Saturday, 31 May 2014

War Is a Drug: Analyzing Themes in The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning film, The Hurt Locker, is a story about a man, Sgt. William James, who loses himself in war. War is compared to a drug, something so compelling that once one is caught in it they cannot stop. It is addictive. From the start, James is shown to be aggressive, headstrong and reckless unlike the more cautious Sgt. Thomson. In James’ first scene, there is a loud heavy metal soundtrack playing, presumably non-diegetic, before James suddenly turns off a radio, showing off his aggressive character.
He then begins to remove the plywood from the windows despite Sanborn pointing out that they were put there to block mortar shells.

This serves to foreshadow many of the reckless choices James makes later in the film: approaching a bomb without first investigating with the robot, removing his bomb suit and headset while defusing a car bomb, forcing a merchant at gunpoint to take him to the home of a kid he believes was murdered, and leading his squad to locate a possible bomber rather than wait for backup (which results in Eldridge getting shot). He is extremely confident in himself, almost considering himself to be invincible, and that the war cannot touch him. He is also ignorant of the consequences for his actions, which includes the near death of one of his own men and nearly being killed himself.

The camera is set up as such to invoke feelings of unease on the audience. Throughout the film, the camera shakes slightly as if it were handheld in order to create a sense of authenticity. When the action starts, the camera gets up close to the protagonists, the shots cut together more quickly, and the shaking becomes more intense in order to unsettle the viewer, who realizes that the bombs can go off rather easily, and James is often taking extensive risks without thinking.

This intensity also serves to help build up not only suspense, but also a feeling of adrenaline- allowing the viewer to get a glimpse into the thrill James feels while disarming bombs. This sort of feeling is first set up in the opening scene, when Thomson is unable to escape from an explosive in time and is subsequently killed, showing how this line of work can easily go wrong. The explosion itself happens in slow motion, emphasizing the destruction that ensues.

The first ten minutes of the film set up the danger that James endures every time he goes to defuse a bomb. It is worth noting that Guy Pearce, who plays James’ predecessor Sgt. Thomson, is a fairly well-established actor in contrast to the then-unknown Jeremy Renner, and at first the story is set up to look as though he is the main character. This creates a shocking reveal when Thomson is suddenly killed in the opening scene making way for the real protagonist.

The fact that a well-known actor is killed off so early in the film helps to emphasize the fact that in war, anyone can die by creating a false expectation (that Thomson is the main character) which is suddenly shattered. It is also interesting that Thomson is killed as early as he is despite following protocol, while James works against regulations and survives, but nearly kills one of his own men.

The moment in the opening scene where Thomson is caught in a blast also parallels a later moment in the film when James is unable to remove the vest of a man forced to wear a suicide bomb. In both cases, the characters realize too late the danger they are in and attempt to make a run for it, only to be caught in the blast. However, while Thomson continues to run in an attempt to survive and is killed, James turns and faces the blast head on expecting to die, but survives.

The explosives themselves are a major motif in the film. With a few exceptions, the majority of the explosives which appear on screen are of very similar, familiar shape- large grey cylinders. In actuality, improvised explosives are likely to come in many different shapes and sizes. The reason Kathryn Bigelow may have opted for this approach was to create a sense of familiarity in the bombs- that both the audience and James will immediately recognize. Eventually, the constant finding of bombs becomes an everyday occurrence for James, to the point where both he and the audience give it very little thought.

The antagonists of the film are for the most part unseen and unidentified. On some level this makes them even scarier. In the scene with the British contractors, the three protagonists, along with five other people, get ambushed by snipers, but neither they nor the audience knows for sure where the shots are coming from. In fact, when one of the contractors jumps into the Humvee, he seems to be firing at nothing, as he is unable to see the target, and is quickly dispatched by the snipers. This is further affected by the fact that visible heat waves are present when the characters look through the scope of the sniper rifle, blurring the image greatly and making it harder to see the enemy targets.

This element is also established in the opening scene, when the bomb that kills Thompson is detonated by a man with a cell phone who is entirely unseen before Eldridge spots him. The fact that the enemy is never truly identified also makes them seem less human, meaning that neither the characters nor the audience feels much sympathy for them. This eliminates the ethical implications of killing another man, causing the characters’ casual attitude towards their everyday routine to make more sense.

In the end, when James gets home he finds his life to be very plain and empty – something as simple as choosing cereal seems unbelievably overwhelming and meaningless to him. The only thing he can do is go back to Iraq and continue fighting.

Through a combination of editing and cinematography, the audience is able to get a feel for the adrenaline rush James starts to become addicted to during his experiences in the face of danger, drawing their attention toward his constantly taking greater risks in order to keep the adrenaline going. The sense of paranoia created by the fact that the antagonists are never truly identified adds to the suspense as well as making them less human. This allows the viewer to experience the same thrill as James does throughout. All these elements combine together to carry the message that war is a highly addictive drug.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A History of Science Fiction Heroines

I love a good, strong female lead in a movie. In any genre it's a great touch but in science fiction it's a whole other matter. We've been seeing a lot of these tough female protagonists lately. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Tris Prior in Divergent are both good examples, but I'm more interested tracing the evolution of this trend. All of a sudden we have this abundance of sci-fi heroines, and yet, as I discussed previously, there was a time when the simple idea of female astronauts was almost completely unheard of.

So to begin with, let's look at quite possibly the earliest example I've found of something we could call a strong female lead in a science fiction film: Barbarella. Now the movie is obviously an exploitation film that is intentionally campy and over-the-top, but Barbarella herself is actually not too bad a character, especially this was given this was around the same time we had incredibly sexist movies like Sean Connery's James Bond films running around, it's nice to see one that offers up a somewhat positive image for women if only for the time period.

Yes, Barbarella herself is obviously very attractive and doesn't get to show off her skills quite as much as some of the other women who came later (in fact she spends most of the climax just watching the final battle on a screen after being locked in a seemingly inescapable room) but on the other hand it is established that she is a competent astronaut who willingly takes on what she knows to be a dangerous mission and she never gives up her search. She also has plenty of great one-liners.

By modern standards, Barbarella might not be the perfect model of a sci-fi heroine, but the success of her film may have helped create a path of sorts to allow other woman to take the center stage of science fiction.

Fast forward a few years later. Dan O'Bannon is reworking some ideas from his script for the earlier box office flop Dark Star, and said script ends up in the hands of an upcoming director named Ridley Scott. As they began making the movie, Scott had the idea that the main character of the script (originally written as a man) could be played by a woman. The result is often considered one of the most iconic science fiction characters of all time.

Ripley does go a few steps up from Barbarella in that there is less emphasis on her sexuality. In a way she is very much like the "Hawksian woman" minus the usual romance; in other words, she is really just one of the guys. Her sexuality never comes up in the film or its sequels as an issue of any sort (unless you count her being seen in her underwear at the very end). She is every bit as capable of doing her job as the men are, in fact maybe even a bit better. One aspect of her character that would have seemed very unusual in 1979 was the fact that she has to rely on herself (after all Barbarella still had to rely on various characters to help her in her goals), being the only survivor in the original film. By the time of Aliens James Cameron is able to take her to the next level, having her last longer than most of the marines and single-handedly taking on (and prevailing against) the alien queen... TWICE!

One thing that is also a nice touch is that they don't try to make her appear overtly sexy. That's not to say Ripley's unattractive, but whereas Barbarella's costumes were obviously intended to show off Jane Fonda's body, Ripley's outfits are far more practical to the work that she does, not to mention she spends much of the final act of the movie appearing dirty and sweaty.

So now to jump ahead a little bit further ahead, we have Eleanor Arroway in Contact. This is a woman who has spent her whole life dreaming about exploring the cosmos and making contact with extra-terrestrial life, and when she finally has a chance to achieve that dream, she doesn't give up without a fight. 

This is a woman who not only runs a multi-million dollar project to locate intelligent life and actually finds it, but also has to keep herself going in the face of all the insane controversies that inevitably ensue from the discovery. Pressure upon pressure is mounted upon her, and somehow she manages to hold herself together throughout.

Finally, we get to Ryan Stone in Gravity. This is a woman who had to carry an entire movie by herself (not an easy feat, even Sam Bell had GERTY to talk to). She did have Matt at first, but most of the previous characters had someone they could go to. Barbarella received help from Pygar, Ellen Ripley tried to rely on her colleagues and was still able to find some comfort with the cat, and Eleanor Arroway had the support of a few colleagues and her friendship with Palmer. 

Ryan had nothing, not even the maternal instincts that drove Ripley in Aliens (her daughter died from a head injury several years prior) or any contact with Mission Control. All she has are her own wits and whatever she can improvise using what she can find. Understandably she also spends most of the film being panick-stricken and terrified, but even so she still manages to pull through alright.

So over the years there has evidently been a change in how science fiction heroines have developed. We've gone from having a determined (if overly sexualized) young woman to an astronaut that was able to survive entirely on her own in the face of multiple dangers with practically no outside help.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Visions of the Planets

After I wrote my article on visions of Mars, I thought it would be a neat idea to do the other planets as well. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty finding enough different films to give each planet its own article, so I've decided to combine all the remaining planets into one article where I go through them each individually and discuss the films that I have been able to find.

One scene that I will be referring to throughout is the opening of 1953's The War of the Worlds where we see a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell (an artist known at the time known for his space-themed paintings, you can see a few of them here) which attempt to depict each of the planets with the exception of Venus. I will put this clip at the very beginning here so that you can refer back to it if necessary:


Venus is the second-closest planet to our sun, as well as the closest planet to Earth, to which it is a similar size. There was once a time when, like Mars, Venus was a popular setting for science fiction stories, largely because of a few slight misunderstandings. You see, at some point in the 19th or 20th century some astronomer pointed a telescope at Venus and saw clouds, initially assuming them to be proof of the existence of water which therefore meant an Earth-like environment and possibly even the presence of an intelligent civilization.

Eleanor Arroway sums up the reality in one scene of Contact. Basically, the planet is exactly the opposite of what that astronomer initially thought: a dry, desolate landscape. The clouds turned out not to be water vapor but sulfuric acid, with acidic rain being a major part of the climate (though it never hits the ground). Atmospheric pressure is similar to the deepest parts of the ocean, the atmosphere is made up almost completely of Carbon Dioxide (in other words, extremely toxic), and for any human being landing there that would all be the least of their problems considering the thick atmosphere traps enough heat to create temperatures hot enough to melt lead; making it the hottest planet in the solar system, even hotter than Mercury despite being further from the sun.

However, that was a very recent discovery, and we had plenty of time for science fiction to make its own claims that may seem insane by modern standards. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called The Long Rain which sees a group of astronauts stranded on the planet after their spaceship crashes, leaving them to navigate a tropical environment where it rains endlessly. In the Walls of Eryx was a collaborative story between H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling which envisioned an Avatar-like tropical environment with a seemingly primitive race of "lizard men" who are implied to actually be quite intelligent.

That said, so far I have only seen one film to actually take place on Venus, and that was the East German/Polish science fiction movie Der Schwegende Stern or The Silent Star (a rough translation of the title) as we learned to call it in my science fiction class, or better known in English as First Spaceship to Venus. With this film we get a vision of the planet that correctly assumes it to be inhospitable for humanity... but all for the wrong reasons as it is blamed more due to nuclear fallout than extremely high temperatures. This does, however, provide a slightly different take in that the planet itself is currently uninhabited; it's original population having nuked themselves to oblivion and ultimately posing a few dangers that end up stranding three of the crew to die on the planet.


Mercury seems to be a less common choice, probably because there aren't many reasons people would want to go there. It's the closest planet to the sun, and once thought to be tidally locked. This is not actually the case; it does rotate, but the planet always has one side facing the sun and subsequently very hot while the other side faces away and subsequently has freezing temperatures. So far I have only found two movies that offer any depiction of Mercury at all, neither of which use it as a primary setting. 

The first is the opening of The War of the Worlds. The image they show of Mercury is reasonably close to the real thing, as a rocky surface covered in craters, although the narrator isn't entirely correct in saying that there is no air, as a thin atmosphere does exist.

The one other film I've found is the 2007 movie Sunshine. Mercury is only in it briefly, and the characters never actually land on the planet itself so all we have to go on is what is seen while its in orbit. As a result I cannot say with certainty how accurately it depicts the planet, although at first glance it does seem to more closely resemble the sun.


Saturn meanwhile is an impressive world and one that in theory you would expect to be a great setting for science fiction movies. So far I have only found one to incorporate it. Like the other planets it is referred to in the opening of The War of the Worlds, complete with a rather impressive painting by Chesley Bonestell. I'm not entirely sure about the presence of clouds but what they show of the rings is depicted with some impressive detail for 1953.

That said, the rings, or at least the ones we can see (Saturn has several that are harder to observe) are made up more of ice particles than "cosmic dust"; in fact this is the main reason why Saturn is the only planet with rings we can clearly see (the rings of Jupiter and Uranus are made up of dust and rock, respectively, while nobody is certain what Neptune's rings are composed of). However, the narrator also claims that ice "lies 15000 miles deep on its surface" even though Saturn doesn't really have a "surface".

2001: A Space Odyssey was originally supposed to use Saturn as the destination of the Discovery crew (and this remains the case in the book, written while the film was in development). Unfortunately there were some problems in creating a convincing model of Saturn's rings so it was changed to Jupiter. The one movie I did find, however, to use Saturn as a setting was Silent Running, directed by Douglas Trumbull who also did the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. We do not see much of the planet itself, but we can see its rings (and at one point the main character faces serious danger when his ship goes right through one of them) . The model is a fairly convincing representation of the planet, although the coloring is a bit different when compared to the Cassini photographs.


The only thing The War of the Worlds got even remotely correct about Jupiter was that there would be an abundance of hydrogen and thick atmospheric pressure. Aside from a rocky core there is no solid layer to the planet, which has a surface of liquid hydrogen and an atmosphere of the same substance in gas form. There are no "Titanic cliffs of lava and ice with hydrogen flaming at the tops" anywhere to be found on the planet as the movie claims.

I have found three movies to use Jupiter as a setting or at the very least a backdrop (to actually have a story take place on the surface of Jupiter would be impossible using modern science). The first two are, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010, along with the more recent science fiction story Europa Report. In addition, the movie Outland is set on (an extremely inaccurate depiction of) Jupiter's moon Io.

With both the Space Odyssey films and Europa Report, we get something reasonably close to the actual planet. We only glimpse it briefly near the end of 2001, but there is a clear resemblance although we never see the famed "Great Red Spot" (which is presumably on the other side). 2010 gives us more views of Jupiter as unlike its predecessor the bulk of the story takes place there. We also get some really good views of the planet in Europa Report. It is a little jarring at first to see Jupiter appear sideways compared to how it is normally shown in photographs, but it still makes perfect sense when you consider roughly the location at which they landed on Europa.

Neptune and Uranus

I have unfortunately failed to find much in the way of films dealing with Neptune and Uranus. Event Horizon and Journey to the Seventh Planet are the only two movies I have found to use either one as any kind of setting. The explanation given in The War of the Worlds: "Twin Worlds in eternal night and perpetual cold, both surrounded by an unbreathable atmosphere of methane gas and ammonia vapor" provides a fairly accurate (if simplified) description of both.

So there we have it, all of the major planets covered. I am still not aware of anything dealing with Pluto, though technically that isn't really a planet; the short version is that it got demoted because some astronomers decided to try and solidify what exactly defined a "planet" and the criteria they came up with were:
1. It has to be spherical in shape
2. It has to orbit a star
3. It has to have a clear orbit

Pluto met the first two requirements but its orbit goes right through the Kuiper Belt, meaning there are lots of comets and debris and other things in its path, which is why it is considered a Dwarf Planet. These also should not be confused with the term "moon" which refers to any natural object that orbits a planet and may or may not be spherical in shape. Since we don't know much about Pluto right now, I wouldn't be able to do much of a discussion on any films that did take place there until New Horizons arrives and gets some good photographs.

This is about as far out as we can really go for the moment. As fascinating as it would be to discuss visions of planets other systems and maybe even other galaxies, there is not a whole lot of material to go on.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Visions of the Planet Mars

Mars has always been a popular choice of setting for science fiction, and by extension other more fantastical stories as well. Even today, after the planet has been mapped and photographed it still continues to fascinate and inspire us. Why is this?

Well, for the longest time it was believed that if any alien life existed in our solar system, the two most likely candidates were the two closest planets to Earth: Mars and Venus, and subsequently many stories were written incorporating those two worlds. Venus has since been proven to be the most inhospitable planet in the solar system, meaning it is incapable of supporting anything letalone an intelligent civillization (unless you consider the more far-fetched theories of microbes living in the upper atmosphere), but we still continue to focus on Mars. None of the probes we have sent have yet found evidence for life, although there is still the (admittedly faint) possibility of life that existed in the past or life underground. Still, the visions of mars are quite diverse depending on the work. Let's examine a few of them.

The earliest record I am aware of regarding a story incorporating Mars is H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. In that story, Wells envisioned an intelligent race of Martians, but from what is described his vision of the planet itself wasn't too far off the reality. In fact, the cold and dry environment of Mars is used as an incentive for the Martians, and the reason the whole war happens in the first place- they've used up their resources and hope to start over on Earth. The planet was also used as their homeworld in the 1953 film adaptation, where we are entitled to a brief glimpse during the opening narration.

Now for the time, this would probably have been a reasonable guess. Here George Pal enlisted the help of artist Chesley Bonestell, who from what I understand Bonestell was known for making a lot of space-themed paintings using the best science available at the time (you can see a few of them here). In this case we do see a cold environment and a fantastical image of a Martian city in the background. This certainly has the right sort of atmosphere but is far from the real thing.

Moving a few years ahead, George Pal, Byron Haskin, and Chesley Bonestell would end up crossing paths again to make the 1955 film Conquest of Space. Given this film centers on the first mission to Mars, it should hardly come as a surprise that we see more of it than in The War of the Worlds. However, the vision presented in this film is a bit closer to the reality, at least as close as they could get using the information available in 1955.

The planet is much redder, but impressively for the time the movie correctly assumes that there is no life to be found. On the other hand, it did fail to anticipate the presence of frozen water under the surface (which would have made finding water much easier for the crew). Also the cold weather means that water can't turn into gas and evaporate, which means that precipitation, like the miraculous snowfall that saves the crew, would also be impossible.

Let's move ahead a little bit, looking at Mars as envisioned at a later time, as in a film like 1990's Total Recall. It does take some time to get to Mars, given the first 30-40 minutes are actually a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick story We Can Remember it for You Wholesale before getting into all the really weird stuff. \However, what we do see of Mars looks almost nothing like the real thing (although depending on how you interpret the film this it's possible that this is because it's all in Arnold's head and not actually happening).

As you can see, the planet is even redder than was envisioned in Conquest of Space. Far more obvious however, would have to be the infamous "face melt" scenes. Although the red sky suggests the presence of an atmosphere, the characters when exposed start to swell up and explode. Even in a vacuum this never happens, your body would just have the oxygen quickly sucked out and you would die very quickly from asphyxiation. The atmosphere of Mars is hardly breathable for us, but its composition would certainly not cause you to explode if you were exposed to it.

Jumping a few years ahead, we have John Carpenter's 2001 movie Ghosts of Mars. This movie takes a very different approach, being set on a terraformed Mars after colonization has been going on for some time, so the planet is going to be noticeably different from what we've seen in NASA photographs. Much like the other films the planet is a lot redder than the actual planet. By the time the movie takes place, Mars already has a semi-breathable atmosphere, unlike the previous depictions where people had to wear some kind of suit.

There is also an interesting spin on how life is treated on the planet. In this case, it runs with the idea that Mars had some sort of life in the past (from which the titular "ghosts" originated). Humanity discovering the one remaining trace of these ancient inhabitants is what sets the ghosts (intended to cause harm to anyone who tries to take the planet)  loose in the first place.

So there we are: four different films with very different interpretations of one planet. We see drastically different visions of what the planet looks like alone, most of which are noticeably different from the real thing. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Female Firefighters Don't Exist... According to Hollywood

At least, that seems to be the impression one can get a lot from watching movies dealing with the police or fire services. I just started making a poll on IMDB in which I put together a list of firefighters from various movies and television shows, and the one thing that bothered me was that out of all the pictures I got, neither I nor any of the people making suggestions for choices could find a single photo of a woman firefighter (the closest we got were the two paramedics from Chicago Fire).

I also mentioned before how "buddy cop" films almost always pair up two men, with the only exceptions I've found being The Heat (which awesomely plays the genre straight but with both partners being women) and, more embarassingly, Theodore Rex (Whoopi Goldberg gets paired with a talking dinosaur). Then again, how often do you see female cops in the movies? On TV shows they pop up a bit more frequently, though you still often get police shows where the regular cast is predominantly male. On film, however, I can't think of very many at all outside of Detective Shannon Mullins from The Heat and Marge Gunderson in Fargo.

It seems the only area of emergency services where you're likely to encounter any number of women is if they're working in hospitals or as paramedics. We see female cops now and then but as far as I can tell there don't seem to be a whole lot of movies or TV shows which actually feature women working in the fire brigade. Out of all the movies and shows I've currently looked up for my IMDB list, only one actually had a female firefighter in the main cast, and am I the only one a bit surprised by the fact that it was a kids' show?

Granted, Fireman Sam was a pretty awesome kids' show (at least before they brought in all the CGI and made the cheesy film The Great Fire of Pontypandy) but it does seem a bit weird that seems to be the only place where I've actually seen a competent women working in a fire department as a firefighter. Outside of that the closest I've found is Chicago Fire, which has two female paramedics in the main cast.

That said, going on every other film I've found: Backdraft, The Towering Inferno, Ladder 49, and if you really want to go a long way back even The Life of an American Fireman, one gets the impression that women firefighters are about as easy to come by as female astronauts in Conquest of Space (in other words, according to these movies they don't exist).

If there is a woman present she's always a supporting role as family or a victim trapped in the building or a paramedic or some other role that keeps them from getting in on the action of actually fighting the fire. I can honestly say that this is ridiculous. Women are a major part of the fire service, and in fact I even found this little clip containing interviews with several female firefighters to prove it:

The reason why this is happens is straight forward enough. Firefighting has traditionally been a very masculine profession. This is why women are not usually depicted in this profession in older films like The Life of an American Fireman. That said, according to Wikipedia female firefighters have existed in the United States as early as the 19th century (even if they were greatly outnumbered by the men). The problem is that still seems to be the case. The Life of an American Fireman came out in 1903, but none of the other works I've referred to date back any earlier than the 1980's and were made by people who should have known better.

Now from what I've gathered, firefighting is still a very masculine profession, and that's just the problem. Women still seem to be greatly outnumbered by the men and the media still keeps enforcing the image of firefighting as a masculine profession. If you ask me, something needs to change here. As long as people keep bringing out these masculine firefighting movies and shows in which women have a job on the sidelines at best, it doesn't create a positive image.  All it does is enforce the idea that firefighting is a man's world, and it's not.

The fact of the matter is that unless you include Fireman Sam I cannot seem to find a single film or TV show which depicts female firefighters in action. There should be a fairer representation: even one film with a single female firefighter in an otherwise entirely-male unit could make all the difference.

UPDATE: Since publishing this article I have managed to consult an actual fireman on this issue over Facebook. Here is what he had to say:

I joined the Toronto Fire Services in 1996. Coincidentally that same year there was a new show called L.A. Firefighters.
Although it did have two female firefighter characters, they were used only in the most stereotypical fashion: love interest, love-triangle, damsel in distress, etc.

I can't begin to describe how truly awful that show was.... terrible acting, idiotic dialog, completely unrealistic situations and outcomes; I mean absoultely no part of it was in any way reflective of a professional fire service then, and even less so now.
Thankfully it died after one season. The problem is, as demonstrated by Chicago Fire, nothing has changed. That show represents a real fire service about as much as Steven Segal represents an actor.

Now, I'm not saying that today's fire services don't still have a serious need to improve staff diversity, but at least in Toronto it is still miles ahead of Hollywood. Let's face the facts that Hollywood is A. Not representative of reality in any form B. Equivalent to a corporation that is only ever interested in the bottom line.

The reality is that the fire service is representative of LIFE: we have big & small, fat & skinny, old & young, male & female, black & white, smart &....not so smart. Just like doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, gardiners, and executives, we put in a day's work, go home, do laundry, get groceries, all the mundane boring stuff of LIFE. This doesn't make for good TV or movies however.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm glad that you are using this forum to shine a light on some of these issues. Keep up the good work!

Jason Sauernheimer
FF 1st Class
Toronto Fire Services

If any other actual firefighters, male or female, should happen upon this article and wish to share their thoughts on this issue, don't be afraid to post what you have to say in the comments or drop me an e-mail.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dark Tide: A Tense Psychological Thriller

I think I have a thing for movies that make use of an underwater environment. Maybe it's just because the ocean has always fascinated me, but I have a tendency to be drawn towards nautical films. I remember going to great lengths to try and find The Big Blue and even resorted to downloading once I finally realized it could not be obtained on DVD (didn't stop me from trying once in a while even afterwards, though). I've also stated that one of Walt Disney's greatest achievements was the 1954 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (I'll have to discuss that masterpiece in more depth at some point).

So naturally when I stumbled across a still of Halle Berry in a diving suit filming Dark Tide I was quite excited. Sadly, I never got a chance to see it in the theater, and afterward the consensus was mostly that it was a terrible movie. It currently has a rating of 4.3 stars on IMDB, and the reviews that I have found mostly seemed to be very critical. It is a shame really, because having finally had a chance to see it I've found it really isn't all that bad a film. In fact barring a few flaws it is actually pretty good.

Halle Berry plays the role of Kate, a marine biologist who enjoys swimming with sharks, outside of the cage. Of course it is a very dangerous hobby but she is a professional and takes all the necessary precautions. Unfortunately, one dive still does not go quite as planned, one of her friends is killed by a shark and she just barely escapes. Shocked by the experience, Kate gives up diving for a year before she takes a job out of desperation to take a wealthy businessman out to swim with sharks.

Now I'm not going to lie here, the visuals are definitely the highlight of the movie. The underwater photography is incredible, but even on the surface the cinematography and mis-en-scene do a really good job. If I had to be really critical, there are a few scattered moments set at night when it gets dark and it becomes hard to see what is happening. Fortunately, most of the movie takes place in broad daylight so that isn't a huge problem.

They also take full advantage of the environment, offering us plenty of great shots of ocean life other than sharks, including seals, penguins (yes, you can actually find them in places other than Antarctica), and dolphins. Plenty of great images to enjoy if you like that kind of thing.

Of course, the visuals alone don't drive the film, but the rest of it was also very well-done. Halle Berry does a perfect job as Kate; yes, she's attractive and has several scenes where she is clad in a bikini, but she really captures the balance of passion and fear experienced by her character. Her interactions with the rest of the cast, especially her ex-husband and photographer Jeff (Olivier Martinez), and the businessman Brady (Ralph Brown). It really connects you with them and compels you to follow their journey.

I would definitely recommend taking a look at Dark Tide if you get the chance. It's a finely crafted piece of work with excellent visuals, a compelling story, great characters, and probably anything else that makes a movie great. Definitely a good story if you want an exciting nautical adventure.

Buddy Cop Movies and Why they are So Popular

This is a genre that has been around for a long time. I can't even begin to go into its full history, but the basic formula is one that has endured at least since the 1980's: A police officer is assigned to his (it's almost always a guy) latest case, during which time he is also given a new partner (often but not always another cop or other law enforcement). Said partner is completely the opposite to him in terms of personality; usually one is more uptight and by the book while the other is more reckless and wild. Naturally the two can't stand each other but they're forced to work together anyway and by the time they've solved the case they are best friends.

It is a simple enough formula, and one that can be taken in plenty of directions storywise (exactly what the case is for example, varies widely between films). There are still patterns that are typically common. For instance, the two "buddy cops" are almost always men. Aside from a one or two exceptions, any female characters present in the story are usually a supporting role such as a love interest for one of them. I have yet to find a buddy cop film where the pairing is between a man and a woman.

That said, the combinations vary widely. Usually you have the dynamic of the uptight professional cop and the reckless wild one, but for a while it became popular with films such as Lethal Weapon to pair up a white guy and a black guy. With Hot Fuzz you have the cop who is so good at his job that he embarrasses everyone around him and the cop who at first has no idea what he's doing. The Canadian film Bon Cop, Bad Cop takes the basic formula but instead pairs together an English-speaking cop from Toronto with a French-speaking Quebecois officer. In a subversion of my earlier comment about how the "buddy cops" are usually men, we recently got The Heat, where the same formula is replicated but this time with both partners being women.

Then we get into weirder combinations. The infamous movie Cop and ½ sees poor Burt Reynolds forced to team up with a kid to track down the bad guys. Osmosis Jones does this kind of story but instead uses the setting of the human body, with a the "buddy cops" being a white blood cell and a cold pill who team up to track down a lethal virus. What I said earlier about having yet to find a pairing between a man and a woman might not be entirely true if you count Theodore Rex, which has the odd pairing of Whoopi Goldberg and a talking dinosaur. Yes, that actually happened.

So what is it that makes this genre so popular? Part of it might be just the creative combinations that different writers can come up (even if at times they get really weird or outright stupid), but a major part of the buddy cop film is in how the two main characters play off of each other. Naturally there's usually lots of action but it may just be that there is something emotional to be found about two conflicting characters who otherwise might have had nothing to do with each other bonding together over a crime, to the point where they often end with both partners getting together to solve another crime.  

In this case, unlike perhaps a regular police-based narrative, such as the old TV series Columbo, the conflict and tension becomes more in how the two "buddy cops" have to figure out how to put aside their differences and work together to solve the crime moreso than the crime itself (although the crooks involved certainly don't help matters). After ;all while the investigation plays a major role in the story, the plots of both Hot Fuzz and The Heat were driven largely by the relationship between the two leads and how they gradually warm up to each other so they can finally take on the bad guys during the climax. The genre is a bit of a cliché now, but really the key to making a good "Buddy Cop" film is simply to have two leads who can really play off of each other.

Monday, 19 May 2014

How to Start A Movie 101

I tried to watch The Towering Inferno and was promised an exciting and tense thriller with lots of suspense as a group of characters fight to survive a massive fire in an office building. Instead I ended up turning it off almost an hour in, having gotten a few shots of flame but mostly just men in suits talking about the building with no inferno, firefighters, or action to be seen.

I don't know, maybe once it actually gets somewhere things get more interesting, but I seemed to have the same problem with it as I did the 1972 version of Solaris: did they really need three hours for this film? Did they really have to spend a full hour just on exposition and setting things up. I personally felt like it took far too long and really could have been shorter, perhaps more around 10-20 minutes would have sufficed.

It led me to start wondering: just what is the best way to start a movie. The opening scene alone is a crucial part of any film, as you really need to be able to set the tone for everything that follows. You have to establish the atmosphere, set up the actual sequence of events, and introduce us to the characters and the circumstances that drive the story. There are many different ways to do this, and sometimes some methods do take longer than others.

Once Upon a Time in the West has an opening scene that takes a full ten minutes, during which time nothing happens. What makes this scene work is it sets the standard for the rest of the movie. It shows us that what we're about to see is not a conventional western, and the rest of the movie is certainly like this. However, while we only get introduced to one major character during this scene (two if you include them referencing Frank, who first appears in the scene immediately after this) it does build up the appropriate atmosphere, drawing us in through the use of sound in particular to bring the world to life so that when the action gets started we're ready for it.

Now I have often said that one of the most crucial elements to making a good horror film is never to start with the horror itself. Never open by bringing out the blood, the guts, or the knives. The important thing is to draw the viewer in. You have to get them acquainted with the characters, the environment, and build up the right sort of atmosphere.

That way, by the time the actual horror shows up, whether it's ghosts, goblins, zombies, aliens, demons, vampires, invincible knife-wielding psychos, or Cthulhu; the audience will have developed enough of a connection to the characters and the world they inhabit that the terrifying aspects of the story will leave a stronger impact than if you just occasionally startle them with a terrible effect and a bit of music.

This is the kind of area where you really ought to take your time developing things. One example I can cite where this is done really well is Alan Parker's Angel Heart. With this film, there is an eerie atmosphere right from the opening scene (which shows an unidentified body lying in an alleyway, with the heavy implication that the victim was murdered) and it gets darker as the film goes on. The plot also gets kicked off fairly quickly, but as eerie as the film is the actual horror does not reveal itself until the final moments. The fact that such care went into building up the atmosphere makes the brief amount of time we see truly terrifying part of the story all the more frightening.

Now, Angel Heart works this way because while it is a horror film it is structured as a classical film noir. With other horror stories you may want to bring in the horror sooner, but even then you should be careful. In The Thing, you have to wait about 30 minutes before you can actually see the titular monster in action, but we still get plenty of great buildup that prepares us for that moment. The whole scene at the Norwegian camp quickly gives us a sense of dread and more or less establishes precisely the bleak atmosphere we can expect from the rest of the film, since even though nothing actually happens while they are at the camp, we are left to imagine just what happened before Mac and Copper arrived.

Now this is all well and good for horror, but what about in other genres? Some of them can work very differently, yes, but in principle it's still the same deal. You need an opening that draws the viewer in, that compels them to know more, and you shouldn't rush your beginning or draw it out too much. What you need is just enough time to get the audience acquainted with the characters and environment but not too much so that the viewer doesn't get impatient for when you actually get to the plot.

To bring up Tarkovsky's Solaris once again, that was a film that definitely took much longer than it needed to in order to actually get going. That film took a full hour just to get Kelvin into space, and yet in the Clooney version, everything that happened in that hour was taken care of in the first five minutes.

The Towering Inferno, I would also say did not need to take a full hour just to set things up; when I go to see an action movie I usually expect to see... well... action. With this genre it is of course important to set up your characters but you also don't want to bore the viewer too soon. In other words you should give them a fair bit of action early on so they know what to expect.  It doesn't have to be much but it should be something. The opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, manages to set up the character of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and an archaeologist while still giving us an exciting and tense sequence which, while not directly connected to the rest of the movie's narrative, sets the tone for everything to come as well as introducing us to one of the main villains.

So, if you want to make a good movie, you're going to have to draw the audience in, make them want to see more. You shouldn't rush your exposition but you also have to make sure you don't drag it out longer than necessary, and at the very least you should take the time to establish something for what is to come during that exposition, even if it's only at an atmospheric level.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Favorite Movie Scenes Blogathon

I've never done this before, but after seeing some of my colleagues start their own I'e decided to take a shot at writing a Blogathon. I've previously posted two articles: My Favorite Move Scenes and MORE Of My Favorite Movie Scenes, and in both articles I ended by asking you, the reader, to bring up some of your own personal favorites. Now is your chance to do exactly that.

So I'm not fully sure what I'm doing here, but here's what I'd like you to do. Using my articles as a guide, I'd like you to put together your own lists of your favorite scenes from movies. I am curious to see what different scenes people come up with.

So I've decided to set up a series of rules for this blogathon to keep things reasonably orderly:
  1. Each choice must be a specific moment from a film, not the film itself, even if it's a movie like My Dinner With Andre or Twelve Angry Men.
  2. Since picking out scenes is hard, you can write about as many different moments from as many different films as you like. There are no specific restrictions in what types of films you can draw from, even if it's one of Godard's movies or Tarkovsky's Solaris or any other film I have criticized in this blog. I'll even try to control myself is you pick a scene from one of Connery's James Bond films (emphasis on the try).
  3. I'd encourage you to try and diversify your range of choices as much as you can. In both my lists I cover movies in the science fiction, war, western, comedy, surrealist, and adventure genres with periods ranging from the 1950's to the present day. 
  4. For each film you refer to you can only discuss one scene. For instance if you decide on writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can't do both the shuttle docking sequence and the scene where Dave disconnects HAL, you'd have to make a choice between one or the other.
  5. For each scene, you should provide a reasonably clear description. I would advise some context regarding what is happening in the scene (though you are not required to do so depending on the circumstances, i.e. if you want to avoid spoiling a crucial twist that happens here), but the focus should be on what you like about that particular moment.
  6. I would also recommend making sure your descriptions are not too long. I'm not going to give a precise maximum length but try to keep your explanations from being longer than necessary.
Once you've put together your article, how you submit it is up to you. I would recommend posting a link in the comments. That way other readers can also find it, but alternatively you can tweet it to me or drop me an e-mail. I'll try and read as many as I can but I do have a life so if I get a lot of submissions I might not get to yours right away.

I'm going to set the deadline for June 30. I think that should be enough time for everyone to submit their choices, though if you stumble across this after that date and want to try it out I might still be willing to read your articles.

I look forward to seeing everyone's choices. Hopefully this will all work out alright and if so maybe I'll consider doing it again in the future. 

Here are the entries I have currently received:

I've been getting a few submissions consisting of only one scene, and judging by the wording (I get a lot that begin with 'There's a lot of scenes I love but one that stands out is...) I get the impression that some of my readers misunderstood and thought they can only discuss one scene. You are actually allowed to discuss as many different scenes as you like as long as they are all from different films,

So if you end up being torn between say... the bolder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Heineken scene in Blue Velvet, the bank robbery from the beginning of The Dark Knight, the Omaha Beach sequence from Saving Private Ryan, and Charlie Chaplin eating a boiled boot in The Gold Rush; you could just explain all of them as opposed to selecting one particular moment to discuss at length.

This blogathon is now closed. Thank you to all the people who participated.