Just Fucking Doing It – An Update

Covering clothes in blood for a short film

Back in January I posted about my own writing for the first time in a while. One of the things I mentioned was a short film I had written, and I hoped to have some sort of update by the end of the Easter holidays. Well schools went back today (I can tell because my commute took twenty minutes longer than last week) and I suppose I’d better come clean about how little I’ve achieved…

Psych!

For once in my life I have actually knuckled down and got on with something properly – largely thanks to the director/co-star helping keep things ticking along. What that means is that on Saturday the two of us plus camera and sound chaps popped round to a friend’s house and spent the sunniest day of the year cooped up in a kitchen making a film. Oh, there was a little time in the sunshine covering clothes in fake blood.

Through a combination of ambition and laziness we were aiming to make the whole film (about 9 mins) one single take. Ambition because it was my first script, Kellie’s first time in the director’s chair, and I for one haven’t done any acting in seven years. Laziness because neither of us know that much about editing, so it should make that a lot easier.

I’ve been on set for short films before, but purely as an actor. It was a very different experience this time – as writer and, I guess, co-producer as well as actor (not to mention joint costume, prop, hair supervisor) it felt much more stressful. Fortunately Kel and I had rehearsed a fair bit over the previous few weeks as acting became about the last thing on my mind while sorting out all the logistics and keeping one eye the time.

Anyway, with some great assistance on the technical side we’ve managed to get something in the can. However it turns out I’m pretty pleased to have actually done something.

And that begs the question why was I doing it? If I’m honest I’d quite forgotten while I’ve been rehearsing. Partially it was an excuse to work with Kellie – she’s always been top of the long list of actors I worked with that I really wanted to do something with again. And with her leaving the country for good later this year (boo) there was a deadline (yay). Also, I’d had a ‘what if’ setup going round in my head for a while that I wanted to do something with, but it didn’t feel like a novel. I have finally remembered the other reason…

I want something I can point to for evidence of my writing. I’ve got novels at various stages, but none published, a couple of sketches that were used by Newsrevue a while back, but nothing tangible that I can direct people towards.

Some time ago I mentioned that I was trying to write a game both for my own edification and as a means of approaching the games industry with something tangible. I got a little bogged down in the technical side of things and realised that the writing in the game was suffering because of my lack of technical expertise. Since then I’ve also read that having theatre or film scripting experience can prove useful. So bam, one film I’ll be able to link to when it’s finalised. Hopefully.

I’ve also just booked on to a week long interactive fiction class at the British Library over the summer. By the time summer is over I should have a film and a couple of Twine projects to shout about.

And the novels? I had said that I intended to get a redraft of one and the synopsis of another completed by the end of April, with a view to sending both off for a professional critique. I’m just about on target at the moment, over three quarters of the way through the redraft and with a little more brain space now the filming is done.

So. Just fucking doing it is just fucking doing it for me at the moment. Maybe I should have been just fucking doing it all along.

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Animal Kingdom – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 78: Animal Kingdom

Poster for the 2010 Australian movie Animal Kingdom

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Muriel’s Wedding and it was one of the best we’ve had so far in the CRFC.

The Choice

Like last time it came down to a binary choice. On the one hand Animal Kingdom (2010), a gritty crime drama. On the other, Children of the Revolution (1996), a comedy about Stalin having an illegitimate Australian heir. I was mainly considering the latter to compare with last year’s excellent The Death of Stalin (plus it seems fairly positively reviewed and has Geoffrey Rush, F Murray Abraham and Sam Neill in). Then I watched the trailer and… it was Animal Kingdom all the way.

The Link

Dan Wyllie

Actor Dan Wyllie in Muriel's Wedding

Dan Wyllie in Muriel’s Wedding

He was one of Muriel’s deadbeat siblings last time, and seems to be something if a mainstay of Aussie film and TV. I’ve not seen him in anything else, but as he’s one of a couple of cast members who could link is to Animal Kingdom, it’s time for a second bite of Wyllie.

Animal Kingdom and me

I’ve always been a bit scared of Animal Kingdom, if I’m honest. I don’t gravitate towards gritty crime stuff at the best of times (there are a LOT of seminal British gangster films I’ve never seen), and this is Australian. And in my head Australian films tend to have an extra layer of grit, an extra twist of the knife.

Proposition

This is the image that springs to mind when I think “Aussie cinema…”

The Proposition always sticks in the mind as an example, but it’s true of the first couple of Mad Max films too (fyi I will not hear a single word against Mad Max Fury Road, but that’s a different topic for another day). Muriel’s Wedding demonstrated this too, tackling topics a UK or Hollywood film about Abba and weddings would not go to. And last year’s It Comes At Night, directed by Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, fits the bill too…

So although I’ve only ever heard great things about it, Animal Kingdom scares me.

IMDB says

A seventeen year-old navigates his survival amongst an explosive criminal family and the detective who thinks he can save him. 7.3 stars.

I says

Well I don’t know what I was so worried about. It’s not exactly a light hearted romp, mind, but there’s a lovely sensitivity to Animal Kingdom that balances out the subject.

Animal Kingdom 005

James Frecheman and Dan Wyllie

When the opening scene was of J (James Frecheman), a teenager, calling paramedics to attend to his ODed mum, who had died, I’ll admit I felt a little bit justified in my fear. That said teenager is then inducted into his extended family who specialise in armed robbery didn’t help. A family being molested by police who are, by all accounts, itching to shoot first and plant evidence later…

Animal Kingdom 002

GRIT! SO MUCH GRI- Hang on…

But the violence, when it comes, isn’t lingered on. There’s a spray of blood from off camera here, a gentle panning away there. J doesn’t have to see the worst of it, and we’re not made to either. So J is hauled in for questioning by Guy Pearce’s tired cop we still have sympathy for him holding out. He’s not a saint himself, and the family have shielded him from the worst brutality.

Animal Kingdom 003

Grumblegrumble Gritty Moustache grumblegrumble

Let’s just pause and have a chat about Guy Pearce for a second. After Memento he was bona fide leading man material. He’s hunky, he’s interesting. And yet he rocks up in strange roles. The weatherbeaten cop here, the tacitern lead in The Rover, Weyland in Prometheus. He hasn’t gone down the star route, whether by choice or the ins and outs of the hollywood system. But he is consistently interesting and just slightly weirder than you expect (without being a stone cold oddball). I think Robert Pattinson might have taken notes from his career trajectory.

Anyway, J’s uncles are a combination of inspiring (cheers, Joel Edgerton), maverick (cheers, whatseryername from the 300 sequel), and creepy (cheers Ben Mendlesohn). His girlfriend’s family are a great contrast, a clear family unit but not saccharine. And over it all Jackie Weaver’s matriarch presides. She’s a Lady Macbeth figure with the hard edges tucked away so far that you forget all about them. And when she brings it, it’s in such a matter of fact style that it’s all so perfectly natural.

Animal Kingdom 004

Something real gritty might be happening, careful

I liked The Rover, David Michod’s follow up film, very much too. Critics made loads of smug puns that sort of spoiled some plot stuff, so if you’ve not seen it do give it a watch, but don’t read too much about it first.

The Verdict

I am less scared of Australian films than I was before, but no less impressed.

Coming Attractions

We could stay paddling around in Australian waters, but with Joel Edgerton and Jacqui Weaver having made a number of international films maybe we won’t… It’s Tim’s choice, so who knows where we’ll end up.

@BornToPootle

Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Muriel’s Wedding – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 77: Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel 001

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

Snogging boys out the back of the Yeoman, confusing feelings for Jamie Theakston, oh and the film Velvet Goldmine. It’s one of my favourite posts in the CRFC saga so far, so please check it out if you haven’t already.

The Choice

It was up to Tim and he managed to narrow it down to The Dark Knight and Muriel’s Wedding. One we’ve both seen (him repeatedly) but are always up for a rewatch, the other is an Australian film about a lady getting married… So that’s what we picked!

The Link

Toni Collette

Muriel 003

Usually I’d use an image from the previous film here, but I just don’t wanna

Well I didn’t know she was Australian, so it’s true that every day is a school day (though not sure that’s on any curriculum. And, well, she’s fab generally, isn’t she. Whether it’s an off kilter indie or a Hollywood romcom she tends to bring the goods. She’s never been one of those actors I get properly excited about and would see something purely because of (take a bow Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, alongside whom she starred in The Way Way Back), but I’m usually pleased to see her.

Muriel’s Wedding and me

This falls into the heard-of-but-never-seen category. Some would say that it also falls into the chick-flick category to which I would say a number of things (my wife is studying for an MA in gender studies so I’d copy some long words out of her textbooks), but the upshot would be that I think that’s a singularly unhelpful genre label and normalises the idea that other genres are for men. So. There’s that.

It’s also forever tied up in my head with the film Let Him Have It about the last person to be hanged in the UK, purely because I heard them both advertised on Capital fm around the chart show, albeit a couple of years apart. I imagine they’re quite different.

M8DLEHI EC010

Muriel’s Beheading would’ve been a great pun. If only the UK had employed the guillotine.

IMDB says

A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

I says

Genres labels are stupid. They come with so many preconceptions for starters. Take ‘goth’ as an example. There’s the black clothing, the make-up, the scowling and the listening to Sisters of Mercy… and while some of that may be accurate (or certainly was for me), that’s never the whole of it.

On a Friday night at the Yeoman (second week in a row I’ve been able to shoehorn that pub in. I’d ask for a commission if they hadn’t closed 18 years ago) our goth gang would gather and drink Smirnoff Ice until we were wobbly. Then on particularly special nights Dancing Queen would come on the stereo and up would go one of our number, up on to a table, and a dancing queen he would be.

Muriel 004

The Kentish Yeoman, Tunbridge Wells, circa 1998. Around 11pm.

Which is to say that whether you’re a goth, emo, hardcore punk, grime obsessive or whatever, Abba know their way around a tune.

So finding out that the backbone of the film was the music of Abba was not exactly off putting. If you’re drunk and Abba are playing and you’re not dancing then you are doing it wrong. Or you’re too drunk and everyone should get out of vomit range.

I’m going to leap into spoiler territory now, but for a film about a wedding-obsessed social misfit looking for love after making a break for the big city, jesus christ does it go to some dark places. My initial reaction as the credits rolled was to say that you could tell it wasn’t an American film. The Hollywood version wouldn’t have the balls and the indie version wouldn’t have the charm. To juggle life-changing disability, suicide, selfish main characters, dance routines and sex slapstick and come out with a coherent charming and moving film is really quite incredible.

Toni Collette’s Muriel goes through the whole standard hollywood character arc in the first act of this, from retiring shrew to ballsy extrovert with a rebellious best friend in tow. And then the film has the nerve to keep going, to show where she goes next and the ramifications of her actions on those around her. Some of them have it coming, some of them not so much. But the film doesn’t pull those punches.

Muriel 005

Rachel Griffiths is The Best.

This is one of the earliest credits for both Collette and Rachel Griffiths (as one of cinema’s best best friends) and it is not hard to see why they have both gone on to long successful careers. They are really rather good in it, and work brilliantly together too.

So. It’s a chick-flick. About Abba and weddings. And I loved it.

Muriel 002

Toni Collette doing an impression of me watching Muriel’s Wedding.

But I imagine that’s apparent.

The Verdict

If you are not on your feet cheering during the Waterloo routine then I put it to you that you are, in fact, dead.

Muriel 004

An all-time great scene. Really.

Coming Attractions

Lots of Aussie actors to pick from, a few of whom have crossed over into American cinema too. I might try and keep it down under for now though, just for a bit of a change.

@BornToPootle

Velvet Goldmine – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 76: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Velvet 001

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We tackled Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee’s empathetic take on the American Civil War.

The Choice

This time it was on me, and I narrowed it down to the bare essentials before making my final choice.

Pleasantville (1998) via Tobey Maguire because… I’ve been meaning to watch it for years.

The Newton Boys (1998) via Skeet Ulrich because… I really should see a third Skeet Ulrich film.

Outlander (2008) via Jim Caviezel because… it’s got aliens and vikings in, I’m only human!

The Village (2004) via Celia Weston because… an M Night Shyamalan film might at least be fun to dislike.

Safe Men (1998) via Mark Ruffalo because… it’s got Sam Rockwell in it and I will watch him in anything.

And the winner… Velvet Goldmine (1998) via:

The Link

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Velvet 002

Turns out I’ve been lucky enough not to see him in that much. Ah, I miss those innocent days. I mean, he’s clearly very pretty, he looks like a Frank Quitely comic book character, all bee stung lips and such… but… well, I’ll talk about it below.

Velvet Goldmine and me

Sometimes we come across classics in CRFC and it’s a little embarrassing to admit I haven’t seen them (I didn’t start blogging this until after we watched The Godfather, thank christ). Other times there are films which, if they’re not stone cold classics, they are at least so incredibly pertinent to my interests that my not-having seen them beggars belief.

I got into glam rock when I was in my early teens, mainly through T Rex and Sweet. Then in my late teens and early 20s I was in a goth band with definite glam leanings. We preened, we were thin white dukes all (ok, thin white oiks), and I had the best silver mock snakeskin coat the world has ever seen.

Velvet 003

I miss this coat

And as all this was happening, Velvet Goldmine came out. My best friend and bandmate saw it at the time and told me I had to see it.

And for some reason I didn’t.

IMDB says

In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.

I says

Hum.

And that’s the hum of someone unsure of what they thought rather than someone humming along with a tune.

It’s definitely not what I expected, which can be both blessing and curse. And realising that it was directed by Todd Haynes, he of the Dylan biopic in which 7 diverse people play Dylan at different times of his life should have been a clue (really must see He’s Not There at some point).

Velvet 004

Not Bowie

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Bowie-alike Brian Slade (though different enough following lawsuit threats apparently); Christian Bale is a journo who had a formative experience at a Slade (oh, I see what they’ve done there) gig 10 years ago and is now doing a where-are-they-now piece about the vanished star; Ewan McGregor is Iggy Pop-alike Curt Wild. That one. I’ll watch the Iggy one please.

Velvet 005

Not Iggy

And I think that was my main feeling – I couldn’t give a monkeys about Meyers or Bale in this, Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild was so much more fun and charismatic (and likeable) that the others sort of paled (even more than the make-up). He was a lot Iggy, a bit Jim Morrisson and, according to Courney Love, a bit Kurt Cobain. It’s a strong mix. Rhys Meyers on the other hand, fresh from last weeks appearance as some sort of bizarre vampire in 1800s America, seems to be playing a bizarre vampire in 1970s London. Is he a bizarre vampire in everything? I’ve not seen The Tudors but can picture bizarre vampire Henry VIII all too clearly…

It did make me think a bit though. Not about what it wanted me to think about, mind, whatever that was. No, it struck me that it was made in the late 90s when there was a sudden surge (or it seemed like it at the time) of experimenting with sexual orientation. Out the back of the Yeoman on a Friday night you’d have to be blind to miss boys snogging boys and girls snogging girls, and this in Tunbridge Wells. People were professing their bisexuality all over the shop. I had some confusing feelings about Jamie Theakston for god’s sake. And Velvet Goldmine reflects that atmosphere back and says yeah, it was right there in the 70s too (though there did seem to be a conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia in places which was somewhat… troubling).

Velvet 006

I mean… Hunky, yeah?

And now that we’re living in a time when sexual orientation and gender identity are big mainstream topics my main thought is that I hope it sticks this time. It’s been bubbling away in subcultures for so long that I really do hope we’re at the point where it isn’t all forced back underground and cloaked behind euphemism. It’s there behind the hippies, glam, punk, new romantic and on and on and on. It’s always been there, now perhaps we can discuss it sensibly and publicly accept that it has indeed always been there. Always will be there no matter what happens in the grand scheme of things. It feels like we’re really close this time, laws have been made after all and mainstream gay and trans icons abound, but events across the pond are showing how quickly things can be undone…

Getting back to the film for a sec, most damningly I didn’t come away from it humming any tunes. And that’s unforgiveable. There’s a decent version of Gimme Danger courtesy of Ewan’s Curt Wild. And Placebo turn up to give 20th Century Boy a decent outing (but come on, unless you piss about with it 20th Century Boy is always going to be 100% banger). For all Cadillac Records‘ flaws I was singing Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf songs for days afterwards. I still find Sing Street’s Riddle of the Model popping into my head (seriously, go and watch Sing Street if you haven’t already. And watch it again if you have). The Blues Brothers is held together by the strength of the songs… and that’s where Velvet Goldmine falls flat.

Come to think of it, The Blues Brothers might be a good comparison. Both have a sort of hyper reality that keeps becoming quasi music video. Both deal with forgotten musical heroes in a way… Wikipedia tells me that Velvet Goldmine closely parallels Citizen Kane, but I’m saying The Blues Brothers is the one to compare it to. And I know which of those gets me singing…

The Verdict

If you’re after Citizen Kane allusions I’d recommend the episodes of The Real Ghostbusters and Pinky and the Brain instead.

Coming Attractions

It’s Tim’s choice. I hope it doesn’t involve a bizarre vampire.

@BornToPootle

Writing About Writing (For Once)

One of the original purposes of this blog was to document any successes or pitfalls I had as I tried to get a novel published. You might have spotted that more recently it’s been a lot of film review stuff (though I like to think the Chain Reaction Film Club posts end up saying more about me than the films themselves) and some noodling about video games. That’s because I’ve fallen into the deadliest pitfall of all – not actually doing any writing. Why haven’t I been writing? I dunno. A combination of factors from the risible to the more serious. Partly I blame Southern Rail.

I changed my commute about two years ago because Southern became too unreliable. I used to write on my way to and from work – somewhere between an hour and an hour and quarter of beautiful writing time. But that’s not possible on my new commute. Also, I shared a pro-critique of the novel I thought I’d finished a while back. And while it was positive in places, it also confirmed some things I feared about the manuscript. And I think it probably knocked me back a little further than I let on. Hey ho, that’s the creative life isn’t it.

And the novel I have been working on in the interim, the one about the teenage punk band and the devil, well… the second half is really not coming together for some reason. I’ve got what I think is a kick ass first half, somewhere around 60,000 words but… Well. I’ll work it out at some point.

But it’s a new year, and I’m pissed off with my lack of creativity. So instead of bang my head against The Judas Tattoo (or We Are The Scene or whatever I end up calling it) I’m turning my attention to one of the other books I’ve had in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I read though most of my notes today, a form of archaeology of the self, and got quite excited about it – there’s a more coherent plot than I remembered for a start.

When I started planning it the main character was intended to be a trans woman. Over the last few years since I started it’s become increasingly clear that there’s a bit of trans tokenism going on (I work in TV advertising, so I’ve seen the tokeniest, believe me). And while I do think my character was more than tokenly trans, I also don’t think I want to try and appropriate that experience out of something akin to pure curiosity (and empathy). So I decided today to have a cisgender female protagonist which will be a sort of first for me. Somewhere I’ve got a second draft of a zombie novel which is about 60% male POV, 40% female, but I haven’t read it since finishing a few years back.

It’s about ghosts, psychic terrorists, a kick-ass photographer of derelict spaces, judgement, death and guilt. And there’s stuff set in the 60s psychedelic revolution as well as present day. And some really creepy mummification. But the cutesy version is that it’s Chloe Price (from Life Is Strange) vs Edith Manning (from The Invisibles) vs John Dee (from beyond the grave). That’s all very exciting to me, and I may write more about it here as it develops. We’ll see.  It means I get to read lots of esoteric nonsense, which always makes me happy.

On a completely separate project, I may be doing a thing. I’ve written a short script for a two hander play or film, and the person I’m working on it with has very sensibly stuck a deadline on when we’re going to do something with it by. So hopefully by the end of the Easter hols I’ll have some news about a short film (that doesn’t involve ghosts, magick or other esoterica for once). Everything’s too scary until there’s a deadline, then you just have to work and fucking do it. So here’s hoping I just work and fucking do it.

@BornToPootle

 

Ride With The Devil – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 75: Ride With The Devil (1999)

Ride 02

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

Cadillac Records was last up, and I theorised that the two ways to tell whether a music biopic was worth it’s salt were a) would you rather have watched it than spent the duration listening to the music itself, or b) has it put the music in a new context that affects your enjoyment one way or the other. Cadillac Records fell at both hurdles, unfortunately.

The Choice

There was no shortlist this week – after looking through some filmographies Tim knew he wanted to go to Ride With The Devil next.

The Link

Jeffrey Wright

Ride 03

Wright as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records

He turned in a muscular performance as Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records last time. I’ve seen him in a few bits and bobs over the years, but always in quite minor roles, so I’m pleased we’re getting a second helping. Tim’s a fan of his, and on the strength of last week’s film alone I can see myself becoming a fan too. It doesn’t exactly hurt that his Twitter account is a very sassy resistance feed:

Ride 01

Ride With The Devil and me

I wanted to see this when it came out. I wanted to see this at various points when it was on TV in the early noughties (goddamn I hate that that caught on as the nickname for the decade). I’ve had a copy on a hard drive recorded from TV for about 10 years. And yet…  for some reason I never have managed to find the time. Apart from being directed by Ang Lee, concerning the American civil war and being one of only two films I’m aware of Skeet Ulrich being in (Scream is of course the other) I know very little about it.

IMDB says

During the American Civil War, two friends join the Bushwhackers, a militant group loyal to the Confederacy.

I says

Well here we go. The American Civil War has come back into general discussion recently (possibly in the US it’s never out of general discussion) thanks to the debates about the confederate flag and statues of confederate generals and such. As a rank outsider, the general view I’ve always assumed is that Confederates = want slavery, Unionists = want abolition. Or to put it another way, Confederates are the bad guys. Now I know it’s not as simple as that and am certainly not going to spend this blog writing a secondary school essay on the causes of the American Civil War, but I hadn’t previously realise that this film centred on Confederate troops. I say troops, but they’re more like a guerilla cell within Union territory.

Ride 04Skeet and the Tobester (as I imagine their local radio morning show would be titled)

Toby Maguire and Skeet Ulrich are the friends who join the Bushwhackers following Ulrich’s father being murdered by Union soldiers and his house being burned to the ground. They get up to such shenanigans as dressing up as Union troops to inveigle their way into a group and then open fire on soldiers and civilian supporters alike. We see that bad stuff has been done to them, and they go right on and do bad stuff back. Things get a bit more interesting when they shack up in the woods for the winter with Simon Baker’s George Clyde and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a slave whom Clyde freed – not by buying his contract but by gifting the money to buy the contract to the slave himself.

As they remain cooped up, things seem to become more savage among the Bushwhackers. People are collecting scalps. The Union army is closing in. And in the meantime singer/songwriter Jewel is coming and going with food parcels and kisses for Skeet Ulrich. Incidentally, I’ve looked it up and I don’t think Skeet is short for anything. Imagine that.

There’s a feeling that the boys are tired of the fighting, but more than that it becomes increasingly apparent, though not trumpeted loudly still, what is being fought for. And it becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Daniel Holt, who is well and truly bonded with Clyde and the others. Black bodies are being burnt in the street and drunken Bushwhackers make a grab for him, forgetting he’s on their side. It does a good job of balancing sympathy for the characters without expecting us to sympathise with the cause. I’ve never been a huge Tobey Maguire fan though, which didn’t shift with this film. I saw Molly’s Game at the cinema a couple of days later, which would have blown any remaining fondness for Tobey away anyway (I know, the character in Molly’s Game is fictionalised, but by how much?). A film focusing more solely on Jeffrey Wright’s character might have been more my cup of tea.

Ride 06

That’s right, I’m about to shoehorn in a Firefly reference. Because any excuse.

I got quite interested in the Civil War last year, as I finally read Killer Angels, one of the books Joss Whedon cites as a big influence on Firefly (yes, that’s the only reason I read it, wanna make something of it?). That’s a dramatic retelling of the immediate build up to Gettysburg from the points of view of various Union and Confederate soldiers and has a similarly good balance between character and cause. Because it had such a tight focus on one specific battle, I ended up watching a documentary series on Netflix to give a bit of context. If you haven’t already seen Ken Burns’ Civil War then I would strongly recommend giving it a go. Suffice to say, war is hell.

Two final points on the film. Firstly, Ang Lee knows his way around a frame. There are some really beautiful shots. Secondly, my least favourite element was Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character who seems to be a malevolent dick throughout purely for the sake of it. Towards the end he seems to be morphing into the vampire Lestat, which unfortunately reminded me of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And there’s no need for that.

Ride 05

I’ll give you the choice I never had… 

The Verdict

Mainly interesting and compassionate, occasionally exciting and nasty, sometimes cheesey and forced. And then a vampire turns up.

Coming Attractions

Will I discover a third Skeet Ulrich film? Will I make Tim watch the dance sequence from Spider-man 3 (spoiler: no. No I will not. Because I would also have to watch it again)? Has Jewel been in any other films? We’ll find out next time…

@BornToPootle

Cadillac Records – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 74: Cadillac Records

 

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Talk Radio, which I still find myself thinking about. One of the good ones.

The Choice

State and Main (2000) – Third or fourth time on the shortlist so it’ll happen one day…

A Midnight Clear (1992) – I’m definitely going to try and work back to this at some point, but it sounded a bit depressing (although fitting) for our Christmas watch.

Point Break (1991) – Yes, I really should have seen this shouldn’t I…

Wall Street (1987) – Yes, I also really should have seen this shouldn’t I…

And the winner… Cadillac Records (2008)

The Link

Eric Bogosian

I wrote about him a bit last time, so I won’t bore you with repetition. I was pleased to find out that he plays a radio dj in Cadillac Records though, which made me think I should tighten up the CRFC rules – maybe we should only link via an actor playing a character with the same job…

Cadillac Records and me

I don’t remember hearing much about it at the time. The film is about Chess Records, bastion of the blues. If I had heard about the film then I might have been quite tempted, as I’m a fan of American (and British) folk and roots music. Although mostly Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger albums at the point the film came out, I have more recently got into Howlin’ Wolf in a big way. Actually that’s thanks to the game Watchdogs, which features a soundtrack of Chicago-centric music. It’s a fun way to curate a soundtrack it turns out.

Anyway, we have a rather mixed relationship with based-on-real-life films here at CRFC so I picked it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation…

IMDB says

Chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists.

I says

That’s a terrible blurb from IMDb. If you don’t know anything about Chess Records, it tells you nothing. And it sounds like it could be a documentary, with talking heads repeating the same old platitudes and wry anecdotes. Oh well.

The film is more accurately a retelling of Leonard Chess’ rise from backwoods dive bar owner to head of his own record label championing black musicians in 40s, 50s and 60s Chicago. That’s a more appealing proposition by far, particularly when you factor in Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess.

Let’s start with the most important thing in any music biopic: how they handle the songs. This was strange because I was convinced that most of the time the stars were miming to the original tracks. This seemed particularly apparent with Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James (played by Eamonn Walker and Beyonce respectively). It struck me as particularly odd to hire Beyonce and then only get her to mime along, so in some ways I wasn’t surprised when the credits rolled and it turned out the cast had in fact been singing themselves. Just in some cases the syncing seemed really off.

I never quite know how I feel about actors singing the tunes versus miming over the originals. Where a film is as about the music as this one is it seems churlish not to let the original music shine through, but that can then feel like you’re watching a professional karaoke video. Joaquim Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon had a good bash at Johnny Cash and June Carter in Walk The Line a few years back, but I spent the whole film wanting to listen to Johnny and June themselves… I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of going about it, as I’d feel a bit distracted either way. Oh well, sucks to be me, I guess.

The bulk of the film centres on Chess and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright – who really did seem present in the musical numbers), and I think  focusing solely on this would have been a more interesting film. There’s a tendency with real-life-based stuff to try and tell the whole story, and that’s something you can do in a book or longform TV show but not as successfully in a film. Introducing Howlin’ Wolf for a bit of tension, Etta James for some big emotional bits and Chuck Berry for a little comedy is fine, but the whole shebang stretched almost to bursting. It’s not helped by a framing device of Willy Dixon (songwriter behind many of Chess’ big hits, and played by Cedric the Entertainer) adding some narration to the beginning and end. He was such a background presence during the film itself that it was quite a shock when he popped up again.

On the subject of Chuck Berry, he’s played by Mos Def here. I’m one of that handful of people who quite liked the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy from 2005. And I really liked Mos Def in it. He impressed me again here, with a sparkling wit, believably inspiring presence and great versions of some of Berry’s songs.

I made the classic blunder of looking up how closely the film resembles the truth, and to date that hasn’t improved any of the CRFC films. Timelines are problematically skew wiff, deaths of real people become malleable things used more for metaphor than for any realistic sense of a person’s life ending, hugely important people are erased from history… The more biographical films I see the more I appreciate Tarantino’s choice for the ending of Inglourious Basterds.

So here’s the real test of any music film, would I rather have spent that 2+ hours of the run time just listening to an album of the label’s greatest hits? And yes, in this case I would have. To be honest I could listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful (written by Willy Dixon) for 2+ hours on a loop and have a jolly good time of it. Has it recontextualised the music for me? Not massively. And, crucially, I can’t trust its recontextualisation (totes a word) because it has distorted reality so much.

The Verdict

As is so often the case with biographical films, it was… fine. Messy and frustrating in places but with enough heart and, importantly, good tunes to pass the time adequately. But maybe just look up an album or two and have a good listen instead while reading Wikipedia.

Coming Attractions

Tim’s up next, and he’s a big Jeffrey Wright fan. Adrian Brody is in a lot of heavy films I should have seen (Hello The Pianist!) and a lot of terrible films I never want to see (Goodbye Predators!). Isaiah Whitlock Jr turns up briefly, so perhaps we’ll be heading off with The Bunk… And Beyonce adds a few options, though I will veto Goldmember as if my life depends on it.

@BornToPootle

Christmas Spent Gaming With Awesome Women

For the last few years the Christmas break has become more than an escape from work in my household – it’s become a break from reality. We spend the month or two before exhaustively listing all the games we’ve missed over the year (or been specifically saving) and whittle them down to the ones we want to spend our holiday playing. And then that’s pretty much all we do for 10 days.

This year I realised that all the games we’d chosen were female-led, and given the story that’s doing the rounds at the mo about the top 3 grossing films of the year being female-led it seems like a good time to write about them. So in a medium that’s incorrectly seen as being predominantly consumed by men, yet has a history of marginalising women in the industry and the games themselves, is the tide turning? If these games are the result let’s hope so.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade

A happy game for happy people

Hellblade looks like it’s going to be a third person actiony kind of game. The titular Senua is a Pictish woman crossing into the Norse hell to rescue her beloved who has been killed by ‘the north men’. She has a sword at her hip and a few combat moves in the repertoire. While there is a fair bit of combat involved, it’s actually a lot more than that. The game was developed with input from the Wellcome Trust and despite its fantastical setting (or perhaps thanks to it) deals fairly seriously with psychosis and trauma.

Best played with headphones, Senua is constantly beseiged by the voices of the furies, sometimes offering helpful hints but most often second guessing or belittling Senua’s progress an ability. As well as combat, there are a lot of visual puzzles. To unlock various doors Senua has to find the relevant rune in the surrounding environment, using perspective to line up geographic features. It’s one of the most intense games I can remember playing, and benefited from multiple short play sessions over long stints. I felt like I needed to come up for air, the psychosis suffered by Senua all too well realised and stifling. The animation is brilliant too, from Senua’s facial expressions to the way she drops into different movement styles. One of the best this year without a shadow of a doubt.

Blackwood Crossing

Blackwood

This was well received and looked like it would be right up my street – you play as a young woman on a train following her kid brother, but things start to get surreal as you try to keep up with him. I’m a big fan of ‘walking simulator’ style games (when they’re done well) and this looked a little Alice in Wonderland inspired to boot, with a white rabbit beckoning you on. This year also saw the release of What Remains of Edith Finch, another exploration based game that deals with the same themes as Blackwood Crossing and has been hailed as one of the top few games of the year. I played it in the Autumn, and it’s possible then that this suffers because of that comparison. Something in the pacing and mechanics just didn’t quite work for me in Blackwood Crossing. And while I’d probably say the same about Edith Finch, that was also punctuated by moments of surprise and ingenuity. I like that his kind of game exists, but I think the benchmark has shifted a lot higher over the last year or two. Still, it’s very short (maybe three hours?) so worth a go if you like this sort of thing.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon 2

It’s a nice looking game.

This was the ‘big’ game of the Christmas break, the one that I knew I wouldn’t get to the end of before the dread return to work. It’s a big open world rpg where you play as Aloy, a member of the Nora tribe in a world a long time after some sort of near apocalypse. Humans are split into luddite tribes, and machines stalk the earth. But Aloy’s background is a mystery that seems to link into whatever technological tragedy befell the world.

Aloy’s tribe is matriarchal in overall leadership, but other than that the gender roles are fairly evenly split. There’s also a clear drive to ensure racially diverse characters and strong representation of same sex relationships which is great to see and a AAA game. Aloy herself is voiced by Ashley Burch, of Chloe Price fame (more on her later) and comes across as self confident and plucky. She has to take on giant robot dinosaurs single handed, so you’d hope so really. There’s a nice touch relatively early on in the plot when you leave the Nora lands and move into a different, patriarchal, tribe’s domain. While there does seem to be a balance of gender still across the NPCs, there’s more open sexism in conversation.

Sometimes in games the choice of gender can be rudimentary – you pick either male or female and, aside from potentially affecting romantic partners (hello Bioware! I was gutted when Dorian from Dragon Age Inquisition turned out to be gay. No romance for my lady elf) it doesn’t have any other impact. It’s nice to see a main character being specifically written as female and that having an impact on how characters talk to you.

Horizon 1

A REALLY nice looking game

That aside, it’s a fun (and big!) game. I can’t talk about how the plot comes together because I’m only part way through, but it’s certainly a treat to look at and enjoyable to play. The world is interesting enough and although it doesn’t set me on fire like Witcher 3, I find myself eager to get back to it. Also, it looks absolutely stunning. There’s a photo mode which I’ve been abusing Twitter with, and some genius put in the option for Aloy to strike different (and often silly) poses for the photos. Like I needed the extra distraction.

Walking Dead Season 3

Walking Dead

One of these people is a badass. The other is male.

Watch out for minor spoilers here – more about the tone than the specific content.

Okay, so this one isn’t as female led as I thought it was going to be. The first two games revolve around Clementine, a young girl caught up in yer standard zombie apocalypse. In the first game you play as Lee, the man who becomes a father figure for Clem, and the whole game revolves around the influence you are having on her. In the second game you play as Clem herself. It turns out that in this one Clem is a much more peripheral figure. There’s still the sense that your actions are having an impact on her, and at the end you’re given a rundown on how Clem has been shaped by your actions. It’s not quite what I was hoping for though. Part of that is because I remembered reading that this was going to be the conclusion of Clem’s arc – turns out that’s not the case and the game ends with ‘Clementine’s story will continue’. I felt a bit miffed about how sidelined Clem had been until I got to that text.

It’s hard to judge the game setting aside that disappointment, but I’d say it’s still pretty good. The weakest of the three seasons, but still well worthwhile if you’re already invested in the world. New main character Javier is a compelling presence, and has one of my favourite lines of the year. He and his latino family are besieged by some predominantly white bandits. When recounting the battle he says they were attacked by ‘some very bad dudes’. Fantastic.

Life Is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange 2

Longtime readers (both of you) will know about my love for the original game. This is a prequel focusing on Chloe Price and her friendship with Rachel Amber. After the original, Chloe was one of my favourite videogame characters of all time. After this she’s one of my favourite characters in any medium. There are only three episodes this time around (with a separate bonus episode coming this year some time). There are some huge emotional gut punches, particularly in the first episode. There’s also plenty of humour and lightness of touch, and some really surprising moments that I will not spoil by even hinting at. It’s a tighter, more focused game than the original, and looks great too. Some of my favourite moments were letting Chloe sit, slumped in depressed thought, with punk music turned up loud. It’s dripping with an atmosphere that hits all too close to home.Life is Strange 1

I’m not going to say anything else about it, apart from if you haven’t played the original please go and play it and then play this. There are some clunky moments, sure, but it’s all worth it. The voice actor has changed, due to a strike of some kind, but after about three minutes I’d adjusted. The only weird thing was Lyd playing Horizon Zero Dawn while I played this – so every now and then I’d hear Chloe’s original voice yelling about robots. It seemed oddly fitting.

So there we are. Five games, four and a half lead women (damn you Walking Dead!). Action, emotion, humour, violence and the rest of human experience. A Christmas well spent.

@BornToPootle

Films of 2017

Thanks to the powers of a Curzon membership I managed to see more films than I’ve ever seen before in cinemas in 2017. Between us, Lyd and I managed a total of 58, three higher than last year’s previous best. Looking back through the full list there are three immediately obvious things:

  1. There were loads of really good films this year
  2. There weren’t any films that will be troubling my top 3 (Harvey, Donnie Darko, Mad Max Fury Road)
  3. Despite seeing more films than ever before, there were still plenty that I wanted to see but didn’t get around to.

So as much for the benefit of jogging my memory as anything else, here’s a bit of a roundup of the greats, the surprises, the not-so-greats and the I-wonder-if-they’re-great-or-nots.

The Greats

After watching a film I try to pretty swiftly update my list and give it a knee-jerk rating. That’s not always the best way to judge a film, but it gives me a nice reminder about my instant reaction to it. Of the 58 seen, I reckon something like 20 or so managed an 8 out of 10 this year – that’s what I mean about it being a good year. Whittling it down to just a handful is hard so I won’t present a simple top 5 (edit: turns out I will attempt a top 3 later on, oh well).

Detroit

One of the things this year seemed very good at was tension. Dunkirk and Detroit were the big hitters that spring to mind, and in any other year one of them would be the most tense film by a country mile. But this year there were the two of them, and even then there was another film that managed to out-tense them by some margin. It Comes At Night was an absolute masterclass in two things – gut-wrenching tension for every second of its run time, and how marketing can fuck a film up. For some reason It Comes At Night was marketed as a jump-scare horror, but that’s not what it’s like at all. Perhaps it gets bums on seats to do it that way, as jump-scare horror is surprisingly popular, but most of their bums are going to be disappointed if they’re not getting the raucous scare-athon they were after. And you don’t want to disappoint a bum.

handmaiden

2017 was the year that I finally managed to visit Japan, so with unerring timing as well as some excellent Japanese animation in Silent Voice, there were a duo of films released in the weeks before my trip that really didn’t paint a good picture of Japanese history – Age of Shadows and The Handmaiden both used the Japanese annexation of Korea as a backdrop. Both also feature some pretty harrowing torture and are excellent, but the similarities end there.

In non-Japanese animation it was also a great year – Red Turtle and My Life As A Courgette are so utterly different to look at, but I found both deeply affecting and both being pretty short, are likely to make my rewatch list at some point. And I thought brevity was a lost cinematic art.

If, held at gunpoint, I had to pick a top three of the year though, it would probably be Death of Stalin, Lady Macbeth and Good Time.

Death of Stalin

I was expecting the humour of Death of Stalin, but how it managed to take its subject matter simultaneously so serious was a revelation. And Simon Russell Beale finally tearing up the big screen was a long awaited joy. Even if Jason Isaacs summarily upstaged everyone.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth will, if there’s any justice, make a huge star of Florence Pugh. What I feared might be a film stuck full of long shots of countryside that were meant to be portentous or somesuch was actually a much tighter beast with a nasty streak a mile wide. There were still a few shots of countryside, but they were dripping with subtext. A timely re-examination of some costume drama staples.

Good time

Good Time was another top tense film, but it also rattled along, barely staying in one place long enough to let me catch my breath. There’s a fantastic twist about half way through and Robert Pattinson continues to exceed expectations by taking on interesting projects (The Rover, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars spring to mind) and excelling. Also there was a nice (small) role for Barkhad Abdi who was so fantastic in Captain Phillips. He also rocked up very briefly in Bladerunner 2049 and for me was one of the most memorable aspects of the whole film (more on that later). Let’s have some meatier roles for Barkhad please!

Oh, and Paddington 2 was just beautiful. I was snooty about the first one, but eventually watched it on the small screen and was blown away. The second one is, if anything, even better. Swallow any snootiness and go and be bowled over by loveliness.

I liked Star Wars n’ all, but the internet has volumes written on that so I shan’t trouble you any further with my opinion. But I do love Poe Dameron.

The Surprise

As part of my job I have to watch film trailers again and again and again. I watched various different cuts of The Daddy’s Home 2 trailer over 160 times, for example. One that I saw a LOT of trailers for was Happy Death Day, and I really thought it was going to be utter bobbins. Groundhog Day meets teen slasher is an interesting enough idea, I suppose, but boy did it look duff. And yet, it was one of the most purely enjoyable films I saw all year (see also: Thor Ragnarok). The horror goes out the window after the first half hour or so and it becomes a straight up comedy. It even makes some serious points about believing women when they call out abuse.

The Not So Great

There were 2 (and a half) walk outs this year.

Atomic Blonde didn’t seem like it was going to be my kind of film. I gave it a go because it seemed like a good time to support female- led action films (I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman much either to be honest, but that was a LOT better than this), Charlize Theron was great in action scenes in Mad Max, and I like James MacAvoy more than I should. It was definitely not my cup of tea.

La La Land. I gave it a go. The opening nearly killed me, then I thought it might settle down a bit. Then they were both just obnoxious and not as good at singing and dancing as people who’re the leads in musicals should be. Lyd has to spend a few minutes watching West Side Story to decompress if the memory of La La Land resurfaces.

Lyd walked out of Bladerunner 2049, but I stuck out the whole ting and honestly? I think she made the better call. It looked beautiful, of course – Roger Deakins is a magician. Lyd left because she couldn’t take the misogyny. And it is really misogynistic. It seemed like it was doing it to make a point, but I don’t think they pulled it off. When I explained the ending to Lyd she laughed and laughed and laughed. I’ve ever been in love with the original, so that probably didn’t help either.

Oh, and we should have walked out of Trespass Against Us, but kept thinking it was about to end. An utter waste of Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender.

The I-Wonder-If-They’re-Greats

I wanted , but completely failed, to see quite a few this year. Marjorie Prime, The Levelling, The Ritual (I think that’s what it was called – British horror of some sort),  God’s Own Country, Call Me By Your Name, Raw and many many more beside. Some of those are ending up in top 10 lists so hopefully I’ll catch up with them at some point.

That’s my tuppence worth. What should I have seen that I missed?

@BornToPootle