Things I Learned From… Dallas Buyers Club

Of all this year’s Oscar contenders, Dallas Buyers Club is the one that seems to be flying under the radar – in the UK, at least. It doesn’t have the ground-breaking technical achievements of Gravity or the all-star supporting cast of Twelve Years A Slave. It’s a movie that promises little in the way of uplifting  experiences: a movie about a man fighting the might of the pharmaceutical industry in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is never going to have a happy ending.

But it’s a tremendous piece of cinema, shot with extraordinary urgency and boasting truly Oscar-worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it, though, is the way it illustrates the great advantage of the cinematic film – the freedom that having a captive audience gives you to present an utterly unlikeable character.

For the first twenty minutes (at least) of the movie, Ron Woodroof is not a man most of us would cultivate as a best mate. He’s a promiscuous, drug-taking drunk – and the movie makes no pretence that any of that is particularly enjoyable, even to him. We first see him taking illegal bets and trying to flee with the money. He’s homophobic, has little respect for women, and doesn’t even seem to like his own friends that much…

I did not like this guy at first. If this had been a TV show, I probably would have changed channels. And by doing so, I would have missed a tremendous piece of drama.

The brilliance of the cinematic experience is that you’re committed: you’ve paid your money, you’re in your seat with your popcorn, and you don’t want to disturb the rest of the row by walking out. So you stay – and the movie has a chance to win you over, to show you a transformation on a scale that could never have happened if it had started with a more ‘likeable’ character.

Some people say that watching a movie at home is the same as watching it in a cinema. But is it? A DVD or download, like a TV channel, is perilously easy to turn off – forcing films to compete for the audience’s attention by making characters easier to bond with, easier to immediately grasp, and of course, likeable. Dallas Buyers Club is a movie that might have tested the patience of a’ home cinema’ audience – and that means it may be one of a dying breed…




Things I Learned From… Gravity

Gravity is a remarkable film by any standards. It’s a science fiction film (yes, it really is! Science fiction = fiction about science, it’s that simple) that’s attracting art house audiences.

It’s effectively a resurgence of the 1970’s big-budget disaster movie: the top stars of the day, the best special effects that money could buy, and a near-unimaginable disaster that forces the characters to reassess what’s important in their lives and instills in them new hope and a determination to survive.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how lightly it wears its technical artistry. The special effects and visual effects teams on this movie have done remarkable things – but at no point does that threaten to pull you away from the plot. It would be perfectly possible to sit through Gravity and never realise the effort that had gone into creating the illusion of being in Earth orbit.

Hollywood movies have always shifted form to take advantage of the latest technologies. The great screen musicals were a direct response to the invention of the ‘talkie’: now we have sound, what’s the most dramatic use we can make of it? Technicolor, Dolby sound – even my least favourite development, 3D – all changed the creative elements of the movies as much as the technical ones.

And new visual effects have made it possible to tell stories we could never have told previously. Jurassic Park, Avatar, The Matrix, Pacific Rim, all stories it would have been impossible to tell effectively without CGI.

What Gravity seems to suggest is that we’ve now reached a point where those effects are no longer a selling point – because they’re simply another storytelling technique. They’re exactly like sound and colour: something we simply accept as part of the fabric of the movie.

This may make it harder to sell those big blockbusters previously marked on the quality and novelty of their visual effects. But it places the story back at the heart of film-making – and that can only be a good thing.

Things I Learned from… Agents Of SHIELD

If ever there was a show that seemed destined to succeed, it was Agents Of SHIELD. (Yes, I know it’s S.H.I.E.L.D, but honestly, life is too short for that amount of punctuation…) Great creative minds behind the concept, great writers, great cast, and the publicity boost provided by the cinematic Marvel Universe and Marvel Comics. And we haven’t even mentioned the enduring popularity of Clark Gregg’s performance as Agent Phil Coulson…

So why is it a bit… uninspiring? Well, I think there may be a problem that goes to the heart of SHIELD itself.

Superhero stories are empowerment fantasies. They allow us to imagine what we’d do if we had the powers of the X-Men, the money and physical strength of Bruce Wayne, the intellect and technical skills of Tony Stark. They’re about self-actualisation, about everyone taking charge of their life and world and making them better.

SHIELD stands for the exact opposite of that. SHIELD’s job is to tell superpowered individuals to hide their abilities. To seize radical new technologies and lock them in a vault. And in one episode, to require a scientist to spend his entire life locked in a moving truck, alone and effectively a prisoner, because of SHIELD’s fear of what he might invent.

SHIELD is a reactionary organisation dedicated to keeping technology and superpowers away from everyone, even those who might use them for good. It’s the equivalent of a nuclear superpower telling another country it’s not allowed to develop nuclear technology. “We can have nuclear power, because we’re the good guys. But you can’t be trusted with it. Why? Because we say so.”

And who wants to watch that?

I’ll tell you the show I’d like to watch – and actually, it would be a show far more in keeping with Joss Whedon’s usual ethos…

I’d like to watch the show where a band of superpowered individuals with varying – and in some cases, dubious – motives band together to take down SHIELD, destroying this sinister organisation that wants to control humanity’s access to the fruits of its ingenuity and imagination.

A Marvel Universe without SHIELD would be a far more dangerous place. But despite that, it would be a universe far more free and worth living in.

Things I Learned From… Olympus Has Fallen

I dunno. You wait years for a ‘Die Hard in the White House’ movie, and then two come along at once! It’s surprising it’s taken this long for someone to have this idea, of course. It’s a location that’s broadly familiar to audiences around the world, with huge stakes, and you can keep the conflict small and contained, or expand out into a wider military response, as you wish.

But actually, what I walked away from Olympus Has Fallen thinking was – it’s so easy to fall into the trap of ‘movie logic’.

Movie logic is that brand of logic espoused only by people bound by the conventions of a story. Minor characters who protect the protagonist because of some apparent instinct that he’s more important than they are. Women who fall for the hero on sight for no reason whatsoever. And people who make decisions no one in a real-world position of authority would ever make.

No government would change a crucial element of foreign policy to save the life of a kidnapped leader – especially given that kidnap victims usually end up dead even if the kidnappers get what they want. Consequently, no halfway intelligent terrorist would assume that holding a gun to the President’s head would achieve his ends. It makes the movie unbelievable –

But even worse, it makes it predictable. If all the characters are going to act according to movie logic, we know exactly what they’re going to do next. After all, we’ve all seen enough movies!

Breaking the dictates of movie logic – asking yourself ‘What would this character actually do in these circumstances in the real world?’ – is a short cut to more interesting and unpredictable story twists, and for that reason alone, it’s worth embracing.

Things I Learned From… The Wolverine

The Wolverine is a pretty fun movie. Okay, it’s straight out of the Big Book Of Japanese Tropes, right down to the ninjas and the chopsticks, but it’s certainly refreshing to see a superhero movie that takes place somewhere other than a thinly-disguised New York.

But there is something slightly weird about the cast of characters. There’s a huge amount of redundancy in their character functions – that is, in the ‘types’ of character they are. There’s a rich ambitious grandfather – and his rich ambitious son. The granddaughter has a former boyfriend – and a current boyfriend (who’s also rich and ambitious and thus occupies a similar character function as her father). On top of this, the granddaughter has a female live-in companion of the same age, with similar skills, concerns and wants to her.

Characters, characters everywhere, and many of them very similar! What’s going on?

The answer seems to be in the combination of genres involved in the movie. Most of the movie is a detective thriller – there’s an evil plot afoot and we need to know who’s behind it – and only in the third act does it shift into a superhero-action movie. And for a detective story, you need a wide cast of characters to provide suspects and red herrings.

The problem is, what do you do with them when you shift into an action movie and you need a few clearly defined characters…?

So maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you’re combining genres, make sure that the character needs of both are compatible…

Things I Learned From… Man Of Steel

I freely admit that I’m not a Superman fan. He’s too goody-goody, too socially compliant for my liking. All that “truth, justice and the American way” is off-putting in the morally complex 21st century.

Not that there’s much of “the American way”, however you define it, in Man Of Steel. To my mind, it’s a movie heavy on the steel – the strength, the power, the unbending mindset of the superhuman – and pretty light on the man. This Clark Kent decimates Metropolis and Smallville without batting an eyelid. The human beings he lives among are constantly cited as being the motivation for his actions, but his connection to them is arbitrary and intermittent. Some are saved, many are left to die at the hands of the bad guys. Many more, though we never see their faces, must surely have died as a direct result of his actions…

Given that title, it’s interesting that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who take joint story credit on the movie, seem a lot more interested in creating a god than a man. Clark spends the first act of the story appearing from nowhere, wreathed in fire or defying icy water, to rescue helpless, faceless mortals from apocalyptic fates. Later he levels cities, destroys vast machines, and fights an unstoppable opponent. He’s a modern Hercules, roaming the world arbitrarily intervening in human affairs, leaving legends of himself in his wake.

That divine identification reaches its zenith when a Clark in crisis, contemplating self-sacrifice, enters a church in search of guidance  – and spends the scene outlined against the painfully obvious metaphor of stained glass depicting Christ praying before his crucifixion…

Okay. Superhero movies are heroic narratives, and it’s in the nature of a heroic narrative to create a protagonist who has to save the helpless. If he didn’t, how would we know he was the protagonist?

(“He”? Yes, usually. Interestingly, female protagonists tend to inhabit genres like horror and thrillers, where their task is to save themselves, not others. But that’s a discussion for another post.)

And there’s nothing wrong with superhumans. Aliens, vampires, cyborgs, mutants, genetically engineered warriors; all superhumans reflect our own humanity back to us by inhabiting the border between human and non-human. It’s in exploring the boundary that we learn what lies on either side of it.

But there’s a reason people tell stories not about gods, but about men (and I’m using ‘men’ in the spirit of the original meaning of the word: humans of any gender). Because men, human or superhuman, embody our hopes and fears and passions and dreams. Because they are us.

Does this Clark Kent embody anything that we can empathise with, any human hope or fear? Not that I can see. He doesn’t even appear to want to. This Clark is not a man of steel but a god of steel – cautiously worshipped from a distance, occasionally entering the human world to rescue or to kill, yet still beyond our empathy and our understanding. The last truly human moment in the movie, to my mind, is the last appearance of Pa Kent. There’s no humanity in the child he raised as his son.

And thus, as a hero, the God Of Steel has nothing to offer me.

Things I Learned From… Star Trek Into Darkness

Oh, so much to be learned from this movie! But most of it is going to have to be held back for a few weeks, to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy the film without spoilers. At some point, I want to talk about the way the protagonist and the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness face the same challenges and mirror one another’s decisions. I also want to talk about who the antagonist actually is – or rather, on whose evidence we label the bad guy a ‘bad guy’…

But today, let’s talk subplots.

Spoiler warning: no actual spoilers, but some generalized discussion of the first twenty minutes of the movie.

We all know what subplots are, right? The plots that run alongside the main action, illuminating the theme and adding depth to the characters. But Star Trek Into Darkness also features a less conventional kind of subplot – a self-contained subplot in the first act of the story, which contains the inciting incident. Without getting spoilerific, I’m talking about the brief plot taking place in and around London and foregrounding Thomas Harewood (an excellent turn from Noel Clarke).

We’re all used to the ‘cold open’, an opening that plunges the audience into the dramatic situation before the credits. Sometimes these take place before the central characters have become involved in, or even aware of, these events – eg, the opening scenes of Star Wars. Sometimes they feature the protagonist, but the subplot itself has nothing to do with the main story – eg: a typical Bond movie prologue.

But it’s very interesting to see a cold open subplot taking place, what, at least ten minutes into the movie? Especially after the movie has already opened with a Bond-style prologue that sets up relationships and theme but, in strict plot terms, has nothing to do with the main story.

Another cold open? Isn’t that just wasting screen time we could be spending with Kirk and the gang? I mean, Harrison’s a smart guy, he could have arranged [REDACTED] another way. We wouldn’t even need to see him do it. So cut the subplot, right?


Here’s what the subplot does for the movie.

It introduces the antagonist. Harrison’s role in this subplot paints him as ruthless, cunning and irresistible – but it also hints at remarkable power, and even compassion. Of a kind. That’s a rich, textured character right there, a fascinating character, one we want to see more of and learn more about – and we haven’t even seen him oppose our protagonist yet.

It introduces the theme. You could say that the theme of Star Trek Into Darkness is something like  ‘What are you capable of doing for those you love?” Not only what you’ll agree to morally, but what you’re capable of doing physically, the hidden strengths you’ll tap into when you have to. This subplot explicitly foregrounds that theme in a way that prefigures later events, and involves us directly in some morally difficult choices long before the central characters start facing them.

It functions – rather oddly! – as a “Save The Cat” scene. “Save The Cat” is screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder’s term for an early scene where an apparently unlikable character does something nice (the clichéd version might be being kind to animals, or giving money to a beggar) to make the audience like them. What Harrison does is appalling, but one part of it is so mythically fulfilling – even Christ-like –  that we can’t help but like him for it, despite the fact that it’s just part of a bargain to achieve his own ends.

It gives a human face to the victims of Harrison’s campaign. Since we’re avoiding spoilers… enough said.

One more thing to point out: the visual storytelling in this subplot is superb. Proof? If I remember rightly, there are only three lines of dialogue in the whole sequence, and they’re all in one scene. Everything else is visual – in other words, true movie storytelling. Take a bow, Messrs. Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof…

Things I Learned from… Trance

Art heist thriller Trance has had an interesting journey to your local cinema. Joe Ahearne’s script was originally a TV movie in 2001, but has now been picked up by British wunderkind Danny Boyle, polished by John Hodge, and hit the big screen.

In the end, Trance is a good old-fashioned thriller, and there are three things a thriller has to deliver:

Mystery. Someone is after our hero and he doesn’t know why. Something bad has happened around him, and he doesn’t know why – or even what. The danger is very clear, but what’s triggered the crisis is shrouded in mystery, and must be uncovered if the hero is to survive.

Conspiracy. The hero doesn’t know who to trust. Anyone could be out to get him – and frequently is. At times, the entire world of the movie seems to be ranged against him.

Betrayal. It’s no accident that the femme fatale was created by the thriller genre. There’ll always be someone who gets close to the hero specifically in order to betray him, and others who turn on him because it seems like the right or just thing to do.

Trance delivers admirably on all these elements, at first at least, and yet it’s a movie that’s left a lot of viewers feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. But why?

I think it may be because the movie effectively switches protagonists – and for a thriller, that’s fatal.

It isn’t giving away anything much to say that, about halfway through the movie, we start to spend a lot of time with hypnotherapist Elizabeth, as she becomes caught in a love triangle. From that point, Simon seems less and less like our protagonist –

And the thriller genre revolves around a clearly identified protagonist, because it’s only through him that we can experience that visceral thrill of mystery, conspiracy and betrayal. To feel the thrill of the thriller, we have to have a single, limited perspective – and if anyone else is also a protagonist, then our perspective is changed. They have new pieces of the mystery, they stand outside the conspiracy, they occupy a new place in the web of betrayals.

So, the moment we begin to see things from Elizabeth’s view as well as Simon’s, the three pillars of the thriller structure collapse and the visceral joy of the genre is gone…

Things I Learned From… Being Human

So BBC Three’s most successful series so far, Being Human, has finally shuffled off this mortal coil. It leaves behind a lot of fans, a US remake, and a whole lot of questions about what the final shot of the season finale really meant  (for those who didn’t see it, think Inception…)

Fantasy and supernatural drama, for adults and for children, has a long and glorious history in Britain. Even before the era of TV, Britain was the land of the ghost story, the legend, the haunted burial mound and the sprite in the well. Perhaps this stems from the collision of so many ancient cultures – and their rich and conflicting myths – as Britain was settled and re-settled before, during and after the Roman era. Perhaps it’s to do with the influence of the Welsh, Scots and Irish on English culture, or the many dangers that “the wild” held in a land of widely varied habitats and changeable, threatening weather.

What we hadn’t mastered, until Tony Whitehouse showed the way, was moving that rich world of the supernatural into the very urban, inter-connected, cynical world of the 21st Century. Being Human places the ghost, the vampire and the werewolf into our everyday reality, and manages to preserve the threat they present while mining absurd humour and touching moments from their new surroundings.

The vampires in particular – always the most predatorial of the myths, at least until they were made vegetarian and sparkly for teenage romances – are both dangerous manipulators and killers, and pathetically deluded, self-important posers, who, as Mitchell points out, have been claiming their time is about to come since the Dark Ages. The werewolves are victims of their inner beast, but some of them are pretty monstrous as humans too. The ghosts, anchored by past regrets, may be a lot less dangerous, but they’re quickly revealed as the emotional heart of the impromptu ‘families’ that spring up throughout the series – and that gives them power for good and for ill.

Their habitat has changed from the dark forest to the crummy bedsit and the minimum-wage job – but isn’t that pretty much where we dump our ‘outsiders’ now? The threats to their existence come not from witchfinders and wolf hunters, but from the press, the curious, and most of all, the people they love. And wasn’t that always the way?

‘Reinventing’ or ‘reimagining’ a classic story or myth is a process of getting to the core of the story and finding out what it’s really “about” at this moment in time.

Are the Sherlock Holmes stories about a brilliant detective and his assistant, or about two men who don’t really fit into their society, and find a job that allows them to interact with it from the outside? Is Robin Hood really about robbing the rich and feeding the poor, or about a world that’s crumbling from the top down, and an attempt to build a new, fairer, more stable society?

Maybe, maybe not. A story varies depending on when you try to tell it. Medieval Robin Hood ballads bear little resemblance to the story we tell today, and we view Victorian tales of derring-do in Africa and India very differently to the way their first readers did. Every time we tell a story, we filter it through our own culture, preoccupations and preconceptions. That’s one of the reasons we can keep telling the classic tales – every telling is a new story.

So if placing a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire in a crummy flat in Bristol can create an entire new mythology, what could you create by filtering a classic story or character through your unique point of view…?

Things I Learned From… Jack Reacher

There’s no doubt that Jack Reacher has been a disappointment at the box office. The big question, as always, is why. With a solid fan base for Lee Child’s novels and Tom Cruise in the lead role, this should have been a solid earner with sequel potential. So what went wrong?
There are probably a lot of contributing factors. Maybe Tom Cruise isn’t the star he once was, at least not without an established franchise. Maybe the marketplace was too crowded over the Christmas period, with higher profile movies mopping up Reacher’s potential audience.
But I do wonder if part of the problem is the nature of the story.
Jack Reacher is adapted from the novel One Shot, which has an intriguing enough premise: an ex-military sniper guns down five random people, leaving a trail of evidence any idiot cop could follow, and when arrested, says only one thing. “Get Jack Reacher.” And when former military policeman Reacher begins investigating, the situation turns out to be a lot more complicated than it appears…
So what’s wrong with that? Compelling central character, a mystery to solve, a man going to jail for something he may not have done, a conspiracy headed up by an interesting villain…
Here’s what I think. Human beings are drawn to the unique. We all remember the one time it snowed at Christmas, the one time we missed the train home, the one time we witnessed a terrible, newsworthy event in person.
Movies appeal directly to that urge by giving us storylines that appear unique, memorable, even startling. The one summer a man-eating shark prowled the seas around a holiday resort. The one Christmas terrorists took over an office building in LA, not knowing a NY cop was inside. The one time the alien ’invading’ Earth was actually just a lost child who just wanted to phone home.
It’s one reason why biopics and true stories always sell well. They have that element of uniqueness. Most people will never have to escape the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or survive a tsunami – but here are some people who did. Or they have the “one guy” factor: here’s the story of the one guy who stood up to racism, the one girl who took on the establishment, the one family who defied the law.
These are not everyday occurrences. They’re not even the most memorable or eye-catching of a series of everyday events, like a cop or a firefighter recounting the stories he remembers best, but which in the end are no more or less dramatic than the rest of his career. They’re game-changers. They’re historic. They’re genuinely unique.
And Jack Reacher isn’t.
Viewed objectively, it’s the story of some cops and lawyers untangling a difficult case, with help from an unusual source. Next week, they’ll probably have an equally difficult case, with different complicating factors.
Even viewed from the protagonist’s point of view, these events are pretty much business as usual for Reacher. The movie goes out of its way to suggest Reacher is a man who can’t turn his back on trouble, whether it’s large-scale injustice or a man beating his wife. Even if you weren’t aware of the other novels, it would be easy to surmise that Reacher spends a lot of time getting caught up in things that ’don’t concern him’. This one may be a little larger in scale, but it’s business as usual for Reacher –
And “business as usual” is television, not film. Why may explain a lot…