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.

 

 

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…