A Look Back at July

As the current worldwide health crisis continues to spread in front of us like an incredibly long tunnel with only the tiniest flicker of light at the end, we at least now have some brief moments of respite from the monotony as the cinemas start to re-open (in the U.K. at least, judging by how America is handling the virus, they won’t see the inside of a cinema until apes have retaken the earth) and I can start doing what I do best: getting over-analytical about films that I won’t remember a week into the future.

As I write this, I have visited two different cinemas since their opening was allowed earlier this month, both of which were incredibly positive experiences, made all the better by some very passionate and patient staff, adapting to the ‘new normal’ to the best of their abilities.

The first of which was an independent cinema, and since I have been known to give long, and no doubt exhilarating, lectures on the virtues of independent cinemas, I thought it would be remiss of me not to give them a mention, seeing as they’re doing their best to give great cinema experiences to all who pass through their doors. They’re called Parkway Cinema, and they have a few locations around Yorkshire & The Humber, my nearest is the Beverley cinema, and it is the nicest cinema I’ve ever been to, so if you’re local, check them out.

Not to put down the National and international chains, of course, who provide the main bulk of cinema experiences to the nation, my best wishes and sincerest of gratitudes go to all the staff working to keep the cinema a safe, and entertaining, place to be.

So, what of my reviews this month? Well, I can’t say I’ve been prolific, but I’ve started trying new things so as to not become monotonous. My ‘Evolution of Animation’ series is incredibly fun to put together, so I’ll be continuing that this month with a look at early feature-length animation, as well as the mediums extensive use as a propaganda tool.

Film of the Month: Mother (2009) – Directed by Bong Joon-ho

I had a few great films to choose from this month, Dolemite is My Name came close to claiming my top spot for July, as did Trainspotting, but I can’t look past the first film I reviewed this month; Bong Joon-ho’s Mother.

As my usual readers will know, I liked Bong’s masterpiece Parasite, well, to say I liked it is under-selling it a bit, I didn’t so much review it as propose marriage to it, metaphorically speaking of course, and I’m not far off doing the same to its director, having now seen more of his work.

As I look back on this month, I realise that I am catching up with a lot of things I’ve missed, and honestly, I feel refreshed for having looked at things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, maybe the slow release of new films will give me a reason to delve a little deeper still, until big releases really start to kick in once more.

Although I look forward to the day when the cinemas can be full again, I am enjoying taking the opportunity to catch up on things I’ve missed, or a few classics that I may not have seen at all, and I look forward to continuing this for at least the next few months.

Speaking of continuing; I’m currently working on a ‘Top 10 Animated Films List’ that I’m hoping to have done in the next week, I also want to review T2: Trainspotting after watching the original, as well as catch up on Netflix’s recent movements. All of this and more will be coming in August, so until then, stay safe, and enjoy whatever you’re watching.

Unhinged Review

I’ve been away from the cinema for so long, I’d forgotten what popcorn smelt like…

Yes, for the first time since March 11th, I got to see a new film at the cinema. After a few long months of uncertainty, I got to sit in the dark, with a large drink in the armrest, and enjoy a film; or is ‘enjoy’ the right word?

Well, after all these months away, I think I’d have appreciated seeing anything on the big screen (well, not quite everything, you understand) and the choice of new releases were slim – only two in fact – so it was pretty much a crapshoot as to whether it was going to be a big success story for cinemas miraculous return, or a film that the studio was hoping would scoot by unnoticed. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Unhinged is a ‘road-rage revenge’ thriller, as strange as that combination of words sound. It feels like the film is trying to make a statement on how quick to anger people seem to be now, but it picked an extremely strange niche to go after.

I’d never heard of the movie until last week when it was mentioned on the BBC News website as one of the new releases coming out when the cinemas reopened, and from its brief description, I was expecting a Death Wish-Esque revenge thriller about driven to dispair by tragedy, and while he is driven to despair, let’s just say he lacks the justification Charles Bronson had in the aforementioned film.

Russell Crowe stars as a nameless Man, who is seemingly driven over the edge after the disintegration of his marriage and goes on a murderous rampage, targeting an innocent, recently-divorced mother after a fairly tame road rage incident.

Now, I realise that it’s not for me to put words in the filmmaker’s mouths about what their film was trying to achieve or what its message was, but judging by its tone, and an opening credits sequence set over what I assume are real-life road rage incidents, you’d forgive me for thinking that the intention was to create a message against being quick to anger, but it feels incongruous in a film with such an over-the-top example of an angry character.

It is unfair to say that Crowe’s character is angry because of road rage, but rather that he has gone completely insane following a string of unseen events that the film alludes to, the fact he crosses paths with Rachel (the mother character, played by Caren Pistorius) is just extremely unlucky on Rachel’s part, she isn’t the reason for him being ‘unhinged’ but she’s going to face the consequences. So those going into the film expecting Russell Crowe to be playing a heroic figure will be greatly disappointed when they find out that he’s instead playing a deranged psychopath with an axe to grind and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Titanic.

For what it’s worth, this key performance of Crowe’s is very effective, at times he’s a terrifying presence with the cold, steely gaze of a man with nothing to live for anymore, and is planning on taking a few people down with him. This character is what makes the film as a whole work, waiting to see what he’ll do next, and how long it will be before he’s captured.

While the film itself is extremely generic, I found myself being far more engrossed than I thought I would be, on the strength of Crowe’s chilling performance and its rising, unrelenting tension.

It does, however, suffer from being a set up with very few logical conclusions, there are only a few ways this story could end, and it finds itself running low on ideas towards the end, which is especially noticeable during the car chase sequences, many of which felt indistinguishable from each other, and later plot points are incredibly obviously signposted earlier on in dialogue exchanges that come across as a clunky way to set up future set pieces.

The cinematography of the film starts extremely strong, with a very well shot, and extremely chilling opening scene, setting the tone very well early on; sadly, towards the end, it all starts to fall apart, especially during the climactic scene, in which a film that has, up to that point, relied on fairly standard and dependable camera framing, suddenly gets very jump cut-happy and disorientating, much in the same vein as a lot of modern action scenes which suffer from far too many camera cuts, you start to lose track of who is where, and it diminishes the tension which had been fairly well built up to that point.

As I said earlier though, I didn’t dislike it, maybe that’s through just being glad of being back in a cinema, therefore being easier to please I don’t know, but I found the main character chilling, yet utterly captivating, I found myself not being able to look away, no matter how much I wanted to; that and the film is fairly good at building tension in the middle of the film, even if it does lose a bit of steam later on.

As one of the films noted highlights so far, it goes without saying that I enjoyed Russell Crowe’s performance in this film; he’s changed a lot since his days in Gladiator and doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention these days, but he can still deliver the goods when called upon, as evidenced here, and it makes me think that he could have a future as a captivating movie villain, rather than a hero going forward. I also enjoyed the performances of Caren Pistorius and Gabriel Bateman as her son, Kyle. They didn’t have much to play with character-wise, as they were both fairly generic stock characters, but they squeezed all the potential they could out of them at the very least.

So, in summary, I return to the cinemas with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a middle-of-the-road, competently put together film that passes the film but will struggle to be memorable, and whilst I hope that isn’t a sign of things to come, I did appreciate a new film to watch, as well as the leading performances, so Unhinged is passable, maybe even enjoyable on first viewing, but certainly not one I’ll be in a rush to get on Blu-Ray.

Trainspotting Review

I’ve been intending to review this film for some time now; on the recommendation of one of my regular readers (he knows who he is). It’s a film I’d never seen before but knew by reputation, by which I mean that I shouldn’t expect a jolly skip through the tulips, I knew the film was pretty grim, but it turns out I was underestimating it slightly.

But before I get ahead of myself, a little background on this film and its director.

Trainspotting is the second film from acclaimed director Danny Boyle (who would go on to make films like 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and the very underrated Sunshine) it chronicles the life of heroin addicts in Edinburgh and is based off the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, and to say its representation of the characters lives is bleak is like saying that Kanye West is ‘a tad unstable’.

The title ‘Trainspotting’ apparently comes from both heroin addiction and trainspotting being hobbies that people don’t tend to understand; one of which means you lose your social life and all of your friends, and the other one involves taking heroin. I joke, of course, not even I would compare something as life-ruining and soul-destroying as trainspotting to a life of heroin addiction.

Okay, I think I’ve gotten enough mileage out of that joke now, a good reviewer might have even stopped at one poor and predictable joke, but you don’t come to me for good judgement, you come to me to find out whether I’m going to verbally assassinate a film, or lavish it in praise (or, indeed, anywhere in-between) and I will say that Trainspotting is incredibly effective.

There tends to be a school of thought regarding films that depict drug use that by merely featuring drugs, you’re effectively promoting it as a lifestyle, and when it comes to films like this, nothing could be further from the truth; Trainspotting makes a life of addiction look so bad that it should be screened in rehab centres, (on second thought, such a traumatising film might not be a good choice for recovering addicts) its version of life on drugs is so scarring that you’d rather mainline battery acid than heroin after watching it.

This isn’t to say that its bleak tone is a bad thing; on the contrary, it’s perhaps the starkest portrayal of addiction and abuse every put on screen, and its dark, grimy aesthetic does wonders for the atmosphere of the film. It’s darkly tragic, that’s for certain, but also there is an undercurrent of pitch-black humour to counter-balance the unpleasantness of some of the tragedy.

It is most certainly not a film for the faint of heart, and some parts could even qualify it as more of a horror film than a comedy film, the withdrawal scenes, in particular, are enough to turn your stomach and swear you off any vices for life at its brutally honest, yet simultaneously psychedelic visuals.

It managed to get into my head and affect me deeper than any horror film I have ever seen, and in one scene, in particular, left me with an image that will burn into my retinas until the day I die, as well as possibly give me a few sleepless nights, but I don’t mind that; because it’s honest, it’s brave and furthermore: it’s true.

There was no way that any of these characters were going to have a happy ending with the life choices they made (although there is a sequel, so they didn’t exactly have the worst ending either) and if they had then that might have justified some claims of glorifying drug use, but the reason why I don’t believe it does, in any way, is how it portrays the how the characters live, and the consequences of their actions.

Had the film been a funny film about heroin addicts getting stoned and getting up to hijinks, then yes, there would be cause for concern, but it isn’t, it shows the very worst of living that life, and it doesn’t sugarcoat a second of it. It is quite clear from the outset that this film is not glorifying the life of a heroin addict, but merely portraying it in such a realistic way that it acts as a warning to anyone considering it, showing the depths that you will go to if you do develop an addiction.

Danny Boyle is a director that I’ve admired for quite a while and this film is like an itemised list of all the reasons why. He’s daring, unflinching, and never afraid to show what many would shy away from showing to tell his stories, he’s inventive in the way he makes films, how he makes them feel, how they sound, and how they look, this film, in particular, seems to be put together to resemble the disjointed life of an addict in how it flits madly from one place to another, rarely stopping for breath, it’s a 90-minute film on a shoestring budget, and it’s one-hundred times more effective and memorable than most big-budget releases.

Another big reason for its success is its immensely talented cast. Lead by Ewan McGregor, who for someone early on in their career carries such a challenging part with effortless grace and magnetism. It also features several other names who would go on to bigger and better career roles, such as Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald (who made her debut in this film).

Another reason why I loved Trainspotting is because of its unapologetic portrayal of imperfect, fringe characters, in particular, its use of Scottish accents and dialects. A film feels more organic when it is a tale of people and places, and for the most part, we get generic characters from England in most British films, but I find that the cream of the crop comes when different sections of life are portrayed and portrayed honestly, and it doesn’t get much more honest than Trainspotting and its portrayal of life in Edinburgh for addicts. It is essential for the story to work, and it’s a brave move on the filmmakers part to potentially reduce the market of people who may be interested in the film.

Trainspotting is a product of a top-class British filmmaker, allowed to tell the story he wants to tell and in his way; it is definitely not for the weak at heart and can be terrifying on a completely different level to any horror film, because it’s a realistic terror, one that thousands, if not millions go through. That’s why I don’t mind that it may give me a few sleepless nights, it will stick with me for a long time, on the strength of its moral warning, and the images of the consequences of not heeding that warning.

If you or anyone you know is affected by substance abuse issues, these are some numbers to call for confidential help:

Narcotics Anonymous: 0300 999 1212 (UK)

Narcotics Anonymous: +1.818.773.9999 (US)

Information on local services can also be found at this website: https://www.talktofrank.com/get-help/find-support-near-you 

 

Space Jam Review

The Looney Tunes are practically animation royalty nowadays, they’ve been around since the 1930’s and generations of children have come to love Bugs, Daffy, and all the other wacky characters that make up the Looney Tunes roster. Their longevity is testament to their popularity, as there are still TV series running now that carry on the lineage of the Looney Tunes.

Their dalliance with feature-length films were exclusively compilations of classic cartoons up until the release of Space Jam in 1996, their first feature-length, single-narrative film, and there would only ever be another one after it, why is this? Well there could be a number of reasons, chief among them being the disappointing return of this film’s successor, Back in Action, which was only a fraction of the success that this film was (despite being, in my opinion, the better film).

So with the potential for nostalgia routinely warned, let’s dive into Space Jam.

Story

Legendary basketball player Michael Jordan announces his decision to retire from basketball, and transition into a baseball career, during this transition, he is unwittingly transported to the world of the Looney Tunes, where he gets caught up in an attempt to steal the Looney Tunes to be attractions at a failing amusement park.

Verdict

What I would really like to know is what sort of powerful drugs were going around the Warner Brothers writer’s room at the time of Space Jam.

What bold visionary said: ‘Hey, let’s do a Looney Tunes film, where Michael Jordan saves the world by being good at basketball.’ To which an entire room said: ‘Brilliant!’.

Strange, and somewhat jarring plot aside for a while, you really have to admire the sheer effort of combining the worlds of live-action and animation together in this film, at times it makes it look seamless, as if Michael Jordan is actually interacting with an anthropomorphic rabbit. Granted, there are times when it looks cheesy and out-of-place, specifically when any characters from the two worlds have to touch.

All in all it’s an inoffensive film, it doesn’t know what it wants to do at times, and flits wildly between whacky times in Toon-land and serious basketball players (who I assume are actually basketball players, as they act like they’re coming off seriously strong anaesthetic) in counselling due to them losing their powers after some tiny aliens stole it with a basketball. This plot gets weirder the more you talk about it doesn’t it?

Never is this frantic tone more evident than in the casting of Michael Jordan, look, I know Michael probably wasn’t trained at Julliard, but can anyone think of a single athlete that has transitioned into acting, and been good at it? In Jordan’s case it’s a definite no. He has the same delivery and expression for every emotion, like he’s reading from a teleprompter and he forgot to wear his glasses. It’s especially noticeable when he’s paired with actual actors, who make him look like a competition winner.

It really is shame as the animation is also extremely slick and stylised in that Looney Tunes way we’ve come to know and love. It is more in line with the house style than Back in Action would be, which focuses more on real-world interactions, most of this takes place within the world of the Looney Tunes, which works in its favour as anything is possible in Looney Tunes world, and the world outside just seems drab and dull, no scene better typifies this than the scene before Michael Jordan is taken to the cartoon world, in which our human characters play golf, not known for being the most exciting sport, a significant chunk of screen-time is devoted to this before the plot properly kicks in, and it really shows where the priorities truly lie.

In truth, I can’t stay particularly mad at this film. Sure, Michael Jordan’s acting is so awful it makes Sofia Coppolla look like Meryl Streep, and his basketball playing buddies fare even worse. But there are some fun moments with the Looney Tunes themselves, as well as a delightfully over-the-top Bill Murray at the peak of his Bill Murray-ness.

I can’t really recommend Space Jam on its merits as a film, if you’re about my age and remember it being a fun time as a kid, keep it as that memory, it will do you no favours re-watching it. Some things are best left in the 90’s.

Dolemite is My Name Review

I’d be the first person to admit that I neglect Netflix releases on this site. You’d think now would be the opportune time to catch up on its movements with most traditional releasing methods being barren, but I’ve been so busy catching up on old stuff I’ve had to watch on DVD or Blu-Ray that I’ve once again fallen behind on the streaming giants movements, and for that, I apologise.

Usually, when releases are coming thick and fast, I can justify turning a blind eye to things like Netflix or Prime, to be completely honest, when I put on Netflix, I do so when I’m relaxing in bed, so I’m rarely in the mood to watch something to review, but I haven’t looked at a Netflix film since Marriage Story (I think) and I’ve had this film on my list since it came out last year so here we go.

Eddie Murphy is an actor whose career seemingly went on ice at the turn of the last decade. After a couple of critical and commercial flops, he, like fellow SNL alum Mike Myers, seemed to disappear off the face of the earth, he only appeared in five projects throughout the 2010s and for a performer who was once so universally beloved, it was one hell of a fall from grace.

The film sees Murphy playing a struggling comedian (Rudy Ray Moore) in 1970’s Los Angeles. As his career as a stand-up stagnates, he becomes intrigued by raunchy, profane stories being retold by street poets and vagrants, weaving their many tales into a larger-than-life stage character; Dolemite. Initially met with opposition from traditional distributors, Dolemite nonetheless builds a large audience among the African-American community, and after initial successes, risks his success on a big-screen outing for his character.

Dolemite is My Name is very much Murphy’s ‘comeback’ performance. One that reminds us just how entertaining, charismatic, and at times, touching a performer he can be. It was the perfect project for him to come back swinging following a pretty dire few years (along with his career downturn, Murphy also lost his brother Charlie to leukaemia a few years ago) for the effervescent performer.

It is a film that both portrays and pays homage to, its subject matter in such a way that is loving, without being too reverential. I don’t think the film takes a particular opinion on the film that this film shows being made, but rather it tells the story of a man with a dream, who just wants to finish his movie because it’s something that he would want to see himself.

The pro’s and con’s of blaxploitation films are not for me to discuss, I am after all whiter than a polar bear in a glass of milk, it is not my place to talk of the ins-and-outs of such a divisive genre, but the film portrays it as serving a purpose. It appealed to black, typically working-class, audiences who didn’t get to see black stories as often, they may not seem particularly positive in modern eyes, but as this movie shows, there was a passionate audience for it.

The film is more or less built around its main character, or rather, it’s main performance, with Murphy giving a powerhouse performance that might be his best ever. It’s a role that seems like it was destined to be played by Murphy, allowing him to show off his considerable comedic talent, whilst also offering us glimpses into the more serious side of his skills, subtly telling the story of a man knocked back by rejection for his entire life, behind the facade of the braggadocios perpetuated by Dolemite is Rudy, the kid whose father told him he ‘wouldn’t be shit’ and who is desperately trying to prove his father wrong every day.

Murphy isn’t the only performer of note in the film, however, as it boasts a surprisingly loaded cast in supporting roles. Boasting such talent as Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, and Wesley Snipes, the film works hard to give each character something to work with, not always successfully I might add, some characters do feel a little anaemic and under-developed, but for the most part, the performers do a great job with what they have.

The two performances I especially appreciated were that of Wesley Snipes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph; the former plays a semi-recognisable character actor who gets roped into co-starring in the Dolemite movie, as well as directing it, with Snipes giving the character just the perfect amount of camp to make him notable next to Murphy’s show-stealing turn, and when they share the screen in makes for pure gold.

The latter is a much different character. Randolph plays a kind-of ‘protege’ of Rudy’s, a single mother, who crosses paths with the comedian when he witnesses her punching her cheating husband in the face before one of his gigs, immediately impressed he takes the shy, ordinary woman and turns her into a part of his show, giving her a new life, and fresh confidence as she performs with him on tour.

It’s the relationship between Dolemite and her character, Lady Reed, that really gives the film its heart for me. They share a few heartfelt moments that push the film from being a pure comedy film, driven by a classic Murphy performance, to a comedy with a touching dramatic edge, further driving home the narrative that Rudy was doing what he did for the people he cared about, and that’s no more evident than in the scenes he shares with Lady Reed.

I also really enjoyed the recreations of the film it was paying homage to, in some cases, reshooting the scenes from the original Dolemite movie frame-by-frame, as the pre-credits roll shows us; it adds to the loving pastiche the film has running through it to the genre it is trying to recreate, reproducing the original scenes for comic effect to show us, on one hand, how absurd it all was, and on the other, how much fun it was.

In conclusion then, a welcome return to film for Eddie Murphy who, with the right project, is still as entertaining as he ever was in his heyday. He might be getting on in years, but if anything that has just refined his on-screen persona, and has matured him to be able to deliver the few touching scenes that really set this film apart from his usual comic fare, as I said earlier, it might just be his greatest ever performance and maybe the start of a career renaissance, but it is definitely a welcome return to form.

Snowpiercer Review

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been on somewhat of a Korean cinema binge, off the back of one particular stunning film experience from one particular director from the East-Asian country, a certain Bong Joon-ho.

While Bong Joon-ho has been a popular director in his home country for some time, it was only really with Parasite that he broke into Western consciousness in anything even approaching a similar way. But it wasn’t his first taste of Western exposure, that came back in 2013.

Yes, the Korean auteur has indeed made a film in the West before (well, a Korea/Hollywood co-production, at the least) and it may not have been the greatest experience, by all accounts, with clashes with the film’s American producers being the long-lasting legacy of the production, which is a shame, because it’s a tremendously ambitious and well thought through concept, which is executed with Joon-ho’s typical flair and attention to detail, but we get ahead of ourselves.

It’s the year 2031, and planet Earth is in the throes of an apocalyptic Ice Age. All that remains of the human race all live on a train, which is constantly circumnavigation the globe. The train adheres to a strict class system, which sees the more fortunate people live lives of luxury in the front of the train, while the lower classes scramble to survive in the tail end, and in that tense and desperate atmosphere, revolt is inevitable.

It may be worth examining the problems between Joon-ho and the American distributors, to better understand why the release of Snowpiercer flew so far under the radar upon release, and why its existence is only now being re-evaluated in this post-Parasite world.

The American distribution of the film was bought in 2012 by The Weinstein Company. Now, anyone who has followed movie news over the past few years should know why this is bad news, given its disgraced former chief (who I shall not be acknowledged by name) and his subsequent imprisonment.

The said producer wanted widespread changes to the film’s final cut, so adamant that he wanted to cut 25 minutes of the film in favour of “more action”, and there is a popular story that has circulated far and wide about a particular ‘fishy’ shot, that Bong had to tell a little white lie to have included in the film.

Ultimately, after a long stalemate, and poor audience reception to the producer’s cut, Bong got his way and his ‘Director’s Cut’ of Snowpiercer was released… but with a catch. Possibly as punishment for daring to disagree with him, the producer pulled Snowpiercer from a nationwide release, restricting it to only selective cinemas, thus kneecapping any potential it may have had.

If we set aside this tale of producer pettiness and look at Snowpiercer with fresh eyes (which I always try and do) Is it an underappreciated gem? Well, yes, but I would also say that it isn’t Bong’s best film either.

As discussed previously, I’m no expert on his work, after seeing this I’ve seen a grand total of three of his films, but this film definitely sits at third place in terms of films of his I’ve watched; it’s definitely not back, and the concept and its execution is superb, it just didn’t grip me as Parasite and Mother did.

I reiterate though, it’s certainly a very good film, it feels like a fresh and new step in science fiction cinema, exploring a post-apocalypse scenario we haven’t seen that much of (an ice age) and combining it with Joon-ho’s typical eagle eye for class-based narratives gives you an incredibly combustible mix.

Yes, Joon-ho’s politics are writ large throughout this film, you could almost call it a director trademark at this point, to look at societies class systems and deconstruct them through his bleak visions.

Bleak is probably the optimal word for Snowpiercer, the situation of the tail-enders is one seemingly devoid of hope, they live dingy lives of scraping what they can together to survive, and when I say it’s ‘bleak’ I don’t mean that negatively at all; its bleakness gives it a unique and impressive atmosphere, it’s a film not scared to go beyond the typical Hollywood narratives of valiant heroes trying to create hope, instead it tells the story of a disparate group of people whose lack of hope means that they’re beyond caring about their fate. The abject misery of the film’s atmosphere is incredibly refreshing.

That last sentence might make me seem like I revel in the misfortune of others, but it’s true, in a world of torturous happy endings and virtuous leading characters, Snowpiercer is a breath of rancid, grimy, tail-end air.

The characters leading the revolt are not two-dimensional good guys, but rather a complex mix of those put down for so long and so low on hope that being beaten to death by the guards might seem like a relief, and the more you learn of the characters, the more you distrust them, you start to realise that in the situation they found themselves in, there is no place for heroes. A typical Hollywood hero in the situation these characters found themselves in would have been among the first to be killed, which gives all the ‘heroes’ we’re supposed to be rooting for a sharp edge of primal animalism that sees them gain the upper hand on their enemies (the guards) seemingly by just being more desperate and crazed than them.

There are a few sequences of pure cinematic genius also, not that we’d expect any less from Bong and his regular cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, whether that be the chaotic action sequences or the atmosphere-building of the enclosed living space scenes from the first act of the film, there are flashes of the genius we are used to from Joon-ho and Kyung-pyo.

Firstly, there’s an action sequence in the dark, shot entirely through night-vision and torchlight, giving a visceral and frantic feel to the scene, as the tail-enders claw their way forward through much better-equipped foes, as well as the juxtaposition in decadence between the front and tail sections, brilliantly showcased by a scene set in a classroom (where the teacher and students all have a kind of ‘Jonestown’ vibe about them and their adoration of their leader) as well as taking the journey through the multiple areas of the front-end, showing us the luxury enjoyed by a certain few, while a much larger group are eating each other further down the same train.

There was, however, moments that almost lost me in terms of the narrative, with the biggest culprit being an exchange of monologues towards the conclusion of the film that gives more context to the relationships shared in the tail-end. Its revelations come across as a bit contrived and spun together to force a further connection between characters who didn’t really need it. It is redeemed by the film’s climax though, which retains an unpredictable edge that was present throughout the film and dares to not further contrive a happy ending to a story that could never really have one logically.

The acting also enhances the experience, with Chris Evans giving a refined, almost introspective, performance as the leader of the revolt, Curtis. With brilliant supporting turns from talent such as Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris, this was a film with a talented cast that matched its potential for success, only to be let down by its petty, power-hungry producer steering it off a cliff at the box office.

For my money though, the highlight from an acting standpoint was Kang-ho Song, a regular collaborator of Bong Joon-ho’s who turned in the film’s most layered performance (in my opinion) as the security expert Namgoong Minsoo.

The fate of Snowpiercer makes me very sad; it’s an incredibly engrossing piece of science-fiction, tremendously acted and directed, whose failure stems from not a lack of quality, but a lack of interest from a backer who never really understood its appeal, and I’m certainly glad that it’s enjoying a resurgence and re-evaluation on the back of Parasite‘s success because it certainly deserves a second chance. It may not be the refined masterpiece that Parasite is, but it is an immensely enjoyable, if grim, cinematic experience.

 

Evolution of Animation: Part Two – Rise of Disney

So, when we left off last time, the studios had risen up to take charge of animation, and one man, in particular, had just had his most popular character ripped away from him by his studio, and that man would go on, to say the least, to achieve much success regardless.

Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5th 1901 to Elias and Flora Disney in Chicago, Illinois. Walt would develop a passion for drawing after moving to live on a farm in Missouri, with his first paid drawing job being for a retired local doctor, who paid him to draw his horse, from there he developed his skill by copying the front-page cartoons of the Appeals to Reason newspaper.

Often an underachieving student at school, Walt nonetheless took a correspondence course in cartooning. After moving back to Chicago with his family, Walt began putting his talents to use as the cartoonist of his school paper, frequently drawing patriotic pictures about World War I, which was still ongoing at the time.

On the back of World War I, Walt tried to enrol in the US Army by forging his birth certificate, and despite being unsuccessful, he did, however, join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, being shipped to France after the armistice was signed, and the war was over, his passion for art was not diminished during his service, however, as he decorated his ambulance with c cartoon, and had his work published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Returning to Missouri, he became an apprentice artist at Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, drawing commercial art for things such as advertising and catalogues, and it was at Pesmen-Rubin that he met his future long-time creative partner, and a key part of today’s narrative, Ub Iwerks.

It was Iwerks that Walt would turn to after his dismissal from the Oswald series, asking him to design some new characters, initially, none of his ideas caught Disney’s attention, soon inspiration was to strike Disney himself, as the idea for what would eventually become Mickey Mouse would come to him while on a train journey, and when Walt took his sketch to Iwerks, he refined it into the iconic character we know and love now.

Disney would form what would become The Walt Disney Company with his brother Roy in 1923, and would soon after hire Iwerks in 1924, who would subsequently almost entirely animate the popular Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series’ himself, including the seminal debut of the fledgeling studios newest mascot: Mickey Mouse.

Contrary to popular belief, Steamboat Willie was not the first appearance of the Mickey character, or rather, it was not the first film made by Disney to feature the character. The actual first short Mickey appeared in was a silent one called Plane Crazy, but both Plane Crazy and its follow-up The Gallopin’ Gaucho failed to find a distributor.

In actuality then, Steamboat may not have been the first produced, but it was the first released. It was also a drastic change from Crazy and Gaucho, as it featured synchronized sound, this followed the massive success of The Jazz Singer, which proved that sound in film was the future and that there was no going back.

Steamboat Willie found distribution through Pat Powers, a former executive at Universal Pictures, whose new company Cinephone were behind the new boom in sound in pictures.

Walt’s short animations soon became a roaring success, and Mickey Mouse was almost instantly thrown into the cultural zeitgeist, but to say Walt was the only architect of this early success would be highly unfair and inaccurate, as there were many brilliant minds behind each new cartoon.

Firstly there was Iwerks, still at this point being the leading animator for Disney, and then there was Carl Stalling, a composer who was hired by Walt as a way of improving the quality of the music in the animations.

It was on Stalling’s suggestion that Walt Disney produced the Silly Symphonies series, the first release of which was The Skeleton Dance, released the year after Steamboat Willie, it was wholly animated by Iwerks, and scored by Stalling.

Silly Symphonies would become one of Disney’s most enduring series of shorts, running for over a decade. It would win the studio seven Academy Awards for Best Animated Short during its run, and included such classics of the genre as Three Little Pigs, The Night Before Christmas and Who Killed Cock Robin? It was also during this series that the iconic Donald Duck character would be introduced.

Despite the studios, ongoing successes, not all was well between Disney and his associates. Disney and Iwerks had a falling out over Walt’s dictatorial running of his business, with Iwerks signing with one of Walt’s competitors, and Carl Stalling followed not long after, convinced that without Iwerks, Disney would go bankrupt.

This belief was perhaps not an unfounded one, as the studio was struggling financially at the time, with inadequate support from its distributors, and Walt’s request for more financial support being denied, the future looked bleak.

Far from being the end of the story, however, things would soon look a lot brighter for Walt and his company, as they signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures, under this deal, the Mickey Mouse cartoons grew even more in popularity, even starting to get a foothold internationally. Instead of the future being that of doom and gloom as prophesied by Stalling, Disney was about to enter a golden age.

Things started to look even rosier in 1932 (quite literally) with the release of Flowers and Trees, the first cartoon (and the first commercially released film, full stop) released in three-strip Technicolor. In an ingenious move by Walt Disney, he signed a contract with Technicolor which gave him the exclusive rights to use the three-strip technology for at least three years, giving him a significant leg up on the competition, what’s more, Flowers and Trees was a big hit with audiences and critics alike and earned Walt another Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon).

The commercial and critical success would only grow the following year with the release of The Three Little Pigs. Not only was the short itself a massive hit with audiences, but it also produced Disney’s first hit song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?’.

The song became a big hit in its time and was used as a sort of anthem against The Great Depression, which still laid thick over America’s economy, and would later be used as an unlikely war favourite, in the years both proceeding and during World War II.

Three Little Pigs ran in some theatres for months after its debut such was its popularity, and its success was key in Walt’s establishment of a ‘story department’ founded to tell gripping stories that would make an audience further invest into his cartoons.

But, before long Walt grew tired of producing formulaic short films, he was a man of ambition, of vision, and he believed that there were more profitable avenues to take advantage of. He wanted something that few believed could ever truly be done, to the extent that many had, once again, predicted his financial bankruptcy, the project was nicknamed “Disney’s Folly” by many sceptics, in fact.

He wanted to create a feature-length animation, in full sound and colour, he was, not for the first or the last time, going all-in on an unprecedented gamble, and his entire company’s future relied on its success…

New Podcast Episode! Korean Cinema and lots more!

Hello all!

Episode 2 of the Major Film Reviews Podcast is now available everywhere where podcasts are uploaded (it can be found here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/257601/episodes/4473053 or on most other platforms) as well as on YouTube via the following link:

 

I will also upload the audio file onto the sidebar at a later date, as I usually do after it’s been up on the usual platforms first.

Special thanks once again to my co-host Angel, for providing more in-depth insight on the Korean culture. I hope you all enjoy listening to it.

Hamilton Review

I actually wrestled with reviewing this when I went to see the show in London last year, but after much thought, I decided that my critical qualifications are stretched to their limits enough when I cover films, and extending it to potentially annoy the theatre world too might just be pushing my luck too far; after all, I know what a ruthless bunch musical theatre people can be, you’d find my body down an alleyway covered in glitter and doing jazz hands before you could say ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.

I joke in my usually lovable way, as I’ve been involved myself in musical theatre myself for a good while now, so I know that some people involved are not only ruthless, but they’re respectful too, especially the mythical creatures known as ‘stage managers’.

Yes, we’re skirting around the parameters of film today, as we look at a live recording of the musical phenomenon Hamilton, which was released on Disney+ last Friday to an overwhelmingly positive response.

Now, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, I’ve actually had the pleasure of seeing Hamilton in person, so I already knew I was in for a treat, and more importantly for the context of this review, I was already a fan of Hamilton, making my decision to review it a potentially perilous one; do I jeopardise my critical integrity (perish the thought) and write a fawning review of the work as a whole, or do I focus on its merits as a film, and compare it to similar live recordings of musicals?

Well, after some thought, I thought I’d go down the latter path. Firstly because it would be incredibly redundant to heap praise upon a show that is fast becoming a cultural touchstone, and a legitimate theatrical revolution, but mainly because my site is dedicated to film reviews, in fact, it’s in the name of the site, so focusing on the film aspects of this release is, in my opinion, the best way to go about things. It may result in a shorter review than usual, given that I am not going to explore the production as a whole, so I’m going to try and make the most of what I have.

But, to say I will ignore the productions overall merits would do it a disservice, so let’s get the overawing praise for Hamilton‘s distinctions out of the way quickly so I can get to the nub of the matter.

Hamilton is, and I know I’ve used this word already, a revolution in musical theatre, as well as a revelation. A breath of fresh air for casual, or die-hard, Broadway fans, it infuses hip-hop, jazz, and traditional musical theatre into an awe-inspiringly polished package. I said when I saw it in London that it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre (for context, I’ve seen my share of musicals, although not a massive number) and I stand by that. It is, in itself, both historic AND historical, telling the tale of America’s independence through a previously overlooked man’s standpoint, and it does this by reflecting everything America is (or rather, could be) today; vibrant, diverse and cutting edge.

Its soundtrack has become a work of great cultural significance in itself, one that can be enjoyed freely without the context of the show, but is only enhanced further by experiencing it in person. You can follow the story through the album and picture the show in your head well enough, but it is only through seeing the ingenious staging and incredible choreography in person that it all comes together as a complete, nearly perfect, package.

So, all that being said, let’s move on to the ‘film’ aspect of Hamilton.

There has been a pleasing trend in recent years of filming live musicals in a more cinematic manner, utilising crane shots and close-ups to fully utilise the best of both the film world and the theatre world into one package. While previous attempts at recording live theatre shows have had a tendency to be rather dry affairs, just documenting the action from afar with multiple cameras, this newer approach really helps with replicating the immersion you would feel at the theatre.

Good examples of this practice would be the Miss Saigon recording from a few years ago (which is also recommended viewing) as well as the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie recording that has played in cinemas a few times over the last few years, and now we can add Hamilton to that list.

Its camerawork is slick and doesn’t feel too intrusive on the overall experience, which is another key component to successfully recording a theatrical performance, I don’t want the filing to seem like it’s getting in the way of the performance.

It’s also not to overactive, as on the other side of the scale, some similar films can suffer from too many camera cuts, making the presentation feel hyperactive; I like a few cinematic touches to my theatrical recordings, but I also want it to know when to settle into an angle and just show us what’s happening, and Hamilton finds just the right balance between the two.

The cinematic flair is best seen in some of the smaller character moments, utilising techniques like close-ups that show the emotion in a characters face, a touch that can be lost from general theatre to a lot of the audience, in this respect, it’s using the best techniques of film to enhance its presence as a stage show, and a film in itself, without stepping over the mark of being too cinematic, so we still feel like we’re watching a stage show.

One of the things that worried me about Disney’s acquisition of the rights to this film was in how they might censor it. For those unfamiliar with the show, Hamilton does have uses of strong language and sexual themes, a big no-no for a Disney production, in other words. I worried that the need to appear on such a family-friendly platform might result in the film being carved up to be acceptable to Disney’s image.

I’m happy to report that my fears weren’t realised, and the censorship doesn’t just leave the production intact, in fact, it’s barely noticeable at all. There was a potential for any changes to be intrusive to the ‘flow’ of the show, given that it’s ‘sung-through’ (there is no dialogue, it’s all sung/rapped) but only in one moment did I actually notice that anything had been cut out, and while it was obvious, it didn’t harm the flow of the song.

Another tiny issue I had with the translation to film was that the music underneath the singing/rapping was mixed very quietly, the vocals were as clear as a bell, and were incredibly capture, but the music underneath it occasionally got lost in the shuffle, and while I’m sure this won’t be an issue to most, I’m sure the seasoned Hamilton veteran will notice what I’m talking about.

It appears that I was also wrong to be worried about this review ending up being shorter than usual, as I managed to find enough to talk about to fill out my usual review length, and it could have been much longer too, had I completely let myself get lost in singing the show’s praises, but I’m sure many readers will be glad of the restraint, as me talking up Hamilton‘s virtues might have stretched into a few thousand words.

Even if you don’t think it’ll be your thing, you owe it to yourself to watch Hamilton, as an important lesson of history and a show of unity in all the world can be if we embrace our differences, it is a true phenomenon, and I’m so glad that millions more now have the chance to experience it.

Before I sign off on this review, I would like, if I may, to talk frankly about the current state of the arts in the situation we find ourselves in.

Every time you turn on your TV, or put on a DVD, or listen to the radio, you’re experiencing the work of an artist. A work that may have taken years of their life, and may enrich yours no end. Right now, as the world struggles through a crisis and we all have to face widespread changes, artists are really struggling.

Here in the U.K. no government support has (at time of writing) been given to the arts, and many theatres, music venues, and maybe even cinemas, face financial peril, or perhaps even total closure; and not everyone working in these industries have made millions from their professional lives, there are performers, backstage crew and many other professions tied into the arts whose job prospects have evaporated, and they do a job that enriches thousands, if not millions, of lives.

So, I ask that you spare a thought for artists, for actors, directors, musicians, and even the cleaners that make up the wonderful world of arts and culture. Without them, our TVs would be blank, our radios silent, and our cinemas bare; so sign petitions, donate to appeals if you can, because if we lose the arts, then the battle against COVID-19 isn’t really worth it would partially be lost, as we’d lose something that is really worth fighting for. Thank you.

Four Corners

Consciousness was returning, they opened their eyes to blinding lights and thumping heads. Questions were all swimming in their minds, barely formed but still there, as their vision adjusted to the brightly lit room, and the dull thump in their heads subdued.

 

There were four in total. All were gagged, so they couldn’t cry for help, two had their legs bound together, they occupied opposite corners of the room, one of them was still stirring from their enforced snooze; I could only watch once more as these four proverbial lambs to the slaughter blinked themselves awake, unaware of what was to come, my stomach turned in a familiar way, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

 

The two whose legs weren’t bound instead had their arms tied together, rendering each one of the four as theoretically as inhibited as the rest. I say theoretically because they were always the ones who came out best in these… I don’t even know what to call them, experiments, maybe? Punishments? Well, that remained to be seen.

 

I was merely an observer, a junior member of the House of Justice, working directly under the man in charge of what was about to happen, Dr Steven Fields. During my studies I admired Dr Fields, maybe even idolised him to a degree, now I wasn’t so sure.

 

There exists a side of everyone’s personality that only emerges once they gain power. It warps even the finest minds from reason to tyranny, and that was the case for Dr Fields. He had been revered in his field (no pun intended) for years for his cutting-edge research into criminology, but one study, in particular, landed him here, at this very moment, about to speak over an intercom to four very confused, and very frightened, men.

 

‘Good afternoon. You have all been selected as subjects in a House of Justice procedure. Three of you were chosen at random from our international database, however, one of you has been chosen deliberately. This is because that person is guilty of the following crimes: murder, sexual assault, attempted murder, and torture. Only the guilty party in that room knows who they are, and you are all at an equal disadvantage. Unfortunately, only one of you will be allowed to walk free. You will receive no help, and no supplies, the only way you leave here, is as the last man alive in that chamber, good luck.’

 

There’s always a look of pure fear in the few seconds following this announcement as they struggle to comprehend what’s going on, a momentary glance of hopelessness before the human survival instinct kicks in. Every time Dr Fields finished his speech, he always wears a wry smile, and I hope in my heart of hearts, that he isn’t smiling at their hopelessness, but alas, my brain cannot allow me to draw any other conclusion.

 

Some of the other observers occasionally had bets on which subject would survive, which is as barbaric as it sounds, but quite frankly, we need the distraction to get us through, and this time, there was no second-guessing who would be the first to go.

 

In the far corner of the room from the observation window was a scrawny looking man, squinting into the light, almost in the foetal position. I don’t know if this made him look weak or guilty, but his physical shortcomings were noted by the staff, who unanimously had him down as the first to die, and what’s worse, he had his legs tied together.

 

Despite his arms being free, something told us all that they wouldn’t be any use either defensively or offensively, they had the thickness and definition of pipe cleaners, and his hands were more bone than skin; in fact, he was generally a bag of bones, his skin almost translucent, he resembled someone who had already died of hunger, rather than someone who was about to die from major trauma.

 

As soon as the hopelessness left the other three men’s eyes, they also clocked the weakling in the room, and no sooner had the pathetic withering looks subsided that they had been replaced by desperate rage.

 

A flurry of limbs swarmed towards his corner, the last image I had of his face was a silent scream of horror (we can see them, but we can’t hear them. Apparently, this is to stop us hearing their pleas for help) as he disappeared beneath a blur of arms and legs. An intense concentration of energy dedicated to stamping and punching this defenceless man’s life away.

 

After a few moments of this frenzied attack, the remaining three peeled away, revealing what was left of the first victim, to my horror I saw that there wasn’t much left at all.

 

His head was split open and resembled a watermelon dropped from a five-story building; his arms bent away from his face at strange angles, the only evidence that he had put up any sort of defence. One of his hands hung by a mere few threads of skin to his hopelessly broken arm. He hadn’t stood a chance.

 

After the remaining three had regrouped briefly, sucking in great lungsful of air they had just used before meeting in a fresh clump of limbs in the middle of the room. It was a horrifying sight, seeing the fear in their eyes as they swung away with whatever limbs they had free. A horrible sight yes, but also darkly intriguing, as these ‘procedures’ were designed to be.

 

The chief aim of these brutal shows of the very worst human behaviour is apparently of science, to: ‘observe the survival instincts, and righteous sense of justice in humans’ to quote directly from the manual we were given to read upon induction.

 

Dr Fields had theorised that humans as a race were getting too dependant on technology, and were losing their will and need to survive, upon being promoted to head of the House of Justice, he proposed the basis for what would become what I was now witnessing.

 

His proposal had started out as being taking four criminals and granting the survivor freedom, but this was seen as unfair, as it would potentially release a dangerous offender back onto the streets, so the idea was changed to just include one criminal, and three potentially innocent men, that way there’s significantly less chance that a criminal would need to be released.

 

Of course, this forgets that at least two innocent lives would be lost, but at this point, that was barely a concern to Dr Fields, or the powers under whom he served, who viewed a ‘pruning’ of their population to be a good idea, given the overpopulation we are currently facing.

 

My mind tends to drift during the actual ‘procedures’ as a way to distract my brain from what it has to process, and I was trying very hard to distract myself from the images I had already seen, by the time my focus was back in the room, we were down to two.

 

One of the ‘subjects’, a heavier-set man who had his hands bound had strangled another with his bindings, before laying in a few stamps, just to make sure the job was done. As this was happening, the other remaining man had retreated to a corner and has successfully managed to free himself from his leg restraints while his one remaining competitor was occupied with finishing off his victim.

 

Now completely unrestrained, he went on the attack, aiming directly for the legs of his foe, his quite considerable weight came crashing down, right in front of our observation window, and like a hungry hyena stalking their prey on the Serengeti, he pounced.

 

Jumping on the last remaining body standing in his way of freedom with both feet with a maniacal look in his eye, he went in for the kill, with each jump, a new splatter of blood would shoot from underneath him, covering himself, and our window. Deep red streams of blood obscured our view, trickling down painfully slowly, the more it slid down, the more it revealed the crimson-soaked face of our victor, wiping the thick plasma from his eyes he finally stopped. I could swear I saw a smile emerge on his face as he dropped to his knees, his arms stretched out in thanks, we had our last man standing.

 

Soon, the man was being led out of the room, and through the observation suite. The cleanup team started their work, manoeuvring empty broken shells that were once bodies onto a trolley, ready for disposal. The victor was sat, exhausted, and still coated in three other people’s blood with a towel draped over his shoulders also turning red.

 

He looked up, directly at me, right into my eyes, into my soul. A shiver ran down my spine. Through a face of pure red, a twisted smile began to form, looking at me with piercing eyes, bright blue islands in the middle of a crimson sea, he chuckled darkly to himself, and in the pit of my stomach, I knew the wrong man had won. No justice had been done that day.