More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

An Arabian Night All Too Often Forgotten

Minarets.

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

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

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

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

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

A woman's work is never done.

A woman’s work is never done.

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

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

Hero time.

Hero time.

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

File created with CoreGraphics

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

Wizards' cat's cradle.

Wizards’ cat’s cradle.

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

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

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

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