Tag Archives: Liam

What’s the secret to writing good sex?


Article first published as What’s the Secret to Writing Good Sex? on Blogcritics.

You can admire an awful lot in My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, a collection of short stories about love of all kinds compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. There is lush and evocative prose in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”. There is meaningful and moving role play in “The Hitchhiker’s Game” by Milan Kundera. There’s perfectly distilled decay and restlessness in William Trevor’s “Lovers of their Time”.

You can also learn a great deal, both as a reader and a writer. In Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” we realize that subtleties are vital to deft and developed characterisation. Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the perfect showcase of profound and realistic dialogue. Various stories somehow convey the emotional frustration and torment of love that is never reciprocated.

It’s a thoughtfully composed book, bringing some of the best fiction about love, a word that can mean so many things, together in one place to try and paint one enlightening and complete picture. It takes you on a journey. It’s a journey that never tries to ram truths down your throat but nevertheless you discover them.

Along the way I thought I worked out the secret to writing good sex. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “good”. I don’t mean arousing or satisfying for the participating characters. I mean sex that is not simply erotic, sex that doesn’t detract from the purpose of a story but enhances it, sex that is believable. I mean sex that is well written but not overwritten. Sex should not stand out like a sore thumb in a narrative or be self conscious or awkward.

It’s a very difficult thing to get right. It’s all too easy to verge into soft porn or erotica. Perhaps even worse is resorting to cliché, being at once graphic and far too high minded about the physical act. There’s a fine line between a tasteful romantic coupling underneath the stars and the trashier sort of Mills and Boon escapism. That’s why there are awards for bad sex writing. At the time the writer may have felt as if they’d hit the nail on the head, as though they were composing a masterpiece; which makes the eventual failure even more humorous.

This leads me to one of the factors I thought I’d discovered. Writers that succeed in writing good stories about or featuring sex, anticipate the humour and embarrassment by including their own. In Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t”, the central couple never actually manage to consummate their young love. Dybek tells the story from the young man’s point of view, at times almost poetically. We feel his disappointment and stifled desire, even his hinted at longing for concrete emotional connection.

But the lists of places and situations in which they failed to do the deed are also inescapably funny from an outside perspective. They come closest during a well written fumble on a beach. This passage is tense, varied and vivid, as well as tragic and funny. The condom springs from his grasp into the sand. He has to dust the sand off of it, struggling not to kill the mood as lightning erupts in the sky overhead. For a second he thinks they are already doing it, prompting more meaningful language about “a gateway into the rest of my life” and “groping for an Eternity” which is immediately cut short. Police cars arrive, lights blaring. A body is washed up on the beach and she is haunted by it every time they try again.

Something else I thought I’d learned about well written sex is that being shameless and colloquial helps. In director and writer Miranda July’s short story, “Something That Needs Nothing”, the protagonist uses sex to empower herself. This is a tale with some serious things to say, many of them linked to sex. The narrator is in love with her best friend and they begin the story living together. But she is devastated when Pip leaves her to live and sleep with another girl. Pip had never wanted her like that. To get over it, and earn the money to pay the rent, the narrator begins work in a sex shop, being paid to perform through a screen for masturbating men. By the end of the story Pip wants her back, attracted by the narrator’s new found confidence, developed through a disgusting act. However when she eventually has to remove the wig she wears for her work, the spell is broken.

“Something That Needs Nothing” is an intelligent and engrossing story about identity. It shows how sex can be a sham as well as a weapon and a unifying force. It’s mostly written in a chatty style, which is crucial to not just realism and characterisation, but the impact of its points.

I’m not saying that sex can’t or shouldn’t be erotic on the page. “Something That Needs Nothing” and “We Didn’t” both have sensual moments. But I thought a certain frankness helped ensure the quality of a story featuring sex. Fluffy and over the top, dramatic description seemed to be a one way route to cliché. However then I remembered the sex in “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera.

This story is about a couple on a road trip, who decide to role play that the woman is a whore for a night. The deep effects of this are unexpected and again big themes like identity and relationships are covered uniquely. The penultimate passage features this line: “On the bed there were soon to be two bodies in perfect harmony, two sensual bodies alien to each other.” Out of context this could be from a terrible Mills and Boon book. But the insight of the rest of Kundera’s story allows him to dabble in cliché.

So perhaps there are no rules set in stone after all. Great writers can approach sex however they like, providing they have something to say about it. After all, clichés are clichés for a reason; they always contain truths.

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DVD Review: Morning Glory


The ongoing and increasingly shocking twists and turns of
the News of the World hacking scandal has prompted a complete rethink of the way we all think about the media. The public’s fury has rightly been fuelled by disgusting revelations exposing criminal practices that targeted ordinary
people or even the likes of vulnerable missing children. Prior to the game
changing news stories of recent weeks though, we were not all that bothered
about the odd tabloid listening in on the occasional romp or row between
footballers or actresses. An intense debate about privacy raged amongst some,
closely linked to the super injunction headlines from earlier in the year, but
for the vast majority of us the underhand tactics of the press were a given
that thankfully didn’t affect our daily lives.

But the momentous events of the past week have shown that
bad habits in an industry as far reaching as the media have to be taken
seriously. No one can avoid the press or the news in the modern world. Even if
you don’t buy newspapers you will blindly consume headlines or leave some bland breakfast show on in the background to help you acclimatise to the new day.

Morning Glory’s critical reception was lukewarm when it was
released in January of this year. It was universally dubbed a thoroughly ok
romantic comedy, riddled with flaws and sprinkled with just a smidgen of
appeal. In the light of the never ending phone hacking saga though, its message
is given far greater relevance and urgency.

One aspect of our relationship with the media highlighted by
the scandal, but buried under an avalanche of corruption and foul play, is
whether or not news has become too fluffy and meaningless. Defenders of certain tactics employed by the paparazzi say that the private lives of celebrities are only ruthlessly analysed because paying readers demand it. Whatever happened to “real” news items about ethical, humanitarian or political issues? It might still be possible to find some hard stories on the likes of Newsnight but in
the mainstream press, and on popular breakfast shows, the bulk of the content
focuses on fluffy items about rescue dogs or a woman who miraculously lost
weight by eating nothing except bacon.

Morning Glory is set in the world of breakfast telly. It follows Rachel McAdams as Becky Fuller, whose (somewhat strange) childhood dream is to make it to a big network as a producer of a news show. She loses her job at Good Morning New Jersey, where she was hoping to get promoted, and applies
everywhere until Jeff Goldblum calls her up and offers her the job at the
failing Daybreak, America’s least favourite start to the day. Becky ignores the
negatives like the bickering anchors and the nonexistent budget, choosing
instead to work as hard as she always has to make her dream a reality now she’s
finally at a network.

It doesn’t take long for Becky to stumble on, in her own bumbling way, the solution to Daybreak’s woes. She vows to get Harrison Ford’s legendary newsman Mike Pomeroy to replace her terrible male presenter, proving
in the process that you should never meet your heroes. The film follows her as
she sets about boosting the awful ratings of the show, which is just six weeks
away from being axed.

Morning Glory definitely has a whole host of things wrong with it, chiefly an uneven script with some dreary dialogue and pointless subplots. But it glides along averagely enough, throwing mostly unsuccessful cheap gags in your face. Its opening scene is a bafflingly awful way to start a film, which takes a sledgehammer approach to establishing that Becky is a busy
and clumsy character. Such weaknesses in the script let down Rachel McAdams, as she is for the most part a capable and attractive lead.

This is also a rom com with its fair share of positives however. It’s refreshing to see Harrison Ford having some fun on screen and most of the cast are good; even Patrick Wilson does alright with his underdeveloped love interest. There are also some belly laughs in the middle when the, far from sophisticated, physical humour is undeniably funny as the weatherman is put through his paces on a rollercoaster, all in the name of ratings. Then there’s the message behind it all.

The climax of Morning Glory sees Harrison Ford’s Pomeroy
trying to prove that there is a place for real, breaking news on morning
television. It is genuinely inspiring to see some substance injected into all
the ridiculous antics in the kitchen or out in the field. The hacking scandal
has given journalists and readers a much needed wake up call, hopefully in
terms of content as well ethical behaviour. Of course there’s a place for
entertainment and light chat, especially in the bleary eyed early hours, but
there is also always a place for enlightening fact and information. One need
not be sacrificed for the other. A great news story can also be great
television and great entertainment.

Morning Glory is far from faultless but when the credits
rolled it had won me over. It has an uplifting soundtrack, filled with songs
from the likes of Natasha Bedingfield and Michael Buble, and music from Bond
composer David Arnold. It may leave little time for subplots or romance to
develop but this does for once realistically show the all consuming day to day
life of a career focused protagonist. Above all this it is a fun romantic
comedy with something worthwhile to say, which is a rare thing these days. In
this way it mirrors what successful breakfast TV should be about (take note
Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley from ITV’s own Daybreak).

Page and Screen: Libraries vs. Cinemas in Fahrenheit 451


In 1966 England won the World Cup. And firemen stopped
putting out flames with water, to start them with kerosene to burn books.

Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s classic
20th century novel Fahrenheit 451 was released in 1966. It starred
Julie Christie in a dual role and Oskar Werner as main character Montag.
According to IMDb, Truffaut wanted Terence Stamp for the lead role but the
British screen legend was uneasy about being overshadowed by his former lover
Christie. Truffaut and Werner, with his thick Austrian accent on an English
production, had fiery differences about the film’s interpretation of Montag’s
character. It’s not surprising that there was passion on set because there was
a great deal within the pages of the book.

Bradbury’s book is the tale of Montag, a fireman whose job
it is to burn books. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which
book paper catches fire) the state has banned the owning and reading of books.
Indeed in the film Werner is shown “reading” a newspaper or story consisting
entirely of images, without even speech bubbles. Why the ban? Books are “the
source of all discord and unhappiness”. Materialism, based on equality, is
encouraged, as opposed to the competing lies and raised expectations sold by
authors. Montag’s wife is reliant on state sponsored drugs and spends her days
in front of state television. She barely speaks to him and all are ignorant of
impending war.

Bradbury was a master of science fiction and he churned out volumes of beautiful and imaginative short stories, as part of collections like The Martian Chronicles. But Fahrenheit 451 merely has elements of sci-fi. For the most part its world is uncomfortably close to our own.

Truffaut’s adaptation has a fairy tale quality, and indeed
the novel is somehow magical. It is an incredibly intelligent book, packed with
literary references and joining the likes of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the great prophetic dystopias with powerful
warnings about society. But it is not at all patronising and far more uplifting
than both of these books. It lays out its moral arguments more passionately and
poetically and tells a breathtakingly absorbing and thrilling tale, laced with
beautiful metaphors. Orwell and Huxley’s books were urgent and thought
provoking but lack the vibrant colour given by Bradbury’s imagery of flames.
Bradbury could also be funny rather than drab and his ideas were grounded in the realities of modern culture.

In short then, Truffaut had an enormous task to match a book
which simultaneously had pace, power, poetry and passion. I was therefore
surprised by how much I enjoyed his adaptation. It lacks the book’s excitement
and indeed many of its qualities but its opening scene, six minutes
uninterrupted by dialogue, is suitably atmospheric. The film as a whole evokes
the experience of reading and the worth of literature through the relatively
new medium of cinema: not an easy achievement. By quoting from great works as Bradbury often does the film benefits from some of the novel’s rhythm and can show the mesmerising effects of fire, leaving pages “blackened and changed”, shrivelling up like dying flowers.

All in all it was an entertaining watch, faithful to the book’s message, even if it was not “the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells”, as Kingsley Amis described the novel. It was inventively shot and hauntingly scored. And its wonderful final scene got me thinking.

In it the “book people” are wandering in the woods by a lake. They are all reciting or learning a book. The book people commit a book to memory and become that book. So when Montag meets a pair of brothers, one is introduced as Pride and Prejudice Part 1 and the other as Part 2, a woman is Plato’s Republic and a shabbily dressed man Machiavelli’s Prince and so on. In effect the community of peaceful outsiders are a human library.

But aren’t we all libraries really? We may not have devoted
our lives to the word for word memorisation of our favourite books but our
opinions and outlook on the world are shaped by them. The impressions and
traces of good and great books we read can truly change us, inform us and
enlighten us, as well as entertain us.

Equally us film lovers are archives of all the movies we’ve
ever seen. Some of them will be forgettable but should we get a jolt to remind
us memories of even the poorest film will come flooding back. Others made us
stretch new emotional muscles or were so terrifically dramatic we had never
felt so alive and full of possibility.

The copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I own contains an
introduction written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary
edition in 2003. He describes how he wrote the novel on a typewriter in the
basement of a library, darting up the stairs now and then to do rapid research
and pick randomly inspirational quotes to sprinkle into the narrative. His love
of libraries is evident and he calls himself a lifelong “library person”. I
couldn’t help but think that a cinema or movie theatre could never give birth
to a work of art or vital piece of culture in quite the same diverse and
autonomous way.

Of course some fantastic films have their beginnings in
great directors being inspired by other great directors in a darkened cinema.
Last year Christopher Nolan’s Inception was seen and adored by millions, with
the director freely admitting influences as varied as James Bond, Stanley
Kubrick and the Matrix trilogy. There’s no doubt that I would prefer to spend
an afternoon in my local cinema than my local library. Both are arenas of
escapism but both are changing.

At the cinema 3D may or may not breakthrough as the next big
wow factor for audiences. Box office figures continue to remain high and
records were broken throughout the global recession. People will always flock
to the multiplex to give themselves up to the immediacy of film. They want to
be transported to another world in moments.

Libraries are undoubtedly in decline. In the UK local
libraries are understaffed, underfunded and short on stock. The coalition
government is happy to snatch away even more support for them for tiny savings, despite promises about getting more children to read from Education Secretary Michael Gove. Children’s author Patrick Ness used his Carnegie medal acceptance speech to launch a stinging attack on the policy.

As a child I got into reading because of the ease and
assistance of a library. Its poor range of choice wasn’t good enough as I got
older but I might still use it now if it were better equipped. In any case
libraries are a vital stepping stone into independent reading and education for
youngsters. The grander buildings full of history and knowledge have the
potential to be truly magical gateways to new novels, screenplays, election
campaigns or God knows what. Libraries empower the imagination and the
intellect. But so do cinemas, just in a different way. Both can keep us
entertained and thinking, as Fahrenheit 451 proves. Both deserve to thrive.

Robotic Miliband risks fatal hypocrisy over his strong stance on phone hacking


Ed Miliband may have found a way to shake off the label “Red Ed”. Unfortunately for him it could simply be replaced by the even more damaging nickname “Robot Ed”.

It’s hard to believe that just last September Miliband’s acceptance speech as leader of the Labour party was greeted by a chorus of relief. The wooden and cold Gordon Brown had been replaced by a youthful, honest, reasonable and approachable man, not afraid to at least attempt a joke and flash a bumbling but genuine smile. Now though Miliband’s PR machine is working so hard to preserve this flattering initial image of reason and humanity, that they have forgotten to let him be natural at any moment, even between highly choreographed press conferences or interviews.

I am always keen to write about the policy as opposed to the personalities of politics. The culture of spin and press manipulation too often overshadows the important debates about what Britain needs or what would be a better way of doing things. There are so many pressing challenges to thrash out swift but credible and long term solutions to, that it is plain irresponsible and arrogant to get bogged down in ideological or personal differences. Miliband’s shadow cabinet have been far too slow to produce viable and inspiring policy ideas.

 However as the shocking revelations of the past week have shown, dishonesty and deceit are facts of life on a national scale. Rightly or wrongly the public digests the truths, half truths, lies and simplifications of the press every day. And for the average voter that mysterious quality of “likeability” will always prove crucial to which party they back at the polls.

Ed Miliband’s team are clearly aware of this, as anyone working in politics must be. But rather than supporting the key work on policy behind the scenes, the Labour leader’s media experts have meddled to such an obvious and unsubtle extent, that the overwhelming impression of Miliband amongst the public of late has been one of fakery and artificiality. The most embarrassing incident for Miliband has been the exposure of this interview about the planned strike of teachers across the country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZtVm8wtyFI

It makes for excruciating viewing. The journalist conducting the interview has written and spoken about his frustration. And it really is the sort of snippet behind the curtain of political life at the grim reality of it all that makes you doubt the truth of anything any MP ever says. Miliband delivers the same answer, reordered a little each time, to ensure a carefully crafted soundbite makes the news. His delivery, seen in context, is terrifyingly robotic. At no point is there even a glimmer of the man himself or a hint of his own opinion.

Ironically Miliband is now speaking out boldly against such negative elements of the press because of the ever growing scandal engulfing News International, forcing the closure of the News of the World. Cynical onlookers will criticise Miliband for yet another case of opportunism. But whatever his political motives, it’s clear that Miliband is putting himself in the firing line of an extremely powerful Murdoch empire in a way that no politician has previously done, to first and foremost, do the right thing. He has defended press freedom throughout and simply called for the proper investigations to go ahead.

In the midst of the phone hacking turmoil, an interview with former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been buried, in which he openly criticised Gordon Brown’s betrayal of New Labour. He stressed the importance of occupying the centre ground to win elections. Miliband responded in an interview with Andrew Marr by saying that he believed the centre ground had moved, presumably to the left.

Another factor Miliband must consider as he takes the initiative on phone hacking, is avoiding categorization as a popular leader of the “politics of protest” Blair warns against, which might count against his credibility as a potential Prime Minister. In other words, the fallout from the News of the World crisis might win Miliband supporters as a leader of the opposition, but ultimately not convince them that he has what it takes to lead the country.

This may be the crisis that establishes Miliband’s credentials as an opposition leader with influence. Then again Miliband may have sowed the seeds of his downfall by angering Murdoch and perhaps even more dangerously, leaving himself open to charges of hypocrisy. His PR team need to dramatically alter their strategy and have more confidence in Miliband’s ability to be himself and to speak through policy. Otherwise the correct case he is making about the BSkyB takeover and the immorality of hacking the phones of Milly Dowler and others, will be undermined and defeated.

Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

10 Reasons to see Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon


The latest Transformers movie has been critically panned from virtually every corner. Danny Leigh off that BBC show with Claudia Winkleface is even calling for strike action to boycott the movie in The Guardian and thus send a message to studio execs. But outside elite film critics there must still be a demand for Michael Bay’s franchise. And I bet those of you that are glass half full kind of people, are crying out for some positivity. Wail no more optimistic readers.

1)      Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is based on a pretty sound and promising premise. It draws on one of the most historic moments in human civilization, the 1969 moon landing, to give a story about toys some narrative heft for the adults. The space race, we discover, was not just a competitive dash to the stars but a sprint for the wreckage of an Autobot ship, containing some alien tech with Godlike powers. But hang on the astronauts look round for a bit and then come home again rather uneventfully…

Aside from the idea there’s the title itself. I mean it’s pretty damn cool to make a film with the same name as a legendary Pink Floyd album! Oh wait, there’s a word missing. But they say Dark Side of the Moon in the movie? Maybe Michael Bay (or some lawyers) decided it was snappier to drop a word.

2)      Or perhaps no one wanted to limit this film to just the one “side”. There are at least three sides available because Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is out in 3D. In fact with the juggernaut of 3D films slowing, its supporters in the industry are said to be pinning their hopes on Bay’s blockbuster because his trademark CGI pyrotechnics look stunning via the magic shades. I saw it in 2D because I wasn’t keen on paying more for a film I didn’t really want to endure. But let’s stick with the positives.

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen makes a case for being one of the worst films of all time. I haven’t even seen it (mostly because of the sheer force of the derision) but you know a film is bad when its director and star use words like “shit” and “crap” just seconds after they are no longer contractually obliged to promote it. The original Transformers was surprisingly good though and critical consensus is that this is substantially better than the sequel. The downside for Michael “Boom-Bang-Bam” Bay is that most reviewers are merely saying Transformers 3 is better to illustrate how atrociously bad the second instalment was.

3)      Damn I said I would stick with the positives didn’t I? Well there are always two big ticks alongside Michael Bay’s name. He is consistent and he always provides plenty of bangs for your buck. I saw the first Transformers by accident all those years ago and I was won over primarily by Bay’s competent handling of stuff frequently exploding into thousands of shards of glass and chunks of concrete. In Transformers 3, if you stick with it for over an hour, you get to see Chicago flattened. In one scene the human characters slide through a skyscraper as it collapses. Then they slide through it again. Then more stuff blows up. Then some more. Then there’s some slow mo. And a bit more. Something else goes bang. You lose interest.

4)      Alright there are some negatives. Like the constantly annoying and yelping Shia LaBeouf.

5)      But surely these are more than outweighed by the presence of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley? It was a big ask to find someone to replace Megan Fox’s assets but British lingerie model Rosie was named FHM’s sexiest woman of 2011. Physically she easily fills the implausibly hot girlfriend role. Bay knows he’s working with a thing of beauty, panning the camera down her body in the middle of action sequences.

Unfortunately her performance has been chewed, swallowed, digested and vomited onto a pile of steaming fresh elephant dung by every single critic. Surprisingly I thought her acting was worse when she was simply required to scream. We see her getting dressed from behind briefly at one point and in a couple of revealing dresses but not sufficiently unclothed to warrant the price of admission. Having said that Bay does his best to reduce every single female extra to eye candy by ordering them to strut about or look scared in something short.

6)      On the plus side! John Malkovich appears in what might be a mildly amusing but pointless cameo in a film that was at least an hour shorter.

7)      Ken Jeong also shows up as essentially his character from The Hangover, minus any of the sometimes funny rudeness. He is vital to one of the many baffling and needless sub plots. Which leads me to reason number eight…

8)      A glorious two and a half hour runtime may make any of the microscopically good things in this film meaningless but it has its beneficial effects as a sedative. You’ll be capable of falling into a sleep so deep that a succession of nuclear wars wouldn’t wake you after Bay has left you numbed and extremely bored by repetitive scenes of endless destruction.

9)      Actually there aren’t even 10 fake reasons to see it.

I have completely failed to live up to my nickname of Optimist Prime…

Blu-Ray Review: The Silent House


Whatever happened to traditional ghost stories set in creepy old houses? Modern horror has become a competition between filmmakers to outdo each other’s gore or to find the latest and cheapest gimmicky trick (think Paranormal Activity). Rarely do we get creaky doors teasingly opening wide into dusty rooms frozen in troubled times. Rarely are the scares psychological, preying on childhood fears of monsters under the bed and the empty house that sighs forlornly from somewhere in its darkened depths at the end of the street. Rarely do bold, genius storytellers emerge from the ranks of horror directors these days.

Director Gustavo Hernandez is certainly brave. His chiller, The Silent House, is based upon an unsolved murder case in 1940s Uruguay. It is set within a seemingly picturesque, isolated and derelict house in secluded woodland.  It is also filmed in one continuous take.

The effects of this are engrossing. The ambitious and meticulous technique works especially well for horror and has a surprising versatility. The camera essentially becomes a character. At first we feel like main character Laura’s imaginary friend, bobbing along behind her as she looks round the outside of the pretty house and listening in absentmindedly on the conversation between her father and the owner of the house, Nestor. Then later on, whilst still feeling tethered to Laura’s experience, we take up different positions and hiding places. Consequently we see things she cannot. And she sees, and does, things that we miss altogether.

Laura and her father are supposed to be clearing up the messy house filled with accumulated junk. They decide to sleep in the living room on armchairs and make a start in the morning. The owner Nestor has promised to return with food at some point. Laura does not drift off however. She is too distracted by the pounding noises from upstairs. She eventually convinces her father to investigate and then the nightmare begins. 

Light and sound are always integral to successful horror. Here the atmospheric lighting is achieved through candles and electric lanterns mostly. One scene however, in which Laura picks up a camera when the lights go out, is comprised of glimpses of the horror via the flashes of the Polaroid. This was impressive, immersive and shocking. The sound effects are vital to the endless suspense, with the score also eerily winding up the tension to unbearable levels.

The Silent House is an amalgamation of old fashioned scares and modern frights. The setting is full of strange objects, antiques and family heirlooms cluttering the rooms. Multiple doorways leave hiding places everywhere. Later in the story though the scares become nastier, more brutal and unsettling, resembling the darker trend of recent horror flicks. The dialogue is minimal, so we never learn much about Laura. We simply share some of her experience. The shocks and surprises catch you off guard and the twist at the end comes out of the blue.

For cynical viewers, there are of course the usual annoyances of the genre. Why does Laura choose the moments after a vicious attack to become fascinated by bits of junk? Why does she minutely examine paintings and photos when she knows someone is lurking beyond the door? Why does she return to the house after escaping in a wave of fear? Why does no one contact the authorities?

The incredible suspense and the plots holes in this film really got me thinking about the ordeal of the psychopath perpetrating the horror, as well as the victims. At one point (minor spoiler) a body is moved to be propped up in a chair with a doll. How embarrassing would it be to be caught moving the body? The attackers in these films, who are determined to taunt their victims, must be as nervous and jumpy as the audience as they set up their disturbing scenarios in the shadows.

The genuine ambush of the twist at the end explains a lot of these holes and weaknesses, which would be left glaringly and irritatingly untouched by your average horror. The Silent House is far from average though. It is rightly hailed as a “technical tour de force” by The Guardian and its trailers can justifiably claim to offer “real fear in real time”. By avoiding the sometimes messy and often over the top cuts of most modern fright fests, and adopting a refreshing perspective on events, this film really drops you right into the action.

The Silent House is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 1st of August. Go for the Blu-Ray version if you really want to appreciate the achievements of the filmmakers, in particular the lighting effects. Also keep an eye out for the Hollywood remake, as the rights have already been snapped up.