The Momentum Blog

The Ghosts of Spectre: a guest post from Chris Allen

Posted November 23, 2015 by Michelle Cameron

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There’s a lot of conjecture at the moment around whether or not Spectre is a great or a not so great Bond film.

I went in with mixed feelings based on many of the reviews and comments I was seeing online. And for those who don’t know me, I’m a die-hard Bond fan, Fleming first – movies second. So I have high expectations of each of the films and I must say on this occasion, I was not disappointed.

Here’s what I liked about it.

The thing that people liked so much about Daniel Craig when he was brought on in 2006 with Casino Royale – is that he took the character of Bond right back to his roots. He was an unrelenting, blunt instrument which is exactly the intention that Fleming had for the character when he created Bond back in the 1950s. 

What they’ve done with Spectre is very cleverly woven into Craig’s presentation of Bond, much of the iconography of the character that people have been enjoying for over 50 years. Traditionally all the other films have relied on five key elements to connect them: the dinner suit; the Walther PPK; the vodka martini; the fast cars and of course, the women. Add to that some megalomaniac criminal mastermind, hell-bent on world domination and you’re all set.

What they’ve achieved in Spectre with – I thought – great subtlety as well as great respect for the legacy of the films, was the referencing of a number of scenes, themes and elements from across the palette of the Eon Productions series dating back to the very first film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery.

– There’s the scene in Dr No when Bond and Honey are received as guests at Dr No’s lair – this is replicated in Spectre when Bond and Madeleine Swann are similarly received by Blofeld. 

– The contemporary take of Craig’s Bond in Tangier in 2015 is almost identically dressed and styled with dark shirt and beige jacket to Timothy Dalton’s Bond in Tangier in 1987 in The Living Daylights.

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– The train journey that Bond and Madeleine take references a number of things, most notably the white dinner jacket which we first saw in Goldfinger, and only a couple of times since.

– And of course – the fight sequence between Craig’s Bond and Hinx on the train is a direct hat tip to Connery’s Bond and Robert Shaw’s Grant in From Russia With Love in 1963, and even albeit less comically Roger Moore’s Bond and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved me in 1977.

– Blofeld’s surveillance control room in Spectre is a contemporary take on Hugo Drax’s space centre control room from Moonraker in 1979. 

– And finally, there’s the white cat, the Hildebrand reference and of course how Blofeld got his facial scar that was so much a part of Donald Pleasant’s Blofeld in You Only Live Twice in 1967. And many, many others.

If you go into a Daniel Craig Bond – you expect a certain thing. I’ve learned since Casino Royale in 2006 to expect a brooding, lonely individual who is struggling to come to terms with loss and disappointment despite the fact that he is supposed to be a blunt instrument, last resort capability for his government. 

In this regard, I was not disappointed.

Coupled to that, all of these historic references throughout the film to the legacy of the series and I came away feeling thoroughly entertained.

But let me qualify that.

The storyline can be disappointing because Bond is a huge character and the fact that Spectre boils the entire catalogue of Bond’s most recent missions down to nothing more than a demented, former childhood friend taunting him from a distance, all the danger and intrigue has been little more than a squabble between a couple of spoiled brats.

At that to me is the major let down in that thematic element and I believe that is what has left people with a less-than-favourable reaction to the film. It’s almost like, at the time you’re enjoying it, but there is an aftertaste that is ultimately not satisfying and that is how they have framed Bond’s recent history. A little bit like eating junk food on an impulse – tastes pretty good at the time, but you feel very unsatisfied very soon after.

 

Chris Allen’s latest heart-stopping thriller is out on the 26th of November. If you like Bond, you’ll love Helldiver. Grab a copy now!

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‘But What’s My Motivation?’ Maleficent and Creating Believable Backstory

Posted January 8, 2015 by Eve Merrier

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The following post contains spoilers about Maleficent. It’s a pretty good film, though, so if you haven’t seen it go and watch it now, then come back and resume. We’ll wait here. Everybody done yet? Great. Then I’ll begin.

The Stanislavski method of acting encourages the player to ask that now-familiar question, ‘what’s my motivation?’ in order to understand just what the character is thinking and feeling, and how they should react. As you write each scene of a story or novel, each piece of dialogue, imagine your character is asking you the same thing. Actions without motivation seem random and pointless. Readers don’t love that.

evilThe most common thing that some authors do is make evil characters evil just because they’re evil. This is rather uninspiring, and I don’t think it’s very realistic. The 1959 Disney Sleeping Beauty seems to be premised upon the most extraordinary overreaction to not being invited to a party. Maleficent, when not invited to the christening, crashes it, (like Kanye West at someone else’s acceptance speech) and curses the baby. Who even wants to go to a christening? They’re full of mumbling priests, screaming damp babies and inferior snacks.

angAside from Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones, the best thing about Maleficent is that it redresses this lack of motivation rather well by creating a proper back story. King Stefan, whom maleficent had once loved, cut off her wings while she was unconscious. This massively cruel dismemberment warrants her extreme reaction. His motivation was ambition; hers is revenge.

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There are multiple factors that motivate human behaviour. Here’s a list of things to consider in terms of your characters:

Relationships: All significant relationships should be considered, including their family and friends, and romantic relationships. Have these been loving and successful or has some damage been caused?
Fear: Everyone’s afraid of something. What’s your character’s fear? It doesn’t have to be a literal phobia of spiders or some such; perhaps they’re afraid of failure, or of being found out.
Cultural influences: Think about the society they grew up in.
Needs and wants: Are they acting to meet their basic needs for money, food and shelter, or trying to fulfil a more abstract need for approval or a childhood dream?
Obligation: Who are they accountable to?
Past experiences: This can include past wrongs, causing a desire for revenge (or justice), or circumstances that have led to their current situation.
Beliefs and worldview: Whether philosophical or religious, everyone has a way of seeing the world and of understanding human nature. What do they think of others? What do they think the meaning of life is?

Let’s apply these concepts to Maleficent.

Maleficent’s key relationship was with the young Stefan, who let her down badly, leaving her believing that there is no such thing as true love. She rarely shows fear, but seems afraid that she cannot reverse the curse when she tries to, and that it might come true. Before this, she is afraid of becoming attached to the child and tries to keep a distance. Her cultural influences come from the peaceful kingdom she grew up in. It’s essentially an anarcho-communalist state where all the magical creatures work together and there is no one leader. This explains how loathsome and extraordinary she finds Stefan’s ambition and the neighbouring state’s warring ways. What she needs and wants changes throughout the story. She wants peace, to begin with, then revenge, then redemption. She initially has a strong obligation to the people of her land, to protect them from invaders. Later this protective instinct is transferred to Aurora. jolThe key past experience of her relationship with Stefan and his attack clearly influence her actions, but we’re told a few other things about her past too. For example, we learn that her parents died, which perhaps informs her instinct to care for Aurora: a child who is functionally parentless. We’ve also seen the importance of flying to her and how much her wings mattered. Losing them and becoming earthbound figuratively and literally changed her perspective. Maleficent believes that there is no such thing as true love, that she cannot function without wings (hence the adoption of the bird-friend), and she believes in some sort of justice, though the form that this should take varies. She was hurt, badly, physically and psychologically, so she went to the dark place, but over time, she was brought back. However fantastical the story, that arc feels real to me.

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It may not be the most complex of films, or even the best of motivations, but it’s unarguably stronger than ‘I really wanted to come to a christening but no one asked me’ or even ‘I do things just because I’m a villain and therefore arbitrarily ruthless’. Well-developed characters often have multiple motivations and authentic reasons for their actions. Humans can be fallible, impulsive and changeable. Characters should be too.

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Every blockbuster is literally the same now

Posted August 27, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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We might as well give up. Buy your ticket, take your seat, sit back and forget worrying about the plot because it’s literally all be done before.

If there’s something to be learned from Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s that spending a bit more time on character development can make everyone go completely batshit crazy for your film, even if the story is essentially the same recycled claptrap we’ve been watching for the last ten years.

It’s hard to fathom how we’re all so giddily excited over a film – and yes I know I was talking favourably about it recently – when the actual fabric of that film, the plot, is offering us the same structure, the same character beats, the same goddamn thematic notes that we’ve been getting for ages, especially from Marvel.

First off, meaningless macguffins. Guardians of the Galaxy actually referenced this trope in a scene, likening the orb (ball? Silver thing? Does anybody actually care?) to the briefcase from Pulp Fiction, the ark of the covenant from Raiders, or the titular Maltese Falcon. But once it’s onscreen, we all know how it’s going to work, especially the (gasp!) big reveal that the benign orb is all-powerful and suddenly jeopardises the universe. Come on. The universe must be sick and tired of being in jeopardy all the time.

Next: why must every hero use the loss of a parent (or both) as a trigger for their journey? And why is the father the one that gets to be wise and counsel-spouting, often reappearing from the dead, whereas the mother is only allowed to be emotionally propelling due to her death? And while the father was notably absent in Guardians (cue hints for the sequel), please see every Marvel film for evidence of this. Also DC. Also everything else. Heroes can learn practical things from their fathers, but they must be emotionally torn and unfulfilled because of their mother’s absence.

Then we get the love-interest that isn’t a love-interest. We could spill more ink on Marvel’s short shrifting of female protagonists, and how this film is merely just another perpetuating of their Fear of the Woman, but you can almost see the cogs turning in the writer’s room when they decided that Zoe Saldana’s Gamora would almost-but-not-quite kiss Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. This is the same move that Pacific Rim pulled off, where they try to avoid criticism for offering an underwritten female character who only acts as a love-interest by not making them a love-interest.

Really? Just because the hero doesn’t seal the deal with the token female character does not make the film any kind of culture-changing empowering statement. Try harder.

Further to this, the final act is becoming quite redundant. And while Guardians is clever enough to play with this redundancy (particularly in the ‘We’re all standing in a circle’ scene), riffing on a trope is not the same as offering something original. But we get to the point where it’s just the same banging, crashing and sound without the fury in the film’s final act – increased and amplified with every new blockbuster. The latest cliché though is to have the final jeopardy take place on some nominal home planet or city, even when all the action has taken place elsewhere.

The reason? Human cost. Raise the stakes by threatening the lives of every computer generated civilian who doesn’t get a credit. And while films like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel were highly criticised for this, particularly for using cities as disasterpornscapes, Guardians seems to have taken this on board and learned something.

Only slightly. No less than four times characters reference the evacuation of the city and the citizens, so that the audience feels a little bit more comfortable with the wanton destruction that takes place. Better? Not really. What we have now is films upping the stakes by threatening innocent people, but then removing them from harm lest it become offensive, thus nullfiying the entire point of the action. The strange thing is nobody came up with a better way to end the story.

The plot is utterly meaningless in Guardians of the Galaxy. You do not have to pay one scrap of attention to any of the details, safe in the knowledge that it’ll still end up right where you expect it to. And they know it. The prison escape scene was pretty much constructed around this joke of not needing to digest any of the details because it’ll just happen anyway. And as much as I enjoyed some of the new elements, particularly its excellent construction of humour in a tiresome setting (see this brilliant analysis for more), I long for the day that audiences can be completely surprised by a blockbuster’s story.

It was first predicted when Avatar came on the scene, but many are noting now that we may be entering a ‘post-plot’ era of films. Personally, I think audiences are wise enough to know when they’re being served last year’s tripe, and the tide will eventually turn, much as it did in the late 1960s.

The difference here is that I fear most of the original and creative talent has abandoned the creatively dull film maintsream and headed for television, which means when the tide does turn, there isn’t that saftey net of brilliant writers and directors as there used to be.

Enough of the meaningless plots, please. Enough of the irrelevant action and hollow resolutions. Enough of the fifty billion interpretations of the hero’s journey. Offer us something new, and more unique than the surface polish that was Guardians of the Galaxy.

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The best film mixtape

Posted August 5, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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So Guardians of the Galaxy is smashing all kinds of records in its US release and is set to open in Australia later this week. And with it comes the soundtrack, the classic 70s and 80s mixtape of its central character, featuring tracks from David Bowie, 10cc, The Jackson 5, and the two tracks that boosted Guardians’ trailer blitz throughout the year: Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling and Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky.

So while Guardians might be a quietly pleasant success for Marvel and Disney (if $94 million across a weekend is quiet), the mix of old-school space opera and irreverent music stylings seems to have struck a chord with audiences, providing a much-needed dose of freshness to the same-same feel of Marvel’s franchises.

This was clear from the first trailer released for the film, proving just how much canny and effective music pairing can go toward translating the tone, style, theme and narrative of a film. So on that note, here’s my mixtape of favourite music moments in film, in descending order.

(And yes, I’m going to be kicking myself for leaving things out, and there are plenty I couldn’t fit in, but add your suggestions in the comments, as I’m sure I’ll add mine almost-made-its.)

Boogie Nights – Spill the Wine by Eric Burdon and War

Could have easily gone with some of the moments in Magnolia, or one or two other sequences in this film, but this is the scene where Paul Thomas Anderson really hits the mark of top-notch directing, wafting the audience into a pool party and a cast of characters, all at various stages of their day, their career, and their inebriation.

Donnie Darko – Head Over Heels by Tears for Fears

Probably the greatest two minutes of Richard Kelly’s directing career, and the scene that probably established the entire feel of Donnie Darko for the audience, even if the film has never really lived up to the style and potential of this moment.

I Love You, Philip Morris To Love Somebody by Nina Simone

Perfect melding of sound and image, and the emotional centre of a hugely underrated film. Proof that a film with some rough edges to the script, and a slightly unsure footing can still be great if it gets the key moments right.

Jackie Brown – Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack

Bookending the entire story with this song, from Jackie Brown’s arrival at the airport gate to her emotional drive off into the symbolic sunset, the song sets up Tarantino’s narrative of boundary-crossing, double-crossing and crossing over into a point of no return, as well as echoing the ghosts of cinema-past – just as he always does, but never better than this.

Warrior – About Today by The National

Apparently the script was written to this track, and the band is used throughout the film. But by god what an ending, perfectly hitting all the character notes of the two brothers and wringing every possible bit of emotion out of the scene. Tears. So good. Aaaarrgh.

Kick Ass – Strobe (Adagio in D Minor) by John Murphy 

This has double impact. Firstly it is the best scene in Kick Ass, scored perfectly by Murphy’s cascading guitar riffs which underscore a brilliant –if violent – father-daughter moment (the track kicks in around 2:50 in the clip). But secondly, Murphy is reworking his track which he wrote for Sunshine, and was used brilliantly in a more classical vein there, but the rights on the track defaulted back to him after some legal problems with that film’s soundtrack. Two for the price of one.

Rushmore – Ooh La La by Faces

Wes Anderson often finishes his films with a slow-mo, and an excellent track choice. And despite there being some great tracks in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, this is probably the perfect song to finish this particular film on, almost as if it was written for Anderson’s purposes.

Chungking Express – California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and the Papas

California Dreamin’? In a Wong Kar Wai film? About a takeaway place? That has nothing to do with brown leaves and grey skies? Yet here it is perfect, particularly in capturing what’s between two character who long for change, but don’t know how to get it, or how to recognise it when it looks them in the face and orders food. Bonus Tony Leung points.

Blue Velvet – In Dreams by Roy Orbison 

Orbison hated this use of his song the first time he saw it, then loved it the second time. Lynch fell in love with the song when he was writing the script, and here it is, completely out of place and time yet just altogether mesmerising. And Dean Stockwell was meant to be holding a mic during the shoot, but they lost it and he went with a random light that was hanging around.

2001: A Space Odyssey – Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

Well, you can’t really ignore this one. If nobody had done it before, it was up to Kubrick to show how pre-existing tracks, even classical ones, could do what no purpose-written score could achieve. Each element here, the music and the image, is the greater for its combining with the other.

Goodfellas – Layla by Derek and the Dominoes

I promised myself only one Martin Scorcese scene for this list, given that he could easily make up several lists just on his own. Ignoring all the innovation of the songs in Mean Streets, the score in Taxi Driver, the opening scene in Casino and the Gimme Shelter and Shipping Up To Boston parts of The Departed – this here is the greatest sequence of film set to music. Tonally perfect, marrying the shots and the voiceover, which was all timed to match the track, building from the pink cadillac all the way to the defining lines of the film and the characters:

‘We always called each other goodfellas, like you’d say to somebody: “You’re going to like this guy, he’s alright. He’s a goodfella. He’s one of us.” You understand? We were goodfellas, wiseguys.’

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Why The Hobbit films deserve more credit

Posted July 31, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In among all the announcements, releases, rumours and tidbits of hearsay from Comic-Con was this quote from Peter Jackson, about the upcoming The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies:

I’ve always wanted to make [these movies] work as a six-film set. The goal at the beginning was to have the Hobbit go tonally [into] Fellowship, and then [progresses] into Return of the King.

This is important. It’s important because not only is the upcoming film the last in The Hobbit trilogy, it will also undoubtedly be the last time anything of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories is adapted for the screen – at least in our lifetime. But this doesn’t seem to inspire the excitement and enthusiasm the series once did, especially since The Lord of the Rings was seen as a vital boost to not just fantasy cinema, but epic cinema, and genre storytelling told with depth and seriousness on screen.

So why the puzzling, middling ambivalence about The Battle of Five Armies? Why is Peter Jackson increasingly viewed as a green-screen obsessed oddity instead of the benign film geek he was after he collected Best Director at the Academy Awards? Why are we not that fussed that this series is reaching its end, even if we still go to see it in the droves?

(At last look, both Hobbit films made about $1 billion each, surpassing both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.)

1. The length

This is an easy target.

It’s not an issue of length. Most were okay with the LotR films being three hours-plus, whereas the Hobbit films are shorter than that. It’s just an issue of length in comparison with the source material.

Taking The Lord of the Rings books at around 1500 pages adapted into three films of just over 180 minutes each, suggests that the two released Hobbit films at around 160 minutes each is a bit extravagant, especially considering The Hobbit is just one book not three, and is only around 350 pages long.

Basic maths: The Lord of the Rings adapts one page every 36 seconds, whereas The Hobbit films are averaging about a page per 97 seconds.

To people this appears as if Jackson is taking his time (an extra minute of screen time per page) in adapting this second trilogy, which was never a trilogy in the first place.

And clearly there is some inflation going on in this adaptation, I’m not going to try and argue otherwise. But come on. Adaptation is not basic maths, nor is it long equals long and short equals short. We should instead be marvelling at how he managed to reduce 1500 pages into only 600 minutes of screen time.

Jackson (and Del Toro before him, when he was at the helm) had always flagged The Hobbit to be more than one film, given the slightness of the original book and the richness of surrounding material, like the Appendices. While LotR is ostensibly Frodo’s story, it jumps around in perspective and gives you the view of many characters at many places in Middle Earth. The Hobbit is Bilbo’s story, but remains so.

For any person adapting this story to the screen, especially coming off the bankroll of a successful trilogy, limiting one’s scope and vision (and box office) to a slimline two-hour bit of triviality is pointless. This was never going to happen. The only way this film would work is if the stakes in The Hobbit were as meaningful as those raised in LotR. And that can only happen by increasing the magnitude of the story.

2. The direction

Peter Jackson’s style has developed rapidly since Fellowship was first released, to the point where even Viggo Mortensen (who really owes a hell of a lot of Jackson) came out and criticised the director for his reliance on green screens and computer-generated effects.

And this may be true, in terms of content. Certainly the use of Weta Digital’s effects has ballooned since the first film, with King Kong and The Lovely Bones sandwiched in the middle of the Tolkien adaptations. But so too has Jackson’s ability.

Go back and watch Fellowship’s CGI. Look at the poorly rendered depths of Moria and the mattes of Isengard and Rivendell that don’t quite sit in the filmed footage. The seams are noticeable. And while there were some indulgences of effects in the first Hobbit film – the goblins, mainly – they are largely brief and comical, something the source material requires. In the second Hobbit film, there’s a leap in quality again, particularly in the barrel riding sequence, which I don’t think has quite gained the recognition it deserves for what the camera and the effects manage to achieve.

On top of this is Gollum. With one hand we praise Jackson’s CGI-use, and the other slay him. We can’t have one without the other. Compare Gollum in The Hobbit to Jar Jar Binks. Okay. That’s all.

3. The tone

These films were always going to battle against triviality and redundancy. So is the nature of prequels that arrive after we’ve digested the main story.  When LotR dealt with absolute evil to ruin everything, and its eventual vanquishing, The Hobbit is only going to be less in comparison.

Additionally, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his very young children. He wrote LotR for them once they were grown. There are noticeable leaps in tone and style between the two (to the point where Tolkien himself changed future edits to more seamlessly match the two), particularly in intended audience. Were we seriously going to allow the films to be targeted to audiences 10 and under?

Changes had to be made, a seriousness and gravity needed to be included. And that isn’t really contained in some of the main narrative, particularly early, so that brings in the need for Gandalf’s story, Galadriel and Saruman’s inclusion, the ramping up of the stakes with Dol Guldur, Azog, even the bloody elves.

Getting back to Jackson’s comment above about making the six films work together, to flow organically so that the tone gradually shifts rather than suddenly (something the Star Wars franchise needs to take lessons on), the meandering pace of the first Hobbit film, combined with the increased side-plots in the second, show that there is a grand plan of tying them all together to make one narrative here, the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

When the first Hobbit film was released, I was reluctant to speculate too much on some of the changes, since they might appear entirely logical and necessary when seen in the context of the full trilogy. Many elements of these films need that consideration, given the enormous scope Jackson is offering.

All the inclusions and additions of the Hobbit films are important when seen in light of the LotR films. Without them, The Hobbit story is one that only has one connecting element to LotR – the ring – and that’s dispensed with very early on. Everything else is tangential, unless connections are drawn. And it takes inventive adapting to do that.

Imagine being a young child able to watch the first Hobbit film, with its singing and juggling dwarves, and then follow the journey all the way through to Frodo sailing off to the West. It’s an enormous story, and difficult to judge on a film-by-film basis.Far be it from me to try and change your mind if you didn’t enjoy The Hobbit films already released. Hopefully, though, there’s some reason in here that might make you see the third – and then all six – in a different light.

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We need to move on from Star Wars

Posted July 18, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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We need to unlearn what we have learned

Star Wars changed everything. It’s become that singular defining moment of cinema history, the film that changed everything, pivoting cinema from the innovative and critically acclaimed new wave of the 70s, into the barnstorming blockbuster era of the 80s and 90s, and franchised, serialised, merchandised juggernauts of the 21st century.

From Star Wars, sound design, special effects, visual effects, and soundtracks all changed dramatically, entire industries and companies spontaneously thrust to the forefront of filmmaking. Spin-offs, TV shows, video games, books and comics all extended the reality and the life of Star Wars beyond the two hours of screen time. And, most importantly, a whole generation of filmmakers rose up in George Lucas’ wake, benefiting from the investments in technological advancements that Lucas orchestrated, as well as the influence Star Wars had on their own cinematic visions and storytelling.

And the influence was immediate.

Ridley Scott went out and began work on what was to become Alien, and then later Bladerunner. Jim Henson made The Dark Crystal and then Labyrinth. James Cameron started with Terminator, took over on Aliens, and then made The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day with ILM, which Lucas founded, and which subsequently spawned the beginnings of Pixar. Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith, Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, J.J. Abrams, Lana and Andy Wachowski, Rian Johnson, Diablo Cody and Eli Roth all identify Star Wars as the ignition for their desire to make films.

Lucas’ use of Joseph Campbell and foreign films as guiding influences on his story design has been endlessly copied to the point of canonising Star Wars as its own archetype. The structure, tone and characterisation of the trilogy are effectively the blueprints for every modern franchise. And this is where we start to run into some problems.

The Star Wars franchise ran awry. Lucas’ storytelling limitations and obsessions over technological advancement drove the prequels into frustrating, hollow territory. The ever-inflating Star Wars universe left the narrative riddled with inconsistencies and irrelevancies that brought about Disney’s takeover and inevitable reset on the Star Wars universe. So much so, that J.J. Abrams, in making the upcoming Episode VII, has gone to great pains to reassure audiences that the film is returning them back to where they started.

Now we are the masters

In Star Wars’ legacy, we not only have a legion of talented filmmakers, we also have the model for how blockbuster films are failing.

Star Wars was released in 1977. Thirty-seven years ago. Given cinema’s fairly young history, the day George Lucas changed filmmaking is closer to the midpoint rather than acting as some kind of recent influence. The generation of influenced filmmakers are getting old. Ridley Scott seems stuck on adaptation-remake autopilot. Cameron is more concerned with technology than story. Jackson and Abrams are almost parodies of themselves lately, while Smith, Wright and Roth seem to abandon more projects than start them. And then the Wachowskis managed to cram Lucas’ disastrous prequel trilogy tailspin into their original trilogy, ruining everything The Matrix established with the swift crash and burn of the sequels.

And yet we still seem to be in an endless cycle of monomyths and trilogies, where we can recite the character beats and plot points in our sleep. We watch for the spectacle, but forget the story (were there any classic lines in Avatar?) We all remember that opening shot where the fleeing Rebel ship is dwarfed by the enormity of the Imperial Stardestroyer. And we remember the first sighting of the Death Star. And the lightsaber. And Darth Vader. Star Wars was spectacle, but it’s remembered because of the strength of the story underneath it.

What worked with Star Wars’ story is that it provided something that had been severely lacking in cinema for decades. It did something new and innovative with story that underpinned all its technological advancements. It worked because of so many different facets. Lucas provided a hopeful, triumphant, classic tale at a time when audiences were fearful of further destabilisation. The continuation of the Vietnam War, the paranoia of the Cold War, and the disenfranchisement of an entire population due to increasingly malicious governments left everyone unsure of what was right and what was wrong. Star Wars changed that entirely.

Of the current directors, only Nolan seems to understand this. He rightfully channelled contemporary concerns about politics, media and justice into The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, aware of how that magical symbiosis between story and reality is crucial to a lasting impact. One can only hope that his coming Interstellar brings the same respect for the audience.

These aren’t the films we’re looking for

We have exhausted the lessons from Star Wars. We need to start telling our own stories.

In the way that Lucas drew on everything he loved to create his own original story, we too need to do the same. We need to free sequels and trilogies and heroes from the repetitive and hollow confines of Campbell. As successful as Abrams is, being a modern remix of Lucas and Spielberg isn’t necessarily creating a lasting impression, especially when his lasting trait seems to be lens flares. For a time, it appeared The Lord of the Rings was going to be this generation’s Star Wars, but its impact seems to have been more along the lines of fuelling more classic book adaptations and exhausting our capacity for box-sets and blue-screens.

The current audience is one that, too, grew up with the impact of Star Wars. It is a far more cinematically knowledgeable audience, one well-versed in everything that Lucas brought about. Like anything once revolutionary, Star Wars has become the norm, the standard, the complacent mainstream.

We need a film to come along and have the wherewithal to challenge convention and do something entirely new. And from that, the next generation of films and filmmakers will spring forth.

 

 

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Every film is better when it’s set in space

Posted July 11, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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When it was pitched to the studio, Ridley Scott described Alien as ‘Jaws in space.’ And it nailed that brief perfectly, simultaneously creating its own subgenre as a result.

Last year’s Gravity was essentially Speed in space, if you can imagine that Dennis Hopper’s crazed psychopath is basically Isaac Newton.

This raises an interesting concept: are films better when they’re set in space?

What other films can be improved/adjusted/irreparably damaged by setting them in space?

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Jurassic Park

Monster movies work. Monster movies in space are even better.

So the characters in Jurassic Park In Space discover that dinosaurs didn’t become extinct on the planet, they just worked out things weren’t going to go well for them and the atmosphere and stuff (these are super smart dinosaurs) and so they left Earth and settled on a distant planet with comparable living conditions.

Until they are discovered by some over-enthusiastic billionaire and his team of space explorers, who think they have found not only a habitable planet for humanity, but also a lost colony of dinosaurs. Only it gets bad, because dinosaurs happen.

Key scene: Space raptors get into one of the escape ships and start to attack the crew in zero gravity.

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The Godfather

Imagine this like a really dark version of Star Wars, without any heroes.

Space Don Corleone is about to pass on his galactic criminal empire to his sons, only things don’t go to plan.

And his poor space soldier son Michael, who just wants to go out for space walks, only whenever he goes out into space, they keep pulling him back in.

Key scene: the synchronised hit on the other space Dons across multiple galaxies, using wormholes.

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The Dark Knight

Seriously, how much darker would it be in space?

The one thing we’ve never seen from all the iterations of the batsuit, is a bat spacesuit. And a batship. And a batcave that’s relocated to the asteroid belt.

The basic premise would be that instead of incarcerating all the crazy super villains in Arkham, Gotham has instead been shooting all the bad guys off into some kind of orbiting space prison. Only they get loose. And run amok. So SpaceBatman is off to be the zero gravity hero we all need

Key scene: after some epic battle of wits, the Joker is defeated but not captured, instead drifting off into deep dark space, cackling maniacally, to one day return. In a galaxy far far away.

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‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a space gangster.’

Documenting the rise and fall of a bit-player in the space criminal scene, poor Henry Hill bites off more than he can chew after he pulls off the Lufthansa Shuttle Heist of 2578 AD. Despite exhuming bodies on distant moons, and whacking everybody he knows in the solar system, Hill eventually is taken down by the Space Feds, and relocated to some crappy space station where he only eats space food like a schnook.

Key scene: the one take steadicam entry to the Copacabana Space Club.

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Back to the Future 

This series, while great, has always been a bit terrestrial. Imagine Marty McFly going so far into the future that everyone is living in space (because the planet is inhospitable for some reason probably involving Biff Tannen), and so Marty and the Doc have to make the DeLorean into a spacecar while they try to course-correct time and not wind up stuck in a dystopian space future.

Key scene: Biff gets knocked out when the pod bay doors of the DeLorean open in his face.

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The Shining

The Torrance family decide to look after a distant space station in the far reaches beyond Pluto. It gets cold, it gets lonely, and they all go a little mad with the space ghosts. And lots of steadicam shots down the maze-like corridors of the space station.

Key scene: Danny mysteriously finds air lock 237 open, and goes in to investigate.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai

Some decades-long galactic war is raging and a bunch of soldiers are captured and forced to build a space elevator to further the war effort of their enemy by bridging the vast river of the Kwai Galaxy. Only to do so would be possibly see defeat for their own side, yet to build a bad space elevator would be poor form, no?

But they set about building it, whistling as they go. Because in space, nobody can hear anybody whistle.

Key scene: The elevator blows up and Space Commander Nicholson realises what he’s done.

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There Will Be Blood

An epic story of family, oil and hokey space religions, centred on space prospector Daniel Plainview’s efforts to drill every damn planet, moon and asteroid in the galaxy. And if he sells his soul (and his adopted son) while doing so, all the better (worse).

Key scene: ‘I…eat…your…freeze-dried…milkshake!’

 

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Spoilers and stories

Posted July 2, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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I remember the first time I saw The Usual Suspects. The film had been recommended to my parents and they allowed me to watch it with them, despite it being a school night.

I had no context for the film whatsoever, so that the ending completely floored me. I had to tell everyone I knew to watch it, and still now feel excited when I know somebody is about to watch it for the first time. It is a story that relies so much on not knowing about it in advance, relies so completely on ignorance to the twist, that having seen it once means you can never actually experience the story that way again.

So we preserve the innocent, and try as hard as possible not to let twists out. The importance is on that first watch, or that first read, so that the integrity of the story (and its reliance on a twist) is maintained. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, famously having cutouts of himself positioned near the exits of cinemas, imploring audiences not to ruin the ending of Psycho for the incoming crowd.

But are we so concerned at not revealing twists, that we have become oversensitive to any information about the plot of a story?

Everywhere you look, people are either declaring spoiler alerts, or calling out others for revealing spoilers. The problem is, most of the time what’s labelled a spoiler isn’t actually a spoiler.

If we’re being honest, there are two types of spoilers: those that are about the journey, and those that are about the ending. The journey spoilers reveal some unexpected plot point that takes place between where the story begins and where it ends. It challenges our expectations over how we get from A to B. The ending spoilers are more to do with how things turn out. Some crucial piece of information that again challenges our expectations over where we thought this story was going.

The nature of a spoiler is that it is a piece of information revealing an element of central importance to a story. To reveal the twist in The Usual Suspects would uncover the central element of its entire narrative. To do so would, quite clearly, be spoiling the story. Even to mention that there is a twist is to prepare the audience for the moment when the twist occurs.

But, it is not a spoiler to reveal that on Lost, John Locke was in a wheelchair before crashing on the island, and that the island miraculously restored his ability to walk. While it is a twist, in the course of one episode, it has little to do with the overall arc of Locke’s character, and even less to do with the plot of the show. It is not a central element to the story.

Revealing that information did not ruin the story. Not even a little bit. But how do we determine what’s important and what isn’t? In this time of recaps and commentaries, of unprecedented open dialogue about stories across mediums, it has become an increasingly fraught thing. Whose concern are we protecting, by withholding plot elements from public discussion?

By witholding, we are highlighting something: this thing that is not mentioned is the most important thing about the story.

The fear over revealing information about Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and other such shows isn’t really to do with twists. The Red Wedding is not a twist, it’s just a shock. There are surprisingly few twisting turns in Walt’s story of Breaking Bad, given that it’s largely a study of a character in decline.

When people implore others not to give away spoilers on these shows, it’s out of some misguided notion that discussing endings or major plot points will ruin the story. Those who have read A Storm of Swords knew that Oberyn died at the hands of the Mountain, so that they were prepared for the shock viewers felt when it occurred in Game of Thrones. Yet to have revealed this in advance would not really have spoiled much. It was signposted from the beginning – particularly in the adaptation – and while shocking, doesn’t really affect any major change on the story. In fact, it really just reconfirms the plot’s already established direction.

To discuss the ending of Lost or The Sopranos or Breaking Bad isn’t to spoil the experience for anybody who hasn’t seen the shows. And yet it seems to be all everybody wants to discuss, so we end up doing so in this bizarrely veiled and hesitant fashions, under the illusion that discussing what happens in the end to Tony Soprano or Walter White will then render the story meaningless.

To mention that Dumbledore dies or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father or that Tyler Durden doesn’t actually exist isn’t going to ruin anything. But to siphon off these points, and countless others, from our open discussion of a story is to limit our ability to engage with how that story works.

A consideration about spoilers ends up being a consideration about our role as consumers of stories. Whether Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad is important only if we see that as the defining aspect of his story, as the answer to the question the story was asking. And if we do, then we’re merely passive recipients of plots and see the story as merely a vehicle.

This is a nonsense way to engage with stories, and yet treating spoilers, shocks and twists as precious elements that must be protected from public discourse shows how our priorities are out of whack: we are focused on what happens, rather than how it happens. We become the students who sit at the back and demand the answer because we can’t be bothered working out how to get there ourselves.

And the how is everything. The how is immeasurable. It often can’t be contained to one moment, or one scene, rather it’s the accumulation of elements that include plot, character, setting and tone. It’s the reason why Hitchcock’s Psycho works and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho doesn’t. It’s the reason why Quentin Tarantino decided not to abandon The Hateful Eight despite the leaking of the script to the public. It’s the reason why audiences were outraged at The Sopranos not giving us an ending to Tony Soprano, as if the ending would define the character and the story, rather than all the parts of the story that came before. It’s also the reason why audiences were far more prepared for True Detective’s ending, which revealed the journey to be of far greater consequence.

In his foreword to the revised edition of The Stand, Stephen King says that ‘in really good stories, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.’ And so it is with spoilers. I’m not saying we need to just get over spoilers and talk about everything openly. Not at all. But I think we need to consider why we’re so outraged when we find out one small part of a story in advance. We need to question why that’s important to us, what it is we’ve been robbed of, if anything.

 

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9 reasons why Han shoots first

Posted June 27, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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With the news that Harrison Ford has not just injured himself, but actually broken his leg and potentially setting back Star Wars Episode VII’s shoot by six months, it’s worth reflecting on just how integral he is to the series.

And what better way to do that than revisiting the old bugbear, the great wedge that divides all philosophical debates between George Lucas and, well, everyone: the fact that Han Solo shot Greedo first in the Mos Eisley Cantina.

The scene was revised and altered in 1997 when Lucas released the Special Editions of the three original Star Wars films. For those unaware or only familiar with the later versions of the film (the original is increasingly hard to find), the scene involves Han Solo being confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter, over outstanding debts to Jabba the Hutt. During the conversation, Han slowly reaches for his blaster and at an opportune moment, shoots Greedo by surprise.

From the Special Editions onward, Lucas inserted a shot showing Greedo firing first, making Han’s shot to be a reaction rather than instigation. The vitriol heaped on Lucas for this change may seem like an over-reaction to what is essentially half a second of footage, but there are reasons.

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1. George Lucas

In anticipating the release of the prequel films, Lucas decided to rerelease Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi having restored the original footage and updated the films with new, extended and enhanced scenes. While some changes were immediately noticeable, albeit superficial (extra flourishes to the SFX, background details and crisper matte shots), others seemed to snowball from tiny alterations into larger problems. Like this.

Once everyone worked out how much Lucas was prepared to jettison the original films for a version that nobody was familiar with (or much liked), this scene between Han and Greedo became the emblem that the fans rallied around in their immense opposition to Lucas’ endless tinkering.

When Harrison Ford was injured, it was enough to bring about a case of the warm and fuzzies for the fans just because Ford was injured by a piece of practical set and not the hard drive used to store Jar Jar Binks in perpetuity.

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2. It’s Han Solo

The whole sequence in the Cantina is an introduction to his character. In the original we meet him in the most wretched hive of scum and villainy, hear how awesome he is and how fast his ship is, meet his kick-ass sidekick carpet, he gets heaps of money out of an old man, shoots a bounty hunter and then struts out of the bar, tossing the bartender a tip.

Remove the defining aspect by making Han react late to Greedo’s shot undermines the whole integrity of the character and diminishes the introduction.

3. Stupid bounty hunters

Really, what kind of bounty hunter shoots first from three feet and misses? Later on, we’re told by Han Solo that nothing compares to having a blaster by your side. And yes, the Stormtrooper miss absolutely everything ever, but the bounty hunters generally have a good reputation.

Well they did, until 1997 when suddenly all bounty hunters everywhere must atone for the disservice Greedo did to their profession by missing his target who was sitting down right in front of him.

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4. Han should be dead

On that note, it means Han’s survival beyond this introductory scene is based purely on luck. All the scavenging, neck-saving antics of the antihero are removed when he is established as someone who’s just bloody lucky to be there.

Furthermore, it makes him a softer, gentler character whose arc is dynamically weaker, and his final about-turn to save Luke Skywalker at the end of the film is less of a surprise, and less satisfying.

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5. The reasons are stupid 

George Lucas apparently felt bad about how audiences must feel having a murderous character be portrayed sympathetically, hence his decision to ‘save’ Han from himself in the Special Edition.

There is a precedence for this. Steven Spielberg digitally removed the shotguns from police officers in the ending to E.T. – context and hindsight illustrating how shotguns in the hands of adults who are standing among children is a bit of a miscalculation.

But this is just overreacting and mawkish. Lucas clearly has no idea what drives a character to be interesting to an audience. Additionally, Han shooting Greedo occurs only minutes after Obi-Wan Kenobi removes an arm from a customer at the Cantina with his lightsaber. Far more brutal. But apparently okay for Lucas because hokey religions and being reactionary is far more important for heroes.

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6. Jabba

Greedo is there to deal with Han, who owes Jabba the Hutt money. Han knows this. Greedo knows this. The conversation is one of those where both characters are just playing along, knowing someone is going to shoot first.

Han shooting Greedo is him outmanouevring Jabba, and staying one step ahead constantly. Again, this is a defining aspect of his character. On top of that, it plays into the tension and conflict that occurs at the end of Empire and beginning of Jedi when Jabba finally catches up with Han.

If Han shoots first, he is true to his philosophy of keeping out of trouble. He only is captured by Jabba when he becomes conflicted over loyalty to Luke and Leia, and sacrifices his personal needs. If he shoots after Greedo, then again, he’s just lucky and his final capture is just a case of running out of luck. Boring.

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7. Darth Vader

So Lucas is apparently against having murderous characters be redeemable, as this was his motivation for changing the scene.

But apparently that doesn’t matter if you’re Darth Vader, who is allowed to somehow redeeem himself at the end of Jedi, despite being responsible for spearheading an empire of tyranny and genocide.

If Lucas was true to his ideals of bad being bad, and good being good, then the Emperor would have to accidentally trip of his robe and fall into the reactor shaft, while Vader looks on stupidly.

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8. CGI!

Oh how Lucas loves CGI. And with the magic of computers (computers!) he could so easily change so much. Lucas with CGI is like a kid in a candy store, only his parents are never coming to pick him up.

In reading material for this post, I discovered that Lucas had also reshot scenes for Empire during the filming of Revenge of the Sith, that was then inserted into new editions of the DVDs. Reshoots thirty years after the film was released! This was done to layer in scenes with Ian McDiarmid, who played the Emperor, over shots in Empire where the Emperor was portrayed by somebody else, before McDiarmid was cast.

And here’s the problem. Changing Han shooting first is symptomatic of everything Lucas then did with the Star Wars films. He took them from emotionally driven action films with real life people and turned them into a Mystify Your Mind screensaver: never the same, wholly computer generated, and entirely inert.

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9. We’re still trying to forget 

The fascinating thing about the filming of the new Star Wars films is how much everyone is trying to move on from George Lucas and the prequels. Not to say that there aren’t some redeeming aspects in Episodes I-III, but it’s the general bad taste in the mouth that audiences seem to have with the direction Lucas took the series that we’re all trying to forget.

Everyone wants Star Wars to be Star Wars again. Before colons and episodes and alterations and special editions and films that rhyme for no goddamn reason. And when Han sits down from Greedo, slyly pulls out his blaster and shoots first, it feels right because that’s how it was and how it should be, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

 

 

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8 film adaptations that should have been TV series

Posted June 16, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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The fact is not all books that are adapted for film should be adapated for film. In this golden era of long-form narratives on TV screens and praise for ‘literary’ television, we are increasingly debating about whether a film can do justice to a book as it once could.

In a sense, we are witnessing the living out of Marshall McLuhan’s prediction that television will become the dominant art form – even if it has taken a little longer than originally anticipated.

As as more and more actors and directors are seeing television as the medium to deliver stories that last longer than an opening weekend, I think we may be on the verge of seeing an increase in book adaptations travelling to serialised television, rather than condensing into two hours on film. The long-ago success of adaptations like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited show that in comparions to their more recent versions in film, some stories just do work better on TV.

In light of this, I thought I’d look at some films that should not have been adapated for film, and instead would have been better served piped to us through our television, with a dedicated cast, crew and team of writers serving the story, rather than the box office.

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1. World War Z – Max Brooks

In a highly scientific study conducted by myself and involving asking whoever happened to be on Facebook and Twitter two nights ago, this was unanimously the title we wanted to see made for television, rather than the abomination that was served up by Marc Forster in 2013.

Despite the fact that the film of World War Z made enough to put a sequel into development, it was so far removed from the source material it might as well have been titled Generic Zombie Apocalypse Movie. The book, translated appropriately, would be perfect for episodic TV, and removed enough from The Walking Dead to still be fresh.

Seriously. That film was stupid.

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2. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

Yet another utterly disappointing film adaptation. It is such a shame that the full scope and vision of Pullman’s story didn’t make it onto screen, given where the story goes come The Amber Spyglass, I am frequently saddened that this may never come to pass.

Hopefully, given that The Book of Dust is soon to be completed, some adventurous souls may feel compelled to bring this to fruition. Since Game of Thrones has shown how to do epic fantasy on a TV budget, and the complications of Pullman’s story that would necessite heavy SFX work, this may be possible sooner rather than later. Actually, it is possible, now. Do it. Please.

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3. Watchmen – Alan Moore 

While the film was an ambitious attempt, it was also terrifically sterile, in a way that only Zack Snyder can achieve. The film got so many things right (certainly the casting, and the visual tapestry of the era), but yet got it entirely wrong, sucking all possible energy and emotion out of the original.

And look, nobody has to worry about pleasing Alan Moore, as he’ll just hate it all anyway. But the episodic nature of the original would translate seamlessly, and it’d be the perfect antidote to this Avengers-saturated world.

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4. Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling

Look I honestly believe we will see a TV series adaptation of Harry Potter in our lifetime. It’s just a matter of when.

Despite the box office and fanaticism, enough time has passed for us all to acknowledge that all the films were pretty poor adaptations, excising enormous swathes of material from increasingly large books and leaving a bit of a narrative mess on the cinema screen. (Really, watch Goblet of Fire and imagine you don’t know the plot from the book. It makes no sense. No goddamn sense.) The richness of the world in the books is infinitely lacking, and would be far better rendered in TV land.

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5. The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

Okay this is really just for me, but it would be perfect.

The film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater is so laughably bad, so completely uninterested in understanding the novel that it essentially tries to turn Umberto Eco into Dan Brown. And I know this will never be made into a TV series (medieval monks, no female roles, antiquated literary references, did I mention the monks?), but the book is so capitvatingly visual and dramatically suspenseful, it would be the easiest adaptation to write. Especially in the era of True Detective, and morally inconclusive detective stories, this is the morally inconclusive detective story.

And perfect for all those character-actors who litter our TV screens like affectionate gargoyles.

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6. Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

The film actually isn’t bad, though it is downright hysterical in parts, but Anne Rice on TV? So good.

And the fact that it would then pave the way for The Vampire Chronicles to be adpated wholesale, erasing all the bad memories of a. Tom Cruise, and b. Queen of the Damned.

Now that I’m writing this down, I’m actually surprised this isn’t happening, seems like a perfect fit.

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7. Tomorrow, When the War Began – John Marsden

Again, for much of the same reasons as above, there is so much material here that a TV series would be rolling in plots and characters.

Given the success of this series in Australia, and the lacklustre performance of the film, it’s actually surprising nobody is doing anything about getting this onto TV. Those working in television should really move heaven and earth to get it done, firstly because we never get any locally produced content of this type on our screens, and secondly because it would work as an ongoing series.

(How terrible is that poster design, by the way?)

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8. The Karla Trilogy – John le Carre

I mentioned Tinker, Tailor earlier, and as much as I loved the casting and direction of the recent film, I missed the depth of the story that is present in the book, and the original ITV adaptation with Alec Guinness.

Back then, it was deemed too expensive to film the sequel – The Honourable Schoolboy – despite it being the best in the trilogy, as it’s largely set in Vientiane. Production rushed into Smiley’s People, the third book, and while the TV series is okay, it lacks the feeling of resolution that would come from having an intact trilogy.

Since the film did well, and reignited the interest in faithful spy stories, a modern-day version of le Carre’s Karla trilogy would be unbelievably excellent to see. The Honourable Schoolboy in particular is, to me, one of the premier spy stories, presenting that to a wider audience would be a wonderful thing.

 

 

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The greatest villains in cinema

Posted May 30, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A while back I did a post on villains, the different types they can be, and their function in a story. So, in the spirit of villainy, I’ve compiled a list of the greatest villains to appear in film. By no means conclusive, there’s an aim for diversity though, with a few caveats.

First, monsters are out. The nature of a monster in a story is not to be the villain, rather they are an aspect of the plot. So, no Alien. No Predator. No T-1000.  And sadly for me, no Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.

Secondly, the villain must be the villain. Which leaves out Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (though not in Hannibal, but let’s face it, that film isn’t going on any lists). No Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. No Gmork from The Neverending Story.

Lastly, the villain needs to not just be bad for the sake of it. They can’t just be an aimless foil for the hero. They need to have a reason, a drive, beyond just endless destruction and chaos. The villain needs to think they’re doing good. So, no Joker. No Stansfield from The Professional. No Voldemort.

Why the caveats? Well, why not? The list would be enormous otherwise, it was hard enough just settling on the following dirty dozen, presented here chronologically.


Hans Beckert in M

The film and the role that pushed both director Fritz Lang and actor Peter Lorre into international recognition, after both had emerged from the silent era of film in Germany. Lorre’s Beckert is the height of creepiness, whistling In The Hall of the Mountain King as he preys on small children. His final plea to the citizens is utterly awful and yet highly applicable eighty years after it was made.

 


HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

There have been many imitators and debtors to the legacy of HAL, but nothing surpasses the demonstrably evil computer that wishes to be a real boy, and is prepared to kill everyone by lipreading just to prove its point. The monotone and the silence encapsulates HAL’s villainy perfectly, and is one of Kubrick’s greatest cinematic achievements.

 


Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just pure evil. And evil that comes cloaked in the pretense of goodwill and therapeutic aid. Nurse Ratched is so successful as a villain, she’s practically become an archetype that extends beyond fiction and into real-life.

 


Noah Cross in Chinatown

Oh god, it’s just impossible to watch John Huston and not be terrified of him in this. Without revealing anything of a plot that benefits from not being revealed, Huston’s Cross is a hideous portrayal of a villain who’s not just bad, they’re bad in all the ways a person can be bad.

 


Antonio Salieri in Amadeus

An odd villain in that he narrates his villainy to us wholesale, acknowledging how he is the one doing all the bad things to his rival Mozart, but F.Murray Abraham plays Salieri with such conflict glee, destroying that which he loves because he hates himself. It’s a masterclass of characterisation, showing how we can all be the bad guy, when faced with our own insecurities.

 


Michael Corleone in The Godfather Parts 1 & 2

Similar to Salieri, in that we’re with Michael all the way – from his innocent soldier boy to his isolated and lonely conclusion – but his story is one that documents the steps a character takes into becoming the villain of the piece. One could look at any number of the scenes where Michael navigates his way through the the criminal underworld, but really it’s in his scenes with Kay and how he treats his family that the character is most horrific.

 


Annie Wilkes in Misery

Mark and I went on about how great Kathy Bates was as Annie Wilkes the other day, and she’s probably my favourite villain in this list. Other than the imprisonment and psychological torture, and despite the hobbling scene, the thing that makes her quite possibly the scariest one of the lot is that she’s a villain who just loves books. That’s all. She just wants more books. Give her books, or else.

 


The Grand High Witch in The Witches

It’s a hard balance to get a villain terrifying in a story made for children, and not have it tip over into cartoonish and camp. This particular character gets bonus points from a lot of places. First, she comes with the source material, which is one of the more terrifying childhood reads going around. Secondly, she is terrifying both in disguise and out of it. Thirdly, Angelica Huston portrays the witch, which means the character is literally the daughter of the villain from Chinatown. Jesus.

 


Keyer Soze in The Usual Suspects

The bad guy that all the other bad guys are afraid of. A bad guy we barely even know, and can only glimpse at how far his evilness reaches, but you have to credit the villain who is able to sacrifice everything for his mission. Too many antagonists are brought down by their pride, or their sentimental weakness, but not Soze.

Also, how long is the statute of limitations on The Usual Suspects? Can we talk about it yet?

 


Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven

This is how villains should be written. Absolutely committed to his self-belief that he is the hero, he is the good guy in this story, Little Bill is completely staggered at the final realisation that the laws of narrative don’t work the way he thoughts they did. And what did he want? A house. He wanted to build a house. Such a good bad guy.

 


Max Cady in Cape Fear

A strangely forgotten Scorcese film, despite the fact that it launched an entire sequence of Simpsons episodes. De Niro’s Cady is the supreme villain, god-like in his ability to turn up at the right places, escape every possible block Nick Nolte attempts, and in the end becomes the absolute manifestation of repressed guilt and fear. And he speaks in tongues, too.

 


Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men

A story that is essentially reflecting on the moral culpability of society that has too many villains, the Coen brothers really only needed to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s novel faithfully and they’d have a really good bad guy. Casting Javier Bardem however gave them one of the most iconic representations of evil that we’ve ever had on screen, from the haircut to the speech pattern, to the belligerent questioning way he has with every single character in the story.

 

 

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The (un)happy endings

Posted May 1, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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‘The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’

So says Oscar Wilde, but is that always the case? What happens when the good end unhappily?

Recently, in conversation about The Mist – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King short story – it was discussed how the film not only changed the ending, but constructed one so powerfully negative that it almost overshadowed all the rest of the story. It wasn’t just a negative ending, but one that really shocked the audience and brought home the brutality of the storyteller.

Had it just been a tragic ending, the film might’ve remained shocking but still watchable. As it stands, the ending is not only tragic, we discover minutes later that it was needlessly tragic. And this is awful to endure, illustrating just how much we have been manipulated by the storyteller.

When do unhappy endings work?

Firstly, the tragic narrative needs to be acknowledged. In this case, the tragedy is usually the fact that everybody dies. Or at least, everybody who might have a central part in the narrative, the minor characters are allowed to survive, as witnesses to the tragedy. So that it doesn’t happen again. Hamlet dies avenging his father’s death, by killing his uncle, while his mother is poisoned, so is his rival, some other guy who is standing nearby, and his friends who betrayed him are killed offstage. Romeo and Juliet die as testament to the feud between their families.

In a more modern version of this, Never Let Me Go, the tragedy is that we all die. The journey of the character to this discovery, that it happens to us all, is upsetting to watch, as all tragedy is. This is because we know the ending, on some fundamental level. But we don’t want to  know what it is, we want to believe that somehow the magic of the story will intervene and we can live happily ever after. The audience watching Romeo and Juliet is told from the beginning that they will die, we are just distracted from this by the art of the narrative, until the realisation all comes crashing down at the end.

Much of this rests of dramatic irony, and skilled foreshadowing. It relies on the skill of the writer to acknowledge there will be an unhappy ending, but simultaneously create a desire in the audience for it not to be the case. All the way along, we need to believe right up until the end that Hamlet will succeed, that Tommy and Kathy will get a deferral and live a little longer, that Juliet will escape to Mantua with Romeo.

The other unhappy ending, the one more prominent in film, is the surprise. The swift and upsetting moment when we realise that there’s no way out of this, that this is one of those stories. But similarly, there needs to be something there for the audience. We can’t just feel bad. There needs to be something we can takeaway, some element of hope (no matter how small) that one can hang on to in the darkness.

Spoilers follow, naturally.

At the end of Atonement, we discover that not only wasn’t there a great epic romance between Robbie and Cecilia, much of what we’ve witnessed has been part of a creative purgatory the central character Briony created as punishment for her long ago sin. The glimmer of optimism here though is that she can continue to create a happy ending for them in her mind. Perhaps.

In The Vanishing, Rex discovers exactly what happened to his wife – she was buried alive. He discovers this by having the same fate befall him. However, what drove him to this point was his desire to know, a desire that overthrew the rest of his life. Now he knows.

Rosemary’s Baby concludes with the shock that Rosemary’s newborn is actually the spawn of Satan, and yet she can still be his mother, having feared all throughout the plot that this would be taken away from her.

And in Seven, in what is cinematically close to a classical tragedy, and arguably one of the greatest – unhappiest? – of down endings, John Doe the serial killer is able to execute his design perfectly, trapping the hero Mills into becoming a murderer himself. But, Mills’ partner Somerset – the witness to the tragedy – is able to continue on, working to conceivably fight for what little good he can see in the world.

(Oddly enough, I think that final voiceover of Somerset’s was added at the studio’s behest, and the director hates it, thinking it incongruous with the rest of the story.)

It’s depressing just writing those, actually.

Unhappy endings are hard to execute, as it’s all too easy for the story to focus on the unhappiness, rather than letting the audience feel as if it is a natural, albeit tragic, conclusion to the plot.

There needs to be a reason to witness the story, to experience something that doesn’t go the way we’d hope, otherwise it’s exploitation. This is where I feel The Mist went wrong, in that it showed its hand too much, revealed too far how much the narrative was working to upset the audience, and we can’t recover from that.

It’s a sliding scale I think, from happy to bittersweet, to ambiguous, to unhappy, to exploitative. All stories exist somewhere along that scale, but I think I need a dose of the happier ones, just for now.

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Podmentum: And the Podmentum goes to…

Posted March 7, 2014 by Mark

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The latest episode of Podmentum is our Oscars special! We discuss our predictions, the major winners, what we thought deserved to win and lots more. We’re also joined by special guest Sam Sainsbury, senior editor from Pan Macmillan.

 

Recommendations

Sam

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Joel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Patrick

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran

Mark

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

 

 

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The misery of literature

Posted March 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A recent article posited the theory that the economic mood of society could be reflected in the stories society tells itself. By analysing millions of digitised books, the researchers constructed a ‘literary misery index’, which miraculously correlated with the ‘economic misery index’ to show that societal economic downturn can be mirrored in the mood and tone of books.

The study presented the idea that there was a rough ten-year lag between economic misfortune and when that would become manifest in books, the idea being that it takes time for so-called ‘misery’ to be processed, digested and translated into narrative.

This, in itself, is hardly surprising, if taken as a face-value overview. What else are stories but reflections, refractions and interpretations of the stories we face in life? Even in escapism, one can trace back a root cause to the need to escape.

This is not wholly isolated to books, though. The parallel between popular mediums and societal climax is well-documented. But does that mean we can anticipate genre trends from political, economic and cultural climates? Can we predict that the current political mood in Australia is going to prompt a raft of anti-establishment narratives? Or that the GFC will similarly produce economically-depressed stories in the next few years?

The glut of dystopian narratives – particularly in YA books, but also then crossing to films – does seem to suggest this. That this trend is in its final throes appears, however, more symptomatic of an audience moving on from favoured styles and tropes, rather than a creative collective feeling hope where once it was only cynicism.

In film, it’s much easier to diagnose and dissect trends in genre, given that it’s a medium that wears audience popularity on its sleeve, a touch more than literature does. The constant insistence on darker, grittier and ‘more real’ qualities to films in recent years is testament to the overt displays of trend and trope. This wonderful analysis looks at the genre trends over a hundred years of cinema and throws up some interesting suggestions.

Documentary, horror and pornography all appear to have benefited from the loosening of censorship guidelines in the 1960s, allowing for not only more overt depictions of sex and violence on screen, but also perhaps a truer portrait of society. Inversely, the western is all but dead and buried after 1970, and crime, adventure and romance appear to be on downward trends in recent years. The release of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the beginning of the 1980s was seen not only as a revival of the action-adventure genre popular in the early-20th century, but also as a salve to the political and economic ills of the 1970s, bringing hope and naivety to a cynical world, documented and translated so thoroughly in American cinema at the time.

So, genre appears then not only as a reaction to the outside world, but also as a response to the outside world’s influence over genre. Societal thesis breeds narrative antithesis, which in turn begets narrative synthesis. The extension of this is at what point the narrative synthesis – stories challenging how we see the world we live in – starts to effect the world itself and then it all becomes quite interesting.

Our ability to predict or anticipate genre trends based on world events is not really surprising. But sometimes the cause of a trend is less overt. The popularity of The Hunger Games potentially has less to do with the strengths of the writing, rather than the strengths of the story’s ability to channel its teenage audience’s frustrations with the adult world. That this sentiment was coupled with a dystopian narrative then appears as a combination of right-time-right-place, more easily understood in hindsight than as prediction.

So maybe the deluge of dystopian stories has done its dash in illustrating our less-than hopeful view of the world and the future. Maybe the trend has rightly identified that we see difficulty in imagining the future as anything but corrupted. But perhaps that trend will now trigger a response, a vision of the world that can once again give us reason to believe that optimism and understanding are not lost to stories, nor to the world.

A ‘genre optimism index’ might be a better option than a ‘literary misery index’.

 

 

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The story formula

Posted February 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently I stumbled on an old article on Slate that discussed why so many big Hollywood releases these days seem to feel the same. They seemed to have the same rhythm, the same permutations, even the protagonists started to blend into one another, as did the bad guys. The moment in the second act when the villain is caught by the good guys on purpose, only to then reveal their nefarious master scheme, is quickly becoming a cliche. So too is the fake ending, only to twist into yet another reveal and extra ten minutes to the run time.

What was happening, according to Slate, was that a particular method refined and promoted by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder in the mid-2000s had become the blueprint for many films greenlit and released in the coming years. We are now witnessing the knock-on effect of this influence.

Snyder’s strategy for story was – like many – nothing new. It was merely one that he astutely observed and practised, from the legacy of hundreds of other successful big-ticket films over the last few decades. Described in his book Save the Cat!, Snyder’s method suggests following beats in a story, ensuring that these moments are delivered to the audience so as not to give them short-shrift on the story’s potential impact, and the arc of the characters.

This is a slight break from the tradition of developing a story along the classic three-act structure, developed by screenwriting gurus (for want of a better word) Syd Field, Robert McKee, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, and the monomyth of Joseph Campbell. That method was never more than a vague blueprint, a guideline of principles that – again – came from observation about what worked. It was a noticing of patterns, shared behaviour across different stories, and yet then reduced down to a step-by-step plan for aspiring writers.

Like anything, reducing a story down to a study of its architecture is a way of making something less than the sum of its parts. And to an extent, this could be one of the reasons why we perhaps tailed off blockbusters for a while, as we became clued into the formula, and why by the late 90s and early 2000s they seemed to become rather uninspired affairs.

Save the Cat! takes its title from the idea that one of the early beats for your main character should be getting them to appear likeable to some extent, such as by saving a cat. This thus engenders sympathy, and aligns the audience’s concerns with that of the hero, ripe for exploring or exploiting. Additionally, it establishes an aspect of the story without having to conform to a structural guide, and this is consistent with all of Snyder’s twelve beats. Other beats include things like the opening image – where either the protagonist or central concern of the story is established – the catalyst – where some action challenges and propels the protagonist into a new world order – and the dark night of the soul – where the protagonist is forced to acknowledge the insurmountable obstacles surrounding them and admit possible defeat.

The beats deliver a story that emotionally and entertainingly deliver, but are a bit freer in form and structure. This, however, has led to rather more blockbusters feeling a bit more sprawling and convoluted than perhaps audiences have been used to.

Regardless, planning a story by beats, and viewing it this way is a fascinating exercise, and worth considering. Snyder’s website provides story analysis – beat sheets – on many different films from the last few decades, and allows for wonderful revision of films like Jurassic Park that contains all the beats, but is structurally unusual and unique in its genre. Seriously, go read it.

But, there is a warning. As always. Snyder – who passed away suddenly in 2009 – stressed that the beats were merely necessary plot inclusions, but not a how-to guide on writing a complete story. Unfortunately, as is Hollywood’s way, the archetype has been turned into the one-size-fits-all, and increasingly we’re seeing a lot of formulaic blockbusters.

In short, we’re back where we were ten years ago.

To some extent, it’s a natural occurrence. Hollywood studios are businesses, and when something makes good business, you rinse and repeat. Exponentially. But I think audiences are too wise to story mechanisms now. We’ve become versed in the metalanguage of film and television, and carry tropes and cliches around with us as trophies of cultural credibility. The lifespan of Snyder’s beats seems to be shorter than the three acts of Field and McKee, and the monomyth – particularly among the YA audience – is just about exhausted.

If we go back to the proto-blockbuster – Jaws – it’s almost unrecognisable as a tentpole summer release of the 2010s. Middle-aged cast, meandering opening, and an inflated third act that practically dominates the movie, which traverses genres into a seemingly existentialist pursuit of chaos. It’s atypical, and defies reduction down to a schematic, despite the attempts of McKee et al.

A lesson can be learned here. To not let the story be contained by a formula. And to not tick aspects off a list and expect that it’ll do. Hollywood – and others – need to do more, and find the unique. That way lies gold.

 

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Box office Nerdery: Billion dollar movies for 2014

Posted January 22, 2014 by Mark

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Every year since 2008 has produced at least one billion dollar movie. In 2012, there were four (The Avengers, SkyfallThe Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). Last year there was only one, Iron Man 3, with Despicable Me 2 coming close, and both The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire both still in wide release but probably not going to make it. Most analysts predict a record amount of billion dollar movies in 2015 (with new movies in the Star Wars, Avengers, Jurassic Park, James Bond and Hunger Games franchises), but what about 2014? Here is a list of films that have the potential to make it:

 

$800 million movies: at least one of these will crack $1 billion

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The Hobbit: There and Back Again

The first one managed $1 billion, and the second came close, thanks to robust grosses outside the US (where it underperformed). The third one has a chance if the marketing is executed in the right way. The promise of a conclusion to the cliffhanger ending of the second film, and the last chance that audiences will have to see a new film set in Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle-Earth could prove enough to boost this film past $1 billion.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1

Catching Fire built on what had come before, but there was some slight disappointment that it didn’t join the billion dollar club. However, it was well-received and given the fact that the love for Jennifer Lawrence should grow this year (with a potential Oscar win and an appearance in the sure-to-be-a-hit X-Men: Days of Future Past), this one could make it. It’s probably more likely to happen with Mockingjay: Part 2, but you never know.

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Transformers: Age of Extinction

Ugh. I know, I know. But the third Transformers surprised everyone when it surged past $1 billion. There’s obviously a vast audience that loves these films, and they’ve had a few years to build up their desire for another film. Add to that a ‘reboot’ of the franchise with a new cast and the promise of dino-bots, and this one could be massive.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Reviews for the first were mixed (Andrew Garfield = good, Lizard = bad), and while most people considered a reboot unnecessary coming so close to Sam Raimi’s films, it still made $750 million. Audiences will definitely give this franchise a second chance, and with the promise of seeing iconic villains like Electro on screen, it should please long-time fans. If the issues with the first film are fixed in the second, there could be very little to hold it back from joining the billion dollar club.

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Interstellar

Christopher Nolan has had an unprecedented run as a filmmaker. His last two Batman films each grossed over $1 billion, and the film he made between them, Inception, made over $800 million. He’s also assembled an amazing cast with broad appeal, including Matthew McConaughy and Anne Hathaway. And space movies are proving to be box office draws again, with the Star Trek franchise delivering solid results, and Gravity being a massive worldwide hit. The first teaser trailer builds up even more anticipation without giving much away, and it’s being released in November (November/December movies generally hold better at the box office).

 

$650 million movies: one of these could crack $1 billion in the right circumstances

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Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel has two major films in their Avengers universe out this year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which will do solid business) and Guardians of the Galaxy. A lot will depend on the quality of the film, but it has the potential to be the Star Wars of the Marvel universe. It’s something new, it’s not linked too intricately to the other Marvel properties, and it should have broad audience appeal with a nice blend of cool special effects, humour, and a (hopefully) thrilling adventure. If the filmmakers deliver a great film, this one has potential to be a massive global hit.

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How to Train Your Dragon 2

The first one made $500 million, was warmly received by audiences around the world, and has a reputation for being a film that benefits from a big screen viewing. Dreamworks animation almost delivered a billion dollar animation with Shrek 2 back in 2004, so they have experience in successfully growing audiences for sequels. It will also benefit from the fact that there will be no Pixar movie this year, so the animation marketplace is a little more open.

 

$500 million movies: cracking $1 billion is unlikely but not impossible

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

If you include the Wolverine movies, this will be the 7th film in this franchise. There are already two more in production, a direct sequel to DOFP and a third Wolverine movie. They deliver solid results, but no movie in this franchise has grossed more than $500 million. Does DOFP have the potential to more than double the gross of the most successful instalment (X-Men 3: The Last Stand)? It’s possible. First Class is generally regarded as a great superhero movie that breathed fresh life into the franchise, and it has gained a larger following via home viewings. It’s also been almost 8 years since audiences last saw the original cast in their iconic roles (apart from Wolverine, of course). So, an Avengers-style team up in the popular X-Men universe will definitely deliver an above average result, and DOFP will undoubtedly be the most successful X-Men film. If the all stars align (other superhero movies disappoint this year, J-Law wins another Oscar, the marketing campaign is flawless, the movie is spectacularly good), then it could overperform.

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Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis are yet to create a bona-fide hit outside of The Matrix series. Could this be it? An epic space adventure with a likeable cast (Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum star), and dazzling visuals, Jupiter Ascending has promise. Provided the Wachowskis can reign in some of their worst excesses, this could be a crowd-pleaser with broad appeal. The criminally under-seen Cloud Atlas was a welcome return to form, and the studio has invested $250 million in this, so they obviously feel confident. If, like Guardians of the Galaxy, this film can capture a Star Wars vibe, it has a chance.

 

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The world according to Marvel

Posted January 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Something is rotten in the state of Marvel.

If one considers Marvel’s reign as comic-to-film juggernaut as an era beginning with Blade in 1998, and running currently up to Thor: The Dark World last year, it is responsible for a total grossing intake of over $13 billion from audiences around the world. Across the thirty films released in that period, that’s an average of $437 million per film (ranging from Punisher: War Zone with $10.1m to The Avengers with $1.5b).

Quite astounding numbers. But there’s other numbers that I want to look at, numbers that portray a very different view of Marvel’s contribution to cinema over fifteen years. It’s one that others have noticed, one that offers a very narrow vision of who our heroes are, who our storytellers are, and how we condone their portrayal of the world.

A short disclaimer: many of the films in this analysis I enjoy, some of them I particularly love. I come not to praise, nor bury Marvel, merely to cast an analytical eye over their output and see what that tells us.

I.

As this article suggests, there is an increasing clamour from certain sections of the movie-going audience wanting more diversity in the superheroes put on screen. This is not something strictly isolated to comic-book films, but it is an argument highlighted loud and clear by the storytelling choices made by Marvel since 1998.

30 Superheroes:

  • 26 white male
  • 3 non-white male 
  • 1 white female

For the purposes of this category, I’m considering who the protagonist is in the film – as they are clearly the ‘hero’ – as some of these films contain more than just one who might be classified as a superhero. It is critical to examine who the protagonist is, given the audience’s relationship to the central character, our understanding and emotional response to the narrative that occurs due to their presence, and also that they often become the publicly promoted image for the film.

In the case of the X-Men series, for the three films that are clearly ensemble films, I’ve made the choice to position Wolverine as the dominant protagonist. Given his dominant screen-time, the devotion to his backstory and emotional resolution that is tied to the conclusion of each of the three films, it’s pretty hard to not view him as the main superhero. This is born out by the continuation of his character in two standalone films.

Still, what we have is white male superheroes occupying 90% of our films, and male superheroes 97%.

Remove the Blade trilogy from this counter – all made pre-2004 and as a trilogy is responsible for less box office than X-Men: The Last Stand on its own and Marvel is strictly a white-zone. It also begs the question: do any of these characters have to be white? Do any of them have to be male? And don’t give me some claptrap about that’s how they were in the comics, because it’s rubbish. Hollywood has been changing things from its source material since time immemorial, why draw the line here?

II.

But I didn’t just want to focus on who the central characters are. Challenging that will lead nowhere unless we consider more information.

30 Directors:

  • 27 white male
  • 3 non-white male

The lack of female directors in mainstream cinema is not a new topic, yet is is staggering to see it so clearly laid out here. Apparently it is so ingrained into our consciousness that superhero = male, therefore the person in charge of that story must also be male.

For the non-white men who were lucky enough to helm a Marvel film, two of the number are made up by the same person: Tim Story, who directed the two Fantastic Four films. The other was Ang Lee, who made such an impression with Hulk that he wasn’t allowed back for the sequel, nor were any of his casting decisions.

III.

Ultimately, the director though can only shoot (mostly) the script. Marvel, however, have a very inbred relationship with their screenwriters, with several working on multiple films and across multiple franchises, because if it worked once, it’s gotta work again, right?

30 Scripts:

  • 30 written by white males

That is all. 100% white men writing Marvel’s films. This is the narrow, futile vision of Marvel’s cinematic world – it has been left to a few dozen white men to determine the characters, the plots, and the white-male-centric view of superheroes.

If we wanted to change anything, let’s start with the writers. Bear in mind as well, that these films often have multiple writing credits, so it’s not just thirty of them – there’s lots, all telling us the same thing.

Oddly enough, if you look beyond Marvel to Kick-Ass, you find a female writer, Jane Goldman. And yes, you have a male protagonist, but as a superhero he is ineffective compared to the female superhero in the story, who also happens to get the most resounding emotional arc the film offers, culminating in this goddamn awesome scene:

 

IV.

Right. White male superheroes, white male directors, white male writers. Can Marvel offer us anything in the way of diversity? What is their total view of the world, if you consider the Marvel population as representative of their imagination?

30 Principal Casts:

  • Total characters: 243
  • Male: 184 (76%)
  • Female: 59 (24%)
  • White: 205 (84%)
  • Non-white: 38 (16%)

To be considered part of the principal cast, well, I left that to my judgement. I’ve included, for instance, Ellen Page in X-Men: The Last Stand, even though she isn’t listed as principal in many lists. So you’ll just have to trust me.

The view of the Marvel world is this: 76% must be men. 84% must be white. White male characters make up at least 60% of the Marvel population.

Where are the standouts? There really aren’t any. The Wolverine had above-average female presence (3 out of 9), and also non-white characters (5 out of 9), but given that it’s set in Japan that makes a lot of sense. Even where X2 had better female representation (4 out of 11), it suffered in only providing one non-white character.

The X-Men franchise is an interesting one, in that it is an ongoing series of stories that deal with discrimination. This theme has proven to be powerful for many audiences, and yet without Halle Berry, Zoe Kravitz and Edi Gathegi, the main four films are starkly white. This is despite having characters such as Mystique, who is free to choose her appearance how she sees fit, and as depicted in X-Men: First Class is walking around looking like Jennifer Lawrence. The choice here is to look white so as to fit in. So they are aware of the dominance of white depictions in order to gain acceptance, whilst simultaneously conforming to it.

The Avengers films (including all individual superhero films) are among the whitest, men-iest going around. When there has been a trend bucked it still is disproportionate in how the story is told. In the case of Elektra, it seemed like having a female protagonist stopped the writers and director from putting any other female characters of note in the film, and its poor box office ($56.7m) now serving as the one exception that proves Marvel’s rule that female superheroes don’t work.

So where do we go from here?

With another raft of Marvel films set to be unleashed in 2014 and 2015, guaranteed we’re going to see more of the same. We can but hope that different visions can start to make their way through in the characters we see, the directors who portray them, and the writers who put it all down in the first place.

We can but hope, because these numbers are out of touch with reality.

 

 

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2014 Oscar nominations

Posted January 17, 2014 by Mark

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The 2014 Oscar nominations have been announced, and as usual it’s a great field of films that I haven’t seen yet. I will promise to do my best to see as many as possible before the ceremony, but I will fail dismally to do so. Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible to predict winners because the Oscars are all about politics, not merit.

One of the big films this year seems to be American Hustle, nominated for a surprising 10 awards. This is one of the few nominated films I’ve actually seen, and while it was no doubt a very good movie, 10 nominations seems like overkill.

Gravity also earned 10 nominations, and is sure to do a clean sweep of the technical categories. While Cuaron nabbed the best director award at the Golden Globes, I’m not sure that Academy members would be comfortable awarding him the director gong, especially if best picture goes to 12 Years a Slave (which has 9 nominations).

The recent tradition of naming more than five best picture nominees continues, which is basically a PR stunt to ensure that more “popular” movies get nominated and lead to more “normal” people watching the telecast.

Here are the nine best picture nominees, with the ones that are CLEARLY NOT GOING TO WIN crossed out: American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Her, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street

Other than that, I think that the fairly safe bets are Cate Blanchett winning best actress for Blue Jasmine, everyone’s love affair with Jennifer Lawrence continuing as she wins best supporting actress for American Hustle, Frozen winning best animated feature (there’s no Pixar rival this year), and, as I mentioned earlier, Gravity winning the technical awards (special effects, cinematography, sound mixing, etc).

I would love to see Before Midnight win the best adapted screenplay award, but I think the competition is too fierce. I’d also like to see Matthew McConaughy win the best actor award for Dallas Buyers Club. He’s actually got a pretty decent chance (especially since he won at the Golden Globes), and I think he deserves recognition for the way he’s reinventing himself as an actor. Plus it would just be insane if the guy who starred in Failure to Launch won the best actor award.

So, any predictions of your own?

 

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Live event spoilers and the internet

Posted January 14, 2014 by Mark

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I used to do a media blackout when the Academy Awards were on. Being in Australia, they happen during work hours on a Monday, and it’s not always possible to watch live. Usually the event is shown at around 8.30 in the evening, so I’d turn off my phone, not watch TV or listen to the radio all day.

And then I started to work in social media.

Social media pretty much makes it impossible to avoid these kinds of spoilers. Golden Globes and Academy Awards are the kind of newsworthy stuff that gets picked up and run by pretty much everyone. It’s no use trying to mute keywords because there are so many names that it would take half the day to do it effectively. I became slightly frustrated at the fact that my tradition was ruined.

And then I decided to stop being lame.

Why the hell would a normal person want to sit through an awards show anyway? They’re long, usually boring, and now anything interesting is cut into a bite-sized chunk and put on YouTube. All you really want to know is who won, and why would you want to put that off until 11.30pm on a Monday night, when you could have found out at 2pm (or whatever, I don’t know time zones)?

Also, being a competitive Oscar-guesser, it’s good to have the information to hand as early as possible, so you can rub everyone’s faces in your rightness, or run away from your wrongness. The conversations surrounding these shows are always fun and interesting, and social media is a glorious place to be when they’re occurring. You don’t want to be the person tweeting about the ‘we saw your boobs’ song 8 hours after it happened. Hashtag lame #lame

I no longer bother with media blackouts. Except for Eurovision, for reasons.

 

 

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What we can learn from the films of 2013

Posted January 9, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Initially this was going to be a look back at the best films of 2013. But to be honest, last year was a rather middling one for the big releases. So, for something different, I thought I’d look back at some of the big films that came out in the last twelve months and see what went wrong with them, and what we can learn for the future.

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Evil Dead

It did okay, received decent enough reviews and made enough money to warrant its production. But if we have to endure another year of horror film remakes that are merely amplified, exaggerated versions of what we’ve already seen, then I might just give up on them all together. The horror films of old had their own conventions and tropes, and if directors and studios keep flogging ancient dead horses the whole genre is running the risk of becoming obsolete.

It’s fascinating that in the last decade of remakes, reimaginings and reboots, two of the more interesting and original horror films (The Mist and Bug) have come from two veterans of cinema and horror – William Friedkin and Frank Darabont.

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Oblivion

Again, didn’t fare too badly critically and financially, but it’s an unfortunate formula when we’re left with the feeling that it’s another year, and another time Tom Cruise saves the world. Looking back over his career, it’s dotted with endless Jacks, Bills, and Davids; Cruise is intent of being the everyman who saves us all. The problem is, he is too unrelatable a persona for audiences to invest in anymore. On the occasion where he’s reinvented himself – Vincent in Collateral, and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire – he’s shown us how good an actor he can be.

Let’s just hope that The Edge of Tomorrow – ignoring its nonsensical title – is as good as the preview suggests, and not another so-so attempt from Cruise to ingratiate himself with audiences.

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Iron Man 3 & Thor: The Dark World

Okay, Marvel wants to take over the world (if it hasn’t already). But come on. At some point this needs to just stop. Iron Man 3 felt like an ego trip born out of the fact that they could let Iron Man 2 be the lasting impression of the character. Ludicrous, pompous, replete with token child in need of saving – let’s all applaud Downey Jr. for getting his life back on track, but surely he’s just treading water with the glib motor-mouth Tony Stark?

And Thor, well. Second film. Has the word ‘dark’ in the title. Marvel are starting to feel like the annoying kid who just wants everyone to talk about them constantly, no matter what crap they’re doing.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Second film, ‘dark’ in the title. Fun on first looks, but five minutes after walking out of this we’re starting to feel hollow. Lens flare obsessions aside, if this is a reimagined Star Trek, then why bother with the homages to old stories? If the earlier Star Trek went to crazy lengths to establish that all previous incarnations of the franchise still happened, and the new one was happening on a different but parallel timeline, then why bother remaking and rebooting old plots and characters?

And come on. Enough with the dark stuff for the middle chapter. We get it. The Empire Strikes Back happened. Get over it.

See also Man of Steel for needless po-faced ‘darkening’ of a franchise.

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The Great Gatsby

Big lesson to be learned from this: don’t let Baz Luhrmann make films anymore. Please. For all that is good and decent in the world. Stop this madness. Stop this man.

Never before has 140 pages of profound depth and imagery in a novel be turned into 140 minutes of the most vapid, shallow, cartoonish, glitter-stained vomit ever put on a screen. Ugh.

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The Heat

The lesson to be learned here is: this film was great and deserved watching. And a sequel.

Another lesson to be learned here is: studios need to learn how to advertise far better when their film doesn’t contain male leads or females under the age of 30. The worst evidence of this was in the photoshopping disaster that occurred in the UK to make lead Melissa McCarthy more ‘appealing’ to viewers. Jesus.

Making films with female leads who are aged over forty isn’t going to bring about the apocalypse.

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The Wolverine

This was a surprisingly decent film. After the mess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, audience were actually treated to a decent portrayal of a comic book character that didn’t try to outdo everything that has come before. Also eschewing the trend of blockbuster films that globe-trot to the point of turning into an ad for TripAdvisor, Wolverine pared it right back to basically one major setting, with one set of characters to interact with.

Additionally, it abandoned the highly insecure trend of tagging all franchised films with superfluous umbrella titles and punctuation. Simplicity is good, people. It works.

More of this, please.

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Carrie

This should have been released for Halloween, but instead was held back two weeks into November. Effectively a small, independent horror film that was catering to old fans and unaware teenagers, it needed to maximise its 90-minute runtime beyond the actual screening with the right mix of advertising. Instead it went for elaborate stunts and trailers that told the whole story, alienating all and missing out on actually getting better recognition.

Not a success, but a horror film that also works as a superhero origin story, with multiple female leads. Surely this is a good thing, and worth investing in?

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The Apocalypse

Enough. If our only vision for the apocalypse in 2013 was half a dozen guys either improvising toilet humour (This is the End) or running from pub to pub (The World’s End), and where apparently there’s room for only one token female in either apocalypse (Emma Watson and Rosamund Pike, respectively), then the male gaze has won and we should shut it all down.

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Endless cash-grab book adaptations

Finally, the last thing to be learned is this: just because a book is well-loved, just because it has an established readership, just because it has sequels and prequels and gazequals doesn’t mean it will make a good film.

Additionally, throwing a bunch of known actors at it and a director who is happy with the epithet ‘good with SFX’ doesn’t mean this adaptation is going to hold water.

Questions studios should ask themselves: does this story need adapting to another medium? Does this story actually work in a visual medium? Are we actually damaging the impression of the original book by adapting this in a half-arsed fashion? Do we have enough money to swim in already?

This is why Catching Fire worked. The story translates well to screen. And it was cast well. And directed well. Learn, guys.

 

 

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The art of sequels

Posted December 10, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Having discussed the merits of creating prequels the other day, it’s now time to look at sequels.

These days there’s barely enough room to swing a cat for all the sequels littered about the place. Effectively, we’ve reached a state where once a film reaches a particularly significant profit margin a sequel is put into production. Nothing to do with critical reception – or, in fact, whether the narrative actually merits or needs an extension – it is purely about the grosses.

On the odd occasion where a sequel is greenlit before the release of the original, there’s often the opportunity to craft a story that works not only from the first instalment, but also weaves the sequel into a larger, grander narrative that provides something more than the sum of its parts. But these are rare.

So, for me, there’s basically three types of sequels.

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1. The Repetitive Sequel

This is the most common. This is also the sequel that invariably is made to cash in on the merits of the first. More and more, these are occurring closer and closer to the release of the original, as executives assume our attention span is so short they hope we don’t realise the first film is over and just remain in situ until the second is released.

The biggest crime with the repetitive sequel is that they offer nothing more to the story. The worst example is where it’s merely a thinly-veiled copy of the first, but with different locations/props/hairstyles/minority support cast (Saw sequels, Hostel sequels, The Hangover sequels and pretty much see every B-grade horror film sequel.)

The variation of the repetitive sequel is when it’s combined with the amplification effect. Even though this does sometimes result in half-decent films, the sequel is essentially the same as the original, only more so (The Matrix Reloaded, 28 Weeks Later, Jurassic Park II, Hannibal). More people, more explosions, more dinosaurs – more whatever it was that made the first story interesting, until that’s all that remains in the sequel.

The problem here is the sequel is demonstrating the same issue that fails prequels: the refusal of the creator and audience to move on from the original.

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2. The Improvement Sequel

This is much better. As a sequel, this is when the sequel actually improves on the original and offers a much more satisfying experience through the story and through the world of the characters inhabit.

This often arises in examples where the first story was imperfect, for any one of a number of reasons. It could be that the first was rushed to release, or didn’t have enough money or attention to detail and cut too many corners (Dawn of the Dead, The Bourne Supremacy). It could be that the first was an unknown quantity, and the creators were unsure how it would be received or too busy world-building, generating a more conservative approach to the story (X2, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). Or it could be that the success of the original on a limited budget and with limited attention allowed the sequel the freedom of time and money to make a much better second story (Hellboy II: The Golden Army).

There is a drawback though, where the above scenario gives more freedom to the creators and they turn out something worse (the Wachowskis again, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Alien: Resurrection, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End).

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3. The Redefining Sequel

This is the category of sequel where The Godfather Part II comes in. Essentially, it takes the original story and extends it, as a sequel does, but completely changes and challenges how the story’s told. It results in a redefining experience for the viewer, where their expectations and understanding of the original story is pushed into areas they didn’t anticipate, where the story suddenly seems much larger and more complex, and the narrative form itself adapts to create a wholly different experience.

Clearly, this isn’t easy to do, given the fact that The Godfather Part II dominates any discussion over worthy sequels. However, there are other examples, usually where the creator of the sequel acknowledges the excellence of the original story, and doesn’t bother to recreate it. Instead, they focus on offering something different, while still being related to the original film.

Strangely – given that he’s now busying himself with churning out repetitive sequels for Avatar – James Cameron has form in this category. With Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he certainly showed how you can take a perfectly good – if not great – original and pair it with a sequel that carves out its own space and story in a way that never undermines the original and is able to work in its own way, according to its own rules.

See also The Dark Knight, The Two Towers, The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future Parts II & III, The Good The Bad & The Ugly.

 

So, a sequel needs to do something different. Needs to tell a different story, while enhancing the original. It can’t ignore it, but it can’t copy it. Like the prequel, there needs to be a reason why the audience is going to experience this story, beyond just the token exploration of more of the story.

 

 

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The problem with prequels

Posted December 9, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Why do we insist on having prequels?

Actually, I’m not sure we do, not on any conscious level. Probably, if anywhere, the drive to create a prequel comes from the creator of the original, who – buoyed by enthusiasm both critical and financial for the original story – is compelled to prolong and entrench that enthusiasm by going back, way back, back into a story that was never really meant to be a story.

So, why do prequels never really work?

We might as well acknowledge the gruff, bearded franchise elephant in the room. That’d be you, George Lucas. Never has anyone initiated the concept of prequels so grandly and then trashed that concept so spectacularly than Lucas did with Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars. There has been so much blood letting and spilling on this that I don’t really want to add to the failure of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith considering the monumentally tepid and vacuous space they occupy in cinema already.

What’s damaging to me about Lucas’s attempt at prequels here is the damage they do to the original films. A story is created taking into account where it begins, where it ends, and the journey it takes to get from one to the other. It has to drive forward, it has to create tension, it has to surprise and shock, and reveal. These are things each of the original Star Wars films did. Other than the fact that the prequels Lucas created contained none of the above elements, and that we knew how they were going to end, the worst crime is that they removed tension and surprise from the originals. The stories weren’t designed to be told that way.

For those that then think that clearly the prequel should be viewed after the original, well, why? It’s not chronological, and we already know how it’s going to end. Why watch the beginning after the ending?

Ultimately, the problem with a prequel is that too often it’s backstory. It’s an explanation of the original narrative. For most writers, I’d hazard, backstory is important. It’s important to know, to develop, to weave in to the fabric of the story and the minds of the characters as a grounding depth to the narrative. But in the end it’s backstory, not story.

If a prequel exists merely as a voyeuristic fix for the creator and viewer, as just a way of seeing more, then it’ll fail. This was the problem for Lucas, and his insatiable desire to create rhymes with his original films. If the prequel film is too focused on reminding viewers about the original, then it’s trying to tell two narratives at once and again the whole thing falls down.

If we want to relive the experience of a story, watch the film again. Read the book again. That’ll prolong it. Don’t go and spend billions of dollars on an enterprise that will ultimately prove inessential and damage the untouched experience of the original narrative.

Here, Prometheus is worth mentioning. Initially billed as a prequel, it then quickly backtracked from that claim (probably once Ridley Scott realised the inherent pressure of delivering an effective prequel narrative). What resulted onscreen was an aborted attempt at a coherent prequel (suddenly that surgery table scene makes all kinds of metaphorical sense). It tried to explain and then not explain. It took great pains to set up story elements that were billed as crucially important for our understanding of the original, and then dismissed them as unimportant. It wanted to be a prequel and not be a prequel at the same time, and all we got was the sense that Scott’s brilliant original Alien story was perhaps more of an accident than any conscious directorial effort on his behalf. But again, it came out of the author’s desire to relive the enthusiasm for the original – and perhaps the creeping sensation that things were better back then, so why not (re)make a film from back then?

That he’s toying with doing the same to Bladerunner should send us all screaming into the hills.

So how do we make a prequel work?

Simple. Tell a different story. Not that I’m a fan of it, but Oz the Great and Powerful from last year followed this model in the sense that Oz was never the main character. The original story was all about Dorothy. X-Men: First Class worked because it consciously abandoned the characters it had established so readily in X-Men 1-3. Godfather Part II managed to be a sequel and a prequel at the same time, by telling a markedly different story to the original, with a different protagonist.

A successful prequel won’t detract from the original, it will enhance it. Subsequent viewings (or readings) will be enlivened by a grander scale to the narrative emerging, the criss-crossing of different stories intersecting in a wider imagination of the viewer. It takes an author or director who is confident enough to let go of the original and create something that works in its own right, the audience will connect the two narratives in their own mind, they don’t need constant reminders this is a prequel, something Lucas failed spectacularly at.

This is why I’m sticking with The Hobbit, and not dismissing it as a cynical endeavour. What the films are aiming to do is enrich the original three, something the book of The Hobbit never actually did because it was never designed that way.

Returning to Star Wars, I had a discussion recently with someone about the viewing order, given the dismantling nature of the prequels. What they suggested is watching Episodes 4 and 5, then the prequel trilogy, then 6. Viewed this way, we still get the tension and surprise of Luke discovering who Vader is, and we then go into the prequels as backstory (amazing how that works so well), almost as if it’s Luke imagining and rediscovering Vader’s past. Then launching into Episode 6, where Luke is suddenly far more mature and readied as an individual, aware of his place in the grander narrative and ready to do his thing to save the day.

So, prequels need to either be integrated into the narrative as backstory – thus not live on their own as an existing story – or work damn hard to tell a wholly different story, and trust the audience to be intelligent enough to join the dots.

 

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Movies we were obliged to see

Posted December 4, 2013 by Mark

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Craig’s recent post about The Hobbit got me thinking. It seems like everyone I’ve spoken to (apart from Craig, obviously) was disappointed or at least a little underwhelmed by the first Hobbit movie. Now I am a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (I have a statue of Gandalf on my bookshelf at home – don’t tell anyone), but The Hobbit was unnecessarily padded and overlong.

But anyway, this post isn’t about the things that were wrong with that film. Because despite the problems we all had with it, despite the fact that nobody really enjoyed it as much as any of the Lord of the Rings movies, we’re still all going to see the second instalment when it comes out in a few weeks.

With a lack of enthusiasm we’ll all wander over to the cinema, head down and shoulders hunched, preparing to fork out our hard-earned money for a film we feel obliged to see. And this experience will be familiar.

Movies we were obliged to see:

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Star Wars: Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith

Ugh. Episode 1 disappointed but could have just been George Lucas being rusty as a filmmaker. We happily gave Episode 2 a chance, but it just confirmed that the magic was gone. But still, we dragged ourselves to the cinema to complete the journey, and finally see how Anakin became Darth Vader. And while it was an improvement over the first two episodes, it still didn’t deserve a worldwide box office haul of $850,000,000.

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Avatar

Hey, James Cameron is back after a huge hiatus. Hey, he’s making a visionary sci-fi film with realistic digital characters. Hey, here’s the trailer. Oh. It’s like Ferngully? Oh. But we went to see it because of all the hype about the visuals. And everyone else was doing it! But that $2.7 billion final total still seems like a clerical error to me.

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The Matrix Revolutions

The Matrix is a tight, fast-paced sci-fi thriller that is visually unique and stylish. The Matrix Reloaded is bloated, slow and looks like a lame knock-off of the original film. But maybe, as with The Phantom Menace, it was a stumble, and The Matrix Revolutions would bring it back. Still, it didn’t look promising. We reluctantly went, and it made $427,000,000 worldwide.

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The Amazing Spider-Man

The first two Spider-Man movies are classics of the superhero genre, with part 2 being a strong contender for greatest superhero movie of all time. But then there was part 3, and then Sam Raimi walked away and then the studio pressed the reset button. Everyone wanted another Spider-Man. There was so much potential. But nobody wanted to see another take on the origin story a mere handful of years after the third instalment in what was a pretty decent take on the character. The desire to see Spider-Man continue won out, and we all went. A $752,000,000 global total has ensured that not one, not two, but three sequels are now in various stages of production.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The first film made a billion dollars but is easily the least liked of the middle-earth films. The 48fps presentation left audiences cold and the fact that it took over three hours to tell ninety pages of the source novel smacked of a studio and filmmaker stretching their story out just so they could make another trilogy. So here comes the sequel. And we will go see it, because we were entertained by the first one, and this one has a dragon. But we won’t be particularly enthusiastic about it. I would be surprised if this winds up earning anything near what the first one did but it’s guaranteed to be a sizeable hit.

Are there any films you felt obliged to see? Let me know in the comments.

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10 reasons to go see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Posted November 29, 2013 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It’s that time of year again, all the big holiday releases are descending on us, and we all have to make the incredibly difficult choice of deciding on a film to go see on Boxing Day, as we let the remnants of Christmas lunch and Christmas dinner work their way through our digestive system.

Or, decide on a film to go see on Boxing Day because the cinema is air conditioned and it’s as hot as hot can be outside.

Or, decide on a film to go see on Boxing Day because, well, why not?

So, for your consideration, this is why you should choose to go see the next installment in The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.

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1. It’s the sequel to a film that made over a billion dollars

If you thought the reception to the first film was somewhat middling, you were right. Critics liked it, but certainly didn’t love it. There was the usual spread of misinformation designed to derail its launch (trouble on set, change of directors, bla bla bla), but in the end it still took an insane amount of money from cinema-goers, for a fantasy film based on a children’s book with a cast headed by an actor who is more famous for his TV roles rather than leading a cinema franchise, it did spectacularly.

And it’s doing what prequels should do: work on their own and enrich the viewing of the original films.

If we cast our minds back to when The Fellowship of the Ring was released, it was rather similar. Fans flocked to it, critics held back. It wasn’t really until the awards bandwagon rolled on for The Return of the King that the critics decided to acknowledge there might be some merit in these films.

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2. Martin Freeman

Nailed it, as far as Bilbo goes. Affable, reluctant, short – he certainly got the performance of the main character perfect, in portraying someone who backs their way into adventure and danger. And god the riddles in the dark scene was brilliant.

And, in The Desolation of Smaug, he actually gets to show us why he’s there. Why the character was brought along by the company of dwarves.

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3. Dwarves

Dwarves! No longer just relying on John Rhys-Davies to be the sole representative of Tolkien’s dwarves, we actually get thirteen of them, with a variety of accents, wardrobes, weapons and facial hair. It’s all about the facial hair.

And while we only got to properly meet a few of them in the first film, rest assured we’ll get more of the rest.

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4. Richard Armitage

On that note, more of Richard Armitage! While he may have come across as a bit one-note in the first half of An Unexpected Journey – gruff, naysaying, hating on Bilbo – when we were let into his backstory in the Battle of Azunulbizar, and his ongoing search for vengeance against Azog (the best sequence in the first film by far), Armitage filled out the role perfectly. Given that his character now has to lead the company of dwarves back to retrieve their lost  heritage, it’s only going to get better.

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5. More Azog the Pale Orc

Oh yeah. The other best thing about the first film is back for the second, as far as the trailers suggest. Taking a leaf from Lurtz in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson personified the chasing bad guys perfectly in this hook-handed orc. Every minute the character was onscreen was glorious, not only for the terror the character causes among the dwarves, but also for how perfectly realised this hybrid actor-CGI-prosthetic character was. We all got caught up in the latest Gollum Update 4.0, everyone forgot to acknowledge just how great this character was on screen.

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6. DRAGON!

The dragon, in fact. Barely glimpsed in the first film, and rightly so, Smaug arrives in this film, and given Jackson’s penchant for movie monsters, I’d hazard a guess this will be one of the best cinematic dragons we’ve ever seen. More than just a monster, Smaug’s an evil mind, a hoarder, and one of the richest fictional characters according to Forbes.

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7. Bendlewind Cumbersnatch.

Bumbernick Catcherbun? Benedicteggs Corianderpatch?

Anyway. Benedict Cumberbatch is portraying Smaug. So, expect lots of villainous, megalomaniacal treachery and autisim-spectrum acumen in his voice performance. And at some point Bilbo will cry out ‘SMAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUGGGGG!’

Maybe.

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8. Elves

Yeah, yeah, elves are back. Orlando Bloom’s Captain Obvious is returning, and bringing along Lost’s Evangeline Lily as she portrays Tauriel, giving the series a much-needed female character. Yeah I’m looking at you, all you people who complain when Peter Jackson invents things. Tauriel is a necessary addition, so get over it.

Back along for the ride is Lee Pace, who showed up briefly in flashback in the first film as Thranduil, Captain Obvious’s dad. Lots of supercilious, couldn’t-give-a-shit in his performance. Perfect for an elven king.

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9. Beorn

Yep, not saying much, because if you haven’t read the books it’ll be great fun to see for the first time. And if you have, you know what to expect. But again with Jackson and movie monsters, Beorn should be fantastic on screen.

Especially when the dwarves go down to the woods one day.

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10. Sylvester McCoy as Radagast

The most fun thing about the first film is back. Thankfully. The bunny-sled driving, hedgehog talking, bird-poop headed wizard is back, smoking it up with Gandalf as they explore the source of evil in the east. Great to see McKellen and McCoy acting together on screen, given their history of acting together on stage, and their plot line is excellent invention by Jackson, given that he’s mined Tolkien’s appendices for this, which is the strongest connection between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Expect more of this in film 3.

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