Famous movie locations that aren’t Paris or New York

November 2, 2007

Does it sometimes seem as if every big city in the movies is New York and every romantic destination Paris? Well… they are. (Hmm, I’m not entirely sure that makes total grammatical sense, but ah well. You get the point, hopefully.) According to an article in The Observer, Paris and New York have achieved such “overlord” location status on the big screen that most filmgoers feel as if they’ve been there (at some point, haven’t we? or have I just seen National Lampoon’s European Vacation too many times?), even if that is unfortunately not always the case. On the other hand, though, movie Paris = no customs! Tough call, really.

However, New York and Paris don’t have all the big screen fun, and there are other locations, sometimes forgotten in the glow of the, ah, terrible two, that have achieved a sort of mythical status as well. They too have celluloid alter egos, or impressions of the city created from a jumble of film recollections and real world experiences. These locations certainly also deserve a place in the sun – for better or, perhaps more often than is admitted, for worse.

Here are a few of these alternative location stars:

Vienna

Before Sunrise (Vienna)

Well before they awkwardly greeted each other in Paris, Jesse and Celine memorably walked the streets of Vienna in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, forever establishing Austria’s capital as the place for soulmate-at-first-site hopefuls. Hey, Ethan Hawke’s gotta sit down across from you on that train eventually, right? Vienna, and particularly its famous ferris wheel, the Reisenrad, was also featured in the Orson Welles noir classic, The Third Man, which takes place in Vienna right after World War II. You’ll never look down from the top of a ferris wheel in the same way again.

Another Vienna classic: Amadeus, about Mozart and Salieri.

Trivia: The battle fought at the beginning of the film Gladiator is mentioned as taking place at Vindobona, which is actually the early name for Vienna. It has, you know, expanded a bit since then.

For other films that take place in and around Vienna, check out this nice little review by Dustin Penn here.

The Australian Outback

Mad Max

From Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Dish, to Crocodile Dundee and the post-apocalyptic Mad Max, to my own mother’s obsessively favorite films A Town Like Alice and My Brilliant Career, Australia’s Outback seems to be a source of endless fascination for both filmmakers and filmgoers. What really goes on out there in all that space? We don’t really know, but it must be something mysterious and exciting and, of course, intriguingly rugged.

Trivia: Crocodile Dundee is the most successful Australian movie ever. I guess all I can say is… wow.

For an interesting look at the Outback’s connection to the horror movie genre, click here. Let’s just say it’s called “Things that go bump in the outback” – make of that what you will.

San Francisco

Vertigo

Sure, filmmakers have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the New York skyline, but those sloping streets and red bridge towers have inspired their own impressive number of classic films and made San Francisco’s unique cityscape internationally admired. Really, the city has almost too many classic scenes. Scottie saving Madeleine from the waters below the Golden Gate Bridge in Vertigo. Dirty Harry finding evidence to a murder on the city’s rooftops in Dirty Harry. Benjamin Braddock driving across the Bay Bridge (the wrong way, but in any case) in The Graduate, a bridge that also appears in The Maltese Falcon. For a more contemporary scene, there’s Mia, who crashes her car into a trolley in The Princess Diaries. And, of course, not forgetting Steve McQueen’s very famous car chase through the city’s streets in Bullitt.

San Fran fun: And you thought San Francisco’s hills were just for exercise (and really frustrating bike rides), check out what else someone did with those gentle slopes.

For a more complete list of movies set in this California town, click here.

Tokyo

Lost in Translation

There’s just something so indescribably exotic about a city that is both very much like a city near you and at the same time entirely different. With its bright lights, bright colors, bright pop culture, and seemingly limitless supply of population (see trivia below), Tokyo appears to be the perfect setting in which to be both completely surrounded and entirely alone. It’s the city where Charlotte and Bob had a fleeting connection in Lost in Translation and where people struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic future (Akira), but also where James Bond (You Only Live Twice) and his modern counterpart Austin Powers (in Goldmember) both encounter, you guessed it, sumo wrestling. And, uh, there’s that Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift movie as well – of course.

Trivia: Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the entire world. With well over 30 million people (for some perspective: the New York City metropolitan area has about 18 million – more than 10 million less), you can certainly understand how that would be.

Antarctica and the Arctic Circle

March of the Penguins

Okay, I can probably guess what you’re thinking right now: great, more penguins. (and, well, I have a huge picture of them right above this, so why wouldn’t you be?) But really, what you should be thinking is: action and horror. I don’t know if it’s the treacherous ice, low likelihood of survival, lengthy hours of darkness, or those polar bears (because you know they mean business), or all of the above, but the arctic ice is accumulating quite the impressive collection of action/horror films: The Transformers, 30 Days of Night (it’s in Alaska, but north of the Arctic Circle, so I’m gonna go ahead and count it), Alien vs. Predator, National Treasure, The Thing, The Thing from Another World, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Siberia, close enough). And then, yes, not to forget of course Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, Arctic Tale, The Endurance, and Eight Below (and thus also Nankyoku Monogatari). Plus Insomnia (both versions).

Trivia: One of the original horror classics of literature actually began in the Arctic Circle – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Cairo

Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood

If you’re looking for exotic mystery in a film, Cairo seems to have it in spades. And how could it not? Considering its association with over three thousand years of ancient Egyptian civilization, Cairo is quite hard to beat as a movie location. Naturally, you’ve got your obligatory pseudo-Egyptian myth horror (The Mummy), other mythologically- inspired action (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark), tourism (Death on the Nile), and just plain action (The Spy Who Loved Me). In other words, if you’re looking for an otherworldly adventure complete with historic mystique, celluloid Cairo is where you want to be.

Cairo fun: If you like what they did in that San Francisco video, see what happens when they take on the pyramids.

Transylvania

Nosferatu

Well, you can’t say that film has been easy on poor, much maligned Transylvania. For many long years, Transylvania has had to suffer numerous indignities as the place inextricably intertwined with vampires and most anything gloomy and weird (that is somehow associated with darkness and rain, in any way at all). At least they pretty much know who to blame: Bram Stoker, who decided to have his Dracula live there (despite the fact that Dracula’s inspiration, Vlad the Impaler, actually ruled over nearby Walachia, which got off easy, all things considered). Transylvania, a region in Romania, is, I’m sure, a perfectly lovely area with many attractive medieval ruins, but sadly, this image was not meant to be. Instead, it’s the spooky, rainy, shadowy, depressing, crumbling, seriously weird, and, let’s just say it, eeeevil location of Nosferatu, Young Frankenstein (and Mary Shelley’s monster wasn’t even originally, um, “born” in Transylvania), Van Helsing, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, even The Rocky Horror Picture Show (technically).

What does the real Transylvania actually look like? Check out some Flickr photos here to see. And check out the official tourism office here.

Another location with quite unfortunate film credentials? Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Apart from its seriously depressing depiction in Euro Trip, it stars in, of all things, Hostel. I think that pretty much says it all.

And, of course… London

28 Days Later

Not just the setting of one of my favorite comedy moments in film (Look kids! Big Ben! Parliament!), and thus also infernally frustrating roundabouts, London has been the setting of countless classics and, well, not-so-classics, as well as more than its fair share of apocalyptic/future films (28 Days Later, Children of Men, V for Vendetta), which is, needless to say… interesting. Although New York has faired no better, if we’re being honest (that poor Statue of Liberty, she’s been crushed by a tidal wave, destroyed by apes, buried in ice, animated by slime, used as a mutant-creating weapon and a mind wiping device, etc. etc.). The British capital, or rather, its buses, are also fantasy favorites (The Mummy Returns, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). And naturally, you can’t have a timeless city without an endless number of romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones, Love Actually, The Holiday). In short, the big screen London has got something for everyone.

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“Other” great science fiction movies

September 7, 2007

According to the Times UK, Ridley Scott claims that sci-fi films are dead and that since 2001: A Space Odyssey, there has been nothing new and different. The director said that:

…science fiction films were going the way the Western once had. “There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it,” he said. Asked to pick out examples, he said: “All of them. Yes, all of them.”

The flashy effects of recent block-busters, such as The Matrix, Independence Day and The War of the Worlds, may sell tickets, but Sir Ridley believes that none can beat Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hmm, so I guess he doesn’t think his own takes on science fiction, the classics Blade Runner and Alien, measure up as well?

Now, I will probably take a huge credibility hit for saying this, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is not one of the absolute best science fiction movies in my opinion. Yes, it’s certainly groundbreaking and is a very important origin of the science fiction special effects you see today, but is it an enjoyable or even understandable movie experience? No. I’m sure it was revelatory in its day, but I personally think it succeeds more in imagery and theory than as a cohesive film with an actual plot.

That said, I simply can’t agree that there aren’t sci-fi movies out there that don’t have, as Scott claims, “an overreliance on special effects as well as weak storylines.”

To prove my point (hopefully somewhat definitively), I have compiled a list of what I think are great science fiction movies that, shall we say, move to the beat of their own drum and do not rely on or have minimal special effects, and that, of course, have been released after 1968.

science fiction (dictionary.com)
n. A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background.

Children of Men – A chilling look at a post-apocalyptic world in the not-so-distant future where humans can no longer have children due to mysterious scientific circumstances (in other words, what humans are doing to each other and the world). Essentially no futuristic science fiction effects to speak of.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Spielberg’s classic UFO film. True, it’s got alien abductions and spaceships, but much of it centers around the very human drama of its main characters. Certainly almost as if not just as influential in its science fiction imagery as 2001. The depiction of spaceships and aliens (they’re thin!) has never been the same.

Contact – Based on the book by Carl Sagan (if you don’t really like science, stick with the movie) and starring Jodie Foster. Exploring politics, religion and faith, science, and human nature, it’s a powerful and probably realistic portrayal of what would happen if we did make contact with another intelligence. Only at the very end of the film are classic science fiction effects used.

Gattaca – A very personal look at the human cost of technological advancement. Serious and dark, but not in a Blade Runner “film noir” sort of way, it’s a tragic and romantic tale of human hopes and dreams without any of the flashy sci-fi trappings. Opinion may be divided on this one, but I think it’s an intense and captivating story. With Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman.

The Prestige – A recent film with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, it’s an almost Memento-style look at the rivalry between two magicians at the turn of the century. Featuring more twists and turns than could ever be explained in a plot summary, this is not a “Harry Potter” magic film, or even just a slight of hand (like the other similarly titled magician movie released around the same time, the great film The Illusionist) but instead a look at the relationship of two men and how science can itself be magical. The real life scientist Nikola Tesla makes an experience, in the form of David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie.

The Fifth Element – A cult classic from Luc Besson, there is no other sci-fi movie quite like it. Sure it uses plenty of special effects, but you cannot deny that it’s different. And the most important thing: it’s a lot of fun. Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman.

Galaxy Quest – The perfect spoof of “classic” sci-fi, this is a hilarious take on the fan world of Star Trek. What if the world of Star Trek really did exist? Enjoy this movie and find out. Tony Shalhoub, Alan Rickman and yes, Tim Allen do a great job, and Justin Long of “I’m an Apple computer” and Live Free or Die Hard fame puts in a great appearance as a “Trekkie” whose wildest dreams are finally coming true. Plus, a pre-Dwight Schrute Rainn Wilson as a techie alien!

Serenity – Based on the cult series Firefly from Buffy creator Joss Whedon, this dark (and slightly scary!) sci-fi action flick features Wild West-type dialogue, characters and action alongside spaceships and a slightly Star Wars-like Empire, the Alliance. There’s definitely special effects, but you can’t claim it isn’t creative and passionate.

Ghost in the Shell – An anime classic and crime thriller about artificial intelligence and the relationship between humanity and technology. The film was a huge influence on The Matrix, just check out the poster.

Nausicaa and the Valley of the WindHayao Miyazaki‘s animated take on a futuristic world decimated by humanity’s treatment of the environment. Dealing with issues of war and, of course, the environment, this 1984 film from the anime master behind Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke is an elegantly sad addition to the science fiction genre.

28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys – Similar sci-fi idea (world-ending virus), very different approaches (zombie horror vs. Terry Gilliam), both insane and mesmerizing in their own ways.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie – Ever heard of the early sci-fi film This Island Earth? There’s a good reason why not. It’s awful. But watching the characters from this cult TV show take hilarious jabs at it in their only feature film, you’ll think it’s the funniest movie on any earth. Incomprehensibly out of print on DVD, if you can find a worn-out VHS tape or DVD at your local Hollywood Video, rent it immediately. It leaves you with only the “fresh scent of pine.”

Honorable Mentions: Minority Report and V for Vendetta

Go here for Cinematical.com’s thoughts on Scott’s statements.


Children of Men

August 18, 2007

Yes, I know this is a bit old – I believe the movie came out last winter – but I have to admit that I did not see it until just now. Not that I hadn’t heard great things about it and thought that I certainly should see it, but let’s face it – it’s sometimes hard to come home at the end of the day and think: “you know, what I’m really in the mood for right now is a brutally dark, apocalyptic movie about the world falling to pieces.”

I guess there was a bit of reluctance there somehow…

In any case, my boyfriend finally made me actually put it in the DVD player and press play. And now that I’ve seen it, I can say it was… a brutally dark, apocalyptic movie about the world falling to pieces.

Critics, and English professors, often talk about a story starting in medias res – right in the middle of the story, where there’s no formal beginning, no “once upon a time…” More of a “She saw the frog and decided it might not be a bad idea to kiss it” and the story kicks off from there.

Well, this movie is the very definition of in medias res, it starts right in the thick of things. The world is already in full-blown self-destruct mode and Clive Owen’s character Theo already has a whole long history behind him, particularly a history with Julianne Moore’s government rebel and Michael Caine’s good-hearted hippie, which is never fully revealed. There are no real flashbacks, almost no exposition sections; the characters are just there, and you can make out people’s motivations and how they got to the point where they are now however you want.

The story itself captures a brief moment in time – only about a day in Theo’s life, where he undertakes the most important task of his life – and it’s gone before you know it. It takes place in a war zone in the future, the world fighting for some idea of hope with the ability to produce children no longer an option, and some people die brutally and suddenly and others do horrible, horrible things.

But then it’s over, and, for me at least, an almost empty sensation remains. You saw something, and it was powerful and intense, but it was almost a grazing blow, the impact of an explosion without feeling its heat. With barely any background information or additional connections to the characters, you’re almost left wondering who or what you just saw and how you should feel.

But perhaps that’s the point. In a world where there is no future, no possible future for the human race, and there is only a superficial order maintained by a military state, would you be left with any feeling? Would you feel heat at all?