Cinephile or Movie Nut?

I was channel surfing the other night and came across Mad Max on AMC.  It was weird enough that it was on AMC but when they went to commercial I found out it was a special 30th anniversary edition.  That means I first saw Mad Max when I was all of seven years old. I saw it at the same drive in where I first saw Escape From New York.  Yes, my parents were awesome. 

The point is for most of those thirty years in between Mad Max probably wouldn’t be considered a ‘classic’ by alotof people, certainly not a whole cable station about classic movies.  I always thought it was though and for me it’s always been ‘instant classic’ with movies.  If I see a movie I love I don’t really care how ‘good’ it is.  These are some movies I love.  The ones I’ve seen over and over (into the hundreds in some cases), the ones I never have to be ‘in the mood for’ or more accurately I’m always in the mood for ’em.

The Road Warrior.  Also known as Mad Max 2 and one of the ones I’ve lost count of viewings for.  I know every line (not that there’s much dialog) and I’m always pissed when Max’s dog gets shot.  In the eighties there were tons of post apocalypse movies but this is the best.

King Kong.  The original of course no offense to Peter Jackson.  If you don’t love this movie there’s something wrong with you.  Seriously, seek help.

Conan the Barbarian.  Again, easily into the hundreds of viewings.  Arnold is huge.  His sword is huge.  The guys he fights are huge.  This movie is huge.  Sandahl Bergman’s boobies are not huge but they are perky and more importantly, exposed.

Predator.  Arnold again but this time with an ensemble!  Talk about a Guy Movie.  There’s only one chick in it and she barely speaks English (just like Arnold).  Easy to mock?  Sure, but that doesn’t stop it from being a bad-ass testosterone masterpiece.  Watching this movie is like doing fifty pushups and a shot of Jack.

Babe.  Yes the one about the talking pig.  I love that movie and I love that pig and I love Hogget’sFarm.  You got a problem with that?

The Princess Bride.  There are people who haven’t seen this movie.  When they ask what it’s about one doesn’t really know what to say.  It’s a movie that defies genre/log line explanations (is it a fantasy? a romance? a fairytale?) but it is one of the most perfectly filmed movies out there.  My wife walked down the aisle to the theme by Mark Knopfler.

There’s more.  Probably quite a bit more.  Cinephiles might be able to pick a top ten list but when you’re a movie nut you’ll have a psychotic break before you could fit all your favorite movies in one blog post.  That’s what the comments are for.  What are some you never get tired of and why?

An Adaptation? As Loosely Defined, Perhaps.

I was perusing the DVDs at the library last week when I happened upon “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”.  I fondly remembered the film from twenty years ago, so I checked it out.  The kids and I watched it the other night and I was amazed at how much it was influenced by Chinatown, one of my favorite films.  Twenty years ago, I had not yet seen Chinatown, and in the intervening twenty years I had not seen Roger Rabbit again, so I never put the two together.  I was also surprised to discover that the film was based on a novel, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?” by Gary K. Wolf.

After reading the dust jacket of the book, it would appear that the two share very little other than character names and the overarching premise of the interaction between our real world and a fantasy world.  Upon reading the initial chapters, the first divergence I noticed was in the type of cartoon involved.  In the book, the interaction is with comic strip characters who speak in word balloons and in the film the interaction is with animated cartoon characters.  After that break with the source material, the adaptation clearly took a left turn at Albuquerque since the book deals with seedier topics than the themes of corruption and hidden identities that form the basis for the film.  I am going to continue reading the novel, since one of my kids expressed an interest in it and I need to determine if it is age appropriate or whether she will need to wait a few years.

After the success of the movie, Wolf penned a sequel of sorts which appears to retcon his toon universe to align with that of the movie.  Presumably, the intention was to keep the train rolling along, but the movie sequel never got made (the expense of the first one might have been a factor as might have been the turn towards computer animation).

Good Bad Guys

I saw Hellboy II:  The Golden Army in the theaters and loved it.  I just watched it again on DVD and I can tell I’m gonna like this one a little more each time I see it but a couple things struck me.  One is, of course, Guillermo del Toro’s incredible visual style.  The man does amazing stuff with fairy tales and I’m salivating at the thought of The Hobbit with him involved.

The other is how layered the story is.  It opened as a summer action movie and delivers on that score; it’s fast paced and action packed with lots of fights and spectacle.  It’s also one of those stories that’s sort of about what you want it to be about.  The first time I watched it the main message felt ecological: man’s progress leaving no room for the raw beauty of nature.  There’s also an anti-war message if you want it, or what it means to be in love, or what it means to be alone.  All of those are there but according to the director’s commentary none of them were his main aim.  The big theme was how people become so entrenched in and in love with the banal; they are numb and uncaring at the passing of the sublime.

All of that’s good stuff but what really hit me when I watched it this time was that I really felt like I was more on the side of the bad guy.  Nuada is a prince in exile.  His people had a terrible weapon that guaranteed them victory.  Rather than pursue a genocide his people chose to stop using the weapon and forge a truce with humans.  Flash forward a few thousand years; the humans have long since given up their end of the pact and Nuada’s people are all but extinct.  Under those circumstances it’s pretty easy to make a case for his declaration of war and his decision to use the weapons at his disposal.  That’s kind of how it’s done in the real world.

This makes for a much more interesting and affecting story.  Nuada is a noble and tragic figure fighting for what he believes instead of some stock madman.  He’s a graceful and elegant figure as well which contrasts with Hellboy.  Hellboy’s our hero but he’s a juvenile brute (likable enough but still) who handles all situations by beating up or destroying what’s in front of him.  Nuada makes him think about what he’s doing for the first time.  Hellboy still does his duty but it’s not just empty rah-rah fights where the good guy wins.

The axiom for all characters is ‘everyone is the hero of their own story’.  That’s easy to say but del Toro took that seriously here.  Contrast Nuada with somebody like Stryker from the X-Men movies.  Yeah, Stryker’s schemes follow his internal logic but it’s ‘villain’ logic.  The audience has no problem recognizing him as crazy and a bad guy and we’ll always cheer when Wolverine stabs him.  Nuada is much more real (despite being an immortal Celtic elf) and his actions, even if you don’t agree with them, are at least understandable and arguably defensible.  That’s some damn fine storytelling.

Combat Cliches: Medieval Edition

Awhile back Jeff posted a piece on firearms mistakes that every writer makes.  Many of them were abused cliches and many of them were maddening pet peeves of mine.  I have some other pet peeves about combat and weapons that predate the repeating firearm.  In some cases they predate gunpowder altogether.

Armor Does Not Make You Slow.  Somehow, somewhere, somebody started the idea that a fully armored knight was about as nimble as lead statue.  A lead statue high on quaaludes.  The cliche is an unhorsed knight was ‘as helpless as a turtle on its back’.  It’s not even close to true.  It is true that in the late middle ages, when tourneys were big money, specialized jousting armor was made.  These suits were designed for only one thing, riding a horse in a straight line with a lance.  They were never designed for any kind of real war (most had helmets that you couldn’t see out of)  Every other kind of armor was designed to keep a warrior alive on a feild of battle and survival meant protection, mobility and vision.  Even the full plate was fully articulated and knights were expected to perform all sorts of acrobatics in them; leaping into a saddle, climbing up siege ladders with only their arms (think monkey-bars), and doing somersaults. 

Swords Don’t Weigh Fifteen Pounds.  Your average sword was under four feet long and under three pounds.  A professional warriors sword would typically be more like three feet and about a pound and a half to two pounds.  The mechanics and physics of what a sword does is based on velocity.  Swords are light and balanced so the six to ten inches near the tip go as fast as possible with the least amount of effort from the end you’re holding.  Even the big two-handers like a Scot’s claymore or landsknecht’s pike breaker are much lighter than you might think.

On the Wearing of a Sword.  Roman legionaries wear their sword on their right hip.  Countless movies get this wrong for some reason.  It looks weird because we’re used to the cross draw and looks like it would be slow and awkward to draw.  It’s not and the Romans knew a thing or two about war.  One movie that got it right is a comedy– Monty Python and the Life of Brian.  Watch the scene where The Centurion is scolding Brian on his poor Latin.  He draws his sword in an eye blink and has it at Brian’s throat in one fluid move.

To the best of my knowledge (not exhaustive by any stretch) the only fighters who regularly carried their sword in a sheath at their back were the Ninja.  But their swords were also quite short.  I admit it looks pretty cool to have a big badass sword slung over your shoulder like William Wallace in Braveheart.  But you can’t actually draw it out of there.  Watch Braveheart again and keep an eye on Mel Gibson at the Battle of Stirling (never mind that the battle actually took place on a bridge).  He’s running at the English screaming like a maniac and he reaches over to draw his sword.  He gets it out as far as he can and it sort of stops.  Then there’s a cut.  Cut back to Gibson and the sword is out.  He sort of mimes drawing it but he’s just swinging it over his shoulder.

Sword Miscellany  Rapiers are not just thrusting weapons.  They were longer and heavier than movies would lead you to believe.  Civilian weapons to be sure but with a battlefield legacy.  They did however evolve shorter, thinner, lighter blades with more and more emphasis on the point until we get the small-sword of the 1700’s.

The swords of Japan are justly famed for their unique construction and incredible sharpness.  But western swords are not weak hunks of iron beat out by cavemen.  The Franks, the Vikings, and The Spanish were all famous for high end swords.  The Vikings made swords similar to Damascus blades that were sharp, supple, and incredibly valuable.

Man Does Not Kill by Sword Alone  The reverence that many cultures attached to the sword has made it the rock star of the slicy dicey world.  It looks cool and actors like to swing ’em around.  But axes and spears were cheaper to make and very effective.  In fact the sword was often a backup to the spear.  With Troy and 300 the spear might be regaining some cool points however.

Europe has Martial Arts  Damn samurai again!  The structured nature of Oriental arts seems to have clouded the formal training of Europe.  You aren’t just suddenly good with a sword and shield.  You train.  There are many surviving arms manuals and not just the later schools of fence.  Sword and buckler, two handed sword, pole ax, all had multiple schools with codified instruction.  These were often written down in manuals and the Western martial arts still have a somewhat obscure but dedicated following.

Most of this comes down to research and realism.  If you’re writing a story about a Roman soldier serving in Trajan’s columns, you better have it realistic and accurate.  The more you veer away from history and into fantasy the more slack you’ll get.  Conan just wouldn’t work with a rapier, dancing around in a formal Spanish fencing style.  But keep in mind that it can be the realism in a story that really sells the fantastical elements as believable.

Twice burned

I recently experienced the self-inflicted misfortune of watching two similarly styled films based on video games: Hitman & Max Payne

Each featured an array of decent acting talent (not A-list, but well above C-list).  Each was also pretty well shot and offered some interesting visual effects.  But each was also severely lacking in the story department.  Now, I will say that I have not played the games that begat the films.  It is likely that the screenwriters were both constrained by and propped up by the stories that are presented in-game.  The projects were probably little more than work for hire and neither was able to be pulled up to rise above that ignominious start.  In retrospect, only Max Payne really had any chance of engaging me as a viewer since the characters appeared to have some unmined depths.

I don’t even need all of the digits on one hand to count the satisfying (for me) movie ventures that fall into this genre – Mortal Kombat & Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  And Mortal Kombat was more of a nostalgia win, since it was based on a game that I actually enjoyed playing.

Looking ahead, I only see two films in this space that might have a chance to break the mold.  One is Alice, based on the American McGee game title.  If the film makers (and more importantly, the screenwriter) can capture the deliciously twisted vision of this game, I will be impressed.  The other is Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but only because the game designer, Jordan Mechner, based the game on old movies to begin with.  Still, it will require more than flashy swordplay to hold my attention for ninety plus minutes.  That’s right, it’s going to take a story.