Category Archives: Film

Happy Birthday, Mr Burns!

Robert Burns

Tonight is, of course, Burns night, and we’re looking forward to steaming our haggis and bashing our neeps and tatties and raising a glass to Scotland’s national poet.   A few years back, Robert Burns was voted the greatest Scotsman of all time and I find it deeply heartening that that honour has gone to a poet, and not a warrior or politician.

Here are a few words from the great man himself …

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,

That’s newly sprung in June:

O my Luve’s like the melodie,

That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry , my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve !

And fare-thee-weel, a while!

And I will come again, my Luve,

Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Many happy returns Robbie, and thank you for all the pleasure your wonderful poetry has brought.

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Filed under Poetry, Scotland

Laughter and Tears – Birdman and Whiplash

There aren’t many films that are genuinely laugh out loud funny, but I have to say that Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, is one of them, although the humour is pretty dark at times.  The film tells the story of washed up Hollywood “superhero”, Riggan Thomson’s attempt to relaunch his career as a serious stage actor by putting on a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love.

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Michael Keaton squares up to Edward Norton in Birdman

Not surprisingly, one disaster strikes after another.   On the night before the previews open, one cast member, admittedly one Riggan is desperate to get rid of, is injured by a falling light.  As a replacement, Riggan’s manager and the show’s producer, hires renowned Broadway method actor, Mike Shiner.  Shiner is played hilariously by Edward Norton as monstrously conceited thesp, so dependent on an audience for self-validation that he can only get it up in front of a packed theatre.  Needless to say, Shiner loses no time in trying to upstage Riggan at every opportunity.  Add to the mix Riggan’s neurotic, much younger girlfriend, his ex-wife, his recovering addict daughter and a diabolically bitchy theatre critic with the power to make or break any theatre production staged in New York and you have the perfect recipe for black comedy.

Yet despite all that, there’s a warm undercurrent to the film.  Throughout Riggan’s trials, his cinematic alter ego, the eponymous Birdman, berates and upbraids him.   But although Riggan seems to have retained a number of Birdman’s supernatural powers including the ability to levitate, move objects using his mind alone and fly unaided above the streets of New York, his chief preoccupations remain deeply parochial.

The film explores the idea that as successful we might appear to be, we remain beset with the same commonplace anxieties – are we loved, what’s our place in the world, have we been successful?    Riggan might have had a stellar career in Hollywood, but he remains deeply insecure.  Years of impersonating Birdman to do nothing to save him from himself.

By contrast, Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is anything but a comedy.  Young drummer, Andrew Neiman – played by Miles Teller – is a student at an elite music school.  Andrew is determined to take his place among the jazz greats alongside Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, but at what cost?  Neiman finds himself up against Terrence Fletcher, the sadistic leader of the school’s jazz band, who refuses to countenance anything other than total perfection.

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

In order to weed out the men from the boys, Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, resorts to cruel mind-games, excoriating verbal abuse and physical violence.  The result is a desperate duel, in which Fletcher pushes Andrew through blood, sweat and tears to the edge of insanity and beyond.   However Andrew is not a quitter and through the conflict, he gradually gains the mastery that will enable him to match and surpass his tormentor and earn his grudging respect.

The film explores a number of interesting ideas around what it is that enables an artist to stand apart from the crowd and become extraordinary and whether those that take that path pay too high a price for their success.    While there are abiding popular myths about those born to be geniuses, the reality is that greatness is almost invariably very hard won indeed.

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Filed under Film, Screenwriting

Begin Again

It’s been a sombre start to the year, with the loss of the AirAsia plane on 28th December and the horrific news from Paris yesterday.   Somehow when the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December, there’s always the hope that the New Year will somehow magically usher in a change for the better, but of course that’s rarely the case.   In some ways, New Year is only an arbitrary marker in the endless continuum of time, and yet we seem to have a strong need to draw a line under the past at regular intervals and give ourselves permission to start afresh with renewed optimism and purpose.

A fresh start or same old, same old...?

A fresh start or same old, same old…?

I have to confess that I didn’t write as much as I would have liked last year – a few short stories and a few short screenplays is all I managed to get down.  Starting a new job in the summer didn’t help, and it’s taken me a while to adjust and still find time to write along with work and family commitments.   So I aim to be much more productive this year, and much more disciplined too.  I have plans for a new feature script, and am determined to try and complete it over the next few months.

One boost is that a director has taken on one of my short scripts – a comedy about a flat-share that goes wrong – and with any luck, it will be produced and filmed over the next couple of months too.  I have to say that the prospect of one of my stories actually appearing on screen – or at least youtube – is vastly exciting and it’s also encouraged me to think getting some of my other story ideas actually down on paper.   I have a whole list of them…

While I enjoy writing, especially when it’s going well, I find the whole marketing side of it really hard.  It goes against the grain to talk much about myself or my writing.  Part of me just wants it to be miraculously discovered, but of course without me actively trying to promote my work, this is about as likely as seeing a flock of pigs sailing overhead.

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

Deserving winner of the Costa newcomer award

What sticks in the mind is a comment from the winner of the Costa Book award for best newcomer, Emma Healey, who said that she rarely spoke about her writing while she was working on her debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’, because it was kind of embarrassing admitting to being an aspiring writer.  I have every sympathy for such sentiments!   So I guess my main resolution for this year is to be more confident about myself as a writer, but to make sure I put in the hours too.  Wish me luck!

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Filed under Books, Film, Screenwriting, Writing

All Change, please

Whichever way Scotland votes today, I hope this country will never be the same again. The amazing debate that’s been taking place north of the border and the incredible level of public engagement, with 97% of those eligible to vote registering to do so, is the most heartening and revitalising thing that’s happened to our democracy since, well, forever.

PollingDemocracy in Action

For decades, participation in elections and in political activity generally, has been declining across the UK. Membership of political parties has plummeted and there’s a widely held belief that all politicians are as bad as each other. Even more dangerous, there’s a strong sense, reinforced after the 2010 election, that whichever way you vote, nothing will ever actually change. Whoever’s in charge, privilege becomes more entrenched, the poor get poorer, social mobility declines. No wonder so many of us simply decide not to bother.

As we watch Scotland being intoxicated by a new passion for politics, more and more people south of the border are beginning to ask, why not us too? Why shouldn’t we too have more say over how we’re governed and how our taxes are spent? We may all live in one country, but that doesn’t mean to say that a decision that’s right for Basingstoke is also right for Birmingham or Bradford. In fact it very probably isn’t.

               London         Cumbrian lake

What’s good for London isn’t always good for everyone else

It’s high time we had a much less centralised political system. It’s time we had regional assemblies that are much more responsive to local issues and that have control over a high proportion of the revenue raised within their area. The government at Westminster could then be substantially scaled back and would focus exclusively on issues that genuinely are best managed at a national level, such as defence and foreign policy.

A new political settlement is the only realistic way to tackle the growing disparity between London and rest of the country and the only way overcome growing perception that the south-east is sucking in all the resources and talent at the expense of other parts of the country.

We desperately need change, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. No doubt, if the Scots vote ‘yes’ to independence, David Cameron will be pilloried for losing a third of the country. The truth is, if what happens in Scotland today makes the rest of the population wake up to the idea that a top-to-toe rethink of the political settlement in this country is both possible and desirable, he’ll have done us the biggest favour imaginable.

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Filed under politics, Scotland

All Grown Up

Today, the daughter of some very dear friends of mine turns 18. Thinking back to the day of her birth, it seems barely possible to believe she’s now an adult. That hot July day back in 1996 feels like it was a couple of years ago at the most. But then again, I look at my own kids, with another school year all but under their belts, and I realise they aren’t so very far from that landmark either.

Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, has been a gargantuan project. Filmed over the course of some 12 years, it tells the story of an ordinary boy, Mason Evans, as he grows from the age of six to adulthood. Nothing really huge happens. The family moves to Texas, Mason’s mum goes back to college then finds work as a lecturer. She remarries and divorces twice and we see Mason experience the variable geometry of modern family life as step-dads and step brothers and sisters come and go. The constants remain his mum, his sister and above all his dad, Mason Sr, played by Ethan Hawke, who although no longer living with the rest of the family, is a constant loving presence in Mason’s life.

Boyhood - film posterInstead of a story in the traditional sense, the film presents an incredibly intimate portrait of contemporary American life unfolding in real time. It’s fascinating to see Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, change over time, not just physically, but in his understanding of the world, his preoccupations, and growing emotional maturity until he reaches the point when he’s ready to step out into the world alone.

Initial experiments with girls lead to first real love, and first real heart-break. A fractious relationship with his sister grows into friendship. A clash with a teacher forces a new attitude to school and leads ultimately to success and a possible future career as a photographer.

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

Ellar Coltrane in 2013

The whole thing is edited seamlessly so that, as in life, the viewer barely notices the passing of time; the characters gradually change and age, grow, gain weight, turn grey and yet are essentially the same. For all its ups and downs, Mason’s family is loving and strong. At the end of the film, we are left with a moving portrait of an overwhelmingly decent young man, both completely unique and utterly ordinary, as he stands on the threshold of adulthood.

What’s ordinary reality for Mason, is the stuff of fantasy for the kids in The Golden Dream (La Jaula de Oro), Diego Quemada-Diez’s film about impoverished Guatemalan youngsters trying to make their way to the US. For the three protagonists, the US is an idealised land of the imagination where they cannot help but grow rich and happy.

La Jaula de Oro poster

Canny, adaptable and single-minded in their determination to reach their destination, they are nevertheless no match for the cynical adults that prey on them, exploiting them to harvest sugar cane or smuggle drugs and stealing even their shoes. One of the kids is a girl, but despite efforts to pass as boy, she’s hauled off by gangsters with the suggestion she’ll be forced into prostitution. When the remaining pair finally make it to the US, one is promptly shot dead by vigilantes and the other ends up working for peanuts in a stinking meat-processing factory. All the hopes and dreams of the three kids, all their energy and imagination are crushed with absolute ruthlessness. 

Where Boyhood leaves the audience with a feeling of optimism, The Golden Dream has the opposite effect.  Seeing both films in the same week I couldn’t help but be struck by the vast disparity in the lives and opportunities available to children whose destinies are decided by which side of a border they happen to be born on.

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Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Screenwriting, Stories

Setting off alone

In a few days time, it’ll be the longest day of the year. For me, there’s something very magical about the long June evenings. Even down here in the south, it’s light until ten o’clock at night. I love being able to go for a walk after supper when everyone else is settled down with their tablets or the TV. The streets outside are quiet and there’s a secretive, mysterious quality to the woods and alleys around where we live.

In Scotland, where I lived as a child, at this time of year, it doesn’t really get dark until half past eleven and by half-past two in the morning, the first glimmers of light are already streaking the sky.

Rowardennan

Rowardennan

When we were teenagers in Glasgow, occasionally my parents would consent to an evening barbecue on the shores of Loch Lomond up in the Trossachs. We’d drive up to Rowardennan, heap a big pile of drift wood onto the pebbly beach and fry sausages, bacon and tomatoes or perhaps a few Arbroath kippers.

In the ashes, we’d toast sweet sticky marshmallows and afterwards watch the sun go down behind the mountains, while the midges swarmed around us and a heron fished from a rock by the shore. Often we’d linger until the last embers had died away before getting back into the car and returning somewhat regretfully to the modern world.

Much better toasted

Much better toasted

Often on those occasions, I liked to imagine I was on the cusp of a terrific adventure, as if I was about to step into a JRR Tolkien story. Part of me longed to set off into the wilderness and connect with the natural world in all its timeless, elemental grandeur.

As a child, I was convinced I could survive by depending on my own resources and what nature afforded. I knew how to light a fire, how to catch a fish, where to gather nuts and berries. I loved building dens in the back garden and felt confident I could construct some sort of shelter to keep the worst of the weather at bay.

Of course my life took an entirely different path, but even now every so often I feel a strong urge to escape the complications of urban life and get back to something simpler and purer.

I recently saw the John Curran film, Tracks, starring Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, the Australian girl who in 1977 took off into the wilderness in order to trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Despite the harshness of the terrain, Robyn did survive, but not without her four camels, her dog and intermittent support from Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who fell in love with her. Smolan helped to secure the funding for Davidson’s trip, but the quid pro quo was that she would agree to be photographed.

Mia Wasikowska in the film 'Tracks'.

Mia Wasikowska in the film ‘Tracks’.

The film is definitely a slow watch and some have found the main character hard to like, not least because of her ambivalent attitude to Smolan, often rejecting him but ultimately relying on him too. However that’s the miss the point; despite her desire to be alone, Davidson never entirely manages to escape human contact and caring. Ironically, after her story was published, it provoked a huge wave of public curiosity and turned Davidson into something of a minor celebrity.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that however much we want to strike out on our own and connect with the natural world, it’s in our relationships with other people that we find the real purpose and meaning of our lives.

 

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Filed under Family, Film, Friends, Scotland, Screenwriting, Writing

Jogging On

What I love most about this time of year is that cherries are now in season. At our local market, they sell them by the boxful and there’s nothing like being able to graze on them by the handful, knowing they are not only delicious, but, unlike chocolate, more or less guilt-free.

May-time delight

May-time delight

Which is just as well, as I’ve been feeling guilty a lot over the past week – about the state of the house, about not doing more with the kids over the half-term break and particularly about my negligible work-rate and general lack of focus.

I’ve been trying to produce pieces to meet the briefs for various writing competitions, but as a result, it feels like it’s a long time since I got my teeth into a larger, more meaty project. At times it feels as if I’ve lost my way. I’ve also been struggling with my identity as a writer – can I really even call myself a writer? I’m not sure. And what it is I really want to write about anyway, what is it I want to say?

When I started out, I had an idea for a story that presented itself so powerfully that I felt no real need to ask myself why I was drawn to try to tell it. That was some years ago now, and the path that seemed so broad and straight has become narrow, obscure and fraught with pitfalls.

Even more damaging, I frequently find myself drawn into making comparisons with others who are treading the same path seemingly far more confidently and successfully than I am. It’s not that I’m jealous; I genuinely believe that the more good writers there are, the greater appetite there’ll be for high-quality writing.

Belgian crime writer, Georges Simenon – scarily prolific

 

Success engenders more success for more people. I don’t wish successful writers ill. Rather the risk, for me at any rate, is of being rather too over-impressed, and subsequently overwhelmed with a sense of my own inadequacy.

I feel I should write more, and be much less bashful about putting my stuff out there, but am not always sure how to go about doing this. Is it a good idea to enter competitions, when you’re up against so many others? Maybe I should just focus on writing feature-length screenplays – the most pleasurable format for me, but the hardest to sell. Or should I write short films that are quick and easy to make? Or what about radio? I like the idea of writing for radio, but again am not sure about how to break into it. What I need is a proper strategy.

Writing – a marathon, not a sprint

I guess the main thing is to stick at it, put my head down and keep going. When I look back at things I wrote a few years ago, they make me cringe. I know I’ve learned a lot since then and that my writing’s much better now than it was. Maybe the point is just to keep jogging on, and not worry so much about where it’ll take me.

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Filed under Film, Screenwriting, Writing