Friday, 19 July 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 51. Barefoot Gen

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.


Barefoot Gen
Director - Mori Masaki
Country - Japan
Year - 1983
Runtime - 83 minutes

Barefoot Gen is one of the most horrific animated films I have ever seen. It lulls you into a false sense of security with its sad but fairly innocuous portrayal of a poverty-stricken family in  war torn Japan in August 1945, a few days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Their daily struggles and hardships are affecting but these pale in comparison to the soul-crushing scenes of devastation we see in the wake of the bomb when it comes crashing down on the city. The first on-screen death we witness following the explosion is that of a young innocent girl clutching a doll as the intense heat rips her skin from her bones and her eyeballs are torn violently from her sockets. The shock of this impact leaves you reeling but the film continues to assault your senses with a barrage of disturbing imagery that would not feel out of place in a horror film. The ensuing carnage is genuinely unsettling and the overwhelming sense of dread is exacerbated by the emotionally draining scenes of death and destruction which befall Gen and his family.

The use of animation allows the film-makers to depict the ferociousness of the initial explosion and the subsequent fallout in ways that would not be possible in a live action film, and this enables the animators to showcase some incredibly dark and troubling scenarios. Make no mistake, this is a far cry from a Studio Ghibli film, with scenes of unflinching brutality that will sear their way onto your retinas and leave an indelible scar on your psyche like the unforgettable bombing at Hiroshima that continues to haunt its inhabitants today. The heavy themes it explores and the heartbreaking story it tells are clearly aimed at a mature audience, even though we experience the harrowing circumstances of the bombing through the struggles of a young boy. A boy who is thrust into the realm of adulthood far too early by virtue of the horrific ordeal he faces.

Gen is fortunate enough to belong to a loving family comprising of doting parents, a caring older sister, and a younger brother that he playfully fights with over any scraps of food they can get their hands on. His mother is heavily pregnant and his father is desperately trying to provide for the family in a society where food is scarce and the population is starving. This is a family unit that stick together through the hard times but nothing can prepare them for the life-altering events that will completely destroy any semblance of leading a normal existence ever again.

The stirring voice acting provides a real indication of the horror experienced by Gen and those close to him, making it a prerequisite for the original Japanese audio to be favoured over the jarring English dubbing track. Issei Miyazaki brings an endearing naivety to Gen's voice that is soon unseated and replaced with a raw sense of the tragic situation which engulfs him. As is the case with a lot of anime films the character's expressions are often exaggerated and this serves the emotionally distressing nature of the film well, heightening the impact of those scenes which resonate the most; particularly during the intimate heartbreak as Gen is separated from members of his family.

A traditional Japanese soundtrack instills the film with an evocative soundscape that chimes with the humble nature of Gen's upbringing as we are introduced to his family's simple way of life. This eventually gives way to a crescendo of ear-splitting explosions that leave an eerie and uncomfortable silence in their wake. When we move into the final third of the film, the score becomes awash with haunting melodies that tie in with the overwhelming regret and pain that consumes our devastated protagonist throughout his attempts to survive this living nightmare.

The visions of hell that Barefoot Gen depicts are pure nightmare fuel and you will certainly be haunted by the unforgettable scene when Gen utters the memorable line 'What hell is this? during a moment of pure terror. It makes you reflect upon the travesty of the human race's proliferation of violent and callous weapons of mass destruction, and strikes fear into your heart that advancements in weaponry continue to pose a dangerous threat to humanity.

The tragic tale of Barefoot Gen is a bleak and relentlessly harrowing experience to endure and the heartbreak continues in the sequel directed by Toshio Hirata. It briefly recaps the events of the first film before showcasing Gen's continuing struggle for survival as the effects of the radiation poisoning continue to ravage Hiroshima. Whilst not quite as impactful as its predecessor, it is still a worthy companion piece that serves to enhance our understanding of the aftermath and is essential viewing for those who are touched by the poignancy of the first outing.

Barefoot Gen offers a powerful and devastating history lesson in a beautifully realised film and it hits home in ways that you might never expect from an animated war feature. Its depressing subject matter is handled with a real care and is faithful to the prominent Manga series it is based upon. The trauma and grief resonates deeply as Gen traverses the dark and disturbing aftermath of the shocking incident that befell Hiroshima, ensuring that this exceptional piece of film-making will stay with you forever, even if you try to push aside the haunting imagery that makes this such a powerful work of art.

If you take the time to watch Barefoot Gen then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Sunday, 14 July 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 50. Fireworks Wednesday

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Fireworks Wednesday
Director - Asghar Farhadi
Country - Iran
Year 2006
Runtime - 104 minutes

Prying in other people's affairs and indulging in idle gossip can cause unintentional hurt and upset, especially when false assumptions are made because the truth is shrouded. This is one of the enthralling conceits that is explored in Asghar Farhadi's tempestuous drama, Fireworks Wednesday, which follows a soon to be married Iranian lady, Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), who takes a cleaning job at an apartment for Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) and Mozhde (Hediyeh Tehrani), a husband and wife on the verge of splitting up. Through the course of a single day we are drawn into a web of lies and deceit instigated by Mozdhe's suspicion that her husband is having an affair with their next door neighbour, Simin (Pantea Bahram) - a single woman who is using her apartment as a beauty salon against the wishes of their landlord. We witness the emotional trauma and fallout as Roohi becomes embroiled in the couple's lives and her inquisitive nature interferes in an already uncomfortable situation that exacerbates as the day progresses.

During the introduction to this gripping drama we see and hear only that which Roohi does, leaving us as intrigued and curious about the couple's problems as she is. We learn that their heated arguments are often overheard by the neighbours and their young son, Amir (Matin Heydarnia), who is distressed by the constant bickering between his parents. It is unclear if there is growing resentment between Morteza and Mozhde due to an affair taking place or if Mozhde's suspicions are unfounded, but there are obviously some unresolved issues which are driving them apart. Roohi comes into this situation blind and, although she tries to help those who show her compassion, her meddling in that which she does not understand leads to more harm than good.

Alidoosti is sublime as the young bride to be, whose unsubtle attempts at eavesdropping entangle her in the quarreling couple's duplicity. She provides her character with a real sense of naive charm as we see Roohi trying to uncover the truth without causing any more hurt. The torment suffered by Mozdhe as she grapples with her husband's assumed infidelity is portrayed with a raw intensity by Tehrani. The devastating blows and setbacks she experiences are handled adeptly by Tehrani, imbuing her emotionally drained housewife with the anguish you would expect to see from a woman in such an uncompromising situation.

There are elements of unlikeable characteristics within most of the people we meet in Fireworks Wednesday, due to the very nature of the subject matter, although none more so than Morteza. His cold and hostile treatment of Mozdhe pushes her to the end of her tether, and Farokhnezhad demonstrates Morteza's ruthless behaviour with a chilling depiction of a volatile and careless husband. We are exposed to his tender side in a crucial scene that shows Morteza has a heart, even if its path is misguided, and the strain this has on his marriage echoes in his actions as pangs of regret bubble away under the surface.

The neighbour Mozdhe suspects her husband is having an affair with, Simin, is a mysterious character but she takes a shine to Roohi, who poses as her niece to prevent drawing attention to her illicit business venture when the landlord visits during a beauty treatment. Simin is completely unaware that Roohi has been sent by Mozdhe to probe for clues, and this incident kindles a friendship forged on lies and only serves to muddy the waters further in Roohi's search for the truth.

With the drama unfolding close to real time over the course of a single day we are pulled into a world of lies and deceit where people become victims of their own undoing and we become firmly invested in their plights. This harsh and poignant portrayal of a marriage in crisis is a superb vehicle for a remarkable cast of actors at the hands of an accomplished director, and the stark realism of Fireworks Wednesday is a credit to the talent involved.

Although most of the action is confined to the couple's apartment complex there are a number of striking scenes taking place elsewhere. A beautiful sequence at the start of the film shows the enchanting symmetry in a reflection of Roohi's hand as she drifts it through the fresh air outside of a bus window. A haunting incident at Morteza's place of work is tied inextricably to the movement of the building's lift as the camera mimics its descent and rise in a striking use of framing. These moments offer inventive imagery that serves to highlight Farhadi's impressive grasp of the medium, and help to bring his storytelling to life in a way that resonates both visually and emotionally.

It is telling that the Fireworks caused through human interactions are far more exciting than the actual fireworks we see, and these explosions of rage are matched in intensity by the compelling scenes in which characters face up to the truth, no matter how difficult this may be. Fireworks Wednesday is a real gem of Iranian cinema; this is a film that encompasses all of the hallmarks of a powerful and stirring drama, with a delicate touch that enables the stories subtleties to seep into your conscience as you ponder the beguiling creation of a master film-maker at work.

Farhadi has been crafting intricate and suspenseful character studies for much of his illustrious career and reached international acclaim with his Oscar winning film, A Separation (2011), that explored many similar themes to Fireworks Wednesday. His films offer a fascinating insight into Iranian society and the tragic human dramas he depicts can be as enthralling as they are devastating. Fireworks Wednesday stands out from his other earlier forays into film with its masterful storytelling and emotionally engaging performances from the leads, whose passionate renditions enhance its crushing impact.

If you take the time to watch Fireworks Wednesday then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Thursday, 4 July 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 49. The Miracle Worker

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Miracle Worker
Director - Arthur Penn
Country - USA
Year - 1962
Runtime - 106 minutes

We can try to imagine living in a world where we are unable to see or hear but this frightening concept is always short-lived for anyone who can open their eyes and uncover their ears. This unfathomable condition is an affliction that befell Helen Keller and left her in isolation from those around her when she became ill at just nineteen months old. Only one person, Annie Sullivan, who was half blind herself, had any faith in Helen’s ability to learn language and gain a further understanding of the world that she was shut out from. The Miracle Worker is a bold and captivating depiction of Annie's efforts to help and educate Helen - an inspirational true account of the emotionally charged development of a cruelly misunderstood young girl.

The film’s events are based on Helen’s own autobiographical narrative of her formative years, although it explores this time of her life in far more detail, revealing the difficulties and intricacies involved in her attempts to grasp the concept of language. Helen is portrayed by Patty Duke in a physically and emotionally draining role that depicts the hurt and suffering Helen experienced at the hands of her family. A family who cared for Helen but were unable to communicate with her in a way that enabled her to understand the strange environment she inhabits. Anne Bancroft is exceptional in her role as Annie Sullivan, the miracle worker who acts as a catalyst for Helen’s development, retaining belief in Helen’s ability to learn when others had all but abandoned such doubtful notions.

Annie's attempts to educate Helen initially prove disastrous; placing a difficult barrier in their relationship that leads Helen's parents, Captain Keller (Victor Jory) and Kate Keller (Inga Swenson), to reconsider if Annie is capable of easing their daughter's understandably ill-tempered and destructive ways. Progress is slow and proves challenging for Annie but - haunted by memories of her distressing past, and desperate to help Helen break out of her shell - she persists with her attempts at teaching words to Helen through a series of gestures with her hands. Helen's older brother James (Andrew Prine) mocks Annie for this approach, pointing out that Helen is merely mimicking the gestures she is shown but Annie remains steadfast, determined to connect with the troubled adolescent mind that is longing to escape her unnatural confinement.

The interplay between these two characters is fascinating to behold, particularly when their combined persistence overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges and Helen’s development becomes more tangible. Together they have a vast mountain to climb and the film’s success hinges largely on the two captivating performers who draw you into a strange and unique plight that is depicted in an incredibly enthralling and heart-rending manner.

Duke's performance as Helen is absolutely phenomenal; her character's struggle is portrayed as a constant battle, with fiery outbursts that impinge on both her family and teacher. These torrents of rage are one of the only ways in which Helen is able to express herself and are the cause of much destruction and frustration in the Keller household. Duke's vivid facial expressions invite you into Helen's psyche, providing an insight into a troubled mind that Annie is longing to release from its shackles. Bancroft is likewise first rate as Annie, bringing an extraordinary warmth and charm to a character who is, at times, very curt and quite eccentric, but never loses sight of her goal to aid Helen. The burgeoning relationship between the two leads serves to fill the audience with hope as their powerhouse performances provide a raw intensity to an incredibly uplifting and revelatory story.

Arthur Penn is the intrepid director who adapted the hit stage play of The Miracle Worker into a film and the taut screenplay benefits from his distinct visual flair that is apparent from the opening credits. These initial scenes comprise of a montage of Helen reacting to the world around her, including a hauntingly evocative scene as she approaches a jet black reflective bauble on a Christmas tree that smashes when she reaches for it, hinting at the fragility of her grasp on the world she lives in. A similarly melancholic montage plays out when Keller's family decide to reach out for help from an institute for the blind, who send Annie Sullivan to answer their request for aid. When Annie travels by train to meet Helen, we are transported deep into her fragile mind through a series of hazy flashbacks that amalgamate with her present surroundings through the use of impressive and striking editing techniques.

When Penn isn't dazzling with his inventive imagery he is framing the action with a keen eye for composition, making the most of a story that, by its very nature, is limited to a handful of locations. He utilises long takes to capture the frustrations of both Helen and Annie during their heated fracas which serve as important life lessons for Helen. These powerful scenes reveal the stage play roots of The Miracle Worker but are embellished with flourishes that heighten the intensity in ways that would be impossible under the restrictions of a theatre production.

Both utterly compelling and devastatingly poignant, The Miracle Worker is a fascinating biographical account of a real life struggle to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. This is a journey that we can all empathise with, and it is likely to fill your eyes with tears and your heart with joy, in what is undoubtedly an American classic. The Miracle Worker takes us to some dark and depressing places, with its stark and powerful realism demonstrated from the very first scenes. However, the cathartic journey that Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan embark upon makes for a rewarding viewing experience that will leave you astounded by the courage and determination of two remarkably inspirational women.

If you take the time to watch The Miracle Worker then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Friday, 28 June 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 48. Kajaki

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Kajaki
Director - Paul Katis
Country - UK
Year 2014
Runtime - 108 minutes

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a masterclass in how to create tension in a war film and is even more impressive when you consider the enemy is never shown on screen. Kajaki is a similarly intense war film based upon a true account that ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels with an unseen enemy causing havoc for a company of British soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Whereas the fleeing English are pursued by Nazis in Dunkirk, the unseen danger in Kajaki is a cluster of unexploded anti-personnel mines in a scorching, dried out river-bed, where any movement could set off a barrage of explosions.

It is here where a company of relatively inexperienced soldiers face almost insurmountable odds of survival and must pull together to courageously overcome one of the greatest threats they may ever encounter. The build up to these dramatic events establishes the various personalities present in the company with the usual gung-ho antics and machismo conversations you may come to expect from a war film but it also sheds light on the human side of these soldiers as they nervously wait to be called into action. By utilising a largely unknown British cast, director Paul Katis has ensured that we are completely in the dark as to who will survive from the unit and this leaves us as shell-shocked as the company whenever an explosion takes place.

The desolate surroundings of the company's base provide a stunning backdrop to the film's events, a backdrop which Katis uses to his advantage with a handful of sumptuous establishing shots. The lifeless desert terrain and its occasional pockets of water, which the soldiers take great pleasure in using for a refreshing dip, exhibit the traits of an idyllic setting, albeit a grossly misleading one. Potential enemy activity nearby breaks the spell of the naturally beautiful environment and engages the momentum of the story as a group of intrepid soldiers head out to investigate and do their duty.

From the moment the first mine explodes we are thrust into a shocking and upsetting life or death situation. This has a huge impact on the emotional state of the servicemen who see their unit slowly falling to pieces around them, as well as being a distressing turn of events for the audience. Katis pulls no punches in showing the gory aftermath of the explosions as these young soldiers inadvertently set off numerous mines. The horrific wounds are displayed in all of their grisly detail; heightening the sense of realism and making the stomach churning situation even more uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for the viewer.

This is as much of an endurance test for the audience as it is for the company of soldiers who find themselves at the mercy of an unforgiving environment. There may be a handful of ill-advised decisions during the life altering events we witness but it's easy to look back on the situation with hindsight, and far more difficult to imagine if you would be able to act with such conviction and bravery in the same situation. Being able to put your own life at risk for the safety of others whose lives depend on your courageous actions is an inspiring and selfless personality trait to possess, and many of the soldiers are willing to do just that. The intensity of the situation exacerbates until it becomes a harrowing nightmare; a nightmare that we could easily switch off (if we were affected enough to do so) but those who experienced it first hand had to endure, using all of their strength and willpower if they were to have any chance of surviving to see another day.

A powerful and heart wrenching coda details the aftermath for those involved alongside
photos of the real life heroic soldiers, adding an overwhelming sense of emotion to what is already an incredibly draining and disturbing film. This sad story has been retold with the utmost of respect to the devastated men who were there on the fateful day of the incident. Writer Tom Williams doesn't judge or condone anyone's actions and presents his account without bias to allow the audience to form their own views on where the mission falls down. Kajaki is a gripping and poignant anti-war film that demonstrates the horrific and long lasting effect war can have on the countries that are ravaged by its evil nature. This is an important and impressive feature film debut from Paul Katis and marks him as a promising director who we should all be looking out for in the future.

If you take the time to watch Kajaki then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here