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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dawn of the End

So I've been thinking about the ending to Dawn of the Dead, and realized that I always felt there was something off about it.It's just too happy, and everything previous seemed to be setting up for something different. So you've got the black guy with a gun to his head, the girl just about ready to take off, with little to no hope of him coming back, and all the zombies approaching necessitating a quick departure. Then the black guy runs through all the zombies, and manages to hop on the helicopter before it flies away, in a seemingly impossible display.

Now I've read that the original ending involved both characters committing suicide which also doesn't sit right with me, because the girl has an easy escape, it wouldn't be easy but she had a non-zero chance of surviving. Admittadely she was going to kill herself with the blades of the helicopter, sticking her head up into it, which is pretty awesome, and apparently her head would have gibbed like the guy who's head was blown off by a shotgun. So it would have been awesome, but still wouldn't have made a tremendous amount of sense, now the black guy's suicide made perfect sense.

Over the course of several weeks he had seen the world fall to shit, with zombies taking over a huge amount of territory, something which his fly-over in a helicopter would have shown him extremely clearly. So the world has gone to hell, and the raider gang would merely confirm this, showing that even the surviving humans were not the best sort of people. He had also seen his best friend be bitten due to his arrogance, and then watch as he slowly died, knowing that at some point in time he would have to kill him, and that inevitably they would all become zombies.

Not only had his best friend been killed, but the guy who was quickly becoming competent and he had actually begun to like was zombified, and again he was forced to kill someone that was important to him. In the end all he had left was the girl, but the likelihood of him getting to the helicopter was so small, that he should never have attempted it. Suicide would guarantee he wouldn't become a zombie, and while I don't know if it would further the message much it would certainly contribute to the grim message the film puts on.

Now as for the woman, she had lost everything, it is true, but she is also in the helicopter, and the black guy sacrificed himself so she could live, so it would be disrespecting his sacrifice, making it pointless. She should have lived, had the tools to live, and had a baby on the way which I'm sure would add to her survival instincts more so. She had also been trained in firearms at least a little bit, and in piloting a helicopter, so she had been set up as the survivor for much of the time, especially with her hanging back from most of the actual conflict.

When a man puts a gun to his head with the intention of killing himself to avoid the zombie apocalypse, he should do it, and when a pregnant woman is all set to escape from a near certain death, then she should. You can almost sense where the change was made, and it seems so contrary to what had been built up before. In short, the ending of Dawn of the Dead should have been worse than it was, with only one survivor, with one in the oven.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Beautiful Death

Continuing on from yesterday now I'll move on to the Heroic Bloodshed genre, something which is much more prevalent in Chinese cinema than it is in the States. There could be any number of reasons for this but one of the primary ones I believe is the cultural background, with loyalty as the key focus in many stories, something which is often deemed more important in Eastern culture than Western. I'll focus on John Woo's stuff because I know it best, but it applies to most of the genre.

So action movies centering on a personal story have more impact that ones which focus on armies taking down armies, but what if one man, or two mow down an enemy army? Well in the case of The Killer this is what happens, as a regretful assassin attempts one last job to pay for his love's eye surgery. He is opposed and later helped by a renegade cop, an archetypal loose cannon cop who cares more about getting the job done than the way he does it. These characters team up to take out a horde of mafia guys right at the end, and in a typical fight with doves and huge loads of bullets the opponents are defeated, though not without a personal loss by the protagonist. Actually the movie has a real downer of an ending, something which even the awesomeness of it doesn't really diminish.

But the themes it deals with, of betrayal and regret, and loyal friends, echoes throughout most genres, and makes the violence matter. The violence is the reason the movie was made, there is something almost dance like to it, especially some of the stunts that are pulled off like in the opening scene when the eponymous character shoots a mobster and uses him as a shield to fall in and take out some more guys. It is so well choreographed that we ignore reality for a while to watch the eloquent art. In general films of these types are less about the human struggle and more about the wider issues around it, and about the observation of death, and how even something so tragic can be so beautiful.

Another of Woo's films, perhaps his most famous ends on a much higher note, that is Hard Boiled. The last half an hour is essentially Die Hard but with much larger numbers and conflicts, and the protagonist is not alone inside the building. It is an effect fight scene, but loses some of the personal story that would make it a more relatable movie. Sure it's a nice looking movie with cool scenes, but it just doesn't resonate as well as some others like the above-mentioned The Killer. The focus is again on the action, this time at a slight detriment to the plot and characterization, with the main character as a Dirty Harry cop, the same as so many others from the genre. But though it may be predictable these movies continue to do well at the box office, and in audience's views.

Why do audiences enjoy seeing such violence, such terrible acts? Part is the desensitization due to the unspoken agreement that violence is okay but sex is not, that started right around when the Hayes code was finished. I don't know who or how or why they decided this but it has been that way forever in recent cinema, and will stay that way in any foreseeable future. Another part of it is the monkey-sphere, we don't care about the number of people that die because there are too many, we only care about those that the director intended us to, at least in most cases.

But ignoring the philosophical questions of why we appreciate others deaths lets look at some western equivalents, or at the least similar films. The style of Wire-fu and extremely choreographed fight scenes came into popularity due to the Matrix, and the sequels could never quite recreate the same feel, due in part to the same things as the Die Hard sequels. But the Matrix was heavily inspired by Hong Kong cinema, though it was actually significantly less bloody, kind of ignoring the whole bloodshed part of heroic bloodshed. The Matrix did something different with the characters though, making the protagonist a regular guy before it all started, creating a very different dynamic, and making the entry into the real world much more real for the audience, as they were as clueless as Neo.

Another reason that the Matrix worked so well was that Neo was not superman not yet, I mean in Reloaded a character actually commented that he was going 'superman' which is why he became less of a character and more of a caricature, unrelatable and merely a plot tool due to his immense power. In the first film he was just John McClaine, a guy who was good with guns and fighting skills, but nothing special to right at the end, where he pulled a Jesus, and when your main character becomes Jesus it really is time to end the series. So with Neo relatable people flocked to the theaters and a  whole new sub-genre was formed in the West, though it really was just stolen from the East. The same cool style of fighting is seen in other movies like Blade, or Underworld, movies where aesthetics overtakes substance.

The bloodshed part of the genre is actually taken somewhat by Tarantino, though he goes about it in a very different way than any other director. While he has not made a pure action flick yet, the Kill Bill movies come fairly close in delivering the same kind of action, though with swords instead of guns, thus emulating a different genre, though with obvious influences from John Woo. His mexican standoffs as well owe some to Woo, and other directors from the genre. There are certain scenes in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that have overt references, but later films like the Basterds have some as well.

So now I've looked at two sub-genres and I'm in no way done, because action movies cover a huge field, and show a lot more depth than meets the eye. I think I'll look at invincible heroes movies next, because they provide an interesting contrast to what I've already talked about, and are the frequent targets of criticism, and form the stereotypical action movie cliches.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Die Hard

Action films, they've become synonymous with mindless cinema which seeks nothing more than to deliver some explosions, with plot as an optional bonus. I have to say this actually really pisses me off, because action films can deliver themes just as well as any other genre, they simply have a different approach to it, with maybe a little too much focus on aesthetics. But I'm not going to pour through action films looking for deeper meanings, or something more than the entertainment that I actually go to the movies for, I'm just going to look at the various sub-genres of the thing, and what I like and dislike about them.

First and foremost I'm going to mention Die Hard, the best Christmas movie of all time. The reason I do this first is that it defined the genre from then on, with many films seeking to emulating and failing to capture what made the original so great. Even its sequels never lived up to the original, and that's because they missed the most fundamental thing about it. It's like seeing something that is popular, than trying to remake it with a different setting, it doesn't work if you don't understand why it's good, and how it was made, a copy and paste just results in a poor mans imitation. The key to the original Die Hard was scale, it was just one man against the world.

The world here of course is not the actual world, in fact it is pretty much just 12 terrorists, with a great leader in Alan Rickman. This is why it differed from other movies like much of what Seagal and Stallone put out. Even laughably good movies like Commando feature one guy mowing down a huge number of expendable goons, without names or personalities, they are merely there to die. Every person in Die Hard had a name, and a reason for dying. IT was a personal struggle on a scale that was entirely reasonable to the audience, I mean compared to the other heroes 12 guys was nothing, but it was a real struggle to the real person of John McClaine. Relatable is the key word here. We can't relate to superman, we can relate to Batman.

So what made Die Hard effective was the realism, not in the explosions or really the activities of the terrorists, but of the main character, of the scope, it meant every death meant something, one more of an increasingly difficult list. The other thing is that audiences love an underdog, with John outnumbered and outgunned, but with good old American determination he was able to take out an entire group of foreigners. There's a bit more to it than that, but the home team does so love to win, especially in a situation like that. This is one of the reasons that Live Free or Die Hard failed, ignoring the PG-13 version and watching the R cut, because it was on a scale that just wasn't relatable, I mean sure crashing a car into a helicopter is cool, but it just doesn't work on a human level, that's a superhuman.

There's a reason that the Spider-man is one of the most popular superheroes, because he has regular problems and so the audience empathizes with him. Empathy is extremely important in these kinds of situations. By most popular I mean highest grossing films, with his 3 in the top 4, only topped by the Dark Knight, which is somewhat different than the traditional superhero film. But back to the failings of Die hard 4, it was no longer a personal story, even though McClaine's daughter was on the line, we didn't care as much because it seemed more artificial. Explosions do not make a film, which is key to understanding the difference between good action films and bad. Die Hard had explosions, 4 was about the explosions, a very key difference. Not that you can't have the action as the reason the film is made, but there is a way to do that, and that is with the heroic bloodshed genre where the incredibly artistic violence is the focus and what gives the film its strength, for themes about loyalty and truth. But I'll get into that later.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Big Lebowski

Truly the most valiant hero of recent times
The Big Lebowski is a cult film from the Coen Brothers that seeks to subvert genres and even the basic narrative characters. The protagonist is a lazy, unemployed dude who seeks nothing more in life than to bowl, and the primary antagonist appears to be a rich philanthropist. By the end of the film all the roles are subverted and the crazy pissed off Vietnam vet turns out to have been right for most of the film. It's very Shakespearean as well, dealing with the issues of mistaken identity, love, and written in such an eloquent way, despite being incredibly crude. The film is not quite so preordained as one of Kubrick's but it is deliberate in its own very unique way, without being obviously planned.

The film is also one of the funniest things I've ever seen, with nearly every scene having at least one hilarious line, and such deadpan delivery by some of the characters, especially the Dude but also Walter makes it something truly great in terms of comedies. Its ending could be compared to Chinatown in terms of success for the main character, but how he views life is so different that everyone leaves the theater or whatever feeling satisfied, because the Dude abides. The entire story is told by an odd narrator, telling the tale in the style of a Western, and looking straight out of Fistful of Dollars, he marches on the scene at the beginning, middle, and end and meets with the Dude to tell him that it'll be all right, and the Dude reaffirms this belief with his aggressive nonchalantness.

The film subverts typical expectations with the character of the Dude, who is effectively a  non-entity in terms of moving the plot along. Walter controls him much of the time, and he accomplishes very little by himself just as he has little control over his life. He does go to the big Lebowski about his rug, but from then on follows either the big Lebowski, his special lady friend, or Walter into the various challenges he faces. Throughout all of this though a detective following him believes him to be some sort of Batman character, uncovering everything and playing the sides like a violin. It is because of his non-action and screwing around that a plot is unveiled, but nothing is or can be done about it, resulting in some very pissed off nihilists, some scattered ashes, and a million dollars stolen from a charity, what fun.
Nihilism logo
So yes the plot begins with the Dude, whose real name is Jeffrey Lebowski, well it begins with his rug getting pissed on, then the rug soilers realize he is not quite the millionaire they are looking for, and head off to find a more appropriate pissing place. Then the Dude goes bowling, as he always does. Though actually, despite the multitude of times he is seen sitting at the bowling alley drinking beer and talking, he is never seen doing the act of bowling, unlike Steve Buscemi, who is seen bowling strikes several times, then he only gets 9 and dies out of shame. Bowling here could be pretty much any activity, it could be golfing, it could be tennis, but in terms of least effort bowling simply comes out on top, so is the Dude's sport of passion, or lack thereof.

The Dude is more than simply a man though, he is a symbol of a philosophy. There have been religions made around him, and his phrase 'The Dude abides' which has become legendary amongst cult move watchers. Again comparisons to Batman as he becomes more than just a man because of his actions and philosophy. The Dude is also a sort of anti-Batman, someone who so doggedly does nothing that he actually manages to do everything. In the end he is nothing but the Dude, and demonstrates this all throughout his stay in the film, as a point of view character who knows nothing about what is going on until it is far too late.

In the end the film seeks to enlighten and tell a classic story, and succeeds admirably, just as it succeeds as a comedic feature, though it has a fairly tragic ending, like the best of Shakespeare's comedies. Is the Dude mistreated because of his appearance and place in life just like Shylock? Is he doomed to a life of loneliness like poor Malvolio, is he a doomed clown? The Dude will live on through his thinkings, just as the film will live on through its fans and its vision to show the funny side to life, even when all the shit is in the fan, and there is a nasty piss stain on the rug.