The Post Apocalyptic Movies You Didn’t See…Way Beyond the Thunderdome

Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.

Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.

When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.

The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.

The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.

Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.

Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011

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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.

It’s Not Easy Being Grinch

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

Not the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

picture sources:

misfittoys.net

ouuc.org

cartoongallery.com

balboamovies.com

cbsnews.com

chud.com

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

A Mellow Submarine

If you are a fan of the tiny, little, obscure British band, The Beatles (occasionally you hear them mentioned today), or are a fan of bizarro animation—or even if you just like puns—then it is absolutely imperative that you view The Yellow Submarine (1968). With director Charles Dunning’s team’s incredibly lucid and inventive animation (inspired by the artistic styles of Heinz Edelmann) and some great songs from the legendary Beatles this super-mellow psychedelic trip of a film was brought to glorious, acid-dropping life.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...

Picture yourself in a boat on a river…

The film follows Richard Lester‘s two previous live-action films, The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Like these films, Yellow Submarine would be a wild comedy with loads of silly Beatle antics, but this time it would be animated, rendering complete free range over the psychedelic tone and tundra. The Beatles themselves were not terribly keen initially with the idea of the film, so their speaking voices in the film were cast to other actors doing Beatles impressions (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, and Paul Angelis). Evidently, when the film was nearing completion the real Beatles saw the footage and loved it and thus agreed to appear as live action cameos at the finale. If the ringing endorsement from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr isn’t enough, then I don’t know what would be. The film features several fantastic songs including “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Nowhere Man,” “All Together Now,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Yellow Submarine,” and more.

Pepperland.

Pepperland.

Like many band-centric musicals, the plot takes a comfortable backseat to much of the music and mayhem, but the plot is still enjoyable enough on its own.

Peaceful Pepperland is under attack by the nasty Blue Meanies who have zero tolerance for anything but rampant negativity. They set strange monsters out into Pepperland and bean all of the citizens with big, green apples, transforming them into silent, blue statues. Fortunately, Old Fred, the sailor, gets away in the Yellow Submarine. Advised by the Mayor to get help, he sails through land, air, and sea until he discovers Ringo.

Ringo takes Old Fred to the Beatle house where he meets George, John, and Paul. Old Fred is struck by the foursome’s uncanny resemblance to the former protector’s of Pepperland: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Together they go on a quest to find Pepperland again and free it from the Blue Meanies. Naturally some singing is required for the trek as they sojourn across the Sea of Time to the Sea of Science to the Sea of Monsters to the Sea of Nothing to the Sea of Heads to the Sea of Holes to the Sea of Green. After “Eleanor Rigby” I’d say that some of my favorite songs are featured on their path through the seven seas. Once they arrive in Pepperland the Beatles must use the power of music and love to set the Pepperlanders free and bring happiness to the oh-so-blue Blue Meanies. If all you need is love then certainly we can all get along, right?

Sea of Monsters

Sea of Monsters

In a time when all violence, hate, and wars can be solved by flowers, long hair, and drugs, Yellow Submarine proved to be another megaphone expounding on the subject. It heralds a message that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The bad guys are never really bad, they just need to see what they’re missing in order to come around. Yellow Submarine proves you don’t need rigorous conflict to tell a fun story (just like David Byrne’s True Stories). Indeed, the ‘battle’ between The Beatles and the Blue Meanies’ minions is the least interesting part of the movie. The exciting bits come from their mind-altering explorations through the Seas and the songs they sing along the way. The film achieves a sort of ultra-relaxed mellow. The world is fantastical enough on its own so why fight? The film voices the generation’s creed better than most. This movie is what the hippie ideology was all about. Make love, not war…because war is unnecessary and evil and love permeates every aspect of peace, kindness, and understanding.

Sea of Heads

Sea of Heads

It’s a tough toss up as to who the real star of the movie is. Is it the music or the pictures? The animation morphs and contorts with such lushness and playful abandon that it dazzles the eye and tickles the funny bone and remains completely in step with the songs. Some of the songs are so wonderfully hypnotic, delirious, and playful that, perhaps, without them the pictures would feel incomplete. The perfect marriage of music to picture is nothing short of amazing. Yellow Submarine is like a pop version of Disney’s Fantasia. The colors and shapes are completely free and wild and it might prove difficult to refrain from joining in and singing some of the classic tunes. “It’s all in the mind,” so the recurring line goes.

Stand off.

Stand off.

People have said that this movie is just about drugs, specifically LSD. I think this is unfair, for although there is logic behind the assumption considering the era and source of much of the material, I submit that it is more a celebration of the imagination and creativity (which some might argue is the purpose of LSD, but it would still merely be the train rather than the destination). You don’t need drugs to see the magic. It’s already there. Lewis Carroll, M. C. Escher, and Terry Gilliam didn’t need it. Perhaps the filmmakers of Yellow Submarine were simply reveling in the fact that animation could do anything. The movie is more about the magic of a perfect world where everything is peaceful, musical, and mellow.

Yellow Submarine is brisk, funny, and full of wonder. A good movie takes you places and Yellow Submarine definitely does that. It’s a highly imaginative and enjoyable experience. It’s weird, wild stuff and it won’t be for everybody, but if you like the message, the incredible artwork, or great Beatles songs then check it out. (On a personal note, I do wish “Strawberry Fields” was in this movie). Perhaps the hippie lifestyle isn’t as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when this film came out, but then perhaps there are certain messages that we can all get behind no matter what part of the century we’re from.

Heroes.

Heroes.

Make love, not war. All you need is love. It’s all in the mind.

Thank goodness the CG motion-capture Disney-Zemeckis remake was cancelled.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May, 18, 2010

The Movies You Didn’t See…because they’re too short

From Ivan Maximov to Kenneth Anger, some filmmakers excel at the short subject movie. The short film is a tricky beast and not everyone can be so succinct. I like short films and I admire the ingenuity behind the best and most clever ones. Here are a few.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" directed by Maya Deren

“Meshes of the Afternoon” directed by Maya Deren

I Met the Walrus (2007) was directed by Josh Raskin and was animated by James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina. So what is the film? It’s an animated interview with John Lennon. The film opens with a text informing the viewer that what they are about to hear is 14 year old Jerry Levitan (the film’s producer) talking to a candid John Lennon back in 1969. Basically the recorded voices are used as a backdrop for the visual tapestries that will follow. The artists behind I Met the Walrus work very hard to animate Lennon’s words as a sort of illustrated stream-of-consciousness that mirrors both Lennon’s train of thought and Levitan’s impression of the words being spoken. What starts out as a fairly novel idea by itself is stretched to the limits. Every thought, sentence, and syllable moves the vibrant canvas forward. Pictures are upside-down, right-side up, sideways, dancing, still, and all at once converging into the next idea as they are prompted to expand by Levitan’s questions. You get a real sense of the real John Lennon and see his logic unfold and build. Braithwaite handles all of the pen art while Karina manipulates all of the computerized illustrations and together they make the decades old interview feel as alive and trippy as if it were happening today. I Met the Walrus is a magical expedition into the mind of one of the most celebrated 20th century musicians and the filmmakers do a smashing job transporting us there. (approximately 5 minutes).

"I Met the Walrus"

“I Met the Walrus”

The next film hails from Russia and combines the brilliant animation of Aleksandr Petrov and the American story by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. This film was released in 1999 and features an animation technique that few do and one that Petrov does wonders with. Using a form of stop-motion that is achieved by carefully altering slow-drying paints on different layers of glass Petrov is able to conjure Hemingway’s simple tale to life with all the beauty and complexity of a rich oil painting. Every frame is a rich oil painting and the layers of glass allow for incredible depth, beauty, and nuance. Every time I see it I feel as though I am being transported into a dream. Petrov’s style is sumptuous and gorgeous and one can’t help but marvel at its stunning fluidity and life. The old man, Santiago, goes off into the sea by himself to fish and there wrestles with a giant marlin and the elements. The movie stays true to its source material. All of Petrov’s films are incredible to look at and this one is no exception. There is an atmosphere and tempo all its own in this world and I strongly encourage you to visit it yourself. (approximately 20 minutes).

The Old Man and the Sea

“The Old Man and the Sea”

The last film on my list today is a black and white live-action retelling of the story of the famous L. Frank Baum character, and it is titled Death to the Tinman (2007). I found this film online after watching director Ray Tintori’s earlier work, Jettison Your Loved Ones (2006). Tintori has also directed music videos including the memorably psychedelic “Time to Pretend” performed by MGMT. I was very impressed by what I saw in both Jettison and Tinman. The style is reminiscent of Guy Maddin and maybe Wes Anderson (if he directed Tetsuo), but something about it is all its own. The story follows the life of a lumberjack named Bill who lives in the town of Verton (the miracle capital of the America) in the early 1900s. Bill is in love with Jane, the pastor’s daughter, as the narrator explains. The narrator also tells us that the town did not like Bill for many possible reasons, one being that his valor makes the other firefighters look like cowards. The pastor has God put a curse on Bill’s axe and so his arms are severed and his old friend Paul Mermlestein fashions arms of tin for him. Other accidents cause him to lose his legs and the rest of his body, leading Paul to make him a man of tin. Meanwhile Bill’s body parts have been stolen and put back together into a “meat puppet,” but they lack the heart that Bill still possesses. Jane, however loves the meat puppet. Things go from bad to worse as Bill does anything he can to win Jane back. The finale is wonderfully sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, but clever and extremely rewarding. The humor, creative style, and fantastic score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin make Death to the Tinman something you won’t want to miss. (approximately 12 minutes).

"Death to the Tinman"

“Death to the Tinman”

Bonus: Ivan Ivanov-Vano and the amazing Yuriy Norshteyn staged one of the most incredible battles I have ever seen on film with Secha pri Kerzhentse (1971), and they did it all with stop motion religious icons. Check it out. (approximately 10 minutes).

"The Battle of Kerzhenets"

“The Battle of Kerzhenets”

Short films have a certain freedom that many feature films do not. The best ones say more with less. They can be more streamlined and sometimes they can be a lot more weird. Be sure to check out I Met the Walrus, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death to the Tinman, but don’t stop there. Keep looking. One more bonus short film to check out is Coleman Miller’s Uso Justo (2005) which uses found footage from an old black and white Mexican melodrama, but completely rewrites the subtitles into a very clever existential meta comedy in the spirit of Nietzsche and What’s Up Tiger Lily. Most of these films can be found online.

I might have write about more short films in the future.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 15, 2010

An Arabian Night All Too Often Forgotten

Minarets.

It is widely understood that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the very first feature length animated movie. This is only half-true. It is still believed to be the first cel-animated feature, but there is another film that predates it by more than a decade. I had the good fortune to stumble upon a lost treasure several years ago. This treasure is Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's...a flying horse.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s…a flying horse.

This delightful fantasy is exploding with impeccable visuals and imagination and is really a lot of fun. Prince Achmed has some amazing spectacles; monsters, witches, demons, magic, flying horses, wizard battles, romance, genies, sword fights, etc. So why is it so obscure? Could it be that it’s German? Could it be that it’s silent? Could it be because it was directed by a woman? More likely this hidden gem is often overlooked because of the method of animation that was used to make it all happen. When Snow White came out it spawned a whole movement of cel-animated movies (headed by folks like Disney and Fleischer) that lasted for a good six decades plus, but Prince Achmed was not cel-animated and its style was not much mimicked.

Lotte Reiniger achieved the immensely intricate and breathtaking artwork of Prince Achmed by manipulating pieces of cutout cardboard shapes. Prince Achmed is an amazing technical example of a form of art that never really caught on like cel. Like the rest of Reiniger’s canon, this film was made via stop-motion shadow puppet animation (a style that has been most recently recaptured in Michel Ocelot’s Princes and Princesses in 2000 and the 2005 Anthony Lucas short The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello). Every object, character, joint, ruffle of fabric, leaf, and curtain is little more than overlapped two-dimensional silhouettes.

A woman's work is never done.

A woman’s work is never done.

This technique (invented and perfected by Reiniger) is fascinating to watch and creates an atmosphere and energy all its own. When you observe stills from Prince Achmed you can get an idea of the complexity of the images, but until you see it in full motion you do not get the full emotive power of Reingier’s creation. And it’s in color too! It’s so captivating that I forget I’m only watching silhouettes whenever I watch it. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a special treat, not just for animation-enthusiasts, but also for anyone interested in experiencing an epic fantasy adventure in the spirit of The Arabian Nights.

The story is exotic and magical. The evil African Magician deceives the young Prince Achmed and sends him on a harrowing adventure into the heavens on a magic flying horse. The evil Magician is really after Achmed’s sister. Prince Achmed figures out how to maneuver the horse and lands in the Isles of Wak-Wak, where he falls in love with the beautiful Pari-Banu, but the demons of Wak-Wak are very protective of their Princess. Achmed steals the Princess away, but is confounded by the shape-shifting evil Magician (who has escaped from prison). Achmed travels to China, where the Magician has delivered Pari-Banu to the lustful Chinese Emperor. Achmed must rescue his beloved, but again is hindered by the evil Magician’s trickery.

Hero time.

Hero time.

Luckily, Achmed makes powerful allies along his quest. He befriends a wild Witch in the heart of a volcano who is also enemies with the evil Magician. With the help of the Witch, her magic, and her army of monsters he pursues Pari-Banu, but meets an impossible obstacle when the mountains of Wak-Wak close on him, trapping the beautiful Pari-Banu in with the demons.

File created with CoreGraphics

Fortunately for Prince Achmed, he stumbles upon Aladdin—who is in love with Achmed’s sister, the Princess—and together they recruit the Witch to battle the evil Magician and get the magic lamp back so that they may enter the gates of Wak-Wak. A spectacular shape-shifting showdown ensues between the Magician and the Witch (in a scene I suspect Disney ‘borrowed’ for Merlin’s duel with Madame Mim in 1963′s The Sword in the Stone because I don’t recall that event from T. H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King). The lamp is retrieved and together Achmed, Aladdin, the Witch, and all of the genies in the magic lamp wage a fantastic battle against the demons of Wak-Wak to save Pari-Banu and return to the kingdom where Aladdin can marry the Princess and Achmed can marry Pari-Banu. Needless to say, it all ends well for our brave hero. The whole adventure is a dazzling, intoxicating journey that never ceases to amaze or fill with wonder. I loved it from stem to stern.

Wizards' cat's cradle.

Wizards’ cat’s cradle.

As the earliest surviving animated feature, the serious film buff cannot afford to miss this one. Not to slight the movie itself, however, I must add that in addition to being a significant piece of film history, Prince Achmed is also first-class entertainment. It’s a visual pleasure and a fun ride with more charm and adventure than you might suspect. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a beautiful technical marvel that Sheherazade herself would be proud of. It would even make for a great double-feature with 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. This reviewer strongly recommends.

The DVD release also features a very informative documentary about Lotte Reiniger and the making of this and other stop-motion shadow puppet films from Reiniger.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 5, 2010

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009