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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It’s the End of the World As We Know It (The best post-apocalyptic literature)

Posted September 14, 2015 by Emily Stamm

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There’s something undeniably fascinating about a good end of the world, post-apocalyptic story. It’s a great lens to view humanity through, and it often shows us the good and bad of our own society. The only problem with this kind of dystopian fiction is that there is currently so much of it! Everywhere you turn someone is trying to get you to read or watch the latest version of The Hunger Games. Here are seven great examples of post-apocalyptic stories. They might not be the best, and they certainly aren’t the only ones, but they’re all entertaining, beautiful, and engrossing stories about what happens after the world ends.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

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This movie surprised a lot of people this summer with its amazing characters, stunts, and storytelling. Much of this post-apocalyptic world is shown–but not explained– to great effect. If you want a gorgeous movie set after a mysterious disaster has changed the face of society, this is the one for you.

 

Station Eleven

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Station Eleven recently won the Arthur C. Clarke award, and I’m not sure I’ve ever agreed with an award quite so much. This was the most exciting, moving, thought-provoking book I read last year. The story-line jumps back and forth between the beginning of the plague and the present day, 14 years after illness killed most of the world’s population. Of special interest to fans of audio is the audio-book version read by Kirsten Potter.

 

Parasitology Trilogy Everything by Mira Grant

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EVERYONE SHOULD READ THESE BOOKS! I’ve been tearing through Mira Grant’s back catalogue as I eagerly await the November 24 release of the last book in the Parasitology trilogy. In all of her books, Grant does a superb job of combining the hustle of blogging, politics, and mad science with the fear and intensity of a zombie (or zombie like) apocalypse. Start with the Newsflesh trilogy (since it is complete) and then read the Parasitology Trilogy. Trust me dear reader, I wouldn’t steer you wrong!  

 

East of West

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East of West is a science fiction/western comic set in a future dystopian United States where the Civil War never ended, it only got more complicated. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse show up, and you can imagine the extra chaos that brings to everything. There’s a lot going on in this comic that I don’t want to spoil, but if you’re into alternate history, Firefly, or anything else on this list, you’re probably going to love East of West.

 

Good Omens

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Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Writing together. I shouldn’t have to say any more to sell you on this book. Two of the greatest writers of the last few decades came together in 1990 to bring us a hilarious look at the end of the world, and all the people (including angels and demons) involved.

 

Maddaddam trilogy

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Margaret Atwood is undeniably one of the best writers of the last few decades. She’s brought us so many great stories, but the Maddaddam Trilogy might be her best work yet. The books take us through the turmoil of civilization after a mad scientist plays god and creates a designer disease. Fascinating, horrifying, moving, and at times funny, this is a must read for anyone interested in post-apocalyptic stories.

 

Adventure Time

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You’re seeing this on the list, and maybe you’re a little confused. Why am I including a children’s cartoon in a list of great stories about the end of the world? On the surface Adventure Time is a weird show for kids about a boy and his magical dog going on adventures together. If you look a little deeper, however, Adventure Time is clearly set on a half ruined Earth after a disastrous “Mushroom War” wrecked havoc on the world and mutated life forms into all kinds of strange creatures. Check out the Adventure Time wiki for a full list of references to the mysterious events that ended the world and created Ooo. 

 

What’s your favorite post-apocalyptic story and why? Tell us in the comments below!

TOWNDUST

 

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5 Pitches for the Next Gritty Hollywood Remake

Posted August 7, 2015 by Emily Stamm

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These days, Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of rebooting our favorite books into gritty dystopian movies and television shows. The latest beloved classic to suffer this fate is Little Women. The loving sisters are going to be uncovering conspiracies and trying not to kill each other in Philadelphia, while we watch and wonder how on Earth someone thought this was a good idea.

Let’s take a look at how we could remake five other childhood favorites into ridiculous television drama or made for t.v. movies.

 

The Secret Garden

 

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Is it so hard to imagine this + opium smuggling?

 

After her parents are murdered, sixteen-year old Mary Lennox is sent to live with her reclusive uncle. She’s miserable until she discovers a mysterious locked garden…with an attractive boy inside! Mary breaks into the garden and is shocked to discover that eighteen year old Dickon is running her uncle’s opium smuggling operation out of…The Secret Garden. We’ll kill cousin Colin off early, throw in a dash of star-crossed lovers from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and BAM! You’ve got a hit.

 

Charlotte’s Web

 

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A pig, a spider, a revolution.

 

Wilbur the pig is shunned by the other barnyard animals, until Charlotte the spider takes an interest in him. She is the leader behind a group of animals who want to revolt against humans and take their lives into their own hands. Charlotte comes with with a scheme to spell words in her webs, manipulating the humans to think that Wilbur is chosen by God and should not be slaughtered after the fair. She begins convincing them that he should be set free, along with all the other farm animals, but is tragically killed in childbirth before her plan can come to fruition. Almost all of her children flee as soon as they hatch, but three remain behind to carry on her fight to free the animals.

 

Anne of Green Gables

 

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That smile has never been innocent…

 

Anne’s parents are killed by rival wizards when she is a baby, leaving her to float from foster home to orphanage and back again. When she is in her early teens, she is accidentally sent to the Cuthberts on Prince Edward Island. Furious that she isn’t a boy, they threaten to send her back. Anne casts a spell that makes them, and the entire town, adore her. The wizards who killed her parents find Anne, and she must battle them while maintaining her spell on the town. Scenes of note include the wizards changing the raspberry cordial into currant wine in order to discredit Anne; Wizards trying to kill Anne, but instead killing Matthew; and Anne becoming a powerful enough witch to teach at the Prince Edward Island equivalent to Hogwarts.

 

A Little Princess

 

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Wouldn’t this just be 100x better if it was in space?

 

Young Sara Crewe is taken by her father to one of the best boarding schools on the moon in 2075. Knowing her father is a rich explorer who has been doubling his fortune every five years on Mars, they treat her like a little princess. A few years later, the school receives word that Captain Crewe’s whole team was lost on Mars during a dust storm, and he was most certainly dead. The school, especially the headmistress, begin treating Sara like a servant. She regularly has to go outside in a spacesuit to collect rocks and clean dust off the solar panels (because space). Meanwhile, a mysterious man moves in next door to the school. He slowly recovers his memory, and realizes that he was the lead scientist on Captain Crewe’s mission, and that’s why he has a research monkey living with him. The monkey escapes (in a tiny monkey spacesuit) and Sara finds him while cleaning solar panels. When returning the monkey to the mysterious stranger, they learn of their connection.

Bonus sequel: The mysterious stranger and Sara go back to Mars to try and recover Captain Crewe’s body. Once there, they find that the whole crew has become zombies. Space zombies.

 

Little House on the Prairie

 

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If there’s one thing the Little House books need, it’s more grit!

 

A few decades after most of the world was wiped out by nuclear bombs, the Ingalls family struggles to survive in the desolate wasteland that was once America. If we change the tone of the narrator from unending optimism to resignation, we can even keep most of the major plot points the same! Everyone gets malaria, sister Mary goes blind, locusts eat all the crops, nuclear winter strands the family in their log cabin, and there are so many chores to be done. Think of the possibilities for costumes! Special effects! Dramatic acting! There is no way this wouldn’t be a hit.

 

Whether you love them or hate them, we want to hear your thoughts on the gritty reboot trend. Do you have any hope at all for the new Little Women series?

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Ten reasons to be excited for the new Godzilla movie

Posted May 8, 2014 by Mark

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There’s a new Godzilla movie on the way, and I think everyone should be excited. It looks good, there are some very talented people involved, and we got so excited about Pacific Rim last year that we just have to talk about this movie.

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1. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, whose giant monster game is strong. He directed the excellent independent sci-fi film Monsters in 2o10.

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2. Bryan Cranston is in it and he looks mad. Hoping he goes the full Heisenberg at some point.

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3. Godzilla looks like Godzilla and not some random lizard (I’m looking at you, 1997 Godzilla).

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4. There is at least one giant monster fight. Well, in the trailer there’s a moment where Ken Watanabe says, ‘Let them fight’. I assume he’s talking about giant monsters and not Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.

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5. This shot of Godzilla roaring in the rain.

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6. The trailer uses the choral theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey so it gets automatic nerd bonus points.

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7. There hasn’t been any silly effort to keep the look of the monster secret, so we can all focus more on the epic level of destruction.

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8. It looks more like a disaster movie than an action movie with giants.

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9. The biggest Godzilla ever. Literally.

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10. Godzilla’s roar. Just listen to it!

Looking back on this list it’s apparent that most of my reasons for seeing this film are variations on ‘Godzilla roars’ but you must admit that it’s a compelling roar. In fact, this film could just be 90 minutes of Godzilla roaring in different environments and I’d probably still be satisfied.

 

If you’re in the mood for an awesome monster story, you should preorder Gorgon by Greig Beck. Available June 10 where all good ebooks are sold. An ancient evil has awoken….

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Who will be good and who will be bad in the Star Wars: Episode VII cast

Posted April 30, 2014 by Mark

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The cast has been announced for Star Wars: Episode VII and, whether you’re looking forward to it or not, it’s something worth looking at. Most people assumed that the announcement would be held off until May 4th (international Star Wars day) but the news was already leaking like crazy.

There are only a couple of surprises in the announcement, with rumours about Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and the original cast proving to be true.

Many commentators have already pointed out that there’s a disappointing lack of female characters (only one new addition aside from Carrie Fisher), and the lack of racial diversity (only one person of colour). There’s also a disturbing lack of Lando Calrissian. But these are the major characters, so it’s conceivable that there are more actors in the supporting cast that haven’t been revealed yet.

Given the recent announcement that the new Star Wars films would not be beholden to the Expanded Universe in any way, who the cast are playing is completely unknown. A fairly safe bet is that at least some of the younger cast members will be playing the children of the older characters, since the characters in the first two trilogies were different generations of the same family.

It’s also possible that they’re going for the ‘2 guys and a girl’ dynamic that was established with the protagonists from the previous trilogies (Anakin/Obi-Wan/Padme and Luke/Han/Leia). If so, then who will be the new protagonists? Adam Driver has long been linked to this project and has been mentioned as a villain more often than not, so let’s count him out. I think it’s safe to assume that Daisy Ridley will be part of the dynamic, which leaves John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson as contenders for the two male leads.

John Boyega is an actor who is on the rise, with acclaimed performances in several films already. A leading role in the new Star Wars would be perfectly timed career-wise, and it would also be nice to see a person of colour as a lead in Episode VII. So that leaves Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson. Isaac recently was the lead in the Coen brothers’ latest film, and was a villain in Ridley Scott’s awful Robin Hood movie, while Domhnall Gleeson was the lead in the romantic comedy About Time, and popped up as a Weasley brother in the final Harry Potter movies. It’s hard to tell at this stage, but maybe Domhnall Gleeson makes more sense in light of J.J. Abrams’ expressed desire to take relative unknowns and make them stars.

But how does the original cast factor in? There have been reports that the original screenplay for Episode VII had them playing supporting roles only, but that the script was rewritten to make them central for at least Episode VII. How that plays out, and how it impacts the establishment of new character dynamics could prove to be the weak point of this film.

Surprise additions are Max von Sydow and Andy Serkis, who hadn’t been linked to the project before. Serkis will no doubt be playing some kind of creature via motion capture (this is a $200 million sci-fi movie so there HAS to be a mo-cap character). And I’m going to assume von Sydow is a bad guy.

Here are my assumptions, let’s all watch how wrong I wind up being!

Good guys

Original cast, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domhnall Gleeson

Bad guys

Max von Sydow, Adam Driver

Unknown

Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis

 

 

 

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These upcoming book-to-film adaptations should be TV series

Posted March 18, 2014 by Mark

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The Forever War

Optioned many years ago by Ridley Scott, this is one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Humans and aliens engage in a war that, due to the time dilation that occurs when travelling close to the speed of light, takes centuries to fight. The soldiers are increasingly removed from the society they’re fighting for as massive technological and social changes sweep away everything they know.

Why should it be a TV series? The story literally takes centuries to tell. It would be like a more realistic version of Battlestar Galactica or a better version of Space: Above and Beyond. There’s room to explore the complex relationships that develop between the soldiers and the pain of those bonds breaking when re-assignment means your friends will be centuries away.

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The Passage

Optioned by, of course, Ridley Scott, The Passage is a post-apocalyptic quest novel set in a world where a plague has turned most of the population of the United States into vampiric zombies. The original twelve infected patients hold a psychic influence over those who were infected via their actions, and a group of survivors decides to seek them out with the help of a seemingly immortal child.

Why should it be a TV series? It’s a massive novel that is just the first part of a trilogy that’s due to be completed at the end of this year, The Passage is a huge work, with many characters, sub-plots and backstory, with multiple narrative arcs that take place in different locations and different periods of time.

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Wool

Ridley Scott *also* bought the rights to Wool, another post-apocalyptic epic from self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey. After an environmental catastrophe, a handful of survivors live in underground silos, awaiting the day when the surface is safe once again. Wool takes place several generations after the catastrophe, where the inhabitants of the silo aren’t exactly sure what happened or what they’re waiting for, and are struggling against an oppressive regime that operates out of the silo’s IT department.

Why should it be a TV series? Wool is actually the middle story in a trilogy, with a prequel, Shift, and a sequel, Dust. There’s a lot of world-building that goes into making the silo societies seem believable and there are many supporting characters and groups that could stand to be explored in more depth in a series.

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The Girl Who Played With Fire/The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

After the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo underperformed at the box office, the two sequels were put in limbo. The first one made enough that these films are still in development, but not enough to fast track them. The shame is that while the successful Swedish adaptations did a great job with the first film, the sequels left a lot to be desired.

Why should they be a TV series? The original Swedish films were intended for release as TV seasons, and after seeing True Detective, it’s clear that a 6-8 episode run for each of these stories could yield some spectacular results. With more and more film actors turning to TV, it’s not even that unrealistic to imagine Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig reprising their roles from the film.

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Ready Player One 

This is a brilliant novel that takes 80s nostalgia and creates a thrilling and riveting narrative. In the not-too distant future, most people spend their time in the OASIS, a virtual reality system developed by an enigmatic billionaire. When the billionaire dies, a contest begins. Whoever can decipher the clues and defeat the challenges hidden in the OASIS will win control of it. It’s a race against the clock for a loose fellowship of individual players to defeat a highly organised and ruthless corporation that wants to win control and remake the OASIS as they see fit.

Why should it be a TV series? Again, there’s a lot of world building that needs to be done, and the references to 1980s popular culture are so dense that they’d probably need a little more room to breathe in a filmed adaptation. The episodic nature of the events as they unfold would also lend it towards a longer adaptation.

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Robopocalypse

This novel about the survivors of a robot uprising is currently on Steven Spielberg’s to-do list. Robopocalypse is the World War Z of robot novels, a history of the individuals who made it, many of them from different parts of the world, facing very different threats. There are some spectacular set pieces, and some very cool stories.

Why should it be a TV series? The fact that the narrative is episodic, with each part about different characters in different locations, means that it would hang together better. And there’s room for even more stories to be told in this world,  as all the varieties of robot could be explored in-depth.

 

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The strange world of David Lynch

Posted March 14, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Something strange always seems to happen in David Lynch’s films.

Ever since the first drones of white noise crept into our ears and the first flicker of light among darkness peeked out at us from his bizarre art-student project/B-grade midnight movie Eraserhead, Lynch has found a way to unsettle audiences even in the most ordinary of ways. His films have a way of drawing you into even the most banal of events – a cup of coffee, overheard conversations, even the flicker of an electric lamp is charged with significance and meaning – that there’s interesting lessons to be gained from watching his films, for anyone trying to tell a story that merges the ordinary with the extraordinary.

Eraserhead itself comes across as some nightmarish projection of fatherhood – Lynch’s alter-ego (played by his long time friend Jack Nance) stumbles his way from a vague relationship into a horrific child-rearing scenario, set against a barren industrial cityscape and a pencil-making factory. There are dreams of a lady who lives (and sings) underneath the radiator, and visions of a man far off in space (or deep within the earth) who pulls leavers and seems to control the world.

The child Nance has to raise is possibly one of the most horrific things put on screen: a wailing, gnashing, swaddled phallus – Lynch has famously refused to say what he used to actually create the monstrous baby, though there are some fairly disgusting rumours.
Eraserhead is akin to Kafka’s The Trial, except the protagonist here is not detained and charged for a crime, but persecuted into paternity. This is Lynch’s common theme: making the home-life into something unusual, something dark and mysterious, and often terrifying. He’s probably never as blatant with this as he is in Eraserhead, and it’s a shockingly effective introduction into his films.


There’s a term commonly used to describe Lynch’s work: unheimlich. Closely related to uncanny, the term is more literally translated as ‘unhomely’. The familiar and the comfortable is rendered something different, something strange.

After the wondrous and saddening The Elephant Man (for which Lynch was nominated for an Oscar), and the bloated and tonally confused Dune adaptation, Lynch returned to his own stories and his own tastes with Blue Velvet. If you haven’t ever seen Blue Velvet, it’s worth not reading ahead and just tracking down a copy immediately. Possibly the most pristine of his visions, it is as classically Lynchian as Psycho is Hitchcockian.

Blue Velvet follows the steps and missteps of Jeffrey Beaumont (again alter-ego, this time Kyle McLachlan) as he journeys from his idyllic white-picket fence lifestyle, complete with aw-shucks innocent girlfriend, into the dark and mysterious underworld that lurks within his neighbourhood. The world of light is mawkish and naive compared to the dark personified by Dennis Hopper’s psychopathic, nitrous-inhaling Don, and again Lynch pushes the viewer to examine just how closely the strange is to our everyday lives, if we scratch the surface but a little.

The themes and ideas set up in Blue Velvet were then writ large in his TV series Twin Peaks, followed by the film (prequel and sequel) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Lynch held audiences for (almost) two seasons, as they fell in love with the search for the answer to Who Killed Laura Palmer? There was murder in the household, while everyone drank their coffee and ate their cherry pie. It was the forerunner to The X-Files, and then to other high-concept long form narrative that now populates every inch of our TV screens.

Wild At Heart took the cornerstone of American pop culture – The Wizard of Oz – and fashioned it into a grand road trip narrative across weird and wild middle-America. It crass and disturbing, but only Lynch can make the sentiment that ‘there’s no place like home’ still work in a 90s film full of thrash metal and Elvis Presley tunes.

However, to really feel the force of Lynch’s unhomely aesthetic, it’s worth watching Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Both films inform each other, and turn everything Lynch had offered before on its head. Gone is the sentimental and hopeful underpinnings, gone is the innocence. The light and the dark aren’t as clearly distinct in these films and what at first seems like the naive and innocent is suddenly revealed to be the dangerous nightmare.

If Eraserhead was about the fear of being a father, Lost Highway is almost a film about the fear of jealousy. The protagonist here discovers he is the antagonist, and that it’s not enough to hit the road and run away from danger – as Lynch’s heroes had in the past – because the danger is always there, the darkness is within. Take a look at this scene where Pullman’s everyman meets the manifestation of his inner rage:

The terror is at home, it is inside the home, and it’s there because it was invited in. Totally terrifying.

Mulholland Drive started life as a TV pilot, lost financial backing, and was then given a boost to turn it into a two-hour feature. Lynch ran with that, and the film literally turns on its head two-thirds of the way through, challenging the medium and the constraints of traditional narrative as the audience has to decide what is real and what is a nightmare. That he set this in Hollywood, and the world of actors and directors and filmmaking, is evidence enough of how Lynch eschews mainstream narrative (as much as he appropriates it at the same time).

In Lynch’s Hollywood, one loses oneself, one’s image is repeated infinitely until the soul disappears, and we become the ghastly creation we imagine out of our nightmares. Mulholland Drive is a film of broken dreams, where good intentions meet bad ends, and it becomes impossible to see just where any of us have a chance to stop it, as there’s always someone making life bad for us, just like in this scene here:

Lynch’s stories are worth watching, not for their weirdness as far too many cinema students are wont to do, chuckling at the non sequiturs and false irony. Rather, they’re worth seeing because of how they treat story, traditional stories, and how Lynch nudges them into unexpected places. He borrows from horror, and mystery, and crime, and presents road movies and bildungsromans and stories from our past that have faint recollections of familiarity.

He takes what we know, and what we’re comfortable with, and challenges us to change, and to do something different. For writers, and for storytellers, it’s worth experiencing.

 

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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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Nine reasons to be excited about Jurassic World

Posted February 27, 2014 by Mark

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The long-awaited fourth instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise is about to start filming. If you’re anything like me, this fills you with a joy so profound you can’t really describe it. Here are a few reasons you should be getting excited.

1. It’s been a really long time since there was a good dinosaur movie

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21 years to be exact…

 

2. Chris Pratt is the lead actor

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I’d love to see him do the role as Andy from Parks and Recreation.

 

3. It will form part of the 2015 orgy of nostalgia

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Between this and Star Wars Episode 7, we’re all going to feel like 12 year olds with no friends again!

 

4. The director is Colin Trevorrow

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Who made the charming time travel film Safety Not Guaranteed, with another Parks & Rec star, Aubrey Plaza.

 

5. It’s not the ‘mutated dinosaurs being trained for the military’ storyline that was talked about a few years back

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While the exact details of the story aren’t known, it’s definitely not that.

 

6. It promises to show the park as a successful, functioning theme park

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You were always curious as to what the park could have been had it succeeded and now you’ll know!

 

7. It’s a sequel, not a reboot

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Although the suits at Universal would have been tempted to go for a complete do-over, this way there’s still a chance that Jeff Goldblum or Sam Neill could turn up.

 

8. The screenplay is based on a script by the writing duo behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Now there was a reboot that offered a fresh, inventive take on an established franchise.

 

9. Velociraptors 

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Clever girl.

 

 

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In the mood for more dinosaurs? Greig Beck’s The First Bird is  Jurassic Park meets The Walking Dead and has just been nominated for an Aurealis Award for best horror novel! 

 

 

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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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The wonderful world of villains

Posted February 11, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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It is often said that a hero is only ever as good as the villain. And while it’s not wholly successful to reduce all stories down to a good-guy-bad-guy dichotomy (or even good-girl-bad-girl), for those stories that do require the presence and actions of a villain, it’s prudent to consider how they can affect the story, and influence the actions of the protagonist.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note how an under-developed antagonist, or one that perhaps lessens the final impact of what might otherwise be a resoundingly great story.

So, make the villains good, in the bad way. Whatever type of villain they may be.

The all-conquering villain

This is the one who basically wants entire eradication of the good side. They’ll wage wars (The Lord of the Rings), consume everything in their path (The Matrix), and traverse the galaxy in order to hunt and destroy everything that opposes them and doesn’t dress in dark clothing (Star Wars et al). Basically, they have one, shark-like psychology: to head forwards and destroy. Kill at all costs. Be bad, look bad while doing so, and oppose the ‘good’ forces at every turn.

The problem here is that these villains don’t seem to have thought things through. In a sense, they only exist for the duration of the story, which usually ends with their vanquishing. If the story considered the reality of these villains’ agendas, it would become apparent that villainous victory would be hollow and fruitless. There is no real victory, because they want to destroy everything. They champion enslavement and brutality, but after victory, who can they enslave? What do they actually want? Voldemort in Harry Potter tries to circumvent this problem, but ultimately it’s hard to imagine how this character could operate once entirely in power. (And yes I know they’re villains and therefore mentally unhinged and thus they don’t think things through properly, but that’s not the point.)

I suspect victory would result in a fairly lonely existence for these villains. They are the schoolyard bullies whose being is only validated by having someone to bully.

The psychopathic villain

A lot of fun can be had with this, because the villain here is basically a manifestation of whatever internal struggles the hero is processing. Similar to the all-conquering villain, they only exist as foil to the hero, but in a different way.

They have no agenda, they are not here with some master plan, they are the uninhibited id that haunts our hero running rampant all over the scenery. This accounts for just a hell of a lot of comic book villains (Spiderman, The Dark Knight, to begin with), made most famous in the recent Joker incarnation. Also a lot of monster stories (Alien, Jurassic Park) work with this in mind, the best example being Jaws, wonderfully sent up by The Onion here.

Additionally, they can be found as byproducts of other, larger problems. They are the mutated chemical waste of societal ills and moral corruption (IT, The Stand, a lot of Stephen King to be honest), the end-result of human folly and ill-advised endeavour (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix again,Terminator).

The best example of this, knowingly so, is in No Country for Old Men, with Anton Chigurh chaotically destroying his way through a narrative on nothing but the whims of a coin toss and the echoes of a cattle gun.

Great fun, but in some sense they’re ultimately more of an embellished plot device than a fully realised character.

The secret villain

Here you find a lot of accidental villains. Villains who got caught up in the thrill of the bad thing, for a large portion of the story can appear to be sympathetic ‘good’ characters, only to be revealed at the end as working for the other side.

Many crime thrillers and spy novels operate with this dynamic (Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy for instance), as does a lot of J.K. Rowling’s early Harry Potter books, and the villain appears to be one that relies a lot on mystery and the surprise reveal. They often come encumbered with hastily included exposition at the end, so that the reader is completely aware of the reasons and machinations behind the mysterious plot. But while it can benefit rereads for a spot-the-clue type game, it also reveals how the author has a bit too overtly manipulated the reader.

The sympathetic villain

Not really sympathetic, but understandable. I think it was Gary Oldman – among others – who said that really great villains don’t think they’re villainous, they actually think they’re doing good (interesting given his career playing psychopathic villains). There’s something to be learned here, in that all characters – good or bad – should be written as characters, as real people with real motivations, and not just as foil for the main guy strutting about on his white pony.

Some of the great villains of literature and cinema reside here, questioning just how ‘good’ the good guy is, how pure their motivations are, and how normal the world is with them residing in it. We find Hannibal Lecter, and Nurse Ratched, Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle, and with them a legion of classic characters that carve out their own piece of the story, rather than remaining bit-parts.

 

 

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Some awesome space moments from cinema

Posted February 10, 2014 by Mark

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It’s Monday morning and I’m nerding out. Here are some brilliant space moments from cinema. Let me know if you have any suggestions in the comments!

2001: A Space Odyssey

This sequence, ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, really delves into the awe and mystery of space in a way no other film ever has. Breathtaking visuals represent a true journey into the unknown.

Gravity

The opening sequence is best watched in 3D at Imax and is pretty much guaranteed to leave your jaw on the floor. From the beautiful shot of the shuttle from a distance, to the terror of the first encounter with the debris cloud, this is space cinema at its best.

Sunshine

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In this scene from Danny Boyle’s underrated sci-fi movie, the crew gather to watch as Mercury crosses the sun. A nice moment out of the action to remind viewers about the natural wonder of the universe we live in.

Star Trek: First Contact

Ok, can I have this? Let me have this. This is just a beautifully composed shot of the Enterprise E emerging from a nebula. Doesn’t it just send chills down your spine? It doesn’t? Oh.

 Apollo 13

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There’s a lot to choose from in this film, but I’d suggest the dark side of the moon sequence as the best.

Alien

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The Nostromo is a massive, slow ship, that is absolutely dwarfed by the space it’s presented in. The opening titles sequence, which is just a very slow pan across the planet, conveys majesty and mystery.

 

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The next film will be darker

Posted February 7, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Why?

Why must every successive film in a series become darker? What is our obsession with creating and experiencing ever-darkening stories? Star Trek, Star Wars, James Bond, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, every single Marvel film – even reboots these days insist on creating darker versions than the original incarnation did.

If I have to sit through one more interview with another actor or director talking about how the next one will be darker I might just just give up on films ever being original again. Enough. Please. It has become the most overused, tired and redundant cliche.

It’s understandable how it’s come about, though. With more and more franchises spring-boarding off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings platform of the early 2000s, we’re seeing more and more films greenlit and created that have no intention of telling a complete narrative in two hours. And with the ever-present reliance on the classic three act structure that Hollywood has practically minted as its currency and erected a 100-foot statue to, we’re left with an increasingly formulaic trilogy structure.

The first film of a trilogy will always be the light and peppy Act One, an introduction to the world and to the characters and just laced with tiny hints of complexity and problematic horizons. The second film is the inevitable darker turn, When Things Get Serious, as all Act Twos are wont to do. It’s the film where the character must go through their greatest crisis, and where everything is at stake and appears utterly lost.

So, first film: good. Second film: dark. Here’s where the problem occurs.

The three-act structure works in a film because it’s one sustained story, to be ingested in one sitting. Things start okay, then get worse, before the triumph. We understand this, it works.

But the nature of films as separate entities, and the nature of box office reality, is that each film in a series must outdo the one that came before. It is the voyage of diminishing returns. Anything that occurs in the first film is less at stake than anything in the second film, which is still less than everything in the third film.

So if the storytellers have made the decision to go darker in the second film, the third can only continue on that path. And then we end up with an uneven narrative. And we end up with pointless darkening for the sake of it. Furthermore, it undermines the preceding films if each is only ever trying to outdo the elements of the story that came before.

In a sense, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films suffered from this. It became a victim of its own tropish success. Batman Begins was a darker, grittier take on the character than what had been seen previously – Tim Burton’s efforts notwithstanding. However, Nolan admittedly was hindered by relative conservatism in his first film, and its success allowed him to go for a much bolder, and darker, vision with The Dark Knight. And it worked. But hell, what do you do then?

All along, The Dark Knight Rises was billed as bigger, darker and better than everything that came before. Arguably, it didn’t quite make it. While elements were there, it suffered too much in comparison with the preceding film.

That doesn’t seem to perturb anybody out there in filmland, though, with a succession of quality directors announcing their intentions of matching Nolan’s three-card-dark trick: J.J. Abrams with Star Trek Into Darkness, Sam Mendes with Skyfall, Joss Whedon and The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Marc Webb and The Amazing Spiderman 2: Rise of Electro, Zack Snyder and Man of Steel. Really, that’s only a smattering of the collection.

Unfortunately, this is an ongoing legacy of two films: The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part Two. Both followed the model, and both are regularly referenced by the above films and filmmakers. But it’s a fallacy to think this is the only way, and that going dark was what inherently made those films successful. Both films are more complex explorations of the worlds they established in their originals – both use the screen time to become introspective journeys through the inner motivations and conflicts of their central characters, an aspect that will always lead to more problematic storytelling. They are not dark for the sake of it.

It’s worth also adding that The Godfather films tell the story of a villain, not a hero, and therefore the constant referencing of it as a major influence (this is for you, Whedon), is clumsy and nonsensical.

The tone and narrative focus of films invariably mirror the age they are created in. There are the hopeful, carefree, wasteful films of the 50s and 60s, and the anti-establishment, morally ambiguous films of the 70s. And then there’s now: the endless franchising and amplification of images and stories, the atonal darkening in place of original thought, and the pessimistic view that things only ever get worse.

Give us hope, give us optimism, give us a story that tries to be something more than the obvious, that elevates itself about the lowest common denominator. Give us a story that develops according to the demands and nature of its characters, and not according to the stylistic cliches of the day. Just don’t say the next one’s going to be darker.

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Podmentum: Our Anticipated 2014 Pop Culture, Marriage Thrillers & Dino Porn

Posted January 31, 2014 by Mark

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In this episode we’re joined by new recruit Patrick Lenton, and discuss what we’re looking forward to the most this year in pop culture. After that, we discuss the emerging Marriage Thriller genre that’s been highlighted with the arrival of Gone Girl. Finally, things get a bit lewd as we discuss beast erotica. WARNING: Spoilers for Gone Girl and both the TV and novel series of Game of Thrones.

 

 

Recommendations

Joel:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan

Tara:

What the Ground Can’t Hold by Shady Cosgrove

Patrick:

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Mark:

On the Steele Breeze by Alastair Reynolds, Batman: The Court of Owls

 

 

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Let the right horror in

Posted by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped that ‘television has brought murder back into the home – where it belongs.’ In fact, many view Psycho as a direct correlation of that thought, in that Hitchcock created a horror mystery that dared to suggest the evil that lurks in the heart of men is most often exercised at home; domestic horror being the hardest to endure.

The irony is the success and legacy of Psycho has translated best not through a raft of dismal sequels and remakes but through a TV show, dramatising and serialising the life of Hitchcock’s antagonist and his fated mother. Horror has once again come home.

When we add to this Hannbial – doing likewise with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter – as well as The Walking Dead and the continuing themed miniseries American Horror Story, there seems to be a growth in shifting the genre to the smaller screen. So why has horror come back into the home?

There are several reasons that I can see, and the first is really levelled  at what’s happened to the horror genre since the advent of television. Let’s take IGN’s list of the top horror films as fairly representative of most.

  1. The Exorcist
  2. Psycho
  3. Jaws
  4. Alien
  5. The Silence of the Lambs
  6. The Shining
  7. Bride of Frankenstein
  8. Rosemary’s Baby
  9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  10. Night of the Living Dead

Not bad, nothing outrageously against conventional thinking there. But what do we have? Five monsters, four killers, and zombies. No vampires, thankfully, though I suspect Nosferatu isn’t far off the Top Ten. But we also have seven book adaptations. The three that aren’t – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead and Alien – all borrow extensively from heavily established horror conventions and tropes, as well as factual accounts and cultural traditions.

They are all excellent films. A few are truly great exponents of the cinematic medium. But in the breakdown of what’s what, we have the origins of what’s gone wrong with cinema horror.

The most recent film on that list was made in 1990. The second was 1980. Too many horror films since are remakes or reworkings of original ideas. Even more, like many in the list above, are just needless sequels and spinoffs of, again, original ideas. We have the reliance on standard fallback horror cliches – serial killers, supernatural serial killers, vampires, werewolves, zombies – and very little when it comes to imagining new, original horrors.

Additionally, how many new horror films are looking to books for inspiration? If seven out of the ten are book adaptations, doesn’t that say something? Even when we do get one, like Let The Right One In, and it astounds us with its originality and clarity of vision in telling a horror story, it’s then bundled up and remade a couple of years later.

We need new ideas, people. Cinematic horror is not offering them. Except in one really awful way.

I make no secret I dislike the trend of excessive gore in horror. None of the above films trade in that currency. The only one close to it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is tame by today’s standards of gore, and unfortunately appears to be left with a legacy of kickstarting this more-is-better gorefest.

But okay, people still watch these films, it doesn’t necessarily spell the end of horror. Or does it?

Horror cinema made its name in the thrill of the experience, seeing something visceral and challenging in a shared environment. It was something people took others with them to see the horror, to make you feel okay, to commune in the adrenalin. This then lead to horror as the date movie and the drive-in experience, where couples could do much of the mentioned sharing but add an extra dose of anticipation to the mix.

That’s all gone with excessive gore. Now it’s just a Youtube sensory viewing. Ingest what you can, so that you can add your name to the list of those who have seen it. The films are aiming for vomit, not screams, and the genre loses its appeal of being a shared viewing. Aspiring couples are more likely to want to scream their way through Alien than they are wanting to spew through Hostel.

By returning horror to TV, it brings with it a level of censorship. Even in these HBO days, there are visual limits to which TV shows are allowed to go, and we have a restoring of old elements to the genre. Suspense, anticipation, fear of the unknown, rich and dense narrative: these are all part and parcel of the new wave of horror TV.

I’m not holding onto much hope that cinema will return to the cinematic heights of The Exorcist and The Shining, but perhaps this boost of the genre through a different medium might reignite some of that lost flame. Rosemary’s Baby is scheduled to be adapted into a new series and Hannibal and Bates Motel have both been renewed for more. Hannibal itself aims to not only tell the story before The Silence of the Lambs, but also retell the film’s plot, and move beyond it. TV is allowing the horror to be once again told in an original way.

With the publication of Doctor Sleep late last year, as a sequel to The Shining, we’re left with the possibility that someone might perhaps try to do a cinematic sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s film. And yet a better opportunity is afforded here – serialise the character of Danny Torrance, the now-adult survivor of the Overlook Hotel, as he tries to find a life to live among the horrors of the modern world.

There’ll be more horror on TV, I’ve no doubt, more horror brought into our homes, and perhaps that will give audiences an opportunity to rediscover the almost-lost magic of the genre.

 

 

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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 24, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Box office nerdery: billion dollar movies in 2014

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4. Should the Thrawn trilogy remain in the Star Wars canon?

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3. Objectifying books

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2. The world according to Marvel

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1. Everyday rejection letters

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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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Posts with Momentum

Posted January 17, 2014 by Mark

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Here are the five most-viewed posts from the blog this week:

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5. Game of Thrones season 4 trailer

 

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4. What this scene from Harry Potter can teach us about adapting popular fiction

 

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3. Don’t worry about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy

 

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2. It’s time to start worrying about the new Star Wars trilogy

 

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1. Nine reasons that being a book loving shut-in is better than being a social butterfly

 

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2014 Oscar nominations

Posted 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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What this scene from Harry Potter can teach us about adapting popular fiction

Posted January 16, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In last week’s post I briefly alluded to the success of Catching Fire  as a film adaptation of a popular book. In order to examine why I think it’s an enormously successful film, it’s worth looking at how we should measure the quality and success of book adaptations to the screen.

There’s a particular part of the story that occurs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry and Hermione are on the road, travelling from location to location, on a seemingly hopeless quest. Additionally they are doing so without Ron who has left the two alone, and it’s the most extreme moment of conflict between the three friends in the entire series.

In the book, the situation itself builds up over a series of chapters, and after Ron’s departure, plays out in long passages of exposition and dialogue exploring Harry and Hermione’s disappearing hope and drive on their particular quest.

In the film adaptation, this extended section of the plot plays out in the following scene, a scene which to me is the strongest piece of cinematic storytelling in the entire series:

So why is this scene so good? Why is it emblematic of a successful approach to adapting fiction – particularly popular fiction – for the screen?

The Harry Potter films are never going to go down as exemplars of the cinematic form. Wildly successful financially, as adaptations they benefit enormously from the collective knowledge of the books by their audience.

The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were plodding in their fidelity to the books, almost tokenistic in how they were adapted, they were examples of film adaptations made to please the audience, who just want to see visual representations of their imagination. They don’t want to experience the story on screen, they want to be reminded of the story they read. While this approach can be initially successful, over time the efforts look tepid and uninspired.

The Prisoner of Azkaban had the fortune of being directed by Alfonso Cuaron which made it cinematically enjoyable and visually entertaining, but was a case of sacrificing one over the other, and the motivations of the characters – particularly during the time-travel ending – is almost indecipherable if one hasn’t read the book.

The Goblet of Fire was possibly the worst example of adaptation in the series: entire plot lines are abandoned midway through the film, characters are forgotten about, and the audience is left not entirely sure what’s happening and why. This problem only increased as the books became longer, with The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows also suffering from having to adapt hundreds and hundreds of pages into two hours.

In short: they all relied on extensive knowledge of the books for them to actually make any sense. Cinematically, they don’t.

What the above scene does is distill pages and pages of words into two minutes of dialogue-free visual storytelling. The relationship between the characters is painfully evident, including the character who isn’t present, and the performances of the actors acknowledge the complexity of emotion that occurs at that part of the plot. It’s also a rare use in the series of existing music as first diegetic and then non-diegetic soundtrack to the scene. The thematic concerns of the music underscore the characters and the scene and the entire plot.

Everything works, very quickly, very easily, very economically.

If a picture tells a thousand words, then this is how to adapt. 

But sometimes, the inverse happens, and a sentence in a book ends up telling a thousand pictures. Take, for example, a moment in an entirely different series, in The Return of the King when the fractured friendship of Frodo and Sam is put to the test by the presence of Gollum.

Remarkably similar to the Harry Potter example, particularly in that the scenes are there to make manifest the enormity of their quest, and the difficulty they have in sustaining and withstanding the journey. In the book, this dynamic to Frodo and Sam’s friendship is suggested, but nothing more comes of it. It’s there to embody the danger Gollum’s presence represents, but that is all.

When adapted to the screen, this doesn’t work so well. An audience needs more than just the suggestion something might happen. If there’s threat, there needs to be the playing out of that threat. So the film sees that moment through, and Frodo and Sam’s friendship does break down to the point where they separate, and it becomes the ultimate breaking of the fellowship created in the first book. Here, the source material is expanded to visually tell the same story in a different way.

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance between the book and the film, in an adaptation. The story needs to work, it needs to be a representation of the story that already exists in written form. But it needs to be told according to the rules and abilities of an entirely different medium. Sometimes that means expanding and creating, other times it means condensing and suggesting.

The reason why this is problematic these days, is the success of franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have shown to studios that there’s enormous financial reward in adapting an popular fiction series. Transplant the audience into a cinema, and you get the revenue.

But if the recent failures of Ender’s Game and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and conceivably the Narnia and Twilight films, are representative of anything, it’s that audiences will get sick of the endless repetition of by-the-numbers adaptations. Films that are either just visual replications of the books, there to remind the audience of what it was they once read, or films that don’t adapt, they just remove until the book is a filmable length, but all the coherence and nature of the plot lost by omission.

Where Catching Fire succeeded, was in understanding how the story as it was in the book worked, and finding a different way to depict that onscreen. It wasn’t too afraid to alter or invent, but knew enough of how to tell the same story visually.

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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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Don’t worry about the upcoming Star Wars trilogy

Posted by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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With the rumour-mill going into meltdown in the last few days over possible casting and possible plots for the upcoming seventh Star Wars film, it’s hard to not follow a line of thinking from there and start speculating about just how good this film may be.

As Mark mentioned yesterday, once upon a time in a decade far far away, George Lucas created a rich universe for his stories, full of derring-do and mythic endeavour. As Mark also mentioned, we’re now on a hiding to nothing with the almost-universally regarded underwhelming prequel trilogy souring what was once a golden relationship between audiences and the Star Wars universe.

So, do we need to be worried about the new Star Wars film? Do we need to be concerned about what J.J. Abrams is going to do to yet another space franchise?

In short: no.

For a few reasons.

1. J.J. Abrams loves Star Wars

This is a rather crucial point. If he turns this franchise into excrement, it will not just be a legion of fanatics complaining that he ruined their childhood – he’ll be saying it to himself. Basically, when Abrams cares about something, he does it proud. I see his acceptance of directing this film as one trying to restore what has been lost between the pristine memories of the 80s and the soured ambivalence of the late 90s and 2000s.

Taking Super 8 as evidence: here Abrams tried to honour and do justice to the memory of storytelling offered by Steven Spielberg in films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And even if Super 8 had a somewhat okay ending, it was still true to the tone, image and storytelling of the early blockbuster period. It was an oddly classical film in an era when blockbusters have become hyperactive and convoluted.

Abrams’ love of the original Star Wars films will hopefully restore the universe George Lucas created back to their pure and honest origins.

2. The weight of criticism

More abuse has been directed at the Star Wars prequels and at George Lucas than pretty much any other successful director in cinema history. And that’s including Paul W.S. Anderson.

While the prequels raked in the cash, the actions of George Lucas since the release of Revenge of the Sith in 2005 have confirmed for audiences that he really wasn’t the director we thought he was. That if he had been afforded the money and effects in the 70s that he now had, Star Wars perhaps might not have turned out the way we liked it. And Lucas increasingly seemed over the criticism, as if he’d had enough. Never one to trumpet his own abilities, or have faith in them, he probably has given in to the weight of criticism at his abilities and has moved towards sem-retirement, and sold Lucasfilm to Disney.

So, imagine if this is another crap Star Wars film. Imagine if it is another two hours of poor acting, stilted dialogue, unclear character motivations and midichlorians up to your ears. Disney will be issued a cease-and-desist, and Star Wars will be no more. Disney’s acquisition, and the appointment of Abrams, feels like the accountants finally getting ahold of the assets from a rich tycoon who had dwindled into senility. Lucas didn’t know how good his assets were, and was continually frittering them away. There is no way these people would dare offer up the fourth underwhelming Star Wars film in a row. No conceivable way. They would become the laughing stock of cinema.

3. It’s not Star Trek

Sorry, but they can’t be compared. Yes Abrams directed Star Trek and Into Darkness, but that’s beside the point. Other than operating in similar cinematic timeframes, and both having space in them, and the word ‘Star’, they’re very different beasts. One is quite clearly science-fiction, the other having its roots far more in fantasy.

Yes, the nostalgia for the old films is driving this, but that’s a good thing. The series needs restoring. It has always been a classical story, a hero’s quest, and the preoccupation with Darth Vader’s origins ruined the flavour we had for Star Wars. Bringing it back to its roots, and focusing again on the path forward – forward momentum being something dearly lacking in the prequels yet crucial to the originals – is a good and necessary thing.

What we’ll get to see in this film, and in the trilogy hopefully, is something we almost never see in heroes quests – what happens after the big victory? What happens after Luke goes home with Vader and the Emperor gone? Can we ever live happily ever after, even if it’s a long time ago?

We have many reasons to be hopeful, so let’s look forward to it.

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It’s time to start worrying about the new Star Wars trilogy

Posted January 13, 2014 by Mark

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Star Wars is a film series that deserves to go on for a long time. The world is rich in history and characters, so there’s room for almost countless adventures. As the expanded universe of novels, comics, games and cartoons has shown, there are huge storytelling possibilities. So the idea of more films in the Star Wars canon is not abhorrent.

But we have suffered through some bad Star Wars stories. The prequel trilogy was ambitious, visually dazzling, but poorly told. There are some stunning moments, and if you think about what George Lucas was trying to do (show how an innocent child can grow up to be a genocidal maniac), it’s a dark and complex idea that deserved better treatment from the creative forces behind it.

So what we really need are some good Star Wars stories to refresh the franchise, and Episode VII really needs to hit it out of the park. Another mediocre effort at this point would make four bad Star Wars films in a row. That could be enough to mute the grosses for later instalments and compromise the status of the franchise as one of the most important in cinema history.

Reports have surfaced that original Epsiode VII screenwriter, Michael Arndt, has had his script rewritten to emphasise the characters of Luke, Leia and Han, and to shrink the roles of their children. Arndt, who was let go from the production a few months ago, is the screenwriter behind such films as Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3.

Why is this worrying? To begin with, it makes it seem like the nostalgia for the old movies is a huge driving force behind Episode VII, rather than the desire to tell new Star Wars stories. It also spoils the generational shift of the trilogies, with each one meant to focus on a new set of Skywalker offspring.

According to the reports, the offspring will play a larger role in Episodes VIII and IX, but the symmetry of the trilogy could then be broken, as it was in the prequels, with only two films to properly tell the character arcs of these characters instead of three.

Add to that J.J. Abram’s latest film, Star Trek Into Darkness, which underwhelmed in terms of fan reception and box office. Star Trek Into Darkness was a misfire from the man who refreshed the Trek franchise, full of nostalgic throwbacks to what had come before, at the cost of telling a good story. Is this was we have waiting for us in December 2015?

 

 

 

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