Five Awesome Train Movies

L’Arrivée d’un tren en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

Murder on the Orient express, directed by and starring Kenneth Brannagh, is about to hit the cinemas and it looks set to be pretty great. Trains have a long history with movies–in fact, one of the first movies to be widely screened was of a train pulling into a station. L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was filmed by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895 and the reports, perhaps exaggerated, were that people fled the theatre in terror, thinking that the train was about to crash into them. (A more plausible account is that the Lumiere Brothers also developed a rudimentary but very effective form of 3D which made people think that they were watching a scene happening outside of the building.)

And so, in celebration of, what, 122 years of trains in movies, here are my top five favourite train movies:

1. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock was evidently fond of trains since he set so many of dramatic turns on them. North By Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, and, or course, Strangers on a Train, all have pivotal scenes set on trains. However, The Lady Vanishes makes the list because the bulk of the action takes place on the train itself.

It’s a great set-up–a woman goes to sleep on a train and then wakes up to find that the person she has been sharing a carriage with is gone, and not only that, but no one else on the train remembers ever having seen her at all. It’s a plot that was cribbed for Flightplan (2005) starring Jodie Foster. And as with most Hitchcock movies, it is not long before spies and intrigue abound. To say any more would be to spoil it, but if you have not seen it I recommend that you do

2. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Darjeeling Limited is often placed at the bottom of people’s favourite Wes Anderson films (if they even have a favourite). It’s nearly at the top of my list, after Rushmore (1998). After the first couple through I realised that I was watching it wrong. I had thought, as others insisted, that it was a movie about brothers and family dysfunction.

It’s not.

At least, not for me. Because, those elements are certainly there, but none of what the brothers went through, or how they interact with each other, are anything that resonates with me and my fraternal relations. But what I can relate to, and this is where all of the movie’s conflict stems from, is when life gets derailed and you’re left searching for some meaning or purpose when you’ve been thrown completely off course. The three Whitman brothers are, at one point, thrown off the titular train and they never get back on again. It is then revealed that the brothers never attended their father’s funeral, and the reason that one of them has for dragging them to India is to find their mother who abandoned them–and she abandons them again. It’s about dealing with the fact in life that sometimes there just isn’t any meaning or resolution to tragic events, but that life continues on anyway. It’s only when the brothers attend an Indian funeral that they are given the tools necessary to mourn and let go of the past. But even then, as is said, there is still a lot of healing to do.

3. Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (2016)

Busanhaeng/Train to Busan (2016)

Showing on Netflix right now, this is a real gem of a film. Made in South Korea last year, this is not only a good train movie, but one of the best zombie movies as well, and I defy you to disagree with me. As with all of the best zombie movies, this story is all about the characters, with some astute social commentary thrown in. Previously annoying characters are shown to have worth and integrity, and the survival of all is compromised by the entitled few. With just a few deft strokes of the scriptwriter’s pen, you are never in doubt to a character’s motivations, and everyone is sympathetic, even when they are deliberately sabotaging others.

Every ounce of tension is squeezed out of the premise as the movie rockets to its conclusion as fast as the bullet train it centres around. The set pieces are stunning and suspenseful. Even if you feel that you have burned out on zombies, I encourage you to pull together enough stamina to see this one. It doesn’t disappoint.

4. Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013)

There was a lot of controversy around when it was released. For a start, it didn’t get a very wide release, even considering that it starred the current Captain America, Chris Evans. Then when people saw that its overt themes were about workers overthrowing lazy oppressors who did nothing but live the high life on the backs of the servant class, accusations were made that “The Rich” buried this movie deliberately in order to keep it away from the 99%.

Obviously the rich have a better way of not letting us see movies and that is to not make them in the first place. But for all of this, it is true that this movie should be more in the public consciousness than it is. It wears its class-struggle metaphor right there on its sleeve, definitely leaning in on its fantastical premise: a train carrying the last survivors of earth rides an endless circuit through the frozen world, and after decades of exploitation, the people who shed sweat, blood, and tears, aren’t going to stand by and have their children stolen. Amid rumours that there are no more bullets left in the guards guns, the engine workers attempt a coup d’etat.

Beautifully directed, superbly acted, and with several genuinely shocking revelations, this is definitely one to track down.

5. The General (1926)

The General (1928)

I’m a huge fan of silent movies and so my list can’t be complete without The General on it. In a large part conceived by Buster Keaton, it is also inspired by true events. It’s the story of a man who steals a train during the American Civil War in order to get back to his sweetheart. This film was rather large budget for its time (most say $750,000) and it only did middling well ($500,000 domestic). However, Keaton was always innovative, not just in his own stunts, but also in what he committed to film. This picture has the honour of containing the most expensive shot in the silent movie era: they actually drove an actual train off of an actual bridge and into an actual riverbed for the movie’s climax.

This, however, is probably not the most famous scene. The scene where Keaton removes railway ties from the train tracks while the train is in motion, in one continuous shot is in just about all of the top 100 greatest scenes clip shows. But the whole movie is a corker, if you go in for that sort of thing. I understand that not everyone can kick back and enjoy a silent movie, but if you were to try one, this wouldn’t be the worst to begin with.

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The Enchantress and The Beast

The Enchantress and The BeastIn a distant land, and another time…

“RRRRAAAaaargh! What has happened to me?”

“It is I, proud prince, who have transformed your body into that of a vile beast–so that you now appear on the outside as you always were on the inside.”

“But… why?!”

“To teach you that appearances do not always describe one’s worth.”

“And my courtiers, my servants, what have you done to them?!”

“I have transformed them into furniture, common everyday furniture.”

“Murderess! To visit your vengeance on my own head may be considered just, but to slaughter dozens, nay, nearly a hundred–”

“They are not dead, prince. They still live in mind and soul, but in the form of furniture.”

“But… yet, still, is not an eternity trapped, unfeeling, unmoving–”

“Oh, they can still move, my presumptuous prince.”

“Oh. Uh… they what?”

“It is true, my lord. We are still here and able to talk and move… to varying degrees. It’s not ideal, but…”

“You see I do not lie, prince. They will live as they are, immortal, unaging.”

“That’s… that’s… alright, I admit that I don’t know what to think of that. But to stay in that form forever? Even once I am dead and turned to dust–”

“You shall not age either.”

“Oh. Okay…”

“Not until the last petal falls from this rose–and then you shall die!”

“Is that the rose you tried to sell me just now?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, mortality! To live the span of a plucked rose… just a few short days–”

“Years.”

“Pardon?”

“A few short… well, it will be ten years. Ten years exactly. And in that time, if you have not learned to love, and to be loved in return, then surely you shall die.”

“I– hold up. Are you saying there’s a way to break the curse?”

“I am.”

“Oh. Oh! Good then. So I must learn to love. Very well. But, hang on. Did you say that someone else also has to fall in love with me?”

“Yes. Correct.”

“That seems… I understand why I would need to learn to love, but why is the spell contingent on someone else also learning to love?”

“Because… it… is!”

“Can it be anyone?”

“Anyone. Almost anyone.”

“Can it be one of my servants?”

“No.”

“Huh. Very well. Ten years is a goodly time. I shall dispense messengers to every corner of my kingdom, and…”

“You shall not. I am placing an enchantment on this castle so that all outside of it will forget that it has ever existed!”

“That… strikes me as particularly unfair. But still, I am man enough for the challenge. In that time there is bound to be many a visiting wanderer who will take word of my circumstance to others.”

“Ha ha! Scornful princeling! Not as many as you may think, for I shall also disguise the road and thwart any that may come upon the castle perchance.”

“That’s–whooh. That’s particularly spiteful. Truly, you are as cruel as you are vindictive, vile witch.One might even say vindictive to an unwarranted extent, considering the circumstances.”

“Perhaps. And then again perhaps not, for I shall leave you some items to aid you in your plight.”

“By my plight you mean this curse you placed on me to teach me a lesson, one that will potentially, almost certainly it sounds, kill me–me and the eighty some people in this castle–due to the additional codicils you seem to have added. This is the ‘plight’ you mentioned.”

“Yes. As I said, I am leaving you two enchanted items to aid you in your plight.”

“Just so I’m absolutely clear: you have cursed me and placed impossible obstacles in front of me to make sure that I’m completely doomed, but you are also leaving me some objects to help me break the curse.”

“I am.”

“A part of me is rather grateful that you have stayed here to explain this to me, else I never would have figured all this out. But say on, you were about to explain about these items.”

“Items of rare, and powerful enchantment, such as this land has rare seen.”

“…Go on.”

“This here is a magic mirror. Merely by holding it in your hand and speaking to it what you wish to see, you shall instantly view what your heart desires.”

“…Okay. Um, thank you. That’s really incredible. You’re going to leave that here? For me?”

“I shall. And the other object is a book. An enchanted book, that shall allow you to visit any place in the world that you wish to go to. Merely open this book, think of that place, and you shall be transported there.”

“…Really? That’s…. that’s beyond incredible. I almost don’t need the mirror if I have that. And I can go anywhere I want?”

“Yes.”

“Then why bother to… nevermind. Okay, a book and a mirror. Anything else?”

“The rose. Don’t forget the rose. You’ll want to keep that safe. Here, I’ll leave a glass jar for it as well. If you wouldn’t mind–no, I’ll just put it on this table over here.”

“The table that used to be, a courtier, or lowly butler, mayhap?”

“No, the tables are all just tables.”

“Ooh! It’s floating. Did you do that? That’s clever. Anything else?”

“Is this all not enough?”

“Damned if I know. I’ll admit to you, witch, even just living my remaining days as a beast would have seemed punishment enough. I’m not quite sure I deserve death, but you have shown yourself powerful and bitter so… so be it. The rest of it seems needlessly complicated. Especially the part with my servants. And also the part with… I mean are you sure you want to leave me the mirror and the book? Not that I’m not grateful…”

“I have gifted and shall not ungift.”

“Right-ho. So… are you going to stay now? Shall I have one of my… furnitures prepare you a room?”

“I must depart hence on the hour.”

“I see. It’s just… well, you started all this by wanting a place to stay in exchange for a flower, but, okay. You know your business best.”

“I shall return again this night, ten years from now.”

“…Of course you will.”

“Farewell… Beast!”

“Cheerio.”

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Are You A Fundamentalist or A Firmamentalist?

Hey people, have you heard about this new website called FIRMAMENTALIST? It’s full of all great stuff that I know you’ll like, because it’s written and curated by me and my friends.

I’ve been wanting to do this for some time–to stretch my wings in an area that’s less me-centric, and to invite more people into an open community, and discuss ideas rather than push product (which I will still merrily do on this website, of course)!

The title is taken from a G K Chesterton poem, which is explained in the first post, and throughout I’ll be pursuing a very chestertonian spirit, the idea of turning the world rightside up…

firmamentalist

Click to visit!

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Books I Read In 2015

Via Advent, Shawn Small
Tales from Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison
A Plague of Demons, Kieth Laumer
The Elements of Elegance, Mark Forsyth
The Small House at Allington, Anthony Trollope
Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire, Justin Richards
Franny and Zooey, J. D. Salinger
Night Flight, Antoine De Saint-Exupery
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
The Grand Babylon Hotel, Arnold Bennett
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd
The Letter for the King, Tonke Dragt
No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty
The Prisoner, Thomas M Disch
A Sentimental Journey, Laurence Stern
Magnus, George Mackay Browning
Octopussy and The Living Daylights, Ian Flemming
Orlando, Virgiania Woolf
Land of the Seal-People, Duncan Williamson
Gryll Grange, Thomas Love Peacock
The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness
The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness
The Shepherd’s Crown, Terry Pratchett
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers
Eirlandia 1, Stephen Lawhead
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket
Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness
Wildwood, Colin Meloy
Slaughter-House Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Challenges
The thing that made this year different than the others is the reading challenge I set myself of reading a Penguin a Week. This exposed me to a lot of books that I ordinarily wouldn’t have read, except that they had orange coloured covers. A Plague of Demons by Kieth Laumer and Gryll Grange by Thomas Love Peacock were two of these, but the real surprise delight was The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett which was astoundingly fresh and interesting, especially considering the year it was written. I was also able to cross some classics off my list. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley was better than expected, but Orlando by Virginia Woolf and Zuleika Dobson by Mac Beerbohm did not live up to the hype for me. The second challenge completed was the NaNoWriMo challenge (writing a 50,000 word novel in one month), which my wife and I attempted, and completed, in May. No Plot? No Problem! was written by the man who started that and was a huge help during the dark 30-40k period.

Surprises!
I discovered Patrick Ness this year and will hold up A Monster Calls as one of the top ten books of the decade. A Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt was another fun discovery — it’s a book that has been popular in Europe for forty years, but had never been translated into English until just now. Thomas Disch’s The Prisoner was also very gripping for being a TV spin-off.

Disappointment
Although A Monster Calls was unbelievably good, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, while clever, did not end well. I felt it got lost in the subversion of its own themes and I ended up not liking any of the characters, who often made unrealistic decisions. The Riddle of the Sands was one that I’ve seen on so many Best Books list but it was almost unbearably tedious for two reasons: 1) The writer is almost obsessed with the word ‘galliot’. 2) Every movement of the boat was detailed, with maps, and 80% of those movements were inconsequential to the plot. The Worm Ouroboros by E R Eddison was another incomprehensible mess. One of the first fantasy epics, there were actually fewer and fewer fantasy elements as the book went on. His imagination only went so far: there were demons, goblins, and vampires — but they were from Demonland, Goblinland, and Vampireland. (It was never said where the genies were from, but three guesses.) The story started with an interesting framing device, but that was never picked up again.

Remembrance
We lost Terry Pratchett this year. I started rereading the Discworld books again. Which was a shame, since last year’s Raising Steam catapulted his world into a new realm. I’m so glad that Shepherd’s Crown, which starred my favourite Discworld character of all time, Tiffany Aching, was such a solid finish. There were a couple falters, and the book doesn’t give any sense of completion to the saga, by any means, but it was a delightful read.

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The Negative Star Wars Review

(This review contains just about every SPOILER imaginable for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)

It’s been thirty years since we’ve visited the Star Wars Universe, and you could convince me that just about anything had happened in that galaxy far, far away in that amount of time — but not that nothing had happened.

The new Star Wars movie did a lot of things right, and there’s very little that was actually put on the screen that I found fault with. But as the movie went on, it was what was not shown, what was alluded to, that I found very unsatisfying.

This is what we find has occurred — or, not occurred. The Rebellion is now the Resistance — what it is that they resist, exactly, we don’t know. Progress, perhaps, because at the end of The Return of the Jedi not only have the Hitler and the Goebbles of the Imperial regime been killed, and the Death Star and Super Star Destroyer destroyed, but in the Special Edition, we see Stormtroopers being body-surfed off of high-rises, leading us to believe that the Imperial Government has completely collapsed, leaving it wide open for the new Alliance leadership to step into its place. But in thirty years, what do we find has been achieved?

Precious little, it turns out. There is no new government. The Han/Luke/Leia triumvirate hasn’t brought the peace to the galaxy which was inferred in ROTJ after all. Nor has the very strong cast of secondary characters: Mon Mothma, Admiral Ackbar, Wedge Antilles, and Lando Calrissian — all of whom also have strong leadership experience. These all have completely dropped off the radar.

Conflict avoider

The greatest Jedi Master in the galaxy, or conflict avoider?

And the original Big Three? How have they spent three decades? Well, Leia has been touring around with forty or fifty other guys in a kind of cut budget Rebel Alliance, using refurbished X-Wing fighters. She doesn’t have any express aims besides finding her brother, Luke, who apparently tried to set up a Jedi Academy. That didn’t work out so well it seems, one of his pupils went to the Dark Side so he got bummed and went to live on an island. He left his lightsaber in a box in the back of a bar somewhere (when I was a kid I thought that his lightsaber was the coolest thing in the world, but Luke felt differently apparently). He rather coyly left a map for anyone trying to find him, which makes less sense the more you think about it.

Deadbeat dad

Hero of the New Republic, or deadbeat dad?

Leia and Han hooked up together long enough to have a son, but then they split up for some reason. Seeing them on screen together, you get the impression that they were both too cynical and facetious to make anything work. No wonder their son grew up to be so angry and alienated, he’s the only one with any sort of emotional depth in the entire galaxy. Han shares screen-time with both Leia and his son separately, but there are no words of love expressed, just low-level regret undercut by a lot of smirking, so he should have seen what was coming. He abandoned his wife and son to wheel and deal with Chewbacca and he thinks he’s going to make everything better with a grin and a handshake?

Essentially, every character we care about has regressed back to who they were before the original trilogy began. And this is what was disappointing to all of us Star Wars mega-fans, those of us who not only loved the movies, but also the books, comics, and video-games which expanded the stories past the events in The Battle of Endor.

Underachiever

Intergalactic politician, or underachiever?

In those stories, called the Expanded Universe, which started in 1991 with the almost simultaneous publications of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s Dark Empire comic series, the cast of Star Wars led fruitful and fulfilling lives. In the thirty years of continuity covered by the novels and comics, Han and Liea had conflicts, but stayed married. Leia is not only Chief of State in the New Republic, she also found time to train as a Jedi knight under her brother. Han and Leia had three children, Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin. Luke also marries and has a son, Ben. He sets up a new academy for Jedi, but instead of just one pupil, he starts with half a dozen, and from those he trains up masters, so after thirty years he is well on his way to filling the universe with Jedi again.

I’m not saying that any of that should have been kept, but there’s no reason to throw it out if there isn’t anything at least as interesting to take its place. Everything in the Expanded Universe is all non-canonical now — instead we are presented with a more boring, less inspiring Universe. The heroes that once inspired us thirty years ago have done nothing else inspiring or worthy of anything more than a footnote. No wonder The Force has been asleep all this time.

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