Monday, 30 June 2014

Against the Crowd Blogathon: A Rant Against Halloween

Wendell Ottley of Dell on Movies is hosting an interesting new blogathon, Against the Crowd, in which we were challenged to write about our views on movies that contradict popular opinion. I've written a lot on this issue, including my discussions of James BondSolarisAlphavillePlaytime, and Raging Bull to name a few, along with my positive reviews of the often critically panned Conquest of Space and Dark Tide. In fact I have a whole section devoted to this and my very first post in this blog dealt with this topic, so naturally when I heard about this blogathon I knew I had to find something to contribute.

He did specify specific movies so that rules out a long-winded rant about Goddard in general, and I think I've made my views on Solaris clear enough. I'm probably not going to write anything on either version until I can come up with a topic that doesn't involve pointing out why the Clooney version is better. Still, there are a lot of movies I have ranted about, including a few that are quite popular, and I think this is a good time to release some of my frustration. Just a warning though, I am about to say something extremely hypocritical. You've been warned.

I am a huge John Carpenter fan. Back in high school I did a twenty-minute documentary on his movies and he still remains one of two big-name auteurs I have had the pleasure of meeting (the other being Atom Egoyan) and the only one of those two I have confronted in person.

The guy has some excellent work under his belt. The Thing currently ranks among my all-time favorite movies, but I also love some of his other horror works like Christine, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness, and The Ward, along with some of his other stuff like Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13Escape From New York, Starman, They Live, and Vampires. I even enjoyed some of Carpenter's less popular work like Escape From L.A. and Ghosts of Mars. I'll confess I was not as keen on The Fog but even that had a few good points (the story never fully clicked for me, but I did always find Adrienne Barbeau's character interesting). It seems like there is no possible way that Carpenter could ever do a bad movie. Just about every movie he has ever done has something good in it...

Except for one: Halloween. Yes, I am a die-hard Carpenter fan and the one film of his I absolutely hated was the one most people consider to be his absolute best. I was actually quite shocked about this myself given how I'd responded up to that point to my other experiences with Carpenter films. I had gone in expecting something great, what with all the hype I had heard about how this movie frightened an entire generation and popularized the slasher genre. It still leaves me puzzled when I hear people talk about this as an "intelligent" horror film.

On the other hand as shocking as it was at first (I almost wanted to drop the project all together and pick a different director to study) the experience did have a few positive effects on me. The big thing was the angle I was able to take: at the time it seemed a lot of the films of Carpenter's I responded to best was his science fiction work (The Thing, Escape From New York, Dark Star) and though I would eventually find other films of his that showcased his talent for horror it did allow me to look at Carpenter's films in a broader context, going even further against the crowd. After all, everybody calls him "the Master of Horror" and for my documentary it ended up giving me a new angle: to emphasize his non-horror work and show just how versatile a director he really is instead of just saying the same old things about Halloween you've heard a million times.

As for the movie itself, well, let's look at the story in particular. You can certainly see some of Carpenter's trademarks emerging in this one, such as the low budget, his love for claustrophobic environments (particularly the scenes where Michael Myers starts breaking into houses), the idea that you can never truly overcome fear, among others. Certainly some of the things that would be present in Carpenter's later, far better works like The Thing.

Now to his credit, Donald Pleasance does an okay job in terms of performance (though he would play a far more interesting role in Carpenter's Prince of Darkness). The only problem is when you get down to it he really doesn't do a whole lot to help the story. Most of his scenes consist of him providing overly complicated ways of explaining that Michael Myers is a dangerous psychopath who must be stopped (gee, we'd never guess that from the fact that he's running around stalking teenagers and wielding a great big knife). Jamie Lee Curtis was also okay but she mostly just spent the climax crying, not exactly the role model she's made out to be.

So then of course we get to Michael Myers himself. There isn't really anything spooky about a William Shatner mask for starters, but the real problem is right at the end. Michael Myers gets stabbed in the throat and apparently dies, only to suddenly get up and keep moving like it's nothing. He then took his own knife to the chest and dies, only to somehow get back up as though nothing happened. He then gets shot several times by Loomis and falls out a second-story window, and STILL gets up and walks away just as the movie ends.

This whole thing comes straight out of nowhere in a story that seemed to be up to this point somewhat grounded in reality. I've heard arguments claiming that Michael Myers is supposed to be a metaphor for evil but if that's the case I don't think he's a very good one. I've also heard the claim that the ending is supposed to be ambiguous in whether he actually survived... except we clearly saw him get up completely unharmed after receiving two stab wounds that should have at the very least left him seriously injured.

Maybe that could have been a bit more disturbing, if Michael Myers did show signs of damage but kept moving anyway. I could see the image of the psycho crawling on the floor towards our heroine ignoring the fact that he is slowly bleeding to death through his determination to kill her. THAT might actually have been creepy, but as it stands it just comes out of nowhere and left me too confused to be frightened. Oh, and by the way, I'm sorry, but a kid whining about "The boogeyman" does not constitute buildup to revealing your main antagonist is invincible.

Actually, even weirder about this is that for a film called Halloween there really isn't a lot of... you know... Halloween. Supposedly that's when the movie takes place and they show a pumpkin in the opening titles but you really could have put the story on any night without changing much. I mean why are these kids watching old horror movies? They should be out trick-or-treating. We never really see anybody wearing costumes or doing any Halloween-related activities either.

That actually could have been another great way to make the film creepy, if it happens on a night when everybody is dressed up in costumes so that Michael Myers and his mask blend in perfectly. It would be a lot more terrifying since in an environment where lots of people, kids and adult, are wearing masks and costumes it would be much harder to identify him. He could be standing right next to you and you'd never notice until it was too late. There would be a greater sense of paranoia and a lot more reason to be afraid. Of course that would have actually been interesting. Instead we get Myers running around empty streets in an extremely conspicuous mask.

That Beach Ball from Dark Star was scarier than you.

So ultimately when you realize all the problems, Halloween is actually John Carpenter at his absolute worst. This is a dull film with an uninteresting plot and characters whose deaths were so predictable I literally wanted Michael Myers to get to them just because I knew those scenes where coming and wanted them over-with. If you want good horror from Carpenter, you're much better off with The Thing. That movie actually had some scary moments and an unstoppable force that made a lot more sense and was actually terrifying, and it used ambiguity to far greater effect in its narrative.

Quit crying, Laurie! You know nothing of fear.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

100th Post

Let's talk Disney. We all remember the animated films: Snow White and the Seven DwarvesCinderellaSleeping Beauty, Alice in WonderlandBeauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and plenty of others. The funny part of my childhood is that I was alienated in large part from the Disney animated canon barring a few exceptions such as Peter Pan and The Aristocats. Why? Well, largely thanks to the infamous "Disney Princess" marketing phenomenon and its unnecessary gender segregation making me afraid to watch a lot of movies that turned out not to be so bad once I actually gave them a chance years later.

On the other hand, one could argue that my alienation from the Disney Animated Canon helped me to see the company's work in a broader sense. For most people when you bring up the name of "Disney" they immediately think of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, The Lion King, or any of the other big animated features they've done. It's easy to forget the vast number of live action productions ranging from 1951's Treasure Island (their first feature to have no animation at all) to David Lynch's The Straight Story, but I tend to think of a lot of their other movies as well. When the subject of favorite Disney films pops up in conversation, most people immediately select one of the animated features, and yet for me there is one live action film I always find myself bringing up.

Being the science fiction fan that I am, it should come as no surprise that the writings of many of the great authors have influenced my life. Arthur C. Clarke alone has helped shape the way I write science fiction, but going even further back to my childhood we have the really old icons, two of the earliest pioneers of the genre: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I remember reading an abridged version of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea somewhere between Grade 2 and 3, and during that time I also first saw the 1954 adaptation. When the opportunity rose to order it off Amazon years later I didn't hesitate.

Since then I've made a few attempts to read the full book (though for whatever reason I've never finished it) but the movie still stands as a grand masterpiece. Disney's finest achievement is not in fact Snow White or Pinocchio or even The Lion King, but the live action production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It is the late 19th century, at a time when scientific understandings of the ocean were extremely limited (at least, moreso than today in that this was back in the days when research could only be conducted from the surface). Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) is a French marine biologist who, along with his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre), has been trying to reach Saigon only to end up stranded in San Francisco due to rumors of an unknown monster attacking and destroying ships all over the world.

Arronax makes a deal with the U.S. government to join an expedition in search of the monster, but the ship is attacked and he falls overboard. Conseil jumps in soon after, and the two are joined soon after by harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). Since the ship is too badly damaged to help, the three castaways end up drifting through open water until they encounter the monster... which is actually a highly advanced submarine belonging to the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason), a bitter and emotionally scarred recluse seeking justice against the "Hated Nation" that has wronged him. Together these four men embark on an incredible journey across the world's oceans.

Now Disney has actually worked with an all-male cast more often than you might initially think (PinnochioTreasure Island, and Up just to name a few), but it is interesting how they have preserved that detail from the book. Many other adaptations try to force in a love interest of some sort but Disney of all people sticks to Verne's own writing and keeps the cast as he intended.

What makes this movie so great is the fact that it manages to be fairly adult. It is a family film in every sense of the word, but it manages to find stuff for both young and old audiences and never swerves too far one way or the other. There is plenty of great action and exciting visuals for the younger viewers, but also enough character interaction to give them the sufficient depth for us to make a connection. It does have plenty of light-hearted and comedic moments but it's also not afraid to get darker when necessary, and when it does it never feels forced.

I also love the fact that unlike most family films (especially those usually produced by Disney) the conflict isn't black and white. Typically with any Disney production, at least in my experience, you usually have a very clear antagonist and a very clear protagonist. You know to root for the hero and to cheer when you see the villain defeated.

Here, it's not so simple. All four of the main characters have their positive and negative qualities. Nemo in particular tends to constantly blur the line between being an anti-hero and a villain, but even when it comes to the way the other characters play off of each other it's the same deal. Much of the plot is also driven by the conflict between Arronax and Ned Land, both of whom hold understandable perspectives on how to deal with their predicament, and the film never specifically sides with either one.

Kirk Douglas is a lot of fun as Ned Land. For one thing this may be the only time you'll get to hear him sing in a movie; he performs the one musical number in the film and it is simplistic but really enjoyable. He does get a few other little sub-plots, particularly in his relationship to Nemo's pet seal lion Esmeralda, with whom he becomes especially close (though the stuff he feeds her is... somewhat questionable) which allows for some comic relief.

James Mason is of course the perfect foil as Nemo, who contrasts Ned Land's jolly fun-loving attitude with his very serious performance. We only find out bits and pieces of Nemo's full story, but from what is explained it certainly leaves you questioning morality. It is never easy to tell if he is a hero or a villain, and you could argue both ways; even Arronax isn't fully sure. He is very much one of those characters you can both sympathize with and fear at the same time.

Peter Lorre is an interesting addition to the cast given that this was a rare instance where he got to play against his usual villainous roles. In fact, the Special Edition DVD has an excerpt from a promotional TV special where Walt Disney himself claims that Lorre said "The squid got the role that's usually reserved for him". Here he actually plays the rather likable fellow Conseil, who serves as sort of a surrogate for the audience, being the one character who is never completely sure where he stands; torn between his loyalty to Arronax and his responsibilities as a scientist and Ned Land's shared distrust toward Nemo.

There are a few performances of course that don't get as much attention. Many overlook Paul Lukas' exceptional performance as Arronax in favor of the better known Mason, Douglas, or Lorre, but he is a crucial part of the story just as much as any of them.

Even less recognized is Robert J. Wilke playing the role of Nemo's stern first mate. He's mostly a minor character who has few interactions with the leads aside from Mason, but on some level that actually makes him quite intimidating during his scenes. All we know about the mate is that he'll do anything for his captain, and he subsequently becomes a very intimidating character when on screen but also never steals the show from the leads.

Naturally, the splendid acting isn't all there is to make the film a worthwhile experience. In addition the film has some amazing visuals, many of which still hold up rather effectively today. Considering the subject matter it should hardly come as a surprise that we see a lot of incredible underwater shots, including an extended diving sequence with no dialogue beyond Arronax's narration complete with many images of sea creatures. In other shots we see models of ships and the Nautilus itself being used to great effect.

Then of course there's one of the most famous sequences in the film when the cast comes face to face with the giant squid. There were actually two versions of this scene shot (one available on the DVD shot against a sunset, and the one actually used in the movie where the fight happens in the middle of a storm), but this is one of the tensest moments in the film. The animatronics used to produce the squid are extremely convincing and when we see our protagonists threatened we get a sense that they're in legitimate danger.

The story is filled to the brim with other memorable scenes. The diving scenes are quite good, as is Ned Land's musical number, but there are plenty of great scenes like Kirk Douglas being chased off a beach by a group of cannibal natives. In fact Johnny Depp would pay homage to that scene 52 years later at the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

It's really quite a shame that this film isn't as well recognized nowadays as Disney's animated films or their more recent live action work such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films. They even took down the hugely popular Disneyland ride based on this film. I can tell you I have gotten annoyed in the past when I've talked to people who claim to be hardcore Disney fans who never heard of this 1954 masterpiece, as it really is one of the company's finest achievements even today.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is probably one of the best examples you can get of Disney movies at their finest. It's an enjoyable and thoroughly well-executed science fiction classic that deserves greater recognition than it is getting now. If you haven't seen this masterpiece I would strongly advise you to do so. You won't regret it.

The Ten Biggest Stars of Classical Hollywood

The classical period of Hollywood had its ups and downs. In some ways it was one of the darkest times in cinematic history, but in others it was a golden age. One of the great parts of that time was that it gave us some of the finest actors in the business, I thought I'd start a relay to honor them.

Relays are fun activities that are straight forward enough in theory. I've recently been thinking about possible ideas for a second relay in addition to my current Director-themed event which just got started thanks to Katy Rochelle. I'm hoping to hear from the next blogger soon.

I went through a few possible choices, including one on surrealist films, but ultimately I came up with this idea of focusing the greatest classical actors, allowing something new and different to be brought to the table.

As for how it works, that's simple enough. What I have done is create a list of some of the biggest stars from the time period, complete with a case for why they belong on the list. I will pick another blogger to take over, and then he or she will select one option to remove. They will make a case for why that person doesn't fit before offering a replacement, also with a case for why they are a better choice. That blogger will then choose another person to take over, and the process repeats. As a tip you might want to make sure that whoever you choose to take over is someone you can contact, so that you can notify them they've been selected in order to keep the relay going.

Keep in mind, since we're discussing Hollywood, the actors you swap in and out should have had at least a few roles in mainstream Hollywood productions released between 1930 and 1960. They don't have to be American, just as long as they fit that criteria.

Now here is the list. Like the directors list, I've sorted them alphabetically by last name. I have been able to get a bit more gender diversity this time round, however, with three women alongside the seven men.

Ingrid Bergman

Let's face it, when the subject of classical actresses comes up, one of the first names to appear is often the daughter of iconic art film director Ingmar Bergman. She's played into so many iconic films of the period including Casablanca and Hitchcock's Notorious, making her a perfect addition to this list of the biggest actors of the time.

Humphrey Bogart

Bogart was in many ways the perfect face for the studio era. Whether he's solving crimes as a private detective, losing his sanity to greed, driving a river boat, or secretly working against the Nazis, he was someone we could always identify in a second but who captured the essence of so many different characters he could draw us in anyway.

Cary Grant

When you spend a lot of time looking at classic movies, there's a few names that tend to come up a lot, and one of those is Cary Grant. This guy starred in countless films that have become some of the most well-respected of the period: Arsenic and Old Lace, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and North by Northwest, among others. He was also a very versatile actor who could play both comedy and drama to great effect.

Henry Fonda

Another distinguished icon of the time period. He starred in quite a few of the most iconic films of the period including The Grapes of Wrath and Twelve Angry Men. He always could deliver a distinguished performance and established himself as the perfect role for the hero so effectively during the Studio Era that Sergio Leone would exploit it for dramatic effect in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Katherine Hepburn

If there was any actress who could make a career out of playing well-rounded characters during the Studio Era, it was Hepburn. Whether she was dragging a shy paleontologist on an adventure after accidentally receiving a leopard or devising a clever scheme to destroy a German warship, she always managed to prove herself an equal to partner to the men and found a way to give us all a memorable experience.

Peter Lorre

It's said that in real life Peter Lorre was a really nice guy with a sense of humor, but you'd never guess that from his acting roles. During the studio era Lorre became the ultimate go-to guy for playing villains or sidekicks, and to be fair he was pretty good at both. As a villain he always knew how to make himself seem appropriately intimidating.

Marilyn Monroe

In the days of the studio era, different actresses were known for different attributes. Hepburn was known for her well-rounded characters, Bergman for her involvement in darker narratives, but if there was one actress who always served as the icon of beauty it was Marilyn Monroe. In her day most almost universally agreed she was one of the most glamorous women in the business and thousands flocked to the theaters to see her in action.

Gregory Peck

Here's an actor who knew how to capture a wide range of roles, from playing a sea captain unaccustomed to life in the Old West to a conflicted journalist travelling with a princess through Rome. He was always a very likable actor who we could connect to or at least sympathize with no matter the circumstances.

John Wayne

John Wayne might not have been as versatile an actor as many of the other names on this list, but he did get his career going in the 1930's and reached his peak by the 50's. This was the man people went to for action. When they went to see a western, they went for this guy.

Orson Welles

Looking at classical cinema in its broadest sense, a discussion of the topic would never be complete without bringing up Orson Welles. This was a man who didn't take any crap from Hollywood and built up such a name for himself that not only did he go on to become a respected director and make one of the most critically-acclaimed movies in film history, but the studios were willing to let him have complete control over production at a time when very strict assembly line-like codes were in place.

Fittingly, for this one I'm going to be passing the torch onto Wendell Ottley of Dell on Movies, since he helped to get me thinking about starting a relay of my own. Who he passes it on to after that will be his choice.


Wendell Ottley from Dell on Movies
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Fisti from A Fistful of Film
Alex Withrow from And So It Begins
Brittani Burnham of Rambling Film

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Many Characters of Gregory Peck

I've been thinking about writing something on Gregory Peck. He was one of the finest actors of classical Hollywood, a man of many talents who could play many different roles, so I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss some of the characters of his I have come to admire.

And yes, I am in part ripping off Alex Withrow of And So It Begins. He does sheets like this all the time. I just hope he doesn't mind me borrowing his style for the moment.

James "Stretch" Dawson in Yellow Sky (1948)

Blimey, I really need to see this wonderful western again. You've probably never heard of Yellow Sky, but it is a surprisingly enjoyable little film loosely drawing off of Shakespeare's The Tempest (also features a woman wearing pants and wielding a shotgun). Peck plays the leader of a ruthless gang of outlaws who after spending time in a ghost town manages to find redemption.

Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday (1953)

We've got some dramatic roles here, so why not balance it out with Peck doing comedy. Here was quite the character, a man who spends a whole day in conflict between his personal feelings and his professional work. On the one hand, he has the opportunity to get a first-hand one-on-one story interviewing a princess and her certainly takes it. On the other, he becomes closely acquainted with the princess and starts to understand the pressure upon her. He can choose to take on the greatest assignment of his career or do the right thing giving the princess her day of freedom from the press.

Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1956)

This is going to be one of the more obscure choices, but according to IMDB Peck was unsure if he was right for the role (he felt he was too young). However, I personally don't know that a better choice could have been found for a literary character as iconic as Ahab. The character doesn't even look much like Peck (though he still has the distinct voice), and here we see him going against his usual type.

Peck was usually known to play the good guy, but here we see an anti-hero. More specifically, a man who never seems to be all there (literally in this case, on account of his missing leg) and has a very clear goal right from the start: to find and ultimately kill the white whale responsible for crippling him.  Peck gets plenty of soliloquys to himself, but he always manages to capture the essence of the bitter, (literally) broken man who is gradually consumed by his obsession with revenge.

James McKay in The Big Country (1958)

Another great western role from Peck, but a very different one. In contrast to his outlaw personality in Yellow Sky, here he works more in a fish-out-of-water sense, as a sea captain who moves out west unaccustomed to life in the desert and caught in a violent feud between two farming families. Peck's role is very much a link between the audience and the world of the film, as it is through his eyes we see events unfold, and it is ultimately his experience as a sea captain that gives him the out of the box thinking to help bring an end to the long-standing rivalry.

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Oh boy, Atticus Finch is just such a great character in general, but there is something about Peck's performance that nails it. In fact, according to IMDB, Peck did such a good job that when Harper Lee (the author of the original book) visited the set during production she started crying because he reminded her of her father who she based the character on.

Right from the moment we see him, we know Finch is such a great guy. There is something to be admired about a man who is able to by himself resist the pressures of a bigoted society and stand up for what he believes is right. This is a man who takes on a legal case that he knows full well he has no chance of solving, but that doesn't stop him from trying and honestly making an effort.

The British Invaders Blogathon: The Bridge On the River Kwai

By total chance I found out that Terrence Towles Canote at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting a blogathon celebrating classic British cinema. Since this was an area I knew very well and for once I managed to find out about three months early (as opposed to my occasional tendency to find out at the last minute or just after it ended) there was no way I could avoid participating. 

It was just a question of what films to look at. I've seen plenty of great British movies and in fact one that he labelled a valid choice was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I immediately got to thinking about some of the iconic war films of the 1950's and 1960's and a few came to mind. I've already written about Zulu for my 50th article (and submitted that one for the blogathon) so I couldn't do much for that one. 

However, there were two other films that seemed to stand out in my mind. Lawrence of Arabia would have been a great choice, but given how long that movie is there's the question of whether I'd find time to watch it. The other one, fittingly by the same director and with some of the same cast, was the 1957 Best Picture winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. Quite the film I must say.

Where to begin with this movie? Well, the story is set against the backdrop of World War II and follows two key plot threads. The first centers around the commanding officer of the POW's, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), and his relationship with the commandant. I'm no expert, but I have read up on this and I do know that Japanese POW camps of the time were notorious for their inhumane treatments of prisoners. Many people died in these camps, a fact the film makes very clear right at the start when we see two prisoners digging a grave. 

The camp is run by the seemingly tyrannical Colonel Saito, who calls the POW's cowards for surrendering instead of dying for their country as per the code of his own army. He announces that he has instructions to build a bridge across the River Kwai, and plans to use the prisoners to make it happen. However, Nicholson objects when he is told that the officers are expected to work alongside the enlisted men, and keeps true to his stance in spite of the pleading of army doctor Major Clipton (James Donald) and prolonged torture by Saito. Eventually, however, the two are able to settle their differences and work together, with Nicholson using the bridge as a means of uniting his men with a common goal.

The second plot concerns an American POW named Shears (William Holden) who against Nicholson's advice organizes an escape plan. They are caught and his two partners are killed but Shears manages to get away when he falls over a cliff and is presumed drowned. With some help from a local village he manages to get to safety only to be roped into secret mission to go back and destroy the bridge under the command of the cold Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Ultimately this thread will collide violently with the first bringing about tragic consequences.

Of course, all of the actors are great in this film but the one who does tend to stand out is Alec Guinness as Nicholson. There is something about his performance that makes him a very peculiar character. You can never quite tell if he's a wise and noble individual or completely insane. On the one hand his intentions seem noble enough but at the same time he puts himself and his officers through excruciating torture ignoring Clipton's pleas to give in when that would obviously be better for everybody.

This is very much an anti-war film about pure and utter madness. We see several people who mean well acting in what seems to be out of a patriotic sense of duty and yet ultimately it almost becomes one big friendly fire incident and nothing is accomplished. It's the kind of film that really leaves you questioning just where you stand and who you're rooting for, given that on the one hand Nicholson seems to have noble enough intentions but at the same time one can understand why Major Warden wants to destroy the bridge. In both narratives you can really connect with the characters, so when they inevitably come together it leaves you unsure whose side you're really on. Major Clipton sums it up quite nicely in the end: "Madness... madness".

In many ways, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an icon of British war cinema at its finest. It is an all-around great movie with a compelling story, great acting, and well-rounded characters that will leave you questioning your own morality.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Announcing the 1964 in Film Blogathon

Alright, so my favorite movie scenes blogathon is almost done and I've been starting to receive entries for my Women in Film blogathon and still waiting for someone to send something or other my way for the Journey Across the Cosmos Blogathon. Those are the big activities I've got going on throughout the summer but that doesn't mean I can't do other smaller interactive activities. I did recently start a relay which hopefully will get going soon, and so a smaller, week-long blogathon seemed like something that might be fun.

Having seen a few of these year-based blogathons I thought it would be worthwhile to try one of my own while I'm waiting for entries to my big ones. I've already submitted my review of The Producers for Rosie and Ruth's 1967 in film blogathon and I'm currently signed on to write a review of Tightrope for The Forgotten FIlms' 1984-A-Thon and I got to thinking that it might be fun to try a year-based blogathon of my own while waiting for the bigger events to fully take off.

Alright, enough of my rambling. Let's get to the point.

1964 was a great year for movies, and one that has often stood out to me on a personal level. We got a lot of big movies that year, including some which almost certainly don't deserve the critical acclaim they have when people keep insisting that they're the most awesomest action movies but completely overlook the blatant sexism and try to rationalize the fact that it had a glorified rape scene and it's just so friggin' absurd a lot of classics of note.

Critically-acclaimed actor Michael Caine had his first big acting role this year with Zulu. Meanwhile director Sergio Leone started to make his mark on cinematic history with the low-budget spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Then of course Kubrick also came out with his famed dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Anyway, I thought since this year seemed to mean a fair bit to me, it would be a good one to honor with something like this. The point is to collect reviews of any film released during this period. (who knows, you might get me watching one or two more great films and finding even more reason to appreciate this particular year).

Now, I do have a few restrictions, so let's get these out of the way, shall we:

  1. I do wish to encourage diversity, so for the most part I would like to ask that there be no duplicates (i.e. two reviewers discussing the same movie). However, under the right circumstances I might be willing to make exceptions.
  2. No James Bond. I know, a lot of people are going to be hate me for this but it's largely for personal reasons. If you've followed my blog you should know very well how I feel about the series, especially during this time period, and if you've argued with me about it you'll know well how agitated I can get. Since I can't look at any reviews of Bond films objectively, I think it's better for all of us if we just avoid it all together.

Alright, now that's done, so we can get on with the event itself. I'm going to place this over the period of a week, between July 20 and July 26.

As for what to do, you can post a comment before the event telling me what movie you'd like to discuss. As long as it's not Goldfinger, it came out in 1964, and it hasn't already been claimed I shouldn't have any reason to object.

Current Entries

Conman at the Movies- Mary Poppins
All Things Kevyn- A Hard Day's Night
BB Creations- The Train
Book Reviews From James- A Fistful of Dollars

And just for fun, here's some stills from movies that came out in 1964:

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A Tribute to Eli Wallach

I've just been informed that Eli Wallach, the great western actor known for his talent for playing Mexican outlaws in such films as The Magnificient Seven, How the West Was Won, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, has died at the age of 98. I'm not good at writing tributes but I feel as though I should pay my respects to this great man.

Eli Wallach was a fine actor. In most of the films I saw of his he usually played villains, but every time he was on screen he was always a lot of fun. He may have often been given similar acting roles but he always gave each one a distinct identity. In The Magnificent Seven he ran a ruthless gang of outlaws, and in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he was able to convey so many different emotions. Tuco may have been a backstabbing scoundrel but he was a lot more complex than that, especially evidenced in the scene where he meets his brother and we get a brief glimpse of how he became the way he is.

There isn't really a whole lot I can find to say. As I said I'm not very good with tributes, but I wanted to get a few words in about how talented an actor Wallach was, and how he'll certainly be missed.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Ten Most Influential Directors of All Time

So I've seen at least two of these "blogging relays" going on, and the truth is I've envied the people who have been picked to participate in them and really wanted in on this action; so I naturally decided to create a relay of my own. They're straight forward enough in theory and are also a good way to connect with other bloggers so seeing as I have a lot of free time it seemed like something that would be fun to try.

The big relay that's going around right now is based on the most iconic movie characters, and Wendell Ottley at Dell On Movies has just started his own based around iconic female characters (he has a pretty good selection, too), so I thought I'd try and find something new to bring up with this one instead of just bringing out another list of characters. 

The subject of looking at directors seemed an interesting new angle to take, especially since the theme I'm looking at is one so subjective that there's bound to be a fair bit of swapping and re-swapping places. That said, while the subject matter is different, the basic structure is still modeled on the character-based relays.

As for how it works, it's pretty straight forward. I have compiled a list of ten directors I consider to be extremely influential. I will name another blogger to take over. That blogger, in their own article, will go through my list and choose one they feel doesn't belong, make a case for why that director doesn't fit, and then bring out a replacement. After making a case for why that director is a better choice, they will pass the baton onto another blogger. That third blogger will repeat the process before choosing another one to take over, and so on. Once you've written your entry, I would like to ask that you post a link in the comments or send it to me through twitter or otherwise send it to me so that I can keep track of where this is going.

For the sake of simplicity I'll sort them alphabetically by last name (how any of the bloggers to take over opt to sort the list is their choice). I'm also drawing largely from my own pool of directors I admire. At the moment a large portion of the list includes white American men, but I have tried to diversify it as much as I can, including a woman along with two European directors.

One of the curious aspects of this field is how varied different people's pools are. I imagine by the time this is done I won't even recognize it anymore, and I'll probably see other directors I love, directors I hate, and others I'd never heard of as this gets passed around.

So here is the list I have assembled:

Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow may be a very recent director, but she has already left a huge impact. We are talking about the first woman to win Best Picture... in 2008, for a medium that has been around for over a century. This is a huge deal, even if her influence isn't immediately visible in any subsequent filmmakers. It is likely she will inspire many of the future, however.

John Carpenter

One of my favorite directors, and also the only person on this list I have had the honor of meeting. This was a man who often worked with a low budget and almost always managed to come out with something interesting. His films often had a distinct look and he is often called the "Master of Horror" but in truth he was extremely versatile, having across his career made horror, action, comedy, romance, science fiction, and fantasy films. Then of course we get into the influence of his specific movies. Halloween alone popularized an entire genre, and with Escape From New York he managed to launch then-unknown Disney star Kurt Russell to stardom as an action hero.

Francis Ford Coppola

There's no denying this guy has talent. This is man who directed several critically acclaimed movies, was nominated for Oscars several times, and even managed to win the Best Picture Oscar for two films in the same series (I'm not a huge fan of The Godfather but that is still quite the accomplishment). On the other hand, how many films have in some way tried to imitate the cinematography of Apocalypse Now or Marlon Brando's performance in The Godfather. Quite a few.

D.W. Griffith

Like going to the movies? Like writing about movies? Well then, you ought to thank this guy. True, he did unwittingly make an extremely racist movie even by the standards of his time but he also pioneered nearly every major filmmaking technique that is used today. Among other things Griffith's film was basically the first feature. He was also one of the first people to experiment with more sophisticated editing techniques, such as realizing the camera could move to show the same action from multiple angles.

Howard Hawks

Among the many directors, male and female, working in Hollywood during the time of the studio era (just after the conclusion of the silent era in the late 1920's, and continuing on to the late 1950's), one name often seems to stand out, and that is Howard Hawks. This man made some of the most iconic films of the period: Bringing Up BabyHis Girl FridaySergeant YorkRed River. The Big Sleep, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes just to name a few. He also may have made an impact on how women were treated in the movies, having been known to frequently have surprisingly progressive images in his leads, quite possibly helping to clear the way for other great female characters of the period such as those of Katherine Hepburn.

Alfred Hitchcock

There are not enough words to clearly describe how much of an influence Hitchcock has had on cinema, but this was a man who has inspired millions even today. Among other things he was also a man who dared to challenge established norms and experiment in finding new ways to tell his stories and create suspense in his audiences. Oh, and Hitchcock's trademark of making cameos in his films is one that has been picked up by countless modern directors.

Stanley Kubrick

Ah, Kubrick, one of my all-time favorite directors and the director of one of my all-time favorite films. This is a guy who always had a very distinct vision of what he wanted, a notorious perfectionist who worked with all kinds of actors from James Mason to Tom Cruise. This man has made several films often ranked among the greatest ever made (among them Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey), and nearly all of them continue to inspire even today. Even 46 years later the visuals of 2001 are among some of the best ever put on film and continue to inspire filmmakers with access to far more sophisticated equipment.

Sergio Leone

Look at any classic western released before 1964's A Fistful of Dollars. Now look at any western released after 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. You'll quickly see a lot of changes, and many of them are owed to this man. Leone was an Italian director who was able to take an icon of Hollywood and stamp his name onto it. Additionally he also launched several careers including that of Clint Eastwood and finally giving Lee Van Cleef a career outside of occasionally playing a background henchman.

David Lynch

How many shows have drawn in some way or another from Twin Peaks? How many continue to be inspired by Eraserhead. This was a man who managed to break into mainstream cinema but never let it control him. If he has an idea for a movie or gets a script he likes he just goes for it, and he never does the same project twice. Before Lynch came along, subjective art was very much a thing only found in specific circles, such as experimental films or the art film movements of Fellini and Bergman. Though he clearly drew influence from those artists, Lynch took it, did his own thing, and brought it into the usually conformist environment of Hollywood.

Georges Méliès

No discussion of the history of film would be complete without referencing this genius, and with good reason. After all, cinema as we know it today might never happened if not for Méliès. Before he came along, film was just a cool new way to see the world the same way you might with a photo camera, the only difference being that now the pictures were able to move for a few seconds. Méliès was the first to person to recognize the potential film had as an art form, and the first to really experiment with any kind of editing techniques (specifically the "stop trick", and the practice of shooting multiple scenes and stringing them together to create a sense of coherence) in order to tell a fantastic story.

Now to set things off I'm obliged to begin by selecting who will go first. I had two possible candidates and I apologize to the one who I won't be passing this on to (I won't give his name). The first person in line for this relay is Katy Rochelle of Girl Meets Cinema. Who she passes this on to afterwards will be her choice. The results should be interesting to see.

Current Participants: