Friday, 19 December 2014

Free Action Movie Week: Unstoppable

It's the fifth and final day of Free Action Movie Week and I've saved the best for last. When I made the announcement that I was doing one film a day and presented a list of choices Unstoppable was by far the most popular choice. Literally every single person who voted said they wanted me to do this movie, so naturally it seemed the logical place to end on. I actually had seen this movie before for my action movie class. We watched it the first week while discussing "train chase" films of the silent era that helped to shape the modern car chase. I even referred to it in my article Trains, Trains, and Automobiles, inspired by that very lecture and centering around the role trains play in action movies. Looking back on it now, I can certainly see a lot of the concepts we discussed over the course of that lecture. The premise itself is reminiscent of the old train-chase movies like The Lonedale Operator or The General, but there are other elements mixed in.

Loosely based on an actual incident, Unstoppable is essentially one long train chase film, sort of like a more modern version of The General. Will Colson (Chris Pine) is a young man experiencing his first day working at the railyard, and is assigned veteran Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington, who also appeared in Deja Vu this week) as a partner. Meanwhile an idiot out in the yard is ordered to move a train but botches up the process. The train, which turns out to be carrying hazardous materials that could result in massive casualties if exposed to an urban environment, is hurtling down the mainline at increasing speed with no driver. Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) takes charge of the situation, keeping track of the train's current route while also trying to work out a solution to the problem and dealing with the bureaucracy of her superiors.

The character of Will Colson definitely has some elements of the "wise-guy" hero popularized by Die Hard and its many imitators during the 90's. Much like John McClane, he has the generally lighthearted attitude toward his situation, which is even brought up when Denzel Washington specifically asks him for "no comedy" while faced with a dangerous task. He is also an everyman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances but also proves to be the one person who can take care of the situation. Further Die Hard parallels include the use of the radios, with his bantering against his boss Galvin (Kevin Dunn) somewhat reminiscent of McClane's exchanges with Hans Gruber. One could also argue that his relationship to Connie parallels that of McClane's to Sgt. Powell.

There is also a bit of the vigilante aspect of action films of the 1970's. Nobody ever has to pull out a 44 magnum and start shooting criminals on sight, but the same sort of problems that kept Dirty Harry from catching Scorpio prevent the runaway train from being stopped. Namely there is the same bureaucracy. The authorities, in this case Galvin and his immediate executives, are treated as inefficient and incapable of resolving the situation. Like Dirty Harry, Connie has to break the rules to get the job done, violating direct orders at the risk of being fired. The actual solution that is presented comes from two railway workers finding an opportunity and taking it, also disregarding their superiors' orders.

In general, Unstoppable is an exciting movie that moves at a super-fast pace. I barely noticed when I was already halfway through. There is definitely a lot of exciting action to be found, if of a different sort. We don't see people pulling out guns quite like you would in any of the other films I've covered this week, but there is plenty of the same tension and suspense. Once the train gets moving the film just gets faster and faster, not giving you much time to breathe. It creates a sense of just how intense the situation is and how urgent it is for the train to be stopped.

The acting is also very good on everyone's part. Chris Pine and Denzel Washington have some great chemistry together, making their scenes feel like one of those old buddy films from the 80's. I also liked Rosario Dawson as Connie, as she does a perfect job in delivering the right sort of emotional drive, conveying that persistent determination to see the train stopped even if it costs her job. Her interactions with Pine and Washington also helped add a lot of depth to their characters. The supporting cast was good as well but really the film centers around these three.

Unstoppable is a great movie. I can't say much about how closely it follows the true events it claims to be based on, but it is still a compelling piece of film that is guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat. The action is literally non-stop, and keeps building up to an exciting climax. It's a lot of fun and a great experience for anyone looking for a fun action movie.

I would once again like to thank everyone who voted for this event. This has been a lot of help since I am positive that if I hadn't thought of doing this I would have spent too much time trying to decide what films I wanted to see this week instead of actually watching anything. Since this has been such as success I'm open to revisiting this kind of thing in the future with other themes, maybe during the summer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Free Action Movie Week: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

For day four of Free Action Movie Week, I get into arguably the second-most popular choice. Nearly everybody who commented on the initial announcement saying they wanted me to see Mr. & Mrs. Smith. I had never seen it before, though I do remember seeing the trailer when it first came out and wanting to watch it. I never quite got around to that whole thing. When I was younger, I actually had a crush on Angelina Jolie, and seeing her appear in anything was enough to get me excited. She still does, largely because knowing she's involved means I'm going to be in for something exciting. That's precisely what I got here.

John (Brad Pitt) and Jane (Angelina Jolie) are top-notch assassins who happen to meet in Colombia and pretend to be a couple to evade the police. Five or six years later, they are struggling through the mundane difficulties of marriage. Neither one of them is aware of the other's real profession, with Jane pretending to be a typical suburban housewife cooking and cleaning in between assignments (she keeps her weapons in a chache hidden under the oven), and John getting his assignments through the construction company he works for. John and Jane are getting bored with their relationship, dealing with standard marital issues. That all changes one day when both are separately assigned to kill the same person, Benjamin Danz (Adam Brody). The job inevitably goes awry when the two of them unknowingly get distracted trying to kill each other instead of the target. The two of them are forced to choose between their careers and their marriage.

I loved the relationship between the two leads in this film. The way romance is integrated with the action is genius. You can never quite tell where the romance ends and the action begins. Even in the scenes where they're trying to kill each other Brad and Angelina still talk to each other like a married couple. It has this weird effect where the action scenes feel romantic and the romantic moments feel more like action scenes. Before things get all heated the dialogue is filled with clever double entendres. In one early scene Jane talks about how she got some new curtains in a way that sounds very unsuspiciously like she stole them from someone she recently killed. Once things get going, we get multiple scenes of the two of them trying to set aside their differences while being fired upon.

The chemistry between these two leads is brilliant. It's actually hard to believe this movie was made before Brad and Angelina became a real couple, because it really feels like they belong together. The rest of the supporting cast does a good job but really at the core of the film it's this relationship that drives the film, and it could have easily gone downhill. Mr. & Mrs. Smith takes full advantage of its setup, and I like the fact that both of them are assassins. This basic idea could have worked if it had just been one, but then it would have been a very different dynamic that would have seen one protecting the other or perhaps having to help them toughen up. By having both on equal footing, there is a greater necessity for cooperation, with John and Jane both having to take turns watching each other's back.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith might just be the perfect fusion of two genres that most would consider mutually exclusive: the action film and the romantic comedy. Normally you would not put these two together, but here they're combined so seamlessly it's hard to tell the elements of one from the other. It's a bit like one of those old-fashioned boy meets girl romantic comedies, only now with a lot more guns, knives, explosions, and property damage. It's a lot of fun and definitely worth the ride. Also before anyone asks, I have not seen the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock movie that is coincidentally also called Mr. & Mrs. Smith that is also a comedy about marital issues but otherwise a completely different film.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How To Relate to a Character of the Opposite Sex

I was on YouTube yesterday when I saw a video show up in my subscription feed containing information about the upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot. It sounds like an interesting story and why not make an all-female cast? There's plenty of films with all-male casts and often the only predominantly-female movies you really see are stereotypically feminine genres. The only truly all-female movie I'm aware of is the 1939 comedy/melodrama The Women, which naturally concerns a bunch of women's relationships with unseen men. The Descent is a horror film with a predominantly female cast, though technically there is a male character of significance (even if he dies in the first few minutes, he still influences the choices of the characters). It's not like the original Ghostbusters had much in the way of strong female characters to begin with, just a secretary who when you get down to it really didn't add much to the story, and a damsel in distress who needed to be rescued by men despite being played by Sigourney Weaver.

So naturally I posted some comments voicing my approval of this idea. From the sounds of things it is looking promising. They got some of the people behind The Heat (which did this same kind of treatment to the buddy cop genre), which is a good sign. I got a lot of comments in response, many of them dismissing the film as "pandering to feminists" (because how dare we ask for better representation of women in the media). A few seemed to be insisting that the cast should be mixed, asking why there couldn't be a man in there. If you ask me the men already had their chance in the original, which couldn't be bothered to let a woman do anything useful, so why should they be allowed to do anything in this reboot? Then I got this comment from a user by the name of Tommylad2:

I agree completely! Having an all female cast just sells this film to a mainly female audience, and can potentially alienate the original fan base of Ghostbusters! but by having a half and half or at least one female (my thoughts are Jennifer Lawrence as the 4th member and Emma Stone as a fleshed out Janine, could have Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum as some of the male team members) you still cater to the female audience while keeping the original fan base happy. As for the story pitched here, it’s not bad for a modern times twist. But just please Sony don’t make this film a chick flick! You can have your cake and eat it this time!!!

Chick flick? Really. What exactly is a chick flick? Wikipedia defines this as "a slang term for a film genre mainly dealing with love and romance and designed to appeal to a largely female target audience." Already we're getting into some hot water with the implication that women will only go to see a movie that has a romance in it, a notion that I have thoroughly debunked before. By that rationale Breakfast at Tiffany's could be considered a chick flick, but it's also a very good movie that has a number of fans of both genders.

However, we are not dealing with Breakfast at Tiffany's, we're talking about Ghostbusters. This is not a movie about romantic entanglements, it's about busting ghosts. Therefore, unless the writers have somehow skewed their priorities and decided to focus on the protagonists' romantic interests using the whole "paranormal extermination services" thing as nothing more than a background, it's clear that this is not a "chick flick" any more than The Descent is. More unsettling is the implications of Tommylad2's comment, that apparently it is impossible for a male audience to relate to female protagonists. There is no reason a man cannot relate to a female protagonist any more than a female viewer can relate to a man in an all-male cast. By that same rationale women shouldn't be able to enjoy most action movies, and I've known several who would say otherwise.

Speaking of women in action, let's look at the work of one of the most successful female directors in Hollywood right now, Kathryn Bigelow. Take a look at any of her films, and one thing you'll quickly notice is that most of them are very predominantly if not entirely male films. The Hurt Locker has an almost exclusively male cast outside of Evangeline Lilly (who doesn't appear until very late in the movie and only has a few scenes). K-19: The Widowmaker has no significant female characters at all, letalone any kind of romance. While Zero Dark Thirty has a female protagonist, the rest of the cast is still predominantly male, and the fact that she is a woman has about as much of an impact on the narrative as Ellen Ripley.

Similarly, a lot of the most iconic female characters appeared in films directed by men. It was after all the idea of Ridley Scott to make the character of Ripley a woman, and since then strong female leads have been something of a trademark for him as well as James Cameron. Cameron helped to popularize not one but two of the most iconic action heroines: Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley (when people hear that name, they generally think of how she was treated in Aliens over the more vulnerable Ripley of Alien). In addition to those two Cameron has a wide variety of other strong female characters including  Private Vasquez in  Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss, Helen Tasker in True Lies, and Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic; not to mention Grace Augustine, Trudy Chacon, and Neytiri in Avatar. Even in Rambo: First Blood Part II (which he helped write the screenplay for) you can see an attempt at a tough female character with Co. In addition to all that, I think it is worth pointing out that both The Women and The Descent were directed by men.

Evidently none of these people had any issues directing films that focus in large part on people of the opposite gender. A female director has every right to make predominantly-male movies just as much as a man can make a predominantly-female movie. It doesn't affect the quality of the work. The Hurt Locker is a great film and if any other director, male or female, had taken it on the result probably would not have been the same. Bringing this back to the all-female Ghostbusters, I'm failing to see why it should be a problem that there aren't any men.

Some of the comments I've gotten have attempted to defend the claim by citing that the all-female Ghostbusters will "alienate the original fanbase". After calling Tommylad2 out on the obvious and somewhat unsettling implications of his comment, citing several popular action heroines as proof to the contrary, he responded with another comment in which he attempted to defend himself:

Not saying that all, in fact those you just mentioned are some of my favourites. But imagine taking any of those examples you gave and change them to be males. Would it be good? maybe, but it makes it completely different from the original concept and so potentially alienates the original fan base. My point is Ghostbusters are a male team and always has, through various films/cartoon, comics etc. (with the exception of Ghostbusters extreme a cartoon series which did have a female Ghostbuster) but if you need to reach new audiences you can have strong female roles such as Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence as additions to the team, not replacements and they would also appeal to both males and females, and I can’t understand why they don’t go down that route rather than an all female team.

Now yes, you could argue that in some cases, changing the gender of a female protagonist wouldn't be the same. The Terminator certainly wouldn't be the same if Sarah Connor was a man. On the other hand, Ripley was originally conceived as a male character. The fact that she ended up being a woman had a huge impact on the film's success, but story-wise it wouldn't have been much different had Ridley Scott failed to consider the possibility. A male Ripley could still have worked. Maybe Alien would have even still been just as good as Scott's final product. In fact the whole script was written with a note saying that any of the cast could be female, so technically Brett, Dallas, Parker, Ash, or Kane could have all been written as women. You could write the entire cast of Alien as female without changing anything.

That said, there's no real reason why the Ghostbusters had to be all male. I understand a bit of the backstory behind the production which explains some of it. Harold Raimis and Dan Akroyd were actually part of the writing team, which might cover two actors, and they wanted Bill Murray because of his prior Saturday Night Live Connections. That covers three out of four, but I'm still not entirely convinced there was no way for it to work. Even if the three of them covered the initial team, they do seem to be open to recruiting others later in the movie.

Winston could have been played by a woman without changing anything, or if you wanted to keep him perhaps a woman could have also been among the new recruits. If they didn't want to write a new female character, than perhaps there could have been something interesting in Janine or Dana growing into a Ghostbuster. That could have been cool, if Janine started as a secretary and become a full-time Ghostbuster by the end, at least then she would actually be able to contribute something to the film.

If not in the original movie, why not the sequel? The same actors weren't involved through every medium the Ghostbusters have appeared in, so why is it only one cartoon series that has even considered the possibility? Yes, they are an all-male team and always have been, but is there any reason why they have to be? I don't see any reason why a female Ghostbuster couldn't have worked in anything.  Yeah, I think the guys have had their chance. It's time to let the women have their turn on the franchise.

If people are so stubborn they can't handle the idea of the original guys not being the central focus, than nothing the makers of this reboot can put together will please them. I'm certainly open to an all-female Ghostbusters, which will finally give the women of the franchise a chance to do something useful. I'm hoping if they do this, the guys will get their turn to be marginalized. I think Janine should be replaced by a guy and be every bit as useless. The only concern I have is the possibility of the women being oversexualized, but given the people on board I don't think that will be a huge problem.

Free Action Movie Week: Deja Vu

It's Day Three of Free Action movie week, and now we're starting to get into the more popular choices. I'd never heard of this film before I picked it up at that pub night, but I got several votes from people saying they wanted me to see it. I was informed that it was an "underrated classic" which certainly caught my attention. It was a Tony Scott film so I knew I'd be in for some exciting action and explosions, always good for an action film. I would have to agree with those comments. Deja Vu is a very interesting movie filled with lots of unexpected twists and turns that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Also fun fact: Deja Vu is the first movie I've reviewed on this blog to feature a black protagonist.

In New Orleans, a mysterious domestic terrorist has just blown up a ferry, leaving hundreds of people dead, wounded, or traumatized. Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), a representative of ATF, is dispatched to investigate, finding very clear evidence that the bomb was deliberately placed, but virtually nothing about the person who set it up. Adding to the mystery is the body of a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), that washes up on the shore nearby and seems to be connected even though she died before the bombing happened.

Failing to identify any leads, Carlin is invited to assist in a top-secret program which has developed the technology to create a literal window into the past. Being able to look precisely four days before the present, the race is on to identify the bomber and figure out how he planted the explosives on the ferry. Accomplishing this end involves following the final days of Claire's life, but the question is raised: can the past be changed? Is it possible to avert the ferry's destruction entirely? It's a bit of a Source Code-type situation, with plenty of paradoxes and disputes over the mechanics of time travel.

The whole idea behind this film is actually pretty cool. It's a bit like a reverse precrime (an idea explored in Philip K. Dick's story Minority Report and the Spielberg film adaptation), with the characters being able to see into the past. There is certainly an emotional strain to be found with this kind of technology, as the characters are all conflicted over how to respond to what they are seeing: being able to see into the past but unsure if you can do anything to change it. This whole setup also leads to some strange moments, such as the "car chase" where Carlin has to drive a Humvee through a busy street trying to record the movements of the bomber's car four days ago (with chaos inevitably ensuing.

The acting is really good. Denzel really gets into character here. At first I was a bit concerned about the treatment of Paula Patton, being worried that she wouldn't get to do a whole lot. Fortunately she gets her moments of action eventually, though it takes some time. The controllers who work with Denzel also offer a nice bit of comic relief. The story is a bit slow at first, but even before the spacetime-bending technology is introduced there is enough action to keep it moving forward. If I were to make any particular complaints, I'd argue that it does get confusing at certain points. There are moments when it took me a few minutes to figure out precisely what was happening.

I liked Deja Vu. It's certainly an exciting movie with lots of action, which is precisely what I was looking for. It's got some neat ideas and runs with them in some interesting directions, presenting a series of twists and turns I'll admit I never saw coming. It all builds up to a climax that forces you to think about the ethical situation faced by the protagonist, building on the questions raised throughout. It's certainly one worth checking out if you get the chance.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Gay on Film Blogathon: Betty and Rita

So I've started The Gay on Film Blogathon and it's been very well-received. The objective of the blogathon is simple enough, it's about emphasizing well-written gay characters in contemporary media. Naturally since this is an issue I feel strongly about it only made sense to contribute a piece of my own, but first I needed a good pair of characters. Why not use the lesbian couple whose picture remains the first thing anyone clicking on that post will see? Betty and Rita were played respectively by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in what is arguably one of David Lynch's best films, Mulholland Drive

A lot of viewers of Mulholland Drive tend to remember it for its lesbian sex scene. There are actually two scenes of intercourse between the two lead actresses: first one that happens when Betty invites Rita to share a bed, and later on in the final segment (after Rita opens the box and appears to become Camilla) when both women engage in sex, suddenly appearing fully nude, on Diane/Betty's couch. The lesbian elements may be crucial, but it is worth noting that it actually takes a fair bit of time for it to appear. Neither of the infamous sex scenes happen until about three quarters of the way through (in a movie that is almost three hours long). Sure, some men might get sexually aroused by that particular moment but to get there you have to sit through two hours of a brilliant Sunset Boulevard-inspired surreal thriller about the darker side of Hollywood. If you really want to just see two women having sex there's far simpler options. That's what gay porn is for, after all.

I think that may be part of what makes the relationship seen in Mulholland Drive so unusual among other gay couples in film. There is no love at first sight. Betty might not even know she is gay at first (she claims during the first sex scene to have "never done this before"), and the two aren't initially brought together by any form of sexual attraction. They bump into each other by pure chance and at first Betty is more concerned about this stranger unexpectedly turning up in her aunt's apartment. Much of the film is instead their friendship that comes from Betty realizing Rita's trauma of not being able to remember her identity.

The romance is a gradual process, just like a heterosexual romance you'd see in any other movie, including some of Lynch's other films. The romance between Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet, for example, isn't a whole lot different. Both meet up in the street and start as friends, bonding together as they get caught up in a mystery, eventually falling in love. Much like Betty and Rita they spend a lot of time together in public areas, sneaking into other people's houses, and discussing their case in a local restaurant. Mulholland Drive is a bit less direct in approaching the romantic aspect, but at its core the basic dynamics between the characters isn't that much different. One could even argue that a similar thing happens between James Hurley and Donna Hayward in Twin Peaks.

Another thing that I think is curious about this particular relationship is that the fact that they're lesbians is not itself a problem. There is never any point in the film where a character is explicitly shown to have issues with same-sex relationships, nor is it established that society as a whole will reject them for it. The closest thing they have to any such issues is when Camilla/Rita tells Diane/Betty "we should stop doing that" and even then it sounds more like an affair with a married woman than anything to do with the fact that they're both the same gender.

In particular, they have to deal with the simple pain of heartbreak, especially Diane/Betty, who watches her lover cheat on her with a man (it's suggested that she is engaging in sex with men to get ahead in the business) and for that matter another woman. Diane, being the young and reckless woman she is, has trouble coping with Rita's affairs the same way any young man or woman might have trouble seeing their lover with someone else. In theory you could swap out either of them with a man and not change much story-wise.

Quite simply, in the end being in a gay relationship really isn't that much different from a straight one, you still have all the same problems even without any exterior pressure. Blue Velvet also touched on similar issues by way of Jeffrey being roped into an affair with Dorothy Vallens, although that one did not end with Sandy contemplating his assassination. In that sense, I think Mulholland Drive is a solid look at a gay couple in that the fact that they are gay is really not that big an issue, at least not story-wise. The "story", if you can call it that, is really about the darker side of Hollywood's filmmaking scene, it just happens to be experienced through the eyes of two women who happen to be gay.

Free Action Movie Week: Eraser

I think it's best to start this review by clearing up that you do NOT under any circumstances want to confuse this movie with David Lynch's Eraserhead. One is a crazy action film and the other is a messed-up surrealist film with lots of disturbing imagery. For day two of my Free Action Movie Week, I'm looking at the action film, Eraser, another one I stumbled across among the free movies. It tied with Mystery Men in terms of vote numbers, but a coin toss ultimately placed this as the second film I'd be looking at.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is U.S. Marshal John Kruger, who specializes in protecting key witnesses to serious crimes. To be more specific, he specializes in "erasing" people, as in he eliminates their identity and replaces it with a new one, taking away their past to protect their future. His latest case involves a witness named Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams) who has information about the illegal activities of the arms company she works for. Once the company is on to her involvement, Kruger has to keep her hidden long enough to testify in court,

Unfortunately, matters are complicated when Kruger discovers his buddy Robert DeGeurin (James Caan) is a mole working with a corrupt senator to make lots of money off of selling some brand new and extremely dangerous weapons. Kruger is subsequently framed for the murder of a fellow cop and set up as the mole. It becomes a race against time as Kruger and Lee have to rely on themselves and whatever help they can get from past witnesses as they try to clear their names and expose the real villains. It's a bit like a slightly more elaborate version of Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet.

This is a fun movie as you can expect from a Schwarzenegger action film, but I'm not sure this is the best I've seen of his work. I honestly felt Schwarzenegger wasn't used to his full potential, and a lot of what made him so enjoyable was missing. For instance, why was it that out of everybody in the cast he was the only person that didn't include any one-liners in his action scenes, at least not until the last few minutes? Vanessa Williams does a decent job with her role, but I felt like I would have wanted to see more of her in action. She spends a lot of time having to be protected and gets a few moments but in general has to hide behind Schwarzenegger. I honestly felt like she could have been a more enjoyable character if perhaps she had grown into more of an action heroine by the end.

That said, the action is still plenty of fun, if a bit over the top. The fact that the villains are working with an arms company allow for the designs of some funny-looking weapons used. James Caan makes an intimidating enough villain once he finally reveals himself, so there is definitely a sense of satisfaction when he is finally defeated, and his interactions with the other villains are solid enough. The fact that they are as dangerous as they are does allow for some tense moments and keeps you wanting to know how the heroes are going to get out of each mess they find themselves in.

The other performance I found I enjoyed was Robert Pastorelli's appearance as Johnny Casteleone, a previous witness who assists Kruger out of a desire to repay him for his help. This character adds a nice bit of comic relief to the film, such as when he has to infiltrate the villains' headquarters disguised as a pizza delivery boy. If I were to point out any faults here it would be with his cousin Tony Two-Toes and his friends. These characters are enjoyable enough on screen, but they do seem to come out of nowhere during the climax to help Schwarzenegger take on the bad guys. I think they could have benefited from some earlier appearances just so that we know who they are when they join in on the action.

The action scenes themselves are for the most part very good, though there are a few that fall short. There is one scene where a brawl happens in the reptile exhibit of a zoo, which culminates in several villains being eaten by some very fake-looking computer generated alligators. This part put me off on a few levels, as outside the terrible effects I was left wondering why animals that by this point would be used to being taken care of by people would immediately see them as food (as well as why the villains didn't just use the guns they obviously had to avoid them). The alligators also seemed to go at them pretty quickly, which raises more than a few questions about how poorly maintained this zoo is if they're THAT hungry. Fortunately, this one scene doesn't last very long and the rest of the action works okay.

Ultimately, Eraser isn't exactly the greatest action film I've covered so far but it is still an enjoyable little movie. It's got a few little problems and there is that one scene that might pull you out, but otherwise it's not too bad. It's a straight forward enough film with some creative action scenes and enough tension to keep you interested, so if you enjoy a good Arnold Schwarzenegger film it might be worth checking out.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Free Action Movie Week: Mystery Men

A few weeks ago I announced my plans for Free Action Movie Week in response to receiving a ton of free movies after hanging out with some other bloggers. The idea was pretty simple, I presented you a list of the action movies I obtained and asked you which ones you wanted to see me review. After I finished my final exam, I tallied up the results and organized a schedule so that between now and Friday I'm going to do one film each day going from least to most popular. I'd like to thank those people who voted.

There were films tied with two votes and I had to select which one to do first. In the end I decided through a simple coin toss. The second one you'll hear about tomorrow, the one that won was Mystery Men, a strange but fun parody of superhero movies. I actually had seen it once as a kid, though I barely remembered any of it outside of a handful of scenes and vague recollections some of the characters'... odd abilities. When that blogger told us to "pilfer" his bag of DVDs and I found a copy, I thought it might be fun to see again. I also knew that this film could easily have gone wrong, with its bizarre setup and over-the-top structure, but it actually works in a strange sort of way.

The action takes place in "Champion City", a location filled with wannabe superheroes. The only one who seems to actually be capable of getting anything done is "Captain Amazing" (Greg Kinnear), a superhero who has done such a great job that the city is starting to run out of supervillains. He gets desperate for some public attention and, using his completely inconspicuous secret identity, decides to have villain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) released from the psychiatric ward. Unfortunately it backfires when said villain manages to capture him and devises a sinister plan for global domination.

Meanwhile, a trio of unsuccessful superheroes try to fight crime on their own, all with their own questionable "powers" if you can call it that. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) is specialized in using a shovel, normally to hit people on the head. The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) is specialized in throwing forks, but keeps confusing everyone by the lack of blue in his costume and his fake English accent (apparently it makes sense if you know British history). Finally, Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) has the superpower of getting really angry... and that's it. The three of them quickly realize it's up to them to rescue Captain Amazing and save the day.

Naturally, this dynamic trio has to find a bunch of other heroes to assist them. First they take on "Invisible Boy" (Kel Mitchell) who as his name implies can turn invisible... but only when nobody is looking at him. Also joining in is "Spleen" (Paul Reubens) who specializes in knocking people out with extreme flatulence. After a disastrous recruitment drive they manage to obtain assistance from "The Bowler" (Janeane Garofalo), the first person in the team who actually has a useful skill as well as some... unusual issues with her father. Finally rounding out the cast is "Sphinx" (Wes Studi) whose powers include slicing guns in half with his mind... and being mysterious.

I actually thought the film's interpretation of life as a superhero was an interesting one. Captain Amazing is this big-shot celebrity who basically sells himself out as a hero, complete with a publicist. We see him endorsing products and getting sponsors (which he displays all over his costume making it look more like he should be on a racetrack). It makes a certain degree of sense after all, even if his secret identity isn't publicly known. He's like your typical Batman or Superman hero taken to their logical extreme. In any other film, he'd be the hero, but instead we focus on, as the Shoveler puts it, "the other guys".

After all, in a world where superheroes not only exist and are respected, would there not also people who try to imitate them? The fact that we get to see this side, showing superheroes with varying degrees of uselessness (among the rejected superheroes are "The Waffler", who hits people with a waffle iron; and "Ballet Man" who doesn't seem to do much more than dance around). This is a side to superheroics you don't normally see in other films with maybe a partial exception featured in The Incredibles. I actually liked seeing this aspect of the world, and the filmmakers certainly came up with a variety of creatively absurd skills.

Aside from all the action, I did actually find the characters all had their own interesting elements that made them compelling. Everyone did a thorough performance with their role, giving each of the "Mystery Men" their own unique personality that made them easy to identify. They also all had a role of some sort to play. It never felt like any one character didn't belong, since as strange as their powers get everybody had something to contribute. Yes, even the guy who could only be invisible as long as nobody was looking manages to find an unexpected use for his power.

Mystery Men, despite technically being a misnomer (as there is one girl among them and only one is actually "mysterious") is a lot of fun. It's a very unusual superhero film with a lot of weird but enjoyable characters that will keep you going right up until the grand finale. The bizarre over-the-top world actually adds quite a bit to the tone of the film and the writers managed to take full advantage of it. Check it out, you'll be in for an enjoyable (if at times odd) treat.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

2014 Blindspot Challenge: White Hunter, Black Heart

I'll be honest right off the bad, and say that I had mixed feelings about this one. It's a bit hard to judge one way or the other and I'm not sure I went out fully understanding what Eastwood was going for. It's one of those films where the good things are really good, but it can be difficult overcome some of the problems. It's compelling enough story-wise but it has some issues that I felt got in the way. We'll get into those in more detail later, but first I'll go over the basic premise.

John Huston Wilson (Clint Eastwood) is a reknowned movie director who takes on a new project titled The African Queen Trader. He makes a deal with screenwriter Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to develop this idea. He even manages to get actors Katherine Hepburn Kay Gibson (Marisa Berenson) and Humphrey Bogart Phil Duncan (Richard Vanstone) to star as the leads. Wilson makes a deal with his producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza), insisting that the entire picture must be shot on location in Africa, but it seems he has something else on his mind. He has a strange interest in embarking on a safari and killing an elephant. His interest becomes an obsession as it interferes with the production of the film, much to the frustration of the cast and crew.

Yeah, you can tell pretty quickly where I started to feel a bit confused about what Eastwood was going for. The whole thing is just a thinly-disguised account of the production difficulties faced by John Huston's The African Queen. The movie doesn't even try to be subtle about what it is really depicting, even going as far as to have Wilson and Verrill reading out parts of the script almost exactly as they appear in Huston's movie. What puzzled me was that it didn't seem to be intended as a straight dramatization with all the attempts to cover up the fact that it was based on real events, but the general lack of subtlety didn't really make it work as a fictionalized account.

I think it would have made more sense if Eastwood had either opted to tell it as a true story with the original names or make a completely fictional narrative that drew inspiration from the production of The African Queen. White Hunter, Black Heart seems to be somewhere in the middle, and so I'm not entirely sure what Eastwood was going for. I don't know the full story behind its production so it may be possible that for whatever reason Clint was unable to use the actual names of the people involved, but then it makes it a bit jarring when it is so blatantly obvious who they are supposed to be based on.

The other thing that puzzled me was the ending. I don't normally mind open endings but this one seemed a bit too abrupt for me. I was actually surprised when the ending happened, and found myself wondering "is that really it?" I'll give it credit for not being too slow but I honestly felt like there should have been something more there. I don't know what, but it just felt like the movie ended way too soon. I don't normally say this, but there really should have been more movie after that final scene.

That said, White Hunter, Black Heart isn't all a bad movie and does have some redeeming qualities. As somewhat confusingly unsubtle as the plot is, it moves along at a solid pace. Every scene is just about the right length. It never gets too painfully slow or confusingly fast. Because of this I found the story still managed to keep me interested on some level and willing to see what happened next. There's also lots of great scenery and a variety of different environments for the characters to experience.

The whole cast also does a very good job in their performances, and their interactions are always solid. Clint even does manage to add a certain bit of emotional depth to his character, and Wilson does have a compelling relationship with Verrill, though more interesting is his connection with Kivu (Boy Mathias Chuma), an African hunter with whom he develops a close friendship. Considering the 1950's timeframe (I think, they didn't specify an exact year) I thought it was a neat touch to include an interracial friendship in this kind of story.

Ultimately, with this film I guess it's a matter of taste. It's hard to make a judgement call on this one. The stuff that's good is really good, but it's also hard to get over some of the problems. I'm still not sure I fully understand what Clint intended with the movie, and  the fact that it is so jarringly unsubtle about what events inspired it but doesn't seem to want to fully acknowledge them makes it even stranger. I feel like it might have worked better if the movie had been more fictional in nature, or didn't pretend it wasn't inspired by something that really happened. I'd say you should check it out, then maybe you can decide for yourself.

This was my final entry for Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series of 2014. I may have joined in late, having started my own list in June, but it's been fun participating. Even with only seven movies on my list, it's given me the chance to watch a number of movies I've been putting off. Already I've got my list for 2015 with an even greater selection, and I plan to start as soon as January rolls around. I'm looking forward to another year of this action, and hopefully I can see all twelve movies this time round.

Friday, 12 December 2014

1999: A Sexual Odyssey

I've been doing a lot of articles about action movies lately, so I think it's time we shift gears and look at something a bit different. It's the Holiday season, and that's the time of year when lots of things start happening. It's that time when stores become battlefields, the shows you actually want to watch get taken off the air in favor of whatever cheap Christmas specials their networks can get the rights to, and blizzards come in to make sure you can't leave your house. Naturally, it makes sense to discuss a holiday film, and there are many great classics. It's a Wonderful Life is a great movie, and maybe this year I'll finally get to see White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

Still, Christmas movies can be a bit formulaic. They're generally very upbeat, light-hearted films. Some might be heavier than others but in most cases things turn out okay in the end. They're also in most cases family films. Perhaps you're a bit sick of this kind of thing. Far too many movies to count approach Christmas in the form of a quirky comedy or a light-hearted drama about family relations. We need something different, and there are a handful of movies that deliver. The Lion in Winter is a Christmas movie that centers around several characters, most of them members of the British Royal Family, scheming against each other and stabbing each other in the back. Die Hard is an action movie that happens to take place around Christmas. You could also read H.P. Lovecraft's The Festival if you like your Christmas stories with a dash of cosmic horror.

But perhaps that's not good enough for you. Maybe we need something more adult, more sexual in nature. Well it should only make sense for such a film to be made by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Stanley Kubrick. Working from a novella titled Traumnovelle, Kubrick made quite possibly one of the strangest and most arousing Christmas films ever conceived by a human being. It is a bizarre film to say the least, with sexual themes, scenes filled to the brim with nudity, a haunting orgy sequence, and Tom Cruise actually displaying some talent as an actor. The result was his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut.

I suspect there may be some influence from David Lynch on this film. Kubrick and Lynch had something of a mutual respect for each other's work. Lynch has on multiple times voiced his admiration for Kubrick's work, particularly Lolita, though that was probably not the only film that influenced him (it doesn't seem too far-fetched to assume Lynch borrowed some ideas from A Clockwork Orange when he was making Blue Velvet). Likewise, Lynch has an anecdote in his biography Catching the Big Fish where he mentions an incident that happened while he was making The Elephant Man.

According to Lynch, he was approached by a couple of men who had recently met Kubrick, and were invited to his house to see his "favorite film". Lynch was naturally excited when he learned that Kubrick's favorite film turned out to be Eraserhead. Eyes Wide Shut certainly has that dream-like atmosphere that characterizes Lynch's movies, and even some similar ideas to Blue Velvet in the idea of a seemingly ideal world that is revealed to have a hidden darker side. Really, it's a shame the two of them never actually met, since a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch could have been amazing.

I have this cynical theory that true love is impossible. "Love" is just something we constructed to give ourselves hope in our miserable lives. There is no such thing as "love" in any sense, or is there? What does it mean to be in love? Is it merely a matter of sexual interest, or is it something far more? These questions are raised in Eyes Wide Shut, and it seems to very much personify my own theory.

William "Bill" Harford (Tom Cruise) is a doctor in New York, married to a former art museum curator named Alice (Nicole Kidman) and together they've had a daughter, Helena (Madison Eginton). They claim to love each other, but from the opening scene it already seems that there is a certain strain in their relationship. In the movies, marriage is often depicted as a romantic and glamorous experience, complete with a "happily ever after". Well, here we get to see the aftermath of that "happy ending", which turns out to be very mundane.

The first time we see Alice (not including the opening shot of her taking off her clothes) is when she's sitting on the toilet and presumably defecating. Most Hollywood films would skip this part, and generally they tend to stay out of the bathroom unless it's essential to the plot. The audience is ordinarily expected to infer that the characters occasionally have to relieve their bowels but just do it off-screen in between key moments of the film. Stanley Kubrick was not like other Hollywood filmmakers, and instead decides to show us this moment in great detail. It doesn't even affect the story, Alice sitting on the toilet is just one of many things that happen in this scene, but the fact that Kubrick shows her seated, as well as wiping her anus and washing her hands helps to show just how dull their relationship can be.

At the party, the relationship between Bill and Alice is further brought into question. They claim to be happy together, but already some of their sexual urges are coming around. Alice gets roped into a dance with an elegantly dressed but seemingly perverted Hungarian. From the moment he drinks from her glass it is clear that this man has nothing but sex on his mind. Meanwhile Bill gets called upstairs after an emergency. It seems that his friend Dr. Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) has been sneaking off from the party to have sex with a local prostitute in the bathroom. We even see him desperately tryingto put his pants back on as fast as he can . Said prostitute, who we learn is named Mandy (Julienne Davis), took a "speedball" (a mixture of heroine with cocaine) and overdosed. Bill is able to save her, and tries to encourage her to stop taking drugs.

Back at the party, Bill sees his wife dancing with another man. Later the two of them begin having sex, ironically while smoking pot despite the events of the previous scene. What starts off as a romantic moment quickly erupts into a confusing argument in which neither side is thinking straight and aren't entirely sure what they're disputing. Things get heated and it leads to Alice confessing that she has experienced sexual fantasies about a guy she saw at a hotel this one time. This begins a recurring image throughout the rest of the movie, in which Bill is haunted by images of what his wife's fantasies might look like. As the story progresses these images become more explicit, with the man gradually stripping his clothes and climbing on top of Alice.

The tension is somewhat mediated when they are interrupted by a phone call and Bill is informed that one of his patients has just died. He goes to his house and meets the patient's daughter, who is waiting for her boyfriend. She is understandably grief-stricken and not thinking entirely straight, which leads to her acting on her own sexual impulses. Bill tries to resist, and leaves when her boyfriend arrives, but he is affected by the experience. His sexual urges are getting out of control, and he finds himself desiring some form of experience. It doesn't even need to be with his wife, in fact because of how haunted he is by her confession perhaps he'd rather it not be. He simply tries to find something.

At this point, it starts to become clear that Bill's sexual urges aren't something he can control. They aren't so much a conscious decision on his part as they are instinct, human nature. He has no control over his own body's desires. He isn't driven by any form of love or even attraction to other women. He is simply driven by a biological process.

Enter Domino, a prostitute who intercepts and seduces the vulnerable Bill on the streets. She provides a means to satisfy Bill's urges, inviting him into her apartment for sex. He almost goes through with it as well, agreeing to a very large fee. The two of them begin to kiss before he gets a phone call from his wife. He assures her that everything is fine and has a moment of realization, breaking off the encounter with Domino but showing his appreciation for her efforts by paying her anyway.

Bill then encounters his old friend Nick Nightingale from medical school, now working as a pianist. He arrives at a club where Nick was performing just in time to see the band finish their set, but spends some time with his friend. The two take some time to catch up before Nick gets pulled away to a mysterious gig. According to him it always happens at 2:00 A.M. in a different location, and he has to play blindfolded. Nick also mentions that the last time he played the blindfold wasn't put on properly and he glimpsed something really strange. Bill finds himself interested in this party, but also learns that everyone who attends is costumed and masked, so he has to find one.

To accomplish this end, Bill visits Rainbow Costumes, run by Mr. Milich (Rade Serbedzija), a totally unsuspicious businessman who is most definitely not involved with any shady business operations. Milich agrees to find Bill a costume and mask in exchange for a higher than normal fee, but they are disrupted by another strange encounter. It seems Milich's daughter (Leelee Sobieski) invited two Japanese businessmen over for sex. She is every bit as sexually active as Bill is, possibly even more. Milich begins yelling at the two men, telling them that they will have to answer to the police. Meanwhile, his daughter is displaying a curious attraction towards Bill as she hides behind him, to the point where they almost look like they are about to kiss. This is especially curious given she is clearly underage, though the businessmen insist that she invited them which raises a few odd questions.

Now that he has the mask and a costume, Bill can attend to the party. Having learned the password from Nick he is able to get through the gate and arrives at a large mansion only to find something really odd. What we have is a haunting sequence involving a bizarre sex-themed masquerade party. Bill puts on his mask and begins wandering around, and witnesses some kind of ritualistic event in progress.

The "party", if you can call it that, includes a man in a mask and a red cloak walking in a circle, surrounded by naked women in masks. They then proceed to kiss each other, providing a somewhat twisted demonstration of how men are aroused by seeing two women have sex. At this party, it seems anyone can have sex with anybody, anonymously. It's very ritualistic, and almost feels like some sort of cult. They even have the mysterious red-cloaked figure chanting something in another language, possibly Latin.

The fact that every single person is masked, right down to the guy that takes Bill's coat, makes this part especially unnerving. With two exceptions, we never learn the true identities of any of the men and women behind the masks (though it's hinted that many of them are people of power who would not want to be seen in such an environment). We hear the voices of characters but their faces remain static. Some of them remain blank, others have disturbing expressions (there's one guy who looks like he's screaming). Either way, the inability of the actors to express themselves visually makes it harder to tell anyone's motives.

Bill's presence manages to draw the attention of one couple, a man with a mask designed with a tricorn hat, and a woman wearing a jester's mask. We never find out for certain who these people are. We never even hear them speak, and with the masks it is impossible to discern their expressions. What is clear is that they have seen Bill, and acknowledge him silently with a simple nod. There is one possibility of who one of them might be, but I have a different idea about where he fits in. We'll discuss that in more detail later.

At this party, Bill witnesses sex in progress. We never learn quite how it operates, but appears to be based on a group of female participants selecting men with whom to engage in sexual intercourse. Whether the people at the party take turns or simply enjoy watching people have sex is not clear. All that seems to be clear is that intercourse with anyone is fair game (Frank Booth and Alex DeLarge would enjoy this). The whole thing seems rather alien, otherworldly even.

Any uneasiness the audience might be feeling upon witnessing this ritual seems to be enforced when a mysterious woman tries to stop Bill from participating. She keeps telling him it is dangerous and he needs to get out, but refuses to say way. From what she describes, these people don't take kindly to uninvited guests. At one point Bill even tries to remove her mask, which she refuses to let him do, almost as if it is considered a crime to expose your face in the house.

Finally, Bill is confronted by a servant who claims the driver of his taxi wants to see him, but instead of being led to the gate he is brought back into the large room and confronted by the red-cloaked man (because he does not have a name, I shall identify him as the "Inquisitor" for the purposes of this article). The Inquisitor asks Bill for the password, but claims there is a second one which Bill was not told about. Bill is then told to remove his mask, exposing him to the intimidating crowd. The fact that he remains the only character in this entire sequence whose face is seen in the mansion makes him feel more like an outsider.

The Inquisitor delivers a speech that seems to imply he has something horrifying in mind for Bill. It's suggested that Bill may have ended up dead, but he is told oddly enough to "take off his clothes". It almost seems that forced sex was part of the plan. In other words, from what Bill is told, it sounds as though the Inquisitor intended him to be raped. Considering Bill has been searching for some form of "sexual encounter", the Inquisitor could therefore be seen as technically granting his wish in the form of an ironic punishment for intruding on the party.

Before any kind of forced intercourse can happen, the woman who tried to warn Bill stands up and claims herself as a "sacrifice". Precisely how this works is not clear, though from what is described it sounds as though she will die. Bill is released, although not without warning to keep quiet about everything he has seen and experienced. It's hard to tell whether the threats are genuine or purely psychological, but either way it is disturbing. Bill is finally able to leave, and returns home. He finds his wife asleep, and laughing. When she wakes up she claims that she actually had a nightmare in which she had sex with a number of men while Bill was watching.

The next day, the first thing Bill does is find Nick's hotel, and arrives only to learn that his friend has checked out. According to the clerk, Nick was scared, and being escorted by two very large men. He tried to pass the clerk an envelope but it was intercepted. The obvious implication is that Nick was killed to prevent him from talking about the party.

His next stop is the costume shop, where he tries to return the costume. Strangely enough, the mask seems to have been misplaced, though Milich agrees to put it on Bill's tab. His daughter emerges, with both the Japanese businessmen, who seem to suddenly be on good terms with Milich. Bill is confused, as is the audience, based on Milich's reaction to their presence when we first saw him. He claims that "other arrangements" were made, ones that apparently involved him selling his own daughter into prostitution. He shows no remorse for allowing a minor to be treated this way, and even offers Bill "other services" besides costumes, which is implied to include sex with his daughter.

Bill then decides to visit Domino's apartment, arriving with a gift for her. Domino is nowhere to be found, but he is invited in by her roommate. The two flirt with each other but she begins to open up about Domino's whereabouts. It turns out she got a blood test that registered her as HIV positive, or to put it more simply, Domino had AIDS. Seeing as that virus is sexually transmitted, Bill was nearly in a position to receive AIDS himself, and might of had Alice not called him when she did.

Later on, Bill obtains a newspaper while trying to evade someone who seems to be following him. The paper in question refers to the death of a beauty queen. When Bill finds her body, he recognizes her as Mandy, the prostitute he saved at Ziegler's party. This in turn leads to a new development that comes when Bill receives a call telling him Ziegler wants to see him.

Ziegler is very calm and casual when Bill arrives, offering him a drink and even inviting him to join in a game of pool. Eventually, Ziegler gets down to business and reveals why he really wanted to talk. It turns out he knows about everything that Bill has been through. He was at the mansion. The question is where. Since everyone was cloaked and masked we can't really say, but he said he was watching Bill. The most obvious candidate is the mysterious tricorn-masked figure who spotted Bill immediately, but I have another, slightly more interesting theory.

The idea that I propose is that Ziegler was in fact the Inquisitor, not just present at the party but actually running it. He claims to have seen "everything", which would make sense as the leader, and of all the people in this group the leader would be the one most likely to know about its members. After all, everybody is masked, but Ziegler seems to know their identities. As he puts it, "I'm not going to tell you their names, but if I told you I don't think you'd sleep so easy". It sounds as though a lot of the people are politicians or people who otherwise would not want to be seen in this kind of environment. Who else but the leader would know this information? Also, why would any one member of such a secret group of people risk talking about it outside the party without fear of consequences? Unless they were the leader and thus had no one to answer to.

Ziegler claims that the whole thing was staged, simply meant to scare Bill into keeping quiet. According to him, Bill's friend was taken from his hotel but simply put on a plane to Seattle, and while Mandy was the mysterious woman who "sacrificed" herself for Bill, that was all just for show, and her death afterwards was a mere coincidence. Bill remains unsure of it, as these explanations make sense. Nick never actually saw anything, so it's not like he would be able to tell anyone about what happened, and it was already established that Mandy was hooked on drugs. On the other hand, from what we have seen, it might not be unreasonable to assume that Ziegler just wants to put Bill's mind at ease and cover up what really happened.

That evening, Bill returns home to find Alice sleeping, with the mask next to her. The obvious assumption is that Alice found the mask and put on Bill's pillow as a way of confronting him, but in a Stanley Kubrick film you should never take anything at face value. If you pay attention, the mask is never actually touched by any of the characters during the scene, and it may not actually be there. For one thing Alice doesn't seem the kind of person who would be comfortable sleeping next to a mask like that. The mask here is used more as a symbol of Bill's guilt over his actions during the film, and how it will haunt him for the rest of his life. Seeing this reminder finally causes him to break down and confess to Alice.

In the following scene, Bill has told Alice everything that happened to him, possibly even including the weird sex party he attended. Once he has opened up, it allows them to finally reconcile. Their marriage seems to be back on track, and the film ends on an optimistic note, but this is hardly a "happily ever after" situation. Bill and Alice may have gotten through this situation, but that is not the end of the road for them. It's very likely that they will have other problems in the future, ones that will force them once again to question whether they truly love each other.

In the end, love was never a driving force behind anything. Everyone in Eyes Wide Shut is driven purely by sexual urges, just as it is in all of us. Apart from Helena, there was not a single character in the film that was not sexually active, male or female. Almost every single person was driven by a desire for some sort of sexual experience, with the only thing that changed being how they got it. Emotions had nothing to do with it. Everyone is driven by a biological desire for sexual interaction, and ultimately it seems that there is no such thing as true undying love.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies That Feature a Family Secret

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Movies featuring some kind of family secret. The first that springs to mind is of course H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but since I haven't seen either of the feature adaptations (Dagon and the somewhat oddly-named Cthulhu) I'm not entirely sure if they preserve that aspect of the original story. Still, I had to find three movies that featured some form of family secret. This one was a bit of a challenge, since it depends on what you define a "family secret" as. With each I'll naturally have to make sure to explain where that part of the story fits in.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

The family secret in this one is about as simple as you can get: a young man discovers his entire family has a long-running history of mental illness. His two "kindly" grandmothers are in fact psychotic killers who regularly invite men in, poison them with their wine, and then hide the bodies in the basement. His brother, meanwhile, is under the delusion that he is Theodore Roosevelt. He has the responsibility to "bury Yellow Fever victims in the Panama Canal" (or more accurately, dispose of the bodies of his grandmothers' murder victims in the basement), and has a habit of yelling "CHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGEEE" every time he has to go upstairs. Cary Grant himself almost snaps in the process of trying to stay sane upon realizing all these insane things about his family.

Total Recall (1990)

This strange but fun interpretation of Philip K. Dick's short story We can Remember it for you Wholesale is a bit of a stretch but it does sort of have a family secret. The family secret of course is... that the family doesn't exist. Douglas Quaid seems to be an ordinary construction worker with a loving wife, but he keeps having dreams about Mars and decides to get artificially implanted memories about going there; with the added element of being a secret agent to make things more exciting. Unfortunately, that backfires when it turns out he may have actually been a secret agent on Mars, leading to a series of exciting chases and crazy over-the-top action scenes.

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick's final film sees a family nearly torn apart by keeping secrets from each other. First we have Nicole Kidman's confession regarding her strange sexual fantasies towards a man she never met. This ends up inspiring Tom Cruise to go on a strange odyssey during the night, all while keeping it hidden from his wife. After a few failed attempts to have a sexual encounter that culminate in Cruise accidentally attending a disturbing party in which everyone is dressed ominously in robes and masks, he finally breaks down and confesses everything. Once their secrets are out they are able to get their relationship back on track.

Sarah Connor and the Development of an Action Heroine

The iconic character of Sarah Connor, originally played by Linda Hamilton, was first introduced through James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator and its 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The story of The Terminator centered on Sarah being relentlessly pursued by a human-looking machine known as the T-800 (the titular “Terminator", played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) that has been sent back in time to kill her. Seven years later, a sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released, also directed by Cameron, which took the story into several new directions.

In the sequel, audiences were taken by surprise when the Terminator that had been such an effective antagonist in the first film was re-introduced as one of the heroes. Instead, a new, far more dangerous terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) appears as the villain, this time sent to kill Sarah’s son John Connor (Edward Furlong). In order to survive and protect the future, Sarah must undergo a huge transformation in character. She begins the first movie as a young college student making a living as a waitress and evolves into a self-reliant musclebound hardbodied heroine by the end of the sequel.

At first Sarah Connor is a friendly individual who lives with her college roommate Ginger. She has no immediate aspirations in her life and is struggling to find some form of meaning. Her helplessness is made clear when she encounters what she believes to be a stalker (actually Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn, who has been sent from the future to protect her from the Terminator) and immediately calls the police. When she first encounters the T-800 at the nightclub Technoir, she can only stare helplessly as it aims its laser-sighted pistol towards her forehead.

Sarah only survives this encounter due to Kyle’s interference. Much of the rest of the movie centers on the two of them running away from the T-800, and Sarah is constantly looking for protection. During this time, Sarah is forced to become more self-reliant as everybody she depends on is killed. Even after she stops, faces, and destroys the Terminator, she is still shown to be in a panicked state of mind. While Sarah may be unsettled by her experiences with the Terminator, this final confrontation begins a major shift in her personality which is developed much further in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

In the second film, Sarah becomes something more closely resembling a middle-ground between the wise-guy action heroes of the 90’s, such John McClane in Die Hard, and the hardbodied action heroes of the 80's such as Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II. This becomes evident during the climax in which Sarah is shot in the leg and later impaled through the shoulder. Much like the wise-guy heroes of the 90’s she does manage to show pain. She cries out as the T-1000 slowly runs a massive rod through her shoulder and she is visibly limping afterwards (she had also been shot shortly before that).

What puts her on a level with the hardbodied heroes is that the despite the obvious agony of her wounds, she keeps getting up and fighting. Even during that scene where she is impaled, Sarah never gives into the T-1000's simple demand: "Call John". Linda Hamilton’s co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, known for playing hardbodied heroes and in this case a literal example, actually endures far more physical harm than Sarah. She gets hurt, but The T-800 gets an arm ripped off, loses an eye, and is temporarily shut down before finally being lowered into a vat of molten steel. This makes Sarah Connor more of a hardbodied hero than the literal hardbodied hero.

In Terminator 2 Sarah’s body is used as a far greater spectacle than that of the T-800. One notable aspect of the hardbodied action heroes of the 1980’s was their muscular display. Stallone made this image famous with the Rambo films and Schwarzenegger himself has done this numerous times in his earlier action films like Commando.  It's a trademark of the genre for the lead male actor to have few clothes on by the end in order to allow them to display their impressive muscular body, but that is not quite what happens in Terminator 2.

Instead, Schwarzenegger spends most of the film with shirts and jackets and much of the bodily spectacle focuses on the abuse he takes rather than on his muscles. By contrast, the majority of Sarah’s wardrobe throughout the film wholly exposes her muscles and puts them on display for the viewer. This also deviates from her wardrobe in The Terminator, where the more conservatively dressed Sarah Connor was less exposed. Muscular display has traditionally been associated with men, which makes Sarah’s character appear more visually striking.

In a similar vain to the hardbodied action films of the 80’s and even the urban vigilante films of the 70’s such as Dirty Harry, weapons are heavily romanticized in both Terminator films. In The Terminator, numerous characters are equipped with large guns, particularly the T-800 and Kyle Reese, whose weapons become an extension of their character. At the same time, Sarah never holds onto a gun until the final scene in The Terminator, where her handling a revolver is used as a visual indication of her growth as a character. By the start of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah is far more comfortable around firearms, to the point where she has an entire cache containing a huge array of weapons. This leads to a development where Sarah herself starts to become more like the Terminator she had previously fled.

The parallels between Sarah and the T-800 as seen in the first film become especially clear in one scene of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. This scene happens right after Sarah has learned of the work of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), whose programs later ultimately led to the creation of Skynet and, though indirectly, both the T-800 and T-1000. She decides to kill him in an effort to prevent the apocalyptic future from being realized. The scene begins with Miles in his home working on a program when a red dot appears on his back, quickly calling to mind the T-800 aiming its laser-sighted pistol at Sarah Connor’s forehead in The Terminator.

Unlike Sarah, Dyson is not aware of her presence nor is there anyone to save him. A close-up reveals Sarah outside the house, coldly looking through the scope of an assault rifle, and her finger wrapping around the trigger. In another close-up, Miles bends down after his son accidentally drives a remote-controlled monster truck into his foot, just as Sarah fires. The next close-up shows Miles sitting up in shock and staring out his window. Miles’ reaction is followed by another close-up of Sarah, but this time with the camera almost facing her directly—literally staring down the barrel of her gun. When she begins firing she only stops once, in order to reload, before she runs out of ammunition.

When she is finally forced to discard her weapon, Sarah proceeds to draw a pistol and walk just as coldly towards the house. Miles stands, and she immediately begins to fire on him. She shoots three rounds before finally hitting him in the shoulder. What distinguishes her from the T-800 is that she still shows her humanity when she breaks down after confronting him directly, creating a parallel to the way in which the previously emotionless T-800 is now being humanized. This scene shows her full capability, but also emphasizes that she is not completely transformed by her experiences.

Having men attempt to protect Sarah is crucial to emphasizing the transition in her growth as a character. All three of the men who attempt to protect Sarah Connor (Kyle and two police officers) die over the course of the first movie. The establishment of law enforcement’s futility against the T-800 eliminates its status as a source of protection leaving Sarah Connor with no one to turn to except Kyle. The transition continues as Kyle is wounded while escaping from the Terminator. This forces Sarah to take on a more active role. Finally, Kyle’s death puts Sarah into a position where she has to rely exclusively on herself to survive by seizing an opportunity to crush the Terminator with a hydraulic press.

A similar situation also occurs in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. During the climax, the T-800 is temporarily disabled by the T-1000, putting Sarah into a position where she is unable to rely on its assistance. When the T-1000 threatens her son, Sarah is able to save John’s life. Similar to how Kyle saved her in The Terminator, Sarah manages to stall the T-1000 by shooting it multiple times with a shotgun. This fails to kill the T-1000, but does save her son’s life and puts the T-1000 into a vulnerable position. While it is not Sarah herself who ultimately destroys the T-1000, this particular action manages to buy time for the T-800 to reactivate and take the other terminator by surprise.

Sarah Connor goes through a very clear shift in personality over the course of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, going from a passive woman with everyday problems to an action heroine determined to avert the potential end of humanity. This is emphasized by a wide range of elements including her treatment of guns, her general appearance, her attitudes, and the role of the male characters. Across both films, Sarah develops into a more “masculine” figure reminiscent of the types of heroes traditionally played by men. While The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day were not the only action films of the period to introduce a strong-willed heroine in a leading role (The The Terminator was released between Alien and Aliens, the latter also by Cameron) they helped to popularize it and create a path for later action heroines.