The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XV – Judgement Day

As always, listed from lowest to the highest (in my opinion).

Meh/Misguided:

Obligatory old Hollywood actors prove they still got it caper movie.

The Monuments Men (2014) had a great cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and a British guy) and a great premise (the true story of art historians sent into WWII to rescue stolen relics of incalculable value from Nazi destruction). Sadly, it’s a bit of snoozer. Some isolated character moments, but not enough to merit a second viewing. It all feels vaguely like watching shadow puppets of the dramatic beats of far better films. I really wanted to like this one. [Full disclosure: I did fall asleep at one point so maybe there’s 15 minutes towards the end that are amazing].

“What do you mean my character isn’t German in this movie?”

Tim Burton has done drama with the right amount of quirk in the past. He proved it with Ed Wood and Big Fish, but unfortunately Big Eyes (2014) falls flat. Despite the acting powers of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Amy Adams (Enchanted), this true story of a robbed artist (Margaret Keane) feels too weightless for the emotions to register and much of the comedy is awkward. Had it been more focused on being dramatic or more focused on being comedic it might have worked, but the whole spectacle bears the hollow echo, “Burton did this?”

“Geez. It’s been awhile since something funny happened. What if we put silly lights on our heads and pretended to be aliens?” “Dan, that’s the kind of thing that made ‘Nothing But Trouble’ suck.”

Director John Landis is responsible for some of the best loved comedies of the 80s (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, ¡Three Amigos!, Coming to America and then he killed those people making The Twilight Zone). Spies Like Us (1985) is not one of the more remembered ones. Built like a Hope-Crosby Road picture, SNL stars Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and Chevy Chase (Community) play two dimwit patsies used by the government as spy decoys.  In truth, the movie starts out somewhat promising, but somewhere between Pakistan and arming the Russian nuke the laughs start to disappear and the plot is not nearly clever enough to sustain the remaining onscreen shenanigans. It’s a watchable film, but not the most memorable and not consistently funny.

Getting Better:

“If we wink at the camera like we know it’s silly the audience will let us be as silly as we want and imagine they are clever, my dear boy.”

Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) likes things awesome and while I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) better than Kick-Ass, I ultimately wished I was watching an Edgar Wright or Guy Ritchie movie instead. It’s not bad by any means. I had fun while I was watching it and the cast was good (Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, and it was good to see Mark Strong be a good guy for once), but like all cartoons trying to be action movies the lack of grit can only be hidden beneath so many winks. It’s like a less edgy Men In Black acting out James Bond clichesand no aliens.

I want to watch this back to back with 1934’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” The unintentionally scary masks and costumes are fantastic.

The LSD-laced writings of Lewis Carroll have been adapted to the screen too many times to count. Sometimes with great success and innovation. Sometimes not so much. Norman Z. McLeod’s  Alice in Wonderland (1933) lands squarely in the middle. The most standout aspect of the production is the nightmare parade of facial prosthetics. Seriously, half the cast looks like the radiator girl from Eraserhead. It hits the story’s marks in a fairly traditional way and features a lot of big name actors of the day (woefully disfigured under pounds of cheek-enhancing makeup). Some of the casting is appropriate: Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees) is the White Knight and that makes sense but then Carey Grant (Philadelphia Story) as the Mock Turtle is just weird and doesn’t work. The movie is worth it for W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick) as Humpty Dumpty though.

“Admit it. You don’t care what we do as long as we look cool doing it,”

Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) orchestrates the rape of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with such period pizzazz that you forgive Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). The movie just loves being a movie and I enjoyed the action mayhem, period atmosphere, clinkety-plunkety score, and watching Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder) and Jude Law (Road to Perdition) exchange quips. I remember literally nothing about the plot, but I doubt if I ruminate too long on it my viewing experience would be improved.

Stranger Tides:

Bring the kids.

Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a surreal Czech arthouse piece tying together weird rodent vampires and pubescent menstruation. Visually it is very well done, but I couldn’t kid you it’s for everyone. It reminded me a lot of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. Sumptuously photographed, the film has a unique, sexually-charged fantasy atmosphere that captivates and confounds.

“Maybe if I open my eyes wider they won’t notice my huge Dumbo ears.”

Everyone knows Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but not as many people have seen George Melford’s Spanish language Drácula shot on the same sets as the Browning film and released in the same year (1931). It is pretty much shot-for-shot the American version HOWEVER it actually has more creative editing, more daring camera moves, and sexier wardrobe for its female leads. The downside? Carlos Villarias is a pretty hammy Dracula lacking the calculated menace of Lugosi’s interpretation and, for my money, Edward van Sloan is still a better Van Helsing than Eduardo Arozamena. It’s a fun experiment to watch them back to back and see what each movie did better than the other.

“Don’t look now, but you’re both white.”

Despite all us progressive liberal honkies feeling like we get it already with the white privilege and have nothing more to learn, the Jose Vargas’ MTV documentary White People (2015) still offers some insight into individuals in denial. And it is fascinating watching people learn. It’s worth checking out whether your eyes gloss over when someone starts talking about race issues in America or you’re already a social crusader.

My reaction to TV’s “Big Bang Theory.”

Everybody has seen the exploding head scene, but that’s hardly a spoiler for David Cronenberg’s (The Fly) Canadian science-fiction thriller Scanners (1981). A man suffering from the effects of what he will soon discover to be telepathy embarks on a journey to stop his evil twin. Michael Ironisde and Patrick McGoohan make up the more memorable additions to the cast. It’s a surreal dream with a couple gross out bits to keep you on the edge of your seat. Cronenberg scale: perhaps on par with Videodrome and a whole lot better than eXistenZ.

Warmer Climes:

Noir! Everybody noir!

Legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang (Metropolis) takes another stab at film noir after M with Ministry of Fear (1944). Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) is released from an asylum and gets immediately entangled in a Nazi web of espionage and baked goods. He makes friends with a woman played by Marjorie Reynolds (The Time of Their Lives) and tries to stay alive amidst air raids and assassins long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was so important about that cake. It does have an awkward comedy stinger in its epilogue (a lot of thrillers from this era do), but the first act alone makes it all worth it.

“Yeah. It’s sad.”

Pixar made another movie and, if we’re honest, they are held to a higher standard than most family animations. Inside Out (2015) follows a little girl and her internal emotions as they move to a new city. A simple premise, but the cleverness and visual inventiveness doesn’t let up. It’s cute and funny, but I think, perhaps more importantly, it might help young people process their feelings and understand themselves better. Who knows? Not every movie teaches us the value of emotions we are culturally taught to suppress. Would make a good (if emotionally taxing) double feature with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Before “Point Break” did the mask thing.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is a gritty crime drama following an aging gunrunner, played by Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear), who becomes an informant to avoid jail time. Setups, double crosses, bank jobs, and unapologetic 70s aesthetics play big roles in this movie. Also features Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) and Richard Jordan (The Hunt for Red October).

This poster is so much cooler than the film itself.

This next one I know full well to be a B-picture. I was not expecting much when I popped in East of Borneo (1931), incidentally also directed by Drácula‘s George Melford. The story is pulpy: a jilted lover runs away to the jungles and gets mixed up with a culty ruler so his estranged wife travels to the equator to track him down and aplogize. It’s pre-code so it has a bit more skin and violence than films made later in the 30s, but the bigger reason to watch it is for all the animal footage. Anacondas, tigers, monkeys, leopards, orangutans, and lots and lots of crocodiles (played by alligators). Rose Hobart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) stars in this steamy jungle melodrama that was never meant to be remembered.

Summit:

I’m strong through the finish ’cause I eats me spinach…

This one is a re-watch but it had been awhile and I had forgotten how good it was. The inimitable Jackie Chan stars in The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), the pseudo-sequel to Chan’s 1978 hit Drunken Master. Set in the early 20th century, the plot concerns the British trying to smuggle rare Chinese artifacts out of the country. Wong Fei Hung (Chan) has tricky relationship with his father and an even trickier one with alcohol—if he drinks he gets Popeye-like strength and becomes a master of the art of Drunken Boxing. But who cares about the plot? The action sequences are some of the best Jackie Chan has ever done (the fight in the restaurant and the final battle being highlights). Nobody punished his body for art as much as Chan and the end result is a glorious medley of comedy kung-fu violence. Bonus points for Hung’s kick-ass step-mom hilariously played by Anita Mui.

“This the new shipment of traitorous slags? Good work. SUPER MARIO BROS. NEVER HAPPENED!”

So I love kung-fu and Jackie Chan, but I also love British gangsters and Bob Hoskins and The Long Good Friday (1980), directed by John Mackenzie, is one of Hoskins’ shining acting moments. Hoskins is the lead as Harold, a gangster trying to close a deal when his men start getting murdered by rival gangs. Haunted by bombs and desperate to sniff out the traitor before it’s too late, Harold must come to terms with the vulnerable position his choices have placed him in. I may love Mona Lisa more, but the final scene of this is cinema gold and it lingered with me for days. Helen Mirren (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) co-stars.

Get used to the wacky car horn if you watch this one.

Dino Risi (Profumo di Donna) tells the story of an uptight student who gets roped along with a carefree lunatic on his holiday in Il Sorpasso (1962). Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z) is the student, Roberto, who has never really lived and Vittorio Gassman is the pushy woman-chaser, Bruno, who has perhaps lived too much. From Rome to the wide, open countryside Bruno escorts Roberto on a hedonistic journey full of surprises, foils, and memories. The friendship they develop and the wacky episodes they get mixed up in are great, but there is a darker undertone that makes it more than a sleight comedy. It’s a beautiful and funny film. It reminded me of Zorba the Greek too.

“I crush you!”

And finally. My favorite film of the bunch. F for Fake (1973) is a film essay about the nature of forgery, ownership, deceit, truth, and art from mastermind Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin). Everything Big Eyes tried to do but oh so much more. Welles stands in as our cherubic narrator, posing as a magician in a broad-brimmed hat. What begins as an examination of art forger Elmyr de Hory soon meanders into the realm of poetic pontification on authorship and artistic expression. You will hear lies and promises to be lied to. Take it all as “ecstatic truth” (as Werner Herzog would say). The film is fascinating and truly a unique viewing experience. I highly recommend it.

K is for Kooky

It’s no secret for those who know me. I like weird Czech animated stuff. Barta, Zeman, Svankmajer: these are my homeboys. Naturally when I stumbled across the trailer for Kooky (2010), a strange Czech puppet movie about a pink teddy bear lost in a forest full of magical tuberous beings I simply had to see it. Well, see it I did, and here is what I have to say about it.

Director Jan Sverák, who, it appears, usually makes straight live-action movies, is the man responsible for this whimsical adventure. It’s a simple enough story. A young asthmatic boy has to throw away his old sawdust-filled teddy bear, Kooky, because it is too raggedy. Once at the dump the little stuffed bear comes to life and tries to outrun the crusher tires and two warped bits of garbage who say it is against the law to leave. Now what immediately might remind someone of a bizarre mix of The Brave Little Toaster and Corduroy quickly morphs with some of the spirit elements from Princess Mononoke once Kooky enters the forest. The forest is filled with tiny, bent, dirty, and adorable woodland guardians and gods.

Kooky discovers an entire political system of cranky forest guardians and quickly grows fond of his rescuer, Captain Goddamn. I’m not kidding. That’s his name. He gets that name because he says “goddamn” all the time. That’s one thing that some American audiences might be a twinge surprised at. Yes, this is a kid’s film, but there’s an awful lot of swearing (mostly hells and damns but I believe I also heard a bastard or two). Captain Goddamn is an old, cantankerous root-looking creature who is the head guardian, but there’s an inept upstart who is trying to usurp Goddamn’s authority. To make matters worse the Captain is also losing his eyesight and when Kooky can’t seem to leave it makes him look soft.

The junk creatures come to the forest and try to arrest Kooky, but the Captain stands up for him (the forest denizens may not understand who or what Kooky is, but some know injustice when they see it). The Captain will help Kooky get home if Kooky can be his eyes for a little while—just until he can prove he’s still a good guardian to the fickle and flawed forest gods. Together they undertake a few adventures and learn to like each other despite their apparent faults.

During the woodland mayhem there are still things happening in the real world just to keep the suspense and make us question objective realities. The little boy is sick and in the hospital and experiences many sideways-house fever dreams (you’ll have to see it). Through all the cuteness and adventure there is a weird sense of the ominous murmuring throughout. This film has a few things to say about growing up and growing older and even a few things to say about death, but never in an unpleasant way. Even the ending is riddled with the heavy and the hopeful.

Playful and inventive story aside, the style of the movie is the real reason to watch it. Visually the film is impeccable. The innovative use of tiny marionettes and real locations make Kooky very unique. Kooky isn’t an all-puppet movie like The Dark Crystal or Meet the Feebles, as it is punctuated by a live-action subplot and the environments are kept extremely organic so there are several real animals. Kooky tastes like a walk through a moist forest. I swear you can almost taste this movie. It feels like being embraced by earth and roots. Insects and critters populate the corners of the screen and even scuttle across the characters’ puppet faces. It is a wise choice to keep the filming so real, textured, and earthy. If these characters are supposed to be guardians of the forest then the real flora and fauna of the forest should be able to help present their tale. Foxes, boars, birds, bugs, and squirrels all inhabit this magical place.

In addition to the great photography, clever puppetry, and earthy locations Kooky also, quite surprisingly, has some of the best car chases I’ve seen in awhile. I sat down to this adorable feast for the senses not expecting to be dazzled in this category. I was about as surprised as when I watched Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? Sure the cars are very small and made out of junk, but the filmmakers sure keep it exciting. Toy cars spew real fire and sparks as they race across the forest floor. To make things more playful it begins to snow whenever the spirits go too fast. This gimmick allows for fun scenery changes in mid-chase. And there are several chases, all with fairly high stakes.

I know I’m sort of predisposed to be attracted to this sort of entertainment, but it really was a lot of fun. Kooky is an unpretentious and intimate little movie. It was funny too and it definitely had a heart beating underneath those weather-worn seams. Kooky is a fun, imaginative ride loaded with impressive art and craftsmanship that the whole family can enjoy.

I watched it in a room full of adults and it struck me that we all had a good time with Kooky. If you’re looking for a different sort of movie experience and want to share in a little pink teddy bear’s adventures then check out this little Czech gem.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode One – the first episode

You know it’s a crime. You love movies and you have your opinions. This means anytime you don’t like something people get to call you a snob. Can we help it if we see a lot of movies? Well, probably, but who would want to?

What follows are the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Bad:

“We’re such positive role models for impressionable tween girls.”

It’s yet another sad day for vampire and werewolf movies everywhere. The film I thought the least of was Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011). For clarity’s sake I have been faithfully watching every Twilight film with Rifftrax (God bless you, MST3K guys, wherever you are). We get it, Stephanie Meyer. You don’t like sex or Native Americans. Much has already been said about the schmaltz factor and the potentially detrimental ideas it puts into susceptible preteen minds. These movies are about as entertaining as watching fake high school kids try to talk to each other. So this entry is nonstop laughably bad and ultimately not much happens, but it is the closest Twilight movie to actually feeling almost like it might want to be trying to consider being a horror movie, but it still doesn’t work. I really cannot find these movie’s appeal. But then, they are not made for me. I did almost like that one werewolf chick in it though. I like a strong jawline.

All of the other films on my list I actually did like on some level. So do not be alarmed if any film should be listed so close to Breaking Dawn.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“So this is what happens when you eat the yellow snow…”

I like Frank Zappa’s music and his whole persona. That being said, I found 200 Motels (1971) to be an endurance test. I definitely respect it’s surreality and hyperactive oddness, but there are times when the product was just a little too draining and sloppily assembled. Or maybe that was Zappa’s intent all along. If the theme is all about how touring can make you crazy, I must say I would expect more from Mr. Zappa’s presentation of this thesis. He is a talented weirdo and there are some pretty solid bits speckled throughout and a lot of good songs (if you like Frank Zappa). It’s a purposely grotesque oddity and bizarro time capsule that I don’t know who exactly I would recommend it to. It stars the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Pretentious? Moi?!”

I had heard of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) before I had seen it, but name only. That was actually more set up than I’m sure the movie would have liked me to have. It’s a movie about a relationship (and that is all I am willing to say regarding the curious plot). It’s not that I mind that the story is purposefully difficult to follow. It’s more that I somehow felt cheated. I felt as though it were leading me toward something concrete and the initial elusiveness was just a frill. It’s not a bad movie by any means. It kept me interested for the most part. Juliet Binoche (Three Colors: Blue, Chocolat) gives a fantastic performance and the beautiful Tuscan scenery is elegant and rich. Her co-star is decidedly a little more weak and in a movie with only two characters it can stand out. I admire some of the odd choices made, but a film that wants to remind me this much of Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset really ought to be better than them.

“This whole thing might even make Lewis Carroll uncomfortable.”

This next one I had wanted to see for sometime. Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants, My Dinner With Andre) is s strange director and Black Moon (1975) is always credited as his most unusual. As a fan of Zazie dans le métro (1960) I had to see how this movie could be weirder. Trust me. It’s weirder. Minimal dialogue and plot and lots of unkempt animals. A girl wanders through a strange landscape full of gas masks, tanks, naked children, and rotund talking unicorns. The film is very much inspired by Lewis Carroll, but it has more of a twisted edge in that it seems to be treating female puberty as the proverbial Wonderland. I can’t say that I enjoyed it a lot, but I was transfixed by it’s strangeness and the sick, inexplicable turns it was willing to take. If you like badger murder and teens breastfeeding nasty old ladies then this is the film for you.

“So…women are the devil? I get it.”

Blue Valentine (2010) was one that got a lot of praise and I can see why. Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance certainly isn’t the only thing going for it. This delicate indie film follows the deterioration of a relationship and it does a pretty good job. My only real beef with the film is that it couldn’t surprise me. Friends told me it was amazing and that I should see it and I could tell from the synopsis exactly what it was going to be. Sure enough. It was. It’s still well acted and well-constructed (cleverly bouncing back and forth between past and present) but it just couldn’t surprise me. Not that I’m a baby and need to be surprised all the time. It was sad and inevitable and in then end I just felt bad for the guy. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand here. Blue Valentine is not the sort of movie I would generally gravitate toward, but it’s well done and a great anti-romance flick. I like depressing films, but I’ve seen better. Watch it instead of Breaking Dawn. And watch Blue Velvet instead of this. What the heck.

Guilty Pleasures:

“The screen can hardly contain all of our pathos!”

I don’t know why I keep watching old Godzilla movies. They’re all the same and I’ve seen it a hundred times already and the first one was really the only one that was a real movie. Maybe they just make me appreciate Pulgasari more. It’s some sort of sick tradition. It’s why we keep watching James Bond movies. Most of them are bad, but they’re fun and nostalgic. All this to say I watched Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) recently. It’s more of the same. Big dumb rubber monsters trash Japanese cities. In a word: awesome. There are three basic plots to a Godzilla movie: Godzilla is a bad guy; Godzilla is a good guy; Godzilla is tricked/talked into being a good guy. This time Mothra has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and be the good guys. After much monster political debate on the merits of protecting humanity, they agree and team up to fight Ghidrah, a hideous hydra dragon from outer space (unnervingly with no arms). My one complaint with this movie (and it’s a big one) is that Mothra never metamorphosizes out of his larval stage. Maybe they were afraid of having too many flying monsters. Oh, but the Twin Fairy chicks are back…but the Mothra song is different and sucks now.

“You should see what I taught them to do with their blowholes.”

George C. Scott teaching dolphins to speak English (that’s right) only to be sabotaged by corrupt government officials who want to use the English speaking dolphins to blow up the president should be a comedy. The dolphins actually sound more like balloons getting the air let out of them when they do vocalize. The Graduate director, Mike Nichols, does what he can with the ludicrous premise of Day of the Dolphin (1973), but how could this be saved? It’s loopy and stupid, but I strangely liked it. George C. Scott (Patton) and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) are talking to dolphins in a cockamamie story about the military raping science for sadistic ends. For all it’s foolishness I found myself enjoying it and the score by Georges Delerue is actually really great. Agent Flipper to the rescue!

Getting Better:

“Despite each segment being extremely short I doubt this generation will have the patience to sit through all of them.”

Life in a Day (2011) is an interesting experiment. It is compiled from footage sent from all over the world, but all shot on the same day. I suppose it does document a great deal and people in the future will be able to look to this film and see what the world was like in a more accessible way than say Baraka. I like it for the experimental reasons and for what the future may be able to get from it, but the way technology is going, the point might be moot. We already document everything. Maybe the novelty of it being shinier and in one place will make it more convenient than scouring youtube. It was enjoyable, but I wonder what stuff was cut. How much unpleasantness that went on that day did we miss? All in all, it’s a noble documentary effort that I will still unfairly compare to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

“Shouldn’t we be under ‘Guilty Pleasures?'” —“Probably, but SHHHH!”

Two of the most awesome movies in history collided. Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece Seven Samurai has crashed into Star Wars and we end up with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). George Peppard (The A-Team), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) star in this B-movie epic. Almost no explanations and already we get thrust into a space aged retelling of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, with fitting nods to these movies that preceded it. The people of the planet Akir are called the Akira and George Peppard dresses like an old timey cowboy despite flying a spaceship. Not much character development. Only convoluted space fights. I will say this, despite all its laughable bits, it’s actually more imaginative than it needed to be. Instead of seven samurai, they get seven spaceships with different alien races in each of them, some of which are pretty interesting. I liked the Nestor and the Kelvin. Some notes: Richard Thomas’s spaceship looks like balls straight on (but like a uterus from above) and this movie has a lot of weird cleavage (from only one character). It’s no Star Crash or Ice Pirates, but it’s still a good space crap flick. So A Bug’s Life was a remake of a remake.

“Jack owes me crack.”

I am a fan of Conan O’Brien and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) is perhaps an appropriate documentary about him traveling around after being kicked off of NBC. He’s a desperate, sad, and tortured clown underneath that tall, orange wave. It has some truly funny bits and makes him more human. It may not be a perfect movie, but it will please fans of Conan’s antics. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate portrait of a man kicked around by an unfair network board, but with an addiction to entertain, and what that man can do when he has fame still following him. The scene where he’s belittling Jack McBrayer had me on the floor laughing.

Greatness Beckons:

“What stereotype? Every culture loves booze.”

When a ship carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky crashes off the shore of a parched Scottish village you know exactly what’s going to happen. Whiskey Galore! (1949) is a funny, breezy British comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick (director of one of my favorite comedies, The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness). There are many humorous predicaments that arise, for instance the ship crashes on Sunday so they have to wait until Monday to get the booze so as not to break the Sabbath. The whole town banding together to hide the loot from nosey authorities might remind some folks of the more recent Waking Ned Devine. It’s a splendid, gentle comedy with a hilariously astute epilogue following a fun car chase. For those with a taste for sly British comedy, definitely watch this one.

“Have you seen ‘Puss’n’Boots?”

I like Pedro Almodóvar’s movies (All About My Mother, Volver), so I was used to his sneaky style of disguising information and hiding the truth until the appointed time, but even I was surprised by where The Skin I Live In (2011) went. I cannot reveal much, but it is a great and demented movie. Is this Almodóvar’s version of horror? It’s far more disturbing and subtle than most mainstream horror movies. Get a copy, invite friends over and tell them you’re watching an Antonio Banderas movie. Tell them nothing more and then watch their faces contort as they assemble the puzzle in their head. The Spanish The Skin I Live In keeps with the plastic-surgery-gone-awry film spirit along with the French Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the Japanese The Face of Another (1966).

“How is it half of our lives seem to unfold in a two-dimensional world?”

I am a huge admirer of Karel Zeman (The Stolen Airship, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). He is a Czech filmmaker with an unhealthy obsession with stop-motion animation, and his bizarre, bold, and unrepentantly stylized use of special effects throughout his films are always innovative and dazzling. His satirical look at the Thirty Years War is quite funny, and maybe more focused and consistent than his previous features. The Jester’s Tale (1964) follows the picaresque exploits of a man swept away by the changing tides of a Europe at war with itself. Zeman portrays political alliances to be quite literally as fickle as the changing winds. It’s clever, funny, and the unique special effects are truly charming.

“She’s takin’ ’em off! Quick! Get the the firepole!”

Milos Forman is known for his American films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, but not many folks this far west get to see his work from his home country. The Czech film (another Czech film, I know), The Fireman’s Ball (1967) is a smart if simple comedy about, quite aptly, a fireman’s ball. More specifically a fireman’s ball where many things do not go right. Prizes for the raffle keep disappearing and no young ladies want to be a part of the beauty pageant—this leads the creepy, old fireman to approach the girls themselves and create many awkward moments. It may not make you laugh out loud the whole time, but it will keep a smile on your face. Another thing worth mentioning is that it was a cast of non-actors.

A Satisfying Zenith:

“Shoe’s untied.”

Stanley Kubrick should be a familiar name. He’s the mad genius behind movies like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut. Having seen most of his cannon, save for two of his earliest works, I was delighted to finally make acquaintance with Barry Lyndon (1975). This enchanting period epic stars Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) as the eponymous Barry and features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography (revolutionary too in that Kubrick used a special lens and all natural lighting) as well as some intensely choreographed classical pieces by Handel, Schubert, Bach, Vivaldi, and others. This rise and fall of a no-account Irish vagabond is mesmerizing, if a bit cold, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. It feels like we are in an 18th century painting at times (The Mill and the Cross, anyone?). If you like your duels then you gotta see this one, and it’s battle scenes rival Full Metal Jacket (and maybe even Paths of Glory).

Almost done.

“Right this way, Mr. Samurai…Bwahahahaha!”

I saw Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) several years ago and was greatly impressed. It was a hypnotic, erotic, horror tale set in feudal Japan and truly much of its imagery was haunting. Kuroneko (1968) is a worthy accomplice. It is an atmospheric, seductive ghost story that has much more than meets the eye. It actually deals with a few feminist issues in a way, much like Kenji Mizoguchi in Ugetsu. Ghosts are murdering samurai and only one detective is brave enough to figure out why. It sounds simple, but he is compromised in more ways than one when he takes on the assignment. For those who like their horror to be sleek, spooky, and utterly beautiful to look at do not miss this movie. One thing: Tim Burton may have borrowed elements from this film—as well as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—for Batman Returns.

“California Dreamin’….”

I admit it. I need to see more Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046). But I don’t have to see more to know that I really loved Chungking Express (1994). From stem to stern you are looking at a sweet, cunning, impressionistic, romantic masterpiece. As folks shuffle in and out of a seedy diner we enter into their lives and watch their pain and longing for love. The characters, although very entertaining, have a certain reality to them. I found Faye Wong’s character in particular to be immensely adorable and appealing. Chungking Express may seem to treat romance like fast-food at times, but I still love how the mechanics of the movie work. It’s a real movie movie.

“Are we not men?”

Finally, the film I thought the most highly of that I saw recently was The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the BountyThe Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as a mad scientist who is using evil science to accelerate animals’ evolution so that they may become weird hairy humans. This is my kind of movie. It’s got a wonderfully pulpy premise (courtesy of H.G. Wells), great set design, a scantily clad female, and Bela Lugosi looking like the “Pogs” guy. The mad scientist genre can be a great one and this might be one of the best (alongside the first two Frankenstein movies). A classic atmospheric pre-code horror flick with edge, uncomfortable bits, grim foreboding, and suspense. I couldn’t tell you more. The movie is great and I just loved it. It just gives me one more reason to believe that the 1930s were one of the best decades for American film.

For those who have still been curious about my movie tastes, perhaps this layout might clarify a few things. What were some of the last few films you saw and how would you rank them?

The Other Toy Story

Nighty night.

Nighty night.

Jiří Barta is renowned as a master of stop-motion animation. He is hailed alongside fellow Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer. He has also had a dickens of a time getting a new movie made, but he has finally done it. Jiří Barta’s latest creation, the feature film In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (2009) (aka Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?) [update: recently released on DVD in the US with English dubbing under the title Toys in the Attic], is a wonderfully imaginative fairytale adventure. I was blessed enough to see it for the LA premiere at the Silent Movie Theater for their animation festival.

Scenes from Golem.

Scenes from Golem.

Some of the most innovative animators in the world seem to be coming from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe. Names like Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales), Alexander Petrov (The Mermaid), Karel Zeman (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ivan Maximov (From Left to Right), Jiří Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), George Pal (Tubby the Tuba and Puppetoons), Jan Balej (One Night in One City), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (The Battle of Kerhzenets), Jan  Švankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue), Władysław Starevich (The Mascot), and Barta are all names to look out for. If any of these names are mere foreign words to you, then you definitely need to check out some of their brilliant work.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

In the Attic represents Jiří Barta’s return to stop-motion animation after several years of trying to get his failed Golem project off the ground (and the small amount of footage he did produce for Golem is nothing short of staggering). Barta has achieved much recognition for his enchanting short animated films (many of which can be seen in the excellent Barta DVD compilation Labyrinth of Darkness), but has completed only one previous featurelength movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985). Unlike the dark, gnarled near-nightmarescape of Pied Piper, however, In the Attic is a far gentler film and made to be appreciated by children.

Check out Pied Piper, it is also quite good.

Barta’s newest movie is a richly textured, quiet, and tranquil story punctuated by some fun action and brilliant cinematic innovation and magic. At heart In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a light rescue movie filled with fun characters, exciting peril, cross-country journeys, and wild vehicles. It is the story of old toys in an attic and although the subject matter might remind you of Pixar’s Toy Story, the dazzling inventions will hearken back to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit adventures, while the style remains more reminiscent of the opening of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and some things dreamed up by the Brothers Quay or Švankmajer. In the Attic might remind you of all of these things, but it is all Jiří Barta.

Choo choo.

Choo choo.

The story is simple and sublime and despite being geared at children it does have some potent anti-communist political themes. It takes place, quite aptly, in an attic—the rest of the title comes from the recurring gimmick of the characters rolling the dice every morning to decide whose birthday they will celebrate that day. Buttercup is a sweet little doll who lives in an old trunk in the attic along with her friends; the sleep-loving Teddy, a tattered stuffed bear; the quixotic Sir Handsome, a battered and delusional marionette; and the feisty Schupert, a ball of clay with a pencil nose. She cooks and cleans for them and the boys go off to work on the railroad or fight inflatable alligators and all is idyllic tranquility (so women’s lib). Indeed, I was beaming with delight and my smile could not be suppressed by the sheer cuteness of the whole spectacle.

Buttercup.

Buttercup.

Naturally, conflict must enter in on the scene and disturb the quaintness of it all (unless you happen to be Hayao Miyazaki, who doesn’t seem to require villains to tell a great story). A mechanical tube with a human-like eyeball spies the peaceful lives of the attic denizens, reporting back to its master via an old television set that is obsessively monitored by a ruthless, old, cigar-chomping, golden bust with Hunter S. Thompson shades and an entourage of bugs and mismatched bits of rubbish. The tarnished voyeur spies Buttercup in her tatterdemalion serenity and concludes that he must have her for himself. Perhaps he thought of it himself or perhaps the nasty earwig with spectacles and a Dalí mustache who whispers wicked things into the head’s ear put the idea in his brain.

The puppet master?

The puppet master?

The evil golden head deploys hordes of beetles to terrorize poor Buttercup and hires a house cat to don clothing and trick the doll girl into stumbling into his bent corner of the attic. Once inside the land of evil, Buttercup is placed under arrest until she agrees to wed the head. She is forced to clean out the furnace all day and all night while the head’s cronies only dump more soot and ash on top of her whenever she gets done. Buttercup remains defiant to all of the head’s advances.

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

Back on the other end of the attic, Sir Handsome and Teddy discover their beloved Buttercup is missing. Together they start on a quest to bring her back from the land of evil. A brave lady mouse—who runs the attic radio—tinkers together to construct a flying machine out of an old vacuum cleaner and other discarded junk. She and a plump piglet toy band together with all of the other little toys and scraps (mostly wooden chess pieces) and fly out to meet Teddy and Sir Handsome who are already well on their way.

Pillows bloom and rise out of old dressers and steadily rise only to link together and snow on them like big, fluffy clouds. The cat opens up a wardrobe unleashing an inundation of blue sheets, cloaks, and fabrics to represent a terrible flood for the traversing toys. Most of the perils are truly imaginative and, yes, adorable.

What fun.

What fun.

At last our heroes meet up together, but then are plagued by more moth-eaten horrors sent by the golden head in the land of evil. The golden head has spies everywhere and will not tolerate simple toys trespassing on his side of the attic, nor will he risk Buttercup’s emancipation before he can brainwash her and make her his. Don’t worry. Things get hairy, but it all works out in the end and Barta has more animation tricks up his sleeve to share before this delightful excursion comes to a pleasing finale.

The Head.

The Head.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a beautiful film with much to love and to look at. It is sweet and charming and full of imagination and quirky gimmicks—like Teddy’s vanity when he shines his nose and brushes his teeth incessantly or Schubert’s battle to stay in one piece during a rainstorm on the roof—and the entire family is sure to enjoy it. I do admit that I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a big difference between these films and much of it has to do with the animation style. The slick and beautiful computer generated world of Toy Story is colorful and complex and it reminds me of certain toys I had growing up, but In the Attic is rich like a quilt made by your great-great grandmother. The characters of In the Attic feel like toys that always were. Where Toy Story’s characters are more like adults who understand the preciousness of the love of a child and depend on it yet banter and reason like grownups, In the Attic’s characters are independent and have the personalities and subtleties that only a child would give them during playtime. In addition to actually being three-dimensional they behave as I would imagine toys would behave had they lives outside of a child’s imagination.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

All in all In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a rare treat. It’s a completely innocent child’s fairytale full of adventure and friendship. It’s rich in nostalgia and imagination and it’s really cute. As I sat in the theater and let the simple, dully colored, tattered figures do their dance, I wanted to believe in this attic universe. It felt like how I always imagined my grandfather’s basement to be when I was a kid. His basement was full of old gadgets, toys, objects, pictures, and furniture and I always suspected that whenever I turned off the lights that it had a mind of it own.

Schupert.

Schupert.

Although still not available on home video, I have since emailed the production company of this film and they have responded with hints of an English dub for re-release for British and American theaters and possibly a subsequent DVD/bluray release. Let us hope that we may soon obtain copies and curl up under an old blanket by the fire and watch it with our families. [Update: yeah, scratch all that. It’s out now].

Top 1o Reasons to See In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?

1. It’s an adorable movie the whole family can enjoy.

2. It marks a legendary animator’s return to his craft.

3. They travel by land, air, and sea on their quest.

4. The mechanisms and social structure designed by the characters in the film are really clever and fun to watch.

5. It has deeper political themes instead of tired pop-culture references for the adults in the audience.

6. Jiří Barta fashions an entire world with its own rules and it is a pleasure to admire.

7. It’s got it all: damsels in distress, heroes, villains, monsters, adventure, inventions, and comedy.

8. If Švankmajer’s Alice was too dark or weird for you then this is a good alternative.

9. Teddy’s cheeks when he smiles are so freaking cute!

10. There is a weird thing with a pocket watch toward the end that is amazingly cool.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 13, 2010

Alice in Svankmajerland

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

Curiouser and curiouser!

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

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

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

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

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

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

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

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

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

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

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

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

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

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

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

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

The Movies You Didn’t See

brewster-mccloud 2

If you are a true movie lover then you are also a digger, a searcher, an explorer. You seek out movies. Finding the “other films” out there might be your mission. You are daring. You lap up silent cinema and tuck away great foreign flicks under your arm and you mull classics and contemporary titles over in your mind while always maintaining a healthy reserve of schlock and exploitation, but your thirst remains insatiable, unquenched. You must dig. You must search. You must explore that which swims beneath the surface of the mainstream.

Today I give you an assignment. Today I tantalize you with just a few titles that you won’t want to miss. Today I champion some wonderful and strange films that think way outside the box and that have yet to be released on DVD in America* [*AUTHOR’S UPDATE: Criterion has picked up Zazie dans le Metro and there’s a region-free Hour-Glass Sanitorium now currently available through Mr. Bongo. Currently unsure of the other two]. Here we go with Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro (1960); Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970); Wojciech Has’s The Hour-Glass Sanitorium (1973); and Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). WARNING: proceed only if you are into the realm of the zany and awry.

zazie dans le mtro

1. The first film I would like to inform you of hails from France. It is Louis Malle’s (Au revoir les enfants, My Dinner With Andre) frantically frenetic and buoyantly cartoonish Zazie dans le metro (1960). Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, this unique film feels like some sort of coming of age tale, a burlesque comedy, and “Looney Tunes” hybrid. Young Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) must spend a few days with her lazy and unusual Parisian Uncle Gabriel (Cinema Paradiso’s Philippe Noiret) so her mother can entertain herself in the arms of her new lover.

The precocious girl soon grows weary with Uncle Gabriel’s peculiar habits and schedule and so she runs away to explore the city of Paris by herself. Uninterested in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or any other monument or locale of note, Zazie obsesses over just one thing: the metro. . . unfortunately there’s a strike on and the metro is closed. Just like the grownups to block the only thing a little kid wants to do. Zazie is pursued by angry Parisians, cops, would-be perverts, her uncle, and more while the adults fall in and out of love with each other against the manically shifting scenery and bustling cars and shows featuring slight transvestism and more than one man in a polar bear costume. A highlight is an extremely energetic and ridiculous chase scene that plays out like a Roadrunner cartoon on methamphetamines (think that one scene from Stephen Chow’s Kung-Fu Hustle only screwier).

zazie

This is a deliriously hyperactive movie that captures the essence of childhood wonder better than most “normal films.” All the intertwining of plots and unraveling of characters culminate in a psychotic explosion of noise, movement, and laugh out loud comedy that will make your head spin. This movie is just whimsical. I highly recommend this bold and wacky comedy brimming with sass and snark for anyone looking for the craziest most frenzied and absurd trip to Paris they’re likely to find. Or perhaps if you just like good slapstick.

2. Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) stars as the eponymous and quite quixotic Brewster McCloud in Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*HGosford Park) Brewster McCloud (1970). This is one strange film. With the adolescent angst and awkward foibles of the average American youth, the enigmatic Brewster lives in the fallout shelter of the Houston Astrodome perfecting his mechanical wings so that he can fly away. As the tagline winkingly suggests “this might be over your head.” Women find the quiet boy irresistible and the police find him rather elusive as they pursue him for the suspected stranglings of several not-so-upright citizens. There’s a cantankerous old man (Stacey Keach); a nasty old woman (Margaret Hamilton, with more than just a few nods to her work in The Wizard of Oz); a ditzy but compassionate tour guide (Shelley Duvall) who loves Brewster; a mysterious and angelic mentor (Sally Kellerman) who protects Brewster and warns him of the dangers of women and distractions from his goal; a detective (Michael Murphy) hot on his trail; and several other quirky characters mashed together including a narrator who is not exactly on the same page.

brewster-mccloud 1

Amidst all the murder, mayhem, car chases, and courtships there is always a cutaway to the narrator, a lecturing professor of ornithology (Rene Auberjonois), who not only is describing the habits and behaviors of many a fascinating fowl (which strangely coincides with the main character’s actions) but he is also progressively transforming into a bird himself until at last he is reduced to a squawking, pecking aviary curiosity. The movie is off-beat and unusual in many ways, but at its heart it seems to really be about being alone yet driven in a world that is preoccupied with other things. Brewster McCloud only wants to build his wings in peace and take flight in the Astrodome. He tries to avoid distraction and distances himself from people as much as possible, but people keep getting in the way and none of them understand him or what he is trying to do. The finale is especially enjoyable. Find Brewster McCloud and take flight. If we share as much in common with birds as the transforming lecturer would imply then perhaps there is plenty to relate to here.

hourglasssanitorium 2

3. Our next film comes from Polish auteur Wojciech Has (The Saragossa Manuscript) and is called The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (aka Sanatorium pod klepsydra) (1973). Based on the writings of Bruno Schultz, the story unfolds in an old, decrepit, silverfish-nibbled asylum. A man, Jozef (Jan Nowicki), has taken a ramshackle train to this place to see his dying father. The building is crumbling and there seems to be no one in charge (Svankmajer would love it). A ward tells him that Time may not make all the sense in the world here, and lo, it is true. Jozef wanders from room to room in search of answers but is instead greeted by characters and events from history, his childhood, and his more recent past. The story unfolds like a more psychoanalytical Alice in Wonderland for adults. Every room is bursting with Jozef’s lost memories. Jozef re-experiences his childhood and his relationship with his bird-loving father, sees women he once fancied, is pursued by soldiers for having an unpopular dream, observes strange Jewish rituals, and takes command of a room of waxwork historical figures.

hourglasssanitorium 1

The cinematography is utterly remarkable and the imagery is nothing short of staggering (very evocative of some of the best work of Terry Gilliam). The film has poetry, wonder, curiosity, magic, and humor as we are carried through this dream world of wondrous pageantry. It’s a difficult film to describe, but it is also very difficult to forget. The director of the amazing Saragossa Manuscript (a masterpiece loved by such artists as Luis Bunuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Jerry Garcia) has crafted another world from bits and pieces of the past and you will enjoy exploring it as much as the protagonist, Jozef. For a thrilling excavation of the back of the mind, check out the fantastic Hour-Glass Sanatorium. It has also been brought to my attention that the Svankmajer-influenced Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes) may be adapting Schultz’s prose to the screen again.

skritek 1

4. We have been to France to be children with Zazie, come back to America to be adolescents with Brewster McCloud, and hopped over to Poland to rediscover our past as adults with Jozef’s exploration of a strange sanatorium. Now we shall embark on a trip to the Czech Republic to combine all these things with a movie about one dysfunctional family in Tomas Vorel’s Skritek (2005). This magically absurd tragicomedy about the dynamics of a struggling family is unique for many reasons. One is the ubiquitous intrusion of a distracting gnome (skritek is Czech for “gnome”), the second odd thing about this movie is that all of the dialogue is spoken in complete gibberish (so don’t try to look for subtitles). As the plot unfolds the young daughter struggles with her teacher in school and her family at home, so she occasionally is visited by the strange gnome who always finds a way to cheer her up. The pot-smoking, vegetarian, anarchist son is trying to express himself but—ignoring entirely legal means of self-expression—winds up in trouble with his teachers and the police. The father works as a butcher, but weary of the routine which has become his life, begins an affair with a co-worker. Meanwhile the mother works as a cashier at a supermarket, but with the stress of her job, her family going in different directions, and her husband losing interest in her, she’ll try anything to revitalize her life.

skritek2

The whole story is set against a rather cartoony version of the Czech Republic with vibrant colors, exaggerated sound effects, vaudevillian action, and a toe-tapping score. As problems befall the family we grow to see them as more than caricatures, but as people and we feel their anxieties and we smile when it all comes together. This is a very original movie with much humor, heart, slapstick, and magic to offer. If you are looking for an unforgettable journey through one family’s crazy life with zero language barrier then I encourage to see Skritek.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Where can I find these movies if they are not available? Why would you entice me this way? Well, here’s where it can get fun. We live in an age of instant gratification and sometimes the search is half the fun. You might have to get creative. Some of these films are floating around online right now. Some have been bootlegged as rentals in cult movie shops. Some might be tricky. Always keep your eyes and ears open and above all: read. You might be surprised by what you find. I’m still discovering movies like this everyday. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of research and a little bit of patience and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

skritek 3

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 2, 2010