Burroughs of Barsoom

So I did something which they tell me is rather unique for me. I went to go see a mainstream movie on its opening night. Weird, I know. I saw Disney’s John Carter (2012). I went into the theater expecting to be sadly disappointed as I had been when I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)—which I also saw opening day. Douglas Adams and Edgar Rice Burroughs were the science fiction guys in my house growing up. Them and Isaac Asimov. Also H.G. Wells. And a bit of Jules Verne. All this to say I was fully prepared to see a cherished childhood memory tarnished. I must confess I was pleasantly surprised.

John Carter has been receiving mixed reviews at best and I think I can see why, but can I tell you something super dooper secret? I kinda really liked it. It felt like reading the old pulpy Burroughs’ books again. As the images kept coming I was reminded of exciting passages ripped straight out of Princess of Mars (originally written in 1912). A thousand past imagined battles and characters were alive and moving across the vast screen before me. Some images even bore the watermarks of the gnarly Frank Frazetta illustrations. Frazetta is to Burroughs what Sir John Tenniel is to Lewis Carroll. I was surprised by how much of the story remained intact. Amidst the wash of fond memories of the smells of the attic of my boyhood and sitting in the old chair reading these Martian books, I was struck to my core. This may be the closest Burroughs adaptation ever made.

Seriously. Tarzan (also a product of 1912) has been adapted so many times with so many different visions, but all fall short. . . although I’m still rather partial to the hokey Johnny Weissmuller ones from the 1930s. Burroughs would take perfectly masculine heroes to the darkest jungles, to the wild west, to Mars, to Venus, to the center of the earth, to dinosaur times, ad nausea. Tarzan is still his most well-known character. John Carter may not have had the impact of Tarzan, but he’s still a great character. Hey, wait. John Carter totally had an impact on American culture. Maybe even more than Tarzan.

One of the biggest problems with the movie John Carter is that so many of its elements seem derivative of things like Star Wars, Superman, and so much more. But Burroughs predates all of them. In fact, for however pulpy and ludicrous a scribbler Edgar Rice Burroughs was, his work really changed the way America sees its heroes. An average, rugged American bashing around the country and getting zapped into outer space may sound fairly innocuous, but when he lands on another planet and discovers that he has superhuman strength and agility there and he decides to fight for what is good and unite the world’s peoples and ultimately save it you get Superman! But Siegel and Shuster didn’t come up with Superman until 1932. There are several scenes where hideous alien monsters battle the protagonists in sporting arenas. It may sound like Luke fighting the Rancor or the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, but the pages of Princess of Mars were scrawled long before these shadows were dreamed up. Even the language. Compare Burroughs’ “Jeddak” with Lucas’s “Jedi.” My dad always wondered about that. Even consider the fact that Burroughs developed several elaborate fantasy universes and cultures before Tolkien described Middle-Earth in 1937.

The trouble is that the mechanics and ingredients of a once original author’s worlds have become commonplace now. Since he has inspired so much, been copied so many times, and been reinvented over and over again, a faithful screen telling would undoubtedly seem somewhat deflated compared with other space opera blockbusters. The truth is that Burroughs’ Barsoom books could never have been realized on screen before now because of the necessary visual complexity. The movie may not be as fresh as it would have been 100 years ago, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In a time when superhero movies with explosive action and mayhem are becoming tired and boring, it’s no wonder a movie like John Carter can get lost in the shuffle. It looks like more of the same. It looks like a knockoff of Clash of the Titans (2010), Avatar (2009), or Thor (2011) but not nearly as mind-numbing as any of the Transformers movies. Now I thought all of those films were pretty godawful, but something about John Carter was different. Was it mere nostalgia? Was it the classic feel the movie had? Was it the wave of memories that surged through my mind at the theater? I don’t know. I do know this though: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter has a winning personality and energy and perhaps, in keeping so close to its source material, it has bottled some of the original magic. For all its new-fangled frills and costly special effects, it feels authentic and old-timey. I’m glad director Andrew Stanton didn’t feel the need to update or reboot the story.

Deal with it. I hated Avatar.

As for the film itself, it’s not perfect. Burroughs’ books, which originally appeared as cliffhangers in magazines, are pulp adventure and tales of violence and this movie does not veer from that origin and I don’t think it would be appropriate if they did. Consider Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). It took the Tarzan story way too seriously and it didn’t work. It also didn’t help that Christopher Lambert (The Highlander) was cast in the title role. No, Barsoom needed to be treated with affection and levity. I’d say they succeeded. It reminded my roommate of some of the cheesy B-movies made in the science fiction craze of the 70s and 80s, but with a better budget. Perhaps an apt description and that’s exactly what it needed to be. I’d be a sucker anyway. I kinda love those old B-movies.

The movie has action, humor, great special effects, engaging characters, monsters, cool vehicles, and some fun battles. It does have a few dialogue scenes that may go on a smidgen too long, but I can forgive it. I had my doubts about almost every character from the trailers; from John Carter and Dejah Thoris to my favorite character, Tars Tarkas. I must confess that Taylor Kitsch (Carter) was not as wooden as I’d feared and actually elicits some humor and embodies the character well. Lynn Collins (Dejah) is a fiery and sexy Princess of Mars (maybe a bit too sciency, but oh well). She looks great and her character is decidedly more interesting and fun than a lot of female characters in similar veined movies. The great Willem Dafoe does one heck of a Thark as Tars Tarkas too. Even the minor characters like Sola, Kantos Kan, Tal Hajus, and Woola are pretty great. We did need more of Kantos Kan, by the way. A note on the Martian (Barsoomian) dog, Woola: I know you may be thinking a quirky monster pet comic relief character sounds positively nauseating, but believe me when I say he is quite a delight and a pleasure to observe whenever he is onscreen.

The film does lack a concrete villain. We get that Mark Strong is playing another bad guy (he’s gonna get a rep if he’s not careful), but his motives are very unclear for the most part. That’s another thing though; Burroughs always seemed to prefer writing great, impossible heroes over memorable baddies. So be it.

The biggest problem with the movie is the title. I get not naming it Princess of Mars after the book, but John Carter is misleading and ambiguous. In an effort to give the movie broader appeal Disney has given it the kiss of death with one of the worst movie titles. Yes, the main character’s name is John Carter, but John Carter of Mars would have been so much more descriptive and appropriate. It’s all marketing and it seems fairly obvious that the suits in charge had no idea what they were doing.

People have called this film dull and derivative, but I say there is a noble soul deep down in there, despite the occasional convolutions. As cynical as I am about a lot of new Hollywood movies, I can honestly report that I greatly enjoyed John Carter. It stays very true to the original novel that was written 100 years ago. It’s fun, exciting science fiction entertainment (heavy on the fiction side of things, just the way we Star Wars dorks like it) and it should please the whole family. I went in with a jaded heart, but the movie won me over. Don’t let bad reviews scare you away from having a good time with this adventure. Who reads reviews anyway?

A final word. Don’t pick up an Edgar Rice Burroughs book expecting to find great literature. They are merely wonderful entertainment with loads of monsters, heroes, and violence. They’re also a bit racist. Okay, I love you, b-bye.

Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.

Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961),  Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse.  It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.

Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.

Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?

Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?

[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think.  http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swashes Be Buckled

Three Musketeers double header.

Three Musketeers double header.

For those of you out there that have been searching or waiting for a great film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ spectacular adventure novel, The Three Musketeers, I submit you look no further than director Richard Lester’s (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, The Bed-Sitting Room, and Superman II) respectful yet rowdy treatment of this classic tale. This version stars Michael York (Romeo and Juliet), Oliver Reed (The Devils), Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings), Faye Dunaway (Network), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B. C.), Frank Finlay (The Pianist), Richard Chamberlain (King Solomon’s Mines), Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago), Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Spike Milligan (Life of Brian) and more!

Oliver Reed (Athos), Michael York (D'Artagnan), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis).

Oliver Reed (Athos), Michael York (D’Artagnan), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis).

As a big fan of the book, I was delighted when I was introduced to Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) several years ago. The film divides the story up into two movies in order to fit in the whole expansive story (and not near as gratuitous as The Hobbit). Both films really work together (and independently for that matter). The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers follow Dumas’ storyline extremely closely, but remain somehow unique and different. The marvelous cast and rambunctious script almost seems to be taking cues from Vaudeville or Monty Python at times with its quick, sharp-tongued wit and sly slapstick. Fans of director Richard Lester will notice his unmistakably wild trademark style.

Spike Milligan tries to reload his old gun to save his wife, Raquel Welch, from Christopher Lee.

Spike Milligan tries to reload his old gun to save his wife, Raquel Welch, from Christopher Lee.

The first leg of the series, The Three Musketeers (1973), follows the adventures of young D’Artagnan (York), the head-strong country bumpkin who accidentally makes friends with Musketeers Athos (Reed), Aramis (Chamberlain), and Porthos (Finlay), falls in love with the lovely Constance de Bonacieux (Welch), and makes powerful enemies in Rochefort (Lee), Cardinal Richelieu (Heston), and the seductive Lady de Winter (Dunaway).

3 musk2

Finlay tosses a ball before an unimpressed Chamberlain.

Constance, a servant of Anna of Austria (Chaplin)—bride of the oblivious French King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel)—requests D’Artagnan to retrieve Anna’s jewels from her secret lover, the English Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), in order to prevent Richelieu from unveiling the scandal to the King. Richelieu sends Lady de Winter to apprehend the jewels first in order to shame the Queen. The whole first film revolves around this one task, but it is so jam-packed with fantastic costumes, hilarious dialogue, daring chases, and spectacular sword-fights that the whole 1600s European political intrigue has to try and keep up with the anarchic exuberance of the rest of the movie. When I say this, I mean it as a good thing. This film is the ultimate period adventure show.

The diabolical duo of Lee and Dunaway.

The diabolical duo of Lee and Dunaway.

The second film, The Four Musketeers (1974), although just as rowdy and fun as the first, gets a little more serious and darker. The plot gets more serious too. War has hit France. Constance has been kidnapped by Rochefort. Cardinal Richelieu, in an effort to usurp the efforts of D’Artagnan (now a Musketeer), sends the evil Lady de Winter to entice him and assassinate the Duke of Buckingham (but soon her true colors and dark past with Athos are revealed and she will have to use all of her cunning to save her own skin). Lady de Winter then wants to kill D’Artagnan and Constance. The stakes are higher, the plot thickens, and the political intrigue is more intriguing. Blackmail and battle are just two of the many dishes this sumptuous sequel dishes up. The sword-fights are no less impressive and have even more pathos this time around. Emotions run high and the suspense keeps building until the explosive sword-clanging finale, making this a satisfying conclusion to one of the best adventure stories.

Reed means business.

Reed means business.

(There is a third film, The Return of the Musketeers, that Lester directed in 1989 with most of the original cast based loosely on Dumas’ Musketeer sequel, Twenty Years After. Although not a bad film it is not essential viewing).

The bunch enjoys some stolen food. Long-suffering servant, Roy Kinnear sits on the floor.

The bunch enjoys some stolen food. Long-suffering servant, Roy Kinnear sits on the floor.

As a big fan of action, adventure, and humor these two films are pretty irresistible to me and I strongly recommend you see them for yourself. If you like ornate costumes, swashbuckling adventure and irreverent slapstick, watching great actors having fun, and wonderful characters come to life with energy and life then look no further than The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. There is much to love about the story already, and seeing it done right with an extra dose of bawdy humor is just the icing on the cake. Find them today and watch the ultimate swashbuckling adventure. This is by far the best adaptation I’ve encountered.

A frustrated Heston considers how to deal with Michael York.

A frustrated Heston considers how to deal with Michael York.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 21, 2009

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

Hail to the King, Baby

Shut up!

Yeah. The title is a line from “Army of Darkness.” So what?

One of the most iconic, important, groundbreaking, and memorable movie monsters continues to be King Kong. Any way you slice it Kong is king. Unlike the more prolific Godzilla, Kong starred in only one movie. There was only one sequel (the aptly titled Son of Kong which starred his son and wasn’t as good). Many people have tried to remake King Kong from John Guillermin to Ishiro Honda to Peter Jackson. While Jackson may come closest to the original, none have been able to capture the cinematic magic and horror of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s extravagant original vision from 1933.

Fearful Wray

Fay Wray: babe of the 30s.

Merian C. Cooper, a bold adventurous man, was inspired to deviate from his wild documentaries—shot in the remotest locations and most dangerous jungles—in favor of this landmark fantasy adventure when told a story by his good friend, Edgar Wallace. Wallace was already a prolific novelist and screenwriter and his tale of a mysterious island fraught with peril and giant monsters sounded exactly like what Cooper had been looking for in his documentaries. Capturing unexplored natural dangers untethered was irresistible and teaming up with friend and producer Ernest B. Schoedsack to make this grand fictional epic was just the icing on the cake. It may come as no surprise that the main character of the wildly ambitious and peril-provoking movie director, Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), was greatly modeled after Cooper himself. . . which is also another reason I was disappointed Jack Black’s snaky performance for the 2005 version (although it is miles better than Charles Grodin’s in 1976).

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

Look at that gorgeous matte painting.

With actress Fay Wray as the lovely damsel in distress, Ann Darrow, and Max Steiner’s grand score—that very effectively mirrored the onscreen action in addition to providing a very tone-setting overture—and actors like Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, and Noble Johnson, there was just one thing missing: Kong. In the thirties many special effects were still in their pioneering stages, and Willis O’Brien (who would later teach the great Ray Harryhausen his trade) was a no-brainer for the job. O’Brien’s magnificent special effects which brought to life the prehistoric leviathan’s of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925) caught much attention. The finale of The Lost World, in which a brontosaurus terrorizes downtown London, would be the basis for Kong’s rampage through New York City. O’Brien, who had been having trouble and was forced to scrap several pet projects, was hired by Cooper and Schoedsack and to work they did set.

In watching Schoedsack’s earlier film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), you’ll notice not only the recurrence of Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson, but also many of the same sets used later in King Kong.

king_kong__1933____the_venture_crew_by_kriegdersterne77-d52mmws

Do you think they’ve spotted us?

The story is simple enough. An “enthusiastic” movie director, Carl Denham (Armstrong), wants to make the greatest wildlife documentary the world has ever seen. He wants to dazzle audiences with corners of the world never before seen by civilized men. His producers demand he get an attractive woman to throw into the picture to give it some sex appeal. Denham then takes to the Depression-era New York City streets in hopes of finding a desperate young lady who might agree to go along on their crazy expedition. He finds Ann Darrow (Wray) and they set sail for Skull Island. Let me repeat that. SKULL ISLAND. During their long sea voyage, Ann begins to fall in love with the stoic first mate, John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Soon the mysterious island is spotted and they disembark to investigate. A primitive tribal ceremony is disrupted by their presence and the film crew manages to get away, but that night the tribesmen board the ship and kidnap Ann to sacrifice to their mysterious and legendary jungle god known as Kong.

It's not racist if it's film history.

It’s not racist if it’s film history 🙂

Kong shows up (in what is was of the best screen entrances of all time), but rather than kill Ann he takes her deep into the jungle. Perhaps it was merely her screams that sparked his curiosity or perhaps it was her beauty that stayed his hand. Driscoll, Denham, and the crew race into the jungle to save Ann—without any idea as to what awaits them. Inside the jungle, many men are killed by territorial and bloodthirsty monsters, dinosaurs, and Kong himself. It seems the ferocious Kong just wants some time alone to perv out with Ann, but with all the little men, dinosaurs, and giant snakes attacking, he can’t seem to get any peace with his screaming nonconsensual bride.

Kong uses some awesome boxing and wrestling moves to fight a nasty Tyrannosaurus-rex. It’s pretty cool stuff. Giant ape socking T-rex in the jaw and flipping him over? This is why fantasy was invented.

king kong t rex

Just look at how gorgeous this picture is.

There’s a lot of build-up leading to the main action, but it is all well paced and ominous. The music doesn’t even start until they get to Skull Island. Once the intrepid (and ill-fated) crew passes the ancient wall and pursues the gargantuan primate into the jungle the action is pretty quick. Stegosaurs, Brontosaurs, Ptersaurs, Tyrannosaurs, and imagined prehistoric horrors abound in the dense foliage, so there is plenty of violence. Life of Skull Island must be a nightmare.

Eventually Driscoll rescues Ann and Kong is captured (but not before he destroys the native village). Denham brings him back to New York City to show the public something they’ve never seen: Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. Long story short; Kong breaks free of his fetters in the opera house and runs murderously amok in the strange new environment, searching for Ann. Instead of giant snakes, Kong battles subway trains. Instead of vicious pterodactyls, Kong must battle biplanes. When Kong does find Ann he takes her to where he can be alone with her: the top of the Empire State Building (and in 1933 it was the tallest building in the world. How romantic). The planes come and Kong must let Ann go as he plummets to his death.

Come at me, bra.

Come at me, bra.

The special effects (although nearly a century old) still have amazing power and wonderful charm. The titanic monster battles are some of the best and most impressive ever filmed. O’Brien and his team had to invent most of the special effects shots for this film as they went along. There are scenes that feature live action people in the foreground and background, while stop-motion monsters battle in between. Plumes of steam from geysers steadily rise, stop-motion birds fly overhead, and the environments are sometimes  miniature sets that extend several feet behind the main action with painted landscape beyond that. The violence is still shocking (as when Kong chomps people in his jaws or mercilessly pummels a passenger train into dead silence), but for some reason we still love Kong. We fall in love with this big, hairy, murderous beast. Even though his performance is only the painstaking animations of a puppet, we still feel he is alive. Unlike other monster movies where we take our point of view from one of the frightened onlookers of the grisly carnage, King Kong makes the monster the central character. Kong is all alone and against the world and the movie audience, for some reason, readily embraces him.

Why you lookin' at my woman like that?

*Samuel Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction*

Subsequent remakes have all tried to cast Kong as a softer, more sanitized, and sympathetic character; a misunderstood animal who the human protagonists eventually come to respect. . . and Kong only justifiably kills bad people. Remakes have cast him as a definite gorilla, but the original Kong’s species is somewhat more ambiguous.

In the original, Kong is a violent force of nature who murders indescriminately: cowering innocents; fleeing pedestrians; even the tribesmen who worshipped him. He doesn’t have a beautiful magical connection with Ann. He’s actually a bit more like a rapist. He is more lost ancient god than biological freak. Ann never warms up to Kong. None of the characters like Kong, in fact. Denham only wants to exhibit him to show the world something they’ve never seen. There is no awkward environmentalist or anti-capitalist message. To the contrary, the film is riddled with cultural ignorance, racism, sexism, and unsentimental depictions of animal cruelty (like the old Tarzan movies). It is very much an escapist product of its time, but for some reason I can forgive it all its faults just as I can forgive Kong for his incorrigible carnage. If it is unapologetic it is because it is a part of our history, and what an entertaining historical document it is.

King Kong 7

Acrophobic yet?

King Kong is easily one of the cinema’s most dazzling adventure stories. The colossal group effort of these daring men in the pioneering days of film, during a time when there was still a lot left of this earth that was unexplored, make King Kong something very special. In setting out to make an adventure movie to end all adventure movies—or maybe a monster movie to end all monster movies—I personally feel that the winning team behind King Kong succeeded with gusto. If you’ve only ever heard of King Kong as legend, myth, or saw him in any of the lesser remakes, I encourage you to revisit this fantastic classic. For my money King Kong (1933) is one of the best American movies ever made and not to be missed.

I am not an animal!

I am not an animal!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 25, 2009

Surpassing Sequels: Followups That Followed Through

Sequels are just a recent product of an unimaginative Hollywood, right? Wrong! …well not just anyway. Sequels, prequels, spinoffs, franchises, etc. have been a part of the movie money machine since the beginning. Paul Wegener’s great silent German expressionist classic about a rampaging Jewish clay man, The Golem (1920), was actually the third movie in a series. Snack on that. There are at least two other movies before 1920 about a rampaging Jewish clay man.

Whenever you see a list of great movie sequels you invariably run across many repeating titles. You’d have to be an idiot not to include The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Godfather: Part II (1974), or The Bride of Frankentstein (1935). These films in particular are wonderful because of their ability to not only recapture the magic and what was great about their original incarnations, but because they were able to expand upon the mythos and even improve on their themes. They created new, complex conflicts built upon stones already laid. It is not too terribly often that one gets to see a sequel that surpasses its predecessor, but it might happen more than one might think. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Mad Max: the Road Warrior (1981), Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (1982), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), and I’ll argue Iron Man 3 (2013) are only a few movie followups that, in my humble opinion, improved on the originals. The Toy Story and Back to the Future franchises also did a fine job of retaining their integrity throughout. The Four Musketeers (1974) was the perfect continuation (although I wonder if it should count because it’s just the second half of the book), and Hellboy II: the Golden Army (2008) has even more monsters than the original and is funnier (I am biased towards more monsters and being funnier).

Then there’s your more divisive ones. From Russia With Love (1963) is technically a better film than Dr. No (1962), but it’s only because Dr. No derails itself in the last act and gets really campy in the homestretch. I still probably prefer Dr. No though. Superman II (1980) is a good sequel because it uses the established characters to present a novel dilemma (the one ripped off by Spiderman 2) and because it keeps a far more consistent tone. If the first Superman did not shift gears and become too cartoony after Lex Luthor showed up, the first movie would have still been better. And Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is still a far better sequel than Temple of Doom (1984).

If memory serves Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985) was the better of the two made-for-tv ewok movies, but it really doesn’t matter because both were pretty awful.

So what’s this all about? A good sequel should expand, not simply rehash. I just wanted to remind everybody that not all sequels are complete garbage. Furthermore, I would like to share some of my favorite movie sequels that sometimes get forgotten or missed when people think of sequels.

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12.) Technically 1985’s Return to Oz is not a better movie than Wizard of Oz (1939), but it’s such an off the wall departure from the tone of the original that it deserves to be mentioned. Made by a completely different studio decades after Wizard, Return to Oz was directed by Walter Murch and even if it seems a bit random, it’s completely in keeping with L. Frank Baum’s world. It’s a much darker and stranger tale with a much younger Dorothy (GOING IN FOR SHOCK THERAPY!!!!) and although it is actually more uneven and more dated than Wizard of Oz, it has a lot of its own charm. Dorothy was played by a very young Fairuza Balk. The real stars of this film are the wonky 80s special effects and cool puppetry from the Jim Henson studios.

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11.) Jacques Tati‘s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) was followed by three sequels starring the bumbling Mr. Hulot (Tati). All are wonderful, but the first sequel, Mon Oncle (1958), is regarded by many as his best. It is quiet and subtle and beautifully set up. Tati’s penchant for comic juxtaposition and clever mise-en-scène is as sublime and sharp as ever. The color photography is textured and pretty, and the amusing clash between the rustic, old world and sterile, malfunctioning modernity makes for wonderful satire. Playtime (1967) might beat it though for sheer breadth of and scope of comic beauty and satirical examinations of alienation in society.

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10.) Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa knows his period action epics. The man behind such fantastic movies as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ran (1985), and many others served his sequels up pretty good too. 1961’s Yojimbo starring Toshiro Mifune was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars so you’re probably familiar with the storyline of a super cool nameless warrior who lives by his own rules and plays warring gangs against each other. It’s sequel Sanjuro (1962) continues this ronin’s story and—because of a malfunction that ended up looking really cool—it introduced the blood spray geyser gimmick for a whole generation of action and samurai films to copy.

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9.) Before Sunset (2004) is the excellent sequel to Richard Linklater’s classic romantic drama Before Sunrise (1995). The first movie followed two strangers, a young American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a young French chick (Julie Delpy), as they simply walk around Vienna for one magical but short-lived night. Even though they know they will probably never see each other again they cannot help but plant the mysterious seeds of romance. The sequel picks up a decade later after the American has written a book about that magical night and is touring around. The girl meets him in Paris at a signing. The sequel goes in real-time and it is the perfect second installment for these two characters. They have aged and they have grown and life is more complex than it was, but that special connection that existed between them is still powerful and captivating. It is a pleasure to revisit these two endearing personalities. I eagerly anticipate Before Midnight (2013).

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8.) I love The Muppet Movie (1979), but Jim Henson’s The Great Muppet Caper (1981) might be even more fun. It was a successful follow-up to The Muppet Movie because it gave the characters a chance to go overseas and get mixed up in a heist storyline with all the classic moves…only with Muppets. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal, everybody is back and in Great Britain. The Muppet Movie is still great and you can’t beat the song Rainbow Connection, but Caper is directed with more style and it seems to be having more fun playing with the conventions of the crime genre and it’s less episodic. Another personal note: it’s still before Gonzo became too front and center. Gonzo was always my favorite, but I liked him better as a side character. When he’s the main focus he loses his mystique. I feel the same way about the Fonz on Happy Days.

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7.) Joe Dante’s Gremlins—along with Temple of Doom—resulted in the MPAA employing the PG-13 rating system in 1984. Gremlins is a dark and cynical horror-comedy, and so is 1990’s Gremlins 2, but it’s much more anarchic and cartoony. It’s more satirical than merely cynical and it manages to effectively parody itself, it’s predecessor, consumerism, TV, and sequels in general. It’s wilder and more unhinged and if Christopher Lee’s presence isn’t enough, Tony Randall voices the Brain Gremlin. People still like Gremlins, but for my money the sequel is far more daring and fun. Gremlins, as I always understood them, were more mischievous and wild than simply horrific. I hearken back to the classic 1943 Bob Clampbett cartoon Falling Hare starring Bugs Bunny and one of his few devilish matches: a gremlin.

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6.) Chan wook Park’s vengeance trilogy does not share characters so much as it shares themes…of vengeance. Oldboy (2003) is the second film in the trilogy (sandwiched between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) and it is the most famous in the west and I’d say it’s my favorite of the three as well. It’s a dark and complex revenge story of man who is kidnapped and upon his release he must figure out who abducted him and why. Memories, love, loss, pain, anguish, action, chills, suspense, tragedy, you name it. This intense South Korean flick has got it all.

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5.) The Rescuers (1977) never got me. I liked some of the songs and the animation is strong and emotive (the last time animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston would work together for Disney), but the colors are yucky, the villains are ugly and uncharismatic, and the whole mood of the film feels a little off-putting…but I liked the mice. In 1990 they brought back Bernard and Bianca (voiced once again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) for The Rescuers Down Under. Evenrude the dragonfly is gone, but funnyman John Candy plays an obnoxious albatross and George C. Scott is a mean poacher out to get a giant eagle. The memorable mouse duo embarks on a dangerous mission to Australia to rescue a young boy. It’s a sleight film, but it works and I like it a lot more than the original. It’s fun, funny, and the animation is great.

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4.) Here’s a fun one. Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki won me over with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), which was a surreal comedic tale of Finland’s worst band and their road trip to the states to obtain an audience, but the sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) is just as good. Their old manager allegedly has been born again as Moses and so goes on a mission to find all of the Leningrad Cowboys and take them back to Europe…but not before stealing the nose off the Statue of Liberty. Just as surreal the second time around this sequel gets a littler kookier to boot. This movie also has one of the best sight gags I’ve ever seen.

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3.) If you like your horror with a side of humor then you already agree with me when I include Sam Raimi’s 1987 classic, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (a half-remake, half-parody type sequel of the first Evil Dead). The first film was more a straight horror film with some campiness, but the sequel plays with the material in much bolder ways. It’s kinetic, gory, AND FUNNY, and the special effects are better. I wish the whole movie could have been just Ash (Bruce Campbell) alone in the house fighting the demons of the Necronomicon…I suppose they needed a bigger body count though. The scene where Ash battles and cuts off his demon-possessed hand and replaces it with a chainsaw is hilarious. As much as I enjoy this super energized tribute to supernatural slasher flicks (complete with gratuitous homages to the Three Stooges), I might even like the next sequel Army of Darkness (1992) even better.

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2.) Satyajit Ray made a stellar directorial debut with Pather Panchali (1955), and he continued to do something truly special with the followup films Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). The story follows the development of Apu, a young boy growing up in squalor in 1920s India. It is a powerful and potent trilogy. You will run the emotional gamut watching it. What makes the sequels so interesting is that as the character of Apu grows, so does Ray as a filmmaker. Pather Panchali is almost documentarian in its approach and style, while Aparajito becomes more a narrative-driven plot and finally Apur Sansar is almost Hollywood-esque with its calculated rises and falls (the good Hollywood).

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1.) The best sequel of all time I list here. It is one that I am shocked and appalled does not appear on more lists. It is Troll 2 (1990). I know what you’re thinking. Troll 2 is an odious train wreck of a film that completely disregards anything concerning the previous movie…and most things concerning any movie. Everything about it is terrible. Acting, writing, direction, production, special effects, dialogue, structure, you name it, it has screwed it up royally. It is so terrible that it’s actually quite wonderful. Who am I kidding? I love this movie! I really love it. Where the first Troll (1986) was simply a really bad, forgettable movie (that curiously featured Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a character named HARRY POTTER), Troll 2 is a devastating rape of the art-form and has developed a huge cult-following. Nobody even remembers that there was another Troll. Troll 2 completely eclipses all previous troll efforts. How many movie sequels can totally obliterate the first movie? People love Troll 2. People have Troll 2 parties. There’s a documentary about it called Best Worst Movie (2009) which is also pretty awesome. Few bad movies have had the impact and staying power on the cult fan base that Troll 2 has. So while some may say it’s a failure as a movie, I wouldn’t say it’s a failure as a sequel.

There you have it. Go watch some movies. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion. Also, am I only one who liked Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) more than Desperado (1995)?

http://www.listal.com/viewimage/1263332

http://saradobie.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/return-to-oz/

http://thepinksmoke.com/ak100.htm

http://collider.com/ethan-hawke-on-a-3rd-before-sunrise-before-sunset-movie/13503/

http://twynkle.com/movies/928/backdrops/203918

http://www.the-other-view.com/oldboy.html

http://www.miradas.net/2007/n59/estudio/leningradcowboysmeetmoses.html

http://bestworstmovie.com/nil-blog/film-interview-george-hardy/