The Other Toy Story

Nighty night.

Nighty night.

Jiří Barta is renowned as a master of stop-motion animation. He is hailed alongside fellow Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer. He has also had a dickens of a time getting a new movie made, but he has finally done it. Jiří Barta’s latest creation, the feature film In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (2009) (aka Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?) [update: recently released on DVD in the US with English dubbing under the title Toys in the Attic], is a wonderfully imaginative fairytale adventure. I was blessed enough to see it for the LA premiere at the Silent Movie Theater for their animation festival.

Scenes from Golem.

Scenes from Golem.

Some of the most innovative animators in the world seem to be coming from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe. Names like Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales), Alexander Petrov (The Mermaid), Karel Zeman (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ivan Maximov (From Left to Right), Jiří Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), George Pal (Tubby the Tuba and Puppetoons), Jan Balej (One Night in One City), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (The Battle of Kerhzenets), Jan  Švankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue), Władysław Starevich (The Mascot), and Barta are all names to look out for. If any of these names are mere foreign words to you, then you definitely need to check out some of their brilliant work.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

In the Attic represents Jiří Barta’s return to stop-motion animation after several years of trying to get his failed Golem project off the ground (and the small amount of footage he did produce for Golem is nothing short of staggering). Barta has achieved much recognition for his enchanting short animated films (many of which can be seen in the excellent Barta DVD compilation Labyrinth of Darkness), but has completed only one previous featurelength movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985). Unlike the dark, gnarled near-nightmarescape of Pied Piper, however, In the Attic is a far gentler film and made to be appreciated by children.

Check out Pied Piper, it is also quite good.

Barta’s newest movie is a richly textured, quiet, and tranquil story punctuated by some fun action and brilliant cinematic innovation and magic. At heart In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a light rescue movie filled with fun characters, exciting peril, cross-country journeys, and wild vehicles. It is the story of old toys in an attic and although the subject matter might remind you of Pixar’s Toy Story, the dazzling inventions will hearken back to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit adventures, while the style remains more reminiscent of the opening of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and some things dreamed up by the Brothers Quay or Švankmajer. In the Attic might remind you of all of these things, but it is all Jiří Barta.

Choo choo.

Choo choo.

The story is simple and sublime and despite being geared at children it does have some potent anti-communist political themes. It takes place, quite aptly, in an attic—the rest of the title comes from the recurring gimmick of the characters rolling the dice every morning to decide whose birthday they will celebrate that day. Buttercup is a sweet little doll who lives in an old trunk in the attic along with her friends; the sleep-loving Teddy, a tattered stuffed bear; the quixotic Sir Handsome, a battered and delusional marionette; and the feisty Schupert, a ball of clay with a pencil nose. She cooks and cleans for them and the boys go off to work on the railroad or fight inflatable alligators and all is idyllic tranquility (so women’s lib). Indeed, I was beaming with delight and my smile could not be suppressed by the sheer cuteness of the whole spectacle.

Buttercup.

Buttercup.

Naturally, conflict must enter in on the scene and disturb the quaintness of it all (unless you happen to be Hayao Miyazaki, who doesn’t seem to require villains to tell a great story). A mechanical tube with a human-like eyeball spies the peaceful lives of the attic denizens, reporting back to its master via an old television set that is obsessively monitored by a ruthless, old, cigar-chomping, golden bust with Hunter S. Thompson shades and an entourage of bugs and mismatched bits of rubbish. The tarnished voyeur spies Buttercup in her tatterdemalion serenity and concludes that he must have her for himself. Perhaps he thought of it himself or perhaps the nasty earwig with spectacles and a Dalí mustache who whispers wicked things into the head’s ear put the idea in his brain.

The puppet master?

The puppet master?

The evil golden head deploys hordes of beetles to terrorize poor Buttercup and hires a house cat to don clothing and trick the doll girl into stumbling into his bent corner of the attic. Once inside the land of evil, Buttercup is placed under arrest until she agrees to wed the head. She is forced to clean out the furnace all day and all night while the head’s cronies only dump more soot and ash on top of her whenever she gets done. Buttercup remains defiant to all of the head’s advances.

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

Back on the other end of the attic, Sir Handsome and Teddy discover their beloved Buttercup is missing. Together they start on a quest to bring her back from the land of evil. A brave lady mouse—who runs the attic radio—tinkers together to construct a flying machine out of an old vacuum cleaner and other discarded junk. She and a plump piglet toy band together with all of the other little toys and scraps (mostly wooden chess pieces) and fly out to meet Teddy and Sir Handsome who are already well on their way.

Pillows bloom and rise out of old dressers and steadily rise only to link together and snow on them like big, fluffy clouds. The cat opens up a wardrobe unleashing an inundation of blue sheets, cloaks, and fabrics to represent a terrible flood for the traversing toys. Most of the perils are truly imaginative and, yes, adorable.

What fun.

What fun.

At last our heroes meet up together, but then are plagued by more moth-eaten horrors sent by the golden head in the land of evil. The golden head has spies everywhere and will not tolerate simple toys trespassing on his side of the attic, nor will he risk Buttercup’s emancipation before he can brainwash her and make her his. Don’t worry. Things get hairy, but it all works out in the end and Barta has more animation tricks up his sleeve to share before this delightful excursion comes to a pleasing finale.

The Head.

The Head.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a beautiful film with much to love and to look at. It is sweet and charming and full of imagination and quirky gimmicks—like Teddy’s vanity when he shines his nose and brushes his teeth incessantly or Schubert’s battle to stay in one piece during a rainstorm on the roof—and the entire family is sure to enjoy it. I do admit that I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a big difference between these films and much of it has to do with the animation style. The slick and beautiful computer generated world of Toy Story is colorful and complex and it reminds me of certain toys I had growing up, but In the Attic is rich like a quilt made by your great-great grandmother. The characters of In the Attic feel like toys that always were. Where Toy Story’s characters are more like adults who understand the preciousness of the love of a child and depend on it yet banter and reason like grownups, In the Attic’s characters are independent and have the personalities and subtleties that only a child would give them during playtime. In addition to actually being three-dimensional they behave as I would imagine toys would behave had they lives outside of a child’s imagination.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

All in all In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a rare treat. It’s a completely innocent child’s fairytale full of adventure and friendship. It’s rich in nostalgia and imagination and it’s really cute. As I sat in the theater and let the simple, dully colored, tattered figures do their dance, I wanted to believe in this attic universe. It felt like how I always imagined my grandfather’s basement to be when I was a kid. His basement was full of old gadgets, toys, objects, pictures, and furniture and I always suspected that whenever I turned off the lights that it had a mind of it own.

Schupert.

Schupert.

Although still not available on home video, I have since emailed the production company of this film and they have responded with hints of an English dub for re-release for British and American theaters and possibly a subsequent DVD/bluray release. Let us hope that we may soon obtain copies and curl up under an old blanket by the fire and watch it with our families. [Update: yeah, scratch all that. It’s out now].

Top 1o Reasons to See In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?

1. It’s an adorable movie the whole family can enjoy.

2. It marks a legendary animator’s return to his craft.

3. They travel by land, air, and sea on their quest.

4. The mechanisms and social structure designed by the characters in the film are really clever and fun to watch.

5. It has deeper political themes instead of tired pop-culture references for the adults in the audience.

6. Jiří Barta fashions an entire world with its own rules and it is a pleasure to admire.

7. It’s got it all: damsels in distress, heroes, villains, monsters, adventure, inventions, and comedy.

8. If Švankmajer’s Alice was too dark or weird for you then this is a good alternative.

9. Teddy’s cheeks when he smiles are so freaking cute!

10. There is a weird thing with a pocket watch toward the end that is amazingly cool.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 13, 2010

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Generic Belgian Boy Sleuth and the Quest for the Implausible Rube-Goldbergian Action Set Pieces

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)When I was a kid I loved The Adventures of Tintin. Hergé’s colorful, mystery-filled world was the perfect amalgam of The Hardy Boys, Johnny Quest, and Emil and the Detectives. I always preferred the boy reporter, Tintin, to Johnny Quest because of the cool time periods and atmosphere. The jury’s still out on whether Snowy is better than Bandit. It was everything a young boy loves: action, adventure, danger, mystery, and rapidly shifting exotic backdrops. Both the comics (published between 1929 and 1976) and the animated series from the early nineties are excellent fun.

Indiana Jones director, Steven Spielberg, it would seem should be the most logical choice to bring the beloved character to the big screen (with aid of one Peter Jackson). Sitting in the theater I can see where people might have some quibbles with the film adaptation. It is jam-packed with wild action sequences and gun play and explosions and very little character development and some of the old-timey flavor and sensibilities might not be what modern audiences are craving. Like most things, there are positive things about Tintin and then there are negative things.

For those uninitiated into the world of Belgian artist Hergé’s Tintin they might not experience that same surge of nostalgia. A film should not be dependent on that surge, especially for a character that might not be as familiar in the United States. Tintin is a flat character. He always was. Even in the comics. One is meant to be experiencing the adventures through Tintin’s eyes. He is a blank cypher so we can more readily assign our own personalities to him. It works in the comics when you’re a kid. This idea may not work so well on the big screen. Despite Tintin’s apparent innocuousness and infernal purity he still looks good on screen. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Munich) plays the evil Professor Sakharine but his motivations are silly and he’s not a particularly memorable screen villain. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) are the bumbling identical detective set of Thomson and Thompson and they play the parts very true to the source material but they do not add much new. Fortunately not all of the characters are so bland. Andy Serkis (The Two Towers, Topsy-Turvy) gives an extremely enjoyable and kooky performance as Capt. Archibald Haddock.

The animation is incredible. I don’t generally like motion-capture films (with the exception of Gil Kenan’s Monster House) and I am not a fan of the current 3D trend, but most of my misgivings regarding motion-capture are gone for Tintin. The photo-realistic textures donned upon Hergé-inspired cartoon features actually work well and gone are the glassy-eyed stares that gave everyone the willies in Robert Zemekis’s Polar Express. The colors pop and the world looks sharp and clear. There is a healthy balance between characters who look real and characters who look like cartoons. Visually it all works. With animation the camera is able to go places and do things that would never be achievable in a live-action film. This glorious freedom of the camera unencumbered by logistics of any kind enables the filmmakers to film the action in incredibly new and exciting ways.One big complaint is that there is too much action. It is a smoke screen to disguise the thinness of plot and absence of engaging personalities. The action does become rather exhausting after awhile and towards the end of the movie I was wanting it to wrap up so I could go home. Instead of mood and solid atmosphere we get action. Instead of a clear objective and understandable character motivations we get action. It’s pretty much wall to wall action once it gets going. It reminded me of the first and last 20 minutes or so of Temple of Doom in that regard. I generally see 3D as a gimmick for rides and shows at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens so I treat The Adventures of Tintin as a big, long, exciting ride that features some of my favorite characters from my childhood. I do feel that although they really wanted this ride to be worth the cost of admission the spectacle does go on about ten minutes too long. I wanted a more satisfying and final conclusion.

So what do I really think about The Adventures of Tintin? I liked it. Thank God it’s not a pop-culture onslaught reboot like The Smurfs and such. It stays extremely true to its source material and would be a good escape for children young and old. Although it’s not nearly as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in many ways it is everything Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was supposed to be but just outright refused to deliver. Perhaps Tintin is Spielberg’s apology and way of saying the whole Crystal Skull business was all George Lucas. For all its faults and limitations The Adventures of Tintin is a fun adventure that hearkens back to classic action-mystery stories of childhood yore. I don’t think Hergé would have had many objections to the film. I hope kids will like it. It’s about time American kids got a little bit more exposure to culture.

Holmes Insurance

Let’s face it: one of the most celebrated and ubiquitous fictional characters is Sherlock Holmes. From Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett to Benedict Cumberbatch there have been plenty of incarnations of the iconic sleuth. It seems apparent that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved creation is ensured to live on forever—although Doyle himself did get sick of him. Holmes, the brilliant detective with the keen eye and cold demeanor, shall never die.

Obviously people are familiar with Robert Downey, Jr. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) most recently donning the inverness and hunting cap. It has divided many. Downey is good, but it is more a zany action movie than true Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie’s (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) prowess does lie in that rough and tumble style, but perhaps purists should not be so readily distraught by Holmes’ recent treatment. Sherlock Holmes as an entertainment institution has been the subject of much overwrought gimmick and disfigurement for years.

Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot and The Apartment) directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970. It was a fun but slightly loopy film (midgets and submarines abound). George C. Scott played a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in The Might Be Giants (1971). Gene Wilder farced the whole thing with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) teamed Holmes up with Sigmund Freud and focused more on his cocaine habits. Murder By Decree (1979) has him face off against Jack the Ripper (odd, H. G. Wells had to stop Jack the Ripper that same year in Time After Time…odder that Mary Steenburgen would fall in love with a wayward time-traveler (Wells) in this movie and then again with the Doc (with whom she shares an affinity for Jules Verne) in Back to the Future III). And don’t forget Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock, Jr. (1924). And what of a certain Jack Russell terrier and PBS denizen?

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam), written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone), and produced by Steven Spielberg (Jaws) and Industrial Light & Magic, is a peculiar sort of travesty. On the one hand it is a nostalgic cult flick with some interesting special effects and a pseudo-Indiana Jones type feel set in Victorian England, but it is pretty sloppy on most other accounts. It doesn’t feel like it was written by someone who read a lot of Sherlock Holmes, but rather someone who understood the basic elements: mystery, a pipe, Watson, Lestrade, magnifying glass, etc. but it is far more a product of its own time. Since it is the 80s the main characters are kids and the mood is dark and grim. To it’s credit, although the plot is fairly simple, it is more enjoyable than a lot of kids-solving-the-mystery type movies of that era. Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) was still better though.

The players. Nicholas Rowe plays a pretty solid young Sherlock Holmes (he would later appear in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). The movie’s first big blunder is making Watson an idiot. This is the classic Sherlock Holmes movie misstep. The film is narrated by the great Michael Hordern as an older Dr. Watson and Brian Cox’s son, Alan Cox, plays the young dopey Watson. Far too many adaptations mishandle Watson. He is not supposed to be a bumbling oaf. He is meant to be an asset and compliment to Sherlock. For the new British series I thought Martin Freeman was excellent (although he does have the added benefit of smarter writing). The rest of the cast of Young Sherlock Holmes is suitable but they are all essentially playing archetypes and don’t get much room to play.

Holmes and Watson meet in your typical British boarding school. When a series of bizarre deaths start occurring Holmes takes an interest and when his childlike elfin nimrod mentor uncharacteristically commits suicide and then Holmes gets expelled for cheating (he was framed by some douchebag, don’t worry), there’s nothing for it but to solve the mystery. The game is afoot.

The chases, action, and Temple of Doom-esque touches don’t always align with strict Doyle sensibilities, but they keep the movie going. A cockamamie Egyptian cult is kidnapping young girls and sacrificing them by wrapping them up like mummies and then dumping acid on them out of a plastic cow face…and the mystery is about why random old guys are committing suicide. I know, right. The whole virgin sacrifice thing is sort of mentioned but it’s so tacked on you might miss it. The mystery Holmes is really trying to solve is the mystery of the dead old guys. They blew it.

Why is there always paraffin wax in these movies and why is it the paraffin wax can only come from one place…that is different in every movie?

So why watch this dated, lurching, misinformed cult oddity? It’s light and kind of fun and you can turn your brain off to watch it, but the real reason is the wild special effects. The real gimmick for this Sherlock Holmes is not “oh, look how young the characters are,” but rather “what the heck was that? Did a roasted Cornish game hen just come to life and attack that dude’s face?” The Egyptian cult in this movie has blow darts that shoot poisonous thorns that make the victim experience nightmarish hallucinations until they ultimately kill themselves. Weird plot device, I know, but I’ll be darned if this film didn’t give me nightmares when I was a kid. Let’s do some thorn, man.

Spooky things comes to life and terrify people and it is pretty scary, especially since it’s using those weird 80s special effects. The hallucinations vary in how interesting/frightening they are but they are easily what makes any bit of this movie memorable. A young Pixar even helped out with this movie in the creation of a CG stained-glass knight. If memory serves there are six hallucination sequences and the one that gives me the weirdest feeling is still the jubilant anthropomorphic pastries forcing themselves into the victim’s mouth with giddy abandon. It’s like a Happy Meal commercial from hell.

All in all Young Sherlock Holmes is a pretty harmless non-canon entry. Treat it more as a dated special effects feature that uses Sherlock Holmes as a backdrop and you should stave off any aneurysm. It’s not great, but it’s not a total failure and as a strange, forgotten 80s movie it’s kind of fun. Flying machines, pyramids, murder, cults, and hellish hallucinogenics. Have fun.

It’s Not Easy Being Grinch

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is a time for family, food, fellowship, and film! Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Die Hard (1988) and so on have all become holiday staples and there are so many more. I really wanted to write a review on a holiday movie but I was super torn as to which one to pick as so many have a very special place in my heart. It was ultimately down to a coin-flip between Trading Places (1983) and Scrooge (1951) and the winner was (quite surprisingly) Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). I know, right.

Not the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey one.

This extremely memorable TV holiday special is not a classic by mere happenstance. American word master and gibberish-inventor (if it only but served the meter and rhyme), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), published this cherished rhyming fable in 1957. It has since been welcomed into countless homes, and for good reason. The wonderful words–both real and fictitious—and the amusing and creative rhymes, the stylized and whimsical artwork, and the simple yet timeless message that Christmas doesn’t come from the store, all work together in a very special way. It’s hard not to love the book, but who could have the cinematic fortitude to transform this classic yarn into moving pictures? How about Looney Tunes animator and director, Chuck Jones?

Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones was a perfect choice to bring to life Dr. Seuss’s tale of the nasty old Grinch who hates Christmas and has nothing but disdain for the Whos down in Whoville. After making so many beloved classic animated shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner, etc., and proving he indeed had the knack for comic fable with such shorts as One Froggy Evening (1955) and The Dot and the Line (1965), Jones’ style and sensibility fit Dr. Seuss’s world of cautionary mayhem very well. (I do still wonder what the film might have been like had Bob Clampbett animated it though). Jones even found room to add some of his own touches to the story. The look is Jones’s take on the look of Seuss which, in itself, is fairly fascinating, but Jones also had fun with other elements. The part of the Grinch’s tacit dog sidekick, Max, was expanded so that there was always at least one other Jonesesque joke going on amidst the silly Seussiness.

So the amazing story with its wonderfully whimsical way with words was set and the animated artwork and anarchic comic timing were ready to fire away, but there was still one important piece missing. Who could possibly effectively tell the story of the Grinch, giving both Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones room to play while making it all their own? How about British actor and horror film icon, Boris Karloff (best known for his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein, 1931). Boris Karloff was both narrator and the voice of the Grinch himself. With immaculate diction and fantastic timber, the 79 year-old horror legend, festooned the film with his own very welcome presence. His reading of the piece is still really quite impressive.

For good measure, one more element was tossed into the mix: the killer song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” The song is great and it’s made even better by the deep, rich vocalist who sang it (who was uncredited!). That singer was Thurl Ravenscroft who is best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger (he was also the Vacuum Cleaner from The Brave Little Toaster, 1987). Now Chuck Jones was directing a Christmas poem written by Dr. Seuss that was being read by Boris Karloff while Thurl Ravenscroft would sing bass behind it all. Everything was now in place and everyone was in tip top form for this modest television production that would become a holiday favorite to be celebrated for years to come.

The story was simple. An ornery, old, green creature, the Grinch, would watch the Who-folk celebrate Christmas every year and every year he would glare down from his cave in the mountain above Whoville and let his hatred fester until one year he decides to do something about it. The Grinch does not understand Christmas, but he knows he cannot let the wretched spectacle continue so he plans to steal Christmas from the Whos so they can see how foolish they are. The Whos, however, do not need the presents that the Grinch steals because Christmas is bigger than commercialization: it’s alive in our hearts. The Whos don’t even seem to notice that all of their holiday decorations and presents are missing as they link arms and sing. The Grinch then repents of his wicked ways and seeks to redeem himself and return the gifts and he is formally welcomed into the Who community and they all celebrate together.

So blow your flu-flubers and bang your tar-tinkers this holiday season with a small film you all love and remember. Make Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a part of your Christmas. Make it a double feature alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)! Tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season to all. “Welcome, Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

picture sources:

misfittoys.net

ouuc.org

cartoongallery.com

balboamovies.com

cbsnews.com

chud.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 22, 2009.

Delhi Belly, The Muppets, The Last Circus, Into the Abyss, and The Artist

For those who feel I don’t watch enough new movies here be a melange of mini-reviews of some more recent films.

I saw trailers for Delhi Belly (2011) several months ago and it looked like some kind of madcap high-octane blitz of Indian gang chases. But I had to convince people that it got positive reviews for them to go see it with me. We drove out to the nearest theater that said they were playing it. They were not playing it. So myself, my buddies, and a couple extended Indian families in line behind us all went home sad. We ate at Denny’s to cushion the tragic blow. Delhi Belly, directed by Abhinay Deo, is pretty much what it promised to be in the trailers. It’s fast mayhem. Here’s the story in a nutshell: three roommates get mixed up with the mafia and the main character is reconsidering his impending marriage as a result of the introduction of a new female character. The term “Delhi belly” refers to diarrhea, and yes, diarrhea is a major plot point. Although it is an Indian film it feels very American. There are no real Bollywood song and dance numbers, although music does play in the background. It’s also all in English. It’s not a bad little film and it is definitely one of the more culturally accessible films to come out of India…which will either help or hurt the movie depending on who you are. It’s fun and funny and fairly insubstantial.

A much anticipated movie for this year was The Muppets (2011). Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) rescues his favorite Jim Henson characters and returns them to the big screen…with mediocre results. I am a huge Muppet fan. Jim Henson is one of the people I want to party with in heaven. I loved The Muppet Show (1976-1981) and their first several movies (Muppet Movie, Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan). After Jim died the Muppets got retooled a bit by his son Brian Henson in the 1990s. Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were pretty good and everybody crapped on Muppets from Space (1999). Segel wanted to put them back in classic mode and this new movie halfway succeeds. It’s sweet and light and colorful, but it is far too focused on Segel, Amy Adams, and Walter (the new Muppet character) and not everything feels quite right. It feels like it was recut or changed in some way. Some of the songs are pretty great, but the whole spectacle of the Muppets getting back together to host a telethon to save their old studio is underwhelming and feels like an insufficient shadow of their work in earlier films. It’s trying to be a Muppet movie. It knows the basic ingredients but its sensibilities might just be a little too modern for the classic characters. It’s a far better tribute movie than say films like Alvin and the Chipmunks. All in all it’s about as entertaining as Muppets from Space but its heart is definitely more in the right place. The original Muppets were more about Vaudeville and classic variety shows. This new Muppets is probably closer to Glee. Frank Oz is missed as well. Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Concords) songs are the best thing going for it.

The Last Circus (2011) is an ambitious step in a strange direction. Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (El Crimen Ferpecto) helms this joyless and grim depiction of clinical depression…or perhaps merely the life of a pudgy clown at the circus. I really wanted to like this film. It seemed so off the wall and wild from the trailers that I really thought I would enjoy this one. I did enjoy El Crimen Ferpecto after all. The film is well shot and meticulously lit, but the story is too familiar (it feels like a mishmash of several Lon Chaney, Sr. deranged/tortured clown movies from the silent era seen through the lens of a more evil version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and ultimately it feels more an exercise in repulsion and grotesquery. It starts with much potential; a disturbed loser joins the circus to be a sad clown and takes a shine for a girl who is stuck in an abusive relationship with the boss clown. It’s odd and enjoyable and then the violence starts and pretty soon we’re watching a naked fat man run around in a muddy forest and eating a raw elk. Then people are getting beat up with trumpets during sex and cheeks are being scalded off by acid and irons. It’s all rather gross. I liked pieces of this film, but the dark tone switches about halfway through to become way too dark and disgusting for me. Nothing means anything after awhile and you realize you are simply observing crazy tragic people do evil selfish things with no window for redemption. Not my cup of tea but perhaps it can be gulped down by someone. Too mean-spirited for me. I liked He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unknown (1927), Freaks (1932) and Santa Sangre (1989) better.

Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) has been making some of the most interesting films and documentaries for over four decades. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss (2011) is worth a look. Perhaps not quite so cinematic, but interesting nevertheless. Herzog interviews a man on death row and all of the other people involved in the crime and the victims of it as he tries to delicately unpack and humanize the death penalty and a broken system. He makes no secret that he is opposed to the death penalty and finds it rather an uncouth institution, however, he avoids manipulating the audience with camera tricks. The camera is merely there to record the honest emotions of real people and it succeeds in capturing incredible nakedness and fragility. The human animal is a peculiar beast and maybe nobody knows that better than Herzog. Into the Abyss does not attempt to resolve any issue or solve the case or even provide psychological closure…but then that just might be the point. Please walk away with something to talk about. It may not be Herzog’s best but I doubt there’s anything he’s done that’s not worth investigating.

I enjoy silent cinema. Naturally when I heard someone was making a new silent movie I initially thought, “How can they capture that time and the special magic that time had?” Well, they couldn’t but they came pretty close and they captured something else. The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Oss117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), is an affectionate homage to that lost time. A big shot silent actor (Jean Dujardin) with a big ego—and an adorable dog sidekick—suffers when the dawn of sound technology threatens his kingdom (reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain?). A young ingenue (Berenice Bejo) takes the stage and becomes a hit, and secretly harbors deep affections for the failed artist. American character actors John  Goodman (The Big Lebowski) and James Cromwell (Babe) co-star in this sweet and clever film and tribute to the silent era. It’s not the best silent movie ever made (not even close) and it’s not nearly as bold or imaginative as a movie from Guy Maddin (contemporary Canadian filmmaker specializing in silent-style movies today), but it’s an extremely pleasurable delight that will put a big smile wide across your face. The Artist reminds us of cinema’s roots and that silent films can be just as powerful and engaging despite their limitations and it makes that lost time smell fresh once more. I really enjoyed it. That dog steals every scene.

Now go to the movies and stop downloading crap.

Marxism = Anarchy

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in "Duck Soup."

Zeppo takes notes for Groucho in “Duck Soup.”

Among the classic silver screen comedy teams there are many greats. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, the Three Stooges, and so on all have very special places in my heart, however, there is one team who has, for me, always stood out. I speak of the Marx Brothers. With their quick wit, innovative style, musical talent, and anarchic irreverence, the Marx Brothers have more than earned their places in cinema history. They were a unique blend ripped straight from vaudeville and their powers were only sharpened on the big screen.

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in "Monkey Business."

Harpo, Zeppo, Chico, and Groucho stowing away in “Monkey Business.”

One of the things that always separated the Marx Brothers from other comedy teams was their number. Most of the great comedy teams were comprised of only two. One would play more of the straight man (Bud Abbott, Bing Crosby) or bear the brunt of most of the physical pain (Oliver Hardy) while the other would be more infantile and always be getting into trouble (Lou Costello, Stanley Laurel) or sometimes they would just bounce lines off every straight performer in the film (Bob Hope). The Three Stooges (the greatest incarnation of which being comprised of Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Curly Howard) changed things up a bit because there were now three and they were all pretty goofy. Moe would try to keep the boys in line, but his ignorance, belligerence, and propensity to get injured would always knock him down to the levels of the slower Larry and the manically infantile Curly. Cartoonish violence would quickly ensue.

The Marx Brothers had a completely different schtick. Originally there were four of them in the films (a fifth, Gummo, left the group before Hollywood and his namesake was seemingly arbitrarily used as the title to the 1997 Harmony Korine film).

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in "Horse Feathers." Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo woos Thelma Todd in “Horse Feathers.” Harpo makes a gookie face on the floor.

Zeppo (Herbert originally) Marx (1901-1979) was the underused straight man of the brothers, but he only made it into their first five features. Zeppo’s screen time is short and sporadic throughout their movies. He usually played Groucho’s secretary or son or some other minor character who might court the girl or take a letter. It has been said that Zeppo was actually very funny off-screen, but since he did not have a specific comic persona like the other three he got lost in the shuffle. The best Zeppo moments, I think, come in Animal Crackers (1930) when he tries to take a letter that is being dictated by Groucho. My other personal favorite Zeppo scene is the big musical number about going to war in Duck Soup (1933). This number features all of the Marxes at once being equally silly as they sing, dance, strum banjo, beat helmeted guards’ heads like xylophones, and puppeteer an entire room of serious politicos. Duck Soup would be Zeppo’s last movie appearance. Zeppo left as their contract with Universal came to a close.

Chico plays a tune in "Animal Crackers" while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico plays a tune in “Animal Crackers” while Harpo gets anxious and clangs horseshoes.

Chico (Leonard) Marx (1887-1961), renowned for being a bit of a womanizer and gambling addict, was the Italian guy of the group. The Marx Brothers were all Jewish, but in the days of vaudevillian comedy it was very normal to play stereotypical ethnic characters on stage. Chico was the only one of the Marxes who kept the ethnic schtick throughout their film career. His clothing (like Groucho and Harpo) would also stay rather consistent. The same cheap hat and coat would follow him from film to film. His performances consisted of saying dim malapropistic things with a heavy Italian accent, and being a springboard for many of Harpo’s antics. A very fine musician, Chico played the piano in most of their films. His characters were also the most prone to Donald Duck-like exasperation (usually brought on by Harpo). Chico and Harpo were often paired together as lower class vagabonds, thieves, or spies. Some of Chico’s best scenes come when he is with Groucho and his double-talk and mispronunciation carry them down awry verbal tributaries. I think some of Chico’s best scenes can be found in Animal Crackers where he and Harpo play bridge with some unsuspecting ladies (one of which being Marx Brother mainstay, Maragaret Dumont), or when he and Harpo attempt to steal a famous painting during a blackout, or when he and Groucho discuss where the painting might be and after much silly talk Chico asserts that it was stolen by left-handed moths. His best and funniest piano playing scene may also be found in Animal Crackers.

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in "A Night at the Opera."

Harpo sleeps through insanity in a crammed state room in “A Night at the Opera.”

Harpo (Adolph) Marx (1888-1964) was the harp-playing, silent type. Harpo never spoke a word on camera (although he often whistled and honked horns that protruded from his overlarge, tattered trench coats). Always with a shabby top-hat and curly, red wig, Harpo was easily the most clownish of the group. His characters were all happy-go-lucky pantomiming miscreants—often times abused by bad guys or Chico—but he always got the last word (so to speak). Goofy faces (or “gookie” faces for the purists), a far away look in his eye, illiteracy, a voracious appetite, sloppy clothing—containing everything from live animals, perpetually lit candles and blowtorches, coffee, weapons, appliances, etc.—and a strange running gag of loving a horse and the harp were all part of Harpo’s bag of tricks. Some of his best scenes come with Chico in Animal Crackers, and his job interview with Groucho in Duck Soup where after many screwball antics, Harpo reveals his home is a tattoo of a doghouse on his own chest. Groucho leans in to “meow” at the doghouse, when suddenly a real dog’s head pops out and barks at him. Groucho leaps back as Harpo quietly closes his coat and grins whimsically. The most surreal of the brothers, it’s no wonder Salvador Dali was so fascinated by him (Dali actually wrote a script for the Marx Brothers, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, but it was never filmed). One of Harpo’s other great scenes comes in A Night at the Opera (1935) where he disrupts the opera performance at the grand finale of the film. For all his zany antics, his touch at the harp was always smooth and you could see the significance this instrument had on him.

Groucho's grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in "Animal Crackers."

Groucho’s grand entrance as Capt. Spalding in “Animal Crackers.”

Groucho (Julius) Marx (1890-1977) was the ring leader of the bunch. Unlike Chico or Harpo who were gifted at the piano and harp respectively, Groucho was a guitar player but he seldom displayed his musical talent on screen (he plays the guitar in Go West and briefly in Horse Feathers and promptly tosses it into a lake at the song’s conclusion). He was the wiliest and sharpest of the group. Groucho always wore baggy suits and round glasses and smoked a cigar beneath a thick greasepaint mustache while his painted eyebrows bounced up and down insinuating some sort of sneaky double-entendre. His hunched comic gait was actually a parody of a walking fad from the late 1800s. This absurd walk was another trademark of the Groucho persona. He was usually cast as a shady man of some note who has been brought in to provide temporary guidance to a sinking ship. He was Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of the financially struggling Huxley College, in Horse Feathers (1932), and he was Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, in Duck Soup, and Detective Wolf J. Flywheel in The Big Store (1941). Groucho was very well-read and his intelligence shines through in his improvised dialogue opposite other characters. His wit was so sharp and so quick that actors like Margaret Dumont (his usual foil/counterpart and butt of many jokes) would frequently not understand them. His rapid-fire delivery is reflected best when the other characters can barely keep up with his humorous train of logic. Virtually every time Groucho opened his mouth on camera it was hilarious and it might be difficult to pinpoint his best scenes, although Animal Crackers and Duck Soup features some of his best and sharpest conversations. Duck Soup also features the classic mirror sequence where Harpo, dressed as Groucho, copies his movements to hide his presence and the fact that the mirror is broken.

Margaret Dumont gets a run down.

Margaret Dumont gets the usual once-over.

The Marx Brothers had many classic motifs and running gags, but their brilliant comic timing and talent moved beyond that. They were unique. They were able to be edgier than most other comedians of their day and Groucho made comedy a lot smarter than most. Chico took ethnic caricature to a new level, occasionally mocking his well-known non-Italian heritage in their films. Harpo kept silent comedy alive years after the silent era. Groucho reminded everyone that comedy could be more intelligent than drama if done properly. All having markedly different comedy styles (although all birthed from their vaudevillian New York City roots) they brought comic crassness to new heights when they were together. Whether they’re playing the final football game in Horse Feathers or taking on the gangsters in Monkey Business (1931) they were always innovative and hilarious.

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in "A Night at the Opera."

Fake beards and awkward speeches to elude the police in “A Night at the Opera.”

Like most creative minds, they did lose some creative control when they switched studios. Sadly their later films did not have the same spark and fire as their first forays into moviedom. Of their thirteen or so consecutive movies their first six are easily their best and funniest. Their first, The Cocoanuts (1929), is a bit uneven (too much Irving Berlin) but it has some great bits. Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera rank among my all time favorite comedies. Their later films were lacking because they were in want of the real Marx Brothers.  A Day at the Races (1937) and At the Circus (1939) were better than Room Service (1938), The Big Store, A Night in Casablanca (1946) and Love Happy (1949) but nothing could measure up to their earlier efforts. Their one period piece, Go West (1940), was probably their last decent one and it’s worth a look.

The jig is up...unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes...which they do.

The jig is up…unless they brain this guy with a heavy cigar box, tie him up, and steal his clothes…which they do.

The studios were trying to control them too much because they failed to realize that what worked in the Marx Brothers was anarchy. They brought anarchy to respectable people and self-important situations when they were at their best. The Marx Brothers attacked aristocracy, art patrons, opera, investors, gangsters, academia, politics, war, etc. Anything that took itself too seriously was deemed a suitable Marx target. I’m still rather fond of that rule. Do yourself an enormous favor and check out some of the greatest comedies of all time; the films of the Marx Brothers.

War! The finale of "Duck Soup" pulls out a lot of zany gags.

War! The finale of “Duck Soup” pulls out a lot of zany gags.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 4, 2010

Everyone Was Kung Fu Fighting: the Story of Ip Man

For all the serious, highfalutin movies I watch, I do confess I have a weakness for the kung-fu flick. Action is fun to watch and as a guy it’s sometimes hard not to be fascinated by violence and destruction in movies. Watching a building collapse or a high speed car chase or dinosaurs fighting each other or Bruce Willis jumping off a roof with a fire-hose bungee cord is fun and exciting. Naturally the martial arts epic must enter one’s peripheries at some point. Ever since I saw a Jackie Chan marathon on TV as a kid I was hooked. The kung-fu movie gets a lot of flack sometimes for being fairly thin when it comes to plot, but the incredible athletes and personalities that have emerged from it are what draws us. Every move Bruce Lee does is astonishing to watch and there’s something eternally fascinating about using only your body as a weapon.

Still one of the best.

Still one of the best.

Recently, it seems, there has been a rebirth of kung-fu (for the west anyway). Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) reminded everybody that you could have a good mythical storyline alongside ballet-like violence. Then we got Jet Li in Zhang Yimou’s  Hero (2002) and Stephen Chow gave us an incredibly zany Looney Tunes-esque action comedy in Kun Fu Hustle (2004). These films were all wonderful (maybe more wuxia than traditional martial arts) and had great action and stories, but they were more stylistic and employed more wire-fu and special effects than the traditional martial arts films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Out of Thailand came action star Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). The stunts were real and gritty once more and the action was great, but the story was now missing again. I am happy to report that another martial arts epic has come about and puts back good old-fashioned fights with a really decent story. Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008) stars Donnie Yen (The Iron Monkey,  Shanghai Knights) as the legendary grandmaster of the Chinese martial arts technique known as Wing Chun, Yip Kai-man (1893-1972), and the man who would eventually train Bruce Lee and many others.

Donnie Yen.

Donnie Yen.

I confess that as a westerner my actual knowledge of the history and meanings behind all the various styles of kung-fu is pretty minute, and admittedly I do not recall actually hearing of Ip Man before this movie, but it definitely filled me in…even if the movie is a rather loose treatment on the real man’s life. It’s also insanely nationalistic, but you can’t have everything.

The film takes place in Foshan, China in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation. Ip Man (Yen) is a leisured aristocrat and well respected member of the community. He has a loving wife (who does not exactly support his martial arts practice) and a young son who he realizes he must spend more time with. The citizens of Foshan regard Ip Man as a quiet but deadly master of Wing Chun, but he would honestly rather not fight anybody (reminded me of John Wayne in The Quiet Man). A foreign bully from the north (played by Fan Siu-wong  of Riki-Oh: the Story of Ricky fame) arrives in town and, desiring to set up a martial arts club in Foshan, he viciously beats up every master in town save for Ip Man. The fight that follows is indeed wildly entertaining.

How embarrassing.

How embarrassing.

The story jumps ahead a few years after the town of Foshan is oppressed by Japanese occupation in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man has lost all of his possessions but maintains his dignity and lives in a rundown shack while his dedicated wife pawns everything to buy rice (kinda reminded me of Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago). To support his starving family he gets a job as a coolie shoveling coal in a filthy quarry. It is not long before a former Chinese friend has returned as the mouthpiece for the Japanese army and announces that the quarry workers can earn a bag of rice if they defeat Japanese karatekas for the amusement of General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who is an obsessed karate master. Ip Man initially refuses but when a friend who volunteers never returns, he decides to go to defend the honor of his fallen brothers, avenge the death of countless Chinese, and reclaim the honor of Chinese martial arts.

Before entering the tournament, Ip Man witnesses another friend and kung-fu master doing battle on the mat surrounded by Japanese karatekas awaiting their turn to fight the Chinese workers. General Miura watches menacingly from the platform above. Ip Man then watches helplessly as his friend is shot through the head following the match (against Miura’s command). Ip Man requests to go next and further requests that he face not one but ten black-belts at once. If this fight does not pull you into the movie then nothing will. His prowess in Wing-Chun, although a bit rusty, is no match for the attacks of his enemies and he glides between them with grace and deadly accuracy as he systemically annihilates them all. He departs enraged and stoically defiant to the General’s questions (although the fearful translator disguises this fact).

The whole movie might be worth it if this was the only fight.

The whole movie might still be worth it if this was the only fight.

Back in the wounded town, Ip Man is asked to defend an old friend’s cotton mill from bandits (led by the northern bully whom Ip Man defeated in battle earlier in the movie) who are stealing their product and demanding money and threatening violence. He graciously agrees to teach the workers Wing-Chun and the audience gets a kung-fu training montage (yep, they still do ‘em). When the bandits return a big battle is ignited as the workers fight back and the bandits up the ante by bringing out axes, but Ip Man shows up and throws down real good with the thugs and chases them off.

Ip Man’s incredible abilities have earned him respect and fascination in the mind of General Miura. Miura seeks to bring Ip Man back for more tournaments, but Ip Man is forced to take his family and hide when he beats up the Japanese soldiers who come for him and attempt to rape his wife. Desperate to find him, the soldiers attack the cotton mill and force Ip Man to show himself. With the soldier he beat up ready to shoot him and General Miura threatening to allow him to be shot unless he trains his Japanese soldiers, Ip Man challenges the General to a public match: a challenge the General’s ego will not allow him to decline. For the final battle all of the stakes are raised to the umpteenth level. A nasty Japanese soldier threatens to kill Ip Man if he wins and his wife and child are forced to flee and all of the town is gathered for the public spectacle…you could not ask for more suspense. All of China’s morale and pride rest in the fists of Ip Man. It is assured to be a match to remember and it will ultimately bring national shame to the losing party.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

And people wonder why all the Asian countries still harbor animosity toward Japan.

Ip Man has all of the classic moves a good kung-fu movie should have and the fight scenes (choreographed by Spooky Encounters star Sammo Hung) are fantastic. The story builds and continues to create urgency, suspense, and danger up until the last scene.  It’s a compelling plot about a man who has had his world torn apart and the only thing left to do is stuff his peaceful demeanor and kick butt. Donnie Yen and the rest of the cast give fine performances and the cinematography is also top notch. The story takes its liberties with the real Ip Man’s life, but it is perfectly forgivable when you consider how much fun the movie is as a whole. The kung-fu action movie is back, folks.

The sequel, Ip Man 2 (2010), brings the cast back and features Sammo Hung as a cantankerous martial arts master in Hong Kong and sees Ip Man fighting a cocky, belligerent (and rather obnoxious) British boxer (reminded of Mr. T in Rocky III). Although the stakes are never quite as high, more fights seem bloated or forced, there’s an influx of what appears to be some wire-fu, and the western boxing is never as interesting to watch as the kung-fu business, it is a fun sequel about restoring national pride through the unifying power of martial arts. For fans of the martial arts epic, Ip Man might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

The real guy alongside his student, Bruce Lee.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan 12, 2011