Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies With an Ensemble Cast

So in keeping with Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme, I'm supposed to list three movies based on a common theme. Last week, we looked at Stephen King adaptations and I presented three films based not based on his horror writing. This week the theme is ensemble casts. 

These are certainly interesting movies, where there isn't a definitive protagonist but rather several different people with equal significance. Even when there is one "protagonist" it's usually only defined by some specific circumstance. In Alien, the only thing that really made Ripley qualify as the protagonist was the fact that she's the only one still alive when the credits roll (though she took a more central role in the sequels).

I've written a few pieces that use such a group of characters myself, so I respect stories that can pull it off. Now, for the list, there was one option that seemed immediately obvious, and two more that were harder to decide. Here is what I've come up with:

The Thing (1982)

A list like this would hardly be complete without John Carpenter's greatest masterpiece, in which 12 very distinct men are gradually turned against each other. Nobody is spared, nobody is innocent. What makes the movie so terrifying is the knowledge that anybody could be infected, and unlike 1951's The Thing From Another World, there is no brave hero to organize the men. All they have is terror and paranoia, the same feelings which pass onto the audience. You have no idea who to root for, who you can trust and who you can't, you just have to figure it out on your own.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

This is definitely one of those films that leaves you to question where you stand from a moral perspective. The three main characters each react differently to their successful discovery of gold: Howard is the level-headed man who tries to keep order, Dobbs becomes greedy and wants the gold for himself, and poor Curtin is constantly stuck in the middle. Each one represents a different extreme, and all become necessary to make the story work.

Zulu (1964)

This is certainly an ensemble cast if there was one. We follow so many different people there's some who never interact directly, and just about everyone has their own plotline. You've got the two commanding officers Chard and Bromhead, at least two different pairs of soldiers under their command: Hook and Williams and Owen and Thomas; Colour Sergeant Bourne making sure the orders are carried out, the missionary Otto Witt who wants to evacuate the station (during the first half at least), along with several other soldiers and officers. 

Now you could make a case that Chard and Bromhead are the protagonists seeing as they're the ones who lead the charge (though even then they'd be more like co-protagonists), but the victory that is ultimately achieved is very much a team effort.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Snowpiercer: Is Revolution Justified?

Joonho Bong's Snowpiercer has been the subject of much discussion among movie bloggers recently. It's an interesting film, although a bit strange at times. It's certainly got a lot of interesting stuff going on although you could argue it has its flaws. I'll confess that the film could have benefited from having a stronger female presence, arguably on both sides. I mean, are they really discriminating by gender under these circumstances?

On the one side we never see a single female soldier working for Wilford even though given how limited their people are you'd think they'd take anyone who could pick up a gun. There are a few women who wield guns on the enemy side but half the time they only seem to come in when they're really needed.

On the other, we've got these revolutionaries going up against impossible odds and there's only two women in the group? One of whom they only took because it was a condition to get a man they needed to co-operate. I would have thought given their circumstances they'd need all the help they could get. Were there really no other women in that group of people who were willing to help?

Still, that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm more interested in looking at the themes of this movie. Everyone's been doing a review on this film, it's good, it's bad, so if I'm going to discuss it I'm going to find something new. As strange as it may have gotten at times it was certainly compelling, with some interesting visuals and creative environments, but at first it looks like it's just going to conform to the standards of a typical dystopian narrative.

It's an age-old formula: a dark world run by an oppressive government who lives in luxury while the working class lives in horrible conditions. One way or another, a hero is forced to stand up to the ruling parties, starting a revolution and ultimately making way for a better future. We've seen this plenty of films: Metropolis, Alphaville, Logan's RunThe Running Man, Total Recall, Dark CityThe Hunger Games, ElysiumDivergent. In fact if anything it's harder to find dystopian movies that don't conform to this formula than to find ones that do.

At first glance, Snowpiercer looks like it's going to do this same kind of thing, but with the twist that it's all happening on a train. To take over the train (which also means the world given the circumstances), you have to take over the engine. Since our heroes are in the very back of the train, that means they have to go through each car to get there.

In the last few cars the main characters are living in horrible conditions. They are regimented by soldiers, living in cramped conditions, fed nothing but "protein bars" (and that came later on, Curtis talks about how they initially had to resort to cannibalism). They are forced to present their children, some of whom are measured and then taken away without explanation. Admittedly, the reasons why turned out to be slightly more bearable than my imagination, since I initially assumed that Mason had resorted to using children as a source of food.

Still, it seems very clear-cut. Mason is apparently running the train, making what seem to be excuses to keep her in power. She presents an analogy in which she talks about how you wouldn't wear a shoe on your head, because it belongs on your foot: according to her, the people in the back are the shoes, she is "a hat" and that everyone has their place where they have to be to keep things working. Naturally, Curtis doesn't take any of that and the revolution commences.

At first it's a success, but already things are getting risky. Curtis correctly deduces that the soldiers don't actually have any bullets because they "went extinct" years ago and the guns are meant more as a psychological weapon than a physical one. It seems very much that they know full well they have no chance but are still doing whatever is necessary to maintain power. Still, in order to test his theory, Curtis has to literally force a guard to try shooting him. If he was wrong, it would have been a disaster.

The guards are easily overpowered and the crew begins working their way through the train, but things get increasingly dangerous. They manage to recover the designer of the train's security systems and bribe him to help get to the engine, but that proves to be easier said than done when the next big obstacle turns out to be a single hallway full of large men with axes. The result is more or less complete and utter chaos. Both sides suffer heavy losses. A large portion of the rear passengers are killed (and as punishment, even more are executed). By this point most of his people are dead (including a close friend), but Curtis has no choice but to keep pushing on.

Meanwhile, Mason acts like a dirty coward. One of her officers is caught and the man holding him demands they surrender. The officer pleads for them to comply so that he might live, but Mason is barely phased by his throat being cut open. She is captured without much trouble, at which point she resorts to pleading for her life. They take her with them for a short time and she does reveal information that they didn't have access to (why their plan to use the water supply to influence negotiations wouldn't have worked, for instance), but it soon becomes clear that she's not actually in charge.

It's all the mysterious "Wilford" who runs the engine, and to whom she answers. If anything, the way she stubbornly talks about how "merciful" he is, it almost seems as though she herself has been brainwashed into believing in this system, much like the kids seen when the group is led into a classroom. This area provides quite the contrast to everything seen before it. It's all bright and colorful, with a very cheerful atmosphere, which makes quite a leap from the bleak, grey world seen before.

Many of the kids say horrible things about the people in the rear. The pregnant teacher is delightfully teaching them about how important the train is and how without they'd "all freeze and die", singing songs about it and having it happily pointed out when they pass by several frozen corpses just to make sure that the kids understand the severity of the situation.

Furthermore, the staff also has no objection to setting up a massacre of the revolutionaries right here in plain view of the children. Even the teacher pulls out a gun, which brings us to one particularly brutal moment when she is dispatched by one of the protagonists throwing a knife into her throat. This particular moment is one that does lead to a questioning of the morality of the situation: specifically just how much is too much?

It's cost most of his people just to get Curtis this far. Now his same people have had to resort to stabbing a pregnant woman (killing both her and by extension the baby). That's not exactly a moral thing to be forced to do. In addition, it's around this point that they end up murdering Mason in cold blood. These are still the "good guys" who have to do this.

They're not exactly great people to begin with either. Curtis wants to redeem himself but he does explain that he's done a lot of horrible things in his life just to survive, and ultimately that's what it's really come down to. By this point it's less about right and wrong, and more about trying to stay alive and keep going at all costs. This may have started as a revolution but even the "good guys" have to do horrible things and suddenly they don't seem so good anymore

As the revolution proceeds, things get increasingly heated. We see them pass through car after car full of people living in luxurious lifestyles, many of which start to feel a lot less like the desperate struggle to survive established at the beginning. Nearly everyone that remains of Curtis's followers are killed by a seemingly invincible henchman, and suddenly it comes down to him alone. He finally reaches the engine, at which point he gets into conflict with the one guy who remains when it turns out he had an entirely different plan: stocking up on a flammable substance to blow a hole in the train and escape.

Now this film could have easily gone in a different direction, but the way it opted to go is a fascinating one. Curtis makes it to the engine alone, where he meets Wilford, who turns out just to be a human being despite all the buildup. The Engine turns out to seem quite pleasant, it's private, and fairly spacious, although there is some discomfort with Wilford's assistant constantly pointing a gun at Curtis.

Now Curtis wanted to bring equality to the train, but in the end it turns out that's not possible. The whole revolution was planned from the beginning. Wilford was working with one of the key players in the revolution to make it happen the way it did. The sad thing is ultimately Curtis has to face the brutal reality: the hierarchy established really is the best way to keep the train going and to preserve order. There is no alternative; they even have to resort to child labor because there's no way to replace certain parts. Taking over the train, as Wilford wanted, would mean simply taking his place.

This is certainly something that often becomes a problem with real revolutions. The French Revolution, for example, was supposed to overthrow a tyrant, but ended up using fear to incite support and when it was over one of its key players took power and brought about a reign of terror perhaps even worse than what came before. Arguably the same deal with the Russian Revolution, which was meant to liberate the people, then Lenin died and Stalin managed to work his way into power, becoming one of the most brutal dictators in history.

Even with the most noble intent, revolutions are prone to corruption and often end with just a change in power followed by things going back to the way they were before, if not in fact worse. Similar themes were explored in the movie Duck, You Sucker by Sergio Leone, which also had a scene where Rod Steiger goes on an extended rant about this very subject.

Now, this film could have ended like any dystopian narrative, but it's interesting that it opted for something different. There is no optimistic outcome. If anything, the film ends on a very ambiguous note, wherein the train is destroyed. It creates a massive wreck, some of its cars fall over cliffs and tumble around. Only two characters are explicitly shown to survive, we never find out if anyone else did, and it's not clear what their future is.

Considering the damage done it's very likely that a lot of people were killed. That aquarium was probably destroyed, along with the gardens, and it was explicitly said that no life remained on Earth (although the presence of a polar bear suggests the faint possibility that isn't completely true). One man had found evidence that the snow was melting, perhaps if this revolution had never happened the train would still be running by the time the snow finally melted enough that life could be restored. As it stands, we can only speculate on just how much good or harm it really did.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Six Degrees of Separation Blogathon

Nostra at the blog My Filmviews has an interesting new event going on called the Six Degrees of Separation Blogathon. As it's name implies, it's based on the classic game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, and having indulged in this game and proved quite good at it, I couldn't resist taking up the challenge. Thankfully, Wendell Ottley at Dell on Movies was nice enough to pass me the baton and gave me a real challenge. This was a tricky one but I think I've figured it out.

So the way the game works it simple enough. The idea is that in six steps you have to connect one person to another, usually two people who at first seem completely unrelated. Usually this is done with actors by way of movies they starred in, but this one is a bit more open to greater connections. The difference here is that once you've made your link in six degrees, you have to pass it on to another blogger by assigning them a new challenge, using your conclusion as a starting point.

The challenge I've been given is to connect Lindsay Lohan to Sydney Potier. This was a tricky one because I really only knew the latter by name, and I went through several possible routes before I found this one that worked best. So how did I connect two unrelated actors? Well, let's take a look:

1. Lindsay Lohan starred in Freaky Friday  (2003) alongside Jamie Lee Curtis.

2. Jamie Lee Curtis was in Halloween (1978) with Donald Pleasence.

3. Donald Pleasence appeared in The Great Escape (1963), which also starred James Coburn.

4. James Coburn starred in Duck, You Sucker (1971) alongside Rod Steiger.

5. Rod Steiger co-starred with Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.

Now I'm supposed to pass the baton onto another blogger. I'm thinking I'll go with Jenna and Allie of Flick Chicks. For their challenge, let's see...

How about Sidney Poitier to Groucho Marx? This one should be interesting. I have no idea how you'd do it but I'm sure you'll figure out something.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Rocket Number 9 Take Off To the Planet Venus... On Second Thought, Maybe Don't

So I've recently been working my way through a collection of "sci-fi classics" (or more accurately, a bunch of b-movies, some of which I have no idea where the science fiction aspect is) that I got for Christmas a few years ago. Unfortunately, since I don't know how to make robots out of the parts of my blu-ray player that control when the movie starts and ends, I had to do the riffing all by myself.

There's a total of 100 films and I've so far watched 11. At best, most of the movies have been tolerable or at least enjoyably bad. Some of them are flawed but have interesting enough ideas to keep you going (The Incredible Petrified World), and some are just horrendously bad. Horrors of Spider Island had absolutely no logic to it, almost no spiders (the real antagonist was one of the main characters who somehow turned into an indestructible monster after being bit by a spider) and at one point the plot is literally abandoned just for a party sequence.

Still, the worst so far have been a strange pair of films. The first was Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. This one was really hard to sit through. It's supposed to be about a group of astronauts on an expedition to Venus. I'd call their vision of the planet dated but it makes no sense even by the standards of 1965. 

For those of you who aren't fluent in astronomy, the true nature of Venus was a very recent discovery. At some point in the 20th century, someone looked at Venus and saw that it had clouds. Since as we all know, those could only possibly be created by water, the logical conclusion was that Venus had an Earth-like environment. Then one day we did some further studies and it turned out to be a dry inferno with acid rain. Before that discovery, however, many science fiction writers liked to imagine the possibility of life on Venus. 

That said, the vision of the future in this film makes almost no sense. There's two groups of characters to follow and they're both made up of men who are impossible to tell apart. I've seen this problem crop up before but here they don't even have much of a personality to distinguish them. The only character of any interest is a female astronaut named Marsha, who serves more as a controller from orbit.

It's also another good example of a film that shows it has no idea what it's talking about. It's taken a tip from the Jean-Luc Godard school of science fiction writing: just use throw the word "galaxy" into your script and you'll instantly have a great vision of the future. At the very end we hear a narrator talk about how humans exploring "other worlds and other galaxies".

I think they're missing a few steps there. What about other star systems within our own galaxy? We'd have a far better chance of reaching one of those than we ever would leaving our own galaxy. I hate it when science fiction writers just throw around astronomy terms "galaxy" and "nebula" like that when they clearly have no idea what they mean.

Of course, as if the plot of Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet wasn't confusing enough, there's another film tying in with it and I can't make heads or tail of what the intention was. This was called Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women. At first glance, it appeared to be a sequel, attempting to pick up where the first film left off, in which case it would be completely unwarranted as there was nothing in the first film that made me want to see the story continue. 

It looked like it was going to address one unresolved plot thread in the original version, which concerned one of the astronauts hearing the voice of a woman on Venus but never managing to find her. That was until the narration recapping the events of the previous film ended up taking far too much time. It ended up going on for at least twenty or thirty minutes before we got to any of the "prehistoric women", though the sad part is that this summary of events made a lot more sense than the original plot.

However, it turned out to be nothing more than a bizarre and unnecessary re-edit. Basically, the story was more or less the same as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet except it cut Marsha's scenes (some of the more tolerable parts of the original version) and spliced in a bunch of shots of scantily clad women with a sub-plot of their own. They're apparently supposed to be alien, but as you can expect from any b-movie of this sort, it's an exclusively female society. Apparently they reproduce asexually and have a language that by total coincidence is identical to English. Seriously, why do b-movies that do this kind of thing never make an effort to address the obvious questions they raise.

Basically once the "prehistoric women" finally enter the picture, something like 40 minutes in, their plot concerns a creature killed by the protagonists in self-defense. In the original version, this was just a minor action scene that unsuccessfully tried to build tension. In this version, it claims that the creature in question was worshiped by these women, and they want to avenge it by killing the astronauts. It was so bad I didn't even finish the movie, but from what I could gather their scenes are mostly just spliced in among re-edited footage from Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and never really connects to it much.

What was the point of this film? Why does Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women exist? Was the original such a hit as to warrant a director's cut, or is this just supposed to be some kind of sequel or midquel? What was the idea behind making this movie? Why was it necessary to re-edit the film and splice in these scenes of mostly nude women? In what way did the plot of Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet warrant any kind of follow-up at all? I can't imagine it was because the film was so gripping people wanted to know about the woman whose voice that astronaut kept claiming to hear.

I have no idea. Whatever the filmmakers intended, don't bother with either of these films. All you'll get is a painful hour (and an extra 20 minutes in the case of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women) of an incoherent story in which you can't even distinguish the actors you're supposed to be rooting for. As far as b-movies go, unless you have a couple of robots on hand who can riff either of them to help you get through it, these films are ones that you can certainly skip.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

When is a Film a Product of its Time?

I still stand by my claim that this is a better boxing film than Raging Bull

When you run a blog like mine, you sometimes have to deal with angry comments. There are definitely a few areas where I've made some controversial remarks, and it's not surprising that I may have struck a few nerves along the way.

I have yet to hear any angry comments from fans of Tarkovsky's Solaris criticizing me for saying that the remake with George Clooney was better, or even any of Godard's fans accusing me of being an idiot for saying that Alphaville had the most pathetic vision of the future ever put on film and that he is a horrible director.

Where I have gotten lots of feedback, however, is with regards to my comments on James Bond. The article Why do People Like James Bond? was only my fourth published article on this blog and yet it still remains the most popular. Apparently controversy sells, and I've certainly gotten plenty of that.

I've found a handful of people who agree with my stance that the James Bond franchise is sexist, others who see where I'm coming from but who try to enjoy the films anyway, and the die hard fans who stubbornly try to defend it. Believe me in this business there is nothing more frustrating than trying to explain to a die hard fan why the Bond franchise is sexist, because no matter what points you make they will just repeat the same arguments, fling insults at you, and at best completely miss the point of what you're trying to say.

I've already had one person try to defend the rape scene in Goldfinger by saying that it wasn't presented as a rape scene as if that somehow made it okay (that's exactly the point, they were trying to make a horrible act look charming). I've also had someone try to break it down and argue it wasn't a rape scene, and then demand that I explain how it was (Bond forces a woman to have sex with him, I'm pretty sure that's the basic definition of rape). I've also had idiots who have stubbornly tried to deny the allegations I have made, instead opting to fling insults at me and claim that my statements about the Bond franchise have no basis and that I'm the idiot.

This is the hero, everybody, and people still try to defend him.

Now, for the more civilized fans I have argued with, there are two big rebuttals I've heard against my comments. The first is "Bond is supposed to be the ideal male fantasy", and the second is that "it's a product of its time." There is a slight problem here, and I'd say that these arguments actually conflict with one another, but we'll get to the specifics of why later on.

Just what does it mean for something to be "a product or its time"? Well, in my experience, that usually means quite simply that the work in question was made at a time when people saw the world much differently from today. In particular it usually implies that people had different ethical standards at that particular point in time: something considered acceptable back then is repulsive by modern standards and vice versa.

So to provide a straight forward example, blackface (a white actor donning obviously fake makeup to play a black character) was considered perfectly acceptable in early 20th century filmmaking, but try doing it today and you'll get into a lot of trouble. The only occasions you might be able to get away with it is either in parody or in a period piece set at the point in time, and even then it might be difficult.

By contrast, as I have discussed previously, there was a time when movies were not allowed to so much as acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. While it's still a controversial subject, the regulations aren't as strictly enforced and movies are no longer bound by a strict code, which has allowed some filmmakers to depict it. If you tried to make a movie like Brokeback Mountain, Blue is the Warmest Colour, or Mulholland Drive during the Studio Era, you'd be shot down within seconds of pitching the script.

Even if you did somehow manage to convince the studio, you'd have to change the ending. Imagine a version of Brokeback Mountain which ends with Ennis "learning his lesson" and being "cured" of being gay. It certainly wouldn't be the same movie. In fact the obviously homophobic tone would be incredibly offensive nowadays. At the same time, the ending actually used in the film would have outraged audiences during the studio era.

Now, considering we are slowly evolving from a centuries-old society that until fairly recently was rooted in misogyny, racism, slavery, homophobia, and lots of other horrible things, it's not surprising you sometimes have to understand that when looking at material from certain points in time. That's not to mean you should outright ignore anything that seems offensive, just understand that's it's only that way nowadays. 

In some cases you can take on the slightly more optimistic approach, understanding the negative stuff but finding one little positive aspect to consider. H.P. Lovecraft is a great example: on the one hand he was an extreme racist, on the other he supported woman's rights. His opinions could be seen as extremely progressive or horrendously dated depending on which side you look from.

Looking at this angle in a cinematic sense, you can find plenty of examples. Conquest of Space seems to imply that female astronauts don't exist. That's not a very pleasant image nowadays, but on the other the one Japanese astronaut is depicted as a competent professional and more or less equal to the otherwise all-white cast, not bad for a film released in 1955.

The key word here is understanding how people saw things back then. It's likely that they couldn't have seen where their society would go. After all if they had there wouldn't be so many science fiction movies that imagine the perspective of the 1950's still holding up in the distant future. To them, that's just the way things were. There was never any intent to offend. Conquest of Space wasn't trying to be sexist in its vision of the future, it's just that in the male-dominated society of the time, the thought of women being astronauts probably just never crossed the minds of the filmmakers.

That's the thing with a lot of works that are "products of their time". Shakespeare probably didn't write The Taming of the Shrew with the intent of creating something extremely sexist. He was writing at a time when it was literally illegal for women to even perform in the theater, after all, and stories like that were quite popular, so he probably just never considered the implications of his narrative. 

Same deal goes for Birth of a Nation, which D.W. Griffith never consciously intended to be racist. He even tried to redeem himself when he found out precisely the implications of his movie. This would be a film where you'd have to take into account the circumstances surrounding its production, but what if we came back to James Bond? Is Bond a product of its time?

Well, according to a lot of the die hard fans, yes. They insist you have to put yourself in the shoes of the time period to appreciate the films (at least, assuming these aren't the kind of fans who will try to outright deny the existence of any offensive content in the franchise). However, as I said before, there is the argument that Bond is supposed to be the "male fantasy". 

First off, I don't know how many men in the 1960's actually fantasized about doing the kind of stuff Bond did, but when you get down to it, the argument is justifying the Connery films being sexist. To bring it into some simpler terms: the films were intended to be that way. The writers consciously wrote their scripts knowing full well that they were extremely misogynistic, but made no effort to do anything about it.

So which one is it? You can't have it both ways. These are the two biggest arguments I get and they essentially cancel each other out. To be a "product of its time", the work can't have been made with the intent of being offensive. The artist wasn't consciously trying to be sexist, racist, or homophobic, they just didn't know any better due to the standards of the world they lived in. 

However, according to this argument, Connery's Bond films were consciously intended to be sexist, so I'm sorry but that argument can't help you. Bond is not "a product of its time" but rather the product of misogynistic screenwriters who knew very well what they were doing and made no effort to fix it. To me, that's even more offensive.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Red Shoes, the Line, the Cross, and the Curve

It is a tale of sorrow, of triumph and tragedy. A young woman with a love for dancing obtains a pair of  red shoes. When put on they present a terrifying experience in which she is forced to dance uncontrollably, leading to her tragic demise. Based on that description, you were probably thinking of the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, or the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (the same guy who wrote the stories behind Disney's The Little Mermaid and Frozen, along with the classic fairy tales The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor's New Clothes) which inspired it. To be fair you were half-right.

I say half, because there is something I haven't told you. You see, I'm interested in discussing The Red Shoes, but I'm also curious to bring up a different film, with a name attached that you probably never expected to see pop up on this blog: Kate Bush. For those of you who aren't familiar with her work, she is a very talented British pop star first discovered as a teenager by David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and has since gone on to have an impressive musical career spanning three decades. Her music is so distinct it is almost impossible to fit her work into any specific genre. If anything it's sort of a blend of several different styles that would ordinarily seem mutually exclusive.

Kate was heavily influenced by a wide variety of different works (her very first single was based on the novel Wuthering Heights), and she has plenty of interesting music videos. The story behind this particular work is that in the early 90's she released an album titled The Red Shoes inspired by the 1948 film. Instead of doing a few music videos for specific songs like she would normally do, Kate got the idea to make a short film that would incorporate several tracks from the original album.

The result was a little film called The Line, the Cross, and the Curve. It is an interesting experience if you ever get the chance to see it. I don't know if it was ever released on DVD, but it should be available on YouTube. This movie was not a huge success, and even Kate was disappointed by the final product (supposedly she later called the film "a load of bullocks"). To be fair the low budget does show at times, but at the same time it's an intriguing experiment in what could be considered avant-garde film making.

Okay, technically, it's ambiguous whether the shoes themselves actually have any magical properties in The Red Shoes, but they still play a significant part. In that one the red shoes are only explicitly magical within the world of the ballet itself, as depicted in its incredible dance sequence which condenses the events of the narrative while still illustrating the key events. Outside of the ballet, the tragic fate of Victoria Page ends up being more the result of the mounting tension between director Boris Lermontov (who provides a means for her to fulfill her dream of being a great dancer) and his former composer Julian Craster (whom she loves).

Lermontov is a man who believes that his career as a ballet director should come above all else, while Craster is an idealist who believes love conquers all. Ultimately the tension reaches its peak when both men confront each other in Victoria's dressing room, and force her to choose between them. Victoria is confused and unable to make a choice between her dream and her love, leading to her attempted suicide, or at least that's what it looks like. Ultimately that's the big question: was it the shoes or was it her?

The ending also offers a parallell to the ballet itself when Victoria, who is lying on a stretcher, badly hurt and possibly dying, asks Craster to take off the red shoes. During the dance sequence we saw something similar, when the ballerina she portrays lies dying as a man carefully removes her shoes. In the context of that ballet, it seems as though the ballerina is finally at peace, and here there is a very similar vibe.

The Red Shoes is indeed a masterpiece of cinema, and quite a daring film for 1948. Now granted, this was a British film, but it was still made during the days of the Studio System, and to an English-speaking audience the ambiguity of mixing dreams and reality as seen here was very hard to get away with, but the risk ultimately paid off and the result was an incredible movie that still inspires artists today. I don't think it's too great a stretch to suggest that this film was a major influence on the more recent Oscar winner Black Swan, and of course we can certainly see its influence on Kate Bush.

Plot-wise, the two films diverge in two drastically different paths. The Red Shoes is slightly more grounded in reality, and centers around the stress experienced by the central character of Vicky, and the growing tension that comes as she is ultimately faced with the impossible decision of choosing between the man she loves and her passion for dancing. The Line, the Cross, and the Curve takes on a stranger approach, centering around an unnamed singer (played by Bush herself) who is visited by a mysterious woman that tricks her into wearing a pair of cursed red shoes which dance endlessly, leading to a journey through a surreal fantasy world.

Music still plays an important role in both films, although in very different ways. The Red Shoes is about ballet after all, and so there are plenty of long stretches of time spent without dialogue, particularly during the dance sequences. It's in many ways a very visual piece with some splendid choreography.

Kate's film uses her own music as a driving force, with the plot being set in motion by the singer being tricked into drawing a line, a cross, and a curve on three sheets of paper (which triggers the curse that puts her in the red shoes). The only way to escape from being forced to dance endlessly by the shoes is to reclaim those symbols, something she ultimately does through song.

Now both films are quite the experience and certainly worth your time, but why bring up these two specifically? Well, Kate Bush's The Line, the Cross, and the Curve was clearly influenced by The Red Shoes. In fact, it was based on the album The Red Shoes which also featured a song inspired by the movie. This was actually part of what led me to look up The Red Shoes in the first place after it was recommended to me, since I already knew the title through Kate's music. 

There is a bit of a resemblance. It makes one wonder if the makeup on "The Shoemaker" in The Red Shoes inspired the character known only as "The Guide" in The Line, the Cross, and the Curve.

They are two very different films and it would be futile to compare and contrast them. One is a big-budget musical epic and the other is a low-budget experimental short, but it is interesting to discuss both films at length, and to see the impact one movie had on another. Story-wise, Kate's little film has almost no resemblance to Powell's epic, but the inspiration is there. 

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Stephen King

Well, by total chance, I found out about an interesting little event. Another blogger known as "Wanderer" has started what she identified as the "Thursday Movie Picks Meme". The idea is that each week, there is a different theme, and we have to write about three movies which fit that criteria. This week, the theme is "Movies Based on Stephen King". I haven't read much of the guy's work outside of part of The Dark Tower, but I have seen plenty of the films based on his stories, so I should be able to come up with three.

The real trick is to find some unusual choices. It's hard to label the most "obvious" choices, but there are a few that I'm going to avoid because I imagine there'll probably be a ton of other people mentioning them. The Shining, for example, is one I won't bring up because I figure there'll probably be a bunch of other people talking about it. Here's what I'm going to do. Stephen King is known primarily as a horror writer, so I'm going to subvert expectations by discussing three non-horror adaptations of his work, and maybe throw in one horror film as a bonus. Here we go!

The Running Man (1987)

Oh wow, this is certainly a guilty pleasure if ever there was one. I mean, it's a campy, over-the-top action film but it's just so much fun as well an interesting satire of consumerism. It even has Family Feud host Richard Dawson (in one of the only big acting roles he got after starring in Hogan's Heroes) running an evil game show in which over-the-top psychos with weird gimmicks (this movie has an opera singing electric gladiator) chase convicts through a series of mazes. 

Of course, the real star is Arnold Schwarzenegger who is always a lot of fun even with the campiest scripts. He's one of his usual tough guys here, getting lots of over-the-top action and amusing one-liners. What else can I say? If you want a serious adaptation you might want to avoid this one, but for those of you who just want a little bit of fun give yourself a treat.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Now this is a popular one, though I'm not sure how popular it is as a Stephen King adaptation. Even casting aside the source material this is just a fantastic movie. To this day it still remains in the #1 spot on the IMDB Top 250, and it deserves to be there. It would be almost impossible to list all the things that are great about it. You'd be hard-pressed to find problems with the movie.

The thing that leads me to put it on this list, however, is in just how unlike Stephen King's usual work this is. There's no supernatural or science fiction elements, and no real horror. It's just pure emotion and character, and ultimately a very optimistic little piece for a story set in a prison.

The Green Mile (1999)

It's funny how for a respected horror writer, a lot of King's best films are the ones that have no horror elements in them at all. Take The Green Mile for instance. Here's a story that has some supernatural aspects but much like The Shawshank Redemption is ultimately a story about human goodness. This was made by the same director but adds a few twists to make it unique enough.

For one thing the perspective is flipped from the prisoners to the guards, but this doesn't mean the prisoners become horrible people. On the contrary, with one exception most of the prisoners are quite sympathetic, and similarly all but one of the guards are decent people. The story really becomes one about the ethics of death row, and the strain that comes with such a job. After all it takes a lot of nerve to spend months getting to know and comforting prisoners only to eventually have to watch them die by electric chair.

Bonus: Christine (1983)

Now there's a few good ones for the horror genre, but I figure Carrie and The Shining are much too obvious. Instead, let's look at Christine. This is an interesting experience for me because this was the film that re-ignited my confidence in John Carpenter's talent for horror (something that had been shattered by the experience of watching Halloween).

What is really fascinating about this movie is the fact that it's one of those films that could very easily have gone wrong. This could very well have just ended up being a generic slasher in which a bunch of uninteresting and poorly acted teens are gradually murdered by the obviously fake killer car with overt amounts of gore. Instead it becomes a surprisingly intelligent movie, largely because it makes the smart move of focusing primarily on the characters.

In short, the story is less about the killer car itself so much as how the various characters are affected by it. In particular one of the main characters is gradually driven insane by his obsession with the car while slowly alienating himself from his friends. In fact you actually have to wait for some time before you even see the car in any kind of action, and even when you do it becomes hard to tell how much of the carnage has to do with the car itself and how much is at the hands of her increasingly troubled owner.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Against the Crowd Blogathon: Is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Really that Bad?

So it's a bit late to participate in Wendell Ottley's Against the Crowd Blogathon but I've only contributed half of what he asked for. I did a long-winded rant about John Carpenter's Halloween, but I also needed to find a movie everybody else hated that I actually liked. I could certainly find a few just by browsing John Carpenter's filmography. Even if they had their flaws I personally enjoyed Escape From L.A. and Ghosts of Mars and I even found thought The Ward had some good scares. Still, I wanted to find something a bit different.

I recall I was just getting back into the Indiana Jones franchise when I heard the news of a fourth movie in production. LEGO was producing sets based off the films and I had started to watch the original trilogy for the first time in years and quickly got hooked. There was a lot of hype for the plans to make a fourth Indiana Jones movie but like The Phantom Menace and Prometheus it received a whole bunch of negative backlash upon release. The strange thing is I actually kinda liked it, and I don't think a lot of the negative criticism is entirely fair.

First off, it was definitely a smart move to change the time period. I mean even if Harrison Ford agreed to dye his hair brown I don't think there would be any way they could make him look exactly like he did 33 years ago, so updating the setting to reflect the actor's aging makes perfect sense. Furthermore, the original trilogy was based on 1930's adventure serials. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull updated the time-frame to the 1950's, by which point those had gone out of style and been replaced by science fiction serials, so it's not too great a stretch to look at those for inspiration instead.

This gives me the perfect opportunity to address one of the biggest complaints about this film: the aliens. A lot of people have criticized the film for featuring aliens for various reasons. The biggest one is that supposedly it conflicts with the previous installments, specifically because of the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark which implies the Judeo-Christian God exists in this universe. 

The part that they overlook is that three different religions are "validated" in the original trilogy: Raiders of the Lost Ark draws from Judaism, The Temple of Doom draws from Hinduism, and The Last Crusade draws from Christianity. The films have never been fully consistent about what (if any) religious figures exist in this universe, so really there's no reason aliens couldn't be present either. You could also make the case that the "religious" artifacts featured in the previous films were also the products of these aliens and they're just sufficiently advanced as appear "magic" and inspire various religions.

I will also go ahead and address the other big criticism, which is the infamous "nuclear fridge" sequence. It is a bit of a strange choice on the part of Spielberg and Lucas but a lot of people insist that this scene is too unbelievable to be taken seriously. While I can see where they are coming from, I feel it is worth pointing out that the previous films weren't exactly grounded in reality.

Raiders of the Lost Ark had Indy getting dragged along a road by a fast-moving truck and still being able to beat up a bunch of armed men with only a few bruises to show for it. The Temple of Doom has an equally unrealistic scene where Indy his companions escape from a plane by jumping out in a life raft while at a high altitude (the Mythbusters even tested this and proved it to be impossible; it could be done with an escape slide but that's not what was used in the movie). 

That same movie also featured a man ripping out a prisoner's still-beating heart with his bare hands. The Last Crusade had Indy stop a pursuing Nazi by jamming a flagpole into the wheel of his motorcycle causing it to flip into the air (also tested and proved impossible by the Mythbusters). While it's still a strange idea, by Indy's standards the fridge scene really isn't that far-fetched.

A lot of people also complained about Indy having a son, but I didn't think Shia LaBeouf was that bad in the role. (Yes, I'm defending one of his movies. You can start pelting me with rotten fruit now) The idea of giving Indy a son was actually an interesting choice, especially given the last film was about Indy's relationship to his father. 

That's actually another thing, a lot of people have criticized the choice to kill off Henry Jones Sr. because it supposedly conflicts with the events of The Last Crusade, even though it was addressed in that movie. While the Holy Grail has healing powers (even healing what might otherwise have been a lethal gunshot wound), the only way to get eternal life from it would require you to remain in its presence (as that knight had done), which means staying in those ruins because the grail isn't allowed leave.

Now one choice that I think was a very good one was the decision to bring back Marion Ravenwood, Indy's original love interest, instead of trying to find him a new one like The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade did. Marion was probably the best of the various love interests. She had the right balance of qualities. Willie Scott was too much of a damsel in distress, always screaming and finding ways to cause lots of trouble (even Indy got fed up with her at times). Elsa being a femme fatale was an interesting turn but Marion was the most complex. She was strong and certainly capable of being tough but also had her limits, and that made her the best fit for Indy. 

Now, is Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I personally think it's a fun little adventure movie that really doesn't deserve a lot of the backlash it's gotten since its release. It's got some great action, takes the franchise in a few interesting new directions, and even addresses some of the issues of the previous installments.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Character Profile: Lieutenant Fontaine

From the moment we first meet Fontaine, we can tell he is a determined man who doesn't want to take any crap from the Nazis. Many of his fellow prisoners are more willing to submit but there is no way he plans to let them win. Every moment he's always looking for some sort of opportunity, as established right at the beginning.

In the very first scene we see him carefully studying the car he is being transported in. He quickly notices the door is unlocked, and he waits for his opportunity, which comes when the car is forced to stop. He is quickly recaptured but he hardly regrets making the attempt to get out.

When at the prison, Fontaine is a bit more pessimistic, but he is still willing to take an opportunity when it comes. He sees a chance to get word of his capture through a group of men who seem to wander around the courtyard. He has no way of telling if he can trust them or not, but there really is no other option and so he has no choice but to risk exposing valuable information. Fortunately, that risk pays off and the man turns out to be trustworthy.

Of course, Fontaine is still human, and we see that he quickly forms connections with other prisoners. During his first few days in prison he becomes close friends with another prisoner, one he never even sees or speaks directly to, and he is clearly upset when he learns of the man's execution. Later on he is able to interact more directly with other prisoners and makes several friends. This ultimately works in his favor as many of those friends provide him with the necessary materials to plan his escape.

As determined as Fontaine is, he is still not immune to fear or any anxieties you might expect to fall upon someone in his predicament. Throughout the movie he has to deal with the strain of not knowing what's going to happen to him. Even after he's told he is sentenced to face a firing squad, he still has no idea when it's going to happen. The best he can do is figure out the right time to leave and hope the execution doesn't happen before then.

As if that weren't enough, he also has the added stress of an inmate named Jost, who he may or may not be able to trust. By the time Jost arrives he's mostly ready to go, but understandably has trouble dealing with what to do about his inmate. The solution he arrives at is to find out as much about Jost as he can and then force him into a position where he has to help. Ironically of course, Jost turns out not only to be more trustworthy than Fontaine thought but also ends up being essential to the escape's success (there is one wall which required two people working together to get over).

What makes Fontaine such an interesting character is in how he still manages to persevere and never truly gives up. He has his darker moments, his fears, and times where he isn't sure he'll succeed, but he never willingly submits to his captors. It should hardly come as a surprise that he should have this attitude, considering he was a member of the French resistance, it makes sense that even when captured he'd still resent the Nazis.

Being a member of the resistance, Fontaine is naturally very resourceful, finding clever ways to take advantage of his circumstances. He notices little things that might otherwise have been overlooked, such as the flawed design of the doors that made it possible to dismantle them piece by piece without being noticed, using a spoon he hid during one of his meals. This talent is established early on as well, where once Fontaine has access to a safety pin is able to easily slip out of his handcuffs and put them back on as soon as a guard comes his way.

In the long run, Fontaine's determination and his resourcefulness go a long way. Not only does he manage to remain one step ahead of his captors but manages to make and escape that at first seemed impossible. He manages to think of just about every problem he could see coming from his cell, and ultimately also shows that he can think on his feet, figuring out how to deal with other problems even if his own consciousness made it hard for him to face the likelihood that he would have to commit murder to succeed.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Is Lovecraft Unfilmable?

I've heard this discussion a lot and so I thought I would take the time and attempt to address this question. There have been plenty of attempts to film the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, most of which are either critically panned or hotly contested. Dean Stockwell has already starred in two hated adaptations of The Dunwhich Horror and Del Toro has been trying to get his screen treatment of At the Mountains of Madness off the ground for years. I mean even I've written my own screenplay version of the same story and I think it's turned out alright.

But perhaps I should start at the beginning. For those of you not familiar with his work, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American writer best known for his influence on the horror genre. He primarily did short stories, most if not all of which are now public domain and thus can be found online for free (this website has a pretty good collection of his texts), and while he might not have been famous during his lifetime his influence on the horror genre cannot be denied. This man has been a huge inspiration behind some of the biggest names in contemporary horror, including John Carpenter and Stephen King.

The controversy regarding whether his work can be filmed comes from the style his writing is known for. Many of his stories are based on the philosophy that mankind is an insignificant part of a vastly uncaring universe. He believed that humanity was little more than a spec of dust in the grand scheme of things, and that there were horrors out there beyond our wildest imagination that could destroy us in a second, and that we were doomed by our own insignificance. The thing is, his opinion wasn't so much that these things were evil (the only truly evil being in his works is one who is quite fascinated with humanity) so much as they were indifferent.

The analogy that often gets used is that these creatures see us the same way we'd see bugs on the sidewalk. However, many of these creatures are so mind-shatteringly beyond our range of understanding that they are literally indescribable, sometimes to the point that merely glimpsing them is a enough to drive a person to complete and utter madness. This is where the controversy comes in. How do you film something that is indescribable? So is Lovecraft unfilmmable?

Well, no. He may be difficult to film, but not impossible as we can see by the fact that there are some well-done Lovecraft adaptations. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has so far made two low-budget but surprisingly faithful adaptations of his stories: The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. The latter in particular goes in a few different directions from the original novella on which its based (in particular it adds in a whole third act that wasn't originally there), but it still manages to remain true to the Lovecraft's themes and preserved the bleak atmosphere of his work rather effectively. In fact a few of the twists and turns were actually legitimately terrifying, particularly the unsettling reveal at the end which I won't spoil.

However, many of the films that seem to be better received are the ones that aren't necessarily based on Lovecraft so much as inspired by him. There's a ton of films that have been slotted into this category including Carpenter's The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but the best example would be the third and final installment of his "Apocalypse Trilogy" In the Mouth of Madness. This was a film that he admitted was one great big tribute to Lovecraft, not based on any particular story but trying to create the same sort of atmosphere and full of references to his stories.

The thing is, you can't really generalize Lovecraft as "unfilmable". The best approach I can take is to look more at individual narratives, because not all of them involved "indescribable" horrors. The way I see it, it really depends on the story you're looking at. Some actually lend themselves quite nicely to film, while others might be much harder to do (though not necessarily impossible). Let me bring up two examples to illustrate this point.

Though we have yet to see it made into a film, whether it be my version or Del Toro's (or both), one can't deny that At the Mountains of Madness has some cinematic potential. The story, which centers around an Antarctic expedition discovering an ancient alien city, lends itself to some incredible images. Considering it's the Antarctic there's lots of room for great landscape shots and even more room for lots of fascinating images with regards to the city itself, all the buildings and their bizarre hieroglyphs and any artifacts we might see within.

There isn't much action but with all the curiosity surrounding the ruins there doesn't need to be, especially with that chase scene at the end. The shoggoth itself might be a bit harder to pull off, regardless of whether we use practical effects or CGI, but I think it could still be done with a little bit of creativity. The Elder-Things on the other hand wouldn't be so hard, especially considering we never see them move.

To bring up a contrast, why don't we shift focus to Lovecraft's short story The Colour Out of Space (which ironically several people have attempted to film). The story is simple enough: a mysterious meteor lands in a farm and brings with it some sort of... thing (it's so alien that "a colour" is the best way anyone can identify it) which gradually begins destroying everything and the animals begin to whither and die, and it begins to take its affect the minds of the family living there until nothing is left.

It's a very depressing story, and at first glance one that could work as a film. The problem is figuring out how to depict the Colour. In the original story the colour is described as being one outside of the visible spectrum, a color that has literally never been seen on Earth. Good luck finding a special effects team that can pull that off. Even Douglas Trumbull couldn't do it. Now I won't say it's impossible to effectively adapt, since I have heard of people trying it anyway (one way I've heard suggested would be to get around the problem by shooting in black and white), but since it's impossible to create what Lovecraft described it's certainly going to be difficult.

So really in the long run you can't generalize Lovecraft as "unfilmable" or otherwise. In fact there are several stories of his that involve simpler monsters, some of which have already been filmed. The aforementioned The Whisperer in Darkness is one example, but one film adaptation with a cult following is Re-Animator (basically a mad scientist creates a fluid that reanimates dead tissue which results in all kinds of chaos; yes, Lovecraft basically wrote a story about zombies).

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is another one that could potentially work as a film, since the only monsters to actually appear on the Deep Ones (weird fish/frog-like creatures that live in the ocean) and the funny-looking inhabitants of Innsmouth. Funnily enough, this has been done by the same director as Re-Animator under the title of Dagon. In fact Stuart Gordon has made something of a career out of adapting Lovecraft stories as he's also done From Beyond and The Dreams in the With House.

That last one there is another interesting one to consider. The Dreams in the Witch-House was a very surreal story centered around a young student of Miskatonic University (an institution that pops up a lot in Lovecraft's stories) who looking for a place to stay decides out of curiosity to move into an old boarding house that is said to be haunted by the ghost of the witch who once lived there. What follows is a weird sequence of events in which every night he has dreams in which first a creature named "Brown Jenkin" (imagine a rat with a human head) approaches his bed and then he is seemingly transported around the universe.

As the story develops the line between dream and reality start to blur, and it all builds up to a horrifying conclusion. You know who'd be perfect to try adapting this story? David Lynch. Who better to take on a piece like this than the guy known for creating subjective and mind-blogging narratives? I don't know about you but I think David Lynch's The Dreams in the Witch-House could be something amazing.

There is one story that stands out in my mind, however, as one that I don't think I'd call "unfilmmable" in any sense of the word. It has no sanity-shattering indescribable monsters. In fact it doesn't really have any monsters at all, but a very human antagonist. I am of course talking about The Thing on the Doorstep.

There's really only three major characters (okay, technically four, but it's complicated), and it's also the only Lovecraft story to have a significant female character (well... sort of), although for the purposes of a film adaptation you could flesh out some of the minor roles that were only referred to in the book (the families of some of the characters, for instance), but the plot centers around a strange mystery that involves a creepy "wizard" (Lovecraft was usually under the mindset that the "supernatural" was just the best way we could describe science that was too far above our level of understanding) who swaps bodies with other people, usually against their will.

The one time you would need to apply some special effects would be for... well... the Thing on the Doorstep. For those of your who haven't read the story I won't spoil it by telling you just what that thing is, but believe me when I say when you find out at the very end what it is (or more accurately, was) you're going to be frightened to think about it. I don't know about you but I do think this particular one could be a very chilling movie if put in the right hands.

So ultimately is Lovecraft unfilmable? Well, no. Difficult, maybe. Specific stories of his, perhaps, but as in general it is not impossible to make a good movie from his writing.  It has been done before and in the right hands there are stories of his that could make excellent films. Then again, in the right hands perhaps any of his stories, even the ones with the "indescribable" monsters, could still be made into an excellent film.