Delhi Belly, The Muppets, The Last Circus, Into the Abyss, and The Artist

For those who feel I don’t watch enough new movies here be a melange of mini-reviews of some more recent films.

I saw trailers for Delhi Belly (2011) several months ago and it looked like some kind of madcap high-octane blitz of Indian gang chases. But I had to convince people that it got positive reviews for them to go see it with me. We drove out to the nearest theater that said they were playing it. They were not playing it. So myself, my buddies, and a couple extended Indian families in line behind us all went home sad. We ate at Denny’s to cushion the tragic blow. Delhi Belly, directed by Abhinay Deo, is pretty much what it promised to be in the trailers. It’s fast mayhem. Here’s the story in a nutshell: three roommates get mixed up with the mafia and the main character is reconsidering his impending marriage as a result of the introduction of a new female character. The term “Delhi belly” refers to diarrhea, and yes, diarrhea is a major plot point. Although it is an Indian film it feels very American. There are no real Bollywood song and dance numbers, although music does play in the background. It’s also all in English. It’s not a bad little film and it is definitely one of the more culturally accessible films to come out of India…which will either help or hurt the movie depending on who you are. It’s fun and funny and fairly insubstantial.

A much anticipated movie for this year was The Muppets (2011). Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) rescues his favorite Jim Henson characters and returns them to the big screen…with mediocre results. I am a huge Muppet fan. Jim Henson is one of the people I want to party with in heaven. I loved The Muppet Show (1976-1981) and their first several movies (Muppet Movie, Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan). After Jim died the Muppets got retooled a bit by his son Brian Henson in the 1990s. Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were pretty good and everybody crapped on Muppets from Space (1999). Segel wanted to put them back in classic mode and this new movie halfway succeeds. It’s sweet and light and colorful, but it is far too focused on Segel, Amy Adams, and Walter (the new Muppet character) and not everything feels quite right. It feels like it was recut or changed in some way. Some of the songs are pretty great, but the whole spectacle of the Muppets getting back together to host a telethon to save their old studio is underwhelming and feels like an insufficient shadow of their work in earlier films. It’s trying to be a Muppet movie. It knows the basic ingredients but its sensibilities might just be a little too modern for the classic characters. It’s a far better tribute movie than say films like Alvin and the Chipmunks. All in all it’s about as entertaining as Muppets from Space but its heart is definitely more in the right place. The original Muppets were more about Vaudeville and classic variety shows. This new Muppets is probably closer to Glee. Frank Oz is missed as well. Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Concords) songs are the best thing going for it.

The Last Circus (2011) is an ambitious step in a strange direction. Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (El Crimen Ferpecto) helms this joyless and grim depiction of clinical depression…or perhaps merely the life of a pudgy clown at the circus. I really wanted to like this film. It seemed so off the wall and wild from the trailers that I really thought I would enjoy this one. I did enjoy El Crimen Ferpecto after all. The film is well shot and meticulously lit, but the story is too familiar (it feels like a mishmash of several Lon Chaney, Sr. deranged/tortured clown movies from the silent era seen through the lens of a more evil version of Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and ultimately it feels more an exercise in repulsion and grotesquery. It starts with much potential; a disturbed loser joins the circus to be a sad clown and takes a shine for a girl who is stuck in an abusive relationship with the boss clown. It’s odd and enjoyable and then the violence starts and pretty soon we’re watching a naked fat man run around in a muddy forest and eating a raw elk. Then people are getting beat up with trumpets during sex and cheeks are being scalded off by acid and irons. It’s all rather gross. I liked pieces of this film, but the dark tone switches about halfway through to become way too dark and disgusting for me. Nothing means anything after awhile and you realize you are simply observing crazy tragic people do evil selfish things with no window for redemption. Not my cup of tea but perhaps it can be gulped down by someone. Too mean-spirited for me. I liked He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unknown (1927), Freaks (1932) and Santa Sangre (1989) better.

Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) has been making some of the most interesting films and documentaries for over four decades. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss (2011) is worth a look. Perhaps not quite so cinematic, but interesting nevertheless. Herzog interviews a man on death row and all of the other people involved in the crime and the victims of it as he tries to delicately unpack and humanize the death penalty and a broken system. He makes no secret that he is opposed to the death penalty and finds it rather an uncouth institution, however, he avoids manipulating the audience with camera tricks. The camera is merely there to record the honest emotions of real people and it succeeds in capturing incredible nakedness and fragility. The human animal is a peculiar beast and maybe nobody knows that better than Herzog. Into the Abyss does not attempt to resolve any issue or solve the case or even provide psychological closure…but then that just might be the point. Please walk away with something to talk about. It may not be Herzog’s best but I doubt there’s anything he’s done that’s not worth investigating.

I enjoy silent cinema. Naturally when I heard someone was making a new silent movie I initially thought, “How can they capture that time and the special magic that time had?” Well, they couldn’t but they came pretty close and they captured something else. The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius (Oss117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), is an affectionate homage to that lost time. A big shot silent actor (Jean Dujardin) with a big ego—and an adorable dog sidekick—suffers when the dawn of sound technology threatens his kingdom (reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain?). A young ingenue (Berenice Bejo) takes the stage and becomes a hit, and secretly harbors deep affections for the failed artist. American character actors John  Goodman (The Big Lebowski) and James Cromwell (Babe) co-star in this sweet and clever film and tribute to the silent era. It’s not the best silent movie ever made (not even close) and it’s not nearly as bold or imaginative as a movie from Guy Maddin (contemporary Canadian filmmaker specializing in silent-style movies today), but it’s an extremely pleasurable delight that will put a big smile wide across your face. The Artist reminds us of cinema’s roots and that silent films can be just as powerful and engaging despite their limitations and it makes that lost time smell fresh once more. I really enjoyed it. That dog steals every scene.

Now go to the movies and stop downloading crap.

The Other Passion

passion7It is not a commonplace thing in modern American society to face death squarely in the eye for your faith in the Almighty. Seems religious trials are almost unheard of these days. And, no, that science teacher who belittled you for thinking the earth is only being 6,000 years old doesn’t count as persecution. Martyrdom, to most Americans, is something that happened a long time ago or, if it is still happening, is very far away. It is something we, happily, do not really have to see or experience…which is why I think it terribly important to acquaint oneself with it. Some significant films that deal with this subject include James Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is Dreyer’s film I have selected to champion today (although watch the other movies too as they are all very good).

passion4The Passion of Joan of Arc was directed by Carl Dreyer (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet) in the late 1920s (and, yes, is silent). Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dreyer is apparent. The same ground-breaking art of montage editing that Eisenstein used to amazingly cinematic effect in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (and in Abel Ganz’s Napoleon, 1927) is used once more and with great skill and emotional power by Dreyer to heighten the urgency, peril, and frenetic horror of the trial of Joan of Arc. The phenomenal editing coupled with the frequent use of overpowering close-ups and the stellar acting (most notably by the lead heroine played by Maria Falconetti) make for a stirringly dramatic tour-de-force.

And to think it was lost for several decades before it was found in the early 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution.

passion8The Passion of Joan of Arc does not follow the life or brave actions of the female French martyr who heard voices that told her to lead an army against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie presumes we already know Joan and so does not go into the details of her life story or the surrounding circumstances of her arrest, but instead documents her trial by the British for heresy in 1431 in Rouen. By focusing on only the final leg of Joan’s incredible life, Dreyer is able to fully explore one of the most famous trials in human history and immerse the audience in the frustrating hysteria and hypocrisy of the time.

passion6Renee Maria Falconetti (predominately a stage actress) plays the ill-fated Joan of Arc, in what is considered by many to be one of the best screen performances in film history. She is on trial for heresy because she claims that she was commanded by God to dress as a man and go to war for her country. Her persecutors cannot accept this as this would mean that God was against the English (and that God, furthermore, condones cross-dressing).

passion3The trial consists of a series of ornery old clerics bandying words in desperate attempts to trap Joan into admitting or denying her knowledge of being under God’s grace; the knowledge of one’s salvation was considered quite heretical at that time. Instead of giving them what they want and signing the confession that will lead to her execution—but at least, in their eyes, she will be pardoned by God for her offense—Joan instead shows her resilience, intelligence, and steadfast faith that God will protect her. They threaten her and torture her and taunt her with communion, granting it to her only if she confesses. Joan has principles and beliefs and so lying about hearing God to avoid torture would be the greater evil than her being tortured and killed as a heretic. In Joan’s mind she cannot be wrong and in the mind of men who are interrogating her she cannot be right. When two opposing forces are so fervently convinced of their own divine knowledge, where then shall reason seek council?

passion5The final act is no less compelling or stirring than the rest of the film. Joan’s death by being burned at the stake is shocking and unforgettable (and there is a bit more to it than just an execution). Average moviegoers might get to the end of this movie and ask themselves, “Well, what was the point of that?” but I encourage you to allow the film to wash over you and consider the undaunted faith of one person. This film is anything but hollow. As a depiction of injustice, hypocrisy, the dangers of theocracy, and the products of unshakable faith, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see. It’s a grand visual spectacle with marvelous, realistic performances, and expert cinematography and editing (and if you watch the Criterion DVD you’ll be treated to the fantastic new score composed by Richard Einhorn—originally the film was meant to be musically silent, but the wonderful scoring does add a bonus layer of emotion).

passion2In America we have it pretty easy as far as martyrdom goes. Religion is allowed to be a punchline. Many times a person is viewed as simple, naive, hypocritical, or just plain dumb for submitting oneself to a higher unseen authority. Probably because, in many cases, many practitioners of faith are just that: ignorant, bigoted hypocrites. They are allowed to be because they are not challenged. When faced with certain death, what does your faith look like? How strong is it? To what are you clinging and why? I think that’s an important question.

passion9Perhaps what stirred me most about Dreyer’s film is not just its visceral beauty and technical prowess, but its immense fervency and maturity in its depiction of theological struggle. He manages to humanize the whole court, not just Joan. Everyone is wrestling with God in this narrative. There is much to glean from in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a strongly recommended and thoroughly arresting feast for the soul.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 15, 2009

The Animated Movies You Didn’t See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fantastic planet

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

picture references:

galwayafricanfilmfestival.com

insidecatholic.com

senseofcinema.com

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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