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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Halloween Horror: Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter has admitted to being a big fan of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and it shows in several of his movie. In the Mouth of Madness was the one film he consciously intended to be Lovecraftian, but the influence of his writing is clear in much of his work. One of the ones I often hear cited as extremely Lovecraftian is his underrated 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness. It certainly has that sort of atmosphere. The final scene is lifted almost directly from one of Lovecraft's writings and there is even a character named shares her surname with William Dyer's unfortunate companion in At The Mountains of Madness. Bringing the whole thing full circle I think this film might in turn have even influenced my own contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos.

It all begins when an elderly priest dies suddenly of an unspecified illness. Among his belongings are a diary that reveals his connection to a mysterious sect, and a key to the basement of a seemingly abandoned church. Another priest (played by Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance) decides to investigate and finds something which motivates him to contact physics professor Howard Birak (Victor Wong, who also worked with Carpenter on Big Trouble in Little China) for assistance.

What he found turns out to be an enormous vial containing an ominous green fluid. A research team is assembled to study the peculiar properties of the thing, with the only explanation lying in an ancient book that contains complex differential equations (which shouldn't have been known when it was written). This substance is eventually revealed to be in a way the essence of Satan, or to be more precise, something far more terrifying from which the religious concept was derived. It has been kept secret for thousands of years but now it is starting to awaken. 

Strange things begin to occur, the homeless in the neighbouring area begin to surround the church. People are possessed by the fluid, transformed into zombie-like beings to perform its will, and carefully it begins working to bring about something even more frightening that will destroy our world. A desperate race against time ensues as the decreasing number of people who are not possessed try to survive long enough to figure out a way to end its sinister plans.

One thing I can tell you right off the bat is that this is a disturbing movie that has that atmosphere of dread right from the get go. Any film that can make a jar of green goo seem frightening is worthy of respect, and that's just the start. Even long before we see the goo, the atmosphere has an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. When it does begin infecting people, things quickly become terrifying, and between the possessed individuals outside and the zombie-like servants within, the environment seems to gradually close in on the protagonists.

What I personally find interesting about this film, however, is it's approach to the material. The idea of taking old religious ideas and putting on a science fiction/Lovecraftian twist is a fascinating one that seems believable in a way. It also allows for an interesting dynamic in Donald Pleasance's role. His character of the priest is one who is constantly forced to question and re-evaluate his faith, but can never quite seem to let it all go. This constant conflict in his emotions is conveyed effectively and becomes a major driving force in the narrative.

Prince of Darkness is definitely a horror movie worth your time. I would strongly recommend you check it out, especially if you enjoyed the other two installments of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). It is a terrifying experience that will have you compelled to follow from start to finish,  and guaranteed to make you feel uneasy by the time it is finally over.

Something Exciting Happened!

This week I found out there was a group connected to the Raindance Film Festival on my University Campus. Two days ago I had the honor of attending their first meeting and I brought in some of my screenplays. I shared them with a number of people and they all loved it, and now it looks like we might be able to make a movie. It won't be a very long one, probably not more than ten minutes and it won't have any big names in it, but nonetheless it will be a movie. We've barely even started yet and already I've got a producer, a possible lead actress, and maybe a camera crew if all goes as I hope.

As you can imagine I'm super excited by this prospect of finally seeing one of my scripts realized. I've already got two who are ready to take part and several others who are interested. Even if it's just a short it will help prepare us for when we are ready to tackle the features. It turns out I'm the closest thing they have to a professional screenwriter so this is pretty exciting to finally get into a position where I might be able to see one of my visions realized.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but I've been thinking that if this all works out as I hope, I might do a series of "production diaries" on here. Nothing fancy, but I thought you might enjoy reading the experiences of being on an amateur film set as it happens. If I do opt to do it, it probably won't be a regular feature either, more like something I'd do every couple of weeks, possibly months (I'm not entirely certain how long it will take to get this film made).

So here's hoping everything goes well at the next meeting and perhaps we can get a start on this exciting short film which draws from an odd mix of my failed college experience and watching lots and lots of David Lynch movies. If I can I'll try and remember to keep you all posted if it all works out, which I hope it will. I might even give some information about where to find the movie when it's completed if I can.

Incidentally, this does lead me to wonder if some film student down the line will have the same messes I've been caught up in previously, getting bogged down by the overt pressures of criticism and wondering why they really like my work but can't enjoy any of the David Lynch films that obviously inspired it. I guess if that ever does happen I'll just have to tell them about how I had the same problem with preferring Lynch over Fellini and Mulholland Drive over Sunset Boulevard and that there is nothing wrong with that.

Friday, 19 September 2014

In Your Head, Zombie, Zombie, Zombie

Zombies seem to be all the rage right now. Right now there is not one, but two extremely popular mainstream television programs still in their prime to feature zombies. The first is of course The Walking Dead, with the zombies walkers that are a constant danger and usually make a point of showing it by killing off four or five regular characters a season, but we also can't forget about the "white walkers" that have become such a big deal in Game of Thrones.

That's just our most recent output, that's not even getting into the various movies or literature or anything along those lines. We even got a zombie love story in Warm Bodies. While the term "zombie" in its current usage is a fairly recent development, the concept of malevolent reanimated corpses is a very old one that dates back centuries. Numerous movies incorporated what we would call zombies long before they became a thing.

One of the most famous literary sources would arguably be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and by extension all of the movies based adapted from it). H.P. Lovecraft also wrote a parody of that story titled Herbert West: Re-Animator which was later made into a cult film series. Both stories centered around the premise of a brilliant scientist who manages to scientifically figure out a method of reanimating dead tissue.

The results of Victor Frankenstein's was a hideous creature known as "the monster" who while not entirely unsympathetic (the narrative makes it clear that he is really just confused, and all he really wants is a friend) ends up killing a number of people and terrifying several others. West's on the other hand, might be a bit more closer to the zombies we know today in that they do have a fondness for human flesh. Fittingly while Frankenstein was ultimately granted a dignified death West's fate was to be disemboweled alive, and to add a layer of unease the zombies just kind of... disappear, with nobody being certain of what happened to them.

The concept of zombies as we know them today is usually said to have originated with George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. He never actually set out to create a movie with zombies, Romero just thought that reanimated corpses who try to eat the living was an interesting premise for a horror film. It was only when the press began applying the term "zombie" Romero decided to run with it and subsequently created a whole bunch of zombie-themed films like Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, etc. Something about this whole idea seemed to really catch on.

So what is this fascination with the undead? Why do we get so much joy out of watching decent people get torn to shreds by living human cadavers. Well, with any zombie-related story, mortality is going to be a major theme. In a show like The Walking Dead, the presence of the zombies are a constant reminder that nobody is ever truly safe. Even for those who aren't actually killed by zombies, they constantly remind us of the simple fact that everybody dies eventually.

No matter how much you run, or what you do to survive, you will eventually meet your end one way or another. In addition, one thing that elevates zombies above other creatures is the fact that they were once people and that can be seen clearly. Mowing down numerous zombies at once might not seem so bad... until you're faced with that one zombie who was once a very good friend of yours. This was a situation faced multiple times by the cast of The Walking Dead and it is not a pretty one to be put in.

Alternatively it is very painful when someone close to you gets bit and you know there is no way to save them. The only options are to either shoot them dead right there or let them transform, neither of which seem like a pleasant choice. This is something is a recurring theme on The Walking Dead, and though its major characters are not killed off anywhere near as often, it could also be said of Game of Thrones' white walkers. Even Shaun of the Dead played this aspect of the zombies completely straight despite being a spoof.

What I do find amusing about zombie films is the fact that they often go out of their way to avoid using the term "zombie". It's led to this ironic situation where zombies are such a horror icon that so many works try to avoid seeming generic by using the term "zombie" that trying to find an alternative nickname has become something of a cliché in itself. The Walking Dead has several different names for the zombies, though the most common is of course "walkers" (which is ironic because in the comics, they just use say "zombie"). I've always found this a bit odd. After all, if an actual zombie apocalypse happened, wouldn't you just say "zombie" because you would immediately associate them with modern pop culture.

Shaun of the Dead even memorably poked fun at the whole idea (among other zombie movie conventions) of how you can't just call the obvious zombies... well... zombies. Nick Frost's character Ed keeps using that term early on only to be met with Shaun yelling "WE'RE NOT USING THAT WORD!" No particular reason is given and they never even find an alternative nickname. The only reason they can't say the word "zombie" is because they are in a zombie film.

There is a formula of sorts that seems to have long been common in zombie movies. Shaun of the Dead made fun of it, but it goes back as far as Romero's own Night of the Living Dead. The way it essentially works is this: the zombie apocalypse starts, usually taking the main characters by surprise. They find an empty structure of some sort where they try to bunker down. However, things go wrong, and gradually most if not all are killed off by the time its all done.

A variety of different environments have been used over the years, ranging from the abandoned farmhouse of Night of the Living Dead to the shopping malls used in both versions of Dawn of the Dead to the Winchester pub of Shaun of the Dead to even the prison in The Walking Dead. As with many stories, this is likely because claustrophobia when used right is a very good source of horror. To be trapped in any environment, especially a familiar one that normally seems safe like a house or a mall, are still dangerous. It all ties into that theme that ultimately nowhere is truly safe. Even a prison isn't a perfect hiding spot (even if you can keep the fences from being pushed by hoards of zombies, it won't save you when your enemy shows up with a tank).

Zombies have come in many different sorts over the years, often in relation to the time period in which the work was originally made. The classical zombies are the ones which move very slowly (i.e. those of Romero). A lot of people have poke fun at this convention, since they move so slowly you just have to run really fast to get away. At least, that is a way to avoid one. Two, maybe, but as the numbers go up they're going to be much harder to run away from. Fittingly, Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, at the height of the Cold War, and in a way the zombies are allegories for the fear of communism. One zombie is not a serious threat, with every person "infected" it gets much worse. Remember, all it takes is one bite and you become one of them.

The more modern zombies are a bit different. Unlike classical zombies, these ones will move a lot faster, so just one is enough to worry about. The trouble is you'll be more likely to have to face at least fifty at a time. This is more in keeping with modern social anxieties, such as the fear of terrorism, something that is generally intended to take everyone by surprise long after it is too late to stop.

Regardless of whether we use the name, zombies have been, still are, and will likely remain a popular choice for horror stories. There is something about the whole concept of a zombie apocalypse that continues to fascinate the human mind. Zombies are a source of fear for a variety of reasons, and when used right can be a very effective source of horror.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Back to School Blogathon: David Lynch Edition

I've done two interesting classes for Wendell Ottley's Back to School Blogathon but now, because I'm completely insane, I've decided to do a special edition. I'm going to be breaking the rules a bit for this one, since I'm not going to be sticking strictly to people who are students or staff in films that prominently featured schools. I've also tried to have each archetype be played by a character from a different film of his, which was tricky. Nonetheless, I think this will be an enjoyable little activity so let's begin.


Duke Leto Atreides (Dune, 1984)- Headmaster

This is the kind of man you want overseeing things. He has plenty of money, power, and influence, but he also knows how to handle it all responsibly and puts the good of his people at the forefront. He will certainly know how to distribute the school's funding, and how to organize everything to create the best learning experience for his students. Unfortunately, he might not be prepared to deal with this group of students just yet.

Frederick Treves (The Elephant Man, 1980)- Professor

Treves is very much the sort of gentleman with the perfect balance of qualities for his job. He is calm, professional, and always tries to think through things rationally. However he is not above showing compassion when he needs to and, being a doctor, he is more than capable of caring for his students and helping them with their personal problems. I will, however, stick purely to Lynch's filmography, and will not be touching on his television work.


Pete Dayton (Lost Highway, 1997)- Popular Guy

Pete's a guy that everybody loves. He is cool, he is a good mechanic, and he seems to be popular with the girls. Unfortunately, underneath all that Pete has a few problems of his own, namely his connections to shady mobsters. Long story short, if you need someone to look at your car he's your guy, but as appealing as he is it's best to avoid getting mixed up in his personal life.

Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992)- Star Student

Cooper's a bit of an eccentric, but he is probably the smartest in the class in just how easily he picks up strange concepts. He's usually a few steps ahead of everyone else and they have no idea what he's doing, but whatever it is, it is working. In addition to that, he's also just a really great guy to be around most of the time.

Frank Booth (Blue Velvet, 1986)- Class Bully

How is this guy a bully? It would be much more difficult to explain in what way he isn't a bully. He beats people up, forces them to have sex with him, shouts at everyone, likes to taunt people, and has a tendency to use lots and lots of swear words. If you thought that one kid on the playground who liked to scare you into handing over your lunch money was bad you don't know the meaning of suffering. 

Sailor Ripley (Wild At Heart, 1990)- Class Clown

Well, how could this guy be anything else with his crazy over-the-top personality. True, he is a bit of a womanizer, but he is a guy who has a tendency to get into all kinds of strange situations and likes to bring his friends along for the ride. If there's anyone whose mere presence automatically guarantees weird things to happen (besides David Lynch), it's this guy.

Nicki Grace (Inland Empire, 2005)- Invisible Girl

Nicki has a lot going on with herself. She is a capable actress and has shown that talent but there is a limit to how demanding a role she can take, even if she gives it her all anyway. She doesn't seem to get much of the recognition she deserves for her hard work and talent, but perhaps a good director and a school play could turn things around for her.

Betty Elms/Diane Selwin (Mulholland Drive, 2002)- Troubled Youth

Which one is she really? Nobody seems to be entirely certain, but the one thing that is certain is that Betty/Diane isn't all there in the head. She can jump from being a perky young actress with a lot of talent one moment to a psychological wreck in the next. Nobody is quite sure what caused her to be like this, but all she really wants is to find a woman that loves her for who she is.

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Young Love

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about young love. This was a tricky one since it's not a subject I'm that familiar with and I didn't want to just jump straight to the obvious choice (any film version of Romeo and Juliet). The first was a bit of a stretch but I've still managed to find three movies that should fit the criteria for this week. Even better is that for once I've actually managed to release this one on a Thursday.

So here is my questionable list. As usual I've listed them by year of release:

Lolita (1962)

How Stanley Kubrick managed to complete this extremely controversial movie based on an even more controversial book (and get James Mason of all people in the lead role) I'll never know. Even the film's trailer can't figure it out. Essentially, it's the story of a middle-aged professor who while staying at a boarding house with a middle-aged single mother finds himself attracted to her fourteen-year-old daughter. What starts off as him being a suitable father figure quickly takes a downward spiral as Mason becomes increasingly obsessed with Lolita, leading to a twisted affair that will change their lives forever.

Hugo (2011)

Okay, technically this film is really about the story one of the most significant pioneers in early cinema, but even so that story is still told through the framework of a love story between two young children: Hugo and Isabelle. The two of them go on "adventures" together which consist of mischief performed at the real-life Gare Montparnasse Station in France. Both quickly become friends from the moment they meet and bond increasingly over a common admiration for the imagination of early cinema.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

We Anderson's quirky little comedy brings the touching story of two adolescents who face love at first sight. Both are social outcasts (albeit in very different ways) from different backgrounds who feel they are not wanted and so decide to run away together, which in turn affects the whole rest of the town. Lots of strange shenanigans ensue as they do everything they can to avoid being separated all while a violent hurricane is coming.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Visions of the Moon

Out of all the various strange bodies in our Solar System, the moon might just be the one to have captivated our imagination the most. For centuries there were myths and stories about the moon, and even now, when we know it is little more than a giant ball of rock, it still continues to inspire us. The moon has been the subject of countless stories and films, with efforts ranging from conscious attempts at scientific accuracy to outlandish fantasies.

One of the first cinematic auteurs, Georges Méliès, was fascinated with the moon and the idea of exploring it. Méliès was of course a magician first and foremost, and his main interest was to create a spectacle of illusions, but he clearly enjoyed the fantastical situations he could create to present those illusions. One of his most famous was of course 1902's A Trip to the Moon, which was itself loosely based on the novels From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

Méliès' visions is far from an accurate one even for his time. His primary concern was to create a spectacle and he certainly did that. The moon here apparently has an atmosphere, seeing as the protagonists are able to climb out of their spaceship dressed in Victorian suits with no trouble at all. It is also capable of supporting life, unlike the real moon. The "astronauts" encounter giant mushrooms growing in a cavern with what appear to be streams. There some weird properties about the soil, too, seeing as planting an umbrella in the ground will cause it to transform into a mushroom.

Of course, the part everyone remembers is the strange alien creatures. They easily outnumber the unfortunate protagonists, but are easy to fend off because they explode if you whack them with an umbrella. Finally, in a complete violation of any scientific logic, the "astronauts" manage to flee from the "Selenites" and escape from the moon by having one of them pull their capsule over the edge. It's a classic no doubt, but it is still a very strange vision of the experience of travelling to the moon.

The famous image of the capsule crashing into the moon's eye is also another element that becomes weird when examined from a scientific perspective. Obviously, the moon doesn't really have a face, but it is something that has perpetuated a lot in the media, especially material aimed at children. Anyone who grew up on Bear in the Big Blue House should remember how every episode would usually conclude with Bear climbing up to his balcony and, disregarding its distance from Earth and the fact that sound waves cannot travel through space, literally have a conversation with the moon about everything that happened during the day.

A similarly imaginative vision of the moon is one that should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park's first film to feature the duo was A Grand Day Out, released in 1989. This particular film saw the characters of Wallace and Gromit trying to decide where to have their holiday only to realize they are out of cheese. The natural solution is obviously to build a rocket in their basement and go for a holiday on the moon which everyone knows is made of cheese.

In this film, it certainly is. You can literally set up a picnic on the moon, just by cutting little pieces of rock off the ground and placing them on crackers. It's apparently a very unique flavor of cheese but nonetheless edible. Like A Trip to the Moon, there appears to be an atmosphere, seeing as Wallace and Gromit have no trouble breathing, although there is a somewhat lighter gravity. While Wallace and Gromit walk around more or less the same on Earth, there is one humorous scene where the former kicks a ball upwards and waits a moment only to find it doesn't come down.

The other thing about this incarnation of the moon is that it does have one inhabitant, a strange robot character that requires change to remain operational. To this day nobody knows just what this thing is, but it seems to be in some way responsible for maintaining the moon. Going to the moon for cheese might therefore not be the best idea, because this robot doesn't seem to like people doing that and will try to stop you (even if it has a tendency to fail just before it can do so). Amusingly, Nick Park's original vision was for there to be a wide variety of characters on the moon, and supposedly a sequence involving fast food restaurant, but those ideas had to be dropped due for various reasons.

Then of course there is the really bizarre rendition of the moon depicted in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A major theme in this strange dramedy is the fact that just about everything the title character does is impossible, and this whole sequence is no exception.  It should be enough just to say his method of arrival is completely insane. The Baron and his companion (played by a very young Sarah Polley) travel to the moon by creating a balloon out of dirty women's underwear and a stage prop. In actuality this would make no sense as the lack of atmospheric between the Earth and the moon would cause the balloon to burst, but of course where's the fun in that?

The moon he arrives on has a breathable atmosphere, but that is probably the least of its strangeness. It also happens to be ruled by an enormous king and queen (who also seem to be its only real inhabitants) with detachable heads that can float freely from their body. This rendition of the moon is quite possibly the strangest one you'll ever come across.

One of earliest serious attempts to realistically depict the lunar surface was the aptly-named Destination Moon. Here the moon was depicted through matte paintings using the best science that was available at the time. Unlike the real moon, however, we see something a bit different. The ground is largely flat and cracked, with various jagged rocks jutting up into the sky as opposed to the rolling hills that actually exist. We never see a single crater at any point in the film either, even though the real moon is covered in them.

What Destination Moon did get right was the moon's lighter gravity. The film exaggerates it slightly but if you have ever seen footage of the Apollo 11 landing you will know that the moon's gravitational pull is not as strong as that of Earth. Therefore, a human astronaut will actually weigh less on the moon than they would on Earth, which is why Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked in that bouncy fashion you see in all the old footage. It was also correct in assuming that the moon would have no atmosphere, requiring the characters to wear spacesuits outside to breathe and maintain their bodily pressure.

However, at one point the moon is mistakenly referred to as a "planet" when it is... well... a moon. Destination Moon was made long before the decision to formally set a specific list of requirements for what constitutes a planet vs. a moon or star. That was a more recent development, probably done because they got fed up with people constantly throwing the word around in anything even tangentially connected to outer space. The three rules they came up with were that a planet must orbit a star, it must be spherical and shape, and it must have a clear orbit (Pluto was demoted because its orbit goes right through the Kuiper Belt). Any naturally-formed object that orbits a planet (regardless of shape) is automatically considered a moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey was arguably a bit closer to the reality of what the moon looks like. We still see some of the jagged mountains, but it is a much smoother surface. Seeing as this movie was made a year before the first moon landing, Kubrick's resources were extremely limited (though probably less so than those available for Destination Moon). We don't see very many craters, but they are referred to by the characters (in reality, lunar craters come in a variety of sizes and depths, and they are relatively spaced out along its surface).

The monolith found by the astronauts on the moon was reported to have been found in Tycho, a real and very large crater on the moon. We only see the part of the crater that has been excavated (the whole thing has a diameter of 86 km), so it is hard to judge how accurately they captured that particular detail. At the moment we have no hard evidence of any extra-terrestrial objects being buried under the surface of the moon, at least not any that produce the magnetic field described in the movie, but we can't really be sure of anything.

The one detail of note is that there is a mistake regarding the moon's gravitational pull. The astronauts we see on the moon still walk as they would on Earth, when in actuality they would be significantly lighter and move more like the men in the old Apollo footage. This probably has to do with the simple fact that the scenes on the moon were shot on Earth. Until such a time as space travel becomes commercialized and becomes possible to shoot in location using places that are not on our planet, that's going to be an inconvenience for Hollywood productions.

Duncan Jones' Moon is probably the closest anyone has come to showing the moon as it really is. With this one you get a barren, smooth landscape with rolling hills, more like the real moon. You can even see craters in some birds-eye view shots. You can't always see them from the ground, but to be fair there usually is some distance between the moon's craters. The one aspect that does seem slightly off is the gravity. Sam Bell is only shown hopping in moon-level gravity while outside the vehicle. Meanwhile, in the base, he walks around as though on Earth. This is itself probably just a technical limitation, but one worth noting nonetheless.

As you can see, the moon is a very popular environment for movies of all sorts. The material I have covered here is only the tip of the iceberg. I haven't even gotten into all the crazy b-movie visions (Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953), the literature, or Futurama's lunar theme park (which includes an obvious reference to the famous image from A Trip to the Moon and a ride claiming the first moon landing was accomplished by stereotypical 19th century whalers).

There is something about our nearest celestial body that continues to capture the imagination of writers and artists. It may be nothing more than a big hunk of rock launched into orbit by an impact with the Earth early in its formation (though there is evidence of frozen water) but somehow it remains fascinating. Even I've written a short story that uses the lunar landscape as a backdrop.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Back to School Blogathon Part II

Well, the first one was so much fun and I've gotten a bit impatient to see more entries in Wendell Ottley's Back to School Blogathon. I've only seen one other entry besides my own so far, so I thought it might be fun to try making a second class. This one was a bit trickier, since I didn't want to fall too much on movies I've already covered. I've also had to resort to using two from the same movie, mainly just because I couldn't decide which to put in, and I've got a total of three from David Lynch films and two that have been used in other people's lists. Still, here we go;


Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter)- Headmaster

If you want somebody capable of running the school, than you need a wise old man like Dumbledore. This here is a man who knows what has to be done but also knows how to handle his power responsibly. He cares about his students and will do everything possible to support them, and he is never afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right.

Marko Ramius (The Hunt For Red October, 1990)- Teacher

He was established to have prior experience training men to serve in the Soviet navy. If he can handle a group of rough men and turn them into a loyal and capable crew, he should be able to handle organizing kids in an elementary school. He may be strict, but he knows what he is doing. Also he would be very effective at running gym class.


Bobby Briggs (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992)- Class Clown

Bobby Briggs is certainly a troublemaker if there ever was one, though not necessarily an all-out bully. Aside from getting mixed up in drug trafficking, he does have a tendency to get into various forms of trouble, including a few seemingly foolproof schemes at making money, and having affairs with women that are much older than him. However, underneath all that he does mean well, even if he doesn't always make the best choices.

Carrie White (Carrie, 1976)- Invisible Girl

Here we have a girl who has a lot of problems and could really do with a few good friends. Unfortunately, thanks to her psychotic mother she has a lot of trouble making friends and instead tends to come off more like a freak. She is a nice girl under all that, and one who doesn't want to harm anybody if she can help it, but just do yourself a favor and try not to dump pig's blood onto her during the prom night.

Dennis Guilder (Christine, 1983)- Jock

This guy may be a football player and certainly look like the sort of person who would cause trouble, but don't let his image fool you. Beneath that sports jacket and his slick hairstyle is a really nice guy who even manages to show a bit of kindness towards the sort of people any other jock would be expected to despise (i.e. nerds). He might be a bit tough and even a bit of a womanizer but deep down he cares for his friends.

Sandy Williams (Blue Velvet, 1986)- Popular Girl

This is arguably the model for what any popular girl should be like. Sandy is a bit different from your usual fashion-obsessed popular girl. She is kind, smart, and loyal to her friends. That's not to say she doesn't have any sort of darker side, but she knows how to control it. If there is anyone that the class should be looked up to, it's her.

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992)- Troubled Youth

Well, if being molested by your own father, caught up in drugs, and persistently haunted by an otherworldly spirit doesn't count as "troubled" I don't know what does. Laura Palmer is certainly a strange and enigmatic figure, one whose troubles can't even begin to be understood due to their strange and surreal nature. Let's just hope she doesn't mysteriously turn up dead and wrapped in plastic this year. Even if she does, you can still find her at the Black Lodge.

Kate Lloyd (The Thing, 2011)- Troubled Youth/Star Student

Let's just say that Kate has been through a lot of... less than pleasant experiences. She is certainly an intelligent young woman, and knows a thing or two about paleontology. Unfortunately thanks to a certain incident she has a few troubles of her own. She doesn't like being around groups of people, and when she is, she tends to get a little bit paranoid. It might seem strange to her classmates, but given when she has endured she has every right to feel that way.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Skyfall: What a Bond Film Should Be

Well, this had to happen eventually. Having discussed both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, everybody seemed really excited to hear what I had to say about Daniel Craig's most recent James Bond movie Skyfall. So many people recommended this one to me, telling me it was really good and possibly the best of the series. Casino Royale was really good, and after the disappointment of Quantum of Solace this one certainly managed to get Craig's Bond back on his feat and into action.

Unlike Quantum of Solace, Skyfall is more or less a self-contained movie that can be understood without seeing the previous installments. This one also takes a few different approaches, bringing up more of the gadgets and downplaying the beautiful women and romantic sub-plots (although that isn't to say they aren't there). Instead of the sort of relationships we got in Casino Royale between Bond and Vesper or Quantum of Solace between Bond and Camille, the focus becomes primarily on the interaction between Bond and M (played marvelously by Judy Dench).

At first, this change may seem a bit jarring, especially to anyone used to the much younger female leads of other Bond films, but it does work remarkably well once it sinks in. This means we do get to see M taking a bit of action and actually having a role in the plot as opposed just showing up at the beginning to say "X plans to blow up the world using a weird nuclear device that was stolen from a top secret laboratory. Go stop him."

I am going to have to go out and include a spoiler here, but I feel it necessary to comment on this aspect of the movie. One of the supporting characters is a female agent named Eve, and it actually came as a real surprise to find out at the end they were secretly re-introducing an element of classic Bond. Right at the end it is revealed her last name is Moneypenny, which of course was a recurring character in the classic Bond films. However, while I'm still not sure about the name (it always seemed a bit weird to me) I was pleasantly surprised by the way they treated her character.

First off, it is interesting they decided to cast a black actress for the role, but up to that point she had played a role in the action. We did get to see her handling a few weapons and at one point saving Bond's life, something the Moneypenny of the Connery era would never have had the chance to do. From what I've gathered in this film, Miss Moneypenny for once actually gets to have a role beyond showing up at the beginning so Bond can flirt with her for a few minutes only to be forgotten until the beginning of the next film.

Unlike Quantum of Solace, Skyfall turned out to actually have a coherent script, seeing as I was actually able to follow it this time. There is of course plenty of action at every turn and a few clever chase scenes and various little twists. Javier Bardem makes a pretty strange but interesting antagonist (probably channeling a bit of his experience from No Country For Old Men) and Albert Finney has a scene stealing role in the final act of the film.

Ultimately, if I were to rank Craig's Bond films so far, I'm actually finding myself leaning towards Casino Royale as the best of the three and Quantum of Solace was definitely the weakest. That leaves Skyfall currently as the second best in the series, which to be fair is not bad. It is a well-executed movie with some good action and a compelling story. Some of the "alpha male" personality of Bond does begin to re-surface at times in this one, but fortunately those moments are brief and spaced out in an installment that otherwise manages to avoid the problems of the Connery films.

At the moment, Daniel Craig is currently signed on to do at least two more films (labelled as "Bond 24" and "Bond 25" on IMDB), and if that all works out I would be willing to see them and where they would go with the character. I still refuse to watch any Bond movies before Craig at least as long as I can help it (I'll have to watch From Russia With Love for one of my courses), but I would be open to any future Bonds.

I remember there was talk about Idris Elba taking up the role, which could work. Alternatively there have been rumors of a female James Bond which would be even more interesting. Perhaps they could even go one step further by making her a lesbian and in the process take care of some of the homophobia associated with the Connery era. Whatever happens, even when Craig is through I think I might be willing to give future Bonds a shot.

Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

School has started up again, and among the many different courses I have, I managed to get into one dedicated to studying the history of action movies. Our course materials make the case that action movies as we know them today really only started to come about in the 1970's, it is derived from a variety of different genres. This first week alone, we looked at the silent era, and something that I would never have even considered a sub-genre, but one which is has played a crucial role in the history of action cinema.

That is the "train chase" movie. In the silent era, trains were (and still are) hugely popular subjects for filmmakers. One of the earliest film recordings, and arguably the most famous of the moving photographs created by the Lumiere Brothers, depicted a train pulling into a station. 1903 Edwin S. Porter directed The Great Train Robbery, which was arguably also the first western film, and it does not stop there.

Action and suspense at its finest.
The "train chase" is a sub-genre that became strangely popular as the silent area progressed. As we have seen in class, it comes in a wide variety of forms, but generally the way it works is that it, as the name implies, there is a train and it is in some way chased or chasing something. A variation on this was the 1911 film The Lonedale Operator by D.W. Griffith, where instead of a direct chase, it was a group of outlaws trying to break into a train station while the engineers try to reach it on time.

This particular film is notable for the fact that it might just have the first real action heroine. While she still has to rely somewhat on the men, the female protagonist is amazingly resourceful and has to rely on herself until the guys (who are trying to reach the station in a locomotive) can get to her. She initially tries to lock herself in the station while persistently trying to send out a call for help. Even when the two bandits finally break in, she manages to keep them pinned down when she apparently pulls a gun on them, forcing them to surrender just before the male leads arrive and take them away.

Even when the silent era really took off, trains remained popular. One of the most famous examples is arguably Buster Keaton's The General where he spends the first half of the movie chasing after the Union Soldiers that stole his both girlfriend and his locomotive, before finally rescuing both and having to spend the second half running away. Though not in itself an action movie, The General contains a lot of the stunt work that could easily have inspired more action-oriented films.

The funny thing about these train chase movies is that, while perhaps not as popular today, they may just have unwittingly set the stage for something we all should be very familiar with in present-day Hollywood. You might not often see one train chasing another quite like in The General, but you do often see vehicle-based chase sequences. One of the best-known action movie conventions is of course the car chase.

We've all seen the classic car chase at some point or another. It can come in all forms, but the simplest case is that you have two cars: one with the hero and one with the bad guy. One of them ends up getting the other's attention and tries to make a run for it by hopping into their car and driving off. The pursuer does not give up without a fight, and the result is an extended sequence in which both drivers have to navigate their urban environment at high speeds. Sometimes obstacles might present themselves along the way or the participants might try to find ways to slow each other down either by shooting at each other or improvisation.

The car chase is something so popular it's practically synonymous with action, and with good reason. Done right it can lend itself to a lot of creative situations. The overall outcome of the chase will vary depending on the various factors such as whether it is the villain chasing the hero or vice versa, the environment they are in, the types of cars that are being used, how late into the movie the chase is happening. The thing is that it can lend itself to a wide variety of environments and by extension plenty of great stunts.

Now it is often known as a "car chase", but technically the same effect can be achieved with other vehicles. The Tourist had plenty of great boat chases that made use of its Venice setting. Sometimes you can mix and match different types of vehicles (Terminator 2: Judgement Day sees the heroes in a car being chased by the T-1000 in a truck). Planes can be used to create some impressive aerial stunts, and yes, even trains are not out of the question.

Even in the present day, trains continue to be popular sources of action. Tony Scott's 2010 film Unstoppable was basically a modern take on the train chase sub-genre of the silent era. This time around instead of a single locomotive or a small train, the film deals with the danger posed by a mile-long freight train (something a bit more common now) barreling down the track at increasing speed because some idiot failed to do his job correctly. The "chase" part comes from the fact that pretty much everyone is chasing the train and trying to find some way to stop it, but the climax sees Chris Pine and Denzel Washington in hot pursuit using their own locomotive and figuring out a plan to use it to stop the train.

So what is it with trains in these movies? why is it that even today trains continue to be a great source of tension? Well, in the early 20th century, they were still a fairly new piece of equipment (it's not too far-fetched that some viewers of The Great Train Robbery still had memories of the first railroads coming through their hometowns). Even today, there is still a certain amount of risk to be found around railroads under normal circumstances.

In addition to that, let's face it, steam locomotives are pretty impressive-looking machines, so having one alone is great for visual spectacle, but the way they are designed also lends itself to a variety of stunts. In The General, Buster Keaton does a whole bunch of crazy things on his engine, probably getting at least one scene on each part (he even rides on the valve gear in one early scene). Steam locomotives are practically built to be climbed over, why do you think they're such a common choice for playgrounds?

Part of it could also have to do with the general speed of trains. After all, you don't normally see a lot of action happening on static trains. They are usually moving when things are going down (Thomas and the Magic Railroad doesn't count) and often the situations require people to climb around on the outside. While climbing around on a static train might not be the greatest experience, imagine being on one that's moving at full speed. If the action is on the outside of the train (which often it is), then there are a variety of ways you could fall off.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you have to climb along the roof of the train (which happens in Unstoppable and the 1979 The Great Train Robbery, among other films). On a static train, it might not be so bad, but while its moving, and you are balancing on a roof that wasn't designed to be stood on, it is going to be very hard to stay on. You do not want to fall off of a moving train (even if you're not hurt by the fall, you won't exactly be able to get back onto the train).

Whatever the reasons, cinema seems to have a strange fascination for the railroad. Trains have been a part of film history right from the beginning, and they still continue to play into today's action films. There seems to be something about the tension that comes from running into problems aboard a moving train that draws the attention of filmmakers from the silent era to the present. Train robberies, train chases, or just about any other problem that could possibly warrant the presence of a train are subjects that have always been popular and which will likely continue to be so as long as there is a railroad industry.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Guns and Goddesses: Women in Marvel

Action movies are known to be very male-dominated. Once in a while we get action movies that have strong female leads (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Salt) but it is still a pretty masculine genre, and it has something of a history in being such. Still, while it is often associated with men, and action heroines existed longer than you might think (D.W. Griffith's The Lonedale Operator had a woman who, while needing to be rescued, managed to use her own ingenuity to buy her rescuers time to get to her).

Still, a lot of the big action franchises are predominantly male-driven: Rambo, Indiana Jones, Star Wars (seriously, six movies and only two significant female characters who only appeared together for a few minutes?), James Bond (although there have been rumors of a female James Bond). There are a few exceptions, the biggest one arguably being The Terminator, or at least the first two installments (before anyone brings up Aliens, it's not really an action franchise, given that the first and third are both straight up horror films).

Let's shift gears a bit and look at something of a rarity, that while not perfect, may be one of the best representations of women in action we can get right now. Considering how popular it is at the moment, it stands to reason that this could make an impact on the future too. That is of course the Marvel Cinematic universe. By this point it has become hard to count how many films there are in the full franchise, considering we have multiple film series individually along with crossovers and new characters being introduced in each.

Now to be fair, one could still make a case that a lot of these films are predominantly male, some more justifiably so than others. We don't normally see more than two or three major female characters in a single movie. However, if you tall it all up, across all the movies currently released we have Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Jane Foster, Peggy Carter, Maria Hill, and that is just  the human characters in the movies. If you include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you get three more (Melinda May, Jemma Simmons, and Skye) in the regular cast plus guest stars and recurring roles (Victoria Hand), and if you include the non-human characters you also get Sif, Gamora, and Nebula. On top of all that they are adding in yet another female superhero, Scarlet Witch, to the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.

That brings us to a total of 13 women (and there are others besides those), out of whom seven (Black Widow, Peggy Carter, Maria Hill, Melinda May, Sif, Gamora, Nebula, and presumably Scarlet Witch) are women of action who even get a few fight scenes to themselves. However, even the more passive characters like Jane Foster or Pepper Potts are hardly weak either. After all, Pepper may not have gotten her own suit (something I will admit disappointed me about the third Iron Man film) but she is a business woman who is half the time the only thing keeping Stark industries in order while Tony is busy upgrading all his suits and creating fancy gadgets.

If anything, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might have some of the best female characters we could hope for in an action movie at this point, considering how many great women it has over the whole franchise, but that does not mean there isn't room for improvement. While there are plenty of great female characters in total, there aren't usually more than two or three at a time in any individual movie. This is at the very least justified in Captain America: The First Avenger due to it being set during World War II, but many of the films made since then have been set in the present.

The one exception is of course Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to have actively gone out of its way to balance out the gender distribution of the cast, as well as their skills. They might not all be action girls but each has their strengths and weaknesses, much like the men. Simmons isn't exactly a person of action, but neither is her male colleague Fitz, while there are both male and female members of the team who can hold their own in a fight.

There was even an episode when the three girls had to all rely on each other (along with Sif, who was guest starring) because all of the men (except Coulson) had been brainwashed by a psycho Asgadian seductress. The ratio is not perfect (four men and three women), but considering what happened to Ward and Fitz, it could be balanced out in the next season. It helps that Joss Whedon (who likes to put lots and lots of strong female characters in his TV shows) was behind this one.

The one other area where there could still be improvement would be the simple fact that we have yet to get a female protagonist in any of these films. While there are plenty of great female characters they have usually been supporting roles, love interests, or co-stars. There has never been any who have actually taken the lead and become the central focus themselves. Fortunately, such an occurrence is not out of the question, as there have been rumors persisting for ages about the possibility of Black Widow getting her own film. Maybe this one could finally break the curse that seems to notoriously plague female superhero movies.

Already Marvel is doing a great job of getting ahead so far as its treatment of women is concerned, and perhaps in a few years it could get even better. On top of that, the franchise is already making a huge pile of money, so perhaps it will finally convince studios that strong female characters do in fact sell and could help make way for improvements in other actions movies or franchises.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Pressure of Criticism

My recent experience with Sunset Boulevard may have had a slightly more positive effect than I thought. After discussing what happened with my counselor, I started to realize this feeling, something that I think has been affecting me for a long time. You see, much as I love a lot of classic movies, there are a lot that I have put off watching, and many of them are ones that make me extremely nervous when I face the prospect of watching them. Truth be told I was really nervous before I finally saw Casablanca (which turned out to be a great film), but there are many others.

When I first started assembling my blinspot list and considered Touch of Evil, I took it off the list shortly after it was posted mainly because it seemed as though it might have been harder to obtain than I initially anticipated, but there was another reason. It was because I was actually a bit scared to see it. I was hoping it would be good but I was worried about what would happen if it wasn't. I was worried I might get lost in the plot as I sometimes do with extremely complicated movies (the main reason I couldn't enjoy The Godfather, even if I could respect it on a technical level).

What happened with Sunset Boulevard wasn't the first time I experienced those feelings. The first time I had to shut off Tarkovsky's Solaris and opted to put on the Clooney version instead, I felt like I had committed a horrible, unspeakable crime. I had fantasies in my head where I would be essentially held by an inquisition of science fiction fans charging me with the crime of favoring Clooney's version over the one everyone else seemed to universally agree was better. Before that, there was also the shocking experience I had when I found that the one film of John Carpenter's I hated was the one that everyone else said was his absolute best.

A conversation with my therapist has allowed me to finally realize what the problem is, and it's a depressing fact, but it is true nonetheless. Criticism can be a great thing. Without movie critics we might have a harder time deciding what new movies are worth seeing and which aren't. In this blogging community there are films I only learned about because of someone else's review (I had never heard of Walker before J.D. Lafrance did a piece on it). There is, however, a downside to the whole thing, and it largely comes with the big movies, the classics that everyone remembers.

There are a few films that seem to be almost universally agreed to be the greatest of all time, and also some that are agreed to be the worst. You don't see very many people going out and making a case that Gone With the Wind is a piece of crap or that Battlefield Earth is an under-appreciated work of genius. It almost seems like its something people just don't do. There is this pressure of sorts that comes from the reputations these movies have.

When I find myself watching certain classic movies, I sometimes get this feeling that I'm in some way obligated to like it. When I fail to see what so many have before me I feel like there is something wrong. It all has to do with this strange pressure, as though the critics are saying "if you don't like Touch of Evil, there is something wrong with you." I think I may have even had incidents where I find myself calling a film a masterpiece even though I'm not entirely sure about it just because of the reputation it holds.

I might not even be the only one who has been in this position. When I posted my article Why Jean-Luc Godard is the Worst Director in the Galaxy I was surprised by how well-received it was. Judging by the responses, I got the impression that I was not the only one around her who disliked Godard so much as I was the only one who had the guts to voice how I really felt about him. Even he took a bit of time before I fully worked up the nerve to voice my disdain for him (though it seems I can't go through a year of cinema studies without facing his wrath at least once).

I think this is what has been affecting me with some of these movies, and it is rather depressing really. It seems that watching a movie with a reputation creates this sort of pressure where it feels like you have to like it. I think part of what has caused me to keep putting off a lot of older movies is this constant fear that I won't like it, that I won't be able to follow it, or something else will happen. I wanted to like Sunset Boulevard because I knew David Lynch was a big fan of it and it was considered a classic, not because I had any interest in its story.

There is something going on here, and it is rather depressing really. It sometimes seems as though once a movie becomes a classic you have to like it or else the other critics will shun you and you will be branded insane. It's a bit ironic really, given that we wouldn't have a lot of classics today if nobody dared to challenge the dominant opinion.

The Thing was widely regarded as a disaster when it came out and everybody hated it, and yet now it is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. Citizen Kane might have been forgotten had it not been for some unknown individual who managed to hide a print when William Randolph Hearst tried to have them all destroyed. 2001: A Space Odyssey was structured in such a radical way that nobody knew what to make of it at first, and it was not until younger audiences began to warm up to it that it became a hit.

I guess the lesson to be learned here is that it is okay to challenge popular opinion. When watching a classic movie, no matter how many people hail it as a masterpiece, you are not obliged to like it. That there is the truth, but it is so easy to forget that under what essentially amounts to mass peer pressure. I am not really sure what the best way is to deal with this pressure, beyond just doing my best to voice my opinion as clearly as I can. Has anybody else had this problem? I think it is worth addressing.