Mark Gatiss has an enviable reputation as a writer and an actor. Together with Steven Moffat he masterminded the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock Holmes, an idea conceived during trips to Cardiff for Doctor Who. But despite his success elsewhere he’s not yet pulled off an outstanding trip in the TARDIS. The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern were both enjoyable enough adventures for Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s Timelords but neither episode shined as a highlight of their tenures, as Moffat’s previous scripts have done. And last year’s introduction of the new Daleks was a contender for the weakest episode of Matt Smith’s first series.
Expectations were high for Night Terrors though. This was Gatiss embracing the traditions of Doctor Who to deliver a classic story and a one off compared to Moffat’s increasingly series arc based romps. Here Gatiss was given licence to write the sort of episode Moffat used to excel at, based on simple childhood fears.
George is scared of practically everything, including clowns, which as Smith’s Doctor mutters brilliantly is “understandable”. His parents have established comforting routines to try to relax him, encouraging him to put anything that worries him in his bedroom cupboard, or wardrobe, which curiously no one ever calls it. The child actor playing George is a delight, getting by on a lot more than mere cuteness. He replicates nervous ticks such as constant blinking mentioned in the script, so that George really comes to life. His scenes with Smith are a joy to watch.
Also good is Daniel Mays, veteran of Brit gangster flicks such as The Bank Job, in the role of George’s Dad Alex. He has some zippy exchanges of dialogue with the Doctor that are tremendous fun but also more than copes with the emotional side to things that kicks in by the end.
After watching Night Terrors on Saturday I concluded that once again Gatiss had failed to live up to his potential. For me something wasn’t quite right. The doll’s house device wasn’t as good as it should have been, the creepy wooden dummies weren’t creepy enough and when George was revealed to be an alien I didn’t really understand what he was, why he had latched onto human foster parents or how he had caused so much trouble. The most striking thing about the episode was the contrasting locations of an atmospherically lit block of urban flats and the haunting interior of a big, dark house. There were also some great lines for Rory, Alex and the Doctor but I was disappointed.
Following a second viewing I felt I understood the story more and thought it far better as a result. Initially I didn’t think watching it again would be as rewarding as reanalysing the twists and turns of Moffat’s plotting but it was eventually extremely refreshing to get back to a well executed, standalone tale. The emotional ending salvaged the show on Saturday and was again, better still second time around.
It didn’t matter that George the alien wasn’t really explained. He is simply alive and desperate to be wanted, to matter to someone. Right now, where I am in my life, I can empathise a lot with that desire. I can also understand the need, which originates in childhood, to have a stable, secure home. Uncertainty coupled with loneliness is disorientating, distressing and yes, frightening. The fact that it all came down to a father reassuring his son will resonate universally, not just in my life.
Night Terrors could have been better but I have been converted into a supporter. It’s probably the best Who episode Gatiss has written. It has a setting that is at once classic and distinctive. It’s simultaneously scary and funny. And it’s got some big, albeit well used, themes. From facing your own fears to admitting that sometimes you need someone, this was a fresh take on classic Doctor Who with a big heart.
Some stories will always be set in certain times and places. It’s impossible to imagine most Dickensian tales grounded in a world without workhouses and industrial poverty, for example. Similarly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would feel out of place investigating crime anywhere other than
a London stuffed with Victorian villainy. Hang on though, wasn’t last summer’s hit Sherlock on the BBC, created by Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, set in the present day?
Of course some will say that the likes of Sherlock, transplanted from the usual setting and loved by audiences and critics alike, are the exceptions to the generally reliable rule. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But if that is the case, then why make yet another Jane Austen or Charles Dickens costume drama? If nothing else, Sherlock proved that changes in period setting, previously unthinkable, could be just as true to the original creations and successful to boot.
Nevertheless a certain mould of classic novel would perhaps not work at all if ripped from its historical birth place. Often the events of the narrative are meaningless without the context they play out in. Many truly enduring fictions from the page last not because they are well written or engrossing but because they also say something definitive about the world in which they were hatched. Shunting a beloved story about Italian merchants into the setting of a modern stock exchange, for no other reason than to claim an original slant on the tale, is tantamount to cultural vandalism.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those books that is no longer thought of in terms of its plot, but as the symbol of an era. It distilled the excesses and immoralities of the Roaring Twenties, which would eventually lead to the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929, into not much over a 100 pages of exquisite writing. In no time at all Fitzgerald says so much, beautifully and ambiguously. On the surface it’s the story of the jealousies and loves of a group of wealthy socialites, detached from real life, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that’s why any attempts to adapt it for the screen fall so short of what the book was really about.
The most famous big screen version of The Great Gatsby is Jack Clayton’s 1974 picture starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. Wherever you read about this film it is described as “one of the most hyped movies of the summer of 1974”, in a way that strongly implies that the expectations far exceeded the results. On paper it had all the ingredients of an excellent adaptation but ultimately it’s a desperate pretender compared to the book’s brilliance.
Baz Luhrmann is the latest filmmaker to try his hand at The Great Gatsby. He already has a suitably titular actor lined up for the lead in Leonardo DiCaprio, along with a strong supporting cast in Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. Mulligan in particular could be crucial, given the misjudged caricature of a performance given by Mia Farrow as Daisy in the 1974 version. Farrow was whiny and hysterical, failing to show the audience any reason at all why a man such as Gatsby would be in love with
her. Mulligan has the talent to provide a far deeper portrayal.
In fact, despite delivering recent turkeys like Australia, there’s no reason why Luhrmann can’t dramatically improve on the letdown that was the 1974 version. Robert Redford was ok as Gatsby but DiCaprio, with some
bolder direction, can probably do a better job. But the script will have to be top notch. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay in 1974 almost tried hard to do the novel justice, quoting large sections of dialogue and even chunks of Carraway’s narration in voiceover. In the end though trying to transform the magic from the page so straightforwardly led to a very literal film. It told us rather than showing us the feel of the book, hammering it home so that we felt unable to connect with the characters. The book was immensely symbolic and
atmospheric. The film explored almost none of Fitzgerald’s key themes and gave its characters very little depth. Bruce Dern, as Tom Buchanan, was the only actor to come close to the essence of his character.
Luhrmann’s film is likely to land up with similar disappointments for those that have read the book though. The Robert Redford film focused firmly on the look of the story and The Great Gatsby is very visually written at times, especially in terms of lighting. But it is primarily about what we cannot see or know or express, like the mysteries of Gatsby’s character, the might-have-beens of the past, private lives and telephone conversations with distant “business associates”. The 1974 production made a fetish of grand appearances. Visual details are so important that in every scene every
single character is sweating, the lights twinkling off their brows. All this
succeeds in doing is illustrating how artificial an adaptation it is, with
everyone involved literally sweating with the effort of doing the book justice.
Perhaps then a Sherlock style time shift would help get back to the true roots of the story. Seemingly The Great Gatsby is a story forever tied to the 1920s but many of its themes would translate to the modern day. Fitzgerald was fascinated by technology, from telephones to cars, from the cinema to the street lamp. Today the world is coming to terms with social networking, new methods of communication and technologies like the iPad. There are still huge inequalities in terms of wealth and opportunities. We are still fascinated by enigmatic and elusive stars. We have just emerged from an economic crisis caused by banking excess and a rampant culture of consumerism, born in Fitzgerald’s time.
Luhrmann loves his fancy productions and like Jack Clayton in 1974, may end up worshipping period details rather than the characters and the meaning of the story. Changing the setting in some way might help counteract this temptation.
Alright my argument to transport Gatsby through time is forced and there remain many reasons to leave him be in the 1920s. But my point is essentially that there is no reason for yet another remake for the sake of it. Especially in the case of The Great Gatsby, where the captivating soul of the book is probably impossible to transform to film, there is no point playing it safe to produce something mediocre. Remakes should be better than what went
before and say and do something different to shed new light on the original
story. Otherwise they do little more than fuel the fires of Hollywood money
making machines, which trample on the talents of undiscovered storytellers with new messages and ideas.
The TARDIS crash lands in a wardrobe. Beloved outfits are callously clobbered from their hangers and crumpled beneath the weight of Time Lord tech. Beyond the doors lie in wait neither lions or witches but the Doctor’s most terrifying foe yet. Amy and Rory will have wished they’d stayed at home. The spine chilling tunes of My Chemical Romance make it through the Doctor’s atmospheric filters, numbing even Amelia Pond’s fiery ginger heart with angst and melancholy. Outside in a teenage bedroom the curse of the blackheads lurks in the shadows.
Thankfully this wasn’t the plot to Episode 3. Pirates are about as far from serious adolescent tedium and clouds of Clearasil fumes as it gets. This was a fantastical and traditional romp, and in many ways a return to a classic Who episode formula that Moffat’s era has largely abandoned. Doctor picks up distress signal, Doctor lands in middle of dangerous situation, Doctor seems to work out what’s going on, Doctor works out what’s really going on is scientific and alien related, Doctor fixes things and moves on.
Some commentators are already calling this episode predictable and disappointing, but for me it was the most enjoyable of the series so far. I understand why for some a light hearted and often comic dash about a “becalmed” pirate ship is a rather lifeless contrast with the bombastic, secret stuffed opening two parter. But as I said last week, Day of the Moon was something of a letdown for trying to do too much, which affected its strength as a standalone story. The Curse of the Black Spot was a self contained and entertaining tale, that kept the key things that make the new Who so, so much better than the RTD period.
There was once again a wonderfully realised childhood fear and fancy, that has become Moffat’s trademark. He didn’t write this episode, but Stephen Thomson wrote the second episode of Sherlock, The Blind Banker, so the two have history. Last night’s theme was reflections. There is something scary about a reflection, particularly when it distorts or is not clear. Also when you think you see something that you can’t have done in the mirror image of your surroundings. I remember imagining as a child that mirrors could act as gateways, as they do for Lily Cole’s Mermaid here and also that there was a whole new world on the other side.
The Guardian’s weekly blog calls these ideas “high concepts” and I believe that these lifted the fun of the episode to a new level. There were some good red herrings in the plot that were difficult to work out and it was nice that even the Doctor’s reasoning took mistakes to progress, after he initially thought the creature could only appear through water. Then of course the big reveal was that there was another ship, a space ship, sending out a signal from the same place. This was typical Who as the historical fun and detail of the pirate ship was contrasted brilliantly with a sci-fi sick bay. The seemingly supernatural goings on of course had scientific explanations. The idea of a computerised nurse so fiercely protective of her human charges was an interesting commentary on the limits and excesses of technology, and Lily Cole’s turquoise illuminated figure had convincing and captivating FX.
The pirate ship setting, whilst not as impressive as the American locations of the series opening, nevertheless retained an air of higher quality about it. This wasn’t the Doctor running around a quarry or a council estate as he tended to do under RTD. Hugh Bonneville clearly relished playing a pirate and there were some good performances from other members of the supporting cast of swashbucklers. Cole did well despite not having a single line to say. Most of all this episode was a refreshing change of tone from the seriousness of the American episodes, with Rory mucking about under the influence of Mermaid song and Matt Smith unshackled from ambiguous and sexual banter with River Song to simply be a scatter brain genius. Having said this he still had chances to show his range in scenes with Bonneville and then in that climax with Rory and Amy. He continues to impress.
Twitter went mad as the show reached its climax. The general feeling was that a Time Lord who has been round the block a few times would know CPR. I agreed that this was ridiculous. They could have still had a dramatic moment with the Doctor helping Amy. He’s called the “Doctor” after all. The falseness of this moment undermined some of the other strengths of the episode. But they did certainly achieve drama once again and question the strength of Rory and Amy’s love for one another for the umpteenth time.
In terms of the ongoing secrets of the series, I much preferred how this episode handled them. There was a random appearance from the same woman Amy saw in Episode 2 and the Doctor pondering that fluctuating pregnancy scan. But the secrets were slipped into a great story, rather than taking centre stage and becoming too numerous.
Next week’s show, mischievously entitled The Doctor’s Wife (River Song wasn’t in the trailer, but then given the hints being his wife always seemed too easy), looks extremely promising. It could improve upon the simple fun of this show by touching on the Doctor’s fascinating past with more “high concepts”, still being a standalone story and hinting at those continued secrets. Bring it on.
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I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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Ideally I like to write my reviews shortly after I’ve watched a film, as I’m doing now. First impressions are important right? I think recording that instant reaction can be valuable, especially for readers dithering over whether to see something. Of course taking more time to chew over the substance of a movie can also have its advantages. It might help me to get my head round it and make some more insightful points. But somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get my head round Memento.
The protagonist of Memento, Leonard (Guy Pearce), certainly couldn’t make it as a film reviewer. And I’m not saying that because it’s a particularly difficult task with insurmountable challenges. In fact normally I’d take the view that anyone could do it and that’s what makes cinema so engaging in the first place. But Leonard is not just anyone. For him remembering the plot of the most transparent Hugh Grant picture would indeed be an insurmountable challenge. There’s an advertising slogan that reads “Impossible is nothing”: this is literally true in Memento. It would be impossible for Leonard to write a review because he would remember nothing about the film. Not even Hugh alternating between “gosh” and “golly”.
Leonard suffers from a rare condition which basically means he can’t form new memories. I say “basically” but if you watch Memento it’s rapidly clear that his day to day existence is not a simple matter. Repeatedly Leonard tells us, via voiceover or mysterious conversation, that through his mastery of routine, instinct and a system of writing down “facts” as they happen, he has conquered his inability to save memories to the mainframe of his brain. But as the story progresses things that seemed certain prove to be far from it. Leonard’s quest to find his wife’s killer, and the man who whacked the talent of remembering from his skull, gives even the most ordinary encounter life and death importance. If Leonard draws the wrong conclusion from something and writes it down for future reference, he could end up on a path that causes him to kill the wrong man.
With last year’s hit Inception, Christopher Nolan reminded us that before his skilled reinvention of Batman for the mainstream he had a reputation as an experimental narrative trickster. Inception was his first film since The Prestige, which had twists and turns aplenty in the plot, to tell a daring story free of the Gotham city universe. The hype for the “dream heist” thriller was hysterically huge. I and countless others positively salivated at the sound of the concept. The possibilities of such an idea were endless. Sadly the film is one of the most overrated of recent times. Whilst good it did not compete with the whirring of imaginations kick-started into life by the premise.
Memento is much better than Inception when it comes to realising a tantalising idea. This is despite the fact that Nolan’s relative inexperience as a director is evident in a handful of lacklustre shots; one drab and overlong focus of Pearce strutting away into a building stands out. The acting isn’t always brilliant either, with what seems like half the cast of The Matrix on show and in hit and miss form. The script however is superb, bouncing themes and tension around the scattered narrative structure. I was never bored. And I never knew what was going on.
As well as being extremely gripping and exciting, Memento has its other strong points. Leonard as a character is an engrossing figure, complete with those striking memories in tattoo form (which Steven Moffat recently adapted in Doctor Who for the monsters you forget when you look away). He is trying to make sense of his life, in one sense with nothing to go on but also with endless notes and information he’s amassed for himself. We’re all trying to settle on a purpose and the excess of notes could be an interesting symbol for information overload in the modern age. Clearly Memento has its insights on memory given the driving force of the story but it also comments on the nature of fact and perhaps the notion of history. Leonard insists he only collects facts and this ensures no one takes advantage of him. But his “facts” are manipulated. And what’s the point in revenge if he can’t remember it? Is it enough that “the world still exists when I close my eyes”, as he says?
Memento gave me a headache. I may have had one before sitting down to watch but after having the pieces inside my head jumbled about until my brain moaned in pain, it didn’t help matters. Nonetheless I enjoyed it. The overwhelming strength of the film is its originality. The execution was certainly there, which is why this was Nolan’s breakthrough picture. But the real genius lies with the idea behind the story. And the script was based on a short story by Christopher’s brother Jonathan Nolan. Perhaps he is the real mastermind behind the family’s success and the endless plaudits should be more evenly shared.
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