Dark Shadows shines a light on writing tips

We saw Dark Shadows last night. Oh my goodness. Michelle Pfeiffer was wonderful, the settings and particularly the porcelain/egg shell witch stuff were delightful, but over all: a train wreck. Still, in an effort to get my money’s worth, I came away with some notes, assembled quickly here (there are spoilers, but I don’t see how anything can spoil the movie more than watching it).


1. Pick you story.

Dark Shadows ran as a daily serial for how long? So lots of material to sift through. <I tried to watch the 1990s remake recently: it hasn’t travelled well.> What to include? How about not everything? Save the werewolf girl for later, or at least foreshadow her inner hairiness, for instance. No, when presented with so many story ideas, best to pick just one, and add a subplot or two, but make sure you have that narrative drive from beginning to end. So it might be a love story or a love gone wrong/revenge story; it might be a family drama; it might be a vampire trying to deal with society 200 years later; it might be how a vampire helps a boy and his dead mother find a happy ending. It’s probably not all of those things at once.


2. Pick your tone.

So many ways to approach such material… a once wealthy family brought under by a scheming, vengeful witch, and then along comes a vampire from the past to help put things right. Is this a comedy? A kitsch retro bit of fun pie? Is it a horror story, a melodrama, a thriller? Pick one, leaven it with another, and work it, baby. But don’t bounce between them willy nilly, and for pity’s sake don’t suck your few slightly funny gags dry. Alice Cooper’s a girl’s name. Oh my. A family that has the big balls. Oh dear.


3. Characterisation is key.

It’s about the people, innit. So you have a cool cast of characters, each with their own thang, and then you give a glimpse of each and forget about them. Instant or reincarnated love? Two people in one house who believe in ghosts? Two hundreds years of obsessive love? Hm, somewhere along the line, they need to meet. But most of all, perhaps, that hero needs to be heroic, not a cad; or if he is a cad, he needs to realise it. But our vampire hero treats the help wrong and, on this occasion, he picked the wrong gal to use and discard, and hell hath no fury, right? What exquisite blackmail it is to have to make love to the pretty witch — tell me again why she still loves the cad? As Depp’s Barnabas admits, he’s not a gentleman.


4. Story that works for a greater whole.

So you kill the psychologist and you catch the bad dad thieving and there will be ramifications. Won’t there? You kill a bunch of folks and there will be ramifications … won’t there? History repeats with the torch-wielding mob baying for your blood and — they go home when told to. No, when the hero suffers a setback, it has to have an impact. The worst thing happens and it means something, damnit; it doesn’t get swept under the carpet.


5. Make sure your theme is up to date.

So this is probably being overly harsh, but damn.. Dark Shadows seems to have embodied those far simpler times when those with money could get away with anything. Murder is fine as long as the family’s fortunes and social standing is upheld. The staff should know their place and even the most accomplished, self-made witch with 200 years of achievement under her cauldron just wants to be loved.


A case study of how to do it: after we got home, we had a palate-cleansing viewing of The Addams Family movie. Now that’s kooky.

Food for thought: Ursula K Le Guin on the book and the reader, plus, the missing ingredient in the Hunger Games movie

Ursula K Le Guin offers this about the ‘death’ of the book:

There certainly is something sick about the book industry, but it seems closely related to the sickness affecting every industry that, under pressure from a corporate owner, dumps product standards and long-range planning in favor of ‘predictable’ sales and short-term profits

Uh-huh. In the Book View Cafe piece, she goes on to talk about the differentiation between books and reading, and the definition of books. Plenty to applaud.

  • And there’s this interesting thought about the structure of writing in the face of technology, specifically the amount of a Kindle book revealed in an Amazon sample. Leave’em on a cliff-hanger, seems to the be the idea. The potential for narrative convolutions is immense. I can’t help feeling that if you’ve read 10 per cent of a book and you still don’t know whether you want to read it or not, the book’s in trouble. But then, I like the slow burn; you don’t have to hook me with a big bang or a plot twist if your voice is on the money.
  • Yay: this analysis of the Hunger Games movie helps explain why I came away feeling I’d been served a snack instead of a meal. Seems there’s a whole layer of social snark that got discarded, as well as the fact that I might’ve misread who was playing games of the heart. All the more reason to read the book, methinks.
  • And in case you missed it: the long list of the Miles Franklin. Lots of memories of the war, family secrets, a little bit of inner city, a touch of paddock, some foreign climes, the way we were and what happens next. That’s all very well, but at this time of the week, I’m thinking Sean Williams in power armour* wins hands down!
  • * See this interview for the background to Sean’s powering up!

    The Hunger Games: a tasty exercise in bread and circuses

    hunger games poster with jennifer lawrenceWe saw the Hunger Games movie on Friday night in a packed theatre heavy on the teen girl demographic, some still in school uniform. It had the hallmarks of a dreadful event — I’m still haunted by the twittering of prats in the back row during the Exorcist redux — but it turned out okay. Those gaps, those giggles, the occasional interjection from a boof in the front row, all added to the ambience. I’m not usually one for interactive theatre like this, but given the arena styling of the Hunger Games, it made sense.

    Premise: a boy and a girl between 12 and 18 are taken by ballot from each of 12 districts, to fight to the death in a controlled landscape arena for the entertainment of the masses. There’s a propaganda element to it, this being the fallout from a rebellion about 50 years ago. This arena is a forest, with controlled bushfires, lots of mobile and embedded cameras, a PA system for ‘Big Brother’ style announcements, and a roof which functions as both bulletin board and artificial atmosphere.

    The movie scored points for not trying to explain everything to do with the back story, but simply hint; the clues were enough to allow suspension of disbelief. Wisely, it took its time getting to the showdown so we weren’t treated to a mere game of cat and mouse. The casting and the performances were spot on. Jennifer Lawrence brings the perfect level of expression to the relatively complex hero of Katniss. The love interest — real or clever survival tactic? — was also deft. Special effects and setting were well done. And the brutality of children fighting 18-year-olds: very nicely handled indeed, neither overdone nor glossed over. It was no coincidence that Roman architecture featured in the cityscapes of the Capitol where the games are held.

    The movie didn’t blow me away but it didn’t bore me witless either and I’m keen to read the books to get the full benefit of the world-building and, frankly, see what all the fuss is about. But I’m not dying to know what happens next, which is curious from a part one of a trilogy. I’m not sure the movie had the time to make all the connections it perhaps needed to, in terms of the games’ impact outside the arena, for instance. In truth, and I know the focus is a little different, I’d rather watch Salute of the Jugger again. Maybe it’s the Rutger factor …

    It was interesting that afterwards in the loo the young boys were discussing the poor tactics that had got half the tributes killed in the first encounter. I wonder if they noticed, or cared, that the heroine didn’t wear PVC and have exposed cleavage? That it was the less-martial lad using emotion and attraction as survival tactics?

    The Running Man and Series 7 are two other movies to have explored the idea of death matches for entertainment, but Hunger Games is riding the books’ fervour; it’s opening weekend has been massive. The YA component makes it confronting and offers a point of difference.

    Meanwhile, Hollywood is already looking for its next big thing: the ‘mommy porn’ of Fifty Shades of Grey is being plugged as a forerunner of a new wave of erotica. Can’t wait to see what the action figures for that one will look like, but I’m guessing they’ll be fully articulated.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Subtle. And so very superb.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an astounding movie. From the sets, to the camerawork, to the dialogue, to the acting and wardrobe — simply astounding.

    This superb adaptation — the scriptwriters deserve a gong — of the John le Carre Cold War spy classic is directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In — the beautifully filmed Swedish original) and the Swede has excelled again. The movie has a period feel — there’s film grain on the screen and a certain gloomy tint that gives the hint of age — and framing and depth of field emphasise the paranoia and claustrophobia of the era.

    It’s a male tale, as the super spies of British intelligence are caught up in a hunt for a mole, real or imagined, amongst their number. Tasked with flushing out the bad apple is the outcast George Smiley, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, heading a cast (including Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Rome‘s screen-chewing Ciaran Hinds) who rise to the challenge. Such restrained performances. How refreshing to see a script that uses such minimal dialogue and telling subtext, to see a film that allows the actors to convey so much through body language and expression, that trusts the audience and its own ability to reach them. For instance: a scene in the rain, one man with an umbrella, one without. Nothing needs to be said: their expressions and interaction within that frame tell us all we need to know.

    I loved the Carre spy books when I was a teenager, and enjoyed the BBC TV mini-series they spawned in the 1970s with the perfectly cast Alec Guinness in the Smiley role. This movie has reminded me why: the gloom, the amorality and the understanding of it, the feeling of this being a believable glimpse of the spy game amid the fun and thunder of Adam Hall and Ian Fleming, the use of intelligence and observation rather than muscle and firepower, the damaged characters who know that not all is well that ends well.

    There’s a clever piece of graffiti in the movie, too; while the Circus largely runs on the secretarial power of women officers, and one analyst gets some screen time and there’s one female agent who has a role to play, this is very much a boys club film, as the context dictates. But there, more than once on that wall, is a painted slogan, The future is female.

    Nice, and about as overt as this film gets.

    Smiley’s wife, the sexual relationships of the men, the volume of the silence and stillness, the absence of car chases and biffo: so much cleverness without it being obvious, without it breaking the narrative or the mood.

    The pace is, as with the books, not so much slow as inexorable, and the two hours were over before I knew it. No surprise it has garnered 11 BAFTA nominations. It might only be January, but I can’t help but feel this has to be one of the best movies of 2012.

    It’s a shame Amazon.UK has ended its free shipping deal to Australia (boo!) or I’d be sorely tempted to snaffle the pre-order for the DVD — it’s due for release at the end of the month!


    Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is exquisitely drawn

    girl with the dragon tattoo poster

    I haven’t seen the Swedish movie nor read the Stieg Larsson book, so David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is my first experience of the milieu. And wow.

    The violence — even the coarse language — is restrained. The mystery unfolds gradually and logically, raising the suspense. The titular female lead is both troubled but capable and wonderfully self-sufficient. Lisbeth is played brilliantly by Rooney Mara, and Daniel Craig — showing far more nuances than he’s allowed in the Bond films — is likewise spot on with his portrayal of an investigative journalist whose assignment on an isolated Swedish island forms the spine of the tale.

    The film is shot economically and beautifully, in keeping with the narrative of bad things being uncovered without veering overly into Gothic melodrama, and the performances across the board are understated and a joy to watch.

    And to cap it all off, the soundtrack, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, fits wonderfully, equally as good as their Oscar-winning showing for The Social Network. It makes a creative ambience on the home stereo, too!

    The film has certainly washed away the disappointment of the dull and uninspired Tintin movie, which we saw earlier this week — Dragon Tattoo is a grand way to spend 160 minutes.

    Christmas viewing: Ides of March, Black Mirror, American Horror Story

    I’m starting to quite like George Clooney. I like his attitude. He isn’t afraid to play the non-hero, either. He does subtle and quiet well. We saw one of his latest movies, Ides of March yesterday: it stands out from the pack of twee Christmas fare; our choices were quite limited. The movie tracks the campaign of one of those things they do in America, where candidates to run for president must face off against each other to represent their party … Clooney is the green of the piece, espousing policy that will never be accepted in the American dream however much we might wish, things such as alternative energy and a fair health system for all. And he’s doing well, if only he can win this one state over, it’s all the way to the White House. The focus is on the campaign managers, how they fight for the public’s vote. It’s image and it’s spin and it’s dirty tricks. Ryan Gosling is trying to fight clean. Unspectacular and unsurprising though the movie may be, watching Gosling’s tyro fall is a bittersweet delight. Well played, all.



    To the small screen, and there are two shows we’ve gulped down recently: American Horror Story and Black Mirror.

    American Horror Story puts such a delightful spin on the trope of the haunted house, it is must-see. It doesn’t throw the viewer any bones, either; flashbacks can occasionally be jolting and confusing, but it all comes out in the wash. The ghosts are amazingly well drawn, to the point where it took quite a while to work out just who was haunting who. And Jessica Lange’s performance is to die for. Heh.

    Black Mirror, alas, a mere three episodes of which have been made, is British. Three standalone episodes survey issues of society and technology. The first, a terrorist demands the UK prime minister fuck a pig on national TV, or the kidnapped princess gets it — media and internet communications are in the spotlight. The second, a future world, and celebrity can be the way out of drudgery, but there’s a price… And in the third, what if we all did have implants that allowed us to never miss a thing — memory on instant playback?

    Black Mirror comes from Charlie Brooker, the writer who gave us Dead Set, simply one of the best zombie dramas of recent years, and Black Mirror is likewise sharp and unstinting. Brilliant dialogue, perfectly timed, superb world building without and not needing explanatory notes, effects that enhance without jarring or looking trite.

    And one of the things that makes all three shows stand out is the quality of the acting. From the minor to the majors, the casting on all three is superb. Black Mirror in particular makes impressive use of non-verbal cues — the silence can be so telling. Black Mirror has to be one of the best shows of 2011. Let’s hope there’s more to come…


    Speaking of more, the trailer for David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has me all excited (the eight-minute version moreso; the Trent Reznor-Atticus Ross soundtrack is a delight). Not so much, the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but I’ll go anyway. And Ridley, oh Ridley, you had me all in a fluster about Alien “prequel” Prometheus, and then I was told it’s being shot in 3D, and now you’ve got me all afeared. Thank goodness there’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the way: we saw a trailer while waiting for Ides of March, and the cast, the mood … it all looks just bloody brilliant.


    Stake Land: getting its point across

    stake land vampire movie poster

    This is the apocalypse with fangs, indie-style, as envisaged by director and co-writer Jim Mickle. Stake Land tracks young Martin, orphaned by a ravaging vampire, who is taken under the wing of solitary hunter Mister (co-writer Nick Damici). Shotguns, arrows, spears and stakes (no fire) are their arsenal against a zombie-like plague of vampires who have turned the USA and, it is suggested, the world, into a wasteland. The pair have a plan — to drive to New Eden, an idyllic, vampire-free zone (once again, the American fascination with Canada as a haven is front and centre).

    Along the way, they pick up passengers including a nun, a pregnant singer and an ex-marine. The group scavenge food and fuel on their way north via a series of fortified towns, which try to maintain the conventions of society amidst the carnage.

    A map of America reveals a number of zones of control, each posing dangers to travellers, and none moreso than the realm of the Brotherhood: a fanatical bunch of religious nutters who not only think the vampire plague is a sign of the apocalypse, but revel in it, seeking to make it worse, not better. Rape and murder are their tools of trade and they pose the greatest obstacle to the travellers.

    The story meanders a bit, struggling to find a high level of suspense and direct conflict. This is largely due to it being a road journey linking various separate set action pieces which don’t always serve the plot. The characters do make some overly stupid mistakes towards the end. However, it does carry a mood of melancholy and desperation you’d hope to find in such a bleak scenario, and is pleasantly understated — there isn’t too much chatting and the performances are restrained.

    Stake Land is a gritty, realistic film where the vampires are very much monsters, essentially zombies with a vulnerability to sunlight and dicky tickers, if you can get a hunk of wood through their reinforced rib cage. The actual rules by which the vampires are created remain obscure, and this does weaken the credibility of the premise a little. While a degree of confusion about the origin of the plague is to be expected in a world gone to hell, and it isn’t necessary within the context of the film, I’d have liked a clear indication as to how the vampirism spreads so I could better appreciate the threat to the characters, who do engage in a lot of hand-to-hand combat.

    There is a suggestion that there are different generations — some are too tough to stake and can only be stopped by a stake to the back of the head, for instance — and indeed there is mention of mutations of vampire — some are capable of higher thought, most seem to be little more than animals. But yet, a bite appears to be a likely way of making a vampire, which suggests vampirism as contagion.

    But this movie is not about the vampires; in fact, a zombie plague would’ve worked just as well, and there is little difference between the two as depicted here.

    No, the sharp end of the flick is aimed at the religious right as Mickle tests society’s thin veneer when it’s brought under stress, and vampires were just a handy critter for some cool effects and fight scenes. All that blood, and there is something cool about an ornery mysterious stranger riding into town and popping a bag of extended canines on the bar, isn’t there?

    In some ways, the story has the mood of The Road, but that slice of post-apocalyptic America has far more intensity. Stake Land does, however, deliver a well-acted, good-looking and above-average adventure where the humans can be just as inhumane as the monsters. Tasty, but not overly filling.