Sunday, January 25, 2009

A despicable hero - Lord Foul's Bane

It's hard to write something in the genre of high fantasy without it turning into another telling of "Lord of the Rings". Most authors attempt to shift the settings, and modify the characters slightly enough to give the tale a new texture. But in the end it's still the struggle of the little hero against a enormous and corrupting evil. It takes a significant sacrifice by the hero to turn the tide and save the day. We've all read these tales over and over again, and obviously we enjoy them. But still, it can get a little old, after the 35th re-iteration of elves, dwarves, and humans banding together on a quest. How do you really shake things up and make the story even more interesting?

Stephen R. Donaldson took his lead character and gave him the ultimate characteristic of a villain: selfishness. Let's take a look at Frodo, Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker. All three are motivated by their actions to help others. They do what they must because it will save the world (or universe), not because it puts money in their pocket or gives them fame. Frodo is just a good hobbit at heart. He does what he must, because he is the only one that can do it. Harry Potter does he must for the same reason, and even though it gains him great fame, he actually abhors being famous. Luke Skywalker is slightly different because in "A New Hope" and "Empire" we see that he may be motivated by revenge. It isn't until "Return of the Jedi" that Luke realizes that he must forget his needs and the needs of his friends - and save his father. By committing to that act, he saves the galaxy from Empire.

Back to Thomas Covenant, the main character in Donaldson's series "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". Almost all the actions that Covenant makes in the book are governed by fear, selfishness, and delusion. These three characteristics are what usually govern villains in most stories. In fact these three elements are usually specifically mentioned or hinted at as great enemies in other fantasy stories - the Ring Wraiths and Dementors are fear personified; Yoda specifically mentions fear as one of the paths to the dark side. Covenant is governed by his fear even to the end of the novel, almost all his actions are dictated by his fear for his personal safety or sanity.

This is the key to Covenant and the book as a whole. The only way to make this work well is allow the reader to understand Covenant. Once you understand why he thinks and acts the way he does, his actions at least make sense. The first few chapters of the book show the reader a clear picture of Thomas Covenant. He's a man who had his path down his life perfectly laid out. He was a writer who had just published a highly successful first novel, his wife was pregnant with their first child and he lived in a small village where life was comfortable and pleasant. Then Covenant is stricken with leprosy and everything goes wrong. His wife leaves him, and takes their child with her. His writing career dries up. The people of the village abhor him. He finds that the only way to cope is to turn everything into self preservation. If he doesn't constantly keep this in mind, the leprosy will win and he end up dying a death more horrible than he ever imagined.

Covenant is stubborn, bitter, angry and bent on protecting himself. Then he is pulled into another world (this time, by being hit by a car instead of a magic wardrobe). Covenant finds himself in a world full of life. The people here treat him like the reincarnation of their greatest hero (because he is missing the same fingers as their legendary hero). His wedding band of white gold is now blessed with magic properties. They all expect great things from him.

On top of all this - and most horrifying to Covenant - is the simple fact that this land has cured his leprosy. In a short time, he regains feeling in his limbs. His sex drive, which had vanished, returns with horrifying results. Covenant ends up raping a young woman who wants to do nothing but help this new hero. At this moment, Covenant becomes one of the worst fantasy heroes ever put to the page. I doubt there are many readers who would say they admire him after that moment. However, I was compelled to read on. How can this fearful, angry, and wretched man even begin to survive his adventure here.

It isn't easy. Covenant convinces himself that the whole thing is a dream, but one too perilous to embrace. He feels that if he believes In this world then this delusion will doom him. When the dream is over, he will awaken to find that he is a leper, and his momentary respite will end up crushing his soul and killing him. To deny this path, he spends the rest of the book actively fighting the fate before him. He is dreaming. He isn't a hero. He is a leper. He keeps insisting on this enough times that the other characters in the book look on him with pity, and want to help him come to terms.

This conflict fuels the book. Covenant can not accept the fantasy world, but it keeps insisting on its truth. It forces him to see its beauty. It forces him to use his ring. It forces him to play the hero. Each time Covenant is faced with a choice it is torture to make a decision. The lure of the fantasy is so strong, but the fact of his leprosy weighs on him. The reader keeps waiting for something to snap. When it does things only become worse for Covenant.

At its core, this is a re-telling of Lord of the Rings. There is a quest and here are heroics. There are magical beings, horses galloping over plains, armies of dark creatures, and giants. But at the center of the tale is the very dark character of Thomas Covenant, who dubs himself the Unbeliever. It’s very fitting and intriguing all at the same time.

I found the book to be a good read, even if Covenant wasn't a likable character. I never hated him. I understood why he did what he did. I didn't agree with his decisions most of the time, but I understood him. What was interesting was the way Donaldson used the fantasy world to play off of everything that Covenant was fighting against. The story kept forcing Covenant's hand. Each time it pushed Covenant closer and closer to madness. The story works as a basic adventure with a unique main character. This isn't the kind of book I'd recommend to a first time fantasy reader, but one that would appeal to anyone who's read enough high fantasy to want to read something refreshing in a darker way. Beyond that Donaldson uses his fantasy world as the main antagonist to Covenant, his protagonist. For that reason the book is a fascinating read. The ending was a bit anti-climactic, but this is the first novel of a series and I'm very interested in seeing where Covenant ends up next.

What did you think of Lord Foul's Bane? Have you ever encountered a film or novel with a completely unlikable main character? How did it work for you?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

More Pulp Fiction - The Grindhouse

I was able to catch the complete version of "The Grindhouse" thanks to a free preview weekend. I had missed this in the theatres and had heard that the two films of this double feature had be released separately on DVD. So when the opportunity presented itself to see both films the way they were presented in the theater, I jumped at the chance. What I ended up seeing where two movies that gleefully dove into a world of over the top violence, exploitation, and just plain stupid grin movie making.

The first film, "Planet Terror" is your basic zombie film. You've got a group of survivors battling their way out of the zombie infested world using various guns, explosives and makeshift weapons. What makes it any different? I goes out of its way to make you feel like you are watching a beat up old 70's flick, with bad acting, bad dialogue, ultra-violence and completely ridiculous circumstances. The characters here aren't really well rounded, but all of them are big. Why have just a plain old go-go dancer when you can have one that loses her leg and gets it replaced with a rocket launching machine gun? Yeah I cant' think of a good answer to that either. Director Robert Rodriguez is obviously having fun pushing things as far as he wants and then pushing a little more. This is a bad movie, but one that knows it and quite frankly wants to be bad. You're supposed to enjoy it because it is so ridiculous and stupid.

I really enjoyed it, but I was in the right frame of mind. I could easily see this film coming across as too self conscious and having most of the fun drained out of it, because the director feels he is so damn clever to have thought this up. My argument would be that the pervading tone of the film was just one of pure entertainment - nothing deep, just a grimy, gory, and stupid good time.

The second film, "Death Proof" takes a slightly different path. It wears its exploitation roots on it's sleeve, but attempts to make a solid movie within the confines of a low budget look. It's directed for Quentin Tarantino, so you know what you're in for. The story revolves around two sets of the girls. The first group gets together at a local bar and run into a gent who goes by the name of Stuntman Mike (played perfectly by Kurt Russell looking every bit the like the burnt out stuntman). Mike seems to take a liking to the girls, but they ignore him as the old timer who is more fun to flirt with, but not go much further. Well Mike does want to go further, much further. When he get's behind the wheel of his heavily modified "death proof" car, he shows the girls how much he does like them.

The second set of girls seems to be getting set up the same way, but the only trick is that Stuntman Mike might have just met his match. These girls all work in the movie industry and two of them are professional stuntwomen. As he escalates his little game, the girls start giving back as good as they get - and now Mike's found the tables turned on him. Just how far are these girls going to go to show him what happens when you mess with a stuntwoman?

What's interesting about this movie is that it's about 90 minutes long, but feels like it drags in the beginning. Some of it is Tarantino's typical dialogue. If you like his style, then you'll love this part. If you think he gets bouts of verbal diarrhea, well the first half of the film really suffers from it. I fall in the middle. I think I see what he was doing with this section. He sets up Stuntman Mike and his preoccupation with the first half. This creates some serious suspense in the second half. Part of it might be the girl’s characters in the first half aren't as interesting as the girls in the second half. Either way, once the second half kicks in with it's car on car mayhem, you'll find yourself sitting closer and closer to the edge of your seat. The ending is fitting and segues into the typical great closing song over a Tarantino movie's credits.

In the end, I found both films to be a trashy good time. They had a similar feel, but were different enough to make it a nice evening of pulpy entertainment. If anything Rodriguez and Tarantino are very well versed in this type of film making and enjoy it as well. I also think that Rose McGowan has found her niche. She's really good in these movies (I'm not typically a fan of hers). If only we could keep Tarantino off the screen. He appears in both movies and his "acting" is so distracting that I kept wishing he'd wander off screen and get lost.

It's tough to make trashy movies well. Most good trashy movies weren't trying to be trashy and stupid and just ended up that way. But that’s the topic of another blog…

Did you see either film in the “Grindhouse” collection? Did you like one over the other? Did you see them together or apart? What do you think of “trashy” movies?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Poised on the Edge - From Russia with Love (Film)

Most fans of the James Bond films have thier favorite actor, favorite film and usually one or a couple they tend to really dispise. Most causal James Bond fans enjoy most of the movies, even if they get a bit dumb. What's interesting is that the film series has lasted nearly 50 years and shows no signs of stopping. With "Quantum of Solace" hitting theaters, we got our newest James Bond, Daniel Craig, saving the world, getting the girl and fighting ruthless villains again. I haven’t seen it yet, but if the sequel keeps the same tone as "Casino Royale" (the 2006 version, not the overly psychedelic 1967 version), then I'm going to enjoy it.

I decided to pop in the second James Bond film adventure, just to see where the series was going back in 1963. Here's a quick synopsis. James Bond (Sean Connery) finds himself on a mission to pick up a Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana (Bianci) and her top secret cipher machine. All he has to do is bring the machine, with or without the girl, from Istanbul to London. M and Bond are pretty sure it's a trap, but getting their hands on a Russian cipher machine is too good a prize to pass up (and the girl's a looker too). Bond arrives in Turkey and quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a feud between Russian and the British agents. After a series of narrow escapes he makes it onto the Orient Express with Tatiana and the cipher machine - unaware that they are being shadowed by a sinister agent from SPECTRE.

In the grand scheme of things "Goldfinger" is usually remembered as the first true Bond film. It had girls, the gadgets, the villains, the over the top adventure, and the sassy brassy style that seemed to encapsulate the 60's and the spy craze. In a way it's true, "Goldfinger" was the first really big Bond film. But "From Russia With Love" was the first complete Bond film. It has all the elements that "Goldfinger" had, but is missing one thing - the fantasy that took over the Bond series. "From Russia With Love" is the last gritty Bond film to reach theaters until 1969 with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

This edginess makes "From Russia With Love" feel more like spy thriller than a fun comic book ride. James Bond is actually in danger in this movie and the script carefully sets things up from the beginning making the audience feel that James Bond may actually get killed. The pre-credit sequence sets things up very nicely (the first time a pre-credit sequence is used in a Bond film). In it we watch as James Bond is pursued in a garden surrounding a large estate. The killer moves with deft skill behind Bond and succeeds in strangling him with a wire that slides out of his watch. It is revealed that "Bond" is actually a fake, but the killer is very real.

Eventually the killer is revealed to be Grant, an assassin for SPECTRE. He follows Bond all around Istanbul, watching, and waiting. During the course of the film, Bond finds himself in peril (as happens in these films) and even over matched. Grant will appear and save Bond's hide without revealing himself. The audience is even more intrigued. Why do this if he has been trained to kill?

When Grant finally confronts Bond in the Orient Express, the audience feels the tension. We've seen Grant kill Bond once (even if he was fake) and we've seen the control that Grant has had over each situation. Now he has Bond where he wants him and Bond is outmatched. This is the type of scene that is missing from "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice", two of the more popular James Bond films featuring Connery. The danger is very real here, and then things explode with a visceral violence when Grant and Bond finally engage in hand to hand combat. This is still considered one of the greatest fights in the James Bond series. Of course Bond has to survive to appear in "Goldfinger" so we know how it will turn out, but this climactic battle works because of the careful build up of Grant and the way the story plays out.

Director Terrance Young helmed "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love" and "Thunderball" and each of these films are actually more like spy thrillers than the over the top adventures that people usually associate with James Bond. These are my favorite type of James Bond films, where the edge is real and the danger is high. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "For Your Eyes Only", "The Living Daylights", "License to Kill", parts of "Goldeneye" are the other films from the first 20 Bond movies that have this feel. Of course the 2006 "Casino Royale" had this edge in spades, keeping Bond off guard for most of the movie. It's nice to have the thrilling back into the James Bond series, but it's always been there even as far back as 1963.

Do you prefer you Bond movies more thrilling or more fantasy? What do you think of "From Russia with Love"? What is the best example of building tension that you can come up with (books or films)?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Scattershot Narrative - The Right Stuff

One of my favorite movies from the early 80's is "The Right Stuff". In some ways it's a bit of a forgotten film. I rarely ever see it on lists of great films from the 80's and yet I still hear the main theme from the film in movie trailers. It's lasting legacy may be a single short scene. For those of you who've never seen the film, it covers the very beginnings of the Mercury Space program as part of the race to get a manned space craft into outer space before the Russians. The movie starts with a sequence of events involving test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier with faster and faster planes. Then it follows a few of those test pilots as they selected to attempt to survive the enormous amounts of tests required to prove that they are capable of being America's first astronauts.

The single shot that most people remember from the film has the camera at the end of a long hallway. Walking toward the camera are the seven Mercury astronauts in full space suits. The main theme swells as they walk toward us, slowly but with determination. These are men who are ready to risk their lives for their country and because they live to tempt fate by riding a rocket into the unknown. I've seen this same shot repeated countless times in other movies. Usually they add some slow motion to make things more drama. In fact the use of slow motion has become necessary for any long shots of a team walking down a hall to triumphant music, that I am always surprised that it doesn't happen in "The Right Stuff".

One of the reasons the film may not be mentioned very often is that its actual narrative is not clearly defined. The first third of the movie deals heavily with test pilots and breaking the sound barrier. The test pilot at the center of this portion is Chuck Yeager. We watch him become the first man to break the sound barrier and then see his reaction as other pilots appear and continue to go faster and faster. The movie switches gears when Gordon Cooper shows up and we follow him and his fellow astronauts for the rest of the film. Often times the movie will return to Yeager watching the astronauts on television or listening to their exploits on the radio.

One of the final sequences takes place at an enormous (and surreal) celebration of the space program moving to Houston. All the Mercury astronauts are there and they seem to know that for the moment the entire world revolves around them. The film jumps between this celebration to Yeager deciding to borrow a test plane to attempt to go higher into the atmosphere than anyone has ever gone before - without a space craft. Yeager's adventure in the jet goes from thrilling to terrifying, and all this is cut into the celebration with its cheerleaders, fan dancer, BBQ and shmoozing. It's a very odd moment, placing these two story-lines with and almost against each other.

The film then ends with Gordon Cooper being launched into space and for that moment "becoming the fastest man alive". The end titles roll. I'm always surprised that the story just seems to end there. It wasn't until recently that I discovered that the unique thing about all these men is that they attempted to journey at the fastest speeds possible and by themselves. After the Mercury program, astronauts never went into space by themselves. This connection makes the film tie together a bit better (and explains why Yeager is in the film).

As the movie stands you end up wanting to see more and actually become annoyed when one story line seems to push the other out of the way. You could have made a great movie about Chuck Yeager and you could have made a great movie about the Mercury astronauts. Instead we get a very good movie about both of them. It's this strange decision to tie the two together that never really works for me. I can see how Yeager's story influences the astronaut’s story. It's clear that these test pilots were the right men for the job, but the ending of the film seems like its trying hard to put Yeager’s connection with the astronauts back in.

So why do I enjoy the movie so much? It's got a great cast: Sam Shepherd, Ed Harris, Scott Glen, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey and a ton of excellent supporting players. The look of the movie captures all the early NASA footage I've seen as well as the mood of the early 60's and the intensity of the cold war rivalry. Bill Conti's score works pretty well in the film. It has a very early 80's feel to it at times and that can conflict with the 60's look of the film. For the most part, you are pulled into both story lines. The ending is the only thing that feels like a let down. It's sudden and doesn't feel like it wraps up either Yeager's story or the astronauts story.

What do you think of "The Right Stuff"? Have you seen or read an example where two different story-line actually work in a movie? Do you have a movie you enjoy that seems to get missed on "Top" lists?