Seeking inspiration in the wrong places

The blank page; the bane of a fledgling writer.
You stare in vain, willing your brain to dredge up an idea that lights up.
But nothing good comes.
So you sit there hollow and numb.
This part of the process?
The complete absence of fun.
When will that inspired concept strike?
As lurid day gives way to turgid night you stare out the window as birds take flight.
But still… nothing comes.
A strange rage begins to engage as you take in that hideous blank page.
What needs to change?
Your environment, yeah!
You need to get out and about.
The pub calls, so you head to the Hare & Trout.

Walking in, expecting a den of deviance laced in sin you’re greeted by tired old regulars slumped over their gin.
Somehow, you feel, this is not ideal.
No feast of inspiration but barely a meal.
So you down a few shots, turn heel and head back wobbly to the street.
Debauchery is needed.
You’re lost in thought as you walk straight into a Bobby on the beat.
In the collison you make a decision that bad things come to those that take definitive action.
So you steal his helmet in an instinctive reaction.
And perch it on your head in distinctive fashion.
The Bobby goes mad and loses his rag, much to your satisfaction.
He goes to give chase but he’s loathe to compete in your foolish race.
So he blows his whistle.

You stop, take aim, and launch the helmet like a guided missile.
It hits him full force, like a hammer and chisel.
You watch him hit the deck.
Imagining yourself the proud victor standing tall as you pin his neck.
He’s old this copper, you could take his gun and really finish this vet.
Dark thoughts swirl now and you’re drunk with power.
If this is the end then you should kick back and smoke some skunk in your final hour.
Then you snap to your senses.
In the street the Bobby gets to his feet, looking like he wants to swing you from the fences.
Like a rabbit in the headlights you’re rooted to the spot.
The image of your boot on his neck makes your survival instincts all but stop.
Then… something comes.

Inspiration blows you away like an awesome and beautiful tidal wave.
Your writer’s block caves and you’re overwhelmed, feeling brave.
The copper now advances as you flip him the bird.
You hurl abuse at him loud to make sure he’s flippin’ heard.
What a rebel.
Tonight was about inspiration and now you’re a red rag to a bull.
It’s like you’ve mainlined Red Bull.
Shots of tequila and nitrous oxide gives you cunning vision like fox eyes.
Chemicals flood your blood stream.
Feeling overloaded, like a mug you scream.
The copper looks nonplussed… as he pulls out his handcuffs.
And despite your bluster and bravado you muster the courage to follow him meekly when he says ‘Let’s go.’
And the next you know.. the cells doors slam.
But you don’t care.
The fire burns inside you, inspiration man. You’re a one-man clan.

True Detective: season 2 review

Whilst it’s incredibly easy to jump on the critical bandwagon and denounce the second season of True Detective as a confusing and unengaging flop, I feel that’s slightly unfair. It’s also unfair to constantly compare it to the first season. A season which, let’s face it, had little expectation, other than the fact it had a couple of A-listers in the lead roles. Yet delivered and then some.

For the sake of fairness, the first season had a couple of obvious but vital things going for it too. It was a simpler story, albeit leaping around time periods. It also had a secret weapon: Matthew McConaughey, a man at the top of his game. But, first and foremost, we identified with the two lead characters and the interaction they had together.

Fast forward to season two and the cast has changed and grown, the story has become more complex and layered, and the location has shifted from the simmering deep south to the urban sprawl of LA.

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So, it’s literally almost an entirely different show.

That said, some things remain. Such as the slow burn tone (expertly continued with a woozy, languorous and devilishly seductive soundtrack) and the tortured characters (instead of two leads we now have four – more bang for your buck). Although what this does mean is that we as an audience need to reinvest ourselves in an entirely new set of troubled souls.

So in step Colin Farrell (a washed up old copper desperate to connect with his kid), Rachel McAdams (a prickly detective unable to meaningfully connect with anyone at work or at home) and Taylor Kitsch (a young traffic cop grappling with – and hiding from – his sexuality), who are thrown together to initially solve a murder which spirals out into a much bigger web of corruption and deceit, partially involving Vince Vaughn’s aspirational gangster.

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With the series finale (after eight episodes) I was left feeling rather relieved it was all over as it had sort of collapsed under the own weight of its expectation. And, despite the cast all giving a decent account of themselves (particularly Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell), there was nothing they could do to elevate the confused and convoluted script.

Will there be a season 3?

Smart money would say no, although HBO are open to it. The first season was critically acclaimed and the second the polar opposite; maybe the result of just trying to be too ambitious for its own good and different for the sake of it? If that’s the case then the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto should be applauded for his bravery. After finding a winning formula in season one he then oddly, largely, abandoned it. Or perhaps tried to evolve it, it’s hard to say.

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On the plus side there were definitely things to love about the second season. For example we had proper, cinematic, edge-of-your-seat scenes throughout, in particular a street gun battle in broad daylight that felt akin to the one in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Then there were quieter, more introspective moments that were incredibly tender and showed a deftness of touch. In particular a series of intensely vulnerable moments between Farrell and McAdams’ characters as they opened up to one another, which were understated and deeply moving.

In some ways I’d be interested to see what they do with a third season, should they choose to make one. Different location again? Different characters? Would any return or cross paths?

These days, TV audiences are a little spoilt for choice with the quality out there, despite the fact that the ‘golden age of TV’ is reportedly over. And anything that plays by its own rules is bound to divide people. But there is definitely a place for this sort of show, so maybe let’s not give it a kicking just yet eh?

[Related articles]
Guardian article: In praise of… True Detective

Chappie: Short Circuit gets a reboot?

Johnny Five is very much alive. Apologies to kids of the ’90s, this reference to the 1986 film Short Circuit will be lost on you.

What I’m trying to say is that Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie doesn’t feel like it’s hugely treading new ground when it comes to exploring artificial intelligence, but it’s quite a fun experience nonetheless.

We start with genius programmer Dion (Dev Patel) working for a South African company called Tetravaal who produce robotic police officers known as scouts. They’ve been instrumental in helping keep the crime rate down in Johannesburg, a city on the edge of slipping into chaos.

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Through a series of events Dion acquires a robot due for scrap and manages to install his newly developed artificial intelligence system into him. Around the same time he’s thrown together with some local gangsters who want to use the robot for their own ends.

Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

Put forward by Descartes in the Principles of Philosophy in 1644 and, in recent years, has been tackled and toyed with by filmmakers, particularly in terms of humanity’s uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence. As we develop things designed to make our lives easier we’re becoming increasingly attached to the very things that are meant to help set us free. Who’s to say we won’t become even more dependent on technology like advanced AI, when it develops?

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And specifically with the case of Chappie, learn to love robots like they’re children and part of our family. A large part of the film’s first half deals with this notion and it’s probably where it comes across strongest, as there’s a lot of warmth and humour there.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) as a character seems somewhere between a pet and a child, constantly learning and enthusiastic. His performance (and dialogue) largely set to ‘dog mode’. Chappie do this, Chappie go there, Chappie has been a good boy, yes! It’s fairly charming and endearing, but we’re still firmly in Johnny Five territory.

Sticking the moral (but childlike) Chappie in with a bunch of gangsters is a nice idea, and the comedic situations work well. The problems occur when the film moves into more traditional action territory. And this is where you feel that so much time has been spent on Chappie and the characters immediately around him, that supporting characters get rather short shrift.

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Particularly Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman’s characters. They do their best but they’re lumbered with thinly drawn parts, clunky dialogue and – at times – rather ludicrous scenarios where their decisions are as baffling as the situation (particularly Jackman, who seems to be kitted out to look like Aussie crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, complete with bush outfit and a fearsome mullet).

As films go Neil Blomkamp set his own bar almost unsettlingly high with his debut District 9. Each of his films that followed this primarily explored similar themes, but with diminishing returns.

However, that said, there’s really nothing wrong with Chappie. It’s fun and entertaining, but given the subject matter it could have been so much more. You get the sense Blomkamp was more interested in exploring a situation where a childlike robot with a moral compass gets raised by gangsters (like some sort of ghetto Mowgli), than really mining the depths of consciousness, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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This is evident in the film’s final third, which rushes through key sections almost like an afterthought. The same sort of thing happened in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlet Johansson. Although, if we’re talking a more sophisticated handling of AI, you’re probably better off watching the film she did with Joaquin Phoenix, Her. Or more recently Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Hell, even I, Robot.

But before this descends into a Chappie bashing (which he gets enough of in the film), this movie is warm, its heart is in the right place and it’s engaging for the most part. And despite other characters not getting the love they deserve in the script, Copley keeps us hooked in, making us care about Chappie’s fate.

All in all, though, this isn’t a classic take on the genre, or even classic Blomkamp, but it’s entertaining enough and worth your time… for Copley’s plucky performance if nothing else.

Gone Girl: A love letter to marriage

Phase 2 of Ben Affleck’s career just keeps impressing. It probably started with Gone Baby Gone in 2006, which he wrote and directed. Then The Town in 2010, in which he starred and directed. He followed this with Argo in 2012, again, he starred and directed. In the same year he managed to fit in critically acclaimed film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

He’s been cast as the new Batman (so we’ll be seeing him again in 2016), but before that he’s added another thoughtful, measured and mature performance (and film) to his filmography with Gone Girl, directed by one of modern cinema’s bad boy geniuses David Fincher.

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

Gone Girl the novel – by Gillian Flynn – came out in 2012. By the end of its first year it had sold over two million copies. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for this film and her themes (and characters) are tremendously relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that’s gone somewhat awry.

The film tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who, upon returning home one day, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has vanished in suspicious circumstances. What ensues is a police investigation and media frenzy where everyone – in the absence of Amy’s body – accuses Nick of being a sociopath and condemns him for her murder. Their initial evidence? His awkward behaviour when dealing with the media and various failings that come to light concerning his marriage vows.

As probably one of the most famous guys named Ben in modern times, Affleck is no stranger to being put under the beady eye of media scrutiny. Here he treads a masterful line, giving Nick just enough of our sympathies to believe he didn’t commit murder, but with enough occasional flashes to keep us guessing.

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Credit should also go to Fincher, who jumps between Nick’s present day predicament and flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s past; from happier times when they first met to progressively tougher times as they both lose their jobs and begin to hate each other.

Without giving too much away (but let’s say spoiler alert anyway) the film changes tack about halfway through to tell Amy’s side of the story. Now Rosamund Pike has been around for a few years, putting in good performances here and there for the most part, but never really cracked the major A-list. That should now change pretty sharply.

Her performance here is captivating – all fire and ice as she shows first one side of Amy, then the other. Without giving too much away Nick has the lion’s share of the story, yet Amy’s scenes are pivotal and are the ones that jolt you out of any comfortable place you may have felt the story was taking you as a viewer.

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You’d expect nothing less from Fincher right? He gave us the ‘head in a box’ scene in Seven years ago, and it’s fair to say it looked like he felt right at home with the script’s dark themes.

Referring to the film as a love letter to marriage is really more of a question. The writer (of the book and screenplay) said she based the story on some of her own experiences. Much has been written about these characters putting you off marriage and relationships, but I’d say it’s blackly humorous, cynical perhaps, but also remarkably well observed in some ways.

There’s quite a few comic moments, which to me suggest you shouldn’t get too hung up on the darker elements, but perhaps take it with a pinch of salt as a cautionary tale. Or the opposite, as some sort of cynical love letter.

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Ultimately, the story and characters are highly engaging (in an unsettling way) throughout. Pike and Affleck’s performances are first class and Fincher shows no signs of giving up his dark cinematic throne any time soon.

Here’s to Amazing Fucking Amy. I’d marry her in a second.

I’d probably regret it… but it’d be a thrilling ride.

End of Watch takes in-car banter to new level

End-of-watchIs David Ayer more of a writer than a director? His writing credits include U-571 (once described as the most historically inaccurate film of all time), Training Day (a career high), S.W.A.T. (enjoyable but unmemorable), Harsh Times (great performance by Christian Bale) and End of Watch (his best yet?).

It’s probably unfair to just say he’s a writer. As a director he began his career with Harsh Times, then followed up with Street Kings and now we have End of Watch. It’s clear he plays to his strengths. Many writers get told to write what they know. Ayer grew up in South Central Los Angeles and this comes through in his work. Many of his stories revolve around cops, gangsters, drugs and violence and are all well-observed with a distinctive look and feel.

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With his latest offering I found myself asking, is Ayer the master of in-car banter? Picking up where Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke left off in Training Day, we now have Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two street level LA cops, just trying to do their jobs and make it through the day.end-of-watch-jake-gyllenhaal-close-up Ayer gifts their characters with believable dialogue, which Pena and Gyllenhaal deliver effortlessly with easy chemistry. These guys are brothers in all but blood.

You could call this a buddy cop movie, but Lethal Weapon this aint. It’s a thriller, the tone is gritty, visceral and very real. The banter between the two leads serves to diffuse any tension that builds from a result of the job they do. It also contrasts nicely for the audience. We’re relaxed when the guys are riffing off each other in their patrol car, yet completely on edge when they’re answering 911 calls in gang-ridden neighbourhoods.

Found footage…again

Plot-wise, the film starts simply enough, as vehicle for us to become familiar with the lives of the two leads. They then fall foul of a gang that greenlights them for assassination. In terms of methods used, Ayer opted to tell this tale in ‘found footage’ style, with the two cops filming their everyday lives for a documentary. This largely works. You can willingly suspend disbelief, aside from the odd scene where even a hardened LA cop would put away the camera for his own safety.End-of-Watch_03 What doesn’t work so well is when the gangsters also seem to have cameras and be filming their activities. There’s a limit guys.

That said, it’s a minor point. Overall, this film lives or dies by its leads and it’s safe to say it’s alive and kicking. Prior to filming, Gyllenhaal and Pena spent months riding around LA with real cops and it shows. Their chemistry drives the film and gets under your skin – you really care about their fate and this builds throughout as the tension ramps up.

Does it beat Training Day?

As an overall experience I would say no. Not much will touch Denzel’s award-winning performance. However, in terms of chemistry between characters, it has to be up there. There was perhaps a worry Ayer was beginning to lose his way – as both writer and director – but this represents a huge return to form.

Indeed, award-winning film critic Roger Ebert gave this four out of four stars last year, naming it as his fourth best film of 2012. That should make it a must-see in anyone’s book.

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