My Thoughts On…Ring Of Spies


DVD Released: Monday July 21 2014


A solid and entertaining enough drama. Set at the height of the Cold War it follows an alcholic war hero moved down the intelligence ranks and finally to the bottom rung, suburbia and essentially data collection. The film never really follows a possible direction of the fallout of World War Two for older soldiers trying to reassimilate but it doesn’t. It’s far more interested in the scandal of being a traitor and a spy.

And in this vein, with Bernard Lee in the lead as the angry drunk constantly justifying his actions, it works well and passes the time amiably. 

The best part is slightly separate. It’s this absolutely cute prologue and epilogue with a voiceover explaining the root of spying at the outset and reminding at the close of the dangers that were present when the film was released in 1964, namely the fact that spies are everywhere, maybe even next to you right now in the cinema as you watch this film.


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  • #film #ring of spies #ring of treason #bernard lee #paul eddington
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  • #Hipstamatic #Sergio Lens #Maximus LXIX Film
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Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children? / Teaching Screenwriting From Here On Out

I recently changed the name of the screenwriting units I took over teaching upon arrival at Falmouth University’s School of Film & Television.

I changed them from Advanced Screenwriting (Shorts) & Advanced Screenwriting (Features) to Narrative Screenwriting (Shorts) & Narrative Screenwriting (Features).

I did this to differentiate what we were doing from the already excellent programmes in documentary and experimental film etc. and also because this being a 2nd year module, and the first real in-depth engagement with screenwriting, the term ‘advanced’ seemed inappropriate to the level of work and understanding the entire group of students would be arriving with. 

Currently however I am already thinking the module needs another name change and not only that but a shift in thinking about what teaching screenwriting should entail. Here’s why:

I’ve recently been listening to the excellent Bret Easton Ellis podcasts and whatever your thoughts on the man/author the insight he draws from creative people working in ‘the entertainment business’ is incredible. It’s thoughtful, enlightening and filled with a mix of confusion and belligerence at the current culture and practice of filmed entertainment as we understand it in a mainstream sense and as undergraduate students understand it in a general and mainstream sense. I am of course referring to movies and TV.

Common themes discussed on the podcasts are the death of the movie, the golden age of television, the dwindling attention spans of subsequent generations, changes in narrative structure and perceived myths around narrative structure. There’s very little pure doom-mongering and nay-saying but a healthy spirit of pragmatism and curiosity as to what the next phase of mainstream screen entertainment will entail and it increasingly has me thinking:

Should we be focusing on the teaching the writing of the short film or the feature film, at least as is commonly taught?

Now let me be clear. I am no disciple of screenwriting gurus and actively teach using the words and thoughts of writers of actual screenplays that are considered ‘best practice’ or examples of ‘good writing’ both in critical and my personal canons. I believe in engaging with one’s own process critically and understanding one’s own voice and developing abilities to draw it out by placing it in the wider context of the ‘writing process’.

I think it’s important that aspiring writers understand every writer has their own process and critically analyses the processes of other writers in developing their own and learning how best to navigate their own creative development.

For example I think it’s more valuable for students to hear from Robert Towne about how and why he wrote Chinatown than Robert McKee talking about how it ‘works’ within a historical structure because Towne’s intention when writing it was not to fulfil that structure but to tell a good story. I’ll come back to this (like a good storyteller).

Graduating students who follow screenwriting pathways and leave university in the next two years and beyond are entering a professional and creative world that is constantly in flux and where traditional notions of writing short films as a path to feature films and indeed feature films themselves are increasingly archaic and opportunities to carve a career as a film screenwriter constantly dwindling. 

The BEE podcasts are fascinating because of a reality they imply. The guests are established, having spent the requisite 5-15 years slogging, working their way through unsold scripts that have languished in development hell, indie features, uncredited rewrites, writers rooms and arbitration to the point where they are ‘established’.

The inverted commas are because the idea of being an ‘established’ writer in a Hollywood sense is almost laughable. That’s another story though. 

These guests discuss the need to diversify their practice - into TV mainly but also into novels [another increasingly unclear medium], videogames etc. And these are people who have been carving out careers for years, decades in some cases. 

Is it therefore responsible to teach students to understand classic feature films as anything other than historical documents of a bygone era? If we are not there yet, how far are we away from that? What is our responsibility in preparing students in some way for the professional and creative landscape that awaits them?

Not jobs but lives, careers.

Are you ahead of me?

How do we prepare students for careers in a landscape that is so tumultuous? Well, I believe we should focus on the fundamentals; the things that successful creative content have in common regardless of form or format and what do successful narrative content examples have in common that could form the core of teaching screenwriting?


Story. Not plot, or a prescribed structure, but story and all that entails.

Structure as relevant to the story being told and the form it is being told in. Understanding that structure is about working with the audience, playing with them, understanding genre and pace and need, but in relation to the idea and the characters, not to arbitrary page driven moments and jargon.

Character. Speaks for itself.

Beloved, critically admired, successful, canon narrative content be it in film, television, the internet, videogames whatever will predominantly work due to its ability to tell a story that works through structure that is relative to the story being told and because it features good characters.

Understanding of genre and playfulness with all these elements can be placed on top but without those fundamentals it probably won’t work.

People may want to binge watch TV, or have no attention span beyond a Funny or Die sketch, but they still want and desire story, structure, character in some form, in some order. 

This can be taught. And it can be taught by highlighting how these fundamental ideas are present in various media content of different length and intention and that understanding and eventually becoming competent and mastering them creates greater opportunities for students as writers going forward. 

However, and this is where I’ll end:

It shouldn’t be prescriptive and suggest that everyone should be a jack of all trades. That would be horrible. It could celebrate the common elements mentioned above but be delivered with an honest assessment for students of the realities of wanting to be a film screenwriter in the current climate - in terms of everything from visibility to opportunities to being able to pay the rent. Some may want to take that route for artistic reasons and understand the trials of that route which were ever arduous and are increasingly un-traversable. 

But we will have ensured they don’t leave naive. We can still celebrate the great works we love and the elements of writing and storytelling that compel us on our route but we cannot ignore the harsh realities for those we teach who are just at the start of their artistic and hopefully professional journeys. 

It’s an amazing time in many ways but we can only realise true digital and internet democratising potential, crowd-funding possibilities and monetised, direct access to audience opportunities by helping emerging creators of content to traverse the landscape using our understanding of the mediums’ histories and our skills as creators and educators. 

The term screenwriter in reality has never been more apposite than now with emerging wordsmiths needing to be versed in providing content for a variety of screen media. The as romantic as it ever was idea of the film-writer is almost a thing of the past as a tangible career goal. It’s time to get practical and liberate the next generation of storytellers from old ways through celebrating story and character from the past but making those concepts relevant to new forms. I don’t propose we throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

I think I might call my modules ‘Writing & The Screen - Short Form’ & ‘Writing & The Screen - Long Form’ next year. Although by Christmas that too might be out of date. 

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  • #teaching film #neil's teaching blog #screenwriting #film education #bret easton ellis #podcast #film #writing #creativity
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My Thoughts On…Robin And Marian

It’s a 105 minute film called Robin and Marian and it’s 30 minutes before we meet Marian. Can you imagine that in a modern film of this size? Imagine a modern movie by committee allowing that?

'But the audience will want to know where she is, she is in the title, they will get confused, they might leave, blah blah AAARGGHHHH'.

This is a wonderful, wonderful film. It’s funny, has some great action, brilliant performances, is achingly romantic and is also a really strong deconstruction of male ego and hubris. There’s something sad and primal that plays around with and undercuts the legend of Robin Hood but not in a snarky, cynical, destroy for destroy’s sake way. It’s curious and interested and it also wants to celebrate the man, not the myth. The power.

It’s a great idea, Robin Hood 20 years on, but it never feels gimmicky, it’s a genuine exploration of the aftermath of legend. 

It’s brilliant in so many ways. Such tiny slight moments of humour, beautifully shot, elegiac, dramatic despite being incredibly sparse in plot. And the pairing of Connery and Hepburn is perfect.

And that’s hard for me to say because I despise Connery. As a man. He’s someone I find it very difficult to separate the art from the artist with, but he’s great here. It’s a superb performance, one of his best. And Audrey, well, what can one say?

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  • #film #robin and marian #richard lester #sean connery #audrey hepburn #robert shaw #denholm elliott #ronnie barker #ian holm #nicol williamson #richard harris #kenneth cranham #bill maynard #robin hood #peter butterworth #victoria abril
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My Thoughts On…Times Square


DVD Released: Monday July 14th 2014


Timing is everything and the timing of this release is perfect in cultural and commercial terms and it’s these two things playing against each other that make this film both a product of its time and something more interesting. 

Times Square is a classic tale of two strangers from polemical lives who come together to find comfort and education and validity in each other, against the odds and to the anger and bewilderment of most. What marks this story out is not merely the fact that it’s about two teenage girls but that it puts these teenage girls into an explicitly male, patriarchal world and attempts to dismantle that power structure. It doesn’t always succeed, indeed in parts the influence of a ‘Hollywood’ way of telling this story seeps in but for the most part it is as defiant as its characters and is powerful and affecting as a result.

Trini Alvarado is Pamela, the daughter of a rising star in New York politics who feels invisible. Robin Johnson is Nicky, a wild girl from a broken life who the authorities want to label mentally ill, medicate and incarcerate. When they find themselves in hospital together and form a tentative bond, Nicky breaks Pamela out by stealing and ambulance and the girls go on the run. They find support for their runaway from renegade DJ Johnny LaGuardia, played by Tim Curry and soon have an army of girls listening in to their music (they form a punk band) and exploits as they work in a strip club, steal and start a revolution of throwing TVs into the street from rooftops. It’s clear that Nicky is troubled, but no more than most, and that in her, she has the makings of a true star. If she is allowed to live, and be, and helped, not ‘cured’.

It’s primal and vital and shares heart and energy with this year’s brilliant We Are The Best! Although that Swedish gem directed by Lukas Moodysson is a more fully realised film there is still this important question being raised, namely - what should girls do, be, wear and why is not up to them? Not only that, by why should men decide the identity of women, children or not. Sadly, still a relevant question 34 years on from the release of Times Square. 

The film exploits its dirty New York location and themes and it adds a real power to the film, it never feels like it’s shot on an LA backlot and the music is perfectly curated - Talking Heads, Ramones etc. and that has stood the test of time, which helps. The young performances are superb and they manage to convey coming of age, sexuality and attraction complexities superbly thanks to great chemistry and a great understanding. Curry is Curry. He is a magnetic performer with a unique screen presence. He can, within a single sentence convey the feeling he is a genius and and an utter ham at the same time. It’s remarkable and makes him constantly watchable.

Elements of the film have aged - it’s a bit USA fist pumping and creaky when the music is score as opposed to soundtrack but it’s still remarkably fresh in so many other ways. Also, it’s that rarity of a film that doesn’t patronise its female leads. It allows them to grow, make mistakes, make decisions, learn and stand up for what they want based on what they learn, from each other, not from men and reminds us that girls and women should not be not pre-defined by our (male, societal) ideas of what they should be but allowed to be what they want. And that message still needs saying over and over. Sadly. 

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  • #film #times square #tim curry #talking heads #ramones #we are the best! #lukas moodysson #trina alvarado
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My Thoughts On…S*P*Y*S


DVD Released: Monday July 14th 2014


The opening titles say it all. Sutherland and Gould. No first names needed. With glorious memories of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H still relatively fresh in the mind the pair reunited for this silly caper. It’s lesser material than the magisterial Vietnam War satire that first threw them together sure, but it’s far better than the 4.3 average rating on IMDB would have you believe. Far better. I can’t believe that rating actually.

Almost an anti-conspiracy film in light of the superlative examples of the genre that were around at the time, this spoof-lite caper sees the pair star as CIA agents who are thrown together when they learn attempts on their life were the result of their own boss and a supposed clerical error. Assured and given another assignment they soon learn of the ruse and that the agency that trained them really do want them dead. For reasons prosaic and merely excuses to have the pair bantering and verbal sparring, trying to outdo each other and being chased and chasing various goons of a variety of different agencies and affiliations. The action is well handled and the performances around them sold and entertaining, particularly a harangued Joss Ackland. And nice to see a youngish Nigel Hawthorne firing off a gun. But it’s all about Sutherland and Gould, as the titling suggests. And they deliver.

Sutherland is uptight, clumsy and a kiss ass. Gould is louche, nonchalant and detached and they clearly had fun together and are a joy to spend screen time with in this mood. It’s silly but it’s a worthwhile piece of entertainment. Buy it in its new DVD edition out this week and bump that IMDB rating up, way up. But not all the way up.

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  • #film #spys #s*p*y*s #irvin kershner #elliott gould #joss ackland #zouzou #nigel hawthorne #shane rimmer #donald sutherland #robert altman #mash #m*a*s*h #comedy #spoof #caper #conspiracy
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My Thoughts On…The Bed Sitting Room

Joyous. Bleak. Surreal. 

What a wonderful film. Full of laugh out loud verbal and visual gags that jar with a startling dystopian setting and scenario.

When world war 3 comes those who survive (maybe only 20 or so people like here) will have to contend with madness masquerading as normality, maybe we are already there and we are merely waiting for a bomb scarred landscape to catch us up. Kafka-esque magic realism and prescience with a cast of legends. True, absolute LEGENDS.

Brilliant British filmmaking the like of which has pretty much all but disappeared and what production design. Utterly perfect and beguiling accompaniment to the action. 

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  • #the bed sitting room #richard lester #film #peter cook #dudley moore #arthur lowe #rita tushingham #roy kinnear #ralph richardson #michael hordern #harry secombe #spike milligan #ronald fraser #bfi #marty feldman
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My Thoughts On…Her

Been nearly a week since I watched this and I still don’t know how I feel about it. I know it’s wonderful. Easily one of the best of the year and probably a modern masterpiece but the amount of space for the audience to engage and draw from is overwhelming.

I called it complicating to my girlfriend on Sunday and I stand by that. It’s profoundly complicating regarding modern technology but also modern ideas around love, masculinity, relationships, death and solitude. 

I’ve tried to live a different life regarding my tech since Sunday and it’s hard because I, like many, have become so reliant on it, not just for life easing but emotional easing and that’s problematic. I also feel like it has in some way shaped my relationship with love and companionship but I felt this before and have been trying to work through that. Was scary to see it so glaring here though and be reminded that I still don’t understand it. A moving treatise on being human, truth telling (to ourselves and others), sacrifice, so much.

And beyond all this message stuff it’s just a wonderful film, gorgeous cinema, supreme intelligent entertainment. Beautiful script, wonderfully shot, designed and directed, perfect music. So searching and non-judgemental. 

The performances are incredible. Particularly Phoenix. I was talking to Justin about it and I said that as much as I love Matthew McConnaughey and am pleased at the McConaissance he is always McConnaughey, he’s always there and is a great movie star. Now, tell me another actor alive (Tom Hardy maybe) who could have disappeared into two contrasting roles as invisibly as Phoenix does here and in The Master previously. It’s astonishing to think the same man delivered those two performances. Why he isn’t discussed in the same league as Day Lewis astounds me. I mean I get that he’s awkward in person and supposedly wilful but I don’t buy that and we forgive lesser artists far greater transgressions. 

Johansson is as mesmeric here as she is in Under The Skin, the only film sparring with this for my favourite of 2014 so far (Inside Llewyn Davis slips to third for those keeping track).

There’s more to say, there will be more, but I will need to watch again, and again. Wow. This is what film is and can be. Made me happy this is my path and more resolute to create work that approaches the level of engagement and style displayed here. Inspirational in every way.

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  • #her #spike jonze #Joaquin Phoenix #under the skin #Scarlett Johansson #olivia wilde #samantha morton #inside llewyn davis #amy adams #rooney mara #arcade fire #karen o #bill hader #Kirsten Wiig #brian cox #mathew mcconaughey #the mcconnaisance
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My Thoughts On…Robocop (2014)

At some points in this movie the reason for remaking such a landmark modern film is clear and for a brief sojourn seemingly more than just about money.

At other points it is fun.

At other points it is drivel and nonsense. These points are the mawkish and unnecessary family elements of the story. One of the great things about the original is the power of the satire through clean plot and narrative. There is just Murphy and he represents all. Here, the wife and kid stuff muddies it.

Also, the effects are really video-gamey, but I don’t think it’s intentional. It looks cheap, indeed the digital photography makes the whole thing feel like a TV movie. Really un-cinematic and uninspiring.

Oh wow. Have I talked myself into disliking it more over the course of this post? Just maybe.

The cast swings it though, some great turns and a ridiculous level of talent down the roster. 

Although, I am convinced that the theme tune from Pat Novak’s show is a direct nod to The Day Today and some of the moral questions about man and machine and our passivity as a society, our ignorance and denial, are still powerful and resonant and work in a modern context.

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  • #film #robocop #Remake #Gary Oldman #joel kinnaman #michael kenneth williams #michael keaton #jackie earle haley #jose padilha #jennifer ehle #marianne jean-baptiste #jay baruchel #samule l jackson #paul verhoeven #the day today
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My Thoughts On…A Hard Day’s Night

I’ve got some catching up to do. I’ve watched 4 movies recently that I haven’t filed thoughts on. Time to get my head back in the thoughts game.

This is a brief note, as I was fortunate enough to interview director Richard Lester for a feature for Clash magazine for the 50th anniversary of the film, which will contain more and indeed most of my thoughts on the film. I’ll obviously link to that once it’s online.

It was such a joy to see this film on the big screen, in a new and glorious restoration with Lester introducing. It’s still so fresh and alive. The songs have been beefed up (the Can’t Buy Me Love sequence gave me goosebumps) and it’s still really funny and surreal.

It’s much more than the first rock doc/concert film/behind the scenes music film. It’s surreal and playful and is also a pointed resistance to old ways. You can feel the coming of a new age, a new way, new ideas about youth and young people in the sparkling celluloid, screams and songs. 

Wonderful, still.

Still didn’t see Phil Collins in the crowd though.

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  • #the beatles #a hard day's night #richard lester #neil's rock docs #rock documentary #rockumentary #concert film #can't buy me love #john lennon #paul mccartney #ringo starr #george harrison #wilfrid brambell #lionel blair #victor spinetti #bfi #phil collins
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My Thoughts On…The 50 Year Argument

I watched this on Sunday and it’s been with me all week, well, up until seeing a new print of A Hard Day’s Night last night. 

I watched the film in optimum conditions. Relaxed, well fed and entwined with someone who loves words and thought as I do. 

It’s a delicate and beautifully composed film. Despite being a Martin Scorsese film(ish), he doesn’t impose himself he just records and orders and lets the history speak for itself.

The story is remarkable in resistance, resilience and quiet determination to follow a path with no veer to fad or fashion. 

What a collection of writers and what a solid, pretty much immoveable and simultaneously quiet and dignified position in the global culture. 

Great interviews, great archive, beautiful photography, perfectly ordered narrative and utterly inspiring in every way. 

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  • #the 50 year argument #Martin Scorsese #the new york review of books #david tedeschi #mary beard #james baldwin #noam chomsky #colm toibin #norman mailer #gore vidal #susan sontag #joan didion #a hard day's night
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the greatness of art makes its appearance only as dusk begins to fall over life

guy debord - the society of the spectacle
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  • #guy debord #society of the spectacle #quote #life #philosophy #art
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