Back Row Banter

From explosions to pathos

Review: Giant Spider Invasion June 6, 2010

   There are certain films in which the title tells you everything you need to know about them. Usually if a film can state the entire plot in three or four words, if the title can pretty much act as a pitch, then the audience is aware of what they are going to get. Snakes on a Plane is an example. As is Snakes on a Train. Anybody expecting to see La Regle du Jeu at a movie with a title like that will be sorely dissapointed. Invariably these films will have no budget, absurd dialogue and a wafer thin plot punctuated with plot holes galore. Yet if the viewer can appropriately lower their expectations of what they are about to see, these films can be a lot of fun. In the instance of Giant Spider Invasion, however, this is not the case. No matter how much expectations are lowered Invasion will plunge deeper still like in some game of idiotic limbo. To state that a film called Giant Spider Invasion is a feature that fails to live up to the low standards that its title implies would be a hyperbolic understatement. It is an embarrasment, it is fun free dirge, a waste of time not even worth exploring as a piece of kitsch.

   Whilst the poor effects are no better, nor worse, than its filmic peers, what Giant Spider Invasion seems to lack is any sense of focus. B-movies generally work best when their absurd plots are treated with either po-faced piety or with a tongue in cheek embrace of their limitations. Invasion scuttles back and forth in tone, existing in a purgatory of banality neither humorous nor interesting. Some films, that take years to make, are called labours of love. This appears to be a very rare beast – a feature that just happens to have happened. I am not sure, off the top of my head, when the last time was I struggled to enjoy a film so much. Having pondered for some time, I am not sure why this film exists. The people involved in making this film must surely feel the same way.



Review: Mary Poppins June 3, 2010

Filed under: Review — kjcasey @ 15:11
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   Amongst the many wisdoms Mary Poppins dispenses to the children in her care is the statement that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” This is a truism that could easily be applied to this winning and timeless tale about the magical nanny who changes the world around her with her wholesome charm.

   Mary Poppins is the story of two young children, Jane and Michael, who their father, Mr. Banks, is too busy to give attention to and endeavours to find a nanny to look after them. The first candidate is not exactly what Mr. Banks is looking for – she is eccentric not prim, avuncular not authoritative. Yet upon arrival she inveigles herself into his employ by bamboozling and perplexing the cold patriarch and immediately begins to charm the children with her magical ways. Mary Poppins introduces the children to the small wonders of the world around them – the charismatic Bert, the Bird Lady, the power of imagination. As Michael and Jane become alive to their imaginations they are filled with joy; something Mr. Banks can’t understand. He is logical, practical – why waste a good tuppence on feeding scratty birds when it could be saved or invested? Maybe, he reckons, this Mary Poppins is a bad influence.

   As a feature Mary Poppins is largely, and inaccurately, remembered as a piece of throw away light entertainment widely ridiculed due to the strange cockney accent Dick Van Dyke employs during his performance as Bert. Yet the film is so much more than this; there are pertinent political allegories, deep satire and, quite stunningly, some dazzling cinematic achievements to be enjoyed here. The film is slyly anti-establishment and politically minded – the fairness and tenderness of Poppins beats the authoritative type of nanny Mr. Banks wants to employ, there’s a dig at the prime minister’s expense and an animated sequence where a fox is rescued from a pack of hunters. Also note how Mr Banks occupation quite literally defines him – he IS his job.

   The performances too, an accent aside, are exquisite. Van Dyke’s voice, whilst singing, is able to fleet between earnest lament and gleeful whimsy. His role is also a hugely important one in terms of social commentary. Bert, at various points a one man band, a street artist and a chimney sweep,  represents the working class of Edwardian England and it is through Van Dyke’s performance that they are awarded a humble dignity and quiet pathos in the face of avaricious oppression by the upper crust of the era. Similarly Julie Andrews performance in the title role is one of shrewd excellence. Benefitting the most from the film’s glorious Technicolour cinematography, her face radiates through the screen, Andrews delivers a delicious turn as the perfectly enunciated and caring nanny. What is quite startling, however, is that the films best performance may belong to a character who has less than a couple of minutes of screen time

   The most sublime moments in the film centre around the appearance, on personal insistence of Walt Disney, of the retired actress Jane Darwell. Having been the recipient of an Academy Award for her viscerally staggering portrayal of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, here Darwell, and her kind face, appear in the cameo role of the Bird Woman. She sits surrounded by birds, at peace with them, amongst them, her lovely features showing a tranquillity and happiness that is next to impossible to describe using mere words whilst Andrews croons the lilting melody to the song “Feed The Birds” with a weightless grace.  The Bird Woman is, by appearance, a vagabond but by simply studying the numerous wrinkles that line up either side of her mouth to match her euphoria it is transparent she is amongst the happiest people alive. In this moment it is easy to see what cinema is about – the hugely expensive effects of Avatar or a George Lucas film have nothing on the vivid details that comprise Darwell’s well worn, lived-in face. It is in this moment  that cinema is at both its most expansive and it most intimate, its most bold, its most beautiful.

   Mary Poppins, however, is a film about the growth of the seemingly marginal character Mr. Banks (played with suitable sobriety by David Tomlinson). Come the conclusion, it is neither the titular character or the Banks’ children who have under gone a character journey; the profound lessons here are to be learnt by the formerly cantankerous, curmudgeonly head of house Mr. George W. Banks.

   His journey begins when he can understand to see the world through his children’s eyes, a process that starts when he introduces Jane and Michael to his banking peers to convince the children to open an account. Oh, how unappealing those staid businessmen and starch bankers appear through the children’s eyes. Where is their sense of wonder? They are uniformly prim and proper without the slightest hint of anything approaching joy in their soul. As children, the sight of a parade of businessmen trying to negotiate away from them the money they would spend feeding the birds is an unseemly one. The children want to explore their imaginations, not investment opportunities. The humourless bankers’ logic seems unkind, twisted, foul. Michael wanted to use the coins for kindness, the bankers are imploring him to embrace greed. When the head of the bank snatches away the tuppence he not only takes the coins, he takes the child’s dreams from him. Its a reminder of how quickly childhood can fade and how terrifying this can be.

   Also of note is the aftermath to this scene. As the child asks for his tuppence back from the banker he is overheard he is being denied this request. The bank’s clients panic and set about demanding the immediate withdrawal of all their money from their accounts, funds the bank don’t have in stock, prompting an instant banking collapse. Particularly at this point in time this scene is very pertinent – Mary Poppins, in one short sequence, is able to explain how busts occur in the financial market a lot clearer and in a lot more succinct a fashion than I have ever heard from an economist or a politician.

   From here Mary Poppins imparts its simple but affecting message that there is more to be enjoyed in life than the pursuit of money and status. A lyrically poignant moment is when Bert addresses the children as they, and Mary Poppins, stand on a roof top looking out across a magnificent London sky-line. “There’s the whole world at your feet. But who gets to see it but the birds, the stars and the chimney sweeps?” Bert has found the wonder in his life – though his vocation may not be as well paid as the bankers he has happiness. Earlier he referred to the cage that Mr. Banks’ job keeps him in whereas Bert himself, a chimney sweep, would be more akin to a bird free to soar.

   The underlying message in Mary Poppins is a simple one – There is wonder and majesty to be found everywhere you want to look for it. At the same time its just as easy to cut yourself off from it too. You can put yourself in a cage if you like. Or you can soar like a bird. Or a kite. Or a chimney sweep. Mary Poppins reminds us of this in the same way she reminds Mr. Banks of this. Which is one of the many reasons why she, and the movie that takes her name, is “practically perfect in every way.” Watching a film of such splendour, a similar thing happens to the viewer as it does to Mr. Banks – the journey opens the eyes to whimsy, the heart to love and the mind to majesty. In doing so Mary Poppins ennobles the viewer. It transports them to another world no matter how old or how jaded.



Review: Christmas In August May 31, 2010

   Exquisitely lensed in soft pastel hues by Yoo Young-kil, the renowned cinematographer who also created the sumptuous aesthetics of A Petal and Green Fish, Christmas in August is as delightful a movie as one could ever wish to see. Whilst nominally the film could be described as a melodrama, Hur Jin-Ho’s elegiac tale transcends any of the pejorative connotations of the word. Melodramas are usually the domain of the big gesture, the awe inspiring act, the larger than life sacrifices. Christmas In August is something altogether different; rather than try and force tears with over the top and contrived moments, Hur Jin-ho’s delicate feature is instead made up of a tapestry of small, intimate, discreet moments that add up into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

    The 1998 South Korean classic stars Han Suk-kyu as humble portrait photographer Jung-won. His life, in many ways, is entirely unexceptional up until, and including, the moment he is diagnosed with terminal illness. Rather than kick and scream or cause a fuss Jung-won endeavours to carry on living his life with simple acceptance, remaining quiet to those around him about his condition. As Jung-won prepares for his final days a young parking attendant, played by Shim Eun-ha,  becomes a regular at this shop and the two find themselves becoming more and more attached.

   The power of Christas In August comes in its restraint – what the characters don’t say, the subtext of their silence, is more powerful than any words could be.  The episodic series of events that unfold are given as much weight by his terminal condition as they are by his calm, considered reactions. The moment Jung-won drunkenly spurts out his condition to his drinking partner the news that he is dying is met with a swift rebuttal. His friend believes it to be a joke and Jung-won doesn’t want to press the issue; he is determined to just enjoy the little time he has left with his friend even if he does worry there’ll be few moments like this again. Its only in drunken fear does his calm, placid mask slip. Aside from this one instance Jung-won never troubles anybody. Instead he undertakes a series of tasks aimed at helping those around him in even the smallest of manners. He painstakingly and stoically shows his father step-by-step instructions on how to use a video remote knowing full well he’ll have no chance learning this skill alone. In one extraordinary sequence Jung-won is shown helping an elderly woman come to term with her own death by taking her funeral portrait; he spoils her, makes her feel special and puts her at ease. It is a truly astonishing example of how Christmas in August manages to capture the sublime beauty in ordinary decency, the profound pathos in quiet dignity. It is an ecstatically humbling piece of humanist art.

   The film is truly emotive but to call it a tear jerker would be misleading; the term suggests a pre-planned, contrived attempt at directing audience’s emotions in a specific manner. Instead Jin-ho provides a luminous, meditative film in which each tender and laconic moment is as beautiful as the next. The quiet moments such as Yoo’s camera catching the fleeting impermanence of the condensation caused by Jung-won’s breath against his shop window are emotionally devastating in their tiny elegance. Fans of Yoo’s work will remember a thematically similar shot in Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish.

   A truly life-affirming movie, Christmas In August is a film that deserves to be considered in the same canon as Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life as works that celebrate the best in human nature, as joyful triumphs. In the famous poem mis-attributed to Emerson success is defined as, amongst other things, being able to make just one person’s life easier because of your existence. In Christmas In August, Jin-ho is able to show how a humble photographer can live a life full of success, away from riches and wealth, solely through his kindness. Jung-won is a success because he helped his father with a video recorder and because he provided comfort to an elderly lady. If there is a more important lesson to be learned in all of art then I have yet to stumble across it.



Review: The Iron Giant

   Whilst Walt Disney’s name is synonymous with the early days of animation, Snow White being the first feature length cartoon, his creations were often rivalled by the work of another ambitious studio. Specialising in shorts, Warner Brothers created a zany roster of some of the most beloved characters in movie history; Daffy Duck, Wile E Coyote, Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny have all proved iconic creations. Yet the once proud studio failed to adapt with the times. Having closed doors for three years from 1969 the studio had lost its way; Warner Brothers could not find their place in the film market and, aside from a few half hearted attempts at big screen features, ultimately settled into television production. It has now been just over ten years since the last fully animated theatrical release produced solely by Warner Brothers. The film was Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. As far as swan songs go The Iron Giant, based on a Ted Hughes book, is pretty much perfect – by some way the studio’s finest hour.

   Set in 1957, the tale centres around the jovial young Hogarth Hughes whose spritely nature is almost as inexhaustible as his curiosity. One night, whilst his mother (Jennifer Aniston) is working, Hogarth sneaks from his home to follow a strange noise outside which leads him to a path of broken fences, trampled ground and uprooted trees. The path of destruction follows to the most fantastical of sights – the hundred foot tall Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) chomping away on metal at a near by power station. The two strike up a friendship although Hogarth, quite rightly, realises that not everyone would be quite as tolerant of this peaceful giant. With the help of the local beatnik scrap dealer Dean (Harry Connick Jr), Hogarth tries his best to hide the Giant from a government agent (Christopher McDonald) who is convinced the sightings of a gargantuan robot must have something to do with Rockwell or the Soviet Union. Hogarth also must not let his mom find out – she wouldn’t allow him even a pet squirrel as they make too much noise.

    The Iron Giant constitutes a remarkable achievement standing out from the pack upon its release in 1999; a year widely regarded as one of the richest in recent cinematic history. At once the film is a science fiction period piece playing on cold war paranoia, the spectre of a nuclear holocaust is a recurring concern amongst the authority figures, and a feel good family film. The Cold War parable sits neatly alongside slapstick humour, jokes about the effects of caffeine and, of course, a hugely emotive conclusion which promotes tolerance, sacrifice and understanding whilst never preaching or succumbing to emotional manipulation. Animated with simple delicacy, a combination of hand drawn and computer rendered additions, The Iron Giant places the emphasis on a succinct, whimsical tale making sure substance triumphs over style.

   Although a box office failure upon release, the film recouped only half of its $48 million budget, The Iron Giant was, and remains, a critical success and helped launch the career of debut feature director Brad Bird. Having graduated from The Simpsons, Bird has seen his post-Giant career sky rocket under the tutelage of John Lasseter at Pixar. The Incredibles and Ratatouille were both huge box office smashes and confirmed the keen eye for aesthetic detail, character and humour Bird displayed on The Iron Giant were no fluke. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers the opposite is true; having stumbled upon a sublime gem of a movie the studio have never come close, nor have they tried, to make a film this magical since.