Fast & Furious 6

If, based on this picture, this looks like the kind of film you would enjoy, then you will enjoy this film. If not, don't bother.

If, based on this picture, this looks like the kind of film you would enjoy, then you will enjoy this film. If not, don’t bother.

Let’s keep this short, shall we. This is a Fast & Furious movie. The 6th one, in case you couldn’t tell. And you know what that means – cars, racing, speed, explosions, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, scripts and acting of dubious quality.

However, for the most part it has also always meant entertainment, with the high point being the 5th installment, mainly set in Brazil. Does this one live up to that high benchmark? Not quite, but it’s still a good fun 2 hours.

What’s the story, I hear you ask? Why? I reply, does it matter? OK, then. Some car-based crew have stolen some kind of military hardware – they don’t really bother going into this because, does it matter? – and The Rock thinks only Vin Diesel et al can catch the guys who did it. He has some leverage. He has photos of Michelle Rodriguez, who was Diesel squeeze earlier in the serious but apparently died in one of them. Except it appears she didn’t because he she is.

So Diesel and his crew get back together to try to stop this British crew from taking whatever it is they want. First they hit the Interpol HQ in London (is there one? Really?), then there’s a big tank based bit in Spain and then some stuff at an air force base.

Look, I’m being half-hearted about this because, for the most part, it doesn’t matter. It’s all an excuse to get from one bit of speed-porn to the next. So how is the speed-porn?

The speed-porn is pretty good. It’s not up there with 5, but it’s still good fun. And totally ridiculous, of course. If anyone can get a couple of US muscle cars to be genuinely that maneuverable around the crowded streets of London I’ll be seriously impressed.

Anything else worth mentioning?

– It’s still clear why Paul Walker isn’t fronting any other movies. Exposure to cameras and movie sets is yet to see him pick up any acting skills.
– Gina Carano (from Haywire) is added to the mix this time, and pretty damn good she is too.
– The film features the world’s longest runway, stretching from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar.
– While the writing is nothing special, it knows the formula. It makes sure that each character hits their character beats. It allows there to be an element of emotional undercurrent to the action sequences. It keeps things moving (as is entirely appropriate).
– It’s still a little too long, with a sequence back in California sticking out as wholly unnecessary.

Overall, it knows what it is and has fun with it. Good solid entertainment.

Oh, and there’s a little bit at the end to tease you for episode 7. And tease me it did – it’s an element which makes me think it could be the best yet.

B

Warning: The trailer below features a lot of spoilers. In fact, basically all of them.

Life of Pi Review

submit to reddit

There are two ways to look at Life of Pi, and in one of them it excels. In the other, unfortunately, it leaves me rather tepid. Let’s start with the good, shall we?

This film looks incredible and features the best 3D I have seen so far, not that that 3D increases the emotional impact of the storyline, just that it looks beautiful. Ang Lee is a masterful filmmaker and, even when he fails, his films are shot with incredible style. Witness his Incredible Hulk movie which, generally, was poor, but was shot through with incredible style, most notably in the way it transitioned from scene to scene by replicating the style of the comic books from which the film was drawn.

What’s notable about the 3D here is that it is the opposite of almost all of the 3D I have seen so far – it is subtle, offering mild degrees of tone and depth to the scene rather than being in your face as most 3D attempts. There were plenty of occasions where I had to remind myself it was in 3D, but that’s a sign of something I have raised before – if you’re not aware of the 3D, what is the point? The real beauty here is in the construction and composition of the shots, not in the 3D that has been added to them. While I won’t be going back to see the film in 2D, I don’t believe that it will lose anything. However, I do fancy that it’s a film that benefits from being seen on the big screen. Once again, Lee glories in creating images that really wash over you (pun semi-intended) and that’s just not possible at home, certainly not to the extent that is possible in the cinema.

One note, my partner found herself seasick for a good portion of the film, so the big screen may not be ideal for all. Unless this was the result of the 3D.

In addition it’s worth saying that both the acting and the visual effects are uniformly excellent. Of particular note is the tiger, Richard Parker, who I still can’t decide as to whether he was real, green screened, or completely created inside a computer. Every aspect of his behaviour seemed so utterly true, and yet it seems so impossible to have actually filmed that it must have been computerised, in which case, hats off to the technical guys. It appears we have crossed the uncanny valley…

Unfortunately we now have to come onto the more negative aspects of the film, and I feel a little cruel raising them. I have absolutely no doubt of the sincerity of Ang Lee’s intentions behind the messages of the film (or those of Yann Martel the author of the original book and co-writer of the screenplay), but I just wasn’t buying into the philosophy behind the story.

Early on, Pi tells us (in the form of audience surrogate “The Writer”, played by Rafe Spall):

I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

But while this is a story of a boy and his endurance, combined with his faith, it was not a film which made me think about my own beliefs. Perhaps I am not the ideal audience, not being a spiritual person myself anyway, but given these are the film’s own lofty intentions, I feel it shouldn’t really reflect badly on me. There are moments of beauty, moments of terror, moments of levity dotted throughout but ultimately I felt that I was being spun a yarn which lacked a true heart, a true emotional pull that I could latch on to.

There are two notable comparators here – both of which I have only seen once, and some time ago at that, so forgive me if I misremember some details – and they are Castaway and Big Fish. Castaway is the logical parallel being a film about someone who is shipwrecked alone and has to survive against the odds but where the enormity of Tom Hanks’ endurance is heightened by the stark honesty on display in the film, here the nature of the story-telling lessons the fight put up by Pi in his battle to make it back to humanity.

WARNING – MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS (not directly but you may infer the ending from the details below)

The link to Big Fish, on the other hand, is the regarding the nature of tall tales and what they mean to the audience. In Big Fish, a father on his deathbed is castigated by his son for never telling him the truth about his adventures – how could the son ever know his father if his father never told the truth? But there I felt we went through an emotional joinery – the tall tale told by the father carries an emotional truth which hits home in shared moments with his son and allows them both to cope with the father’s forthcoming demise. I remember it as a beautiful film about life and death and what we tell ourselves to cope with these.

In Life of Pi the emotional truth is kept too distant. We are told the story of Pi’s battle with Richard Parker but it’s never clear what this is supposed to signify. This is always a tricky tightrope to walk – you don’t want to spell things out for your audience but equally if you don’t give the right clues your audience won’t connect. Clearly many people are connecting, but for me this wasn’t there. Add this to the fact that during the resolution a reinterpretation of the events you have seen is very clearly spelled out in just a few minutes of screen time – an interpretation which merits considerable emotional weight but is just tossed off with nary a care.

That’s not to say the film is a failure, but it would be wrong to call it an outright success. Few filmmakers would be capable of bringing a film of such beauty to the screen and if 2013 can bring something to the screen that looks even half as good, we’ll have a visual treat on our hands. However, for me, it just doesn’t have the humanity to be considered a great in the way many of been portraying it.

6.5/10 (4 stars)

Star Wars Episode 7: Ewoks in the Magic Castle

submit to reddit

So the big news this week for anyone interested in film or the world of the geek has been the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for a staggering $4bn, Lucasfilm being George Lucas’ company and home to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This sits alongside Lucas’ proclamations of the past few years about wanting to concentrate on smaller, more personal films, something which he first put into action with the $30m film Red Tails about African American fighter pilots in the second world war.

The news of the sale was accompanied by news that could both delight and strike fear into both the casual and dedicated Star Wars fan, possibly at the same time: that Disney intended to release a 7th Star Wars film in 2015, and to follow that up with an 8th and 9th and, no doubt, never stopping to churn them out. So what to make of this? Let’s dispense with the business side first…

It makes perfect sense for Disney; they acquire a brand which is a licence to print money, in Star Wars, and also get Indiana Jones, which could be worth a pretty penny too. As a very astute blog on the Guardian pointed out earlier this week, this purchase helps fill a gap which Disney have been trying to fill for some time. Disney have the 0-8 year old market (and a lot more people besides) locked up with Pixar, they have the Disney Princess market which does for the young girl market, Pirates of the Caribbean for the teens and teen girls, but they had been struggling to really grab the young boy market. Star Wars and their other big claim of recent years, Marvel Comics, fill the gap for boys from 5-15 perfectly (and, as a nice bonus, also have big appeal for boys 15+). So it makes sense for them. Whether $4bn is sensible is a matter for other people, but I can see them making that back pretty easily with all the toys, blurays, video games and everything else that comes along.

What about Lucas? Well, $4bn is a lot of money, and it will fund a lot of smaller, more personal movies. I have no more knowledge than most people but I’d be surprised if we see more than 1 movie every couple of years. What he does with the rest of that money is anyone’s guess and nobody’s business, really… Good luck and fair play to him.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, for starters it meant a million tweets like this one being sent on Tuesday night:

 

And also like this:

 

And it’s this second tweet that actually cuts to the heart of the matter of what you actually feel about this move happening. Star Wars may beloved by many people across a number of generations, but is it actually any good? I’d argue both yes and no, and it’ll come as no surprise as to how I differentiate.

The first 3 films (episodes 4, 5 & 6) are good, the next 3 (eps 1, 2 & 3) are not, really. I’m not saying that the original three films are Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just that they are enjoyable and well constructed blockbusters and that the latter three are not. Where the first three movies use classic archetypes to tell the stories, the latter may as well use cardboard cut-outs such is the lack of depth to the characterisation.

Back when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I was at University studying screenwriting. I wasn’t a Star Wars obsessive, and I was someone who wanted the inside track, so I bought the script and read it before the film was in cinemas. Then I got to the end and thought to myself “Where’s the rest?” There was 40 minutes of story in the film and when I came to see the film at the cinema it became clear that they had crammed those 40 minutes of story into 136 minutes of screentime. It was dull, tedious and lifeless – everything the original trilogy could never be accused of.

But do we need to go over that in any greater depth? It’s old news now.

No, what I find interesting is the way in which Disney is deemed perfect because of some examples of great movies they have produced. The tweet mentions Wall-E and The Avengers (the latter of which is not all that, sorry), but could have broadened that out to just Pixar in general, along with The Muppets, Enchanted and Tangled – all great movies. These are mentioned by way of proof that Disney will do a better job than Lucasfilm did, juxtapositioning them against The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, poor, poor movies, the pair of them.

However, let me give you another list:
• The Santa Clause (1, 2 and 3!)
• Around the World In 80 Days (starring the perfect ensemble of Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger)
• The Pacifier
• Beverly Hills Chihuahua
• The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
• John Carter

Those are a lot of bad films, and those are all Disney films produced during the 21st century. It’s not a pretty sight, and I didn’t even include the Pirates movies (terrible, but liable to provoke an argument).

The point is that yes, Disney have a lot of incredibly talented people and yes, the last 3 Star Wars films were terrible, but the combination doesn’t mean that the next Star Wars films will be great. They say that in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything” but I think it’s safe to say that, no matter how good the output from the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the next Star Wars film will make an awful lot of money. That much we do know.

RIP Tony Scott

Today brought the sad news that Tony Scott had died. A man in his sixties, I hadn’t heard of him suffering from any illness and, as I read the newspaper report, I was struggling to work out what had happened. And then in the last paragraph or two they reached the nub of the affair: Tony Scott had killed himself by throwing himself from a bridge in California, half an hour or so from the home he shared with his wife and children. It’s a shocking end to a life and career that, perhaps, more than any other director in the last 30 years shaped the way in which Hollywood films were made.

I haven’t seen every film Tony Scott directed but I have seen a lot and, setting aside discussion of their artistic merits, they were certainly influential. There’s certainly an arguable case that Top Gun laid the foundation for the modern summer behemoths that we see today, even more so than Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg’s films always had heart to them, they were centred on a human experience, and, while the Star Wars films (original trilogy) may have had an adherence to the principals that Joseph Campbell laid down, they also had complex stories and characters and built an intriguing world. None of these traits could be levelled at Top Gun, which predominantly focussed on visual spectacle, almost to the exclusion of all else, a trend which can, regrettably, be traced through to Michael Bay and the Transformers movies today.

This may sound like a strange way to commemorate a man, but a man cannot be blamed for the way in which his art is interpreted or who or what it influences – just ask JD Salinger, who’s novel The Catcher In The Rye was linked to Mark Chapman (killer of John Lennon), Robert John Bardo (who murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer) and John Hinckley Jr (who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan). Top Gun had its detractors but it also had a lot to recommend it, not least of which was the level of control exhibited over the visceral, testosterone fuelled action, something sadly lacking from the bloated and boring modern day imitators.

Success with Top Gun was followed up with Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder, but this success was overshadowed by his older brother, Ridley, who was riding high on the critical/cult success of Alien, Bladerunner and Thelma & Louise. But as the 90s developed roles seemed to reverse for a while. Tony was now making the more adventurous films, films which pushed away from the high octane background of their director, while Ridley’s output went through a lull incorporating 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane.

This period represents the one which will stick in the memory for me. Tony Scott direct The Last Boy Scout (1991) – a brilliant take on the buddy cop movie and updating of the noir of the 40s starring Bruce Willis – True Romance (1993) – a brilliant version of a script by Quentin Tarantino featuring a magnificent scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken – Crimson Tide (1995) – a great submarine film which gets standout performances from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman – The Fan (1996) – Robert De Niro returning to the dark material he was originally known for in a tale of an obsessive fan stalking his baseball hero – and Enemy Of The State (1998) – a quasi-sequel to the great Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Each of these films takes something from the arthouse and something from the multiplex and blends them almost perfectly in each case – you won’t find many better runs of intelligent mainstream entertainment on any director’s CV.

Of course, no one can keep a great run going forever but even if they weren’t brilliant, there was good solid entertainment to be found in the likes of Spy Game, Man On Fire and Unstoppable.

Just before publishing this post I read that Scott had been diagnosed with inoperable, terminal brain cancer, and he had clearly decided that he would rather not live than live through a slow and painful death – a difficult and sad choice. It is a very sad end for a man who changed cinema over the course of the last 30 years.

Rest In Peace, Tony Scott.

My Favourite Hitchcock

In honour of… a thing… The Guardian has been running a series of posts online called “My Favourite Hitchcock” in which their journalists write a short essay on their favourite Hitchcock movie, starting with their lead film critics Peter Bradshaw (Psycho) and Philip French (The Lady Vanishes). So I thought I would stick my oar in and have a go myself.

I like a lot of films and, being a bit of a film buff, will often get asked what my favourite film is. However, there are so many genres and so many great movies that picking just one is nigh on impossible. However, for the sake of these questions, my answer is always Rear Window and I shall tell you for why.

(Warning: This post will feature spoilers from the movie. If you haven’t seen it then you really should. Also, if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this just yet.)

A very simple plot overview to start with. Jeff (James Stewart) has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment. He spends his days observing his neighbours out of his window. One stiflingly hot night he wakes and, in a bit of a daze, thinks he may have witnessed a neighbour Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murder his wife, but he can’t be sure. In the end he sends his girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, to go and investigate. She finds the evidence and, ultimately, Thorwald is arrested.

The point of giving that very brief overview is to illustrate just how simple the story is. Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense for a reason. Here he takes a simple story and manages to slowly ratchet up the tension. If this were a modern film, this would be act one. “Not enough happens,” would be the cry from the executives, “make him a serial killer.” But this is a drama about real people in a real place. By taking his time and letting us get to know Jeff and Lisa, and become absorbed in the stories of all of the neighbours (not just Thorwald), we almost become a part of the film. As a viewer we have a direct surrogate on the screen. Jeff is stuck in his apartment – all he can do is watch – and so we become Jeff. By inviting us into the film, even the smallest details become more interesting, and the fear becomes more palpable.

And why is the fear heightened in this way? Well, it’s us investigating Thorwald, it’s we, the viewer, who sends in Lisa, sends in Princess Grace, to investigate. We put her in harm’s way and if anything happens to her, it’s our fault.

Hitchcock makes this point quite clearly as we enter the final section of the film. Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle has found supposedly conclusive proof as to Thorwald’s innocence and jeff and Lisa’s initial burst of disappointment is mirroring our own. We came to this film because it was a murder story. We wanted the viscera of death brought into our lives and Hitchcock tells us off in no uncertain terms:

Jeff, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see … [Us] Plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well.

It is not Jeff and Lisa who are the ghouls but us, the audience. We paid to see someone die and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t get it. Hitchcock clearly knows this and there could be an unwritten addendum to that speech, an author’s aside, something to precede what occurs almost immediately after.

OK – if you want a murder, you can have a murder. If you want Thorwald to have killed his wife, I can give you that. But remember, this is what you wanted. You have Grace Kelly’s life in your hands and this is what you’ve decided. If anybody gets hurt, it’s on you.

Shortly after, one of the neighbour’s dog is killed and the culprit is quickly deduced to be Thorwald; the murder’s back on and pretty swiftly Lisa is sent to investigate.

The beauty of all of this is not just the story telling, though a brilliantly told story it is. The beauty is seeing Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Throughout the film he is using his characters to tell off the audience.

We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg, then you get to looking out the window, see things you shouldn’t see.

The film is a game to Hitchcock and he is toying with the audience like a cat toys with a mouse it has caught.

But not only that, the whole film is a lesson in story-telling. Each of Jeff’s neighbours has their own narrative which develops over the course of the film – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Songwriter, Miss Torso, The Newlyweds – they all have a mini-story of their own, all of which develop with only the slightest commentary from Jeff. These are like slimmed down silent films, vignettes dropped in to round out the neighbourhood. That we can get emotionally involved in the story of Miss Lonelyhearts, willing her to find love, is further testimony to the skills of a director on the verge of entering arguably the greatest purple patch any director has ever had, with To Catch A Thief, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds all to follow in the next decade.

Journeys Into The Third Dimension


When I was 10, one of the biggest playground status symbols it was possible to have was a watch. The fancier the watch, the better. But fancy when you’re 10 means something different to when you’re in your 30s. Where now it’s design that matters, at 10 it was all about the functions. The most impressive watch to show off to other 10-year olds was the calculator watch.

I have no idea if the calculator watch would still be the draw that it was 20+ years ago, but I can imagine that if a kid did show up with one it cause a certain amount of wonder for a short while, at least. There were, of course, draw backs. The buttons were tiny and nigh-on impossible to accurately press and the moment you fell over – which 10-year olds do with alarming frequency – the buttons were scuffed and scraped and left flush with the surface of the watch. So basically, they were rendered useless after around half an hour in the playground.

There is, of course, a reason that these watches only sell to children (unless anyone knows of an adult who still has a calculator watch on his wrist, I will maintain that these are essentially toys), and that is that children haven’t yet built up the critical faculties to work out that having a calculator strapped to your wrist for those all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies is a waste of time because all important and all-too-regular mathematical emergencies don’t exist. Of course, as an adult, if a mathematical emergency – important and frequent or not – did arrive, my phone will leap to the rescue.

But the point of all this is that despite my peers wide-eyed wonder at the Casio strapped to my wrist all those years ago, not all innovation equals progress and that just because you can add something to something else, doesn’t mean you necessarily should or that it should be regarded as anything more than a novelty. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I saw Avatar in 3D earlier in the week and, having discussed with numerous people, it is now time to have my say in some kind of official forum. And until I get my own TV show, that official forum is here, where it is, undeniably, all about the Benjamin.

Now, the more astute among you may have worked out my opinion from that intro, but to say I am not a fan of 3D wouldn’t quite be bang on the banana. First off, let me say that I have seen three 3D films, Coraline, Up and Avatar, and for each of those films, I have not seen the 2D version to compare*. As such, I am aware of the possibility of not being able to draw a 100% fair conclusion. That’s not going to stop me, however.

So why am I not sold on 3D? Don’t get me wrong; the 3D visuals are very impressive and I have to admire the work that has gone into the production of these films and the visual effects that have resulted. However, I don’t think they have enhanced my cinematic experience in any way that is significantly different from the novelty effect, and in some respects I would say they have had a negative impact.

I suppose the first thing to establish is what I am looking for from a visit to the cinema, because that will go some way to defining the ways in which any new technique may affect my experience. First and foremost I will typically be looking for an engaging story featuring believable characters (within the context of the film). There are exceptions to this, a key one of which I will return to later, but ultimately, therefore, I go to the cinema to lose myself in a story.

So if cinema is about story, what can 3D offer to it, or at least, what has it managed to offer so far? On current evidence, very little. The thing that a number of 3D evangelists will do is compare the introduction of 3D to the previous introduction of colour way back when but that, I believe, is a false argument. Colour offers the director a new palette. It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert.

There are two things that 3D is excellent at doing to get an emotional response from a viewer, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is essentially vertigo-inducing – making the back of the screen tumble away from the audience. Where Hitchcock altered the depth of field in Vertigo as James Stewart clung on to the edge of the building to give the impression of height, 3D can take it one step further. However, as we are sat in our seats and can feel gravity pulling us down into them, we still don’t feel as though we could be sucked into the screen. Would James Stewart’s situation feel any rawer in 3D? I personally doubt it. Hitchcock produced a masterful film that manages to convey Stewart’s mental weakness brilliantly, though I think Vertigo might be a good shout for a remake now the technology is apparently here to stay (not that I would endorse this).

The second thing that 3D does very well could be considered the opposite of the first – things flying out into the audiences face, be it a thrown knife, a fired bullet or someone pointing a finger. There is no doubt that this provokes an immediate and visceral response and, if done properly, will cause a good proportion of the audience to jump out of their seats. However, this is a momentary response and mere equivalent to a theme park ride**. No doubt it will work well in horror movies and the like, and I didn’t get to see the 3D instalment of the maligned but (for me) enjoyable Final Destination series which may have gone some way towards proving this.

The two examples I have given demonstrate a more visceral emotional response, and perhaps this is where we should spend our time looking for the value of 3D. Avatar, in particular, has ample opportunity to get stuck into various action sequences to show off what the process can give a scene, be it attacks in and racing through the jungle or mass battles on ground and in the air. These were all sequences that would look impressive in two dimensions anyway, so what did 3D add? Again, it was a remarkable spectacle, but I don’t think the tension or excitement of the situations was increased by the added depth. They also, occasionally, provoked additional issues. Action sequences in general demand quicker cutting and moving cameras, all of which adds to the urgency and tension, but when the screen has added depth it increases the workload on the eyes and there were times that I found I my eyes were straining. I was refocusing so frequently it hurt. While the issues this potentially presents might, finally, get Michael Bay to calm down his directing and editing style for the inevitable Transformers 3D, it is still far from perfect that ‘the saviour of cinema’ is potentially causing eye-strain.

Early reports about Avatar had also presented motion sickness as an issue for the audiences and it was certainly true that early on there was some handheld camerawork when Sully first arrived on Pandora that was jarring and queasy. I can only hope that the next Bourne film is in 2D only given the number of people who complained of feeling sick from watching the most recent two.

But these weren’t my only concerns with the implementation of 3D, though this may be more of an issue with James Cameron’s direction than the effects themselves. In some sequences, practically everything was in focus at all depths allowing the eye to wander around the screen. In others, areas were left out of focus, leading the audience to look at only the levels that remained in focus. Of course, this is standard practice in traditional filmmaking, you draw the viewer’s eye to the area of the screen you want them to see. In 3D, however, this presents a problem. If the background is left out of focus to ensure the viewer watches what the director wants, what is the point of having things in 3D in the first place? If everything is in focus, enabling the viewer to pick and choose what element of the screen they wish to focus on, your audience risks missing things through being distracted. Given the weak story and script in Avatar, being distracted probably helps it seem that bit more fun than it has any right to be, but that’s by-the-by. The point is, it places a dilemma on the director, and it’s a dilemma I don’t know how you solve.

Also, the 3D is far from perfect. In many scenes it feels too much like diorama, i.e. a number of flat surfaces at different depths, rather than everything being truly contoured. By this I mean that a face at the front of the screen may be discernibly closer to you than the wall behind it, but the face itself looks flat. Ultimately, rather than looking 3D, it often merely looks like a number of 2D objects/films, working in parallax.

I would imagine that, as with any new technology, it will take time to understand it and implement it to its best – that is only natural – and it may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential. I mentioned earlier that there are exceptions to my rules on seeking out storytelling and I think a prime example of this would be the work of Terence Mallick, director of, Badlands, The Thin Red Line and The New World. Mallick has often been described as a visual poet and with good reason. It may take someone with his talent and vision to fully realise what 3D is capable of and define what the next generation of cinema is all about. But until that happens, I think that the groundswell of opinion supporting 3D as the future (in artistic terms rather than merely factual) is being taken in by the novelty factor. It is true that 3D is the future – more and more films will be produced in 3D as more and more cinemas are installing 3D projectors and more and more people go to see films in 3D. However, as far as I am concerned, as yet it offers nothing new; 3D films are no more immersive than their 2D counterparts. As I said, the test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it. These are men who know how to use visuals in genuinely creative ways and if they find a reason to add a new dimension, I will be first in line to see what they do.

One final word of warning. The industry may look on 3D as a way to combat piracy, the idea being that, as you can’t get the 3D experience at home, more people will head back to the cinema. Right now, I can see this being the case. Screenings for Avatar are selling incredibly well, but if every film over a summer were in 3D, people won’t pay to see all of them. As they do right now, they will pick the headliners, the one or two films they must see from the listings, and see those in the cinema while still downloading the rest. It is a fallacy that it will stop piracy in the same way as the idea that if we got rid of piracy, everything that currently gets pirated would get bought instead is a fallacy. That’s not how it works. If you really want to draw people back to the cinema, the equation is simple, make better films.

*The selection of films I have seen in 3D was made on the following basis. Coraline – I wanted to see a 3D film and this seemed like the best option of those out there at the time. Up & Avatar – if anyone could do something impressive and worthwhile with 3D I felt that Pixar and James Cameron would be those people.

**In fact, both examples are little more than a theme park ride and, it could be argued, started out as such. In the summer of 2001 I visited Paramount Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto with a good friend and they showed a Stan Lee created 15 minute film using this 3D technology. It was impressive for 15 minutes but had no story to it. It was all novelty. I am surprised, given that the technology was up and running back then, that it’s taken so long to go mainstream. Perhaps the costs of producing the films to show was too prohibitive back then.

Professional Presentation


Let me take you back. In an ideal world, right now you are imagining some harp music and a shimmering visual effect to indicate that we’re heading down memory lane. From about the age of 18 I wanted to make a film. A low-to-no budget film. I was inspired by people like Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs clocked in at $1.5m) and more importantly Kevin Smith (Clerks: $27k). My story was closer to Tarantino’s, my budget closer to Smith’s. I was only about $26.9k away from matching him, and I had a bad script entitled Debut ready to go. It never happened and let’s all thank God for that. I’d still be paying it off if I’d tried and I’m not sure it would have opened any doors. It was immature and derivative, but it was a stepping stone. It was the first thing I ever wrote as an ‘adult’ and without it I’m not sure my writing would have developed to where it is now.

There are a number of reasons why it was never going to get off the ground – the lack of characterisation and understanding of how to construct an interesting narrative being only two of the myriad issues involved. I didn’t have any kind of understanding of the film industry, for one thing. In 1994-96, the kind of period we’re talking about, the new independent movement was suddenly in vogue and art house had a mini-boom. Or maybe it just seemed that way as my eyes had only recently been opened to films outside of the mainstream.

However, there was one thing I did understand – if I was going to make a film I would need help and money from other people and I would need to convince them of the viability of my project. Respectful begging letters were sent to various producers, along with a copy of the script. I even sent it to agents of actors like Tim Roth (newly discovered in Reservoir Dogs – God I was naive). The point being, I tried to engage with people in a way that would make me seem like a professional – someone who knew what he was doing and would be successful at turning his first script into a break-out indie Brit-hit and would be the youngest ever best-Director Oscar winner (yes, I seriously thought that – I view it as a sign of my growing maturity that I can now look back, point fingers at myself and laugh).

Fast forward to December 13th, 2009, and I receive a message on Facebook from an unfamiliar name…:

hi benjamin, i have completed ,y MA producing film and tv course from bournemouth university and i am planning to make a feature film. I hae a story and need a good scriptwriter to take it in the rright direction. The genre is sex comedy and the format is low budget digital format. If ur interested pls contact me at xxxxxxxxxxxx@hotmail.com or call me at 07xxxxxxxxx. Also mention ur previous exp in scriptwrting.
cheers
xxxxx

That entire message needs a big ‘[sic]’ stamped across it.

Now, my first reaction was to chuckle and ignore it, but as time went on it played on my mind and I really wanted to send something in response. But what?

As I said in my first post, I am far from a professional writer. However, I think I can still offer a little advice on how to present yourself as an enticing proposition. He may not be asking me for money, but he is asking me for an investment. So I dived in with some helpful tips. My reply in full:

Hi xxxxx,

Thanks for getting in touch to discuss your project – I assume you came across my name either directly through the University as a graduate of the Scriptwriting degree course, or through my membership of groups on here. I admire your chutzpah in setting out to produce a low budget feature film – something that, a few years back, I was very keen to do myself – and I hope that the MA has set you with the appropriate skills required for the task. However, given the message you have sent to me, I would have my concerns.

First and foremost, I would assume that your project will produced for free – or as good as free – and you will be requiring goodwill from all those involved in order to be able to bring your vision to fruition. As such you need to sell to me (or whoever you are contacting) why I/they should devote my/their time and energy to your project. As I am sure you know, the film marketplace is more crowded than it has ever been and fewer and fewer low budget, independent films ever get released, let alone make their money back. As a writer, I am constantly working on one project or another off my own back – currently finishing a children’s novel. I pick which project I want to work on now based on two criteria – how much will I enjoy working on it and how will it further my writing career. As I said, you need to sell your project to me – why would working with you be beneficial to me? What contacts do you have? Who are you also working with? What projects have you previously pulled together? Etc and so on.

Granted – having pulled my name from some B’mouth Uni alumni list or other, you have no way of knowing whether I am any good – as you reference with your request for my experience. Obviously a totally fair question and, were your pitch to sound particularly intriguing or the opportunity like it was too good to miss, I would be happy to provide you with samples of my writing to demonstrate my talents.

So what kind of information would I be after (and would I expect anyone with any sense to be after)? Aside from the few questions about yourself I mentioned above, it would be useful to know more about the project. Ideally, when do you want to shoot (and thus how long is there to work on the script)? What kind of budget are you going to work with? But most importantly, do you have any idea about the story itself?

See, the reason that last question is important is because, if you haven’t already got some kind of brief outline is that if you aren’t bringing an idea to a writer, you are asking the writer to dream up something all by themselves. “So what?” you may well ask. Well, if I was going to write a sex comedy that I dreamed up all by myself, why wouldn’t I try and sell it to a studio or something like that? Then I’d get paid for it and potentially get a proper (ie not low-to-no budget) movie made of my work.

I’m not saying you need to have written a treatment even, you could just go for a line: for example, two best friends are running out of money and decide to make a porno together to pay the bills – Zack & Miri Make A Porno. This gives the writer something to work from and suggests that the production has some direction that the producers are committed to.

In addition to having a pitch ready for people containing the information outlined above, you may also find it advantageous to approach people in a slightly more professional sounding manner – ie use a capital letter for their name, or, indeed, capital letters throughout, check your spelling, not use ‘text speak’ and so on. It doesn’t fill me with faith in your ability to pull together a successful film project.

I hope you take this message in the spirit it was meant. My aim was not to rain on your parade but to offer some constructive criticism that may help you in pursuing your dream of succeeding with this production and building a successful career. Unfortunately, however, from the information you have given me I am not currently interested in working on your project. If you wish to refine your pitch and contact me again, I will consider it and, if I am interested, I will forward on some of my work to prove my credentials.

In the meantime, all the best,

Ben

I think this is pretty well reasoned, and let’s be honest, the majority of it is a combination of common sense and common courtesy; the kind of things I wouldn’t think twice about. Maybe I’m over-sensitive and over-fussy, and maybe the bolshy and driven 19-year-old me trying to produce Debut would have responded favourably to the original request, but now I give a damn about grammar and punctuation – indeed, I will stop people mid-sentence if they are pronouncing words wrong. But I think the bigger point is, if this is how he is going to approach someone he is asking for time from – and considerable time if we’re talking about writing a feature film for free – how is he going to approach potential investors, distributors, etc and so on?

I didn’t expect a reply. While I’d hate to think I’d have sent such an email 15 years ago (technology notwithstanding), my mindset at the time would probably have just tossed it to one side. Part of me thought (and maybe hoped just a little bit) I might get some kind of expletive led reply dismissing me. I certainly didn’t expect anything more than that.

Cue this afternoon:

Hi Benjamin, thx for ur reply. I can surely make out from ur reply that u like to write, but i havent pitched u anything yet. My concern was to find out first of all that ur still into scripwriting and that can u be a part of a micro budget production which can work only on a deferral payment system. i found ur name in the group ‘Bournemouth scriptwriters’, unfortunately very few writers continue their passion for a long time after university. I’m glad to learn that ur still into writing.
i deally i want to shoot sometime in june/july, but it all depends on the script. i will not start any production work until unless im 100% happy with the script. As far as the money is concerned, im looking at a budget of 25-30k, which i will raise from private investors.
At the moment im in search of a scriptwriter who dreams to make it big and is just waiting for an oppurtunity. i have a treatment but it needs a lot of polishing. If u can work on such a system then lemme know and i if u say yes then i will formally pitch u.

cheers
xxxxx

It’s an interesting reply. It would appear that certain lessons have been learned. There is formatting, capital letters (though it is worth pointing out that his own name did not contain a capital letter – perhaps the sign of a true artist?), and he shows that perhaps he does have some degree of professionalism in him, what with the treatment and all. However, clearly the text speak is still there – perhaps he was unsure what I meant by that. (And as a side note, a part of me feels that even with text speak, his grammar is out – isn’t “ur” “your” and “u r” “you’re”, or does “ur” normally just stand in for both? And yes, I do realise I have become – or always been – one of them).

I have to say that, at this point, I am filled with numerous conflicting emotions. I am desperate to see the treatment even though I have no desire to be involved. Even if I wanted to I don’t have the time available to me, but I want to know what this script is going to be about. Maybe it is destined to be the Citizen Kane of sex comedies – prizes for the best title to fill that description.

I also feel bad about posting this and ragging this chap out. He believes in his project and I’d love to believe in it too. I’d love it to be a success and reward his hard work, but something just tells me it’s not going to happen. And only partially because it’s only about 0.0001% of all low-to-no budget movies that make anything in the long run. I mean, seriously – Clerks, El Mariachi, Brother’s McMullan, Twenty-Four-Seven, Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity
– that’s all I got. I’m sure someone will correct me, mind.

But I want to help the guy, and help others. If anyone out there is going down this route, best of luck to you, but I do suggest make yourself sound like you know what you’re doing. If you sound like an amateur or a chancer, people will think you’re an amateur or a chancer and they will treat you as such. I wouldn’t trust an amateur or a chancer with £25-30k of my money. Likewise, I wouldn’t spend six months of my life writing a script for an amateur or a chancer. If I am going to spend time or money on a project, I want to have faith that there is a reward coming. And to get that faith I need to believe I am working with serious, committed and talented people.

Sending the kind of messages shared above is not how ur going to build that faith.

Sorry.

PS – Well, this is more of a kind of deleted scene – I couldn’t find a natural place to put this in the above text without losing the flow, so I’m just going to add it down here.

As mentioned above, both xxxxx and I went to Bournemouth University to study and, as promised in my first post, I will one day discuss the university, the course and my time there. What I’d like to point out now is, what the Hell are they teaching on that MA? I feel that just receiving that email has devalued the degree I got there. A Masters graduate can’t type, spell or punctuate correctly? He doesn’t know how to make an approach to people? I don’t feel that I am just being a grumpy old man when I say that I find this genuinely shocking. Maybe you feel differently. Maybe you’re wrong.

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.