The Public (2018)

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I just finished my third (and likely last) film at TIFF this year and once again, went into this one with only the title in mind. The Public, directed by and starring in the lead role Emilio Estevez, is a comedy-drama film that looks at an issue that, for most of us, is very close to home but often overlooked. Like the other TIFF films I have seen this year, it is very critical of social issues though this film differs in its approach when looking at these issues: it uses comedy.

As always, let’s start with the technical aspects, of which there is nothing I really dislike and a few things I really like. First, the cinematography. There is a lot of motion in the camera work with rarely a still shot, making the film seem very fast paced. While it was a bit fast at times, I really like it for the most part. There’s an effect in particular that really stood out to me, where instead of shifting the point of focus on the camera itself, the entire camera moves to focus on something else. In this case, it shifts between to character’s faces. I’ve never seen this effect before and really like it. Second and lastly, the soundtrack is great. It is very polarized, switching between upbeat hip hop beats and sad music (can’t tell you with what instruments) in the more serious parts. You know a soundtrack is good when it’s something you can imagine listening to apart from the movie.

*SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT*

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The Public examines and criticises an issue that is so prevalent in western society: our incessant ability to fictionalise the world we live in. This film uses homelessness as the topic to examine this issue and it’s a good one because it is something that is so prevalent and rarely rectified in our world. Most people are willing to give a bit of spare change but are they willing to provide their own house in the middle of winter? Okay, maybe that’s a bit much but you get my point. Instead of help, most people like to move on with their lives, as if everything is okay. We all live in our own little bubbles. Estevez tries to pop this bubble using peace and love. Just kidding, he uses comedy.

Most of this film takes place in a Cincinnati public library, where, during a very cold winter night, a large group homeless people (who are regular patrons of this library) decide to not get kicked out at 6pm and declare the library an emergency homeless shelter. Stuart Goodson (Estevez), a librarian at the branch, decides to take part in the uprising and the whole thing blows up into a situation involving police, an asshole lawyer mayoral candidate and, somehow, one single news truck. That being said, despite being about a very real topic and technically not an impossible story, this film is filled with the unrealistic and over-the-top. While this did annoy me a bit at first, it is partly a comedy – a really funny comedy – so I’m fine with it. What good comedy isn’t a bit eccentric?

Stuart empathises with the homeless people’s cause, he himself having previously been in a similar situation due to a drug addiction. But when jokingly asked for the use of his apartment by one of the homeless, he gives money instead. Money solves everything, right? But when the library uprising starts, he decides enough is enough and joins them. He does the right thing. The same can be said for a few of the other character, though not all. The news reporter covering the situation knows exactly what sort of peaceful demonstration is going on inside, but portrays the story as a “hostage crisis” instigated by Stuart because, well, that’s the exciting story the people want. The story ends with…actually I won’t say but it’s great.

This film looks at a very serious issue in a very comedic light. While it does have its serious moments, it’s filled with jokes, most of which are funny but some fall flat. The comedic take on this issue is probably to make it more accessible to a wider audience and while being very funny, the film still has its serious moments, maintaining its criticism. Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t already.

 

8/10

 

 

Image Sources:

https://studentfilmreviews.org/?p=40846

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Public’

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Viper Club (2018)

 

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I just finished my second TIFF film of the year (the first being Capernaum), having gone into it knowing the title and nothing else – I like seeing movies this way. Viper Club, directed by Maryam Keshavarz, is a film that I wasn’t completely taken by at first but walked out glad to have seen it. It’s a slow film to start so patience is key but the film does pick up and has a fantastic ending. Interestingly, this is a YouTube Original film so it looks like YouTube’s hopping on the bandwagon with Netflix and Amazon.

As with all of my reviews, I’ll start with the technical, non-spoiler stuff. One of the first scenes in the film is simply snow, fluttering across the screen, which had this amazing psychedelic feel to it and utilizes a handheld camera (which I love). Just imagine a full starry night sky with all the stars moving quickly. Or just imagine snowfall at night. Having grown up in the frozen waste that is Canada, I can relate. While I don’t have much to complain about the cinematography, there was quite a bit of blurring going on, where the camera shifts in and out of focus, similar to a home-made video but with a crispier image. While this doesn’t bother me for the most part (I like it actually), there are a few shots of a computer or phone screen where we are obviously meant to read the text but can’t because the shot keeps going out of focus. There was one scene in particular where this bothered me. What did that text say?!? Now I have to wait a few months to find out.

While most of the performances are really good, especially by our main actress, Susan Sarandon, quite a bit of the dialogue feels very scripted. While, of course, the actors base their performances on a script, should it sound like they are simply reading off a script? Their job as actors is to turn that script into something that resembles a real interaction and while that is achieved sometimes, it often isn’t. The other aspects of their performance (I.e. the non-dialogue parts) are really well-performed.

As for the story this film is telling, there were aspects that I liked and disliked but of course:

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

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This story involves a problem that is very prevalent in the real world and may often go unnoticed and obscured by other issues, such as terrorism. Viper Club is about a woman named Helen (Susan Sarandon), whose journalist son is held captive by ISIS, following her sometimes emotional, sometimes stoic journey as she tries to negotiate her sons return. The most obvious antagonist that stands out at first is ISIS, which is one of the most radical and widely publicized threats in the modern world. However, this film looks at another problem; it exemplifies how poorly treated and discredited journalists so often are, especially by the U.S. government. This second plot detail is something I had never considered until after watching this film and yet is so obvious; Trump throws “fake news” into every other tweet. Though ISIS is a threat, the real antagonist and subject of criticism in this film is the American government. While rescuing a member of the military is top priority, journalists are chopped liver. While doing work that is arguably just as important as that of the military, they are not rescued, simply because they put themselves in danger rather than of being ordered to. The film makes this issue very clear and, for the most part, does a good job of it.

While this film does have a very important story to tell, the first hour and a half (maybe three-quarters) feels much longer than it should. It isn’t until an active effort is taken to negotiate the return of Helen’s son that the story really becomes interesting. At this point, Helen actually starts making progress and more importantly, the plot starts to make sense. Throughout the film, there are several characters who are introduced with no explanation, leaving me confused as to who they are. Also, what the hell is Viper Club? Luckily these things are elucidated by the end but for most of the film, I was confused. That being said, the ending is worth the wait and makes this film worth watching. I won’t say any more than it is unpredictable. And unexpected. And really good. That’s all I’m saying. Watch it.

 

 

7/10

 

 

Image Sources:

http://www.impawards.com/2018/viper_club.html

https://www.tiff.net/tiff/viper-club/

Capernaum (2018)

Capernaum poster

There are some films that leave a mark on you, making it hard to stop thinking about them for several days after watching. These are my favourite films and Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki, is no exception to this. It delivers a very powerful message that Labaki is obviously very passionate about delivering and while you would expect this very real topic to be explored in a documentary, I think it’s done just as well in a fictional film. I was fortunate enough to listen to a short Q&A at the end of the film and learned a lot about the Labaki’s motivation to make this film – I’ll talk more about this later. I had never heard of Capernaum when I bought my ticket and now I can’t imagine having not seen it.

I normally try to know as little as possible about a film before watching it but my curiosity got the better of me and I Googled the title. All I saw before coming to my senses was: a Rotten Tomatoes score of about 67%, a film length of two and a half hours, and something about a kid suing his parents. Just from this I thought I wouldn’t enjoy this film; I was expecting some long and boring comedy. All of these unhopeful thoughts were corrected after finishing this film.

Despite the two and a half hour length, I did not feel bored once. The story was so captivating and while it explores a very serious topic, there are quite a few funny moments that help lighten the tone. The cinematography is great, primarily utilizing a handheld camera at eye-level, giving a very real, almost documentary-like effect. The principal photography was actually done over about six months, following the timeline of the film. There were also quite a few bird’s-eye view shots showing the chaotic city below. According to Labaki the title of the film comes from an ancient city of the same name, and is used, primarily in French literature, as a metaphor for a chaotic, hellish environment.

Now, despite loving this film, there were a few minor things that annoyed me. Arabic is the main language spoken in this film and the white English subtitles were really hard to see in scenes with a bright background. I missed a bit of the dialogue because of this. I also thought the music, especially at the end, was a bit overly dramatic and cheesy. That being said, these are really minor dislikes and did not stop me from loving this film.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

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The hero of this story (in the words of Labaki) is a boy named Zain, whose age is approximated by a doctor to be about twelve. The film takes place in Lebanon and I believe Zain is a refugee from another country but it’s not clear where; this was the only plot detail I found confusing. His eleven year old sister, Sahar, is forced to marry someone about three times her age. This starts his rebellion against his parents and by extension, the whole society in which he lives.

Zain represents all children in his society who are oppressed and fights back against this society in two ways. First, by stabbing the man who killed his sister (she dies due to complications of pregnancy) and second, by suing his parents for the right to have children after learning of his mother’s pregnancy. The narrative switches between the court trial and the few months leading up to his crime and resulting incarceration. While this is a fictional story about a fictional hero, the world that Zain inhabits is a very real one and this film is meant to bring this to light. The actor playing Zain, Zain Al Rafeea, is actually a Syrian refugee who was living in Lebanon when this film was made, now residing in Norway. This is something that makes this film feel so real and have such a powerful message; it looks at a very real world and uses actors who have lived in that very same world and experienced the oppression of it.

Labaki decided to make this film because of a question she would ask many of the children she worked with in Lebanon: “Are you happy to be alive and living in this world?” Most of them said “No”. This film is about a very real issue, bringing to light something that most of its viewers have probably never experienced. However, many of the cast are people from a very similar situation to the characters they portray. This almost makes the film seem like a fictional documentary; the characters are basically playing a fictional version of themselves in a world they already know. Yordanos Shiferaw, the actress whose character is arrested for being an illegal immigrant was actually arrested herself for being in a similar situation, during the filming.  This film uses very real character in a fictional story but does it have to be just fiction? Maybe Zain can inspire other children to be rebellious heroes like him.

8/10

Image Sources:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8267604/mediaviewer/rm1694056448

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8267604/mediaviewer/rm3580120064

The Stunt Man (1980)

The Stunt Man

The Stunt Man, directed by Richard Rush, is a very good movie but it is by no means a fun movie. It is not sad or depressing or devastating at all; in fact, it has quite a few funny moments. It is a very frustrating movie and I believe intentionally so. This is what makes this film so great. I won’t go into spoiler territory just yet but I will say that Richard Rush makes you empathise with and feel exactly what the main character, Cameron, is feeling. For much of this film, that feeling is frustration.

The cinematography is one of the technical aspects of this film that stood out to me from the very beginning. The film starts with a chase scene in which a handheld camera is used at eye-level, creating a very fun sense of immersion. You feel like you are really part of the chase.

Unfortunately, not everything about this film can be great. The sound editing is one of the reasons I like, but don’t love this movie. There are quite a few loud action sequences but there are also quite a few quiet, dinner-table conversations and I found myself having to constantly change the volume to fit each particular scene. However, even when I turned the volume up, it was hard to decipher the low, mumbling voices of some of the characters. Apparently this film was remastered with Dolby digital whatever but you would never know it. For all I know, it made it worse than the original. The main menu of the film even lets you optimize a surround-sound setup so maybe the monitor speakers I use just didn’t cut it. That being said, the soundtrack was great and fortunately audible.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!!!

This is me attempting to describe the basic premise of this film in one sentence: This film is about a fugitive named Cameron, who, while evading police for a petty crime, stumbles upon a WWI film-in-the-making, accidentally causing the main star’s stunt man, Burt, to drive into a river and drown and in order to continue shooting on schedule, the director, Eli, hires Cameron to take on Burt’s persona and role in the film but Cameron soon succumbs to paranoia and thinks that Eli is trying to kill him for the sake of his war epic, all the while falling in love with his co-star, Nina.

For about the first half of this film, before Cameron’s paranoia sets in, the plot is very straight forwards and by no means boring. It’s very fun and whimsical, especially an incredible scene between Cameron and Nina, in which they meet for the first time. Their interaction was so beautifully genuine, as if the actors were really experiencing the love-at-first-site feeling that they portrayed so well. I also loved the way in which Cameron becomes the stunt man. When reading the synopsis on the back cover, I just was just expecting a scenario where Cameron stumbles upon the set and is mistaken for the stunt man and just goes with it. How it is actually done is much more clever and believable than that. This much lighter and funnier first half was really a joy to watch. The second half is quite a bit different.

Something that this film does especially well is make you question what is real and what is not and the scenario of a film within a film provides an excellent backdrop for this. There are many parts of the film where, despite knowing that they are shooting a scene (because of the costumes), you don’t know if the characters are acting in character or being themselves. Especially Cameron, as he is not a professional stunt man and just seems to improvise everything he does while being filmed. There are several situations where it looks like Cameron is in real danger, only for the camera to pan out and reveal the relative safety of a film set. The fact that we, the audience, feel this just goes to show how great a film maker Richard Rush is because it reflects exactly what Cameron is feeling in his paranoid state. There are quite a few plot details that are left up to interpretation by us and I think this was deliberately done so we question what is going on, just as Cameron does. The line between reality and illusion is often obscured and this confuses us. That is why this film is so frustrating; it is deliberately confusing. While I’m sure most people hate being confused by a story, you have to appreciate the use of confusion as a mode of storytelling in this film.

The film ends with many of the unanswered questions being answered (I won’t spoil the ending) but I still felt a bit dissatisfied. I had to re-watch the ending because it was very rushed and I was a bit confused as to what happened. I guess I was still questioning its legitimacy as I had gotten used to doing earlier in the film. The poor audio didn’t help either. While not being the most fun, it was definitely one of the most original and UNPREDICTABLE films I have watched. Definitely worth watching if you haven’t already.

 

7/10

 

 

Image Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081568/mediaviewer/rm2733237760

 

The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)

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I just finished watching The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a “Brothers Dowdle Production” (seriously.) and have concluded that it is an abomination in the world of mockumentaries. Now, keep in mind that I haven’t seen many mockumentaries (my viewing repertoire includes Cloverfield, District 9, What We Do in the Shadows, and…I think that’s it) so I don’t have much to compare it to but I really enjoyed those films. This one was a struggle to get through, and I’m not referring to the “sadistic violence” I was expecting after my glance at the back cover before purchasing. I want my 16.99 (CAD) back!

I won’t even bother with a plot analysis for this one so I’ll get the spoiler warning out of the way now:

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the cinematography. This film has two basic parts to its cinematography the footage shot by the documentary crew, consisting mostly of interviews but also including an FBI class in progress as well as a few dramatizations, and the footage shot by our protagonist “The Water Street Butcher”. Most of the interviews are shot at this weird angle that I have never seen in a documentary before. Maybe I just haven’t watched many documentaries but I can’t imagine why a cinematographer would make this decision. Bad acting aside, it really made it seem like a mockumentary despite trying to seem like a documentary. As for the scenes shot by our killer, the filmmakers added this strange effect to it in post-production, which I can only imagine was done to distinguish it from the documentarian’s footage. It had this wavy, grainy quality that switched between monochrome and colour constantly. To make it even worse, the killer just didn’t know how to point a camera. This really surprised me because I would imagine after filming hundreds of tapes, even homemade ones, he would figure out how to stabilize the camera and not purchase terrible quality film. I guess we’ll just never know how the mind of a psychopath works.

What’s next? How about the acting? I can imagine that acting in a mockumentary is fairly difficult for actors, especially if they are used to playing standard movie roles. One has to play a character who is a real person (like in a standard role) but additionally act like they are aware of the camera in the room. Most real people are not comfortable in front of a camera, acting slightly awkward and emotionally reserved as a result. These character traits were largely absent in this film. For example, there is a “real” FBI class being filmed by the documentarians and it’s as if there are no cameras there at all. The teacher acts completely normal. But what really gave it away was the amount of emotion the students show when being shown one of the killer’s tapes. A few students are crying and I just imagine people are much more reserved when they know they’re being filmed.

That being said, is it really the actors that are to blame for their poor performances? Their acting isn’t necessarily bad, but rather unsuited for this type of film. So, my concern is more with the directing. I guess the legendary Brothers Dowdle aren’t so legendary after all.

Additionally, the bad writing in this film didn’t help these actors cause. Seriously, one of the characters was even introduced as a “Dismemberment Expert”. And the stereotypes just keep coming and coming. For example, every time the killer is filming and talking to a kid, the kid brings up the old “we’re not supposed to talk to strangers” line. Do kids really say that? Or in one scene, the killer pretends to be a hitchhiker and the person that pick him up are so relentlessly nice, throwing a “Sure, hop in!” despite clearly looking into a camera being held by this complete stranger. Think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons.

The only reason I don’t give this film a score of one out of ten is because of one redeeming factor in this film: the costume design. Particularly a renaissance-style plague doctor mask worn by the killer. This was the one and only unnerving thing about this film. The picture at the end of this review is a still from the movie and a good example of the mask. I guess most of the creativity was in the prop department for this film.

2/10

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Image Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Poughkeepsie_Tapes

http://horrornews.net/20100/film-review-poughkeepsie-tapes-2007/

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries (or Smutronstället) is a 1957 Swedish film, directed by Ingmar Bergman. It was the first film I picked up in the “New Blu-ray” pile at a used book/film shop near my house and, as a rule for these reviews, all of the films I pick must be completely new to me so I went with it. I was intrigued, especially because the vast majority of the films I have seen are relatively modern, say late 20th century-present. So, I went into this film completely blind and come out wanting to see more of Bergman’s films. I saw The Seventh Seal for sale at the shop as well; I think I’ll grab that after writing this.

One of my favourite things about this film is the music. The score has two basic parts. The first is done on violin (or perhaps a similar string instrument) and in my opinion the far more enjoyable of the two. The second is much louder and more imposing and is played primarily with a percussion instrument. What I like so much about the score is it does a great job of setting the tone of the scenes they are played in; the violin has a surreal and sad quality to it and the percussion a very ominous quality. Both reflect what the protagonist is feeling at the moment.

While I thought most of the narrative of this film very straight forward and engaging, there were a few things that I found a bit unclear. I’ll point out a major one in the second part of this review (spoiler territory). And I don’t say this just because there are parts of the film that are very abstract and ambiguous (there is plenty of that) but rather parts that felt very rushed and confusing as a result. That being said, I definitely want to watch this film again. I’m sure I’ll get more out of it after a second viewing.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!

Wild Strawberries follows a grumpy, conceited old man, Isak, recounting parts of his life over the course of one day spent on the road. After fifty years as a medical doctor and professor (I assume an atheist as well – I’ll come back to this later), he is on his way to receive an award for his life’s work, travelling with his daughter-in-law, Marianne, and a few hitchhikers they pick up along the way. Throughout the film, Isak has dreams and recollections, some of them completely made-up and others his interpretation of events that have had a profound effect on his life. The theme that was most apparent to me after watching this film is life and death (especially death), with characters and situations in the film representing the evolution of Isak’s feelings on the matter.

This theme was established at the start of the film, in a dream that Isak has. In an abandoned town, Isak notices a driverless carriage move past him until its wheel gets caught on a light post, eventually falling apart as it can no longer move forward. One of the ornaments (I think that’s the right word for it) on the carriage is of a baby and as the carriage falls apart, it makes a squeaking noise similar to that of a crying baby. This noise happens right as we are shown the baby figure, making me consider its significance and its representation of life in this situation. As the carriage falls apart, a casket falls out, revealing to Isak his dead self, representing death. He then wakes up and begins his day.

While travelling with his daughter-in-law, they pick up three hitchhikers: Sara, Viktor and Anders, who travel with them for the rest of their journey. I believe these three represent how Isak feels about death. Viktor and Anders represent life and death (I can’t remember which is which), one of them wanting to be a surgeon (life) and the other, a minister (death). The surgeon tries his hardest to prevent death because he does not want to accept it as a possibility and the minister accepts the inevitability and importance of death, as part of the cycle of life in this world and especially as a passage into the next. The two are constantly arguing about the existence of God and the afterlife, with Sara stuck in the middle between them. She can’t decide which of the two she wants to be with. I believe she represents Isak’s feelings on this matter. Isak clearly fears death, based on the dream he has at the beginning of the film but he doesn’t want to fear death and is reconsidering his opinion of it. Maybe dying is not so bad after all.

Close to the end of the film, Marianne tells Isak that she is pregnant with the child of her husband, Evald (Isak’s son, who he has always had a poor relationship with). However, there has been a strain in their relationship because Evald doesn’t want to bring children into a world that he hates and even wants to die himself. Nonetheless, Marianne wants to keep the baby. By the end of the film, they all reconcile their differences (I’m not sure how this happened – I must have missed something) and after Isak has a pleasant conversation with his son, the film ends with Isak lying in bed, recalling childhood memories with a content, peaceful look on his face. This is the rushed part of the narrative that I referred to earlier but I included it in the analysis because it is the final catalyst that caused Isak to accept the inevitability of his death and live in peace because of it.

This was my interpretation of this story and I’m sure there are many other possibilities. There are parts of the narrative that I did not include in this analysis; I only included parts that most greatly exemplified the theme I was talking about. I am sure when I watch it again I’ll get something else out of it, things that I hadn’t considered before. As well, I’m sure other people have gotten something different out of it. This film has a lot of depth to it. It is definitely worth a watch, or a re-watch.

8/10

Image source: https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/wild-strawberries-ingmar-bergman-influenced

Fantastic Planet (1973)

fantastic planet poster

Fantastic Planet (or La Planéte Sauvage) is a French sci-fi film that I have known about for a long time and have intended to watch for a long time, but never did until recently. I first learnt of it years ago, from a music video that someone made and posted on YouTube, basically consisting of clips from the movie with a song by the group Shpongle playing over it. I thought the music video was great and if any of you are fans of Shpongle, you might like this film too. Everything about this movie is weird and psychedelic as well as extremely creative and original, very much a product of its era.

It is a visually stunning film. Everything is hand drawn with what looks like pencil and the drab colouring help set the tone of the film. You really have to appreciate the time put into drawing each slide (at over an hour, that must be thousands of drawings) as well as the creativity put into the design of the alien world, Ygam. The psychedelic soundtrack was great too and was very well edited to fit the visuals of the film.

SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!!

The premise of the film is pretty simple: humans (or Oms) are on an alien world and live in primitive tribes, hiding from the giant blue humanoid aliens (Draags). The Draags generally regard Oms as pests, though the children in their society like to keep them as pets. At first, this film seems like a criticism of the way we, as people living with an anthropocentric worldview, treat the other species on this planet. Most of us have no problem exterminating what we deem as pests and the Draags are the same way because that’s how they view oms. They don’t have a personal vendetta against Oms but they make the Draag world less pleasant and need to be destroyed. But the film is designed so that we also take the point of view of the oppressed Oms, allowing us to know what it’s like being the victims of our own destructive tendencies. Both Draags and Oms are designed to be relatable to the audience.

This film did not at all end the way I thought it would. The Oms eventually fight back against their oppressors, using their own drag technology against them. I expected the film to end with the Oms defeating the Draags, taking their place as the oppressors and solidifying the idea that the two species are basically the same. The oppressors and the oppressed can easily be interchanged. However, the film ends with the two groups making peace, each living on their own separate planets. The Draags only wanted to kill the Oms when they saw them as pests (i.e. beings inhabiting their territory). The Draags aren’t violent towards other sentient life, as long as that life stays in its own territory. They even have a sentient relationship with other species across the galaxy, using some meditative intergalactic sex ritual (don’t let that put you off the film). They are only violent when their territory is imposed upon, as is the case with the Oms. So, considering the Draags only fight the Oms (as is apparent in the film) and are peaceful towards other races, is it possible that the drag civilisation has evolved beyond waging wars based on moral differences? For example, wars based on governmental or religious differences.  When this film was made, there had been many terrible wars like that in our own recent past. Territorial disputes are understandable but wars based on moral differences are absolutely destructive and useless. Will we, as a species, eventually evolve to understand how futile this type of war is? It’s an interesting thought. Perhaps the Draags aren’t so bad after all.

8/10

Image source: https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Planet-Criterion-Collection-Blu-ray/dp/B01D2995BK