All posts by Stewart Stafford

I published my first book, The Vorbing, on October 29th, 2015. Your likes, follows and comments are much appreciated.

Beautiful Self-Interest: A flaw at the heart of Economics, Mathematics and Conflict Resolution

The Business Dictionary defines self-interest as a “focus on actions or activities that are advantageous to an individual or organization. For a business or individual to survive and grow, a degree of self-interest is necessary. When there is too much focus on self-interest the benefits of the group at large diminishes.”

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Adam Smith

The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote two books “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759) and “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) (considered “the bible of capitalism”). He proposed a theory that capitalism was essentially fuelled by the self-interest of people: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

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John Forbes Nash Jr.

John Forbes Nash Jr. was an American mathematician whose life story was told in Ron Howard’s 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Nash updated Smith’s theory with some of his own ideas. He reasoned that the individual could get what they wanted yet still benefit the group they belonged to. This film clip of Nash and his classmates in a bar neatly explains Nash’s theory.

Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Mathematics for his equilibrium theory. John Moriarty of Manchester University describes the theory as “the ability to analyse situations of conflict and co-operation and produce predictions about how people will behave.” He goes on to say that Nash’s equilibrium is “perhaps the most important idea in economic analysis.” So why hasn’t Nash’s equilibrium been adopted more by the mainstream?

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Firstly, you can’t quantify human nature. It is not fixed but fluid and unpredictable. It’s not like Cambridge Mathematician Alan Turing’s “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” where he could explain the markings and patterns on animals with an equation. That was rooted in genetics and evolution is a mighty slow thing. Human nature is extremely fast, just look how it changes day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute on the internet. It can be contradictory and even illogical at times. Applying logic to potentially illogical behaviour is to construct a house on shifting foundations. The structure will inevitably collapse. That’s the first problematic element of Nash’s theory but I propose and even bigger flaw that’s prevented it from being embraced in a wider context.

The human condition is one variable but a bigger one is the group itself. In the film clip with the blonde, Nash’s theory might work when he’s with a group of friends. They presumably know and trust each other and should therefore support one another for the common good. Again, it should work for a family, they too should presumably know and trust each other and have common goals (but human beings are complex creatures and there is no guarantee that the family isn’t dysfunctional and operating in a counter-productive way.) Assuming that these smaller groups want to progress along the same path together, we can expand the theory outwards to a community of people. Here the theory begins to fall apart. A community of people might not know or trust one another or have common goals. That possibility lessens even further when you expand the theory to a city or a country or a conflict between two countries. So the more you expand Nash’s theory outwards, the less chance it has of succeeding.

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Nash with his wife Alicia at the Oscars

Nash was also schizophrenic: “I was disturbed in this way for a very long period of time, like 25 years.” It affected his marriage and he and his wife Alicia divorced in 1962. His condition improved in the 80s and they remarried in 2001. Sadly the couple were killed in May 2015 when the taxi they were passengers in crashed in New Jersey. A sad loss of a great man. Life is not predictable.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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George Michael: Still Listening Without Prejudice

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In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?

I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.

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The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”

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In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”

On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.

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The Man from Faith

In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.

“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.

There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard  Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.) “Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.

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“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005: Listen here

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George Michael with Paul McCartney
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George and Paul perform at at the “Live 8” concert in 2005

George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.

I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.

I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.

I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.

“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

2017 – Read the best of FANTASY Novel Stories from around the world:

T2 4k 3D: Crunching The Terminator’s Numbers

Terminator 2: Judgment Day arrived in cinemas in the summer of 1991. Its main competitor was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner (remember him?). I went to see T2 twice at the cinema back then. By the time of the second viewing, I was watching the Soviet Union collapse live on TV news. (There was nervous laughter in the cinema when John Connor said the line about the Russians: “Aren’t they our friends now?”) The film dealt with Cold War fears. Looking at it again in 2017, it was difficult not to think of the current North Korean standoff as images of nuclear destruction flashed up on the screen repeatedly. So, the film’s themes are still relevant.

Just as the film is about time travel, so the film itself now functions like a time machine, taking us back to a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest movie star on the planet. That’s not the case now. He’s been replaced by a bunch of anonymous superheroes who dominate the box office (James Cameron was an early champion of CGI effects and T2 was the first film to use them extensively and effectively. You could argue that it created the tools necessary to bring all these comic book universes to life. Other films like Jurassic Park (1993) and The Mask (1994) consolidated the wow factor of CGI and proved it was here to stay. It reached its creative nadir with George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels which were like expensive cartoons.) Since Arnold’s return from politics, he seems to have lost that cocky charisma of old and looks bored and weary in movies now. He has also struggled to find decent vehicles to star in. Only Escape Plan with pal Sylvester Stallone hinted at a possible new direction for Mr. Schwarzenegger when he got a chance to speak German in a movie for the first time.

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Terminator 2 has none of those problems. Arnold is in his 90s prime and the film has been impressively upgraded to 4k and 3D by Jim Cameron.

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Terminator creator James Cameron

Knowing his technical expertise and perfectionist nature, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill restoration and it isn’t. The sound is incredible with thunderous gunfire and explosions (my ears are still ringing the morning after) and Brad Fiedel’s score gains a new lease of life in the mix. Glaring continuity errors have been corrected by Cameron with great subtlety. Some of the in-camera effects have dated, particularly the puppetry effects but Cameron has wisely allowed them to remain so as not to alter the heart of the film. It is a film from 1991 after all and he clearly didn’t want to get into endless nit-picking of his former work like Mr Lucas did with the Star Wars special editions (Greedo shot first, anyone?).

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Robert Patrick as the T-1000

Cameron got the casting spot-on too. Robert Patrick is a fantastic villain as the liquid metal T-1000. (Cameron didn’t have the money or the CGI to introduce this character in the first Terminator in 1984 and his inclusion makes this sequel one of the best.) Patrick’s wiry physicality and short stature give a David-and-Goliath look to his epic confrontations with the hulking Schwarzenegger.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger with a young Edward Furlong

Edward Furlong in his first film role is a revelation as the troubled, thieving tearaway John Connor. (A big difference from the Messianic future leader we’d heard so much about in the first movie.) His genial interplay with Schwarzenegger is the heart of this movie. Sadly, Furlong got into drugs and missed out on the third Terminator movie because of it and his absence from the series, along with Jim Cameron and Linda Hamilton, was a huge loss (some would say the series has never recovered from that.)

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The Dream Team: Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Eddie Furlong

T2 is at its weakest when it strains for significance, some of it coming across as cloying and the ticking of emotional boxes (Titanic struggled with some of the same issues). Some of the sequences are derivative, particularly the Cyberdyne building sequence which is clearly influenced by Die Hard. Still, Cameron is able to rise above his influences to create something memorable.

If your only reference point for the Terminator franchise is the woeful mess that was Terminator Genisys, I suggest you see Terminator 2 4k 3D on the big screen while you can. It still feels remarkably fresh and original (not hard in a time of comic book movie overload and lazy remakes). The humour hasn’t dated either with the audience laughing throughout at the gentle puncturing of Arnold’s tough image (it’s funnier than any of Schwarzenegger’s so-called comedies.)

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Cameron is hoping to re-release Aliens in 4k 3D, his other “best sequel ever made” and that would be most welcome from what I’ve seen here. He’s also returning to the Terminator franchise to produce a new trilogy of films starring Schwarzenegger (hopefully with Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong back in the mix too to reunite the dream team). Shooting begins on the new movie in early 2018 with the director of Deadpool at the helm. He’ll be back, oh yes, he’ll be back.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

George A. Romero’s Living Dead Legacy

“Everyone who ever made a low-budget film was influenced by Night of the Living Dead,” – John Carpenter
George A. Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie genre, has passed away at the age of 77. A good time to take a look back on his significant contribution to movies and the horror genre.
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Indie movies didn’t really exist when Romero and some pals clubbed together cash and equipment to make Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
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Taking inspiration from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel, Romero turned what could have been an exploitation splatter film and turned it into a snapshot of where America was going with the Vietnam war and civil rights. It’s difficult now to separate Romero’s nightmarish imagery from the horrific news footage spilling out of Vietnam around then.
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The casting of black actor Duane Jones as Ben the male lead was groundbreaking but Romero brushed it off by saying he was the best actor available and nothing more. Black men and boys were lynched for whistling at white women in the recent past yet here was a black hero defending a white female onscreen (the implication being that they will begin a relationship if they survive as the humanity is almost extinct). Ben even punches out a white male character for trying to tell him what to do (a far cry from any submissive expectations where he would stand there and be called “boy.”). This was an empowered, dominant black male, virtually unheard of at the time and not really seen again until the Blaxploitation genre of the early 70s (it could be argued Romero influenced that too).
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Ben’s fate at the hands of a redneck posse at the denouement prefigured the disaster movies and downbeat endings of films in the 1970s. The zombie horror is replaced with a more realistic, some would say more horrific, human kind. Hollywood even made a movie of NOTLD’s inspiration “I Am Legend” when Charlton Heston took on a Mansonesque group of mutants as the last vestige of gun-toting masculinity in “The Omega Man” in 1971.
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“At first I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said, “I thought of them as flesh-eaters or ghouls and never called them zombies in the first film. Then people started to write about them, calling them zombies, and all of a sudden that’s what they were: the new zombies. I guess I invented a few rules, like kill the brain and you kill the ghoul, and eventually I surrendered to the idea and called them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (1978), but it was never that important to me what they were. Just that they existed.”
The critical reviews of “Night of the Living Dead” were among the first to take the horror genre seriously. Hitchcock’s Psycho was probably the first one that wasn’t written off as a shlocky B-movie. If the respected Master of Suspense was tackling the genre, there must be something more there.
Somehow a copyright symbol was left off finished prints of “Night of the Living Dead” and it instantly fell into the public domain, a disastrous setback for everyone involved when it came to reaping any profits from it. It perhaps explained the genesis of the sequels, this time they’d make sure that didn’t happen and get paid properly.
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So into the 1970s Romero went and, 1972 saw him write and direct “Season of the Witch” a.k.a. Hungry Wives about a housewife caught up in witchcraft and murder. (John Carpenter would pinch the title for Halloween III: Season of the Witch ten years later.)
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Romero even made a 1974 documentary about O.J. Simpson called “Juice On The Loose” (!). Again, he was way ahead of the pack with that title.
“The Crazies” came along in 1973, a frightening bio-horror movie, even more realistic than “Night of the Living Dead.” A forgettable remake appeared in 2010.
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1978 brought a double-whammy of classics from Romero. Having invented the zombie movie genre, Romero sought to revitalize another one. His vampire movie Martin dealt with a boy who or may not be a centuries-old vampire. It’s in this grey area that the movie poses some real questions and becomes complex and interesting. Is Martin really a vampire or a disturbed kid acting out his fantasies and delusions on innocent people? Again, Romero was way ahead of everyone here touching on vampire culture and people “identifying” as vampires, things that wouldn’t become mainstream until recently. John Amplas is excellent as Martin, bringing great pathos to a difficult role. If you haven’t seen Martin, you should check it out soon. It’ll probably be screened in tribute to Romero and I hope this obscure movie finds some new fans now.
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The sequel to “Night of the Living Dead”, “Dawn of the Dead” came next. Romero hooked up with make-up virtuoso Tom Savini to do the zombie make-up. This time our heroes weren’t holed up in a house but in a shopping mall, giving Romero the chance to send up modern consumers as mindless zombies shuffling along to insipid muzak (he could almost have been predicting the internet age). At two-and-a-half-hours long, the film was ambitious and is beloved by fans to this day.
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(They despised Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake for not having the satire. This may be sacrilege, but I believe Snyder’s movie is better. The satire wasn’t all that clever or funny in the first place and the 1977 zombie make up looks like they got a bulk discount on grey paint. Snyder’s film is faster, funnier, “Shoot Burt Reynolds!, and tighter.)
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Just as Richard Matheson had influenced Romero, his “Night of the Living Dead” was in turn exerting an influence on popular culture with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Director John Landis rightfully paid homage to Romero’s classic.
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Romero with writer Stephen King

 

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Romero made several Stephen King adaptations including the memorable anthology “Creepshow” in 1982, “Creepshow 2” in 1987 and “The Dark Half” in 1993.

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Bub the Zombie
“Day of the Dead” appeared in 1985 and, for me, it’s the grimmest and most intense of the dead movies. Bub the domesticated zombie is a great character, brilliantly portrayed by actor Howard Sherman. It’s up there with Karloff’s Frankenstein for me and a real horror icon.
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Some of the gore is literally stomach-churning. A soldier is disemboweled on camera while a zombie rises from a slab to spill its guts all over the mortuary floor. Savini’s effects were making quantum leaps but it made me feel numb. We don’t really need to see that.
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A colour remake of “Night of the Living Dead” appeared in 1990, directed by make-up whiz Tom Savini. Romero rewrote his own screenplay, dropping in the hole in the ozone layer as a possible reason for the dead rising. It wasn’t as influential or groundbreaking as the original, what could be, but as remakes go, it’s pretty good and stands up to repeated viewings.
Post 9/11, zombie movies came back in vogue with Danny Boyle’s savage “28 Days Later” and the aforementioned remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” These zombies weren’t stiff from rigor mortis, they sprinted like Usain Bolt but Romero kept his walking dead moving slowly in subsequent zombie flicks.
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By the time of Romero’s “Land of The Dead” in 2005, the social commentary was becoming forced and self-conscious. “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” Dennis Hopper’s villainous mogul pompously says at one point, an obvious dig at George W. Bush. Even so, the film was a good sequel and is still very watchable today.
“I don’t try to answer any questions or preach,” Romero said, “My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, ‘Ooo, I’ll talk about that, and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!’ You know, it’s kind of my ticket to ride.”
“Diary of the Dead (2007)” and “Survival of the Dead (2009)” (Romero’s last film as director) followed and, even though Romero was still being innovative, there was the feeling that he’d already said what he wanted to say in that genre as others were overtaking him.
George A. Romero’s legacy and reputation are assured as the outpouring of grief on Twitter has proven today. Max Landis, son of Thriller director John Landis, tweeted: “George Romero was an icon who created a cinematic universe of loosely-affiliated sequels forty years before that was a thing. RIP to a genius.” May he rest in peace. Finally.
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing – Fantasy Novel of the Day

Originally posted on Novel Writing Festival: PITCH: Title: The Vorbing Written by: Stewart Stafford Type: Novel Genre: Fantasy/Horror Logline: The Vorbing is a fantasy/horror concerning Vlad Ingisbohr’s struggle to free his village from the reign of terror of vampires and avenge his father’s death at their hands. Interested in this logline, please email us at…

via FANTASY Novel of the Day: THE VORBIN, by Stewart Stafford — WILDsound Writing and Film Festival Review

Scarface: The World Is Pacino’s

“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”

– Al Pacino

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Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.

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Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932)

It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)

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By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.

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Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)

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Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).

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The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.

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Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”

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Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.

Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)Pacino Diego Luna

Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.

I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

The Weird and Wonderful World of Richard Matheson

The writer Richard Matheson was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in New Jersey on February 20th, 1926. He had his first story published when he was eight years old. After graduating from high school, he joined the army, serving in the US infantry with the 87th Division in France and Germany during World War II. His experiences of warfare formed the basis of his 1960 novel “The Beardless Warriors.”

After the war, he studied journalism at the University of Missouri and moved to California. Summer 1950 saw Matheson make his first real mark as a writer when his short story “Born of Man and Woman” was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and drew attention. It had the kind of frightening science fiction themes that became Matheson’s trademark and was the first of dozens of short stories he would publish over the next two decades.

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“I Am Legend” from 1954 was his first published novel and is probably his masterpiece (it was voted the best vampire novel of the 20th century by the Horror Writers Association in 2012) A daring deconstruction of the vampire legend, it flips the whole narrative on its head by making the last man alive the destructive predator that vampires fear and despise as he systematically wipes them out by day following a futuristic plague.

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It was adapted for film as “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price in 1964, again as “The Omega Man” in 1971 with Charlton Heston and, more recently, in 2007 with Will Smith.

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The book may have been about vampires but its main theme was loneliness and there are few better books about that subject. As the main character Neville is alone most of the time, it’s a difficult story to write but Matheson does a great job of keeping the reader engaged with his solitary hero in his nightmare world. “I Am Legend” also served as the direct inspiration for classic zombie movie “Night of the Living Dead”, giving birth to a whole new genre of film, almost as if the vampire pandemic gave birth to zombies.

He was also a successful television writer, penning episodes of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Star Trek” as well as numerous western shows.

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His 1956 novel “The Shrinking Man” (filmed in 1957 as “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, which Matheson also wrote the screenplay for) has been ripped off by everything from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” to last year’s “Ant Man.” It had its New York premiere 60 years ago this week in February 1957. In 2009, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, this accolade is only given to films that are “aesthetically, historically or culturally significant.”

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“The Twilight Zone” seemed made for Matheson and another famous story of his, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, was filmed for the show among others. It concerned a nervous flyer (played by William Shatner in the 1963 TV show and John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone movie twenty years later) who is convinced a demon is smashing up the wing of the passenger plane he is on during a vicious thunderstorm. No one believes him, even when he saves the lives of everyone on board by trying to kill the creature and forcing it to flee.

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The Simpsons did a parody of this story in one of their Halloween specials where Bart Simpson sees a demon dismantling the wheels of the school bus he’s on. Demonstrating how his stories are so ingrained now in popular culture.

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In 1968, he adapted Dennis Wheatley’s novel “The Devil Rides Out” for Britain’s Hammer Horror films. It is one of the best British horror movies ever made and features Christopher Lee in one of his finest roles as a man battling the forces of darkness.

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His nerve-shredding TV movie script for “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film in 1971.

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Other Matheson novels made into films include “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour (arguably a big influence on “Back To The Future” and “The Terminator”), “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams, “Stir of Echoes”, a supernatural horror film starring Kevin Bacon and “Real Steel”, a sci-fi action movie about fighting robots with Hugh Jackman.

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He once said: “I wrote about real people and real circumstances and real neighbourhoods. There was no crypt or castles or H.P. Lovecraft-type environments. They were just about normal people who had something bizarre happening to them in the neighbourhood. I could never write about strange kingdoms. I could never do Harry Potter or anything like that.”

Assessing his career, he said: “I think ‘What Dreams May Come’ is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death, the finest tribute any writer could receive. … Somewhere In Time is my favourite novel.”

His daughter and two sons also became writers.

Richard Matheson died in June 2013. He left behind a significant body of work including dozens of novels, short stories, TV show scripts, TV movies and movies both adapted by him from his own work and adapted by others. Writer Ray Bradbury called him “one of the most important writers of the 20th century.” While Stephen King claimed Matheson was the writer who had influenced him the most. Another writer called Harlan Ellison praised his “supernova lifetime of writing mentioned in the same breath with Poe and Borges.” That is about as good as it gets.

I’ll leave the final word to Mr Matheson: “I hope people are reading my work in the future. I hope I have done more than frightened a couple of generations. I hope I’ve inspired a few people one way or another.” You certainly have, sir, you certainly have.

(“The Vorbing”, my vampire novel inspired by Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” is available here)
© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Fifty Shades Better

The sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey was the big Valentine’s weekend movie for 2017. In it, billionaire Christian Grey renews his S&M relationship with Anastasia Steele. I wasn’t a fan of the first movie. It was a huge missed opportunity. James Foley, director of Glengarry Glen Ross, has replaced the original director and his steadier hand makes for a better movie. There’s a new screenwriter also and it feels dramatically tighter, funnier and just a better movie overall.

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The first Fifty Shades film should have been the Basic Instinct of its generation but it completely wimped out to get a cash-friendly lower age rating. In one scene, Anastasia says to Christian: “Show me how bad it can be” (or words to that effect). He smacks her six times really hard on the ass (anyone who has been near an internet connection in the past two decades will know that that is very, very far from the worst it can get). Ms Steele’s face contorts into floods of tears. “Never do that to me again!” she howls. (She just told him to do it to her! Idiot.) Although this is based on a trilogy of books and they might have needed to pace the franchise. If they had gone full-on in the first one, there’d be little wiggle room left for the sequels.

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Despite being dubbed “mummy porn” by the British press, Fifty Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction. Christian Grey began life on the page as Edward Cullen the vampire. There are flashes of Grey’s dark vampire origins in Fifty Shades Darker. A damaged former submissive of his starts jealously stalking Anastasia Steele, a paradigm of what the future could hold for her if she continues exploring Grey’s “kinky fuckery” with him, as Ms Steele calls it. Grey appears to be an energy vampire, sucking the life out of females that cross his path, destroying them and discarding them. That was good writing there.

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There is inconsistency in the writing of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades Darker. On the one hand, she’s this ordinary girl who is out of her depth in a naughty relationship with this rich chap. On the other, she’s this ravishing beauty that a billionaire and her boss fight over (Grey even buys the publishing house she works for. Helen of Troy she ain’t), while everyone else tells her she’s the most gorgeous girl in the world. So which is it? Is she a struggling ingénue or this beautiful girl used to such attention all her life? That doesn’t make sense. Then again, the whole thing is a female fantasy and not a documentary. If you’re looking for logic, put on the Discovery Channel.

E.L. James gives her heroine a job in a publishing house. There’s a handy movie job for ya. No research needed there, James already knows the publishing world well. Even so, that whole section isn’t very convincing. It’s lazy writing.

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Julia Roberts as a hooker in Pretty Woman

Fifty Shades peddles a similarly dangerous Pretty Woman notion in that it suggests that getting involved in degrading sex will lead girls to their rich Prince Charming.

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(Kim Basinger appears in Fifty Shades Darker as the baddie. She was also in 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke in the 80s; arguably the spiritual movie grandparent of Fifty Shades. That was about a similar kinky relationship and showed the reality of the situation – bondage only leads to more numbing bondage. The woman doesn’t get to change the guy into a vanilla version of his pervy self as happens in Fifty Shades Darker. Strangely, after Christian Grey tones down his act, Anastasia suddenly announces “take me to the Red Room!”, Grey’s whips-and-chains dungeon. This chick doesn’t know what she wants other than wanting to have her cake and eat it too like E.L. James)

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On the other hand, it’s an anti-feminist message to acknowledge that some women enjoy bondage and letting men take control sometimes (some men enjoy it too). To deny it or repress it is censorship and a denial of freedom.

The sex scenes while they are well shot, lit and blocked out, feel perfunctory like the actors are just going through the motions. There’s little eroticism in them, that frisson that elevates the whole thing. Writing sex in books and for the screen can be difficult to do, you’re always going close to the line of humour; too much and it’s a laugh riot, not enough and it’s no good.

So, yes, I’d just about watch a third Fifty Shades movie, but let’s hope there’s not a fourth. We need to stop playing around in the grey areas…

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.