Tucci for the Money

Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Albert Brooks. Jacques Tati. Sydney Pollack. Warren Beatty. Clint Eastwood. Mel Gibson. Recognize the pattern yet? How about actors who are also famous for directing—many times in films they themselves star in. They played iconic roles like the Tramp, Monsieur Hulot, Dick Tracy, Braveheart and many more. These are huge names that bear much weight whether they are exercising their skills behind the camera or in front of it, but for every big name that crosses the rift from actor to director (or vice versa) there is a sea of smaller names that have also dabbled on both sides. Danny DeVito is remembered more for his appearances in Taxi (TV), Batman Returns (1992), or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (TV) and most Americans probably don’t hear his name and instantly think of the director of Matilda (1996) and The War of the Roses (1989), but even Danny DeVito is still a fairly famous name. Raise your hands if you know and love Mr. Stanley Tucci.

I probably first saw Stanley Tucci in the family comedy about the lovably large St. Bernard, Beethoven (1992). Tucci played one of the sleazy, comic henchmen. Despite his seemingly small role in a quaint little dog movie, he and fellow henchman, (played by Oliver Platt) stole every scene they were in. Tucci is one of those great and talented character actors who you see in every movie, but whose name you always have trouble recalling. From flicks like Undercover Blues (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julie & Julia (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010) and many more, Stanley Tucci is an extremely enjoyable performer to watch. Which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to Big Night (1996) and The Impostors (1998), both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Big Night was co-written by Joseph Tropiano and co-directed by Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, who also has a small role in the film). It is the intimate story of food, family, and all other things Italian (I admit my bias here). Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Tucci) are two brothers who have immigrated from Italy to find a new life in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo is chasing the American dream while Primo cooks tirelessly away in the kitchen of their Italian restaurant. A particularly humorous gimmick comes from Primo’s disdain for change and the simple American palate that cannot appreciate his authentic cuisine. Their restaurant is losing money and to make matters more degrading, their pandering competitors across the street have booming business. Secondo goes behind Primo’s back and makes a deal with Pascal (Ian Holm, Alien), the seedy owner of the other more popular restaurant. Pascal claims he can get jazz singer Louis Prima to dine at their restaurant. All they have to do is invest everything they have left and blow it all on one big night to save them from bankruptcy. The film follows all of the preparations for the big night, from inviting guests and ordering flowers to the meticulous creation of all of the wonderfully appetizing foods. Folks show up from all over as they patiently await the celebrity’s arrival and enjoy mouth-watering Italian dishes: the prized dish being the legendary timpano. They dine and dance the night away and the courses of food and entertainment just keeps on coming. Hearts will be broken, dreams will be crushed, backs will be stabbed, and serious lessons about food, family, and pride will be learned before it all comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Big Night is a quiet and modest film with much substance and subtlety. It creates many small human moments and maintains an endearing intimacy. Big Night knows that a great Italian dinner does not just involve food. It is a delicate sculpture, a calculated symphony of smells and sounds. We start with the appetizers and gradually build until we reach the main course…but it doesn’t end there. More courses of good food come out to ease us out of the dining experience. And then we breath deep. We talk. We laugh. We cry. We play games. We tell stories. We have drinks. Tucci’s film is a bittersweet one and it will be hard not to be enchanted by its good-intentioned charms. The cast includes Tucci, Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Ian Holm (Alien), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Allison Janney (Juno), Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger), Marc Anthony, and Liev Schreiber (Sphere).

After the success of Big Night Tucci returned to the directing chair for a pleasant throwback to classic screwball comedies with The Impostors. Tucci plays Arthur, an out of work actor in Depression-era New York City. When Arthur and his roommate, Maurice (Oliver Platt), accidentally insult a hot-headed Shakespearean drunken hack (played by Alfred Molina) they find themselves fleeing from the police and wind up stowing away on a cruise ship inhabited by a cracked assortment of peculiar personalities. Like Big Night, The Impostors has assembled another great cast of wonderful character actors. In addition to Tucci, Platt (The Three Musketeers), and Molina (Chocolat); Tony Shalhoub (Galaxy Quest) is a Russian spy bent on blowing up the bourgeois pigs aboard the ship; Lili Taylor (The Addiction) is a soft-spoken stewardess in love with a guy who can barely speak English (Matt McGrath); Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) is an abused actor; Campbell Scott (in one of his best roles this side of Rodger Dodger) is a deranged, fascistic German crewman; a shrewish gold-digging Dana Ivey (Home Alone 2) and her exceptionally morose and homely daughter played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt) are the destitute aristocrats; Allen Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) is the timid captain who pines for his lost love; Isabella Rossellini (The Saddest Music in the World) is a deposed queen running away from it all; Steve Buschemi (Fargo) is suicidal crooner, Happy Franks; Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) is an aggressively sexually ambivalent (or perhaps not so) tennis enthusiast; Michael Emerson (Lost) is Molina’s long-suffering assistant; Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) are tough-talking criminals; and Woody Allen (Bananas) is a neurotic New York playwright (what else). The cast alone is reason enough to watch the film. Tucci is a very generous director in that he gives each performer plenty of time to shine and have fun with their screwy roles.

The story is little more than a set-up to get talented character actors to play funny personalities and do slap-sticky things in quick succession. The Impostors is another modest film who finds the most joy in just assembling the characters and having fun (during the end credits the entire cast dances off of the set and into the street). It is very apparent that everyone is having a great time and it’s quite infectious. The gags are clever and refreshing. At times the film is reminiscent of Hope and Crosby, at other times it is like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and there is even a silent movie scene at the beginning that hearkens back to the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Impostors is a fine throwback to classic comedy and the humor is refreshingly gentle and nonabrasive.

Some have complained that Tucci’s directorial work is very stagy (in these two examples as well as in Joe Gould’s Secret and Blind Date). The whole spectacle seems to be rather distant and stagnant at times, as if the material were better suited to a theater performances. This may be the case, but I would never kid you by saying that the simple approach is not effective or enjoyable. Tucci seems to write and direct more for the actors rather than for the razzmatazz of the camera. His camera does not employ grandiose sweeping shots and it is not full of intense closeups. The technical wizardry is minimized completely. Tucci’s films are more about watching the actors create characters using only what abilities God has given them. The photography and editing are merely there to format the story for a cinema screen. I happen to find his technique refreshing and very effective for the flavor of stories he is telling. So maybe Big Night and The Impostors are stagey. Kill me, they’re still wonderful movies. Watch ‘em.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 10, 2011

The Animated Movies You Didn’t See

A few weeks ago I highlighted a few films that might have been hovering under some folks’ radar: Zazie dans le metro, Brewster McCloud, The Hour-Glass Sanitorium, and Skritek. These films all had a few things in common, one of them being that they were all live-action films. As a huge fan of animators and animation I felt it only necessary to highlight a few great animated films that also might not be as well-known. Today you shall be educated about Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008). Much like my article about obscure live action films where we hopped from France to America to Poland and onward to the Czech Republic, this week we shall also bounce around to different countries as we celebrate the animated movies you didn’t see.

fantastic planet 2

Rene Laloux is a French animator who started out working with mentally ill people, helping them make films as therapy. This feature-length movie, Fantastic Planet (1973), directed by Laloux was a French-Czechoslovakian production based on a novel by Stefan Wul. It is a science fiction film with a very unique style (designed by artist Roland Topor) and full of  bizarre sounds and music (composed by Alain Goraguer). The story follows a small human creature (called Oms in the film), named Terr. Terr’s mother is killed by one of the giant blue humanoid Draags who rule the planet and basically treat the Oms as pests. Terr is adopted and raised as a pet by the young Draag girl, Tiva. He is adorned in humiliating plumage (akin to putting a sweater on a dog) and given a doll’s house to live in and is alternately loved on and mildly abused by Tiva for much of his developing life. Since Oms develop several times faster than Draag’s, Terr soon grows enough to where he can learn from the Draags. Terr wanders the home and studies them and assimilates their knowledge via a headband that is used to teach young Draags. Terr eventually flees his captives and winds up amidst the civil wars of the wild Oms. With some struggle, Terr integrates into their society, but with his inside knowledge and understanding of the oppressive Draags coupled with his bravery, Terr teaches the wild Oms and unites them to revolt.

If the story sounds familiar it is because I suspect L. Ron Hubbard ripped it off when he wrote his acclaimed Battlefield Earth. As the story unfolds and Terr’s journey takes him to many unusual places, we learn more about the history and the cultures of both societies and how they came together. The story of Terr on the Fantastic Planet is really secondary to the style of this film for me though. The movie plays more like a psychedelic nature special or anthropology study. The style is so odd and wonderful and memorable that even if this wasn’t a great movie, I’d still have to recommend it. Some of the best sequences (in my humble opinion) are the moments without dialogue and the weird creatures and bizarre rituals simply carry on. First class animated science fiction fun. The DVD also comes with Laloux’s award winning short, Les scargots (1965).

tom thumbThe next film hails from Great Britain and it is easily the weirdest movie on the list. Dave Borthwick directed one of the most bent interpretations of a classic fairytale you are likely to ever stumble upon. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993) is a dark and twisted stop-motion animated feature that follows the life of the mute, fetus-like Tom Thumb who is kidnapped by scientists, meets mutated apparitions in a lab, escapes with the help of a cybernetic lizard-monster, meets a settlement of elf-like creatures led by Jack the Giant Killer and (like Terr in Fantastic Planet) uses his understanding of the giants and the elves to try and bring about peace and reunite with his Giant father.

The giants munch grotesque, slippery bugs and terrorize the elf people for sport. Tom Thumb, being the only innocent, might be the only one who can bring peace to the world. The film is much more of a riddle than I have explained, so please watch it. The real pleasure of Tom Thumb comes from the fantastic look of the film and the bizarre humor and fantastically dense and strange atmosphere. It is at times a comedy, a tragedy, an action movie, a spy flick, a film noir, etc. It is a stop-motion film, but only half of the cast are clay puppets, the rest are human performers and they are also manipulated via stop-motion in a slow-going process called pixelation. This process gives the film a very distinct flavor and also allows for the seamless integration and interaction of puppet characters with human actors. Even after seeing it five times the finale still baffles me a bit (see it for yourself). Overall the film is very perplexing and odd, but ultimately a lot of fun and comes recommended for those with a cock-eyed idea of how fairy tales should be told.

Kirikou-and-the-SorceressThe next film is for anyone whose most vivid idea of Africa comes from The Lion King. Although it is set Africa, Michel Ocelot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), is actually a French and Belgian production, but the dialogue was recorded in South Africa. The story is based on a West African folktale and follows the saga of a small boy named Kirikou (again, like Tom Thumb in the last movie, the main character is extremely tiny and slightly fetal). Kirikou is born a precocious, curious lad with boundless energy. The tribal village Kirikou is born into is comprised only of women and children because the evil sorceress has allegedly devoured all of the men (who have each attempted to vanquish her and obviously failed). The sorceress has also dried up all of the water in the spring. Since Kirikou is pure-hearted and innocent he seeks to solve all of his tribe’s problems, but they all think he is too young to understand and too small to be able to help. Kirikou decides to do what is right even if no one will believe in him except his mother. Whenever he does something great the tribe praises him, but they soon forget. He saves his uncle the warrior, and he rescues the children from evil enchantment, and he slays the gluttonous creature who drinks all the water, and then he journeys under the ground (to avoid the gaze of the sorceress’s minions) to get advice from his grandfather. His grandfather, who is full of wisdom, gives Kirikou the inside scoop on the sorceress: she’s actually a victim of sorcery herself. With his newfound knowledge of the tribe’s foe, Kirikou again goes underground with the intent to save the sorceress and his village.

Without giving the ending away I’ll assure you it all ends okay, but perhaps not the way you might have expected. The cel-animation is beautiful and stylized and the average movie-goer will probably notice that this particular cartoon has a lot more nudity than your normal children’s movie (nearly all of the characters are naked). The film features many fun, kid-size adventures and acts of bravery and endearing characters full of spirit. It’s a beautifully drawn little film that avoids any pop-culture references or bombastic, hyper-kinetic plot or action that plague so many forgettable American family films. Kirikou and the Sorceress comes highly recommended for anyone willing to give the little guy a chance to prove his mettle.

sitaSo ends our theme of diminutive protagonists on treks through lands of giants. The final film I would like to shine the spotlight on is Sita Sings the Blues (2009) directed by American artist, Nina Paley. The film is a mostly flash animated retelling of the famous Indian epic, “The Ramayana” (told from Sita’s perspective rather than Rama’s). The film really follows multiple stories or rather multiple versions of the same story. The first story is (I think) an autobiographical account of Nina herself as she is pushed away by her aloof boyfriend after he leaves for India. The second story follows the tragic, but ultimately empowering tale of Sita, the wife of Prince Rama. Sita’s story can really be broken up into three stories: first there is a trio of bickering Indian shadow puppet narrators (reminiscent of Lotte Reiniger’s work in The Adventures of Prince Achmed) who are trying to get the story right; then there are the “Ramayana” characters bound by the words of the narrators and who act out the tale; and finally there are parts of the narrators’ story that stop abruptly and transform into blues songs featuring the voice of Annette Hanshaw emerging from the mouth of Sita. All of the Hanshaw recordings are from the 1920s, giving a very unique flavor to an already unique movie.

Nina’s story (animated in a more contemporary sketchy style) parallels the saga and plight of Sita (whose story is animated like classic Indian art) and the songs of Annette Hanshaw (which are animated in an ultra-smooth, cartoony flash style) provide excellent musical summaries of the emotional state of both Nina and Sita. The style of animation changes for each plotline (Nina, Sita, Henshaw, and the narrators) and although it’s all told rather loosely and bouncily, we are always invested in their struggles. Paralleling a contemporary woman’s struggle with a classic Indian epic and interpreting both through the dulcet tones of Hanshaw’s voice from old ’20s recordings is sheer brilliance. . . in my humble opinion. The animation is clever and colorful, the story keeps moving and is always surprising, and the blues songs are especially enjoyable and experiencing them in this innovative fashion breathes new life into them. Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a vibrant tale told with passion and skill and is available almost anywhere online. Another amazing aspect to this already enchanting film is that Nina did it all by herself. Check it out.

fantastic planet

All of these films are wonderful in their own unique ways. I loved every one of them. Whether it’s the strange, Seussian science fiction of Fantastic Planet you crave or the peculiarly dark fairy tales of The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb that tickles your fancy, I hope you check them out. Or for those of you fascinated by the cultural fables and folktales of Kirikou and the Sorceress or the vibrant, creative re-imaginings of classic cultural sagas found in Sita Sings the Blues, I strongly encourage you find these films and watch them. If it’s gotta be animation and it’s gotta be something new then please do yourself a favor and treat yourself to some truly original works of art. And don’t forget to also check out The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Brenden and the Secret of the Kells, Robot Carnival, Angel’s Egg, Watership Down, and The Plague Dogs for more brilliant animated films. And keep a lookout for my upcoming articles on George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler and more.

picture references:

galwayafricanfilmfestival.com

insidecatholic.com

senseofcinema.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 12, 2010