The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIX – The Reckoning

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys. If you have different opinions please share.

Meh:

I remember watching the Disney Jungle Book (1967) as well as the Sabu Jungle Book (1942) and reading the original Rudyard Kipling stories many times as a kid. As far as Jon Favreau as a director goes I can say I enjoyed Elf. Everyone is talking about the amazing visuals in the Disney reboot of The Jungle Book (2016) and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure how special effects alone still manage to be a box office draw when every mainstream big budget movie looks exactly the same. It’s not a bad film (and yes, the special effects are impressive), but I found it just sort of tedious and uninspiring. Disappointingly, I think Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (voicing Baloo and King Louis respectively) were dreadfully miscast and distractingly out of place. Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and Idris Elba (Shere Khan) were fine. If you saw a trailer you’ve already seen the entirety of Scarlett Johansson’s scene as Kaa. The songs feel forced and out of place and visually I was a bit bored with the hour and a half spectacle, but it’s passable and light for kids. If I want to watch a young Indian boy in a dazzling CGI environment battle a tiger I’ll re-watch Life of Pi.

As a big fan of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele I was eagerly looking forward to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s big screen debut in Keanu (2016). It’s not a bad film, but it just falls so short of the madcap surreal energy and comedy of absurd escalation that their show was famous for. I realize that maybe that’s not what they were trying to achieve here. And that’s fine. The problem here is that there’s really only one joke and it doesn’t escalate enough. The plot: two suburban squares have to play gangster to get their cat back. There are a couple scenes that are funny, but overall it’s sort of a by-the-numbers liar-revealed Hollywood comedy plot with not much surprise or innovation. Watching Key and Peele in this movie is like looking at a parakeet with clipped wings sit in cage that is too small.

I Like It:

Possibly the most anodyne entry on this list is The Peanuts Movie (2015). I was in love with the animation that managed to be state of the art and finely textured while maintaining the vintage lo-fi style of the old cartoons and simple comic strip that preceded it. All the hallmarks of Charles Schultz are on display in this gentle little film. It has a pleasant sense of humor and a quiet feel-good optimism that plays off Charlie Brown’s insecurities and social shortcomings. If you know the characters, they are pretty much themselves (Linus is a bit less sage here and I would have liked a bit more Schroeder, but we can’t have it all). My only real complaint is that, like Star Wars and Jurassic World, it seems like it is trying too hard to hit all the familiar nostalgic marks without developing much new. Like the old TV specials, the stuff with Snoopy is gold.

Up in Smoke (1978) was the screen debut of the stoner comedy team of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The film itself is a bit of an amateurish hit-and-miss episodic road comedy. It means well, but not all of the jokes land like they should. A handful of funny moments, a mean sheriff (Stacy Keach) in pursuit, and the relationship between the two stars make it a warm little adventure. As perhaps the first stoner comedy, it’s more iconic than it is a masterpiece. Still worth a look.

I appreciated the character design and the social commentary better than the actual mystery in the animated Disney police procedural, Zootopia (2016). Voice cast was fine. Story was fine. Jokes were good. As a movie goer, I was perhaps most impressed with the world it created (Tundra Town, Rainforest District, etc.) and the ways that the city accommodated animals of wildly different sizes and shapes. Everything was fine, but I just really enjoyed the world they occupied and some of the character designs were wonderful. Additionally, the commentary on racism and prejudice was a refreshingly specific and important lesson that was handled well.

Guilty Pleasures:

This next schlock flick would be a great double feature with They Live. The Stuff (1985) is a delightfully cheesy horror comedy parable about consumerism and consumers not really knowing what’s in their food. When a mysterious viscous alien entity bubbles up from the ground it tastes simply too good to not be quickly packaged and sold in stores everywhere. The addictive substance is a living parasite that needs addicted host bodies to keep consuming it until it takes over. It’s a grim but refreshingly unusual sci-fi story with some gross special effects and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as a weirdly racist army general. It’s more campy and gross than it is scary, but that’s sort of as advertised. You can’t get enough of The Stuff.

I don’t get most superhero movies. I also have not been a fan of Ryan Reynolds (The Voices). I’ll admit it straightaway. That said, Deadpool (2016) was pretty fun, and, although not nearly as clever and edgy as it pretends to be, I still liked it better than pretty much all of the other Marvel movies I’ve seen. It pokes fun at obnoxious Marvel cliches (as well as its own one-note schtick) and has a charismatic wacky cynicism. I don’t remember the action much (I liked the fight between Colossus and Angel Dust because it had some interesting character moments alongside the punching), but I remember the snark and the snark was fun (Deadpool spelling out his nemesis’s hated name in henchman corpses was funny). Basically, if you thought Darkman needed more pop culture references and fourth wall breaking winks, this crass revenge flick is for you. More Morena Baccarin, please. All this said, I really want this to be an anomaly. We don’t need fifty more cynical, winky, ultra violent superhero movies. It works because it’s a novelty.

After all these years I finally got around to see the cult Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985). Honestly, I loved From Beyond (also directed by Stuart Gordon) a lot more and The Frighteners still contains my favorite Jeffrey Combs performance, but I get why this became a subversive hit. It slowly builds to being a zombie movie and then goes all out schlocky berserk in the final act. It’s silly, slimy sci-fi 80s mayhem. A lot of fun.

Rocking Harder:

After my disappointment with Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and modest feelings toward Inside Out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Finding Dory (2016). Taking notes from Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 in that much of the film is a convoluted prison break plot with multiple characters in different locations trying to rescue each other, Finding Dory is also a bit more fast and loose about its water-bound characters moving with ease from impossible situation to the next than its predecessor (Nemo’s hangup was in one small fish tank while the sequel moves through several tanks, pipes, buckets, etc.). The movie’s focus is all on Dory’s search for her parents and her past and, in addition to being a fast, funny adventure full of fun characters (Hank the octopus is a nice addition) and harrowing situations with innovative solutions, the fact that the main protagonist suffers from a difficult mental disorder (short term memory loss) and is able to overcome her countless obstacles through her perseverance and abundant cheerfulness should bring hope to sufferers of all kinds of problems. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyable and deeply moving (Ellen Degeneres shines in her role), and I applaud the writers’ ingenuity in figuring out ways to move characters that essentially need to be in the water at all times. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it deals with very human emotions and problems in ways that are respectful and hopeful.

Two young boys trying to run away from home stumble upon a police squad car and hit the road in Cop Car (2015). To make it more interesting, the cop car belongs to a murderer and bad sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. It’s a tight, small movie with just enough moving parts to keep the suspense building. I don’t want to spoil too much so I recommend just checking this one out.

Last list I watched The Lobster and I didn’t get it. So I gave director Yorgos Lanthimos  another try with his earlier film, Dogtooth (2009). It’s a dark and disturbing surreal tale of three teenage siblings (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Christos Passalis) being sequestered in their home by their controlling father (Christos Stergioglou) for reasons that are never explicit. A weird system of rewards and punishments is placed upon them. Weird sexual experimentation, gender favoritism, and sudden bouts of savage cruelty remind us just how innocent our protagonists are and how demented their parents must be. It is a quietly troubling film that has stuck with me. Watch it if you dare.

 

If you can get past Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) playing a Mexican and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) wearing a putty nose then you will enjoy Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Crime and corruption in a Mexican border town are the ingredients and playground for this classic. From the famous opening long take shot to the final bullets fired, Touch of Evil is a magnificent looking film and a pleasure to watch. Also features Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Love It:

Terrence Malick. Some people love him. Others find him slow and pretentious. From Days of Heaven to Tree of Life, his films all look breathtaking. The New World (2005) was Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontis. It is a slow movie, but one whose languid pace, for me, added to the richness of the environment and emotional weight to the almost wordless plot. The refreshing take on this historical narrative comes in the way the film depicts its characters as complex human beings bound by culture rather than a sanitized Hollywood romance. These are difficult situations that befall young Pocahontis (Q’orianka Kilcher), her father (August Schellenberg), the pirate John Smith (Colin Ferrell), and pious John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the solutions are not easy and may never come. The New World, like Malick’s best, is a profound and beautiful work that resonates well beyond the screen. Pocahontis is an exciting and curious and tragic figure and this film gives the legendary icon perhaps more respect than any other pop culture incarnation has. Strongly recommend.

Two men from 1991 (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Lukaszewicz) are supposed to be put into hibernation for three years as a test, but wars lead them not being awoken until 2044. The Polish sci-fi comedy Sexmission (1984),  directed by Juliusz Machulski, depicts a not-too-distant future where men are extinct and asexually producing women have taken over a technologically advanced subterranean colony. While the premise might seem like a childish slam against feminism (in part, it may be) it is in fact a more fascinating critique on Soviet rule. The fantastic set work and fun costumes look great and the story is legitimately interesting as straight science fiction. The social satire on the politics of Poland at that time keep it from feeling like just another high-concept comedy. This one was a fun find.

If you are not already a fan of Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) then this may not be the best place to start, but I really liked The Forbidden Room (2015) (co-directed and co-written by Evan Johnson). Like all Maddin movies, it looks like it’s about 100 years old and operates on a surreal sense of wacky logic. Stories within stories unfold in an elliptical and episodic manner making it difficult to find your grounding. One minute we’re in a submarine quickly losing oxygen and the next we are in a night club singing about a strange doctor’s obsession with butts. If you have the right sense of humor and don’t mind feeling occasionally lost then I definitely recommend this one. It’s unique, to be sure.

Francis Veber adapted his own play for film in the French comedy The Dinner Game (1998). Mr. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who enjoys the pastimes of the wealthy: in this case, finding the most oblivious dolts to take to a weekly dinner to showcase their oafishness and have a good laugh at the expense of these lowly peons. Although he believes he has found an idiotic champion in François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), Brochant has injured his back golfing and cannot go to the dinner. But getting rid of Pignon is more difficult than originally anticipated, especially once Brochant learns his wife is leaving him. Over the course of the evening, the good-intentioned Pignon creates, dissipates, and escalates innumerable predicaments and causes some needed reflection to be done on the part of his heartless host. Once the film gets going it is on a roll. The Dinner Game is an immensely pleasing comedy that took me by surprise.

The Peak:

Color me freaked out by Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch (2015). A family in the 1630s builds a homestead on the edge of a forest. The forest happens to contain a witch. Hence the title. What makes this such a good horror film is the raging sense of dread and discomfort you feel as the horrible events unfold. It’s a deeply unsettling slow-burn that haunts your soul rather than your basic jump-scare torture-porn splatter-fest. With the presence of the witch, the family dynamic is strained and the overwhelming paranoia and creeping sense that evil is getting closer all pay off chillingly. It made me uncomfortable and I think that’s what good horror is meant to do. Stellar acting (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw) and sumptuous cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) brings this minimalist period piece to terrifying life. Watch out for goats.

I’ve been coming around to zombie films. I still don’t like zombie storylines that play it all too straight. I still like a little bit of satire or whimsy in my undead carnage. Maybe I’m giving away too much by using the word “zombie” here. Pontypool (2008) (directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess) is a brilliant lo-fi horror thriller with enough cleverness and mounting unease to keep you glued to the screen despite the lack of onscreen action. Self-contained in a church basement broadcasting local radio, grouchy disc jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and the show’s producer (played by McHattie’s wife, Lisa Houle) gradually learn of a mysterious outbreak. The viewer watches the skepticism vanish and the horror set in on the faces of our insulated leads. How they learn about the virus, what the virus is, how it is spread, and how to counteract it are all part of what makes Pontypool unique and wonderful. Go watch it.

And finally, if only because any chance to mention animator Don Hertzfeldt should be seized, I submit a cheat. World of Tomorrow (2015) is a short film, but it was so good it must take the top slot. Hertzfeldt has impressed us all before with his uncanny ability to marry crude simplistic illustrations (Rejected) with immense richness of thought and personal creativity, combining bleak and absurd humor with existential postulation (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) in ways few filmmakers are capable of doing. World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily. Toddler Emily (Winona Mae) is visited by her adult self from the future (Julia Pott)—or rather, what is the latest in a series of genetically cloned copies of herself in the future’s attempts at attaining immortality. Adult Emily has summoned the girl to find a memory, but the implications of little Emily’s future, while death is technically staved off for the moment, is not a cheerful one. It is a cold, clinical, and lonely future full of more questions than answers and riddled with many of the same social inequalities of toddler Emily’s time—albeit manifested in uniquely horrifying ways. This short explores the nature of self, the nature of life, the nature of death, and the nature of progress. World of Tomorrow is overflowing with brilliant ideas treated as nonessential throwaway gags and, in addition to being exceedingly clever, is also wonderfully funny. I highly recommend this one.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVII – Wrapping Up 2015

 As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.
Although, it must be said, I did not dislike any of the films this time. Even the lowest ones on the list might be worth checking out and I’m glad I watched them.
Meh/Misguided:

“What was that? You backwards troglodyte, you. Have some wine.”

The Last Supper (1995), directed by Stacey Title, has a good premise, but quickly proves it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. A group of pretentious college liberals decide to poison conservative idiots over dinner and bury them in the backyard. It’s quirky. It’s dark. But it’s a little too smug for its own good. It presents simplistic caricatures of right wing beliefs (some of which are genuinely held by a frightening portion of the population, but they are played so ham-fistedly it fails to register as meaningful) and pretty much zero attempt at presenting a left wing perspective (apart from murderous hatred toward their ideological adversaries). Bill Paxton (Twister) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) make memorable appearances, but it is probably Courtney B. Vance (The Hunt for Red October) who steals most of the show with his cold, calculating performance as the group’s ringleader. Also stars Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels).

Not exactly Don Bluth.

What do you get if you cross The Secret of NIMH (1982) with Watership Down (1978) and try to tell a gritty noir with cats? You get the bizarre German cartoon Felidae (1994). While I don’t count this as a good film, I can give it some points for trying something offbeat and I did want to know where the story was going. My beef: you can be an adult animation without being so forced and unnatural about it. The unintentionally awkward cursing and gory violence is so over the top at times that it feels more like South Park than Chinatown. The serial murder mystery itself is a bit of a letdown and our protagonist, Francis, is so feckless and flat that it barely registers when he’s fleeing danger or having casual sex with feral felines. It doesn’t work, but as a curiosity, it’s not a total waste of time and the animation isn’t bad.

Stop it and make “Hellboy 3.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) looks gorgeous and was eagerly anticipated by me, but something was missing. In its earnest attempt to pay homage to classic haunted house films like The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents (1961), it just comes off as a bad aping of those superior films. I was also reminded of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and the wild color palette was reminiscent of the exaggerated Italian horror flicks of Mario Bava (Black Sabbath) and Dario Argento (Suspiria). Hearkening back to such classic ghost-mansion cinema can be a good thing…as long as it improves upon or diverts from them in some innovative way. I still love del Toro and I love the sumptuousness of the costumes and sets and the dense atmosphere, but a romantic horror tale that lacks both decent romance and horror counts as a bit of a misfire for me. Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and The Devil’s Backbone are all marvelous examples of the slowburn terrors that lurk in the Mexican auteur’s wheelhouse. Maybe my problem is I watch so many films that they have to work extra hard to titillate me.
Interestinger:

As a kid I remember reading in an old Guinness Book about Hoffman portraying the widest age range ever in this film. I wonder if anybody has it beat yet.

Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directed the strange revisionist western Little Big Man (1970) starring Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man). The film—told in flashback—may be one of the earlier examples of cinema being sympathetic to the Native Americans, portraying them as victims of a truly horrific genocide and the white Americans as the evil, arrogant savages stealing lands without mercy or feeling. It’s quite episodic and perhaps a little too cartoonish for the seriousness of the subject matter, but it’s odd quirkiness makes it at least a watchably uneven history lesson. I enjoyed Hoffman and Faye Dunaway (Network), but ultimately the portrayals of the Native tribes and the American generals were so comic-booky and naive, it took away from what could have been a very impactful film.

“I need you to scream directly into my soul.”

Toby Jones (The Mist) stars as an English sound engineer working on Italian horror flicks in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It’s a slow, seemingly plotless movie that lingers on one timid sound man’s gradual descent into a subtle madness. It takes its time and you may want it to do more or go deeper, but I was engaged enough with the character that I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going…or if it would go anywhere at all.

“I do Wes Anderson and movies like this now. Murray Christmas, folks.”

Gosh, is it that time in Bill Murray’s career already? I love Bill Murray and nearly all Bill Murray movies and, while I can’t say the same for Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent (2014), I won’t say it’s not passably amusing. Murray plays a crotchety old war vet who reluctantly befriends a precocious young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in this schmaltzy dramedy that seems intent on hitting many of the predictable indie beats. Despite it’s familiar formula and a few questionable accents (my brain knows Murray too well to accept the NYC brogue he dons), the charm of the cast (including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) makes you forgive a multitude of contrivances.

Where Are We Now?:

Dumb luck.

In the spirit of Forrest Gump (heck, Little Big Man too), a lovable but somewhat simple old man recounts his wild history-romping life with peaceful detachment in Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). Allen Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) decides to escape the nursing home and embarks on a lackadaisical adventure  full of stolen money, gangsters, car chases, new friends, and at least one elephant. Throughout the modern day shenanigans, Allen tells of his life as a haphazardly globe-trotting self-taught demolitions expert devoid of political affiliations (he’s on every side of history from revolutionaries to Franco to Stalin to Truman). It’s a light-hearted comedy with a refreshingly pensive pulse.

You know Francis Ford Coppola, right? His daughter directed “A Very Murray Christmas” on Netflix. …and yeah, he did “The Godfather.”

Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) directs Gene Hackman (The French Connection) as a surveillance expert whose own past and the potential futures of those he spies upon addle him in The Conversation (1974). This is one of those gritty 70s movies your film professor talked about and I’m only just now getting to it. It’s a gradual descent into paranoia and ethical dilemmas. Also features John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon).

Prepare to be alienated.

Gregg Turkington stars as a burnt-out comedian (in the spirit of his Neil Hamburger character) hitting gig after depressing gig in the Mojave desert in Rick Alverson’s Entertainment (2015). The characters are unpleasant and dim and thoroughly exhausted. The film itself feels Lynchian in its elliptical oddness. The weird insights we get into these unlikable people and their circumstances speaks more to our own human interactions than our demand to be entertained by a clown.

Getting Higher:

Yes, one of his friends is Zero from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age tale of three high school kids from Inglewood who wind up with a bag full of unwanted drugs is a colorful breeze. Dope (2015) hits a lot of familiar genre marks, but, like St. Vincent, gets by on its style, wit, and charisma of its lead (played by Shameik Moore). It may not be the most original story, but its attitude covers a lot.

The main villain is a lactose-intolerant transvestite obsessed with increasing his social status by way of genocide. We haven’t seen that before.

Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) were marvelous stop-motion fantasies with edge and flair to spare. Laika Studios’ The Boxtrolls (2014) is another cinematic gift brimming with imagination and style. A young boy, raised by the hunted subterranean creatures, must rediscover who he is and unite the warring civilizations. An amazing voice cast (Sir Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and more) and spectacularly realized hand-crafted visuals make this family adventure a memorable treat.

The kid is annoying in this movie…but I think that’s part of the point.

 “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook (2014)”, an Australian horror flick directed by Jennifer Kent. When a strange picture book appears on her son’s shelf, a widowed mother (Essie Davis) unwittingly unleashes a most unnerving evil presence that latches onto them. What follows is a gripping examination of the negative powers of grief and loss. The Babadook is far more insidious than a mere supernatural monster. And that is one of the reasons this chiller lingers in the memory.
Visions:

I know. I know. I’m late to the game. I still think I love “Bronson” more.

I finally watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) stars as a stoic mechanic and getaway driver who becomes increasingly entangled with criminals after he helps out his next door neighbor (Carey Mulligan). Like all Refn work, it’s languid and stylish and brooding and violent and absolutely hypnotic. Also stars Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Christina Hendricks.

Get a good look. This is what socialism looks like.

 Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) is a masterful example of heist cinema. It has all the ingredients that would eventually become the staple of the genre and, for an early outing, it hits the marks extremely well. The setup and ensuing heist is fantastic, but as things turn sour in the aftermath of the crime, blood is let and it all culminates into a magnificent, heart-pounding final act.

Why don’t we dress like this?

For people who like the 80s and like awkward indie flicks and like hilariously over-the-top gore, Turbo Kid (2015), directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, is a blast and a half. In a post-apocalyptic 1997, Mad Max-ian marauders on bicycles rule the wastelands. Where Kung Fury (2015) ran out of steam minutes into its short runtime, Turbo Kid maintains a straight face and continues to present absurd visions of violence, wild characters, and wacky dialogue delivered in earnest with unyielding confidece. It looks great and the cast does a fine job with the bonkers material. Laurence Laboeuf in particular shines as the unflappably weird Apple.

“Fan Service: The Motion Picture”

I took the Kool-aid. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a great big-budget science-fantasy speeder chase down Nostalgia Lane. There’s plenty stupid to the plot, but the cast shines (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Harrison Ford) and the special effects scintillate. It’s amazing how much more immersive and tangible models, puppets, animatronics, real locations, and constructed sets are. And humor. And engaging characters. And emotional depth. And recognizable stakes clearly established in each lightsaber and spaceship altercation. While it’s an extremely busy story and it does retread a lot of the original film’s plot points, it also just feels good to be back in the Star Wars universe. This is the movie fans have been waiting for since 1983.

The Final Crest:

Maybe don’t bring the kids to this one.

Folks who love fairy tales that don’t shy away from the darkness will undoubtedly enjoy the sumptuous Tale of Tales (2015), directed by Matteo Garrone. A series of haunting medieval yarns overlap in this anthology of old Italian fables by Giambattista Basile. Stylish and sexy but also savage and grotesque, it’s an uncompromisingly adult trek through fairy tale kingdoms that comes highly recommended. Features Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, and Vincent Cassel. Weird and beautiful.

“Nobody respects Santa Claus anymore.”

It may be hard to explain why I liked Miguel Llansó Crumbs (2015) so much. In a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia, a hunchbacked scavenger named Candy (Daniel Tadesse) embarks on a private adventure to request Santa Claus (Tsegaye Abegaz) to allow him to reclaim his Kryptonian throne and board a perpetually hovering spaceship with his woman. It’s slow and surreal and might best be described as Turbo Kid as imagined by Werner Herzog. It may not be for everyone, but it has enough innovative and clever details to entertain an odd person like me.

“I killed Mufasa. His vagina was all wrong.”

For some reason, this weird film has not left me. David Cronenberg (Videodrome) directs Jeremy Irons (Lolita) as a pair of identical twin gynecologists in this enigmatic thriller, Dead Ringers (1988). When they split sexual duties with a famous client (Geneviève Bujold) it opens up the doors of insecurity in both of them. When she discovers the trick they’ve been playing on her and ends it, the brothers begin a spiraling journey into obsession, addiction, and a longing to understand the nature of their individual identities. It’s a disturbing slow-burn, but worth it if you get Cronenberg and you want to see one of Irons’ best performances.

Whatever. Any recommendations for me?

The Nitty Gritty Mitty Committee

I know. I know.

I know. I know.

So what’s with this trailer for the new movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)? I feel like more people need to see this. The trailer. I have no idea if the movie’s any good. All we know is it’s been in development for a long time. Folks like Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey and Sacha Baron Coen and Johnny Depp were originally attached. Now all has changed again.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig star in the story of a pencil pushing daydreamer who escapes from reality with his fanciful imagination where he’s always the hero who gets the girl. The imdb synopsis hints that there is a real life adventure in the mix too as he races around the world to save his job and the job of the woman he loves.

Taste the indie.

Taste the indie.

All of this is immaterial. The trailer is what I’m talking about. Silent, artfully photographed, ambiguous—leaving much of the plot a vague mystery—and set to the soulful tune of “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men. Seriously, the song is awesome and mournful and magical. It is a bit of an indie-gasm, but it’s sweet and pensive and it dominates the atmosphere of the entire taciturn trailer. My point is, it seems like a weird choice.

It’s a ballsy move. I’m glad they did it. I just can’t help but wonder if the film itself will have a remotely comparable tone to that of the song. It reminded me of the trailer for ParaNorman (2012) that featured no dialogue or plot explanations and instead just showed silent images from the film while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays. To me, it was bold and one of the most memorable trailers of recent memory. Is Mitty pulling a similar stunt?

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa...

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

I’m actually a big fan of the 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Danny Kaye. The Court Jester (1955) is funnier, but there’s a weird surreal energy to Walter Mitty that I actually appreciate more. Mitty meets the girl who haunts his dreams and gets mixed up in a murder plot involving hidden WWII treasure and a group of killers (including Boris Karloff) led by a mysterious man named “The Boot.” In this film, Mitty’s phobias and fantasies are used against him as his foes, in an effort to hide their crimes he has witnessed, manipulate him into thinking he’s really suffering from a mental breakdown. Soon Mitty questions what is real and must weigh having a normal life with a boring wife and terrible mother-in-law or waking up to the real fantasy and save the day for the girl of his dreams. It’s actually a great little movie and most of the dream sequences are charming and brilliantly plugged into the main action. Kaye gives a fine performance as well.

Since James Thurber’s original 1939 short story focuses on the character and leaves out any complicated plot, any film adaptation is free to go in almost any direction as long as Mitty is a timid milquetoast daydreamer who imagines he can be more important than he really is. Thurber apparently hated the 1947 version.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) has even been labeled a stretched adaptation of Thurber’s short story. The protagonist (Jonathan Pryce) is a socially impotent bureaucrat who goes on wild flights of fantasy to escape his stifling reality. He also meets the girl of his dreams and gets mixed up in a bigger narrative, like the Danny Kaye movie. Gilliam’s film is decidedly darker and more warped, but the basic structure is there.

All this makes the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel like it would have been more in the vein of A Night at the Museum or some crap rather than the moody and brooding Where the Wild Things Are. When I heard Hollywood was remaking it, that’s what I assumed anyway. Then I saw this weird trailer. This trailer would definitely turn off movie-goers looking for simple, broad comedy and by-the-numbers guy-gets-girl plot. Is it a gag or bad miscalculated marketing?

Where does this road lie.

Where does this road lie?

Then I saw that Ben Stiller was directing the movie too. Even the ‘dumb’ comedies he directed are smart. Consider the sharpness and satirical edges of The Cable GuyZoolander, or Tropic Thunder. Maybe this will be a more interesting film after all. The screenwriter, Steve Conrad, is also known for more nuanced than broad comedy (The Weather ManThe Promotion. . . Pursuit of Happyness isn’t a comedy, but he wrote that script too).

I’m not sure what to think anymore. All I know is this: that gutsy trailer with the fantastic—if perhaps ill-placed—song has actually got me interested. If I never hear another word of dialogue from the movie I’ll probably see it.

Sean Penn?!

Sean Penn?!

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle Sept. 14th, 2013.

How to Frame a Cartoon Rabbit

We'll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

We’ll miss you, Bob Hoskins. (1942-2014)

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Roger ruins another take. The physics of how one would actually film cartoon mayhem is an astounding mystery.

Does anybody remember back to a time when Robert Zemeckis was making fun movies? Forget his most recent motion-capture fixation (Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol never happened). Now there is only the Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Feels better, don’t it?

Yes, I know. Back to the Future is amazing and Forrest Gump (1994), Death Becomes Her (1992), and Romancing the Stone (1984) were pretty fun, but Roger Rabbit always had a special place in my heart. It was a dark night in some distant relative’s house and I was maybe two or three years old. I was proffered two VHS tapes and was told I could pick the movie. I picked Roger Rabbit because of the funny cartoon on the cover. The other tape was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

Charles Fleischer voices Roger Rabbit, 2 weasels, and Benny the cab.

The film gave me nightmares for years. Something about the dark and subtly subversive tone and the real life consequences for cartoon hijinks and the “dip” and then the dude getting run over by the steamroller and his eyes bugging out. It was a frightening experience, but I still loved it (much like my memories of The Neverending Story). Today I appreciate it for its clever mix of film noir, cartoon tempo, and snippets of Los Angeles history. Then there’s the special effects. It’s actually amazing how well this movie holds up after over two decades.

Brought to you by "Yummy Cigs." So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Brought to you by “Yummy Cigs.” So tasty, even a baby enjoys a puff.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is based on a novel by Gary K. Wolfe which was an innovative combo-tribute to Dashiell Hammett  and the funny pages. The book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, is almost nothing like the film. The plot is barely comparable and most of the characters are either totally different or nonexistent. The book is a lot of fun though. It reads like a tough, gritty pulp novella with the added whimsy of some creative cartoon mayhem. It’s kind of like if Robert Clampbett rewrote Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (instead of a hard-boiled detective with a prejudice against robots and stuck with one for an important case, it is cartoon characters he holds in contempt). Read the book, but don’t expect to find the movie in it. The film does, however, keep the spirit and feel of the book.

"Work's been kinda slow since cartoons went to color." Saddest line of the movie.

“Work’s been kinda slow since cartoons went to color.” Saddest line of the movie.

The plot of the movie was fairly straightforward. A washed-up detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who used to specialize in ‘toon cases before his brother was killed by a ‘toon, scrounges for work in 1947 Hollywood as a private dick. He is hired by cartoon studio executive R. K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) to spy on his star Roger Rabbit’s (voiced by Charles Fleischer) curvaceous wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). Valiant catches Jessica Rabbit having an extramarital affair—in the form of a clandestine game of patty-cake, but this is serious business for ‘toons—with an eccentric human, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the Gag King. Right after Roger Rabbit is shown the patty-cake pictures he has a tantrum and bolts out of the room, leaving a cute little Roger Rabbit shaped hole in the window. The next morning Marvin Acme turns up murdered (a safe dropped on his head) and Roger is the prime suspect, but when the rabbit shows up at Valiant’s apartment he pleads with the prejudiced flatfoot to take his case and clear his name before the sinister Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchman put him to death with the dip (the only way to kill a ‘toon). The rest of the movie follows Valiant uncovering more clues and trying to keep Roger Rabbit out of trouble while also trying to get back with his former girlfriend, Dolores (Joanna Cassidy), and stay a step ahead of Judge Doom and the weasels.

Great Scott.

Great Scott.

The grisly plot of greed, sex, and murder—displayed in a fashion meant to evoke Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, I think—is interesting enough, but the film has more tricks plugged into it. The film’s plot interestingly involves the semi-fictional origins of the real Cloverleaf freeway systems and the death of Southern California’s Red Car trolley line. Another element is the idea of cartoon characters being struggling actors and an oppressed minority in old Hollywood. There’s some serious history and allegory floating in the ether.

It's not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

It’s not all raindrops and marshmallows in the tooniverse.

One of the things that really helps the film’s reality is the inclusion of cartoon characters from several different studios. Disney, Warner Brothers (Mel Blanc reprising most of his roles), MGM, Max Fleischer, and other animation companies all get in on the act. Betty Boop recalls the glory days before cartoons went to color; Donald and Daffy Duck perform a vaudeville piano act together; Droopy Dog operates a Toon Town elevator; the penguins from Mary Poppins apparently are still waiting tables at the Ink and Paint Club; Dumbo and the brooms from Fantasia are on loan and wander around Maroon Cartoon studios backlot; Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny go parachuting together; Porky Pig and Tinkerbell playfully fight for the last word; the cast of 1932′s Flowers and Trees make appearances, and the cartoon cameos are stacked so high in some scenes its impossible to restrain a cartoon buff’s wide-eyed delight.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

Sorry, no Hanna-Barbera.

The story has a pleasant film noir type arc. The more Eddie Valiant uncovers the darker the situation becomes. At one point Valiant has to chase a fleeing suspect deep into the chaotic bowels of Toon Town and conquer his fears and face truly hilarious and crazy obstacles. Most of the humor comes from comic irony and the unbalanced laws that govern the ‘toon world and how they conflict with the physics of the human world. It all culminates in a very satisfying conclusion with an ultimate showdown between Valiant and the forces of evil. Very dark, very suspenseful, very funny, very innovative, and very visually pleasing.

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Dennis Hopper? Is that you?

Alan Sylvestri’s score combines zany animated antics with sexy 1940s noir bite. The animation is absolutely superb. Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Hook) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) are great to watch and necessarily play their parts totally straight—which is why the cartoon comedy works so well. The period setting not only gets to show off classic cars and old timey wardrobe, but it also casts a thick shadow of history over the fantasy. It feels almost like Middle-earth. This could have been a time that really existed. Maybe our grandparents remember cartoon character walking around the neighborhood. As a kid I believed it, which maybe made the film even darker. What happened to to all the cartoons today?

"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Zemeckis’s Back to the Future gets a lot of credit for its fun use of comedy, suspense, and time-travel paradoxes (and it’s a great series, true enough), but with my cartoon bent and fondness for old Hollywood and detective stories I can’t help but be slightly biased toward Roger Rabbit. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is remembered as an enormous critical and box office success and for its incredible mixture of live-action and animated characters. Indeed, Roger Rabbit has never been equaled in this category. The integration is seamless and constantly surprising and impressive.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Toontown is like an LSD fever-dream.

Anchors Aweigh (1945), Mary Poppins (1964), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete’s Dragon (1977), and other features made some great efforts at combining the real world with the cartoon world before Roger Rabbit. And Cool World (1992), Space Jam (1996), The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), etc. all attempted after it. None come close to the complexity behind Roger Rabbit. Real chairs move, real shirts are ruffled, real dust is displaced, real glasses are drunk from, real guns and props are carried and manipulated, and real floors feel the weight of cartoon characters. Real people drive animated automobiles, fire cartoon pistols, and are thrown around by cartoon foes. The combination is always pleasing (and a major part of where a lot of the humor comes from). The camera does things never before dreamed of in a film like this. The animation was supervised and directed by the great Richard Williams (of whom I have previously written about in Off The Cobbled Path).

I always really liked the weasel designs.

I always really liked the weasel designs.

The DVD extras feature documentaries on how many of the complex special effects were achieved, and all without the use of computers! Another nice feature on the DVD is the inclusion of all three Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman shorts, Tummy Trouble, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and Trail Mix-Up (originally played before Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dick Tracy, and A Far Off Place respectively). Decades later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still holds up and stands out. It’s a pleasantly frenetic roller coaster ride through the wild life of cartoon characters and the classic era of Hollywood and it’s a fun detective thriller to boot. There is so much to love and admire about this film. I wish Robert Zemeckis would make another movie like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Rumors of a Roger Rabbit sequel have been thrown around for the past several years. I honestly hope they leave it alone because I doubt they’d be able to capture the magic of the original.

Also, please don’t remake Back to the Future.

"I've sold meself for a couple of dykes." (Mona Lisa)

“I’ve sold meself for a couple of dykes.” (Mona Lisa)

That’s all, folks!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 29, 2010

Baseball — Black by Popular Demand

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and we celebrate it by continually producing movies that highlight its mythic status. From Pride of the Yankees (1942) to Field of Dreams (1989) baseball movies prove that there is indeed an intimate history between the sport and this country and a certain legendary-ness to a group of guys hitting balls with bats and racing around a huge diamond.

Sadly, baseball, like most other activities at some point in United States history, was also a segregated spectacle. So what is the best way (cinematically) to deal with this divided time in sports history? Why, with comedy, of course!

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What do you get when you put Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor on a baseball team in 1930s America? The answer: Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976). I haven’t seen a title like that since Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965).

Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, The Empire Strikes Back) stars as Bingo Long, an enterprising, good-hearted ball player stuck in the segregated Negro Leagues under the oppressive thumb of greedy team owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross). Sick of himself and the team being underpaid and treated poorly, Bingo starts to hatch a plan to start his own barnstorming independent team of all-star African American players. James Earl Jones (Coming to America, The Hunt for Red October) is the power hitting Leon Carter, Bingo’s stoic ally and partner when they hit the road. They assemble a team of great athletes who are sick of their crappy team owners. One of the players they manage to pick up is Charlie Snow aka “Carlos Nevada” aka “Chief Takahoma”, played by comedian Richard Pryor (Silver Streak, Superman III). Other players can outrun speeding baseballs and hit home-run after home-run. The film also makes several allusions to athletes like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and others with its fictional lineup.

This being the first directorial outing by John Badham (Short Circuit, Stakeout), the film needed a strong cast. And the cast is great. Williams is as charismatic and sharp as ever, Jones delivers a strong performance (as if he could deliver anything but), and Pryor is funny as the guy trying to get into the white leagues by passing himself off as Cuban (a hilarious insight and statement in itself). The ensemble baseball team of entrepreneurs is very talented and fun to watch. Stan Shaw and Tony Burton and all the rest are well cast. Ted Ross is also fine as the mean, cigar-chomping, hearse-driving Sallison Potter and Mabel King is great as team owner “big” Bertha Dewitt.

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Once the All-Stars successfully cut themselves off from their former owners they drive from town to town dancing down main street to advertise their arrival in the hopes of playing the local teams and getting paid. This goes well and everyone on the field and in the stands is having a great time, but then Sallison Potter hears of their success and will not have it. Potter starts paying people off so no one in the Negro Leagues will play them. He also has his thugs rob and terrorize Bingo’s team members. Running out of options, and low on dough, Bingo and Leon decide the only thing left to do is to play the white baseball teams.

The problem is that the good, white, Southern folk who fill the stands on hot summer days in the 1930s are not too thrilled to see black athletes screw around on the field. At first the All-Stars find themselves getting ugly stares and even boos when they make a good play. Then Bingo realizes what the white games are missing: some informality. In the Negro Leagues they would laugh and joke and have fun with the opposing team. The small-time white baseball players are too stiff and uncomfortable with their opponents so Bingo starts to lighten everybody up by adding a healthy dose of clowning to the white diamonds. It is not enough to be as good or even better than the white teams, the All-Stars have to make a show of it. One does not simply catch a fly ball. One piggybacks up on a taller player to catch it or slides between someone’s legs to catch it. They prove their athletic prowess as well as good spirits and sense of humor and soon the conservative folks up in the stands are having as much fun as the All-Stars.

3-monstrum-playgrounds

After several games, Potter’s tampering goes too far. They lose all their money, lose one of their cars (full of equipment), lose several team members, and have to pick potatoes to earn cash. Bingo tries to keep everyone together, but perhaps his ideals are just too big and unrealistic for anyone else to see. With nothing left to lose, Bingo challenges Potter to a game: his team vs. Potter’s. If the All-Stars win they retain their independence, but if Potter wins everyone goes back to their own teams. With everything riding on this one big game and Leon Carter nowhere to be found the stakes are high…but if you’re a regular filmgoer than you already know that somehow things will work out for the best.

I like the old cars and charismatic performances. I like how it interacts with history and how they recreate the look and feel of the old south. I like the energy and humor and fun it looks like everyone is having. Add all this to the fact that the story is pretty good and that makes for a pretty entertaining and lovable movie that unfortunately seems to get overlooked these days. If you like sports movies and think you’ve seen them all then check this one out.

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Top 10 Reasons to See Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings

1. Just look at that title. Marvelous. Ooh! And an ampersand too!

2. See a young, svelte, bat-swinging James Earl Jones—pre-Vader voice.

3. Oh, so you like period baseball flicks like A League of Their Own and The Natural too? Watch this one.

4. It’s a refreshingly unpretentious outing to the ballpark. I love Field of Dreams, but movies like Bingo Long and the original Bad News Bears aren’t nearly as full of themselves.

5. Car chases, shootouts, sucker punches, dwarfs, amputees, classic cars, and great baseball plays. (Sorry, I guess the dwarfs and amputees thing is just the Jodorowsky fan in me talking).

6. Mabel King keeps her large ridiculous hats on even in a sauna.

7. Richard Pryor pretending to be Cuban…and Navajo. 3

8. Although it’s a bit screwball, it is still grounded in its historical setting and has a genuine affection for the game.

9. It’s such an American movie! Baseball, overcoming the odds, AND entrepreneurship?!

10. Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones talking to each other. Seriously. Two of the best and most recognizable voices in conversation? Hurry, the credits are coming. Give them something else to read!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 21, 2011

Where East is Wes

Wes Anderson. There. I said it. Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Some people hate this guy. Others love him seemingly to a fault. I’m a fan. Not rabid, mind you, but I do think he is a pretty solid and unique filmmaker. Are his films smug? Maybe. But maybe some people just do smug better than others. Sir Ian Richardson is like the beast of smugness in House of Cards and it’s awesome.

The setting is a northeastern forest island notorious for occasional rough rain squalls. The year: 1965.

When young, outcast orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman), runs away from the Khaki Scouts the troops assemble under the distraught supervision of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club). Their mission: bring Sam back alive. The island police officer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) is informed and the manhunt is on. What the characters do not know is that Sam is headed for a pre-planned secret rendezvous with his beloved pen-pal, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam had fallen in love with Suzy a year ago at a Noah’s Ark play and they have been corresponding via secret love letters right underneath the noses of the meddling adults in their life. Sam has no family and Suzy hates her painfully distant family. Both are classified as emotionally disturbed. When Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, and Frances McDormand, Fargo) realize she is gone they call the police and the intimate letters are discovered, but the hunt is now more complicated—the runaways do not want to be found.

Before we reach a rousing conclusion the film takes a borderline Blue Lagoon turn, but handles it far more delicately and with the added human touch of comedy. We also watch as the Khaki Scouts reconsider their role in this adventure; Social Services (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) threatens to send Sam to a Dickensian orphanage; the Khaki Scout Commander (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) forgets his medicine; Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) gets paid in nickels; and our omniscient and typically dry narrator (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps reminding us of a rapidly approaching violent weather system. The abstract inclusion of an all-knowing narrator who has no interest or stake in the protagonists and instead is totally preoccupied with the trivialities of the elements is a particularly humorous touch.

The lovers prove their unflappable resilience through many a harrowing obstacle. In spite of all the grownup forces coming down on them, they maintain and fight to stay together through thick and thin. The irony is that their simple and immature relationship proves more hardy and meaningful than any of the snuffed romances of the adults in this universe. It’s pretty adorable.

The film is full of softness. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Anderson’s movies. They have a gentle, calculated current flowing through them. There’s also a charming innocence, best manifested in the story of Sam and Suzy running away to live off the land. It’s cute, quirky, and always a pleasure to look at. I’d say the filmmaker that reminds me most of Wes Anderson might actually be the legendary Jacques Tati. Tati had a brilliant knack for clever shot setups, stillness, suspended moments of comedy trapped in time, and softness. Anderson has a similar style (but quite different as well) and he seems to love showing us something that we will never confuse with real life. It’s a movie, so let us delight in what we can do that we cannot have in real life. His worlds are sort of like living cartoon panels. Perhaps why Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a seamless transition into the world of animation.

Moonrise Kingdom might be more of the same, but it also might be something a little different. It’s got the typical dollhouse cross-section layouts and quirky, unnatural mise-en-scène. Then there’s the pleasingly otherworldly color schemes and ornate clothing and details. There’s also deadpan emotional stand-offishness and quiet, amusing line delivery. All the standard Wes Anderson flair is there. It seems to be his first real romantic comedy (the other films have romantic elements and kooky love triangles but it’s rarely the central focus) and it’s also his first movie about camping. I have to mention this because the camp thing (not campy, but actual camp) it sort of is its own genre. There’s stuff like Bushwhacked (1995), Heavyweights (1995), Camp Nowhere (1994), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Meatballs (1979), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) to name a few (notice not the horror flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp). I daresay, though this list may be on the weak side, some folks still have nostalgic reactions to them. Do we count Space Camp (1986)? All this to say that Moonrise Kingdom is probably the best camp movie. Ever. The romance bit is of note because it is one of the more inventive love plots to come around in a long time. Ignoring that it’s a Wes Anderson movie, it’s a standout camp movie and a standout romantic comedy.

All in all I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom. If you like Wes Anderson already then there won’t be a problem. It feels totally refreshingly un-Hollywood (despite the impressive cast) yet unmistakably American. It’s richly textured and wonderfully shot and the music and song choices are great. If you don’t like Wes Anderson, I don’t know that this will convert you, but maybe it will. It might be his sweetest film yet. Possibly his best since The Royal Tenenbaums.

More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011