The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVI – Z for Zombie

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.

Terrible:

This never happens in the movie.

I actually had to stop watching Mesa of Lost Women (1953) before the third act. It is a slog to get through. As much as I enjoy some of the hammy acting and weird kinkiness (the tarantula woman’s sexy dance was funny watching with grandma), the poor quality of the picture and sound and slow nothingness of the pace made it difficult to follow. I like actor Harmon Stevens’ placid and infantile hypnotized grin after one of the spider women stabs him (with something??), but then it was depressing seeing a sad looking Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester) as the mad scientist who operates out of some weird Mexican cave. No idea how it ended. Did I mention the terrible two measures of tensionless score that’s stuck on repeat?

But it seems better in stills.

Ever think about how Casablanca would be improved by being set in a post apocalyptic future and giving Bogart massive gazongas? Well Barb Wire (1996) starring Pamela Anderson Lee may be just the thing for you. Pam is an ex-freedom fighter and a club owner and a stripper who moonlights as an agent/assassin and a hooker. It’s as ridiculous as you can imagine, and I guarantee you that whatever you’re picturing in your head is better, sexier, and more coherent than what they filmed. Despite trying so hard to be sexy and action packed, it just comes off as cold and stilted for the most part. I did like Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown) and a lot of the line deliveries were so bad they were hilarious. Udo Kier, Clint Howard, and Boba Fett’s dad co-star.

This guy reminded me of Hedonism Bot from Futurama.

I didn’t expect much from the David Carradine sword-and-sorcery vehicle literally called The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and boy was I overestimating it. It’s basically a ripoff of Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars) but set in a poorly defined fantasy world. Where Mesa of Lost Women was hard to watch, this one is at least entertainingly bad (for the most part). At least there’s tons of needless and degrading nudity (so much so that there’s even a dancer who has four breasts—like they couldn’t find a way to get enough tits into this movie already) and at least two cheesy puppet monsters.

I Didn’t Entirely Get It:

It’s a lot of this.

The premise for Kon Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962) is cute enough: daily life as seen alternately from a 2 year old’s perspective and that of his parents. It’s not a bad little film, I just found it somewhat tedious. At best it’s an interesting look into Japanese life in the 60s, but the baby narration was too eloquent and all-knowing to be taken seriously and the family drama felt bland (but maybe that was the point??).

Don’t get too excited. It’s not nearly this trippy.

Sorry, 1960s Japan. Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) wasn’t wacky enough. Oh, it’s wacky alright, and I would recommend it, but it never lives up to it’s gorgeously surreal title sequence. A disaster movie about bugs staging a revolt against humanity could stand more bug photography (a la Phase IV) and less loony pantomiming…although that does add to its silly charm. In fairness, any plot that features a female holocaust survivor turned evil mad scientist who wants to poison humanity with bug juice to make them go insane and die has to at least be seen. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s that kinda fun B-movie, not-everything-makes-sense sort of thing. But a movie about killer bugs needs more bugs. One point of interest is the starkly anti-American position it takes. In that regard it reminded me a little bit of the Korean film The Host. Charlie is great. If you see it, you’ll learn who Charlie is.

Getting Better:

Lots of pretty scenery.

John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is a spectacularly photographed arthouse western about a young Scottish man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching the untamed American frontier for the woman he loves with the help of a cynical outlaw (Michael Fassbender). It’s a slow-going movie more akin to Dead Man than Silverado, and it is littered with strange western tableaus. I liked it just fine until in a scene that figuratively pours salt in our hero’s wounds he literally has a jar marked “salt” get broken over his head and poured into his wounds. It was such a laughable, on-the-nose moment that it took me out of the drama faster than Japan’s Maglev train. Not a literal train. That would be silly. Recommended for fans of artsy neo-westerns and great cinematography.

See? No Brad Pitt.

Call me a Philistine. I don’t care. I get why Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is such an influential science fiction film, but I regrettably confess that having already seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (which pilfered the plot of La Jetée) I was a little let down. La Jetée is a French short film told entirely with still black and white photographs and voice-over narration. It chronicles a man who is haunted by childhood memories and is made to travel through time. It’s good. It’s told in an innovative way. But ultimately (don’t hate me, film people) I liked the Bruce Willis movie better and found it more detailed and dramatically satisfying.

Pay attention to that plant in the top left.

Who’s more affable and likable and all-American than Henry Fonda? [Well, Jimmy Stewart, but that’s the subject of another day.] Honestly, I never got the appeal of Henry Fonda. He was always so slow and serious to be a believable person (although I do enjoy a lot of his movies—Young Mr. Lincoln being one of them). Mister Roberts (1955) is one of those gung-ho American navy movies your grandfather watches because he was in the navy (at least it is with my grandfather). Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), James Cagney (White Heat), William Powell (The Thin Man), and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) star in the movie about a real swell officer (Fonda) on a ship too far from battle to see action, the crew who loved him, and the commanding officer who was a bit of dick to everybody (Cagney). It’s got a few really great scenes, a few really hokey scenes, and it does feel a bit too long. It’s more Operation Petticoat than M*A*S*H. Soapy, but it’s worth a look just for some of the psychological showdowns between Fonda and Cagney.

More Worth It:

Every time she talks all I hear is, “I’m the boss, applesauce!”

John Patrick Shanley adapts his own stage play to the screen with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Doubt (2008) is an austere little movie about a no-nonsense nun (Streep in her best Judge Judy voice) who suspects a priest (Hoffman) of molesting a young boy, but she has no proof and we—the audience—are not entirely sure who to believe. It’s a simple and effective drama with good acting and cinematography. Fans of the play will like it and fans of movies that do not give easy answers will too.

Shut up. I liked it.

[Full disclosure: I moved to Spain last week. I saw this movie in Spanish and I don’t really speak Spanish, but I think I got the gist. So maybe this is a testament to visual storytelling?] I didn’t like Despicable Me enough to bother with the sequel, but I was consistently entertained by the adorable gibberish, cutesy antics, and energetic animation of Minions (2015). It was creative and funny and I liked watching the weird characters get in and out of trouble. I also enjoyed some of the sixties tunes. It’s a different premise for sure: a species that evolved a psychological need to be subservient to a powerful master (preferably evil) searches for the perfect leader to ally with.

Grimly Good:

It’s how would have wanted to go.

Shôhei Imamura is a legendary Japanese filmmaker whose work I have not really explored yet. Boo, me. I know. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a bleak portrait of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), based on real life criminal, Akira Nishiguchi. It explores his relationship with his family and a few women he cons. It’s not a sentimental film. It doesn’t glamorize crime. There are really no positive characters in the film (I did like the old lady who had been a jailbird herself). It’s gritty and gloriously shot. Fans of Japanese cinema or crime drama should not miss this one.

Kinda wish there were more zombies like the melty guy and bisected dog and headless guy.

I don’t know why I never really got into zombie movies. Especially when I really do enjoy a lot of them (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made his directing feature debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985). It’s a fantastic bit of horror comedy, fully embracing its zaniness but still giving us some decent writing and fun characters. Two employees accidentally release a canister-o-zombie and things only escalate at an alarming rate from there. The zombies can’t really be killed so that makes it a little trickier. Classic fun.

Not exactly “The Thing” or “The Fly”, but it’s a slimy time to be had.

H.P. Lovecraft gets adapted a lot. I have no idea what the original story looked like, but Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs one crazy, slimy, prosthetic-filled science fiction horror yarn with From Beyond (1986). An unexplained “science machine” reveals another dimension filled with phosphorescent flying eels that are surrounding us at all times. When sexual deviant, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), gets his head bitten off by an unseen monster, his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) gets institutionalized unless he can prove his sanity to a kind doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree). Returning to the attic in the mysterious house, they get multiple scary encounters with Pretorius’s new, monstrous form. The movie is absolutely nuts and I loved it…probably loved it more because so little of it makes any sense. The special effects are great and gross.

Rising Above:

The face British people make when they see a spider crawling on your shoulder.

Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more forms than almost any other fictional character. Hammer Studios’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) was not the first nor the last adaptation of this specific Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, but it might be the best known and liked. Directed by Terence Fisher (he did a lot of Hammer horror movies) and starring Hammer icons Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as Holmes and Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) as Sir Henry, it has all the Victorian style and spooky atmosphere Hammer was famous for. A great outing for lovers of the legendary sleuth.

It really could have been one hell of a movie.

I had reviewed Island of Souls and Island of Dr. Moreau in past lists. Souls (1932) being fantastically good and Moreau (1996) being a baffling, disjointed disaster of a movie. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a documentary that seeks to elucidate us all as to what happened and how everything went so so very wrong on the set of the infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. David Gregory’s doc features extensive interviews with cast and crew, giving incredible insights into what it was like working on this nightmare project and how everything fell apart at an exponential rate. If you loved Lost in La Mancha or ever saw the 1996 film you owe it to yourself to watch this. It’s absolutely bonkers what went on.

Gagin’s casual disregard for literally everyone but himself make him an interesting hero.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an interesting film noir. Our hero, Gagin (director Robert Montgomery), is an unlikable small time crook and army vet on the hunt for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and the money he feels Hugo owes him. What makes the film memorable is the dusty New Mexican town setting and some of the colorful side characters like Pancho (Thomas Gomez), Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and an old FBI agent (Art Smith)…not to mention the giant marionette from your nightmares, Zozobra (god of bad luck), paraded through town at night only to be immolated by the villagers as part of their local festival. If you enjoy noir, this one comes highly recommended.

My Favorites This Time Around:

This scene is actually a really clever sight gag if you end up watching the film.

Another zombie movie. Why do I keep thinking I hate zombies? Before Ip Man, Wilson Yip directed a low-budget teenage horror comedy set in a Hong Kong shopping mall called Bio-Zombie (1998). It’s great fun. When there’s no onscreen action, there’s plenty of wonderful character business propelling the plot. Our main characters, Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), are lowlifes, thieves, bullies, and obnoxious dressers. They pal up with two sexy ladies, Jelly (Suk Yin Lai) and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) to battle the hordes of advancing zombies. There’s also a lovable sushi chef nerd (Wayne Lee) who brings a lot of comic tragedy to the already zany project. I highly recommend this Hong Kong zombie flick.

A lot of awkwardness in their hotel room.

I have loved every one of Satyajit Ray’s films that I’ve seen. (Check out The Apu Trilogy if you are unfamiliar with him.) Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (1979) is an Indian detective film featuring sleuth Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee, Apur Sansar) and his two friends—his young cousin (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and the pulp novelist (Santosh Dutta)—trying to locate a missing statuette. The mystery is full of great locations, rich scenes, spooky meetings, and some levity. The characters are fun and, coming from America, it’s sort of exciting to see an original Indian genre film with no songs. One memorably suspenseful scene features the comic relief novelist facing an old knife thrower who may be losing his sight and is definitely suffering from a severe cough. This is actually a sequel to an earlier detective movie featuring Feluda, but I haven’t seen it.

Just like “Homeward Bound,” kids!

Hungarian filmmaker, Kornél Mundruczó, takes you on a gritty and uncomfortable journey through the eyes of a canine named Hagan in White God (2014). A young girl, Lilli (Zsófia Psotta), and her furry best friend have to live with her grouchy divorced father (Sándor Zsótér). Not wanting the dog—and the city not wanting mixed breeds—he gets rid of Hagan. While Lilli goes through a lot of growing up and looking for her dog, Hagan goes on a brutal journey through serious abuse on the streets and the world of dog fighting before finally leading a Spartacus-esque revolution of death-row mongrels, exacting revenge on their tormentors as they storm through the city. It’s about growing up, remembering how to be a family, and about how we treat outsiders. The cinematography and performances are great (both human and dog) and the tension keeps on building. Read any metaphor you want into it or just take it as is. It’s brilliant filmmaking.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode VI – Stop Me!

Kill yourself:

We should quit while we're ahead.

We should quit while we’re ahead.

I already wrote at length about The Lone Ranger (2013). Read why it sucks HERE and save ten bucks.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

It’s weird to see a film by the Coen Bros. (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) so far down on a list like this, but their version of The Ladykillers (2004) is just terrible. A decent cast, colorful setting, and great cinematography can’t make this garbage barge float. It looks pretty and some fun, goofy faces but the comedy and tone is so off. Sorry, Coens, but you don’t get to take one of my favorite British comedies and remake it dumber and with fart jokes. You are better than that. Stars Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Irma P. Hall.

Meh:

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) is almost a lot of fun. I watched it because Stanley Tucci was in it and Ewan McGregor’s mustache and hair looked cool. I really did appreciate this film’s levity and that it managed to have scary monster fights in sunny daylight (unlike Pacific Rim) It’s light and weightless and anodyne. The special effects aren’t great and the story is fairly simple, but you could do worse.

Remember "Badlands"?

Remember “Badlands”?

Terrence Malick is responsible for several interesting and visually stunning movies (Tree of Life) and while his latest, To the Wonder (2012), is indeed beautifully shot, but its murky, elliptical plot comes off as a little pretentious. Looks good, but don’t really connect with the aimless story, which is a shame, because I feel like he was touching upon some important issues about love, faith, and feeling culturally isolated. Stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams.

That might make you a vegetarian.

This might make you a vegetarian.

I wish John Dies at the End (2012) was a better movie. It has so much wonderfully sick, inspired lunacy going for it and many of the zany twists are pulled off nicely. Dropouts have to save the world from a metaphysical alien drug that could destroy everything. The stuff Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-tep) tries to pull off here is crazy. Only he could pull it off. Or maybe Sam Raimi. Alas, much of the finished product feels disjointed and half-baked. It has made me want to read the book though. Paul Giamatti has a supporting role.

You can fly? That's weirdly charming.

You can fly? That’s weirdly charming.

Woody Allen only makes two kinds of movies: masterpieces and mediocres. I might be the only person in the world who was not smitten by the musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Some of the songs are cute and fun and it does have a couple funny moments, but ultimately it feels like a Hallmark card. It’s corny and harmless, but maybe Woody Allen doesn’t do ‘sweet’ as well as other things. Features Woody, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Eward Norton, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore, and more.

Getting More Interesting:

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

It Was the Son (2012) is an Italian movie about paying debts to the mob following the unfortunate death of a young girl. The film looks great and has some interesting characters and a killer final two minutes. It’s not higher up because my brain wasn’t sure whether it was watching a comedy or a drama. I think it’s a bit of both, but I don’t know if it all congeals the way it should. I also probably shoould watch it when I’m not on a plane.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? ---Yeah, pretty much.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? —Yeah, pretty much.

There was nothing but praise for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) so my lukewarm feelings were met with some hostility. It’s a fine film with some fine performances and shows one of the most important acts of legislation in American history. It looks normal and has a few of those scenes where a side character says something important at just the right time and a few scenes wrought with sudden emotional weight or a perfectly timed monologue. I guess it all felt a little safe and simple. Maybe that’s what was needed, but I be curious to see what a different director might have done with it.

Godzilla could still kick it's ass.

Godzilla could still kick it’s ass.

Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was the perfect guy to direct the kaiju-homage flick, Pacific Rim (2013). I wish I liked this one more. The first few monster fights were fun, but they become repetitive. The robot suits are great, but they kill off the Russian and Chinese guys too soon. I thought it was going to be a fun all-the-countries-band-together-to-fight-the-monsters type thing. Most of the main characters are boring and tool-ish and the “drifting” thing is weird and ill-explained. I like the old kaiju movies for their cheesiness, and it was fun to see awesome special effects realize them with affection and detail, if only the story and characters had gotten a similar upgrade.

Here we go:

Choke me.

Choke me.

If you like sado-masochism, Japanese nudity, and genitalia-severence then this is the movie for you. Nagisa Ôshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is based on the true story of a steamy romance that requires increasing amounts of pain incorporated into the act of sex until their mounting obsession results in tragedy. It’s got a lot of sex, but it ain’t always sexy and that’s part of the point, I think.

Deja vu!

Déjà vu!

Peter Lorre and Syndey Greenstreet star in this film noir based on an Eric Ambler novel. Jean Negulesco’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is a bit of a poor man’s The Third Man, but it’s not bad. A pulp novelist becomes mixed up in a real-life European double-cross. It’s got a few decent twists and is a lot of fun if you like your noir.

It wasn't the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

It wasn’t the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

Jack Black gives a strangely nuanced performance in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011). Based on a true story, this little pseudo-mockumentary chronicles the events leading up to the murder of a nasty spinster (Shirley MacLaine) by the ineffably good-natured Bernie (Black). Justice isn’t all black & white and behind every small town tragedy is a hundred smaller stories.

Animals!

There's a predatory animal behind me. It's symbolism.

There’s a predatory animal behind me. It’s symbolism.

I’ll admit there’s not a whole lot terribly special about Murders in the Zoo (1933), but the finale really got me. Lionel Atwill stars as another nefarious ne’er-do-well in another crime melodrama. The lecherous zoo keeper isn’t exactly the most menacing of screen villains and maybe he doesn’t use his animals as much as we might like, but it’s a light romp through the pulpy shadows. It’s a typical genre piece from the period, but the ending is worth it.

Our movie's tiger than your movie's tiger and it's not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Our movie’s tiger is better than your movie’s tiger and it’s not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) paints a sumptuous adventure-survival tale with sweeping CG strokes in Life of Pi (2012). The colors and effects and music are great. The story is engaging and exciting. The guy who plays the Canadian author is terrible. It also suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambiguous ending—that I say was handled slightly better in the book. All in all, it’s a worthy screen adaptation of the fun story of a young boy adrift at sea with a tiger.

Stop taking things so seriously and enjoy life:

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? "Man of Iron." Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn't in it.

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? “Man of Iron.” Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn’t in it.

I was somewhat dismissive of the first two Iron Man movies, but Iron Man 3 (2013) was a lot of fun. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black, gives us more laughs and more exciting action. Robert Downey, Jr. is as snarky as ever and Sir Ben Kingsley provides one of the more interesting twist-foils in any superhero movie. Iron Man might be kind of fun, but wandering Mechanic of Tennessee is more interesting.

beauty is embarrassing

Throw down that strongbox and answer the question.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) is a pleasing documentary about kooky, renegade media artist Wayne White. After working on several TV shows (including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, and Shining Time Station) he turned his attentions to painting offensive and humorous slogans on top of thrift-shop landscape paintings. Puppet-maker, painter, sculptor, whatever, he’s eccentric and he can’t stop.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie---minus Salma and Harvey. It's so close.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie—minus Salma and Harvey. It’s so close.

Here’s the thing: I might actually hate 30-40% of this movie, but I love the rest. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is a wild, genre-bending grindhouse splatterfest from director Robert Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino. Some bad guys kidnap a family to escape across the border and hide out at a rowdy desert bar that is run by…demon vampires! It’s ridiculous fun and the final matte painting composite shot is awesome. It’s a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous fun but it seriously needs to be almost entirely recast (with the exceptions of Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek).  Also features George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, John Saxon, Cheech Marin (he can stay), Danny Trejo (he needs to do more cool stuff), Tom Savini (he can stay too), and Fred Williamson (he needs to do more cool stuff too).

Three parts greatness:

Tune in again in 9 years for "Before Brunch."

Tune in again in 9 years for “Before Brunch.”

The third installment of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s romantic series, Before Midnight (2013) sees the characters aging more and more. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset comes to a close…maybe? Taking place on one day at the end of a family vacation in Greece, we witness how they deal with their relationships, careers, divorce, children, and each other. While it might be sad that they seem more at each other’s throats than ever, perhaps it is the only logical place these two headstrong characters can go. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first two films, this latest chapter is rewarding for those of us who love these characters already and want to see what will happen next.

These aren't the state secrets you're looking for.

These aren’t the state secrets you’re looking for.

Carol Reed (The Third Man) directs Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1959). A milquetoast expat vacuum salesman living in Cuba with his daughter gets commissioned by the British government to be a spy. A slight embellishment gets blown out of proportion in this Cold War comedy and tensions and fears run high as the impromptu spy desperately tries to hide his fib and keep people from getting killed. Also stars Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Noel Coward.

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1...

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1…

Living in Oblivion (1995) is a must-watch for any aspiring filmmaker. Yes, even moreso than Ed Wood. It’s a dark comedy about the struggles and trials of making a low budget independent movie. The mounting tensions, increasingly short fuses, and unraveling strings of sanity are catalogued in three parts, each taking a different perspective. Anyone who has ever worked on a set will recognize every single crisis showcased here and anyone who has not might wonder why anyone would ever want to make a movie if it takes so many headaches. Steve Buschemi, Katherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, and Peter Dinklage star.

Ever stalwart:

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

French comedian and filmmaker, Pierre Étaix, keeps pantomime alive (like Jacques Tati) in Yo Yo (1965). It’s a quaint, cute, and visually inventive comedy about a billionaire who loses everything and joins the circus to find love. The sets and sight gags are wonderful and the story is sweet and complete.

It's been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

It’s been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

The perverse Australian cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) is sick and twisted and abrasive and strangely pensive, cutting, and eloquent. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is locked in his sadistic and abusive mother’s basement for 30 years before he escapes only to be confronted by a harsh, terrible, beautiful, tragic, funny, demented world he could never be prepared for. Like Being There and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, we learn much about society by watching these obtuse yet perceptive innocents interact with a world we have just learned to accept. Bubby has to learn everything all over again. It’s a deranged and graphic satire full of horrors and heart.

Apex twins:

Love is hard sometimes.

Love is hard sometimes.

In the Mood for Love (2000) is a sad romance about isolation, longing, and missed opportunities. Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express) directs Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) and Maggie Cheung (2046) as two lonely souls in 1960s Hong Kong. Both feel disconnected from their never-present spouses and seek to enjoy the company of each other, but gradually develop deeper feelings. Through simple interactions and quiet conversations their love grows, but their situation, their culture, and the disaffected sands of time continue to erect barriers. It’s a beautiful film full of regret.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would’ve weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

Mystery Train (1989) is easily my favorite Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes) film. There are three mostly unrelated stories set in Memphis on the same day. There is a yuppie Japanese couple straining to see their romanticized image of a fabulous musical metropolis rich in blues history. There is a stranded Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who must share a hotel room with a vacuous American chatterbox. And then there is the story of the chatterbox’s unemployed and irascible English boyfriend and his friends (including Steve Buschemi) who try to keep him from hurting himself and others until the sober dawn. All the characters must spend the night at a dilapidated city hotel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee.

What did you see? Anything good?

The 2012 Busan International Film Festival

We hailed a taxi in Yongin at around 5 in the morning. The buses don’t start running until near 6 in Korea. The taxi deposited us at Suwon station where we boarded the train to Busan. The five hour ride across the quiet and foggy Korean countryside was pleasant and uneventful. Upon arriving in Busan we met our final companion and proceeded to penetrate deep into the world of cinema.

The first film we saw was probably quite fitting for us. It was a South Korean film about a western woman visiting a small Korean town. It was aptly titled In Another Country (2012). The simple story of a French lady going to a small Korean town might have been entertaining on its own, but director Sang-soo Hong knows how to add layers and interest. It is told three times, with actress Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees) becoming a slightly different character (all named Anne, however) each time  the film stops and tells a different story—all with the same locations, supporting characters, and loose tie-ins to the other plots. The story is also vaguely hooded within the context of a girl writing script ideas on a legal pad to cope with her ambiguous home anxiety. And so our elliptical wheel turns. It’s a quiet, modest, nonlinear film whose structural cunning and obscurity compensate for whatever some might deem a low budget. In Another Country reminded me of a sort of cross between Certified Copy (2010) and Run Lola Run (1998)…but I liked it better than those particular films. Among its many charms is Yoo Jun-sang as the mildly awkward but unflappably gregarious lifeguard whom Anne repeatedly has run-ins with. The lifeguard character effortlessly steals every scene he is in. Another shout out goes to the monk dude. I admit my bias when discussing this film as many of the smaller scenarios endured by the central character resemble many of my own since moving to Korea, but I think the average movie goer will probably enjoy this strange little beast all by themselves.

After the film we wandered down to the beach and ate some spicy Korean octopus.

Fly with the Crane (2012) was to be the next film we would view. Directed by Rui Jun Li, this somber and earthy Chinese movie feels more like a dramatization of a National Geographic article than a cinematic fiction. This is not Crouching Tiger, this is a gorgeous, meticulous, and authentic feeling movie about the subtly shifting winds of change. Old Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma)  is a 73 year old retired coffin maker living in rural China with his adult children. His role as a figure to be respected is gone and he is viewed more as a cumbersome relic clinging spitefully to traditional ways. When burials become outlawed in his province in favor of cheaper and faster cremations, the dying wishes of Ma and all the town’s elderly is in crisis. Tradition demands they be buried in the earth so that the white crane can carry them to heaven. Nobody wants to end up as smoke. When the government even begins to dig up Ma’s friends who have had secret burials things become more upsetting. The world around Ma is changing, even if it still seems very under-developed and simple to some, and with the coming of change so perishes the traditions of the old. Fly with the Crane is slow and simple but rich in its humanity. For a movie about a tragic figure trying to plan his own funeral it’s not without some moments of gentle humor and simple humanity. Although it is shot in largely very long takes (Bela Tarr fans will be fine) that let you just steep in the environment, the pace never drags and the music (although its use is sparse) is wonderful and well-placed. I cannot reveal the ending, but let’s just say I don’t know that I was mentally prepared for the final scene.

Following a fitful night’s sleep on a solid wood floor we were up again at 6 to wait in the ticket line. We managed to obtain precisely the tickets we were looking for.

Film three was the only movie I had been aware of back in the states. I had wanted to see it but was afraid I’d be in the wrong country at the time of its release. Ha! Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an American film directed by Benh Zeitlin and based on a play by Lucy Alibar. While the film unfolds as an immensely gritty American fable and allegory for the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, it proves to be also a hardy story about resilience, home, stubbornness, and maybe even the desire for one’s existence to be validated and remembered. Beasts combines elements of the real world but punctuated by an exaggerated logic and a poet’s sensibilities. The cast is great but it is the lead role of Hushpuppy played by six year old Quvenzhané Wallis that makes it all work. As the film itself quips, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.” A child actor can make or break a film, and little Quvenzhané really makes it. The story follows the tough little girl, Hushpuppy, as she deals with living in uneducated squalor with her erratic and volatile father on the wrong side of the levy in a dilapidated bayou community called the Bathtub. Things go from bad to worse when the Storm comes and floods their world and then the ice caps melt releasing prehistoric bloodthirsty aurochs that rampage their way to the Bathtub. It is an edifying experience for the imagination and a welcome emotional letter for the soul. Much is dealt with and all from a child’s eye view. Between the amazing score that stirs your very core, the almost Herzogian use of animals, the sumptuous photography, and powerful pint-sized performance this proves to be a special movie indeed. The innovative auroch special effects were done by Death to the Tinman and MGMT music video director, Ray Tintori.

And then ate Vietnamese food alfresco.

So three solid movies in a row. We were doomed for a stinker, right? No so.

The last film we were able to catch before our train was The Pirogue (2012), a Senegalese production directed by Moussa Touré. I had no idea what a “pirogue” was before watching this movie. Apparently it’s not at all like those Polish ravioli things [pirogi]. The story concerns 30 Africans who are attempting to illegally immigrate to Europe via Spain. The trouble is they must face long uncertain days on the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a glorified canoe-type boat called a pirogue. This is a very even-handed drama that does not feel manipulative. Every character is a person with individual hopes and dreams and everyone’s will is eventually tested on their doomed sojourn. Storms at sea are bad, but when your craft is as exposed and vulnerable as theirs it becomes devastating. Soon desperation sets in and they begin to wonder how long their journey will go on. I do not wish to give away too much because the less you know going in, the more powerful the drama will be. This film was inspired by the thousands of Africans who have made similar journeys to Europe and the thousands who perished attempting it. This is not Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). Much like Fly with the Crane, The Pirogue feels very authentic, which makes each moment that much more believable and heart-breaking. Arizona law-makers should watch this movie. We, in America, think we’re the only ones with an immigration problem, but it is a cross-cultural occurrence that challenges many nations, and all of those nations might benefit from viewing the phenomenon from the other’s point-of-view. The cast is powerful and despite the bulk of the drama unfolding in one space (a rather crowded boat) it holds your attention because you’re never sure what will happen next.

All in all I’d say we were blessed to see the diverse and amazing films we did. My big regret was that we only got to see four movies. There were so many other ones we wanted to see, but it was just too difficult and we only had two days. The International Busan Film Festival was an absolute delight and I highly recommend all the magnificent movies I saw.

The following day I was back at work and watched a film of a much different nature. It was a PSA about sexual harassment at work, but it was all in Korean so I’m not sure what I was meant to learn. Is spanking my coworkers a bad thing?

Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

Baxter: French “Cujo” or Dog “Taxi Driver”?

A long time ago—some might even venture to add ‘in a galaxy far away’ but they would be fools—I had a great deal of fun hosting and writing a radio for me old alma mater. The show was arbitrarily called “Don’t Fly Continental” (the airline had lost my luggage a week before I had to name the show) and every week we would review three obscure/bizarre/lost films. I remember when I first pitched the concept to a group of fellow students at the time and they said things like, “Why don’t you want to review good movies?” and “You’re going to run out of movies after week three.” I was cut to the very quick by their vehement and ignoble simpleness. Well, I’m pleased to say we never did run out and to this day, years later, I am unearthing dozens of wild films every week, hence this blog in lieu of the demise of the radio show. Beyond being far from running out of weird movies, I am pleased to say that a good many of the obscure films we discovered were not only good but many were masterpieces, staggering achievements, godsends.

One of my favorite finds from the first year we ever did “Don’t Fly Continental” was a surprising little psychological horror about a sociopathic bull terrier, Baxter (1989). I have watched it and shared it several times since. I’ll admit it might be a difficult film for some, but it is one of those great movies that sadly remains obscure for many folks. It was within some of the first few months of “Don’t Fly Continental” when we watched Baxter and we realized immediately that our show was truly important. We found many great unknown films, but this was one of the early ones that we merely stumbled upon quite by accident.

I read something of it somewhere online. It looked like your standard killer dog slasher movie. The cover looked something like this:

It seems to have been sorely misrepresented. Even the tagline is really misleading. As my title implies this is not merely a French version of Cujo. This is far more dark and psychological and far more chilling than viscerally shocking. In fact, there is very little onscreen violence. Most of it is shocking enough just being anticipated. It’s not very gory, but it is downright chilling. Director Jérôme Boivin takes us down a very unnerving rabbit hole as we descend into the twisted and confused mind of man’s best friend. This is more a canine Travis Bickle.

The story begins with dim, jarring closeups of snarling dog muzzles behind kennel bars and mesh. Eventually our main character’s voice is heard above the desperate howling. The voice is that of a dog named Baxter (Maxime Leroux). As he is slowly illumined and the camera pushes in and the blood red void behind him brightens his grim monologue comes to an end and the movie’s title pops in. There is an immediate tone of brooding animosity, impending danger, and the potential for horrific carnage held in suspended animation. This ominous tone remains near constant for the entire duration.

Baxter is broken up into segments after the prologue. We get a look into the troubled and interconnected lives of several human characters before Baxter returns. There is jealousy, infidelity, voyeurism, unrequited love, thoughts on aging, and the seedlings of a Hitler obsession in the human world. The movie lingers on the sad existences of these human characters, delicately setting the stage for the title character. The elderly and surly Madame Deville (Lise Delamare) is given the insulting gift of a dog for her birthday. This dog is, of course, Baxter.

Baxter does not like Madame Deville. Her fear of him makes him uneasy and that she gives him no structure or orders makes him angry and confused. Without focus and understandable tasks Baxter’s mind returns to “unnatural thoughts” from his early life. We never know what happened to him before the pound, but it seems to have left him slightly deranged. Although half of the time we are observing the lives of the emotionally disconnected human characters, the other half we are submerged in the suffocatingly grim and psychopathic inner-monologues of Baxter. As he tries to make sense of his changing world, even his pleasant thoughts seem marred by malicious intent. “I have always been fascinated by birds. Maybe one day I’ll kill one.”

As Baxter’s secret feelings regarding his aging master become more and more enamored with the idea of her death—which Baxter sees as entirely justifiable and necessary—Madame Deville is also slowly succombing to dementia. Her behavior becomes more erratic and their lives together more cloistered. Baxter fantasizes about the young couple across the street whom he observes with interest and imagines their noises and smells when they make love.

This film also has some bizarre left turns such as a ghost beckoning an old man into death. Yeah. Completely unprecedented, yet somehow appropriate and functional.

Eventually (through malevolent means) Baxter does end up with the young couple and all is bliss and routine until the young woman gets pregnant. I won’t say much but if you watch this movie you will think twice about letting a dog near a baby. The dog is disgusted by the feeble, mindless new creature and utterly baffled as to why the tall people dote over it so. Soon a new plot hatches in the cur’s wicked brain. Baxter is the anti-Lady and the Tramp.

Baxter switches owners many times, but when a strange Hitler-obsessed little boy sociopath adopts him things somehow become more serious than ever. The film was always brooding and dark, but now there is a vessel of encouragement and focus for Baxter. The extra scary thing is that this boy is the only character that Baxter actually fears and respects (for the most part). By the way, there is nothing sexier than telling your woman she looks like Eva Braun. I cannot reveal more of the plot for fear of spoiling the chilling final act. There is violence and terror, but it manages to be completely chilling on a psychological level and only rises into an unnervingly easy crescendo. I rate Baxter as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It may be a reflection of my personal tastes, but it surprised me so with the chances and twists it takes. It is just a great movie and a must-see for any serious horror fan.

The first time I saw this odd little French film, the ending left me chilled to my very marrow.

Perhaps what truly makes this film work is its personality. It is not merely a cold, blood-lusting torture-porn. It is meticulous, calculating, and it has a rather dark sense of humor. Although it is in many ways a black comedy the laughs may not always come easy to you. It is a vicious humor with grim implications on the nature of man and dog alike. It is a complex film that will probably not be what you expect. Baxter is one of those obscure masterpieces. I loved it and therefore you should watch it.

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

Quiet and at a Distance

“Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.”—Buster Keaton

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but comedy is a long shot.”—Charlie Chaplin

Playtime---"excuse me."

Playtime—“excuse me.”

The great silent comedians knew it best. The quotes up top reveal much in their simplicity. Serious is personal, funny is removed. When seeing a face contorted by physical or emotional pain, we have a tendency to empathize, but when seen in full juxtaposition against a much bigger world we sometimes get the feeling our own “big” problems are quite silly. Comedy can be a grotesque distortion of the real world or it can be a subtle exaggeration or unexpected emphasis. By taking those necessary steps back and poking fun at misfortune, we get a chuckle, but we can also realize something more telling about our society or identity than we might have anticipated because we are now the omniscient observer. Film teaches us…even when we are laughing.

1

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—so close but so far

One of the fascinating things about comic film auteur, Jacques Tati, is that it seemed he couldn’t get his camera far enough away from the action. Each successive film he made he moved further and further back until there were no characters, only bumbling specks. There is no plot, only impersonal environment and obstacle. If you saw Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010) then you got a pretty good look at the man (the main character is modeled after Tati very closely and it was based on a script he had written before he died) and you got a sense of his tacit comic style, but to view the actual gentleman’s work is something a bit different.

Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Keaton’s stone-faced stuntman, and Lloyd’s bespectacled everyman, Tati too had a consistent onscreen persona in the form the bungling Monsieur Hulot. Instantly recognizable by his raincoat, hat, umbrella, pipe, and avian stiff-legged gait, Mr. Hulot is a fine comic character that has made his way into cinematic memory. Mr. Hulot found his debut in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday—ready for the beach

Hulot’s Holiday is light and affable and full of many memorable and creative sight gags. Essentially plotless, the movie follows the quiet misadventures of Mr. Hulot at the beach and all of the other peaceful—and far less clumsy—French folks on their seaside vacation. In Hulot’s first outing, we see Tati really toying with film itself to tell the jokes. Tati has been lauded for his impeccable mise-en-scène and we see a budding genius here in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s not what can be seen in each frame, but also what information can be strategically hidden or subliminally inferred.

What Tati does with pictures reminds me of what comedian Bob Newhart did with words. Newhart had several stand-up bits where he would talk on the phone or to an invisible person whose presence was assumed. We never see or hear the other person, but we know exactly what they are doing and saying and thinking based solely on Newhart’s subtle pauses, inflections, and word choices in mock-response. Tati will either give the audience—or only a few characters—a bit of information, such as the surprising presence of a horse for example, and then alternate back and forth between who is privy to said information; the audience or the characters. It was all a clever grown-up game of hide-and-seek.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—a graceful exit

Tati liked to create beautifully set up spaces riddled with obstacles the characters would have to maneuver around. Scenes in Mon Oncle (1958) where we see Mr. Hulot navigating his way up or down from his rustic, old apartment dwelling are strangely, quietly amusing. The camera is always parked directly across the street as if the lens were from a voyeuristic Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. This distance reveals the labyrinthine absurdity and shows the audience the whole picture while Hulot himself is limited from room to room. Like watching the ending of an episode of Legends of the Hidden Temple, we in our chairs see exactly what obstacles lay in the next room before the participant. This allows for either suspense or suspended comedy.

Mon Oncle

Mon Oncle—visiting the sister

The biggest production Tati ever did came in the form of Playtime (1967) and it had several layers to it. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was an exercise in taking away the relaxation of a trip to the beach from would-be relaxers. Mon Oncle started to have more noticeable elements of satire. Mr. Hulot lives in a dilapidated, yet character-full, old apartment while his sister is obsessed with ever-backfiring modernity. Things are all about keeping up appearances for important guests with inefficient technologies and frivolities that “make our lives easier.” Tati satirizes this with his poetic Hulot character as the simple man who is poor in possessions, but rich in honesty and personality. Playtime takes this concept a step further. In Mon Oncle, modern architecture was merely imposing on old France. In Playtime, modern architecture has entirely engulfed old France. It is one of the grayest, most sterile, and concrete looking films you will probably ever see. The whole spectacle feels far away, hollow, and empty…and it is exactly what Tati was trying to do.

Jacques Tati returns as Mr. Hulot, a wandering old soul trying to find his way in this faceless new world. All of Tati’s/Hulot’s beloved old France has been relegated to a single street corner (in the form of an anachronistic-looking woman selling flowers under a tarpaulin). The real France is only ever hinted at in reflections or off in the distance behind “more important modern things.” Tati’s trademark plotlessness afforded him great opportunities to make very high-concept films about ideas and abstractions like modern city living in Playtime. One of my personal favorite sequences comes toward the beginning where Mr. Hulot is trying meet with someone and waits and waits and then, fed up with waiting, embarks on his own through a very homogeneous edifice interior full of identical hallways, rooms, cubicles, elevators, and people. Tati also plays with reflections and glass barriers to wonderfully inventive comic effect throughout Playtime.

Playtime

Playtime—the maze of cubicles

The running gag throughout Playtime is that modern (and many times American) culture has eaten the old world. Several of the characters are American tourists looking for old Paris, but happily accepting the modern soulless replacements. They get off the plane and wander through an immensely sterile and impersonal airport, board a modern looking bus, get stuck in a traffic orgy of nearly indistinguishable cars, and wander the cold concrete corridors of all that is left of Paris. One marvelous moment comes when a tourist is about to enter another very modern building and catches a fleeting glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of the glass door as she opens it. For a brief moment the tourist is struck by the magic and then continues on her way to shopping and sales.

Tati’s biases are clear and obvious, but his clever delivery of all these statements is masterful. Hulot visits friends in their big-windowed apartment (nothing like his place from Mon Oncle) and the camera stays outside watching the silent, ironic, and humorous events transpire from across the street. The scene is about ten minutes long and all we see for this ten minutes is a grid of square windows with people watching televisions inside (the juxtaposition ventures to ask, “who’s really on display here?”) and all we hear is the passing cars outside. Everything is conjured to be as unnatural as possible. Another classic gag comes when an apartment denizen leaves to walk his dog and as soon as he steps outside the little dog hops up off the concrete and onto the only green in the film: a pitiful strip of astro-turf lining the building.

Playtime--travel agency.

Playtime–travel agency.

It’s more than a re-imagining of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The humor is soft and subtle and easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention to what Tati is doing. One joke I missed the first time I saw this was a gag involving a heated argument and then the “slamming” of a new and improved silent door. Those people expecting to find Mr. Hulot as a central figure in this huge film will be disappointed. Mr. Hulot has become not only distant from the camera, but distant from most of the action. Hulot has become just another character in a sea of faces, but his is still the most familiar and I’d say the most amusing. In parodying city life and the heart-breaking trend of embracing all that is sleek, streamlined, and new while bulldozing the artful past, Tati creates a film unlike any other. Cold buildings tower over gaudily dressed cartoon characters of the human race and kowtow to all things modern. The tragedy is, just like in Brazil, the modern stuff doesn’t always work and Tati would argue it is also far less pretty.

Playtime meanders about and then finally culminates in a swanky restaurant’s ill-fated opening night before sending all the tourists on their carnival ride through Paris traffic back to the airport. Fitting this film should end with traffic as Tati’s next film and final outing as Mr. Hulot would be Traffic (1971). Traffic gets crapped on as being lesser Tati, but it is still great and very clever. Playtime is a tough act to follow. In viewing Tati’s canon one gets the feeling he was feeling more and more archaic and out of place in a world that was constantly changing. He was a dinosaur, a silent comedian trapped in a land of sound, a wandering poet drowning in a sea of science. Mr. Hulot is really a tragic figure and many of the ideas in Tati’s films are rather sad and unfortunate when you think about how true so many of them are or have become…but then, he set the camera far enough back. From this safe distance we could clearly see the anarchy and lunacy of our society and appreciate the grim comedy of it all. Up close, many of the most important comedies would be far more serious affairs.

Traffic

Traffic

Many an homage has been made to the great Tati’s contributions to film and comedy, from Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), but there aren’t many comedy directors today that are as bold and articulate as Jacques Tati was at the height of his powers. When comedy is at its best it is as intellectually effectual and perceptive as drama, but it has the added bonus of being clever and letting us laugh at ourselves too.

Top 10 Reasons to See the Films of Jacques Tati:

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

Jacques Tati (1907-1982)

1. He was one of the last great silent comedians, keeping it alive and respectable well into the 1970s.

2. You think comedies don’t have as much artistic merit or visual brilliance as other genres? Correct your misconception.

3. He is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time…and he only made six features.

4. Playtime was the most expensive French film ever made up until that time so make his investment worth it.

5. You liked The Illusionist? Good. Now you can make it even more funny and important.

6. Impress your friends with knowledge of famous French filmmakers that aren’t Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard.

7. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I genuinely find him funny.

8. I can think of three truly memorable comic walks: Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jacques Tati…then there’s the whole Monty Python’s Flying Circus “Ministry of Silly Walks,” but that’s another story.

9. If you saw Elia Suleiman’s Palestinian film Divine Intervention (2002) and were lost or didn’t get it, acquainting yourself with Tati will really explain a lot of the mechanics of his film and, I think, make it funnier and more rewarding.

10. If you like your comedy to be significant or have a subtle, jabbing commentary to it, check out Mon Oncle, Playtime, or Traffic. Or if you’d rather comedy just be amusing without heavy societal messages watch Mr. Hulot’s Holdiay.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 28, 2011.