems. Noe’s mission with ‘Irreversible’ was to display, in graphic form, what’s wrong with Hollywood action films. Had the movie played in chronological order, you’d have seen that La Tenia had brutally raped and murdered the wife of one of the men. You’d see this, and you’d side with the man, then when they did finally catch up with La Tenia in the nightclub, you’d want him to get killed. You’d want to see him pay. But there’s no right in responding with further violence.
Noe set out to make the film as uncomfortable and violent as he could to show what violence is really like – in that scene, where you want to look away, where many people walked out of the cinema – that’s how you would feel if that situation where to happen in real life. Violence is not ‘cool’, there’s no shotgun-like sound when someone punches someone in the face. There’s no good guys and bad guys in real life. Violence is horrific and frightening – it’s something everyone wants to avoid at all costs. That’s the point of the scene. You don’t want to see this. You don’t want to condone this. We should do all we can to avoid this sort of thing happening. Seeing someone get their head beat in would affect you in ways you can’t even imagine, it would traumatise you for life – yet in most films, people get revenge, blow people up, shoot them in the head and we get nothing. It’s left to our imaginations, and we don’t picture the extreme violence that actually occurred. We just note that the bad guy got killed. Case closed. Hollywood films should not portray violence as a light, humourous, nothing event that just happens. Because that, by extension, is what we’re teaching kids. If more films portrayed violence as Noe does in ‘Irreversible’, I’ll bet you see such acts of violence reduce. Everytime I see another report of violence in nightclubs, of stabbings and glassings and beating. When I read reports of attacks getting more brutal, kids more devoid of consequence, I always think of ‘Irreversible’. Honestly, it should be on the high school curriculum.
‘Irreversible’ played a big part in the way I portrayed violence in my book. My intent was not to be gratuitous – and I absolutely don’t believe it ever crosses over that line – my goal was to be honest to the story and scenes within it. If you would feel horror, dread, happiness, joy – your responsibility as the author is to communicate that, translate those emotions into the body of the reader. Definitely, I could have left the action out, left the violence implied, but that’s not the point. If monsters like the characters I’d created actually did exist, if they committed horrendous acts like the ones presented, then feeling the detail is important. Yes, it’s confronting, yes it’s shocking, but we need to be confronted and shocked sometimes, we need to face the reality of violence as it is. This is the only way people will ever understand the impacts, the horrific nature of such crimes. And by making people aware, hopefully that inspires more people to avoid it in real life. We shouldn’t, as writers, play down violence, leave it as something that just happens, then move on with the rest of the story. If something terrible occurs, it’s important to be honest, show the necessary detail in order to make the reader feel what you felt when you wrote it. This remains true in all writing – be honest to the story you’ve created, express the reality of your world. What’s happening needs to be real – so be real, be honest with the detail, and never shy away from saying what needs to be said. Don’t be constrained by how people might respond, how people might feel, just get it down, write fuelled by your emotion, and let the story dictate the detail necessary to communicate each scene.
I recently watched ‘Dom Hemingway’, an unusual, energetic and excellent film by writer director Richard Shepard. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it – I’d heard Jude Law’s performance was great – a cockney, over-the-top, gangster-type, like Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast. But the character of Dom Hemingway had much more to him than that, more than stereotypical characteristics and quotable lines. Shepard’s character had a real life to him, a real heart – definitely, Jude Law was great and this added to the character (also, no one owns male pattern baldness like Jude Law), but there was so much more to him, more than what was presented on screen. He felt larger than cinematic life, a character that demanded to exist – at times affable, other times offensive, all the time a risk, a liability unto himself. A time bomb with a blood alcohol level as a countdown. As such characters are in real life, he’s both frightening and exciting, making him fun to be around, so long as you can handle the inevitable crash.
In the first scene I wasn’t sure where it would go, an opening monologue paying tribute to his own masculine prowess. I thought it might go down the path of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson‘, which I was not a fan of (while many were, I felt it rode too close to being over the top a little too often). But the scene ends perfectly, and you immediately get the title – the ill-educated but articulate street crim, hence ‘Hemingway’. The scene captures the essence of the character, the passion, the anger, the verbosity – then the charm and the carelessness that follows. I was definitely intrigued, but it was the next scene that was so great, yet so shocking – I can’t even talk about it without ruining it. It’s symbolic of the juxtaposition that underlines the whole film – yes, it’s funny, but there’s also serious consequences to being the guy who doesn’t care, who can’t keep his emotions in check. For every laugh, there’s a sorrow, and the depth of that emotion is what really brings the film into it’s own. Shepard could have made it lighter, could have played down the impacts of these moments, but he allows the viewer to dwell in them, just long enough each time, just enough to sink you beneath the water with no hope, seeing the sunlight shivering above the surface – and then we’re back, Dom moves onto the next option, taking the audience along for the next chapter of the ride (and speaking of chapters, I liked the text on screen dividers, which can sometimes fall flat or be pretentious).
The thing about Dom Hemingway is everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants to be as charming and witty and be able to say what we really think, just unleash with no consideration of the consequences. Even in the face of death, Dom still can’t resist telling it like it is, and it’s refreshing and awakening. We’d all love to be able to just let it go like Dom does and go on three day benders with no concern for our everyday lives. But we can’t. That’s why Dom exists, he’s the embodiment of that escapist streak. But to be Dom comes also with the downside, the failure, and Dom certainly feels that, over and over. In the end you just hope he’s taken in the lessons, that he’s going to stay on the level enough to remain present. But you know he won’t. And it’s heartbreaking, but beautiful at the same time. Dom Hemingway is the epitome of ‘larger than life’, the personification of rebellion and good times, and a reminder of why that lifestyle is something most of us leave behind.
It’s a complex, intelligent and thoughtful film and it’s stayed with me for days after as I’ve mentally noted the depth and the art of it. It has style, skill in it’s execution, and I can’t fault it on any level. The only criticism I have is that I wanted more – which is the probably best way to end a film about such a character. You’ll always want more Dom Hemingway, but you know, after everything, how it’s going to end. Maybe best to get off before the real tragedy starts to kick in.