Hypothetical Film Festival #2 – Offbeat Science Fiction

When you drop the term “science fiction” to a non-initiated non-geek there are a lot of cliched, stereotypical things that come to their mind. They think of the behemoth Star Wars franchise, the obsession of the Star Trek fan, and a myriad of other negatives things that in actuality not truly representative of sci-fi. So you want to bait your non-sci-fi friend into warming up to the genre? Here is a hypothetical film festival meant to show some of the breadth of what science fiction can be.

1) Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)
Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross

An excellent starter film. If you haven’t seen Tremors (and why haven’t you?!) it is an incredibly irreverent, farcical pic in the vein of Roger Corman’s B-monster movies. The plot concerns two handymen (Bacon and Ward) in a rundown former mining town that is on life support. A series of mysterious deaths occur at the same time a young student seismologist discovers a serious of strange quakes happening in the region. The handymen discover that a brood of prehistoric gigantic worms are burrowing their way under the town and popping up to swallow the citizenry. What follows is a mix of slapstick comedy and bizarre sci-fi tropes that make for a fun, light flick. Beware of the follow up films in this series though. They lack the humor and budget of this film.

2) A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater)
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick is considered to be a master of re-defining the science fiction literary genre and creating his own branch of more philosophical literature that incorporated science fiction elements into the story structure. Sadly, the majority of attempts to adapt his stories and novels to the screen have failed to live up to their source material (Total Recall, Minority Report) or good films but definitely not what Dick intended (Blade Runner). A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, has been the first adaptation that seems to understand the intent of Dick’s work. The plot concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police agent in the near future who has been assigned to track down the production of the dangerously addictive drug, Substance D. He ends up posing as a dealer and shacking up with two brain fried addicts (Downey Jr and Harrelson) and dating fellow dealer (Ryder). The catch is that Arctor’s identity must be kept secret to everyone up to his superiors by wearing a scramble suit (a suit that obscures a person’s face and body by shifting through a mosaic of indexed images of people). Arctor’s suffers a crisis of identity as a result and the film focuses a lot of its time on his meditation on figuring out who he really is. Director Linklater is sure to keep this feeling like a not-to distant future by playing the tech side very low. A very nice transition into a branch of sci-fi Hollywood seems to ignore.

3) Happy Accidents (2001, dir. Brad Anderson)
Starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio

While director Brad Anderson has become known more for his horror film work (Session 9, The Machinist), he made his start with relationship focused films. Happy Accidents works as a perfect date movie but also presents a contemporary science fiction plot that is inventive and clever and has no need for big budgets special effects. Ruby (Tomei) has had horrendous luck with men and had all but given up till she meets Sam Deed (D’Onofrio). Sam is a charismatic, quirky Midwesterner who charms Ruby right away and things move much faster than she planned. Then, Sam reveals something about himself that sends Ruby running; he claims to be from the year 2470. What follows is a clever play on the typical romantic comedy that will keep you guessing whether Sam is yet another nut-job or the real deal. A perfect example of what science fiction can be but is usually presented as.

4) Delicatessen (1991, dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

The minds behind Amelie and The City of Lost Children present this surreal slapstick post-apocalyptic flick. At an undisclosed time in the future, the world is in ashes and one apartment building in the ruins is attempting to keep life going on as usual. A new maintenance man has shown up (Pinon), who tries to figure out how the original maintenance man vanished. This leads him to discover that the landlord (Dreyfus) is butchering passersby and selling the meat to his voracious tenants. Add in a literal underground rebellion of sewer men and you have a very strange, very funny black comedy. A movie that proves even the end of the world can be hilarious.

5) Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. Rene Laloux)

This amazing French/Czech animated film exemplifies what pre-Star Wars science fiction was about: huge, transcendental ideas and the exploration of surreal worlds. On the title planet, the gigantic blue-skinned Draag employs minute, humanoid Oms as household slaves and pets. A small clan of Om have broken away and formed a civilization in the wilderness with plans to overthrow the Draag. This film contains some amazing psychedelic imagery and is a great science fiction picture for people who are more in the Philip K. Dick vein of the genre.

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Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).

Tentative Xmas Vacation Film Festival

Putting together a mini-film festival for the girlfriend and me when I go to visit. Here’s the line up so far. I always try to have an eclectic mix of movies.

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
John Carpenter’s The Thing
TimeCrimes
The King of Kong
Happiness
King of Comedy
Titus
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Alien

Suggestions?