Sunday, 30 November 2014

Women in Film Blogathon Part II: The Director's Chair

Last June I decided to run the Women in Film Blogathon and it turned out to be a remarkable success. I received ten different submissions (not including my own) spanning a wide variety of different female characters across different genres. I was already running the astonishingly successful Favorite Movie Scenes Blogathon but this one just exploded with popularity. It quickly became one of my most popular posts and even became the first to surpass the infamously controversial Why Do People Like James Bond? as the most viewed post on my blog. Even four months after it ended, it still holds the #3 spot (and that's a very recent development). Not a bad accomplishment at all.

So naturally some sort of follow-up seemed to be in order. I quickly got thinking about starting another round next year, but we got quite the selection of strong female characters in the last one. With these blogathons it's often great to find new angles to take in order to keep people interested, and I've already done a piece on strong female characters. Therefore, I've decided that for the sequel to my most successful blogathon, I'm going to shift the focus a little bit. While the first one focused on how women were represented in the movies, this time we're going to move behind the scenes and look at the women who make those films happen. More specifically, we'll be looking at female directors.

It's no secret that directing has long been a male-dominated profession. It was not until 2009, in a medium that has existed for over a century, that Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director. A large portion of my favorite directors are men. When I started the Ten Most Influential Directors of All Time relay I tried to diversify the list as much as I could but only got one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) in there and she was also the first one to go, meaning every subsequent list was entirely male.

Female directors are hard to come by, and they are greatly outnumbered by men. It's hard to deny that unfortunate truth. However, while statistically they may be outnumbered by men, women have directed movies since the beginning of film. So far as I'm aware the first female director was a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché, who made 430 movies between 1896 and 1920. That means she was working about the same time as pioneers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter, and even D.W. Griffith, almost from its very birth.

Now they have become more common over the years with changes in society. You'll certainly have an easier time finding a female director today than you would during the Studio Era, but even so they are still something of a rarity, at least when compared to the number of men in the business. It is hard for them to really stand out, so for this blogathon we will be looking at those who do.

Much as the first Woman in Film Blogathon was intended to draw attention towards strong female characters, this sequel aims to highlight the great female directors who throughout history have played a crucial role in the development of film as an art form. Your task in this blogathon is quite simply to create a profile of a female director of your choosing and to explain why you think they are a great example of women in filmmaking.

Naturally, I think it's important we set down some rules:
  1. Only one director per post. However, if you wish you can do multiple submissions covering different directors.
  2. Try not to focus too much on one particular film by your chosen director. For instance if you're writing about Kathryn Bigelow please don't just send me a review of The Hurt Locker. You don't have to go through their entire filmography but you should discuss enough of their movies to demonstrate an understanding of their style.
  3. You can pick a director from any time period or any country you wish.
  4. Include the above banner in your entry.
To help give you some ideas, I have compiled a list of some names I have managed to find, both from my own experiences and through Google searches. This is hardly a complete list, but it should serve as a reasonable starting point.
  • Gillian Armstrong
  • Andrea Arnold
  • Alice Guy-Blaché
  • Kathryn Bigelow
  • Jane Campion
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Julie Delpy
  • Claire Denis
  • Maya Deren
  • Nora Ephron
  • Jodie Foster
  • Mary Harron
  • Amy Heckerling
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Karyn Kusama
  • Ida Lupino
  • Jennifer Chambers Lynch*
  • Lucrecia Martel
  • Mira Nir
  • Kimberly Pierce
  • Sarah Polley
  • Sally Potter
  • Leni Reifenstahl**
  • Lone Sherfig
  • Julie Taymor
  • Agnès Varda

*Yes, she is in fact the daughter of David Lynch, a man you should be very familiar with if you've been following my blog.
** Yes, I am aware she had connections to the Nazis and directed one of their most infamous propaganda films but she still left a major impact on other filmmakers. I'm also not 100% certain if she made said infamous propaganda film because she legitimately supported the Nazis' intentions or if it was simply because she was paid to and/or didn't want to get into trouble with the Gestapo or S.S. (hardly an unreasonable desire for the time period) Maybe if you want to write about her you could shed a bit more light on the subject.

Once you've posted your entry, there are a few ways you can submit it. The simplest would be to post a link in the comments, but you can also send it to me by twitter or by e-mail if you so choose. Once I have your submission I'll post it below for everyone to see. If you have any further questions you can post them in the comments and I will do my best to help you.

In the event that you would like to join but are having trouble finding a suitable entry, you can drop me an e-mail using the contact form on the side, and I will do my best to help you. I can't make any promises. Heck, I can't even really claim to be an expert in this field myself, but I'll do whatever I can and hopefully we'll work something out. If nothing else, perhaps I could redirect you to one of my other blogathons and help you find something to contribute for one of those instead. One good thing about hosting multiple blogathons at once is after all that different people may be attracted to different ideas.

For this blogathon I've decided to place the deadline for December 31. Hopefully that will give anyone interested a month to put your articles together. I don't think I've ever seen a blogathon quite like this one before. I've seen director-centric blogathons where contributors are asked to review a specific film by a famous director like Steven Spielberg or John Ford, but not ones where you were asked to write about a specific director, so it should be interesting to see the results.


Dell on Movies: Kasi Lemmons

Big Screen Small Worlds: Nicole Holofcener

Hitchcock's World: Kathryn Bigelow

NOOOOvember: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I remember back in 2007 there was a lot of hype and buildup in the media of something that was really not a very big deal but kinda interesting. In May that year, there were actually three third movies being released all to very popular franchises. There was Shrek The Third, Spider-Man 3, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Sadly, all three turned out to be major disappointments. While I personally enjoyed Shrek The Third at the time, it was critically panned and also marks the end of my involvement with the Shrek series. I never saw Spider-Man 3 but from what I've been told I'm not particularly inclined to, but the biggest disappointment would have to be Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

This was a movie I was hyped up about. At the time I was huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which should hardly be surprising as I've always had a bit of a soft spot for pirates. They were fun, action-packed adventures but really that's all they were. What helped to make Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl work was that it was simply a fun little adventure story with a few great characters. Then later on we got a sequel, Dead Man's Chest, that was also kinda fun. It might not have been as good as the first one but it still had some action, an interesting villain, and some of the witty humor that made the first film so enjoyable.

Jar of dirt, anyone?
So naturally, I was hyped by the release of the third one especially since the second one had to end on a cliffhanger. Boy was I in for a disappointment. I've cited a few possible explanations for why I didn't like it over the years, but now I think I finally understand what the problem was: the writers simply went way too far and changed it up way too much. Normally it's not a bad thing to change up sequels to present something new. Terminator 2: Judgement Day went in quite a few different directions from James Cameron's original The Terminator (you'll hear about that in more detail soon, I promise) but there's trying something new and completely failing to understand why people liked the previous installments.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided making a fun pirate film wasn't good enough. No, they felt they had to make a nearly three-hour epic along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia. Seriously, what were you guys thinking? This isn't Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World it's Pirates of the Caribbean. This franchise is supposed to be light-hearted fun and adventure.

Instead of maybe having our heroes learn about some sort of treasure they can try and claim with maybe some new competitors, they start bringing out all this overly elaborate political intrigue involving a coup by the East India Trading company, an attempt to break into the afterlife to rescue Jack, and massive globe trotting in an effort to unite the various "Pirate Lords". Yeah, apparently piracy is actually a culture now, complete with an international system of government and if they don't stop the EITC piracy will vanish from the seas forever. IT'S FRIGGIN' PIRACY! EVEN IF BECKETT SOMEHOW MANAGED TO KILL EVERY PIRATE LIVING ON THE PLANET ALL IT WOULD TAKE IS SOME GUY STEALING A SHIP AND THEN ROBBING FROM ANOTHER SHIP! THAT'S WHAT PIRACY IS! IT'S LIKE ANY OTHER CRIMINAL ACTIVITY THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BEING IT IS BASED IN WATER!

Now as if it weren't enough that they were trying to turn Pirates of the Caribbean into Lawrence of Arabia, they also go and kill off a whole bunch of major characters from the earlier films. Did Norrington really have to die? I think I get what they were trying to do but if they wanted him to redeem himself he could have easily escaped with the others. He could have just climbed on that rope and then shot the end of it so that they'd all end up in the water or maybe tried to stab Bootstrap Bill with the sword he was established to have when the latter tried to alert the crew. It seemed a bit wrong the way he just let himself get overpowered and stabbed.

The biggest problem with At World's End is quite simply that they tried to connect it too closely to the previous films. What they should have done is just end Dead Man's Chest with some kind of resolution and then made the third film as a self-contained adventure story. That's all it should have been, plain and simple. People don't go into Pirates of the Caribbean looking for political intrigue. That's what people go to see the Bourne series for. Lawrence of Arabia worked as an epic because of its dramatic subject matter. Just as that film would never have worked as a swashbuckler adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean should not be a three-hour epic.

Believe it or not, I actually enjoyed On Stranger Tides mainly because they actually made a sequel the way they were supposed to. No more overly convoluted political intrigue this time. It was Jack and a few returning cast members joining a bunch of new characters for a fun adventure with lots of crazy action. That's all it was, and that's all it should be.

I'm sorry if this felt a little rushed. I literally just found out about Cara Schuster's NOOOOvember. I felt like I needed to contribute something but it was the last day and I'm going to be busy later on. Hopefully you've still enjoyed this little rant about a disappointing movie.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: French Movies

Oh crap. With everything that's been going on right now I completely forgot about this. This week, the theme of Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is French cinema, a topic I know fairly well. I won't claim to be an expert but I've seen my share of French movies, some good, some bad, some alright. This is a bit late, but at least it does mean it will actually be posted on Thursday for once.

Now, I've decided to do things a little bit different this time. I'm going to include a good French movie, a bad French film, and a hidden gem that isn't as good as the good French movie but still better than the bad one. Let's begin.

A Man Escaped (1956)

I've brought this one up a few times before, one of the better experiences of my film classes. There's no shortage of terrible films I've had to watch, but once in a while there ends up being a pleasant surprise here and there. Typically it's some movie I've never heard of or was afraid to watch that turned out to be pretty good. Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped was one of those films. It's an interesting little piece that relies heavily on building tension through sound and extremely limited narration by withholding any information outside the central character's range of knowledge. The result is a compelling story about a man who has to work with limited resources to systematically find a way out of a Nazi prison, with both him and the viewer constantly aware that the slightest mistake could mean the difference between success and failure.

Alphaville (1965)

By this point, I think I've have made it clear how I feel about this movie, but let's go over it again. Aside from being a painful experience to sit through, the plot makes no sense and is totally incoherent, the characters are dull and uninteresting, and there is nothing to keep me invested in this film. Literally not a single redeeming feature exists, and to top it all off it is an insult to the dignity of science fiction writers everywhere. Alphaville is ostensibly a dystopian story set in a future with interplanetary travel, but this has got to be the laziest, most pathetic vision that has ever been put on film. By "vision" I of course mean there isn't one at all. No future technology, no architectural changes or alien landscapes. It literally just plunks the characters into 1960's Paris and injects the word "galaxy" into random lines so that Jean-Luc Godard can point at it and shout "see, see, they're using space words. IT'S THE FUTURE!" I mean imagine if instead of creating a fascinating new world in Blade Runner Ridley Scott just filmed everything in 1970's Los Angeles and injected the word "nebula" into random lines of dialogue in a desperate attempt to convince people it was the future.

Queen to Play (2009)

This story of a middle-aged chambermaid who discovers an unexpected talent for the game of Chess might not be the greatest technical achievement in the history of French cinema, but it is a simple and emotional film that will keep you interested. It's kinda like one of those scrappy underdog sports films... but about Chess. It's a good movie for anyone who knows the rules of the game and has experience playing it, though it might be confusing to someone who isn't. Chess motifs are naturally rampant throughout and there are lots of tense scenes involving Chess games.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dredd to Judge

You remember that one time I wrote about buddy cop movies and noted how such movies almost exclusively paired up two guys even in more modern incarnations like Hot FuzzThe Heat is one of the few exceptions as it turned things around by introducing a pair of female cops, and before that you have the TV series Cagney and Lacey. Either way they still seem to be very gender-exclusive. You'll see plenty of white/black pairings but very rarely any male/female buddy cops, at least not any good ones. The closest things I had to exceptions were The Enforcer (which might have worked if not for that horrendously disappointing finale, and they didn't insist on putting her in heels) and Theodore Rex (in which Whoopi Goldberg's male partner is a talking dinosaur... I SWEAR THIS REALLY HAPPENED!)

Well, I might just have finally found a good male/female buddy cop film, among other things in Dredd. I've never read the Judge Dredd comics on which it was based and know little beyond the extreme basics of its premise. What I do know is the character was completely botched thanks to the work of Sylvester Stallone who made infamous the line "YOU BETRAYED THE LRAW". After going in to see 2012's Dredd for the last week of one of my classes, all I knew was a vague idea of its premise and assurances from people who had seen it that this would be better than the Stallone version. After having to sit through Rambo: First Blood Part II for the same class, I quickly realized that "better than Stallone" wasn't a very high standard to meet. Fortunately, it didn't disappoint.

Dredd was a pretty fitting way to end a class about action films, not just from a chronological perspective (we looked at the history and development of action films) but also because it combined a lot of concepts we'd discussed over course of the semester (and by extension on this blog). Urban vigilantism is in there for sure; imagine if all cops acted like Dirty Harry and you get a pretty clear sense of the setting. Even with that change in tone, Dredd still has to take the law into his own hands for much of the film if for slightly different reasons than usual (being cut off from police headquarters rather than fed up with their bureaucracy). Also bringing in some of the "gun fu" action, the climax does have a bit of resemblance in part to that of John Woo's Hard Boiled, though Dredd is still a far better movie.

The premise of the heroes being trapped in a tower overrun by gangsters is reminiscent of the "Die Hard on an X" formula popularized in the late 80's and continuing into the 90's (the villain is even dispatched similarly to Hans Gruber), but it also breaks a lot of rules about that same trend. As I've discussed earlier, "Die Hard on an X" films generally center on a single protagonist working to outwit a group of terrorists who have hijacked a confined environment (i.e. a mall, an airplane, a boat, etc.) and generally emphasize outdated masculine values. With perhaps Red Eye as a partial exception, the heroes of these movies are almost always male.

In Dredd? Not only are the conventions subverted by having two characters working together instead of one working alone, but Anderson also serves as a co-protagonist and is far from being a hostage. Even when she does get captured, she doesn't sit around waiting for her male co-star to come to the rescue. She tricks her executioner into blowing his own arm off and proceeds to easily escape on her own. Even better is that when a corrupt cop tries to trick her into letting her guard down, Anderson sees right through the deception within seconds. In fact, Anderson ends up saving the life of Judge Dredd. Also great is that she has an unusual psychic ability and she is constantly taking advantage of it. We got a strong female lead here... but wait a minute what's this? There's another one.

Yes, I couldn't go through discussing the women in this film without bringing up the final boss. This is a women with an extensive amount of power and who knows how to use it, which should hardly be surprising considering she is played by Lena Headey A.K.A. Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. When I say that she has power, I don't just mean she's a femme fatale who is good as seducing men. I mean she is in control of everything, with full command over a gang made up primarily of men. Such a display of power was a refreshing change.

What's worse than pissing off Cersei Lannister? Pissing off Cersei Lannister when she has access to three miniguns.

The Dirty Harry parallels are numerous throughout Dredd. Aside from the lead character himself, the four corrupt judges resemble the four young officers who serve as the antagonists of Magnum Force. More prominently is that the dynamic between Dredd and Anderson is reminiscent of what was attempted in The Enforcer. Anderson's introductory scene in which Dredd admits his concern about working with her calls to mind the scene where Harry Callahan first meets inspector Kate Moore. Similarly their relationship grows from her tagging along to please their superiors to Dredd gradually coming to respect her. Even the climax in which Anderson is wounded bears some resemblance to Moore being shot. Fortunately, Dredd allowed Anderson to wear practical gear instead of forcing her to do chase scenes in heels and skirts and she didn't have a pointless and contrived death scene shoved into a disappointing climax.

Slow motion is also something that's been really big in action movies lately, and here it is used to interesting effect. It was used a lot in John Woo's early action movies and later popularized by The Matrix, but what is really odd here is that it has a diegetic quality not usually present. The slow motion sequences literally have an in-universe explanation (a major part of the story is a drug that causes people to perceive the world in slow motion). This leads to a curious approach in a lot of the action scenes. They will frequently allow us to see the violence as through we are junkies getting high on this drug and frequently jarring us by abruptly bringing returning to a more normal speed. This film is definitely not for the faint of heart, as the slow motion allows the violence to be seen in extremely gory detail.

The character of Dredd also has some resemblances to the hardbodied action heroes of the 1980's. This is the type of character that becomes less a human and more a machine that may need maintenance. Hardbodied heroes rarely get injured and when they do, it takes little to put them back in action. Dredd shows himself to be slightly more vulnerable when he takes a bullet and has to be saved by Anderson, but once he's safe all it takes is some quick first aid to become a formidable threat again. Dredd does have a machine-like personality in how strictly he adheres to his rules, and the fact that we learn little about him.

Unlike Stallone's version, who couldn't let his handsome face be obscured for too long, Dredd never removes his helmet meaning we never get a good look at his face (which I've been told fits more in line with the comic). We also find out nothing of Dredd as a person. There is not so much as a single hint to his backstory or personal life. He is a character who seems to be programmed for the job, strictly following the rules he has been designed to obey and incapable of breaking them. This in turn makes Anderson a perfect foil as the inexperienced rookie cop who appears more human insofar as she actually displays emotion. It ties back to the buddy cop formula in an odd way, as Dredd puts a dark twist on the "by-the-book" cop while Anderson seems to be the "wild" cop by comparison.

Story-wise, things could get a bit disorienting at first, but it won me over by the end. Judge Dredd might just be the ultimate action movie; every major subgenre of action (or at least as many as would fit): urban westerns, "Die Hard on an X", buddy cops, "gun fu", hardbodied heroes, "wise-guy" heroes. You name it, it's in here, all rolled up neatly into one tidy little bundle of exciting action and suspense you won't want to miss. Dredd is definitely a lot better than the Stallone film, but it is also a very good film in its own right. Certainly worth seeing if you can take the gore and a little bit of disorientation.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Announcing Free Action Movie Week: YOU Pick the Movies

So back in July shortly after I saw Under the Skin at the Lightbox, I found out to my surprise that my friend Ryan McNeil of The Matinee had been there roughly the same time as me seeing The Immigrant. He was surprised to find out I was based in Toronto as well and invited me to a monthly gathering of film bloggers. Typically we meet at a pub once a month (though we're not doing it in December) where we hang out, have drinks, discuss movies, blogging projects, blindspots, and other things. I've met quite a few people at these gatherings, but last night something a bit more unusual happened.

One of the bloggers there (I'm sorry, I forgot which one; with so many people it's easy to lose track) brought a bag full of DVD's and told us to "pilfer" it. To say that we did was an understatement and I walked out with a large pile of FREE MOVIES. As it also happens I'm nearing the end of the semester and in two weeks I'll be finished my exams. After all that the strain of my courses gets to my head, and if last year was anything to go on it's time for lots of action films and comedies. Naturally taking this into account I decided to stock up on action movies (there were several in the bag), there were one or two I'd seen, others I'd heard of, and some I'd never heard of but decided to take anyway since they were free.

There's just one problem. I have a tendency to sometimes have trouble deciding on what movies I want to watch, especially under these circumstances. My tendency to run into this problem was one of the reasons I got involved with the Blindspot Challenge in the first place, but I've got a solution. I'm going to take the choice right out of it. I'm not going to pick the movies, you will.

I now have an account on Letterbox (I had to get one in order to warn somebody about the dangers of putting Alphaville on their Blind Spot List), and since I happen to have it I have compiled a list of the action films I picked up for free at that pub night. What I'd like you to do is list your top five recommendations in the comments below. On Wednesday, December 10; after my final exam is done I'll compile the top five most popular choices and over the course of December 15-19 I will watch and review one each day.

In other news, I've decided to tone down my Voyage to the Stars Blogathon; the status report is now optional, you may stop after the plan of action if you do not feel comfortable writing it. Also keep an eye out for two other blogathons I have lined up for December, both follow-ups to my hugely successful Women in Film Blogathon that preserve a similar structure but take it in new directions. One is a spin-off which will shift focus to a different but equally important social issue, the other is a sequel that will continue to look at women in film but in a new perspective.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Female Soldiers and the Combat Film

I was on the IMDB homepage when I stumbled across a trailer for some mockumentary called Alien Outpost (A.K.A. Outpost 37, the page wasn't very clear on which one was the correct title). It was sort of a science fiction story combining the alien invasion subgenre of science fiction with the old-fashioned combat film in a vaguely similar vein to Battle: Los Angeles. However, one thing I quickly noticed about the movie was the general (and seemingly unnecessary) lack of female characters. I didn't see a single actress listed in the cast. In the trailer I couldn't see so much as a single female civilian, and it got me wondering about a few things.

If this were being made in the 1950's the all-male military would be a bit more understandable, but that's not what I was seeing. What I was seeing was a contemporary movie made in a world where women joining the army as soldiers with combat training was not so unusual. For whatever reason, these filmmakers, despite the fact that they are in a world where they should know better, made a conscious decision not to include even so much as a single female soldier for no apparent reason.

Worse still, this is the second time I've had to make a post on the IMDB message boards criticizing the movie for lacking any strong female characters when it didn't need to (the first being Black Sea). If you thought the comment I got there was bad, I got an even stupider and more blatantly sexist reply to this one. A user by the name of "nipple_blaster" gave me this answer:

"Because it's an action movie, not a cooking show."

Yeah, that's right. He basically just tried to tell me that action heroines don't exist... except of course for Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Xena, Buffy Summers, Lara Croft, Black Widow, Sif, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, The Bride, and... yeah, whoever he is he obviously has no idea what he's talking about. Am I going to have to start enforcing more rules about this kind of thing? I've already started "boycotting" all firefighter movies that don't have a strong female firefighter in the main cast. Am I going to have to do the same for other jobs? Why is this still a thing that people do? In this day an age, we should be trying to diversify our casts unless there is a very clear reason why it needs to be entirely men.

Naturally this brings me to the subject of women in the military, something that has only recently started to open up to mixed-gender squads. The war genre has been notorious for its frequent exclusion of women, largely due to the fact that the majority of war films are set in (or some cases made during) conflicts where women were barred from active military service. Now granted, this hasn't stopped some films from trying to find ways to incorporate women but generally you don't see female soldiers. During World War II, this would make a certain degree of sense as so far as I'm aware Russia was the only country that allowed women to serve all the way through (I have been told that the Germans did allow women to enlist eventually, but only right at the end when everything was crashing down around them). Nowhere is that clearer than in the subgenre of war films known as the combat film.

"Combat films" are a trend that got started in Hollywood during the 1940's as a way of encouraging Americans to support their military's involvement with World War II, though their routes may extend as far back as the Soviet Montage films of the 20's such as Battleship Potempkin. The formula goes that they are based on a small group of soldiers, typically an extremely diverse group sometimes even of mixed race even though that would not have been possible at the time (but all men, of course; mixing race was okay but even though it would have made just as much sense for the time mixing gender was unthinkable). The plots of such films generally centered on a sense of comradeship building up among the squad, with an emphasis on sacrifice (they liked to enforce the idea that the soldiers died for a cause). Also common was for the enemy soldiers to be stripped of all their humanity, being kept completely anonymous to eliminate the emotional repercussions of killing another human being.

Combat films are generally associated with World War II, but technically have been made since its ending. The Green Berets attempted to apply the basic formula of the World War II combat films to the War in Vietnam, again in an effort to generate support. By most accounts it didn't work and this ended up being the only major attempt at pro-Vietnam propaganda. Strangely enough, however, that one was able to incorporate a strong female lead (at least as strong as a woman could get in 1968). Sure it takes forever for Lin to appear and she isn't a soldier herself but she does manage to provide valuable assistance to the men.

Even today, the combat film still manages to form in one way or another. Saving Private Ryan might just be one of the best examples you can find of a modern combat film, even preserving some of the pro-American undertones (although it is more open to showing that the Allies were not always the "good guys"). Apocalypse Now has some elements of the combat film insofar as much of the narrative concerns the interactions between a small group of characters on a boat and there is a bizarre and twisted sense of honor. Full Metal Jacket arguably has some traces of the combat in its second half, even if it goes in some weird directions with them. Other more recent combat films include Black Hawk Down and to a lesser extent The Hurt Locker.

Bringing it all full-circle, I even have a script of my own, In the Line of Duty, that is in some ways reminiscent of the old-fashioned combat movies... or is it? While structurally it is similar, it is in many ways an anti-combat film, using the same approach to demonstrate precisely the opposite message. The enemy soldiers are still anonymous but no less human than the leads, the emotional repercussions of their deaths being made very clear. Instead of a sense of sacrifice for a cause there is an emphasis on the general lack of heroics and a sense of the characters' deaths being meaningless. In short, I basically use the structure of films meant to encourage people to support the war effort in order to deliver an extremely anti-war message. 

In the Line of Duty is also unusual as a combat film because it has several female characters in it. While in traditional combat films the diversity was in race, background, and in some cases military branches (Bataan had among other things a sailor who gets mixed up with a group of infantrymen), there is now variety in gender as well. Without giving too much away the female characters are indeed strong, independent, and still human.

There is a reason why my script has several strong female characters that would never have been present in the old combat films of World War II. It's because of changes in society. The director of Bataan was working in a time when military service was seen as man's work. If I went back in time to 1945 and pitched my script in Hollywood they would laugh at me, probably tell me they found the idea of female soldiers unbelievable and maybe even claim it will never happen. Still, in those days it might have been less a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers and more simply the association of men with the army being so widespread that the thought of women as soldiers just never crossed anybody's minds.

I am of course writing this script in a period where that is no longer such a radical idea. Up here in Canada the army may still be a male-dominated profession on a statistical level, but there is no longer any bars regarding where women can and cannot serve. The American army is still a bit more restrictive (last I checked women still are not allowed to join the marines, rangers or Navy SEALs) but they're making progress. It would only make sense that things improve in the future unless you believe in the world envisioned by Futurama (where women were re-banned from the army due to an incident that most definitely had nothing to do with the insane commander Zap Brannigan, who is himself totally not a sexist genocidal maniac).

Indeed, science fiction seems to be the one genre which embraces the idea of female soldiers. Even modern war films do not show them very often. The presence of female soldiers was one thing that helped initially get me excited about Edge of Tomorrow and Emily Blunt certainly played a strong character. She had that right balance of qualities, being tough and getting to show it but also being human. The film may have technically centered around Tom Cruise but it is established that the exposure to the alien time-warping technology happened to her long before and she becomes crucial to saving the day.

Even James Cameron got in on the act back in 1986 when he made Aliens. Vasquez was a cool character, often one the roles best remembered from the film (aside from Ripley, of course). It is easy to forget that the film actually starts with three female marines (one of them is among the first to die, and the second follows not long after), but Vasquez is every bit as tough as the men, possibly even harder. She does eventually get killed, yes, but not without putting up a fight (literally going out with a bang) and managing make it further than most of her comrades and managing to save most of the ones that remain (except, ironically, the one who got himself killed trying to help her).

Even Battle: Los Angeles, set in the present day, managed to bring in an action girl in the form of Michelle Rodriguez (who for once doesn't die). She shows up a bit later on and they explain that she's a downed pilot but she quickly becomes another soldier and an equal to the guys. Interestingly as well, Battle: Lost Angeles brings a bit of the old-fashioned combat film into a more contemporary science fiction environment. The idea of her being an air force pilot who got shot down and mixed up with a group of general infantry fits right in (similar to the sailor in Bataan), along with the racially diverse squad. This time however, Rodriguez actually adds to the diversity on three fronts. Her air force connections give her the separate background. Since she is Latino, that also adds a bit more racial diversity. Finally, her presence makes this a mixed-gender squad, something that rarely happens in a combat film.

Bringing this all back to Alien Outpost or Outpost 37 or whatever it is called, they apparently attempt to do something similar to Battle: Los Angeles in combining the alien invasion with the combat film but for whatever reason decided not to add a single woman to the cast. No apparent justification is present, and it is even established clearly to be set in the future (even though the uniforms look distinctly modern).

More baffling was the fact that the trailer explicitly featured the line "Everybody became a soldier ten years ago whether they liked it or not" and yet all we see afterwards are men in uniform. They explicitly say everyone, so it would make logical sense that there would be female soldiers in this context. Yet despite the obvious implications of such a line there is not a single woman listed in the cast or appearing in the trailer even as an extra. I suspect that this probably won't be a very good movie anyway, especially when the trailers are so poorly executed that a line meant to draw you in completely contradicts everything that is actually in the film.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

2015 Blindspot Challenge Final List

Last summer I decided to take part in Ryan McNeil's Blindspot Challenge. Basically the way it works is simple, you compile a list of those films you haven't seen but really should and narrow it down to twelve. Different people may have different methods of precisely how to narrow down their selection, most of the films I picked for last year's list were one I already owned that had put off watching, other people may have other ways of choosing their films. Once you have your list, the idea is that you watch one movie each month and then simply write your thoughts about it.

However, while it was a great oppurtunity to finally see some movies I'd been putting off, my choices were a bit limited. Since I started late in June I only had seven movies instead of the usual twelve. All of them were American (though Blue is the Warmest Color was considered as an option, but ultimately dropped due to issues of availability) and only stretched as far back as 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This time round, I am able to do the full twelve movies which allows for more variety.

I hoped to increase the range of choices to cover a longer period of time, since I go from the past decade to as far back as 1925. I also hoped to add a bit more national diversity as well. I started with a list of 29 that went up to somewhere closer to forty (and a few of them are still included as backup choices in case something goes wrong) but I've successfully cut it down to twelve. This certainly was not easy and there were several that were a bit painful to cut but I did it.

I want to thank everyone who commented on my preliminary list with their recommendations. Your feedback was very helpful and I apologize if one of your suggestions didn't make it onto the final list. However, even if your favorite didn't make the cut, keep in mind that does not in any way mean you'll never see me writing about it. It just means that if I do it will probably be a separate article.

Now, after the excitement I build up with my preliminary list, you are all probably very excited to find out which films made the final cut. Well, here is my final list, or at least what I hope to be my final list (because of what happened with The Birds this year, I've selected a handful of "backup films" in case something goes wrong with one of these movies). I have a separate page in which I'll put the links so that they will be easier to find, but I wanted to make this post to ensure that everybody sees it. Let me know of what you think of my choices in the comments below.

Strike (1925)

Modern Times (1936)

Ninotchka (1939)

Back to Bataan (1945)

The Killing (1956)

One, Two, Three (1961)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Life is Beautiful (1997)

Fight Club (1999)

Gangs of New York (2002)

Kill Bill (2003)

Atonement (2007)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why Come No Female Ghostbusters?

I've had a bit of a break from my usual university work this week, and on Monday I managed to get a lot more done in the morning than I initially expected, leaving room for a movie. I wanted to find something fun so I decided to look at something everybody else seemed to talk about but I hadn't seen since I was in Grade 3: Ghostbusters. It's a hugely popular film with some witty humor and a few amusing ideas that sort of blur the line between science fiction and supernatural. I might have even been able to enjoy it if not for one slight little issue, and frankly I can't even tell if I should have a problem with it or if my feminist side is getting overly paranoid (it happens sometimes).

Much as I tried to enjoy the film, one thought kept going through my mind: why are there no female ghostbusters? Why was it necessary for this film to be so predominantly male? I'm not sure if I should be bothered by this situation or not, but throughout the movie I couldn't help but be frustrated by the fact that nearly all the major characters of note were men, with the only women essentially being relegated to "feminine" roles, namely the damsel in distress and the secretary. The fact that Bill Murray's character Peter Venkman seemed to be bit of a pervert who couldn't stand ten feet from a woman without thinking about sex didn't help much.

The ironic thing is that the distressed damsel character, Dana Barrett, was played by none other than Sigourney friggin' Weaver. You know, the actress who made her name playing what is often considered to be one of the strongest female characters ever put on film? How come she doesn't get to bust any ghosts? All she gets to do is hang out in an apartment she knows is haunted when she should be getting the heck out of there and then because she foolishly decides not to move out ends up being possessed by extra-dimensional beings. The secretary meanwhile never really got a whole lot of depth either (she mentions being a psychic at one point, but that ability never got put to any good use) and seemed to be there only to make snarky comments in a rather irritating voice.

It could have been a cool development if they had Dana maybe learn to stand up against the ghosts in her apartment. She wouldn't need to don a proton pack right away but she could have grown to understand it and perhaps become one of the team by the end. But no, that would have made her an interesting character. Far better to reinforce outdated ideals of masculinity and have her needing to be rescued by an all-male team. Alternatively it could have been interesting if they'd given the secretary something to do, maybe having her becoming a ghostbuster in her own right before hand instead of keeping her at the desk.

For that matter, could it have worked if they'd just written one of the ghostbusters as a woman? Even if they wanted to keep the first three guys (Venkman, Spengler, and Stantz) as men, they might have still been able to make it work. There was a plot point about them recruiting new ghostbusters (and by "recruiting" I mean just taking the first person that walks in), which is how Ernie Hudson's character, Winston Zeddmore, enters the picture adding some racial diversity. Perhaps instead of just him they could have had two recruits, have Winston show up and perhaps a woman who expresses interested in busting ghosts and then they'd have five people in the climax instead of four. But who needs that? Racial diversity is great but apparently gender diversity is not according to these filmmakers.

Fortunately, the good news is that there is word going around about a reboot of ghostbusters that will feature an all-female cast. This should allow some balance at least and I guess seems fair. Since the writers of the original couldn't bother to let any women bust some ghosts why should this reboot allow men to do it? So far not much has been said but there are apparently a ton of actresses who want in on it and not without good reason. I just hope if it does end up happening they actually make the female ghostbusters strong and don't oversexualize them (I'd prefer it if they didn't modify the uniforms to accommodate exposed breasts, miniskirts, and high heels). If they can pull it off, I'll certainly be first in line to see this one. Still, that question remains: why are there no female ghostbusters and why did it take a full reboot for it to happen?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Voyage to the Stars Blogathon: Hitchcock's Entry

So far people seem to be very excited about my new Voyage to the Stars Blogathon. If you haven't read about it yet, you should get on that right away and start on your entry because this one is possibly one of the most ambitious projects I've done on this blog, possibly even one of the most ambitious blogathons in the whole blogging community. Basically, at its core it works similarly to a typical cast-a-thon in that it involves having to assemble a group of characters from different movies to fill pre-determined slots. The difference is that I've modified the structure to make the gameplay more competetive, and I've also added a few new layers.

It can be fun to put together a list of movie characters to fill out a class or to battle Eldritch otherworldly horrors, but underneath those are still just lists in the long run. This time around, once you have your cast, you get to actually do something with them. You can see the blogathon page for a full rundown of the instructions as well the specific rules and regulations I've enforced. The big thing to remember is that regardless of who you pick there must be gender and/or racial diversity. Putting together an all-white, all-male crew means an automatic disqualification.

I will also confess that this may have been a lot harder than I anticipated. My intention was to create a challenge but wow did I go above and beyond on this one? I made the blogathon and even I had trouble writing my own entry. The whole idea of the status report and plan of action seemed so much easier in theory. Now I see why most cast-a-thons don't normally go beyond the initial list. Still, this was a chance to try and work with my imagination and it was certainly a good writing exercise even if the final product wasn't exactly an Arthur C. Clarke novel.

Now that my introduction is out of the way, it's time to assemble my crew and begin the adventure.

The Crew

David Bowman (2001: A Space Odyssey)- Mission Commander

To take command of a mission as daring as this, we'll need somebody who can handle the pressure. I'm talking an extended period of time trapped in a ship that is not only confined but also isolated. This brave crew is going to be travelling lightyears from Earth, and that is not something to be taken lightly. Who better to take on the job than a man who knows just how to do that? Dave Bowman is a man who can take the heat and come out on top.

After all this was the man who was able to keep pressing forward even after his entire crew had been murdered and there was no obvious hope of returning to Earth. He was betrayed by his own artificially intelligent computer (who was, in a way, a very close friend) and watched his own partner asphyxiate  yet still managed to keep himself composed enough to deal with the situation rationally. If there is anyone who can both handle the psychological strain of prolonged isolation in deep space and keep the mission going, it is him.

Elizabeth Shaw (Prometheus)- Medic

Elizabeth Shaw is certainly an expert who knows what she's doing, even if her reasoning is at times somewhat questionable. She has a detailed working knowledge of human anatomy that could inevitably be useful in the event of a medical emergency, but the best part was that one time when, without any outside help, she successfully performed a c-section... on herself. If she could handle having an alien fetus inside of her while surrounded by double-crossing colleagues, I think she can take on any medical situation affecting another person when surrounded by crew members she can trust.

In the event that she is wounded, she should be able to take care of the problem herself (or at the very least talk one of the other crew members through the treatment) and she will get up and keep moving no matter how much pain she might be in. In addition to all this, Shaw is also an experienced archaeologist, which could come in handy if we manage to find an extraterrestrial civilization.

Eleanor Arroway (Contact)- Navigator

For a mission with the ultimate aim of venturing drastically further than humanity has ever dared to travel before, we're going to need someone who knows where we're going. We need someone who knows the night sky well. That's where Eleanor Arroway comes in. As a professional astronomer working for SETI, she knows the stars better than anyone else. She has every one labelled carefully and even has markers indicating whether any particular star could have a life-supporting planet in its orbit, and when up close who better than to navigate than someone who can observe and take the time to create a new map? She is therefore the perfect guide for a job like this one, and if by chance we do make contact with any form of extra-terrestrial life, this is the one who should do the talking.

Rosa Dasque (Europa Report)- Pilot

Meet the brave woman who will take us out into space. The thing about Rosa Dasque is that she is dedicated to the mission, and will do everything she can to contribute to its success. If something goes wrong she is willing to die if it means allowing the mission to continue. On top of all that, she's  a really good person and the kind of individual who the crew can get along with, easily.

Imoto (Conquest of Space)- Science Officer

In addition to adding a little diversity both in terms of race and being from an older film, we'll be needing someone with scientific knowledge. Dr. Arroway's astronomical skills will definitely come in handy but what if we don't find any life at our destination? We may still find things worth studying and this man is a professional. Even if we don't find life, perhaps he can at least determine if a planet is capable of supporting it, information which could be invaluable to future expeditions and even colonists.

Matt Kowalski (Gravity)- Engineer

Matt might not be the most enjoyable person to be around; his personal anecdotes can be infuriating to some people for sure. Where he excels is in being a veteran astronaut with a lifetime of experience as well as a knowledge of space travel inside and out. This guy can operate the machinery, he can fix it, and he can think outside the box when that doesn't work. When our crew is out in the middle of deep space and no other help can reach them, we're going to need someone who knows what he's doing to keep the ship running. Well, this is the guy who can do that, and even as annoyed as people sometimes get with him, he is really a nice guy underneath who genuinely cares for the safety of his partners.

Gene Kranz (Apollo 13)- Mission Controller 

Putting it quite simply, he may not be going on the mission, but he is every bit as committed to ensuring its success as the astronauts who are and seeing them brought back alive. It doesn't matter what trouble they face, he will do everything he can to help them get back. He weighs every option, considers all the facts, and never gives up no matter what the odds. He saved the three men of the Apollo 13 mission this way when their ship was damaged. If he could do that going to the moon imagine what he could do for an interstellar voyage. After all, it's hard to predict precisely what's going to happen and we'll need someone who can improvise when faced with unforeseen circumstances.

Plan of Action

I've got a plan to get my crew into space through a wormhole. Eleanor Arroway made the great discovery and she's been spending the past few weeks observing it non-stop. We've therefore been able to make the calculations for the precise launch window by which to enter the wormhole. Even better is the fact that because we've done such careful observation, we should be able to determine approximately when it will open and close, giving us a rough schedule for the crew's expedition. This also takes care of the radio transmissions. What we believe is that we can determine when the wormhole is open will be able to transmit radio waves through it to return to mission control on Earth. It won't allow for real-time conversations, and it may be hours in between messages, but it should save us the trouble of having to send communications across light years.

While my team is on the other end of the wormhole, they also plan to look for traces of similar passages leading to other systems that could aid future explorers.

Here is a real-looking diagram so you know this is authentic.

Status Report

The mission started off as scheduled. The spaceship launched without any serious difficulty and successfully entered the wormhole. Commander Bowman kept us posted as the ship went through. He described it as an unnerving process that left a sickening feeling in some of the crew, one that could easily induce seizures. He took some photos of the bright lights seen inside the wormhole.

It took about four hours to get through the whole wormhole, though that was drastically cutting down the amount of time it would have taken to travel normally, even at the speed of light. They arrived in Alpha Centuri, the closest system to our own, which allowed Dr. Arroway a chance to observe it as no human being had before. She confirmed the theory that Alpha Centurai was indeed a triple star system, with literally three suns, two of which orbit each other with a third, much smaller star orbiting both. The wormhole brought the ship towards one particular planet, made of ice, that was in between the two binary stars and the outer smaller star.

Unfortunately, much to the disappointment of both her and Shaw, none of the three planets showed immediate signs that they would be habitable. Of the two that circled the central stars, one of them Dr. Arroway described as having "A greenhouse effect that makes Venus look like Mars", and the other a rocky planet with no atmosphere. The wormhole had brought the team closer to Proxima Centurai, the outermost and smallest star, and into the orbit of an ice planet that moved around it. Due to restrictions of fuel, it was determined this was the most practical of the different worlds to explore. They were to stay here until their launch window to return to Earth.

After landing on the planet, the team began collecting information, finding that it also lacked an atmosphere. Imoto began taking trips outside, collecting samples from the surface and finding evidence of liquid water further down, though he was disappointed to report that there was no evidence of any kind of life being present under the surface. Research otherwise went on as scheduled.

Unfortunately, some of the crew did start to get restless as a result of little to be doing. Commander Bowman tried to keep everyone organized but even he came dangerously close to cracking at least once.  Dr. Arroway began occupying herself by spending a lot of time observing the sky and creating a star map. Through a series of excursions in which she sat on the observation deck and drew the stars as she saw them, she managed to create the first astronomical charts to be shown from a point other than Earth.

Rosa and Matt worked together to try and keep each other busy through maintenance on the ship. It was mostly small jobs, nothing too fancy, but the two of them got along rather nicely. At the same time, Imoto had made a remarkable discovery. After several months of collecting samples from the ice, he managed to find traces of a single-celled organism under the surface. Though he was never able to observe this species alive, it was considered a remarkable discovery that managed to excite Dr. Arroway. Dr. Shaw went on to deliver a report of her own about the discovery:

"We have found evidence of single-cellular life under the surface. I came out here hoping to find an intelligent civilization, but we have proof now that of life on other planets. We may not have found intelligence, but it gives me hope that some day we might."

Gene Kranz made a public announcement within hours of receiving Shaw's transmission. Before long news stations everywhere were detailing the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, though some were blowing it out of proportion in hilariously bizarre ways. A few days later Commander Bowman transmitted Imoto's data to Kranz at mission control, allowing scientists on Earth to being studying the new field of alien microbiology.

The launch window approached and in most respects everything went pretty smoothly. They emerged safely on our side of the wormhole. Landing was of course a whole other matter as their ship had to separate into smaller components to get through Earth's atmosphere, but they made it. Six brave men and women emerged as heroes, making a grand technological leap for humanity and paving the way for future expeditions beyond the boundaries of the Solar System.