Pulgasari Ain’t Sorry (longer version)

Where do we begin? There is actually quite a bit that can be said about the North Korean film Pulgasari (1985). First off, it is famous for being directed by Shin Sang-ok who was a prominent South Korean filmmaker until he and his wife were kidnapped by North Korea at Kim Jong Il’s behest. He was commanded to make great films for The Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A hostage director forced to make bad movies. Bananas. It’s like Misery.

"Rawr" means I love you in Pulgasari.

“Rawr” means I love you in Pulgasari.

Pulgasari has been compared to the Godzilla franchise quite a bit and there are definitely an abundance of similarities (Kenpachiro Satsuma, most famous for playing Godzilla in several movies, actually plays Pulgasari). It  also has some elements of Der Golem (1920) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). He also looks a little bit like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957). Unfortunately for Pulgasari the title just isn’t quite as memorable.

Here’s the set up: starving peasant farmers are being oppressed by an evil despot king. Ironic…especially considering that several people have stated Pulgasari is meant to be pro-North Korea propaganda. The despot king is allegedly meant to represent capitalism. I’m not so convinced and actually wonder if that was just director Sang-ok’s excuse and he’s really making a slam against the Kim family. Anyway, government officials tell the peasants that they need to make iron weapons for them because “some bandits are causing a ruckus at a certain location.” These bandits are never seen. The peasants say they don’t have any iron so the government makes them use their own farming equipment to make weapons. Hmm…a nepotist tyrant who spends money on weapons to fight imaginary foes while his starving people are forced to glorify their ruler. Sounds kinda familiar.

Pots and pans are all the peasants have and the government murders them to take them. They even run over an old lady with a cart. We get it! The king is evil.

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

P-p-p-p-puppy power!

Ami (Chang Son Hui) is a lovely peasant girl who does her best to hold the movie together when the monster’s not on screen. The story doesn’t really start until Ami’s old blacksmith uncle is captured by bad soldiers and starved in prison. Ami sneaks him food, but instead of eating the ball of rice, he molds it into a toy dinosaur and dies. The figurine comes to Ami who accidentally sticks herself and bleeds on it, bringing it to life (♫ Suddenly Seymour!). Soon the creature starts eating needles. Finding it cute, Ami and her brother go to sleep with it. By morning it has grown from a plastic toy into a latex puppet.

Cut to a laughing executioner about to behead Ami’s love interest, Inde…for some reason. Just as the blade is coming down, the executioner is attacked by a terrifying rubber puppet who saves the day. Cue the squirrelly Saturday-morning-cartoon music. Pulgasari eats the executioner’s sword and we learn that the rice-monster grows bigger when he eats metal. Makes sense. Soon Pulgasari developes from a hand-puppet into a small child (because midgets are euthanized) in a rubber suit. Pulgasari then wanders off and we don’t see him for a while. Cut to a scene of the government beating an old woman.

This movie has a hard time settling on a tone.

We learn that some people have been captured. I think Ami’s brother is one of them. Doesn’t matter. Inde leads an attack on the prison where they are kept, but they get there too late and—in a scene that Attack of the Clones must have ripped off—the folks they were going to rescue just die right then. A battle ensues and the governor is killed. This gets the attention of the bad king. The government elite forces really suck and the battles feel reminiscent of the ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi. Also the sound effects of the swords clanging are hilarious.

pulgasari self control

They say it’s not just the fat content. It’s the sugars mixed in with the fat.

A man-sized Pulgasari appears and rescues Ami from bad guys and then they feed him weapons to make him grow big and strong. Eat all your iron, Pulga. Soon he’s a giant, towering over all the people—much like Godzilla but with a slightly more gargoyle look. Clearly this is bad news for the evil king. The scenes where the baddies try to logically deduce the creature’s weakness is like watching Adam West decipher a Frank Gorshin riddle, but naturally no matter how random or absurd it always works. They first try to trap Pulgasari in a giant wooden cage by capturing Ami and threatening to kill her if he does not comply. Ami pleads with Pulgasari not to listen and thus a short-lived 3 Laws of Robotics head game ensues. He goes in the cage and then they set it on fire. Since the cage is wood and Pulgasari is magic, naturally the cage simply burns away and frees Pulgasari to rampage once more.

New plan: get a crazy lady to exorcise the blacksmith’s spirit out of Pulgasari so he’ll fall in a hole and they can put rocks on him. Again, amazingly it works.

Later some dying guy informs Ami that Inde has been captured. It was at this point in the film where I realized that we never see anyone get captured. We only hear about it. Minor detail, but I notice things like that. I wonder if director, Sang-ok, could not bring himself to film another abduction after having lived through a real one. The memories! Sure enough Inde has been captured and they hang him. Inde’s only been peripherally involved in the story so we’re not too distraught by his permanent absence, but Ami sure is. Ami releases Pulgasari again by cutting herself over the rocks where he’s buried. This alarms the bad guys once more so they invent a weapon to stop Pulgasari once and for all. It is the greatest destructive invention of all time. With it they “can kill 104 Pulgasaris” and take over the world! The weapon is your standard cannon. . . oh, and it doesn’t even scratch Pulgasari.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Oh, man. Did I do that? I was so wasted last night.

Pulgasari destroys the king’s palace and squishes him. Hurray. The peasants are saved. But now there’s no more iron for Pulgasari to eat. Ami begs Pulgasari to go away and disappear rather than eat their farm tools. She knows that they will have to invade other countries and take over the whole world to feed him iron forever. Naturally. Finally Ami tricks him into eating a funeral bell (I think). Pulgasari turns into stone and then explodes. A tiny Pulgasari emerges from the rubble and transforms into a blue ball of light that goes into Ami…who is dead now for some reason. The end.

Pulgasari is your typical giant suitmation monster movie. Standard kaiju. Nothing special. The story is actually a bit more complex than your average Godzilla movie and the period setting gives it a nice mythical flavor. Pulgasari is a good guy fighting a corrupt government in order to help poor peasant farmers. He’s like a rubber reptile Robin Hood. Not a bad premise. It’s not dumber than most of the movies in the genre, but something just never felt right for me. The original Godzilla (1954) was a legitimate film with political undertones and clever metaphors. The rest of the franchise was silly, but most of them had the spirit of fun about them along with hokey environmentalist messages. Gamera (1965) and its sequels were also colorful and fun. The British film, Gorgo (1961), was dopey but I still liked it. Pulgasari has a decent development and cool costumes, but it also has yucky colors, a bad score, and instead of the spirit of fun it has the spirit of North Korea. Eww. It just feels kind of oppressive and grim. It never pulled me in. At times it takes itself too seriously and then at others it’s just too cartoony. I still enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as some other kaiju flicks.

The American Godzilla (1998) gets a lot of flack and I think I know why. Despite the story actually being more complex and the characters being more developed than most Godzilla films and other knockoffs, it just does not have the same feel. Something is missing. Pulgasari is kind of like that. And you what? I don’t necessarily hate either of them. Watch Pulgasari. It ain’t that bad.

Hell's bells, son! It's original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

Hell’s bells, son! It’s original artwork! Yes, I realize Kim Jong-Un was not in power at the time this movie was made, but perhaps its legacy still haunts him to this day.

I’ve got to wonder why they needed to go through all the trouble of kidnapping a foreign director to make a cheese-ball Godzilla ripoff. I’m pretty sure anyone could have directed this film. It’s not particularly arty or even that good. Maybe he botched it on purpose. Shin Sang-ok directed several movies for militant executive producer Kim Jong Il, but this is the most famous one outside of North Korea. I’m not convinced it’s chiefly a propagandistic movie. North Korea fascinates me. As a firm believer in the anthropological and cultural significance of movies from around the world and from different times I find Pulgasari rather telling. Kim Jong Il may have produced it and maybe he loved it, but I must say I expected a little more polish and professionalism from the people who brought us the Arirang Grand Mass Games and 4 year old cello virtuosos.

Check out article on The Red Chapel “documentary” in North Korea.

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle May 6, 2013.

Picture references:

http://www.zekefilm.org/2013/01/17/film-review-pulgasari/

http://areaoftheunwell.blogspot.kr/2009/08/any-old-irony.html

http://shelf3d.com/Search/movies%2Bto%2Bdownload%2BPlayListIDPL12q-6co85IFOXbnTGvINiFOtAByJiH-4

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Fairytale Makeover Theater Presents: Blancanieves y Los Siete Matadors Corto

Spain.

The 1920s.

blancanieves 2

Her father was the best toreador alive. His name was Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and he loved a woman who just might qualify as the hottest actress to give birth in a movie. Ever. Seriously Inma Cuesta is a fox. Don’t get too attached though. She dies. Spoilers. Is it a spoiler if it’s in the prologue?

The child survives, but the wealthy and recently paralyzed (emotionally and physically) Antonio is a widower. In swoops the evil step mother. Naturally. Fairy tales never have positive step mother characters. She will make life a living hell for the cuckolded Antonio and his precocious daughter. What is the child’s name you query? ‘Tis the film’s protagonist and namesake, Blancanieves (2012).

That means Snow White in the Spanish.

Blancanieves 3

Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger, is a Spanish re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White. In addition to it being Spanish it is also a silent melodrama. And no, they’re not just cashing in on the success of The Artist (2011). In fact, crafty filmmakers have been making silent pictures all along. From the rebellious Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times) to the innovative Pierre Étaix (Yoyo) to the surreal Guy Maddin (Archangel), great filmmakers have been using the unique language and aesthetic of silent cinema to convey wonderful stories all throughout the sound era.

Also most of the characters for this adaptation are bullfighters. Now far be it from me to perpetuate the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. I’m just reporting the facts of the film.

blancanieves 4

I hate to use the cliche of, “if you think you know the story [of Snow White]…think again.” But it totally applies here. This is not Disney. (Although the bullfights are somewhat sanitized and cleansed of blood). This is a tasty tragedy of the freshest variety. Blancanieves, or Carmen as she is called (played by Macarena García as an adult and sadly not as hot as Inma Cuesta), runs away from her evil stepmother (played with delicious malevolence by Maribel Verdú from Pan’s Labyrinth). . . but not until about halfway through the movie. There’s a lot of build up and backstory here.

A band of independent circus dwarfs—who are also matadors. I know!—discover Carmen but she has amnesia and remembers nothing. She joins their happy troupe and becomes a great matador herself. Because it’s in the blood. You may think you know the rest of the story, but there’s enough surprise and intrigue to keep you guessing.

Blancanieves 5

This movie boasts ravishing cinematography and rich imagery of epic bullfights and ornate upper-crust Spanish living spaces cleverly juxtaposed with ramshackle nomadic circus environs. And the erotic flamenco pulse of speedy guitar strings wound with sex-fire coupled with a pair of manic castanets gives Blancanieves added atmosphere you can almost sink your teeth into. I want to bite this movie is what I’m saying.

I really enjoyed Blancanieves. This is exactly what we should be doing with classic stories. Like Ray Tintori’s Death to the Tinman or The Coen Bros. O, Brother Where Art Thou! While the final moments of this film I found to be beautiful and touching they did leave me wanting a bit emotionally. But with the kooky premise, splendid acting, creative turns, and gorgeous style I can forgive it. I love magic, matadors, midgets, and silent movies so this was pretty good for me.

Go see Blancanieves. It’s a special treat. And now I shall return to scouring the internet for more pictures of Inma Cuesta.

Blancanieves 1

http://cafeteravirtual.blogspot.kr/2012/11/blancanieves-una-tragedia-con-desparpajo.html

http://www.screenrush.co.uk/films/film-196004/photos/detail/?cmediafile=20264057

http://magneticeyes.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/a-cristina-g-rodero-photograp-inspire-for-blancanieves-2012/

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on April 16, 2013.

Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

K is for Kooky

It’s no secret for those who know me. I like weird Czech animated stuff. Barta, Zeman, Svankmajer: these are my homeboys. Naturally when I stumbled across the trailer for Kooky (2010), a strange Czech puppet movie about a pink teddy bear lost in a forest full of magical tuberous beings I simply had to see it. Well, see it I did, and here is what I have to say about it.

Director Jan Sverák, who, it appears, usually makes straight live-action movies, is the man responsible for this whimsical adventure. It’s a simple enough story. A young asthmatic boy has to throw away his old sawdust-filled teddy bear, Kooky, because it is too raggedy. Once at the dump the little stuffed bear comes to life and tries to outrun the crusher tires and two warped bits of garbage who say it is against the law to leave. Now what immediately might remind someone of a bizarre mix of The Brave Little Toaster and Corduroy quickly morphs with some of the spirit elements from Princess Mononoke once Kooky enters the forest. The forest is filled with tiny, bent, dirty, and adorable woodland guardians and gods.

Kooky discovers an entire political system of cranky forest guardians and quickly grows fond of his rescuer, Captain Goddamn. I’m not kidding. That’s his name. He gets that name because he says “goddamn” all the time. That’s one thing that some American audiences might be a twinge surprised at. Yes, this is a kid’s film, but there’s an awful lot of swearing (mostly hells and damns but I believe I also heard a bastard or two). Captain Goddamn is an old, cantankerous root-looking creature who is the head guardian, but there’s an inept upstart who is trying to usurp Goddamn’s authority. To make matters worse the Captain is also losing his eyesight and when Kooky can’t seem to leave it makes him look soft.

The junk creatures come to the forest and try to arrest Kooky, but the Captain stands up for him (the forest denizens may not understand who or what Kooky is, but some know injustice when they see it). The Captain will help Kooky get home if Kooky can be his eyes for a little while—just until he can prove he’s still a good guardian to the fickle and flawed forest gods. Together they undertake a few adventures and learn to like each other despite their apparent faults.

During the woodland mayhem there are still things happening in the real world just to keep the suspense and make us question objective realities. The little boy is sick and in the hospital and experiences many sideways-house fever dreams (you’ll have to see it). Through all the cuteness and adventure there is a weird sense of the ominous murmuring throughout. This film has a few things to say about growing up and growing older and even a few things to say about death, but never in an unpleasant way. Even the ending is riddled with the heavy and the hopeful.

Playful and inventive story aside, the style of the movie is the real reason to watch it. Visually the film is impeccable. The innovative use of tiny marionettes and real locations make Kooky very unique. Kooky isn’t an all-puppet movie like The Dark Crystal or Meet the Feebles, as it is punctuated by a live-action subplot and the environments are kept extremely organic so there are several real animals. Kooky tastes like a walk through a moist forest. I swear you can almost taste this movie. It feels like being embraced by earth and roots. Insects and critters populate the corners of the screen and even scuttle across the characters’ puppet faces. It is a wise choice to keep the filming so real, textured, and earthy. If these characters are supposed to be guardians of the forest then the real flora and fauna of the forest should be able to help present their tale. Foxes, boars, birds, bugs, and squirrels all inhabit this magical place.

In addition to the great photography, clever puppetry, and earthy locations Kooky also, quite surprisingly, has some of the best car chases I’ve seen in awhile. I sat down to this adorable feast for the senses not expecting to be dazzled in this category. I was about as surprised as when I watched Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? Sure the cars are very small and made out of junk, but the filmmakers sure keep it exciting. Toy cars spew real fire and sparks as they race across the forest floor. To make things more playful it begins to snow whenever the spirits go too fast. This gimmick allows for fun scenery changes in mid-chase. And there are several chases, all with fairly high stakes.

I know I’m sort of predisposed to be attracted to this sort of entertainment, but it really was a lot of fun. Kooky is an unpretentious and intimate little movie. It was funny too and it definitely had a heart beating underneath those weather-worn seams. Kooky is a fun, imaginative ride loaded with impressive art and craftsmanship that the whole family can enjoy.

I watched it in a room full of adults and it struck me that we all had a good time with Kooky. If you’re looking for a different sort of movie experience and want to share in a little pink teddy bear’s adventures then check out this little Czech gem.

The Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011

Baxter: French “Cujo” or Dog “Taxi Driver”?

A long time ago—some might even venture to add ‘in a galaxy far away’ but they would be fools—I had a great deal of fun hosting and writing a radio for me old alma mater. The show was arbitrarily called “Don’t Fly Continental” (the airline had lost my luggage a week before I had to name the show) and every week we would review three obscure/bizarre/lost films. I remember when I first pitched the concept to a group of fellow students at the time and they said things like, “Why don’t you want to review good movies?” and “You’re going to run out of movies after week three.” I was cut to the very quick by their vehement and ignoble simpleness. Well, I’m pleased to say we never did run out and to this day, years later, I am unearthing dozens of wild films every week, hence this blog in lieu of the demise of the radio show. Beyond being far from running out of weird movies, I am pleased to say that a good many of the obscure films we discovered were not only good but many were masterpieces, staggering achievements, godsends.

One of my favorite finds from the first year we ever did “Don’t Fly Continental” was a surprising little psychological horror about a sociopathic bull terrier, Baxter (1989). I have watched it and shared it several times since. I’ll admit it might be a difficult film for some, but it is one of those great movies that sadly remains obscure for many folks. It was within some of the first few months of “Don’t Fly Continental” when we watched Baxter and we realized immediately that our show was truly important. We found many great unknown films, but this was one of the early ones that we merely stumbled upon quite by accident.

I read something of it somewhere online. It looked like your standard killer dog slasher movie. The cover looked something like this:

It seems to have been sorely misrepresented. Even the tagline is really misleading. As my title implies this is not merely a French version of Cujo. This is far more dark and psychological and far more chilling than viscerally shocking. In fact, there is very little onscreen violence. Most of it is shocking enough just being anticipated. It’s not very gory, but it is downright chilling. Director Jérôme Boivin takes us down a very unnerving rabbit hole as we descend into the twisted and confused mind of man’s best friend. This is more a canine Travis Bickle.

The story begins with dim, jarring closeups of snarling dog muzzles behind kennel bars and mesh. Eventually our main character’s voice is heard above the desperate howling. The voice is that of a dog named Baxter (Maxime Leroux). As he is slowly illumined and the camera pushes in and the blood red void behind him brightens his grim monologue comes to an end and the movie’s title pops in. There is an immediate tone of brooding animosity, impending danger, and the potential for horrific carnage held in suspended animation. This ominous tone remains near constant for the entire duration.

Baxter is broken up into segments after the prologue. We get a look into the troubled and interconnected lives of several human characters before Baxter returns. There is jealousy, infidelity, voyeurism, unrequited love, thoughts on aging, and the seedlings of a Hitler obsession in the human world. The movie lingers on the sad existences of these human characters, delicately setting the stage for the title character. The elderly and surly Madame Deville (Lise Delamare) is given the insulting gift of a dog for her birthday. This dog is, of course, Baxter.

Baxter does not like Madame Deville. Her fear of him makes him uneasy and that she gives him no structure or orders makes him angry and confused. Without focus and understandable tasks Baxter’s mind returns to “unnatural thoughts” from his early life. We never know what happened to him before the pound, but it seems to have left him slightly deranged. Although half of the time we are observing the lives of the emotionally disconnected human characters, the other half we are submerged in the suffocatingly grim and psychopathic inner-monologues of Baxter. As he tries to make sense of his changing world, even his pleasant thoughts seem marred by malicious intent. “I have always been fascinated by birds. Maybe one day I’ll kill one.”

As Baxter’s secret feelings regarding his aging master become more and more enamored with the idea of her death—which Baxter sees as entirely justifiable and necessary—Madame Deville is also slowly succombing to dementia. Her behavior becomes more erratic and their lives together more cloistered. Baxter fantasizes about the young couple across the street whom he observes with interest and imagines their noises and smells when they make love.

This film also has some bizarre left turns such as a ghost beckoning an old man into death. Yeah. Completely unprecedented, yet somehow appropriate and functional.

Eventually (through malevolent means) Baxter does end up with the young couple and all is bliss and routine until the young woman gets pregnant. I won’t say much but if you watch this movie you will think twice about letting a dog near a baby. The dog is disgusted by the feeble, mindless new creature and utterly baffled as to why the tall people dote over it so. Soon a new plot hatches in the cur’s wicked brain. Baxter is the anti-Lady and the Tramp.

Baxter switches owners many times, but when a strange Hitler-obsessed little boy sociopath adopts him things somehow become more serious than ever. The film was always brooding and dark, but now there is a vessel of encouragement and focus for Baxter. The extra scary thing is that this boy is the only character that Baxter actually fears and respects (for the most part). By the way, there is nothing sexier than telling your woman she looks like Eva Braun. I cannot reveal more of the plot for fear of spoiling the chilling final act. There is violence and terror, but it manages to be completely chilling on a psychological level and only rises into an unnervingly easy crescendo. I rate Baxter as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It may be a reflection of my personal tastes, but it surprised me so with the chances and twists it takes. It is just a great movie and a must-see for any serious horror fan.

The first time I saw this odd little French film, the ending left me chilled to my very marrow.

Perhaps what truly makes this film work is its personality. It is not merely a cold, blood-lusting torture-porn. It is meticulous, calculating, and it has a rather dark sense of humor. Although it is in many ways a black comedy the laughs may not always come easy to you. It is a vicious humor with grim implications on the nature of man and dog alike. It is a complex film that will probably not be what you expect. Baxter is one of those obscure masterpieces. I loved it and therefore you should watch it.

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.