Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Top 10 Staircases in Cinema

Whether for the purposes of humour, suspense, tragedy or action, some of cinema’s most memorable scenes have taken place on a staircase. As a potentially fatal area in the comfort of a domestic space, filmmakers have long understood and exploited the dramatic potential of the stares, often hovering characters nearby to build tension, before releasing it with a well-timed dramatic climax. Here are ten of the best examples.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street
A relatively modest staircase becomes a formidable obstacle in the eyes of a drugged-up Leonardo diCaprio. Scorsese playfully distorts reality by revealing there to be six steps in an establishing shot, but then about three times that amount from DiCaprio’s distorted point of view. 

9. The Fallen Idol
Children sneaking out of bed to observe the behaviour of their elders from the top of the stairs is a familiar trope in films. In The Fallen Idol, the young protagonist is seen frequently peering down the staircase, and sees thing that dismantle his innocent hero worship of the house’ butler.  

8. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers
Many an exciting action sequence has taken place on the precarious setting of the stairs – see The Bourne Identity and Casino Royal for other great examples. But Legolas’ improvisational skateboard down one at the Battle of Helm’s Deep wins for overcoming the inherent disadvantages of stares and killing about six orcs in the process.

7. A Matter of Life and Death
For sheer size the stairway to heaven from A Matter of Life and Death takes some beating. Powell and Pressburger didn’t need digital technology to depict an elevator that runs all the way to heaven, by building a huge set that gives the impression of going on forever.

6. The Floorwalker 
Mishaps on staircases need not always lead to tragic consequences – they can be comic too. Falling down the stairs is a timeless slapstick gag, but possibly the funniest stair-based gags come from Charlie Chaplin's Floorwalker. An elevator lurks ominously in the background in scenes set in the shop, which the legendary clown duly exploits the full comic potential of, by falling catastrophically up them and trying vainly to sprint down them.

5. Gone With The Wind
In a film full of melodrama, the staircase at the centre of the grand house in Gone With The Wind witnesses much incident. First there’s the erotically charged scene in Clarke Gable’s Rhett whisks Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara to make love, which set the template for lovers climbing the stairs to the bedroom. Then later, in a tragic reversal, a pregnant Scarlett falls down them and loses her child. An unflinching single shot and amplified sound make this scene particularly harrowing.

4. Sunset Boulevard
The staircase in the final scene of Sunset Boulevard means different things to different people – for Gloria Swanson it is the setting for a glamorous entry in her latest film, but for everyone else it is a delusional woman’s descent into the arm of the law. Although we’re made fully aware of the delusion, Billy Wilder still shoots the scene in a way that frames the policeman as stricken bystanders with all eyes on the fallen star.

3. Psycho
Out of context, the detective’s unrealistic backwards fall down a staircase in Psycho would look ridiculous, but accompanied by those screeching strings, creepy black and white and tracking medium shot the scene instead comes off as eerily surreal. Rather than tumble head over heels, he falls upright, flailing his hands in a futile attempt to clutch at something while the life escapes from his eyes. From the climactic scene in Notorious to the innovatively disorientating use of the dolly zoom in Vertigo, staircases are a recurring motif in Hitchcock’s films, but this is perhaps the most memorable.

2. The Shining
Staircases leading into the unknown, particularly those that lead downwards into basements, are a common prop in horror films, and Jack Nicholson’s agonisingly slow ascent in The Shining is perhaps the most tense of all. Much of the scene actually takes place on the downstairs floor, but once Shelly Duval starts backing up the stair and gaining the higher ground, she begins to grow bolder before finally striking him with the baseball bat. Before that, though, the way she keeps him only just at bay by waving the bat in front of him has a dreadful nightmarish quality.  

1. Battleship Potemkin
It’s not an overstatement to say that the ‘Odessa steps’ sequence in this masterpiece revolutionised the way films are put together. This scene has become so famous in fact, that a parody of it in the opening of The Untouchables could easily have made this list in its own right. In it, Sergei Eisenstein put into practice his theories of montage, by exploring the potential of film editing to prompt greater emotional responses from the viewer. We wince as the pram totters towards the edge of the staircase, and recoil as a child is repeatedly trampled on, in ways that the more basic editing techniques used in films prior to Battleship Potemkin were unable to elicit. 


Friday, 15 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: The Community of the Marvel Universe

With its off-beat tone, self-referential humour and quirky cast of characters, Guardians of the Galaxy sticks out from the rest of the Marvel cannon as a bit of an oddity. In fact, whereas most films from the popular comic book studio feel like natural cousins of one another – and even merged to form The Avengers - Guardians of the Galaxy has a wider frame of reference and seems to be influenced from sources outside of the insular world of Marvel.

In particular, the added humour suggest an influence of sit-coms. Sure, all recent Marvel films have used humour to take the edge of their sometimes overblown premises, but to date none have been as self-effacing as Guardians. Take the Drax the Destroyer revenge plot line, which in other Marvel films might have been played straight, but here is mocked for its over-seriousness.

The presence of Chris Pratt as the protagonist reinforces this comedic tone - but rather than his show Parks and Recreation, it is Community that Guardians brings to mind the most. The recently resurrected show has become renowned for its knowing humour and elaborate pop culture jokes, and often operates at a meta-level to both use and comment on six-com tropes.

Guardians may not quite so audacious, but it does share a similar tone and love of pop culture. From the mix-tape of classic songs that Peter Quill (Pratt) carries around to mentions of other films like Footloose, there’s plenty here to suggest that director James Gunn may be a fan of Community, and it’s easy to envision Abed from Community saying Gamora’s line, ‘We’re just like Kevin Bacon’.

But what really underscores the familiarity between show and film are the characters. Like the study group in Community, the so-called ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ are a mismatched bunch of outsiders brought together through chance. The film is at its most enjoyable when they’re all together and jokes are flying back and forth, much like Community gets the biggest laughs when the characters are all gathered round the study room table. And although The Avengers also excelled in similar ensemble scenes, the Guardians are, as Quill says proclaims in one particularly Jeff Winger-esque motivational speech – ‘losers’. It’s hard to imagine Tony Stark ever saying as much.

Then there’s the underpinning theme of absent families. Quill is burdened by the sadness of losing his mother as a toddler, Gamora was used as a weapon by her father, Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered and Rocket the Racoon has a few existential moments berating his own genetically-modified creation; just as, in Community, Jeff, Abed and Pierce all suffer from strained relationships with their fathers, and Shirley struggles to adapt after divorcing her husband.  
Again, this is hardly a novelty in the superhero genre, but what sets the characters of Guardians apart, and evokes the damaged individuals in Community, is that they form their own family as a group. Whereas Batman responds to his orphaning by becoming an isolated vigilante, and the egos of The Avengers never allow them to work seamlessly together, the characters in Guardians flourish and become whole again in each other’s company.
 With a sequel coming up, it might be too much to ask for such a mega-studio money spinner to take the same audacious risks that made the second season of Community such a classic. But as far as Marvel films go, this band of weirdos have great potential, and it will be fascinating to see where they go next. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Page Before Screen: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

"It's too bad she won't live, but then again, who does?"

Philip K. Dick is the creative genius behind countless Hollywood hits and genre-defining stories. Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau all originated from his pen. With such an impressive roster of enthralling tales, if anyone could claim to be the most influential figure in 20th century science fiction it would surely be him.

In 1968 the American writer published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel which would later be adapted by Ridley Scott into a masterpiece of dystopian storytelling titled Blade Runner. Dick’s novel is just as entertaining as its celluloid sibling, detailing a chaotic 48 hours in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts for robots on a post-nuclear Earth.

Dick’s varying visions of future societies are always interesting speculations, and in this neo-noir classic, we are introduced to a new lexicon including ‘Andys’, ‘chicken heads’ and a religious cult called Mercerism. The main fascination derives from the extent to which the androids can call themselves human, as shown by the contrasting actions of rebel leader Roy Batty and the alluring Rachel Rosen. Whereas Rutger Hauer gives Batty a sympathetic psychosis with his ‘tears in the rain’ speech, Rosen is better drawn by Dick’s words than her interpretation on screen. Through the plot’s wicked developments she becomes the ultimate femme fatale to the exasperated Deckard, at once dangerously intelligent – cunning even – but simultaneously sexy and appealing. Her relationship with the hero is the device through which Dick masterfully draws us into the ambiguous morality of his future world, challenging us to question his proceedings at every turn.

Across the mere 210 pages, the author takes us on a thrilling meandering voyage to one ultimate question: what is human life? Typical Philip K. Dick! No other writer could be so efficiently succinct.
Nevertheless, there are certain problems with Dick’s approach and the religious symbolism, which is inescapable in his work, tends to draw attention from his brilliant narratives. It is only a minor problem but still a shame when it is so distracting.

DADES? is an increasingly topical work as advantages in artificial intelligence continue to gather pace. Perhaps in years to come we will see an empathy test become more prevalent, as is used in the book by Deckard to identify the androids from humans. But what about psychopaths; could it be possible to mistake them for robots? At every step Dick flirts at an answer but ultimately leaves this quandary open. Ultimately, the reader must make up their own mind about the extent to which empathy defines our species.

 Blade Runner is a classic beyond reproach. Scott repopulated his futuristic Los Angeles with a strong Chinatown feel and plenty of concrete temples. Beyond the gloomy scenic shots, there is an added weirdness to his characters, with Edward James Olmos playing an origami-enthusiast driver and Sebastian’s ‘friends’, an assortment of unsettling living dolls. But these cinematic variations take nothing away from DADES?.

Esoteric? Yes. Entertaining? Absolutely! As an author with more than 50 works to his name before his premature death, Dick’s quantity of output matched his quality. If you want more of his best pieces check out Ubik and A Scanner Darkly, both of which still have their surprise endings intact for fresh initiates into the Dick universe. They are freaky-deaky!


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Galaxy Quest Best

When the day eventually comes that harkens the end of the Marvel movie empire, and mournful fans look back on its halcyon days, people will not remember Iron Man, Captain America or even the Avengers. Instead, they will recall Guardians of the Galaxy and wonder how on Earth the comic book studio managed to pull off its greatest triumph.

It was a gamble so daring that even the nerd community gasped in disbelief. A talking raccoon, green and blue aliens straight out of Captain Kirk’s fantasies, and a bunch of heroes nobody outside of Forbidden Planet had ever heard of: could the producers, with mastermind Kevin Feige at their head, really get away with it? Apparently so, because within the ongoing glut of comic-book adaptations, this is by far the best piece of entertainment. Inspired choice or scraping the barrel of their canon? Honestly, when the results are this fun, I don’t care.

After his mother’s untimely death, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted by extra-terrestrials. We join him decades later working as a high-tech thief in the outer reaches of the cosmos. During  a spell in a prison which looks too much like the one from The Chronicles of Riddick to be a coincidence, Quill A.K.A. Starlord hatches an escape plan with an assassin (Zoe Saldana), an intelligent raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a muscle man (Dave Bautista) and a humanoid tree.

For once 3D is worth having for a major blockbuster. Marvel’s artists really earned their latest pay check with some incredibly imaginative locations and character design. A complete sense of environment is rare in science-fiction but on this occasion the exteriors have countless layers of detail beyond the vague post-apocalyptic wasteland vibe. One society is ingeniously introduced through a character’s binocular lens as he voyeuristically spies on people in the street.

These visuals are matched by a cast that really gels when it comes to the quick fire banter between them. It’s an unashamedly funny script, which is probably why the sitcom regular Pratt got the nod for the starring role.

Alas, no comic-book film is perfect, Guardians of the Galaxy being guilty of the same weaknesses found in many of its predecessors. Frankly, there is no punchy jeopardy. Batman works because he is the ‘caped crusader’; his fight against crime is a personal war in which he has a dark motivation. In Quill’s case, though, he simply wants to do a good deed whilst having a laugh with his friends. It just does not have the same audience pull, even if the light relief is a pleasant aspect of the story. I want darkness, despair and the ending from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, not a jolly holiday escapade.

Then there is the pussycat villain. The scriptwriters obviously knew they had a problem with this dull baddie because they deliberately force him to do so many gruesome bad-guy things early into the film. But when his skin is blue and his personality is blander than your average Bond megalomaniac, it is hard to take him seriously. Even the hapless evil Empire from Star Wars managed to blow up Alderaan. The allegedly supreme Ronan has no such look against his foes in this 12A. Bad bad-guys are an ongoing trend in the Marvel catalogue and repeatedly hints that DC has a better array of antagonists than their great rivals. Ooh, controversial!

Otherwise, Guardians of the Galaxy is the highlight of the summer season. Get yourself down to the cinema and have some fun with it.


Friday, 8 August 2014

The Inbetweeners Movie 2

The first Inbetweeners movie pulled off one of the most notoriously difficult feats in cinema - converting a popular sit-com into a feature length film. Where the likes of Sex in the City and Kevin and Perry Go Large had dramatically failed, the channel four comedy about four pathetic suburban six-formers eased into the extended format and was a box-office and critical success.   

Three years on and writers Damon Beesley and Ian Morris have taken on the arguably even greater challenge of making a good sequel off the back of a successful first film, and, thankfully, they’ve once again succeeded. The potty mouthed teens may not feel quite as fresh as when they first appeared on TV as alarmingly uncouth yet recognisable types from school, but their mishaps still prove to be the source of plenty of laughs and good-natured fun.

All the usual elements of plans going horribly wrong, gross out humour, sit-com-structured misfortune, hilarious minor character cameos (including one very satisfying appearance from Greg Davies’ Mr Gilbert) and almost poetically filthy dialogue all remain. But most importantly of all is that the characters still feel authentic. It is typical of long-running shows for the writers to begin to lose focus on what makes the characters so appealing and end up becoming overly reliant on more cartoonish elements like gross-out gags, but everything that made the four inbetweeners recognisable and hilarious remain intact.

Will’s (Simon Bird) still a neurotic dork and has, inevitably, failed to make any friends at Uni; Simon’s (Joe Thomas) latest relationship has, also inevitably, gone horribly wrong as it transpires that his girlfriend is overly-controlling; Jay (James Buckley) is living in Australia and e-mailing the others about his quite literally unbelievable stories; with Neil (Blake Harrison), as dim-witted as ever, the only one to believe him, and eager to catch a plane and join in the fun down-under. The others eventually agree, and, upon finding Jay’s lifestyle to be not be quite as extravagant as promised, decide to go travelling across the country.

Pleasingly, rather than set-up another clich├ęd ‘lads on tour’ looking for girls scenario, the trip to Australia is used to return to the original dynamic of the show – Will’s relation to the others. From the very beginning of the show Will was cast as a misfit, the blazer-wearing ‘briefcase wanker’ who did not fit in at his new comprehensive school. That tension is reawakened when Will meets the kind of middle-class, Peruvian villager-befriending backpackers (not ‘tourists’, as they’re adamant to remind everyone) that he feels he ought to be friends with. But they could not be more different from his actual friends, as hilariously illustrated in a scene where Neil, being introduced to them for the first time, fails to comprehend the concept of a double-barrelled surname.  

In this sense, the sequel is actually more interesting in terms of plot than the first film’s hunt for girls in Malia. Of course, he has a love interest – one of those backpackers is childhood crush Katie (Emily Berrington) – but the film is more interested in what she represents than whether Will gets with her at the end. At the same time, there are perhaps slightly less laughs and stand-out moments as the quartet’s bizarre dancing and Simon’s ill-fated swim in the first film, and this time the hundred minute running time – four times longer than an average episode – does feel a little strained come the last act.

But overall this is yet another entertaining instalment of the Inbetweeners franchise (given this film’s huge commercial success, it’s perhaps time we referred to it as this). Although Simon Bird has said this will probably be the last film, a threequel would certainly be welcome. And, given how the writers continue to succeed with everything they’ve done with the characters (OK, so perhaps not everything - ), that rare feat of a successful trilogy seems plausible.