Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The One Michael Bay Movie People Didn't Hate but Maybe Should

I've recently spent some time watching some of these "Die Hard on an X" films. to put it simply I've been developing a screenplay for my own "Die Hard on an X" film and I've been looking at some of the major ones from the 90's for inspiration. After re-watching Air Force One and the amazingly awesome Con Air I decided to take a look at The Rock. Aside from being Die Hard in Alcatraz, it has a 7.4 rating on IMDB despite being directed by Michael Bay. One of the most often-criticized directors in contemporary Hollywood made a movie that people didn't universally hate? How could I resist that?

I didn't exactly go in with the highest expectations, but about forty minutes in I had to stop, both due to the overall plot not being very good and certain elements that rubbed me the wrong way. I'll get into those in a moment. Let's just start by saying that this movie gave me no way of getting into it. I found nothing interesting in any of the characters, the story didn't keep me going. At best it was dull, and at worst it was outright confusing.

From what I gathered, the bad guy played by Ed Harris was resorting to drastic measures because he was upset with the government failing to appropriately compensate the families of fallen soldiers, but it wasn't very well explained. Neither was the plan put forward by the supposed good guys which apparently involved sending a dangerous convict into Alcatraz to do... something. Um... yeah, are you sure Ed Harris is supposed to be the bad guy? He seems to me to be a far more relatable character than the ones we're supposed to be rooting for. At least he has some sort of motivation, if a sadly underdeveloped one. Ed Harris can be a great actor, but here he's not so good.

Now I'd better address the concerns I had about the implications of The Rock. To be more specific, I think it's necessary to address the role of gender here. The "Die Hard on an X" formula has hardly been perfect about the roles of women, and indeed I have criticized it in the past for a general lack of female protagonists. However, while it is generally a man who gets to beat up the terrorists, most films in the trend try to do something on the front of gender.

Con Air had the female prison guard Sally Bishop, and while her role was greatly overshadowed by a huge number of men she did get her moments to show how tough she was (bonus points for being tough while spending most of the film in handcuffs). Air Force One had a male protagonist in James Marshall, most of his allies on the plane were male, and there is an all-male terrorist group. However, it was the female vice president played by Glenn Close who was taking charge on the ground and calls a lot of the shots, not to mention that the Marshal's wife also manages to rescue herself from a hostage situation during the climax. Even in the original Die Hard, John McClane's wife is the person who becomes the spokesperson for the hostages and does everything she can to help them under the circumstances. The Rock, on the other hand, is outright sexist.

This was a film that I swear was going out of its way to avoid giving its female characters the slightest bit of depth and value to the plot. They add in female extras here and there in a desperate attempt to hide it but I wasn't fooled. One could argue that the U.S. army still has restrictions on where women can and can't join so that might justify the lack of female soldiers. However, in general women are given very little in the way of roles. The only female character I saw who offered the slightest contribution to the plot was an unnamed extra who provided some minor exposition.

The only female character who actually seems to have any significance is Nicolas Cage's girlfriend, who seemed to be more interested in sex and marriage than anything else. She didn't even seem to be a motivation for him. She is literally just there to look pretty and nothing more. At least in Con Air we got a bit of depth in Cage's relationship with his wife so that there is an emotional connection. He also has a clear motive for staying on the plane that ties back to his experience as a U.S. Army Ranger. Here, it doesn't really work. Cage has no personality and his wife is just interested in marriage. They don't even try to make her compelling, Bay apparently thought that just making physically attractive would keep the audience invested.

What finally drew the line for me was a scene when the movie is (finally) starting to actually get somewhere. We finally meet with Sean Connery (took him long enough) and he makes a deal to have a hotel suite. He has a few people come in to clean him up and we have a stylist, and did they really have to make him such an offensive character? We've got a male hair stylist showing up for a couple of scenes, and apparently the filmmakers thought that was funny, because they decided that it was necessary to make him a camp gay. Really? Are you kidding me? I thought we were past all that nonsense and trying to get rid of those awful stereotypes of homosexuals. Why was it even necessary for the character to be presented that way? The apparent sexism was bad enough, but now we're bringing in homosexual stereotypes? This was when I finally realized there was no way this movie was going to be getting any better; best case scenario would be that it would continue to be dull, assuming of course it doesn't get even worse.

We got a lot of Die Hard imitators in the 90's. Some of them, like Air Force One and Con Air, were actually pretty good. This is not one of those movies. It isn't even enjoyably bad or campy fun. What we have here is a poorly written, poorly executed, sexist, and homophobic mess of a film (and I wouldn't be surprised if there's some racism at some point as well). It is a waste of talent from great actors like Ed Harris and in general a huge waste of time. I don't know why out of all the films Michael Bay has directed this is the one that isn't universally hated, because I don't see anything good about it. If you want to look at "Die Hard on an X" films, you can skip The Rock.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Best Movies of 2014 (That I Saw)

We're getting close to New Years and it's about time I did some retrospective work. Two days from now I'll have been running this blog for a year, and what a year it has been. Now everybody's doing their lists of the best and worst movies they saw in 2014 and I've naturally got to get to work on mine. I'll have to see about whether I can get a solid list of the worst movies (right now I can only think of two) but I can list the good ones I managed to see.

I'll be honest and say that I've never managed to do one of these lists before, usually because I'm really bad at ranking things, but this year I'm going to give it a go. It is difficult because I am working completely from memory here. I can only speak for the movies I did see, and I have no solid record of every film I saw this year.

For some reason I have this tendency to always end up missing the one film that becomes the smash hit at the Academy Awards, and I end up having to watch it afterwards because it won best picture. So far that's happened with The Hurt LockerThe King's Speech, The Help (hey, I can't help it if the posters made it look like a generic and forgettable romantic comedy), The Artist, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave (which I still need to see). That's literally six years in a row I missed out on the Best Picture winner for one reason or another and only watched them afterwards because of their acclaim.

I suspect that same thing will happen this year. Whatever film wins Best Picture will probably once again be the one movie I never got around to actually seeing if only because it's subject matter didn't initially appeal to me. I also can't remember every movie I saw this year, and I probably missed a lot as well. One of the funny things about being a film student is that it becomes very hard to find time to watch any movies, letalone keep up with everything that is coming out. Still, I did manage to see some good ones, and here is my ranking of what I can remember seeing at the theatre in 2014.

13. Godzilla

 This was really my first exposure to the whole Godzilla franchise unless you count watching two of the Gamera films, or that weird Creepypasta with the haunted Godzilla video game (it's actually a lot better than it sounds), and I enjoyed it. I know a lot of people criticized the movie but I liked that it actually had a plot and characters instead of just being two giant monsters beating each other up for two hours. At the same time, they still make Godzilla a character and give him some depth, though, which was also a nice touch. I also didn't mind that it took a while to build up to Godzilla, and it seemed worthwhile when he finally did show up.

12. Sabotage

Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in action in his third film since stepping down as the Governor of California. This one is a bit more intense than one might usually expect from his films, with betrayal and mayhem all over, but that does add a layer of suspense to it. The ending is also one I did not see coming, but it made perfect sense. I don't know if I would say this was Schwarzenegger's greatest film, but it was enjoyable enough.

11. Doc of the Dead

Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary about the role of zombies in modern popular culture provided a lot of interesting insight. Bringing out a huge number of zombie-associated names ranging from George A. Romero to Robert Kirkman, it looked at the origins of what we now call "zombies", the history and development of zombies on film, and the influence that malevolent reanimated human cadavers have had on our society as a whole. It also had a bit of fun with its subject matter, taking time to parody zombie movie conventions (it helps they managed to get some of the people from Shaun of the Dead involved)

10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Out of Peter Jackson's entire The Hobbit trilogy, I would argue that The Desolation of Smaug was the best, but The Battle of the Five Armies still worked. Admittedly it makes a lot more sense if you watch it right after seeing The Desolation of Smaug (since otherwise you may lose track of the characters, particularly the dwarves) and it is a bit jarring to see so much focus on a small part of the book. On the other hand fans of The Hobbit often cite the Battle of the Five Armies as a crucial part of the story, so it makes sense to explore it in more detail rather than have Bilbo knocked out just before it starts and then only see the aftermath.

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A suitable follow-up to Captain America: The First Avenger which follows our hero through the disorienting world of the present-day. I've enjoyed Mavel's recent line of action films and this one is no exception. Now it does help to watch this one alongside Agents of SHIELD as they both look at the same major developments (those of you who have seen both know what I'm talking about, I won't spoil it for those who haven't) but that's not essential to having a good time with it.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy

This was certainly an interesting film that took the Marvel franchise in some new directions. With an interesting group of characters, some good humour, and plenty of action, it was a fun experience to be sure. The ending left me a bit curious as it suggests that Marvel is taking a huge chance by having another go at Howard the Duck (the last attempt is widely considered one of the worst movies ever made). Considering the success they've had so far there is a faint chance they could just pull it off.

7. Edge of Tomorrow

This was a fascinating movie in its approach. It is hardly the first movie to put a sci-fi twist on a Groundhog Day-esque premise (Source Code only came out a four years earlier) but it runs with it in interesting ways. Edge of Tomorrow took full advantage of its time-travelling concept, but also has some interesting characters to it as well. Tom Cruise actually does manage to give his character some depth and his co-star Emily Blunt gets to play a tough-as-nails action girl so what's not to love? 

6. X-Men: Days of Future Past

After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: First Class, I had pretty much given up on the X-Men franchise. Then I got talked into going to see X-Men: Days of Future Past and it won me back. It helped that the film undid a lot of the questionable choices of X-Men: The Last Stand and brought back all the characters who got needlessly killed off. There isn't really an explanation for why Charles Xavier is still alive or why Kitty Pryde suddenly has time-travel powers but if it undoes the worst instalment of the series who cares? The time-travel stuff was pretty cool as well, and while I wasn't the biggest fan of X-Men: First Class I actually enjoyed seeing the mixture of actors.

5. The Fault in Our Stars

This was not a film I was originally planning to see, but when it came out everybody was talking about it so when I had some time to myself and needed to get out of the house for a while I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be a very emotional movie. The two leads both do a fantastic job in their roles and play off of each other splendidly, but there is also a great supporting cast (Laura Dern was also great) and it really makes you think about what it must be like to have cancer at such a young age. Even disregarding the general themes of mortality, it was still a very touching romance with a solid balance of humour, drama, triumph, and tragedy.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

This vaguely Fawlty Towers-inspired comedy was a lot of fun in just how many weird directions it could go. It starts as a story about a hotel concierge bonding with a lobby boy as he trains him and escalates into a convoluted political conspiracy involving murder and stolen property, all set against the beginning of World War II. Of course the heart of the film is the relationship between its two main characters, and that part has just the right balance of humor and drama. Some of the weird ways in which the film messes around with your perceptions of who is telling the story (which is literally a framing device within a framing device) were also interesting.

3. Boyhood

This film is irrefutable proof of my theory that Richard Linklater is the most patient man in the world. The fact that he managed to stay committed to making this movie over twelve years is remarkable, carefully timing each session of shooting to ensure the main character ages authentically. Even more impressive is that the whole cast managed to stay on board the whole way through, and Linlater even managed to find time on the side to make Before Sunrise and Before Midnight. The fact that he managed to remain dedicated is impressive enough, but that he still managed to pull off something wonderful is even better. It's a simple movie about the mundane difficulties of growing up. Most of us have been through something the protagonist has had to endure, and in that sense he is a very relatable character,

2. Under the Skin

This was an interesting little piece of work. When I heard about how strange this movie got I had to see it. I thought it was interesting how it actually managed to make its alien protagonist seem... well... alien. She was a character whose mind you can't really understand. She does these things we consider horrible not because of any active malevolence, but because she honestly does not understand how we see it. We also see her difficulty in understanding basic human activities that in any other movie (such as E.T. or Starman) would be used for comedic effect, with things like ordering cake as a main course and then struggling to use a fork. At the same time, what made the experience even more peculiar was that the human characters seemed even more alien, making the alien protagonist seem more human by contrast and keeping her as the one person we can relate to.

1. Interstellar

If I had my way, this  is the movie that would be winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Sadly, I know from experience they would sooner give a belated award to The Garbage Pail Kids Movie than allow a science fiction film the dignity of being recognized by them. Interstellar was a movie that I was so hyped up about I even went and started a whole blogathon to celebrate its release. The visuals were amazing, and I loved the cast. Jessica Chastain is always great, and here Anne Hathaway gets a chance to try something new. I also liked the fact that this one included some actual science (it was nice to see a film that understood the difference between a black hole and a wormhole for once).

So there is my list. What were some of your favourite films of the year?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Action Heroines Before the Rise of Action Films

I was looking through my blog feed when I stumbled across a Gif posted by my friend Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently, another movie blog that specializes almost exclusively in silent films. This may not be my strongest area of expertise, but I was interested in what she had to say. It seems a lot of people were led to her blog through search tags referring to women being tied to railroad tracks. This is something of an infamous cliche, though I had always understood it to be something more common in serials.

It turns out even then it was extremely rare, and nowhere near as sexist as people make it out to be. Fritzi herself did a whole video in which she explained in detail the origins of the misconception that women were often tied to railroad tracks in silent movies. To put it simply, critics who make this claim are usually citing one of two films, Teddy At the Throttle or Barry Oakfield's Race for Life. Both films were actually comedies that were intended as a parody of an old idea that was considered a tired cliché even then. In fact, as far as women are to be concerned, the silent era is actually a lot more progressive than people give it credit for.

For one thing, it seems that for the few cases of the "tied to the railroad track" cliché actually happening, it was not exclusively women waiting to be rescued by men. In fact, the play from which this cliché is believed to originate, Under the Gaslight, actually had a male victim who needed to be rescued by a woman. Adding to that is that Teddy At the Throttle has a female victim who ultimately has to save herself. So in actuality there are very few instances of people being tied to the tracks actually happened, and the few cases that do exist have not in fact been gender-exclusive, nor do the female victims always require rescuing by a man.

To be fair, I'm not even sure how practical a method it would be to dispose of someone. In order to do it, you would first have to find an isolated bit of track somewhere nobody would see you, plus you would have to get the rope or chains under the railroad ties (if you just tie the person up, they can simply roll off the track as soon as you leave). On top of that, trains are fast, so you wouldn't be able to predict when a train is coming. Supposing a train approaches before you have finished tying your victim down? You would have very little time to get out of the way plus it would give your victim an opportunity to escape. Even for the diabolical masterminds that did not in fact do this kind of thing, it would not be a very effective method.

Action heroines were actually a lot more common in the silent period than one would expect. Fritzi herself has cited several. The original Perils of Pauline cast the title character as a free-spirited adventurer, and to be fair the old serials liked to put everyone in danger regardless of gender. It was all part of the strategy to keep viewers coming back, the idea being to end each instalment with the hero or heroine in some sort of dangerous situation that seems impossible to survive. Audiences would have to come back to see the next part to find out how they get out of their current predicament. This is actually where the term "cliffhanger" originated, as a popular choice for ending serial instalments was to have the hero literally hanging over a cliff.

In that film, it is a woman who takes over as the telegraph operator when her father is ill, and then takes action when two outlaws arrive at her station. We do see the male lead rushing to the rescue, but the heroine has to think on her own long before he arrives. Instead of sitting around waiting to be rescued, she does everything she can to call for help and then proceeds to hold the two outlaws at gunpoint (or so it seems). By the time her lover finally arrives to rescue her, she has everything under control, and all he has to do is take them away.

So why is this idea of the woman tied to the tracks so popular? It is likely a combination of different things, but I have a theory of my own. You see, there were very few movies at the time that actually had a person getting tied down to the tracks, but there were plenty of movies that prominently featured trains. Many of these films about trains involved chases and a series of dangerous situations experienced by the main characters. It became a popular genre at the time, known as the Train-Chase film. Many will not recognise such a genre, as it faded out of popularity near the end of the silent era. While it has re-emerged on occasion, with movies such as Tony Scott's Unstoppable presenting a modern interpretation, the train-chase movie never experienced a full revival.

Train-chase movies were a huge part of silent era-Hollywood. In many ways they were an early precedent for the modern action film. The genre goes back as early as Edwin S. Porter with The Great Train Robbery and continues through the 20's. The Lonedale Operator also followed the pattern of a train-chase movie that puts the heroine into peril. To get a good look at the role of the train-chase movies, we should look at one of Buster Keaton's most famous features, The General.

The General was a movie that took place almost entirely on a single locomotive (well, technically two, but the focus is on one at a time), and had no shortage of dangerous situations for its main character. Scenes like the moment when Keaton tries to fire a cannon at the train he is chasing only for it to fall and almost hit him create tension, as well as a comedic effect when Keaton runs into trouble evading the unexpected threat and survives by accident (his train happens to run around a bend, allowing the cannon to hit the enemy he originally intended to fire at).

Buster Keaton was not alone in his perils during this adventure. There was also a romantic sub-plot involving his lover Annabelle Lee, and it is her being kidnapped by the Union that sets the story in motion. Buster Keaton's objective is of course to rescue his girlfriend and his engine. However, it is worth noting that the "rescue the kidnapped girlfriend" plot only makes up half the movie. In the first act, Annabelle is indeed a distressed damsel in need of rescuing, but then we get to the second half which inverts the setup of the first.

While The General begins with the male lead, Johnny Clay pursuing his stolen lover, he manages to rescue her around the middle point, during which time he also overhears the Union's attack plans. The rest of the movie turns everything around, with both now running away from the Union and trying to get back to their own lines and relay the information they have obtained. At this point, Annabelle stops being the damsel in distress, and instead the dynamic becomes one of co-operation. Both  Johnny and Annabelle face their share of perils in this second half, and have to work together in order to solve each problem.

Looking at the information available, it quickly becomes clear that while there were not a lot of films or serials that actually had women being tied to railroad tracks, there were plenty that put characters both male and female into dangerous situations that often involved trains. There was indeed a great deal of variety in precisely what situations were faced in each film, and being tied to the tracks seems to fit right into the many possibilities.

I suspect this is in large part where the misconception that silent movies often did it comes from. Audiences who may have been influenced by the train-chase movies but who do not understand the silent era enough to understand how they worked associate situations like a woman being tied to the tracks with the types of dangers that were actually faced by many silent heroes and heroines. Men and women were both victims of these situations, and in fact women rescued men just as much as the other way around.

Fritzi had a pretty suitable analogy for people who make the misconception that all silent films involved women being tied to railroad tracks, but I'll present my own, It is very much like a modern critic watching Dirty Harry and using it to claim that all 70's action movies were about rogue cops. While urban vigilante films were popular in the 1970's, many of them centred on civilians, and they were not the only form of action movie that was known at the time. For instance, some filmmakers were also making big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno.

I will not pretend I wasn't surprised to find out how rare the "women tied to the railroad track" cliché actually was in silent film, and I also won't claim to be an expert in the field. Out of the two of us Fritzi is definitely far more qualified to be discussing silent film than I am (she would have to be, otherwise her blog dedicated to silent cinema would not have gotten very far), but I thought it was worth sharing my thoughts on the matter. One would expect that due to the social standards of the time silent film would have been very predominantly male, and at first glance it seems to make sense that there would be a lot of "damsel in distress" movies, but it turns out that is not the case. Perhaps the silent era was a lot more progressive in its treatment of women than modern viewers realise.

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Well, it's Christmas Eve and it seems to make sense that I finally fill out my obligatory quota of holiday-themed articles. I've already gotten away with a review/analysis of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, but let's look at a less sexual holiday classic, something a bit out of my usual comfort zone. About two years ago now (three including this year), I was still in college and encountered a man was selling low-priced DVDs. Seeing as that is something of a secret weakness of mine, I couldn't resist buying a whole bunch, and one of the ones I found was White Christmas, featuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Now after two years of failing to get around to watching it, I finally managed to see this classic, and it's great.

I knew its two leading actors to an extant already. Danny Kaye was a comedian who did a lot of funny movies, though the two I best know him from are The Inspector General and The Court Jester. Both films are a lot of fun if you get the chance, with Danny Kaye playing a bumbling everyman who gets caught up in extraordinary situations but ultimately proves to be the one person that can save the day (so basically an early predecessor to the "Die Hard on an X film", at least in the case of The Court Jester). I was a bit more limited in my exposure to Bing Crosby. The one thing I'd really seen him in was the wonderful special he did in which he performed with David Bowie.

During World War II, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are soldiers who like to provide entertainment for the men in their division. On Christmas Eve, they perform a fantastic show only to learn that their commanding officer, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), is being relieved of command. After saying goodbye in the form of an elaborate musical number, the division is attacked. Bob is nearly killed when a break wall is destroyed, but he is saved by Phil. To repay Phil for saving his life, Wallace agrees to try out a duet son his friend wrote. Fast forward a few years later and the two men are now a successful singing duo. They receive a (forged) invitation from an old army buddy to see a performance by his sisters, Betty and Judy (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen). 

These two turn out to be very attractive, with Judy quickly attracting Phil's attention. Both are also hugely successful performers despite the fact that they apparently only know one song. A series of convoluted mix-ups and situations that includes Bob and Phil donning partial drag and lip-synching to the sisters' music leads to all four of them ending up in a hotel at Vermont where there doesn't seem to be as much snow as they expected. Said hotel turns out to be owned by Waverly, and is not doing very good financially. Our four performers naturally conclude there is only one logical solution: bring Bob and Phil's entire show from New York to the hotel and invite as many old army buddies as possible. In the vein of a Shakespearean comedy, misunderstandings and romances ensue.

As you can see, there are some odd things about the story, like the fact that Betty and Judy are somehow as successful as they are even though they only seem to know how to perform one song, that happens to be about the fact that they are sisters. I also won't pretend that White Christmas is not a product of its time. As far as movies displaying 1950's standards goes, there are far worse, but it does have its moments that might be jarring to a modern viewer, usually in the form of specific lines that may have made sense at the time but can easily be taken the wrong way now.

For instance, there is an early scene where Danny Kaye remarks about a female performer wanting to settle down being "refreshing" (or for that matter, even the notion that either of the women getting married means they will have to give up their musical careers). It's meant to refer to an earlier conversation between them about how female singers are more interested in their careers, but can easily come off as sexist today. Later on we also have Vera-Ellen deciding to stage an engagement with somebody, and concluding it "has to be a man" (this was of course during the production code, so her even considering the possibility of being engaged to a woman would have been seen as unacceptable). After pressuring Kaye into pretending to be her fiancée, he tries to announce their fake engagement at a party, but it is played as embarrassing when he accidentally says that it was the girl who proposed to him (a radical idea for 1954). The all-male military may also be jarring to any modern viewer used to female soldiers being permitted in combat roles.

Fortunately, these moments are few and far between, so they are a lot easier to forgive. I've seen far worse. It helps that the two female leads are given some actual depth beyond simply having a pretty face, and that there is one other memorable female character in the form of Mary Wickes as the housekeeper Emma Allen, who is hinted to have some prior experience in espionage. Among other things she has a habit of listening in on phone calls, and gets plenty of great lines. My one criticism would be that there is one female character, Susan Waverly, who is a bit underdeveloped, but that is more of a story issue than anything to do when the movie was made.

In spite of the offhanded moments of... period-appropriate dialogue, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are still very good together and make a great duo. I'm not normally a fan of musicals; in many cases the way the characters spontaneously break out into elaborate musical numbers takes me out of it, but here it worked. The songs fit right in (it probably helps that the central characters are established as musical performers), and in general fit the tone of the scenes in which they are played. The film also spaces out the numbers, allowing room for character development and advancement of the plot.

White Christmas is a fun movie and one I would recommend as a film to get into the holiday spirit. It's flawed, there are the weird story problems and moments that remind you of how people at the time saw the world, but it is still an enjoyable film with some good songs and likeable characters. Definitely worth a watch if you get the chance. You won't regret it, unless of course you can't stand the song "White Christmas". In that case, you might want to pass on this film since that song is guaranteed to get stuck in your head after you watch it.

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies Driven Entirely by People Talking

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies driven entirely by people talking. This one was a harder one to find choices for on the grounds that many of the best examples I know of (i.e. Twelve Angry Men, My Dinner With AndreReservoir Dogs, and Before Sunrise) were all listed as examples to give people an idea of what that category entailed. Since I suggested it, it only makes sense that I should contribute something, but I've tried to find a few less obvious choices.

The Odd Couple (1968)

Two middle-aged men with opposing personalities decide to share an apartment. One is extremely neat and the other is messy. That's basically the entire movie, the plot consists of the increasing tension between these two men as one is a neat freak and the other is a slob who keeps rotten food in his fridge (in one scene he offers "brown or green" sandwhiches, claiming the brown is "either really old cheese or really new meat"). Trouble ensues as you can expect from such a pairing.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

For a teen movie, this is pretty minimalist. The cast consists of five people (seven if you include the principal and the janitor), and the majority of the film is set in a single room. More specifically, it centres around five people of very different backgrounds who fill out archetypal highs school roles: the jock, the nerd, the outcast, the popular girl, and the bully. What makes this film interesting is that it deconstructs each of these archetypes, showing the difficulties faced by each person and how they are affected by their circumstances. For instance we get a glimpse into what makes the bully so rough, and how being the popular girl or jock is not as glamorous as one might think. The whole film is the interactions between these five characters while they are in detention, and the unlikely friendship that develops as a result.

Tonight You're Mine (2011)

This is a bit of an odd but enjoyable independent film. It's a romance set at a rock and roll event that results from a rather unlikely source: two rock starts get into a fight only to end up being handcuffed together by some crazy guy as an exercise to get them to put aside their differences. It works, as the two have develop a romance that comes from trying to make the best of their circumstances, which includes having to work as a team simply to use the lavatory; all while both desperately try to find the guy who put them into this mess and get the keys to the handcuffs. There's also some relationships that develop among their friends along the way.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Women in Film Blogathon Part II: Kathryn Bigelow

I've started the exciting second part of the Women in Film Blogathon but it seemed to make sense to put together an entry of my own, especially seeing as I've entered the other Blogathons I'm running at the moment. The trouble is, unfortunately, that I don't know that many female directors. There are some female directors I can respect for a specific film. I was intrigued by Maya Deren's experimentation in Meshes of the Afternoon. I also enjoyed Sally Potter's Orlando and Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. However, I don't seem to know that many women directors through more than a name or a tiny sample of their work. Nearly all of my top favourite directors; including Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, John Carpenter, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, The Coen Brothers, Georges Méliès; are all white men. Evidently this is something I need to work on.

I needed to write about someone I knew well, someone who had a fascinating body of work, and who better than one of the most famous women in contemporary filmmaking? There is no questioning the historical significance of Kathryn Bigelow. She is after all the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but what is it that makes her such an unusual director? There is something about her that seems to make her stand out in a profession where women are slowly starting to become more prominent, arguably bringing her to just as much fame as her male contemporaries.

Kathryn Bigelow has directed a total of nine feature films, but she is probably best known for her most recent projects: The Hurt Locker (for which she won the Oscar for Best Picture) and Zero Dark Thirty, though some might also know her for Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker. Other more obscure films under her belt include The Loveless, Near Dark, Blue Steel, Strange Days, and The Weight of Water, and that's not even getting into her television work. Across her movies, Bigelow has proven herself to be a versatile director, starting with horror movies and later branching into action, war, political thrillers, crime, and historical pictures, as well as combinations thereof. It is becoming more common today to see women working as directors, so what is it that makes Bigelow stand out so effectively as she has.

I think part of what makes Kathryn Bigelow such an interesting auteur is simply in how un-feminine her movies are. She often takes on subjects and genres that would generally be considered "masculine", and her films often have all-male or predominantly male casts. The Hurt Locker has a grand total of one significant female character who only appears in a few scenes very late in the movie. K-19 has only one woman with a very brief speaking part who serves as a motivation for a male character. Even Zero Dark Thirty, which actually had a female protagonist, still had her surrounded by men with only one other female character playing a notable role.

Naturally, male bonding becomes a major theme in her movies. Point Break has a love story but a lot of the focus is on the relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. The one major female character, Tyler, is used in large part as a "playing piece" for the men, first as a way for Johnny to enter the surfing community and later by Bodhi to manipulate Johnny into joining his gang. In many ways it resembles a "buddy film", with the relationship even taking on a few homoerotic undertones at times (which is odd considering the presence of a heterosexual romance). K-19 has a sense of camaraderie among men that I'd swear draws from Battleship Potempkin, particularly in the relationship between the two senior officers. The majority of The Hurt Locker concerns the tension between Sgt. James and his partners.

Even Zero Dark Thirty has a bit of the male bonding. Despite the presence of a female protagonist, the cast is still predominantly male, which makes Maya stand out all the more. Out of all the people she could have connected with, it is the only other female character of significance, Jessica. These two form a close friendship very quickly. Unfortunately, Jessica's death forces Maya to rely more on herself. The male bonding in this case is used as a way of isolating the heroine, making her feel more like an outsider as well as to single her out as the one person who can catch Bin Laden. There is also a sense of camaraderie among the Navy SEALs, who take up most of the climax.

Of course, just because Bigelow's films are predominantly male does not mean she is incapable of including strong female characters when she wants to. When watching Point Break, I was actually far more invested with Tyler and her relationship to Johnny than I was with the whole "surfers pretending to be presidents robbing banks" plot that the movie insisted on focusing on. I think it actually might have been better if they had changed the focus around. Zero Dark Thirty also has a very strong female protagonist who persistently moves onward in her mission to stop a dangerous terrorist. She also has a great array of male characters, one of the most interesting being the adrenaline junkie Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker.

At first glance, the predominantly masculine nature of Bigelow's work could be seen as detrimental, but she is still every bit as much a feminist filmmaker as the likes of Sally Potter or to be fair any of the women directors that have been discussed in this blogathon. The feminist aspects of her filmmaking just work in a different way. While other women might want to put the focus on creating strong female characters or promoting women's rights (as is the case with Orlando, a film that is hardly subtle about its feminist messages),

Bigelow seems to take whatever scripts interest her. Few if any of her movies actually address gender dynamics, at least not directly. Instead, she can be seen as a feminist filmmaker simply on the grounds that she shows a woman can make great movies. I don't see any reason why it should be a problem. After all, most of the few all-female movies that have been made (i.e. The Women and The Descent) were directed by men, so why shouldn't a woman be allowed to direct an all-male film. She was briefly married to James Cameron, a male director for whom strong female characters are a trademark, so it seems to fit.

In Bigelow's films, the interactions between the characters take precedence above all else. In many cases, there isn't a linear story in the strictest sense, at least not one that is presented in a classical fashion. Instead her movies take the form of a series of vignettes that focus on the interactions between a small group of characters, The Hurt Locker being one of the best examples of a such a structure. The central focus becomes the relationships between the main characters, with their ultimate objective being marginalized.

This leads to a common trend in Bigelow's films involving the "invisible enemy". In her films, the true "antagonists", if you can call them that, are shown as little as possible. K-19: The Widowmaker, has a sub-plot involving an American destroyer and helicopter, but since the focus is on a Russian submarine, the only Americans we see are in filmstrips and one man seen from a distance in the helicopter. The Hurt Locker refrains from showing us any terrorists outside of when they are visible to the three main characters and deliberately avoids addressing the politics of America's role in Iraq. Even in Point Break, the actual villains are kept anonymous by wearing masks resembling former presidents.

One of the best examples of Bigelow's interest in an "invisible enemy" would have to be Zero Dark Thirty. There are a number of ways a film about hunting down Osama Bin Laden could have been done, but Bigelow prefers to keep us in the dark about his operations. We never so much as see a photograph of Osama Bin Laden until the very end... after he has been shot and killed. Even then, Bigelow prevents us from getting a clear look at the body, keeping shots depicting it brief, dark, or at an angle that makes it harder to see. Audiences of the film likely have seen pictures of Bin Laden, so we see enough to recognize it is in fact him, but that is all the film is inclined to show us.

The antagonists of her films are not even treated as an anonymous enemy the same way as the German or Japanese soldiers in the old World War II combat films. In those movies, the enemy soldiers were stripped of their humanity in order to eliminate the emotional repercussions of killing a human being. Bigelow certainly does not skip on the psychological effects of killing someone (even the Navy SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty are a bit shaken after killing Bin Laden), but marginalizing the enemy makes them less an actual antagonist and more like part of the background.

If anything, the central conflict becomes less about finding the enemy than it is about how the relationships between the main characters interfere with that ultimate endgoal. Point Break may be one of the best examples, as it is Johnny's friendship with Bodhi that interferes with his task to put that man behind bars. Likewise K-19 focuses on the mounting tension between different members of the crew, first questioning the orders of their new commanding officer and later as they desperately try to figure out how to respond to a disaster in the submarine's reactor. The conflict over whether the crew should call for help or stay aboard and attempt to prevent the submarine from exploding while facing radiation poisoning interferes with them reaching a solution. Zero Dark Thirty has Maya struggling to persuade her superiors that she has indeed found Bin Laden.

Most great directors have a style that defines their work and makes it unique, and this is a big part of why Kathryn Bigelow stands out so well. She has this style of filmmaking that is all her own, with nobody else quite like her. Her movies do not stick strictly to a classical model, but still make sure to tell coherent and compelling stories about relationships, usually in a non-romantic light (Point Break being a partial exception) and among men. You don't see a lot of directors, at least not in Hollywood, who take such an approach to their movies.

The classical system of Hollywood filmmaking developed in the Studio Era (and arguably still the dominant mode of storytelling today, though perhaps not as strictly enforced) is that narrative comes above all else. Every other aspect of the movie: character development, visual effects, exposition, is secondary to advancing the narrative. The story is presented in a linear cause-and-effect format, with one scene leading into the next, and any deviation from that structure (i.e. flashbacks) are to be clearly indicated.

Many Hollywood directors who have managed to make their names stand out, such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extant John Carpenter; are people who have dared to challenge the established formula. All of these men made movies in their own way, not letting the confines of Hollywood hold them down. Kathryn Bigelow has done the same, making movies the way she feels they need to be made. Some are more successful than others: The Hurt Locker was a great movie that deserved that Best Picture Oscar while Point Break was okay at the most, but in both cases she made them in the way that seemed to make the most sense to her.

The fact that Kathryn Bigelow is a woman does not play into or influence her films in the slightest. Like any great male director she has a style all her own that makes her films unique, including allowing her stand apart from other feminist filmmakers. Watching her movies, one gets the sense a director like Bigelow simply takes the scripts that interest her, regardless of their content or whether they have a strong female lead (and if it does, that's just an added bonus to an already great movie). She works more or less the same way as any male auteur in Hollywood, showing that a woman can be every bit as capable of making great movies as any man.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Free Action Movie Week: Unstoppable

It's the fifth and final day of Free Action Movie Week and I've saved the best for last. When I made the announcement that I was doing one film a day and presented a list of choices Unstoppable was by far the most popular choice. Literally every single person who voted said they wanted me to do this movie, so naturally it seemed the logical place to end on. I actually had seen this movie before for my action movie class. We watched it the first week while discussing "train chase" films of the silent era that helped to shape the modern car chase. I even referred to it in my article Trains, Trains, and Automobiles, inspired by that very lecture and centering around the role trains play in action movies. Looking back on it now, I can certainly see a lot of the concepts we discussed over the course of that lecture. The premise itself is reminiscent of the old train-chase movies like The Lonedale Operator or The General, but there are other elements mixed in.

Loosely based on an actual incident, Unstoppable is essentially one long train chase film, sort of like a more modern version of The General. Will Colson (Chris Pine) is a young man experiencing his first day working at the railyard, and is assigned veteran Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington, who also appeared in Deja Vu this week) as a partner. Meanwhile an idiot out in the yard is ordered to move a train but botches up the process. The train, which turns out to be carrying hazardous materials that could result in massive casualties if exposed to an urban environment, is hurtling down the mainline at increasing speed with no driver. Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) takes charge of the situation, keeping track of the train's current route while also trying to work out a solution to the problem and dealing with the bureaucracy of her superiors.

The character of Will Colson definitely has some elements of the "wise-guy" hero popularized by Die Hard and its many imitators during the 90's. Much like John McClane, he has the generally lighthearted attitude toward his situation, which is even brought up when Denzel Washington specifically asks him for "no comedy" while faced with a dangerous task. He is also an everyman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances but also proves to be the one person who can take care of the situation. Further Die Hard parallels include the use of the radios, with his bantering against his boss Galvin (Kevin Dunn) somewhat reminiscent of McClane's exchanges with Hans Gruber. One could also argue that his relationship to Connie parallels that of McClane's to Sgt. Powell.

There is also a bit of the vigilante aspect of action films of the 1970's. Nobody ever has to pull out a 44 magnum and start shooting criminals on sight, but the same sort of problems that kept Dirty Harry from catching Scorpio prevent the runaway train from being stopped. Namely there is the same bureaucracy. The authorities, in this case Galvin and his immediate executives, are treated as inefficient and incapable of resolving the situation. Like Dirty Harry, Connie has to break the rules to get the job done, violating direct orders at the risk of being fired. The actual solution that is presented comes from two railway workers finding an opportunity and taking it, also disregarding their superiors' orders.

In general, Unstoppable is an exciting movie that moves at a super-fast pace. I barely noticed when I was already halfway through. There is definitely a lot of exciting action to be found, if of a different sort. We don't see people pulling out guns quite like you would in any of the other films I've covered this week, but there is plenty of the same tension and suspense. Once the train gets moving the film just gets faster and faster, not giving you much time to breathe. It creates a sense of just how intense the situation is and how urgent it is for the train to be stopped.

The acting is also very good on everyone's part. Chris Pine and Denzel Washington have some great chemistry together, making their scenes feel like one of those old buddy films from the 80's. I also liked Rosario Dawson as Connie, as she does a perfect job in delivering the right sort of emotional drive, conveying that persistent determination to see the train stopped even if it costs her job. Her interactions with Pine and Washington also helped add a lot of depth to their characters. The supporting cast was good as well but really the film centers around these three.

Unstoppable is a great movie. I can't say much about how closely it follows the true events it claims to be based on, but it is still a compelling piece of film that is guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat. The action is literally non-stop, and keeps building up to an exciting climax. It's a lot of fun and a great experience for anyone looking for a fun action movie.

I would once again like to thank everyone who voted for this event. This has been a lot of help since I am positive that if I hadn't thought of doing this I would have spent too much time trying to decide what films I wanted to see this week instead of actually watching anything. Since this has been such as success I'm open to revisiting this kind of thing in the future with other themes, maybe during the summer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Free Action Movie Week: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

For day four of Free Action Movie Week, I get into arguably the second-most popular choice. Nearly everybody who commented on the initial announcement saying they wanted me to see Mr. & Mrs. Smith. I had never seen it before, though I do remember seeing the trailer when it first came out and wanting to watch it. I never quite got around to that whole thing. When I was younger, I actually had a crush on Angelina Jolie, and seeing her appear in anything was enough to get me excited. She still does, largely because knowing she's involved means I'm going to be in for something exciting. That's precisely what I got here.

John (Brad Pitt) and Jane (Angelina Jolie) are top-notch assassins who happen to meet in Colombia and pretend to be a couple to evade the police. Five or six years later, they are struggling through the mundane difficulties of marriage. Neither one of them is aware of the other's real profession, with Jane pretending to be a typical suburban housewife cooking and cleaning in between assignments (she keeps her weapons in a chache hidden under the oven), and John getting his assignments through the construction company he works for. John and Jane are getting bored with their relationship, dealing with standard marital issues. That all changes one day when both are separately assigned to kill the same person, Benjamin Danz (Adam Brody). The job inevitably goes awry when the two of them unknowingly get distracted trying to kill each other instead of the target. The two of them are forced to choose between their careers and their marriage.

I loved the relationship between the two leads in this film. The way romance is integrated with the action is genius. You can never quite tell where the romance ends and the action begins. Even in the scenes where they're trying to kill each other Brad and Angelina still talk to each other like a married couple. It has this weird effect where the action scenes feel romantic and the romantic moments feel more like action scenes. Before things get all heated the dialogue is filled with clever double entendres. In one early scene Jane talks about how she got some new curtains in a way that sounds very unsuspiciously like she stole them from someone she recently killed. Once things get going, we get multiple scenes of the two of them trying to set aside their differences while being fired upon.

The chemistry between these two leads is brilliant. It's actually hard to believe this movie was made before Brad and Angelina became a real couple, because it really feels like they belong together. The rest of the supporting cast does a good job but really at the core of the film it's this relationship that drives the film, and it could have easily gone downhill. Mr. & Mrs. Smith takes full advantage of its setup, and I like the fact that both of them are assassins. This basic idea could have worked if it had just been one, but then it would have been a very different dynamic that would have seen one protecting the other or perhaps having to help them toughen up. By having both on equal footing, there is a greater necessity for cooperation, with John and Jane both having to take turns watching each other's back.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith might just be the perfect fusion of two genres that most would consider mutually exclusive: the action film and the romantic comedy. Normally you would not put these two together, but here they're combined so seamlessly it's hard to tell the elements of one from the other. It's a bit like one of those old-fashioned boy meets girl romantic comedies, only now with a lot more guns, knives, explosions, and property damage. It's a lot of fun and definitely worth the ride. Also before anyone asks, I have not seen the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock movie that is coincidentally also called Mr. & Mrs. Smith that is also a comedy about marital issues but otherwise a completely different film.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How To Relate to a Character of the Opposite Sex

I was on YouTube yesterday when I saw a video show up in my subscription feed containing information about the upcoming all-female Ghostbusters reboot. It sounds like an interesting story and why not make an all-female cast? There's plenty of films with all-male casts and often the only predominantly-female movies you really see are stereotypically feminine genres. The only truly all-female movie I'm aware of is the 1939 comedy/melodrama The Women, which naturally concerns a bunch of women's relationships with unseen men. The Descent is a horror film with a predominantly female cast, though technically there is a male character of significance (even if he dies in the first few minutes, he still influences the choices of the characters). It's not like the original Ghostbusters had much in the way of strong female characters to begin with, just a secretary who when you get down to it really didn't add much to the story, and a damsel in distress who needed to be rescued by men despite being played by Sigourney Weaver.

So naturally I posted some comments voicing my approval of this idea. From the sounds of things it is looking promising. They got some of the people behind The Heat (which did this same kind of treatment to the buddy cop genre), which is a good sign. I got a lot of comments in response, many of them dismissing the film as "pandering to feminists" (because how dare we ask for better representation of women in the media). A few seemed to be insisting that the cast should be mixed, asking why there couldn't be a man in there. If you ask me the men already had their chance in the original, which couldn't be bothered to let a woman do anything useful, so why should they be allowed to do anything in this reboot? Then I got this comment from a user by the name of Tommylad2:

I agree completely! Having an all female cast just sells this film to a mainly female audience, and can potentially alienate the original fan base of Ghostbusters! but by having a half and half or at least one female (my thoughts are Jennifer Lawrence as the 4th member and Emma Stone as a fleshed out Janine, could have Chris Pratt and Channing Tatum as some of the male team members) you still cater to the female audience while keeping the original fan base happy. As for the story pitched here, it’s not bad for a modern times twist. But just please Sony don’t make this film a chick flick! You can have your cake and eat it this time!!!

Chick flick? Really. What exactly is a chick flick? Wikipedia defines this as "a slang term for a film genre mainly dealing with love and romance and designed to appeal to a largely female target audience." Already we're getting into some hot water with the implication that women will only go to see a movie that has a romance in it, a notion that I have thoroughly debunked before. By that rationale Breakfast at Tiffany's could be considered a chick flick, but it's also a very good movie that has a number of fans of both genders.

However, we are not dealing with Breakfast at Tiffany's, we're talking about Ghostbusters. This is not a movie about romantic entanglements, it's about busting ghosts. Therefore, unless the writers have somehow skewed their priorities and decided to focus on the protagonists' romantic interests using the whole "paranormal extermination services" thing as nothing more than a background, it's clear that this is not a "chick flick" any more than The Descent is. More unsettling is the implications of Tommylad2's comment, that apparently it is impossible for a male audience to relate to female protagonists. There is no reason a man cannot relate to a female protagonist any more than a female viewer can relate to a man in an all-male cast. By that same rationale women shouldn't be able to enjoy most action movies, and I've known several who would say otherwise.

Speaking of women in action, let's look at the work of one of the most successful female directors in Hollywood right now, Kathryn Bigelow. Take a look at any of her films, and one thing you'll quickly notice is that most of them are very predominantly if not entirely male films. The Hurt Locker has an almost exclusively male cast outside of Evangeline Lilly (who doesn't appear until very late in the movie and only has a few scenes). K-19: The Widowmaker has no significant female characters at all, letalone any kind of romance. While Zero Dark Thirty has a female protagonist, the rest of the cast is still predominantly male, and the fact that she is a woman has about as much of an impact on the narrative as Ellen Ripley.

Similarly, a lot of the most iconic female characters appeared in films directed by men. It was after all the idea of Ridley Scott to make the character of Ripley a woman, and since then strong female leads have been something of a trademark for him as well as James Cameron. Cameron helped to popularize not one but two of the most iconic action heroines: Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley (when people hear that name, they generally think of how she was treated in Aliens over the more vulnerable Ripley of Alien). In addition to those two Cameron has a wide variety of other strong female characters including  Private Vasquez in  Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss, Helen Tasker in True Lies, and Rose DeWitt Bukater in Titanic; not to mention Grace Augustine, Trudy Chacon, and Neytiri in Avatar. Even in Rambo: First Blood Part II (which he helped write the screenplay for) you can see an attempt at a tough female character with Co. In addition to all that, I think it is worth pointing out that both The Women and The Descent were directed by men.

Evidently none of these people had any issues directing films that focus in large part on people of the opposite gender. A female director has every right to make predominantly-male movies just as much as a man can make a predominantly-female movie. It doesn't affect the quality of the work. The Hurt Locker is a great film and if any other director, male or female, had taken it on the result probably would not have been the same. Bringing this back to the all-female Ghostbusters, I'm failing to see why it should be a problem that there aren't any men.

Some of the comments I've gotten have attempted to defend the claim by citing that the all-female Ghostbusters will "alienate the original fanbase". After calling Tommylad2 out on the obvious and somewhat unsettling implications of his comment, citing several popular action heroines as proof to the contrary, he responded with another comment in which he attempted to defend himself:

Not saying that all, in fact those you just mentioned are some of my favourites. But imagine taking any of those examples you gave and change them to be males. Would it be good? maybe, but it makes it completely different from the original concept and so potentially alienates the original fan base. My point is Ghostbusters are a male team and always has, through various films/cartoon, comics etc. (with the exception of Ghostbusters extreme a cartoon series which did have a female Ghostbuster) but if you need to reach new audiences you can have strong female roles such as Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence as additions to the team, not replacements and they would also appeal to both males and females, and I can’t understand why they don’t go down that route rather than an all female team.

Now yes, you could argue that in some cases, changing the gender of a female protagonist wouldn't be the same. The Terminator certainly wouldn't be the same if Sarah Connor was a man. On the other hand, Ripley was originally conceived as a male character. The fact that she ended up being a woman had a huge impact on the film's success, but story-wise it wouldn't have been much different had Ridley Scott failed to consider the possibility. A male Ripley could still have worked. Maybe Alien would have even still been just as good as Scott's final product. In fact the whole script was written with a note saying that any of the cast could be female, so technically Brett, Dallas, Parker, Ash, or Kane could have all been written as women. You could write the entire cast of Alien as female without changing anything.

That said, there's no real reason why the Ghostbusters had to be all male. I understand a bit of the backstory behind the production which explains some of it. Harold Raimis and Dan Akroyd were actually part of the writing team, which might cover two actors, and they wanted Bill Murray because of his prior Saturday Night Live Connections. That covers three out of four, but I'm still not entirely convinced there was no way for it to work. Even if the three of them covered the initial team, they do seem to be open to recruiting others later in the movie.

Winston could have been played by a woman without changing anything, or if you wanted to keep him perhaps a woman could have also been among the new recruits. If they didn't want to write a new female character, than perhaps there could have been something interesting in Janine or Dana growing into a Ghostbuster. That could have been cool, if Janine started as a secretary and become a full-time Ghostbuster by the end, at least then she would actually be able to contribute something to the film.

If not in the original movie, why not the sequel? The same actors weren't involved through every medium the Ghostbusters have appeared in, so why is it only one cartoon series that has even considered the possibility? Yes, they are an all-male team and always have been, but is there any reason why they have to be? I don't see any reason why a female Ghostbuster couldn't have worked in anything.  Yeah, I think the guys have had their chance. It's time to let the women have their turn on the franchise.

If people are so stubborn they can't handle the idea of the original guys not being the central focus, than nothing the makers of this reboot can put together will please them. I'm certainly open to an all-female Ghostbusters, which will finally give the women of the franchise a chance to do something useful. I'm hoping if they do this, the guys will get their turn to be marginalized. I think Janine should be replaced by a guy and be every bit as useless. The only concern I have is the possibility of the women being oversexualized, but given the people on board I don't think that will be a huge problem.

Free Action Movie Week: Deja Vu

It's Day Three of Free Action movie week, and now we're starting to get into the more popular choices. I'd never heard of this film before I picked it up at that pub night, but I got several votes from people saying they wanted me to see it. I was informed that it was an "underrated classic" which certainly caught my attention. It was a Tony Scott film so I knew I'd be in for some exciting action and explosions, always good for an action film. I would have to agree with those comments. Deja Vu is a very interesting movie filled with lots of unexpected twists and turns that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Also fun fact: Deja Vu is the first movie I've reviewed on this blog to feature a black protagonist.

In New Orleans, a mysterious domestic terrorist has just blown up a ferry, leaving hundreds of people dead, wounded, or traumatized. Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), a representative of ATF, is dispatched to investigate, finding very clear evidence that the bomb was deliberately placed, but virtually nothing about the person who set it up. Adding to the mystery is the body of a woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), that washes up on the shore nearby and seems to be connected even though she died before the bombing happened.

Failing to identify any leads, Carlin is invited to assist in a top-secret program which has developed the technology to create a literal window into the past. Being able to look precisely four days before the present, the race is on to identify the bomber and figure out how he planted the explosives on the ferry. Accomplishing this end involves following the final days of Claire's life, but the question is raised: can the past be changed? Is it possible to avert the ferry's destruction entirely? It's a bit of a Source Code-type situation, with plenty of paradoxes and disputes over the mechanics of time travel.

The whole idea behind this film is actually pretty cool. It's a bit like a reverse precrime (an idea explored in Philip K. Dick's story Minority Report and the Spielberg film adaptation), with the characters being able to see into the past. There is certainly an emotional strain to be found with this kind of technology, as the characters are all conflicted over how to respond to what they are seeing: being able to see into the past but unsure if you can do anything to change it. This whole setup also leads to some strange moments, such as the "car chase" where Carlin has to drive a Humvee through a busy street trying to record the movements of the bomber's car four days ago (with chaos inevitably ensuing.

The acting is really good. Denzel really gets into character here. At first I was a bit concerned about the treatment of Paula Patton, being worried that she wouldn't get to do a whole lot. Fortunately she gets her moments of action eventually, though it takes some time. The controllers who work with Denzel also offer a nice bit of comic relief. The story is a bit slow at first, but even before the spacetime-bending technology is introduced there is enough action to keep it moving forward. If I were to make any particular complaints, I'd argue that it does get confusing at certain points. There are moments when it took me a few minutes to figure out precisely what was happening.

I liked Deja Vu. It's certainly an exciting movie with lots of action, which is precisely what I was looking for. It's got some neat ideas and runs with them in some interesting directions, presenting a series of twists and turns I'll admit I never saw coming. It all builds up to a climax that forces you to think about the ethical situation faced by the protagonist, building on the questions raised throughout. It's certainly one worth checking out if you get the chance.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Gay on Film Blogathon: Betty and Rita

So I've started The Gay on Film Blogathon and it's been very well-received. The objective of the blogathon is simple enough, it's about emphasizing well-written gay characters in contemporary media. Naturally since this is an issue I feel strongly about it only made sense to contribute a piece of my own, but first I needed a good pair of characters. Why not use the lesbian couple whose picture remains the first thing anyone clicking on that post will see? Betty and Rita were played respectively by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in what is arguably one of David Lynch's best films, Mulholland Drive

A lot of viewers of Mulholland Drive tend to remember it for its lesbian sex scene. There are actually two scenes of intercourse between the two lead actresses: first one that happens when Betty invites Rita to share a bed, and later on in the final segment (after Rita opens the box and appears to become Camilla) when both women engage in sex, suddenly appearing fully nude, on Diane/Betty's couch. The lesbian elements may be crucial, but it is worth noting that it actually takes a fair bit of time for it to appear. Neither of the infamous sex scenes happen until about three quarters of the way through (in a movie that is almost three hours long). Sure, some men might get sexually aroused by that particular moment but to get there you have to sit through two hours of a brilliant Sunset Boulevard-inspired surreal thriller about the darker side of Hollywood. If you really want to just see two women having sex there's far simpler options. That's what gay porn is for, after all.

I think that may be part of what makes the relationship seen in Mulholland Drive so unusual among other gay couples in film. There is no love at first sight. Betty might not even know she is gay at first (she claims during the first sex scene to have "never done this before"), and the two aren't initially brought together by any form of sexual attraction. They bump into each other by pure chance and at first Betty is more concerned about this stranger unexpectedly turning up in her aunt's apartment. Much of the film is instead their friendship that comes from Betty realizing Rita's trauma of not being able to remember her identity.

The romance is a gradual process, just like a heterosexual romance you'd see in any other movie, including some of Lynch's other films. The romance between Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams in Blue Velvet, for example, isn't a whole lot different. Both meet up in the street and start as friends, bonding together as they get caught up in a mystery, eventually falling in love. Much like Betty and Rita they spend a lot of time together in public areas, sneaking into other people's houses, and discussing their case in a local restaurant. Mulholland Drive is a bit less direct in approaching the romantic aspect, but at its core the basic dynamics between the characters isn't that much different. One could even argue that a similar thing happens between James Hurley and Donna Hayward in Twin Peaks.

Another thing that I think is curious about this particular relationship is that the fact that they're lesbians is not itself a problem. There is never any point in the film where a character is explicitly shown to have issues with same-sex relationships, nor is it established that society as a whole will reject them for it. The closest thing they have to any such issues is when Camilla/Rita tells Diane/Betty "we should stop doing that" and even then it sounds more like an affair with a married woman than anything to do with the fact that they're both the same gender.

In particular, they have to deal with the simple pain of heartbreak, especially Diane/Betty, who watches her lover cheat on her with a man (it's suggested that she is engaging in sex with men to get ahead in the business) and for that matter another woman. Diane, being the young and reckless woman she is, has trouble coping with Rita's affairs the same way any young man or woman might have trouble seeing their lover with someone else. In theory you could swap out either of them with a man and not change much story-wise.

Quite simply, in the end being in a gay relationship really isn't that much different from a straight one, you still have all the same problems even without any exterior pressure. Blue Velvet also touched on similar issues by way of Jeffrey being roped into an affair with Dorothy Vallens, although that one did not end with Sandy contemplating his assassination. In that sense, I think Mulholland Drive is a solid look at a gay couple in that the fact that they are gay is really not that big an issue, at least not story-wise. The "story", if you can call it that, is really about the darker side of Hollywood's filmmaking scene, it just happens to be experienced through the eyes of two women who happen to be gay.