The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

Why would I watch a film like The Birth of a Nation? It clocks in at 169 minutes long, and as a silent film that is now 100 years old I’d expect the narrative structure and storytelling to be a far cry from what I’m used to today. The storylines cover a period of history that I don’t associate with, and it is the history of a country that I have experienced first-hand only through Orlando theme parks, which despite their best intentions probably aren’t a fair representation of the rest of the USA.

There is a certain detachment from it that means it lacks the stigma I’m sure it holds for Americans. Perhaps it’s the challenge of being able to say I’ve watched it, or to see for myself what all the critics have discussed many times over. Let’s not forget that it holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was the highest grossing film of all time until Gone With The Wind some 25 years later, and it is regarded as one of the most culturally significant films of all time. These facts alone should make it essential viewing for a fan of the history of cinema.

The film starts small and builds to encompass some of the biggest political changes the world has ever seen. Initially, we focus on two families: the Stonemans and the Camerons. The Stonemans are a pro-Union family from Northern US, and they set off to visit the Camerons, a South Carolina-based pro-Confederacy family. Romance and friendship fly between some of the younger members, but this is curtailed when the young men are forced to join their respective armies for the Civil War. Their stories and relationships are intertwined throughout the film, all with the backdrop of some great war battle scenes, some (at the time) shocking torture scenes, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and the entry into Reconstruction-era USA. It’s complex, it’s ambitious and on a purely story-driven level it really works. Films of this grand scale had never been attempted before and it’s not difficult to imagine the wow factor experienced by the audiences when they originally saw it.

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That said, it’s extremely difficult to cover everything necessary to put this film into context. I’m sure whole university courses have been taught on the subject. It is one that traverses cinema, film history and political history and it would take a braver man than I to tackle everything in a short review. The elements of the film that are now deemed to be racist are interesting only from a historical point of view. Indeed, it is alarming that they were ever considered to be not racist. This includes, but isn’t limited to: the romanticisation of the founding of the KKK; African Americans getting elected into parliament only to be shown drinking during parliamentary sessions once in power; the portrayal of white men as the victims for large periods of the second half of the film; the way that the mere suggestion of interracial marriage is shown as abhorrent to white people; and most offensively, the Ku Klux Klan being shown as simply upholding the good values of the land and being the savours of an honest and righteous USA.

One African American is portrayed as a sexual deviant in one scene depicting the attempted rape of a central white character, who opts for suicide in one of the most suspenseful and heartbreaking scenes of the film. It’s segments such as this that really underline both the achievements and the failings of the film, with some pioneering techniques used to create a real edge-of-the-seat experience juxtaposed by subject matter that should never have seen the light of day.

It’s an eye-opener for the political status of the USA in 1915 that this is the case. The fact is that there are quite blatantly racist depictions of African Americans, particularly in the second half, and on every level these are jarring for the modern viewer. Couple this with the length of the film and the fact it’s a silent film and you have something that is quite inaccessible for the casual viewer.

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Certainly Griffith, directing what would come to be his defining picture, felt he had to add a pre-title screen statement clarifying and justifying the existence of the film (this was added to a re-release of the film after its exceptionally successful initial run). Later, riddled with guilt about the success of the film and – more importantly – who it was finding success with, he released Intolerance in 1916, which went a long way to protect his reputation and show other sides of the argument by heavily criticising racism and prejudice. Later he released the first cinematic portrayal of interracial romance (Broken Blossom, 1918). Also included on this disc (the Masters of Cinema PAL release) is a seven minute interview that introduced the film from 1930 onwards, where he attempted to justify the release further. It must have been a tough situation to be in for Griffith, being lauded for a film that you no longer wished to be associated with.

I’m glad I watched it, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of film. For a casual viewer who wants to be entertained, I see nothing for you here.

The Birth of a Nation is out now on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, whilst Griffith’s later film Intolerance will be released on Blu-ray, also via Masters of Cinema, on 8th December 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2014 Preview

This week sees the start of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and I’ll be heading down to London tomorrow to see as many as I can in three days.

Here’s what I chose:

French Riviera (Andre Téchiné, France, 2014)
Black Coal, Thin Ice / 白日焰火 (Diao Yinan, China, 2014)
The Imitation Game (Morton Tyldum, United Kingdom, 2014)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, United Kingdom, 2014)
’71 (Yann Demange, United Kingdom, 2014)
Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, Japan, 2014)

Frustratingly I double-booked myself for the Biophilia Sonic Gala so I will have to miss out, though I’m now extremely popular with my brother’s girlfriend who is seeing it for free!

Expect some reviews over the next week or so of these films. Have a great one if you’re also heading down. Maybe I’ll see you there!!

Lilting (Hong Khaou, 2014)

Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a film of understated power. Watching it is a deeply moving experience.

The plot deals with the unexpected death of a young man played by Kai, and the toll this takes on his lover Richard (played by Ben Whishaw) and his mother Junn (played by Cheng Pep-pei). The snag in the situation is that the mother is unaware that her son is homosexual, and the situation is made more complex by the fact that Richard intends to respect his lover’s wish to keep this secret whilst at the same time ensuring Junn is looked after, which raises issues that are extenuated by the fact they have no common language. Or rather, they don’t until Ben hires a translator, though this gives rise to as many issues as it resolves.

This is a complicated storyline to see through and could easily fall flat with poor performances. Junn is brilliantly stubborn and cold, though we can see a heartbroken woman underneath the façade. Whishaw’s turn is an absolute revelation and every quirk adds to the belief that he is completely ripped apart by the situation.

A large amount of praise also needs to be heaped on the unwillingness to shy away from the fact we are seeing a homosexual relationship. So many times in films we see same-sex relationships implied but rarely do we see the playful intimacies and passion of such a relationship. This isn’t to say that there are any gratuitous sex-scenes, but the story called for the young men to be very much in love and the closeness is not shirked. Hopefully this is something we will see more of in the future.

Lilting is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a stunning study of the emotions people go through when someone they are close to dies with a secret, and the difficult resolutions they find to deal with the loss. If you get a chance to see it, then grasp it with both hands.

Lilting is out now in selected cinemas across the UK, and will be released in the USA on 26th September 2014.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014)

So then. Transformers 4. The fourth in the rebooted franchise. The one everyone has been dreading. Can it really be as disappointing as we hope it isn’t?

Well, the answer lies in your expectations. The storyline is interchangeable with any of the others. The autobots and deceptacons are having a battle about something and the humans are involved too, because it’s set in a conveniently placed city in USA. They’re back here in hiding because… there was a reason. I think the humans wanted to kill them. Some of them did. But they wanted to protect the other ones. But… OOH EXPLOSION!

The main difference is that Shea LeBouf was busy perfecting his English accent for Nymphomaniac so has been replaced by Mark Wahlerg. This changes the dynamic, I guess, as he is protecting his daughter rather than his girlfriend. Her Irish boyfriend was introduced about 30 minutes in, but he felt like an afterthought. To be fair, Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci are both in fine form as the bad guys.

At the end of the film, I felt surprisingly satisfied. The film didn’t tax me, the storyline was pretty forgettable, but I like the series and they have made some massive improvements, my favourite of which was to do with the CGI elements.

Of course, a Transformers film is not a Transformers film without good CGI and that is where the last two fell down. This time around, we can actually see the fights and the transformations. We can follow the action. The transformers are identifiable and unique. We are rooting for one over another. They don’t lose a heap of screws, metal and oil every time they take a step. The camera is much less shaky. It was, well, quite good to be honest.

Another good thing was that the human characters, in general, were likeable. You rooted for the good guys and hated the bad guys. They were clearly defined as they should be in a summer action film. Mainly the bad guys wore all-black, which helped someone with a low IQ like myself.

The film also managed to strike a good balance between taking itself seriously and being tongue-in-cheek. You can’t be too serious when you’re talking to an alien robot, and I felt they got this spot on.

I used to like the toys and cartoon as a child, but I wasn’t a die-hard fan. Indeed, from memory there weren’t that many die-hard fans, but people vaguely remembered having an Optimus Prime action figure and laid claim to being Transformarians (I made that up) when the reboot was originally announced. For this one, there was a lot of pre-release chat about the dinobots. I honestly don’t believe anyone remembers them vividly. They’re hardly in the film, appearing maybe 90 minutes into the action. They didn’t change much but might help fund film five.

So, take your pick. It’s a big, dumb, action film. The men are meat heads, the women are attractive. There are car chases, explosions, robots fighting. The storyline is flimsy. It’s great.

Now let me get back to drinking my Bud Light whilst I purchase a Chevrolet will you?

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The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films.”

It’s that last line that really bothers me. That was Hayao Miyazaki talking, in 1978, about what animation means to him. It wasn’t a hard quote to locate. I only started reading his autobiography (of sorts), Starting Point, five minutes ago. It was right there in the third paragraph of the first page.

I don’t think there’s any denying that, when looking back at the career of one of the greatest and most imaginative directors of all time (and I’m not limiting that to animation either), he has created a body of work that surpassed that which would have been capable in any other medium. If you look at Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, even his work on Sherlock Hound The Detective, it’s difficult to see how any other medium mentioned above could have portrayed his story any better than in 2D animation.

So when I was sat there at the cinema watching The Wind Rises, even before I read that opening quote, I couldn’t help but wish for the magic to ooze back into play. I was with a fellow anime fan and another friend who was unaware of any of his output, and we all agreed that the film could have been better served as a live-action film. There wasn’t really any call for the animation. Yes, it looked visually stunning as usual, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

It’s sad that Miyazaki has chosen to finish his body of work with this film. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely not a terrible film and it won’t tarnish his reputation. The story is solid, the characters well-realised, the backdrops deep in detail. It’s just a bit of an anticlimax after a series of such amazing films.

One for the completists and die-hard fans, but if you’re new to Miyazaki, you’d be better to start with Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

The Wind Rises is out in cinemas in the UK now. Reviewed was the Japanese version with English subtitles.

Kuroneko (藪の中の黒猫, Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, 1968, Kaneto Shindo).

I’ve made no attempt previously to hide my love for the Masters of Cinema series, which have been responsible for some of the most glorious transfers of classic cinema I’ve ever seen in home media. You’re not just getting a bit of quick entertainment, but an object to cherish and, in many ways, a work of art in itself.

No corner is cut. Ever. The picture and audio quality is immaculate, facilitating a near-cinema experience should your set up allow. There is almost always a chunky booklet to accompany the disc, and the bonus features on the disc always try to go beyond just a couple of short interviews and a trailer. Even the menu looks rich and well-thought-out.

Kuroneko is no different.

It’s a supernatural horror film, much in the same vain as previous Shindo film Onibaba. It tells the story of the spirits of a mother and her daughter-in-law who had been the victims of a horrific attack at the hands of a group of samurai. They seek revenge having apparently made a pact with the devil, though the ramifications of this only become apparent later on in the film.

The rich chiaroscuro achieved by Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda are beautifully displayed here. Much of the film is spent in the depths of a forest as dark as the story being told. The atmosphere and tension is palpable; it really is edge of your seat stuff at times. There are several disturbing and violent scenes in there, but the harsh reality is not left to the viewer’s imagination.

Kuroneko was a film I sought out after seeing Onibaba, which was also released through the Masters of Cinema label. Similar in style and themes, both pack a lot of punches and are worth checking out. Shindo really was a master of cinema and here in the UK we’re lucky to have such a caring label willing to give the attention his films deserve, even if it is just a handful.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)

12 Years A Slave is a unique film in many ways. Most of the cast are complete unknowns. The budget was very low ($20m USD). There isn’t a massive push to advertise it anywhere, with very few trailers being seen at the cinema and on TV (I do the former quite regularly and I think I’ve seen one). Despite this, it has seemingly grown popular through word of mouth. This is something that’s very difficult to achieve when most of its momentum has come before the release date.

The pattern is similar to that of Shawshank Redemption, though at the time that film really didn’t start well at the box office. It became a sleeper hit and enjoyed success many months after the initial release, thanks to continued praise from critics and several awards nominations and wins.

Indeed, Shawshank’s Dufresne isn’t wholly unlike Northup, the main character in 12 Years. Both are imprisoned against their will for entirely the wrong reasons and are determined to see that justice is realised somehow. It is the kind of story that keeps you captivated and as time goes on you become more and more engrossed in the fact that these people should get the happy ending they deserve.

Steve McQueen is a very clever director. With his background in the visual arts (he won the Turner Prize in 1999), he adds an artistic flair to every shot he takes. Much like his debut Hunger, almost every shot could be framed and put on the wall to enjoy in its own right. The cinematography is just that good. Equally, he doesn’t shy away from allowing the camera to linger on our characters as they encounter struggles. One shot in particular sticks in your mind, when Soloman is partially hung in his first plantation and having to stand on the tips of his toes to draw the smallest of breaths. A less confident director would have cut away several times to show other subplots developing, sporadically cutting back to show he is still in pain. McQueen’s choice to stay with him is an example of how bold he is prepared to be and it is one of the most striking parts of the film.

I got confused by some of the sound editing. Several times there was an active choice to allow clashes between the score and the natural sounds of the scene, and most of the time it didn’t really work. The choice was obviously made to let the clash signify discomfort, and was occasionally exacerbated by bleeding audio into the following shots or scene, and in one particular scene, where Eliza was uncontrollably crying, it was overly confusing and distracted me from what I was supposed to be watching.

That aside, it is rightly being considered to sweep the board at this year’s Oscars. I don’t think it will, because there are too many very strong contenders with no outright frontrunner. If it gets none, there will of course be uproar. However, the same could also be said of Gravity, Dallas Buyers’ Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wallstreet. The list goes on. It is a tough year to pick a winner in each and every category. The deliberation forced on the Academy panel is a sign of what a fantastic year it has been to be a fan of cinema.

12 Years a Slave in out in UK cinemas now.