31/05/2017

Forbidden Bath/The Sand Bath/Games Of Youth/A Funny Story At The Window - Early Spectacle Cinema And Its Attractions

Thoughts On: Forbidden Bath (Baden Verboten, 1906), The Sand Bath (Das Sandbad, 1907), Games Of Youth (Jugendspiele, 1907), A Funny Story At The Window (Eine Lustige Geschichte am Fenster, 1908)


A group of early controversial Austrian films made by Johann Schwarzer.

      

Austria has a prominent and long history of cinema that dates way back into the the late 1800s with newsreels and a comedic film called The Exhibition Sausage Seller and the Billposter. Austria has remained a significant country in European and world cinema to this day through directors such as Michael Haneke who made Funny Games, Amour and The Piano Teacher.

An interesting detail about this country's film history is that the first major production company was one called Saturn-Film, which, organised by Johann Schwarzer, solely produced erotic films. So, after the production of the first Austrian film in 1898 (the mentioned, The Exhibition Sausage Seller and the Billposter) all Austria produced from 1906-10 were these smutty shorts that were showcased in Herrenabendes (night shows for men). This all comes down to Schwarzer's recognition that he could make a lot of money in pushing into competition with the French Pathé Brothers' erotic films and phonograph records of the time.

Schwarzer's films where simply 1-4 minute (on average) scenarios in places such as a beach, a lake or in the privacy of a person's home that featured local women disrobing - and then usually being walked in on by a male, who would often just laugh. We see this through the subjects of this post: Sand Bath, a woman is escorted by a topless man to a beach where she lounges naked; Games Of Youth, naked women throw hoops to one another; Forbidden Bath, a group of women bathe in a lake before being chased away by an onlooker; A Funny Story At A Window, two friends prank a third, leaving her stuck and exposed at a window to be walked in on by a man.

What lies at the crux of all of these films is, very clearly, a sense of lurid voyeurism - one that is entirely inherent to cinema. As we have discussed before when we looked at the work of Eadweard Muybridge, cinema granted people an almost absurd power to capture, control and manipulate space time in the late 1800s. It's not surprising that, whilst we would use this to communicate informally, formally, emotionally and intellectually through arts and sciences, we'd also use this power to indulge sexual desires - among other more 'base' impulses.

We see this when taking a look into film history, to, in a certain sense, year zero: 1985. This year is of course known for the Lumière brothers' observational shorts, films such as Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory.


Not only are we seeing voyeurism here through this distant observational documentary, one of the first 'films' ever made, but we have an even stronger sense of this with a film called The Execution Of Mary Queen Of Scots - which came out the same year as one of the first ever special effects shorts, one that depicts a beheading.


We get further examples of this indulgent eye of cinema, one that seeks out violence and flesh, two years later with the first 'adult film', After The Ball (1897), made by Georges Méliès - which takes further the 'strip tease' present in what some claim to be the first adult film, Le Coucher de la Mariee (Bedtime For The Bride, 1899).

On a slight side note, Méliès' After The Ball didn't contain real nudity - the actress, who he later married, only simulated this with a skin-coloured suite that she wore whilst being soaked and washed by her maid. However, almost as a homage to Méliès (this is a detail I cannot confirm), Schwarzer made In The Bath in 1910 - which is almost identical to After The Ball, except it contains real nudity.

Coming back on point, this paradigm of spectacle and cinema's lurid, voyeuristic eye has been famously coined by Thomas Gunning to be a 'cinema of attractions'. This means to define the first decade or so of cinema as one that primarily meant to draw an audience with simplistic, circus-esque displays. However, there are often two things many will overlook or over-embellish when it comes to this early era. The first thing is that this wasn't really a naive and innocent time for cinema; we didn't just go from screwball comedies to 60s/70s exploitation and pornography. If you delve into the filmography of the Edison Manufacturing Company alone, you'll easily find a lot of material that even modern audiences would strongly disagree with - one of these being Electrocuting An Elephant (to death, 1903). The second element of the cinema attractions that is often overlooked is that this paradigm never ended; cinema, by and large, still means to act as pure spectacle as to attract large audiences. Whilst film became more complex as narratives and formal strategies evolved, films like those by Schwarzer are a reminder that simple spectacle remained relevant as we moved out of this initial decade of a cinema of attractions and has continued on to this day.

That said, it does have to be emphasised that censorship was nonetheless a significant antagonist to this free cinema of attractions that Schwarzer represented in the early days of Austrian film. Despite Schwarzer refusing to film actual pornography, only soft erotica as a public entity that publicised and showcased works without concerns for anonymity, the Austrian authorities, in 1911, closed down Saturn-Film, destroyed its vaults (though, prints have survived to this day) and prevented Schwarzer from making films of this type again. Though Schwarzer tried to move into non-erotic films, he quickly gave this up and moved on in his life - all before being called upon during WWI where he was killed in battle.

The final question that can be raised in respect to Schwarzer's films addresses a claim he made in his advertisements, one that stated he was producing art that was focused on beauty, not pornography. This is, to a certain extent, quite true. After all, during this period, in 1908, some of the first actual (known) pornographic films were made - a famous example of this being, A L'Ecu d'Or, ou La Bonne Auberge (A Gold Ecu, or The Good Hotel). However, there is nonetheless an undeniable element of, what we would now call, soft porn in Schwarzer's work. If this wasn't the case then these films wouldn't be shown in Herrenabendes (night shows for men) that women obviously weren't invited to. If Schwarzer's films were art like Farnese Hercules or Lely’s Venus are...

  

... then all would be invited. This ultimately holds a significant question mark over the idea that Schwarzer was making art. However, I wouldn't deem his films, nor any film that could be called a cinema of attractions, a form of cinema that is lesser than later or more modern forms. This is because there is a certain amount of craftsmanship/artistry/creativity required in the construction of any film. Moreover, and as implied, the line between a cinema of attractions and modern forms is, in my view, a very vague one that is only defined by the difference between an era that didn't have the respect for film on a wide scale to begin to consider it art, and one that did/does, but still produces a huge volume of spectacle cinema.

So, I'll now leave you to your own 'research' and with a few questions for thought. What are your views on early cinema spectacle? Are Schwarzer's films art? What, if any, is the relationship between this cinema of attractions, Schwarzer's movies and modern film in your view?

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30/05/2017

Crocodile Dundee - Fish Out Of Water

Quick Thoughts: Crocodile Dundee (1986)


One of the most iconic Australian films, one made by Peter Faiman that sees a reporter travel into the Australian outback to investigate the life of a small town legend, Mich Crocodile Dundee.


Crocodile Dundee is both an excellent twist on the conventional romance and the fish out of water adventure film. With some great direction, beautiful use of the landscape in the first half and brilliant performances from the two leads, this is a fun movie done incredibly well. The only downfalls of this movie come with a few tonal inconsistencies, bad fight sequences and a pretty transparent plot. Truth be told, however, none of this really matters, nor does it hugely impact the film's quality; it's one that can be watched time and time again just for the joy of it.

Based on the life of Rod Ansell, the 'real' Crocodile Dundee, this narrative takes advantage of his mythos whilst painting a few broad strokes as to create a bit of an 'ocker'. Starting with the story of Rod Ansell, like Mick Dundee, Ansell did get in a boat accident (one that maybe didn't involve a crocodile - though, it was later revealed by people close to Ansell that he was poaching them) that left him stranded in the outback for weeks - 52 days. Travelling back to his home town over a distance of 100+ miles with his dogs, Ansell hunted buffalo to stay alive (eating their meat and drinking their blood when necessary) and even shot a 16 ft crocodile whose head he kept. However, this was not a remarkable feat to Ansell and he, by and large, kept it to himself as a mere mistake or failure overcome. This was until the local newspapers heard the story, garnering Ansell a lot of media attention and fame that eventually lead to Paul Hogan writing this script. The major deviations between the script and the real life of Ansell are then left to be, mainly, the romance with Linda Kozlowski's, Sue Charlton.

Coming to the critique that Crocodile Dundee received, whilst it was the second highest grossing film of 1986 in America (beaten only by Top Gun), some Australians didn't much like the depiction of what could have been perceived as an archetypal Australian as an ocker - a rough, rowdy, uncultivated Aussie. However, what overshadowed this critique for Ansell was the fact that he was never able to profit from the film - nor the two that proceeded it. He attempted to take Hogan to court, but was unsuccessful. It's from this point on that Ansell lead a difficult life that concluded with possible psychological issues and an alcohol-involved altercation with police that ended in a shootout and his death.

Despite this movie then being a dark spot in Ansell's life, it serves as a bright piece of entertainment for many; one that is, in my view, a testament to the positive meeting of cultures and people of all kinds. Without bridging into sentimentalism, Crocodile Dundee is then a comedic exploration of small town sensibilities providing perspective and order to big city chaos. So, to end, what are your thoughts on Crocodile Dundee?

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29/05/2017

Osama - The Steps We Take (Together)

Thoughts On: Osama (2003)

A film made by Siddiq Barmak that chronicles the consequences of the Taliban closing down a hospital on a family of three women.


Osama is an overwhelmingly tragic film accumulated from real stories about the persecution of the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan in the late 90s and early 2000s. In such, this follows a girl whose family has been left without any men due to the Soviet-Afghan War. Without any males in the family, it becomes incredibly hard to leave the house, let alone find work and food, due to the enforcement of an interpreted Sharia law by the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist Taliban. So, to find work and secure some source of income, the mother and grandmother of this family decide to disguise their daughter/granddaughter as a boy. However, working in a small milk shop and mistaken to be a boy, she is found and recruited into a military school by the Taliban where she is given the name Osama by a friend as a means of concealing the truth - an effort that becomes of apparent futility.

The core of this film is not just the voicing of numerous cases of inhuman persecution, but also an exploration of the established divide between men and women in this place and time. This is emphasised by the glimmers of Barmak's original script - which was supposed to have been far more positive - that seep into this dismal tale. We see this as the grandmother tells a story about a rainbow, one that can be walked under to change the gender of a boy to a girl and vice versa. This story affirms the mother's choice to send her daughter into the world as a boy, as it implies the facades that separate men from women can be shattered - in that the actions of people can hold equal weight; men and women can work as hard as one another, can provide for themselves and persevere in life.

It's with this positive perspective that the absurdity of the gender-based oppression depicted becomes glaringly overt. And this is something that Roger Ebert picked up on as he suggests that this narrative seems to have come from a long-lost era of centuries ago. Ultimately, it's this conflict between seeming normality, men and women being treated as equals, and arbitrary absurdity, as represented by the persecution of women in particular by the Taliban, that sets deep within you an immense inundation. What is then left to echo as this narrative concludes is a haunting and resounding, "Why?".

The justification that the Taliban may have provided would have been founded in an interpretation of Pashtunwali ethical codes, which, non-written, is to be the way of life for the Pashtun (Eastern Iranian people who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan). With Pashtunwali ethical codes being integrated with further interpretations of Deobandi Islam, initially, a reactionary movement against British colonialism, the Taliban, among other things, meant to control the purity of women. In such, this regime was focused on the complete concealing of women from men; they could not be photographed, be present on the radio or television, be seen through windows or on balconies, nor without a burka, and they could not be heard in public - not their raised voice or their footsteps (hence the banning of high heels). This, of course, lead to the segregation of men and women - they could not be in mixed work places or schools, and could not be around one another in a public place without a mahram (a male blood-relative who is not marriageable).

What belies this persecution is then clearly a misogynistic fear of sexuality, one that is controlled through the supressive management of women. What this reveals about the narrative of Osama is the subtext of the rainbow story. The changing from girl to boy and vice versa, as motivated by the assumed benefits afforded by being of another gender, is about the bond humans share that were entirely disregarded by the Taliban and those alike. In such, instead of seeing the shared will to live, work and eat in all people, the Taliban only saw the human inclination to seek pleasure through sexual acts facilitated only by the differences between men and women. The passing of male to female, as demonstrated by both this rainbow story and the wider narrative, affirm the former; the idea that, whilst it may seem like we sometimes want to step into one another's shoes, the steps we take into them are one and the same - they are motivated by the same wants and needs.

What is ultimately the conflict expressed through this narrative is then an ignorance of why people do the vast majority of the things we do. Humans are not inherently broken and evil; our base inclinations are not corrupt. At our core, almost all human beings only want to live comfortable, secure lives. This is something that work and sexuality, in equal measure, facilitates. However, it takes two halves for both of these functions to work; men and women need to work and be together. To reduce one of these halves to a near-human object as a means of sterilising this process is the absurdity we see put in face of natural normalcy within Osama. This then is entirely encapsulated by the duality of the title that is both a reference to Bin Laden, but also the struggle of our protagonist against such a paradigm.






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End Of The Week Shorts #7.3

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28/05/2017

End Of The Week Shorts #7.3



Today's Shorts: 10 Ave Maria (2011), The Matrix (1999), Footlight Parade (1933), Ménilmontant (1926)



An interesting short film by Aruban writer and director, Juan Francisco Pardo, 10 Ave Maria ambiguously explores themes of isolation and meaning with hints of surrealism. 
As with another one of Pardo's shorts, Awa Brak, there is a strong reliance on pure cinema and visual storytelling that builds towards a multi-faceted exploration of our protagonist. So, despite not having a heavy punch and enduring a few technical problems with focus (that are redeemed by the beautiful landscape shots), 10 Ave Maria is an expressive and immersive cinematic experience.



Every time I return to this film, and I've seen it dozens of times, I assume I've seen it all. But... nope. There's always more to be said about, and found within, The Matrix. In such, whilst I find new faults, there's always an affirmation that this is nonetheless a masterpiece. 
What really struck me today was a core problem with the script. In the simplest terms, the Wachowskis have seemingly written a film called the Matrix, and then decided to write a script about it. So, whilst it's nice to see two directors in complete control of their story and its message, for them to constantly remind us of this fact with overt symbolism, references, metaphors and exposition is quite trying. 
With more ambiguity and indirect storytelling, The Matrix would probably be one of my all time favourite films. But, as is, The Matrix is a compelling film that I can't stop returning to for the insane world building and complex, far-stretching narrative.



Footlight Parade is a fun picture of two parts; there's the narrative and then there are the musical set-pieces - and they have absolutely nothing to do with one another. In such, this film builds towards theatrical performances that a group of dancers struggle to put on under the management of Jimmy Cagney's Chester Kent. With the finale, in which we see three performances put on in one night, we jump into sequences that are never mentioned, practised or even hinted at at any point during the narrative. This is a monolithic plot hole, one that is formally projected as a movie sequence, not even nearly a theatrical performance. 
Does this really matter though? Nah. 
The three musical sequences are a dazzling spectacle of choreography and movement - especially the water sequence, which is truly phenomenal. And the narrative that precedes this is light-hearted and enjoyable with well-constructed characters - though, not the strongest plot. 
So, whilst I wouldn't say this is a masterpiece (maybe the water sequence is), Footlight Parade is a pretty good movie and lots of fun.



Absolutely astounding. 
Ménilmontant is, in certain respects, one of the most modern silent films you'll probably ever see, but also one that's aesthetics capture the most awe-inspiring elements of silent cinema. With some of the best performances ever put to screen that easily outshine a lot of what is put out today and given awards, this narrative has an immensely powerful emotional punch as it skillfully explores themes of love, loss, brutality, family and sisterhood. Added to this is the masterful camerawork, direction and editing that impressionistically emphasise these brilliant performances at a vigorous pace - all of which come together to produce one of the most visceral and impactful filmic experiences I've ever had. 
If you need any more convincing to see this film, look no further than the opening sequence.





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End Of The Week Shorts #7.2

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End Of The Week Shorts #7.2



Today's Shorts: The Oyster Princess (1919), Gulliver’s Travels Among The Lilliputians and The Giants (1902), Rescued By Rover (1905), The Cameraman's Revenge (1912), Life (1993), In The Blue Sea, In The White Foam (1984). The Seashell And The Clergyman (1928), The Abyss (1910)



The Oyster Princess is a flawlessly directed silent film with spectacular editing. The absolute scale of the mise en scene itself is enough to sustain this narrative as strong piece of entertainment. And unfortunately, it does. 
Despite the great technical achievement that is the form of this picture, the script provides very little in the way of characterisation. Admittedly, the plot and scenario have much potential, but every single character is either bland or unlikable. This is a huge let down as with a little more of a spark, this could have been a comedic masterpiece. But, nonetheless, The Oyster Princess is a pretty remarkable movie.



A good example of Méliès application of double exposure and matte painting, this 1902 adaptation of Gulliver's Travels is an interesting watch. Pre-dating his more complex narrative films, this is only a few scenes used as a showcase of special effects and spectacle. So, with a unique aesthetic that's been long lost, there is still a lasting touch of magic in this short.



Rescued By Rover is an intriguing example of a paradigm of seeming anxiety in early narrative films. With immediate and unmotivated conflicts - such as a baby being stolen, just because - we see a depiction of meaningless chaos within society that is fancifully confronted and quashed that is present within many other films. Further examples of this would be the very similar Rescued From An Eagle's Nest (1908), Suspense (1913) and the numerous fantasy/horror films - examples of those coming from Chomón and Méliès. 
This is probably just a result of snappy plotting with very little characterisation and an idea that I'd need to explore further, but is an interesting paradigm nonetheless.



The Cameraman's Revenge is a brilliant animated comedy and bitter-sweet romance about the chaos of cheating and debauchery from the early pioneer of stop motion, Ladislas Starevich. Often using dead insects, he was the first to make puppet-animated films with stop motion from 1912 onward. In this short, he combines this realist form with personification to conjure an astounding aesthetic that perfectly supports this subtly ingenious narrative. 
With some scenes somewhat reminiscent of Pixar's A Bug's Life (in terms of the sensibilities in the approach to world building and personification) this is a pretty timeless film and a must see.



This is a beautiful cinematic poem by Artavazd Peleshian that explores the pain and labour associated with birth, life and its propagation. Wonderfully shot with intricate cinematography this short has a rich atmosphere that perfectly puts you in a reflective mood. However, the true substance of this film certainly lies in the experience of the narrative rather than the aphorisms it motivates. In such, without words, just imagery, this short is an articulate enough exploration of the given themes that simply requires viewing.



In The Blue Sea, In The White Foam is basically a surreal blend of Disney's The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (to a pretty alarming degree) based on Armenian folk and fairy tales. With some dizzying creativity, a good musical tone and a compelling - though transparent - plot, this is was a good watch that should definitely be checked out for the links to the Disney films.



An ambiguously profound masterpiece, The Seashell And The Clergyman is widely considered the first surrealist film. Entirely captivated by the aesthetic, the astounding edit, lighting and cinematography, I'm left entirely awe-struck by this short. In such, and without having a linear and concrete understanding of the narrative, I've been profoundly affected by the apparent themes of struggle, frustration, desire, yearning, control and confusion. And so, without much more of an ability to articulate exactly why, The Seashell And The Clergyman has deeply resonated with me.



The Abyss is a surprisingly sexual take on a classical tale of fatal mishaps and misfortunes thematically reminiscent of works such as Jane Eyre and Tess of the d'Urbervilles that condemns female naivety and impulsivity, yet also sheds some sense of sympathy for the fatally unfortunate. 
In such, this a somewhat complex film that showcases an evolution of narrative and structure in early silent films, though not any formal, directorial or aesthetic development. All in all, without a particularly expressive or interesting story, nor formal approach, The Abyss is relatively ok, but not something I'd be compelled to view again.





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End Of The Week Shorts #7.1



Today's Shorts: Elegy (1965), Fight Club (1999), The Invisible Man (1933), Earth (1930), Suspense (1913), After Death (1915), Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend (1906), House (1977)



Elegy is an expressive cinematic poem that explores horses' (as a species) relationship with humanity. In such, it asks the viewer to question our initial domestication of them thousands of years ago in respect to the manner in which we treat them in the modern age; one that hardly utilises the horse for transport, rarely for labour, in some countries, for food, though often just as attractions such as the circus and races. 
This is such a poignant short thanks to its editing - which has you locked into the narrative with a precise control the ambiguous, sometimes horrifying, atmosphere and tone. Moreover, Elegy has intriguing effects put in place which embellish the poetic montage and add intricacy to the aesthetic approach. 
So, all in all, Elegy is a mesmerising short with compelling subtext that I'd recommend to anyone who's not too squeamish.



Having looked around at other peoples' reviews for a while, it seems quite apparent that Fight Club is a widely misunderstood movie. Yes, it's cool, yes, you're not supposed to talk about it, yes, yes, yes, yes... 
What is so often overlooked is the irony of Fight Club and the fact that this isn't a commentary on society and consumerism - at least, not in the respect that many outline. Fight Club is best seen as a romance, the irony wherein a conscious critique of self-consciousness, rebellion and all the other elements that have 15+ year-olds jizz in their pants. In the simplest terms, Fight Club is about mummy and daddy issues being projected onto the world and the self-proclaimed disenfranchised wanting to strike out at it for that very reason. Fight Club is about not being able to stop pushing the destruct and self-destruct buttons. Moreover, it is about the infectious nature of this very predicament that The Narrator finds himself in. 
The ultimate goal of Fight Club is then the reconciliation of self-hatred as well as mummy, daddy and women issues within our protagonist. In such, this is a movie about growing up and being an adult instead of destroying the world. This then calls into question the final image and all of the garble that is spewed throughout the narrative. To not talk about Fight Club is to get on with your problems without palming them off to everyone else. To break that rule is to form Fight Club, to allow the external fight to be needlessly, perpetually and immaturely propagated. Adhering to the rules has you focus on the person close to you and, in The Narrator case, she who holds your hand through your needless destruction of the world. 
All in all, Fight Club is a romance, little more.



The Invisible Man is a comedic and satirical commentary on anxiety and positions of power, one that exposes the absurdity of both incompetence and corruption. In such, The Invisible Man makes fun of the average businessman, the police force, scientists and a plethora of other positions. Knowing this will add both substance and sense to the experience of this ludicrous narrative. 
Beyond this, The Invisible Man holds some great direction, fluid and energised camera work and, of course, some ground breaking special effects that are, for the most part, pretty flawless - you do see strings, Claude Rains' eyes below his bandages and the artifice of sequences from time to time though. Nonetheless, this is a highly enjoyable pre-code picture, one I recommend to all. 
P.S. This movie is referenced in Fight Club - just look at Tyler's glasses in the third act.



Profoundly brilliant, Dovzhenko's Earth is a masterpiece of epic proportions. Strictly from a formal perspective, this is not only one of the greatest pieces of soviet montage I've seen, but one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I've ever witnessed. With astounding impressionistic camera work and an edit that time and time again simply flawed me, Earth has a tremendous sense of pace, rhythm and mise en scène. And supported by Ovchinnikov's score, this narrative reached through the screen and shook me senseless - especially in the astonishing harvest sequence. 
Without a means of properly articulating the brilliance of this film, all I can suggest is that you go find Earth and let it speak for itself.



An exercise in, as the title suggests, suspense, this film shows the parallel events of three characters, a wife, a husband and a tramp as the latter breaks into the former's house with malicious intent. Whilst this narrative has no substance in terms of subtext or characterisation, it does well in conducting this technical exercise. In such, this contains a handful of striking shots and some pretty impressive split screen that keeps the pacing on point and full of energy. 
Beyond this, the only other interesting detail of this film is the fact that it is one of the most notable shorts that was co-directed by Lois Weber, the first female American filmmaker. And such cites this film as an prominent picture of film history.



After Death is a highly melodramatic romance with a psychological and tragic twist to it. In such, it captures a melancholic and graceful tone along with a heavily sombre atmosphere - one that is greatly supported by the rich aesthetics--the colour tinting especially. This formulates a highly immersive narrative that is well paced and a delight to watch. 
The only downfalls you could pick out of this film would be in regard to the manner in which the melodrama impacts characterisation. As could be assumed, this means to be a highly emotive film, and whilst it is somewhat poignant, the characters are left slightly flat with a rushed set-up that doesn't allow a bond to really be formed between the two leads. However, this seems to be an intentionally placed element of the script, so, I wouldn't critique this heavily, but nonetheless could understand why this narrative wouldn't be particularly interesting to some. 
But, all in all, I enjoyed After Death and was struck most by its control of tone and atmosphere, so wouldn't shy away from suggesting you watch it too.



This is a fun early special effects spectacle that garners a few laughs through some ludicrous over-eating and hallucinogenic dreaming. With a premise and a lot of imagery that is reminiscent of a plethora of other films of the times, Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend isn't especially remarkable. However, this holds within a stand-out sequence that uses superimposition to create a dizzying effect which was particularly redeeming and reason enough to give this short a watch.



Obayashi's House is a self-reflective film without rules, one that is uniquely insane in pulling out all the stops. 
However, I've just watched this for the first time and really can't say more than that. I've been completely flawed and will certainly be watching this again - and hopefully then I'll be able to say a little more.




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27/05/2017

Knock Off - Why Is This An Aruban Movie?

Thoughts On: Knock Off (1998)


Unknowingly shipping imitation clothing across the world, Marcus Ray is roped into an explosion of CIA, gangs and terrorism.


Aruba is a Dutch Caribbean Island about 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, 20% of which is a national park, that sits just off the coast of Venezuela - you can even see it on clear days. A significant country in regards to water purification technology with the world's most renowned female wind surfer and an internationally recognised film festival, Aruba seems like an interesting little place. But, for some reason, its only cinematic exports are a collection of late 90s/early 2000s action pictures like Mercenary For Justice starring Steven Seagal, Hard Cash with Val Kilmer, Control with Ray Liota, Willem Defo and Michelle Rodriguez, Unstoppable featuring Wesley Snipes, The Order with Jean-Claude Van Damme and... of course... JCVD's 1998 Knock Off. Oh, we can't forget Hammerhead too - a movie about a half man, half shark. I'm sure it's a masterpiece. After days of trying to figure out why this is the case, I can confidently say that I'd give my right nut to know what the hell is going on here. These movies aren't made in Aruba, in fact, the vast majority of Knock Off was shot in Hong Kong - some second unit footage in the Philippines. I assume these movies were produced in Aruba, meaning there's got to be money flowing through there. But, I honestly have no idea as to what is going on here.

Nonetheless... let's talk about Knock Off. In short, a 90s action film that was the penultimate effort in JCVD's 90s career that was soon ended with the second Universal Soldier movie: The Return. Knock Off was then a feature of a six film flop series including the aforementioned Universal Soldier II as well as Double Team, Maximum Risk, The Quest and Sudden Death. Van Damme of course turned this around with the critically acclaimed JCVD in 2008 that lead to reality T.V shows and a whole lot of other mess including The Expendables and more Universal Soldier movies. But, money, flops, reality T.V and careers don't matter. Is this movie good?

Short answer: not really. There's a lot to really appreciate about this film though - especially in regard to the direction, choreography and camera work. However, you only appreciate it as you can tell that there is some effort being put into this movie; this isn't handled as throw away slop. In such, there's an ambitious use of CGI that has us move through spaces in an interesting manner, but... this ultimately serves as a shoddy example of what we got a year later with the first Matrix movie. Moreover, there's a lot of flashy camera movement that works wonders in certain actions sequences, but, for the most part, this is inarticulate cinematic language and an abuse of an idea of a moving frame. There's also a few experimental effects that create a blurred stroboscopic aesthetic that are, again, interesting, but not very well applied.

The other technical redeeming factors of this film are elements of the fight choreography, but, a vast majority of this was cut from the movie. So, what we see here are the downfalls of this movie starting to rub out the positives. In such, the edit ruins many action sequences, which are boring and far too stretched out for the most part, leaving only one that's pretty spectacular - without spoilers, there's a lot of people and knives. The vast majority of the other action scenes are poorly constructed with terrible logic and pretty horrific wire work that is hard to overlook.

However, the worst element of Knock Off is the meeting of this script with a few awful casting decisions...


Both Lela Rochon and Rob Schneider suck here - especially Schneider thanks to the script. As you could guess, he's the bumbling comic relief thing, except there is no relief and there is no comedy to be found anywhere. But, in regards to the script, there's nothing truly offensive about it - it's just bland 90s mush that you can see in a million different movies - almost all of which are trying to capture the work done in the 70s by the likes of Bruce Lee.

In all honestly, there's not too much to get mad at with this movie. You know what it is within twenty seconds and it tries to do a good job about things. The only significant thing that you can take away from this movie is then a lesson in how not to construct the finale of an action thriller.

With subtlety, the most dragging element of Knock Off is the lack of a good antagonist. If there was a big bad guy, a boss of sorts, that was somewhat formidable or interesting - at least present - then the fights would have meant a lot more and the heroes would have been far more compelling (maybe not Schneider). This would have all built towards a conclusion that meant something for the characters and, in turn, the audience. And in securing some sense of pace within the narrative, Knock Off could have been enjoyable, dumb fun. However, it's the lack of antagonism and momentum that really leaves this film unenjoyable nonsense.

So, all in all, at best Knock Off will be a mediocre movie to anyone not expecting much, and a pretty boring film with a lot of problems to anyone suspecting anything more. Sorry for not being able to find a better film for the World Cinema Series, maybe I'll find something else soon, but I'll now leave things with you. Have you seen Knock Off? What are your thoughts?

Oh. And if you know why this is classed as an Aruban movie, please tell me.

UPDATE: I found and reviewed an Aruban film that better fits into the World Cinema Series for the End Of The Week Shorts. Here it is...


An interesting short film by Aruban writer and director, Juan Francisco Pardo, 10 Ave Maria ambiguously explores themes of isolation and meaning with hints of surrealism. 
As with another one of Pardo's shorts, Awa Brak, there is a strong reliance on pure cinema and visual storytelling that builds towards a multi-faceted exploration of our protagonist. So, despite not having a heavy punch and enduring a few technical problems with focus (that are redeemed by the beautiful landscape shots), 10 Ave Maria is an expressive and immersive cinematic experience.


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Tarzan - Rock & Roll Nerds: Disney And The Dead Parent Thing

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26/05/2017

Tarzan - Rock & Roll Nerds: Disney And The Dead Parent Thing

Thoughts On: Tarzan (1999)


An orphaned boy is raised by a gorilla, but one day encounters creatures that look like himself.


Tarzan is way up there as one of my favourite Disney films as it has always, even when I was a kid as I remember, resonated with me in a somewhat visceral sense. This comes down to the immense energy, both physically and emotionally, that this narrative conjures from the word go. In fact, it is almost undeniable that this is a significant film for Disney in respect to action - especially considering all that came before (the only competitor being Aladdin). But, added to this, the sound track provided by Phil Collins is absolutely incredible; it only takes a few bars of each song until you have to give in to the perfect accompaniment of image and sound that is truly some of best work of this type that Disney has put out. And so, it's through these two brilliant elements that you see the monumental power, both physically and emotionally, that this narrative builds.

What I then want to discuss today is essentially where that energy goes; in short, how this funnels into the structure of this narrative. Before working towards this though, I'll preface by saying that this will, in some ways, be an extension of the previous post in the series in which we considered a more general idea of the family film. In such, we'll be developing the idea that family films have certain characteristics that appeal to a target audience, characteristics that inadvertently seem to reveal a little something about ourselves.

So, to start, let's step back and considered the depiction of families in Disney movies...


Snow White. No real mention of parents, the step mother is evil.


Pinocchio. A single father with a near-real son.


Dumbo. No father to speak of, mother is incarcerated for the majority of the narrative.


Bambi. A distant father and a mother who dies.


Cinderella. Dead parents, evil step mother and a fantastical fairy godmother.


Alice In Wonderland. A sister, but no real mention of parents.


Peter Pan. Our first outlier. Whilst Peter is an orphan, there is a full, happy-for-the-most-part family around Wendy and the boys.


Sleeping Beauty. Both parents are around, but the family is torn apart for years on end.


101 Dalmatians. Full family - very full.


The Sword In The Stone. No parents, a near-Cinderella story with a dickish adopted family.


The Jungle Book. Orphaned boy left in a jungle to die.


The Aristocats. No dad, but a highly flirtatious mother.


The Little Mermaid. No mother mentioned at all.


Beauty And The Beast. A dead mother and a weird father.


Aladdin. Orphaned street rat.


Lion King. As we all know, dad dies, mother left to be slapped around by evil uncle.


Toy Story. No mention of dad, just an implication that maybe he left behind some toys.


Hercules. 'Family' is torn apart. (Family in this one's a bit complicated though).


Mulan. Another outlier. Bother parents are hanging in here - there's even a grandmother, though, also a bunch of dead ancestors.


This brings us to Tarzan... yep, dead parents. You even see their bodies...


... which is pretty audacious. Oh, and add to this, this scene...


That said, we can continue to find more examples of this if we look beyond Tarzan, but, as is quite notoriously clear, there is a paradigm within Disney films that isn't very concerned with depicting full and happy families. Whilst I have no critique of this, it is a pretty glaring paradigm because, after all, these are all films aimed towards families. This is then such an overt and noticeable paradox because you wouldn't think that the majority of romance films were focused on single people. Whilst you could argue that there is a tension in romance films between couples, this conflict is put in place with the inevitable implication that there will be some form of romantic equilibrium established in the end of the narrative; girl and boy always come back together. This paradigm does exist, to a certain extent, within Disney films as families are torn apart, but do come together - often in unconventional groupings. For example, the orphan princess of Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty finds her Prince Charming - as does Ariel and Belle - Aladdin his Princess Charming. What's more, in films such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, The Sword In The Stone, Lion King, Toy Story and Tarzan, we see families form across different species and organisms of varying classes. This says that it would certainly be hyperbolic to suggest that Disney films are fixated on tearing families apart. Nonetheless, there is something going on under the surface here.

The best way to begin to understand this paradigm would be to take a look at a comedic song by Tim Minchin...


As dumb as this song is, the artifice inadvertently embellished by the dated, T.V aesthetics and sensibilities, what lies at the heart of this is... heart. And this is what the best of Minchin's work seems to expose, however ludicrous. What this song is then about is a predicament of 'all heart, no facade'. In such, whilst he may be a rockstar within, he's certainly not on the outside, leaving him a mere rock and roll nerd. There is a clear wit about this song for this very reason. Moreover, this is an idea that stretches to all those watching as most people have some kind of passion, obsession or love in life, but probably aren't the Bruce Lee, Jimmy Hendrix, Muhammad Ali or Marlon Brando of their craft. And what this simply means is that very few people are 'the complete package'.

This idea is, of course, true in all elements of life; we aren't anything near perfect in every or any regard. However, within us is the rock and roll nerd that thinks about his girlfriend dying, or, there is, if we fool our selves into seeing it, Han Solo in our reflection...


What this all of course draws upon is the wish fulfilment element of art. But, what I want to focus on is the rock and roll nerd side of this coin, as opposed to the Han Solo reflection one, as one obviously seems a little more complex than the other.

So, whilst believing you're something you're not to feel good makes sense, believing you're in greater hardships than you are is a bit ridiculous. But, people do this as they believe suffering, and those who suffer, are cooler than everyone else. This is why we usually root for the underdog in many aspects of life, and so, the Han Solo image is not too far removed from a rock and roll nerd paradigm after all. The best example of this would, of course, be Bruce Lee...


Whilst he is widely considered the coolest thing that has ever existed, this isn't just about his skills as a fighter and the films he was in. There is a thesis and antithesis within Bruce Lee. He wasn't a perfect Herculean figure, rather, an immigrant with an immense skill set that somehow made it to be one of the biggest stars in history through incredibly hard work - an imperfect synthesis. The same can be said about Arnold Schwarzenegger (though, he has the Herculean figure). In fact, everyone from Muhammad Ali to Jimmi Hendrix to Charlie Chaplin, some of the most iconic figures in the world, had to struggle an inordinate amount to get where they wanted. So, when looking at such figures, you can see, in a certain sense, rock and roll nerds that redefined the standards of 'rockstar'.

Now, what on Earth has this got to do with dead parents in Disney films? As you could probably presume, this has a lot to do with our attraction to underdogs - those rock and roll nerds that redefined standards. This is exactly what Tarzan is...


A baby somehow adapts to survive in one of the most dangerous environments he could possibly be put in, a jungle. But, he not only manages to fit in with his family of gorillas, but also manages to balance the divide in himself between this adaptation and his latent humanity - and this is what Jane represents.


But, this foundation is strengthened when we know that Tarzan doesn't have a mother and father. This is so poignant, considering that this is a family movie, because, as a kid, you can look around you and, in all likelihood, see parents. Those parents of course make your life possible and very easy, so when you consider the relative distance between yourself and Tarzan, there's a huge divide. However, the closer we come to the conclusion of this movie, the closer we come to ourselves - Tarzan with a family around him. In fact, by the end of the narrative, Tarzan transcends our own selves. He starts out without a family, something that we understand that he needs like we do, but somehow fights a way to being stronger than we could ever imagine ourselves to be whilst also getting that family we thought he needed.

The crux of the rock and roll nerd paradigm is then conflict being overcome and ourselves, as a viewing audience, vicariously experiencing that. The dead parent thing within Disney films is a way of instilling this within a family/kids' film. After all, the most emotionally intense Disney films are those that contain the greatest focus on lost parents: Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, The Lion King and, most certainly, Tarzan. On the other hand, what are the lightest, easiest going, Disney films? Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty and Hercules. Why? All of these films have a strong presence of parents, leaving them to find conflict through less intense themes.

It is then through Tarzan that we find the clearest example of why dead parents are a thing within Disney films. This not only distances characters from ourselves to the result of empathy, but allows them to transcend ourselves when they find their equilibrium that, in certain senses, resembles that of a family watching the movie. It is then we that are the rock and roll nerds in respect to themes of family as we sympathise with these characters and are enthralled by these narratives - all with the end result being a build-up to seeing Han Solo in our reflection.

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Knock Off - Why Is This An Aruban Movie?

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