Avril et le Monde Truqué

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Almost every film made is a film about a character who has a problem that needs to be solved, and the audience are taken on a the journey with them as they try to solve that problem. These films can come in the form of Star Wars, where the greater good serves as the moral compass of the film, battling the evil that tries to take over; a Coen Brothers movie, where morals usually don’t exist and characters are simply trying to get what they want; or a film like Avril et le Monde Truqué (April and the Extraordinary World), a story that shows us an alternate version of a steampunk world, with April at the centre, learning and growing as each revelation about the society she lives in is revealed to her.

Studio Ghibli’s recent retirement from animation is still looming over every animation I watch. I thought no more Ghibli films meant no more hand-drawn, intricate portraits of unique worlds, no more subtle nuances of a character that most producers would find unnecessary, and no more quiet films. Avril et le Monde Truqué is a gentle reminder to the world of animation that this is not true.

Inspired by the style of cartoonist Jarcques Tardi, the alternate steampunk universe – that co-director Christian Desmares describes as ‘a retro-futurist adventure’ – it is easy to feel as though you are immediately part of this universe, and that’s because we see the majority of the film through Avril’s (April’s) eyes. The introduction of the film places audiences in 1870, just a day before the Franco-Prussian war. Avril’s great-grandfather, under the order of Emperor Napoleon III, is trying to create a serum that makes their soldiers invincible. However, the result – at the fault of Napoleon and his soldiers – is an explosion, causing them all to die. The colour palette here is dark and almost dystopian, with the blues and greens standing out as if they are illuminated, and the dystopian atmosphere foreshadowing what is to come. This time-frame ends with an iris transition to the next time-zone, where audiences are informed Einstein and Fermi have gone missing, resulting in no creation of electricity or other technological developments. So, society survives off of burning charcoal/wood, resulting in a war that lasts all the way to a now grown-up Avril in 1941. She is on her own, thinks her parents are dead, and only has a talking cat for company.

This sounds bleak, but thanks to the humour and lovingly drawn animation, this film feels just as comforting as a Studio Ghibli film. While France definitely doesn’t have two Eiffel Towers and trains certainly don’t transport through the air, Avril et le Monde Truqué feels at times as if it is a love letter to Paris. There is a focus on the good of humanity through the morally-confused Julius, a perpetual, unbreakable bond through Avril and her Murakami-style talking cat Darwin, and a parent-child bond that saves their lives and the world. Moreover, with what seems to be a reference to Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle in a scene where Avril’s grandfather’s home gets legs and arms, it is apparent directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci have good reference points, resulting in an animation that makes adults feel like they are genuinely on an adventure with Avril, seeing Paris and the world beneath as she sees it.

While Avril herself is concerned with the serum and helping humanity, – with meta and great missions and adventures – it is clear the film itself uses these great adventures to focus on the smaller, yet just as important, aspects of life, with the final scene of the film encapsulating its magic.

A Month With… Orson Welles: Macbeth

Based on Shakespeare’s play, Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) focuses on juxtapositions. The director shows audiences the contrast between nature and the perverse, the body and the mind, and – perhaps most importantly – the inside versus the outside.

Macbeth opens with a series of fades and fade-transitions accompanied by dramatic non-diegetic music, displacing audiences as the fades and transitions connote a lack of concept of time: immediately Welles has created a world for the witches that is unlike the world of Macbeth. This is connoted through the fog that encompasses these opening scenes, as it makes clear the witches are characters who want to be seen but not identified, as witnessed through the fog covering their identities but contrasting nature’s whiteness with their black dress codes.

Faced with a wide angle shot of the three witches on a rock on the right side of the frame and a withered tree with no leafs on a hill on the left, Welles could be making a connection between the witches – the supernatural/Other – and nature. This opening shot presents a likeness between them, and, along with the ubiquitous fog that silently tortures Macbeth and his mind throughout the film, there seems to be a bleak ideology here. Since the witches seem to be one with the fog, nature and even the world’s elements (the water, fire, bubbles and steam from their cauldron), the film begins feeling as if the witches are controlling all of the events that take place, while the audience are merely watching Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lose control.

In Welles’ adaptation, the fog becomes a conceit that is a constant reminder of Macbeth’s lack of control and the witches’ presence in his mind, differing the 1948 film from both Justin Kurzel’s (Macbeth, 2015) and Akira Kurosawa’s (Throne of Blood, 1957) adaptions with their uses of fog symbolising mystery, confusion and the inner turmoil of Macbeth’s mind.

Welles still allows Macbeth to be heroic, however, as the minute the film cuts from the witches to the title screen reading “Macbeth,” loud and dramatic non-diegetic music steals the presence. The score by Jacques Ibert in the titles takes audiences through Macbeth’s inevitable dark journey, as it takes us from the pride and glory of loud, crashing symbols and trumpets, to quieter, softer and more delicately played music. Macbeth’s introduction on screen to audiences connotes the aforementioned pride, as the wide angle tracking shot ensures it is Macbeth who takes up the most space, but in landscape and in the frame.

Yet, despite the director manipulating the camera shots to ensure Welles is seen as higher than everyone else (for example the levelled shots for other characters but low angle shots for Macbeth’s), through both the literal and figurative darkness of the film Welles uses nature to go against Macbeth.

While I was watching Macbeth, I had to pause the screen about fifty times to make sure my television brightness was correct, as a lot of the scenes are so dark you can barely see anything. I soon realised this was supposed to be like this and so wrote a note in my book about it so I could form a pretentious thought on it later and write about it here…and here is that pretentious thought: almost all of the lighting in Macbeth seems to come from nature/natural sources, for example the candles (fire), the campfire, or just the fact that outside is when there is the most light. Macbeth’s own castle, which is itself built out of foundations of nature such as rock, fails to illuminate the king who lives in it. The grand, gigantic staircase reflects this too, as in the scene where Lady Macbeth becomes most manipulating with Macbeth it is the staircase and the camera’s movements that dictates each characters’ positions of power — it is never there’s to control or keep.

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The relationship Orson Welles creates between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is notable, as the director often provides new ideas of looking at them through the language of film. First of all, they are the only two characters with whom audiences are allowed inside their heads, with Lady Macbeth’s first soliloquy emphasising how Welles’ use of voice overs for their lone speeches are representations for the fact they believing and calling from within themselves rather than relying on external forces.

There is one scene near the beginning of the film where Lady Macbeth and Macbeth kiss while a hanged person is in frame to the left behind them. Due to the hanging bringing forth imagery of death by suicide against death by murder (although it could be said they are the same), the man’s hanging becomes a representation for their relationship. If it is a suicide, it is not clear who kills who: the rope or the mind. If it is a murder, they are both doomed.

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The juxtapositions of inside and outside become more and more important as the film goes on. Night and day become ambiguous, interfusing with one another, and the inside and outside become reversed – both in terms of the external world as well as in terms of Macbeth’s mind. Near the opening of the film, Macbeth stops in front of a puddle and audiences can see himself reflected in it. With this idea of mirroring and multiple selves being introduced, the later themes Welles creates come to represent Macbeth’s dissociation of his inner self with his external self, with the beginning of this disintegration being witnessed first in the kaleidoscopic, blurry shots that change points of view of Macbeth.

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The denouement of Macbeth reenforces just how dark Orson Welles adaptation is. When with the witches – the darkest characters of all – audiences are presented with the most light. The final shot of the witches staring at the foreboding castle with pieces of nature in their hands, while thorns and leafless tree branches intrude the frame reestablishes their – and nature’s – control over Macbeth’s life in Orson Welles’ interpretation.

‘It is a privilege to be timeless’: On Time in Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950)

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée is the retelling of the classic Greek myth on the legend Orpheus, in which Orpheus has to travel to Hades in order to save his love, Eurydice. However, Orphée presents things differently, as Orpheus (played by Cocteau’s lover and the wonderfully handsome, Jean Marais) finds himself falling in love with a princess, who is Death, that came to visit him in a local café. Unlike La Belle et La Bête (1947), in which the protagonists are (arguably) awarded a happy ending, Orphée finishes in a much more somber tone, reminding audiences what has been communicated throughout the film thanks to the constant shots of mirrors and reflections; that love, no matter what time or place you are in, can never be defined or translated. However, the films are similar in that they both present an idiosyncratic and poetic interpretation of time travel – Belle travels to and from the Beast using a lavish glove as a transportation device, while Orpheus and co. glide through mirrors into Hades; whilst one travels within the confines of the same world and the other from life and death, the scope and breadth of the distance they travel to and from remains just as impactful due to the reasons for doing so.

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Just like Belle transporting back to her home is futile due to her love for the Beast, Orpheus knows that traveling to Hades in order to save Eurydice is in vain since he evidently is not going for “both” of them, as he explains to Death’s driver, Heurtebise, but for Death herself. Yet, the Death he is striving after is his own death; this is unrequited love at its greatest peak, as for Orpheus to be with Death would be fruitless, since the only way this could happen is if he were to die. It is here we can draw parallels to the filmmaker’s life as Cocteau and Marais’s relationship was affected by the fascist air left in the remnants of the war – perhaps, at one point, to the infamous lovers, they felt their love was only possible if it were to transcend the very essence of time itself, and the only way that is possible, according to this film, is through death.

The voiceover at the opening of the film declares, “it is a privilege of legends to be timeless.” This, along with the dramatic, non-diegetic composition by Georges Auric (whom also worked on La Belle), and the well-known tale of Orpheus all draw the spectator in to the dramatic, grandiose setting; the inevitable decline from this state begins as soon as Death appears. Ginette Vincendeau describes the legendary Greek’s humanisation yet transcendence perfectly in her essay for the BFI, stating the film “navigates between myth and realism, boulevard theatre and surrealist poetry, the fantastique and post-war politics.” The point here, in terms of the film’s time travel theory, is that there is none: instead it’s an abstract, poetic concept that would play on the radio channel Marais’s character becomes obsessed with.

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The dolly shots presented in the Hades sequences (which have inspired other directors, for example Spike Lee) by director of photography Nicolas Hayer emphasise the point of time travel in the film: it is supposed to be poetic and outlandish because the form of time travel the film manifests is something we see everyday; the decaying of our faces and exacerbation of our personality. Heurtebise was not wrong when he declared that it “takes long to die,” yet, this film reminds viewers that through art, in all its forms, audiences can time travel to different worlds.

a review of Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

33725_ppl Taking what was supposed to be a one hour break from studying that quickly turned into a 24 hour break, I noticed that ‘Birdman,’ Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2014 film, was available to watch on my TV. So…I watched it. If I hadn’t know beforehand that practically the whole film (bar the scene near the end) was supposed to look like it was shot entirely in one take, I probably wouldn’t have noticed — and maybe this is the point Iñárritu was trying to make. I’m not sure exactly what the point was — there are multiple reasons; some I came up with include he’s trying to show how camera shots often go unnoticed by critics and audiences today, or was practising the opposite of this and emphasising the effect shots, lighting-basically every micro-element in film- has on a film.

Even though the ignorant version of me watching this film wouldn’t have noticed the ‘oner,’ I know I would have noticed the lighting, the angles of the shots, and the use of sound within the film as this was, ironically, emphasised by the fact the film is a ‘oner.’ I use ‘oner’ in inverted commas here, as it’s apparent this film isn’t a replica of an Orson Welles oner, yet it’s persuadable that this is for a reason, too — Welles’ long one-takes are just as constructed as Iñárritu’s, but the difference between them is the former is trying to make it look real, like it’s happening in real-time, whilst the latter chooses to embrace the context of what is partly happening in the film (a man coming to terms with the fact his life is fake due to being fictionalised through the medium of film, art, plays) by being unapologetic in its digitally created extended shot, yet still re-intellectualising the cinematic scope– it’s like what Wes Anderson films would be like if he’d ended up like Emma Stone’s character Sam rather than spending his life in tweed drinking tea. (I’m joking). (I love you Wes).

This brings me to my third conclusion on the possible reason of using a clearly constructer oner; the shot is challenging the audience of today — the constant references to Twitter, Facebook, social media, and going viral completely juxtapose with the two hour long take that doesn’t cut. Films are beginning to get quicker and quicker cuts between each scenes, because, to generalise, directors think their audiences are stupid and have a short attention span. What Iñárritu is doing is asking audiences if this is true — he’s asking us to pay attention to the entire film that contextualises the society we live in; the social media age. And, quite frankly, thank god. Twitter and social media have become so important in our society and culture, but contemporary films seem to be ignoring this, but finally we have a film that accurately portrays what it is like to live in a digital age without over-dramatising their effects.

To go back to talking about my revision, I’m currently studying ‘King Lear’ for my exam in June. It’s interesting watching this film after spending your whole life revising ‘King Lear,’ as Michael Keaton’s character can easily be a replica of the play. In fact, one of the play’s central themes — the idea of nothing — is a central theme in Shakespeare’s tragedy, too. When Lear declares in Act One Scene One of ‘King Lear’ that ‘nothing can come of nothing’ to Cordelia, it can easily be mirrored with the way Riggan treats his daughter Sam, as well as the way he sees the world around him while engulfed in Birdman’s thoughts (for example the man who was screaming about the world being ‘nothing’ only to find out that he was acting to impress Keaton’s character — nothing has become nothing here).

‘Birdman’ is not a film to ignore. It contextualises our society, and asks the questions everyone faces but are too afraid to ask, without forgetting that this is just a film, and a great one at that. However, I would argue this is more than just a film — ‘Birdman’ is indeed the meaningful piece of art Riggan so tirelessly wanted to create.

Intelligence is relative: an essay on the narrative of Burn After Reading by Joel and Ethan Coen

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The tagline of the Coen Brothers’ 2008 film ‘Burn After Reading’ (if you couldn’t tell already) is: ‘intelligence is relative,’ and, like the tagline, so are the characters and narrative. Every time audiences are introduced to a new character, another character is added a facet. Each narrative strand strand that is presented adds depth to previous ones, and connotes the fundamental connotation of the film.

Taking this into account, the narrative cannot be confined into one subjective type; the Coen brothers continuously introduce audiences to new strands and layers to remind us of their tagline. Take, for instance, the introduction: audiences are immediately placed in a ‘top-secret’ style atmosphere, seeming very official and secretive, as signified through the low tracking shot of the footsteps in the sterile surroundings. Conversely, what audiences are met with are characters who cannot control their power, or lack o it. This is also where viewers are met with a clear typical convention of the Coen brothers: profanities, faux-clichés that make them more cliché, and the fact we are meeting a character at a heightened state of personal decline. It is clear from the offset the characters are the driving force behind the plot.

Additionally, the Coen brothers play on Grice’s Maxims, often blurring the boundaries between each one. Chad could be the maxim of quality, yet the CD makes him also become the opposite of this as he ties to blackmail Osbourne. Osbourne could be seen as the maxim of manner, as he is clearly unambiguous with what he feels about people, yet losing his job and his memoir being found leads him to a state of decline. This suggests the Coen brothers do not use the narrative to enhance the characters, but experiment with them and see how they change when their surroundings and ideals change.

Like with most of their films, for example ‘Fargo,’ ‘Burn After Reading’ can only loosely be applied to Todorov’s narrative structure. The introduction to the equilibrium coincides with the disruption, as the first part of the film is mainly an introduction into these multi-faceted characters rather than the narrative. However, once the narrative does begin, it is clear there is somewhat of a formula. From the first part of the film audiences know Osbourne and Katie’s marriage is unhappy; Katie is having an affair with Harry, and Linda wants plastic surgery but cannot afford it. These are crucial elements to the narrative as they become the driving force behind the characters once the disruption of the narrative begins.

The first time audiences see the link in the narrative strands is when the disruption of the narrative begins. This is when Linda and Chad discover Oswald’s CD, mistaking it for secret government files. The fact that it was these characters that discovered the CD suggests the ‘intelligence is relative’ theme throughout the narrative once again, as if this were any of the other characters (for example Harry) they’d see this was simply a memoir rather than confuse it for the confidential information Chad and Linda see it as; an important concept since if this were to happen to different characters it would completely change the narrative of the film.

The narrative also begins to develop at this point as Linda and Chad recognise the disc belongs to Osbourne, resulting in them trying to blackmail him and failing, so instead take the disc to the Russian Embassy. A second narrative strand is developed after as Harry and Linda meet through Internet dating. All characters are now connected, resulting in a rise in tension for audiences as this is most likely to have a detrimental effect.

The equilibrium is then restored through the fact Chad infiltrates Osbourne’s home but is trapped by Harry, who then kills him as he believes Chad is a spy – another link to the tagline. The scene where Harry shoots Chad is important as it encompasses the Coen brothers’ style – unexpected, unconventional and breaking the rules (at this point they might as well just have Grown Woman playing every time they walk into a room). There are no action codes or hints to what Harry is going to do to Chad — in fact, audiences believe Chad to be quite safe as the shots are consecutively through his point of view in the scene.

Finally, the complete reestablishment of the equilibrium is when the CIA agents comically disregard almost the whole film of what audiences had just sat through. They restore the narrative in a few sentences, and audiences find out what happened to the characters, for example Linda being paid off – a deal she initiated so she could pay for plastic surgery. This close of the film makes ‘Burn After Reading’ a circular narrative, as we begin where we started, and the goals most of the characters had at the offset of the film are achieved.

The Coen brothers’ idiosyncrasies are connoted through the binary oppositions they create with the narrative. From husband vs. wife, to masculinity vs. femininity and intellectuals vs. ‘morons,’ the themes are usually themes that have been explored in other texts, yet they have a post-modern elements due to the fact the Coen brothers often explore them in an unpredictable way, for example the husband and wife theme is reversed through the fact the archetypes of the characters are also reversed: Osbourne is, or at least becomes, the stay at home husband, whilst Katie drives the plot and marriage forward with her ruthless nature and affair with Harry.

The narrative proves to be post-modern once again as the ending is not created to satisfy audiences’ needs. The ending, which finished with viewers not seeing any of the characters but instead hearing about them, connotes the juxtaposition of semantic codes within the narrative vs. semantic codes that are relevant for the audience in real life. The Coen brothers have become self-conscious when creating the film at what audiences could interpret from it, and how they feel — they realise this film can’t provide audiences with something that will greatly impact their lives, but instead of pretending to, they remain authentic and dismiss everything viewers had just seen — for some this is frustrating, for others another comedic element.

‘Burn After Reading’ finishes with the theoretical bomb under the table going off, as, while there were many other points in the narrative in which it could be said to have gone off for Chad, Linda, Harry etc, this is the moment the bomb goes off for viewers, as we realise there was no point to the film; the majority of it is meaningless, and the Coen brothers reassure us that it is okay through the choral storytelling, when the head of the CIA closes the book on the inexplicable tale. Audiences realise that, as powerful and in control as Harry may have felt controlling his string of affairs, or Katie hiring the divorce lawyer, the people who had the power the whole time were the CIA. However, this is quickly juxtaposed with the aerial shot quickly zooming out of the location until we reach the sky, connoting the reason for the use of the tagline — once again, ‘intelligence is relative.’

(BTW: In case you were somehow wondering why this sounded like an essay for school (are you psychic??) that’s because it is [minus the Beyonce reference]!! I was too lazy to write up a separate review and, not to brag, this got full marks so….. waiting for my call from Matt Zoller Seitz to write for RogerEbert.com…)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

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The third instalment of the four-part billion dollar franchise, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ is probably the most forgettable film of the franchise. This is largely due to the inevitable decision to split the final novel into two halves in film form, so as to capitalise off of teenage girls’ emotions rather than, y’know, ~deep artistic reasons~. I don’t really know why so many people were shocked by this decision, since it was pretty obvious it was going to happen after how much money Harry Potter and Twilight raked in but, I digress.

I was pretty cynical going into this film as Collins’ final book didn’t cut it for me — it felt like nothing happened and then suddenly you were down to the last ten pages and (spoiler) literally everyone dies within the space of a mili-second and you’re left asking what the fuck just happened. Therefore, artistically and narrative-wise, I felt the decision to split this film in half was just a murder to the potential that Francis Lawrence could’ve done with the original text in one film, but obviously money was to be had here and the infamous Men In Expensive Suits wanted as much of it as they could get.

My cynicisms on this factor of the film were correct — it was far too long winded, there was no clear cut Act 2 or 3, and the script felt a little too generic ‘Hollywood action blockbuster’ for me.

However, whilst I did find my perpetually single self rolling my eyes at every scene of Katniss running to Gale/Peeta, there were some positives to the film. Like, the fact it was actually good, but being ‘good’ after Catching Fire is obviously going to underwhelm.

The length of the film and how little plot there was to fill the spaces allowed for Lawrence to peer into the lives of the characters more than he would have if it had been just one film. It is here where I’m kind of happy it is a two-parter because, unlike most book-to-film adaptations where you never get a clear sense of who these characters are and how they work, this extended time with side-characters like Gale, Prim and Effie makes you appreciate how many facets they have, and how, in spite of the giant landscapes surrounding the characters, they can never be washed out or silenced since they want something, and I mean ‘want’ in the terms of how Shakespeare used it – wanting something they lack in, in this case equality, rather than wanting something aesthetically, for example how I want Suzy Bishop’s whole wardrobe in a poor attempt at making my life feel like a Wes Anderson film.

In terms of directing, I think Francis did a wonderful job since it felt that rather than trying to make the film more exciting and action-packed than it’s supposed to be, he embraced the fact it is a filler film. The lack of plot allowed for time to pick up on micro-elements that would otherwise have just gone unnoticed to the majority of the audience, including Katniss’ wardrobe, the fact Lawrence is leaving shots with unfamiliar characters rather than constantly following the film’s protagonist (e.g. in the meeting room with Coin and Plutarch — we do not know and cannot wholeheartedly trust these characters, so leaving us with them feels like we are being let in on a secret), and the metaphors — particularly those involved with animals like the deer and Prim’s cat Buttercup. At first I thought it was some PETA (or Peeta haha…I hate myself) thing trying to make everyone vegetarians, but then I realised the DEEP MEANING behind it that, like, Katniss shining the torch that Buttercup chased whilst everyone was laughing was a mirroring of what Snow is doing to the Capital and also how he is using Johanna and Peeta and Annie as these metaphorical lights that Katniss and Finnick will never be able to reach and I’ve run out of pretentious stuff to say!

In short, the film feels as though it’s saying “just wait for Part 2,” and whilst I definitely will see Part 2, I’m not sure if I am going to be waiting for it.