Saturday 6 April 2013

A to Z - Evolution

Today I'm moving on to 'E' in my A-Z of movies - I know a lot of people did E yesterday but I'm skipping Fridays to make room for my flash stories. I got a bit stuck for E, as it happens, but I wound up choosing Evolution.

Evolution was a stab at alien sci-fi by Ivan 'Ghostbusters' Reitman, and stars David Duchovny and Orlando Jones as a pair of hapless college professors who discover a new lifeform evolving on earth after a meteorite crashes into an Arizona cave system. Unfortunately the government also find out, and soon their attempts to document the obvious evolution are stymied by Julianne Moore's government scientist. It's not long before things get out of hand, and Duchovny and Jones have to come and lend a hand to save the world.

It's a daft, silly film, with a sideline in fairly immature humour, but still, it's an enjoyable watch. David Duchovny plays Ira as if Mulder never fully grew up, but Julianne Moore displays a comic touch that you don't normally get to see in her movies. Even Seann William Scott isn't that annoying as the aspiring fireman who ends up getting embroiled in the 'let's save the world' plan.

For me, the best part is the 'science' behind it. Studying the idea of evolution at school is one thing, but seeing it visually demonstrated from a single-celled organism into insects and eventually mammals, while clearly not based on reality, is still a neat idea, especially since it's the heat of the earth's atmosphere that provides the catalyst for such evolution. My favourite part has to be the sequence in the shopping mall, where the invading entity reaches the 'dinosaur' phase and attains the power of flight. It's like Jurassic Park meets Dawn of the Dead.

As films go, it was never going to be an Oscar winner, but as light entertainment goes, it's the kind of film you can drop into whenever you find it on TV somewhere. Everyone turns in solid performances, especially Moore, and I can think of worst films I could have nominated for 'E'.

Friday 5 April 2013

#FridayFlash - Tomb Raiders

The man known as Al Shabah slipped between the pillars of the crumbling ruin. He spotted the gaping hole across the site, the entrance littered with discarded tools. The tomb raiders thought they’d located the lost tomb of Mekerepsut. Al Shabah smiled – as long as they occupied themselves with the false tomb, they wouldn’t disturb his exploration of the real one. Judging by the silence of the site, they wouldn’t disturb him at all tonight.

The real tomb of the 22nd Dynasty princess lay at the edge of the ruin – Al Shabah found the entrance by accident the day before. Before the revolution, its location would have been reported to the authorities, but now it was every man for himself. Some would call him a grave robber, but the way Al Shabah saw it, he sold what he found to collectors, not pawn brokers. At least he was keeping antiquities in circulation.

A quirk of ancient architecture hid the tomb’s entrance, turning the narrow gap into a shadow cast by a nearby pillar. Al Shabah slipped through the gap, and made his way down the tunnel. Mekerepsut’s burial came long before the temple that hid her tomb, and given her reputation for darker magic, Al Shabah wasn’t sure she’d be pleased to lie beneath the feet of Isis worshippers.

Al Shabah felt his way along the tunnels, his fingers becoming his eyes. Before long, his nails scraped the smooth stone that signalled the entrance to the tomb. He switched on his torch and breathed a sigh of relief to see that the seal was still intact. He knelt down and forced his hand pick into the wall. He always broke in below waist height – if anyone came snooping around they’d expect to see a hole at eye level, not down by the floor.

The rhythm came easily as he chiselled away at the gaps between the bricks before prising them free, and he soon had a neat pile of stones at his side. The hole was large enough to crawl through, although he’d need to enlarge it to remove anything of note. He slipped a white mask over his nose and mouth, and crawled through the gap.

Al Shabah stood up on the other side of the wall and frowned. The tomb was smaller than he expected, its walls carved instead of painted. The sarcophagus lay on the other side of the chamber, surrounded by statues of animals. He thought there would be gold, or perhaps fine furniture, not a stone menagerie. Al Shabah ran his hand over the head of a leopard – he knew a dealer in Cairo who might give him a decent price, but removing them all would take some time.

He flicked the beam of the torch around the tomb. A smaller chamber lay to his right, but he would explore that after he’d looked inside the coffin. He’d sometimes found riches hidden with the body, and someone like Mekerepsut was bound to have plenty of amulets within her wrappings. If she was as dark as he’d been led to believe, those amulets would fetch a fortune on the black market.

Al Shabah smirked at his own joke as he knelt before the sarcophagus. He pushed hard on the lid to test its weight, and it heaved aside with a scrape of stone on stone. More carvings filled the sarcophagus, and Al Shabah recognised snippets of familiar stories among the hieroglyphics.

It’s like they gave her something to read.

He shuddered, and leaned in to examine the coffin. Her painted eyes stared up at him, and their slanted angle made her look sly.

Like she’s plotting something.

Al Shabah found the edge of the lid and wiggled his nails into position. The wood of the cartonnage gave way easily, and he hooked his fingers under the lid. He prised it upwards, and spluttered. The air smelled old, even through his mask.

He gave himself a moment to recover, and peered into the coffin. He expected to see a mummy, swathed in ancient cloth, perhaps weighed down by amulets, or surrounded by shabtis. He once even found a mummy wearing an elaborate death mask, surrounded by scrolls.

What he saw this time was an empty coffin.

“What? Someone got here first?” He swore aloud, and bent over further, running his hand across the wood as if he might find a secret compartment. It wasn’t unheard of.

Something tapped on his shoulder. Al Shabah stifled a shriek and leapt to his feet. One of the grave robbers at the fake tomb must have followed him. The thought his assailant could be armed drove a yelp from his mouth, but then he thought of the empty coffin. Anger replaced fear.

Something long and pointed tapped on his shoulder again. The ghost of a whisper rasped in the stale air behind him. Al Shabah spun around. He had no time to see anything before his world imploded.

His lifeless husk would be found in three days’ time.

Three days is a long head start.

* * *

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out my post over at Nerine Dorman's blog, where you can meet Bakt en Hor, the lady in the image adorning this flash?

Thursday 4 April 2013

A to Z - Dead and Breakfast

April 1st marked the start of the A to Z blogging challenge, and I've chosen a movie theme for my posts (although I'll be skipping Fridays to make room for my Friday Flash stories). So far, I've done American Psycho, Back to the Future and Cars, and while D should theoretically have been Die Hard, I thought I'd use today to shine a light on a little gem of a horror film - Dead and Breakfast.

I came across Dead and Breakfast some years ago when my flatmate found it on sale in Music Zone. It's a comedy horror, telling the story of a group of friends who wind up in a small town on the way to a wedding. A murder is committed during the night, turning the bed and breakfast into a crime scene, and the friends into witnesses, so they're kept in the town. One of them manages to unleash a zombie curse, and one by one, the town falls victim to said curse. Unlike most zombie films in which a bite is enough to pass on the infection, in this case, part of you (be it hair, skin, blood etc.) needs to end up in a small box held by the Head Zombie.

Obviously the film has all the ingredients - town archive keeper who knows the mysterious secret behind the events, the strange owner of the bed and breakfast (played by David Carradine), the search for weapons, the attempt to lay the curse to rest, and the climactic showdown as the bed and breakfast is surrounded. Thing is, the film's strength lies in what it does with them. It adds a comedy twist to everything, providing some sick giggles as well as genuine laughs, and at no point does it take itself too seriously. It clearly loves the zombie genre in the way that it gently twists the narrative pattern, so it becomes an homage as opposed to a parody. My favourite element is the introduction of the narrator, a singing balladeer who commentates on the events of the film through song. The clip at the bottom of the post is one of his finer moments.

I often find that people who like zombie films tend to squabble over what makes them zombies - after all, the 'zombies' in 28 Days Later are simply infected, as opposed to undead, and newer zombies can apparently run, an ability denied to them in earlier films. My own favourite zombie films are the original three - White Zombie (1932) , I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and The Plague of the Zombies (1966), in which voodoo plays a role and a central priest figure becomes the antagonist against which the forces of good must rally, and Dead and Breakfast veers closer to these narratives than later films.

Comedy and horror spring from very similar origins, and commentators have long commented on the close relationship between the desire to laugh and the desire to scream. When mixed together well, the resultant hybrid can excel beyond either genre on its own - after all, moments of tension are punctured either by a joke or a scare, and in Dead and Breakfast's case, the combination is spot on. It's just a shame it never caught on the way that it should have. Still, with the rise of Netflix...

Wednesday 3 April 2013

A to Z - Cars

April 1st marks the start of the A to Z blogging challenge. Continuing with my cinematic theme, today is Cars. As with most of the other letters, there are a myriad of films I could have chosen, but I didn't want to just use horror films!

Cars is actually one of my favourite Pixar films. I think they've gone a little off the boil lately, but Cars was one of their high points. I know that not everyone enjoyed it, but I was brought up watching motor racing, and I think that perhaps helped add to my enjoyment of the film.

Beyond that, I think the film scores because the limelight doesn't solely rest on its hero, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) for the whole film. At the start of Cars, Lightning is a successful racer, gunning to be the first rookie to win the Piston Cup. After a three-way tie finish, it's decided that the three racers will face each other in one final race to decide the winner. En route to California, Lightning ends up on the old route 66, where he finds himself in Radiator Springs, a sleepy town that got forgotten when the interstate took the traffic away. At first, Lightning hates it, but he grows to like the town, and its inhabitants, particularly Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). By the time he finally gets to leave, Lightning has begun to realise what it feels like to have friends.

It sounds like the kind of soppy, sentimental pap that I'd normally turn my nose up at, but somehow Cars manages to balance its message about teamwork and community with humour and motor racing, to the extent that it's become a favourite movie of mine. The graphics are astounding, and I remember my cinema companion even leaning across during the 'afternoon drive' sequence to mouth the word "Wow" as Sally and Lightning pass the waterfall.

Cars is a beautiful film, and I think its strength lies in its ensemble construction. Lightning is very much the hero, but if you removed any character, the film's strength would waver - which, in essence, simply reinforces the central message that community is key. In a fast paced world where we spend our lives dipping in and out of Twitter, choosing the quickest mode of transport to get us from A to B without truly seeing where we are, and where we often keep people around for what they can do for us, I guess it's an important idea that we sometimes slow down and admire the view with someone we actually like.

Cars Trailer

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A to Z - Back to the Future

April 1st marks the start of the A to Z blogging challenge. Continuing with my cinematic theme, today is Back to the Future, easily one of my favourite films ever. I love the whole trilogy, particularly Part III in 1885, but I'm just going to talk about Part I here.

I can't remember when I first saw Back to the Future but given I saw the third one at the cinema, I must have seen it when I was fairly young. There was just something about the idea of a time machine in the form of a DeLorean that captured the imagination, even if the film does come very much within the tradition of films in which the protagonist's interference results in a life that better suits what they want.

Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) starts the film in 1985 as an aspiring guitarist in high school. His father, George, is continually pushed around by his boss, Biff Tannen, and his siblings are equally lacklustre. Marty's friend, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) invents a time machine, and Marty ends up back in 1955 where he encounters his high school aged parents. Doc Brown needs to get him back to 1985, but as they have no access to the plutonium on which the DeLorean runs, they have to wait until the night of the school dance, when Marty knows there will be a lightning storm, to generate the 1.21gigawatts the time machine needs. Will Marty get his parents together before he leaves?!

OK, so how can you not like Back to the Future?! Sure, all time travel films suffer from a central paradox, but unlike later films, in which the hero leaves something in the past/future for the next version of himself to find (see Deja Vu for a particularly nonsensical example), Marty is very much the first to time travel, and learns the hard way that you can't interfere in anything since actions in the past affect the present. OK, so it's a bit creepy that his teenaged mother gets a crush on him, and he has to engineer a meeting between her and his teenaged father - not many films flirt with incest in the 'boy meets girl' stakes, but somehow Back to the Future manages it without being icky.

Thing is, as cool as Michael J Fox makes Marty, and as awesome as Christopher Lloyd is as Doc Brown, it's actually Thomas F Wilson who steals the films for me as the various members of the Tannen family. My favourite incarnation is Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen from Part III, but considering he plays three versions of Biff in Part I (bully Biff from 1985, then teenaged Biff from 1955, then meek and mild Biff back in new 1985), it just shows what one person can do with one character.

Back to the Future is one of those films I can watch again and again, and I love it just as much every time I watch it. Plus it has one of the best renditions of Johnny B. Goode that I've come across...

Monday 1 April 2013

A to Z - American Psycho

April 1st marks the start of the A to Z blogging challenge. Bloggers are encouraged to spend 26 days discussing whatever they want, assuming the topic of the day matches that day's 'letter'. I was a bit stuck for what to discuss, until I decided to stick to what I know best - movies. So every day, I'm going to be discussing a film I enjoy beginning with that letter. It's not always going to be one of my favourite movies, just one I think people should see.

Now, with A, I had a few films I wanted to mention, like The Adjustment Bureau, but I decided American Psycho was a more obvious choice given my predilection for horror. I actually used American Psycho in the dissertation for my undergraduate degree, comparing and contrasting it with Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. I have read the book, but in a lot of ways, I actually think the film is more successful. For one thing, it condenses the interminable lists that characterise the book, and it manages to balance that ambiguity around whether Patrick Bateman is a homicidal maniac - or he just thinks he is.

For those who've never seen it, American Psycho tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a 1980s yuppie who works on Wall Street by day, and hangs out in clubs and bars by night. As well as doing a lot of cocaine and spending his days at work doing the crossword, Patrick also stalks and kills people, seemingly at random. He dispatches one victim with an axe, another with a chainsaw. Most of his victims are women, but that doesn't stop him killing homeless people, colleagues, and even dogs. Put it this way, Patrick Bateman is not a nice man.

American Psycho was the first film in which I ever saw Christian Bale. I've since adopted the opinion that his career has been entirely downhill from that point, as he reprises the role in every film in which he appears, but that's a side issue. In American Psycho, he's perfectly cast. He strikes that fine balance between madness and apparent normality, all while fixating on the trivia of yuppie life. Bateman is a man obsessed by superficiality - business cards are subjected to intense scrutiny, and he finds life truths buried in the trivial pop songs of Whitney Houston. This is a yuppie for whom the clothes very much make the man. His narration doesn't introduce characters according to their personality - he talks about what they do, and how they look. Appearance is everything - which sums up our American Psycho, since his appearance of normality is his strongest disguise.

Yet Bateman is also an unreliable narrator. He kills people, only to have conversations with others who claim to have lately spent time with those same victims. It's never clear if Bateman has confused them with someone else, and killed the 'wrong' person, or if he didn't kill them at all. There are only two instances where outside parties appear to be aware of what's going on, and even then, the ambiguity remains. Strangely enough, even after he's made his confession and been absolved by the continued insistence that one of his victims is alive and well, you're almost glad that he's gotten away with it.

The book is a horrible, violent piece of work, while the film relegates the nastiest violence to passing comments, or the summary of crimes that Bateman leaves on his lawyer's answering machine. As a result, the inherent queasiness involved with American Psycho is translated into that ambiguity that allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to Bateman's guilt or innocence, making it an altogether more worrying viewing experience.