Friday, 22 May 2015

So Fetch Friday: Stop Motion Triple Bill



It's been a rough week. I'm still stuck in this dull class on the business of filmmaking. The good news is that I have been able to do some more LEGO stop motion animation and it's been fun. I've managed to two three new ones that go in some odd directions. Basically, I've started a series of bizarre shorts that seem to take place in a small LEGO town and each center on strange antics faced by its various inhabitants. This is fun because it seems that with each episode the world seems to keep growing, and once in a while I'm able to add some new characters either though my own collection or buying a LEGO set. Naturally, these can get really weird. I mean, this is a world where a double-decker couch that someone apparently just left by the side of the road has become the primary hangout place, Xena the Warrior Princess is living in a modern urban environment, a person can literally cause a global crisis simply by getting drunk, a man can rule an entire "kingdom" consisting of a single baseplate in the middle of the sidewalk, and Galadriel is working as a consultant for the local police department.




Naturally I've been buying a lot of LEGO over the past few weeks. I've largely been going after their City sets (not that I have anything against their other lines, City is just a lot easier to keep up with), but I've also managed to obtain one of their The Hobbit sets and immediately came up with a few bizarre ideas on how to use my new Galadriel minifigure. I also managed to pick up the Double-Decker Couch made famous by The LEGO Movie, which has now become the official hotspot of the strange town these shorts take place in. One thing I can really say about LEGO is that they are making some great progress on the field of gender representation. This is especially notable in their City sets, where they are making a clear effort to include more female cops, and constructions workers, and there are at least three different sets (four if you count that accessory set) with female firefighters. That's not to say there isn't still room for improvement (they are after all still selling Disney Princess sets and juniorized themes aimed toward girls) but I'd still say they are doing good so far.

Unfortunately, I haven't had as much time for watching movies. I'm also still trying to sort out what went wrong during my attempted screening of Nightcrawler last week. Evidently everyone else saw something I didn't, but I can't seem to figure out what it was. I've been told it might have been connected to my mood when I saw the film. I don't know, maybe that's all it was. Maybe that's why I couldn't see what everyone else did. Maybe my theory that the Oscars are a sham is proving more right than ever before. I don't know what happened. Then again, I criticized this film for not putting female cops or firefighters into the background so maybe I'm going crazy.

One movie I did get to see, however: Hot Pursuit. It wasn't anything spectacular but it was still a lot of fun, perhaps more the kind of thing to watch on Netflix than in theaters but it's alright. There was some good humor (though I wasn't entirely sure about the surprisingly large number of jokes about Reese Witherspoon's height). Part of me also wished they'd gone through with the homoerotic undertones that were being included throughout (as is normal for a buddy film). Of course the plot is basically the same as Clint Eastwood's The Gauntlet only now with some lesbian undertones but that's beside the point.


On Banshee, I got an immense amount of satisfaction when I saw the bastard responsible for killing my favorite character take a shotgun to the face. Normally I would not be laughing upon seeing half of someone's head get blown off but this guy had it coming. Even before he killed Siobhan he was a menace who was basically a threat to everyone and had proven insanely hard to kill. Seeing him finally get it was satisfying both as retribution for killing the best character on the show and just knowing his status as a threat had been eliminated. Then things got intense because Lucas went ahead and orchestrated a heist on the local army base but was found out. All three of his partners got captured but Hood and his partner (who happened to be the husband of one of the captured accomplices) then managed to get in and go Hot Fuzz on the camp. They managed to save two of them (the third got abducted by a survivor of Hood's rampage) but lost the husband in the process.

Unfortunately, this was also the last episode, and it ended on a dark note. Hood apparently decided he was done being the sheriff and wanted to retire. He seemed to be talking to Proctor, and for once found himself not trying to incarcerate him. The two of them just seemed to be talking casually, and it almost looks like Hood is going to change sides. Now I've got to wait for season 4 to come out (and I don't know when it will be available through HBO on Demand). Between that and waiting for season 3 of Hannibal to appear on Netflix, I need to find some new shows.

After a few attempts to find something new, I ended up settling on The Killing, a police show which as far as I can tell has absolutely nothing to do with Stanley Kubrick's 1957 heist film that coincidentally has the same title. This is a dark show, as you could expect from a program literally called The Killing. The first episode was a bit confusing, since there seemed to be three separate plot threads and it was only at the end that it started to become clear how they were connected. I think there might have been some Twin Peaks influence here as well in terms of its structure; right down to the whole series being set in motion by the mystery of who killed a teenage girl.

Speaking of Twin Peaks, there is some really great news about the 2016 revival. Whatever contractual issues were going on, they've been resolved. David Lynch is back in action and ready to direct this revival of his beloved 90's soap opera series. In fact they might even be going beyond the original plan of 10 episodes. This is amazing, so we finally get closure to the series after all: that or it just raises even more questions, either way it will be great to see what happens next. We'll finally learn what happened to Agent Cooper, and it already looks like just about every member of the original cast who is still alive is hoping to return, including some of the actors whose characters died in the original series.


Meanwhile, on Game of Thrones, Tyrion's journey to see Daenerys is becoming even more stressful. He really should have just stayed in that "wheelhouse" with Varys. First he was taken by Jorah and pulled through Valeria where he was nearly infected by stonemen, now both have been abducted by slave traders who apparently want to take them to Slaver's Bay despite the actions of Daenerys (perhaps there is some sort of underground slave market going on?). Tyrion was almost killed but managed to delay his murder for now. Hopefully he can escape from this mess, though how that's going to happen, if at all, I don't know.

On a darker note it turns out, not surprisingly, that Baelish is not the best hope for Sansa Stark after all; in fact he is actually selling her out to Cersei. Come on Stannis, what's taking you so long? Get down to Winterfell and rescue Sansa already! It's bad enough that she had to marry that psychopath Ramsay (who is very unsubtly implied to have on multiple occasions married women and then murdered them), but things are going to get far worse when Cersei gets her hands on her. On the other hand, Brienne was supposed to be nearby. What's she waiting for?

Sansa's sister, on the other hand, is only doing slightly better. Her life isn't in any immediate danger, but she is stuck in an old building constantly washing corpses for people who refuse to explain why she has to do so. Eventually it turned out that the faces of these corpses are kept in the basement, and Arya is apparently not ready to become "nobody" yet. From what was stated, it sounds like Arya is going to have adopt a new identity of some sort. I'm not quite sure what that entails at this point, but I guess we'll find out.


Stuff From Other Bloggers

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies Based on a Graphic Novel/Comic


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies based on a comic book or a graphic novel. That seems pretty straight forward, right? Well, it turns out there is a slight catch: they have to be based on a non-superhero comic or graphic novel. My experience with graphic novels is unfortunately limited, so this proved to be a difficult selection, but I have to pick out three films so here is what I found. Interestingly, for all three cases I have not read the graphic novels they were adapted from, but I did try to pick some interesting and very different movies.

V For Vendetta (2005)


You remember that guy Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the English Parliament that one time back in the Renaissance? No? Well, you'll remember him after seeing this dystopian adventure from the creators of The Matrix. Okay, technically this isn't a biopic of Guy Fawkes, but it does feature Hugo Weaving donning a mask resembling his image and recruiting Natalie Portman to help him start a revolution against a fascist government led by John Hurt. This is certainly a dark film but it does have Stephen Fry to help add some comic relief, at least as much as you can get in a film that gets as violent as this.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)


This is about as far from superheros as you can get. Based on a French graphic novel titled Le bleu est une couleur chaude, this is the heartbreaking story of the relationship between two young girls who find themselves sexually attracted to each other, and their relationship over the following decade. It's an interesting look at homosexuality in that for once it doesn't focus on the obvious problems like homophobia in society, but instead suggests that being in a homosexual relationship is not all that different from being in a heterosexual one. In other words, a gay couple has to deal with more or less the same challenges as a straight one. Having studied astronomy, I can also say it is amusing how unintentionally accurate the title is: blue light has more energy than red light, which in turn means that when looking at main sequence stars larger ones that have more energy and are therefore hotter are blue, so in a sense blue really is the warmest colour.

Snowpiercer (2014)


I still stand by everything I've said about how Snowpiercer could have benefited greatly from a wider range of female characters (I do find it hard to believe that these revolutionaries clearly need all the help they can get and only one woman in the back of the train was willing to help them, while the only other female character involved was literally just there as a condition to get a man to join them). Yes, Tilda Swinton has an odd role but she isn't in it for very long. That said, Joon-ho Bong's sci-fi film adapted from the French comic Le Transperceneige is otherwise an interesting film with some tense action scenes and creative worlds in the form of each individual piece of the train.

Friday, 15 May 2015

I'd Rather Be Running With the Shadows of the Night



I was looking for something to watch and found myself looking through recent additions to Netflix. I was surprised to find Nightcrawler on there. This was a film I had not given much attention when it came out, but I remembered a lot of my fellow bloggers were raving about it so I thought maybe I'd give it a chance and see what all the fuss was about. After all, everyone else seemed to like it, and it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. It also seemed to have a decent premise as well, which seemed interesting. The environment could have made for a great setting too. It's a real shame this one didn't live up to what I was promised.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a down-on-his luck individual trying to find some form of job with which to make money. By total chance, he happens to witness a car accident and encounters a man filming it. This inspires him to (illegally) obtain a camcorder of his own and begin recording gruesome incidents around Los Angeles. He then sells these recordings to a local news station where he works with Nina (Rene Russo), a woman who does... something news-related (it's not really very well explained). He then travels around town videotaping crimes and accidents for the news and starts to use ethically questionable tactics.

Seems okay in theory, but I find myself wondering just what it was my fellow bloggers saw that I didn't. I really wanted to like Nightcrawler but to be honest, I found this movie kinda boring. Jake Gyllenhaal's talent is wasted on a dull character who has no emotional investment, and I can't say I had much interest in Rene Russo either. The environment itself also proved a disappointment. I was hoping for something along the lines of Taxi Driver, where the nighttime environment creates an interesting world and adds to the tense atmosphere, but I didn't get that at all. What I did get was some guy with no real personality running around with a camcorder photographing crime scenes.

The actual crime scenes themselves were quite convincing, so I can give the movie credit for that, but if I just wanted to see those it would be far easier to just look up pictures of the real thing. I did also have some concerns about the apparent lack of women in this film, since Nina didn't seem to be that prominent a character and most of the other women who appeared with victims of crimes and accidents. I saw not a single female cop or female firefighter at any of the crime scenes depicted. Maybe I'm crazy for calling out the movie on that area, since I don't know anyone else who is bothered by these types of things, but I did find it unsettling.

It's a shame really, because Nightcrawler could have been an interesting movie, with a compelling world and some intriguing ideas, but in the end it felt more like a poor man's Taxi Driver. In fact, don't bother with this one at all, just watch Taxi Driver. That is a film that is able to do something worthwhile with the nightime world of an urban environment. It is actually an interesting film with a compelling narrative, even if it might lack any female cops (which is probably due to the time it was made). Nightcrawler had some potential but didn't seem to use it, which leaves me asking this question: why do so many people like this movie?


The Thing About The Thing


In my essay Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens I discussed the ways in which science fiction movies about alien visitations reflected the social anxieties of the era in which they were made. There have arguably been three major cycles of alien invasion films, the first happening in the 1950's, the second in the 70's and continuing into the 80's, and the third beginning in the late 90's and continuing today. All three of these cycles contained very different patterns in how the alien visitors were treated, and in what way they were represented. 50's alien invasion films were characterized by a very pro-authoritarian attitude with the aliens almost always being cast as the villains (aside from a few rare exceptions such as The Day the Earth Stood Still) who served as an allegory for the paranoia of communist influence. These films were made at the height of the Cold War, when to the average American citizen, nuclear warfare was inevitable.

The later cycle involved a very different tone. Aside from a greater presence of movies about friendly aliens, these films were being made following several events in the 60's that had sparked a significant distrust of the government. In the later alien invasion films, the government is at best inaccessible, and at worst it is an active threat. Instead, the focus becomes one of individualism, in which the central characters are civilians who have to stand up against an oppressive government to resolve the situation. As you can see, there is a very distinct change that occurs among these films. The modern alien invasion cycle appears to involve a middle ground between the two extremes, with a positive view of the government but an emphasis the individual playing a crucial role in their victory.

However, there is one movie among the 1950's cycle of alien invasion films that manages to avoid fitting perfectly into the usual patterns of the era: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. This was an early entry into the cycle, and at first it appears to fit the standard formula of alien invasion films of the era. The central characters are a group of American Air Force men, who are treated as the voice of reason and who have to rally together everyone in the camp in order to defeat the Thing. This would suggest that the Thing itself is an allegory for the perceived "Red Menace"... the key word being perceived. On closer examination, it turns out to be a lot more complicated than that. If anything, this structure is merely a disguise to get past the censors. In actuality, The Thing From Another World is an allegory not just for the fear of communism, but criticizing Cold War politics in general.

While the central character of The Thing From Another World is an Air Force captain who serves as an authority figure, the movie as a whole displays a very critical attitude toward the military. Captain Hendry is not in fact the primary authority figure, he still answers to General Fogarty, and it is the "professionalism" of the military that proves to be a major hindrance in defeating the Thing. This is established early on when the "standard operating procedure" intended to uncover the flying saucer ends up destroying it. Once the Thing is brought into, Fogarty not only prohibits any public knowledge of the incident (and ignores Hendry's pleas to reconsider), but he also repeatedly issues orders demanding the protection of the Thing after it has started to wreck havoc. The only way to save everyone in the base is literally to ignore his direct orders. In other words, Hendry has gone rogue, foreshadowing the anti-authoritarian themes of the second alien invasion cycle.

Considering this realization, the real representative of the American government is the one person who actually tries to listen to the useless orders of General Fogarty: Dr. Arthur Carrington. He and the Thing both represent the two opposing parties: America and Russia, while the rest of the cast represents civilians on both sides who are caught in the middle. The Thing is the obvious, or perhaps more accurately, the perceived danger, when in fact the real threat is something far more local and more familiar, namely Dr. Carrington. Throughout the film, Carrington is stubbornly convinced that "The Thing" is a door to infinite scientific knowledge, to the point where he believes it takes priority over the lives of the men and women in the base and labels anyone who says otherwise as a traitor.

The Thing From Another World was released when the Cold War as at its darkest, largely due to the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even for a time when it was normal to be afraid of the alleged "Red Menace", McCarthy had some very strong opinions on the matter. He was responsible for ruining the lives of many Americans through a series of "communist witch trials" in which people were persistently questioned about ties to communism. This is where the term "McCarthyism" comes from, as it refers to any accusations made against a certain party based on insufficient evidence.


Hollywood in particular was hit rather hard by this practice, with many previously-successful filmmakers losing their jobs based on unsupported accusations. Charlie Chaplin was exiled because he once entertained a friend with ties to communism, and wasn't allowed to return to America until the 1980's. Screenwriter Bertholdt Brecht, despite having shown his support for the American war effort through his film Hangmen Also Die, was also accused of being a communist and left one day after his hearing. It got so bad that the studios eventually created a list of the "Hollywood Ten", a group of screenwriters named for the blacklist so that the government would leave the film industry alone (ironically, some of these blacklisted writers were still able to keep working uncredited, even winning Academy Awards).

There was an obvious danger to the American People: the Soviet Union. This is what the government liked to paint as the enemy in the 1950's, and to a certain extent it could be argued that the danger was real since both the United States and Russia were pointing missiles at each other. Mutually assured destruction seemed inevitable, but at the same time there was another far greater menace. The threat was not the other country, as people would have been led to believe, but their own  familiar government. McCarthy himself and his persistent efforts to stomp out anyone who had the slightest reason to be suspected of communism was a more immediate danger.

In The Thing From Another World, the obvious danger is in the literal monster, The Thing. The danger it poses to the team is real, as it is trying to kill everyone and consume their blood, but in the end this is not the real enemy. It is actually a decoy, something to keep the protagonists distracted from the real enemy. While The Thing is dangerous, there is a far greater threat in the form of something familiar: a human and seemingly an ally to the protagonists. Dr. Carrington is introduced as a respected scientist, but as the plot develops, he starts to establish himself as a monster no better than The Thing.


Over the course of the film Dr. Carrington becomes obsessed with the Thing, convinced that he can learn from it scientifically. He becomes so passionate about his belief that the monster can be valuable to science that he puts it above the lives of everyone in the camp, going as far as to attempt to sabotage efforts to destroy it. He even goes on to identify any person who disagrees with his view as a traitor to humanity. The rest of the cast, which includes people from different sides, are practically civilians caught up in the pointless conflict between Carrington and The Thing. They also come from two different sides: the military and the scientists, but in the end find themselves on equal footing. This could be interpreted as suggesting that the American and Russian people were not so different from one another, and that it was simply their governments that are the problem.

On discovering this, it starts to become clear that The Thing From Another World is not about the fear of communism, but rather a criticism of Cold War politics in general. Neither Carrington nor the Thing is ever treated as being in the right. Both sides are just as guilty. Carrington himself emphasizes this idea visually when the Thing is first encountered, during which time he wears a hat that looks suspiciously like the types of headgear commonly associated with Soviet Russia, suggesting that the American government is not that much different. Scientific curiosity is used to substitute the government's fears of communism. Carrington's admiration of the Thing is the problem, and it is this ideology that he is pushing on everyone else in the camp, to the point where he will label anyone who disagrees as a threat.

There is one final element that serves to complete the Cold War Allegory. In real life, the Cold War was centered around American and the Soviet Union both pointing missiles at each other. The only thing that prevented a war from happening was the fortunate awareness of mutually assured destruction: that one side would attack, the other would retaliate, and both parties would be annihilated. In The Thing From Another World, the missiles are instead represented by seeds. The Thing is established to be capable of producing seeds that could potentially create more monsters like it and thus prove an even greater threat to humanity. Dr. Carrington also does something similar, creating his own garden and growing similar plants himself. Both sides offer a danger to everyone in the camp: mutually assured destruction.

The idea of mutually assured destruction comes into play at the very end of the film, when Dr. Carrington and The Thing finally confront each other. Carrington attempts, unsuccessfully, to talk to The Thing and is knocked aside. Immediately after, The Thing is also destroyed. The curious element is that the remaining characters seem to be better off when both are out of the picture. The critical wounding of Carrington and the destruction of The Thing represent the elimination of both the American and Soviet governments, and with that elimination the people of both nations are no longer caught in the crossfire of their petty conflict; thus bringing an imagined end to the Cold War. The thing about The Thing From Another World is that it is really quite daring for its time, presenting what on the surface looks like a typical 1950's alien invasion movie, but underneath contains a surprising layer of political commentary.



This Post was written for the Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films, and Wonders in the Dark



Thursday, 14 May 2015

So Fetch Friday: The Stark Family Reunion



This week, I started my new class on the business of filmmaking and it has me a little nervous. I wouldn't normally take this one but I have to in order to finish the program, and it involves math. I hate math. If you give me any problem more complicated than 2+2 I get hopelessly confused. We watched the movie Paranormal Activity, and discussed the appeal of found footage movies. It got me thinking about some of the found footage films I've seen, and I've come to a simple realization: found footage movies are great, but not very effective for horror. Of the two found footage films I've reviewed on this blog, Europa Report and End of Watch, one was more a science fiction film with some elements of horror, and the other was a simple police procedural. It seems to be just the found footage horror films that give the genre a bad name, but it can actually work when people actually try to find a genre other than horror in which to use it.

I got talked into seeing Whiplash last weekend, once again for no other reason than because it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars (this seems to always happen, I end up having to watch a movie just because it was featured at the Oscars). It was okay. I guess there was some decent cinematography and the acting seemed fine but I never really found myself getting into the whole story. Fletcher ended up coming off more like a drill sergeant than a music teacher, to the point that I couldn't help wondering if he was originally supposed to be played by R. Lee Ermey. I kept half-expecting him to tell Andrew to lean forward and choke himself, but apparently there really are music teachers like that so I guess that's okay. I also had some concerns about the general lack of female characters, but I keep getting told that this was done to make the film more realistic because there aren't that many female musicians in Jazz. Still, I do wonder if it would have hurt the film to have one or two girls in the Studio Band, or perhaps even to make the main character a girl.


In addition to all that,  my limited understanding of any type of music outside of 1980's rock and roll meant that half the time I didn't know what anyone was talking about. On the other hand, my sister (who actually has experience in this area and is looking at getting into music school) seemed to really like it. I've been led to think that Whiplash is therefore mainly a movie for musicians, so if you are a musician or have experience in music you'll love this movie and really relate to it, but there isn't much in it for anyone else. Personally, I don't think I'd go as far as to call it Oscar-worthy.

After last week's incident with Banshee, I had some difficulty getting back onto the show, so I decided to start watching The X-Files again. Mulder and Scully got up to some crazy shenanigans this time round: there was a French salvage team that tried to recover a downed World War II airplane and ended up bringing something weird to the surface. We never found out quite what it was, but it seemed to infect people and jump from body to body, and in doing so could spread massive radiation burns to anyone else around them. You could also tell they were infected because their pupils looked like they were being submerged.


Once I finally got the nerve to go back to Banshee, things started to get intense. Lucas Hood is just about as angry as I was that Siobhan got killed off. Fortunately, Lucas now has the support of Amiee King, one of only two cops on the local Native American Reserve who also seems like the only person there who can actually get anything done. She was initially reluctant to agree with Lucas's vigilante techniques, but after seeing what this guy could do she is ready to see him dealt with appropriately. The good news is that I did in fact get the satisfaction of seeing the bastard responsible for killing off my favorite character take a shotgun round to the head. It took a couple episodes, and he proved extremely hard to kill, but he did at least get a comeuppance for what he did.

Meanwhile, Dava got mixed up in the wrong crowd when she ran into this strange guy in an alleyway. She hung out at his house where people liked to take drugs and engage in taser duels. Fortunately, her friend Beaty was not so ready to accept this and immediately told Dava's mother Carrie, who quickly put an end to their messed-up hijynx. Rebecca also seems to be finding her footing in Proctor's chain of command, and starting to develop some of her own corporate power. There is also a new deputy on hand, Kurt Bunker, a reformed Skinhead who has realized the error of his ways but still has to cope with all the Swastika tattoos covering his body that serve as a remind of his past. There was then a big heist on the local military base shown almost entirely through a "found footage" format which was interesting. It proved difficult, and Hood got distracted momentarily because of what happened to Siobhan, but he and his friends managed to make off with a lot of money... once they finally got away from Douglas Stowe who has also proven very hard to kill.

On Game of Thrones, we had one exciting thing happen... sort of. Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy have just met for the first time since season 1. This might not have been under the most ideal circumstances, but so far it is the closest thing we have gotten to a Stark reunion. After Season 1 they all got separated and keep just missing each other. Poor Arya was almost reunited with her mother only to end up just missing one of the bloodiest massacres in the entire show, then just missed a reunion with Sansa because Baelish decided to throw her psychotic aunt through her own moon door. Then Bran caught a brief glimpse of Jon Snow but failed to meet him directly. Now reuniting Theon with Sansa is the closest we have come to getting the Starks back together. We'd probably get closer if Arya would just get up to the wall already and be reunited with Jon Snow.

The reason why these aren't the most ideal circumstances is because Sansa was reunited with Theon after he was kidnapped and tortured into becoming Ramsay Snow's personal servant. Sansa is also engaged to be married to Ramsay, which isn't good considering his ethics. There is generally a moral ambiguity to Game of Thrones, but usually for every major character there is someone else who is far worse. Ramsay is one of the few people on the show to be truly evil. The only person I can think of who might have been worse is Joffrey, but that's only due to the fact that he had complete control of Westeros. Even worse, it looks like Ramsay might be plotting something after finding out his mother is pregnant with a son, since that will challenge his newfound status as Ramsay Bolton.

Fortunately, it looks like Stannis is on his way to Winterfell now. I'll admit I'm not usually the biggest fan of Stannis but he's probably the best hope for Sansa (seeing as he and his brother were among the few people on good terms with the Starks). I just hope Stannis has what it takes to overthrow the Boltons. Jon Snow also made a controversial decision back at the wall. He has decided to try and make peace with the Wildlings, something that has angered a lot of the other guys at the Knight's Watch. This seems like a difficult task, but if peace can be made, and an alliance could be formed it would give them a better chance against the White Walkers, though there still doesn't seem to be any sign of them taking an active role in the story yet.

Meanwhile, Jorah decided to take a few chances in taking Tyrion "to see the Queen" by traveling through what basically amounted to a plague colony inhabited by "stonemen". Apparently you don't want to get touched by these "stonemen" because that makes you infected with the disease (the same disease that Stannis's daughter had, which was fortunately stopped). Unfortunately, Jorah did while trying to rescue Tyrion, and now he seems to be showing signs of infection. Daenerys is still having some difficulty figuring out how to maintain her power, and had to make a few tough compromises by re-opening the fighting pits (though she emphasizes that they are for "free men only") and agreeing to marry a man of power to help secure a bond with her kingdom.

In some really exciting news, I got mentioned on an episode of Welcome to the Basement. They read one of my comments in which I recommended that they see The Hurt Locker and then told me they'd seen it. If you're not familiar with this show, I'd strongly recommend you check it out. It's pretty straight forward: two guys hang out in a basement watching and talking about movies, bringing out intelligent conversations with a sense of humor. It's a lot of fun, episodes are usually posted every two weeks or so, with each one centering on a different movie. I also left a link to my blog in the comments for this video, so I guess we'll have to see if they check me out.


Stuff From Other Bloggers

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Society and Science Fiction



In terms of story, Gravity and Conquest of Space are two very different ideas. Gravity is more about the individual and self-reliance while Conquest of Space becomes more about humanity as a whole. Conquest of Space therefore makes use of an ensemble cast while Gravity focuses almost exclusively on one individual (George Clooney's brief role the only exception). Conquest of Space involves a mission to Mars, while Gravity remains closer to Earth. In many ways, both films are products of very different eras, with different social standards and views on space travel, something especially evident in how they address the subject of gender.

Conquest of Space, as I have discussed before, utilizes an all-male cast. Producer George Pal also made a similar choice in his earlier science fiction film Destination Moon (which, interestingly, corresponds to the fact that even today we still have yet to put a woman on the moon). The film constantly uses the word "man" in place of humanity.  The trailer proudly boasted that the viewer would live "a strange topsy-turvy life of men who live as no other men have lived before" and the opening narration describes how "men" have built the wheel. When we get to see inside the Wheel, it quickly becomes clear that there are no women aboard. There are only men (though there does seem to be racial equality among those men).

The only women seen in the film are back on Earth, wives, girlfriends, and relatives of the astronauts sending them goodbye messages like the old stories of soldiers' wives saying goodbye before they were sent off to battle or sailors' wives saying goodbye before the start of a long voyage. Basically, female astronauts don't seem to exist in this world, and it is very likely that the space program has restrictions against women serving as anything other than nurses and secretaries (if even that, considering none appear in those roles on the Wheel). That is not to say the film was intentionally sexist. In fact, technically in 1955 there were no female astronauts, at least none of American birth who actually went into orbit. It would not be until almost ten years later that a female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, would be launched into orbit, and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, did not happen until 28 years after the release of Conquest of Space. It is therefore likely that the idea of female astronauts simply never occurred to the filmmakers.


This detail is somewhat ironic today, as there is a small amount of evidence which actually suggests that, at least on average, women are often better adapted physically and mentally to living in space than men, but there was a reason the filmmakers made these choices. In 1955, the space program was still under military control and in those days it had a very specific list of where women were accepted, which was greatly outnumbered by the positions that were willing to take men. Early experiments in space travel were overseen by the army and the air force, and most early astronauts had experience serving as one of those two groups. For this reason, the space program is still shown as being run by the military, and thus all-male as it is not likely that George Pal anticipated the gender integration that would occur in the military decades later.

This was also a time when women were expected to cook, clean, and make babies, thus the idea of female astronauts may have seemed unlikely for the era. As a result, the space program is seen as militaristic and being an astronaut is treated as "men's work". The first mission to Mars is treated like a naval expedition to explore a new world, a group of brave men going on a daring mission to find new resources for humanity. The few women that do appear stay behind and wait for the return of their men, much like the wives of sailors in the olden days. Though this line of thinking may seem backwards today, it would have made perfect sense to filmmakers of the era, who lacked the foresight to recognize future social developments.


Gravity, released 58 years later, has precisely the opposite treatment of gender due to being released under very different social circumstances. In 1955, feminism was making progress, but still was seen as little more than a passing fad by many men of the era. By 2013, it was more widely recognized by people of both genders, and audiences were ready to accept a female astronaut taking on the central role in a science fiction film. Throughout the film the heroine, Ryan Stone, is the only character given any real focus. The only other character whose face is even seen (at least, before his death) is her partner Matt Kowalski. In fact, the movie literally begins with Ryan being cut off from just about everyone. Fifteen minutes in, three of the five astronauts are killed and contact with mission control is lost. The only other person Ryan can turn to is Matt, who is lost soon after.

Ryan stone is therefore forced to rely on herself for the majority of Gravity's narrative. Matt's only role is to help put her on the right track. When Matt "returns" late in the film, he serves a similar function, helping Ryan to regain her confidence. However, what distinguished Matt in this later scene from his earlier role is that his appearance here is nothing more than a dream. There is no way Matt could have caught up with the Soyuz after being left in orbit, and by this point in the film he was likely either already dead or slowly dying of asphyxiation. Matt is instead merely a construct of Ryan's frightened mind, or more accurately her survival instincts.

The conversation they engage in is actually a mental conflict occurring in Ryan's own head between two different sides of her personality. Ryan herself plays the suicidal part of her character, since in a moment of despair she has proven herself ready to accept death by asphyxiation, while Matt represents that small part of her that still wants to survive. The conversation between Matt and Ryan is therefore a symbol of her thought processes as she falls asleep in the Soyuz. The solution that she finds to her problem (using the launching gear to propel the Soyuz toward the Chinese space station), was all her idea, continuing the theme of self-reliance.


The scope of the movie's themes shift. It no longer becomes about the survival of humanity or even humanity in general, just about her own struggle to survive. She has no simple solution or procedure for dealing with the situation as the men seen in Conquest of Space did. Ryan has very little experience as an astronaut to begin with, with this mission being explicitly identified as her first, and this in turn contrasts the militaristic aspect of the space program depicted in Conquest of Space. In that film, the space program is depicted as an organized branch of the military, with spaceships and space stations being run like navy crews. Gravity was affected by one development in space travel that went completely unnoticed by the filmmakers of Conquest of Space.

In 1955, the assumption that the military would still be running the space program in the future would have made sense. However, George Pal and Byron Haskin failed to anticipate the biggest flaw in that system, and the reason why the army is no longer in charge of space exploration. The American army and the American Air Force were both involved in early rocketry experiments, but they became very competitive about it. Both sides were trying to best each other, and neither wanted to share their results. They were wasting money and resources to the point where it started to cause trouble for the government. The solution was therefore to no longer allow the American Armed Forces access to rocketry. Instead, a civilian organization was assembled to take charge of space exploration, this being the origins of NASA, which is still in operation today.


Gravity therefore eliminates the militaristic qualities of the space program. None of the characters are explicitly identified to have any military background. Ryan Stone herself is even established to be a doctor, precisely the opposite of what soldiers are expected to do. In Conquest of Space, the men are established as a unit, or as a team, with each one having something valuable to contribute to the mission. There is a certain unifying quality among them. When something goes wrong, such as their commanding officer's breakdown, everyone has to stick together to continue the mission. For most of Gravity, Ryan Stone has nobody to turn to. She has to rely purely on herself to survive and return home.

The one thing both films have in common is that they aimed to create a realistic vision of outer space. Conquest of Space had to work with extreme limitations compared to Gravity. The former was made in the early days of space travel, long before even the Apollo Missions. Most of the information that was available would have been theoretical, extrapolations based on what could be understood from Earth. By the time Gravity was made, NASA had been functioning for decades: they had successfully put men on the moon, launched probes to other worlds and, through satellite technology like the Hubble, developed the beginnings of a map of the universe.

The models used in Conquest of Space are still very impressive today, but in other areas its limited information shows, particularly in the matte paintings used to depict Earth, and the scenes depicting Mars. When Conquest of Space came out in 1955, there were no clear images of the Earth as seen from space. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey, made a year before the first moon landing, had to take an educated guess on what the Earth looked like. The filmmakers were fortunate to come as close as they did. Meanwhile, the shots of Earth depicted in Gravity could pass for actual photographs taken from orbit, at least by today's standards (the effects in Conquest of Space were cutting edge for its day, it is not inconceivable that decades from now Gravity's special effects might look a little dated to a future audience).



The scope of both films naturally shifts with regards to their respective social climates. Conquest of Space attempts to present a grand narrative of humanity's future. It envisions space travel as the next step forward. The opening narration describes space travel as "the last and greatest adventure of mankind", implying that something amazing is in store. The story centers on a mission to Mars but the film suggests that humanity will go on to explore other worlds in "the vast universe itself". Gravity has a more mundane look at space travel, with a group of civilians who have been living in space for some time but show little enthusiasm for their job. Matt is more interested in breaking a spacewalk record than he is about being in space. Ryan seems more interested in her immediate task of installing a new piece of equipment onto the Hubble Space Telescope than she is in the possible new discoveries it might allow.

Space seems to have lost the excitement that was portrayed in Conquest of Space, and instead living in space has become dull and routine. In the case of Gravity, the crew are confined to Earth's orbit. They have no chance of even visiting the moon, let alone other planets. All they are doing is venturing into orbit to install some equipment into a satellite. When Conquest of Space was produced, it was still in the early days of the space program. Sputnik would not be launched for another two years. Nobody knew for sure where the space program would go, but many science fiction stories envisioned an exciting future of space travel in the near future. It therefore came as a surprise to everyone when that vision did not come true after the moon landings.

Today, "space travel" is largely confined to Earth's orbit in the form of space stations, though probes have been launched to other worlds (and outside the Solar System, in the cases of Voyager 1 and 2) and orbital sattelites such as the Hubble Space Telescope have proven crucial to developing a modern understanding of the universe. This is reflected in Gravity, in which the Explorer's crew is merely a group of civilians doing their job. At best space is dull, and at worst it is a living nightmare. This element is not entirely absent from Conquest of Space, where some of the crew talk about missing their families back home, but they simultaneously recognize the significance of their mission. Gravity refrains from addressing any potential significance of the protagonist's mission. If anything it is nothing more than a routine job, probably not much different from anything that many other astronauts before Ryan have done.

Looking at these two films, it becomes clear that science fiction is a genre that has evolved drastically over the years. Conquest of Space may have been intended as a look into the future, but it also works the other way, as a window into the past. It shows the universe as it was understood in the 1950's, and what men of the time thought space travel might one day look like in a way that seemed to make the most sense to them. By comparing it to a contemporary science fiction film like Gravity, the social changes start to become clear. In both films there was a similar aim of realistically envisioning outer space, but ultimately they are both simultaneously reflections of the eras in which they were made.

This Post was written for the Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by This Island RodFerdy on Films, and Wonders in the Dark



Sunday, 10 May 2015

Stop Motion Double Bill!




So recently, I've been looking at trying to get back into stop motion animation. I used to be really good at it. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of my older ones online anymore, mainly because the websites I've used to distribute them (first Google Video and later Yahoo Video) have since been taken down. It was a thirty-minute animated short that first got me attention in middle school. Before I presented that film I was a nobody, just some guy so desperate to get out of a crappy school that he switched halfway through the year. Afterwards, it immediately circulated around the school, being viewed by numerous members of the faculty as well as my entire class, and it became the start of my own rise to fame.

The film in question was a strange one, a musical centered around Indiana Jones teaming up with Han Solo and the Beatles, going on an adventure in a yellow submarine despite the bulk of the soundtrack consisting of music by Queen. Before that, I did a really bizarre pirate film also featuring the music of Queen (it was a swashbuckling adventure that featured appearances by astronaut Neil Armstrong and World War I ace Billy Bishop). Afterwards I went on to do an amazing science fiction parody centered around the lives of a group of strange characters on a spaceship headed for Pluto, with a weird climax that combined the famously surreal hotel at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Migrathea from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

In any case, after that incredible science fiction experience my work faded out. There were a few failed attempts to start new projects that never saw the light of day. That was until last year when I made a project for one of my astronomy classes in which I used stop motion and LEGO to illustrate how there is in fact gravity in outer space. I did two other shorts after that, one of which was a failed attempt to start a web series. The problem was that it was ultimately based on one joke: it was set during the Zulu War and the main characters were as far from the action as possible. The humor was mostly inside jokes, which was very ineffective since not very many people outside myself knew the slightest thing about the historical conflict I was referencing. There just wasn't material for a second episode.

However, recently, I've been looking at giving it another shot, which brings me to today's double billing for your enjoyment. So far I have animated two stop motion shorts this week, and I hope to do more. In this case, I have decided on an unusual approach: I made both as silent movies! This has proved to be quite useful, since it eliminates the trouble of voice acting. In the old days I usually had to do all the voices myself, which also had the unfortunate side effect that there were next to no female characters in my films; a bit ironic considering how well known I am for promoting strong female leads. By making the films silent, I was able to focus primarily on the animation and I can start using mixed-gender casts.

Both of these animations center around reasonably simple narratives. My first short, Crime Doesn't Pay, is a chase film centered around two crooks who rob a bank, and a cop who is determined to catch them before they get away. The second short, Emmett's Amazing Invention, centers around the character of Emmett from The LEGO Movie, who gets himself drunk and unwittingly builds what appears to be a doomsday machine. Once again, the cops have to figure out how to respond to this very unusual crisis, eventually building up to a strange ending that I will admit was very difficult to film. Here are both shorts for you to watch, and I hope you enjoy them:



Thursday, 7 May 2015

So Fetch Friday: Television Grief Counseling


Well, it's been a tricky week so far, ironically because I have a bit too much free time and I never seem to be sure what to do with it. I've been told that I do better when I have some sort of structure in my life so I'm still trying to get used to all this free time. Still, I have been able to find time for movies so I guess that's a positive, and I've been able to do a bit of LEGO stop motion which I guess is also a good thing.

This week, I saw a few movies. For one thing, I finally saw Into the Woods. This was one that had me a bit confused when I first heard they were making it. Since I knew it was produced by Disney (a company with a reputation for producing family-friendly material) I wasn't sure if it was going to be the full story or just the first half (i.e. up until the "Happily ever after" number at the end of act 1). I say this because I was myself in an adaptation of Into The Woods back in Grade 4, and it was a heavily abridged version. There was some stuff cut out for timing, like I remember some of the narration had to be trimmed, but it only covered act I, and ignored the fact that there was an entire second act that undoes the "happy ending". We weren't even told that there was more to the play until after our performance (though when it was revealed, the teachers let us watch the second act in full). Turns out Disney's Into the Woods is actually a full adaptation, doing the entire play, or at least as much of it as can be fit into a two-hour movie.

It was interesting seeing the movie because I could still remember a lot of my experience with the play. At the same time, I was impressed by the way in which it seemed to take full advantage of the fact that the show wasn't confined to a single stage and one angle, allowing for more complex musical numbers to be depicted across different locations through parallel editing. On the other hand, there were some stranger choices. I'm still not totally sure I understood why they didn't try to make Johnny Depp look more like a wolf instead of a man dressed in a wolf costume. That kind of makeup job works great on stage but on film these people had access to far more elaborate special effects. The one thing I'll say I was a bit disappointed by was that the character I played in that Grade 4 portrayal of Into the Woods, the Mysterious Man, was for the most part nowhere to be seen (his role seems to have been merged with the witch), though I think I understand why they made that choice, probably because otherwise there would be too many characters to develop. Still, it was otherwise a very interesting experience for a musical.


I also decided to try watching the old film noir They Live by Night, which turned out to be kinda boring. I suppose I can give it credit for at least trying to include a strong female lead (she is first established to be a skilled mechanic, even spending most of the first 20 minutes wearing pants), but then the rest of the film did seem to be trying to "feminize" her and treated her working as a mechanic as a bad thing. I can also give them credit as well since this is a rare film from Classical Hollywood that doesn't try to glamorize the female lead, but that isn't saying much. Ultimately I ended up just finding it kinda boring for the most part, and not very well-executed.

Also, here is something interesting: there's been some more news about the new Star Wars trailer, and it turns out the theory I proposed about Gwendoline Christie's role may in fact be half-right. So far, it looks like I was wrong in assuming that she was the mysterious villain character with the triple-bladed lightsaber, but I may have been correct in assuming she is playing a villain. Apparently, she is playing someone named Captain Phasma, who based on the pictures is apparently in charge of the Stormtroopers. It's an interesting choice, between Captain Phasma and Finn, it looks as though the new movies are going to try and humanize the Stormtroopers a bit more. At least some of them are going to get actual characterizations instead of being simply being cast as anonymous enemy soldiers.


You ever had the experience of watching a television show, getting particularly invested in a certain character or characters, and then having trouble moving on when they get killed off. I finally got back to watching Banshee, and that's happened twice now. When I saw Nola get killed off a few weeks ago it was hard to deal with. I felt like I couldn't go on. I couldn't even finish the episode. I finally worked up the nerve to start watching the show again and two episodes later they killed off my other favorite character, Siobhan Kelly. It was an intense bottle episode in which the police station was attacked and I suspect they drew a lot of influence from Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13, but then towards the end, Siobhan got captured by the huge macho Native American warrior responsible for attacking the police station, and he broke her neck. This was especially painful because I think Siobhan had a personal significance to me. Really, she was the reason I kept watching the show past the first episode. Don't get me wrong, there are still lots of other interesting characters on the show, but if it hadn't been for her I might not have gone far enough in to meet all those characters.


I'm wondering if I've gotten too invested in this show, since on two separate occasions I've found myself feeling actual grief over the loss of a major character that I've never met. I mean, I should have known this kind of thing might happen at some point, considering how violent a show Banshee can get. I did after all manage to continue on through Hannibal after they killed Beverly and I've endured the deaths of several wonderful characters on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, so this shouldn't be anything new.  Then again, I have experienced uncertainties on how much more of The Walking Dead I can take, but that has more to do with the disturbing scenario than anything related to a specific character. I probably would get upset if they killed off Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones but going on these feelings I probably would have stopped after the Red Wedding. I've been told I have very strong emotions so maybe I just need to work on learning to control them. Has anyone else ever had these same feelings? If so, why don't you tell me about the television character whose death you had trouble coping with in the comments.

I also finished season 2 of Hannibal and things got intense. The whole episode ended up turning into a literal bloodbath. Just about every major character who hasn't already been murdered ended up at Hannibal's house in critical condition slowly bleeding to death. Will got his stomach cut open, Jack got stabbed in the neck with a piece of broken glass before being trapped in the cellar, and Alana got thrown out a second-story window; she was still alive when we last saw her, but probably at least broke several bones and it looked like she was in excruciating pain. On the bright side, it turns out Abigail Hobbs wasn't murdered after all, but then Hannibal re-opened the knife wound to her throat, so I'm not sure how much longer that's going to last. The only person who wasn't lying on the ground bleeding to death at the end was Hannibal himself, but even he took a huge beating from Jack and Will. It was such an abrupt ending, and now I have to wait for Season 3 to come out before I can find out what happens next, and even then I'm not sure what channel it's on so I might have to wait until it comes onto Netflix.

On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. things seemed to take an unexpectedly dark turn. Coulson and friends finally figured out where the "inhumans" have been hiding (though they won't reveal it to the audience). Skye wanted her mother to talk to Coulson but Gonzales forced is way into taking his place. From that moment it was clear that things were not going to go well, it was just a question of what would go wrong. Then just when it seemed like things might work out after all, Skye's mother killed him and then framed him for trying to kill her. I'm not quite sure what's going on, but it seems as though Jiaying may in fact have been planning war with S.H.I.E.L.D. and perhaps she was not as benevolent as she first appeared, either that, or Gonzales has just ruined any chance of S.H.I.E.L.D. developing an alliance with these inhumans. In either case this does not look good for the future.


As for our friends over in the wonderful world of Westeros, things aren't going a whole lot better. Tyrion is in fact being taken to see Daenerys, which was the plan from the start of the season though in this case perhaps not in the most ideal way. Jorah is still loyal to Daenerys and seems to be planning to win back her favor, which is certainly going to be difficult. However, she may have no choice but to take him back, since she is running out of support: a group of rebellious slave-owners have started an uprising and managed to take out a large portion of the unsullied in addition to killing Ser Barristan and possibly Greyworm. Daenerys is going to have to start looking for new recruits to join her army. She is definitely still capable of dealing with this mess on her own, but there is a lot of pressure and stress to being a queen, so having someone who can serve as an advisor and confidante would still be beneficial to her mental well-being, and Jorah seems to be the only person still alive who can do that.

Meanwhile, Sansa has been left at Winterfell by our good friend Petyr Baelish with a promise that she'll be free from the wrath of the Boltons once Stannis takes the castle. Stannis isn't exactly the nicest person in Westeros, but he is the brother of Robert Baratheon, who was the one person on good terms with the Stark family (really, it was only when Robert died and Joffrey usurped the throne that the Starks started getting into trouble). Stannis was still trying to take power even when Joffrey was on the throne, so he obviously opposed him. Considering these facts it is possible that Sansa might actually be best off if Stannis does indeed come to Winterfell. Then again, George R.R. Martin is very good at squashing hope, so even if that does happen there's no guarantee that Stannis will succeed. Also, everyone is always going on about how "winter is coming", but there's still no sign of that winter.

One thing I forgot to mention last week, I got talked into seeing the first episode Marvel's Daredevil, and sets things back for Marvel on so many levels. For starters, the show itself was confusing enough and was based on a premise that wasn't very-well explained. Apparently someone decided to just leave a bunch of hazardous chemicals lying around in the middle of the road and a kid was somehow exposed to them and blinded, but also gained superpowers which raises a few questons. That part about him being blinded doesn't entirely make sense. I could understand how the right combination of chemicals might destroy someone's vision but his eyes weren't even touching the chemicals. I suppose it could have been the fumes but then why was nobody else affected the same way?

So the plot makes virtually no sense, and I failed to see how this was intended to connect at all to the rest of the franchise. However, it gets worse. I've often praised Marvel for its strong female characters, of which it has many. It's not always perfect and yes, there is room for improvement seeing as there is usually a greater male-female ratio in each individual installment, but across the entire franchise we have Sif, Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Melinda May, Skye, Bobbi Morse, Jemma Simmons, Peggy Carter, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, and Nebula (which I still admit is an odd choice of name but otherwise still a pretty good character). Marvel's wasn't doing too bad, until now.

Unfortunately Daredevil completely undoes all of that and ended up being not just severely lacking in strong female characters, but by the end it was legitimately sexist and I'm not happy with how it treated the only female character. I mean, look at the facts. First, she is of course a victim who is shown to be unable to take care of herself and has to be protected by men. Second, she's kind of an idiot, not noticing the obvious resemblance between the "mysterious" superhero who saved her and the lawyer she is forced to rely on for protection. During the climax, she then has to be rescued by the male lead and shows no ability to defend herself again. Finally, at the very end, she literally offers her services as a free maid. It seems the only thing she can do for her protectors is cook and clean, and she is treated as being perfectly happy with this arrangement. No, I'm not okay with this and I refuse to go on with this show. Do yourself a favor, don't waste time with this crap, especially since we don't want Marvel to think we actually enjoy watching misogynistic garbage.

Now I've just got a few more days and my summer class gets started. This one is all about the business of filmmaking, and area I have not been looking forward to studying mainly just because I'm not exactly cut out for the business side of anything. Of course, maybe at the very least having the slightest understanding of how the business works could be helpful in some form. I don't know, but at least I'll have a structure of sorts. I also just realized that after this I'll only be three posts away from my 300th article. My usual tradition is to celebrate milestones by reviewing a film that has some sort of personal significance to me. Now I've just got to decide which one I'll be looking at. I guess some high stakes gambling is in order.


Stuff From Other Bloggers

  • Roderick Heath is almost ready to start the Film Preservation Blogathon next week. You might want to get down there fast and figure out what you want to write about.
  • Lady Sati concludes the White Swan, Black Swan Blogathon
  • Wendell Ottley joins in on my own Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon
  • Victoria Loomes delivers an insightful essay on Alice Guy-Blaché, one of the earliest known female directors who was working around the same time as several more famous early cinematic pioneers like Thomas Edison, Edwin Porter, the Lumière Bros, Georges Méliès, and D.W. Griffith.
  • Big Screen Small Worlds reviews a double feature of Double Gigolo and Pretty Women, both Richard Gere films where he plays very different characters.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Switzerland and Science Fiction


After my experiences with Oblivion I felt I needed to see a much better science fiction film. Naturally, this turned out to also be a great opportunity to look at something I haven't before, and I don't think a lot of people have covered (at least, I'm not aware of any scholars or bloggers who have covered this area): Swiss cinema. Yes, it seems Switzerland does in fact have a film industry, and produce its own movies. This has a bit of significance to me, seeing as I actually spent a portion of my childhood in Switzerland, though so far I've only seen one Swiss movie (though I have seen a few Swiss TV shows, Pingu perhaps being the most iconic).

That film was a 2009 science fiction movie titled Cargo, originally released in German but also available with English and French dubbing. I was first introduced to this film in high school when one of my teachers recommended it. Funnily enough, this was not actually my film teacher, but I received a number of recommendations from him and pursued most of them. I saw Cargo with an English dub years ago, and naturally it seemed like perfect material to revisit, but this time around I made sure I heard it in its original German (though I will confess the subtitles don't do it justice). My exposure to Swiss cinema may be limited, but Cargo is definitely a great first impression.

In the year 2270, the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable due to pollution. Most of the remaining population of humanity is confined to the crappy environments of orbiting space stations. It's a miserable life for most, living in confined and crowded places just trying to find some way of getting by. Fortunately there is hope in the form of a distant planet called Rhea, which has apparently been the site of successful colonization, but getting there requires money, something a lot of people still don't have. This is the case for Dr. Laura Portman (Anna Katharina Schwabroh), a young woman desperate to reunite with her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner), who successfully moved to Rhea years ago. Hoping to get the money, Portman manages to get a job working as a medic aboard a cargo ship Kassandra.


At first, it proves to be a lonely life, during which most of the crew is in cryosleep, taking rotating shifts to maintain the ship during its automated flight to a space station. However, that all changes when Portman has an unexpected encounter, leading to an investigation of the cargo hold that ends in the unexplained murder of the ship's captain (Pierre Semmler). Suddenly it becomes clear that the mission was not as simple as the crew initially thought. Something much bigger is going on, some members of the crew are not who they appear to be, and flight lieutenant Anna Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller) seems to be in on it and doing everything she can to keep them from finding out. Now it's up to Laura Portman and security officer Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold) to get to the bottom of this strange mystery before Kassandra reaches its destination.

There is definitely a lot of influence on this film from earlier, perhaps better known, works of science fiction. The basic structure of the narrative definitely has some resemblances to Alien, and some of the aesthetics used in the worn-down style of future technology call to mind the likes of that film and Dark Star. There is even one supporting character, Claudio Vespucci, who I can't help noticing has a vibe that reminds me a bit of Dave Lister from Red Dwarf. A lot of the space visuals probably draw from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though at the same time I find myself wondering if Gravity might have borrowed some ideas from Cargo's climactic extravehicular sequence. That said, Cargo should not be considered a rip-off of any of these films. Part of the charm with this film is that it takes those ideas and does its own thing with them. There is a rather unique feeling to Cargo that does not come with other science fiction films.

The visuals are incredible on so many levels, be it in the vast long shots of outer space or in the shots of the grimy interiors of Kassandra. Outside, some incredible work is put into the designs of the space stations and space ships, as well as the exterior shots of planets and the one scene where the characters have to step outside. Inside the ship, there seems to be a balance of remaining creative while also trying to make things look real. There is a "used future" aesthetic reminiscent of Alien and Dark Star in just how everything seems to be decaying (there's even an airlock door that doesn't close properly). It makes for some very curious environments, especially for the scenes dealing with the cryochamber and the cargo hold.


The film's story is also fast-paced and easy to follow. I never found it to get confusing at any one point. I think the only flaw I could note was that perhaps the romance between Dr. Portman and Decker may have happened a little too quickly, but even that wasn't a huge issue. In fact it might even be justified by the simple fact that the characters were under an extreme amount of stress at the time and probably not thinking clearly. I would definitely say that Laura Portman is a strong character for the lead, seeing as she is the one who does a lot of the investigating, and ultimately goes on to play a crucial role in the film's final moments. Decker makes for a suitable partner. Lindbergh also serves as an interesting antagonist, and I'll admit it was interesting to see a female protagonist going against a female villain without any apparent intent to arouse the viewer to play it off as attractive.

I would recommend looking at Cargo if you get the chance. It is definitely a better movie than Oblivion, seeing as this one actually does have some strong female characters and a far less predictable narrative. Science fiction is not something one would normally associate with Swiss filmmaking, but they guys behind Cargo really pulled it off, taking the ideas of classic science fiction films and putting their own spin on them. It is a really unusual science fiction film, and unique among the genre. It also should not be too hard to find, so I would say check it out.

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Workplace Movies


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is workplace movies. If you haven't taken part in this event, the gameplay dynamic is really quite simple. Each week she picks a different theme, and participants have to list three movies that fit that theme. It's pretty straight forward in theory, though in practice sometimes deciding on the movies can prove difficult, as was the case for this week's theme. The workplace can be a very effective setting for movies, but what exactly defines a "workplace"? She never gave any specific definitions for what qualified, so I would assume it means films that deal with the everyday pressures of the "workplace" in the form of a specific job. I was never given any specific rules about what sort of jobs were acceptable for this list, so I'm just going to pull out some unusual choices, two of which highlight jobs I don't expect any of the other participants will think of.

Living in Oblivion (1995)


Well, here's something that one might not normally think of when they envision the "workplace", but it is still a place where people work and one that can be quite tedious: filmmaking. As someone with experience in this area, I can say that many of the amateur films I've made with literally no budget were extremely stressful to make. I've already got more than a few stories about the difficulties I faced when filming my high school short film In the Line of Duty. Of course, that was a film in which I had to do everything (I had to be the director, writer, cinematographer, editor, and camera operator) with very little experience using actors who had even less experience making movies, and I had virtually no budget. You'd think with a group of professionals who actually knew what they were doing it would be easier, right? Wrong. Living in Oblivion is all about that side of filmmaking, showing the stress and difficulties faced by a film crew just shooting a single scene, let alone an entire movie.

American Splendor (2003)


Okay, if you really want to be technical, this one isn't necessarily about the workplace itself, but it is a curious look at how one man is affected by it. In this case, the film is inspired by real events, even going as far as to emphasize it by having some of the real people the characters are based on appear as themselves sometimes. The central character of Harvey Pekar is an everyman who has a boring office job, but he manages to find one... unusual way of coping with it: by writing comics. Basically, Pekar has this philosophy that real life makes great fiction, and he made a surprisingly popular series of comics that were literally just about his boring job. 

End of Watch (2012)


Yes, there is sort of a sub-plot about angry gangsters but really this film is about the side of police work that movies often overlook. Often being a cop is seen as an exciting job with lots of action, but that's not all it is. After all, while police are expected to show up at crimes and address the criminals appropriately, there are other aspects of the job, such as the extensive amount of paperwork involved. End of Watch hardly skips on the action but what makes it interesting is that it emphasizes the boring side of being a cop, seeing as a large portion of it is just the two main characters sitting in their squad car basically waiting for something to do, as well as their day-to-day relationships with each other and their fellow officers.