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The Problem With Modern Action Movies

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Action movies just aren’t what they used to be. On Saturday night, I watched the film version of the hit 1980s TV show, the A-Team. A part of me hoped for an enjoyable experience, but, just as I had expected, I found the film to be cliched, formulaic, and predictable.

It became evident early on that the filmmakers had taken little to no effort in the making of this story. The plot was boring and predictable, and the characters were two dimensional. Indeed, it seemed that most of the film had been devoted to bad digital effects and over-the-top action sequences.

This is the kind of thing that passes for action movies nowadays. It is a far cry from the greats of yesteryear which, at least in the best of cases, were willing to combine action with intelligence. It is certainly true that these films featured death-defying stunts, mind-blowing special effects, and well-choreographed action sequences. However, it is also true that the best among them also featured complex, three-dimensional characters and clever, intricate plots. Yes, these films often pushed the boundaries of disbelief, but we were more than happy to suspend our disbelief for them anyway.

Any successful movie, particularly an action movie, requires two things: a good plot and good characters. One of the biggest problems with the modern action movie is that they are often boring. The audience finds it difficult to engage with the story because there is no character or plot for them to care about.

Great action movies have great, exciting stories. The problem is that modern action movies have a tendency to recycle the same tired stories over and over again. Audiences have been subjected to an endless array of reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels. Audiences crave originality. What we need is original stories, not a rehash of a television show that ended over thirty-years-ago.

It’s not as though an action movie’s plot has to be entirely original, either. Most of us are willing to accept a familiar, or even cliched, story provided it’s presented in a new and interesting way. Take, as a case in point, the film Speed. Its plot is essentially a rehash of the Die Hard model, but by placing the action on a bus, the filmmakers managed to gain the appreciation of their audience by presenting them with something novel.

In addition to the importance of plot, it is also equally important to discuss the importance of character. Modern day action heroes often lack interesting character arcs. The audience has not been allowed to care about the characters as people and therefore have little reason to root for them. People like to see characters go through a personal journey. They like to see them grow and develop as a character. Good action heroes have some kind of flaw, whether it be a bad attitude, debris from their past, poor self-esteem, or any one of a thousand different things, that he or she must overcome to complete their mission.

The heroes of great action movies were relatable. The filmmakers knew they had to combine the right amount of vulnerability with the right amount of grit. We had to believe that these people bled, made mistakes, and felt pain.

In other words, these heroes had vulnerabilities. They were not invincible. The audience could believe that Axel Foley (Beverly Hills Cop) spent most of his time busting low-level crooks in downtown Detroit and that he genuinely felt anger and grief over the murder of his friend. In Die Hard, the filmmakers were prepared to take the time to let us get to know John McLane. We learnt that he was an Irish-American police officer, that he was a father, that he was estranged from his wife, and that he was frightened of flying. And when he had to fight terrorists, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the FBI, we genuinely rooted for him because we had been allowed to get to know him.

Equally important, if not more important in many cases, is the film’s villain. Good stories have good protagonists, great stories have great antagonists. There has to be something in a villain that makes him at least a little bit likeable, or even sympathetic. A part of us has to be able to understand his motivations and even root for him. We could understand why Karl wanted to kill John McLane because we had seen McLane kill his brother. And we could understand why Speed’s chief antagonist, Howard Payne, wanted to hold the city of Los Angeles to ransom after we learnt that he had been injured in an explosion working for the LAPD. Heck, even films in which the villain wants money or power, or both, are relatable because we want these things, too.

If the producers of action movies were willing to invest as much time and effort in story and character development as they were on special effects, it is possible that they might someday produce another great action movie. But, with the way things are going, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

 

NOTE: I apologise for the long delay between articles. I have been in the process of preparing a rather lengthy article on constitutional monarchy.

THE LADY VANISHES

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This week for our cultural article, we will be examining Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899 – 1980) 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes.  Set primarily on a train bound for England from Central Europe, Hitchcock’s film weaves an intriguing and intense narrative around characters united and divided by their snobbery, self-centredness, complacency, and nationalism.

The Lady Vanishes is one-part comedy, one-part murder mystery, and one-part thriller. The film’s first act is rather comedic in nature. A recent avalanche has blocked the train lines, forcing most of the residents to remain at the hotel overnight. The hotel in question becomes so overbooked and so strained in its resources, that two of its guests are forced to sleep in the maid’s quarters. This first act draws the audience in with its lighthearted attitude and its mixture of verbal and physical humour. Not even the murder of a folk singer outside the hotel is enough to distract us from the revelry.

The first act ends with the disappearance of the film’s titular character, Miss Froy (May Whitty, 1865 – 1948). From this point, the film becomes a murder mystery with Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, 1916 – 1990), a wealthy socialite, and her helper, the musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave, 1908 – 1985), searching for her. Here Hitcock begins to play subtle tricks on our minds. We, like Iris Henderson, know Miss Froy exists, but the other characters deny ever having seen her. Simultaneously, Hitchcock plays with our curiosity and our frustration. Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act.

Eventually, Miss Froy is found and the film then climaxes with a thrilling and action-packed third-act. This act becomes a fight for survival as the film’s British characters are forced to fight against unnamed foreign forced outside.

Throughout the Lady Vanishes, themes of nationalism and class-snobbery pop-up.  The film’s British characters and arrogant and insular in their attitudes. When it appears that they are about to be killed by foreign police officers, one Brit rather proudly exclaims: “They can’t do anything to us. We’re British subjects.” This is juxtaposed by the subtle undercurrent of politics, exemplified by the film’s antagonists, who may or may not be in league with Fascist Italy.

Then there’s the notion of social class and the snobbery and divisiveness that goes with it. (A reality Hitchcock, as the son of a trader, was quite familiar with). Hitchcock cynically links money and title together by having Iris return to England to marry Lord Charles Forthingale for no other reason than to appease her father, who is reportedly “aching to have a coat of arms on the jam label.” Then there’s the cricket-obsessed Charters (Naunton Wayne, 1901 – 1970) and Caldicott (Basil Radford, 1897 – 1952) representing the idle upper-class. (These two would become popular stock characters in numerous films, radio plays, and television shows).  And then there’s the travelling lawyer (Cecil Parker, 1897 – 1971) and his mistress (Linden Travers, 1913 – 2001) who avoid contact with those they deem beneath them, and who are perfectly prepared to lie to protect their precious social status.

The Lady Vanishes has frequently been credited as Hitchcock’s last great British film.  Hitchcock masterfully weaves elements of mystery, suspense, humour, international politics, class-snobbery, and nationalism together to form an intriguing story. The Lady Vanishes is still as intriguing today as it was nearly eighty years ago.

12 ANGRY MEN

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This week for our cultural article we will be examining the classic 1957 courtroom drama12 Angry Men.

BACKGROUND

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12 Angry Men is based on a television play inspired by Reginald Rose’s (1920 – 2002) real-life experience as a juror on a manslaughter case in early 1954. It was first aired on CBS’ Studio One in September 1954.

It was inevitable that the television play would result in a film adaptation. With Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) and Rose acting as producers, and with Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) acting as director, the resulting film was filmed in under three weeks and made for a paltry US$340,000 (US$2,961,823.49 in today’s money).

THE MOVIE

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12 Angry Men is a small film in every sense of the word. Twelve jurors are locked in a room on the hottest day of the year to decide the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father. As per the law, the vote must be unanimous. Initially, all but one, Juror Eight (Henry Fonda – the only real star in the movie), vote guilty.

It’s not that Juror Eight thinks the defendant is innocent, but that he isn’t sure. He argues that the boy had an inadequate legal defence and that they, the jury, ought to examine the evidence more closely.

Initially, he has trouble persuading the other jurors to change their vote. But, as they begin to examine the pieces of evidence, more and more of the juror’s find room for reasonable doubt. The film ends with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict.

ANALYSIS

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12 Angry Men stands out in an era of sweeping epics and technicolour. It is a small, minimalist, black and white film shot mostly in real time. The mood is created through the creative use of camera angles, camera lenses, and editing.

At the beginning of the film, there are long, unbroken takes filmed from above with wide angled-lenses which give a sense of distance between the characters. They are dominated by the task ahead of them. As the film progresses, the takes become shorter, the camera moves steadily from above to below the action, and the focal length is decreased. This makes the film feel more claustrophobic. No longer at the jurors dominated by the task ahead of them, they are dominated by the force of each other’s personalities. As Lumet wrote:

“I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot  to raise the tension of the last part of the movie.”

12 Angry Men is primarily driven by its characters. Tension arises from body language, dialogue, and personality clashes. The characters represent an almost perfect cross-section of different personality types and temperaments.

12 Angry Men acts as a crash course on the parts of the US Constitution that guarantee a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.  It is never stated whether the Defendant is innocent or not but instead asks us to look beyond our biases and arrogance and examine the evidence closer at hand. 12 Angry Men symbolises how well the American legal system can work when people are prepared to look beyond their personal feelings use their integrity for its benefit.

CASABLANCA

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For our weekly cultural article, we will be looking at the film Casablanca. Released in 1942, Casablanca delves deeply into themes of morality and human sacrifice, tentatively exploring both the good and bad aspects of humanity.

BACKGROUND

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The American Film Institute ranks Casablanca as the second greatest film of all time (ranked behind Citizen Kane).

The fact that Casablanca is still so revered, even after seventy-five years,  is nothing short of a miracle. The film was made on a tight budget in the style common to the studio system of the time, having been made on set with a studio director, studio writers, and studio actors.

Its script has been voted by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest ever written. That, too, is a miracle. The script was based on a play that was never performed: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, by Murray Burnett (1910 – 1997) and Joan Alison (1901 – 1992).  The task of adapting the play to film was given to three separate screenwriters, who completed their task in three different locations.  Julius G. and Philip G. Epstein (1909 – 2000; 1909 – 1952) would finish theirs just a few days before filming began. Howard Koch (1901 – 1995), on the other hand, wouldn’t hand his in until filming was well underway.

And even then, scraps of dialogue and scene rewrites were being rushed to the set, the ink still wet on the page.

THE FILM

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Perhaps one reason for its long lasting success is its refusal to be categorisedCasablanca is one part war film – being presented against the backdrop of the Second World War, one part love story – Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are embroiled in a bitter love triangle, one part political thriller, and one part allegory – presenting both the best and worst aspects of human nature.

Another reason is the stellar cast it boasts: Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) – considered the greatest film star of all time by the American Film Institute, Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) – one of film’s most naturally beautiful women,  Claude Rains (1889 – 1967), Sydney Greenstreet (1879 – 1954), Paul Henreid (1908 – 1992), and Peter Lorre (1904  – 1964).

SUMMARY

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Naturally, no one thought Casablanca would be a hit, people weren’t even sure if the allies would win World War Two.  However,  as Alrean Harmetz wrote in Round Up the Usual Suspects: the Making of CasablancaCasablanca seemed almost destined to be a film classic:

“There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself – tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made – the early  days of World War II – and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.”

I believe Casablanca‘s long lasting success boils down to its depiction of the goodness of human beings in the wake of great evil. Early in World War Two, Casablanca was Vichy France, and therefore Nazi German, territory. In the film, Casablanca is depicted as a world of corruption, a crossroads where Nazis, members of various resistance forces, criminals, spies, and traitors come together. It is a fascist society where the oppressors imprison millions, where human life is a commodity to be traded for benefits. No one cares about anyone, save for themselves.

The imprisoned respond to their imprisonment in different ways: some fight against it, others try to escape it, and others try to profit from it. In one scene, a man is shot dead trying to escape. He falls under a poster of Marshall Philippe Petain (1856 – 1951), the Chief of Vichy France. We learn he was clutching a Free France handbill.

Desperate attempts to escape to freedom are understandable. But the film also presents us with an array of lowlifes and criminals, and, remarkably, even asks us to express pity for them. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is a shrewd and callous gangster who, it is suggested, profits from the sale of human beings.

The total disregard for human life is depicted in a scene where Ferrari offers to buy Rick’s friend and piano player, Sam, portrayed by Dooley Wilson (1886 – 1953). Rick refuses, saying “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Too bad”, Ferrari replies, “that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

Then there’s Signore Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the North African black market dealer who represents disorganised criminal who profits from the misery of others. Rick ignores his pleas for help as he is arrested for murdering two German couriers in order to steal non-rescindable, French General Marshal Weygand signed, letters of transit.

Ultimately, Casablanca is a film of redemption and human sacrifice. It asks its audience to not only imagine winning the loves of their lives but asks them to imagine giving them up for the greater good.

Rick starts out as a cynical and resentful anti-hero. “I stick my neck out for no one”, he tells us at one point. By the end of the film, he has been transformed into a selfless hero. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”, he tells Ilsa.

In the end, Casablanca shows the power of sacrifice and brotherly love over tyranny and evil. Even when everything is lost, hope can be found among those few human beings who are willing to put their personal needs aside and sacrifice themselves for others.