Trains And The Cinema

Ever since they started to make films for entertainment, trains have been a popular inclusion. Brief research has shown me that there are 100 or more films with the bulk of the action taking place on a train, and hundreds more where a train features as part of the story. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the various film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novel, ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, so I will not be mentioning that one here.

But I will be featuring some of the others I have seen, and how having characters trapped in the relative confines of a moving train can add tension and mystery, as well as a list of suspects for anything that happens during the journey.

Not all films featuring trains are mysteries though. Some are comedies, others are set during wars, and more recent ‘train films’ have involved futuristic scenarios, and even zombie invasions.

The Lady Vanishes. (1938)

Set in the pre-war European tensions of 1938, this film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and stars Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, alongside May Whitty, as ‘the lady who vanishes’. Travelling through a fictional country in Europe on a train, a young woman realises that her elderly travelling companion has vanished. She enlists the help of a young musicologist to search for the old lady, and what follows is a hugely enjoyable ‘whodunnit’ with drama and comedy combined. Despite being filmed at studios in London, causing the film to feel very ‘set-bound’ at times, that in no way spoils the enjoyment of a great film that got Hitchcock noticed by Hollywood.

The Train. (1964)

This is a WW2 French Resistance thriller, concerning Nazi plans to remove precious artworks from France to Germany, set in August 1944, and based on real events. Burt Lancaster stars as railway inspector Labiche, and gives his usual square-jawed and reliable performance. Other cast members include the excellent Paul Scofield as a German Colonel, and Jeanne Moreau as a hotel owner. Determined to sabotage the train to stop the art being stolen, Labiche uses his Resistance contacts and fellow railway workers to divert the train, much to the annoyance of the Germans. When this delaying tactic is discovered, he eventually manages to derail the train, saving the art for France.

This film has authenticity, and a lot of tension throughout. A convincing cast and a real feel of the period sets it apart too.

Von Ryan’s Express. (1965)

This is a POW escape film, set during WW2. British and American prisoners of war are due to be moved from a camp in Italy, following the Italian surrender. But a plan is hatched to take over the train, and divert it to Switzerland, a neutral country. Ryan is played by Frank Sinatra, who to be honest looks more like a singer than an Air Force officer. British interests are played by Trevor Howard, and John Leyton. Managing to overpower the German guards, the POWs wear their uniforms, and as the train travels through Italy, they work out a way to get the track switched for their train. On the way to Switzerland, they realise a second train is following them, and it becomes a race against time. At the border, it is decided that some men will get off the train and attack the German SS troops about to catch them. This sacrifice ensures the remainder will escape.

Like the previous film, this also manages to keep the tension high, and the viewer is never really sure if the POWs will pull off the escape. Although many of the characters are stereotypes, they all take it seriously, and that ensures it remains exciting right until the end.

Siver Streak. (1976)

This comedy thriller was the first pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, along with a great cast including Ned Beatty and Jill Clayburgh. The setting is the train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago on a train named The Silver Streak. This film has a lot going for it. A snappy script, mistaken identity, wrong suspects, and a great finale on board the train that has now become a runaway, with nobody driving it. To say much more would spoil the fun, but if you have never seen this often madcap comedy, you will not be disappointed.

Snowpiercer. (2013)

More up to date, with a post-apocalyptic story based on a graphic novel that has an element of Steampunk added too. The only people left on Earth after a climate change catastrophe all live on a train that never stops, the Snowpiercer of the title. The train is self-powered by an ingenious device, and makes a constant loop in the wintry conditions that now dominate the planet. Societal and class structures are maintained, with working people living in poor conditions at the back, and the wealthy enjoying luxury at the front. Eventually, the low class passengers stage a revolt, working their way through the train and fighting the guards trying to stop them.

The cast list is impressive. John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Chris Evans as the leader of the revolutionaries. With some scenes filmed in specially constructed train carriages, location filming in snowy wastes, and elements of CGI that are not really intrusive, this is a good sci-fi action-adventure that doesn’t try to leave us with too many ends untied.

Train To Busan. (2016)

Last but not least, for my money the best zombie-horror film made so far, and set on a train where nobody can escape the zombies! Made in South Korea, the cast list will not mean much to anyone, but this is a first-rate action-horror, with a relentless pace, incredible set-pieces, and breathtaking action from the start. The story is simple enough, concerning travellers taking a train from Seoul to Busan just as a zombie outbreak begins in the capital. One zombie manages to get on board and infect someone else, and so on. Those not affected have to fight to survive, as the train speeds through the countryside. So much better than it souunds, this film really is outstandingly good.

There you have it. Six examples of films where the train is as much the star as any of the actors. There are many more similar films to discover, but I hope you will take my recommendations and watch these when you can.

Mythaxis Review: Sci-Fi And The Environment

Mythaxis Review Magazine has a feature on Stanley Chen. His new book (and forthcoming film) ‘Waste Tide’ explores the possibility of environmental disasters in the future.
Here is a link to read more.

The magazine also has a new regular feature, a News category. Here is what Daniel told me.

“I started a News category. If anyone has any publishing news, even a book release, let me know!”

Here is a contact link for that.

Just been watching…(2)

Prometheus (2012)

****This post contains plot spoilers****

It has taken me three years to get around to watching a film that it seems like everyone else has already seen. I was reluctant to go to see it at the cinema (silly me), and decided to wait until it was cheaply available on DVD. As luck would have it, it was then advertised as being shown on TV that very weekend, so I didn’t even have to buy it.

In a nutshell, this film is a prequel to the original 1979 film ‘Alien’, and is made by the same British director, Ridley Scott. As it is set so long before the first story, Sigourney Weaver is notable by her absence, as presumably Ripley had not yet been born. If you have never seen any of the ‘Alien’ series of films, you may not be reading this anyway, but my own relationship with them has been on and off over the decades. When the 1979 film was released, I thought that it was simply amazing. The idea, the cast, the sets, and the special effects, were all just wonderful. It was like some other films before, but far better than any of them. Aged 27 at the time, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever seen, and it set the benchmark for sci-fi horror from that moment.

In 1986, American director James Cameron made the sequel, ‘Aliens’. I dutifully trotted along to see it, more out of curiosity as to where they could take the story. They took it to a bigger place, with a larger cast, more aliens, more weapons, and huge explosions. And it wasn’t at all bad, as the frantic pace and suitably claustrophobic sets kept us viewers on the edge of our seats long enough to forget that it was much the same thing again. But bigger. Six years later, and the estimable David Fincher made the third film in the series, unimaginatively called ‘Alien 3’. This was a very different animal. It looked as if the budget had been pared down to a minimum. The sets appeared to come from an old episode of ‘Doctor Who’, and the cast of mainly British character actors gave it the feel of WW2 prison camp film, set in the future. (And it is set in a prison) It was hard to take seriously, and even harder to like. For me, it was redeemed by the novelty of that British cast, but I had my doubts as to whether any others should follow. It seemed that this third outing was a film too far. The studios didn’t agree though, and five years later, Jean-Pierre Jeunet brought ‘Alien Resurrection’ to the screen, again starring Weaver, and set two hundred years after the last film. To explain her longevity, Ripley is actually a clone, as is the unborn alien queen she is carrying inside her. I didn’t really get this one, and thought that they were struggling to find a good reason to cash in on the franchise, so came up with this, jotted down on a beer-mat. The script, and most of the cast, are forgettable, and it even managed to make ‘Alien 3’ look more than acceptable.

There were other attempts to milk the idea. Hitting on the success of the ‘Predator’ films, they combined the two ideas, bringing us ‘Alien vs Predator’ in 2004, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. (Why do they have to have all those extra initials?) I actually didn’t mind this film, and without Ripley, it was mostly about the monsters, which made a change at least. In 2007, they tried a sequel to this idea, with ‘Alien vs Predator:Requiem’. By now, they should have known better.

Five years later, and Ridley Scott finally gets out his long-awaited project, ‘Prometheus’. I had well had enough by then, and had no intention of rushing out to see it. Although Scott directed two of my all-time favourite films; ‘The Duellists’ (1977), and ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), I presumed that he was just ‘taking the money’ with ‘Prometheus’, and I set myself against it. My fears were confirmed when I read some surprisingly lukewarm reviews, and occasionally saw it panned by critics. But I was wrong, and so were they. We were all wrong, because it is simply a prefect prequel. In every way that you want to see the origins of a well-known series, it just works, and works exceptionally well. Even on TV it is impressive, and perfectly captures the mood and feel of the original 1979 film. My hat is off to you, Mr Scott. (If I had one on to take off) If I could have written the perfect story to explain the build-up to the events in ‘Alien’, it would be this. I was looking for flaws and inconsistencies, but could find few, and none large enough to divert my viewing pleasure. From the opening scenes of the over-sized humanoid presumably populating a planet, I was completely hooked.

The plot is simple enough. An elderly and sick billionaire (played by an almost unrecognisable Guy Pearce) wants to fund an expedition to a far-off planet. Some anthropologists have found cave paintings in Scotland that suggest a divine being creating mankind, and there is even a star map to show the way to his planet.(These possibly omnipotent beings are referred to throughout as the ‘Engineers’.) The billionaire gets them together with a mixed bag of technicians and spaceship crew, all headed up by the dominatrix-like figure of Vickers, played by a very lean Charlize Theron.

There are no great surprises. Michael Fassbender makes a very good, slightly detached android. As in the other films, he is shown to have a hidden agenda. In this case, impregnating the lead anthropologist (Logan Marshall-Green. I know, who?) with some kind of alien seed/dna. I liked Fassbender in this, as he studiously avoided any attempt at ‘humanising’ his android character. There is a good crop of British actors too. The talented, and much under-used Benedict Wong has a role as a co-pilot, and Sean Harris, the current go-to man for maniacs and psychos in British drama, plays a suspicious crew member, who is horribly invaded by the original aliens. Idris Elba, marvellous as ‘Luther’ in the UK TV series, coasts a little as the laconic ship’s captain, prepared to sacrifice himself to stop the ‘Engineers’ getting to Earth.

The big reveals are few, and not too dramatic. Pearce’s billionaire character has actually been along for the ride the whole time, and wants the secret of eternal life from the Engineers. Oh, and Vickers (Theron) is his daughter. That’s a ‘why?’ moment. The female lead, and main anthropologist, is played by Noomi Rapace. It could have been anyone really, so she is as good as any. Her character is religious, presumably significant. She is also impregnated by her boyfriend, after he is infected with alien dna by the android. This is harping back to Ripley in the earlier films, so to be expected. Once they meet the potentially benign Engineer, it doesn’t go so well. He kills the billionaire, and others, and becomes a real problem for the survivors. Alongside him is Rapace’s alien child, born prematurely as she tries to terminate it. This is soon reminiscent of a huge octopus, and rampaging on the spaceship’s rescue pod. It is all going wrong, and the crew are falling like flies, either to the alien, the Engineer, or each other, as the infected members try to get back on board.

The big discovery is that the aliens we know so well from the original, are little more than a ‘biological weapon’, developed by the Engineers, to get rid of any of the created races they are unhappy with. And planet Earth could be next. The only solution to stop the huge humanoid leaving on his mission to destroy Earth, is for Idris Elba and his sidekick to crash Prometheus into the alien craft, which he does without a second thought. Rapace’s character is eventually left to fight the humanoid, which she does by using her alien spawn to kill him. The android, head ripped from his body but still able to function (sound familiar?) persuades Rapace to take him along. Using a second alien ship, they head off in search of their creators. Everyone else is dead, including the humanoid, who ‘gives birth’ to the alien we know and love from the original film. The circle is complete, and we are set for 1979.

Despite my tongue-in-cheek appraisal, it is all rather very good. The sets are familiar, the alien is familiar, and it is really apparent just how we arrived at the first film. The perfect prequel, without doubt. Here is the short official trailer. And be advised, Prometheus 2 and Alien 5 are both on the way!

Just been watching…

Given my recent lack of enthusiasm for blogging, I thought that I would turn to my love of films and TV drama for inspiration. These will be occasional posts about things I have just watched. They may or may not constitute a proper review, depending on your opinion.

Under The Skin

-Includes possible spoilers-

This 2013 film from Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson, received a great deal of critical acclaim on release. It was compared by some to ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and by others to the work of David Lynch, and even Orson Welles. With all that praise, and the presence of Ms Johansson, I just had to get the DVD. But I waited until it was cheap, so I have only just watched it.

Despite the presence of the Hollywood star, it is very much a British film. Special effects are few, and are suitably believable. The locations in and around Glasgow and the Scottish countryside are wet, gloomy, and bleak. In fact, so much of the film is shot in such dim lighting, there were times that it was hard to make out what was happening, at least on a flat-screen TV. Scarlett is wearing her hair short and jet black this time, and it suits her. But then what doesn’t suit this incredibly attractive young woman? The whole film hinges on her unnamed character, and the rest of the cast are complete unknowns, enjoying brief appearances on screen.

It is established very quickly that her character is not of this world. Seen naked in silhouette, a male ‘accomplice’ delivers the body of a young woman to her. She strips the girl, and puts on her clothes. The man then gives her a van, possibly the only long-wheelbase transit in Scotland with an automatic gearbox. She drives to a local shopping centre, where she watches people buying clothes, and trying on make-up, before buying a new outfit, and some cosmetics. This is just one of a series of scenes and devices establishing her strange other-worldly persona to the viewer. Why didn’t the man just bring her some clothes? She is never seen with a handbag or money, yet she has make-up to hand, and doesn’t appear to steal from the shops. We never see her eat, (save for an attempt at a slice of cake) drink, sleep, or use a toilet. So we can conclude that her appearance might be human, but she has none of our needs for survival. We never see her wash, and she doesn’t change her clothes for the duration of the film. She is also unaffected by cold and wet weather, at least most of the time.

The soundtrack adds to the reveal. She hears things at different volumes, picks up conversational snippets, sometimes unintelligible. For the viewer this is as frustrating as it is interesting, with the volume changing from shouts to whispers at will. She drives through crowds of football supporters, stares at old people waiting at bus stops, gazes at passing traffic. She is detached from all around her, an outsider, looking in. OK, I get it. I expected her to suddenly put on a T-shirt bearing the logo ‘I am an alien’, and I began to get a little miffed at the extent of the plot signalling too. But I didn’t turn the film off, take it out of the player, and fling it out of the window in Beetley, and for one very good reason. Johannson is captivating to look at. Even when she is sitting motionless behind the wheel of a van, I could watch her all day. She doesn’t have much to say, but when she speaks, it is in a surprisingly good, well-spoken English accent. This jars against the harsh language of the Scottish characters, once again setting her apart. (OK, I get it!) She does ‘vacant’ extremely well, and the emotionless nature of her character suits her perfectly.

The main action of the bulk of the film centres around her driving aimlessly, in search of young men. She chats to them on the pretext of asking directions, establishing whether or not they live alone, or if someone will miss them if they decide to accept a lift with her. Who wouldn’t get into a van with Scarlett Johansson with the implication of sex in the very near future? I know I would be in that seat like a shot. Once back at her house, they might change their minds when they see the boarded-up slum that she invites them into. But one look at her again, and in they go. Inside the house, reality is distorted, as the size inside bears no relation to the external appearance. Mesmerised by her seductive striptease, the men take off their clothes, following her into what seems to be an oily lake. She walks on the surface, they sink slowly to their demise. After we see this happen a few times, we are later shown what goes on beneath the surface, as everything seems to be sucked out of the hapless men, leaving only their complete skins floating in the mire. Everything seems to be harvested through some kind of illuminated portal, going who knows where.

As if to really hammer home the point of her complete lack of emotion, there is a scene at a stormy beach. She approaches a potential victim, and as she chats to him, a young child gets into difficulties in the sea. The father dives in to save her, and her young prey goes to help. The child drowns, and the father, at first rescued, goes back in and also drowns. She becomes tired of watching this scene, so just hits the younger man with a rock, and drags him off to her van. A second child, only a baby, is left screaming on the beach. For the umpteenth time, we are shown how cold this character is.

After a mishap with a badly-deformed man, (she didn’t see the deformity- OK I get it) she heads off alone into the countryside. The film gets much better after this. The bleak scenery is incredibly photogenic. So much so, that I could almost forgive her sudden appearance in a hotel, and her attempt to eat the gateau, all presumably whilst having no money. She is taken in by a kindly local and given shelter. She eventually decides to make love to him, presumably curious as to how this body she inhabits actually functions. It doesn’t go well though, and she runs off into the woods, wearing a coat taken from the house, as she now seems to feel the cold, and to be bothered by the rain. The last fifteen minutes of the film will have to be left up to you. All I will say it that they are a very good fifteen minutes. The ‘accomplices’ are searching for her on their motorcycles, and she meets a forestry worker in the conifers. Then it all gets very good indeed.

Can a film this long be ‘saved’ by the last section? I have to say it can. And it was.

This is an official trailer.