The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I thought I’d throw in an extra film this week on the Saturday because it’s another date-appropriate release, which is to say it’s a film that deals with the story of Passover and we are now in the middle of that Jewish holiday. It’s a classic animated film, of sorts, depending on who you are; it’s my first time coming to this film so I apologise if my analysis is a little shallow.


I don’t know if I’m really in a position to critique this, but it’s a telling of the story that informs the Jewish holiday of Passover, and it cleaves to a lot of the Biblical narrative fairly closely really, but with songs. It does feel, though, like it’s trying to grapple with the big question in terms of the extent to which God’s punishments of Pharaoh (Ralph Fiennes) impact on his people, which is to say how much is Moses responsible for the death, and that bit doesn’t quite resolve. Killing the firstborn is after all pretty bad whoever does the act. But this is a story of revolutionary anger leading to political change, and the niceties can sometimes be lost. In a sense it’s applicable even now: revolution requires action, which means that difficult choices sometimes need to be made. The original story, and this film too, is fairly clear that you can’t effect change by being a pacifist, and some level of fundamental disruption is going to occur. Perhaps that’s a message people need to hear, but it’s always going to be a hard one to pull off, especially in an animated family film.

The Prince of Egypt film posterCREDITS
Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; Writer Philip LaZebnik (based on the religious text שְׁמוֹת Shemot “Book of Exodus”); Starring Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 300: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A lot of people I follow on Letterboxd really like this Wes Anderson film, and it surely has all of his familiar touches: an emotionally resonant central story about grown-up fathers and sons trying to find some common ground; incredibly precise set and costume design; elaborate multi-room sets; bright colours; stop-motion animated ocean creatures; and all the actors you could want, most of them returning from previous Anderson endeavours. Of course, there’s also a frequent criticism of Anderson’s style that he is detached as a filmmaker, though it’s something that also used to get levelled at, say, Stanley Kubrick, and neither of them strike me as being unemotional. Quite often their stories revolve around very fraught, even melodramatic, relationships and that’s the case here too. However, for the first time in Anderson’s oeuvre, I don’t feel able to connect to these characters beyond their surface characteristics. The filmmaking, the texture, the detail is all there, but somehow for me, in this film, these traits are all just ciphers for some story ideas Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach were working through. There are little generic touches, like gun battles and pirates, which seem oddly out-of-place, even when filmed in Anderson’s elliptical and deadpan style, and elements which seem perfunctory at best and possibly a little ill-judged (the Filipino pirates, or the topless woman who assists Zissou as scriptgirl). That said, it’s certainly never boring and has ravishing production values that are probably worthwhile even if the story itself feels beside the point.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of deleted scenes (and one outtake), none longer than a minute and most around 20-30 seconds in length, which are just further little vignettes that round out some of the characters and situations, although it’s interesting to see how they look before post-processing and colour correction.
  • There’s an Italian television interview on a show called Mondo Monda which has an interview between the slick Italian host and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach which is clearly a parody (like the fake talk show included on The Royal Tenenbaums as an extra). That said, you can spend some time imagining it’s real, except that it has all these deadpan reactions as the host largely refuses to translate his questions despite speaking perfect English, and in which Anderson and Baumbach are often reduced to single-word answers to extravagantly self-involved questions touching on poetic and philosophical nonsense.
  • There’s about half-an-hour of short interview featurettes compiling interviews with various actors and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, on topics such as two of the main characters (those of Cate and Owen), the fastidious costume and production design, the animation of the sea creatures, et al.
  • A series of still photographs of the production and the design are included, which are visually striking.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Ritzy, London, Tuesday 22 March 2005 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 16 March 2020).

Jurassic Park (1993)

One of the more successful of summer blockbuster tentpole films is now 20 years old, and with some small caveats it has aged very well, all things considered. A lot of this is down to Steven Spielberg’s very sure directorial hand: he has been one of the industry’s most successful directors, and for the good reason that he exhibits well-honed craft and even a bit of flair, but not the kind that constantly draws attention to itself, with swift editing, big setpieces, noise and action (sorry, Michael Bay).

The most remarked-upon aspect of the film at the time was of course the CGI dinosaurs, but technology has changed a lot in 20 years, and viewing the film in retrospect is to indulge in some of that wistfulness you get while watching, say, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion figures from the 1950s. The CGI is still grappling with conveying a sense of the weight and physicality of these creatures in a way that recent films have only just started to master (with Pacific Rim the current high-water point, though who knows how that will look in a few decades). Nevertheless by the time things kick off, you barely notice the dinosaurs aren’t real anymore.

What’s impressive then — what remains impressive — is the firm hold Spielberg has over the narrative tension, as the characters are first introduced and then gradually put into perilous situations. Just to backtrack a little for those that don’t know the film, an eccentric billionaire, John Hammond (played by Richard Attenborough), has been able to clone dinosaurs, bringing them back to life to repopulate an island he owns as a prospective theme park. After the death of one of his workers, he recruits a number of experts — including palaeontologist Alan (Sam Neill), palaeobotanist Ellie (Laura Dern), as well as mathematician and chaos theorist Ian (Jeff Goldblum) and his own grandchildren — to come and certify the park is safe. Naturally of course it’s not, though this is only exacerbated by the corrupt machinations of one of the key staff members (it does not appear to be a particularly well-staffed park, and the scientists and gamekeepers we do glimpse earlier on seem to quickly disappear as storm clouds approach).

Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern were ever A-list film stars, but that’s always been one blockbuster strategy: use seasoned character actors in the lead roles (often where the initial draw is something else, such as, well, dinosaurs). It also pays dividends in the long run, as successive generations of viewers don’t have to cringe so much at the one-dimensional action heroics of whoever was the biggest star at the time. Richard Attenborough too gets to be dependably avuncular, so it’s Jeff Goldblum that stands out as the nervy, black-clad mathematician, a sort of Cassandra figure whose prophecies are disregarded until it’s too late. It’s interesting too to see an early Samuel L. Jackson performance as a slightly nerdy, anxiety-prone and put-upon engineer, a year before the Pulp Fiction role that made his name and largely fixed his screen persona.

In any case, Spielberg gets to pursue a few of his favourite themes. There are the fatherless children seeking and finding a surrogate father figure, with Sam Neill’s reluctant Dr Grant by the end stepping up to this role. There’s also a familiar sense of wonder at the natural world (those swooping shots of the island and its lush jungle ecosystem, or the vast hordes of dinosaurs causing our heroes to take shelter under a log), but it’s allied here with some concerns about the limits of scientific endeavour.

Ultimately, though, by bringing into conflict two quite different eras of the planet’s history (not a million miles from the premise of Pacific Rim mentioned above, with its weirdly primordial monsters), it addresses some of the ethics of cloning — a debate that would only increase with Dolly the sheep a few years after the film — while remaining a taut and effective thriller for adults and kids alike. This ability to balance different levels of a debate within a populist mode of filmmaking, more than anything, is Spielberg’s real talent.

CREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp (based on the novel by Crichton); Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 13 August 2013 (and in the cinema in Wellington, back when it was first released).