Archive | October, 2014

Brixton Ritzy latest: we have our happy Hollywood ending

30 Oct

Ritzy victory

Whoooop! On Monday I wrote of the Brixton Ritzy that “Next time you see one of those nicey-nicey adds for Picturehouse Cinemas that run before every screening, with smiling staff tending to enraptured patrons over Stuart Hancock’s beautiful and elegiac score, you have my permission to vomit into your box of overpriced popcorn.”

This was in reaction to the shocking news that, having agreed to the Ritzy’s staff’s year-long campaign for something approaching the London Living Wage, management had then turned round and said they were to sack a quarter of the workforce to pay for it.

Yesterday I wrote of the swell of support for Ritzy staff, in particular the fact that Curzon Cinemas had announced the London Living Wage for all of their staff. I warned that Picturehouse and its parent company Cineworld were “sleepwalking into a PR shitstorm” and hoped, as in a Hollywood film, that this third-act twist might yet resolve into a happy ending.

Well… it has! The Evening Standard today reports that Cineworld has backed down, and that there will be no redundancies at the Ritzy – one of Picturehouse’s most profitable cinemas. Said chief executive Mooky Greidinger, “Group management was not aware of plans to enter consultations for redundancies at The Ritzy, which is managed by Picturehouse. I am now making this a group matter and I have decided together with Picturehouse management to put an end to the [redundancy] consultation process.”

This modern protest may have run via Facebook and Twitter and email instead of with picket-lines and placards, but it seems to have worked. Well done everyone who took the time, as I and many people I know did, to contact Cineworld and make our displeasure known.

10 great scenes from The Lost Boys, with commentary from director Joel Schumacher

30 Oct

The Page To Screen events at the London Screenwriters’ Festival are always great. This year, they screened Silence of the Lambs, Finding Nemo AND The Lost Boys. As it’s Halloween today, of course I’m kicking off with The Lost Boys. Joel Schumacher dishes some inside info on the top 10 scenes:A Opening shot1. The camera swoops in over the sea to a boardwalk by night: This long shot onto the boardwalk was meant to come in all the way onto Kiefer Sutherland’s face, but there’s a law that you can only bring a helicopter in so far, so we had to cut. Santa Cruz was the murder capital of the US at the time. A lot of runaways, prostitutes and murders. We had to change the name to Santa Carla, because Santa Cruz didn’t want to be known for that. Even though three of the most famous serial killers were discovered near here around this time.

Lost Boys saxguy

2. We meet the family, then it’s back to the boardwalk with a topless sax machine. This was Tim Capella, who was Tina Turner’s sax player. Harry Knowles who runs Ain’t It Cool News told me that on certain anniversaries of The Lost Boys they have a free concert on the beach and a big movie screen. I said why don’t you invite me? It sounds great.

Lost Boys comic store

3. Our young hero Sam meets two pint-sized vampire hunters in a comic store: This is the first time the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) were together on screen. I told them to watch Rambo a couple of times (to get a handle on their characters). That’s where the headband comes in.

Lost Boys the cave

4. Sam’s elder brother Michael ends up in the Lost Boys’ cave: My concept for this was you could have this amazing baroque hotel, and during the earthquake of 1906 why couldn’t it have fallen into the San Andreas Fault, so you get this great stuff underground. Then they took a million dollars out of our budget. They kept asking me, are you making a comedy or a horror movie? I said, yes! They said, it won’t work. I said, pray. So what the production designer did was brilliant: the caves were all “flats” on rollers, so they could be shifted around wherever the camera was pointing. There’s always a way.

Lost Boys maggots

5. The vampires make Michael hallucinate that his Chinese rice has turned into maggots: You need wranglers for the maggots. Here’s a little tip: to get them to move, you squeeze lemon on them, then yell “Action”.

Lost Boys bridge

6. Having drunk vampire blood, Michael and the other Lost Boys hang from a railway bridge. This is a bridge maybe 15 feet at most over a small gulley. To make it seem dangerously high, we used a piece of the bridge and suspended it over a whole sound stage filled with fog. The boys are wired – that’s the cheapest thing to take out with visual effects. When they drop, that’s a stuntman, falling the whole depth of the soundstage into cardboard boxes.

Lost Boys Campfire

7. Finding some Surf Nazis at a campfire, the Lost Boys feed. Run DMC gave us the song Walk This Way to use, and we just decided we’d kill Surf Nazis to it. It just seemed fun. The Lost Boys was viewed with some trepidation by the studio, but at our first test screening there were lines around the block. The theatre held about 750 people, and it was like a rock concert, it was fantastic. There were nine or ten Surf Nazis in the fourth row, and during the killing scene they got so excited that they tore the stuffing out of their seats and threw it everywhere. You’ve never seen so many happy executives.

Lost Boys Kiefer Sutherland

8. The young vampire-killers find the Lost Boys hanging upside down, asleep. They drive a stake through Alex Winter’s heart. Kiefer Sutherland is understandably upset. They had these hard lenses in, they hurt. We blow smoke at them. They’re hanging upside down. Actors are amazing! I’m not a genius as you all know, I’m not the greatest director in the world, but I’ll match my casts with anyone. Kiefer used to go to lunch in full make-up, and enjoy people’s reactions.

Lost Boys reversing car

9. The vampire-killers escape into the light, nearly reversing a car over a cliff in their panic. The kids were furious with me that I got stuntmen to do it. They didn’t speak to me all day. Corey said to me after, “The only reason we decided to do this movie was so we could drive backwards! It says it in the script!” He was 13.

Lost Boys death by stereo

10. The hilariously gory showdown. One vampire is electrocuted on the record player and his head explodes, after which Sam says triumphantly, “Death by stereo.” There was just so much cheering and screaming in the audience when his head blew up, they missed that line. And it’s a great line. So we had to put an extra-long pause in there. [Laughing] I want you to know that these fine actors, including the Academy-Award-winning Dianne Wiest, sat in this thick black smoke for all these takes. I had to go to one of those facials that cleans out your pores for the next three weeks!

For Joel Schumacher on how Woody Allen changed his life, click here. More from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: click to read tips from Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan and Lynda “Prime Suspect” La Plante. Or enjoy the Joe Eszterhas live commentary on Basic Instinct, from last year’s LSF.

Top ten writing tips from Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect

30 Oct
lynda-latest-small

Lynda la Plante: currently working on a prequel to Prime Suspect

After a diversion to report on the Brixton Ritzy strike, it’s back to my daily reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. One of the giants of crime writing gave a hugely entertaining talk: Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect. Here are her ten tips:

1. Write like a transvestite trucker. I was an actress [in cop shows like Z Cars and The Sweeney] before I was a writer. I had a role with dialogue that made no sense, so I thought, Can I have a go? I went off and wrote three short treatments. They were all rejected, but there was one, Widows, where someone had scrawled across it, “This is brilliant.”

So I sent it to [veteran producer] Verity Lambert, but decided I wouldn’t put my acting name on, but instead put “Lynda La Plante”. When she called me in, she looked up and said, “Oh no, you’re not Lynda La Plante, are you?” Because she knew me as an actress. “We thought it was a transvestite trucker!” She told me to write episode one.

2. Make sure you have a killer treatment. My treatment for Widows started like this: “Four men planning a raid blow themselves up with their own explosives. These men left four widows: Dolly Rawlins, Shirley Miller, Linda Pirelli and Bella O’Reilly. Bereft by the loss of her beloved husband, Dolly Rawlins finds weapons, money and a detailed map of the robbery, and knows where it went wrong. She approaches the other widows and says ‘I will pay you to work alongside me and do the robbery.’” But I didn’t know how to write it from there.

3. Do your research. So I went to source.  On every TV unit there’s always someone who’s done a bit of time, so I contacted one and said I needed to find some criminals. He’s like, “Oh yeh darlin’? What sort?” “Bad ones.” “Murderers?” “Yes.” He took me to the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the Krays hung out. He said, “Do you remember that bloke who fed the bodies to the pigs on a farm?” I said yes, not knowing at all. He said, “Right, here he is. John? Come and meet Lynda.”

Then I went to prison visits, met prisoners’ wives, widows. There was one who was tough, worked a greengrocery, and Dolly began to shape. I went to the police, they said they’d help me – I had no idea of police procedure. You show respect, and just ask.

4. Know how to keep your mouth shut. I’d had one big hit with Widows, then had various commissions that had all fallen down so was feeling a bit bruised. I was learning another big lesson – to keep my mouth shut in meetings. Instead I started off, I really need to know what you’re looking for. She said, “What we really want is a woman in a leading role, working on a murder investigation.” I said, “I’ve been working on that!” Which I hadn’t. She then said, “And we want her in plainclothes.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been working on just that!”

She said, “What’s it called?” The gods were on my side: I came out with, “Prime Suspect”. She said that sounded perfect, just what they were looking for! So I agreed to bring in a treatment.

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison

5. Do still more research. The first thing I did was phone the police and ask for a high-ranking woman detective. “No problem, we have three.” Only three! That was the first insight. So I go in to meet one, and in comes my prototype for Jane Tennison: DCI Jackie Malton. She would say the male officers were so desperate to elbow her out that when they got the call to scramble the squad cars, her rank would put her in the front seat, but she got her hand caught in the door three or four times because they didn’t want to let her in.

6. Keep one step ahead of the audience. People love crime fiction, because it’s a game. They say, “I know who did it – now trick me.” I will outwit you again and again. You think you know who the killer is? No you don’t. That’s respecting an adult audience, not decapitations and blood everywhere.

7. Break the rules – for a reason. I went for a split screen on Trial and Retribution because I had become so involved in forensics [La Plante is the only non-scientist to have been given an honorary fellowship by the Forensic Science Society], and was fascinated by the process of removing a single hair from a button, unwinding it bit by bit so as not to snap it, because the bulb at the end of the hair has DNA. How do you put that on screen, without the viewer making their cup of tea and going, “What, are they still on that button?” So that’s why I did the split screen, so the action could carry on. I did not copy 24. They came to me to find out how I was doing split screen.

8. Be prepared to fight your corner. When I suggested the split screen to the head of ITV, he said, “No, most people have 16-inch screens.” So I said, “Most old ladies watching this can also have eight cards of Bingo and do them all at the same time.” He said, “You’re bloody right, let’s go for it!”

9. Someday, you may want to set up your own company. It’s depressing for writers sometimes when they present a script, and they just go thank you very much. Then editors, producers and actors all have a hand in it. Towards the end of Prime Suspect, there were too many voices telling me where the character should go, which I didn’t always agree with. Then there’s the budget – you’ll write “four patrol cars steam up”, and they’ll say in the meeting, we’ll just have one.

10. And of course, know your characters’ background. I was at a book signing and this fan asked me in a Q&A, where did Jane Tennison come from? And I didn’t really know! It was astonishing. I had no idea. I kept thinking of this: where did she get that cold, aloof exterior, that iron will? So I’m working on a Prime Suspect prequel [book out in 2015, with TV series to follow in 2016] where Jane Tennison is aged 22, a probationary officer working in Hackney police station, fresh as a daisy. Ha ha!

For Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan’s equally entertaining tips from the festival, click here.

Brixton Ritzy strike latest: Curzon announces London Living Wage for staff

29 Oct
Brixton Ritzy staff strike for London Living Wage

Brixton Ritzy staff strike for London Living Wage

The Brixton Ritzy strike is playing out like a movie. How long before it joins the miners’ strike film Pride, ironically still playing at the Ritzy, on the big screen?

We have the hero’s quest – the staff’s year-long struggle to be paid the London Living Wage. We’ve had the false dawn, where a few weeks ago they seemed to have achieved their goal. Two days ago we had the sudden reversal and the “all is lost” moment, where Picturehouse announced that, to pay for the wage increase, they would be sacking nearly a quarter of the staff. And now we have the intervention of the wise old mentor that gives new hope to take our protagonists into the third act.

The wise old mentor comes in the shape of Will Self in the Standard, Owen Jones in the Guardian, and, um, me in my blog two days ago, which has been Shared on Facebook more than any other I’ve written, proving to me the strength of feeling on the matter.

But much more than that, it comes now in an amazing twist from Curzon Cinemas.

Today, Curzon announced that it is introducing the London Living Wage for all its staff. Said Chief Executive Philip Knatchbull: “This could not have occurred without the support of our shareholders who will subsidise the cost of doing this in the short term until the cost is self-financing through the better quality of work we think paying people properly will engender.”

He was too polite also to say, “Yah boo sucks, Picturehouse, thanks for sleepwalking into a PR shitstorm and giving us all your disaffected boycotting customers.”

The third act of this drama is still unwritten. This isn’t Hollywood, so it may still not have a happy ending. But since entreaties to fair play are useless to a corporation that has a duty to its shareholders, I like the way Knatchbull has phrased it. Curzon is paying its staff because it believes that will pay off financially in the long run. What is true for Curzon is surely also true for Picturehouse.

Companies spend years and millions on building a brand. Picturehouse, under the relatively new management of Cineworld, is flushing all that hard work, money and good will down the toilet for the sake of a couple of quid an hour. It’s just bad business.

So come on, Picturehouse. If you won’t do right by your staff out of a sense of fairness and civic duty, do it because, in the end, it makes financial sense; because that’s what your customers want.

Give us our happy third-act ending.

LATEST NEWS: Protest works!! bit.ly/1wgUsC4

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, at the BFI tonight

28 Oct
2000AD characters

A rogue’s gallery of 2000AD heroes, anti-heroes and villains. If you can name most of them, you’re a true “Squaxx Dek Thargo”.

2000AD is the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. It says so on the masthead. Tonight, as part of the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder sci-fi season, a new documentary goes a long way to proving that’s no idle boast.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD gathers an impressive array of interviewees from the comic’s history: founder Pat Mills, editor David Bishop, a wide array of artists and writers (Alan Moore, predictably, is the only no-show), plus fans such as Anthrax’s Scott Ian, who wrote a song about Judge Dredd; Portishead’s Geoff Barrow; and screenwriter Alex Garland, who penned the Karl Urban Judge Dredd movie. The documentary is a master-class in editing: though it’s pretty much all talking heads, apart from some semi-animated stills from the comic (“Gaze into the fist of Dredd!”), the interviewees speak with such passion and eloquence that it’s never dull.

Some of the ins and outs, and the admirable frankness with which the loss of direction in the ‘90s is addressed, may appeal more to the 2000AD devotee (or “Squaxx Dek Thargo”, as we are known). But the key points will be of interest to anyone who loves comics:

1. 2000AD was born in 1977 out of punk and a feeling of revolution. It was Pat Mills’s follow-up to Action, the comic that was too violent to live. It used science-fiction not as escapism, but as a device for satirising the present without getting sued or banned (though they came close sometimes, which is why “Burger Wars” is never reprinted). It had four or five different strips in each issue, allowing room for experimentation and the nurturing of new writers and artists, but its one constant was Judge Dredd – a futuristic reboot of Dirty Harry whose brand of legally sanctioned vigilante justice made him popular with lefties who could see the satire, as well as, uncomfortably, others who couldn’t.

2. 2000AD changed the face of American comics. With the honourable exceptions of Warrior (home of V for Vendetta), Deadline (home of Tank Girl) and the odd Marvel UK or Doctor Who comic, 2000AD was pretty much the only game in town. If you were a Brit, and you wanted to work in comics, this is where you did it. The talent pool, therefore, was incredible. America’s DC Comics, under the editorship of Karen Berger, set up the Vertigo imprint specifically to tap into that pool. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Brendan McCarthy, Pete Milligan – Brits such as these brought a humour, an anarchy, a rule-breaking, risk-taking mentality that shook up American comics and created a new golden age.

3. 2000AD had, and is continuing to have, a big impact on Hollywood. The only two official 2000AD movies so far are both of Judge Dredd, and neither set the box office alight. But the comic’s influence is far-reaching. The sci-fi film Hardware was based on a 2000AD Future Shock (it wasn’t credited at first, until I put two and two together in Time Out magazine and the producers had to settle out of court, full story here). RoboCop was a rip-off of Judge Dredd – the early version of his helmet, shown in the documentary, was an exact copy. The Book of Eli is, to all intents and purposes, set in the Cursed Earth. And it’s wormed its way into the DNA: a whole generation of Hollywood film-makers grew up reading 2000AD, and have absorbed its world-view.

I could go on – but why not see for yourself? There are still a few tickets available now for tonight’s screening, which includes a Q&A with 2000AD founder Pat Mills, artist Kevin O’Neill, and the documentary’s director Paul Goodwin and producers Helen Mullane and Sean Hogan.

Brixton Ritzy staff: “Please, sir, may I have some more?” Bosses: “You’re fired.”

27 Oct
Ritzy staff campaign for the London Living Wage

Ritzy staff campaign for the London Living Wage

Next time you see one of those nicey-nicey adds for Picturehouse Cinemas that run before every screening, with smiling staff tending to enraptured patrons over Stuart Hancock’s beautiful and elegiac score, you have my permission to vomit into your box of overpriced popcorn.

I had been feeling good again about my lovely local cinema, the Brixton Ritzy, since the staff’s year-long campaign for something approaching the London Living Wage recently reached an amicable conclusion – even if the timing, which preceded the announcement of a giant gleaming refurbished Picturehouse in the Trocadero Centre, seemed a tad conveniently designed to deflect any negative publicity.

Well, it seems parent company Cineworld giveth with one hand and taketh with the other. They have just announced that because they are paying staff a little more, they will be sacking nearly a quarter of the Ritzy’s workforce: “at least” 20 out of 93. No other Picturehouse cinema is affected, because no other Picturehouse cinema has yet banded together to ask for a wage increase. They claim to have warned union Bectu that wage increases might entail redundancies, but the scale and speed has taken everyone by surprise.

I’m not a revolutionary or an idealist, but I do believe people should be paid enough to live on. Even George Osborne has been bitten on the arse by the now nearly non-existent power of unions and collective bargaining, when it was announced that though the jobless total had decreased, average Britons were being paid so little that there was an unexpected hole in tax revenues.

Picturehouse cinemas make money because they are friendly places where the cinephile patrons like to linger over a beer to discuss the movies they have seen. This image is reinforced by the aforementioned ad, which puts excellent customer service front and centre. Picturehouse are foolish to allow even the appearance of punishing or deterring those workers who, like Oliver Twist, dare to ask “Please, sir, can I have some more?”.

Sort it out, Picturehouse, before you do irreparable damage to your brand.

LATEST NEWS: Protest works!!! bit.ly/1wgUsC4

LSF report #1: Tony Jordan on going from Albert Square to Life on Mars

27 Oct
Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan at Dickens’s home in Kent, for a BBC4 programme on Great Expectations. Jordan’s 20-part drama Dickensian will air on BBC One next year.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival was an incredible three days of talks, events, seminars, pitches and networking. Each day this week, and probably well into next, I’ll post a new nugget from the festival. These include wildly entertaining chats with Lynda La Plante, Charlie Brooker and Tony “Life On Mars” Jordan; commentaries on Lost Boys, Finding Nemo, and Silence of the Lambs; and some “how-to” classes on scriptwriting.

I’ve kicked it all off with a news story in The Times today. It’s mostly about Tony Jordan’s forthcoming BBC One series, Dickensian, so let’s start off here with more life-lessons from the irrepressible Tony:

1. You have to blag it: EastEnders was my very first job as a writer. I wrote a script by accident – that is, I was chatting to a friend who was trying to get into television, and if he was collecting butterflies I would probably have collected butterflies, but as it is, I wrote a script. I had a pitch in a market so they somehow thought I was an East End barrow boy, even though I was raised just outside Liverpool. So after that I was Dick Van Dyke, I had to pretend to be Cockney. It stuck for 15 years until I was told there was a magazine wanting to do a feature about me growing up in the East End and I had to come clean.

2. You must hold on to your voice: We all have a unique voice as a writer. The problem is, when you go to soaps, they say “we want your voice”, but they don’t really; they want all the episodes to sound the same. So I did what any writer would do: I watched an episode, paused it, counted the scenes. Dissected it. After a few episodes I realised the structure was always the same.

There’s always a cliffhanger at the end, and that’s your North Star, you’re aiming for that. That then gives you your first image, because it has to be connected in some way. Chuck in another three or four narrative staging posts, and you can cover all that in about ten minutes. I worked out that left me 20 minutes to myself. When you see an episode with all the men in one corner of the Queen Vic having conversations that begin “The trouble with women is…” and all the women in another corner going “The trouble with men is…”, and juxtaposing them in an interesting way, that’s me.

3. You will have to deal with twats like Andrew. There was this twat [at the BBC] called Andrew, I can’t even remember his second name he was that much of a twat. He had me, a 34-year-old father of three, used to fist fights at 6am to safeguard my pitch, sitting on my back doorstep sobbing like a child. I very nearly gave up EastEnders at that time, after about eight scripts [he went on to do about 250]. On his first script meeting with Ashley Pharoah [who later co-created Life on Mars], Andrew picked up his script, held his nose, dropped it in the bin, and said “Shall we start again?”

When you recognise the twats, you have to get away from them as soon as you can. Or strike them physically.

4. Just write the truth. I was expelled from school at 14, so I didn’t understand the frames of reference when they’d talk in meetings about Brecht or Shakespeare or Dickens. But I eventually discovered there is no secret. It’s just writing down the truth on a bit of paper.

Hustle

Hustle: breaking the fourth wall

5. You can break the rules – for a reason. When I was writing Hustle, I got stuck. I had to explain all the cons to the reader and it was just pages and pages of exposition, like wading through treacle. I phoned Jane Featherstone at Kudos and said “It won’t work,” and she said okay, if we can’t make it we can’t, but just have a Bacardi and a bit of a think; relax.

So a couple of days later it hits me: when we have exposition, we just freeze it, and have the actors talk directly to the audience. Jane had the imagination to say, “That sounds pretty f***ing weird, but you know what, let’s do it. We’ll either make history, or we’ll never work again.”

6. Rejection is not the end. I had this great idea, and gave it someone, and they said, “We can never make that. It’s too silly.” Too silly. Right. No getting round that. But someone else later took it on. That was Life on Mars. So it’s not necessarily that the script is bad, it’s just not right for someone.

I also had this idea for a show about the making of a soap, which would be paralleled on alternative nights by the soap itself. It stayed in my bottom drawer for 12 years until a new head came in at ITV, and said they wanted to break the mould and take risks. I said, funny you should say that, I have just the thing…

Life on Mars

Life on Mars: dreamt up in Blackpool with £1,000 in carrier bags

7. There is life on Mars. At EastEnders we used to do these away-days, 14 writers in Badminton House playing poker and getting drunk. That’s why I stayed so long, to go to the story conferences! So I pitched to Kudos that they give me £1,000 in expenses, in three carrier bags, for me and two writers to go to Blackpool. We would work till 4.30pm, then our time’s our own. So we arrived at Blackpool train station, and found this poor runner standing there on the platform, who gave us our carrier bags full of cash.

One of the ideas to come out of this session was Legion [which Watch has now commissioned as ten hour-long programmes], and another was Life on Mars. I recently found a photo from those days and it has a flip-chart with “’70s cop show” with a big ring round it. Life on Mars came about for one simple reason: we wanted to write for The Sweeney, but it wasn’t on anymore. We thought we could never sell a ‘70s cop show, so we thought “let’s put a spin on it”. Doing a time-travel cop show wasn’t done because we saw a gap in the market, it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was three pissed writers who wanted to write for The Sweeney.

8. At some stage, you may want to set up your own production company [Tony’s is Red Planet]. Sometimes, when I created a series, they wouldn’t want me involved in anything but the scripts. I don’t want to just put the script up someone’s arse and the DVD comes out their ear.

Virgin America’s Blah Airways film: 5 good reasons to watch six hours of tedium

21 Oct

Virgin America’s epic new in-flight film is intended to be six hours of unremitting tedium, in order to demonstrate how dull any plane journey that is not with Virgin can be. Instead, Have you been flying BLAH airlines? is strangely fascinating. I’ve been mesmerised by it today, which is perhaps taking procrastination to new depths.

It’s filmed in real time, on a plane, with a cast of dummies. Mannequins, that is. Long periods of silence are interrupted by a meet-cute in-flight film-within-the-film with interminably banal dialogue on a communal screen too small to be seen, or by the ruminations of terminally dull fellow passengers, or by a passive-aggressive steward enquiring with hostility barely concealed beneath a veneer of politeness why a passenger hasn’t drunk the coffee he brought.

Here are five things that make it great:

— The blankness of the mannequins. It’s said that when Richard Burton first worked with Elizabeth Taylor on Cleopatra, he complained to the director that while he was giving it his all, she was doing nothing, and the film would be a disaster. The director agreed – but not in the way Burton expected. He showed Burton the rushes, and Burton saw that Taylor was wonderful, luminous, carrying a scene with a single raised eyebrow – while the stage-trained Burton seemed on screen a terrible ham.

Similarly, Clint Eastwood has said that his drama coach used to shout at him, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Billy Wilder once made Jack Lemmon retake a scene 20 times, each time saying “That’s great, but just take it down a notch or two,” until Lemmon burst out, “If I take it down any more, I won’t be acting at all.” Wilder smiled, and said, “Finally, you’re getting the idea.” And a young actor working with Robert De Niro for the first time asked him for tips. The great man thought awhile, and said, “Try not to blink”.

The point is that, on film, less is more. Through the director’s use of lighting and music and framing, the audience will read onto a blank face an enormous depth of emotion. After a while, these mannequins start to seem like wonderful actors.

— The sinisterness of the implied. We are so used to periods of calm and banality in movies being juxtaposed with scenes of horror and violence, that I spent a lot of the film on the edge of my seat. It felt like something awful was always just round the corner.

— It’s totally out to Lynch. David Lynch is the master of the unsettlingly banal (click here to read my four-part interview with Lynch), but this tops him. I spent five minutes staring at a seat-back being rocked back and forth, back and forth, with squeaking noises. It later turned out to be a child – a rather grotesque grinning mannequin child – but had it turned out to be a backwards-talking dwarf I would not have been in the least surprised.

— It shows how powerful the score can be. At one point driving, energetic music begins, and it totally changes the mood of the film. It turns out to be from another passenger with leaky headphones, but you half-expect Harrison Ford or Liam Neeson to burst through with a gun.

— Boring dialogue can be really funny. Tarantino is the master of this: think conversations about foot-rubs, European burgers, or Madonna songs. My favourite bit in the Virgin film is the diatribe by the dullest passenger on how terrible it is there is too much choice in modern life – so many things on the Starbucks menu when you just want a coffee.

That’s one of my obsessions, too. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit in Alex Cox’s Repo Man when they go into a corner shop, and on the shelves are rows and rows of tins all labelled “FOOD”, and in the fridge, cans all labelled “BEER”. Sometimes, when I’m feeling overloaded, I’ll go into a pub, and just ask for beer. They say what kind, and I say “beer”. Even as to whether it’s lager or bitter, I say “beer”. They eventually give me something. It always tastes good.

And maybe that’s at the heart of the movie’s curious appeal. With dozens of TV channels, endless programmes on demand, millions of videos on YouTube, and faster and faster editing in Hollywood films, all piling sensation onto sensation in the race to grab our precious eyeballs if only for a short few minutes, to watch something deliberately slow and pointless feels strangely refreshing.

Gone Girl, and a blog about spoilers. With no spoilers

13 Oct
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl -- which is all I will say

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck star in Gone Girl — which is all I will say

I enjoyed Gone Girl enormously, and expect it to be a serious Oscar contender, though it’s mildly annoying a) for being basically a silly idea, brilliantly executed and b) because said silly idea is one I had independently dreamed up and filed in my “movie premises” folder and which now, obviously, I can’t use, grrr (see also Looper).

But I’m not going to review it or tell you about it, because the movie has already been written about too much. And that brings me onto the Extremely Annoying Thing about Gone Girl: that so many newspapers and websites have given the game away.

Movies have long relied on the element of surprise, and critics have a duty to safeguard their readers’ enjoyment. Hitchcock turned the secrecy over Psycho’s twist into a marketing campaign. So, too, did Miramax with The Crying Game: when I attended previews, we critics were handed a document forbidding us to divulge the twist that turned it into an unlikely Stateside hit. I worried about spoilers so much when editing Time Out that I would argue with the Theatre Editor over discussing the ending of Hamlet. It may be four centuries old, but some readers would be seeing it for the first time.

Editors, bloggers and even the odd critic seem to have forsaken this public duty in the race for circulation/clicks. With Gone Girl, even though I deliberately avoided the reviews before seeing it, the style magazine headlines alone were enough to tell me the big reveal.

So a plea, and a promise. Please, editors, don’t reveal too much, or your readers might stop consuming reviews altogether. And readers, you can trust me, in this blog, to be extra-careful about spoilers, as I always have been.

As to how this blog ends… well, I’d better not say.

Maps To The Stars: Cronenberg puts the hell into Hollywood

4 Oct
Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore, seconds away from screaming her head off, in Maps To The Stars

There’s a reason why Maps To The Stars languished unmade for 20 years, before being picked up by professional controversialist David Cronenberg: it’s not just structurally a mess, with a psychological-thriller jigsaw-puzzle plot whose pieces never quite properly fit together, it’s also a massive you’ll-never-eat-lunch-in-this-town-again f*** you to Hollywood. That it ends up being absolutely gripping, if not exactly enjoyable, is testament to Cronenberg’s steely command of mood and to his remarkable cast.

Julianne Moore plays a fading Hollywood star, literally haunted by her abusive childhood as she schemes to play the part of her late mother in a new film. She cries her way through therapy, squelches her way through a conversation on the toilet, smiles her way through insincere Hollywood conversations, and is gradually revealed more and more as a duplicitous, manipulative, spoilt, self-centred, narcissistic, charming bitch. It’s an Oscar-worthy turn.

Mia Wasikowska is excellent, as ever, as the enigmatic and occasionally sinister burn victim who returns to LA for reasons I won’t spoil, and so is 13-year-old Evan Bird as a child star with a substance-abuse problem who comes on like a hilariously vile amalgam of Macaulay Culkin and Justin Bieber. Robert Pattinson, who seems to be developing a relationship with Cronenberg like Leo DiCaprio has with Scorsese (the star gets to act, the director gets funding), plays a rather blank chauffeur – which was screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s first job when he arrived in Hollywood.

The different strands all connect eventually, after a fashion. But there are too many coincidences that aren’t logically tied up, too many different characters who see dead people, and too many events and revelations that seem there for sensationalist rather than character-driven reasons. It’s like a soap opera from hell: deliberately (at least so I hope) melodramatic and unrealistic, even if filmed in a downbeat way, and thus ultimately unengaging.

Even so, it’s something of a marvel. Bruce Wagner insists in interview that it is not a satire on Hollywood. In which case, his characters must be true to Hollywood life as an insider has seen it. God help us.

For my review of the David Cronenberg exhibition at Toronto’s TIFF Centre, including a look at Cronenberg’s brain, click here.