Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Christmas Movie Cast-A-Thon

Jenna and Allie over at Flick Chicks are hosting a new blogathon, the Christmas Movie Cast-A-Thon. This is an amazing idea. Basically, we get to cast our favorite movie characters into stock holiday-themed roles. How could I resist the idea to bring together a strange bunch of characters for a holiday extravaganza? So let's begin. I have assembled the strangest group of characters you can ever imagine to create what might just be the most bizarre holiday film ever conceived by a human being, unless of course one of my fellow participants manages to outdo me.

So apparently, the plot of this Christmas film is that Santa Claus has to figure out how to get his toys to the children while dealing with Cold War paranoia and an insane Air Force general who thinks he is a communist spy, while some other people are trying to organize a bizarre Christmas party. Let's see what we can come up with.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Say what you will about the overall quality of the film, but somehow John Call did a surprisingly good job capturing Santa Claus, the cheerful jolly old man who loves nothing more than bringing joy to everyone. He's also very clever, being able to outwit his would-be kidnappers and plot against anyone who wants to interfere with his goals. 

Santa's Helpers

Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Full Metal Jacket,1987)- Factory Supervisor

Santa's got perhaps the toughest job in the world. He has one year to make toys for billions of children around the world, has to keep records, and make sure everything is perfect. This entails getting a large amount of elves to speed up production, and somebody has to keep them organized. Who better than a tough drill sergeant who can easily keep everyone in line. If there is a problem, if any toy is flawed in any way, he will know, and he will make sure the elf responsible never does it again. Under Hartman, the factory floor would be a bustling and busy environment, since nobody wants to cross a drill sergeant.

Gordon Gekko (Wall Street, 1987)- Financial Assistant

Hey, Santa's got to make toys for billions of children around the world. Obviously, he's going to need to get the materials to make them from somewhere. In order to obtain the sufficient material, tools, paint, and so on; Santa will need a lot of money. Who better than Gordon Gekko to secure it? After all, this is a guy who can get things done. He knows the business world inside and out and also knows how to bring in the money (if not always through legal means, but technically there's no real government in the North Pole). This is the guy who can make deals with other companies, and get Santa what he needs to make his delivery.

Ted Striker (Airplane, 1980)- Air Traffic

Flying a sleigh is hard work, especially in this day and age. That's why Santa has to keep in constant radio contact with his airfield so that he can get important updates regarding issues with weather and even other planes that might interfere with his deliveries. Striker has some experience in these types of situations. After all, he has on two separate occasions managed to barely avert an airplane disasters, so naturally he'd be the perfect candidate to help prevent those same types of situations happening to Santa. He'd mainly be working from the control tower this time, rather than flying himself, but this is a guy who is always prepared for everything.

Xena: Security

Santa's workshop is going to need security. After all, one never knows who might try to infiltrate and sabotage his operations or his workshop might accidentally get caught in the crossfire between nuclear war. Also, with Hartman in charge, someone is going to have to look out for the well-being of Santa's staff. Who better to fill both roles than someone like Xena? After all, she's not only a loyal and devoted friend committed to fighting for good, but she is also not afraid to get tough when she needs to, and always has a plan when danger is lurking. If anyone can protect the factory and make the staff comfortable, it's her.

Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit)- Therapist/Consultant

Santa might just have the most stressful job in the world. After all, he has to oversee the production of toys for billions of children, keep records on everyone who is born or dies, read a seemingly endless pile of letters and keep track of what is to be sent to each kid. On top of that, he also has to deliver his gifts all over the world in just one night, while simultaneously ensuring that everything is delivered to the right house. Obviously, he'd be constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown and would need someone to turn to. This is where Lady Galadriel comes in. As Santa's personal therapist, he can consult her about all his problems, and she can use her extensive kindness and wisdom both to keep him from going insane and to advise him in his operations. She would also be a valuable asset to the staff in general, as she can help elves through personal issues and stressful situations.

Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2008)- Record keeper

Santa's got to keep track of who's naughty and nice, but he can't monitor every kid in the world. What he can do is get the world's greatest computer hacker to gather information on children. If anyone can gather dirt to warrant a lump of coal in a specific kid's stocking, it's Lisbeth. In addition to all this, she can get access to records, addresses, and anything else that may be of value, and she can even get a little bit of extra money when Gekko isn't enough (plus probably a little more to give her a comfortable life in the North Pole). She is also good for breaking up fights among the staff, and quietly investigating any problems that may occur on the factory floor. Also, given the person taking on the Grinch role her hacking skills may also prove useful in a few other ways.

Murph Cooper (Interstellar, 2014)- Flight Co-Ordinator

It's obvious that she's a genius when it comes to mathematics. She grow up with an understanding of intense engineering and even saved the world through her genius. She's also a brilliant physicist, having made calculations that aided in the colonization of other solar systems. Now she has a new, far stranger challenge: using all the available data to determine how Santa can accomplish his flight around the world, delivering presents to as many children as possible, in just one night. Accounting for black hole singularities has nothing on this problem. How could someone with a brain like hers resist such a challenge?


General Jack D. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964)

Jack D. Ripper would obviously be a concern for Santa Claus due to his extreme paranoia. This is after all the guy who has become bizarrely obsessed with preventing the alleged danger of having his bodily fluids forcibly taken from him. Now he thinks Santa is a communist spy (he saw Rise of the Guardians, and nobody told him the Cold War's been over for 25 years) and needs to be stopped.  To call this guy trigger happy would be an understatement. At the slightest glimpse of Santa's sleigh his first instinct will likely be to assume it's a communist attack and begin launching nuclear missiles at it. Talk about a guy who ruins the spirit of Christmas, and he's too stubborn to simply get redeemed by hearing joyful music or visits from ghosts. Santa's got his work cut out dealing with this mess.


John McClane (Die Hard, 1988)

He certainly has a way of making things a bit more... interesting whenever he shows up. He has after all saved Christmas on two separate occasions and several other times had to save the day because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, he does try to put family above everything else, though that can be difficult when he can't even get home for Christmas without having to save a bunch of hostages and destroy a building. No way anyone is going to get bored when McClane shows up.

Lara Croft (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, 2003)

Considering her vast wealth and her spacious mansion filled with secret rooms, Lara obviously has the means to throw a memorable Christmas party. She's also quite eccentric for a woman born into the English aristocracy, so this wouldn't just be your typical boring upper-class party with everyone in suits and dresses, classical music, and discussions about what "inappropriate" activities the lower class are currently engaging in. Lara's more the kind of person who would much rather find a way to incorporate firearms, daring stunts, and elaborate deathtraps into her Christmas parties (plus probably an amazing Christmas feast; at least provided she doesn't try to do it herself). Now what kid wouldn't want to go to that party?

The Children

Bruno (Bicycle Thieves, 1948)

The short-lived movement of Italian Neo-Realism was very heavily based on emphasizing the day-to-day lives of the working class in post-war Italy. This kid is perhaps one of the best examples of those ideas at work. Bruno's a good kid, just unlucky. It's people like this who could benefit from a lot of holiday cheer, and helping the poor is often associated with Christmas. Naturally, bringing in a kid from a film about borderline poverty would logically make sense. This almost seems like the kind of person a Hollywood Christmas film would put heavy emphasis on assisting, but the Italians emphasized the bleak truth.

Hermione Granger (Harry Potter)

She is a little bit older, but Hermione's extensive knowledge of magic could easily be of great use for any Christmas party, and she's got the compassion to go along with it. Hermione is a loyal friend and one who obviously cares about others. Someone with her would fit right into a Christmas film, or at least a really strange film like this one. She's already used her brains, skills, and compassion to save the world, she could probably find a way to use it to help the poor and make everyone's Christmas Day a little brighter.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Music

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about music, but there is a catch: we can't do biopics on musicians or anything about a real-life musician. That's not too bad. This might be (literally) a last-minute entry I quickly put together after realizing this week's theme, but I should be able to come up with something.

The Jazz Singer (1926)

Okay, so this is definitely not a movie that has aged well. In fact today it might be considered outright racist due to the infamous scenes of the main character performing in blackface. However, it did make a significant impact due to its technical accomplishments. The Jazz Singer was, at the time of its release, a huge gamble for Warner Bros. Studios. Sound technology had been experimented with for decades, but this is often credited as the first feature-length sound film (though technically it isn't so much a talking picture as it is a silent movie with short segments incorporating sound, usually for musical numbers).  It was this film that brought sound to the mainstream and made studios realize just how profitable talking pictures could be.

The Red Shoes (1948)

If one really wants to get technical, this film is mainly about the struggles of various characters to navigate the ballet industry, but ballet, by its very nature, based on music. The plot also centers around a performance of the ballet. As a result, it involves some incredible musical sequences, including an amazing (if heavily condensed) performance that actually managed to make me respect ballet for the first time in my life. We also can't forget that one of the other main characters is a musician and a composer, and his musical career is an integral part of the story.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

This bizarre film is a hilarious satire on the life of rock and roll icon Johnny Cash, represented here by the fictional character of Dewey Cox. The story of the film naturally concerns the strange events contributing to the rise and fall of Cox as a musician, who struggles with some unusual situations. Along the way, there are also cameos by famous rock stars. To call this movie surreal is an understatement, but it is still a lot of fun and definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Casablanca as a Relic of World War II

There have been many films detailing World War II from a variety of different perspectives, but many of the best known films were made after the war ended. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Das Boot were even made decades after the war ended. Many of these films therefore have a very retroactive perspective on the war. A film like Saving Private Ryan, made in the 1990's, depicts the war as it is perceived by filmmakers looking back on what happened. This is what makes a film like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca stand out from the others.

Unlike many other iconic war films, Casablanca was released in 1943 while the war was still happening. Many have noted how the film is a thinly-veiled allegory for America's reluctance to join the war effort, but it is also an incredible historical document on the grounds that it offers insight into the war from a contemporary standpoint. In other words, to understand Casablanca is to understand how World War II would have been perceived while it was still happening. In some ways, the film is rather progressive for the era, presenting not only a strong female lead but also also providing work for a black actor in Sam, a character who is treated with respect throughout.

Casablanca's obvious dislike for the Nazis also makes it a very agreeable film today, largely because most people today would agree that the Nazis were horrible people who needed to be stopped. However, on some level the film's depictions of the Nazis has not aged so well. This is most notable through the fact that the film continues to mention "concentration camps" despite seemingly not knowing what the term actually means. Victor Lazlo claims to have been held in a "concentration camp" and the characters speak of the danger of being thrown into "concentration camps" but judging by the dialogue it sounds more like they are speaking of Nazi political prisons than actual concentration camps.

A Nazi political prison would not have been much better, but it is still very different from a concentration camp. The former would have been a place for political prisoners, i.e. anyone who defied the Nazis. The latter was a term used to describe multiple horrific camps designed specifically for killing entire groups of people in massive numbers at a time. To provide a more cinematic analogy, imagine a contrast between Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. The term "concentration camp" as used by the characters in Casablanca would today describe something one might expect to see in Schindler's List, a film about the Holocaust, but what is described sounds more like the type of prison depicted in A Man Escaped.

When seen today, the apparent misuse of the word "concentration camp" looks like a blatant oversight on the part of the filmmakers, but it does illustrate the mindset of a very different era. The actions of the Nazis are currently public knowledge. Thanks to the internet it is very easy to find photographs of concentration camps, and most people at some point in their lives get at the very least a general idea of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, an event now remembered as one of history's darkest moments. However, this was not always the case, and much of what may be common knowledge today was not so obvious in 1943.

While the war was still going on, the actions of the Nazi party were in large part kept secret. For obvious reasons Hitler did not want the public to know about the ethically questionable activities that were going on behind closed doors, and this included the Holocaust. Any contemporary information on it outside of what was known only to the Nazi party would have been vague at best. All anyone really knew was that Hitler had a list of people to be "relocated" and that there were serious consequences for anyone who tried to hide a person who fit the list. Nobody would have known for sure precisely what happened to those people once they were taken. It was only at the end of the war in 1945, when Allied forces invaded Germany and discovered the concentration camps, that the public became aware of the mass genocide that was really going on.

The reason a phrase like "concentration camp" is so heavily used in the wrong context in Casablanca is literally because the filmmakers obviously did not know what it meant and misunderstood its intended definition. Very few people in Nazi-controlled territory had even the slightest idea of what a concentration camp was, America would have known even less. All they would have had to go on at most would have been vague rumours of the Nazis putting people into "concentration camps" without much more information on what they were or how they worked. Michael Curtiz could have easily misunderstood and took this term to mean a political prison.

Today, one might argue that this little detail seems like a strange oversight in an otherwise finely-crafted movie, and something to be dismissed simply as a product of the era. However, it is because this detail is a product of the era that it is important to bring it to the forefront. This slight error in the dialogue serves as a very clear window into the past and allows a glimpse into the mind of people who lived at the height of World War II and how they perceived the conflict around them. Casablanca is therefore very much a relic of World War II.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Women and Gaming

When people think of video game franchises, the two most popular names to come up are likely either Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda. Outside of being made by the same company (Nintendo) these are more or less very different games. Mario is generally based on getting through strange environments involving floating platforms while stomping on enemies and eating mushrooms to gain special abilities. Zelda is more of a fantasy puzzle-based adventure. However, underneath the differences in gameplay mechanics, there is a very similar story to be found with few differences between them.

They usually begin with a “princess” being abducted by a designated villain, forcing the (always male) hero to progress through various worlds in an attempt to rescue her only for the entire cycle to be repeated as soon as the next game comes out. That basic description actually provides a fairly accurate summary of both the aforementioned games. As different as they are in terms of gameplay, they are both structured entirely around the same old cliché of the helpless woman (Peach/Zelda) being kidnapped and the male hero (Mario/Link) having to go to great lengths to save her. This has been more or less consistent since the beginning of both franchises (the only major difference in early Mario games was the presence of a different love interest).

The fact that the two most popular gaming franchises are still video games centered entirely around the male hero having to rescue a damsel in distress is a clear indication that there is still inequality in modern video games. Even today male protagonists greatly outnumber female protagonists. One would think that the consistent success and popularity of video game heroines like Lara Croft and Samus Aran would be evidence that women do in fact sell and that players want to see better representations of women. Despite this, many gaming companies still seem reluctant to make strong women, or if they do they'd rather reduce them to supporting non-playable roles.

Some games get around this problem by allowing the player to choose their character’s sex, though even this is not a perfect solution. Mass Effect, for example, allows the player to choose the gender of the protagonist; also keeping it purely aesthetic (having little impact on the plot); and yet nearly everything in its marketing favors the male version. There is not a single cover for Mass Effect which displays the female version of the hero even though she is in every respect no different from her male counterpart.

This modern understanding of gender is especially evident when one looks at modern combat simulators. The lack of female soldiers is understandable in some cases, such as in early installments of Call of Duty that took place in World War II. Those games were set at a time when most countries still barred women from active combat duty. Russia did allow women to serve, but the original Call of Duty games were generally showing the American perspective. Historically, the American military had still barred women from service so this would have been realistic.

However, when the developers decided to move away from that time frame, they still continued this practice. One of the first games in the series to move away from World War II was explicitly titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The “modern” part was very clear, and yet there still were no female soldiers to be seen throughout the game. The closest thing to a female soldier was a single unnamed cobra pilot who had a background role in one mission. Once again, the male player character also has to save her when her chopper goes down (though this proves to be pointless as both are presumably killed in the nuclear strike immediately after).This continues throughout the subsequent games, regardless of whether it actually makes sense for female soldiers to be present.

Over the course of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player controls a total of four characters; three of whom are explicitly identified as male. The game did seem to keep some ambiguity in the main character, whose face is never shown, never speaks, and is only referred to by the name of "Soap" MacTavish. In that sense, while the game does not specifically ask the player to identify the character's sex, one could theoretically play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare imagining Soap as a woman. However, later games seemed to take steps to avoid even this. Soap was eventually confirmed in the games to be a man, and by Call of Duty: Ghosts the games seemed to be very insistent on ensuring the player understood they were playing as a male character, making sure to give them a male first name and to be referred to as male by other characters. 

This is not to say that Call of Duty is sexist. In fact, if anything Call of Duty is one of the first games of its kind to actually make any effort to address this issue. Call of Duty: Ghosts included a multiplayer mode where players can customize their characters, including deciding whether to make them male or female. There is also no overt sexualisation, with the same basic gear being available to characters regardless of sex (though for some reason the game only allows the “special” outfits to be worn by men; trying to put them on a female character immediately changes her into a man). On the other hand, the campaign, much like the games before it, is still very male-dominated, with the majority of the plot centered around the interactions and camaraderie between male soldiers.

However, while the campaign mode of Ghosts still seemed very insistent on emphasizing that Logan (the player character for most of the game) is male, it did feature at least one notable woman in a supporting role, if briefly. There is an early portion of the game set in outer space, during which time the player takes control of an astronaut named Baker and works with a female astronaut named Kyra Mosley. For most of the level it is these two characters working together and she is often the one leading and instructing the player on what needs to be done. This is also the one section of the game which doesn't seem to make a point of clearly establishing the player's gender, so one could conceivably play this level imagining Baker as female.

The upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops III is also taking the series further in the right direction by officially allowing the player to choose the sex of their character in the campaign mode. In fact, the shift towards a multiplayer campaign means it is technically possible to play as multiple female characters.  It can’t be argued that this should have happened sooner, but the fact that the developers are making an effort to rectify the obvious issues of gender representation in their games can be seen as a positive development. Call of Duty is hardly perfect yet, but they are on their way, which is more than can be said for other games like it.

Compare this to other gritty combat simulators such as Operation: Flashpoint or Medal of Honour. Both game series have installments that purport to be depicting modern combat (in the former’s case, the entire series claims to be this). Despite this, not a single female soldier is to be found in any of them. If the game developers really wanted to represent modern combat, would it really have hurt to put a few female soldiers into Operation FlashpointMedal of Honour: Warfighter also allows the player to serve as a Canadian soldier, but apparently fails to recognize that Canada’s military has been integrated for years.

Attempting to dig deeper into this also reveals a lot of stupidity. Trying to find combat simulators that actually depict female soldiers when it makes sense is next to impossible, and doing so usually leads to message boards in which people make blatantly sexist arguments about how women are weaker than men and therefore should not be allowed to serve. Many of them try to justify this claim by bringing up the U.S. Marines and Rangers as examples even though both have actually integrated women into their ranks. Even the Navy SEALs (the one branch of the U.S. military that is still restricted to women as of this writing) are sick of this nonsense and want to do something about it. Would it really have hurt the developers of these games to even show one or two female soldiers?

The fact remains that there are a large number of issues related to the representation of women in video games, ones that need to be rectified as soon as possible. There should be more video games with strong female heroes, or at least games which allow players to choose whether their character is male or female. There are likely other examples besides those written here that show just how insane this issue is right now, and how people should already know better.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with playing as a man, it is simply that there should be more of a balance without one sex dominating the entire medium.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Train Movies

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Train Movies. This is an area I'm reasonably familiar with. In fact, I wrote a whole essay on the role trains have played throughout film history. Trains have always been a popular environment for many different kinds of movies, whether they appear in the form of a fast-moving stage for an action scene, a big chase, a claustrophobic setting, or even as characters themselves; trains have managed to captivate our imaginations in a variety of ways.

In the Silent Era, it was not so unusual to see movies depicting characters faced with train-related peril (I suspect this is where the association of the silent era with women tied to railroad tracks originated), mainly due to the fact that trains were the primary means of transportation in those days (not unlike the popularity of car chases in modern action films). However, even today trains continue to inspire and captivate viewers. There is just something about them that seems so impressive, that's probably also why so many playgrounds like to use train-based structures.

For this list, I've decided to try and find a variety of different train-themed movies to show just how varied they can be. I'm also trying to avoid the obvious ones. I suspect that Snowpiercer will probably be on several other lists so I will not be covering that one. I believe these three are not so likely to show up on anyone else's lists.

L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

What better way to look at the subject of train-based movies than to go right back to the beginning with a film that shows just how long cinema's fascination with trains extends? This was a short clip made by the Lumière brothers, who were among the earliest pioneers in filmmaking and among the first to exhibit their films in a theater. Their filmmaking style was fairly simple by today's standards; it consisted of pointing the camera and then letting it record as something happened. L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is arguably the best known of their work. The "plot" is pretty much summed up by the title; a train arrives in a station, some people get on, and others get off. It's not exactly a riveting thrill ride, but it was extremely influential on later filmmakers.

The Londale Operator (1911)

This early film from D.W. Griffith (yes, the same D.W. Griffith who would later gain infamy for a certain 1915 feature film) is a very good example of the types of early train-chase films that were being made in the silent era. Instead of a specific train-related peril, the danger is in a train station that is being robbed by two crooks, and tension coming from the protagonist trying to alert another station of the danger while her heroic engineer lover races to her rescue. Part of the fun here is that despite that premise, the heroine is anything but a damsel in distress; in fact she might just be one of cinema's first major action heroines given she ends up rescuing herself and in the end all the men have to actually do is take the crooks away.

Thomas and the Magic Railroad (2000)

Now for a movie that was responsible for mutilating and destroying my childhood. Thomas the Tank Engine was a show I loved as a kid, but this movie brought an end to the wonderful kids' show I had known and made way for the atrocious computer generated incarnation of the show that continues today. A lot of the problems with the movie have more to do with studio interference than any fault of the show's original creator Britt Allcroft (who also directed), which includes among other things being forced to remove all footage of what would have been the central villain (he was considered "too scary" for younger audiences) and some weird alterations such as making the Island of Sodor a separate universe instead of a fictional British island. It also features an evil diesel train with a claw for some reason, and Alec Baldwin playing a magical dimension hopping conductor (seriously).

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Alien Invasion of Earth

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Alien Invasions. If you're not familiar with her activity, it's pretty straight forward. Each week, she picks a different theme, and participants are asked to list three movies that fit the established criteria. The results are surprisingly varied. I remember back when the theme was Police Movies I was expecting Dirty Harry to pop up on everyone's lists but the popular choice instead turned out to be The Departed. It's a lot of fun and I'd recommend getting in on it. It also can allow you to be somewhat selective, so if one week there is a theme one week you can't find much for that's no big deal.

Back on topic, alien invasions are a subject I am very familiar with, as you can imagine. I've only written three seperate posts and an academic paper on the subject. The general idea of beings from another world invading Earth arguably originated with H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, though that one is quite a bit different from later incarnations of science fiction. Wells' novel was a bleak vision of an alien invasion, in which the Martians (who are implied to be invading because their own world is dying) easily overpower humanity. The military throws everything they had at their disposal at the time at the Martians (from artillery to the Ironclad Thunder Child), and the best any of it can do is momentarily stall them by taking out one or two before being wiped out. In the end, the Martians actually manage to conquer Earth, and humanity is only spared by pure luck (it turns out the Martians' bodies are vulnerable to Earth's bacteria). It also ends on a dark note where even as society goes back to normal it is suggested that humanity might not have seen the last of these invaders.

Later incarnations of alien invasion narratives are often more optimistic. While Wells' film centered on an everyman recounting his experiences simply trying to survive, later films would feature the central characters making a stand against the invaders. The majority of the time, humanity triumphs in some form or another (though sometimes at great cost) and the alien menace is eliminated. There are exceptions, of course, but generally this is how alien invasion films are structured. However, as I've discussed before there are three major waves of invasion films, and this basic premise is more or less where the similarities end.

The first major wave began in the 1950's, when science fiction was starting to become recognized as a film genre. Alien invasion films of the era were being made in a time of Cold War paranoia, with the alien menace serving as an allegory for the fear of communism and nuclear war. Outside of a handful of exceptions, films of this era had a pro-government attitude. If the protagonists were not themselves soldiers, they were fully co-operating with the military. Generally this meant that the characters were united under one common authority (or at least a representation of authority) to defeat the alien menace.

The second wave began in the 1970's and continued into the 1980's. This time, the films were being made in an era when various political developments had left the American people distrustful of their government. Aside from a greater presence of films about friendly aliens, the focus shifted to an anti-authoritarian attitude. Instead, the heroes were generally civilians, ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. At best, the heroes are cut off from any authority and at worst the government (or anything resembling authority) is an active threat. Instead of uniting under one common identity, these films instead spoke of the individual standing up to unreliable or dangerous authorities.

The third alien invasion cycle began in the late 1990's and continues today. This one is especially curious as it seems to offer a middle ground between the ideas of the 1950's and 1970's-80's cycles. In these films, authority is sometimes seen as flawed, but in most cases is still cast in a positive light. At the same time, there is an emphasis on the individual having to take a stand against the alien invaders. Instead of having everyone conform to the ruling of one authority, the basic narrative often consists of the government being initially unable to handle the invasion, until the individual (or a group of individuals, in many cases) does something that finally allows them to emerge victorious. In other words, these films don't take sides but instead show that there is value to both the government and individualism, and in the end both have to work together to succeed.

Naturally, I'd say it's fitting therefor that for this entry I choose one film from each wave to show my extensive knowledge of alien invasions.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

This early film by Don Siegel (who would later become better known for Dirty Harry) is a very good example of the idea that the alien "other" as seen in most 1950's science fiction films (outside of a few rare exceptions such as The Day the Earth Stood Still) served as an allegory for Cold War paranoia and the perceived danger posed by the rise of communism. In this case, the popular perceptions of communism are represented by the alien "pods" which are seen as infecting and brainwashing the people of a small American town. The problem is of course that they are very good at infiltrating, so much so that nobody notices until it is down to only a small group of characters that have not already been possessed (and from there down to just one). This ties into the fears of the presumed efforts of the Soviet Union to infiltrate American society and spread the ideas of communism from within, not being noticed until it is too late (hence the paranoia; i.e. stopping it before it starts).

Alien (1979)

Okay, technically, this isn't actually an invasion "of Earth" (though the danger of the alien reaching Earth and starting an invasion is very real) but it is a very good example of how alien invasion films changed in the 1970's. In this film, the "authority" is represented by a mostly-unseen corporation who ultimately proves to have intended the crew to be expendable, (complete with an infiltrator on board to make sure things go according to their plan). As a result, any chain of command has to be broken (especially seeing as the captain and first officer are among the earliest casualties), bringing the civilian protagonists onto equal ground and forcing them to stand up to the corporation. The individualism is even depicted in a literal sense, with Ripley being the only member of the cast to survive long enough to make a stand against the alien, by which point she is cut off from any form of authority (which has so far proven hostile anyway) and forced to rely purely on her own intuition to succeed.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is hardly critical of the armed forces or their capability to deal with an extraterrestrial invasion, but it does show that they have difficulty when faced with a menace that challenges everything they know. This is where the middle ground comes in: it is two soldiers played by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt who must take matters into their own hands. They have to rely on themselves and on their skills to defeat the aliens, but it is their actions which ultimately allow their superiors to achieve a victory against the invading aliens. This provides a perfect example of the middle ground exemplified by modern alien invasion narratives; it is the government who ultimately defeats the aliens, but the individual who makes it possible for them to do so (similar patterns can also be found in Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles).

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Twenty Cop Movies that are Better than The Departed

When discussing the subject of police films, there are a few obvious films that always seem to come up. One of the most common of those films is The Departed, a film that seems to have a huge fanbase for some reason. It currently holds an 8.5 rating on IMDB, and ranks at #45 in their top 150 list. It also won Best Picture somehow. Nearly every other person I've talked to seems to believe this is some kind of masterpiece. Why do people like this movie? I don't know. All I saw was an overly convoluted mess in desperate need of greater gender diversity (seriously, five billion cops and five billion crooks and the only woman they could fit into the cast was the love interest?). 

So to vent some of my frustrations I have taken the time to assemble a list of police movies I would argue are in every way superior to The Departed (or at least a lot more entertaining). Here are twenty films about cops that I would rather see than have to sit through The Departed again. Also, here's a surprise for everyone; for once I'm mainly judging these films on the overall quality and not just on whether they have strong female cops in them (though that does help). Several of these films actually do lack strong female characters (at least in the police force) or only have them in small supporting roles but are still worth mentioning.

Honorable mentions for this list include Eraser (my original #20 pick) and The Naked Gun (which only failed to make this list because I saw it in middle school and my memories of it are somewhat vague). I have also received recommendations to see L.A. Confidential, In the Heat of the Night, Heat, and The French Connection. Unfortunately I have not yet had the chance to see any of these movies so I am unable to confirm if they are are in fact better than The Departed

20. The Last Stand (2013)

Schwarzenegger's big comeback movie after might not be his greatest accomplishment, but it works for its purposes. There is definitely some influence from Rio Bravo (see below), and it works as a modern homage to old westerns. It's not exactly Oscar material but it's still a fun movie with some great (if at times over the top) action and Schwarzenegger being Schwarzenegger. It's an enjoyable movie and worth the time.

19. Sabotage (2014)

It's funny how Schwarzenegger seems to keep appearing on this list. His other big comeback film is a bit more serious and a lot more intense than The Last Stand, given there is a greater emphasis on the growing tensions between the main characters as they are forced to question which of their colleagues can be trusted. It's a lot more suspenseful and harder to predict, with even Schwarzenegger himself becoming more of an anti-hero. 

18. Speed (1994)

Finally, a film without Schwarzenegger in it. The "Die Hard on a bus" premise makes for a very intense movie, complete with Dennis Hopper (unsurprisingly) playing a deranged villain who seems to be determined to cause as much trouble for the police as humanly possible. It does still manage to work with a few creative ideas (a lot of the tension comes from finding ways to prevent the bus from stopping) and even Keanu Reeves doesn't do too bad (at least for this type of movie). It's not exactly Oscar worthy but it is an exciting adrenaline-packed thrill ride.

17. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

A more science fiction/horror take on police work but still an enjoyable movie nonetheless. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars was widely criticized when it first game out (so much so it would be a decade before he made another feature) but it is a decent action thriller if one with some strange ideas. Carpenter has a long history of making films that start off being criticized but end up finding their own audiences years later. Ghosts of Mars is arguably the latest in that series. It already has a small fanbase so it may become better recognized in the near future much like his earlier films did before.

16. Dirty Harry (1971)

Okay, I'll freely admit this one isn't exactly one of my favorites, but it is worth putting on as it is the other film everybody remembers when discussing movies about cops. Personally, Dirty Harry is a film I'd say I more respect for its historical significance than admire for anything within the film itself. Still, it is a very well-crafted movie for its time, with Clint Eastwood playing the tough cop who constantly struggles to navigate the bureaucracy of the police force while also pursuing a deranged serial killer. The character of Harry Callahan is certainly an interesting one, and making the whole film a character study centered around him makes it much easier to follow than The Departed. Of course, this really only applies to the original film, the sequels are a waste of time.

15. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Okay, so technically this one is more of a film about crime and police corruption, but it is framed through a police investigation so it still counts. While it is true that this is another good example of a film that probably could have had some of its main characters played by women without changing the script much, it's still an intense adventure into the darkest realms of the criminal underworld; so much so that even the police are scared of it. There's a reason why Keyser Söze is a criminal legend. This is also a good one to watch multiple times, since after knowing the twist at the end it makes certain scenes a lot more disturbing.

14. Hot Pursuit (2015)

This strange buddy film with lesbian undertones makes for an entertaining if at times flawed experience. While admittedly the large number of jokes about Reese Witherspoon's height can be irritating at times the overall film is a captivating experience with two very strong characters in the lead. It's a lot of fun, even if it's not necessarily the greatest achievement as far as police movies go. Reese Witherspoon plays a tough cop who gets into trouble when she realizes she has been set up after trying to pick up a witness to testify at a mob trial, and inevitably gets into trouble as she works to clear her name while also protecting her somewhat troublesome witness.

13. The Silence of the Lambs (1990)

Yes, everyone always remembers Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the notorious psycho therapist Hannibal Lector, but the film is really about Clarice Starling tracking down a different serial killer. I'm putting this one lower on the list mainly because it never scared me the same way it did so many people when it came out (personally, I'd say Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal is a thousand times more terrifying) but it is still an expertly crafted piece of work. Clarice does make for a strong leading role and there is some heavy tension.

12. The Gauntlet (1977)

Clint Eastwood once again plays a tough cop. This time he is given the seemingly simple task of escorting a witness to the courtroom where she is supposed to testify... only to end up on the run when he discovers that he has been set up and most of the other cops are either in on it or tricked by the corrupt cops into thinking he is the real villain. Okay, so this is basically Hot Pursuit without the lesbian undertones; but it is still an exciting and enjoyable action film. 

11. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

We can't forget about John Carpenter's second feature film, a low-budget thriller centered around a group of characters trapped in a police station. In addition to being action-packed and filled with tension, there is even a fairly diverse group of characters. The main character is a black man who also happens to be a very capable police officer, and the female lead (despite starting as a secretary) also has to prove her worth holding out against an army of gangsters.

10. Rio Bravo (1959)

For those of you interested in perhaps seeing police work of a different era, you can check out Howard Hawks' classic western. This one obviously influenced Assault on Precinct 13 and The Last Stand and features John Wayne as a old-fashioned sheriff who has to figure out how to keep things orderly in a town that is becoming increasingly populated by suspicious characters while also trying to hold a dangerous criminal. Filled with action, drama, and comedy, Rio Bravo makes for a very entertaining two and a half hours.

9. Die Hard (1988)

Of course we can't discuss police films without bringing up John McTiernan's classic 1988 action thriller. This one is slightly more critical of the police than some of the others on the list (seeing as McClane himself and Al are the only cops who can actually get anything done), but they are integral to the plot so it still counts. Die Hard has the interesting twist in that the villains were actually counting on the police showing up so that they could exploit their various procedures and turn it against them as part of their plan. Meanwhile, most of the police are too bureaucratic to get anything useful done leaving it up to McClane and Al to figure out what's really going on.

8. The Heat (2013)

Of course in a list about police movies the whole "buddy cop" sub-genre would have to make an appearance. Buddy films have come in a variety of forms but The Heat is a very good example. This one offers a twist on the buddy formula by making the two buddy cops women, but it is also full of great humor and some strange twists and turns. The Heat is a lot of fun as far as police movies go, and it is definitely a more enjoyable film than The Departed.

7. Hot Fuzz (2007)

Edgar Wright's hilarious satire of 90's buddy cop movie clichés makes for one entertaining experience. They even exaggerate the homoerotic undertones for comedic effect, but the relationship between the two central characters is still very genuine. It is really about how Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's respective characters come to recognize each other as capable officers and friends (as well as eventually help the other cops learn to actually do their jobs).

6. S.W.A.T. (2002)

We've had a variety of different types of cops appear on this list, from detectives to patrol officers to FBI agents, so naturally it makes sense that we should hear about S.W.A.T. officers on this list, something that is usually more of a background role. This one places them front and center, giving us a small group of interesting characters who have to form a unit and learn to work as a team. Once again, this is a lot of fun, and it's definitely an exciting action movie.

5. Fargo (1996)

The Coen Brothers seemed to like telling stories about cops, don't they? They've done a few movies with police officers as major characters but perhaps the best known of those is Fargo. This one is a pretty straight forward crime thriller; but it is largely memorable thanks to Frances McDormand as the extremely pregnant cop who also happens to be very good at her job. Most of the film naturally consists of her investigation, and the perpetrators' desperate efforts to get out of the mess they've suddenly found themselves trapped in the middle of. It's a brutal movie for sure, but also a great one.

4. Blue Steel (1990)

This tense character study marked Kathryn Bigelow's third feature film, and it is brilliant. Jamie Lee Curtis is strong as the rookie cop who finds becomes determined to catch a deranged serial killer while also trying not to let him into her mind. There is definitely some influence from Dirty Harry in this one but that is hardly a problem. Blue Steel is a bit more of an art film than some of the others on this list, so it does take a certain mindset to watch, but it is an amazingly compelling experience worth whatever trouble one has to go through to find it.

3. No Country For Old Men (2009)

How could we forget a classic like this one? The Coen Brothers' strange film (which concerns a chase between three people who never meet) sees Tommy Lee Jones take on the role of an aging sheriff who struggles to keep up with the rising crime rate. In fact, the film is really about this guy and his struggle to keep up with the rising crime rates. Ultimately, Sheriff Bell just can't handle the pressures of being a cop and eventually has to retire (in his opening monologue, he even states "my grandfather was a lawman, father too" suggesting he only became a police officer because of a perceived family obligation). In that sense, this is the other side of being a police officer; namely the kinds of people who try to do the job but ultimately just are not cut out for it. It's like Mark Wahlberg said in The Departed; "Do you want to be a cop or do you want to appear to be a cop?" This was one of those people who wanted to appear to be a cop.

2. Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner is more often remembered for its bleak vision of Los Angeles four years from now and the choking urban atmosphere reminiscent of old fashioned film noir, but it is easy to forget that this is also a police procedural of sorts (though admittedly a futuristic one). Most of the film centers around a single cop (Rick Deckard) trying to finish that one last case only to get mixed up in something bigger and getting into trouble. In the end, questions are raised about what defines "being human" and true to its noir roots we are never totally sure if Rick is truly doing the right thing.

1. End of Watch (2012)

As far as films dealing with the day-to-day life of a police officer go, this is probably one of the best. This is a more unusual look at the life of a police officer seeing as it opts not to focus on the obvious action of stopping crime but more on the mundane lives of the officers in between cases. It turns out being a cop can be a very dull job at times. Of course when we do get to the action the film doesn't disappoint but those are very sparse moments when the bulk of the narrative either centers on the relationship between the two main cops in their car waiting for something to happen or their relationships with other police officers back at the station.