Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Announcing Free Action Movie Week: YOU Pick the Movies

So back in July shortly after I saw Under the Skin at the Lightbox, I found out to my surprise that my friend Ryan McNeil of The Matinee had been there roughly the same time as me seeing The Immigrant. He was surprised to find out I was based in Toronto as well and invited me to a monthly gathering of film bloggers. Typically we meet at a pub once a month (though we're not doing it in December) where we hang out, have drinks, discuss movies, blogging projects, blindspots, and other things. I've met quite a few people at these gatherings, but last night something a bit more unusual happened.

One of the bloggers there (I'm sorry, I forgot which one; with so many people it's easy to lose track) brought a bag full of DVD's and told us to "pilfer" it. To say that we did was an understatement and I walked out with a large pile of FREE MOVIES. As it also happens I'm nearing the end of the semester and in two weeks I'll be finished my exams. After all that the strain of my courses gets to my head, and if last year was anything to go on it's time for lots of action films and comedies. Naturally taking this into account I decided to stock up on action movies (there were several in the bag), there were one or two I'd seen, others I'd heard of, and some I'd never heard of but decided to take anyway since they were free.

There's just one problem. I have a tendency to sometimes have trouble deciding on what movies I want to watch, especially under these circumstances. My tendency to run into this problem was one of the reasons I got involved with the Blindspot Challenge in the first place, but I've got a solution. I'm going to take the choice right out of it. I'm not going to pick the movies, you will.

I now have an account on Letterbox (I had to get one in order to warn somebody about the dangers of putting Alphaville on their Blind Spot List), and since I happen to have it I have compiled a list of the action films I picked up for free at that pub night. What I'd like you to do is list your top five recommendations in the comments below. On Wednesday, December 10; after my final exam is done I'll compile the top five most popular choices and over the course of December 15-19 I will watch and review one each day.

In other news, I've decided to tone down my Voyage to the Stars Blogathon; the status report is now optional, you may stop after the plan of action if you do not feel comfortable writing it. Also keep an eye out for two other blogathons I have lined up for December, both follow-ups to my hugely successful Women in Film Blogathon that preserve a similar structure but take it in new directions. One is a spin-off which will shift focus to a different but equally important social issue, the other is a sequel that will continue to look at women in film but in a new perspective.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Female Soldiers and the Combat Film

I was on the IMDB homepage when I stumbled across a trailer for some mockumentary called Alien Outpost (A.K.A. Outpost 37, the page wasn't very clear on which one was the correct title). It was sort of a science fiction story combining the alien invasion subgenre of science fiction with the old-fashioned combat film in a vaguely similar vein to Battle: Los Angeles. However, one thing I quickly noticed about the movie was the general (and seemingly unnecessary) lack of female characters. I didn't see a single actress listed in the cast. In the trailer I couldn't see so much as a single female civilian, and it got me wondering about a few things.

If this were being made in the 1950's the all-male military would be a bit more understandable, but that's not what I was seeing. What I was seeing was a contemporary movie made in a world where women joining the army as soldiers with combat training was not so unusual. For whatever reason, these filmmakers, despite the fact that they are in a world where they should know better, made a conscious decision not to include even so much as a single female soldier for no apparent reason.

Worse still, this is the second time I've had to make a post on the IMDB message boards criticizing the movie for lacking any strong female characters when it didn't need to (the first being Black Sea). If you thought the comment I got there was bad, I got an even stupider and more blatantly sexist reply to this one. A user by the name of "nipple_blaster" gave me this answer:

"Because it's an action movie, not a cooking show."

Yeah, that's right. He basically just tried to tell me that action heroines don't exist... except of course for Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Xena, Buffy Summers, Lara Croft, Black Widow, Sif, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, The Bride, and... yeah, whoever he is he obviously has no idea what he's talking about. Am I going to have to start enforcing more rules about this kind of thing? I've already started "boycotting" all firefighter movies that don't have a strong female firefighter in the main cast. Am I going to have to do the same for other jobs? Why is this still a thing that people do? In this day an age, we should be trying to diversify our casts unless there is a very clear reason why it needs to be entirely men.

Naturally this brings me to the subject of women in the military, something that has only recently started to open up to mixed-gender squads. The war genre has been notorious for its frequent exclusion of women, largely due to the fact that the majority of war films are set in (or some cases made during) conflicts where women were barred from active military service. Now granted, this hasn't stopped some films from trying to find ways to incorporate women but generally you don't see female soldiers. During World War II, this would make a certain degree of sense as so far as I'm aware Russia was the only country that allowed women to serve all the way through (I have been told that the Germans did allow women to enlist eventually, but only right at the end when everything was crashing down around them). Nowhere is that clearer than in the subgenre of war films known as the combat film.

"Combat films" are a trend that got started in Hollywood during the 1940's as a way of encouraging Americans to support their military's involvement with World War II, though their routes may extend as far back as the Soviet Montage films of the 20's such as Battleship Potempkin. The formula goes that they are based on a small group of soldiers, typically an extremely diverse group sometimes even of mixed race even though that would not have been possible at the time (but all men, of course; mixing race was okay but even though it would have made just as much sense for the time mixing gender was unthinkable). The plots of such films generally centered on a sense of comradeship building up among the squad, with an emphasis on sacrifice (they liked to enforce the idea that the soldiers died for a cause). Also common was for the enemy soldiers to be stripped of all their humanity, being kept completely anonymous to eliminate the emotional repercussions of killing another human being.

Combat films are generally associated with World War II, but technically have been made since its ending. The Green Berets attempted to apply the basic formula of the World War II combat films to the War in Vietnam, again in an effort to generate support. By most accounts it didn't work and this ended up being the only major attempt at pro-Vietnam propaganda. Strangely enough, however, that one was able to incorporate a strong female lead (at least as strong as a woman could get in 1968). Sure it takes forever for Lin to appear and she isn't a soldier herself but she does manage to provide valuable assistance to the men.

Even today, the combat film still manages to form in one way or another. Saving Private Ryan might just be one of the best examples you can find of a modern combat film, even preserving some of the pro-American undertones (although it is more open to showing that the Allies were not always the "good guys"). Apocalypse Now has some elements of the combat film insofar as much of the narrative concerns the interactions between a small group of characters on a boat and there is a bizarre and twisted sense of honor. Full Metal Jacket arguably has some traces of the combat in its second half, even if it goes in some weird directions with them. Other more recent combat films include Black Hawk Down and to a lesser extent The Hurt Locker.

Bringing it all full-circle, I even have a script of my own, In the Line of Duty, that is in some ways reminiscent of the old-fashioned combat movies... or is it? While structurally it is similar, it is in many ways an anti-combat film, using the same approach to demonstrate precisely the opposite message. The enemy soldiers are still anonymous but no less human than the leads, the emotional repercussions of their deaths being made very clear. Instead of a sense of sacrifice for a cause there is an emphasis on the general lack of heroics and a sense of the characters' deaths being meaningless. In short, I basically use the structure of films meant to encourage people to support the war effort in order to deliver an extremely anti-war message. 

In the Line of Duty is also unusual as a combat film because it has several female characters in it. While in traditional combat films the diversity was in race, background, and in some cases military branches (Bataan had among other things a sailor who gets mixed up with a group of infantrymen), there is now variety in gender as well. Without giving too much away the female characters are indeed strong, independent, and still human.

There is a reason why my script has several strong female characters that would never have been present in the old combat films of World War II. It's because of changes in society. The director of Bataan was working in a time when military service was seen as man's work. If I went back in time to 1945 and pitched my script in Hollywood they would laugh at me, probably tell me they found the idea of female soldiers unbelievable and maybe even claim it will never happen. Still, in those days it might have been less a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers and more simply the association of men with the army being so widespread that the thought of women as soldiers just never crossed anybody's minds.

I am of course writing this script in a period where that is no longer such a radical idea. Up here in Canada the army may still be a male-dominated profession on a statistical level, but there is no longer any bars regarding where women can and cannot serve. The American army is still a bit more restrictive (last I checked women still are not allowed to join the marines, rangers or Navy SEALs) but they're making progress. It would only make sense that things improve in the future unless you believe in the world envisioned by Futurama (where women were re-banned from the army due to an incident that most definitely had nothing to do with the insane commander Zap Brannigan, who is himself totally not a sexist genocidal maniac).

Indeed, science fiction seems to be the one genre which embraces the idea of female soldiers. Even modern war films do not show them very often. The presence of female soldiers was one thing that helped initially get me excited about Edge of Tomorrow and Emily Blunt certainly played a strong character. She had that right balance of qualities, being tough and getting to show it but also being human. The film may have technically centered around Tom Cruise but it is established that the exposure to the alien time-warping technology happened to her long before and she becomes crucial to saving the day.

Even James Cameron got in on the act back in 1986 when he made Aliens. Vasquez was a cool character, often one the roles best remembered from the film (aside from Ripley, of course). It is easy to forget that the film actually starts with three female marines (one of them is among the first to die, and the second follows not long after), but Vasquez is every bit as tough as the men, possibly even harder. She does eventually get killed, yes, but not without putting up a fight (literally going out with a bang) and managing make it further than most of her comrades and managing to save most of the ones that remain (except, ironically, the one who got himself killed trying to help her).

Even Battle: Los Angeles, set in the present day, managed to bring in an action girl in the form of Michelle Rodriguez (who for once doesn't die). She shows up a bit later on and they explain that she's a downed pilot but she quickly becomes another soldier and an equal to the guys. Interestingly as well, Battle: Lost Angeles brings a bit of the old-fashioned combat film into a more contemporary science fiction environment. The idea of her being an air force pilot who got shot down and mixed up with a group of general infantry fits right in (similar to the sailor in Bataan), along with the racially diverse squad. This time however, Rodriguez actually adds to the diversity on three fronts. Her air force connections give her the separate background. Since she is Latino, that also adds a bit more racial diversity. Finally, her presence makes this a mixed-gender squad, something that rarely happens in a combat film.

Bringing this all back to Alien Outpost or Outpost 37 or whatever it is called, they apparently attempt to do something similar to Battle: Los Angeles in combining the alien invasion with the combat film but for whatever reason decided not to add a single woman to the cast. No apparent justification is present, and it is even established clearly to be set in the future (even though the uniforms look distinctly modern).

More baffling was the fact that the trailer explicitly featured the line "Everybody became a soldier ten years ago whether they liked it or not" and yet all we see afterwards are men in uniform. They explicitly say everyone, so it would make logical sense that there would be female soldiers in this context. Yet despite the obvious implications of such a line there is not a single woman listed in the cast or appearing in the trailer even as an extra. I suspect that this probably won't be a very good movie anyway, especially when the trailers are so poorly executed that a line meant to draw you in completely contradicts everything that is actually in the film.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

2015 Blindspot Challenge Final List

Last summer I decided to take part in Ryan McNeil's Blindspot Challenge. Basically the way it works is simple, you compile a list of those films you haven't seen but really should and narrow it down to twelve. Different people may have different methods of precisely how to narrow down their selection, most of the films I picked for last year's list were one I already owned that had put off watching, other people may have other ways of choosing their films. Once you have your list, the idea is that you watch one movie each month and then simply write your thoughts about it.

However, while it was a great oppurtunity to finally see some movies I'd been putting off, my choices were a bit limited. Since I started late in June I only had seven movies instead of the usual twelve. All of them were American (though Blue is the Warmest Color was considered as an option, but ultimately dropped due to issues of availability) and only stretched as far back as 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This time round, I am able to do the full twelve movies which allows for more variety.

I hoped to increase the range of choices to cover a longer period of time, since I go from the past decade to as far back as 1925. I also hoped to add a bit more national diversity as well. I started with a list of 29 that went up to somewhere closer to forty (and a few of them are still included as backup choices in case something goes wrong) but I've successfully cut it down to twelve. This certainly was not easy and there were several that were a bit painful to cut but I did it.

I want to thank everyone who commented on my preliminary list with their recommendations. Your feedback was very helpful and I apologize if one of your suggestions didn't make it onto the final list. However, even if your favorite didn't make the cut, keep in mind that does not in any way mean you'll never see me writing about it. It just means that if I do it will probably be a separate article.

Now, after the excitement I build up with my preliminary list, you are all probably very excited to find out which films made the final cut. Well, here is my final list, or at least what I hope to be my final list (because of what happened with The Birds this year, I've selected a handful of "backup films" in case something goes wrong with one of these movies). I have a separate page in which I'll put the links so that they will be easier to find, but I wanted to make this post to ensure that everybody sees it. Let me know of what you think of my choices in the comments below.

Strike (1925)

Modern Times (1936)

Ninotchka (1939)

Back to Bataan (1945)

The Killing (1956)

One, Two, Three (1961)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Life is Beautiful (1997)

Fight Club (1999)

Gangs of New York (2002)

Kill Bill (2003)

Atonement (2007)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why Come No Female Ghostbusters?

I've had a bit of a break from my usual university work this week, and on Monday I managed to get a lot more done in the morning than I initially expected, leaving room for a movie. I wanted to find something fun so I decided to look at something everybody else seemed to talk about but I hadn't seen since I was in Grade 3: Ghostbusters. It's a hugely popular film with some witty humor and a few amusing ideas that sort of blur the line between science fiction and supernatural. I might have even been able to enjoy it if not for one slight little issue, and frankly I can't even tell if I should have a problem with it or if my feminist side is getting overly paranoid (it happens sometimes).

Much as I tried to enjoy the film, one thought kept going through my mind: why are there no female ghostbusters? Why was it necessary for this film to be so predominantly male? I'm not sure if I should be bothered by this situation or not, but throughout the movie I couldn't help but be frustrated by the fact that nearly all the major characters of note were men, with the only women essentially being relegated to "feminine" roles, namely the damsel in distress and the secretary. The fact that Bill Murray's character Peter Venkman seemed to be bit of a pervert who couldn't stand ten feet from a woman without thinking about sex didn't help much.

The ironic thing is that the distressed damsel character, Dana Barrett, was played by none other than Sigourney friggin' Weaver. You know, the actress who made her name playing what is often considered to be one of the strongest female characters ever put on film? How come she doesn't get to bust any ghosts? All she gets to do is hang out in an apartment she knows is haunted when she should be getting the heck out of there and then because she foolishly decides not to move out ends up being possessed by extra-dimensional beings. The secretary meanwhile never really got a whole lot of depth either (she mentions being a psychic at one point, but that ability never got put to any good use) and seemed to be there only to make snarky comments in a rather irritating voice.

It could have been a cool development if they had Dana maybe learn to stand up against the ghosts in her apartment. She wouldn't need to don a proton pack right away but she could have grown to understand it and perhaps become one of the team by the end. But no, that would have made her an interesting character. Far better to reinforce outdated ideals of masculinity and have her needing to be rescued by an all-male team. Alternatively it could have been interesting if they'd given the secretary something to do, maybe having her becoming a ghostbuster in her own right before hand instead of keeping her at the desk.

For that matter, could it have worked if they'd just written one of the ghostbusters as a woman? Even if they wanted to keep the first three guys (Venkman, Spengler, and Stantz) as men, they might have still been able to make it work. There was a plot point about them recruiting new ghostbusters (and by "recruiting" I mean just taking the first person that walks in), which is how Ernie Hudson's character, Winston Zeddmore, enters the picture adding some racial diversity. Perhaps instead of just him they could have had two recruits, have Winston show up and perhaps a woman who expresses interested in busting ghosts and then they'd have five people in the climax instead of four. But who needs that? Racial diversity is great but apparently gender diversity is not according to these filmmakers.

Fortunately, the good news is that there is word going around about a reboot of ghostbusters that will feature an all-female cast. This should allow some balance at least and I guess seems fair. Since the writers of the original couldn't bother to let any women bust some ghosts why should this reboot allow men to do it? So far not much has been said but there are apparently a ton of actresses who want in on it and not without good reason. I just hope if it does end up happening they actually make the female ghostbusters strong and don't oversexualize them (I'd prefer it if they didn't modify the uniforms to accommodate exposed breasts, miniskirts, and high heels). If they can pull it off, I'll certainly be first in line to see this one. Still, that question remains: why are there no female ghostbusters and why did it take a full reboot for it to happen?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Voyage to the Stars Blogathon: Hitchcock's Entry

So far people seem to be very excited about my new Voyage to the Stars Blogathon. If you haven't read about it yet, you should get on that right away and start on your entry because this one is possibly one of the most ambitious projects I've done on this blog, possibly even one of the most ambitious blogathons in the whole blogging community. Basically, at its core it works similarly to a typical cast-a-thon in that it involves having to assemble a group of characters from different movies to fill pre-determined slots. The difference is that I've modified the structure to make the gameplay more competetive, and I've also added a few new layers.

It can be fun to put together a list of movie characters to fill out a class or to battle Eldritch otherworldly horrors, but underneath those are still just lists in the long run. This time around, once you have your cast, you get to actually do something with them. You can see the blogathon page for a full rundown of the instructions as well the specific rules and regulations I've enforced. The big thing to remember is that regardless of who you pick there must be gender and/or racial diversity. Putting together an all-white, all-male crew means an automatic disqualification.

I will also confess that this may have been a lot harder than I anticipated. My intention was to create a challenge but wow did I go above and beyond on this one? I made the blogathon and even I had trouble writing my own entry. The whole idea of the status report and plan of action seemed so much easier in theory. Now I see why most cast-a-thons don't normally go beyond the initial list. Still, this was a chance to try and work with my imagination and it was certainly a good writing exercise even if the final product wasn't exactly an Arthur C. Clarke novel.

Now that my introduction is out of the way, it's time to assemble my crew and begin the adventure.

The Crew

David Bowman (2001: A Space Odyssey)- Mission Commander

To take command of a mission as daring as this, we'll need somebody who can handle the pressure. I'm talking an extended period of time trapped in a ship that is not only confined but also isolated. This brave crew is going to be travelling lightyears from Earth, and that is not something to be taken lightly. Who better to take on the job than a man who knows just how to do that? Dave Bowman is a man who can take the heat and come out on top.

After all this was the man who was able to keep pressing forward even after his entire crew had been murdered and there was no obvious hope of returning to Earth. He was betrayed by his own artificially intelligent computer (who was, in a way, a very close friend) and watched his own partner asphyxiate  yet still managed to keep himself composed enough to deal with the situation rationally. If there is anyone who can both handle the psychological strain of prolonged isolation in deep space and keep the mission going, it is him.

Elizabeth Shaw (Prometheus)- Medic

Elizabeth Shaw is certainly an expert who knows what she's doing, even if her reasoning is at times somewhat questionable. She has a detailed working knowledge of human anatomy that could inevitably be useful in the event of a medical emergency, but the best part was that one time when, without any outside help, she successfully performed a c-section... on herself. If she could handle having an alien fetus inside of her while surrounded by double-crossing colleagues, I think she can take on any medical situation affecting another person when surrounded by crew members she can trust.

In the event that she is wounded, she should be able to take care of the problem herself (or at the very least talk one of the other crew members through the treatment) and she will get up and keep moving no matter how much pain she might be in. In addition to all this, Shaw is also an experienced archaeologist, which could come in handy if we manage to find an extraterrestrial civilization.

Eleanor Arroway (Contact)- Navigator

For a mission with the ultimate aim of venturing drastically further than humanity has ever dared to travel before, we're going to need someone who knows where we're going. We need someone who knows the night sky well. That's where Eleanor Arroway comes in. As a professional astronomer working for SETI, she knows the stars better than anyone else. She has every one labelled carefully and even has markers indicating whether any particular star could have a life-supporting planet in its orbit, and when up close who better than to navigate than someone who can observe and take the time to create a new map? She is therefore the perfect guide for a job like this one, and if by chance we do make contact with any form of extra-terrestrial life, this is the one who should do the talking.

Rosa Dasque (Europa Report)- Pilot

Meet the brave woman who will take us out into space. The thing about Rosa Dasque is that she is dedicated to the mission, and will do everything she can to contribute to its success. If something goes wrong she is willing to die if it means allowing the mission to continue. On top of all that, she's  a really good person and the kind of individual who the crew can get along with, easily.

Imoto (Conquest of Space)- Science Officer

In addition to adding a little diversity both in terms of race and being from an older film, we'll be needing someone with scientific knowledge. Dr. Arroway's astronomical skills will definitely come in handy but what if we don't find any life at our destination? We may still find things worth studying and this man is a professional. Even if we don't find life, perhaps he can at least determine if a planet is capable of supporting it, information which could be invaluable to future expeditions and even colonists.

Matt Kowalski (Gravity)- Engineer

Matt might not be the most enjoyable person to be around; his personal anecdotes can be infuriating to some people for sure. Where he excels is in being a veteran astronaut with a lifetime of experience as well as a knowledge of space travel inside and out. This guy can operate the machinery, he can fix it, and he can think outside the box when that doesn't work. When our crew is out in the middle of deep space and no other help can reach them, we're going to need someone who knows what he's doing to keep the ship running. Well, this is the guy who can do that, and even as annoyed as people sometimes get with him, he is really a nice guy underneath who genuinely cares for the safety of his partners.

Gene Kranz (Apollo 13)- Mission Controller 

Putting it quite simply, he may not be going on the mission, but he is every bit as committed to ensuring its success as the astronauts who are and seeing them brought back alive. It doesn't matter what trouble they face, he will do everything he can to help them get back. He weighs every option, considers all the facts, and never gives up no matter what the odds. He saved the three men of the Apollo 13 mission this way when their ship was damaged. If he could do that going to the moon imagine what he could do for an interstellar voyage. After all, it's hard to predict precisely what's going to happen and we'll need someone who can improvise when faced with unforeseen circumstances.

Plan of Action

I've got a plan to get my crew into space through a wormhole. Eleanor Arroway made the great discovery and she's been spending the past few weeks observing it non-stop. We've therefore been able to make the calculations for the precise launch window by which to enter the wormhole. Even better is the fact that because we've done such careful observation, we should be able to determine approximately when it will open and close, giving us a rough schedule for the crew's expedition. This also takes care of the radio transmissions. What we believe is that we can determine when the wormhole is open will be able to transmit radio waves through it to return to mission control on Earth. It won't allow for real-time conversations, and it may be hours in between messages, but it should save us the trouble of having to send communications across light years.

While my team is on the other end of the wormhole, they also plan to look for traces of similar passages leading to other systems that could aid future explorers.

Here is a real-looking diagram so you know this is authentic.

Status Report

The mission started off as scheduled. The spaceship launched without any serious difficulty and successfully entered the wormhole. Commander Bowman kept us posted as the ship went through. He described it as an unnerving process that left a sickening feeling in some of the crew, one that could easily induce seizures. He took some photos of the bright lights seen inside the wormhole.

It took about four hours to get through the whole wormhole, though that was drastically cutting down the amount of time it would have taken to travel normally, even at the speed of light. They arrived in Alpha Centuri, the closest system to our own, which allowed Dr. Arroway a chance to observe it as no human being had before. She confirmed the theory that Alpha Centurai was indeed a triple star system, with literally three suns, two of which orbit each other with a third, much smaller star orbiting both. The wormhole brought the ship towards one particular planet, made of ice, that was in between the two binary stars and the outer smaller star.

Unfortunately, much to the disappointment of both her and Shaw, none of the three planets showed immediate signs that they would be habitable. Of the two that circled the central stars, one of them Dr. Arroway described as having "A greenhouse effect that makes Venus look like Mars", and the other a rocky planet with no atmosphere. The wormhole had brought the team closer to Proxima Centurai, the outermost and smallest star, and into the orbit of an ice planet that moved around it. Due to restrictions of fuel, it was determined this was the most practical of the different worlds to explore. They were to stay here until their launch window to return to Earth.

After landing on the planet, the team began collecting information, finding that it also lacked an atmosphere. Imoto began taking trips outside, collecting samples from the surface and finding evidence of liquid water further down, though he was disappointed to report that there was no evidence of any kind of life being present under the surface. Research otherwise went on as scheduled.

Unfortunately, some of the crew did start to get restless as a result of little to be doing. Commander Bowman tried to keep everyone organized but even he came dangerously close to cracking at least once.  Dr. Arroway began occupying herself by spending a lot of time observing the sky and creating a star map. Through a series of excursions in which she sat on the observation deck and drew the stars as she saw them, she managed to create the first astronomical charts to be shown from a point other than Earth.

Rosa and Matt worked together to try and keep each other busy through maintenance on the ship. It was mostly small jobs, nothing too fancy, but the two of them got along rather nicely. At the same time, Imoto had made a remarkable discovery. After several months of collecting samples from the ice, he managed to find traces of a single-celled organism under the surface. Though he was never able to observe this species alive, it was considered a remarkable discovery that managed to excite Dr. Arroway. Dr. Shaw went on to deliver a report of her own about the discovery:

"We have found evidence of single-cellular life under the surface. I came out here hoping to find an intelligent civilization, but we have proof now that of life on other planets. We may not have found intelligence, but it gives me hope that some day we might."

Gene Kranz made a public announcement within hours of receiving Shaw's transmission. Before long news stations everywhere were detailing the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, though some were blowing it out of proportion in hilariously bizarre ways. A few days later Commander Bowman transmitted Imoto's data to Kranz at mission control, allowing scientists on Earth to being studying the new field of alien microbiology.

The launch window approached and in most respects everything went pretty smoothly. They emerged safely on our side of the wormhole. Landing was of course a whole other matter as their ship had to separate into smaller components to get through Earth's atmosphere, but they made it. Six brave men and women emerged as heroes, making a grand technological leap for humanity and paving the way for future expeditions beyond the boundaries of the Solar System.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Insightful Fifth Dimension

Warning: This article includes spoilers for several movies. Read at your own discretion.

So I finally saw Interstellar and it is an amazing movie. Matthew McConaughey was great in the lead role, with Anne Hathaway a wonderful co-star. Jessica Chastain might not have been playing an astronaut, but as is normal for her at this point she still plays a very strong character who ends up being vital to the plot in unexpected ways. If you haven't already seen my Voyage to the Stars Blogathon, which I started to celebrate the film's release, I would strongly recommend you take a look, let me know what you think, and perhaps try your hand at the challenge I pose to you. It certainly is a challenge in many ways (I made the blogathon and even I'm having trouble with my own entry). Hopefully I'll be seeing some entries soon, and perhaps I'll even get my own up somewhere in the next few weeks.

Still, one thing in particular stood out to me about this film, and that was the ending. It was executed brilliantly here, but it got me thinking about how popular this type of ending has become, especially from a movie that I was pleasantly surprised to see had for the most part managed to avoid a lot of obvious science fiction cliches (the first time I saw the astronauts going into suspended animation I seriously half-expected one of them to be found dead in their pod). Interstellar's big climax involves a surreal experience that begins when the spaceship is forced to enter a black hole. Cooper finds himself drifting into a strange location that looks like it would fit right into one of the dream worlds of Inception where he is left to contemplate humanity's greater purpose. Does that sound familiar?

Well, it should, because this isn't the first time such a climax has been used in science fiction. The idea of a protagonist, usually alone (though cases with small groups of characters are not unheard of) entering an uncharted environment with no idea of what to expect followed by a mysterious passage through space and a strange encounter in what seems another dimension has been around for decades. Contact had something similar, as did The Black Hole, Mission to Mars. In all these films, the characters have no prior understanding of what they are getting into, but the experience proves vital to the narrative as it often provides some sort of insight into a much broader topic, generally about the universe or human nature, before the protagonist is whisked back home.

So where did this whole ordeal come from? Why is it so popular? Well, they say that art imitates art, and indeed this trend probably one of the best examples you can get. In order to understand what is really happening, we will have to go back to the origin of this concept. So far as I'm aware, it all originates with the work of one Stanley Kubrick. Interstellar,  Mission to MarsContactThe Black Hole, and numerous others were all imitating his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the famous star gate and hotel room sequences from that film.

By this point David Bowman is the lone crew member aboard Discovery and the ship has reached its destination of Jupiter. He encounters yet another monolith in orbit around the planet, and takes one of the remaining EVA pods outside to get a closer look, only to find himself pulled into some sort of strange passageway. It's not clear exactly what it is (though the novel hinted it to be some form of interstellar highway), but what we see is a bright stream of bright colors and strange shapes culminating in a series of distorted images of what look like Earth landscapes.

After the peculiar sequence involving the infamous "star gate", the camera begins to cut rapidly to closer and closer shots of a human eye, until finally the distorted colors disappear and it appears normal. We then see that Dave has emerged in what appears to be a hotel room, but it still seems off. Weird and haunting voices can be heard from somewhere outside, and lighting comes up through the floor instead of the ceiling.

Dave keeps ending up in a situation where he sees older versions of himself with the younger version inexplicably vanishing each time, ending with him lying on a bed and with his last breath pointing toward the monolith that has materialized in front of him. He then transforms into something resembling a fetus, symbolizing the next stage in human evolution. This is quite a bit different from many of its imitators in more than a few ways, however.

One thing that is of particular note is that out of all the different incarnations of the insightful alternate dimension, 2001 is the only one where dialogue is not incorporated in any way. As strange as the later incarnations can get, the original scene was played subjectively and to this day people still dispute over precisely what happens. Although the outcome of this sequence is clear, the precise details are never explained. The closest thing to a clear description of what happens is in the novel, where it is implied that Bowman is being observed by the aliens and the hotel-like environment is supposed to keep him comfortable until he is ready to be transformed.

Many of the imitators tend to be a lot more explicit in their meanings, even if they incorporate extraordinary images with the possible exception of The Black Hole (which was in general a very confusing and not very well executed film anyway), and generally most seem to end with the main character being sent home although I have yet to find one that involves them going through a physical change as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Generally the context for the situation is made a lot clearer and, unlike the original sequence that inspired them, expository dialogue is included.

In the case of Contact, for instance, it is established that Eleanor Arroway is in some kind of computer simulation created by the Vegans with the intent of making it easier for her first confrontation with a representative of their species to play out more comfortably. Interstellar is even more explicit. Cooper deduces that what he is seeing was created by some distant decedent of humanity with the intent that he would be able to learn a crucial piece of information (about the singularities of black holes) and send it back in time to his daughter so that she would be able to save humanity from extinction.

So aside from the extreme influence of 2001, why is this idea so popular? What is it about the the idea of this other dimension, a world that apparently transcends what we understand of space and time? Perhaps it is simply our innate curiosity as a species. Science fiction is a genre that is all about exploring the unknown and conquering the vast mysteries of existence as we know it. These characters: David Bowman, Eleanor Arroway, and Cooper were explorers who tried to conquer the limits of human capability, and they succeeded for greater than they could have expected.

The truth is that the universe is so mind-bogglingly complex we are only just beginning to understand it. All of these movies seek to explore the theme of what lies beyond the realm of human observation, and that means to look beyond the mere boundaries of space and time. 2001 was a film that looked to the future, and in the end it did just that by showing us not simply where humanity could go, but also how much further it could go: a future stage of evolution we cannot begin to comprehend. This same theme returns in Interstellar with the notion of humanity evolving to a point where time itself is perceived as a physical dimension, far beyond the limits of contemporary science.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

And Two Hard-Boiled Eggs... Make That Three Hard-Boiled Eggs... Actually make that Zero Hard-Boiled Eggs

I've got a confession to make. For the first time since I started here, I have had to walk out of one of the screenings for an otherwise pretty-awesome class. I am literally sitting outside the classroom as I type this, hearing audio from the movie playing. Now I've sat through some pretty bad movies in these classes, movies that it hurt to sit through: PlaytimeAlphaville, Tout Va BienSunset Boulevard, Desk SetMother and Menilmonant just to name a few, so what movie was so bad that I couldn't handle it? Well, it's an action film from none other than the director of Paycheck, Mr. John Woo: his 1992 film Hard-Boiled.

Now, admittedly, part of the problem may have been a misunderstanding on my part. While I understood the director to be foreign, I was under the impression that Hardboiled was one of his Hollywood productions, and it was only during the lecture I found out otherwise. We were discussing trends of action cinema in Hong Kong, particularly "Gun Fu" as it is sometimes nicknamed, or rather the way martial arts films were influenced by Hollywood (which in turn influenced a lot of later Hollywood movies), which led to a merging between the use of American action movie elements with techniques associated with Asian martial arts films. Some of them seemed kind of interesting (from the clip I saw of a "Wuxia" film, those have some very peculiar stylistic elements to them), but unfortunately we had to watch one film that was not very good.

I was assured that Hard-Boiled was a far better movie than Paycheck. The thing is as bad as Paycheck was and how horrendously it butchered the dignity of Philip K. Dick's original writing, I could at least understand what was going on. Hard Boiled? It took about ten minutes for me to get completely lost. Some sort of action scene was happening and apparently a key witness to some trial got killed (which raises the question of why an important witness was in a place filled with shady crooks and not in police custody). Who I was supposed to root for and who the villains were was beyond me. To be totally honest I was more concerned about the birds whose cages were constantly being knocked over and smashed than I was about any of the characters. I couldn't even tell who I was supposed to be rooting for, and it only went downhill from there.

Now I have nothing against Hong Kong cinema. Frankly, I know virtually nothing about it and I'm going to try not to let this one film affect my judgement of any movies I might see in the future. Why should I? I had doubts after seeing Mother that I would ever find a good Russian film and was proven wrong a week later when I saw Battleship Potemkin and started to feel like I could get into the work of Sergei Eisenstein so there's no reason Hong Kong cinema can't do the same.

However, this film is bad, really bad. You know something is wrong when the first ten minutes are all it takes to leave you completely confused and unable to take it anymore. I just couldn't finish the movie. I'm not even sure how far I got. Maybe John Woo actually has done a good action film somewhere down the line, but Hard-Boiled is not it. Don't bother with this movie, it's a waste of time and not a good action film at all. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Making Movies

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is self-reflexive, or more accurately, films about the process of making films. There are lots of great things that one can depict on film to create drama or humor, but why bother with all that when the process itself is filled with enough potential for compelling narratives? You can create humor out of the challenges faced by a film crew on set or drama in the relationships between individuals, perhaps the director and the actors or the producer and the studio executives. In any case, movies about making movies can be very interesting... most of the time anyway. So for this list, I naturally had to take part, especially since I was the one who suggested the topic.

Now the process of making a movie is generally split up into three specific phases: pre-production, production, and post-production. Pre-production consists of all the preparations that have to be made before filming can begin; things like getting money, hiring cast and crew, script revisions, assembling sets, costume design, and so forth. Production is what most people imagine when they think of making a movie, as that's the phase where all the necessary shooting happens. Finally, post-production is when the footage obtained in the production phase is edited to create the final product; scenes are strung together, digital effects are added, choices are made about what does and does not fit into the final product. For the purposes of this activity, I have chosen three unusual films with each covering a different production phase. Let's begin:

Silent Movie (1976)- Pre-Production

Before you can make a movie, you must first pitch it to a someone with money, as Mel Brooks does here with his SILENT MOVIE! The financially deprived Studio Chief does not initially like this idea... until Mel decides to get together the biggest stars in Hollywood. What follows is a series of hilarious slapstick shenanigans as he and his friends come up with bizarre methods of confronting the various celebrities that include having lunch with James Caan in an unbalanced trailer, approaching Liza Minelli in suits of armor, and a motorized wheelchair chase involving Paul Newman. The best part? It's not just a movie about a director trying to make a silent movie. It's a silent movie about a director trying to make a silent movie.

Inland Empire (2005)- Production

Inland Empire is now officially the first movie to make it into two of my entries for Thursday Movie Picks Meme. As you can expect with David Lynch he presents a very dark and surreal experience of the filmmaking process, with the focus being primarily on the lead actress who gradually starts to break down under the stress of a demanding role. That's a simple summary and a fairly straight forward interpretation but she goes through some very strange and bizarre experiences that will question her hold on reality before she she can finish the movie.

Singin' In the Rain (1951)- Post-Production

This also ties into a bit of film history as Singin' in the Rain takes place right at the point where silent cinema became obsolete and "talking pictures" started to take over, which unfortunately means that a silent picture hastily turned into a talkie at the last minute ends up being a mess. That is until one of some of the people involved get together and decide to re-edit it into a musical and have an upcoming actress dub over the horrible voicework of the original star. Most of the story centers around the protagonists trying to re-edit the horrible movie into a half-decent musical with an upcoming actress dubbing over the annoying voice of the obnoxious female lead.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

200th Post

So it's time once again for me to celebrate a new milestone on my blog and what better way to do that than with a movie that made a significant impact on my life. Now I imagine you're all left wondering what the secret movie is this time. It seems I've been going back a decade with each passing milestone. For my 50th post I did a a film from 1964, for my 100th post I wrote about a film from 1954, so naturally why not go back another decade with a movie from 1945? This time I settled for an exciting swashbuckling tale of piracy. It's the classic adventure film Captain Kidd.

As far back as I can remember, this was the first fully-black and white movie I ever saw from start to finish. I'll confess that I've always had a soft spot for pirates. In fact back in July I wrote an entire article about the subject of pirates on film comparing the myth to history. I first encountered Captain Kidd years ago, back when I was somewhere in Grade 4 or 5. I was big on the subject of pirates at the time and I had been exposed to a handful of older movies. If I recall correctly it was in a Wal-Mart my mom managed to find the "Hollywood DVD Classics" edition of the film.

We watched it about a week later, and it was a bit jarring at first because I had never seen a full black and white film before. Sometime later, maybe a week or two (I don't remember precisely) I talked myself into giving it another chance and found I appreciated it a lot more. Before long it quickly became one of my favourite movies (though granted it has been outranked by several other films since then) and I found myself watching this exciting adventure again and again. I wanted to go out and find other films in the "Hollywood DVD Classics" series, though I never did until a few months ago when I found one of their discs compiling two episodes of Bonanza.

I was literally obsessed with Captain Kidd, that's how much I loved the film. The impact it had on me was unbelievable. In between classes at school, I used to make arts and crafts projects imitating the case (which unlike your standard DVD case is much smaller and more flexible). Of course, none of my classmates ever understood quite how much this film intrigued me and instead would make fun of these projects jokingly showing them off as my "fake I.D." (something I did not understand the meaning of at the time, which didn't help much).

While this wasn't the first old movie I ever saw, it was one that certainly opened a door down a winding corridor that would allow me greater exposure to other things. If 2001: A Space Odyssey was sealed my fate to be a film student, it was Captain Kidd that first set me on that path. In addition to opening my mind to Classical Hollywood, it introduced me to a name that I would come to know very well in the following years: the great actor Charles Laughton. Since this occasion calls for me to discuss something special I decided to dig out that old DVD and see if it was as good as I remembered. So after all these years and now looking at it again with a broader understanding of film history, how does it hold up?

Well, I'll confess, it isn't the greatest thing I've ever seen. It did feel a bit like a b-movie, and its story certainly had flaws I would not have noticed when I was younger, though I can certainly see how I would have enjoyed it. Laughton himself has done some far better projects such as Mutiny on the Bounty (which curiously enough, was also a nautical adventure in which he plays a nasty sea captain) That does not, however, mean that this was in any way a bad movie. While it may not be any grand cinematic achievement it is still an enjoyable little adventure story.

I should explain that this isn't exactly a historical film. Captain William Kidd was a real pirate who buried a small stash of treasure before he was hanged... and that's about the extent of the history you'll get here. The actual Captain Kidd was something of a real-life tragic hero, a man who got mixed up in piracy because of circumstances beyond his control and executed for it when he tried to get out. The movie's Kidd is instead treated as a despicable and scheming villain, so aside from sharing his name with a real person he's pretty much a fictional character.

Captain William Kidd (Charles Laughton) is a respected sailor in England with the popular image of being an honest shipmaster. In actuality, he is a ruthless double-crossing, backstabbing, and greedy pirate. He is recruited by King William III (Henry Danielle) to lead an expedition into African waters to rendezvous with an English vessel loaded in treasure and escort it safely back to London. What the King doesn't know is that Kidd has no intention of seeing the ship return safely and in fact wants to keep the riches for himself.

To accomplish this end, he recruits a crew of convicted pirates who are offered a pardon for their services. As the voyage gets under way, Kidd begins to put his dastardly schemes into action, which result in various members of the crew dying in "accidents". Unfortunately for him one officer by the name of Adam Mercy (Randolph Scott), starts to figure Kidd's intentions and with help from the few trustworthy people aboard, becomes determined to expose his captain's treachery and see justice prevail.

So as you can imagine, this is a pretty straight forward swashbuckling adventure, something not too unusual for the 40's. In that sense it may at first feel like a typical b-movie, but even so it is still nonetheless an enjoyable story. Laughton makes an intimidating villain as you can normally expect from his roles, possibly channelling a bit of his more famous role of William Bligh. Scott's character of Adam Mercy is a fairly likable character, one who you can find yourself rooting for and hope to see triumph in the end.

There isn't a whole lot to be said about much of the supporting cast, and if I had to point out any flaws in the movie I could argue that they are underdeveloped. Only a few people really stand out from the crowd, though out of the ones that are present the most interesting has got to be Orange Povey. This is a character who steals the show in his scenes, and the tension between him and Kidd is very strong, with the former trying to find a way to get rid of him by way of an "accident" and the latter finding clever ways to talk him out of it.

So after all these years does Captain Kidd still hold up as a great film? Well, it does have its narrative flaws and underdeveloped characters. I don't know I would consider it a masterpiece and I will confess that Charles Laughton has done a lot of far better work. However, it is still a fun and enjoyable little movie with a straight forward plot and some exciting sword fights. It is worth giving a watch if you get the chance, though perhaps not one you will need to put as a top priority.