Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Prince of Egypt – 1998

prince of egyptToday I had the rare luxury of re-watching a childhood favourite due to an unindentified malaise which has left me sofa-bound – Dreamworks classic “The Prince of Egypt.” I want to explain why I find this film to be such an achievement of cinema. I suppose, by this point, even a casual observer of this blog will have come across my passion for animation. Surprisingly, however, I find this film equally interesting for the fact that it is animated as for the fact that it is viewed as a “children’s film”. I say this advisedly since I do not believe there should be such a strong division between entertainment for children and adults. But that’s a whole other topic.

What is fascinating about children’s cinema, when done well, is that it can communicate difficult ideas to a child, while still having the emotional impact for an adult audience. As an example let’s take Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King”. Death is undeniably traumatic and not, by modern standards, “child friendly” viewing. Yet “The Lion King” effectively communicates this difficult concept. In fact, the sequence shows us the cub Simba understanding and processing his father’s death before Scar confirms it in words. In other words, a Disney film can communicate the shock and sadness of death to anyone, of any age or nationality, since the sequence is almost wordless. This is an art lost to modern conventional filmmaking, which often relies too heavily on a script and fears silence. It has reason to fear; when no one is speaking the visuals must stand alone and all too often they are not strong enough to do so. Silent cinema never had this problem. Buster Keaton’s films are still funny whatever language you are in. You can appreciate the bumbling inefficacy of the keystone cops even without intertitles. Without a script films had to be demonstrably funny or tragic on visuals alone. This is why these days, it is far more common to find true, global cinema in animated films. Films where, by their very nature, the visuals are strong because every single frame has been hand crafted to perfection over a period of weeks.

Returning to “The Prince of Egypt”. My admiration for this film results largely from the animating style. The film bridges a gap in the animation timeline and represents a merging of hand painted backgrounds, hand drawn line animation and computer generated special effects. The result is, that despite the huge number of special effects shots, the film retains the organic feel of earlier, line drawn, hand-painted animated features. This visual depth is positively enthralling. All that can be done by hand has been done, and so the computer images do not invade upon the visuals, but are more like the icing on the cake than anything else. The artistic style is shockingly different from that of, for example, contemporaneous Disney films. While Disney was relying on cultural stereotypes and caricatures to make Mulan (made in the same year), The Prince of Egypt portrays accurately and sensitively three different ethnic groups. While a lot of this is represented through location and costume design choices it is undeniable that all three of Egyptians, Hebrews and the Midian people are shown fairly and without generalization. These cultural details leak into the narrative, the Egyptian handmaidens trying to take the baby moses as their own, the traditional Midian dress style, even Moses’ hair colour. Moses is the only one among the Egyptians shown to have brown eyebrows, displaying his identity as an outsider, even as he is revered as their Prince. Also, I would like to call attention to the masterly use of traditional Egyptian art as a dream sequence.

Traditional art and culture played a huge part in the production of this film. Biblical and historical scholars were called in to ensure the film was accurate to all narrations of the Moses story. That is not to say that the director (Brenda Chapman) strayed away from any bold decisions. Quite the opposite, the voice of God in The Prince of Egypt is provided by Val Kilmer, the same voice as Moses. The subtle implication being that every man would hear God’s voice as their own. In some interpretations of the Bible that decision alone marks this film as heresy. This opens the film out to not just being a religious film. The Prince of Egypt adapts a Biblical story and, while it pays its dues to the version held dear by each Abrahamic religion, it does not alienate an audience who believes in one or none of these religions. Despite the religious themes even the most famous song “When you Believe” (Schwartz’s great Oscar winner) is at best an ambiguous exhortation of confidence and perseverance.

Powerillustration

Another brave decision is to present Rameses sympathetically. While he is clearly the antagonist, the film clearly steers away from making him the villain. This is of course this is helped enormously by Ralph Fiennes vocal performance. He is hot-tempered, yes, blinded by his hoodwinking priests, yes, but he is not evil as so many people are in children’s films. In fact, he is shown to truly care about Moses. It is only when he is totally rejected by his long-lost brother that he turns against Moses and his mission. The sorrow in Rameses voice even until the very end, shows us the pain of a man rejected by his father, then abandoned by his brother, who finally forms a family only to have his son stolen from him. Visually he is even assigned the colour blue, his headdress, horses bridle’s and jewellery are consistently sapphire, a colour with connotations of weakness and fragility as opposed to Moses’ robust red.

Returning to my earlier point about communication, this is one of the ways in which The Prince of Egypt transcends the barriers of comprehension. By showing Rameses in blue, and portraying him in despair as often as in anger it is impossible to come away from the narrative with an impression of evil or villainy. Both Rameses and Moses are true Aristotelian tragic heroes. Neither is guilteless in their fight, Moses even stoops so low as to send the plague upon the first borns – the very act which so disgusted him earlier in the film. It is a fantastic vote of confidence in the audience for the director to allow such contradictory portrayals to exist within a “children’s film”. Chapman does not simplify or remove the difficult aspects of the story for the sake of the childish audience but guides them to make their own conclusions from the subtle characterization. This trust in the audience is so strong that years of character development and a death can be explained in a single shot of Rameses standing where his father stood, dwarfed by the twin statues of himself and his father. The musical score adds to this communication more than words could in places, Schwartz gives us a score coloured by traditional instruments, gospel style musical patterning, and an emotional thrust unlike any other. The Hebrew interlude in “When you Believe” is almost a direct quote from the Hebrew bible and the framing of the film in the same musical motif in both “When you Believe” and “Deliver Us” lends weight to the narrative conclusion and makes the story a more coherent whole.

There are few films which achieve brilliance in visuals, soundtrack or storytelling. When I come across one which delivers on all three, I cannot write it off because it’s an animated children’s film. Any piece of filmmaking which can communicate in such a concise way on such a fundamental level is a film which brings humanity out of the gutter. . It is our ability to create art, and with it define emotion, which sets us apart from animals.

Oldboy – 2003

oldboyChan-wook Park’s breakthrough film is a psychological thriller with elements of pure horror. A man is taken and kept in solitary confinement for 15 years for an unknown crime. This mental ordeal hardens his mind to search for revenge at all costs.

The cinematography is more like a comic book than a film, meaning that, despite being often shockingly violent, the film retains an enjoyable and artistic detachment from the events it portrays. Reality and memory are often intertwined into synthesised sequences. Occasionally the camera merges images of a past and future self even within a shot. The result is an entirely engaging form of imagery which expresses itself equally in dialogue or, more often, in silence.

From a story-telling perspective this script leaves no time to take a breath, there is a twist around every corner and the layers of imagery and fear built up in the short prologue serve to reinforce this tension. Yet it also lessens the sensation of being bombarded by a ceaseless plot machine as every new development coheres and fits perfectly into a greater image.

Both Min-sik Choi and Ji-tae Yu give excellent performances as prisoner and imprisoner respectively. While it appears that they are beings of hatred, moved only by a desire for pain and vengeance it becomes clear that both have been following a deep, devoted love. The film delivers a counterintuitive message for one framed in violence. These same themes recur in Park’s most recent film Stoker, both films explore the boundaries that society places on love. In Oldboy these feelings have been corrupted over time to make way for the twisted relationships which take their place. The film demonstrates the potentially horrifying power of love as a driving force.

A Bout de Souffle – 1960

breathlessA charming film which consists mainly of an extended duologue. Two people who may or may not be in love spend a few days and nights together. The camera seems to observe passively as their relationship develops. However littered throughout this carefree romance are shots of a classic cops and robbers chase. The drama and the sweetness sit together as oddly as these two bedfellows.

The first half of the film serves as a seduction scene. Impossibly a man who lies and steals for a living has found a woman even more guarded than he is. They discuss little insignificancies for hours with her rebuffing him at every turn. She is aloof, coquettish and absolutely maddening for a man with a private agenda. There is no sentimentality in Godard’s camera, it shows us a situation without drawing back or making light of it. All that you see simply is. Godard edits out the silences, replacing them with bold jump cuts as the repartee continues. Truffaut’s script is razor sharp despite it’s deliberate oblique quality. The pertinent details are never quite addressed but are made perfectly clear in these actions of these charmingly capricious characters. If it wasn’t treated so plainly and naively this would be a hyperbolic tragedy. However, with a light jazz accompaniment and a spring in its step the action blithely unfolds, barely leaving a blip in the fabric of society.

La Nuit Américaine -1973

86223693_oIn a film about making a film Francois Truffaut places himself in front of and behind the camera to express the potent mix of fantasy and reality which leaks its way onto a film set. The film tells the story of a production plagued by mishaps, crises, deaths and rewrites. The director, played by Truffaut, wishes to create a work of art and literally dreams of great cinema. His sporadic dream sequences showing him as a young child picking up scraps from directors previous to and greater than himself. One can almost imagine that the whole film was born out of a failed production which could only be saved through comedy.

While this has the potential to be a tragedy, or at least a bath of self-pity for any struggling director to wallow in, it is in fact more like a farce. The glamour of cinema is stripped back to reveal the prosaic elements, a candle with a hidden light, a balcony with no house attatched, a million money saving trompe l’oeils. You can’t help but wonder why this industry thrives, what is the human fascination with seeing people on a screen when we know of the fallacy? It’s like a huge in-joke but no one remembers how it started. Truffaut draws attention to these ideas repeatedly, sometimes showing us shots from the imaginary movie they are creating and sometimes panning back so we can see the boom mics and cue cards. One actress has suffered so greatly from this detachment of reality that she cannot cope with the make-up girl being an extra. About halfway through a woman screams directly at camera that she “hates your cinema”. The fourth wall is broken and this simple, make-up shunning woman is left asking the audience why they are even watching.

At times the film descends into montage, these sequences are self-mocking. They are framed with enthusiastic, hopeful music and everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves making a jolly good movie. This parodies everything the film itself has just shown us, the arguments, the upsets and the disasters, which eventually fade away into a generally good impression. The same actress who regularly breaks down on set laments the passing of the shooting. The whole proceedings seem ridiculous to the observer and will seem ridiculous even to those involved, as they re-observe with the passing of time. The whole thing ridicules the goal of recording a story when the real story is happening around you. In its way the film expands the existentialist ideals, everything you ever see is effectively a film set with each person watching life go by and waiting around for their moments. It is not the exact events that set any one story apart but rather the attitude with which they are approached. If you cannot laugh at your own estrangement from reality no one else will. The film wraps itself up by presenting this ultimate irony to the audience with spectacular wit and style.

 

Frances Ha – 2012

francesFresh from the New York Indie scene Greta Gerwig co-writes and stars in what can only be described as an off-beat life drama. A new-age Bridget Jones without the humour, Baumbach’s film is inexplicably filmed in black and white. An affectation which really has no effect positive or negative on the film as a whole.

Gerwig plays 27 year old Frances, a delusional woman who harbours dreams of breaking into dance at an age when most dancers are approaching retirement or at least passing their best. She has no direction in life, as is echoed by the constant moving of apartments, which makes up the film’s structure. While this character is consistently written and faithfully acted you cannot help but feel that such a person cannot ever exist. Her behaviour is at best juvenile, and at worst a demonstration of shocking immaturity. While she is evidently pitched as “charming” and “quirky” she is in fact a horribly awkward presence. Throughout the film she slowly destroys every relationship she has through a combination of bad communication and inability to interact in social situations. This is indeed a natural part of growing older but, as the characters around her remark, for a woman of 27 to still be living in the “awkward adolescent” phase is somewhat pathetic.

The script comes close to being comic and seems to aim to at least be light however, with such a mannered and self-important delivery, the elements of lightness are lost in a sea of glum self-pity. The brief scenes where our protagonist lets go are lovely, airy and joyous, complete with dancing and motivational music. But these scenes are rare and overshadowed by the more numerous scenes where Frances willingly alienates people and passes up God-given opportunities to satisfy her own capricious fancies.

Mickey Sumner as Frances’ best friend Sophie is however utterly charming. She lights up the screen with a strong and confident performance. She seems to embody the maturity Frances cannot reach, managing to leave her college friends and lead a happy and independent life. It is difficult to like this film when every single character who is kind, sensible or even just reasonable is rejected by the petulant child in a woman’s body that is Gerwig’s protagonist.

Rebel Without A Cause – 1955

rebelWhen a film is so defined by it’s era, so much a product of the struggles of a certain time, can it still be relevant fifty years later? Rebel without a cause defined a generation.  The American youth with a country trapped in a silent war. The war divided them from their parents further than almost any generation before. Out of this came the disillusioned teenagers which make up our protagonists Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood) and ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo). Each one has been warped in their own way by their family upbringing. The film places these characters into increasingly unnerving situations. The script never directly addresses these issues, the fight for male ego, burgeoning sexuality and acceptance is underplayed to such an extent that not even the characters themselves seem to recognise it. Each one seems ready to explode from their own troubles but are forced into a straight-jacketed ‘normal’ life.

In fact, the only character who is ever permitted to express this is Jim. But even then it is in short outbursts, devoid of literal meaning but filled with raw emotional power. His performance is, while decidedly accomplished, somewhat stilted and awkward. Even the few years that he has on the character seem to render him as a man in boys shoes. It’s an odd quirk which the film bends to its advantage, Jim becomes the guide and patriarch in the dysfunctional family set up by these three children.

This temporary family unit reflects the dissatisfaction that they feel in their home lives but also absorbs the problems. The freudian conflict and jealousy felt by Plato is shocking for its time, as his clear romantic intentions are thwarted by the mother figure. The same mother figure who is denied the affection of her own father.

The film captures a generation in the process of change. New definitions of masculinity created rifts in the social structure at the same time as women asserted their own autonomy. Perhaps it is best seen as a snapshot, parts of it are imperfect but it serves as a flawless reminder of a flawed time.

 

Margaret – 2011

margaretThe ten-years-in-the-making Margaret sets out its mission from the word go; to examine a teenager thrown into impossible situations. When you place a not-yet-fully-formed human into a situation that no one should ever have to confront what happens?

In the case of Lisa (Anna Paquin), a lot. Her life, as mirrored in the script and cinematographic style goes from cheesy teen soap opera to living nightmare within ten minutes. The classic film tropes of chasing a bus, flirting with the driver as he drives away and generally being a carefree adolescent are overturned when this bus actually hits somebody. The red light that it ran through is on screen for a split second, we, like her, could well have missed it in all the rush. From here onwards the film evolves into a spiral of consequences and repercussions.

Lisa searches fruitlessly for an outlet where she can outsource her pain and guilt.  This causes her to hurt a huge group of undeserving people. Each time she pulls another person into her web of carelessness and hurt the film cuts away from the dialogue. We know enough to be sure that it is painful for everyone. We are, however, observers and, as such, we are not allowed to hear the intimacies of these conversations. While this is a clever idea, it is executed rather clumsily and is often very irritating, as conversations are replaced with heavily over-amplified background noises: a phone ringing five metres away or cutlery clanging in the out-of-shot kitchen of a restaurant.

While Anna Paquin gives a sterling performance as the protagonist she is let down by the script. It is impossible to warm to the character of Lisa. She is loud, obnoxious, thoughtless and selfish. In a film which clearly sets her up as a sympathetic figure, almost a teenage everyman, it is strange to have created a character so utterly disagreeable that it almost seems she deserves her troubles.

What is bizarre is that the many subplots scattered throughout the film are often more engaging and better made than the main thrust of the story. Lisa’s alienation from her schoolmates is perfectly portrayed as her peers exist only as talking heads who snap and shout at each other over relatively trivial matters. A series of sexual trysts and their consequences present us with a sly commentary on today’s sexualised society. However another thread involving her mother’s relationship with a new man, while being a fascinating and thought-provoking story, seems irrelevant to the film as a whole, making it seem over-stuffed and needlessly complex. Perhaps this is a symptom of the protracted editing period this film endured. After so much fighting for the film to be finished at all it must have put even more pressure on the creators to not leave any of their precious footage on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately this is perhaps where some of it belonged.