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Saturday, 30 August 2014

Announcing Halloween Horror!


As Summer ends, fall begins, and what does that culminate in? Halloween, of course, and what better way to get into the spirit of this time of terror than with a few good old-fashioned scary movies? You already know my thoughts on John Carpenter's Halloween (and if you don't, you need look no further than the extended rant I posted for Wendell's Against the Crowd Blogathon), but I know plenty of good horror movies that would be appropriate for this time of year. 

Naturally, I hope to produce a fair bit of horror-themed content. I've been saving the two horror films on my blindspot list, Psycho and The Birds for this period, but what better thing to do than to start up a new feature on my blog: Halloween Horror, which I hope will help all of us to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Up until October 31st, whenever I have the time, I will recommend a different horror film to help get into the spirit of Halloween. Some of them you may be familiar with, some you may never have heard of, but all are going to be great and genuinely scary films. That I can promise you, and if you decide to watch one of these films and aren't so much as unnerved, you can have your non-existent money back.

Each of the films I intend to recommend will be terrifying tales of terror. You won't see any cheesy horror films, no horror films that fail to be scary on such a level that they become hilarious (so I won't be doing Birdemic or Sharknado). I will only be doing horror films that are actually scary, so you should be warned beforehand that none of the movies I will write about for this feature are for the faint of heart.

A lot of the films I'm planning to choose will also be lesser-known horror movies. They won't all be completely obscure. Some are low-budget independent movies you may never have heard of, while others are underrated mainstream classics that, while often recognized as great movies, hardly have the reputation of Halloween or The Exorcist.

I will be your guide as we explore the world of amazing underrated horror. Join me as we experience a variety of chilling tales of terror. We will see horrors of all kinds, ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, from beyond the stars to your own house. These tales will terrify you and get us all right and ready into the spirit of our favorite horror-themed holiday.


Incidentally, if you want to go a few steps ahead and look at literature, I'd recommend reading some of the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. The Cask of Amontillado by Poe is one that is guaranteed to give you a chill or a thousand. Also The Thing on the Doorstep and The Shadow Over Innsmouth by Lovecraft will have you cringing by the end. Very good reads that will definitely help.

While this is not a blogathon in the strictest sense, I am open to hearing what others have to say. If you get a chance to see any of the films I recommend, do come by and post your thoughts in the comments section. If you would like to do your own Halloween Horror, that's also fine with me as long as you give credit. You are not required to take that route, but if you do I'd be happy to read them and maybe I'll even see some of your horror films if I have the time.

I cannot give you any specific figures regarding how often I will make posts for Halloween Horror. It really all depends on how my schedule works out with regards to my classes. I also do not intend to make this exclusively. I will still be posting other content, not to mention I have a special series of blogathon entries coming out at the start of October.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Back to School Blogathon!


An apple a day keeps the doctor away, unless you're in medical school.

Wendell Ottley of Dell on Movies is hosting the Back To School Blogathon with a fun premise. The idea is to create our own made-up class consisting of characters from at least three different movies. The rules are straight forward enough, you have to fill in at least one of several different archetypes for students and faculty using characters from movies that in some way feature schools. For more details you can consult his original post.

This one was both a lot of fun and really challenging. It was hard to find characters that fit all the required bases, and in fact I may have done some slight gender swapping with regards to some of the categories. I tried to add as much diversity as I could, but that wasn't easy, although I did manage to avoid picking more than one from the same movie (barring the cases where I had a pair of characters fill in a specific role).

Welcome, new students, to an exciting new year at Hitchcock School of Madness and Insanity. It is time to meet the faculty and students of this prestigious institution where absolutely nothing bizarre is likely to happen and you should have a perfectly pleasant year.


Faculty

Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Horse Feathers, 1932)- Headmaster


Come on, who wouldn't want Groucho Marx running their school? It would certainly make those long boring lectures a lot more enjoyable. When you're listening to that dull lecture about cirrhosis, he might just arrive to liven things up by bringing in a couple of "dunces" and booting the professor out the door just so that he can take over. It's hard to predict exactly what will happen when Wagstaff arrives for work, but one thing's for sure: your school will never lose the football game. He also won't make things any worse, since he responds to faculty suggestions by singing a song about how he objects to whatever they have to say.


Miss Riley (October Sky, 1999)- Teacher


Unlike many of the others on this list, Miss Riley was a teacher who really existed, but she is also a perfect model of the kind of person you'd want seeing your kids. She is smart, cheerful, and friendly. She makes friends with her students and supports them every step of the way to achieving their dreams. If there's anyone who can handle this class it's her.



Students

Allison Reynolds (The Breakfast Club, 1985)- Invisible Girl


This was arguably my favorite character in The Breakfast Club and out of the five people present the one I found I could most relate to. It probably has to do with the fact that I've been through a lot of what she is implied to have endured. I don't have neglectful parents as she brings up in the film, but I do know what is like to be the person that nobody likes. That one member of the class that is kept in the back, afraid to say anything because it might just give the other kids yet another thing to add to their already very long list of things they can and will say to hurt you.


Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan- (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, 1989)- Class Clowns


Well, they would certainly make the history classes a lot more exciting with their snarky comments on how people lived in different time periods. That, and the fact that they've met as many historical figures as they have would make them valuable study buddies when you're preparing for that final exam.


Hermione Granger (Harry Potter films, 2001-2011) - Star Student


If Bill and Ted are the best study buddies for history, Hermione would be the ideal partner for everything else. She's friendly, she's helpful, she reads ahead to the point where she is always at least three or four steps in front of everybody else in the class. That, and if you can get on her good side she'll never quit on you. A great student and a perfect friend in every way.


Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955)- Troubled Youth


If this guy can't be considered troubled I don't know who can. Poor Jim Stark has gone through a lot. Between his difficult relationships to his family, his drinking habits, falling in with the wrong crowd and getting pressured into races where he is forced to prove he is not chicken by driving a car over a cliff, he has a lot of problems to deal with. This is guy is an emotional wreck who could probably benefit from having a few good friends and some support from his teachers.



The Mantle Brothers (Dead Ringers, 1988)- Nerds


Before you say anything, Dead Ringers had a few scenes with them in medical school so it counts. Beverly and Elliot Mantle are possibly the strangest nerds you could come across, but they are very passionate about their medical studies, perhaps to a dangerous extreme, and things might get weird thanks to the fact that nobody can figure out how to tell them apart. Just a word of advice: as brilliant as they are in science, I would strongly recommend that you avoid going on dates with either of them. It won't end well.


Chris Hargensen (Carrie, 1976)- Class Bully


This is a girl you really don't want to get on the bad side of. In fact, there's really no way to escape from her wrath outside of murder. She may also be one of the meanest and most messed-up bullies you could find (she dumped a bucket of pig's blood over an innocent girl as "revenge" because she got punished for harassing that same girl). No remorse, no decency, and punishment only seems to make things worse. She is just a heartless young woman who will do anything to get her way.


Danny Zuko (Grease, 1978)- Popular Guy


Okay, this is a slight warping of one of the pre-ordained categories but hey, this guy is popular. He may have a girl of his own but you can't tell me that the girls in the class wouldn't dream of going out with him (well... except maybe Allison, she's smart enough to know he won't be worth it). Even Chris would have a hard time resisting his allure and his charm (not to mention the same actor played her boyfriend). He would hardly be a great student, probably spending a lot of his time sneaking in a cigarette break and skipping classes, but he would be the life of the party when he does show up.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Why Jean-Luc Godard is the Worst Director in the Galaxy


If I were faced with the choice of sitting down to watch a Michael Bay marathon or a single Jean-Luc Godard movie, I would take the marathon in a second. At least some of Bay's films could potentially be enjoyably bad and not just painful. If you've been following my blog, you should know that Jean-Luc Godard has become something of an arch-nemesis of mine. Worse still is that try as I might I can never seem to escape his wrath.

I have been forced to watch his films in three different film classes (in one case at a completely different institution than the other two)... in a row. I'm just hoping that I don't have to face him again this year, but if I do, you can bet I'm going to be back here to tell you just how awful they were. Each film of his I get forced to watch seems to only hate him even more. At this point, I'm pretty certain there is no way this man is ever going to win me over.

The guy may have made an impact on cinema, but you know who else did? Ed Wood. That doesn't make Plan 9 From Outer Space any closer to being a masterpiece. Even a terrible director can leave their mark on cinema, and that's what we have here. Jean-Luc Godard is nothing but a talentless, senseless, insane and incompetent director who never seems to have a clue what he is doing.

Look at Breathless for example, and one of the most famous things about it. Really? Your movie was too long so you just cut out random chunks and hoped you didn't accidentally cut out a crucial moment in your story? What happened to going through your rough cut and finding scenes that could be trimmed or which interfere with the pacing? Really, all the jump cuts do is make the movie way too jarring.

On top of that, when you get down to it, the main character in Breathless is kinda an idiot and I'm not sure Godard understood how the justice system is supposed to work. I mean, this guy shoots a police officer after multiple accounts of vehicle theft (so already a serious crime with an even more serious one top off of that) and decides rather than getting out of town while he has the chance, he's going to waste time trying to talk his American girlfriend into going with him. Couldn't he just get out of town and then call her on a payphone?

Also, there is the famous final scene, where the main character is shot and delivers a dying speech about the injustices of the world... except that what happened was perfectly just. This character, Michel, had already shot and killed one cop, so the police knew he was dangerous. He also happened to be holding a loaded gun and was marching toward the police. Said officers told him to put down the gun he was holding, and he didn't so they shot him.


Last I checked, that's standard police protocol in most places. The cops aren't normally supposed to use their guns, but if the subject is holding a dangerous weapon they are automatically considered a threat. Holding a gun of any sort in front of an officer gets you labelled as a danger, and if you don't put the gun down when they ask you to they have the right to open fire. Michel could have easily gotten out of his mess (especially since he didn't even want the gun in the first place) if he had just put the gun down when he was asked to. Then he could have done some jail time and then gotten back out on the streets, but he didn't, and now he is dead because of his stupidity.

So obviously Godard doesn't understand how authority works or how to convey messages of injustice, as is also evidenced by his later movie Tout Va Bien. Supposedly it is supposed to be conveying some sort of message about the political situation in France at the time and how it affected the people. Unfortunately that message is lost when the movie makes absolutely zero sense whatsoever. It keeps jumping back and forth seemingly at random, between scenes and segments that have nothing to do with each other.

Things happen for no apparent reason and several unrelated plot threads are forced together. What does the voice-over involving the two people wanting to make a movie have to do with Jane Fonda's character? Nothing. Scenes drag on far too long, and the whole thing is just one big incoherent mess. Now what else can be botched up? Oh, right, how could I forget Jean-Luc Godard's awful attempt to create a dystopian science fiction movie in Alphaville.

Again, really? The best you could do to make anything seem futuristic was throw around random astronomical terms. You can't just throw the word "galaxy" into a story and instantly have a genius work of science fiction. That's not how it works. As if that wasn't bad enough Godard's use of those words only shows that he has no idea what they mean (among other things he thinks light years are a unit of time, when in fact there is no logical way that could be possible). That's not even getting into the incoherent mess of a plot. It is quite possibly the laziest science fiction movie ever made, and that's saying a lot.


I don't see what people get out of Godard. He is not a good director, he doesn't even deserve to be ranked among the best directors. His movies make no sense and have baffling logic at best. In some cases he doesn't even put in the effort to get some idea of what the heck he is talking about (unlike say... Stanley Kubrick) and it shows vividly. His messages are lost in the confusing structures of his movies and many of them come off as rather pointless when examined closely.

I'm not even alone in feeling this way. One of Godard's own contemporaries, Ingmar Bergman had this to say on his work: “I’ve never been able to appreciate any of his films, nor even understand them… I find his films affected, intellectual, self-obsessed and, as cinema, without interest and frankly dull… I’ve always thought that he made films for critics.” I will confess that I have not seen much of Bergman, but as they say, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I am far more inclined to seek out any of Bergman's work than to willingly sit through another film directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What Makes a B-Movie?


I've been going through a collection of "sci-fi classics" during the summer, which is actually made up largely of cheesy b-movies, but it's not exclusively b-movies in the strictest sense. Some of them (First Spaceship to Venus, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women) were foreign movies deliberately re-edited to cover up any sign that they were originally mainstream productions originating from the Soviet Union. Others are just really bad (Horrors of Spider Island), some are hilariously bad (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), and others are somewhere in the middle.

The funny thing about older b-movies is that it seems to be very rare to see one that actually delivers what the title promises. Teenagers From Outer Space is a good example, which has several men from outer space but all of them are clearly over the age of 20. Attack of the Monsters had some monsters who spend most of their screen time fighting each other and not really attacking much. Queen of the Amazons had a grand total of one "Amazonian" woman. Horrors of Spider Island had very few spiders and most of the danger came from one character getting bit and somehow mutating into an invincible monster. She-Gods of Shark Reef had a tribe of women and a reef with sharks that was never named, but definitely no obvious "She-Gods".

When one brings up the subject of b-movies, there are a few images that usually tend to come up. Often they're associated with the 1950's. Common elements associated with them include black and white photography and cheesy special effects. There are plenty of those, like the normal-sized lobster that threatens the protagonists of Teenagers From Outer Space or the pie pan flying saucers in Plan 9 From Outer Space, but the basic definition is a bit more complicated than that.


B-movies are so called because they are usually made with b-list actors. These are lesser known actors that are able to work for less, as opposed to the much better-known a-list stars you see in big budget Hollywood productions. Such films are usually cheap (hence the cheesy effects) and not released as widely as other productions. Though they are often associated with science fiction, a b-movie can really fit into any genre. With the collection of "Sci-fi Classics" I've been going through, there have been several (i.e. Queen of the Amazons, She-Gods of Shark Reef, Horrors of Spider Island) where I have been left wondering what exactly the science fiction aspect of the story was.

There are patterns that seem to emerge in storylines as well as with films of this period. One idea that seemed to be ludicrously common was for a group of (usually all male) characters to encounter a fictional world populated entirely by scantily clad women. Naturally, nobody ever questions this and the subject of how a society in which men do not exist is able to reproduce and thus keep themselves going is never addressed. Aliens often appear in either really unconvincing outfits or as humanoid, and if the latter is picked expect that they will have a language that is by total coincidence identical to English so they will have no trouble communicating with humans.

While the term often implies mediocre quality, not all b-movies are terrible. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's adaptation of The Whisperer in Darkness could technically be considered a b-movie. It was made on a low budget with a cast made entirely of b-list actors and was even shot in familiar black and white. Despite all this, it still managed to be a chilling rendition of a great story that may have even been more Lovecraftian than Lovecraft's original vision.


While hearing the term "b-movie" often brings up images of those from the 1950's, it's hardly confined to that point in history. The concept of the b-movie originated near the end of the silent era and it still continues today. They may have changed over time, but they do still exist. The Whisperer In Darkness was released in 2011 and could be considered a b-movie, but there are still plenty that are as bad as those of the 1950's, if for different reasons.

Modern b-movies work a bit different from the 1950's variety. A lot of them seem to be a bit more fast-paced, usually bringing in large amounts of painfully unconvincing CGI. The plots I have found often involve various monsters that the protagonists (who are often super-attractive but have no real personality) have to survive against while the supporting cast gets killed off with varying degrees of gore. Right now, The Asylum appears to be one of the major producers of modern b-movies, with films like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, but the one that is probably best known at the moment would be the cult hit Sharknado.


I myself have actually been involved with the production of a b-movie. Back in one of my high school film classes, we were given the assignment to create a b-movie of sorts. It was certainly a difficult experience, I can tell you that, largely because I was the only one who actually took the project seriously and wanted to make a real horror film.

I remember several times trying to make the case that our best bet was to refrain from showing the monster but nobody ever listened. My contributions were mostly behind the scenes, doing the camera work and editing that clip from Angel Heart to look like it was being played on an old TV. Unfortunately in keeping with the b-movie spirit somewhere along the line my initial concept for how to handle that scene got lost. I wanted to include the part where Robert De Niro actually bites into the egg as foreshadowing for what was to come later on in the main narrative, but the guy responsible for editing the project didn't end up doing that.

It certainly has the spirit of an old b-movie, however, with the wooden acting and cheesy effects. The bizarre plot  fits in more or less with the kinds of things you might see in a b-movie. Basically, the story amounts to a group of junkies dragging their friends into school on a weekend to reclaim confiscated drugs only to get chased by a "soul sucker", and this one girl just happens to have found an old book that somehow explains everything. The "soul sucker" is of course basically just a creepy old man (played by a fairly young man in a wig), with plenty of contrived death scenes for the leads.


In most respects, it is a pretty cheesy movie, but it does have the feeling of an old-fashioned b-movie. Given that was what we were assigned to do, it did succeed in that regard as silly as the final product was.  As you can see, b-movies are very much an important part of film culture, as bad and painful as some of them might get. They have been with us since the silent era, and as long as the medium of film exists, b-movies will likely continue to exist in some form or another, even if they change with time.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Models Are Not Always The Answer


One of the biggest complaints I hear regarding modern filmmaking is in regards to how common CGI has become, usually by saying that models, puppets, or animatronics are far more convincing when used by a special effects department. Sometimes that is true. CGI has been misused, sometimes it can be overdone, sometimes it might not be done enough, and sometimes it wasn't needed at all, but does that meant that models are always the answer?

The practical effects in John Carpenter's The Thing do hold up a lot better today than the CGI used in the 2011 prequel. Much as I enjoyed the latter film I can't deny that. However, perhaps the reason the effects in the prequel are not as good has less to do with it being CGI and more to do with the fact that it was forced in at the last minute when the film was originally supposed to use similar practical effects (some of which would have been pretty good).



The reason I bring this up is because CGI can be used to great effect when used right, and sometimes models can be even less convincing when used wrong. Plenty of b-movies can testify to the flaws of both, be it the obviously fake models used in the films of the 1950's or the over-the-top CGI monstrosities envisioned in more contemporary ones, the recent Sharknado being a good example.

The fact of the matter is that really both CGI and practical effects have their merits and can be used to incredible effect when done right. To put this into perspective, let's look at to of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity. These two films are probably the most realistic images of space ever put on film (though there are mistakes and liberties taken in both). 

The thing is that while both of these movies had amazing effects, they both relied on very different approaches to making those effects possible. 2001: A Space Odyssey may well have some of the best models ever put on film. Not a single frame of that movie was done using computer imaging. The Earth, the moon, Discovery, Jupiter, and even the famous "star gate" sequence were all handcrafted. That centrifuge you see Dave and Frank hanging out on was actually a giant rotating wheel constructed specifically for the film. The floating pen seen near the beginning was done with a clear disk. 

Now, that's not to say the filmmakers didn't have their limits. After all, the original plan was for Discovery to be travelling to Saturn. While this remains the setting of Arthur C. Clarke's novel (written alongside the script and based on early drafts), the movie ultimately opted to use Jupiter as its setting because the production team had trouble developing a convincing model of Saturn's rings.


By contrast, Gravity was shot almost entirely with CGI. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney wore partial spacesuits, but the visors on their helmets were computer generated to make it easier to see the actors' faces underneath. Some models were constructed for the action scenes but those were still shot against solid-colored backdrops that were later removed to make way for the vastness of space. Even that underwater scene at the very end was shot in a studio against a green screen. 


The results were still amazing, possibly even on par with the effects of 2001. The visuals seen in Gravity were so amazing that specific shots taken out of context could easily be mistaken for actual photographs from orbit. All of this was done with a few models and A LOT of computer graphics. CGI has been growing in popularity since the 90's and it can be used extraordinarily well. Jurassic Park is one of the earliest films to really use CGI and those dinosaurs still hold up well today.


That said, both CGI and practical effects have their own strengths and weaknesses. One advantage of practical effects is that during production it gives the actors something to interact with. CGI can be used to achieve all kinds of objectives, ranging from creating whole environments as in Gravity to something as small as removing unwanted details from the background. Done right, and the result can be something wonderful. Done wrong, and it will look extremely fake and lazy, which will drive away your audience unless that was the intention.

CGI can be used poorly, but just because something is done through models or puppets does not automatically mean it will be any more convincing. Plenty of b-movies can testify to how both can be misused. Modern b-movies, such as those of The Asylum or even the recent cult favorite Sharknado often include hastily edited CGI monstrosities. This is usually the kind of thing people think of when they talk about how bad CGI can be, but older b-movies weren't much better.

B-movies of the 1950's often relied on practical effects since CGI was not yet a viable option, but because they were always so cheap the effects would usually be every bit as bad as the CGI of their modern counterparts. Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space is notorious for its terrible special effects, such as the infamous and obviously fake flying saucers.

If you look closely, you can see the strings.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is really just the best-known example. You don't have to dig too deep into b-movies to find really cheesy ones with lots of (sometimes entertainingly) bad effects. Another good example I have come across would be some of the Japanese b-movies centered around "Gamera" (basically, a giant turtle-like monster who I suspect was intended to cash in on the success of Godzilla and its sequels). Gamera himself is a really weird and not very convincing creature, but one film in the series, Attack of the Monsters (I know, super-original, right?) has this other creature that is obviously played by an actor crawling around in a top-heavy suit.


So really, whether CGI or practical effects ought to be used really depends on the nature of the project. Practical effects may be easier for the actors to interact with but they can be every bit as unconvincing as CGI, and sometimes done right, CGI can be even more convincing than practical effects. The two are not mutually exclusive either. A film can also work effectively by using a bit of both, and to see how that can work you need to look no further than Peter Jackson. 

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both make extensive use of both CGI and practical effects. Many of the creatures we see across both films are computer generated but a lot of the sets were largely built by hand, sometimes with a green screen to help fill in the background. In some cases, though, the lines are blurred and one effect requires a bit of both.

A perfect example is the practice of motion capture, where an actor wears a suit that becomes a skeleton for a CGI model. Quite simply, the actor's suit consists of various lights all over their body, and they perform the necessary motions for their character. Then in post-production, the actor is removed but the lights remain (thus capturing the basic movements) and it becomes a frame around which to design the new character. 

Gollumn is a good example from Jackson's films, but such characters are all over the place. The CGI used for Smaug the dragon was incredible, but to make that image possible, the production team had to start with footage of Benedict Cumberbatch in a funny suit. In that sense, Smaug as seen in the final product could be considered a mix of practical and computer generated effects, since while the final product was created by computer rendering it was all based on the movements of a live actor.


Ultimately, neither extreme is better or worse. When done right, CGI and practical effects are both equally capable of making something believable and interesting. CGI can be misused and subsequently look fake, but the same can also be said about models, puppets, or animatronics.  It's all a matter of what kind of movie is being made and how the people involved use the resources available.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Time Travel


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about time travel. This is a subject I already know pretty well so there was no way I could avoid getting involved with this one. The only trouble is going to be narrowing down the selection. I think my best bet is to find three different kinds of time travel, and work from there.

I've got three different ways the central character time travels, and for an added bonus, I've also managed to find three films that specifically center on travelling to the past, present, and future. Unfortunately at the present moment I've only got three male protagonists. I'll have to see if I can find any films centering on a female time traveler.

The Time Machine (1960)- Future


Hey, if we're going to discuss time travel, I have to include one of the earliest stories to deal with the subject. H.G. Wells (along with Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe) is considered one of the first pioneers of science fiction, and he was also the first to propose the idea of developing an apparatus with which to travel through time. Since then there have been two adaptations to film. 

Don't bother with the 2002 version that makes up an overly elaborate backstory about how the main character built his time machine to save his girlfriend but encounters a paradox where he finds that no matter what he does she still ends up dead just for different reasons. The good version is the 1960 George Pal film, which has a slightly more optimistic tone than the book but still manages to remain faithful to Wells' vision of a dark future where humanity has in fact devolved into two very primitive species.

The Time Traveler's Wife (2008)- Present


Well, okay, technically he flops back and forth all over the place in this film,but the reason why I'm calling it present is because the protagonist never leaves his own timeline. We never see him wind up in the American Civil War or in the year 2246. If anything, the way he keeps jumping back and forth to different points in his life from his early childhood to shortly after his death it becomes very hard to label any specific moment as "past" or "future". Its all a disorienting experience with plenty of paradoxes (among other things he first encounters his wife at a point in her timeline where she already knows him). As River Song would say: "Spoilers".

Midnight in Paris (2011)- Past


Imagine you are an artist and you had a chance to go back in time to meet the people who inspired you. What would you say to them? What would you think of literally living in the past? This is the question posed by Woody Allen's comedy Midnight in Paris. We never get a full explanation how the time travel aspect of the story actually works: apparently if you wait in a certain spot past midnight, some sort of timey-wimey bubble opens up and allows a car from the 1930's to pick you up (and apparently this works in other periods, though the precise vehicle changes the further back you go). Don't worry about getting back, though, since you inexplicably find yourself returning to the present after an indefinite period of time spent in the past. 

Friday, 15 August 2014

A Classic Male Character that Could be Played by a Woman



Fisti over at Fistful of Films is hosting a new blogathon with an interesting objective: to draw attention toward racial inequality in modern filmmaking by looking at roles played by white actresses that could have been done by a black woman. It's a fine goal and one which I hope I might eventually be able to take part in directly, but it did get me to thinking about this idea. After all the film industry is still full of inequalities in need of rectification (Fisti himself noted that black men tend to get more versatile roles in movies than black women).

Sometimes, it is necessary to cast a specific person in a role. If you need someone to play Martin Luther King Jr. you're not going to cast Michelle Rodriguez. If you're doing a movie set in the Vietnam War from the American perspective most if not all of your cast is going to be made up of men, with probably a large portion of them being white. If you're doing a movie about the slave trade from the point of view of the slaves, your main cast is going to be largely black. In some cases, there isn't much you can do, and for the script to work it is necessary that a character be a specific race or gender, but that's not always the case.

What I am going to do here is present a male character I think might be interesting to see played by a woman. Even better is that this is one where the ethnicity of the actress wouldn't really matter at all, so here is my pick:

Captain Nemo


The 1954 Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is usually agreed to be the best treatment of the Jules Verne novel, but there is a slight problem: no female leads. This is likely due to the original book being written in the 19th century. While Verne was capable of writing strong female characters (just look at Aouda in Around the World in 80 Days, who even gets bonus points for being Indian and still being able to marry the white protagonist), the thought might just never crossed Verne's mind of putting a woman into his submarine tale, or perhaps because of the standards of his time he couldn't see a way to do it.

Naturally, plenty of adaptations since the Disney film (and possibly before) have tried to force a love interest into the narrative, such as writing in Nemo's daughter or something, but why try to force a romantic interest who wasn't in the book? You don't need a romance to have a female lead present, and perhaps we could try changing the gender of one of the four protagonists.

Ned Land might not be believable, on account of the fact that women were generally not permitted so work as whalers at that point in history. Professor Arronax might also be harder to do since while there female scientists in the 19th century (Marie Curie being a famous example), it would be harder to explain how a woman living in such a misogynistic society managed to become a respected professor of marine biology. Likewise Conseil might also be harder to handle for the same reason, but what about Nemo? It might just work.

Think about it. We never learn the full story behind Captain Nemo (at least, disregarding the explanation provided in Verne's novel The Mysterious Island), but what we do know is he's a man who is fed up with the injustices of the world finds peace beneath the ocean. He was presumably the victim of some atrocity but horrible things have happened to both men and women.

As a woman, Nemo would have even more reason to lash out against the 19th-century world, given she would have already the subject of discrimination by white men who believed her to be inferior, and that would be in addition to the crimes committed against her. Also, since Nemo's backstory is never fully explained, it wouldn't really matter what race the actress was. Perhaps even with the right actress and/or a good makeup job you could take things a step further by making Nemo's true ethnicity impossible to pinpoint.

I don't know about you, but I find the idea of a female Captain Nemo to be a fascinating one. Obviously you'd have to avoid trying to force in a romantic sub-plot (though perhaps there could be some fun to be had there, I could see Ned trying to get off the Nautilus by seducing Nemo and failing spectacularly). Perhaps a film adaptation taking this approach instead of trying to write in a romantic interest could be amazing, maybe even on par with the Disney film.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

August 2014 Blindspot: All is Lost




"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

That passage should give you a pretty good idea what to expect from this month's blindspot. It is the story of an unnamed sailor (Robert Redford) simply known as "Our Man", who is endangered by a chance encounter with a stray shipping container, leaving a hole in his boat. Our Man manages to patch up the hole but his radio cuts out and he has no contact with the mainland, and thus he has no way of anticipating what he is about to go through. He unwittingly drives right into a storm and from there faces one misfortune after desperately trying to survive.

All is Lost is a film that had me fascinated from the moment I first heard about it back in December or January through the IMDB message boards. I do have a tendency to get easily attracted to nautical stories, but the whole idea of the film intrigued me, particularly the fact that it was done almost entirely with a single actor and how it works with such a minimalist environment. I absolutely had to find a copy and see it. 

Unfortunately it took some time before the movie came out on DVD and even when it did one thing or another kept getting in the way and other films ended up taking priority. I really wanted to see this movie but I was never sure when the best opportunity was to obtain it. When I decided to take part in the Blindspot Challenge I had to put together a list of seven movies (since I started in June), and tried to keep it simple, mostly sticking to films I already owned but put off watching. 

However, I also saw an opportunity to finally try and get a copy of All is Lost and watch it. In fact, it ended up being the only one of my choices that I didn't already own to make it onto the final list (I ultimately had to remove Touch of Evil and Blue is the Warmest Colour due to concerns regarding cost and availability, replacing them with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and White Hunter, Black Heart). I finally managed to obtain a copy of the film back in July, and it ended up being the pick for August. 

Now this was an amazing movie, but figuring out where to begin discussing it is a challenge in itself. It is a very minimalist piece, to the point where Our Man is the only character of significance. Robert Redford has nothing but himself and the environment to work with. He has almost no dialogue in the entire run time of the movie. you could literally count all his lines on one hand. Instead, he expresses himself primarily through body language and expression, but this is far from a silent movie; much of the soundtrack consists of diegetic sound from the environment surrounding Our Man. You have the waves, the rain, the wind, the sounds that come when Our Man is pulled under the water, and the rocking of his boat just to name a few. 

The general atmosphere of this piece is certainly effective. I actually found myself feeling cold while seeing him being constantly sprayed during a storm (though that could have been cool air from outside, either way, it helped). You really get a sense of just what sort of emotional torment the unfortunate protagonist is going through, and scenes like those depicting the storms make it quite clear just how much danger Our Man is really in. They become tense, sometimes even giving a sense of disorientation but never completely losing the viewer. 

That brings us to all the wonderful cinematography this film has to offer. Everything is executed well but special mention goes to all the underwater shots. All Is Lost has a curious editing trick to illustrate the passing of time through underwater shots looking up towards the surface (where we can see it to be lighter or darker than the previous scene). In these shots we get lots of great views of various types of fish, including one scene with a number of sharks. Of course, the underwater photography also helps during some the really tense moments of the film, particularly the moments when Our Man finds himself in the water one way or another, especially during the storm scenes and the climax.

All Is Lost is an incredible movie, definitely one I would recommend looking for if you get the chance. It is a fascinating experience in non-conventional filmmaking while still retaining a narrative straight forward enough to follow. There is plenty of emotion for such a simplistic narrative, and it will keep wanting you to see how things work out for Our Man. It shouldn't be hard to find on DVD, so check it out. You won't regret taking time to see this one.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Star Wars Needs More Women



Okay, Star Wars fans, I've got a little challenge for you. I'd like you to think of as many different characters as you can from only the six films by George Lucas himself, so no expanded universe or Clone Wars series (either of them). Now I imagine a lot of you immediately think of lightsabers and thus make the association of Jedi or Sith (at least, those of you who don't think of Han Solo or Jar Jar Binks). Now, let's lower the range a bit, I want you to think of as many different Jedi as you can. There's plenty to choose from: Obi-Wan, Anakin, Mace Windu, Luke Skywalker, and Yoda. You starting to see a pattern here?

Now let's narrow the range even further: how many female characters can you think of? Okay, you might have several, but how many can you think of that even have so much as a single line? Furthermore, how many can you recall that actually play a part in the central narrative of any of the films? Not very many. Really with such a large cast across six films there's a grand total of two women who have central roles? (I'm not including Zam Wesell or Mon Mothma, who had minor contributions but little screen time)

You also ever notice how the prequel films introduce so many Jedi characters and yet most, if not all the ones who are actually relevant to the plot are men? Yes, we do see several female Jedi but how many of them even get so much as a single line. At best they're little more than a bit part or an extra in a battle scene.

Really, when you get down to it, the female Jedi characters we do see like Adi Gallia, Shaak Ti, Aayla Secura, or Yaddle (imagine Yoda with a ponytail) are little more than background roles and/or redshirts with no dialogue. The only reason we have any idea who these people are is because of supplemental material and the expanded universe taking the time to flesh them out.


It's a shame really, we have all these cool female Jedi we could develop, and instead the films opt to make the only significant female characters ones who rely on blasters (and before you say anything, yes I am aware that Leia became a Jedi eventually, that wasn't in the films), but it doesn't stop there. As I've said, across a series of six films there have been a grand total of two significant female characters in the form of Padme and Princess Leia.

Granted both were pretty tough but Leia spent most of A New Hope being held in a prison (even if she put up a fight before getting caught), but across the original trilogy we see almost no other women in the Rebel Alliance. The only other female character we get at all is Mon Mothma, who takes no part in the action and only serves to provide some exposition necessary to the climax of Return of the Jedi.

I mean the rebels are led by a woman, so why is it we never see a single female soldier other than Leia among them? Considering their circumstances you'd think they would be willing to take all the help they could get, and yet the rebel armies we do see in the opening of A New Hope, on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and on Endor in Return of the Jedi were all composed entirely of men, outside of Leia of course.


That's not even getting into the flight squadrons we see in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi going up against both Death Stars. You could make an argument that misogyny could be added to the Empire's long list of crimes but the Rebellion is made up of... rebels, they can't exactly pick and choose their resources.

And you know what the worst part is? They almost did have a woman among them. It turns out that for Return of the Jedi there were actually scenes shot of a female X-Wing pilot among the squadron attacking the Second Death Star. Don't remember them? Well, that's because they were all cut from the film and one line of dialogue spoken by a woman was dubbed over by a man. Yeah, that's right, George Lucas couldn't handle the idea of women fighter pilots and actually decided that maybe the film would be better with an all-male squadron. Really?


Now I can't say much about what's going to happen with the upcoming films, but I'm almost tempted to go out and say that, disregarding content of the expanded universe, the Star Wars franchise could in fact be considered to be sexist. Now, I can only speak on the six films that have already been made. Perhaps the three upcoming Disney films will do better on this issue, but as it stands, Star Wars really could benefit from having more well-written female characters.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies that Prominently Feature Food


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is food. This was a tricky one but I did find a few good options. I did know a few that I considered but ultimately decided against, specifically Ratatouille (which seemed too obvious a choice) and No Reservations (mainly on the grounds that I didn't remember enough of that movie to write about it). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was also a tempting choice but I also figured that one would be too obvious and there might be a few others doing it.

Still, I managed to find three very different films that all feature food in some form or another, so I hope you will enjoy this list.

What's Up Tiger Lilly? (1966)


Woody Allen's first big project is a really bizarre creation already with a weird history to it. To make a long story short, Woody Allen bought the rights to a Japanese film that was more or less a James Bond rip-off. He then proceeded to re-edit the film and redub it to create a whole new story. The result is hilariously incomprehensible with a variety of mind-boggling plot threads including protagonist Phil Moscowitz being hired by a "non-existent but real-sounding country" on a waitlist for a spot in the map and a marriage between a chicken and a snake.

Now, I know what you're thinking. How does food play into this movie? Well, it just so happens that the plot is driven by Moscowitz being tasked with foiling an international plot to steal a recipe for egg salad. Apparently it's really good egg salad and it is vital that the recipe doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Believe it or not that is probably one of the saner things to pop up in this movie.


My Dinner With Andre (1981)


Okay, technically the food isn't the main focus, but the whole film concerns the interaction between two men in a restaurant and the conversation they engage in over dinner. While the emphasis is more on the relationship between the two contrasting characters, the food that they eat is still an important element which adds to the whole atmosphere.

Chocolat (2000)


Finally, we can look at desert into this great movie starring Juliette Binoche (whatever you've heard, Johnny Depp is barely in the film, he is not the star). The whole conflict stems from the controversy that comes about when she moves into a small European town and opens a chocolate shop. It is her love for making chocolate that causes the deeply religious community to initially shun her, and it is also chocolate that ultimately wins the town over. Really, you couldn't pick a more fitting title for a movie like this.

Bonus: The Meaning of Life (1983)


Granted, this one doesn't feature food quite as prominently as my previous choices, but Monty Python's The Meaning of Life does prominently feature a group of fish in a restaurant (who are implied to be there so that they can be killed and served to customers). Eventually we get to see the fancy restaurant wherein a refined gentleman sings a song about how wonderful it is to have a penis, and if you think that's weird, just wait until you get to the infamous scene with Mr. Creosote.

If you've seen this movie, than you'll probably remember this scene very well. Mr. Creosote is an unusually obese man who orders literally everything on the menu. All the while the increasingly frustrated staff struggle with his tendency to vomit in every direction possible, customers are frightened away, and the whole thing builds up to an... explosive climax. It's disgusting, no doubt, but it is hilarious.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Role Of Laura Dern in David Lynch's Filmography



Laura Dern is a talented and versatile actress, there's no doubting that. From October Sky to The Fault in Our Stars, she has played a wide range of effective roles. For a more in-depth look at her filmography in general you can check Alex Withrow's discussion at And So it Begins. What interests me is to look at a very specific aspect of her work. Laura Dern may be a versatile actress, but to see that you really don't need to go through her entire career.

All you really need to do is look at her collaborations with one particular director, and that is David Lynch. He was the one that really got her career going in the 1986 thriller Blue Velvet when she was only 19, and since then she's done two other collaborations with a few hints at the possibility of a fourth thanks to an interview she did for The Fault in Our Stars. Across those three movies she has never played the same character twice.


Blue Velvet saw Dern play a very sweet and innocent young girl. She is the shy girl next door, who remains friendly and optimistic, which fits nicely into the whole theme of the movie seeing as her image of the "ideal" girlfriend provides a clear contrast to the film's other female lead: Isabella Rosselini as the emotionally disturbed neighbor caught up in the activities of one Frank Booth. As the story goes on Laura Dern becomes increasingly entangled in the web of mystery lurking beneath her hometown, and her innocence is brought into question.


Laura Dern is charming enough as Sandy, but then we get to Lynch's later film Wild At Heart, and guess who else is back? Laura Dern is now, if anything, exactly the opposite of her role in Blue Velvet. Whereas the first collaboration between Lynch and Dern featured her as a very innocent, quiet, and innocent young woman. In Wild At Heart, Dern is every bit as much in love with Sailor Ripley as Sandy was with Jeffrey Beaumont, but this time around her character is a bit dirtier. 

Lula Fortune becomes much more outspoken in this film, being driven and at times blinded by her love. This is the sort of character who gets so caught up in her relationship that she will stop at nothing to be with her one true love, even if it means hitting the road with an army of weird psychos in hot pursuit.


Finally, we move into their third (and so far, final) collaboration: Inland Empire. The whole movie is a bit weird and with its extremely subjective nature it would be hard to make a solid profile of anybody, but Laura Dern captures her role well. This time around there is no obvious romantic sub-plot, and her role becomes a much more cynical one. Whereas her good nature ultimately won out in Blue Velvet and she remained devoted to Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart, the outcome in the end isn't as clear or optimistic (although it does depend on how you interpret the ending).

Instead she plays a aspiring actress Nikki Grace. This is a character who finds herself taking on an extremely demanding role and gradually breaks down over the course of the film due to the resulting stress. Over time she begins to confuse the identities of herself and her character, failing to distinguish when she is acting and when she is not (as demonstrated in several well-executed scenes that appear to be real only to be revealed as scenes from the movie). In the end she does somewhat manage to overcome her personal problems and finish the movie, but the damage is still done.


So we have three very different performances across three different films. There do seem to be patterns that emerge with each, however. In every case, Dern seems to be cast as an idealist whose confidence is brought into question. Blue Velvet questions her good nature as she becomes entangled in a web of messed-up craziness courtesy of Frank Booth, Wild At Heart tests just how far Lula will go for love, and Inland Empire sees a confident actress gradually starting to lose herself.

If indeed Lynch is planning something new, and he really does plan to cast Laura Dern, it does make me curious what role he'll have in store for her in what would be their fourth collaboration. The one thing that seems likely is that her character would be a drastic departure from everything she has done with Lynch in the past.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The OTHER Great Train Robbery


The Great Train Robbery is a film that has a rather significant place in film history. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the first film to tell a story (it was preceded by The Life of an American Fireman and A Trip to the Moon), but it did build on its predecessors and establish more sophisticated editing techniques than had been used previously. Ultimately it would help to make a path for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation which in turn made possible every film that has been made since. That last shot alone became notorious back in 1903 when its first audiences actually expected to be shot.


Of course, that is likely what you're initially thinking of when you hear that title. What you may not realize is that this is not the only film about... well... a great train robbery. Several decades later, another film by that same title was released, directed by none other than Michael "Jurassic Park" Crichton and based on his own novel. Like the 1903 film, it was loosely based on real events, and centered on a plan to rob a moving train. That's pretty much where the similarities end.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856), the British government decides to pay its soldiers in gold. That's all well and good but they also realize very well that doing so might attract unwanted attention. They devise a sophisticated plan to ensure that the gold cannot be stolen: first they transport it by train (the film notes that nobody had ever successfully robbed a moving train at the time), with a safe built with four locks and four seperate keys that are kept by different people, all of which are required for it to open. Everything seems to be perfect.

Enter a criminal mastermind only referred to by the aliases "Edward Pierce" and "John Simms" (Sean Connery), who pretends to be a successful businessman all while collecting information in order to devise a plan to steal the gold. To open the safe he enlists Agar (played by Donald Sutherland with an awesome mustache), a forger who agrees to create replicas of the keys if they can be obtained. His other partner-in-crime is his beautiful girlfriend Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), a former actress and master of disguise who knows how to use her feminine charms.


This film is inevitably a lot of fun. The period detail is extraordinary and the pacing is very good. There is lots of intrigue surrounding the planning and execution of the heist and how it's all going to go down. Along the way various challenges present themselves, but it just becomes even more interesting how our heroes figure out a solution. When it seems impossible they have to think outside the box. When they don't have the proper means to get through they have to figure out how to get them.

That's basically the structure of the film. In short it's a step-by-step process, where our daring heroes have to take care of each obstacle, with individual segments dedicated to obtaining copies the first two keys plus a third for the last two (which are both locked up in the same place), plus any further information and obstacles that come up. Eventually it all culminates in an exciting climax with lots of daring stunts and an ending that leaves you to question just how much was planned before and how much was improvised along the way.


So overall, I would recommend Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery. It's an exciting heist film with plenty of action and suspense that will keep you going up until the grand climax, and possibly a little further than that. The leads all play off of each other surprisingly well, the problems they get into are creative as are their solutions, and there's plenty of tension going around. If you want a clever little heist film, this is definitely for you.


Thursday, 7 August 2014

A Grand Odyssey For Mankind

Recently the third trailer was released for Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Interstellar, and I'm hyped. I'm super-excited to see this movie and it looks like it is going to be something amazing. One thing in particular that makes it look extraordinarily interesting is that it seems to be a very distinct type of film. 


This isn't going to just be "the first interstellar travellers crash onto a planet and get picked off one by one". If anything it looks very much like this is going to be a story of the future, an odyssey if you will, not of one character but mankind as a whole. Very few science fiction movies have succeeded in pulling off this approach, but this particular style of film-making has a long history. 

This is a story of tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. That line opened one of the very first efforts to create such a film. George Pal's Conquest of Space may have been a colossal flop on its initial release, but little could he and director Byron Haskin have realised the door they opened for science fiction filmmakers to come. 

 Using the best science available at that point in time, Pal tried to accurately envision what the future of space travel might look like. He wanted to create an experience. Say what you will on whether he succeeded or failed. The final movie is enjoyable but does have its flaws, but such an idea was relatively new back then. You can't expect absolute perfection the first time round. However, what it may just have done was opened the door for greater and perhaps more ambitious efforts.


Only 13 years later, another science fiction movie the likes of which had never been seen before arrived in cinemas. With the debut of 2001: A Space Odyssey audiences were initially puzzled and only gradually won over by its brilliance. That film was a masterpiece in itself, no doubt about that, but could it have worked without its predecessor? Did Pal's failure with Conquest of Space open the door for Kubrick to succeed? It just might have.

It wouldn't be too great a stretch to assume Kubrick saw Conquest of Space, and even less of a stretch to assume it inspired him at least on some level at least insofar as the ultimate aim to realistically depict space travel. Pal's film only went as far as Mars, but ended on the optimistic note that it was a significant step in our exploration of the universe. Kubrick's would go further, sending us toward Jupiter, and ultimately "beyond the infinite", wherein we see a brief glimpse of just what might lie in store further down the road.


We don't see very many other films of this sort over the following years. Contact borders on it, but even then the story is very much Ellie's as opposed to one of mankind as a whole. That may change with the release of Interstellar. Pal's Conquest of Space took us to Mars. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey took us to Jupiter, and now Nolan's Interstellar seemingly launches us beyond the furthest reaches of our Solar System to exploring the stars. Perhaps here we'll see a further step in human exploration, given the trailers showed several alien landscapes.


There seems to be an overall sense of progression that comes from examining these three films at length. Each one represents a journey of humanity and what the future might conceivably hold for us. With each one the vision becomes grander, more elaborate, and ambitious, as we make a bold plunge towards the universe itself. I'm personally looking forward to seeing Interstellar and if it really is a worthy follow-up to its predecessors.