Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Otherworldly Curtains in the Films of David Lynch

David Lynch has a lot of weird patterns in his films. There are images that tend to pop up a lot, but this is one I find especially curious. If you have seen Lynch's movies, one pattern that quickly becomes clear is his love to create a surreal dream-like experience, and there are particular moments that tend to stand out where Lynch makes a particularly strange choice. In many of his dream-like sequences, Lynch has a tendency to use curtains (particularly red) to create a more otherworldly or dream-like atmosphere. This occurs throughout most of his films along with some of his television work.

The earliest case I have found of Lynch using curtains to this effect would be in Eraserhead. More specifically, the dream sequence in which Henry Spencer encounters the Lady in the Radiator (who I will not include a picture of as her image may traumatize some viewers) in a strange theatrical setting. She then disappears, and he finds himself standing at a podium as though he is being put on trial. He is abruptly decapitated, the baby's head appearing on his body while his head is left in a pool of blood before sinking into it.

If you notice here, the background consists entirely of curtains, although we can't actually tell what color they are. This may have been a practical move as Lynch had almost no budget for Eraserhead, but it seems to work to the effect of creating a dream-like atmosphere nonetheless. This could be the film's way of calling attention to itself as a constructed medium (after all, if any of Lynch's movies can be called Art Films, it's either this or Inland Empire).

The curtains appear again, though greatly downplayed, in The Elephant Man. They don't create a dream-like atmosphere in the same way as Eraserhead, but they do serve to add a sense of mystery to the character of John Merrick. In Merrick's first scene, he is kept behind a curtain in a dark cellar. His cruel manager, Mr. Bytes delivers a speech and pulls the curtain open, allowing our first glimpse of the famed "Elephant Man". In this case, the small space Merrick inhabits looks more like a cave, and we can barely see him.

Later on, Merrick is seen standing behind a curtain yet again when Treves first presents him to the "society". Merrick is only seen in silhouette, while Treves provides a more scientific explanation for his condition (as opposed to the dramatic version Bytes could have just made up). Still, as with the previous encounter, we fail to get a good look at Merrick, keeping the mystery of his character secret. In this case, the curtain could be seen as representing the prejudices of the Victorian society, serving as a literal wall which keeps us seeing the kind and intelligent man underneath those deformities.

The more familiar red curtains first make their appearance in Blue Velvet. Now I've often noted that Blue Velvet is one of Lynch's more down-to-Earth movies, having an easily comprehensible (if at times strange) narrative. Still, the curtain is a very distinct background while Dorothy Vallens is performing at the night club. We see her on stage donning this fairly elegant dress and seeing a "classy" song, but once again it's really all a charade. Jeffrey Beaumont glimpses first hand what she is going really going through, being forced into submitting to the desires of the sex-crazed psycho Frank Booth.

This brings us arguably Lynch's most iconic use of curtains for this purpose: Twin Peaks along with the movie Fire Walk With Me. The best example of how they are used here of course would be the Black Lodge, which consists of a series of very similar rooms divided only by red curtains.  The curtains here, as with the world of Eraserhead, provide a very otherworldly vibe that makes it clear they are in a place separate from the rest of Twin Peaks. This, along with the strange way in which people talk and the apparent warping of reality all help to make the appearance of the Black Lodge seem incredibly surreal.

The curtains also continue to show up in Mulholland Dr. at several points in the film. It's harder to see because of the lighting, but there's a scene where a mobster-like studio executive is seen talking to a "Mr. Roque" (played, fittingly enough, by Michael J. Anderson, the "Man From Another Place" who was frequently seen at the Black Lodge). At this point, it is clear that there are other forces controlling the production of Adam Kesher's film, and if you look closely, you can see the background is a curtain, possibly red. This does provide the small hint that Mr. Roque may not be of this world or that there may be something else to his character that we can't see.

Later on, the idea of the curtain and the "deception" comes out more obviously at Club Silencio. Like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, the curtain backdrop is used specifically on a stage, but still has that strange otherworldly vibe. At the club we meet this strange man, who talks about illusions, demonstrating how he can use recordings of music to create the illusion of conducting a non-existent orchestra. We see a man coming out apparently playing a trumpet only for the music to keep playing as he moves it away from his mouth, followed by a woman, Rebecca Del Rio who seems to sing a song which also keeps playing after she passes out. This illustrates the fact that what the characters have experienced is a very idealized version of Hollywood, and forces them to confront the much darker reality.

The curtain is very clearly a prominent part of Lynch's film-making style. There may have even been other instances which I failed to notice. What interests me is how simply hanging a curtain can be used to create such a strange and otherworldly dream-like tone in Lynch's films. Just what is it about the curtains that makes them work so well?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Paradoxes and Travels Through Space and Time.

In my science fiction class, we broke the course down into three different plot types for the genre: "fantastic voyage", "aliens", and dystopia (although there probably are others). What I'm interested here is the first one, "fantastic voyages" (amusingly, despite the name, the movie Fantastic Voyage was not screened in the course), which are usually based around some sort of adventure or journey. Many space exploration type stories such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Forbidden Planet would qualify, as would stories involving journeys to other fantastic destinations, such as the center of the earth (any film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth), or underwater (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Abyss). What I am interested in looking at here, however, is one particular type of "fantastic voyage", specifically a voyage through time.

Time travel is something that has long been associated with the science fiction genre. In fact it arguably goes back at least as far as the genre's beginning with a novel by H.G. Wells (who along with Jules Verne was one of it's founding figures) simply called The Time Machine. Heck, even before that, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol had a strange (although supernaturally induced) form of time travel. There may be others I'm missing, but Wells was the first to explore the idea of a machine, produced by scientific means that could allow one to travel back and forth in time. At the time, Wells used his concept more to provide a social commentary in his vision of the future, but little did he know that he opened a door for many science fiction writers to come.

In any medium, time travel has also been around for a long time. There are a number of television shows that center around this concept, such as Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, and plenty of movies that find interesting ways to use it to different effects. Time travel is something that can take one idea and run with it in so many different ways, but what makes this idea of travelling back and forth through time so interesting?

For one thing, the concept of time travel isn't even strictly confined to the science fiction genre. In fact, in some cases the only "science fiction" aspect of the story is simply in how the character is explained to arrive in another point in time. Technically speaking there does not have to be a scientific explanation, as depending on the story the cause could be something supernatural or in some cases may not even need to be explained at all (they don't exactly offer up a scientific explanation for that time travelling car in Midnight in Paris, and the main character often seems to spontaneously return to his own time while just walking down the street).

That said, when it is brought up in science fiction, there are a variety of ways that can be done and to different effects. Both adaptations of The Time Machine simply involve a character being inspired to build an apparatus that is capable of travelling through time. The much better 1960 version has a discussion between the main character and several friends in which he attempts to explain time as "the fourth dimension" (after length, width, and thickness/breadth) before he travels into the future. A more famous example would be the time travelling DeLorean in Back to the Future. On the other hand, a movie like The Time Traveller's Wife bypasses the need for a machine at all, instead explaining it to be a genetic disorder.

Now there's a few different ways time travel can be used to great effect. The most obvious method is to explore the paradoxes that could ensue as a result. In Back to the Future Marty McFly ends up in the awkward situation where he accidentally undoes the event that led to his parents falling in love, and has to find a way to get them together to restore the timeline so that he can exist. The sequels in turn have Marty and Doc Brown realizing the dangers of time travel as further padoxes occur. Marty also just narrowly avoids becoming part of an "Oedipus Paradox", as he could have restored the timeline by staying with his mother and thus becoming his own father.

Another interesting form of paradox is the time loop. This is a weird form of time travel wherein events from the present manage to loop back into the past in a mind-boggling sense. Basically, this works under a different line of thinking to Back to the Future suggesting that time (at least everything in the past) is more or less fixed. If you built a time machine and went back in time, then you must have already arrived in the past, which therefore means that anything you do while your in the past has already happened in the present. In other words, travelling back in time to the past causes things to happen as they did in the present. 

One of the most clear-cut examples would be The Terminator (though the sequel suggests at least some alteration is possible). The massive computer network Skynet sends a "terminator" (a killer robot designed to appear human) in order to kill Sarah Connor, the idea being to prevent her son from being born so he can't organize a rebellion against the machines. What ends up happening is that the resistance manages to send a guy back in time as well to protect her, and he explains everything that happens in the future. Eventually the two of them have sex and she becomes pregnant. In short, the effort by the machines to kill Sarah Connor was precisely what allowed her son to be born and thus the resistance to exist.

Twelve Monkeys and by extension the original short film La Jetée which inspired it, both made a twist ending out of this kind of paradox, wherein the protagonist unknowingly witnesses something that happens to a future version of himself.

This kind of premise can also lend itself to a few different kinds of films. In some ways it is a really good outlet for comedy in a fish-out-of-water sense, where the humor comes largely from the time traveler's unfamiliarity with wherever he or she is visiting. Back to the Future is a great example, where in addition to the paradoxes, a lot of humor comes from Marty not understanding how society worked in the 1950's or taking advantage of their lack of knowledge of 1980's pop culture (after all, in the present Marty could never get away with putting on a HAZMAT suit and claiming to be "Darth Vader from the Planet Vulcan").

Probably one of the best cases would be Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, which manages to take this style in two separate directions. First, we have two 1980's rock and roll fans travelling to various points in history and their interactions with people at each time. Hilarity ensues as they comment on and fail to understand the way things worked in the various time periods they visit. Then it goes the other way, when Bill and Ted return to the present, accompanied by a large group of historical figures. Bill and Ted are now in an environment familiar to them and the comedy instead comes from the historical figures like Abraham Lincol, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Napoleon, Ghenkis Khan, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, and Socrates being unfamiliar with life in 1980's California.

On the other hand, time travel can also be used for a dramatic narrative. The Twelve Monkeys has the characters experiences with time travel lead him to gradually question his sanity. Bruce Willis's character of Cole even explains that he doesn't think the human mind can handle it (assuming of course the scenes set in the "future" are not merely delusions). The Time Traveller's Wife also uses it as the driving force of the relationship between its leads. It does touch on some strange paradoxes, such as the fact that Henry first encounters Claire at a point in her timeline after she first encounters him. Most of the movie emphasizes the struggle these two characters experience as they try to remain together despite the uncontrollable genetic problem that causes Henry to keep jumping back and forth through time at random.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Solaris: An Intriguingly Surreal Science Fiction Film

I've spoken at length about my stance on the two best-known adaptations of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris. I've already explained that many preferred the 1972 Andrei Tarkvosky treatment, and I'm in the small minority of people that actually liked the 2002 Steven Soderbergh  adaptation. Furthermore I've also made the unusual argument that the 2002 version is the better of the two films (as I have not yet seen it I'm not including the 1968 TV movie), but what about the movie itself. I've done extensive comparisons between both versions, but I think it's time I shifted focus towards one specifically.

For those of you who have not seen the movie and/or stumbled here through a Google search or otherwise have not seen my two previous articles on this subject, let me start with a basic overview of the plot. George Clooney plays the role of Chris Kelvin, a respected psychiatrist who is struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife. He receives a request from an old friend to come to a space station orbiting a distant planet known as "Solaris" to investigate the strange behavior of the crew and decide if they need to leave.

At the station, he finds only two surviving crew members. One of them, Dr. Snow, played by Jeremy Davies, is very laid back and not very helpful. The other, Dr. Gordon, played by Viola Davis, is extremely reclusive and paranoid, convinced that something terrifying is happening. Both refer to strange things happening but refuse to elaborate. Matters are further complicated when Kelvin is visited by some form of replication of his wife Rheya, played by Natasha McElholne. confusion arises as Kelvin tries to understand the nature of the "visitors" to the station, created by the planet itself.

The film has a very fascinating sort of atmosphere. There are some great effects but most of the time we are treated to a very minimalist environment, one which helps to emphasize the isolation of the characters and creates a claustrophobic atmosphere suitable for the tension that grows between them, particularly Kelvin and Dr. Gordon. That said, while the effects are more sparsely laid out, they are put to good use. Solaris itself looks great, for instance, with a very appropriate alien quality.

The pacing in this film is definitely better than the in the 1972 version, as I've pointed out before. The movie does provide enough information to set up the character of Chris, along with the flashbacks we see detailing what happened between him and Rheya, but it also gets the plot moving quickly. No unnecessary 10-minute shots of random automobiles driving down various roads or extended scenes of people sitting around talking about the planet this time, and you don't have to wait a full hour just for Kelvin to get into space. 

The scenes themselves manage to keep to a reasonable length. The movie does gain a somewhat surreal quality as the story progresses but it never becomes impossible to follow. If anything, the surreal aspects coming in may help to emphasize the confusion felt by its characters. On the one hand, Kelvin becomes optimistic, trying to make amends for a mistake he made before Rheya died, while Gordon is convinced the planet is malevolent and a threat to humanity. Neither one is necessarily presented as right or wrong in their stance, and in the end there is no way to determine for certain.

The relationships between Kelvin and the three other major characters are reasonably well-defined. With Gordon there is the tension in figuring out just what is up with the planet, and Snow has a weird sort of relationship to Kelvin. The focus is primarily on Kelvin and Rheya, who also have an interesting relationship that ties back to the themes of uncertainty. Rheya is unsure of what is happening, gradually becoming uncertain of who she is while Kelvin grows increasingly attached to her. It actually gets quite touching.

I would certainly recommend Solaris to any science fiction fan interested in seeing an unusual contribution to the genre. It is so simple, yet surreal and subjective, with some great visuals and decent performances. There is a compelling story to go along with it, and a sense of haunting unsolvable mystery.

Friday, 25 April 2014

The "Space Disaster" Movie

The science fiction genre is indeed a fascinating one and one that continues to inspire many including myself. However, after a screening of Gravity, it began to dawn on me how popular one particular plot seems to be in these kinds of films. There's a few of these common "stock plots' as you could say which pop up a lot in specific genres. With horror you have the recurring plot of "teenagers get stalked by an invincible psycho who wants to kill them all" (which basically describes Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm St. and who knows how many other films). With the romantic comedy you have "guy meets girl, they break up, guy gets girl back".

Now, let me describe a scenario to you. A group of astronauts are in space, on some sort of mission. Everything is going to plan when suddenly something unexpected happens that poses a danger. The crew are stranded, and unable to get home (at least for the moment), trying to find a way to survive, some of them possibly dying as the narrative progresses. You might have been thinking of a specific film, but this basic scenario could describe the plot of Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M, Conquest of SpaceForbidden Planet, Marooned, The Silent Star (A.K.A. First Spaceship to Venus or Der schweigende Stern), 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent RunningDark StarAlien, Event Horizon, Solaris, Sunshine, Cargo, Prometheus, Gravity, and Europa Report.

There are variations in just what the unexpected issue is (ranging from space phenomena to hidden agendas to members of the crew simply going mad), how the crew are stranded, and the ultimate outcome (sometimes the crew survives, sometimes they make it out with a few casualties, and sometimes none of them get out) but essentially they all still fit into this category. It isn't even strictly science fiction, since Apollo 13 (which was based on historical events) follows this plot.

It is curious how popular this particular plot has become, and how it can be taken in so many different directions one might not even notice it to be the same plot. Heck, I could argue it goes even further back than the films I listed with stories like Ray Bradbury's Kaleidoscope (centered on a group of astronauts left adrift in Earth's orbit after their rocket is destroyed, which was even cited as inspiration for the ending of Dark Star) or The Long Rain (about a group of astronauts who get stranded on Venus after their ship crashes and their search for shelter... yes, I know it gets Venus wrong on so many levels but that's beside the point). Even I've written a few stories fitting into this general category.

This leaves me to wonder what it is about this type of plot that makes it so popular. Why is it that films about the crew facing unexpected disasters tend to be more interesting than just a story in which everything goes to plan? Well, as interesting as it might be to see a film simply depicting the day-to-day lives of astronauts, space is very dangerous. You don't hear too much about accidents these days, largely because NASA specializes in preparing for thousands of potentially dangerous situations, but once in a while unforseen accidents do happen.

The recent TV special Live From Space described multiple recent accidents. Fortunately, nobody was hurt in any of them but there were several near-misses, such as one man who almost drowned when his helmet unexpectedly began filling with water during a space walk (nobody knows for sure how it happened), or an incident in which a piece of debris got dangerously close to ISS and the crew had to prepare for evacuation (luckily for them it missed).

You also don't need to dig too deep to find other unprecedented disasters in the history of space exploration. Apollo 13 would be yet another good example, when a technical fault prevented the crew from reaching the moon and they had to improvise in order to get back to Earth. Many people forget about the less fortunate crew of Apollo 1, who died in a cabin fire before it could even be launched due to a combination of several design flaws, including problems with the door that prevented them getting out. Later, in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded during its launch, killing the entire crew.

So as we can see from the past, you certainly can't deny that there is a lot of danger to be found in space travel. We may have learned what we can from the mistakes that caused those particular disasters and made sure to prevent them happening again, but the point still stands. No matter how much you prepare, once in a while something you never considered may happen.

This brings us back to the "Space Disaster" film. It's always about something people weren't prepared for. Nobody anticipated the respected General Merritt to go crazy and try to sabotage the mission, or that miscalculation which almost required a man to stay behind, or Freeman Lowell taking his orders to destroy the forests so hard, or that two different orders given to HAL would conflict with each other and cause him to malfunction, or those rockets failing to work when they were needed to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, or the missile strike to take out one satellite to cause debris to damage others initiating a chain reaction that would threaten any human activity in orbit.

So why is it that seeing disasters in space are far more exciting than things going as planned? Well, it's hard to say, but as we can see from history itself, space is dangerous, and movies like Destination Moon, Conquest of Space, Marooned, and Gravity help us to remember that (though not always in the most accurate ways). In that sense, one could argue that it shows the psychological experiences of what the brave men and women who venture into space have to experience on a day-to-day basis. Even if it's not a regular occurrence in real life, these kinds of films constantly remind us what could happen even with extensive caution and preparation. If there is a lesson to be taken from films such as these, it is that no matter how extensively you prepare yourself, you must always be ready to face the unexpected.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Before Sunrise: Romance at its Finest

I had heard a lot about Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy for some time. I'd already knew quite a bit about the first two installments when it was announced that Before Midnight was in production and I'd been meaning to see the series for some time. It all sounded so simple yet so beautiful; two lovers meeting in a scenic location, wandering around and interacting, making the best of their time together.

After reading a review by my friend Katy Rochelle from Girl Meets Cinema (you can see her review here), I finally decided to pick up a DVD copy of Before Sunrise. The result I would say is everything I had been told and possibly a little bit more. The only trouble is I still have a tendency to mix up the titles of all three movies.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play Jesse and Celine, two young lovers of very different national backgrounds who by complete chance end up sitting together on the same train. They start talking but the train reaches Jesse's destination of Vienna (which is in Austria, not in Italy; apparently that's a common misconception). He has a flight back to America the following morning and invites Celine to come with him to see Vienna for the evening. She agrees and the rest of the movie is their interactions as they explore various parts of the city. They raise questions about what it means to be in love and try to have a great time before they have to leave each other in the morning.

Really, when you get down to it, it is the interactions between the two characters that really drives the film. Both leads deliver exceptional performances and play off of each other to great effect, which is good because Jesse and Celine are really the only major characters in the film. They encounter various other people but none of them are really anything more than a background role for the central relationship. 

There is not a single scene that goes by without at least one of them having something meaningful to say, but it never feels forced, rushed, or overly drawn out. The movie takes its time when it needs to but scenes never go on longer than necessary. In fact, if anything the way these two people play off of each other makes it all the more compelling. It's a bit like what I've suggested made My Dinner With Andre work so well: the simple interactions between two characters with very different personalities (and in this case, also from two different countries) is enough to drive the story.

Of course, the acting alone doesn't carry a film, but I can't name any specific flaws with the movie itself. The script works surprisingly well, with just the right balance of comedy and drama. There are lighter more humorous moments and other points that are more serious, and even a few in between, but it never goes too far one way or the the other.

The direction and cinematography are spot on, creating the perfect sort of atmosphere. Despite the minimalist structure the film also takes full advantage of its setting. As you can expect from a movie set in a location like Vienna, there is lots and lots of great scenery, both as backgrounds and for our two protagonists to explore.

This is definitely a movie I would recommend to anyone, even if like me you're not immediately drawn towards romance. As I'd always heard, it is so simple, but at the same time just so emotionally investing. It is a well-crafted film centered around two characters with wonderful chemistry, and almost certainly a must-see for any film buff.

I am curious to see where the sequels will go with these two characters, and whatever happens I'm looking forward to it. However, if they ever make a fourth one I can't help wondering what they'd call it. They're running out of times of day and "Before Noon" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Parrallells Between Prometheus and Blade Runner

There was a lot of hype when it was announced that Ridley Scott would be returning to the world of Alien with a prequel film. Many of us were also surprised when it was announced that his movie wouldn't be a straight-up prequel to Alien, but instead would open up something new. The word was that it would have something to do with the "Space Jockey" seen briefly in the original Alien, but anything else about the plot was kept secret. The cast was required to sign confidentiality forms before seeing the script (though they all expressed great confidence in their project). Finally, the movie came out, and reactions were mixed. A lot of people despised it, while others were more optimistic.

Personally, the first time I saw it, I was unsure what to make of the film. Not long after I went to the theater to see it again and thought it was brilliant, and then after the third and fourth times I wasn't quite so sure. I've never gone as far as to say I hate it, but I can't necessarily hail it as the masterpiece I once did. It's a weird case, since usually when it comes to movies I either love them or I hate them, but once in a while I end up in a situation like this where the stuff that's good is really good, but I still have to acknowledge there are serious problems that are hard to overlook.

In the past I have attempted to rationalize many of the problems, some more successfully than others (there were a few edit wars in the IMDB FAQ page when some guy kept replacing my explanations with hateful comments about the movie). It is hard to refute the bad science once you understand where the problems are. On the other hand many people complain that the movie raises questions it never answers, but so do a lot of the best science fiction movies including but not limited to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Thing, Contact, Solaris, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Of course, most of you have probably heard all this before. We've all heard the arguments in defense of and in opposition to Prometheus. I could go on examining the areas where the movie fails, particularly the bad science (arguably the biggest issue with the film) and bring up the better parts (largely from a technical standpoint, such as the incredible visuals and reasonably solid acting). However, instead, I'm going to focus on something a bit more interesting. Among the many rumors that emerged when Prometheus was in development and during its production was that in addition to Alien, there was going to be some connection to Ridley Scott's other major science fiction movie Blade Runner. Story-wise, there is no direct connection (at least not that I'm aware of), but there is one particular aspect that does draw a striking parallel.

Many were disappointed by the old man makeup of Guy Pearce in Prometheus. A few were also confused as to why such a young actor was chosen despite the fact that we never see his character of Peter Weyland as a young man (although a young Weyland, also played by Guy Pearce, does appear in one of the viral videos used to promote the film). Still, what I am more interested in looking at is how Weyland's story plays out.

In Prometheus, we find out late in the film that Weyland was aboard the ship the whole time. Some may have seen this twist coming, but it is revealed the scientific aspects of the mission were just an excuse for Peter Weyland to seize a potential (if extremely unlikely) opportunity to extend his life. He is an old man and he doesn't have long to live, so his hope is to literally meet his maker, who might just be able to do something to help him. Sound familiar?

That's because it's not a whole lot different from Roy Batty in Blade Runner. Now, unlike Weyland, Roy is an artificially created being with an even shorter lifespan (they use the term "replicant"; they never actually say how they are made but I've often heard them described as androids). However, like Weyland, he is nearing the end of his four-year life, and wants to live longer. His method is also to literally meet his maker in the hopes of getting an extended life.

Now in each case, said person attempts to take advantage of another individual to help get them to that creator. Weyland, as we eventually find out, took advantage of a young scientist's theories that humanity was created by a superior alien race and her desire to find them, while Roy and his friend Pris took advantage of a lonely fellow by the name of J.F. Sebastian who has ties to his own creator Tyrell.

Once the confrontation starts, let's just say that things don't get pleasant. In either case, the film culminates with a literal meeting between creator and creation. In Blade Runner we have Roy meeting Tyrell, and in Prometheus Weyland meets the last known "Engineer" (the name given to the aliens in reference to the fact that they "engineered" us). In either case, the creator is unable to help. As Tyrell puts it "The light that shines twice as bright burns half as long, and you've burned very bright."

What happens next varies slightly between both films. In Blade Runner, Tyrell is killed by his own creation, who also turns on J.F. Sebastian soon after. Meanwhile in Prometheus, Weyland is subsequently killed, along with most of the others present (outside of Shaw and the android David), by his creator, who also plans to destroy his other creations, namely the entire human race.

After this confrontation, both Roy and Weyland are forced to confront the fact that death is inevitable. Roy is able to show some humanity in his final moments by saving Rick's life. Finally, both are alone with only one other person to share their final words with before they die. In Weyland's case it is David, and in Roy's case, it is Rick.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

How Rear Window Should Have Ended

Rear Window is a very interesting film, and there is no doubt it is a classic in the thriller genre. Jimmy Stewart of course is great in the role of the unfortunate protagonist, as are his co-stars. It also takes a fair bit of talent to be able to tell an entire story with the perspective almost never leaving a single room (outside of a few shots at the very end), and there is some suspense to be found in how he catches the villain. There is just one thing that I've always been a bit critical about, and that is specifically the ending. I've heard a few different justifications for why the movie ended the way it did, but I still feel as though it could have been more interesting.

For those of you not familiar with this film, it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1954, starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. My colleague Johnny has already done a review of this film which you can see here, but the basic plot is that Jimmy Stewart is a professional photographer who has been confined to a boring apartment after breaking his leg and getting stuck in a wheelchair. The only thing he can do to occupy himself is look out his rear window into the courtyard and watch other people's daily lives, which all goes fine until he sees clues that lead him to suspect that a neighbor may have murdered his own wife.

All this is interesting, but I found the ending somewhat predictable. Basically, the short version is that Jimmy Stewart figures it out, the bad guy shows up and tries to stop him but ends up getting arrested. What I've always thought is that it might have been more interesting if the plot had taken a different turn. Since the actual murder itself occurs offscreen, and for much of the movie Jimmy Stewart struggles to find any solid evidence, I've often thought it might have been a more interesting twist if it turned out the neighbor hadn't actually committed any murder. I feel like it would be a lot more of a memorable ending if perhaps instead every "clue" the narrator found turned out to have a perfectly mundane explanation, and if anything it was the protagonist himself who drove the neighbor to attempt a murder. Another angle I have considered (though it would be hard to get away with in Hollywood during the 1950's) would be if it was kept ambiguous, perhaps with clues both ways and leaving the audience to speculate. In fact there is even a bit of that in the actual film (we never do find out what the mystery item the neighbor buried in his garden was, or what insight it provided into the murder).

Now granted, I have heard reasons for why the movie went this particular route, and most of them are fair enough. Still, I do wonder if the movie would have been more interesting with the neighbor being a well-meaning individual who is driven insane by the misunderstanding of a stranger. Perhaps if someone ever gets hired to do a remake, these alternative twists might be worth considering.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Marvel Universe

I remember as a kid I never was quite like other boys my age. I didn't watch a lot of the other things people were talking about, like the Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (if anything, to me the latter did a dang good job of keeping me away just because the title itself seemed so stupid). As a result, it should hardly come as a surprise I never got into superheroes the same way others did, and it wasn't until much later I even got to really see any of the big superhero movies. I didn't see The Dark Knight until 2012 in high school, about four years after everyone else did.

So to make a long story short, if a superhero franchise spanning multiple films and a TV series focusing on different characters with seperate but connected story lines that you really have to be on your toes for in order to follow manages to win me over, they must be doing something right. There may have been one or two here and there that didn't work so great (I can't be the only one who was disappointed Pepper Potts didn't get her own suit in Iron Man 3), but overall it's a compelling and exciting franchise that always seems to have me excited for the next installment. Recently we saw the latest entry into this multi-series franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

This was a compelling follow-up to the original Captain America: The First Avenger with a mix of drama, action and comedy without one over dominating the other. There is some emphasis on the strain that Steve Rogers has to go through as a result of being unfrozen in the present day after crashing during World War II, but it's not overdone so much as it is just enough to provide a recap (and key information for anyone who missed the first film). It does allow for some minor continuity references (which would be hard to do given most of the cast of the first film has died of old age). This all occurs in the form of a few scenes in a museum, where the uniforms of Captain America and his band of not-so-inglorious basterds are on display, along with a brief scene in which he speaks to an elderly Peggy Carter. It also sets up yet another humorous cameo by Stan Lee during the climax.

Of course, once that's all out of the way, we get plenty of great action and suspense. There's lots of twists and turns to be found and the film takes the franchise into an interestingly dark direction. Of course if you've been watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you'll have some idea of what's going on, but The Winter Soldier does help to shed some light on the events of the series (and vice versa). If you haven't seen either I'm not going to reveal the conspiracy that's at large, but let's just say it really turns things around for our heroes and places a lot of questions of loyalty.

It also probably helps that the focus here is largely on more familiar characters. We do get introduced to some new faces, but the story is still about Steve Rogers. Scarlett Johansson returns in the role of Black Widow, who inevitably gets many tough moments of her own. Of course she seems to have  habit of changing her hairstyles between films, but she still gets plenty of action and a decent relationship with Steve Rogers.

Also back is, unsurprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who has here a lot more screen time than usual. In most of the previous films Nick Fury has had worked from the sidelines, organizing the Avengers and observing from elsewhere, but in this movie, he gets a whole action scene to himself to show just how tough a guy he is. It's actually a pretty tense scene with some very real dangers even for the director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Also back is Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, also a great character. As with The Avengers, she doesn't get involved much with the action (although the little she does participate in is pretty important), but she is still a welcome returning face to the series.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine addition to the Marvel Universe. Already there is talk of a third movie, which I hope will find new directions to go. I can say I'm excited to see the next installment in the franchise.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Movies About Making Movies

It is easy to forget how much can go into the process of making a movie. Typically, the cast and crew are fairly large, you have to assemble sets, keep people organized, acquire costumes, deal with any problems experienced by the cast or crew, and figure out how to solve that one frustrating obstacle that you never saw coming.

I say this from experience, just making a movie with just five actors and myself doing the camerawork in highschool was difficult enough, with the cast constantly failing to show up no matter how clearly I told them when we were working, to problems with the costumes, the one guy who brought in all this great stuff but couldn't keep it as school and kept forgetting to bring it in when I actually needed it, the guy who caused so much trouble on set he was "fired" and later actively tried to sabotage the production to the point where it took the presence of the Vice Principal to keep him off the set.

Long story short, a five-minute short film that was supposed to be shot in a week ended up taking something closer to two or three months. This was in high school, with a budget of $0.00, a very small cast, and no other crew besides myself. Now imagine having to manage a dozen crew members with different jobs, plus the actors who all have their personal lives as well combined with any number of problems that occur on set that cause shooting a crucial scene to get delayed. Naturally, when one of my film studies classes started with Living in Oblivion, I didn't have too much trouble sympathizing with Steve Buscemi's role of the hapless director.

Indeed, there is something interesting to be found in this area. Movies are great to watch, but it is interesting once in a while to see a well-executed movie that draws attention to the process of... well... making a movie which in itself can be a good set-up for comedy or drama. Living in Oblivion is probably one of the most straight forward examples. I have also discussed the more surreal approaches explored with David Lynch's Inland Empire and Federico Fellini's  (dang it, why did Fellini give his movies titles that were really annoying to type?). Lynch's thriller Mulholland Dr. does not actually center around the production of a specific movie, but it does use the Hollywood filmmaking scene as a backdrop and certainly has plenty of scenes taking place on film sets.

It is curious to see how many different films approach this topic. Living in Oblivion deals with the subject of filmmaking head-on with a decent balance of comedy and drama. Compare that to a more obviously comedic approach, such as an underrated masterpiece by Mel Brooks. Before there was Epic Movie, Scary Movie, and Disaster Movie, there was the great cinematic genius that was... Silent Movie.

In Silent Movie, Mel Brooks takes on a more over-the-top slapstick adventure presented entirely as a silent movie (with only one word of spoken dialogue from a very unlikely source). In this film, Brooks himself takes on the role of a washed-up director who tries to save "Big Picture Studios" from being bought out by the evil conglomerate known as "Engulf and Devour" with his latest project... a silent movie.

Brooks' film centers entirely around the production of this movie (which is made all the more hilarious by the fact that we find out absolutely nothing about the film itself beyond the fact that its a silent movie and apparently a really good one), but instead opts to focus on a slightly different aspect from many such films. Living in Oblivion, Inland Empire, and all deal with movies during their production phase (the phase in which you actually get out the cameras and start shooting it). Silent Movie opts for something slightly different by focusing more on pre-production (basically the phase in which you have to get everything ready before you can start shooting).

In particular, we do get a really bizarre look at two particular aspects of pre-production: money and casting. The "Studio Chief" played by Sid Ceasar is initially skeptical of a silent movie saving his studio, claiming that "slapstick is DEAD!" (though he is proven wrong within seconds of saying that when he falls backward in his chair, slides through his desk, and crashes into the wall for no apparent reason). As funny as it is, one of the first steps to making a movie is simply getting money by convincing an executive you've got something that will sell, which Mel Brooks eventually does by offering to try and get the biggest names in Hollywood to sign on. Much of the rest of the movie centers around the comedic antics Brooks and his partners inevitably get up to when they try to approach various movie stars.

Want a surefire way to get an Oscar-winning actress to star in your movie? Dress up in suits of armor and then approach her in a public cafeteria. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Mulholland Dr. focuses less on the production of a specific movie and more on the idea of breaking into the business. We see this in the character of Betty, an aspiring and extremely idealistic actress trying to make her big break. We even get some scenes of her auditioning, and in the final act, we see her alternate persona  of "Diane" (I've discussed the relationship between both in a previous article) recounting how she met Camilla because they were both auditioning for a part. The problem of course, is that Camilla may have been using some questionable methods of getting to the top (namely having sex with the director), while Diane is trying to do so more honestly and is having much more trouble, something I realized after corresponding with some fellow fans of the movie on the IMDB boards with regards to my previous discussion of its meaning.

That said, even the ones that deal with production can go in very different directions. As I've discussed previously, Inland Empire and both depict in a surreal manner the psychological experiences of an individual's struggle to make a film, but one deals with a director taking on what is implied to be an extremely ambitious project, and the other centers on the stress experienced by an actress trying to cope with a demanding role. 

In addition to all that, we can occasionally get movies that focus on post-production (the final phase of making a movie, where the footage recorded in the production phase is edited), a good example being Singin' in the Rain. Technically this movie touches on both production and post-production, seeing as it deals with the struggles faced by studios during the transition from the end of the silent era into the first "talking pictures". However, a lot of the movie centers around the editing phase as well, when the studio decides to save their latest disaster by re-editing it into a musical, which is interesting given the movie itself is played as a musical. 

There are many different approaches one can take when emphasizing the filmmaking process. In this article alone I have discussed only one film that addresses the issue straight on, with three others that provide a more surreal approach, one that provides a comedic slapstick take on Hollywood, and another structured as a musical comedy. There are tons of others that all deal with this idea in their own unique way.