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.

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.

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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

Everybody Loves Satyajit Ray

Not all Indian cinema is bombastic Bollywood musicals.

Every so often a film or filmmaker reaches us at just the right time in our lives. Thus was my late introduction to Indian auteur, Satyajit Ray, and his films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), together making up the Apu Trilogy. Perhaps it is just the unpredictability of life and apparent insensitivity of fate featured in these movies that make them so readily understandable despite the great cultural gap, or perhaps it is something more. Granted, tragedy plays a huge part in all three films, but I do not think I would love them so much if they were devoid of any hope or redemption.

pather panchali2Ray’s style is almost documentarian in execution and one must pay very close attention to the women in his films. Like Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953), Satyajit Ray likes to portray the struggles and plights of women in patriarchal society with compassion and humanity. The Apu Trilogy is a family history. Characters are introduced, but not all will make it to the end. (Warning: spoilers ahead…but I do not think revealing too much can weaken these films’ impact).

The first film, Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Little Road) is the story of the Ray family in the provincial village of Bengal, India in the 1920s. The struggling Brahmin family consists of the naive poet father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee); the stoic mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee); their daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta); Sarbajaya’s elderly sister-in-law, Aunt Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi); and soon Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born.

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The narrative is not forced. Pather Panchali feels like a slice of life and reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica with its Neo-Realist approach and use of non-actors. Things happen. Emotions rise and fall. We see the whimsy of old Aunt Indir and we see the simple ideals of Harihar wax away. We see a poor mother’s internal struggle with her foolish husband (reminding me quite a bit of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari) and her strained relationship with Indir and her torment at the hands of the village folk who persecute her for the way her daughter behaves. We see young Durga steal fruit and cause her mother much duress and we thrill with little Apu and his beloved sister when they makeup after a fight and they see the train rush by for the first time as they race through fields of tall grass.

We are introduced to these characters as if they are real people, not mere pawns to move a plot forward. In a way, there is no plot. Satyajit Ray’s character’s are the impotent victims of the unsentimental storm of life and our hearts are broken for them as we witness their misfortunes and we count the lines on their weather-worn faces as the years go by. Death’s sting is especially potent in this film. Sickness, death, and other hardships meet this family and rob them of much, and as the glue that holds them together is rubbed thin we find a melancholy solace in the knowledge that sometimes we must simply press on.

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The second film, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) is just as heart-rending. The dwindling Ray family must continue on. This marks one of the first sequels (for me anyway) where I was really saddened that certain characters would not be returning. I noticed the quiet expressions in their faces when they were thinking about their loved ones who did not make it.

Apu (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosel) is growing older and making friends in the city of Benares where they have moved. His father, Harihar, works as a priest, but when he falls sick and does not survive, Sarbajaya is left alone to provide for herself and her young son. They move to the Ray ancestral village of Mansapota and she works as a maid.

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Sarbajaya is my favorite character. Her struggles as a woman, a wife, and a mother in a harsh world that has not done her any favors is mesmerizing and tragic. She is stoic and levelheaded, but over the course of the two films we witness the toll the tough years take on her. She is just one woman who has not ended up where she probably originally hoped or thought, and she must take care of her family despite all her pain. Her portrait, brilliantly played by Karuna Bannerjee, is beautiful, powerful, and heart breaking.

Apu is apprenticed to be a Brahmin like his father, but attracted by some children playing along a road, asks his mother to let him go to school. He discovers the joys of learning. Sarbajaya feels like Apu can learn and bring honor back to the family. Perhaps the next generation of the Ray family will not be as unfortunate, Sarbajaya’s eyes read. Apu proves a diligent scholar and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school in Calcutta. At the sudden prospect of being truly alone, Sarbajaya tries to dissuade Apu from furthering his academic career, but realizes how much it would mean to him and gives Apu her savings and allows him to go. Apu grows and learns while Sarbajaya grows lonely and older. She hides her failing health from her son but quietly wishes he would return to see her. When he does return it is too late. Devastated, Apu ignores the urging to stay in the village and be a priest so he returns to Calcutta to perform the last rites for his mother. He will make something of himself even if no one will be there to see it.

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The final installment, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) shifts all focus onto an older Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a poor graduate living in Calcutta. He sells his books to pay rent and he lazily searches for work to pay for university tuition and works on writing a novel based on his life. He meets an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who must attend a cousin’s marriage and, not desiring to go alone, urges Apu to join him.

They travel to the village of Khulna for the ceremony where things do not go exactly as expected. As Satyajit Ray continues this exploration of the tragedy and beauty of the unexpected, the bridegroom shows up on time, but has a severe mental disorder so the bride and bride’s mother become extremely upset. The father and elders insist that their daughter, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), will be cursed if she does not marry on the appointed day. In their efforts to fix the doomed marriage, Pulu and the elders elect Apu as the replacement groom. Apu, disturbed by the sudden idea, finally agrees to marry Aparna (since his life isn’t really going anywhere else). Apu warns Aparna that he is very poor and although she is initially disappointed with their meager wages and shabby apartment, she does indeed fall in love with him.

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The marriage actually gives Apu a wake-up call and he begins working as a cleric. He teaches his wife things that he learned in school. They write letters when they are apart and their love grows, but tragedy (naturally) strikes when the beautiful Aparna dies giving birth to their son while away. Apu rejects everything and runs away from the world. He hates the child he has never seen, but he sends money to his father-in-law to take care of him. Apu lets the wind take his manuscript as he releases it on a mountaintop and weeps. Life without his beloved Aparna is not worth living. Why would fate torment him like this?

After many years of forsaking his fatherly responsibilities Pulu finds him and urges Apu to see his son, Kajal, and father the boy (who is becoming quite wild in his grandfather’s care). After much convincing, Apu goes to retrieve his son from his father-in-law, but the boy does not think Apu is his father, but perhaps he may accept his confidence as a friend. They depart together to start a new life.

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As the saga of Apu and the Ray family comes to a close and we dry the tears from our eyes and take a deep breath at the emotional depths these movies have taken us, we can pause and thank God for directors like Satyajit Ray. Pensive cinematography, shimmering sitar score composed by Ravi Shankar, close-ups loaded with emotion and thought, and the journey of one filmmaker are just a few reasons to find these movies and watch them. We see Satyajit Ray grow as a filmmaker and become more sure of humself with each new chapter in this beautiful trilogy. This experience really whet my appetite for more films of Satyajit Ray.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” January 30, 2010.