Monday, 26 July 2010

They Live, We Sleep

(Not So) Subliminal Mind Control is Alive and Well in the UK.

We all know the point of advertising is to consciously and/or subconsciously guide us toward certain choices. In most cases, though, we may consciously see it, but our ultimate reactions to it are probably more subconscious. For example, seeing a fun advert for a chocolate bar, and consciously thinking “Hmmm... that looks nice”, then several hours later buying a chocolate bar (perhaps even a specific brand), that you may not have otherwise bothered with. The modern world is absolutely full of such examples. We are so saturated by advertising, branding and marketing in every aspect of our lives, that we have become oblivious to it. For the advertisers, I believe this has become both a disadvantage and a boon.

For a truly successful recent example, how many children do you think now have toy Meerkats, due to a certain price comparison website's ad campaign? However, then consider how many other adverts are shown, that don't have the same impact. How many of those do you remember? It's more difficult for advertisers to slip those messages into our conscious minds now, in preference over others. On the other hand, because we are so saturated with them, we no longer take much notice of the majority we see, so they are undoubtedly embedded rather snugly in our subconscious, ready to give a little push when we see something they're associated with.

So why am I discussing this? Well, the other day I came face-to-face with a prime example of the pessimistic science fiction world becoming reality. In the 1988 film They Live, the main character discovers that with the aid of some specially coated 'sunglasses', he can see the world for what it truly is. Humanity is living in an induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep, in which our alien masters wander around normally, but we see them as other humans. More importantly, for the sake of this discussion anyway, the sunglasses also reveal the subliminal messages used to control our behaviour. Every magazine, every advert, every billboard is covered simply in large black lettering against a white background, upon which are words such as 'Obey', 'Consume', 'Do Not Question Authority', 'Submit', 'Marry and Reproduce', 'Watch TV', etc.. One of the most amusing and cutting moments is when Nada (The lead character, his name symbolising the every-man and/or nobody) sees a wad of money in a shopkeeper's hand. Across each note is simply the words 'This is Your God'.* (See below)

The film is a comment on Reagan era economics, societal and personal greed and selfishness, the suppression of the masses for the power of the elite, the way in which the underclass can spend so much time fighting amongst themselves that they allow themselves to be exploited and miss what is quite literally before them... amongst those and other issues, the film is also a comment on how we sleepwalk through our lives, oblivious to the controlling and suggestive wording and imagery that surrounds us.

The other day, I discovered what it might have felt like for Nada, when he first saw those oversized statements of control. Walking into a shopping centre, I was greeted by a plain white, unadorned wall upon which was written a single bold word, in the plainest text, all in black. There was no indication of brand affiliation. This was not for a specific shop or product. This was for general observation without context, apart from the location itself. Unlike the images from the film They Live, the image on the left wasn't a matte painting effect or a prop. It was real. In giant letters, was written the word 'LUST'. Of course, it is clear what its purpose must be. Lust is associated with passion, desire, need, want. All the key words that imply we must have something. It cannot be coincidence that it is there for all to see upon walking into a shopping centre, the Mecca of western consumption.

It is so large and prominent, that of course many will notice it (though it was incredibly disturbing to see how many walked by without even a glance of acknowledgement). For those who didn't 'see' it, the sign will of course help suggest to them later on, that they must buy items that they 'need' in the shops. For those who do notice it, well, perhaps we are all the worse off. For we know its influence and purpose, but we soon forget while shopping, and are perhaps still likely to 'buy' and 'consume' all the more, because of a word that suggests those desires in the back of our minds...

How much of our lives are controlled? How much free will do we truly have? You really have to wonder, sometimes...

* Side Note 'This is Your God' (See 3rd paragraph)
On a side note, it does bring up an interesting point. America is well known for being a society of consumption and a the thirst for money (I'm not saying the UK or other places are any different or better, America just happens to be the poster child for such culture). It has the statement on its dollar bill: 'In God We Trust'. Of course consciously we know this is simply a reference to Christianity and the Christian God, which was and is the predominant religion of those who founded the country. But it begs the question, what subliminal influence has this had on the generations of Americans who use the dollar bill every day? The statement on the bill is not surrounded by imagery of particularly Christian context. It is not next to an image of Christ, or the cross. It is simply a statement on the bill, which is the only context. Does it thus subliminally imply that the bill itself is the God in which to place one's trust? You can't help but wonder if this has had any effect on American economics and society over the decades. Anyway, I digress...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Predators (2010) – Movie Review – 6/10

Something Seems Familiar...

For those who don't know, Predators is a sequel (of sorts) to the hit action film Predator, from 1987, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This time round, Oscar winning actor Adrien Brody (The Pianist, The Village, King Kong) takes the lead, having clearly spent many hours in the gym in preparation. The question is, were they worth the effort?

In contrast to the close-knit team of highly skilled professionals in the original film, a disparate group of strangers are parachuted into a forest, requiring that they start to work together not only to find out why they are there, but to simply survive. Each one is a killer from our world, be it military, criminal or gangster, and things go from bad to worse when they discover they are on another planet being hunted by vicious aliens for sport.

While the core of the plot is a reasonably different evolution from the original, the way it plays out is, in many ways, almost exactly the same. Therein lies the film's biggest flaw. Much of what happens feels like a simple retread of the original, and even the most memorable shots are in fact cribbed from it.

Although others would disagree, I found Adrien Brody to be the weakest link as regards to the characters and acting. At first, I thought he was a good decision. Picking a blatantly 'big action hero' type, would only draw unfair comparisons to Schwarzenegger. So why not go the other way, and get someone known for their acting ability instead? Unfortunately it backfired, and Brody just doesn't know how to handle the part. He tries too hard, to the point where his 'tough guy voice' makes him sound like someone putting on a bad American accent. He appears to be so self-consciously "Acting how I think an action movie star acts" that he never feels like a natural character, but always an actor playing 'tough'. This also results in his character never being one we want to cheer for, and support. The original film's actors were such huge personalities in their own right, that they filled in where the script perhaps lacked in character definition. Predators simply lacks enough actors with such charismatic screen presence.

Laurence Fishburne (Event Horizon, Assault on Precinct 13(Remake), The Matrix Trilogy) makes a brief appearance as an amusing character that could have been quite interesting, except that Fishburne is just the wrong side of fitness for the part, that his survival and skill seem dubious. In addition, his character turns out to be nothing more than a diversion and minor plot device, disposed of all too quickly, illogically and pointlessly.

In some cases, there are also plot points that turn out to be annoyingly predictable (I'll simply say the doctor), and those that rely on characters being rather slower than the audience to piece together obvious facts. It is also one of those films that relies too heavily on the trick of “If we don't show something in shot with the character/s, they obviously can't see it.”

As for the Predators themselves, sometimes the actors in the suits move in such an ungainly fashion, that they lose the impression of being the ultimate skilled warriors they are supposed to be. There simply isn't enough time spent establishing the creatures the way they have been before. Neither do they appear to be as intelligent, or have their own code of 'honour', as in previous films. They come over as simply big brutes with superior weapons. Even the addition of a slightly different form of predator is completely superfluous except for a minor plot point that comes to nothing anyway.

I understand the budget for this film was only around forty million dollars, which is quite conservative-to-low for a modern film of this nature. Unfortunately, it shows in places. One good example being that these characters are thrown onto an alien planet, and only a single shot is used in the whole film to truly establish this. It completely undermines the sense of atmosphere. A mere handful of digital matte painting shots (which if done correctly, are one of the simplest and cheapest effects shots one can do in a modern effects film) would've handled this problem nicely.

While the main name behind the film was Robert Rodriguez (Director of films such as From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids and The Faculty), he chose not to direct, handing the reigns to relative unknown Nimrod Antal. Unfortunately, Antal lacks the sense of place and location that director John McTiernan was able to create in the first film. McTiernan somehow managed to create a real sense of place and location to events, despite the seeming similarity of backgrounds when filming in a jungle. You always felt you knew where each character was in relation to others and the scene. Antal takes events through several different forms of jungle and wood, but still can't conjure a clear sense of location for the viewer.

Perhaps I sound like I'm coming down too hard on Predators. I did enjoy it. It's great fun for a couple of hours in the cinema, and the opening scene is quite a neat idea (If under-utilised). The biggest problem with Predators is that it does absolutely nothing to justify its existence. Many would disagree, but I think that Predator 2 and Aliens Vs Predator, for all their supposed flaws, at least tried to add to proceedings in their own way, whilst maintaining the ideas of the original. What few interesting ideas Predators has, come to nothing really. At best, it can be considered an inferior retread of the original, created in such a way that you may as well just watch the original.

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Robin Hood (2010) – Movie Review – 7/10

Where'd those kids come from?

Ridley Scott, the director behind such classics as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, turns his hand to the reliable old legend of Robin Hood. There's no denying that Ridley Scott is gifted as a visual director. His sense of atmosphere and shot composition is rarely less than perfect. Having said that, he can be somewhat hit-and-miss with the stories and scripts that he picks to work with.

It's fun to see an updated version of Robin Hood, especially with Scott's talent for exciting action and involving characters and situations. There are a few interesting twists to the legend that give it some new life, as this is very much an 'origin' tale. They seem to be quite popular in Hollywood at the moment, given the success of Batman Begins. Stories outlining the beginnings and origins of various heroes and characters rather than simply jumping into their fully established worlds. In this case, Robin Hood starts during the last leg of King Richard the Lionheart's return journey to Britain, then gradually moves us into the collapsing world of King John (Richard's brother) as he takes power during the period of Robin's return.

Russell Crowe (Gladiator, Master and Commander, American Gangster) plays the eponymous Robin and suits the role, but should have stuck to the nondescript accent he had in Gladiator. He attempts a Yorkshire accent that would be somewhat appropriate to the character, but unfortunately seems to veer between Yorkshire and Irish, with a good dash of others such as Cockney and even Liverpudlian. Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) on the other hand, plays Marion, and takes to the part quite well as a more mature character than we're used to. The one person who does command the screen with his presence, though, is Max Von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, Conan the Barbarian, Dune), who plays Robin's 'father' (You'll understand when you see the film). Even in the smallest roles, he is an imposing presence, and in this case he gets to enjoy a fair amount of screen time.

The cinematography is beautiful as always with Ridley Scott, but the overall product is simply enjoyable. There are moments that are just too similar to Scott's own Gladiator, that when combined with Russell Crowe, take one out of the movie because of familiarity. Then there are the rather strange children seen running around in the forest like some kind of bizarre reference to Lord of the Flies. One can only presume they may become the bulk of Robin's 'band of merry men' one day.

Perhaps it is because Robin Hood has been re-trod so many times that makes it difficult for a new story to breath fresh life into the events. Either way, I hate to say it, but Robin Hood is middle-of-the-road Scott. Having said that, middle-of-the-road Scott is still superior to 95% of the competition. I enjoyed it well enough, and if you don't set your expectations too high, I'm sure you will too.

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Short Story - 'The Train'


I belong to a writer's group, based in my local library. We meet once a week, and attempt to hone our craft or simply keep our enthusiasm going and our skills ticking over. Every Monday somebody takes charge of the group with a writing task, ranging from poetry to prose.

For this task, we were all given a single sentence to start with: "Oh dear. The ticket inspector is coming." We had ten minutes in which to write something that utilised those words. Then we were given a second random sentence,"The camel bent down and kissed her." with which to do the same thing, but carry on the story. Lastly, we had to do the same with a third sentence, "Fred Smith found a hoard of whitefly on his cabbage." Obviously the results were often humorous, having to work those into a single coherent (theoretically!) tale. The direction my story took was somewhat macabre, but still perhaps a little amusing in a dark way.

One day I hope to be published, including my selection of short stories. Most of those I wouldn't be willing to post online. After all, there's no point throwing them around if I'm going to try and get them in print one day. However, I'm not so reticent about the quick and fun pieces written in the way described above. After all, they're essentially exercises. They're not particularly original or inspired, but they're fun and great practice. So here is another short story, written in about three ten-minute chunks. I've improved the odd bit of grammar (I hope!) and formatting, but the whole point of this, is the curious results of writing with speed and without time for embellishment or refinement. As such, I have kept everything else the same as it was written by hand. No word changes, rewrites or deletions, so please forgive the imperfections. I hope you enjoy!

Short Story – "The Train" (© Copyright W.D.Lee, 2010)

He gazed out of the carriage window, mesmerized by the spiky crags and the flame filled world beyond. Sweat glistened on his brow, only to gather and drip without notice.
     “Oh dear. The ticket inspector is coming.” The old lady in the seat opposite half whispered, as the door at the end of the carriage slid open with a tired clatter amidst the cacophony of the ancient thumping engine.
     He turned automatically to look at her, wishing he'd remembered his own mental note not to. Her face was withered and torn, the fiery red of glowing embers glimmering between the cracks. A distorted and misshapen figure waddled up to the old woman like an animal. It was bent over almost double by the hump on its back.
     A camel, he thought. That's what this... 'thing' reminded him of. The old woman looked up as the 'Camel' bent down and kissed her. With a hidden expression of repulsion, the man returned his gaze to the burning world outside.
     The old woman continued to talk. “My husband and I are taking a day out. We thought we'd see some of the lower tiers. You hear so much about them.”
     “Tickets please!” The inspector worked his way slowly along, seat by seat. 
     Carrying on, the old woman seemed intent on striking up a conversation despite the lack of interaction. Something buzzed past the window, a pale and horrid mix of man and subterranean insect. The old woman pointed at it, as she spoke to her husband, the Camel. “Look! Ooh, I've heard of these, but don't they look like, you know... when Fred Smith found a hoard of whitefly on his cabbages, back when we were alive.” The Camel nodded, muttering agreement through bestial flapping lips.
     “Will you please shut up?” The man said calmly but forcefully. “I came on this train for a break, and all I have to listen to is you!”
     The glowing cracks in her face brightened and sparked, talons forming from her finger tips. “You'll learn your place, young man!” She cried in a voice like liquid granite.
     Clawed fingers belonging to the ticket inspector clamped down on her shoulders. “That's enough! Calm down!”
     The old woman glared at the inspector, then the man. “You'll pay, once you reach your stop.”
     The inspector clipped her husband's ticket, then hers. “Sir?” he spoke to the man through his sharp toothed maw, holding out his hand.
     Withdrawing a season ticket, the man gave it to the inspector, who promptly bowed before handing it back. “Your majesty.”
     The man waved him on then smiled at the old woman, who shrank into her seat as the cries of the damned outside reached a crescendo.

Last Thoughts

When I was given the first sentence, it obviously triggered the scenario of being aboard a train. However, in an effort to try and think up something a little different, I decided that perhaps the train was travelling through the depths of hell, on a tour of the different levels. The wording of the sentence suggested to me something that would would be said by an elderly woman. The kind of thing you could imagine in an old black and white film. I simply used that thought, and transferred her into my unusual locale.

Given the setting, it was difficult to then work in the camel sentence. At first I imagined some sort of underworld nomad with his skeletal camel, going somewhere on the train. I then decided that was too literal, and chose to turn the camel into a description of something horrid and foul, which became the old lady's husband. 

The final sentence was the most difficult. It was clearly out of tone with what I had written, but given the characters, I thought perhaps I could make it work. It was a seemingly mundane and everyday sentence that would not be out of place within the absent chatter such a couple in the real world, so in this case I thought it would be used as an utterly contrasting reference. Given more time, I had thought of hinting at some horrific purpose for the man-insects flying around that level of the pit.

Although I didn't get to describe it, I imagined the train to be filled with hellish characters, all in various disgusting states that were symptoms of the reason they were sent to hell. The old couple were the equivalent of tourists, perhaps from an upper level of hell that was less horrific, who's idea of a vacation would be to tour the lower levels and witness what torments and horrors lay down there. Old Scratch is obviously taking an incognito break from his duties overseeing the pit, in order to simply get away from the day to day hassles for a while. I used his repulsed emotions to not only initially mislead, but to hint in retrospect that perhaps running the underworld is more of a job for him, rather than being outright evil. 

Obviously it is a rather disjointed and unusual story, but considering the twists it had to take, I was quite pleased that it came to its end with an amusing and appropriate moment. 

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.