Prisoners

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman's relationship started to fall apart over the choice of wallpaper/

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman’s relationship started to fall apart over the choice of wallpaper/

Fans of Denmark’s The Killing will love Prisoners. By which I mean it’s a not very good pot-boiler murder mystery (well, abduction mystery here) that has been made arty (in The Killing’s case this just means subtitled really) which means that in some way we’re supposed to fawn over it. Well no, I refuse. I’m calling Emperor’s New Clothes.

Before we get to the problems with the film, here’s the story. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) goes to a friend’s for thanksgiving. Both families have two children each and later in the meal the two younger kids head back to Dover’s house to look for something. A couple of hours later and they’ve not returned. The two families call in the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and it appears there’s a breakthrough when Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the mental age of a 10 year old, is found and taken into custody. There’s no evidence beyond the circumstantial though and Loki leaves to pursue other leads. Dover, however, is obsessed with the idea that Jones was responsible and kidnaps him, demanding to know what happened to his daughter.

All of this produces some interesting and tense moments, but it’s never truly convincing that Dover would go to the extremes that he does, despite his circumstances, let alone persuade his friends to become co-conspirators. More importantly, however, the resolution never truly convinces. With any mystery of this type you are looking for the identity of the culprit(s) to make sense from beginning to end and for their motivations to ring true. Here, the mastermind is both predictable and borderline nonsensical. The precise way in which in crime(s) took place are not properly explored and the motivations are justified by one line of dialogue which essentially blames idiotic religious views. It’s incredibly disappointing after a fairly solid (if very slow) build-up, and an underwhelming resolution to a film of this type can do nothing but colour everything that’s gone before.

I think it’s also worth noting that the opening to the film, featuring two happy families meeting for some Thanksgiving fun, is scored with a mournful, sorrowful, (and mildly cliched) double bass, telling the audience that any happiness is soon to be destroyed. I can’t help thinking that it would be better to open a film such as this with something that feels genuinely happy, rather than just a prelude to misery.

Anyway, ultimately this is really just pulp trash dressed up as commercial art house. If you want a modern crime thriller that reflects society in some way, while offering realistic characters and believable antagonists, pick up a George Pelacanos book.

C-

Film Length 2hrs 33mins – Feels Like: 2hrs 30mins

Behind The Candelabra

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Is this Steven Soderbergh’s last movie? I hope not, but if it is, it’s a brilliant way to go out.

I knew nothing of Liberace before this film, aside from the extravagant dress sense, that he played piano, and that he was gay. Michael Douglas brings all of that to life, and more. Liberace spent his life moving from one young man to the next while remaining the middle-aged woman’s entertainer of choice (so it seems). He was, at one point, the world’s best paid musical star, presumably being to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s, the Beatles in the 60s, and Michael Jackson in the 80s. Behind the Candelabra tells the story of his (supposedly) most significant relationship, with a young wannabe veterinarian, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

The film is very funny (with special credit going to Rob Lowe as a plastic surgeon), though not a comedy, and in many ways is as sweet and innocent as Damon’s Thorson is. Reportedly considered too gay for US cinema (it was produced by cable TV network HBO), the charge is ridiculous, especially when you consider that it is aimed predominantly at an art house audience who are far less likely to be turned off by the subject matter than the mainstream crowd.

Too gay? Come on...

Too gay? Come on…

Anyway, back to the film. It’s great fun and rarely lags. The only problem I felt was that it never fully delved into Scott’s emotional investment in Liberace and I never truly felt the two were in love, and as such the emotional kickers that arrive at towards the end of the film never truly land. But it’s still fabulously designed and fabulously entertaining. Douglas’ performance is a masterpiece and is so far away from anything you’ve ever seen him do before, it’s such a shame that he won’t be able to collect a little gold statue next February.

B+
Length – 1hr 58mins – Feels – 1hr 45 mins

A Hijacking

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Denmark has, in recent years, become the centre of dramatic revolution, with television series like The Killing and The Bridge wowing highbrow television viewers in ways that a British series hasn’t for a long time, while films like The Hunt and A Royal Affair have been taking some cinematic plaudits. The latest in this long line is A Hijacking, written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, the writer of both The Bridge and The Hunt. My own experience of these works is limited – I have seen The Killing and The Hunt but, thus far, have yet to catch up with the others. For me A Hijacking is more successful than the previous ventures I have seen.

The film tells the story of a ship bound for Mumbai being taken over by Somali pirates and the subsequent negotiation process for the safe release of both the ship and its 7 man crew. The story centres on two men, Mikkel, the cook on board the ship, and Peter, the CEO of the company which owns the vessel, and while there is undoubtedly tension built into the piece, that is not the central concern. Instead we focus on the emotional weight taken on by both men. Mikkel is selected by Omar, the designated ‘negotiator’ (he claims not to be one of the pirates, just a middle man), for the role of the emotional blackmail to be used in during the ransom negotiations, attempting to break the man in order to force the hand of the ship’s owners.

We are introduced to Peter taking part in a different kind of negotiation, a multi-million dollar deal with some Japanese business men, talking them down to an acceptable number when his minions were failing. It is his belief that he is cut out for exactly this kind of role and that is why he rejects the advice of the expert in the these situations, Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter – someone who I felt I recognised, but who has no other credits), and decides to lead the negotiations with the pirates himself.

Peter is warned specifically that he cannot get emotional, that these negotiations will take a lot of time, and that there is a way to do things. He is also warned that the process could be very debilitating. Peter, though, is over confident in his abilities and takes on the mantel.

The film’s success is in the fact that it follows the natural course of events and doesn’t try to force anything. Lindholm understands there is enough drama in the story and he doesn’t need to Hollywood-ise it by turning it into an Under Siege scenario. We learn how the pirates manipulate circumstances to force the hand of those they are talking to, and we see how their games way heavy on everyone involved. The film is perfectly paced, nothing extraneous makes its way in, and nothing is left out. It is appropriately lean and all the more riveting for it.

Bringing it back to those Danish imports I have seen, it avoids their failings. The Killing was let down by the demands of the format. With so much time to fill, the story wondered up paths that made little sense and should have been seized upon in the reviews. The Hunt, on the other hand, tried something much more in line with A Hijacking, telling the story of a man falsely accused of sexual assault by a child. It was largely a success, again focusing on the emotions and characters, but was let down, for me, by the procedural elements – there were processes you expected to be followed that weren’t. It remained a solid piece of work though, anchored by a great performance from Mads Mikkelsen (currently playing Hannibal Lector in the magnificent TV series Hannibal).

A Hijacking felt genuine throughout, with no detail feeling out of place or untrue, and while enjoyable is probably the wrong word for a drama like this, it is a top quality dramatic work.

A-

NB – as so many films are clocking in well over 2 hours these days, completely unnecessarily, I am going to start adding the film’s run time, and how long it felt like to me, at the end of my reviews.

Length: 1hr 39mins – Felt like: 1hr 39mins

What Richard Did

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This is Richard. He did something. You must watch the film to find out what. You SHOULD watch the film

This is Richard. He did something. You must watch the film to find out what. You SHOULD watch the film

There is only one thing wrong with What Richard Did, and that is its title. The film is 90 minutes long and the event the title refers to takes place at around (I’m guessing here) the halfway mark. Where a traditional film might take 20 minutes setting up the narrative before the ‘inciting event’* occurs, waiting to halfway through means that you are constantly looking for what could possibly be the event rather than fully absorbing yourself in the lives of the characters.

That aside, this is magnificent film making. I’m going to sidestep the story so as not to ruin anything, except to say that the film follows Richard, an 18-year-old Irish boy and rugby prospect, as he spends time with friends – both rugby club-mates and school friends – and builds a relationship with Lara, a girl he steals from another of the players. And then an incident occurs and Richard has to deal with the aftermath.

There are three things I want to highlight about the film.

1. The performances of all the actors are incredible, especially given that many are non-professional actors (or so I’m led to believe). Jack Reynor, who plays Richard, gives an incredible central performance, embracing charm, comedy, bravura, romance, aggression, fear. I’d love to see him go on and build a career because I doubt I’ll see a better performance this year.

2. The directing (Lenny Abrahamson) and editing (Nathan Nugent) is brilliant. The film puts in just the right amount of information for each scene, deftly chopping them down to the core details without ever letting the film feel anything other than naturalistic. Every word spoken sounds authentic – something which is rarely the case for a film about school and college children – but not only that, it doesn’t sound like a film at all. The story develops totally organically.

3. Pretty much every film about school/college kids is, to some degree or other, misogynistic, be it The Inbetweeners, Project X, Superbad. They all tend to focus on the lads and have a leering attitude toward the girls. That may be in the way the boys talk about the girls, or the way the girls are photographed in bikinis or underwear – it tends to be that the girls are there as some kind of window-dressing. The characters are not treated as people but as objects to one extreme or another. Here there is no letching, either from the boys or from the camera, and the girls featured (and Lara in particular) feel like real people inhabiting this world, not just there for the entertainment or lust of the boys. It’s refreshing to see, and kind of startling when you realise how infrequently it is seen on screen.

All in all, What Richard Did is stunning and gut-wrenching film making. It’s not showy, it’s not stunning because of the images on screen, because of explosions or beautiful photography. It’s stunning because it’s so well controlled, because the story is told without being told. It just unfolds. It’s stunning because the performances are so well judged and real. It’s stunning because you believe every moment.

A

*I hate myself for using that term, a call back to my university days

The trailer below has a very melancholy feel which perhaps isn’t fair on the film. It’s worth noting that you can stream the film at home through Curzon Online

The Sessions

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The-Sessions

So another swift(er) review. The Wreck-It Ralph one ran to 500 words in the end anyway. Blimey. Let’s see if we can do this a little quicker. I’ve wasted 27 already. That’s four more….

The Sessions might sound a bit of a tough ask on paper. It’s based on the real life story of Mark O’Brien, a writer and a poet who is also a polio survivor who has to spend around 20 hours a day in an iron lung in order to stay alive. He has no muscular control below the neck. Despite all of this, Mark (John Hawkes) is a charmer and a wit. Because of the results of his illness, Mark requires help with everything, and employs a number of carers to perform those roles. His life changes when he employs a new carer and falls in love with her. Unfortunately she doesn’t reciprocate, but it spurs Mark on to a journey of sexual discovery –something that may have been in the back of his mind but he never imagined he could dream of following through on. Eventually Mark employs a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for the role) to help him reach his desire of not dying a virgin.

The film. written and directed by polio survivor Ben Lewin (who is merely crutch-bound), is nigh on perfect. It’s life-affirming where it could have been mawkish. It’s laced with self-deprecating humour and charm where it could have been self-pitying. It’s paced beautifully and always leaves you wondering what direction it might go next. There’s no template for how this story might play out (and that’s not because it’s a true-life story – biopics have plenty of conventions and this doesn’t play up to them) which makes it all the more enthralling.

It hinges on three wonderful central performances – William H Macy as the priest who is asked plenty of awkward questions by Mark being the third – and I find it difficult to understand why John Hawkes has been overlooked at the Oscars when he puts in such a wonderfully nuanced, sympathetic (though not pathetic) and enriching performance. That said, I also find it difficult to understand why the film has been overlooked elsewhere. Granted the direction and editing do nothing flashy, but it’s not a story that demands that – what they do is allow the actors the chance to come alive on screen, to breathe and to exist – but it’s the writing that perhaps demands the greatest recognition.

Anyway, this is a great start to 2013, clocking in as better than anything in 2012 in my book. Track it down if you can, otherwise get the DVD when it comes out. Essential viewing.

10/10 (4 stars)

(I don’t think the trailer does a great job of selling the film, if only because the music is completely wrong for it – I hadn’t seen the trailer before I saw the film, and I think you would be wise to follow the same course, but, if you have to, the trailer is below)

Name me!


It’s nearly there. I have completed editing, barring two things.

1) I have created a technology for the story that I am not totally settled on a name for. I need to select one and go through, making my choice uniform throughout.

2) I have picked out a few invented slang words for my characters to use, but I only did this late on in the writing process so I want to go and drop one or two more of those in early on. Though I must stress, I am not going to be putting these everywhere as I feel that would be tiresome. Only where they truly fit in.

That aside, the editing is done. I have also drafted my query letter to send on to an appropriate agency. I’m very happy with the letter, I feel it provides an appropriate level of information about myself and about my book, isn’t too long-winded, and should intrigue the reader enough to want to actually see the story. Well, that’s the intent…

But before I can put the query letter into action I have two further things to do (on top of the very minor editing outlined above):

1) Write the last five pages. This is quite important really. I need to have the book ready to go, even though the website for the agency I am intending to approach says they only want the first three chapters, I still feel I should have the whole thing done. If only to clear my head. And it’s five pages – come on… I can write five pages, right? Well, it might be six, I don’t know. It might be four as well, so there’s plenty of ways of looking at this. All the important stuff has happened, it’s just about wrapping it all up and sending the kids off for ice cream and ginger ale… wait… it’s not a Famous Five book, is it?

Anyway, that brings me onto the thing that is really bugging me, above all else, about this whole thing, and that’s number two on my list…:

2) The title. I don’t like it. I never have, not from the moment I conceived the book(s), at no point during the writing process, and not now I am about to send it to people in the hope of changing the course of my life…

It was always a holding title. A title that was there so that there was one, always in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be the final title. A phrase would jump out at me, a sentence in the book, something would make an obvious case to be the title. But nothing has. My title is bland, perfunctory. It does not stand out, jump up and down or slap you round the face (though the latter might be a blessing). It sounded like a ‘place-holder’ from the very start.

But worse than that, it sounds like another ‘place-holder’ of a title.

I have skirted around the issue of what I am actually writing up until this point. It’s for children is about as far as I have gone. Now I’m willing to drop a few more hints, the first of which links very nicely with the ‘place-holder’ mentioned above…

In 1977 one of the most successful films of all time was released. It was called Star Wars. Except it wasn’t. Technically, it was called Star Wars: Epsiode 4: A New Hope. Which meant the film itself was plainly A New Hope. Bland. Not even blandly enigmatic, just bland. Tedious. It makes me want to yawn. In fact, I will. And so should you. Go on, yawn at the title right now. Got that out of your system? Good, maybe you won’t yawn at mine too…

You see, my book is in the realm of Sci-Fi (or Science Fience, for those of you not in the know). It is the first part of a multi-part series – though I am starting with book 1, not like Star Wars. And my first story is currently called The City Of Hope. You yawned, didn’t you? It was just as you got to the H in Hope.

What does that title tell you? Nothing, that’s what. There’s a city in it. And that city has hope. Why is hope needed? [Ooh, maybe there’s intrigue] Hope’s always needed. [Maybe not then]. It doesn’t fill you with any deep-seated desire to get stuck in, does it? What about Voyage [or Journey] To The City Of Hope? Do either of those work for you? They still do little for me.

Even more infuriating is the fact that as I neared completion of book 1, I started thinking about book 2, and I already have a title I am totally happy with. It fits perfectly, it sums up the intrigue and excitement I want. It’s just perfect. But horribly tormenting. Why couldn’t it be like that with book 1?

It’s interesting how different projects and different titles work. I previously devised a television drama series. It was about conmen. Two conmen, in fact. It was a six-parter, one long story told over all the episodes, and it was influenced by the great Paul Abbott series State of Play (in terms of realism and structure). In fact, I even got to meet with Abbott’s then agent who told me she very much enjoyed the script and wished me all the best while I desperately hung on her every word, hoping for an offer to fall forward. Anyway, that series was called Pros & Cons. I could only start work on it the moment I had the title. Up to that point I had so many ideas and nothing to hold it all together. The title unified it.

I think with everything I write, there has to be something that unifies the projects – the moment it is suddenly ready to write. For Pros & Cons it was the title. For The City Of Hope it was the moment I figured out the ending to the entire series. I didn’t need to know every other step of the way, I just needed the very ending in place and it was a goer. But God, how I wish it was the title, because I need one right now…

You know…

…Sometimes…

…It’s funny how cathartic this blog can be because over the course of writing this entry an idea has sprung to mind. It’s not perfect. The book would need a little tweaking to get it to fit. But then most of that tweaking could be done to the few unwritten pages at the end of the book. It would fit with some earlier themes. Maybe…

I’m not totally sold though…

What do you think of How To Fill A Black Hole?

Openings….


I stand to be corrected on practically everything I say on this blog, but I am going open with a rash statement off the top of my head:

There are two ways to open a story.

Nowadays, with shorter attention spans and more content than ever fighting for your attention, it has become almost standard to open with a bang. Gone (though not entirely) are the days when an action movie can open with scene setters and character introduction, as seen in Die Hard. Now it’s all about the explosive beginning trying to surprise the audience, or, at the very least, grab them by the unmentionables (see Die Hard With A Vengeance).

With all that in mind, I am going against the grain and will attempt the more traditional opening: the scene setter. I’m going to try to lay out my aims and the themes that should be featuring in this blog as it – hopefully – grows over the passing, days, weeks, months and years.

The journey that you and I shall be taking is a journey through the landscape of writing. I shall be looking at techniques involved in the craft, the frustrations that lie in wait and the different approaches favoured. Not only that, if things go well I shall hopefully be able to talk about agents, publishers and readings. And if things don’t go so well, vanity publishing and bankruptcy. All in all, you may well get yourself a tour of the world of writing. And if you’re lucky, I’ll manage not to be the incompetent tour guide who got hammered last night, is working through the mother of all hangovers, and is only really doing this to flirt with members of the opposite sex and delay having to get a real job…

So who am I and why do I think I might be capable of this monumental task? Well, to answer the second part of that question first, I’m probably not capable. Now, back to the first part. My name is Benjamin Hendy and I am a writer. Saying that (or writing it) makes this seem like some kind of confessional-come-alcoholics-anonymous-session, and maybe this is, because until you’re getting paid to write, calling yourself a writer will always feel, on some level, like a lie – no matter how many words you put down on paper. If you tell someone you’re a writer they will expect to be able to buy your book or read your column or in some way have immediate proof that you do indeed do this. It’s strange, I don’t get this in my day job. “You’re an analyst? Where can I see your latest spreadsheet?” they don’t cry…

Anyway, my background. When I was younger (yes, you’re right, so much younger than today), I used to write stories. They were rubbish. I was 7, 8, 9, 10, so of course they were rubbish. But the point is, I did it. To some extent, telling stories has always been a part of me. As I aged, the arty subjects became harder and I lacked both motivation and discipline. I had always been pretty good with numbers and so through secondary school I concentrated on those skills which came easy – maths and science – rather than those that required greater study and understanding such as English. Then, upon starting out on my A levels of double maths, physics and chemistry, I came to realise
that those subjects required study and understanding too, and that I would rather try to study and understand subjects I enjoyed. I dropped them and moved to English language, media studies and theatre studies.

This is lesson number one, as far as I am concerned. Try to study the things you enjoy, rather than the things you can necessarily do. In my experience, in the longer term, it will bring you great fulfilment. But maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, after completing my A levels, I twiddled my thumbs for a year (and I thank Pizza Hut for paying me while I did this) before going to University to study Scriptwriting for Film and TV. One day I will post on the reasons for this choice rather than, say, English, and my thoughts on how this helped and/or hindered me, but now is not the time for that. This is just a brief overview…

I have written film scripts, television scripts and scripts for shorts. I have written drama, comedy, tragedy, dramedy, cama, dragedy and a number of other combinations of those words. I have not [yet] had anything produced or published.

In the meantime I have held down: jobs; relationships; friendships. Writing has always had to fit around the outside of having a life. I am aware that writing does not guarantee a career and so I have tried to keep everything else going on around it. I am, by no means, prolific. For the last three or four years – and let’s be honest, who really counts? – I have been working on a children’s book. It is based on those stories I used to write when I was 7, 8, 9, 10, and it is essentially written for that child back then. That book is almost complete. I have one sweep of editing to do and a few pages to write and then – hopefully – an adventure will begin. Fingers crossed it won’t feature quite as much danger as the story itself does.

So, in short, I am a writer – as in, someone who writes. I have written narrative fiction of one kind or another for sometime, and I will continue doing so. Writing is a skill that you learn over time. I am certainly a long way from mastering it but equally I feel I have a little knowledge I may be able to pass on. In return, dear reader [and how long have I yearned to type those words?], I hope that you can pass on a little knowledge, the odd hint or tip, as and when I require it.