K is for Kooky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now go to the movies and stop downloading crap.