Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.

Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010

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

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.

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

Iron Robot Transmatrix Short Circuit: Bride of the Judgment Day…the Musical

endhiran8A friend had randomly sent me a link to some wild scenes from a crazy Kollywood  movie (Indian film in Tamil rather than Hindi which would be Bollywood). Instantly smitten with the footage, we sought out the complete movie almost immediately and watched it in all of its absurd 3-hour long glory. This was no pensive and delicate Satyajit Ray tragedy epic. This was S. Shankar’s Endhiran(2010).

endhiran6If you saw Slumdog Millionaire and think you know Indian cinema, guess again. As my title playfully hints, Endhiran (aka Robot) is a bloated, mismatched hodge-podge of the Matrix movies, the Iron Man movies, the Terminator movies and whole mess of other American science-fiction action fantasy flicks. At the time it was the most expensive movie made in India and, although it’s pretty dumb, I found it to be more fun and more innovative than half of the films it was ripping off, and I don’t say this much (as I generally dislike the current gimmick of 3D) but I kinda wish Endiran was in 3D.

endhiran5Where to begin? Popular Indian actor, Rajinikanth, plays Dr. Vaseegaran, a brilliant scientist with good intentions (always), who creates an amazing humanoid robot (also played by Rajinikanth) named Chitti Babu after the famous Indian veena musician. The robot is fast, strong, powerful, super-smart, magnetic, charismatic, knows kung fu, and has the ability to seemingly ignore the laws of physics when the action calls for it. Chitti falls in love with Dr. Vaseegaran’s fiance, Sana (played by the gorgeous Aishwarya Rai), and so the jealous doctor destroys him and then the android’s battered parts find their way into the hands of the evil Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa). Things go wrong and the new evil Chitti kidnaps Sana and makes hundreds of deadly powerful duplicates of himself. It is up to Dr. Vaseegaran to rescue Sana, stop Chitti, and set the world right again. It takes the film 3 hours to convey this plot.

endhiran10There are plenty of amusing subplots that happen along the way. Two bickering lab technicians who helped construct Chitti try to play tricks on him. Dr. Bohra tries to disgrace Dr. Vaseegaran. Chitti helps Sana cheat on her doctor’s exam (that actually worries me a little). Chitti has an in-depth conversation with a colony of mosquitoes to prove his love for Sana. He even rescues several people from a burning building (a la Spiderman) but things go wrong when he rescues one girl from the fire who happens to be naked and she runs out in front of a speeding bus to commit suicide out of shame. The little naked girl suicide really kinda shifted the mood of the film for me, but Chitti makes up for it by immediately delivering a baby! Another recurring theme is that Sana keeps getting near-raped by greasy dudes. Really though, all of these minor plot points and small character adventures take a back seat to the fun action sequences.

Endhiran2Rajinikanth does a fine job playing the naive doctor and the charming but rigid Chitti and then the evil Chitti and all his duplicates. At over 60 years old—in addition to having one of the biggest age differences between himself and his onscreen love interest since High Noon—he had to do a lot of running around for these dual roles (and then some). Aishwarya Rai is very lovely to look at and you can tell she seems to be having fun as the much sought-after damsel in distress. But the special effects! I must be honest that the special effects are actually pretty good (much better than a lot of Indian films I’ve seen), but that’s not what makes them so great: it is the imagination they use to choreograph the super-stylized action and effects. Srinivas Mohan, visual effects supervisor, had his work cut out for him as so many scenes are little more than huge kaleidoscopes of digital engineering. ILM and Stan Winston Studios also lent their effects expertise to the film and the results are quite impressive. There is an excellent car chase to rival Matrix Reloaded and a smashing sequence in which the evil Chitti duplicates join together to form a death ball, a giant snake, a drill, and a huge dude (among other things) that might give Matrix Revolutions a run its money. Machine guns, explosions, car chases, robots, sunglasses, talking mosquitos, and Aishwarya Rai are just a few reasons to check this film out.

endhiran4And what Bollywood/Kollywood film would be complete without some wild song and dance numbers? The film travels all over the world for the many zany music video sequences (why they seem to be singing about Mount Kilamanjaro whilst dancing in Machu Picchu is beyond me, but whatever). From an American point of view these sequences can seem like a huge waste of time, but I actually enjoyed them. It reminded me that Endhiran was from a different culture with different values than that of the land that brought us Transformers. It let me enjoy the poofy hair and unusual clothing even more. I liked listening to the music and watching all the wildly dressed extras and extravagant backgrounds. This movie was made to be a show and I’d say they succeeded. One note on all the musical numbers I have comes from cultural ignorance and it is this: if they hadn’t drastically changed the setting for every song I don’t think I would have been able to tell them apart.

endhiranI mentioned a few times earlier that this movie is 3 hours long. At first that number startled us. Having seen the trailer and a few clips I wasn’t sure how such a fluffy action movie could stand to go on for so long. Seven Samurai this was not. Having said that, I will further attest to the miracle of editing. Endhiran is so frenetically cut together that we were all bewildered when we realized that what felt like 15 minutes turned out to be an hour. The pacing of this freight train of a film is vigorous to say the least. It’s also a bit disorienting at times, but I’d say that just adds to the absurd experience of watching this thing. At the end—and it does end well—it felt more like 90 minutes and we found ourselves wanting even more mayhem. What started out as an endurance test for foreign oddity transmogrified into an extremely pleasurable afternoon of entertainment.

endhiran3Top 10 Reason to See Endhiran/Robot

1. Playing a quirky, charismatic, multi-faceted superhero at Rajinikanth’s age earns him mad Ron Perlman Hellboy points.

2. Aishwarya ain’t too shabby.

3. Despite the language barrier it’s got some great super-cool action movie lines.

4. If you’ve never seen a Kollywood/Bollywood movie this is as good a place as any to start.

5. They spent a lot of money on this garbage so help these guys out.

6. Chitti looks like an obscene amalgam of Johnny Cash, Jon Belushi, and Deep Roy. I liked that. Maybe you will too.

7. If you thought you’d seen it all, watch this to get humble again.

8. At times it approaches Kung Fu Hustle status for action ludicrousness.

9. It’s about as action-packed and insubstantial as Tony Jaa’s Ong bak: Muay Thai Warrior so you don’t have to think for 3 whole hours!

10. Robot death ball. Dot!

endhiran11Originally Published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 2, 2011

A Spastic in North Korea

North of the 38th Parallel. It is one of the most peculiar, enigmatic, and isolated corners of the world. Nobody knows what really goes on in there. What is their culture and society really like? What is their population? How does their economy function? Nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out. It must be run by Oompa-Loompas.

That's our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

That’s our kingdom, son. As far as the eye can see. Except for the parts that the sun touches.

Seriously though, North Korea is one of the strangest places on earth. It’s another planet! It is a fascinatingly hidden, cult-ish culture shrouded beneath an overcast sky and the beaming benevolent portraitures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il [and now Kim Jong-un]. All media is government controlled and they are suspected of countless Human Rights violations. Even if you get in, you better watch your step and still you’ll only ever see and hear what North Korea wants you to see and hear. Great difficulties arise in any attempts to document and fairly assess this 46,528 square mile mystery. Difficulties, yes, but some have attempted nevertheless. The Vice Guide to Travel did an excellent piece on North Korea (watch it here), and there have been many more incredible amateur docs, but Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger took a slightly different approach with his Borat-esque documentary The Red Chapel (2009).

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

The hop-marching is kind of weird. I wonder how menacing ten thousand soldiers walking like Groucho Marx would be.

Brügger’s film would take both himself and two Danish-Korean comedians, Simon Jul and Jacob Nossell, deep into Pyongyang under the guise of a theater troupe that would be performing a traditional Danish comedy play as part of a cultural exchange for the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In actuality, Mads really only seeks to expose North Korea as the soulless dictatorship he believes it is.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

Simon and Jacob showcase their knack for ridiculous performance.

 

Another twist is that Jacob Nossell is a self-proclaimed “spastic” (he has a severe speech impediment and occasionally requires a wheelchair). This twist serves several purposes. Firstly Jacob can say almost anything in Danish because between the language and his vocal distortions he will be unintelligible to the North Koreans who will be examining all of the footage they take. The second purpose is to test the North Korean rumor that infants born with genetic maladies are euthanized (as reported by several physicians who have defected). Mads suspects the Red Chapel’s embarrassingly bad show is allowed to continue because the North Koreans seek to dispel this grim rumor and so Jacob and the Red Chapel’s show is to be used as propaganda. Brügger does admit that he is probably guilty of using Jacob for his own manipulative means as well.

Like a spastic in North Korea we're wheelchair bound.

Like a spastic in North Korea we’re wheelchair bound.

The Red Chapel alternates between informative tourism and comical rehearsals where the North Koreans gradually deflate Denmark’s play and replace the entire story with even more convolutions, bizarrities, and pro-North Korean ideological propaganda. The irony is that the Red Chapel was compelled to agree not to incorporate any ideological or political themes in their performance and yet by the end of the movie the Red Chapel performers must conclude their show declaring, “One heart. One mind. One Korea. Together we fight. Together we die.” Another big alteration made to their show is the diminished role of Jacob. He must be in a wheelchair the whole show and only communicate via whistle squeaks while Simon does most of the act himself, and at the end of the show he must stand up (but not speak) so the audience will think he was only pretending to be handicapped. In this topsy-turvy world where Simon and Jacob must don Korean uniforms and regurgitate propaganda for a “cultural exchange,” they are constantly micro-managed by their DPRK tour guides who must evaluate, deliberate, and confer amongst each to other to ascertain the possible political themes of every move they make. For instance, what does the “pussy” in “pussy-cat” truly denote? Might it be dangerous to the North Korean government?

Mrs. Pak.

Mrs. Pak.

Several humorous, subversively subtle and ballsy events pepper the movie just to keep the comedy going. At the revered statue of deceased but eternal president, Kim Il-Sung, Mads Brügger requests to read a silly poem as a (rather absurd) sign of respect and as an offering to the great leader in the spirit of cultural exchange. They also present a pizza paddle to be given to Kim Jong-Il. For all the humor and fun being had, whether Simon is leading an impromptu rendition of “Hey, Jude” on guitar, or Jacob is making insightful quips regarding the vacuous horrors of all the emotionless enthusiasm, what really got me about The Red Chapel were the moments of naked humanity. Most of the evil rumors are never put to rest one way or another, but we do see real people. Mrs. Pak, their tour guide, is one of the most fascinating and compelling people on the screen. She is only allowed to smile and be happy (and keep the boys out of trouble). She cries at the statue of Kim Il-Sung, but Brügger tacitly wonders if she is crying out of love, out of fear, or for memories of pains past. After only a few hours of knowing Jacob, Mrs. Pak is embracing him and calling him “like my son…more than my son.” Tearfully she says ‘it is not mother’s work to send a boy like him away’. There appears to be much conflict within this woman at times. I found Mrs. Pak to be more fascinating an example than all the ghostly vacant streets and empty shops of Pyongyang. Does she know she lives under an oppressive government? Would she call it that? Does she truly know what the rest of the world is like? Is she brainwashed or is she really just that gung-ho? In a land where the only images you are allowed to see are propagandistic, can you not still choose to love it of your own volition? I found her presence and unwitting contribution to the film to be incredible. She genuinely wants to show the Red Chapel all that North Korea has to offer, but is her devotion derived out of cultural pride or fear? We may never know.

Cheery.

Cheery.

The constant lying and games of deception—on both the part of the filmmaker and of North Korea—takes its toll. Jacob has a nervous breakdown early on. During a gigantic celebration (that condemns the United States for attacking them in 1950 unprovoked, of course) Mads and Jacob—pushed in his wheelchair by the motherly Mrs. Pak—wind up marching down the square and having to cheer. Jacob alone defies this command and moans complaints unintelligibly. It is an extremely surreal and tense moment that puts the beads of sweat on Mads’ forehead. Beyond Borat, there is far more danger if their agenda is discovered and their charade is uncovered. They are mocking possibly one of the most dangerous, dehumanizing, and restrictive governments in the world. We never see the death camps or horrific prisons for political threats, but the possibility remains and the danger is always there.

Today we will march up and down the square!

Today we will march up and down the square!

On a tour of a school, the boys see doll-like children performing robotic paroxysms all to the glory of their leader. Il-Sung’s and Jong-Il’s portraits eerily hang in every room just to remind everyone that everything is all doubleplusgood in DPRK. Big Brother is watching. They smile and clap as long as the foreigner’s camera is pointed at them. The children practice and perform acts of programmed artistic perfection reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride. When anyone is asked how they are or how anything is, the response is always one of hyperbolic ecstasy and joyous exaltation. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no one is unhappy. North Korea is always portrayed as the most prosperous nation in the world. Everyone is in unison and the parades of thousands are never out of step. If Kim Jong-Il is as big a film-lover as is understood (so much so that he kidnapped director Sang-ok Shin and his wife and held him hostage to make movies for North Korea) then I just bet he’s a fan of The Stepford Wives. Watch excerpts from their famed Mass Games and you get a glimpse of their frighteningly awesome precision. People are pixels here.

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

Grand Mass Arirang Games of North Korea

As with The Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea [and their several followups with Dennis Rodman under Jong-un’s rule now], one never gets to see what lies behind certain doors. Movements are carefully planned out and must never deviate from the government controlled itinerary. One only gets to see what North Korea wishes to be seen and that is always maintained to be the very best. The sad, twisted irony of it all is that if what they show is North Korea’s best it still leaves much to be desired. There is a hollowness and a stifled melancholy about this country in its all-too flattering representation of itself. Perhaps I am revealing too much personal bias as an American [and one who lives in South Korea]. Coming from a country where differences are relished and celebrated and where many cultures and perspectives are encouraged and appreciated and where it is considered strange if everyone is the same and there is no dissenting voice, it is quite a culture shock to get a glimpse into North Korean society. Maybe we’re all just misinformed and it’s not bad or wrong at all, but whatever it is, it is the opposite of the American ideal of individualism.

The boys pose with some locals.

The boys pose with some locals.

I enjoyed The Red Chapel immensely. It may not offer more than a familiar peek into North Korea like some other documentaries, but it has a personality all its own. Following Mads, Simon, Jacob, and Mrs. Pak around in this dystopic world is worth the price of admission. For anyone interested in North Korea this is a must-see comedy documentary.

Creepy.

Come to me, my children.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 16, 2011

Nobuhiko Obayashi and the Original Monster House

Now, that's encouraging to a fragile girl's image.

Now, that’s encouraging to a fragile girl’s image.

I forget where I heard first of House, but I definitely remember the first time I saw it. It was several years ago that I first saw it and, naturally, I was ecstatic to learn when it had finally come to be available in the US.

Lucy?

Lucy?

What the currently uninitiated do not yet comprehend is that House is unlike any other movie. Beneath the standard guise of your typical haunted house movie plot are the gears and cogs that frenetically pulse like some sort of mad offspring between psychedelic manga, Dario Argento, Ken Russell (in full-on Lisztomania mode), a bad LSD trip, a fifth-grader’s collage for art class, and a fun-house from hell.

Initial knee-jerk reaction to my first acquaintance with House: no one would ever make a movie this way! The second time I watched it: thank God someone made a movie this way!

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

House was the feature film debut of Nobuhiko Obayashi, a seasoned commercial director and experimental filmmaker. It seems as though House was designed to be the anti-movie. It is an assault on the senses. Its cinematic style is unprecedented and wild. Although the story is simple enough—Japanese schoolgirls get eaten by a haunted house—Obayashi found ways to film it in a completely unique way. Obayashi and his film crew employed a manic mixture of archaic and cutting edge special effects to heighten the fakeness and surreality of it all. Brightly colored cartoonish matte paintings glimmer in the background, while people dance in frames within frames in a nonstop barrage of collage effects and then random things will become cartoons themselves. The intent seems to have been to create something totally absurd, but at the same time realizing the immense untapped visual freedom of the film medium. House is the wild and visually experimental sort of film that Georges Melies would have been making had he lived long enough to experience the sixties.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

As I’ve said, the story is fairly rudimentary (but not unsatisfying on its own per se). Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl, is excited for summer vacation and looks forward to spending time with her friends and her father. A cruel twist of fate should wriggle its way into her life, however, when Daddy reveals his plans to remarry. Furious, Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her maternal aunt in the country. She invites six giggly schoolmates along with her; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). You begin to comprehend the saccharine cotton-candy campiness they were going for with character names alone. Everything is rainbows and butterflies. You half expect Hello Kitty to make a cameo appearance in the first act.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie’s house we go.

Well on their way to visit old Auntie, the seven victims *ahem* protagonists titter giddily as they are introduced to Auntie’s sad backstory. Apparently her fiance was killed during the war and she’s been waiting for him ever since. The girls can never know the pains of losing a lover to the horrors of war and may never understand the grim specter of the atomic bomb mushrooming over Japan (as evidenced by their giggling and comparing the cloud to cotton candy), but maybe they will get a taste of supernatural evils. Oh, who am I kidding? They get jacked up by this freaking house!

Auntie dance.

Auntie dance.

Old and wheelchair bound, but strangely ethereal and entrancing, Auntie (Yoko Minamida) welcomes the girls into her home. The film almost seems to be playing a cruel trick on these happy-go-lucky schoolgirl caricatures by trapping them in this dark and sinister spider’s web. If the movie is a light-hearted Disney cartoon before the house, then once within the house it is Scooby-Doo on crack…and the ghosts are real. They certainly get some mileage out of the infectious theme song (which is almost as innocent and catchy as the theme song from Cannibal Holocaust). The music weaves through your head on repeat as a mysterious white cat dances across a keyboard, first forward and then back like the film itself is possessed. Mac (the fat one) is the first to go missing, but her decapitated head is eventually pulled out of a well like a chilled watermelon. It proceeds to float around for a scene and bite a girl on the buttocks. Later on everyone enjoys some watermelon with human eyes in it, and strangely enough Auntie no longer requires her wheelchair (“Mein Führer! I can walk!”).

Don't lose your head.

Don’t lose your head.

If the crazy style did not turn you off by the 30 minute mark then be prepared. The severed watermelon head nonsense is peanuts to what happens to some of the other girls. Mattresses attack, girls are trapped inside bleeding grandfather clocks, a ceiling lamp bites a girl in half and her severed legs fly through the air in classic kung fu pose to dropkick an evil blood-spewing painting, and more. Most famous of all perhaps, is the scene where the piano eats one of the girls, but I digress. It is not the way people die in this movie that is so weird, it is how it is all filmed. House is a film without rules. The colors are brighter, the deaths crazier, and grown men can transform into cartoon skeletons or piles of bananas without explanation. The piano scene is truly an incredible moment in the annals of horror. Everything seems to be juxtaposed onto something else. Chunks of the human body float and spin in place while other pieces claw and flail out of the piano and said piano flashes different colors and a multicolored lightning border circles every ludicrous frame…also a skeleton waves its arms like a disgruntled marionette in the background. It is noisy, raucous, wild, inventive, cheesy, silly, macabre, horrific, and funny. This actually describes most of the film. House mixes comedy and horror to such innovative effect that even at its most quiet it conjures mixed feelings of both dread and delight.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

More than a horror film and more than a comedy, House is an arty and extremely experimental addition to cinema psychedelica and a vibrant exploration of what the medium of film is ultimately capable of. I look at it like this; most movies I can imagine experiencing (albeit somewhat differently) in book form, but so much of House is so purely cinematic that it defies written description…begging the question, why write a review, bonehead? Well, I wanted to. So there.

Bwahahaha!

Bwahahaha!

Back to the plot or something. Gorgeous becomes possessed with the soul of her Auntie who is really already a spirit or whatever and more weird stuff happens. The girls are bumped off one by one in increasingly cartoonish and trippy ways. The teacher Fantasy is in love with tries to rescue them or whatever. There’s an evil cat doing stuff. The floors fall apart revealing pools of acidic blood stuff. Auntie gets younger. There’s occasional nudity (pretty sure no one’s over 18 so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that) and there’s tons of googly special effects. The stepmom from the beginning shows up later and more stuff happens. Basically the film is crazy. The traditional mechanisms that hold the plot together and the characters in their place are wholly secondary to the wild inventiveness of Obayashi’s camera.

I love lamp.

I love lamp.

Next Halloween I’m going to have to watch this with The House On Haunted Hill, Hold That Ghost, and Monster House. In many ways House is the ultimate haunted house movie, because just as ghosts do not have to abide by the laws of the real world, so House refuses to abide by the laws of the normal movie world. Ghosts don’t make sense to us and House doesn’t make sense if you’ve seen other movies. Anything goes. It is bedlam, mayhem, pandemonium and it knows it and revels in it and I loved it. For a psychedelic movie about a haunted house that eats a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is everything it needs to be and so much more. Thank you, Criterion, for releasing this insane Halloween treat.

Taz spin.

Taz spin.

Top 10 Reasons to Watch “House”

1. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

2. Although it is a horror movie it is never too proud to incorporate happy upbeat songs (performed by GODIEGO).

3. It’s like Pringles. Once it starts the fun don’t stop.

4. Even the obligatory expository non-horror bits are directed with pizazz and zany rhythm.

5. It’s pretty much an all girl cast and maybe you like that.

6. Many of the ideas for the story and wild things that occur therein were developed by Obayashi’s young daughter.

7. Although the story is formulaic and derivative of other haunted house movies, I would argue that never before has a film had this much fun with formula.

8. Not that there’s a huge list of films in this category, but it is grade A horror-fantasy-comedy.

9. It might even be weirder than Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe.

10. It’s finally available on home video in the United States so you’re out of excuses.

Well...The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Well…The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 3, 2010.

Kurosawa’s Ran: Japanese King Lear

Legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, is a legend for a reason. From parting the sea to America with Rashomon (1950) to the epic Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa paved the way for generations of Asian films to gain greater accessibility to western audiences. There are many masterpieces in his pantheon, but one of my personal favorites is Ran (1985).

Bad day.

Bad day.

 Kurosawa adapted many foreign works including Dostoevsky (The Idiot and Red Beard), Gorky (The Lower Depths), Tolstoy (Ikiru), Hammett (Yojimbo), McBain (High and Low), Arsenyev (Dersu Uzala), and, of course, Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran). Like Throne of Blood, Ran sets the Bard’s epic tale of an old king’s folly against a vivid, feudal Japanese backdrop. Ran (translated as “chaos”) is an ambitious and sumptuous retelling of “King Lear.” Although based on the classic English stage drama, Kurosawa masterfully adapts it to the big screen while making it all his own and very Japanese—the story is also fuses with the Japanese legends of Mori Motonari.

Wabbit season.

Wabbit season.

The story opens with the aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) in the middle of a boar hunt atop a sea of rolling, green hills. We hear piercing flute tones and the gallop of horses. Lord Hidetora is feeling his age and reveals to his hunting party that he will be stepping down as Lord and giving his three castles to his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. His son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), servant Tango (Masayuki Yui), and jester Kyoami (Peter), alone express their concerns regarding this hasty decision. Hidetora treats their concerns as treachery and dissent and banishes his son and servant.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for vegetables.

Family picnics were never the same after Toshiro admitted he had sexual feelings for carrots.

Taro Ichimonji (Akira Terao) becomes ruler of the first castle, but his manipulative wife, Lady Kaede (Meiko Harada), twists the foolish son into demanding more control and usurping Hidetora’s power further by forcing him to remove all his authority as Great Lord. Distraught and backed into a legal corner by Taro and his men, Hidetora, angrily signs away his power and disowns Taro and takes his entourage to Jiro’s (Jinpachi Nezu) castle.

ran13

Haha.

Jiro treats Hidetora most unfavorably, as if his own father were just another ruler under suspicion of attack. Jiro’s Buddhist wife, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), alone shows compassion toward the betrayed Lord, but Hidetora has trouble accepting her kindness because of his lingering guilt for murdering her family and conquering her house. Hidetora leaves the second castle in a huff and takes his hungry entourage out into the countryside, but his pride will not allow him to accept charity or food from farmers. The banished servant, Tango, shows up again to warn the former Lord of his sons’ plans to destroy each other and him too. Kyoami (the fool) cracks a joke and gets banished along with Tango. In an act of desperation, Hidetora takes his entourage to the third castle: the castle that would have gone to Saburo had he not been banished.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

Hell is other people. War is hell. War is other people.

In what is sure to be one of the finest battle scenes ever filmed, the third castle is stormed by Taro’s army and Jiro’s army. Kurosawa drops all sound out of the film for this horrific battle. All we hear is Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score as we flash from silent bloodied soldiers, terrorized concubines killing themselves, and unyielding gunfire to the ominous clouds moving across the sky as if to proclaim the heavens’ impetus or indifference to interfere in the violent horrors of men. Hidetora’s forces are completely annihilated and, amidst the violence, Hidetora scrambles to find a blade with which to commit seppuku. The castle is burned to the ground (Kurosawa actually burned down the castle they had constructed for the film at the base of Mt. Fuji). Taro is assassinated by one of Jiro’s men. Lord Hidetora goes mad and walks out of his ruined fortress and into the wilderness, alone and broken.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

Only you can prevent castle fires.

Tango and Kyoami find their beloved Lord wandering around in the wilds, completely mad. They and the exiled Saburo (the three Hidetora banished and forsook) are the only ones left who remain loyal to Hidetora.

They lodge with a blind peasant in the hopes that the Lord will become well again. In a most tragic, nightmarish turn, they discover that the peasant is Lady Sue’s brother, Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura). He lives alone because Hidetora killed his family and gouged his eyes out years ago. When Hidetora recognizes Tsurumaru and sees his reluctant mercy, the distraught Lord flees in anguish. Hidetora plummets further into madness and torment at the evil deeds of his bloody past as he wanders the old battlefields of his youth.

You think it's my time of the month, do you?

You think it’s my time of the month, do you?

Meanwhile, the conniving Lady Kaede is manipulating her new husband, Jiro. She demands he kill his former wife, Lady Sue, and that he further destroy Hidetora and go to war with Saburo (who has made an alliance with another Lord and has been amassing his army). Lady Kaede meticulously moves the political pawns across the ever bloodstained chessboard. Unlike Lady Sue, who has found the power of forgiveness through Buddhism, Lady Kaede seeks revenge against the entire Ichimonji clan for the wrongs committed against her and her own murdered family.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Oh, we got way more people this movie needs to kill.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

Go on. Make me unhappy.

It all culminates in another huge battle between Jiro’s army and Saburo’s army (who is also marching with the Fujimaki and Ayabe armies—who are interested in Ichimonji land for themselves). The war wages, many men are double-crossed, and many more are killed. In classic Shakespearean tragedy fashion, almost everybody dies, but not before the ultimate in tragic and horrific letdowns can be revealed to them and they writhe in the grisly realization that all this evil and bloodshed was birthed from their own misguidance and blind foolishness. As the few surviving characters collect themselves and recall the tragic course of events that has become their lives, they cry out to the heavens and speculate on the motives of the gods and the awful follies of men. The death of the Ichimonji clan and the bloodshed of the innocent are truly stingingly tragic and the tragedy does not reach its zenith until the very final shot. It is a moment of ultimate insanity and despair.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

Holy Shakespearean tragedies, Batman.

Ran is a superbly directed, wonderfully acted, stunningly visual, lavish, and expansively epic film that feels like a knife cutting into your soul. And I mean that in a good way. Certain images stick with you and certain emotions will not be easily shaken. This is a film that aggressively assaults the senses and challenges views of humanity with lush, Shakespearean strokes. The way Ran uses characters, colors, juxtaposition, sound, music, makeup, and violence is truly remarkable. I consider Ran to be Akira Kurosawa’s magnum opus and it should be required viewing.

"The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

“The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

It’s one of my favorite movies. Watch it and tell me I’m crazy.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” December 8, 2009.

Alice in Svankmajerland

I once had a double-feature with this movie and The Happiness of the Katakuris. It was epic, I tell you.

Curiouser and curiouser!

As some held their breath in eager anticipation to see what director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood) would do to Lewis Carroll’s much-celebrated—and oft times committed to celluloid—classic novel, I recalled an earlier adaptation: Jan Svankmajer’s  Alice (aka Neco z Alenky) (1988). If you are like me and hated the Burton incarnation then maybe you should check this one out.

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s work and both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and am always excited to see another artist’s take on the strange tale. The earliest film adaptation I’ve seen was Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland which was made in 1903. It’s a charming short film with some interesting effects. The most famous version is probably Walt Disney’s 1951 animated classic. The Disney cartoon is full of wonderful colors and imaginative surprises and deserves its slot next to Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some of Disney’s finest animated achievements (those are my personal favorites anyway). Lewis Carroll’s book has been filmed so many times and has employed the aid of such talents as Peter Sellers, W. C. Fields, Kate Beckinsale, Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, and even once scored by Ravi Shankar, but perhaps the most innovative and fascinating take on this treasured story is from the soil and pipe-filled mind of surreal Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Conspirators of PleasureLittle Otik, and Lunacy).

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

As a fan and follower of Mr. Svankmajer and a great admirer of his aforementioned features and short subject works (The Ossuary, Dimensions of Dialogue, Down to the Cellar, Et Cetera, etc.), I can honestly say that Alice (1988) is my favorite of his. Despite the stylistic liberties the jarring and idiosyncratic director takes, Svankmajer stays surprisingly true to the spirit and the plot (or plotlessness) of Carroll’s book—it does lack the poetry and clever wordplay, but Svankmajer employs his own unique brand of humor and wit. Those of you familiar with the story of Alice and her adventures will recall it all began when Alice followed a little white rabbit down a tunnel where she became suddenly immersed in a world of nonsense. By combining live action (mostly the part of Alice played by Kristyna Kohoutova) and brain-bending stop-motion, Svankmajer fashions a dark, near-nightmarish world fashioned from earth, termite-ridden wood, peeling paint, drafty basements, sawdust, animal skeletons, rotting meat and vegetables (all his favorite obsessions).

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

The White Rabbit is a taxidermy beast with bug-eyes, a velvet hat and coat, and a huge rip in his chest that bleeds wood chips and sawdust (so he fastens himself shut with a safety pin, licks clean his pocket watch, and scurries off hastily). Alice pursues the White Rabbit across a barren field of plowed dirt where she crawls into a writing desk and emerges in a dank, winding basement. She tumbles through the floor, takes a dark, ramshackle elevator passing skulls and jars of preserved foods. Alice grows big and small in a tiny, dirty room while she sobs about not being able to get into the beautiful garden on the other side of the door. Alice is harassed by an army of animals sculpted from the mismatched bones and bits of strange creatures, crockery, and other taxidermy critters. She frequently becomes a toy doll during the course of her journey as well. Alice enters a room full of tube socks burrowing through the wooden floors whilst she converses with a denture-wearing “Caterpillar.” She participates in a hallucinatory tea party with the wind-up March Hare and wooden, obsessive-compulsive Mad Hatter. She accepts the Fish Footman’s invitation and is placed on trial before the Queen of Hearts where a most nonsensical proceeding follows.

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

There is no music and almost no dialogue—every spoken word is uttered by Alice herself and the camera cuts away to an extreme closeup of Alice’s mouth reciting “said the white rabbit/caterpillar/mad hatter, etc.”

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

Svankmajer does little to alter the story, but his visuals are not exactly inspired by Sir John Tenniel. The oneiric atmosphere is startling and disturbing. It’s a film you can almost taste and feel underneath your fingernails. Watching Alice is like watching a tapeworm choke out a mouse dressed as the pope, it’s disgusting but at the same time immensely unique and sort of funny. Svankmajer is a master of textures (and none of them smooth or soft). He likes the dirt and pine needles strewn about the floor and the coming of the maggots when the meat turns rancid. These are fascinating subjects that he explores in many of his works. Svankmajer seems to like to give every minuscule object a history and past. Every nick in the chair, every bit of mold in the drain, every stain on the wall, or gnawed bit of turnip tells a story and makes the atmosphere alive and dense in an almost too vivid and unsettling way. He is a filmmaker you will either love or hate. His visuals are potent. His comedy is dark and strange. His sound effects are abrasive and tinny. And his take on Alice might be the most original.

"Time's fun when you're having flies." ---Kermit the Frog

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” —Kermit the Frog

If you don’t like uncooked steaks scuttling across a shelf or for bread to sprout nails when you try to bite it or if the thought of a mouse pounding spikes into your head and building a fire in your hair bothers you, then perhaps this movie is not for you. If you don’t like the taste of sawdust, ink, or fruit jams filled with tacks then maybe you should watch something else. If dark, enclosed, cold spaces full of bony creatures lurking in the corners aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you do something else with your time. HOWEVER, if you are bold and adventurous and willing to experience a different type of filmmaking then I hesitate not to recommend this brilliantly bent masterpiece of the surreal. For tickets to live in the wet and warped mind of Jan Svankmajer for an hour and a half, find a copy of Alice (1988). You’ll never forget where he takes you. Consider yourself warned. Now go with my blessing.

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 16, 2010.