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.

 

 

Mother Review

I know what you’re thinking, and no, this isn’t a review of the 2017 Darren Aronofsky horror that split audiences, it’s a review of the 2009 South Korean film written and directed by the current talk of Hollywood; Bong Joon-ho.

Joon-ho has long been acclaimed in his home country, as much as it may surprise many people, there are many flourishing film industries outside of the Western world, and South Korea is no different; in fact, Joon-ho has been somewhat of a golden child of Korean cinema for nearly two decades, ever since his break-out film, 2003’s Memories of Murder, he’s been a solid fixture of Korean cinema.

I’m not going to sit here and try and make out like I’m some kind of fountain of Korean cinema (or any foreign cinema) knowledge. Like many people, my introduction to Bon Joon-ho came with Parasite earlier this year, all the rest I’ve found out through subsequent research after his awards sweep earlier in the year, I was keen to learn more, and more importantly watch more, of this auteurs works, and open myself to more foreign works in general.

Since then, I have watched and reviewed Train to Busan, another recent Korean success, and now I’ve taken my first look into Bong Joon-ho’s back catalogue, namely his 2009 crime thriller Mother.

In a small South Korean town, a widow lives with her intellectually challenged son, when a young woman is found murdered, suspicions immediately fall on the son, leading the mother on a quest to clear her son’s name.

People fresh out of Parasite might appreciate this film more than newcomers to Joon-ho’s work, as it shares a lot of similar DNA. A slowly building intrigue, and a sudden and unexpected twist that turns the narrative on its head both feature, as do portrayals of the social and economic class divide in Korean society, which may help endear the characters to Western audiences, as we realise that they aren’t as different as perhaps we first thought.

This was equally present in Parasite, the feeling that we’re being shown people’s way of life, as opposed to just introducing us to characters, it shows us the world which they occupy, which is an interesting watch as an outsider; maybe it isn’t something a Korean native would pick up on, as they’re used to it, but as a foreigner, seeing the cultural differences in how we live only immerses me more in the story.

So, with a world successfully created, Joon-ho then fills it with characters, all of which serve their own purposes, and are all infused with a very dark sense of humour and drama. There are certainly a lot of darker undertones lying beneath his works, sometimes played up for humour and at other times used to heighten dramatic impact.

There aren’t a lot of typically likeable characters in Mother, that I will say. There are characters you sympathise with, namely the titular Mother, and her son, but they are all also deeply flawed, or in some cases, just plain terrible people.

This gives us a wide range of character motivations and depth of personality. By not earmarking any character as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but showing us their different flaws, or ‘shades of grey’ as some might put it, you make them a lot more human and relatable, and thus make the story have more impact, as we recognise the shortfalls of human behaviour.

The story is also fairly involved, it twists and turns, staggering out its narrative revelations at just the right place to not lose its audience with too slow a pace, but without also giving the game away too early. Like Parasite (I promise I’m going to try and stop comparing them) it’s on a slow burn, not as slow, but just as engrossing, as the audience is led to believe one thing, only to have the rug pulled from under it two scenes later.

Its ultimate twist is also pretty much perfectly handled, in how it wrong-foots the audience into believing one thing when in actuality the opposite is true. In this case, the film openly feeds you the wrong information at first, under the pretence of the protagonist being unreliable, to make that final reveal all the more of a shock.

Of course, in cases like this, comparisons are always going to be made with the more seminal work, which is why I’ve brought up Parasite so much, it’s because this feels like a test of that formula, just with different plot points. They both left me with a feeling of satisfaction. Like no stone had been left unturned, and every part of the story linked up seamlessly, the work of a true master, I was especially impressed at how he made even something that seemed strange at the time link up to the final story, drawing parallels between the very first and last scene, in an effortless callback that made me feel satisfied for having watched through the narrative, it’s a strange one to explain, so it’s best to just watch the film to see what I mean.

Mother not only shares its writer/director with this year’s Best Picture winner but also its cinematographer, which explains a lot, as the camera-work is just as seamless as in Parasite, using a grimy aesthetic to portray life in a lower social class in much the same way, and with deliberate callbacks to previous scenes, the cinematography has to be pitch-perfect to achieve the desired effect, which it is, the camera is used in its full effect to show the juxtapositions of life in this town, from the tight, claustrophobic settings of the houses and shacks, to the lush, bright countryside that is occasionally visited.

The acting is also of a ridiculously high standard, with the stand-out being Kim Hye-ja, who plays the title character, she’s a potent mix of emotions, and can best be described as ‘desperate’. She’s desperate for her son, for him to have not done the crime in the first place, and for him to be released, she’s also financially desperate, seen as scraping together whatever she can to help clear her family’s name, there are also some extremely dark revelations about her past that reveal the true extent of her desperation, and all of the peaks and troughs of her character, grieving to vengeful, are carried off effortlessly by the actress portraying her.

By way of criticism, there is very little I can find wrong with the film from a functional level, on a matter of personal preference, I thought the use of the son’s intellectual disability could have been used more sensitively. I understand its use, and even some of the situations it might lead to, but some of its uses did make me feel very uncomfortable while watching, which I’m willing to put down to cultural differences, I don’t know how these things might be handled differently, but as far as things I didn’t like, that’s probably my main issue.

In summary, then, glimpses of everything Parasite would one day be have been evident in Bong Joon-ho’s work for a long time, and this shows that he is far more than a one-trick pony. I do hope he can continue to work in the spotlight, but still maintain his own control, as he seems to be unparalleled in modern cinema in terms of craftsmanship and storytelling, and this film has done nothing to dim my view of his work, in fact, it may have enhanced it even more. I wait with bated breath to see whatever his next project might be.

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut Review

South Park was a natural escalation in the increasing trend of animation aimed towards adults. What the Simpsons had started in 1989 had been slowly building throughout the 90’s series such as Beavis and Butthead took the prerogative, but it wasn’t until South Park that the escalation reached its peak.

Challenging taboo will always have a shelf life, as it is only ever a taboo for so long, then it becomes just another thing, and South Park knew this, and it challenged every social norm it possibly could, riling people up every week with its irreverent humour, and it still does to this day twenty-two seasons in.

By comparison; Bigger, Longer and Uncut was early into South Park’s life, coming out during the third season of the show, it had not yet hit its stride as the right-wing reactionary news bait it would become in years to come, and the film took aim at those very same reactionaries in the only way they knew how by making them look as stupid as possible.

Story

After the release of a new Terrance and Phillip movie corrupts the minds of the children of South Park, their mothers force the U.S. into a war with Canada, and arrest Terrance and Phillip as war criminals, do so will have dire consequences, however, as if they are killed, Satan and Saddam Hussein will rise from hell and conquer Earth.

Verdict

I’m not the biggest South Park fan in the world, I think some episodes are fantastic satires, and there is no better series for pushing boundaries, but I find some of its humour juvenile (deliberately so, I’m aware) and sometimes a tad preachy, but the movie version is a perfectly balanced gem of a film.

Yes there are still fart jokes, yes Kenny dies a completely predictable death (again) but for its incredible resolve in making a point in as hilarious a way as possible, it casts its net wide and catches itself a whopper.

What sets it apart from the series is in the catchy and witty soundtrack, one of the most surprising musical films of all time, whoever expected South Park to become a musical? Well, Matt and Trey must have gotten a taste for the musical after this, judging by their future work on Book of Mormon, and the early roots of that are evident here, with jaunty tunes such as ‘Uncle Fucka’ and ‘Blame Canada’ (which was nominated for an Oscar) it’s the perfect bow on top of the well-wrapped parcel that is this film.

The fact that this film is pretty much just a massive middle finger to all the series’ critics over the years does not go unnoticed, as they skewer the hypocrisy of right-wing moral panic (my particular favourite line is ‘violence is okay, as long as no-one uses any bad words’) that had savaged their show since the start, and they go out of their way to show them as being massive fools, this whole film is a protest in itself of censorship, perfectly paralleling the plot of the movie shows it to be smarter than first thought.

So with whip-sharp wit, hilarious and catchy soundtrack, the film combines this with stellar voice performances from the usual cast (most characters are voiced by the series creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker) with just two people making different kid voices, they create several distinctive personalities that carry over from the show wonderfully.

In conclusion then, while South Park is not for everyone, it’ foul-mouthed and occasionally mean-spirited, its film is a shining example of both satire, and adult animation, challenging boundaries with humour and wit, it still holds up as a high watermark for the series.

Obituary: Carl Reiner

I’m hoping this doesn’t become too regular a feature…

It seems that we are almost numb to death right now, what with the world in the grip of a worldwide pandemic that has claimed more than half a million lives, we are used to hearing a daily death toll on the news, so news of individual deaths sometimes slip through the cracks; this was the case with Joel Schumacher last week, and now with legendary writer and comedian Carl Reiner.

Reiner certainly lived a full life, he passed away two days ago at the grand old age of 98 and was one of the last few of his generations comedic greats. He was active right up until the end, last appearing in last year’s Toy Story 4 as a toy rhino, as well as being one of the oldest active Twitter users.

He came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s, writing and performing for shows such as Caeser’s Hour and The Dick Van Dyke Show, for which he was also the creator and producer.

He is, however, perhaps best known for his partnership with fellow comedic great Mel Brooks, their ‘2000 Year Old Man’ routines that saw Reiner play straight man to Brooks’ ridiculously old character are seminal works of absurd, wacky comedy, and the routine endured through forty years, seeing the last recorded release in 1997.

Off-screen, the two were just as close. The thing that always sticks in my mind about Brooks and Reiner is the friendship they had in their twilight years. After they both became widowers, the two would frequently visit each other and watch movies together, to ward off loneliness, a tremendously sad, yet simultaneously touching story.

Reiner’s legacy endures through his son, acclaimed director Rob Reiner (the man behind such works as Stand By Me and A Few Good Men) but Carl was no stranger to Hollywood either, as an actor (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Ocean’s Eleven) or as a director (Where’s Poppa?, The Jerk) leaving behind a mountain of work that will stand as a testament to the brilliant comedic mind he possessed.

As a long-time Mel Brooks fan, the name Carl Reiner was unquestionably linked to Brooks’ and through his work with the mind behind The Producers and on his own, Reiner secured an unthinkable legacy, built on nearly seventy years of pushing the envelope and making us all laugh.

If laughter is your legacy, you’ve lived a good life.

A Look Back at June

Well, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

With more businesses starting to re-open, cinemas appear to be starting to join them. My local cinema (a Cineworld, with whom I have an Unlimited card) first announced they would be opening on July 10th, but this has been pushed back to the 31st, here’s an image that expresses my feelings about this:

waiting.jpg

I jest, of course, with everything going on, re-opening cinemas seem to be very low down on the priority list, and it’s not as if there isn’t an abundance of streaming sites to mine for old favourites and hidden gems.

I haven’t actually reviewed a film in a few weeks, I’ve been doing other things to keep my website running, including starting a new regular series on the history of animation (Evolution of Animation) but I will be reviewing some more films in the coming weeks, including the Trainspotting films, and I’m going to watch the Netflix Eurovision film, probably behind my fingers, but I’ll take new releases where I can.

Film of the Month: Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Directed by Denis Villeneuve

I missed this long-awaited sequel during its cinematic run, and after taking a look at the original earlier this month, I thought it was the best time to fill that gap, and I really wasn’t disappointed.

Given the talent both in front and behind the camera, I really shouldn’t have been surprised, but when a franchise has been in hibernation for over three decades, a cautious approach is always advised, but this film was well worth the wait.

Another film worthy of note was Train To Busan, which I also reviewed this month, ahead of discussing Korean films on my podcast, after the effect Parasite had on me, I’m much more receptive of foreign cinema, and I’ve been especially impressed by what I’ve seen of Korea’s output, but for more on that on July’s Major Film Reviews Podcast…

Evolution of Animation: Part One – The Early Years

While I do love reviewing films, I must admit that my motivation to do so from home has started to sag, resulting in me branching out into writing more about other subjects within the film world, the success of my Harry Potter and Robin Williams list formats tells me that there is an audience for that, but I thought I’d mix it up this time, to differentiate myself from every other ‘list’ site on the world wide web.

Animation is a subject I’ve gone to bat for on many an occasion, and subsequently, it’s a subject I have studied closely over the last few years, both academically and in my free time. It’s a subject with many layers and interesting stories surrounding it, and in this series, I aim to cover the basics, the stories of how the genre came to be, and its trials and tribulations over more than a century. It will not be exhaustive, firstly because an exhaustive account would take many months if not years, and may not be interesting to read for a casual reader, and secondly, and most selfishly, I may one day write about this subject in my studies, and I don’t want to be accused of copying old work.

Nowadays, it is not uncommon for an animated film to pass one billion dollars in box office revenue, to date, ten films have made it into the nine-figure revenue ballpark. Which with the hindsight of where animation started is remarkable, as for many years, the animation was merely a side-show, a short feature before the main feature, not to say they weren’t successful, and indeed, many people went to the cinema to see these shorts just as much as the features after them, but we get ahead of ourselves.

Drawings made to portray movement have been around for as long as there has been art, tracing right back to palaeolithic cave drawings there have been examples of sequential artworks arranged in such a way that mirrors the process of movement, animals would be painted with multiple limbs as if to represent its fast movement, so it can be argued that the primordial soup that birthed animation has existed for millions of years. This is, of course, an arguable point, as these drawings have very little in common with how animation is actually drawn, but it shows the earliest human attempts to simulate lifelike activities through drawing.

There are many early ancestors to what we now know as animation, from rotating Chinese lamps that portray shadows of galloping horses to the ‘Magic Lantern’ invented by Christiaan Huygens, which incorporated drawings on slides of glass to give the illusion of people, or objects, moving.

The earliest example of what we would now recognise as an animated film was first publically shown by Charles-Émile Reynaud (who had previously invented a device called a ‘praxinoscope’ which could also be considered an early form of animation) titled Pauvre Pierrot, it was shown using a device called Théâtre Optique, an invention that used hand-painted slides of glass, in a much similar way to how animation would be made for many decades to come.

A big name in early animation history is one Winsor McCay, a vaudeville performer and cartoonist, whose film Little Nemo (no relation to Disney/Pixar’s clownfish character) added a lot more depth to animation, he would later further exemplify his abilities with films such as Gertie the Dinosaur, which he would use in his vaudeville act, seemingly interacting with the titular dinosaur, in what must have been a revolutionary innovation at the time.

Arguably, McCay’s most historically significant work was his 1918 propaganda film The Sinking of the Lusitania, possibly the first animated documentary, it portrays the titular ship being sunk by a German u-boat, the event that was the catalyst for America’s involvement in the First World War.

It was one of the longest animation works of its time, clocking in at twelve minutes, at a time when the average was 5-7 minutes, the film took 22 months to complete and utilised the new cel-based method of drawing that would be prevealnat in animation for many years, it is arguably the earliest animated work of historical importance beyond the sphere of film itself, as an early example of how animation can be used as propaganda, something that would be taken advantage of the next time the world was at war.

It was around this time that some of the studios that would become synonymous with the art form started to pop up, most significant of which was Fleischer Studios, headed by Max Fleischer, from whom the studio took its name.

Max, and his studio, were most significant to the over-arching narrative because of his invention the Rotoscope, which allowed live-action recordings to be easily used as reference point for more realistic animation, an early success of Rotoscoping was the Out of the Inkwell series that ran between the years of 1921 and 1925, and also the character of Koko the Clown, portrayed by Max’s brother Dave.

As the 20’s rolled on, animation was typified by a series of tentpole recurring characters, chief among these were the aforementioned Koko, as well as Felix the Cat, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Felix in particular is one of the best examples of early animation, at one time one of the most recognisable characters in the world, and the first animated character to be merchandised, he belonged to Pat Sullivan Studios (and were distributed by Paramount) and is an example of an early lack of regulation when it came to character authorship.

You see, at this time, no matter who originally drew the character (in the case of Felix, it was Otto Messmer), the studio head got the credit for the work, and inevitably, the rights of the character, this proves a key catalyst for introducing arguably the biggest player in animation history.

In Hollywood, another character was gaining popularity, a character I mentioned earlier as an example of ‘tentpole’ cartoon characters. His name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, his disgruntled creator who had just lost the rights to his creation, and much of his staff, would go on to build an empire of such proportions that his name would be forever linked with the genre of animation.

After a deal to continue the Oswald series fell through, Charles Mintz took ownership of the character, leaving its creator without his most familiar character, and all but one of his key co-creators. This mans name? Walter Elias Disney…

 

Next time in ‘Evolution of Animation’ I’ll take a look at the rise of Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the first feature-length animated films…

Obituary: Joel Schumacher

Somewhat lost amongst the latest comings-and-goings of that pesky COVID thing that seems to be engulfing the planet was the news of the death of one of Hollywood’s biggest characters; Director and former costume designer, Joel Schumacher.

While Ian Holm’s sad passing made top headlines, Schumacher’s passing went pretty much unmentioned, in fact, his death didn’t even make the top half of BBC News’ ‘Arts & Entertainment’ section, something which I felt was somewhat unfair.

Like many critics before me, and almost certainly, many after me, I have railed against some of Schumacher’s works, namely his work on the Batman series that so tainted the hero for almost a decade, but nonetheless I see an undercurrent of fun that the films were aiming for, no matter how far they may have missed their intended mark, you can’t deny that watching Batman & Robin has a similar charm to watching The Room, best enjoyed with a large group of people loudly guffawing at how terrible it is, yet still, so how, still having fun.

That’s what I feel will be Schumacher’s greatest legacy, a sense of fun, or at the very least a sense of outrageously camp pomp and circumstance.

‘Outrageously camp’ seems to summarise Schumacher in a nutshell actually, as an openly gay man in Hollywood pretty much throughout his whole career, he can be seen as breaking more than his fair share of barriers along the way, and his sexuality can be seen reflected in some of his work, subtly or otherwise.

It would be a great shame to remember him just for a few campy, and hilariously awful, attempts at Batman films, as he had a varied and ultimately successful career as a director whose best works can boast the likes of The Lost Boys, Falling Down and Phone Booth. He even embraced darker material later in his career with an adaptation The Phantom of the Opera and the often-overlooked thriller The Number 23. When working with the right material, Schumacher brought his ‘A’ game, it’s just a shame that his greatest creative failure will be his greatest lasting memory.

Well, I for one will hold a great place in my heart for Joel Schumacher, for the barriers he broke as a gay man in Hollywood, and his directorial abilities whenever the stars aligned, it would take a heart colder than Mr Freeze himself to deny his career the proper respect. We’ll never forget all those awful puns, and I hope we never forget you.

Train To Busan Review

Well, I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate film for the current times, could I?

There I was, watching a virus spread through the population, causing panic and hysteria, then I turned off the news, and put on Train To Busan instead.

Entirely obvious jokes aside, I had picked up Train To Busan as a recommendation from my podcast co-host, Angel, who is currently on a mission to turn me into just as big a Korea fanboy as they are, after seeing Parasite earlier in the year, I could see a lot I liked about the Korean film scene and wanted to know more, and this is one of the two films I’ve picked up to educate myself further on the countries recent cinematic output. (We’ll be talking Korea in more detail on next months podcast.)

You may have inferred from the completely hilarious second paragraph that there may be a fair few similarities between this film and the current situation we all find ourselves in, in that this film is about a virus outbreak and the attempts to contain it, but besides these details, there are very few real similarities.

Train To Busan tells the story of a work-focused, and somewhat neglectful, father Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) as they board a train bound for the Korean city of Busan to visit Su-an’s mother. Things swiftly take a turn for the worse as a virus quickly begins to spread throughout the country, and one of the infected finds their way onto the train.

So, we’re all very familiar with the ‘zombie apocalypse’ narrative by now, right? It seems to me like we’ve seen every possible incarnation of the plot device, and honestly, I’m usually very wary. I think popular culture badly needs to move on from zombies and find a new threat to face, that being said, however, things do seem to have calmed down a fair bit in recent years, we aren’t at the zombie peak right now, thankfully.

This isn’t to say that interesting things can’t still be done with the shuffling monstrosities, I love Shaun of the Dead, like seemingly everyone else, and I was also very absorbed by the Telltale Games The Walking Dead series, as that focused on the people at the heart of the apocalypse and not necessarily on the monsters themselves.

Train To Busan is best categorised as an action/horror film, with the emphasis on action rather than horror. Its main horror styling is that of body-horror, the contorting of limbs and visceral sound of snapping bones that feel so at home in Eastern horror, although, typically more in Japan than Korea.

I have said before that my favourite kind of horror film is the subtle horror film, where the less you see of the threat the better it is, as your mind has to do the work for you, well Train To Busan is on the opposite end of the scale when it comes to this principle, being pretty much relentless as soon as the threat is established. This also works as a tactic, as long as the plot paces itself. If you throw constant loud, obvious horror at people, we’ll get bored of what we’re seeing and it loses its effectiveness.

Busan does not have this problem, it is paced tremendously, striking a perfect balance between quiet unease and outright, frenzied panic; and it is those moments of quiet that draw the panic into greater focus, as we spend time with the characters and their interactions, it allows our brain to get sufficient downtime before leaping straight back into running from zombie hordes.

To this end, the horde themselves are incredibly effective antagonists, multiplying and swarming at such a pace that makes them impossible to predict, the transformation from corpse to a zombie is so fast that the swarm is continuously growing, adding more and more people swiftly and effectively.

That being said, the effects used to portray such a large and frenzied mass of bodies is at times a bit ropey, revealing its low-budget roots, but not in a big enough way to take away from the spectacle, as these effects are only employed sparingly, I get the impression that a lot of the horde were indeed real extras, and their sheer numbers are intimidating alone.

My earlier comparison to Telltale’s Walking Dead games was not made idly. At the heart of those games was an organic, emotional connection between people, and that’s where I see the most common ground with this film. We are shown different perspectives of the day from different characters, all aboard the train, and all in different circumstances.

The audiences natural response from there is to try and figure out how all these stories interlink, and how they’ll grow, and its narrative choices did catch me off-guard on more than a few occasions.

I, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes to predict who will die in a horror movie, you’ll find yourself wrong-footed on a few occasions, but not before we grow to admire the characters, and each of them can go through an arc; it really is a masterclass on how to write for numerous characters in a short space of time, as we are introduced to all the key players seemingly at random, but by the end, they’re all seamlessly three-dimensional characters, thanks to the outstanding script and performances.

All of the actors involved are unknown to me, as I would expect from a foreign production, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. Kim Su-an is the emotional heart of the film, trying to change her seemingly selfish father. A lot of the film is viewed through her perspective, in fact, her curiosity puts her in danger a few times, but her kindness and heart drive the narrative along.

Another character arc I enjoyed was the relationship between Su-an’s father Seok-woo and Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) an expectant father who views Seok-woo with contempt in the beginning, but throughout their ordeal, the men gain mutual respect for each other, and like everything else in this film, it is perfectly paced.

All of these relationships have conclusive, and frequently heartbreaking endings, leaving to the kind of bittersweet finale that many directors shy away from. Brave in its determination to not have an entirely positive, or entirely negative, ending, it’s the kind of closing to a film that really sticks with you, it’s not exactly satisfying or uplifting, but it shows a glimmer of hope at the end of a horrendous ordeal for these characters.

To conclude then, Train To Busan is a brilliantly-paced and sublimely intense film, cranking up the action at just the right moments, but also knowing when the pace needs to be slowed for maximum effectiveness, it’s also helped by emotionally-driven performances and frenetic direction that makes it stand out from the majority of its Western peers, keeping enough of its own Korean identity while also remaining accessible to foreign viewers too, it’s an experience sure to please any film fan worldwide.