Category Archives: Movies

Sunday Night Movie: The Caine Mutiny

Last night’s movie served a dual purpose, it functioned both as entertainment and as research. Entertainment because The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films. I dare say that I watch my Blu-ray of it more often than I do ether Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Research because my current work in progress is on one level about a dysfunctional wardroom and how that undermines the ship’s commanding officer. Now the specifics are very different in my WIP than in the classic movie. My WIP is not about a duplicitous officer and hopefully my captain is more relatable and heroic than the poor broken Queeg.

The Caine Mutiny is one of those rare film that I find difficult to watch only a portion. Many movie I can start and stop, or back in the days of channel surfing, watch a brief bit in the middle before moving on, but that has never been the case with this movie. When I had a lasrdisc player it was one of my first purchases, and when I moved to DVDs I acquired a copy in that format as well. For several years I’ve had my Blu-ray version and the film has never looked better. (Though I have yet to see a properly projected version in an actual theater.)

Based on the fantastic novel, The Caine Mutiny is the story of the officers if the DMS Caine. (Destroyer Mine Sweeper) It is World War II and Willis Seward Keith an immature offspring of a rich family has become a newly commissioned ensign in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the Caine, a duty station he views as a bitter disappointment, Willie discovers that the junkyard navy falls far below his expectations. Too young and too inexperienced to understand the nature of the Caine, Willie rejoices when the captain is replaced with hard-nosed, by-the-book, Captain Phillip Francis Queeg.

A change of command turns out to be the spark that lights a fire culminating in the ship nearly sinking and Willie along with another officer finding himself standing before a court-martial on charges of mutiny.

Truly one of the best films to come out of classic Hollywood, The Caine Mutiny not only is faithful for the original work, but where is seriously diverges from the text of the book serves the different medium without undercutting the themes and point of the source material.

If you have not seen this film, waste no time in finding a copy, it will be well worth your effort.

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Sunday Night Movie: The Shallows

I had an interest in seeing this film during its theatrical run but finding the time proved difficult and the film vanished before managed to get out to my local multiplex. The previews looked mildly interesting and a YouTube reviewer, MovieBob, gave it a decent review.

If you missed the trailed the set-up for The Shallows is fairly simple and direct. Nancy played by Blake Lively, is surfing off an isolated beach when a killer shark arrives, wounds her, and she ends up trapped on a spit of rock that is only above the ocean’s surface during low tide. Right there we have all the elements of dramatic story; a likeable, relatable protagonist; immanent, deadly threat, and a hard deadline preventing our hero from simply trying to wait out the danger.

There are the requisite emotional complications, Nancy is dealing with the loss of her mother making her estranged from her father and undercutting her sense that life has a purpose and value. A wounded seagull gives the character someone to speak to and a chance to display compassion that to heighten her likability.

Naturally with a set-up like this everyone come down the try and fail cycles of story telling. Blake has several plans to escape but they fail leaving her situation more dire with each failure.

Overall the movie was competently made and displays a few inventive techniques for handling the usually decidedly non-visual issue of telephone calls. On the whole I enjoyed watching it and on home video the film played out just fine, but this movie is not without flaws.

Shark Behavior: okay just as with Jaws, this one is a gimmie. Real sharks don’t do what sharks in movies do, but you gotta let them have it so they can have their movie.

Vision Underwater: With a device, facemask or such, to keep the eye clear of water you can not seen well under water. Certainly not enough to do the things she does. This one could have been fixed and it annoyed me.

In the ocean things do not stay put: This keep tossing me right out of the story. In the film there is a large whale carcass that draws the shark into the area. Okay that’s fine, but it stays in place throughout the entire movie. It is not beached, it is free floating. Sorry, it either goes out to sea on the currents or it washes up on the beach. It will not maintain station as a fixed point of reference.

Still, even with the flaws the movie worked on a home video level and if you like this sort of suspense this will likely work for you.

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Movie Review: Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050

So yesterday I took my traditional SuperBowl Sunday trip to Universal Studios and I had planned today’s blog post to be my opinions and impressions from that visit, particularly since this was my first chance to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but my Sunday Night Movie upset those plans.

After popping myself a big bowl of popcorn I settled onto our loveseat and started Roger Corman’s remake of his classic trashy SF satire Death Race 2000. For those who may not know the recent film franchise Death Race is considerably different from the 1970’s film that spawned them. Corman decided it was time to return to the socially satirical SF of the original, including the concept that running down pedestrians as central to the race and its purpose.

Death Race 2050 is a blast. A sharp, graphic, and funny take on the original concept. The writers updated the ideas, while remaining true to the first film’s beating heart. Being a remake 2050 hits the same major beats as the original but with enough twists and inventions that they kept the story fresh even for those of us old enough to remember the first time through this race.

Let me spoil one gag for you as an example of the film’s sharp satire.

Two named female characters has a heart to heart discussion about their lives and the sorry state of the nation without mentioning the men in their lives. They hold this conversation in the checkpoint’s “Bechdel’s Bar.”

Now, this movie is not for everyone. There’s lots of nudity, gore, and violence, but it wouldn’t Death Race without these things.

If you like the originally waste no time in streaming this modern gem.

 

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Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Originally I had planned to make a political post today but last night a couple of friend and me managed to catch a late showing of the WWII film Hacksaw Ridge.

Mel Gibson has wandered into wilderness for far less than forty years after his drunken racist rant and now returns to feature film direction with the story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist, conscientious objector, Army volunteer, and recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor and courage under fires.

This movie works very well. It takes it time introducing us the Desmond, his family, and the woman he loves and eventually marries. As we journey with him through basic training and the hostile reactions his devout pacifism provokes in his fellow soldiers we come to understand just who he is and his commitment to his convictions. The film deals fairly with those who understand and those who do not presenting us with a character who truly believes in something.

The final act of the film is where it earns its title; Hacksaw Ridge. The invasion of Okinawa was considered by many to be a preview for the upcoming invasion of the Japanese home islands and the carnage, horror, and loss of life shocked the most experiences military planners. Bisecting the island a range nickname Hacksaw Ridge presented a final and terrible obstacle to the allied forces securing the island and into the maelstrom of blood, bullets, and fire Desmond goes refusing to ever touch a weapon. Serving as medic he is credited with pulling more than 70 wounded men from the battle field under utterly horrific conditions and often without any support. The battle scenes of fast, intense, and terribly graphic, but this is a case where explicit violence and its terrible aftermath is justified. Only by seeing that horror can we truly have any hope of the slightest comprehension of Desmond’s bravery and compassion.

The cast is uniformly good, many of them are foreign nationals playing Americans, and for several playing ‘hillbillies’, people of the southern mountains. Hugo Weaving, an actor who also captivates me, is fantastic as Desmond’s father, a man broken by the horror of the Great War.

This is not a movie for everyone. It is loud, it is bloody, it is gory in a way zombies film never manage, but it also speaks to the power of convictions, celebrating the courage of a man who saved lives without taking any by his hand.

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Oh, the Horror

So I have been working on a presentation that I intend to pitch to our local SF conventions, a history of zombie films. I’m treating the movies like an evolutionary tree and it’s been a challenge, a fun one, putting the presentation together.

Here is one of the slide to give you an impression of how the thing is looking.

The downside has been some of the research. Now mind you no one at all is making me watch any film. It’s just that your host and narrator is a bit of a masochist.

Hell of the Living Dead, a low budget Italian rip-off movie, (they even steal who music cues from the 1979 Dawn of the Dead)truly tasked me. I couldn’t watch more than 20 minutes at a time and so it was over several night before I completed that one. From the look of it I’d say the producers couldn’t afford to have more than 8 zombie extras in any single scene. It also boasted the least convincing military special forces unit ever. From their equipment, their ‘tactics’, and utterly non-uniform hair, nothing about these men resonated as anything other than second rate actors trying to look tough. Besides insulting the military the film also offended anyone with a care for the social sciences. Truly I had never heard of naked anthropology before. It was the second most gratuitous nude scene I had witnessed. (The first goes to the Roger Corman production of Forbidden World where two female characters have a shower in order discuss what to do about the rampaging killing monster.)

I also watched Shock Waves, an early film with NAZI zombies and Peter Cushing wishing desperately he was back aboard the Death Star. Really, given nothing to do but repeat bad exposition that had already been given in a prologue voice-over, Cushing still performed like a champ and a professional. However this film was a load of slow nothing with aquatic NAZI zombies who can apparently be killed by having their eye-gear removed.

Oh well, this Sunday I go the Universal Studios Hollywood and tat will be fun and relaxing.

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Protagonists, Heroes, and Anti-Heroes

One of the frustrations and beauties of the arts is that they are subjective. There is no quantifiable standards to most of that arts that can be applied for a good/bad judgment, it is matters of taste and opinion. What follows here are my opinions on how you differ the roles of Protagonist, Hero, and Anti-Hero. I realized that my definitions are not quite in line with what most people use and that’s just fine, but if they make sense to you, please feel free to use them.

When we talk about story these three terms get tossed about quite a bit; Hero, Protagonist, and Anti-Hero but I don’t feel everyone is using them in the same manner. I am going to discuss this in relation to the lead character of a story, but side stepping just what it means to be the lead character. That is a subject for its own essay.

A hero is a character whose goals and means are aligned with what is considered by society to be good. Certainly Superman fits the definition. His goals are justice, to protect those unable to protect themselves, and to bring wrong doers to justice. To achieve his goal Superman will not do evil. He defines that as no more violence than is required, to not kill, and so on. Many western ‘good guys’ are heroes. Will Kane in High Noon has the goal of saving the town from Frank Miller, and you know what sort of man Frank Miller is. However to achieve his goal he will not blow up the train with innocents aboard, he will not hide and gun Frank Miller down from ambush. The code of the hero binds him in means as tightly as it does in goals.

A protagonist is simply the lead character in a story who has a major objective and faces serious opposition in achieving those objectives. Morality has no place in the assignment of the category ‘protagonist.’ A Hero is often a protagonist, but a protagonist need not be a hero. Consider for example Walter Neff from the classic film Double Indemnity. His goals are clear, he wants the girl and he wants the money, these goals by themselves are neither good nor bad, but to achieve them he is willing to commit fraud and murder. Neff is no hero but he is clearly the protagonist.

Anti-Hero is the term that I think is most abused. Too often I see it applied to a protagonist that has amoral or immoral means and objectives. I have people describe Walter Neff from Double Indemnity as an anti-hero, or Walter White from Breaking Bad, but these characters while protagonists are not anti-heroes as I see that category. To me the anti-hero is someone who still has the hero’s objectives, but has abandoned the restrictions on how those objectives are achieved. A classic example of this is Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry franchise of films. Callahan in Dirty harry never is self-serving, his goal is a societal good the reduction or elimination of crime, particularly violent crime. However to get to his end Harry will use any means at his disposal, torture for example ceases to be an objective wrong and becomes tool the anti-hero deems allowable for his just goal. Westerns and police drams lead the way in placing the anti-hero in the forefront of American Culture but the concept of a hero whose hands are not tied quickly spread fast throughout popular culture that now the very thought of a hero who will not make the ‘hard choices’ to save the day feels antiquated. Think about how much Captain America seems out of step with the world he now inhabits.

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Promise and Flavor in Storytelling

SF Author Nancy Kress, on of my favorites, in her book on the craft of writing speaks about the promise an author makes to the reader when starting a story. Her argument is that the opening promises is a very critical thing and ties in closely to how the author should end the tale.

For examples – and this is my own and not an example I believe that she has used – the movie Star Wars clearly telegraphs its fairy tale and mythic roots even before the opening scrawl has begun. Fairy tale are stories of moral instruction with clearly defined good and evil and conclude with evil defeat. Given that opening promise if the story had ended with the defeat of the rebellion and the turning of Luke to the dark side of the force audience would have felt betrayed, even though such an ending would have been culturally consistent with other films and television of the era. Just a few years earlier Francis Ford Coppola shot to directorial stardom with the Godfather. The promise of the opening is a story about family &loyalty, and the corruption that they can bring. Michael’s fall from a moral man – ‘That’s my father Kay, not me.” – to a crime lord is a payoff on that promise as expected as Luke’s destruction of the Death Star.

That is not to say the ending are predictable but rather that are consistent with the promise and do not violate it.

Flavor is a different concept but one that is related to the promise. To me flavor is the overall philosophical tone of the piece. It can be nihilistic such as Soylent Green, optimistic such as Star Wars or even cynical such as any really good noir. Making sure your tone complements your promise is a critical design issue in storytelling.

I have recently criticized a number of movies for their cynical nature, but it is because I do not think that the flavor they used complemented the promises.

Sunday night I streamed the movie Night Crawler on Netflix. It is a deeply cynical nihilistic film about a sociopath and how society encourages the expression of his sociopathic actions for our entertainment. It is truly one of the darkest and deeply cynical film I have watched, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Promise and Flavor are wedded in this film and though it is by far not for everyone it’s a terrific example of how to do dark right.

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SHERLOCK’s Evolution

2010 the BBC release into the wild an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s classic detective the television show; SHERLOCK. My wife, who loves all things British, and I caught the series from the start and were immediately entranced. By coincidence just a few weeks earlier I had decided to read A Study in Scarlet, the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes and his trusted aid and friend Doctor John Watson. The premier episode of Sherlock was titled A Study in Pink and it was a direct adaptation of that first novel.

Having the original novel fresh in my mind deepened my application of what the show endeavored to achieve; an adaptation of the original stories but in a contemporary setting. They navigated the tricky channels of this news course. Many of the things that made Holmes so far ahead of his time in 1887 are now simply standard police procedure, finding a way to bring in the character’s brilliance and unorthodox views was a challenge that I think the writers, producers, directors, and cast achieved.

Last night my wife and I went to our local movie theater for the series four finale of Sherlock. I had a thoroughly good time but it has occurred to me that an evolution has transpired over the course of four season and seen years. Sherlock has transitioned from one genre to another.

A Study in Pink, while populated by extreme characters such as Sherlock and Mycroft, sits firmly within the genre Detective Fiction. Last night’s episode, The Final Problem with it fantastic devices, super-human abilities, and a villain toying with the heroes by means of death traps, seems to me as something that belong in the genre of Superhero Fiction.

The Final Problem is not the transition, that occurred some time ago but it did not happen all at once. Gradually, as the stakes rose, as the antagonists grew and heroes swelled to outpace them, the stories slipped further and further from being about a man who can deduce to about the struggles between people with abilities beyond that of normal humans.

Mind you I am not complaining. I enjoyed my excursion last night and regret none of the time I have spent watching the series, but I do think that this change in tone is something worth commenting upon.

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It’s not the Close-ups, it’s the Script

A failed film that I still enjoy and own on blu-ray home video is the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. (I also own a copy of the original which I had seen some years earlier at a local art house theater.) Th film is fun, the actors are talented, and the music endearing, but the film is seriously flawed and the theatrical release version is substantially different from the original cut. The blu-ray hosts both version the original release a director’s cut restoring the ending. In the following discussion there will of course be spoilers for the film and one for the television series Breaking Bad. (Trust me it will make sense to link the two properties.)

Still with me? Good.

The original ending of the film, just as with the stage play, our hero, Seymour Krelborn feeds his dead girlfriend to the carnivorous, intelligent, and evil plant Audrey II (Named after the girlfriend) and then later himself in a bizarre suicide. The film continues for more than seven minutes of the plant and its offspring conquering the world until it burst from the screen to threaten the audience directly.

The ending played horribly with test audience and reshoots quickly changed the ending. Now Audrey I, the girlfriend, survived her wounds, Seymour battles Audrey II and saves the world with only a hint that the danger has not been fully bested.

Even with the happy ending the film never found a wide audience and continues on as a minor cult favorite. In interviews and audio commentaries Director Frank Oz as stated that he had not understood the power of ‘close-up’ and how they transform an audience’s relationship to the characters and thinks this is why the test audiences rejected a movie where the hero dies at the end. The close-up had erased the distance and now the audience possessed too much empathy for such an ending to work.

I think his analysis is wholly wrong.

In the story Seymour, poverty stricken and almost certainly doomed to a life on skid row discovers that through the alien plant he can have fame, wealth, and love of the girl he adores, Audrey. The wrinkle is that the plant feeds on blood, human blood and quickly its appetite grows beyond what he can safely provide from pricked fingers. Audrey II manipulated Seymour’s infatuation with Audrey I to convince Seymour to murder her boyfriend, a cruel and sadistic dentist, so that the corpse can be fed to the plant.

When Seymour goes armed with a pistol to kill the dentist a serous of comedic accidents lead to the situation where the dentist is suffocating on laughing gas and Seymour stands by and does nothing as he dies.

In articles published before the movie was released Oz confessed to shooting the story in such a way as the preserve Seymour’s innocence and not make him a blatant murderer. He failed.

In Breaking Bad the protagonist Walter White goes on a five season decent into evil until he transforms into a thoroughly rotten man. At one point, rather than loose an associate to a new girlfriend, Walter stands by and watched as the girlfriend, passed out from a heroin binge, chokes to death on her own vomit.

In both case the characters were presented with the ability to prevent a death and took a knowing and willful act to do nothing, both are murderers.

An altered song from the soundtrack stressed how the play understood this dynamic but that Frank Oz did not. There is a song, and it’s quite good, call The Meek Shall Inherit. The song plays out with a chorus as Seymour is presented with numerous contracts and deals to solidify his fame, fortune and change of luck. Seymour almost rejects the offers, knowing that means more blood, more bodies, more murder, but he fear of losing Audrey is too powerful and knowing all this he signs. The song ends with chorus sings that ‘the Meek will get what’s coming to them.’ In the film, both versions, the entire second half of the song with Seymour’s knowing decision has been edited out. The set-up for the ending has just been removed.

These two elements are the largest factors why that ending didn’t play, the story was altered so that it promised one thing and delivered another. Few stories can survive that. You have to set-up and payoff the right ending for the right story.

Two other elements, not as critical, also play into the film’s failure.

First, this was 1986 and dark film about doomed heroes were on the outs. The cinematic landscape demanded relentless upbeat movies and clear heroic victories, big mainstream movies no longer engaged in ending that were better suited to the 1970s.

Second, seven minutes of the monsters taking over the world? In a movie that ran a total of 103 minutes, not even two hours? It’s dull to watch that much film roll bye without a single character that is known the audience. Al the named characters are dead or gone, it’s spectacle for the point of doomed and dark ending that won’t play in that decade.

No, Mr. Oz, it was not the close-up of Rick Moranis or Ellen Green that doomed your movie, it was botched story telling.

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Revisiting: Aliens

Last night I pulled down by big blu-ray boxed set for the Alien films and selected 1986’s Aliens as my Sunday Night Movie. At the start the disc presented me with a choice; 1986 theatrical release or the 1992 Special Edition? I selected the Special Editions and settled in with my bowl of popcorn.

The film is as fast and as exciting as ever and I have seen the special edition before but on this viewing my connection to the film seemed somewhat different. I approved of the many scenes restored to the film that deepen and expand the Ellen Ripley. A character that lacked even a given name in the original classic film. However when it comes to the scenes depicting life in the doomed colony Hadley’s Hope before the parasite destroys them I found I had come to a different opinion that the one I had held for a number of years.

Films, just as with prose stories, have character points of view and Aliens is a story told from Ripley’s POV. If you look at the first film, Alien, it is told with several points of view a technique used by the screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusette to disguise which of the characters was the protagonist and thus they kept the audience off-balance as to who would liver and die. (A technique George R.R. Martin has been quoted as copying for his epic A Song of Fire and Ice.)

Aliens wisely doesn’t attempt to recreate this ambiguity. We have ridden with Ripley through the first horror and our identification with her is strong. Looking at it from that perspective the extended scenes that take place on Hadley’s Hope violate this film’s POV. Ripley is not there and there is no one to relay those scenes to her. It is information she will never know and as such it is information we should not know.

There are plenty of moments in the special edition that still work with Ripley’s POV, scenes she either directly participates in or where her relationship with characters in the scenes would allow her to reasonably be aware of the events and those I would advocate retaining, but I think all the Hadley’s Hope scenes should be excised.

Of course it’s not my film and so that’s not going to happen, but it is a peak into my thoughts on story structure.

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