Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Grapes of Wrath: A Window into the Past

Thanks to Hollywood, the 1930's can sometimes be remembered as a glamorous time. Looking back at the old movies of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and stars of the time, it can be easy to forget the things that were going on at that point in time. We can recall all the great pictures and the stars but what was going on behind all that? What were things really like in those days? In these olden days the movies were a means of escape, and with good reason considering what people were going through.

What may be common knowledge to historians but easy to forget when looking purely at film, is that the Studio Era, now often thought of as a "golden age", coincided with a very dark period in history. While studios profited, the average working man was faced with economic troubles all over the world. Work was nearly impossible to find, and the few jobs that could be obtained paid very little and had very poor conditions.

It was an accomplishment just to be able to scrape together enough for one meal. It was a period that would force people from their homes, losing nearly everything they had, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the thing that finally brought it to an end was a certain dictator's plans for mass genocide. In those days it likely did not have a name, but now we have come to know this point in time by one that is very fitting: the Great Depression.

With all the glamour that comes from Hollywood, it was interesting to see a film that showed another side of the 1930's. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of an unfortunate family that loses everything to the depression, literally forced to live out on the road in a beat-up truck that could easily break down at any moment. Their only chance at any improvement to their situation is already a long shot, that if they can get to California than they might just be able to get a job picking oranges. Unfortunately, getting there is easier said than done, and what really awaits them is a road full of misery, tragedy, and heartbreak.

The basic tone of this story should hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of John Steinbeck. I myself have only ever read one of his novels, Of Mice and Men, which also dealt with the troubles caused by the depression. That one focused on the friendship between two men, with the added problem that one is super strong but has the mind of a child. It builds up to them almost getting that place of their own that they wanted, only to end up in a situation where one is forced to kill the other. As you can imagine, Steinbeck has something of a reputation for writing very depressing stories.

The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, and for the time it would have been extremely relevant to its audiences, many of whom would likely have lived through the depression themselves (at a time when America was just starting to come out of it). Today it is kind of like looking into the past and glimpsing this old world, and the horrible struggles faced by the unfortunate men and women of the time.

Henry Fonda is really good as the central character of Tom Joad, the ex-convict who just wants to go clean and start fresh with his family only to get roped into this mess. He wants to go clean and be left alone, but as troubles pile upon everyone that becomes increasingly difficult. He has to do everything he can to hold the family together, but situation after situation presents itself where it becomes harder and harder to tell just what is the right thing.

John Ford's direction with this movie is spot on in any way you can imagine. Seeing as he is usually associated with the western genre, it is a nice change of pace to see him tackling something very different and more (for the time) modern issues. The tone of his direction is appropriately dark, but never too much so. There is always a faint glimmer of hope, even if it's nearly impossible to see.

I would strongly recommend The Grapes of Wrath as a classic worth giving a watch. It is a film that will allow you to look at a point in history not often shown in films of the studio era, made by people who would have been affected by it on some level. It is a very emotional experience that will allow you to get a glimpse of just what homelessness can feel like, and appreciate the rare moments of genuine kindness all the more.

Just What Exactly is Film Noir?

Film noir is a subject I hear so many people talk about, but I sometimes fail to fully comprehend. I have in the past made attempts to study this elusive area of film, but usually in vain. It is a tricky thing to study largely because no one source seems to fully agree on just what exactly defines it. There are patterns among film noir, but hardly ones as obvious as those of westerns or musicals. Depending on who you talk to, film noir may be labelled as either a genre, a trend, a style, or a method of filming. It may also encompass films within a specific period of time or movies made even today. In this article, I hope to use a mix of my understandings, my classes, and my own observations in an effort to provide a clear and concise definition of just what precisely makes a "film noir".

The concept of "film noir" is typically associated with Hollywood films from the early 1940's into the late 1950's. There are plenty of films that are considered "noir" and others that are less consistently labelled, and there is a good reason why. You see, at the time, Hollywood filmmakers saw themselves as making crime pictures or thrillers. It wasn't until the 1960's that French critics began studying these old movies and spotted patterns between them, hence the reason why this phenomenon is given a French name (which translates roughly as "Black Film" or "Dark Film").

The phenomenon that would become "film noir" was initially born as a result of America's entry into World War II. Part of it had to do with filmmakers taking advantage of studio regulations being relaxed (to allow more "realistic" depictions of the war), but it was mainly done out of necessity. The American war effort needed all the resources it could get, and so production companies had to conserve materials. This meant lower budgets, and working in smaller sets built specifically for the movie. Location shooting could only be done at night.

Typical film noirs of this period in history were very dark in tone. They generally used an urban environment and featured a very bleak atmosphere. Story conventions varied widely, and contrary to popular belief there did not always have to be a mystery. However, themes of crime, punishment, and redemption are abundant in most films of this sort. The central characters are anti-heroes, usually men though exceptions exist, who in over their head in some sort of criminal activity.

When I say "dark" I mean it both literally and figuratively. Film noirs are dark in tone, but often employ minimalist lighting as well. "Noir" translates directly as "black", and indeed there is a lot of that to be found. Movies of this sort are often shot in black and white, relying on sharp contrasts between light and shadow. The darkness is emphasized by the fact that a lot of film noirs were shot at night (due to studio restrictions at the time) and in claustrophobic spaces such as alleys.

There are examples of iconography that seem to be consistent within film noir. The aforementioned alleyways are one, along with dark and empty streets. This phenomenon might be the second-most common thing fedoras are associated with (after Indiana Jones), as they are commonly worn by the men along with suits under trenchcoats, while the women wore fancy dresses. The common weapon of choice was usually the revolver, and both men and women will usually smoke at least a thousand cigarettes over the course of the film with some emphasis on the resulting trails of smoke.

The first, and arguably most famous noir archetype is the private detective. It is hard to say with complete certainty how often they actually appeared in noir films, but they make up several of the best known. Typically, this detective is a loner; bitter and cynical. He (it is usually a man) usually begins taking on a seemingly simple case that quickly spirals out of control. Before long he gets mixed up in criminal activity, probably including a murder or two, and can only get out by getting to the bottom of everything and playing the crooks involved. This one goes as far back as one of the earliest film noirs, with Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

The second major archetype is a character known as the "femme fatale". The way this character can be used also varies widely. Sometimes they are more sympathetic, sometimes they are outright evil, and sometimes they constantly veer the line between both extremes. In any case, she (it is usually a woman) is a tough character who knows what she wants and will go to any means necessary to get it. Usually she is extremely beautiful, and likes to take advantage of her male-dominated society by appealing to the sexuality of the men as a way of manipulating them to her own ends. Some femme fatales will even resort to murder if it gets them their way.

A lesser-known but still fairly common protagonist in noir films is the man trying to escape his past. Act of Violence and Out of the Past both involve a protagonist trying to live an ordinary life in order to redeem themselves of a prior misdeed, only to get into trouble when someone involved with that past manages to find them. Generally there is less of a mystery here, and the goal is instead a quest for true redemption and escape, resulting in their unfortunate demise.

Sometimes the main characters can even be police officers just doing typical police work. For instance, have you ever wondered what Bones might look like it was made in the studio era and didn't have as many strong female leads? No. Well, too bad, because that's basically what you get with the 1950 film noir Mystery Street, more or less a police procedural about cops and forensics experts trying to solve a woman's murder after finding her body.

Then of course there are the darkest anti-heroes of film noir. These are people who despite being ostensibly the hero, are just as bad as the villains, if not worse. One of the best examples I could offer, and interestingly a rare female protagonist, is Margot Shelby of the 1946 film Decoy. This character is crooked in every sense of the word, constantly double-crossing everyone she meets including people she has known for years. Among other things she goes out of her way to revive an old friend executed by gas chamber just so she can kill him once he tells her what she wants to know, and deliberately runs over an accomplice just so she won't have to share the money she is after.

Speaking of money, that is another theme to these film noirs. Often the murders committed turn out to be all about something that seems petty, and in the end, it turns out not to be worth it. In The Maltese Falcon, people double cross and kill each other over the titular artifact but when it finally appears it turns out to be fake. After all the trouble that Margot goes through in Decoy, she dies of a gunshot wound in front of a bunch of policemen and the box she thought had the money turns out to have a note essentially saying "Yeah, I saw your betrayal coming. I'm not giving you my cash!"

Finally, the concept of "film noir" is typically associated with a specific point in history, but precisely what movies qualify as "film noir" is a more complicated manner. Casablanca is one that is sometimes labelled as a film noir, but others instead argue that it is more of a "proto-noir", or rather a film that helped to develop the conventions of what would later become film noir. The Maltese Falcon is often considered one of the earliest film noirs, but it was also made before the strict rules of material conservation would allow the phenomenon to develop.

Matters are complicated more when one looks at the issue of timing. The phenomenon we now know as film noir is often associated with the 40's and 50's, but is it confined to that point in history? There are plenty of later films such as Chinatown, Blade Runner, Angel Heart, Mulholland Drive, and Sin City that all incorporate elements of film noir. There are some who would in fact argue that true "film noir" only includes films of this particular point in time and that anything later is "neo-noir" that merely pays homage to or draws from classical film noir.

I would disagree with this notion. The term "film noir" refers to a specific tone of storytelling, and in that sense could be considered a style rather than a full genre. Even classical film noirs encompass a wide variety of genres including the detective story (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), the crime thriller (Out of the PastAct of Violence), the gangster film (Decoy), and the police procedural (Mystery Street, The Big Combo). It's not really a genre in itself so much as a means of approaching a genre, often but not always crime-related.

Taking that rationale into account, the concept of "film noir" can be applied to any genre as long as it has at least some of the right attributes. In the 1940's it was typically done with crime pictures because that was what was popular back then, but there is no reason it could not fit with other genres. Blade Runner has a noir-ish atmosphere applied to a science fiction setting. Angel Heart is a horror film that is structured in the form of a classical detective story. Mulholland Drive uses the structure of a noir-ish mystery to create a surreal and subjective experience.

So in the end, what really is film noir? Well, based on my experiences with it so far, I would argue that it is an approach to storytelling that can be combined with many different genres in an effort to create a very specific feeling in the viewer. While it was most popular in Hollywood during the 40's and 50's, it is still used in more modern works to create a pessimistic vision of the world, and changes in studio regulations since that time have allowed filmmakers to experiment and find new ways to utilize it.

The key requirement is for the film to be very dark both literally and figuratively, typically using minimal lighting during the darker scenes. While it does not need to center around crime, it should involve a bleak vision of the world, one where both the heroes and villains are morally questionable and it becomes hard to tell right from wrong. A claustrophobic and choking urban environment also helps, as does a compelling anti-hero and a narrative that can invoke feelings of suspense in the viewer. I think this is about as clear a definition of film noir as I can get.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Fisti Re-castathon

Fisti over at the awesomely-named Fistful of Films is hosting his own blogathon event, the Fisti Recast-athon. The idea is to raise awareness of inequalities of how actresses of color are treated in cinema. Quite simply, I am supposed to find an Oscar-nominated role that was played by a white actress but could have been done by one of color (so essentially barring period pieces and other works where it was necessary for the character to be white, anything is fair game).

Up until now I've been a bit unsure of precisely how to decide what to contribute. The best I've been able to do was promote his blogathon through twitter and write a partial contribution in which I take a different approach by taking an iconic male character from classic literature and making a case for why he could be played by a woman of any ethnicity. Apparently I made  a pretty good case on that front as well, and I think it could especially work if you could do the character in question in such a way as to make their ethnicity impossible to determine for sure.

That said, I still should give Fisti a real contribution, so I've decided to do something a bit daring this time round especially since this is a character that a lot of people (myself included) really like. Here it goes...

The person I have decided to try recasting is Ellen Ripley from the Alien films (the Oscar nomination was for Aliens). Now to be fair, the whole series has generally been pretty good about race. Most, if not all the films try to incorporate complex characters of color, and before you point out the fact that they usually die, let me counter by saying that most of the black characters across the franchise tend to outlive a large portion of the cast, even being among the last to die in Alien and Prometheus. Still, the series is usually driven by white female protagonists, and as much as I love Sigourney Weaver's performance it is an interesting though experiment to try and imagine what Ripley might be like with a different actress. The tricky part is of course to find a good actress from the 1970's to take her place.

So now I have to find a suitable black actress to take Sigourney's place. This is a tricky one since I had a heck of a time finding any suitable actresses of color, letalone ones from the 1970's. The best alternative I have is Lisa Bonet, who was working roughly around that time. Her big thing was being on The Cosby Show but if her performance in Angel Heart is anything to go on she was definitely open to taking risks by breaking out of her family-friendly image, and she was almost certainly good material for a horror film.

Can you imagine Lisa Bonet being the one duct taping a flamethrower to a shotgun and going on a rampage through a reactor to take on the alien queen. I'm not entirely sure I can shake off the image of Sigourney Weaver but this would have still been an interesting experience. Ripley was timed just right that she became an icon of feminism, but perhaps if Bonet had been cast she could have been a symbol for the Civil Rights movements as well.

Either way, as great as the Alien films have been with their black characters, those have still been predominantly if not entirely men. A few women of color in future installments could help add some diversity to the cast if nothing else. So again, thanks to Fisti for hosting this crazy blogathon adventure, and I hope I didn't offend any fans of Ripley with this little exercise.

A Tribute to Peter Lorre: A Fine Actor

In the days of Classical Hollywood, we got a number of great actors: Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Henry Fonda to name a few. We saw lots of great men in those old days, but I'm not sure how many left quite as much of an impression as a certain Austrian-born actor. Peter Lorre was the unfortunate victim of typecasting. There is no doubt about that, but he is still a fascinating character in every way possible who always managed to find something useful to bring to his roles (okay, maybe with the exception of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).

Though he is remembered for his role in classical Hollywood, Peter Lorre was born an Astro-Hunagarian of Jewish descent. His first big breakout movie was a German film called M, directed by Fritz Lang of Metropolis fame (who would also go on to work for for Hollywood in the Studio Era) but thanks to some bad ideas proposed by one Adolph Hitler, he had to get out of their as fast as possible and eventually settled in Hollywood, where with the success of M he managed to find various acting roles in Hollywood.

M was unfortunately the beginning of Peter Lorre's experience in typecasting. In that film, he played a serial killer who preyed on children. By the time he started making his name in Hollywood, he became the go-to guy for sidekicks, villains, or (more often) sidekicks to villains. It certainly didn't help that the Nazis made an anti-semetic propaganda film called The Eternal Jew which took a single scene from M out of context and tried to use that as proof that Peter Lorre was a "typical" Jew that needed to be annihilated.

The funny thing is that by most accounts, like many great actors he was precisely the opposite of his on-screen persona. While on film Peter Lorre was often cast as thieves and murderers or characters who at the very least had something sleazy about them (his single scene in Casablanca, for instance). The real Peter Lorre was said to be a nice guy with a sense of humor that rarely (if ever) showed up on camera (supposedly, while attending Bela Lugosi's funeral, he asked "Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just case?")

One story I've heard (though I can't validate it's authenticity) goes that Lorre was in a restaurant and found a whole bunch of people being kept behind a bar. The waiter came up to him and Lorre asked why all the people were being kept back, to which the waiter replied that they were just tourists and they wanted to seat "important people like yourself" first. Lorre responded to this by removing the barrier and immediately seating every single one of the tourists himself. When asked why, he said "I know what it feels like to be kept out", referring to his experiences with the Nazis early in his career.

Now Peter Lorre didn't always play villains. While his character may have had a sleazy vibe he technically had a heroic role in Casablanca (since he provided Rick with the tickets that eventually allowed Ilsa Lund and Victor Lazlo to get to America). In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he got to play one of his few truly sympathetic roles as Conseil, whose conflicting morals made him a perfect surrogate for the audience. In yet another amusing example of Peter Lorre's sense of humor, he allegedly went on to claim (at least according to Walt Disney) "the squid got the part that's usually reserved for him".

Peter Lorre really was an amazing individual, not just as an actor but as a person too. This was a man who was a role model in every way you could imagine. As an actor he could usually be expected to deliver an excellent performance no matter what was expected of him, and as a person he seems like he was a really great guy to be around. As far as stars of classical Hollywood go, Peter Lorre might be one of the greatest and most admirable you can find.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Nautical Movies

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about boats. Seeing as I'm the one who suggested it I naturally had to take part in some form. Nautical movies are something I tend to be attracted to very easily, probably because it has something to do with my fascination in the underwater world. It's not too hard to be intrigued by the whole new world that opens up just a few feet below the surface of the ocean and all the strange creatures you'll find down there. If you know here to look, perhaps you will even find the ancient city of R'lyeh, Y'ha-nthlei, the city of the Deep Ones, or even the lost city of Atlantis.

But that's a subject for another time. The focus here is on movies about boats, and that's what I intend to deliver. As usual, I am listing them in order by release dates, and even better I have managed to find one from each era.

The African Queen (1951)

This one is a classic, and also the only one on my list to feature a strong female lead. The plot centers more or less exclusively on a river boat captain and a female missionary who are forced together as World War I begins, and essentially left to live on the Ulanga River with only a tiny boat (the titular "African Queen") for shelter. The Captain, played by Bogart wants to get out before things get worse, but his companion Rose Sayer, played by Katherine Hepburn, has a more ambitious plan to improvise torpedoes and sink a German warship.

Das Boot (1981)

Let's spice things up a bit with a foreign language film. Some of you may remember Das Boot from my days as an Unterganger. I used to use it as the basis for a little series where the crew would always be devising hilarious and bizarre schemes to piss off/humiliate Hitler. Those were a lot of fun to make, but sadly the original film is not so funny. Depending on the version, your experience could last anywhere from an hour and a half to five straight hours. Either way, you are in for a dark and depressing tale.

The story is basically about the day to day experiences faced by the crew of a German u-boat during World War II. Despite the obvious impression, most of the characters are actually quite sympathetic (only one member of the crew is actually a Nazi, and even he has human qualities). The claustrophobia is bad enough, but the nightmare goes far beyond that. There is the cramped conditions, the filth, and the constant fear of being sunk and having no way out. At best the characters are faced with extreme boredom, at worst they're desperately fighting just to survive. Ironically the author of the book that inspired the film went on to claim that this was "glorifying" the experience, which makes you wonder just how much worse the real thing would have been.

All is Lost (2013)

You might remember that I did this one for my blindspot challenge last month. It is an interesting movie in its sheer simplicity. There are very few sets, mostly open water, and only a single character in the form of Robert Redford. He plays a lone sailor who finds himself in a desperate struggle to survive, constantly being bombarded with one danger after another. You are naturally compelled to follow his every effort to survive and hope that he does eventually get rescued.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea, and I Hope This Submarine Stays There!

I've recently had some problems with buying DVDs. During the summer I developed something of an addiction. I was practically buying a new movie every week, more often than I should have. It got chaotic, and I have this problem that once in a while I stumble across some movie and I just feel an overwhelming compulsion to see it. Sometimes it's not even one I expect to be good but my mind just won't shut up about it. It almost seems like the universe itself wants to make sure I see that particular film.

Back in August I had that happen to me when I was browsing around a few stores trying to alleviate the irrational stress that I was experiencing just before school started. I was looking through a bin of two dollar DVDs and found a double feature of Fantastic Voyage and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I didn't have high expectations from either but I felt an overwhelming urge to purchase the DVD, no matter how much I tried to talk myself out of it.

So I did, and I started watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I was hoping it would at the very least be a guilty pleasure or campy fun. I do like a good submarine movie and it helped boost my confidence to find out Peter Lorre was involved. I remember watching the trailer and thinking something like "Peter Lorre did ANOTHER submarine film? Count me in!" I didn't exactly expect this to be as amazing as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but I was hoping for something. Sadly I was wrong to expect even that. What I got was a dull, boring, nonsensical adventure that not even Peter Lorre could save. How this film was so popular as to warrant a TV series is beyond me.

The premise is something that is completely ludicrous. Admiral Harriman Nelson is put in charge of a highly advanced futuristic submarine when some sort of issue with a nuclear plant (it's not very well explained) causes "the sky to catch fire". Literally there is a great big fireball developing around the planet somehow (never mind the fact that fire requires oxygen to burn) and for whatever reason Nelson has been invited to attend the U.N. hearing that attempts to find a solution to the problem. The plan that is agreed on is to wait, because apparently at a specific temperature the fireball will burn itself out.

Of course, because he is obviously a qualified professional who understands the situation, Nelson concludes that the respected scientists are wrong and the only proper solution is to get to the deepest part of the ocean and fire a torpedo (seriously), which will somehow knock the fireball off into space. Unfortunately he must reach the necessary spot within a month or else they'll "lose the angle of trajectory" whatever that means.

Also along for the ride is a government person (Joan Fonataine) who also happens to be a doctor and a civilian they conveniently managed to save (Michael Ansara). The race is on and of course they have to deal with a bunch of contrived problems including rival submarines, not very convincing octopuses, and saboteurs who correctly realize this is a stupid idea and try to put an end to it.

Yeah, as you can expect, this is not a very compelling movie. It's not even a very believable situation. The "near-apocalypse" isn't all that convincing (and nothing about it is ever explained in a way that makes the slightest bit of sense). This whole submarine is unrealistic and kinda silly as well. I mean since when did American submarine crews of the 1960's employ female secretaries? If they were going to go that route they might as well have just made the whole crew mixed gender since for the time period it would have been just has believable.

The effects are also terrible, even for 1961. I had hoped the film might have some good underwater photography but those scenes were incoherent at best and obviously fake at worst. There is a scene where a bunch of these guys have to go diving and get attacked by a giant squid. I couldn't really have cared less about what happened to them (especially since it was hard to tell anyone apart anyway), and the squid was barely visible and not very convincing. The models are never any good either, and the submarine itself just looks silly.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a waste of time and not worth watching at all. If you really, really want to see Peter Lorre in a submarine movie featuring a scene with a giant squid, there is a much better one that came out seven years earlier. In fact, you know what? This movie is just trying to be 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it is a disaster.  In fact, forget about this film and just go watch the 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It's got Peter Lorre playing a sympathetic character for once along with James Mason and Kirk Douglas. It even has a scene with a giant squid that actually has tension and suspense, not to mention spectacular underwater sequences and a plot that is worth following.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Halloween Horror: Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter has admitted to being a big fan of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and it shows in several of his movie. In the Mouth of Madness was the one film he consciously intended to be Lovecraftian, but the influence of his writing is clear in much of his work. One of the ones I often hear cited as extremely Lovecraftian is his underrated 1987 horror film Prince of Darkness. It certainly has that sort of atmosphere. The final scene is lifted almost directly from one of Lovecraft's writings and there is even a character named shares her surname with William Dyer's unfortunate companion in At The Mountains of Madness. Bringing the whole thing full circle I think this film might in turn have even influenced my own contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos.

It all begins when an elderly priest dies suddenly of an unspecified illness. Among his belongings are a diary that reveals his connection to a mysterious sect, and a key to the basement of a seemingly abandoned church. Another priest (played by Carpenter regular Donald Pleasance) decides to investigate and finds something which motivates him to contact physics professor Howard Birak (Victor Wong, who also worked with Carpenter on Big Trouble in Little China) for assistance.

What he found turns out to be an enormous vial containing an ominous green fluid. A research team is assembled to study the peculiar properties of the thing, with the only explanation lying in an ancient book that contains complex differential equations (which shouldn't have been known when it was written). This substance is eventually revealed to be in a way the essence of Satan, or to be more precise, something far more terrifying from which the religious concept was derived. It has been kept secret for thousands of years but now it is starting to awaken. 

Strange things begin to occur, the homeless in the neighbouring area begin to surround the church. People are possessed by the fluid, transformed into zombie-like beings to perform its will, and carefully it begins working to bring about something even more frightening that will destroy our world. A desperate race against time ensues as the decreasing number of people who are not possessed try to survive long enough to figure out a way to end its sinister plans.

One thing I can tell you right off the bat is that this is a disturbing movie that has that atmosphere of dread right from the get go. Any film that can make a jar of green goo seem frightening is worthy of respect, and that's just the start. Even long before we see the goo, the atmosphere has an overwhelming sense of dread and hopelessness. When it does begin infecting people, things quickly become terrifying, and between the possessed individuals outside and the zombie-like servants within, the environment seems to gradually close in on the protagonists.

What I personally find interesting about this film, however, is it's approach to the material. The idea of taking old religious ideas and putting on a science fiction/Lovecraftian twist is a fascinating one that seems believable in a way. It also allows for an interesting dynamic in Donald Pleasance's role. His character of the priest is one who is constantly forced to question and re-evaluate his faith, but can never quite seem to let it all go. This constant conflict in his emotions is conveyed effectively and becomes a major driving force in the narrative.

Prince of Darkness is definitely a horror movie worth your time. I would strongly recommend you check it out, especially if you enjoyed the other two installments of John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" (The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness). It is a terrifying experience that will have you compelled to follow from start to finish,  and guaranteed to make you feel uneasy by the time it is finally over.

Something Exciting Happened!

This week I found out there was a group connected to the Raindance Film Festival on my University Campus. Two days ago I had the honor of attending their first meeting and I brought in some of my screenplays. I shared them with a number of people and they all loved it, and now it looks like we might be able to make a movie. It won't be a very long one, probably not more than ten minutes and it won't have any big names in it, but nonetheless it will be a movie. We've barely even started yet and already I've got a producer, a possible lead actress, and maybe a camera crew if all goes as I hope.

As you can imagine I'm super excited by this prospect of finally seeing one of my scripts realized. I've already got two who are ready to take part and several others who are interested. Even if it's just a short it will help prepare us for when we are ready to tackle the features. It turns out I'm the closest thing they have to a professional screenwriter so this is pretty exciting to finally get into a position where I might be able to see one of my visions realized.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but I've been thinking that if this all works out as I hope, I might do a series of "production diaries" on here. Nothing fancy, but I thought you might enjoy reading the experiences of being on an amateur film set as it happens. If I do opt to do it, it probably won't be a regular feature either, more like something I'd do every couple of weeks, possibly months (I'm not entirely certain how long it will take to get this film made).

So here's hoping everything goes well at the next meeting and perhaps we can get a start on this exciting short film which draws from an odd mix of my failed college experience and watching lots and lots of David Lynch movies. If I can I'll try and remember to keep you all posted if it all works out, which I hope it will. I might even give some information about where to find the movie when it's completed if I can.

Incidentally, this does lead me to wonder if some film student down the line will have the same messes I've been caught up in previously, getting bogged down by the overt pressures of criticism and wondering why they really like my work but can't enjoy any of the David Lynch films that obviously inspired it. I guess if that ever does happen I'll just have to tell them about how I had the same problem with preferring Lynch over Fellini and Mulholland Drive over Sunset Boulevard and that there is nothing wrong with that.

Friday, 19 September 2014

In Your Head, Zombie, Zombie, Zombie

Zombies seem to be all the rage right now. Right now there is not one, but two extremely popular mainstream television programs still in their prime to feature zombies. The first is of course The Walking Dead, with the zombies walkers that are a constant danger and usually make a point of showing it by killing off four or five regular characters a season, but we also can't forget about the "white walkers" that have become such a big deal in Game of Thrones.

That's just our most recent output, that's not even getting into the various movies or literature or anything along those lines. We even got a zombie love story in Warm Bodies. While the term "zombie" in its current usage is a fairly recent development, the concept of malevolent reanimated corpses is a very old one that dates back centuries. Numerous movies incorporated what we would call zombies long before they became a thing.

One of the most famous literary sources would arguably be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (and by extension all of the movies based adapted from it). H.P. Lovecraft also wrote a parody of that story titled Herbert West: Re-Animator which was later made into a cult film series. Both stories centered around the premise of a brilliant scientist who manages to scientifically figure out a method of reanimating dead tissue.

The results of Victor Frankenstein's was a hideous creature known as "the monster" who while not entirely unsympathetic (the narrative makes it clear that he is really just confused, and all he really wants is a friend) ends up killing a number of people and terrifying several others. West's on the other hand, might be a bit more closer to the zombies we know today in that they do have a fondness for human flesh. Fittingly while Frankenstein was ultimately granted a dignified death West's fate was to be disemboweled alive, and to add a layer of unease the zombies just kind of... disappear, with nobody being certain of what happened to them.

The concept of zombies as we know them today is usually said to have originated with George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. He never actually set out to create a movie with zombies, Romero just thought that reanimated corpses who try to eat the living was an interesting premise for a horror film. It was only when the press began applying the term "zombie" Romero decided to run with it and subsequently created a whole bunch of zombie-themed films like Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, etc. Something about this whole idea seemed to really catch on.

So what is this fascination with the undead? Why do we get so much joy out of watching decent people get torn to shreds by living human cadavers. Well, with any zombie-related story, mortality is going to be a major theme. In a show like The Walking Dead, the presence of the zombies are a constant reminder that nobody is ever truly safe. Even for those who aren't actually killed by zombies, they constantly remind us of the simple fact that everybody dies eventually.

No matter how much you run, or what you do to survive, you will eventually meet your end one way or another. In addition, one thing that elevates zombies above other creatures is the fact that they were once people and that can be seen clearly. Mowing down numerous zombies at once might not seem so bad... until you're faced with that one zombie who was once a very good friend of yours. This was a situation faced multiple times by the cast of The Walking Dead and it is not a pretty one to be put in.

Alternatively it is very painful when someone close to you gets bit and you know there is no way to save them. The only options are to either shoot them dead right there or let them transform, neither of which seem like a pleasant choice. This is something is a recurring theme on The Walking Dead, and though its major characters are not killed off anywhere near as often, it could also be said of Game of Thrones' white walkers. Even Shaun of the Dead played this aspect of the zombies completely straight despite being a spoof.

What I do find amusing about zombie films is the fact that they often go out of their way to avoid using the term "zombie". It's led to this ironic situation where zombies are such a horror icon that so many works try to avoid seeming generic by using the term "zombie" that trying to find an alternative nickname has become something of a cliché in itself. The Walking Dead has several different names for the zombies, though the most common is of course "walkers" (which is ironic because in the comics, they just use say "zombie"). I've always found this a bit odd. After all, if an actual zombie apocalypse happened, wouldn't you just say "zombie" because you would immediately associate them with modern pop culture.

Shaun of the Dead even memorably poked fun at the whole idea (among other zombie movie conventions) of how you can't just call the obvious zombies... well... zombies. Nick Frost's character Ed keeps using that term early on only to be met with Shaun yelling "WE'RE NOT USING THAT WORD!" No particular reason is given and they never even find an alternative nickname. The only reason they can't say the word "zombie" is because they are in a zombie film.

There is a formula of sorts that seems to have long been common in zombie movies. Shaun of the Dead made fun of it, but it goes back as far as Romero's own Night of the Living Dead. The way it essentially works is this: the zombie apocalypse starts, usually taking the main characters by surprise. They find an empty structure of some sort where they try to bunker down. However, things go wrong, and gradually most if not all are killed off by the time its all done.

A variety of different environments have been used over the years, ranging from the abandoned farmhouse of Night of the Living Dead to the shopping malls used in both versions of Dawn of the Dead to the Winchester pub of Shaun of the Dead to even the prison in The Walking Dead. As with many stories, this is likely because claustrophobia when used right is a very good source of horror. To be trapped in any environment, especially a familiar one that normally seems safe like a house or a mall, are still dangerous. It all ties into that theme that ultimately nowhere is truly safe. Even a prison isn't a perfect hiding spot (even if you can keep the fences from being pushed by hoards of zombies, it won't save you when your enemy shows up with a tank).

Zombies have come in many different sorts over the years, often in relation to the time period in which the work was originally made. The classical zombies are the ones which move very slowly (i.e. those of Romero). A lot of people have poke fun at this convention, since they move so slowly you just have to run really fast to get away. At least, that is a way to avoid one. Two, maybe, but as the numbers go up they're going to be much harder to run away from. Fittingly, Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, at the height of the Cold War, and in a way the zombies are allegories for the fear of communism. One zombie is not a serious threat, with every person "infected" it gets much worse. Remember, all it takes is one bite and you become one of them.

The more modern zombies are a bit different. Unlike classical zombies, these ones will move a lot faster, so just one is enough to worry about. The trouble is you'll be more likely to have to face at least fifty at a time. This is more in keeping with modern social anxieties, such as the fear of terrorism, something that is generally intended to take everyone by surprise long after it is too late to stop.

Regardless of whether we use the name, zombies have been, still are, and will likely remain a popular choice for horror stories. There is something about the whole concept of a zombie apocalypse that continues to fascinate the human mind. Zombies are a source of fear for a variety of reasons, and when used right can be a very effective source of horror.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Back to School Blogathon: David Lynch Edition

I've done two interesting classes for Wendell Ottley's Back to School Blogathon but now, because I'm completely insane, I've decided to do a special edition. I'm going to be breaking the rules a bit for this one, since I'm not going to be sticking strictly to people who are students or staff in films that prominently featured schools. I've also tried to have each archetype be played by a character from a different film of his, which was tricky. Nonetheless, I think this will be an enjoyable little activity so let's begin.


Duke Leto Atreides (Dune, 1984)- Headmaster

This is the kind of man you want overseeing things. He has plenty of money, power, and influence, but he also knows how to handle it all responsibly and puts the good of his people at the forefront. He will certainly know how to distribute the school's funding, and how to organize everything to create the best learning experience for his students. Unfortunately, he might not be prepared to deal with this group of students just yet.

Frederick Treves (The Elephant Man, 1980)- Professor

Treves is very much the sort of gentleman with the perfect balance of qualities for his job. He is calm, professional, and always tries to think through things rationally. However he is not above showing compassion when he needs to and, being a doctor, he is more than capable of caring for his students and helping them with their personal problems. I will, however, stick purely to Lynch's filmography, and will not be touching on his television work.


Pete Dayton (Lost Highway, 1997)- Popular Guy

Pete's a guy that everybody loves. He is cool, he is a good mechanic, and he seems to be popular with the girls. Unfortunately, underneath all that Pete has a few problems of his own, namely his connections to shady mobsters. Long story short, if you need someone to look at your car he's your guy, but as appealing as he is it's best to avoid getting mixed up in his personal life.

Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992)- Star Student

Cooper's a bit of an eccentric, but he is probably the smartest in the class in just how easily he picks up strange concepts. He's usually a few steps ahead of everyone else and they have no idea what he's doing, but whatever it is, it is working. In addition to that, he's also just a really great guy to be around most of the time.

Frank Booth (Blue Velvet, 1986)- Class Bully

How is this guy a bully? It would be much more difficult to explain in what way he isn't a bully. He beats people up, forces them to have sex with him, shouts at everyone, likes to taunt people, and has a tendency to use lots and lots of swear words. If you thought that one kid on the playground who liked to scare you into handing over your lunch money was bad you don't know the meaning of suffering. 

Sailor Ripley (Wild At Heart, 1990)- Class Clown

Well, how could this guy be anything else with his crazy over-the-top personality. True, he is a bit of a womanizer, but he is a guy who has a tendency to get into all kinds of strange situations and likes to bring his friends along for the ride. If there's anyone whose mere presence automatically guarantees weird things to happen (besides David Lynch), it's this guy.

Nicki Grace (Inland Empire, 2005)- Invisible Girl

Nicki has a lot going on with herself. She is a capable actress and has shown that talent but there is a limit to how demanding a role she can take, even if she gives it her all anyway. She doesn't seem to get much of the recognition she deserves for her hard work and talent, but perhaps a good director and a school play could turn things around for her.

Betty Elms/Diane Selwin (Mulholland Drive, 2002)- Troubled Youth

Which one is she really? Nobody seems to be entirely certain, but the one thing that is certain is that Betty/Diane isn't all there in the head. She can jump from being a perky young actress with a lot of talent one moment to a psychological wreck in the next. Nobody is quite sure what caused her to be like this, but all she really wants is to find a woman that loves her for who she is.

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Movies About Young Love

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies about young love. This was a tricky one since it's not a subject I'm that familiar with and I didn't want to just jump straight to the obvious choice (any film version of Romeo and Juliet). The first was a bit of a stretch but I've still managed to find three movies that should fit the criteria for this week. Even better is that for once I've actually managed to release this one on a Thursday.

So here is my questionable list. As usual I've listed them by year of release:

Lolita (1962)

How Stanley Kubrick managed to complete this extremely controversial movie based on an even more controversial book (and get James Mason of all people in the lead role) I'll never know. Even the film's trailer can't figure it out. Essentially, it's the story of a middle-aged professor who while staying at a boarding house with a middle-aged single mother finds himself attracted to her fourteen-year-old daughter. What starts off as him being a suitable father figure quickly takes a downward spiral as Mason becomes increasingly obsessed with Lolita, leading to a twisted affair that will change their lives forever.

Hugo (2011)

Okay, technically this film is really about the story one of the most significant pioneers in early cinema, but even so that story is still told through the framework of a love story between two young children: Hugo and Isabelle. The two of them go on "adventures" together which consist of mischief performed at the real-life Gare Montparnasse Station in France. Both quickly become friends from the moment they meet and bond increasingly over a common admiration for the imagination of early cinema.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

We Anderson's quirky little comedy brings the touching story of two adolescents who face love at first sight. Both are social outcasts (albeit in very different ways) from different backgrounds who feel they are not wanted and so decide to run away together, which in turn affects the whole rest of the town. Lots of strange shenanigans ensue as they do everything they can to avoid being separated all while a violent hurricane is coming.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Visions of the Moon

Out of all the various strange bodies in our Solar System, the moon might just be the one to have captivated our imagination the most. For centuries there were myths and stories about the moon, and even now, when we know it is little more than a giant ball of rock, it still continues to inspire us. The moon has been the subject of countless stories and films, with efforts ranging from conscious attempts at scientific accuracy to outlandish fantasies.

One of the first cinematic auteurs, Georges Méliès, was fascinated with the moon and the idea of exploring it. Méliès was of course a magician first and foremost, and his main interest was to create a spectacle of illusions, but he clearly enjoyed the fantastical situations he could create to present those illusions. One of his most famous was of course 1902's A Trip to the Moon, which was itself loosely based on the novels From Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

Méliès' visions is far from an accurate one even for his time. His primary concern was to create a spectacle and he certainly did that. The moon here apparently has an atmosphere, seeing as the protagonists are able to climb out of their spaceship dressed in Victorian suits with no trouble at all. It is also capable of supporting life, unlike the real moon. The "astronauts" encounter giant mushrooms growing in a cavern with what appear to be streams. There some weird properties about the soil, too, seeing as planting an umbrella in the ground will cause it to transform into a mushroom.

Of course, the part everyone remembers is the strange alien creatures. They easily outnumber the unfortunate protagonists, but are easy to fend off because they explode if you whack them with an umbrella. Finally, in a complete violation of any scientific logic, the "astronauts" manage to flee from the "Selenites" and escape from the moon by having one of them pull their capsule over the edge. It's a classic no doubt, but it is still a very strange vision of the experience of travelling to the moon.

The famous image of the capsule crashing into the moon's eye is also another element that becomes weird when examined from a scientific perspective. Obviously, the moon doesn't really have a face, but it is something that has perpetuated a lot in the media, especially material aimed at children. Anyone who grew up on Bear in the Big Blue House should remember how every episode would usually conclude with Bear climbing up to his balcony and, disregarding its distance from Earth and the fact that sound waves cannot travel through space, literally have a conversation with the moon about everything that happened during the day.

A similarly imaginative vision of the moon is one that should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park's first film to feature the duo was A Grand Day Out, released in 1989. This particular film saw the characters of Wallace and Gromit trying to decide where to have their holiday only to realize they are out of cheese. The natural solution is obviously to build a rocket in their basement and go for a holiday on the moon which everyone knows is made of cheese.

In this film, it certainly is. You can literally set up a picnic on the moon, just by cutting little pieces of rock off the ground and placing them on crackers. It's apparently a very unique flavor of cheese but nonetheless edible. Like A Trip to the Moon, there appears to be an atmosphere, seeing as Wallace and Gromit have no trouble breathing, although there is a somewhat lighter gravity. While Wallace and Gromit walk around more or less the same on Earth, there is one humorous scene where the former kicks a ball upwards and waits a moment only to find it doesn't come down.

The other thing about this incarnation of the moon is that it does have one inhabitant, a strange robot character that requires change to remain operational. To this day nobody knows just what this thing is, but it seems to be in some way responsible for maintaining the moon. Going to the moon for cheese might therefore not be the best idea, because this robot doesn't seem to like people doing that and will try to stop you (even if it has a tendency to fail just before it can do so). Amusingly, Nick Park's original vision was for there to be a wide variety of characters on the moon, and supposedly a sequence involving fast food restaurant, but those ideas had to be dropped due for various reasons.

Then of course there is the really bizarre rendition of the moon depicted in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. A major theme in this strange dramedy is the fact that just about everything the title character does is impossible, and this whole sequence is no exception.  It should be enough just to say his method of arrival is completely insane. The Baron and his companion (played by a very young Sarah Polley) travel to the moon by creating a balloon out of dirty women's underwear and a stage prop. In actuality this would make no sense as the lack of atmospheric between the Earth and the moon would cause the balloon to burst, but of course where's the fun in that?

The moon he arrives on has a breathable atmosphere, but that is probably the least of its strangeness. It also happens to be ruled by an enormous king and queen (who also seem to be its only real inhabitants) with detachable heads that can float freely from their body. This rendition of the moon is quite possibly the strangest one you'll ever come across.

One of earliest serious attempts to realistically depict the lunar surface was the aptly-named Destination Moon. Here the moon was depicted through matte paintings using the best science that was available at the time. Unlike the real moon, however, we see something a bit different. The ground is largely flat and cracked, with various jagged rocks jutting up into the sky as opposed to the rolling hills that actually exist. We never see a single crater at any point in the film either, even though the real moon is covered in them.

What Destination Moon did get right was the moon's lighter gravity. The film exaggerates it slightly but if you have ever seen footage of the Apollo 11 landing you will know that the moon's gravitational pull is not as strong as that of Earth. Therefore, a human astronaut will actually weigh less on the moon than they would on Earth, which is why Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked in that bouncy fashion you see in all the old footage. It was also correct in assuming that the moon would have no atmosphere, requiring the characters to wear spacesuits outside to breathe and maintain their bodily pressure.

However, at one point the moon is mistakenly referred to as a "planet" when it is... well... a moon. Destination Moon was made long before the decision to formally set a specific list of requirements for what constitutes a planet vs. a moon or star. That was a more recent development, probably done because they got fed up with people constantly throwing the word around in anything even tangentially connected to outer space. The three rules they came up with were that a planet must orbit a star, it must be spherical and shape, and it must have a clear orbit (Pluto was demoted because its orbit goes right through the Kuiper Belt). Any naturally-formed object that orbits a planet (regardless of shape) is automatically considered a moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey was arguably a bit closer to the reality of what the moon looks like. We still see some of the jagged mountains, but it is a much smoother surface. Seeing as this movie was made a year before the first moon landing, Kubrick's resources were extremely limited (though probably less so than those available for Destination Moon). We don't see very many craters, but they are referred to by the characters (in reality, lunar craters come in a variety of sizes and depths, and they are relatively spaced out along its surface).

The monolith found by the astronauts on the moon was reported to have been found in Tycho, a real and very large crater on the moon. We only see the part of the crater that has been excavated (the whole thing has a diameter of 86 km), so it is hard to judge how accurately they captured that particular detail. At the moment we have no hard evidence of any extra-terrestrial objects being buried under the surface of the moon, at least not any that produce the magnetic field described in the movie, but we can't really be sure of anything.

The one detail of note is that there is a mistake regarding the moon's gravitational pull. The astronauts we see on the moon still walk as they would on Earth, when in actuality they would be significantly lighter and move more like the men in the old Apollo footage. This probably has to do with the simple fact that the scenes on the moon were shot on Earth. Until such a time as space travel becomes commercialized and becomes possible to shoot in location using places that are not on our planet, that's going to be an inconvenience for Hollywood productions.

Duncan Jones' Moon is probably the closest anyone has come to showing the moon as it really is. With this one you get a barren, smooth landscape with rolling hills, more like the real moon. You can even see craters in some birds-eye view shots. You can't always see them from the ground, but to be fair there usually is some distance between the moon's craters. The one aspect that does seem slightly off is the gravity. Sam Bell is only shown hopping in moon-level gravity while outside the vehicle. Meanwhile, in the base, he walks around as though on Earth. This is itself probably just a technical limitation, but one worth noting nonetheless.

As you can see, the moon is a very popular environment for movies of all sorts. The material I have covered here is only the tip of the iceberg. I haven't even gotten into all the crazy b-movie visions (Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953), the literature, or Futurama's lunar theme park (which includes an obvious reference to the famous image from A Trip to the Moon and a ride claiming the first moon landing was accomplished by stereotypical 19th century whalers).

There is something about our nearest celestial body that continues to capture the imagination of writers and artists. It may be nothing more than a big hunk of rock launched into orbit by an impact with the Earth early in its formation (though there is evidence of frozen water) but somehow it remains fascinating. Even I've written a short story that uses the lunar landscape as a backdrop.