Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Birth of a Nation

Image credit: IMDb

It’s often enlightening and sometimes disturbing to watch a film from over a hundred years ago and realise that some things never change, and that aspects of modern culture continue to be influenced by it or follow in its shadow. For my afternoon it was disturbing, as I sat down to a film that is critically acclaimed for its innovations in cinema and socially disdained for its subject matter. Yep, I sat down and watched The Birth of a Nation.

Told in two parts the film follows two American families: the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. Part one follows them through the Civil War, beginning with the introduction of slavery to America and then jumping right in to the fighting, before ending on the assassination of Lincoln. Part two then follows the families through the Reconstruction era and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Writer/director/producer D. W. Griffith makes a point of claiming his indifference to the racism of the subject material, the film being an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, but that did not stop the film being absolutely reviled upon its release for its horrendous and disturbing depictions of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviours. It’s undoubtedly one of the most racist and shocking films ever made and yet it’s still studied to this very day. Why?

Here’s why. It was the first real cinematic epic, a film so artistically compelling that audiences would stay put for the entire three hours despite the shocking content. It was the birth of modern camera techniques with Griffith introducing dramatic close-ups and tracking shots amongst others as well as the birth of cinematic editing with the introduction of crosscutting, parallel action sequences, and more. A lot of modern cinema owes its very skeleton, consciously or not, to this film and while the artist did not agree with the message of his medium, he still put everything into making undeniable art. 

Image credit: Britannica

It just goes to show that the ‘don’t shoot the artists’ mentality in cinema has been around for over a century and debates are still surrounding this piece. 

The Birth of a Nation is probably one of the rarest films ever, being both morally condemned and artistically celebrated. However it’s a film for people who love film; I most certainly would not recommend it to those who enjoy watching moves, but aren’t so invested in the inner workings of the medium. 

Director: D. W. Griffith, 1915

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, & George Beranger


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

20000 Leagues Under the Sea

Image credit: Rotten Tomatoes

Book vs. Film is an interesting skirmish in the creative realm because it’s one where there are more than two sides. Some people are staunch readers before viewers. Others prefer to have some semblance of the story mapped out for them first, as reading is a harder venture. And then there are some, like me who stand behind the ‘circumstance’ banner: I do both depending on whichever piques my interest first. I recently closed the cover on Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea and it was only after doing that that I was curious to see how it’s been adapted for film. So yesterday I sat down with Disney+ and 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

A pretty close adaptation, the film follows professor Aronnax, his apprentice Conseil, and harpoonist Ned Land, as they venture on a voyage to prove or disprove the existence of a sea monster that has been ravaging warships. When the monster attacks their ship, the three a thrown overboard and find themselves at the mercy of the monster: the monster being a giant submarine and its captain a bitter, eccentric genius that has washed his hands of civilised society. Prisoners aboard the Nautilus, the three heroes embark on a voyage around the world under the sea, all the while trying to make sense of their strange captain. 

When we think ‘Disney’ we think animation, musicals, we don’t think of science-fiction action-drama. Yet here we are. 20000 Leagues is a close adaption to Verne’s classic novel, though with a few narrative liberties taken so that there is more action and drama to the story. A solid action-adventure film, it’s got everything from majestic underwater shots to outdated, but still hugely entertaining creature effects and climactic fight scenes. 

Image credit: Pinterest

It’s also got quite an interesting cast behind it with Kirk Douglas as the hot-headed hero Ned Land and James Mason as the cool and calculating Captain Nemo. Mason is glorious, bringing great depth to an already complex character and Douglas ticks all the boxes for swashbuckling adventure on the high seas (despite the lack of pirates). 

It’s certainly a fun take on a classic tale and Disney does right by making it a close adaptation as well as one that the whole family can enjoy. 

Director: Richard Fleischer, 1954

Cast: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Robert J. Wilke, Ted de Corsia, Carleton Young, J. M. Kerrigan, Percy Helton, & Ted Cooper.


Soul

Image credit: Wikipedia

I have to apologise to my readers for the inconsistent uploads of fresh content these past few months. Social, personal, and mental excuses are all that I can give. But I am trying to get some structure and routine back into the film-review part of my life and I’m starting with Pixar’s newest (at least it was months ago) feature film: Soul.

Soul tells the story of a dispirited music teacher who is gradually losing his zest for life. But that changes when he lands the jazz gig of his dreams! Thinking things are finally looking up, disaster strikes when he dies in an accident and, through a series of mishaps, his soul ends up on the other side. The race is on to get back to his body and play the gig, but along the way he’ll meet people and see things that’ll teach him that there’s more to life than his one passion: music. 

I am totally here for what Pixar do in their films. The complex themes of life made accessible to kids and depictions of the complicated relationships that make up everyday life; I love it, I support it. Soul tackles the greater questions of death, life, passion, and life’s meaning; a very ambitious lot to pile onto a plate and I applaud the attempt. Sadly, I felt that Pixar had eyes too big for their stomach with this one. The abstract theme-processing machine from Inside Out would have had its work cut out for it and would most likely have short-circuited. While Soul does make these themes a little more digestible for a young audience, it frequently gets confused by them and loses the thread of what it’s trying to do. ‘Soul’, while being a cute pun, becomes a quick mislabel used for the literal soul of the dying body and the passion that drives the body to live. Having the title mean multiple things takes away some of the story’s accessibility.

Image credit: Screen Realm

But, happily, this narrative flaw doesn’t bring down the entire film. The animation is still crisp and beautiful, and the film is filled with fascinating characters and cute explanations as to how personalities are formed. The music is absolutely magnificent, as can be expected from a film called ‘Soul’. The pun of the title is celebrated in the soundtrack. 

Soul is a cute and heart-warming little film that I did quite enjoy, despite the confused and trying ambitions of the themes it was trying to demystify. I’d recommend it as a happy little family time if you’re looking for something to while away some hours with.

Director: Peter Docter & Kemp Powers, 2020

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Donnell Rawlings, Angela Bassett, and Wes Studi

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Witches

 

Image credit: Reeiviews

It’s a very hard time for cinema right now. I don’t need to tell anyone that. But I was thinking the other day, about the specific ramifications that a pandemic has on the cinematic experience. While here in Australia, a complete lockdown has not really been a thing (aside from Victoria’s during their second wave) the cinema has most certainly been affected by the health restrictions, with no new films coming through at first, to only a certain number coming through now. The films that are hitting the big screens, rather than being released through streaming services, are definitely of a certain visual ilk. I definitely noticed this with the last movie I went to a cinema to watch (and honestly regretted): The Witches.

Set in 1960s Alabama, The Witches tells the story of a boy and his grandmother who, whilst vacationing in a swanky hotel, stumble upon a congregation of witches that plan to rid the world of children by turning them into mice. Despite overhearing the details of their plan, the boy is turned is captured and turned into a mouse, and soon he and his grandmother are racing against the clock to stop the witches before they leave the hotel and put their dastardly plan into action. 

I was a fan of the original The Witches (1990) growing up and honestly I was surprised that someone decided that, of all the classic Dahl tales, this was the one that needed a remake. While I will say that the film is visually quite pretty, definitely made for the big screen, I found myself struggling to decide who the intended audience was. The lighting, costumes, and childish script really make this look like a kids’ film, yet it has an M rating. 

There were also a number of casting decisions that I struggled with. Set in 1960s Alabama the leading characters are African American, which I initially thought was going to mean that there would be some social commentary going on, or the Grand High Witch as a character would be a metaphor for segregation or something clever like that. Nope. Nada. While Octavia Spencer and Jazhir Bruno both deliver great performances, I felt that this setting and casting decision didn’t bring anything to the story: a potentially great idea that just got left hanging. 

Image credit: Salon.com

I also have to say that the character of the Grand High Witch was also a bout of weirdness. Anne Hathaway did the role well and was a diva no doubt, but I felt that there was no substance to her character, other than that she was the villain and had a pointless gimmick of being hard to understand due to her thick Eastern European accent. 

But, to give credit where it is due, the costumes and set designs were glorious and the transformation sequences of the children into animals as well as the ‘monster’ effects of the witches themselves were pretty cool. I get the feeling that Guillermo del Toro had a hand in that. 

But ultimately my main response the remake of The Witches was “why?” It’s a visually pretty film, but has no real substance; just empty calories. I’d recommend waiting until it comes onto a streaming service if you’re curious. 

Director: Robert Zemeckis, 2020

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Codie-Lei Eastick, Kristen Chenoweth, & Chris Rock


Friday, November 13, 2020

Jojo Rabbit

Image credit: Amazon

We know that film as an artform is a difficult trade. As art imitates life, there are a number of rules and taboos that it must adhere to. Simultaneously art is about pushing the boundaries and making us face the unfacable. A film that does both of these things is a rare and wondrous thing. One such film, recently made and gaining an Academy Award nomination for its tremendous efforts is Taika Waititi’s latest triumph: Jojo Rabbit.

The film tells the story of ten year-old German boy Jojo whose dream is to heroically serve the fatherland in times of war with his imaginary friend Hitler by his side. However, Jojo’s fanatical beliefs and patriotism take a battering when he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their house. Conflicted between love, curiosity, and the need to prove his worth, Jojo navigates his way through the war, one mishap at a time, learning valuable lessons about humanity along the way.

Who would have thought that a dramatic comedy set during in WW2 Germany could be such a charming and heart-warming thing? Taika uses everything at his disposal including his impeccable sense of timing, quirky casting choices, and confrontational historical themes to create something truly glorious and significant. 

At its heart Jojo Rabbit is a story about innocence, however misguided, and its strength. The harsh historical setting makes this message and the celebration of childlike innocence even stronger (like salt) and Taika’s witty and biting script just brings everything together, making something that appears iffy into something heart-warming and hysterical. 

A special shout-out must go to our leading man: Rowan Griffin Davis. He’s a pint-sized powerhouse of emotion and scene-stealing genius, going through a rollercoaster of feels as well as hilarious freak-outs and even some villainous moments. Seriously, words cannot describe how amazing this kids is. Watch the film!

Image credit: Daily Express

While the film’s quirky comedy, primarily stemming from quick-witted dialogue, is entirely unique, there’s another level of oddness that makes Jojo Rabbit stand out. The use of mise en scene is crisp and confronting, a little like Wes Anderson’s style, and it’s this that makes the movie a visual standout as well as a verbal one. This, plus it has a very interesting soundtrack!

I would absolutely recommend that everyone make watching this movie their next priority. Its brilliance is just so unexpected I can’t even write about it properly! 

Director: Taika Waititi, 2019
Cast: Rowan Griffin Davis, Scarlet Johannson, Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates & Thomasin McKenzie

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

The Silver Petticoat Review

It's funny to think that, only a few years ago, there was such a thing as the Disney Vault: a dark and terrible place where Disney animated classics were locked away for seven years, only to be released for a limited time. I literally waited thirteen years to buy my copy of Beauty and the Beast, my all-time favourite. Nowadays Disney has so much money that they don’t need to create scarcity. With Disney+ as well as the decision to rerelease all feature films with new chronological covers, the Vault has been demolished and all our favourite films are out in the world living their best life. 

Disney+ also means that I now have access to animated features that I missed growing up. To be honest though, Disney’s later films leave a bit to be desired, like the last one I sat down to become acquainted with: Atlantis.

Atlantis tells the story of a down-and-out linguist who is desperate to finish his grandfather’s work and find the lost city of Atlantis. After being backed by an eccentric millionaire, Milo finds himself on a voyage to the mysterious with a clever and competent crew at his side. But finding the lost city brings more than they bargained for. The Atlantians’ culture is dying and, once there Milo and his team must make a difficult choice, use the knowledge and power of Atlantis to further their own society or save the Atlantians. 

This is a film of harsher drawing and animating than peak Disney, so closer to films such as Hercules and Lilo & Stitch. The story itself is interesting with solid moral lessons about the greater good, knowledge being power, and the morally corrupting influence of materialism. Standard stuff really. There’s a fun and quirky bunch of mismatched characters that work together quite well, though none of the characters, aside from Sweet the big, burly, medical professional inspire much of an emotional attachment. 

Deja Reviewer
And then we have the glaringly frustrating narrative reasons for why certain things work within the movie; the biggest of these being why the Atlantians can speak practically every single language in the world. While it’s kind of funny to begin with, it quickly feels like no further narrative thought aside from “Disney magic” has gone into the explanation for this. And then of course we have the stinging colonialist/white supremacy story of white man coming to save a bunch of savages (even though the ‘savages’ are highly intelligent, more so than the white man!). 


Aside from the central mystery of the Atlantis myth, this animated feature really does not offer much in the way of enjoyment, at least certainly not for mature audiences. Visually, it’s very pretty and some of the artistic designs are to be applauded, but ultimately, I’d be happy to not watch this ever again.

Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Corey Burton, Claudia Christian, James Garner, John Mahoney, Phil Morris, Don Novello, Cree Summer, Jacqueline Obradors, David Ogden Stiers, Jim Cummings, & Leonard Nimoy

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Thief of Bagdad

Image credit: IMDb
We know that fantasy is timeless; wondrous narratives filled with magic, drama, and heroic quests transcend generations and will continue to so do until all mediums for expressing them are extinguished. This fact has been proven time and time again with various films, however I am still amazed just how much the love for such tales and their own longevity can keep something afloat when the tides of time wash everything else away. 

This afternoon, my film of choice was The Thief of Bagdad, thus the stimulant for my current awe and train of thought. 


The film tells the story of Ahmed, a common thief living in Bagdad who one night sneaks into the palace to plunder it. But once inside his love for treasure is surpassed when he beholds the beautiful princess and he decides to steal her instead. Pretending to be a prince, Ahmed wins the princess’ heart, but his true identity is quickly revealed and he barely escapes with his life. To save her from a forced marriage, Ahmed travels through great lands of wonder and peril to find a rare treasure that will prove his love and worth.


The exotic and romantically erotic setting of Arabia remains tried and true to this day. The gorgeous and extravagant set pieces for this film form a world entirely their own. Despite the grainy, black and white filter and the overblown acting, The Thief of Bagdad still proves to be a cinematic giant capable of grabbing an audience of thousands in one hand squeezing the collective breath out of it.


Without a doubt, the triumphant awe factor of the film is its incredible set: six and a half acres and the biggest set in Hollywood history. Each set from the Caliph’s palace to the underwater cavern of the sirens is absolutely jaw dropping, made all the more incredible by the achievements in costume design. Silks, satins, sequins, and jewels adorn even the commonest thieves in this movie, making the central Bagdad a realm of fantasy. 


Image credit: TV Tropes
But amidst its rich and exotic aesthetic, the film serves a succinct and powerful narrative of a person’s ability to change. A moral story lies at the centre of the swashbuckling action and political drama and the character arc of Ahmed is both predictable and satisfying. 


While the film itself is quite outdated, and many of the ‘special effects’ had not held up all that well, there is still an awful lot of enjoyment to be taken from this 1920s classic and one can easily see why it has remained in cinema’s classics canon. 


Director: Raoul Walsh, 1924

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher, Julanne Johnston, Sojin, Anna May Wong, Brandon Hurst, Tote Du Crow, & Noble Johnson