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"There's no way a shark-octopus fishy thing really exists"
Allow me to introduce 'Sharktopus (2010).' This ultra-low-budget creature feature lumbers through a clunky narrative just like its titular monster, a CGI monstrosity fabricated by FX nerds sufficiently disliked by the producers to warrant an on screen credit. The deal is simple: a narcissistic scientist (played by Eric Roberts) has engineered a shark/octopus hybrid for the navy to use as a weapon. However, this "Sharktopus" breaks free from the military's control, and proceeds to wreak havoc on the fun-loving residents of Mexico. (No doubt Mexico was chosen for its lack of minimum-wage laws).
Director Declan O'Brien takes great pleasure in introducing vain, bikini-clad characters whose only purpose is to be devoured or impaled only seconds later. Meanwhile, Eric Roberts sits around on a yacht, looking concerned and occasionally angry, while the story goes on around him. This is a privilege afforded to the only recognisable name in the cast. Fortunately for us, the narcissistic scientist has an attractive daughter (Sara Malakul Lane) who's also the country's leading genetic engineer. She makes very clear her detestation of the handsome playboy/genetic engineer Andy (Kerem Bursin), who likes to stand around with his shirt unbuttoned, and occasionally say something histrionic like "eat this, you bastard!"
By the looks of it, 'Sharktopus' was shot on my Sony TRV-19E handycam. But for all its shoddiness, I can't hate this movie. It knows it's terrible. Producer Roger Corman (once the director of several very impressive low-budget films, such as his 1960s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations) knows how to make a quick buck, and this is the sort of high-concept schtick that can draw a profit from a $3.75 budget. The film plumbs every cliché in the book: there's an obligatory speech about science "going too far," and a free apple to anybody who can guess what Eric Roberts set as his computer access code! For all its unchecked ridiculousness, you can't deny that Declan O'Brien has his tongue firmly in cheek. I just wish it had lolled back into his throat, so I wouldn't have had to spend the last 89 minutes watching 'Sharktopus.'
Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932)
"Even so, we have a piano because we are respectable people"
Everybody seems to be sleeping around in a Renoir film. 'Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)' features Charles Granval as Monsieur Lestingois, an upright middle-class gentleman who generously devotes himself to helping others... but who is also sleeping with the maid. Lestingois saves the life of Boudu (Michel Simon), a wandering tramp who jumps into the Seine, and offers the man shelter in his home. Boudu is vulgar and messy, but his benefactor selflessly persists, even though his ungrateful guest spends most of his time making sleazy advances towards the maid and forcibly seducing Mrs Lestingois. Renoir's comedic cynicism is in full swing here. The previous year had seen Chaplin release 'City Lights (1931),' his penultimate outing as the Little Tramp, and Boudu is certainly intended to be the polar opposite of Chaplin's kindly, lovelorn vagrant. A late twist of fortune (reminiscent of the tacked-on studio ending to Murnau's 'The Last Laugh (1923)') is amusingly abandoned in the final moments, as Boudu shuns the opulence of middle-class life for the unpretentious simplicity of the road. Renoir's camera, accompanied by the merry strains of the Blue Danube waltz, contemplatively regards Boudu's discarded top hat as it drifts downstream – just like its former owner, happy to drift towards an unknown fate.
Lucrèce Borgia (1935)
Incredibly, 'Lucrèce Borgia (1935)' is my first film from Abel Gance, one of the titans of early French cinema, though this is far from his best-known work. The film is a chronicle of the House of Borgia, a reigning family that remains notorious for their corruption and sexual debasement. I've had to do some reading up, so apologies to any history buffs if I get my details wrong. There are four main characters in this sordid tale. Pope Alexander VI (Roger Karl) is incompetent and blind to the misdeeds of his family – though historians generally portray him as being far more depraved than he is depicted here. Giovanni (Maurice Escande) is the pope's elder son, and a bit of an extravagant fop. César (Gabriel Gabrio) is a lusty, bloodthirsty monster under the advisement of Niccolò Machiavelli. Sister Lucrezia (Edwige Feuillère) is a promiscuous woman whose lovers have the unfortunate habit of being quickly murdered by the jealous, scheming César. All in all, probably not the sort of people you'd invite to a friendly game of neighbourhood charades. There are some confronting scenes in here, especially compared to the 1930s films to which one is accustomed. Confrontations are seen to draw blood, and exploited women are stripped of their clothes. There is a rather graphic recreation of the Banquet of Chestnuts, which took place on October 30, 1501, at which César (and possibly Pope Alexander VI) treated his guests to the services of 50 prostitutes.
War and Peace (1956)
"By the time a man's over thirty, life should be sad, meaningless and hopeless"
I'm a little biased in my judgement of this film – not only because I've read the novel, but also because I've seen Sergei Bondarchuk's 1960s Soviet adaptation, which is undoubtedly one of cinema's most spectacular epics. Any comparison leaves Vidor's Hollywood adaptation, for all its merits, beaten and conquered. Despite clocking in at a respectable 200 minutes, 'War and Peace (1956)' is simply too short to do justice to Tolstoy's vision. The episodic nature of the novel means that it can't be readily condensed into a regular feature-length time frame, and the film's narrative is often choppily composed to fit everything in.
I think I'm forever destined to imagine the main characters as they appear in the 1960s film, but the main actors here are nevertheless passable. Henry Fonda, sporting a misplaced American twang, brings an accurate passivity of the role of Pierre Bezukhov. Audrey Hepburn half works: early on, her Natasha Rostova lacks the vibrant, bright-eyed naiveté of Lyudmila Savelyeva, but the actress portrays beautifully the compassion and weariness of the "grown-up" Natasha. The battle scenes are large in scale, but curiously narrow in scope, with the Battle of Borodino – in the 1960s film, an astonishing hour of unfettered pandemonium viewed through a God-like lens – seen mostly through the eyes of Pierre.
Naked Lunch (1991)
"Exterminate all rational thought"
First of all, I can think of at least two things wrong with that title. Rest assured that there are no nude luncheons to be enjoyed in this movie; author William S. Burroughs described the title as referring to "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." Which doesn't really make it any clearer. The IMDb plot description gives some clue of the plot: "After developing an addiction to the substance he uses to kill bugs, an exterminator accidentally murders his wife and becomes involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in an Islamic port town in Africa." David Cronenberg's adaptation weaves in autobiographical details of Burroughs' life, including his copious drug use, and the accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer (reportedly during a botched game of "William Tell" with a loaded pistol).
The film thus combines the narrative of the novel "Naked Lunch" with a fictional story of its conception – kind of like 'Adaptation (2002),' only with crazy bug alien things which morph from one's typewriter. The main character is played by Peter Weller, an underrated stalwart of the 1980s whose credits include 'Robocop (1988)' and the cheesy action classic 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).' I didn't make much sense of 'Naked Lunch,' but it did make me want to find out more about Burroughs and his work. The film is handsomely photographed and edited, not as dizzyingly manic as Terry Gilliam's similarly drug-soaked 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)' and less trashy than Cronenberg's 'Videodrome (1983).' I might have to track down the novel to read.
Super 8 (2011)
'Super 8' was my first film from 2011, and it was a fantastic place to start the year. The film's teaser trailer enigmatically promised something along the lines of 'Cloverfield (2008)' (which I still haven't seen), but the second trailer was pure Spielbergian nostalgia – not surprising, given the "Amblin Entertainment" logo that opens the film. But what really distinguishes 'Super 8' is its love of filmmaking. The story is set in 1979, when director J.J. Abrams was just a kid, and probably running around with his own Super 8 camera. The film's characters are a group of children who spend their free time making a hokey amateur zombie detective thriller, though their equipment still looks more professional than that in my latest filmmaking project. A massive train derailment, a huge military presence in the town, and an ominous entity on the loose, cannot dampen their enthusiasm for completing the film. To each new turn-of-events, the boy directing the film (played by first-timer Riley Griffiths) keeps getting excited and exclaiming "production value!", which was funny until I remembered I did the same thing when the annual Festival blocked off my town's main street in 2009. All of the child actors (including Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) are impressive, given that they're carrying the entire film on their little shoulders. And, of course, be sure to stick around for the final credits.
The Magnet (1950)
After a characteristically stressful Physiology exam, decided to settle down with a movie, and what better than an offering from that beloved British institution, Ealing Studios? 'The Magnet (1950)' is one of the studio's lesser-known comedies, but ranks among their most charming efforts. The film is directed by Charles Frend, who also commandeered the excellent 'A Run for Your Money (1949)' – which succeeded despite being a veiled reworking of Capra's 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936).' In 'The Magnet,' resourceful youth Johnny Brent (William Fox) cheats another boy out of an expensive magnet, before realising that this sin might eventually catch up to him. His attempts to dispose of the magnet are humorously futile, until he unloads the stolen object onto a kindly engineer, who interprets the gift as a noble gesture of Dickensian kindness. While little Johnny worries that his crime will be the death of him, his anxious parents (Stephen Murray and Kay Walsh) become concerned about his odd behaviour. The father, a trained psychiatrist, attempts to apply Jungian psychoanalysis to his son, and smugly reaches an entirely erroneous conclusion. This pleasant, easy-going film has all the hallmarks of an Ealing classic, with a particularly excellent and likable performance from its young star.
The Trap (1959)
"This is a hearse, and I'm driving"
'The Trap (1959)' is a rather obscure crime thriller, but nevertheless has some star-power behind it. Richard Widmark is Ralph Anderson, a prodigal son returning to his hometown in the middle of the California desert. Lee J. Cobb is Victor Massonetti, a fugitive mob-boss intent on boarding a private plane to Mexico. When Ralph and his alcoholic brother Tippy (who is unhappily married to Ralph's ex-flame, Linda) capture Massonetti, the gangster's Mafia affiliates go into overdrive. With just a single dirt road leading out of town to civilisation, getting Massonetti into the hands of the authorities isn't going to be pleasant or easy. Just like John Sturges' wonderful 'Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)', this film has all the trademarks of a Western, but is set in modern times. As the escort winds its way across the lonely, parched landscape, you can cut the tension with a knife. Cobb is a formidable villain, his silent glowers and snide threats from the backseat proving both entertaining and unsettling. Tina Louise is certainly alluring as the love interest torn between two brothers, and Carl Benton Reid is impressive as Ralph and Tippy's overbearing sheriff father. And just to prove that Bruce Willis has nothing on his forebears, Widmark takes out a plane with a car!
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
"But if we're lucky, you might get the chair"
'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956),' another taut thriller from Fritz Lang, takes an intriguing concept and runs with it. Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a writer looking for an idea, and Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), an editorialist against capital punishment, contrive a bizarre scheme to expose the flaws in the American legal system. Garrett agrees to set himself up as the prime suspect in a murder, using only circumstantial evidence. Spencer agrees to withhold the evidence of his innocence until after Garrett is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. Joan Fontaine plays Susan Spencer, Garret's fiancée, who isn't let in on the ruse. The moment when Austin Spencer is killed in a car accident, leaving our hero seemingly without any hope of reprieve, is still shocking despite its inevitability, leaving a powerful feeling of hopelessness. The film's final twist, however, I did not see coming. Regrettably, 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' pulls yet another twist in its final seconds; it would've been better had the film been made a decade later, free from the restraints of the Production Code, which demanded (and received) an ending that "does not lower the moral standards" of audiences.
Shoot to Kill (1947)
"So there's just you now; you'll have to tell"
This 1947 B-grade noir blasts straight out of Poverty Row, throwing everything it's got in a frantic hour of double-crossings and betrayals. One thing I love about low-budget noir is that nobody feels the obligation to create a hero: the District Attorney (Edmond MacDonald) is as crooked as a rake; his loving wife (Susan Walters) only married him to screw him over; George Mitchell (Russell Wade), a reporter for the "Tribune", is the closest we get to a hero, but he's such a smug bastard that you don't know what he's hiding. The film even features a rather lengthy and totally awesome piano solo by Gene Rodgers, because, hell, it's already got everything else you could want. There is a rather hokey stairway fight sequence that takes place in fast-forward, but otherwise I was impressed with director William Berke, and his ability to contrive an exciting film with a total budget of $3.59. 'Shoot to Kill' is a home-run for low-budget thrillers, and an entertaining way to obliterate 64 minutes of your spare time.
Sound Test for Blackmail (1929)
"Stand in your place, otherwise it will not come out right"
'Blackmail (1929)' was not only Alfred Hitchcock's first "talkie", but also the first produced in Britain. However, it began life as a silent film, and indeed was also released in a silent version to boost its commercial potential. But the arrival of sound effectively put an end to Anny Ondra's career in English-language films. Her strong European accent made her unmarketable, which is a shame because she seems utterly charming. This rare sound test lets us hear Ondra's real voice, which in 'Blackmail' was dubbed (on-location) by British actress Joan Barry. But it's Hitchcock who steals the limelight in this historical snippet. Displaying that droll British wit, he accuses his lead actress of being a "bad woman" and sleeping with men. He then ends with what is perhaps the earliest recorded audio of what is now termed, in more vulgar circles, a "that's what she said" joke ("as the girl said to the soldier"). Ondra takes it all in good humour, of course.
"Detectives in glass houses shouldn't wave clues"
'Blackmail (1929)' was Hitchcock's first "talkie", though it began life as a silent film, and was subsequently released in a silent version to boost its commercial potential. I have no qualms about remarking on the strokes of Hitchcockian genius already evident in this early work: the icy silences leave an unsettling effect, but Hitchcock also demonstrates a strong mastery of sound, his repetition of the word "knife" perfectly underscoring the heroine's paranoia. A wonderfully mobile camera, perhaps imitating similar shots in 'Seventh Heaven' (1927, Borzage) or 'The Cameraman (1928, Sedgwick),' follows the characters up a double flight of stairs. A disorientating high-angle shot of the heroine descending a spiral stairway is uncannily similar to the belltower shots in 'Vertigo (1958).'
The film's plot concerns Alice (Anny Ondra), who is cheating on her detective boyfriend Frank (John Longden) with a sleazy artist (Cyril Ritchard). During a struggle in which the artist tries to rape her, Alice sticks a kitchen knife into him, and flees the scene of the murder. Frank finds the evidence linking her to the crime, and is determined to cover it up, but the situation is complicated by a two-bit criminal (Donald Calthrop) who knows what's up and sees dollar signs. Everyone in the film is convincing, particularly Calthrop as the shifty blackmailer who you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw him. The ending, too, is a welcome break from the Production Code-enforced contrivances that would later overwhelm Hollywood. Alice escapes all culpability for her crimes, but the accusative laughing face of a painted jester suggests that the crime will always prey on her thoughts.
An Education (2009)
"All that poetry and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all"
Carey Mulligan was Oscar-nominated for her role (and lost to Sandra Bullock, of all people), and she's quite brilliant here, not to mention thoroughly charming. In 1960s suburban London, Jenny (Mulligan) is a grade-A student "far beyond her years," who loves French culture and cultivates a keen interest in the arts. Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) are kind-hearted, but keep her on a tether, in the hopes that she will be admitted into Oxford the following year. Into Jenny's life comes David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charismatic and wealthy middle- aged man who nurtures Jenny's interests, giving her a taste of adult life – the good and the bad. The acting is superb across the board. Mulligan, especially, treads a very fine line; she has to project maturity, but also the wide-eyed wonder of a girl stepping out into the world for the first time. The film also stars Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, and Rosamund Pike (who played Mulligan's on screen sister in 'Pride and Prejudice (2005)'). This is a fantastic film, brilliantly evoking time and place, and capturing with sensitivity the melancholia of growing up. Not to mention, I was enraptured by the leading lady for 100 minutes.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness..."
'Howl (2010)' is an offbeat experimental historical film about Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem "Howl," the subject of a highly-publicised obscenity trial on its initial publication. James Franco plays Ginsberg, the reluctantly homosexual poet who poured his fears and frustrations into a four-part magnum opus, deemed a masterpiece and an obscenity in equal measure. I haven't read all that much poetry (though I have been known to recite Poe's "The Raven" in my most Vincent Price-ish voice), but I did like Ginsberg's poem, which is lyrical and evocative in a manner resembling the songwriting of Tom Waits. Several computer-animated sequences attempt to ascribe visuals to Ginsberg's words, but I wasn't sure about these: the CGI animation seemed too clean, too ordered, to represent such inner torment. Worth seeing, but perhaps not for everyone.
"The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye"
David Cronenberg is a bit of an oddity. I also watched a Guy Maddin film recently, so perhaps it's something the Canadians are putting in their water. But, as a film buff, please keep on drinking! 'Videodrome (1983)' purports to explore the future of television – in which, owing to the brain's inability to discern TV images from reality, the television itself essentially becomes an extension of the human body. Cathode tube radiation forms a new organ in the brain, fuelling the creation of new realities; hardware and human tissue grotesquely combine to form a "new flesh." James Woods grows a vagina in his abdomen, into which videotapes can be inserted. No, you didn't misread that. Cronenberg is probably the king of the "body horror" sub-genre, in which the abjectness of the human body is brought to the fore, often using very impressive and realistic visual effects (another example in Cronenberg's repertoire is 'The Fly (1986),' with everybody's favourite guy, Jeff Goldblum). 'Videodrome' blurs the line between illusion and reality, between human and machine, between bad taste and high art. There's something compelling about this, but I wouldn't recommend it as a date movie.
Life of Brian (1979)
"Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?"
I was flipping through DVDs for something to watch, and suddenly found myself humming "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" – so the decision was already made for me. 'Life of Brian (1979)' was the second of three original feature films by the Monty Python troupe (not counting 'And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)', which was a compilation of sketches from the TV show remade for theatrical consumption). The other two films – 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)' and 'The Meaning of Life (1983)' – I'd watched back in 2006/2007, and found them not lacking in wry British humour, though I hardly considered them masterpieces of the highest order.
I feel about the same about 'Life of Brian.' On the plus side, it really digs its heels into religion, with the crowds of Brian-worshipping disciples chasing the hapless hero (played by Graham Chapman) through the streets, interpreting his lost sandal as a divine gesture, and celebrating the presence of juniper berries as a miracle. The film is certainly less off-the-wall than 'Holy Grail,' with an abridged role for Terry Gilliam's distinctive animation, and fewer self-referential flourishes – except for a bizarre Deus Ex Machina involving an alien spaceship that breaks Brian's tumble from a tall building. The two songs are fantastic, of course: the first a Bond-like ballad belted out with the bravado of Shirley Bassey, and the second a droll, cheery closer about the joys of accepting crucifixion.
"Everybody's sin is nobody's sin, and everybody's crime is no crime at all"
As a student of zoology, you could say I've become quite the expert on the behaviour variously euphemised as "horizontal jogging," "making the beast with two backs," or by dystopian droogs as "the old in-out in- out." Well, Alfred Kinsey was even more expert than me. In the famously prudish decades of the 1940s and 50s, the entomologist at Indiana University (played here by Liam Neeson) realised that the taboo subject of human sexuality was essentially unexplored by modern science, and set out to rectify this situation. The products of his labours, known as the Kinsey Reports ("Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953)) were immediate popular sensations, arousing admiration and condemnation in equal volume.
An ensemble cast (including Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, and Tim Curry) do very well with what they're given, and it's a fascinating story being told, but the screenplay itself is all over the place. A few scenes are dedicated to Kinsey's family life, but then the children are never heard from again. There's a rather awful graphic montage that is supposed to represent Kinsey's team interviewing subjects all over America. This is all made up for, perhaps, by a very touching sequence near the end, in which an interviewee (played by Lynn Redgrave) thanks Kinsey for saving her life through his research. Worth watching, because anything with Liam Neeson is worth watching.
"Round and round the garden... like a teddy bear?"
As a skeptic of all things faked or imagined, I found 'Ghostwatch (1992)' to be fantastically interesting. The programme's earnestness would have irked me, had the whole thing not been a complete put-on. 'Ghostwatch,' hosted by Michael Parkinson, aired on Halloween 1992, and purported to be a live 90-minute broadcast from a supposedly haunted suburban house. Things start off ordinarily enough, with the presenters seeming to enjoy themselves, but within 90 minutes all hell has broken loose. I suppose I might have been unnerved had I watched the programme back in 1992, especially considering the well-known and respected personalities involved, but in this case I just sat back and enjoyed the theatrics: the equipment malfunctions; the grisly anecdotes of molestation, suicide, and animal decapitation; the fleeting glimpses of a bloodied male figure. Apparently, not everybody was amused. The BBC received a multitude of complaints, and 'Ghostwatch' has even been cited as causing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in several children who were still watching after the 9pm watershed. Also probably, while we're at it, a huge influence on films like 'The Blair Witch Project (1999)' and 'Paranormal Activity (2007).'
A Doonesbury Special (1977)
"Are you suggesting a parallel between interventionism and contact sports?"
I'm quite a fan of John and Faith Hubley, whose animated films have an air of free-wheeling improvisation. 'The Hole (1962)' and 'Windy Day (1968)' are essentially casual conversations, captured on tape and brought to life through the artists' simple and dreamy visuals. 'A Doonesbury Special (1977)' has a more solid narrative grounding, having been adapted from what I gather to be a popular American political comic strip, "Doonesbury." The creator of the comic strip, Garry Trudeau, is also credited as director (and John Hubley passed away while the film was still in its storyboarding stage).
The film opens in the 1970s, as the hippie-era was dying a slow death. The residents of a commune, having become accustomed to a lazy, hollow lifestyle, are surprised when scruffy free-thinker Zonker suddenly declares their way of life "passé" and recommends that they disband. This proclamation leads the group to reminisce about old times – including a concert featuring musical hero Jimmy Thudpucker (clearly modelled on Bob Dylan) which accidentally deteriorates into violence, and a college football game repeatedly interrupted by the team members' penchant for marijuana and existentialist philosophy. The characters in the film must learn to accept that their era has come to a close, and that they must make way for future generations.
"If you are sad and like beer..."
This was my first film from Guy Maddin, a Canadian director well-known for doing his own thing. Most of his films, I hear, recreate the look and feel of 1920s silent cinema and early talkies – 'The Saddest Music in the World (2003)' is no exception. Not only is the film set in Depression-era Winnipeg, but it actually looks as though it was shot around that time. Maddin shoots his film on washed-out and grainy Super 8 film blown up to 35mm, uses irises and other outdated storytelling techniques, badly-synchronised audio, and lots of Soviet-style montage. Several scenes are shot in colour – and they jar strikingly, like the dream sequence in 'Shock Corridor (1963)' – to imitate the aesthetic of early two-strip Technicolor. Even the use of Isabella Rossellini is a stroke of anachronistic genius: at times you're fooled into thinking that Ingrid Bergman is on screen.
The story is bizarre to say the least. A Canadian beer company, under the instruction of baroness Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) (who lost her legs in unfortunate circumstances), holds a competition to discover the "saddest music in the world." Competitors arrive from every country to vie for the $25,000 prize, including a smug washed-up Broadway producer (Mark McKinney, of 'Kids in the Hall' fame); his cellist brother (Ross McMillan), a hypochondriac nursing a broken heart (quite literally); and their father (David Fox), an alcoholic war veteran who is in love with Lady Port-Huntley. Not bizarre enough, you say? Well, Lady Port-Huntley gets herself a new pair of legs, made entirely out of glass and beer. As you do. This film is perverse, surreal, and extremely wacky; you can't deny that Maddin's got a quirky sense of humour. I don't know exactly what to make of it, but I didn't mind it.
"In an hour, you'll be one of us"
Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' updates the story from a small fictional town to San Francisco. His film stresses the influence of Watergate and the Vietnam War in fuelling government mistrust, and casts the Pod-people as New Age fanatics (literally "flower children") who are disturbingly detached from reality. One implication of the film is that humans are open to invasion because citizens have become fragmented and alienated, searching desperately for a sense of belonging. Kaufman's canted cinematography evokes a potent sense of disorder and paranoia; even from the opening moments, the order of San Francisco is eerily askew, suggesting that the invasion is already well underway (Kevin McCarthy's cameo appearance is particularly unsettling).
The 1950s film adaptation of War of the Worlds (Haskin, 1953) prominently featured religion as Mankind's ultimate saviour. Religion is largely absent from the 1956 'Body Snatchers,' but remains important as a defining characteristic separating "us" from "them". Conversely, in the 1978 film, religion is obliquely offered as a mode of conformity in direct association with the Pod-invasion: a priest (Robert Duvall) swings eerily on playground equipment, possibly a newly-transformed Pod- person – one of the first, and so unacquainted with social customs. The ending, one of the most devastating in cinema history, is likely to disrupt your sleep patterns; silence over credits hasn't been used so well since Sidney Lumet's 'Fail-Safe (1964).'
"The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling"
The Pods are a nomadic race of extraterrestrial, plant-like organisms whose propagules – metre-long seeds pods – drifted for years across the gulf of space, before landing in a terrestrial field outside the fictional town of Santa Mira, California. A Pod has the ability to perfectly replicate the body of any lifeform in its proximity, including humans. While its host organism is asleep, the Pod is able to extract its mind and memories, before the host body presumably disintegrates. The Pod, thus a perfect replica of its host, can now infiltrate the species' community relatively undetected, and aid the further proliferation of the Pod race.
The Pods in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)' have been variously understood to represent: the Soviet Communist threat of invasion; the tyranny of McCarthyism; and the homogenisation of values through social and corporate conformity. In the 1950s, citizens of the United States faced the daily prospect of nuclear war, the immediacy of this threat typified by such civil defence films as 'Duck and Cover (1952).' In 'Body Snatchers,' Dr Kauffmann (Larry Gates) initially describes the Pod invasion – which comes "out of the sky" as would an enemy rocket – as a mass delusion caused by "worry about what's going on in the world," namely the Soviet threat.
The "alien invasion" trope stretches back to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (1898), in which Martian invaders lay waste to Victorian Britain. This novel has been interpreted as a sharp criticism of British colonialism, with Wells upending the usual hierarchy by casting Britain as the "colonised" rather than the "coloniser". Unlike "War of the Worlds," however, Body Snatchers depicts an invasion that is described as "slowly, not all at once." This reflects the indirect nature of the Cold War compared to previous American conflicts, a dispute largely characterised by political tension, proxy wars, and ideological conflict, rather than full-blown combat.
The transformed Pod-people attempt to recruit Miles (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky (Dana Wynter) with the promise of "an untroubled world ... where everyone's the same," recalling the promises of egalitarianism made by Communist utopianism. The Pod-people are incapable of, among other emotions, ambition and faith. The former is a quintessential value of American capitalism, and the latter was forcibly targeted in the official Soviet policy of state atheism (also known as gosateizm). The use of plant physiology is consistent with contemporary descriptions of Communism as a "weed" or similar contagion.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' was adapted from Jack Finney's novel "The Body Snatchers," originally published as a serial in "Collier's Magazine" in 1954. The novel is strongly influenced by Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters (1951)," in which human minds are controlled by puppeteer alien parasites. Heinlein's novel draws overt parallels between the aliens and Communist Russia, perhaps strengthening the argument that 'Body Snatchers' intended a similar theme. The premise of Philip K. Dick's short story "The Father-Thing (1954)," in which a boy believes his father to have been replaced by an alien impostor, also bears an uncanny resemblance to several scenes in this film.
A contradictory thematic interpretation – less convincing, but given weight through screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring's run-ins with the Hollywood blacklist – views Pod-people as the result of rampant McCarthyism. The film's protagonists are betrayed by family and friends, who systematically bow to the unrelenting pressure of society and its authorities. The Pod-people are allowed to proliferate when citizens fall asleep; this lapse of vigilance may represent the middle-class complacency that allowed such policies to become dominant under Senator Joseph McCarthy's tenure.
King Kong (1933)
"The Eighth Wonder of the World"
'King Kong (1933)' is strongly indebted to "The Lost World," particularly Harry O. Hoyt's 1925 adaptation, in which a dinosaur is brought back to civilisation (and for which Willis O'Brien also did the stop-motion effects). Significant in both stories is the clash between primitive man (represented by natives and ape-like creatures) and modern man. 'King Kong' uses the science-fiction trope of the conflict between Man's primal emotions (particularly lust, embodied here by Kong) and his intellect, exemplified by the metropolis of New York City. Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis (1927)' concludes with the realisation that these two human qualities must cooperate to ensure the future of civilisation. 'King Kong' takes a different stance: Kong, the epitome of primal emotion, despite his mammoth size throughout the film, is decidedly dwarfed as he scales the Empire State Building, at the time the pinnacle of human achievement. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) later muses that it was "beauty killed the beast," implying that Kong's animalistic instincts – namely, his lust for Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – had proved his downfall in a modernistic world.
Le voyage dans la lune (1902)
"The Moon magnifies rapidly, until finally it attains colossal dimensions"
'A Trip to the Moon (1902)' has been called a lot of things: the first narrative film, the first science-fiction film. It's certainly one of the earliest films I've seen with any substantial story, though William K.L. Dickson's (admittedly primitive) 'Rip Van Winkle (1896)' predates it by six years. But, yes, this does appear to be cinema's first foray into science-fiction, a playful loose adaptation of Jules Verne's novel "From the Earth to the Moon" (the director's follow-up film, the even better 'The Impossible Voyage (1904),' was also inspired by Verne). Méliès' films to date had largely been pithy "trick films," which served as training grounds for many of the optical tricks that he utilises here, particularly stop-motion and multiple exposures.
Editing-wise, Méliès doesn't do all that much. Each shot operates as a self-contained scene, usually photographed from a distance, as though watching a stage-play. However, his use of elaborate backdrops and optical effects is effective. It took me several viewings to appreciate the film's satirical approach, with its bumbling explorers and outrageous abuse of science. I'm very tempted to read sexual symbolism into the film, if only because of Méliès' 'The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon (1907),' in which the Sun and Moon are seen to engage, bizarrely but quite unmistakeably, in a bout of homosexual intercourse. Certainly, there is something suggestive in a group of men entering a phallic vessel, being thrust into a circular orifice, and blasted (ejaculated?) out the other end.
"Suppose the whole world stopped believing that God had any sort of plan for us?"
This film was a bit of homework for me, since I'm studying Darwinism this semester. 'Creation (2009)' is an account of naturalist Charles Darwin (played by Paul Bettany), whose book "On the Origin of Species," published in 1859, is probably the most influential and important work in the history of science. It is commonly believed that Darwin delayed publication for twenty years, possibly due to a religious conflict with his wife Emma (played here by Jennifer Connelly).
However, my preliminary research seems to suggest that Darwin didn't dither at all, instead withholding publication until he was certain that his theories were empirically supported. Certainly, the film does linger most emphatically on the former – probably apocryphal – version of Darwin's life, with particular emphasis on the death of daughter Annie. Did Darwin really blame himself for Annie's death, having married his first-cousin?
The narrative of 'Creation' does a lot of temporal jumping around, often cutting to flashbacks without any warning, and bizarrely giving Darwin schizophrenic visions more at home in 'A Beautiful Mind (2001)' (which, by the way, gave John Nash visual hallucinations that the real economist never experienced). I would have liked some more focus on Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle, especially the work in the Galapagos Islands that first spawned his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Still, this is a beautifully-made film, and Bettany and Connelly give superb performances that are sure to empty the proverbial tear ducts. There's one absolutely stunning sequence, a time-lapse montage, that depicts the apathy of organismal interactions; the world as an indifferent "battleground" in which only the fittest survive. It's a hard pill to swallow, but then it's the only pill that isn't a placebo.