Sunday, 1 March 2015

Blindspot: Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004)



Okay, this is a little bit of an embarrassment. My love for strong female characters and my numerous articles encouraging better depictions of women in film are practically the stuff of legend around the blogging community, second perhaps only to my equally-notorious hatred for the films of Jean-Luc Godard. I've written a multitude of articles about how women are represented in film, and a large number of my reviews make a point of highlighting strong female characters or female characters that I find don't live up to standard. I have also made clear my love for action movies, and in particular action heroines.

Everybody else talked about how great a movie Snowpiercer was, I was the only one with the nerve to admit that I had some concerns about its general lack of female characters; and that's just the tip of the iceberg. That's not even getting into my more controversial criticisms of Ghostbusters and Sean Connery's Bond films in the ways they treat their female characters, or the fact that I seem to have some sort of quota in place when it comes to television programming, also for strong female leads. I've even had to deal with a mountain of angry IMDB users because I criticized the movies Black Sea and Alien Outpost for choosing to have an all-male cast when there was no reason it was necessary.

How is it, then, that it took me this long to see the popular two-part film featuring one of the most iconic action heroines in cinematic history? The Bride ranks as one of the biggest names among action girls, right up there with Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Lara Croft, Xena, and Black Widow; and yet somehow I had failed to see Kill Bill before now. I should be ashamed of myself. It therefore made a perfect choice for my 2015 Blindspot List. Even more fitting is that I am doing this one now, seeing as I actually share my birthday (March 27) with Quentin Tarantino.

Uma Thurman stars as (*censored*), a former assassin who was also the victim of a massacre at her wedding, of which she was the only survivor. Four years later, this woman, known only as "The Bride" wakes up from a coma and, after dealing with a perverted orderly named Buck (Michael Bowen), begins planning her revenge against the people responsible for the massacre, led by a mysterious man simply known as "Bill". Tarantino's trademarks are all over this one, with the story being presented in anything but chronological order (similar to Pulp Fiction) and the frequent use of blood as a spectacle.

There is a lot I can see influenced Tarantino in the production of Kill Bill. The most obvious influence is the old Japanese samurai films such as those of Akira Kurosawa, but there are also elements of the martial arts film. More specifically, it appears to draw on the Wuxia style (also commonly nicknamed "Wi-Fu"), where the fight scenes are stylized and presented more as a dance, as is especially evident in the Bride's confrontation with Lucy Liu. There is also definitely a bit of the western mixed in for good measure, complete with desert landscapes and a cowboy character in the form of Michael Madsen as Budd.

This blending of different genres is also reflected in the various soundtracks employed by Tarantino, composed by RZA. Throughout the film, we get several pieces of music that fit a variety of different genres which normally would not be seen together. This includes tracks that sound like they would belong in a 70's blacksploitation movie, ones that should be in a martial arts film, and ones that actually sound like something Ennio Morricone would have composed for a Sergio Leone western (though Tarantino also uses the actual theme from A Fistful of Dollars in one scene). These changes in soundtrack create very different tones, fitting to the different environments encountered over the course of both installments.

Even the Bride herself has some elements of several prior action heroines before her. While she may be played by a Caucasian actress, her character arc is in some ways reminiscent of the heroines featured in 70's blacksploitation movies (to which Tarantino paid homage directly in his previous film, Jackie Brown), such as Foxy Brown. Much like the Bride, Foxy Brown (and many other heroines of blacksploitation cinema) is a woman who single-handedly takes on an entire gang in revenge for the murder of her boyfriend.


There is definitely a bit of Sarah Connor in there as well, particularly her Terminator 2 incarnation. Though the Bride does not show off her muscles as prominently (at least not in Volume 1), she does display a similar sense of determination. By Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah develops into something closer to a hardbodied heroine than the reluctant heroine we met in The Terminator. Part of what makes Sarah so admirable as a character is her persistence. While the films don't hide the pain of her wounds, she is still able to keep getting up and fighting.

The Bride has something similar, where she keeps on going even when it is obvious that she is in excruciating agony (as one can expect from getting slashed multiple times and bashed in the head by a spiked ball on a chain). She is tough but she has those odd moments that allow us to see that she is still human. She has emotions and weaknesses just like everyone else (she doe seem genuinely scared when Budd tries to bury her alive). Her maternal instincts displayed in Vol. 2 also call to mind Sarah Connor as well as Ellen Ripley in Aliens.


This kind of character also has its roots in the "wise-guy" hero, popularized by John McClane in Die Hard, to which the Bride also has some similarities. Though perhaps not as much as McClane, the Bride does go through moments in which she acts as though she isn't taking her situation entirely seriously (i.e. casually agreeing to have coffee with someone she intends to kill) which add a bit of comedic tension once in a while. All of these create an interesting experience to be sure, but then there is the rest of the cast.

If there is one thing Kill Bill can't be accused of being short on, it's strong female characters. In addition to the Bride herself, both films produce an interesting selection of equally tough female antagonists. In fact the women in Kill Bill arguably bring out the most interesting fight scenes while the few male villains are mostly dispatched quickly. In Vol. 1 we have a brief but... interesting confrontation with Vivia A. Fox as Vernita Green (which is disrupted by her daughter arriving from school, forcing her and the Bride to hide the fact that they were just trying to kill each other a moment ago), but the real treat is when the Bride starts going after O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) and her assortment of eccentric characters.

O-Ren herself is quite a remarkable character. Not only is she talented with a sword, but she is also smart (she manages to take command of several Japanese crime syndicates) and still has a strange sense of nobility to her work. It's also not hard to fall in love with her personal bodyguard, Gogo (), a psychotic schoolgirl who likes to fling around a spiked ball on a chain in a disturbingly playful fashion. Also on board is her lawyer, Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus), who is competent and tough in her own right, at least until she has her arm sliced clean off. Even the so-called "Crazy 88" (apparently there aren't actually 88 of them, the name just sounded cool) is of mixed gender if you look closely. In Vol. 2 we get another female villain, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), a one-eyed assassin who doesn't take crap from anyone male or female.


I've seen some great films come from Tarantino, and even the ones I didn't like (Inglorious Basterds) generally had something redeeming about them. This one continues show Tarantino's brilliance, as he never fails to amaze the viewer with a variety of crazy action scenes, characters, situations, and environments making every piece of the film seem a unique experience. The nonlinear structure also adds a strange sort of charm to the film, if in a disorienting kind of way similar to Pulp Fiction. I think there is a very good reason the Bride is often ranked as one of the greatest action heroines, because she is. She's right up there with Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley in terms of her competence and emotional depth. How have I not already seen this one?

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Going Off the Rails on a Crazy Train



Have you ever wondered what Unstoppable might have looked like if it was made in the 1980's? No? Well, too bad, because someone made it. Just replace engineers Chris Pine and Denzel Washington with convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, yardmaster Rosario Dawson with Kyle T. Heffner and T.K. Carter, and Kevin Dunn with Kenneth McMillan. Now throw in Rebecca De Mornay for added good measure, with a character who displays a promising introduction but ends up being underused and a random quote from Shakespeare at the end. What you now have is the plot for Andrey Konchalovskiy's 1985 disaster film Runaway Train.

Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Voight) is a convict in Alaska facing conditions that have aroused some curiosity. He is such a dangerous criminal that prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) has literally kept him welded into his cell for the past three years. After Ranken is ordered to stop treating Manny so inhumanely, he is released (somehow) and allowed to interact with other prisoners. Unfortunately, Ranken is so fed up with Manny that he wants to kill him, pulling dirty tricks like hiring inmates to provoke him so that the guards will have justification for using lethal force. Manny gets so frustrated he decides to escape, and reluctantly enlists the help of inmate Buck McGeehy to do so.

The plan goes off successfully, and both prisoners manage to escape undetected. After spending some time hiking through the freezing environment outside, they stumble across a railyard and sneak into a train consisting of four locomotives hoping to get to freedom. Unfortunately, the Engineer has a heart attack within moments of starting the train and dies, causing it to drive out of the yard with increasing speed. It also turns out that apparently a female railway worker, Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) had decided to take a nap in the train for some reason and she tries to help out. Meanwhile her misogynistic superiors Frank (Kyle T. Heffner), Dave (T.K. Carter), and Eddie (Kenneth McMillan) bicker about how to resolve the situation while their secretary Ruby (Stacy Pickren) stands around looking pretty and occasionally reacting to updates in the plot.

Runaway Train appears to be a product of the cycle of big-budget disaster movies that emerged in the 70's with such wonderful classics as Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno. While Runaway Train is definitely one of the better films of that cycle, it is still greatly flawed. There is some solid action in this one, and unlike The Towering Inferno one doesn't have to wait a whole hour just to see some of it. While the movie does take its time building up to the action, that actually does allow the viewer some time to get acquainted with the characters. Manny is actually somewhat likeable at times, and his partner Buck has his moments, although he can also be somewhat irritating as well.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Sara. Once she (finally) makes an appearance, literally an hour in, she starts off with a very promising introduction. We see her character in action on the train, performing stunts (even rescuing herself after nearly falling off the train), displaying self-reliance as she tries to figure out how to respond to the situation. When she finally meets the two convicts, she maintains a professional attitude that makes her seem like she could potentially be a strong character. Sadly, the movie fails to deliver on this front. While Sara is given a promising start, she quickly descends into adopting stereotypically "feminine" behavior, spending much of the film having to be comforted by the men and taking a sideline role even though she should know far more than either of the two men on board about how to deal with the problem.

"Why am I in this movie again?"

Outside of initially allowing the train to slow down, she doesn't even add much to the story. While I don't know if I would call the film outright sexist, seeing as it appears to have at least attempted to include a strong female lead, but there are definitely some concerns to be raised about its treatment of women. I personally would have wanted to see Sara take more of an active role in the story, maybe even participate in the action, but in the end it was mostly her sitting in the train with the two guys and them having to comfort her. The fact that Frank, a character we are apparently supposed to sympathize with, utters a lot of sexist remarks after finding out she is on board doesn't help.

However, it gets worse when we look at the only other major female character, Ruby. They at least tried to do something worthwhile with Sara (even if they failed miserably). With Ruby, there isn't even an unsuccessful attempt to give her character depth. Her role in the entire movie consists of standing around the Dave and Frank's office while looking pretty. They're not even subtle about it: her first appearance has her refusing to answer the phone because she's putting makeup on herself. It almost makes you wonder why she is even employed at the office to begin with, considering she seems to contribute nothing useful to the men. The only thing she is asked to do is to answer the phone (which she doesn't)... because the guy sitting right next to it is busy looking at nude pictures in a porn magazine.


Looking at Runaway Train in the context of the 1980's, it's not hard to see its influence on later directors like Tony Scott, who probably drew a lot from here when making Unstoppable (though both also owe something to the train-chase films of the silent era). There are many parallels of note, particularly evident in the scenes with Dave and Frank, the execution of which calls to mind Connie Hooper's persistence (only now with 80's computers) and her constant feuding with Galvin. Even the basic structure is in many ways very much the same outside of a slightly different setup and a few specific details. Still, Unstoppable is definitely the better of the two. It's funny how good movies often prove to be far better than the work that obviously inspired the people behind them.

Runaway Train is okay. As an action film it works insofar as it has some likable characters and moves at a decent enough pace to keep you invested in what's happening, but there are a lot of problems. It is certainly not the movie to look at if you want a strong female lead (though it might be a good lesson in what not to do when writing one), and it starts to get a bit confusing towards the end. For a better update on the train chase film you're far better just watching Tony Scott's Unstoppable, which actually does have a strong female lead and a more compelling story. That said, if you really must watch a film from the big budget disaster movie cycle of the 70's and 80's, there are far worse. Maybe I should just be glad they had the sense not to put Irwin Allen in charge of this one.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

So Fetch Friday: Embarrassing Anecdotes, Fandoms, and Misogynistic Idiots



I've been taking it easy this week. I just finished one paper and handed in the proposal for another. I know things are going to get chaotic in the next few weeks, though. Sooner or later I'm going to encounter exams and I know that there are more essays on the way. Still, enough of that. I have an embarrassing anecdote to share this week, which happened on Monday. I'd been seeing Mercenaries pop up on Netflix a lot, and was debating with myself over whether to watch it. I finally decided to give it a shot, though I didn't have very high expectations. I sat down in the basement to watch Mercenaries hoping it would at the very least be entertainingly bad.

So the movie begins in an odd way. I noticed that the women prominently featured on the cover and posters for the film were nowhere to be seen. My logical assumption was that they just came later. Even more odd was when they introduced a villain who was explicitly stated to be male and hired an all-male group of mercenaries. I came to a pretty simple conclusion about what was going to happen: these men were going to go in and confront the villain only to find out that "he" is actually a woman and then get themselves killed. That would presumably have led to the four female convicts being sent in their place. It got even weirder when I realized I was almost half an hour in, at which point there was still no sign of the female protagonists and we were still following the guys I naturally assumed were going to be killed off early on. To add a further layer of puzzlement, the villain turned out to be male, as originally claimed.

Then Netflix crashed on me, I was about half an hour in when this happened. I had to reboot the whole system to get it working again, and that's when I suddenly realized why there was no sign of the four action heroines I was promised. As soon as Netflix was up and running again, I saw the cover of the movie I was watching, and I realized it wasn't the one I had meant to see. It turns out there were actually two b-movies called Mercenaries, and I was watching the wrong one. No wonder it wasn't lining up with what I'd been told about Mercenaries. I wasn't even watching it and it took me half and hour and a Netflix error to realize my mistake.


You can imagine my embarrassment after realizing that. The movie I saw seemed okay so I might go back and watch the rest of it at some point. However, there was another layer of embarrassment that followed when I went to watch Banshee. I started watching what I thought was the next episode, and could not help but notice that things didn't seem to be consistent with what happened in the last installment I'd seen. It turned out I got mixed up somewhere down the line. When I thought I was watching the second episode I was actually beginning the second season before I'd even gotten halfway through the first. That was a bit awkward but I'm back on track now.

So far, Banshee actually looks promising, and it definitely makes a lot more sense when you watch the episodes in the correct order. When I saw the first episode I was not entirely sure about it but it's beginning to win me over. The main character does have a certain compelling sense of intrigue to him, and since the first episode the show has certainly met my quota for strong female characters (I'm still not sure what that is, but apparently I have one). In his latest adventure, the hero has imparted vigilante justice against a big tough boxer man by beating the crap out of him in revenge for mistreating a waitress at the local casino, and it seems that the most powerful businessman in town is preoccupied with some shady illegal dealings that involve some weird new drugs.

I still haven't had a chance to watch the Season Finale of Agent Carter yet, but I'm hoping to get on that soon. The last episode was pretty exciting, though it took a rather unexpectedly dark turn with the murder of Chief Dooley. I knew something was off about that "psychologist" (it did seem a bit odd that he resorted to killing his alleged patient when he was first found). Fortunately, it did give Dooley a chance to finally recognize Carter's skill and reconcile his differences with her (or at least as much of a moment of reconciliation as you can have when you're literally about to explode), so... yay?

Speaking of Russians, I have always found it curious how Russians are often cast as villains even after the end of the Cold War. I've been considering writing about this sort of topic but I don't have much to go on. However, one interesting thing happened a few weeks ago. I encountered a man of Ukrainian origin who had grown up on Russian films, and he had a few interesting comments on how Americans were treated in those. Apparently, while American films like to depict Russians as evil, Russian films, including Soviet espionage thrillers, liked to treat Americans as misguided individuals who would immediately convert to communism if they could just see the benefits of it. It is a rather interesting contrast if I may say so.

I've also seen episode 3 of Hannibal, and it is getting intense. I now know with 100% certainty that Hannibal is the bad guy (up until now, I wasn't sure if he was just yet or if his cannibalistic tastes were going to develop later in the show) and something's not quite right about his interaction with Abigail Hobbs. Considering her father was a serial killer who apparently cannibalized his victims and Hannibal had something to do with it, it looks as though he might be trying to turn her into another serial killer. I can imagine that this won't end well, but the big question is whether he will be found out.

We also had the Oscars this week, and wouldn't you know it? Once again, the Best Picture award went to a movie I never saw and as far as I can recall knew nothing about until it showed up on the list of nominees. That always seems to happen, I'm not sure why. Evidently my tastes are different from those of the Academy, but then again what can I expect from a group of people who considered a movie as boring as The Towering Inferno for Best Picture? Still, it did have its moments. The live performance of "Everything is Awesome" was pretty good and I enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris more than most people.

This week, aside from my attempts to watch Mercenaries, I've also seen a few odd movies for my classes. For one of them, we got to see a classic, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. In another class, we watched the film A Guy Named Joe to study how American films were affected before and after World War II, and this one was a weird piece of propaganda. A Guy Named Joe is about a guy named Pete who is an air force pilot who dies only to begin assisting other pilots posthumously. The whole setup of this one was weird and not very well-explained, though I will give it credit for having an early action heroine (sort of) in the form of a female pilot (though I would have wanted to see more of her).


Finally, we got something really weird. Yesterday I learned a bit about AIDS and the crisis that resulted in the 80's and 90's. More specifically, we were studying how AIDS was largely ignored by society at the time, very little attention was being paid to it, and what little there was pinned the causes on unrelated factors. Perhaps most notable is the idea of AIDS being a "gay disease" (something not helped by the fact that a lot of people associated with the illness, like Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson, were publicly revealed to be homosexual). The blame for the illness then fell on a so-called "Patient Zero", supposedly a French-Canadian flight attendant who had sex with a lot of early patients. There is no real evidence of the supposed "Patient Zero" actually existing, and he is little more than a figure of society's bigotries.

To help emphasize this point, we looked at a Canadian film called Zero Patience, which was literally a musical about AIDS that made fun of a lot of the misconceptions. It was actually brilliant in a bizarre sort of way, even with its weird setup (a Victorian man who drank from the Fountain of Youth falls in love with the ghost of "Patient Zero", apparently that is actually his real name) but it is also quite informative. Through its weird musical numbers which I shall not be describing in detail on (putting it mildly, there is one sequence that makes the bugs from Naked Lunch appear sane by comparison), it demonstrates quite effectively how absurd all these misconceptions of what causes AIDS really are.

Apparently, word's going around that there is a new Alien film directed by the same guy who made District 9. Sigourney Weaver is officially on board, which is promising. Apparently this sequel will completely disregard the events of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection (though I actually enjoyed the latter) and instead pick up where Aliens left off. I suppose that's not a bad thing, but I can't help noticing the slight problem that Sigourney Weaver has aged 29 years since 1986, and the same can probably be said of her co-star Michael Biehn if he is indeed in the film.


I presume this means it won't attempt to pick up right where Aliens left off the same way Alien 3 did but will allow some time to pass. Maybe this film takes place 29 years later and Ripley has managed to settle down with Newt only to get pulled back into something really nasty. It might be nice if they could find something new to bring out, since the "Xenomorph attack" plot has been overdone. Maybe either by trying to find something new to focus on while still including the Xenomorphs or finding some sort clever new angle on the traditional plot they could come up with something interesting. Also, Carrie Henn must have grown up by now. If they can get her to return, maybe there could be a sub-plot about Newt following in her surrogate mother's footsteps. That could be a cool twist.

Unfortunately, I'm still getting a lot of flack on the IMDB message board because I criticized Alien Outpost's decision to feature an all-male cast when there was no reason it was required (especially ironic considering the film it was obviously ripping off did in fact have a strong female lead). A lot of people have responded with angry comments for a while now, and I'm still getting a lot of infuriating things. Quite a few have given me the "women are physically weaker than men" argument which just gets me so mad. I've had to deal with these same arguments on YouTube when addressing idiots who tried to argue against letting women be firefighters (all of their arguments are easily debunked if you talk to a real firefighter, but they won't listen). The sad thing is that people still buy into this nonsense when it is really nothing more than an extreme over-generalization.

One user by the name of niscaty attempted to support one of these arguments,

"may have a chance is well put, because even then, against a male with similar characteristics (75kg being an average male) the chances are rather low. It has to do with lots of morphological factors - bone density, speed and endurance given by the hormonal makeup, muscle fiber composition and lots of other stuff feminists won't comprehend anyway, because... we're all equal. And pen!s. And patriarchy!"

In other words, these people think that women are actually physically incapable of military service, and cite isolated incidents of standards being lowered as "evidence". I'm not saying the standards should be lowered, but rather that, contrary to popular belief, women are in fact capable of meeting them. As I pointed out, we're letting women into infantry units up here in Canada and they're doing just as well as the men. Of course, these misogynistic idiots didn't want to listen. Instead, Niscaty responded by calling Canada, as he put it:

"yeah, Canada the most retarded feminist country on Earth. After Sweden probably."



These people get me so mad. I'm not even sure why I bother trying to reason with them because I know there is never any way they are going to listen. These people who claim that women are physically weaker than men and then attempt to use that to justify workplace discrimination are just nasty. Also, it's not too hard to turn that logic around on them. If general statistics that imply that women often have lower upper body strength than men (which does not mean they are weaker, they have other strengths to compensate for it), than those same statistics could be used to argue that men shouldn't be allowed to be astronauts. There actually are scientific studies that suggest women are generally better adapted to living in space, the reason why we don't rely on those alone is because they are general statistics and not something that can be applied to everyone within a specific group.

So as you can see I've got a lot of stuff going on right now. I've still haven't had as much material as normal, though I'm hoping at some point soon I can get back into writing another one of the amazing academically-influenced article/essays that have helped me stand out. I just need to find a good topic. I've had lots of ideas for articles I can do once I have more free time, not much that I can do right now. On the bright side, I did manage to actually read some other people's blogs this week, even going on something of a reading rampage Wednesday night, so I guess I'm doing okay.

Around the Internet

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Father-Son Relationships


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is about father-son relationships. I think there's a mother-daughter one later on, though nothing about father-daughter or mother-son. Anyway, I'm supposed to find three movies about the relationship between a father and his son. This is not too hard to do, the only catch is that they have to be biologically related. That means that surrogate children don't work here, but there's still plenty of films about father-son relationships to look at.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)


This simple story about a man who loses a bicycle and struggles to get it back was part of the short-lived Neo-Realism movement in Italy, which followed the end of World War II and a strong desire among Italian filmmakers to find a new voice for their movies (largely because their fascist government had just been toppled in the War). The result was series of slice-of-life films dealing with everyday issues affecting people at the time. In this case, it's about a man who finally gets work that requires him to use a bicycle, only to have it stolen, with most of the film being about the efforts of him and his son to get it back. The son actually delivers a pretty good performance here, and the relationship between the two of them is pretty solid.

Eraserhead (1977)


This is certainly a more roundabout choice but as far as I can recall they never did specify the gender of the baby. David Lynch's first feature film involves a man who finds out his ex-girlfriend is pregnant with his baby and subsequently he is required to take care of it. The trouble, of course, is that the baby in question is a weird mutated reptilian creature that never seems to stop crying. There is also a creepy woman who lives in the guy's radiator, a mysterious "man in the planet" who seems to be controlling things, and a dream sequence in which the protagonist is decapitated, followed by the baby taking over his body and his head being made into pencils. It is a frightening experience and certainly an odd way to express the difficulties of being a parent, though it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

The Road (2009)


Have you found that The Walking Dead is just too upbeat for your tastes? Well then, John Hillcoat's The Road is the movie for you. This has got to be one of the most depressing films ever made. It's the story of a man and his son trying to survive in the aftermath of an unidentified apocalypse that has destroyed most life on Earth, leaving only small groups of human scavengers desperately trying to survive on whatever they can find (many having resorted to cannibalism). It is certainly an unusual relationship to be sure (the father actually takes the time to instruct his son on how to properly commit suicide should he ever want to do so) but it is a touching one nonetheless. Really, it's all about maintaining some form of human decency in a world where literally nothing else is left.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

How I Hired Mercanaries From the Asylum


For a while I've been seeing this action film Mercenaries pop up on Netflix. The reviews weren't great and finding out it was made by The Asylum (who you may remember as one of the leading companies in the production of modern b-movies). However, it sounded like my kind of action film, at least on paper. After all, it was all about a group of tough women and female bonding in roles that would in any other film have been played by men. That pretty much sums up all but one of my screenplays (and that was only because it was an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness), so this sounded like it would be right up my alley. If nothing else I could learn a thing or two about how not to write the strong female characters in my scripts. After one embarrassing incident in which I accidentally confused it with another b-movie that coincidentally had the same title (that's a story for another time), I finally managed to see it. It wasn't great, but it was entertaining in the usual b-movie kind of way.

The President's Daughter Elise (Tiffany Panhilason) is touring... somewhere dangerous. They never really make it clear where. Unfortunately, she has been assigned the worst secret servicemen the President has to offer. Her car is ambushed by a female warlord named Ulrika (Brigitte Nelson, doing a bad Tilda Swinton impression), the secret servicemen are quickly killed, and she is easily captured. Enter Mona (Cynthia Rothrock), a government person who looks more like an aging rock star than a politician, who concludes that the only logical solution is to hire a team of female convicts. She finds four that she concludes are bad enough dudettes to save the President's daughter, and sends them into the field.

As you can expect, Mercenaries has all the trademarks of a typical b-movie. We have the ridiculous plot, the over-the-top situations, the plot holes, the cheesy special effects, the contrived situations, questionable acting, the list goes on. I didn't exactly go in with the highest expectations. However, the one thing it promises, action girls, it does manage to deliver. I will give it credit for including a female villain, something that you don't often see in action films, even if her motives aren't very well explained beyond being a power-hungry dictator who for some reason endorses the oppression of women under her rule (something about using them to keep the men under control, it's not entirely clear).

The four leads aren't exactly Sigourney Weaver, Angelina Jolie, Ming-Na Wen, and Zoe Saldana (which would itself be an awesome combination), but as far as b-movie standards go they do an okay job. The most enjoyable of the lot would have to be  Nicole Biderback as Mei-Lin Fong, the team's explosives expert. Her acting is hardly perfect, but she seems to have so much fun with her character it's hard for her not to steal the show whenever she's on screen. The idea of making one of the characters a female soldier is also a nice touch, and they do manage to give her a reasonably clear backstory. Unfortunately, the other two, while appropriately tough, are severely underdeveloped.


The action is solid... mostly, provided you don't go in with high expectations. There are plenty of cheesy effects, especially towards the end where we get some ridiculous explosions which make less sense than a Michael Bay film and a terrible CGI airplane. The makeup job isn't all that great either. The blood is hilariously unconvincing, and the leading actresses can act somewhat like they are wounded, but have trouble doing so consistently. They'll go back and forth between actually acting like they've been hit to being completely oblivious to the obvious bullet wounds sometimes in the same scene.

While Mercenaries succeeds in delivering on the tough women it promises, its mostly just a b-movie. Admittedly it can be entertaining and at times humorous provided you go in with low expectations, but that's really all it is. That said, I do think it has some good ideas, and the basic premise would be worth revisiting in a future production, perhaps in a mainstream film with a more competent director in charge and a more solid cast. Still, if you need an hour and half to kill and you want something that doesn't require too much thinking, Mercenaries might just be the film for you.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Oscars are a Sham


Well, it's Oscar season, something most people with connections to film consider to be a big deal. It's that time of year when the best movies are rounded up and given Awards that purport to offer some sort of prestige. Normally I would be excited about this time of year, but right now I'm not so sure. I don't even know if I should bother to watch the Oscars this year, it's not like I'm going to be like the results whatever they may be. From what I've seen, I'm hardly the only one dissatisfied with the Academy's decisions this year. They have made some good calls in the past, such as with The Hurt Locker, but not always. I personally wanted True Grit to win back in 2011 and was disappointed when it failed to win a single solitary award. The dissatisfaction is not even confined to this year: there are still people who have not forgiven the Academy for giving Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love instead of Saving Private Ryan.

Last year there were some good movies that have been nominated, but I'm not sure how many I would go as far as to consider worthy of Best Picture. I liked Boyhood, the one most people seem to agree has the best odds of winning. I thought it was a very well-done and compelling film and even if you don't like it, the fact that the director was able to stay committed to shooting it over 12 years while still finding time for other projects on the side is impressive. I still don't know if I would call it Oscar-worthy. The same goes for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now if it were up to me, Interstellar and Under the Skin would have both made that list.

You ever notice how some genres tend to be more likely to gain Oscars than others. The Best Picture award is given almost exclusively to dramas (exceptions like It Happened One Night and Annie Hall notwithstanding), and even then there are signs of obvious biases on the part of the Academy. historical films seem to have the best reception based on the success of movies like Lawrence of Arabia12 Years a Slave and The King's Speech, with The Imitation Game following suit. Epics and romances also seem to have very good odds, but that's about it.

There's a few genres that seem to be completely ignored at the Oscars. Along with comedy, science fiction is almost completely ignored, and in the rare event that a science fiction film is nominated it almost never wins. Gravity achieved a partial victory last year, managing to win Best Director, but it was far more deserving of Best Picture than 12 Years a Slave. Horror films occasionally manage to win an Oscar for a really good performance, but usually don't get anything more than Best Editing, Best Sound mixing, or related awards.

The Oscars also seem to fail to consider action movies for anything above editing or sound mixing, with the only exception I'm aware of being The Towering Inferno. Really? Was 1974 just a really bad year for movies. Sure, it was a big deal because of all the pyrotechnics that took way too long to actually appear but how desperate was the Academy to even consider giving the Best Picture award to a movie as boring as The Towering Inferno that completely fails to deliver on any of the exciting action and suspense that it promises?


It becomes obvious very quickly that the Academy is very genre-biased just looking at their track record. Most of the time comedies are off-limits, as is anything that could be seen as a "genre" picture that snobbish upper-class men refuse to be seen watching. Historical films, epics, romances, and the occasional war movie seem to have the best odds of winning at the Academy Awards, while they refuse to allow science fiction and action movies the dignity of being nominated. Even the few science fiction movies to be nominated for Best Picture such as A Clockwork OrangeAvatar, District 9, Inception, and Gravity have never managed to win. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, which remains one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time, was not even nominated for Best Picture and lost Best Director to Oliver? Really? Admittedly it deserved that Best Visual effects award, but that was also the only Oscar that Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest directors of all time, ever received.

Last year Interstellar and Under the Skin were among the best films released, but they have not even been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, or any of the Best Actor categories (come on, Scarlett Johansson's performance in Under the Skin was Oscar-worthy). Most people seem to be sure that Boyhood is going to win, the same way everybody seemed so sure about 12 Years a Slave last year even though Gravity was a far more impressive film. Some of the last few Best Picture Winners really have not been all that deserving of the title.

Argo wasn't that bad a movie, but that doesn't mean it was worthy of Best Picture. It was an enjoyable blockbuster but there were far better movies released that same year like Zero Dark Thirty. I suspect the only reason it failed to win was because Kathryn Bigelow had already won for The Hurt Locker, but that's not the point. The award is specifically called "Best Picture" and should be given to the best film there, regardless of genre or who may have won previously. Life of Pi and Les Misérables were also far more impressive films than Argo. What kind of thought process goes into these decisions? The same could be said in 2007, when the winner was The Departed which if you ask me was an overly-convoluted mess with too many characters that was virtually impossible to follow (with hindsight, it could have benefited from more gender diversity as well).


Now this year we have Boyhood, an impressive film but not one I would say should win Best Picture, as the most likely choice for this year's Academy Awards. To be fair, none of the choices I would say are really worthy to be on the list. American Sniper shouldn't even be there seeing as it didn't come out in 2014, but since it premiered in Los Angeles near the end of December it technically qualifies. The Grand Budapest Hotel was great but seeing as it was a comedy the odds are very much against it. From what I saw of The Imitation Game it seemed promising but I'm also not sure it was worthy of Best Picture. Really, nothing on the list strikes me as being worthy of Best Picture.

All of a sudden, the Oscars don't really seem to be worth it anymore. There is a purported sense of class that comes with getting Oscar recognition, but it really means nothing. The obvious biases on the part of the Academy make it clear that they have no interest in actually giving Awards to the best movies, otherwise they would be more open to looking at other genres. Instead they just want to give the Awards to the movies they want to be seen watching, regardless of the actual quality of the movie itself, as was the case for The Departed. I don't even know if I should bother watching the Oscars tonight, because I know that whatever happens I'm not going to like the results.


Thursday, 19 February 2015

So-Fetch Friday: Writing a Die Hard Imitator and Getting Sick of Watching Them



I've still been short on writing material and haven't felt as motivated recently. I haven't exactly been able to post a lot of my usual content. I haven't found much material for reviews and I certainly haven't had much time to work on any of those academically-influenced essays I occasionally write that seem to have helped make my work stand out in the blogging community. Right now, I've got reading week, but things have been hectic and despite an attempt to organize a schedule most of what I've planned has been jumbled and disorganized. It's not an easy time for me right now.

This week I've been spending a lot of time watching action movies, particularly Die Hard on an X films. I've been doing a lot of this kind of thing lately, which has a lot to do with the fact that I'm actually writing a screenplay for a Die Hard imitator of my own. Drawing on my careful studies I have taken the "Die Hard formula" to its logical extreme, drawing on all the common patterns and a few twists of my own (along with some other action movie conventions: there's a bit of the train chase, swashbuckler, urban vigilante, and martial arts film genres in there as well). I can also take pride in saying that I may have also finally written a good Die Hard on an X film that has a female protagonist taking over the McClane role (very few attempts have been made, and by most accounts that ones that have have never worked).

We've gotten Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege, Speed 2: Cruise Control), Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57, Executive Decision, Con Air, Air Force One, possibly also Non-Stop), Die Hard in Alcatraz (The Rock), Die Hard in a shopping mall (Point Blank, with a more comedic version being attempted in Paul Blart: Mall Cop), Die Hard at a beauty pageant (No Contest), Die Hard in a hockey arena (Sudden Death), Die Hard in a dystopian apartment complex (Dredd), and Die Hard in the White House (Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down). However, I've found one that I don't think anybody has done yet, which is Die Hard on the set of Die Hard; literally a Die Hard imitator that takes place in a studio filming a Die Hard imitator.


For a while I've been watching every Die Hard-influenced movie I could get my hands on for inspiration on this script. This week alone I've spent a fair bit of time watching them and I think I'm starting to get sick of it. I started by re-watching the original Die Hard, an excellent movie. That was followed over the next two days by my re-watching of the wonderful Con Air and the very good Air Force One. After that I found myself picking up copies of Passenger 57 and Executive Decision, along with Non-Stop (which I have been led to suspect is another "Die Hard on a plane" film) and I'm not entirely sure if I made the right call in doing so. So far, The Rock is still the worst of the sub-genre that I have seen, but neither one seemed to be particularly great. Passenger 57 was kinda fun and I can give it credit for featuring a black protagonist, but I felt the ending was a bit rushed. I was also a bit disappointed with the female lead, who seemed really promising at the start but didn't end up being used for much.  Executive Decision wasn't that great a movie, though it had an interesting interpretation of the "Die Hard formula" (it would have helped if that group had a bit more gender diversity instead of being all-male).

After sitting through most of Executive Decision (for some reason, I couldn't make it through the last ten minutes), I quickly found myself sick of these masculine action films and I've been hoping to find a few action movies that feature some tough girls in them. Maybe I need to re-watch Tomb Raider at some point. That might not be such a bad idea, since it could still help with my script. While watching a lot of these Die Hard imitators can help me get ideas for developing the story, watching some action heroines could give me some ideas for how to treat the action heroine protagonist of my screenplay. Then again, the fact that the main character is an action heroine should hardly be surprising coming from me. If anything it would be far easier to list the few male protagonists to be featured in my work than the multitude of strong female characters.

Actually, that's another thing worth bringing up. I've spent a lot of time talking at length about strong female leads, but what exactly makes a female character "strong"? I think it's an interesting question and one worth bringing up. I actually started on an article that attempted to address that question, and I really should get back on that one at some point. It can get really complicated, since in many cases it's a matter of context and what works for a female lead in one film might not work so well for another. There is also a huge difference in what might be expected from a strong female character across different genres. A "strong" female lead in an action movie is going to be different from a "strong" female lead in historical fiction or a romantic comedy. Perhaps I should ask you, the readers, what you think makes a strong female character? I think it might be interesting to hear your opinions on the matter.


Fandoms have been a lot harder to keep up with these days. I still have not been able to watch the latest episode of Agent Carter, which is a shame because it's getting really exciting. I've only seen the first episode of the new season of The Walking Dead, and it was certainly taking some dark turns (as if there is ever a point in the show that isn't doing that) seeing as it literally started by killing off Tyreese. I still haven't been able to see the latest episode of Elementary, either. Hopefully, I can get back on those soon. I've still been watching The X-Files, and can't help noticing that we haven't seen Cancer Man in a while. I wonder what he's up to while Mulder and Scully are running around investigating all these weird situations.

I have, however, managed to start watching a few things. On the advice of my peer mentor I decided to try out Hannibal. I've only seen two episodes so far, and not entirely sure what to think. I was initially a bit confused about its intentions, as the fact that it features a younger Hannibal Lector (who at this point may or may not be a cannibal, it's not entirely clear) but is set in the present day suggests that it doesn't take place in the same continuity as Silence of the Lambs. I also saw the first episode of this show called Banshee, which initially had me confused and uncertain but started to win me over by the end. At first I was a bit concerned about what seemed to be a predominantly male cast but it did ultimately meet my quota for strong female characters (apparently I have one now, though precisely what it is I'm not sure of). The impression I was left with at the end was that this show could either be really interesting or really stupid, and I wasn't quite sure which.

I have managed to watch a few other movies outside of the various Die Hard imitations, though it's been extremely limited. Most of you already saw the comments I made about The Fast and the Furious, and in light of the responses I got to that post, am considering giving it another go, perhaps when I'm in a better mood and have more free time. I did also attempt to watch The Imitation Game, but only saw roughly the first 20-30 minutes. What I did see looked promising, but unfortunately during the screening a pipe burst disabling the sprinklers and the theater had to be evacuated as a precautionary measure.


So on that note, I'll leave you to think about the question I posed earlier: what exactly is it that makes a strong female character? What qualities would you expect to find in a female lead that you feel would be most likely to make her work? Also, I would really appreciate it if anyone could recommend me some action movies with a tough female protagonist.

Around the Internet

  • Kristina Dijan announces the return of The Great Villain Blogathon. I'll have to get on this once I finish my classes in March. It's going to be a tough choice.
  • Brittani Burnham discusses the 2015 Oscars and who she thinks will win vs. who she thinks should win.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Oscar Winning Movies


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Oscar-Winning films. These are of course movies that have won Oscars, specifically from Best Picture, Best Animated Film, and/or Best Foreign Language Film. I guess this should make sense, seeing as we are getting into Oscar season, though I never seem to be satisfied with the films that win anyway, at least most of the time. Interstellar and Under the Skin should both have been nominated, and why is American Sniper on the list when it didn't even come out in 2014?

Funnily enough, when going through Wikipedia's list of Best Picture winners, I discovered that The Towering Inferno was nominated. Really? Was 1974 just a really crappy year for movies? I'm curious how desperate the Academy would have to be to even consider giving the Best Picture award to something as boring as The Towering Inferno.

Still, I'm supposed to list three Oscar-Winning films. I've decided for this list to pick out three Best Picture winners that I actually agree with the Academy on. The following choices are all ones I would argue deserved that Best Picture Oscar and are worthy of recognition.

Incidentally, it seems a bit ironic for me, being an outspoken feminist who has gotten a lot of flack on IMDB for calling out two separate movies on having an all-male cast when there was no reason they had to do so, that a lot of my favorite Oscar-winning films (and for that matter, favorite films in general) are ones with an all-male or predominantly-male cast. I wonder why that is.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


If we're going to discuss Oscar-winning films, it makes sense to go back and look at a few classics. One of the most iconic would arguably be the 1962 historical epic Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean (who had previously won Best Picture for The Bridge on the River Kwai). It is a long movie to be sure, almost four hours long and lots of scenes of vast open desert. It has a somewhat notorious reputation for the lack of women involved (basically none outside of extras, and even they are extremely scarce), although that is somewhat justified by the nature of the historical events on which it is based. Even if the runtime is overwhelming the effort that went into production is admirable, with most of it being shot on location in Arabia and the rather large cast involved. Admittedly, there is some controversy nowadays for casting white actors as Arabs, but it's also worth nothing that at the time presenting strong sympathetic Arab characters in a mainstream production was a radical idea so to an extent this is actually quite a progressive film from a racial standpoint.

Unforgiven (1992)


Clint Eastwood's brutal deconstruction of the classic American western is only one of three in its genre to successfully win Best Picture (it was preceded by Dances With Wolves a year earlier and 1931's Cimarron, with a possible fourth winner if you count No Country for Old Men). There's no denying it had an impact on the western genre as a whole, seeing as while Eastwood wasn't the first to look at it more cynically (he inherited a lot of the darker elements from his work with Sergio Leone and even dedicated this film to his memory)  it was arguably one of, if not the first, to strip away any trace of romanticism. There's no hero, no villain, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the law and outlaws. Eastwood has played some anti-heroes, but the tragic hero depicted here is one of his darkest characters. Now if someone would make something like this for pirates...

The Hurt Locker (2008)


I have admitted on a few occasions to disagreeing with the Academy's decisions, but for once in 2008 I do not. Though I did not see Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker when it first came out I will agree that it was very deserving of the Best Picture award she received and became the first woman to do so. Kathryn Bigelow has made some good movies but The Hurt Locker is definitely her best without question. Its simplistic approach and focus on the day to day activities of three men make it a compelling psychological study of how war can mess with a person's head.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Hold On, Hold On, You Can't Keep a Fast Car Out of the Race... Actually You Can



I was bored and looking for something to watch when I realized that The Fast and the Furious was available on Netflix. Being the action movie enthusiast that I am I decided to give it a viewing and see if it was any good because why the heck not? I can think of a few reasons. I got through about the first 10-15 minutes before shutting it off because this one turned out really not to be worth it at all. I didn't even get 15 minutes in and already the problems were beginning to show themselves and I just couldn't take it.

Let me get straight to the point and the big problem with this one: it makes no sense... at all. It was the same problem I had with Hard Boiled, ten minutes in and the movie has done nothing to set anything up in a meaningful way. I couldn't tell who the hero was or who I was supposed to be rooting for. There was no apparent depth to any of the characters or any obvious plot the movie seemed to be setting in motion. All I saw was some tough-looking men, some Latino women who for some reason were all dressed in outfits that exposed their stomachs, and a bunch of cars and trucks driving around and people I didn't know beating each other up for no apparent reason.

From what I gather the movie is supposed to be about drag racing or something along those lines. As far as I can tell, the person intended to be the hero is Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker)... who is this guy? The movie gives nothing that I could see. There was no emotional connection, no backstory, no motivation, no goals. I did not see a single thing that gave me a reason to care what happened to him. Then somehow Vin Diesel apparently has a role somewhere as a big tough race car driver or something. Then a bunch of cars drive around and crash into things. That's about the extent of the plot from what I saw.

Vin Diesel can actually be enjoyable when given a good script (as in Guardians of the Galaxy), but here he's nothing but a big guy who seems to do nothing more than stand around showing off his enormous muscles. From what I saw of Michelle Rodriguez, she was not much better, even though she has since been in some far better action films like S.W.A.T. and Battle: Los Angeles. It looked like the filmmakers were trying to make her a tough female character which elevates The Fast and The Furious slightly above the level of The Rock, but I'm not entirely convinced they succeeded.


On some level I think The Fast and the Furious may have fallen into an easy trap for action movies, and that is the assumption that they should be based primarily on... well.. action. That is not entirely true. While an action movie should have plenty of action, simply including a bunch of car chases and explosions isn't going to make your movie exciting. Good action movies like The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day don't simply put Arnold Schwarzenegger in a truck and send him driving around blowing stuff up while Linda Hamilton tries to outsmart him.

What makes The Terminator and Terminator 2 work as action movies is that they actually give the character of Sarah Connor a personality and emotional depth. The reason John McClane is such an iconic action movie hero isn't just because he beats up and kills a bunch of pseudo-terrorists, it's because he has a motivation for doing so and it's in the curious "wise-guy" attitude he develops towards it. This was precisely the same problem that Rambo: First Blood Part II had: so much action is shoved in that the movie forgets to give us a reason to connect with anybody involved.

Ultimately, don't bother with The Fast and the Furious. It's too confusing and pretty much nothing more than a waste of time that only takes ten minutes to be completely lost (if even that) with no idea of what is going on or who you're supposed to be cheering for. It is a waste of time and a very good of example of what not to do when trying to make an exciting action film. If you want an exciting movie about race cars, there are probably far better options, or you could just play Lego Racers or Mario Kart. Either way, I don't recommend this one.


Thursday, 12 February 2015

So Fetch Friday: The Problems of Being a Film Student


My friend Katy Rochelle over at Girl Meets Cinema started a new recurring series called So Fetch Friday. It's something of a follow up to the "Fandom Friday" series she was running during the summer. The only difference is that this time she invites other people to participate. I was considering it and wondering about waiting until the summer but right now I need something to work on so I figured why not give it a try. I don't know if I'll be able to do this regularly (to be fair, even Katy herself isn't sure if she can commit to it), but I thought it might be good to do one and see how it turns out.

Things haven't been going easy right now. Certain personal issues have been causing problems, and combining that with the usual stress of academic work has made it hard to think about anything. Right now, I can't go into detail about what happened but I've spent a lot of time getting irrationally angry, agitated, or otherwise into some frame of mind that interferes with my ability to write. I won't get into the specifics of precisely what happened, but I will say I've been short on ideas lately and it's hard to find material right now. One of the strangest things about being a film student is that it often becomes a lot harder to actually find time to watch movies. I can sometimes squeeze in a film or two on the weekend between readings and working on essays, and once in a while I can fit one in during the week. However, it's mostly just the films I get forced to watch in class.

There are seven more weeks until I'm done, but I do have reading week next week. Maybe I can find a bit of time to write something in between work on my essays. Maybe even if I'm really lucky those essays will offer up something I can work with. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've drawn from my academic experience on this blog. I also know that it will only be six more weeks before I have to watch the obligatory Jean-Luc Godard movie this year (there seems to be some sort of law requiring him to be included in educational programs; this will be the fourth class in a row where I've been forced to watch one of his awful films). Fortunately, my professor chose Breathless, which out of the Godard films I've seen so far is probably the least awful. At least that one has a somewhat coherent (if ridiculous) story.

This week, we watched the Italian movie Bicycle Thieves, which wasn't too bad. I was a little nervous going in and read a plot summary ahead of time to make sure I knew what to expect. I often do that when one of the movies being screened makes me nervous. Part of the strategy I used to get through From Russia With Love last semester was to read a plot synopsis ahead of time so that I would know where all the sexist moments occur (as well as checking with the professor to see if he was in fact going to address the issue of sexism in Bond).

I was toying with the possibility of writing an article about Italian Neo-Realism, perhaps comparing it with Hollywood's ideas of realism, but I got stumped on how to go about doing it. It's funny how different people across different cultures and different time periods had drastically different ideas of what makes a work of art seem "realistic". The Italians had one idea, and Hollywood envisioned something very different. Then of course there are the movements that attempted to reject realism like the Advant-Garde movement in France or the Expressionist Period in Germany (neither of which lasted very long).


In my horror movie class, we watched The Bad Seed, the story of a little girl who seems normal on the outside but is really a psychotic killer underneath. This one was a bit odd, especially since it made a lot of choices that would seem strange by modern standards due to it being made under the Production Code. One thing I found especially strange while watching it was how they refrained from showing all the murders. They keep talking about people turning up dead but if that film had been made today we'd probably be seeing that boy's corpse being dragged out of the water and the attempt to burn the custodian alive. I also saw Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape for my Sex on Film class (yes, I'm actually taking that). It was a bit weird and I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. There was lots of sex and home videos and sex.

I've recently been having the problem of trying to find movies to review only to come out unsure of what to say about them. That happened last weekend when I found an... interesting film but couldn't really come up with material for how to describe it in a review. That movie was Domino, a movie where I could really see Chaos Cinema at work. It was an interesting movie in which Keira Knightley manages to do something a bit different from her usual period pieces, but at the same time it was so disorienting it was hard to formulate a clear opinion. I also tried to watch Broadcast News only to shut it off twenty minutes in due to a fit of irrational frustration.


Speaking of action movies, I did manage to see Basic a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised. Admittedly, it is still a bit hard to wrap my head around the twist ending but overall it was an interesting experience. While I wouldn't call any of his films outright sexist, John McTiernan isn't exactly known for his strong female leads so it was a nice change to see not one but two interesting female characters, and both of them in the military, too. Connie Nielsen was great as the tough officer who is determined to get to the truth, but the even bigger surprise was the presence of a female soldier in Nunuez. Seeing her appear in a film by someone like McTiernan was such a shock it seemed almost too good to be true, but it wasn't. Say what you will about the women in Predator or Die Hard (though to be fair even then she is handled okay, at least they don't make her a full-on distressed damsel), but this one shows that he can in fact incorporate strong women when he wants to.

So far, the article I did on pornography also seems to have gotten quite the attention. I was actually surprised with how many people expressed admiration that I had the nerve to touch on such a topic. Those kind of skills come when you start doing a class all about sex in film, which includes a few weeks of porn and a bit of history of the genre. Of course it's not exclusive to porn. We also spend some time talking about other representations of sex: this was actually one of four different classes I have taken this year to discuss the Production Code and look at its restrictions. We even had the Code itself as a reading, which became handy in the tutorial of an unrelated class.

At the same time, there were a few other reactions I didn't count on to my article. I actually had to take down the explicit image I originally included after somebody reported it. Obviously, I need to improve my ability to read instructions since I didn't even know you could place a content warning on blogger until Google mandated it. Fortunately, as soon as I found out how I set it to acknowledge that I do have some adult content so I should be okay. I've also been told of a new rule about posting explicit pictures, which is to avoid any that show a person's genitals.

As for fandoms, it's been a bit harder to keep track of things. I've been watching a lot of The X-Files lately. I'm currently starting the third season and already it's taken a few dark turns. Mulder's father was killed and then he was followed by Scully's sister, but it seems that FBI Director Walter Skinner is trustworthy after all so... yay? Also, did you know that Jack Black appeared on The X-Files? What was Jack Black doing in The X-Files? Also, someone should do a crossover fanfiction called The X-Men Files. My favorite episode so far is the one where it's dark and Mulder and Scully have to walk around with flashlights.


Keeping up with the more recent material has been a bit harder. I still haven't gotten around to seeing the new episode of The Walking Dead. I have been following Agent Carter, though I still haven't had a chance to watch the latest episode. It's been pretty exciting so far. After all, how could I resist a strong female lead? It's a great show. I understand when it's done we'll probably be seeing more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which should also be quite good. Then there's also Elementary, which has presented a compelling arc for its third season. I'm going to miss Kitty, I hope she comes back at some point. I'm also still waiting for the next season of Game of Thrones and excited about the word of Twin Peaks coming back next year.

I've also been watching a more recent Canadian show, Strange Empire. It's actually really interesting to see a female-dominated western. I had written one of my own but CBC apparently beat me to it. I'm partway through season 1 and I saw an add in the paper for the season finale. It's really going in some interesting directions and I'm hoping it gets picked up for a second season because it is looking like it could be good. Then again, Arctic Air also seemed very promising in its first season only to go downhill in the second, so who knows? Hopefully it will work. Also, yes, there is a lesbian relationship, though it takes some time to make an appearance.


I think at the end I'm supposed to post some links to other blogs. At the moment, it's actually been very hard to keep up with other people's content, as often I'm either too busy or too stressed to take time out for them. Even the Thursday Movie Picks Meme has been hard to keep up with. These days, I often find myself drawing blanks as I try to think of movies that fit the theme picked for the week. It's actually gotten so difficult that I've had to set a rule that I won't be participating in or running any more blogathons until I'm finished the current semester. As soon as I get into April I'll be able to start participating in them again, and I've got a great cast-a-thon lined up to begin in April 1, roughly the same time as my classes should be ending (though the final exams might spill into the first few weeks).


Around the Internet


Let me know what you think of me doing this? Would you like to see more of these posts. I can't make any promises but I might be open to doing more in the future if I have time.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Is Erotica Ethical?



Pornography has a long-winded history that extends as far back as the silent era, but one of the first major "pornographic" films to make a significant impact was the 1972 movie Deep Throat, directed by Gerard Damiano and starring an unknown actress credited by the name of Linda Lovelace. Prior to the success of Deep Throat, pornography was in large part an underground movement confined to specific experimental filmmakers like Andy Warhol. Deep Throat started as an independent low-budget film that became an astonishing box office success and not only opened the gates for the porn industry but also for more explicit films to make it into the mainstream.


Sexual themes have existed in film as long as it has been around. It was the prominence of sexual ideas that contributed to the public outcry that resulted in the Production Code. Many of these films seem odd by modern standards. When looking at a "sexual" pre-code film like The Divorcee one quickly notices that the sex is never actually seen and only implied. The same goes for the handful of films that did manage to get under the Production Code's restrictions, such as Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein or Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. In all of these cases, the sexual themes are conveyed through undertones and innuendos, far from the more explicit sexual themes of movies that would come after it, including several of Kubrick's later films as well as those of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Deep Throat was arguably the film that helped bring sexuality to the forefront and cleared a path for more explicit films.

In addition to subverting the rules in ways unprecedented even for 1972, Deep Throat would become the subject of an extensive controversy. In the process it would launch into the public a dispute that still goes on today: the ethics of pornography and whether it should be recognized as a valid genre of filmmaking. Many viewers were amazed by Deep Throat but others demanded it be pulled from theaters. President Richard Nixon was among its detractors, and he made every possible effort to bring an end to pornography in general. He even went as far as to finance a series of experiments to determine if pornography was harmful to viewers. When he got the results scientifically proving that it was not, he withheld them and went out of his way to keep people from seeing Deep Throat.


A more curious development in the controversy comes later on, starting in the 80's and 90's. During this time, an anti-porn movement began to emerge among feminists who came to see it as a civil rights violation. Their rationale was that "pornography" was based on objectifying women, usually glorifying violence and fulfilling a male fantasy of how a woman should behave. Director Bonnie Sherr Klein attempted to demonstrate this perspective in her documentary film Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography. Her film makes a variety of claims about the porn industry, all of which are based on the assumption that simply watching it is promoting misogynistic ideals. Among other things, the film claims that pornography both depicts and promotes actual violence, that women do not do it out of choice, and that the majority of men are perverts and idiots. It then goes on to claim that pornography is detrimental to social progress and needs to be eradicated.

The thing about a movie like Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography is that it is based on misinformation and generalizations. Klein attempts to persuade the viewer that pornography is violent by showing clips of erotic films that depict torture. She and others like her go on to claim that the women are always bound and gagged, and "silenced". They also assume that the torture depicted is real, and therefore a glorification of male superiority when in fact it is usually staged. What people making these assumptions also ignore is that this is only one of many different types of pornography, and that the genre itself is not inherently violent. 

Now this is not to say that there are no issues that need to be addressed in porn, but these feminists are going about it the wrong way. Even if we are to assume that porn is male-dominated by nature, that does not mean its eradication is necessary any moreso than any other predominantly male genre such as war or action. While it is true that there are specific cases of women being mistreated on the sets of pornographic films (including Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat), what needs to happen is that working conditions need to improve. More women should become involved in the industry producing and directing films, and in fact this has happened.

A prominent misconception about pornography (as demonstrated by Not a Love Story: a Film About Pornography) is that it is something that can only be enjoyed by men. This is not in fact the case. There is also such a thing as "feminist porn" and has existed as long as there has been porn. Pornographic actress and feminist Annie Sprinkle has made a career out of her sexual experience, including one short simply titled Annie where she displays her body and invites the viewer to examine it (including a scene where the camera displays her cervix in extensive detail). Barbara Hammer got in on the act by making lesbian pornography as early as 1974.

In a way, pornography became, and still is, a scapegoat for social problems.Even considering the (admittedly few) examples cited of women being mistreated in pornography, it really means that actresses in those films need to be given better working conditions. It is worth mentioning that the alleged misogyny that these feminists claim to be present is not exclusive to porn and even appears in mainstream cinema. For instance, none of these women ever think to attack James Bond, one of the most iconic movie franchises of all time despite its misogynistic themes. The Bond most fans argue is the best, Sean Connery, is in fact the worst offender among them, and Goldfinger even had a glorified rape scene that went unnoticed by fans of the series.


In short, Connery's Bond films, which make up a series of mainstream blockbusters, do precisely the very things porn is being singled out for allegedly depicting. In these films, women really are objectified and used to convey visions of male dominance. They are basically nothing more than disposable sex toys whose only function is in giving pleasure to Bond before being discarded. Unlike pornography, the Bond franchise is also not meant to be about sex. It is meant to be a thrilling adventure of which sex is only one of many parts, and yet the series insists on treating women in a certain way.

Nobody tries to demand the eradication of the entire James Bond franchise. The solution to the problem is simple: as awareness of these issues grew the films subsequently had to make an effort to change the way they treated women. Compare the character of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger to Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and there is a very clear difference. Pussy is basically the last in a long line of disposable sex objects for Bond to enjoy, to the point where a rape scene is played as charming. By the time Casino Royale was made, this was no longer an acceptable way to treat women, so instead Bond's habit of discarding women is reworked into a character flaw and Vesper is actually given a personality.

The same could arguably be said for a lot of action movies. The action genre is indeed predominantly male and even today it is sometimes guilty of objectifying women (these same feminists never seem to consider protesting against any of Michael Bay's films). The solution is simply to encourage more female protagonists like Sarah Connor, the Bride, and Lara Croft. While there are cases of actresses being mistreated during the production of pornographic films, this is no call for the eradication of the genre. What needs to happen instead is that porn needs to stop being recognized as a genre exclusively for men and that there should be an effort to encourage more women to make porn films and to promote better treatment of actresses in the business.

Action movies are not usually based around sex, but a lot of mainstream productions are. Several critically acclaimed directors such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, have explored their share of sexually-driven material. Lynch's Blue Velvet explores erotic themes and depicts the same kind of violence against women that porn has been accused of, as is especially evident with the introduction of Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth who proceeds to violently and disturbingly abuse Isabella Rossellini's character Dorothy Vallens.

However, unlike the "violent" pornographic films most audiences can recognize that Hopper and Rossellini are simply actors performing for a camera, and that Lynch is not filming an actual rape as it happens. Kyle MacLachlan's character of Jeffrey Beaumont also goes through similar abuse. When Jeffrey and Dorothy first meet, she immediately pulls a knife on him and forces him to remove his clothes. If not for Frank's arrival at that moment, Jeffrey could very well have been raped by Dorothy. Frank also inflicts similar sexual abuse on Jeffrey, even going so far as to basically rape him in the middle of an open road. This is far more explicit than the average pornographic film.


This controversy that surrounds the pornographic industry is a complicated situation. Say what you will about the quality of porn. Personally, I prefer to watch movies with an actual plot, but I see nothing about the genre that makes it wrong for a person of either gender to enjoy watching. It has a reputation as being a sort of "lower film" but that is in large part because it is constantly being used as a scapegoat for broader social issues. Better representations of women in film does not mean the eradication of a genre, it means making an effort to better represent women within all kinds of filmmaking.