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: 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.