Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

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Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

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Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

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I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

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So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

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The Toys are Back in Town

It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.

We had watched Toys (1992) again.

Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.

Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.

Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.

I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.

There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.


Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.

The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?

Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.

Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”

I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.

Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?

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Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”

1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.

2. It’s better than Dracula.

3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.

4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.

5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).

6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.

7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.

9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.

10. Because I demand it of you.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010

The Post Apocalyptic Movies You Didn’t See…Way Beyond the Thunderdome

Deserts and desperation. From Mad Max (1979) to Children of Men (2006) we sure do love speculating about what the world might look like after a nuclear holocaust. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre of the dystopian movie is something of a Hollywood staple nowadays (The Road, Book of Eli). There have been many a fine example of what a story can do with a clean slate. After the disaster you can make your own rules…unfortunately a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks don’t seem to realize that the possibilities of what a post-apocalyptic world can be are endless. You can go all out weird-bad bonkers like John Boorman’s misguided wtf Zardoz (1974) with Sean Connery, or you can go total glittery-cape-wearing zombie-war like in the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971). Most of the films mentioned in this paragraph are fairly well-known or popular (ok, Zardoz is a little out there), but I’d like to focus on a few post-apocalyptic movies you probably didn’t see. Both good and bad these films celebrate the endless possibilities of life after the bomb drops.

Come travel back in time with me as we explore the future.

When I hear a title like Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987) a little twinge of excitement tickles my spine. I watched this movie knowing it was going to be bad. It did not disappoint. Hell Comes to Frogtown stars wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (They Live) as Sam Hell, one of the last remaining fertile males in the not too distant future. Hell is captured and his netherbits are locked up by the provisional government so that he can go on a mission—wait for it, wait for it—to impregnate all the fertile females that are held hostage in Frogtown. So what is Frogtown? Frogtown is the steam-filled factory-like settlement inhabited by mutant frog people. Ribbit. If this movie sounds a little campy and chauvinistic, it’s only because it is. This movie can’t go ten minutes without women disrobing themselves. Frogtown has everything you’d expect from a campy eighties sci-fi action comedy. You got your butch, cigar-chomping, short-hair chick who’s always stroking a big gun (Cec Verrell). Then there’s the “nerdy” chick with the stick up her butt who lets her hair down and removes her gigantic owl glasses (and several articles of clothing) to reveal she’s secretly super hot (Sandahl Bergman). There’s your regular Joe protagonist (Piper) who just wants to get the blasted electrocution diaper off his junk. Finally there are some truly silly people in big frog puppet suits. The film is ugly and terrible…just the way I like it sometimes. If nothing else, it’s better than Super Mario Bros.

The eighties had some hits, but man, when you find its forgotten misses. Don’t hate this one because it’s Canadian. Hate it because it sucks. The mercifully short Rock & Rule (1983) is just as yucky as anything to come out of the eighties. In the distant future some mutant rodent people have formed a mediocre rock band. The band is made up of the obnoxious tool of a guitarist, the loveable but paunchy intellectual keyboardist, the goofy and uber-annoying drummer, and the kind and soulful hot girl. Everything is going nowhere for these guys until an evil all-powerful rocker named Mok needs to use the girl’s voice to unleash a demon out of hell for some reason. I found it interesting that all of the male characters look rather gross or strange but with the girl they really try to minimize her rodent features and sexualize her. Anthros will love it. The story is stupid, the characters are grating, the colors are oppressive and dim, and there’s really nothing to care about in this unpleasant fantasy adventure, but the animation is actually really, really good. I was genuinely impressed by the animation in this dumb movie. The same studio animated Eek! The Cat and The Adventures of Tintin cartoons. Most of the songs are pretty forgettable, but there’s a few decent ones. The songs are performed by (get this) Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, and Earth, Wind, & Fire, so there’s that. All in all something this bad and strange should not be forgotten…because that means I have to find it.

The bad is now behind us. Now we move into the realm of the good ol’ off-the-wall post-apocalyptic movies.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) is the touching tale of the undying bond between man and man’s best friend. Kind of. In the distant future (post-apocalyptic, of course) Vic (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire) search for food and females. The landscape is reminiscent of Hell Comes to Frogtown, but it was actually Mad Max who was inspired first. A Boy and His Dog was directed by L.Q. Jones (the old, blonde, mustachioed guy in The Mask of Zorro) and is appropriately taglined as “a rather kinky tale of survival.” The protagonist, Vic, is not only a bit of an immature, reckless jerk, but he’s also a bit of a rapist too. The dog is ten times smarter than Vic is, which really makes you consider a dog’s steadfast loyalty in a whole new light. When Vic meets Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) he is convinced he must see the strange, enigmatic underground city. If everyone above ground is wild and dangerous and resources are scarce then maybe it’s time to go subterranean. The problem is that Blood is wounded and so he elects to wait for Vic to return up top. Once underground Vic discovers a whole populated world of people wearing clown makeup (and the world is run by Jason Robards!!!). He then learns that they need his seed to repopulate (Frogtown! Confound you!). Initially the idea appeals to the perpetually randy Vic, but when they take all the fun out of it and keep him prisoner that’s when things get serious. I would love to tell you more, but I can’t ruin it for you. It’s a pretty odd film that gets away with a lot of its shenanigans by not taking itself too seriously. Oh, and the ending is definitely one for the books.

Lastly, and my personal favorite on this list, is the surreal British comedy The Bed-Sitting Room (1969). The film takes place in a desolate British wasteland full of oddball characters trying to carry on with their daily lives. These characters are played by many familiar English personalities such as Michael Hordern (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits), Dudley Moore (Arthur), Peter Cook (Bedazzled), Roy Kinnear (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Rita Tushingham (Doctor Zhivago), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Secombe (The Goon Show), and more! It was based on Spike Milligan’s play (he also stars in the film alongside everyone else) and it was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers, Superman II). The film really operates more as a series of somewhat connected interludes and non-sequiturs, all as bafflingly surreal and morbidly funny as all get out. It almost feels like what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Alejandro Jodorowsky did a movie together. It has that absurd—almost Monty Python flavored—satire, but with the stark desperation and dreamlike transmogrifications that imply an even more cynically surreal hand at work. It’s a marvelous commentary on society and if you can get into people turning into furniture then this just might be the film for you. I absolutely loved its darkly warped wit. This is Richard Lester untethered and the cast is superb. And even weirder than Lester’s How I Won the War.

Post-apocalyptic movies have remained popular through the years and it’s no wonder. You can get really imaginative with them. I picked these films not only because they are exceptionally unusual and maybe less well known, but also because they employ a unique and welcome twist to the genre: a sense of humor. Hell Comes to Frogtown and Rock and Rule may be rather heinous, but they only mean to have fun and provide a strange escape. A Boy and His Dog and The Bed-Sitting Room are inventive and edgy, but it is their humorous spirit that defines them and makes them special. Humor affords them special privileges. Humor can say and do things drama cannot, and vice versa, but with so many dour and serious post-apocalyptic films out there, why not take a chance on one of these weird babies? If you like post-apocalyptic movies you might enjoy checking out these peculiar specimens…but you already know which ones I’d recommend first.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 13, 2011

“A woman is not a seal…not even a walrus.”

I would start  by saying that this is a weird movie for 1960, but that’d be a little disingenuous. This would be a weird movie for any year. Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), brings this strange arctic tale to the screen. You can chalk up Eskimo on Anthony Quinn‘s long list of nationalities he has portrayed. Where to begin?

First off: I do not know how accurate this movie is in portraying Inuit peoples, so I’m not sure if the movie is sexist or racist or sexist and racist or nothing. Not that a little culturally ill-informed bad taste has ever stopped me from enjoying a movie before (I refer you to my article on Song of the South). Whatever the case and however bizarre a product The Savage Innocents (1960) may be, I still liked it.

The story concerns Inuk (Quinn) and his search for a woman “to laugh with” (a.k.a. bang). Once he finds his woman, Asiak (played with sweetness by Yoko Tani), he seeks to become a great hunter. To become a great hunter he will trade fox pelts for a gun with the foolish white men. He accidentally murders a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) who insults his home by not eating his maggot-filled meat and refusing “to laugh with” his wife when he offers her. When his wife is ready to give birth he must leave his old mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to be eaten by polar bears. He must raise a son and hunt many wild animals. When the white authorities catch up with him he must remember his crime and try to explain before they can arrest him and then he must help his captors when they get lost on the ice.

Dogsleds, the derision of women, and the clashing of cultures is what this movie is all about. If their lives seem hard to understand and barbaric at times we must remember that theirs is a savage innocents. It may not be what the rest of the world is used to, but it is its own culture that was adapted to be as harsh as the arctic environment they reside in. It is no better or worse than the “civilized” world. It’s all about simplicity and survival.

Sometimes I’m actually uncertain if the filmmakers want to present these people as more than primitive blubber-munchers or if they want to say that they are but that’s okay because that’s just who they are. It is a puzzlement. In any event they do also condemn “civilized” man as well.

It is also just kind of neat that the movie is set in a contemporary setting. By telling the story of indigenous peoples unconcerned with the Atomic Age it bottles some genuine insulation and innocence from international troubles.

Inuits might be one of the most underrepresented groups in the media. Apart from Robert J. Flaherty’s vintage documentary Nanook of the North (1922) and Frank Zappa’s song Yellow Snow and a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two there really have not been many Northern folk in the movies. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I can respect this strange amalgam of drama and documentary (the drama is frequently punctuated by a narrator describing life in the Arctic). I confess I probably would not have even sought out this movie had it not been for the promise of seeing two of my favorite people to watch onscreen—Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone) and Anna May Wong (Piccadilly, Shanghai Express, Bombs Over Burma)—together in the same movie. Alas, I looked through this movie so hard and could not find her. Apparently someone else has the name “Anna May Wong” but it was not THE Anna May Wong. I was a little mad about that. Oh well.

Does it seem odd to cast a Chinese actress as an Inuit? Odder than casting a Mexican? Well, Quinn had played Apache, Greek, Persian, French, and the Prophet himself to name a few. Why not Inuit? And when much of the cast is apparently Japanese maybe you won’t mind. Just remember that this was a different time and this is how movies were made and we have come so far since then and pay no attention to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger (2013) movie.

It’s a strange movie to be sure. It’s rather episodic and uneven. Some of the scenery is impressive but sometimes it’s too apparent when they’re on a stage. There are a sloppy few animal sequences that mostly end in death of some kind (the walrus hunt is pretty good though). The trouble with an environment that is day half the year and night the other half is that it becomes impossible to distinguish the passage of time (Pacino! Insomnia!). Some of the dialogue feels stilted and possibly caricature. Peter O’Toole (pre-nose job!) is in it but his voice is dubbed by some American guy so it’s weird (Harvey Keitel in Saturn 3, anyone?). The narration feels out of place most of the time, like an old Disney nature documentary or Mondo Cane. Much of the film feels quite uncinematic actually. Some sequences make me feel uncomfortable because I’m not sure how uninformed and insulting the movie really is in regards to actual Inuit culture. Nanook of the North was definitely the better Inuit movie. Ultimately most the themes in The Savage Innocents were handled far better in Akira Kurosawa‘s grand Russian epic Dersu Uzala (1975).

There are also a lot of shirts off for such a cold climate.

All these grievances add up to a truly weird movie experience. I did like it, however. It does have some pretty good sequences: the kayak and dogsled footage; the walruses tumbling off their rock island; Asiak winning over Inuk; the missionary murder; Asiak’s attitude towards the whites and “civilized” Inuits at the trading post; the chilling advice regarding childbirth from a dying old woman; the mission to arrest Inuk in the storm. It doesn’t all add up to a great movie, but it is pretty unforgettable. The main theme isn’t bad either (a sort of mix between Giacomo Puccini’s Humming Chorus from the opera Madame Butterfly and the theme from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust). Anthony Quinn is not doing his best work, but he’s still good and Yoko Tani does a fine job as his submissive but willful wife (her character is far more interesting). The Savage Innocents also create an atmosphere unlike any other. You feel secluded and desperate but cozy while watching it. Watching this movie you will feel like you have lived in this bleak, frozen world your whole life. You really do end up relating to these characters. You hate the traders and the missionary and the troopers despite their best intentions. They are the aliens in this world. Inuk and his family are the only guides you’d follow through this impossible tundra.

It’s a fairly immersive experience, which is sort of what a good movie is supposed to be. I had dreams all night about living on the ice after watching The Savage Innocents. Whether it be hackneyed pseudo-documentary or insensitive cultural sleight, I may not know, but I definitely enjoyed it for whatever it was. It’s weird, possibly racist, and terrifically uneven but I kind of like it’s kooky imperfection.

What are you waiting for? Go give it a whirl.

Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010

The Other Toy Story

Nighty night.

Nighty night.

Jiří Barta is renowned as a master of stop-motion animation. He is hailed alongside fellow Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer. He has also had a dickens of a time getting a new movie made, but he has finally done it. Jiří Barta’s latest creation, the feature film In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (2009) (aka Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?) [update: recently released on DVD in the US with English dubbing under the title Toys in the Attic], is a wonderfully imaginative fairytale adventure. I was blessed enough to see it for the LA premiere at the Silent Movie Theater for their animation festival.

Scenes from Golem.

Scenes from Golem.

Some of the most innovative animators in the world seem to be coming from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe. Names like Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales), Alexander Petrov (The Mermaid), Karel Zeman (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ivan Maximov (From Left to Right), Jiří Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), George Pal (Tubby the Tuba and Puppetoons), Jan Balej (One Night in One City), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (The Battle of Kerhzenets), Jan  Švankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue), Władysław Starevich (The Mascot), and Barta are all names to look out for. If any of these names are mere foreign words to you, then you definitely need to check out some of their brilliant work.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

In the Attic represents Jiří Barta’s return to stop-motion animation after several years of trying to get his failed Golem project off the ground (and the small amount of footage he did produce for Golem is nothing short of staggering). Barta has achieved much recognition for his enchanting short animated films (many of which can be seen in the excellent Barta DVD compilation Labyrinth of Darkness), but has completed only one previous featurelength movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985). Unlike the dark, gnarled near-nightmarescape of Pied Piper, however, In the Attic is a far gentler film and made to be appreciated by children.

Check out Pied Piper, it is also quite good.

Barta’s newest movie is a richly textured, quiet, and tranquil story punctuated by some fun action and brilliant cinematic innovation and magic. At heart In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a light rescue movie filled with fun characters, exciting peril, cross-country journeys, and wild vehicles. It is the story of old toys in an attic and although the subject matter might remind you of Pixar’s Toy Story, the dazzling inventions will hearken back to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit adventures, while the style remains more reminiscent of the opening of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and some things dreamed up by the Brothers Quay or Švankmajer. In the Attic might remind you of all of these things, but it is all Jiří Barta.

Choo choo.

Choo choo.

The story is simple and sublime and despite being geared at children it does have some potent anti-communist political themes. It takes place, quite aptly, in an attic—the rest of the title comes from the recurring gimmick of the characters rolling the dice every morning to decide whose birthday they will celebrate that day. Buttercup is a sweet little doll who lives in an old trunk in the attic along with her friends; the sleep-loving Teddy, a tattered stuffed bear; the quixotic Sir Handsome, a battered and delusional marionette; and the feisty Schupert, a ball of clay with a pencil nose. She cooks and cleans for them and the boys go off to work on the railroad or fight inflatable alligators and all is idyllic tranquility (so women’s lib). Indeed, I was beaming with delight and my smile could not be suppressed by the sheer cuteness of the whole spectacle.

Buttercup.

Buttercup.

Naturally, conflict must enter in on the scene and disturb the quaintness of it all (unless you happen to be Hayao Miyazaki, who doesn’t seem to require villains to tell a great story). A mechanical tube with a human-like eyeball spies the peaceful lives of the attic denizens, reporting back to its master via an old television set that is obsessively monitored by a ruthless, old, cigar-chomping, golden bust with Hunter S. Thompson shades and an entourage of bugs and mismatched bits of rubbish. The tarnished voyeur spies Buttercup in her tatterdemalion serenity and concludes that he must have her for himself. Perhaps he thought of it himself or perhaps the nasty earwig with spectacles and a Dalí mustache who whispers wicked things into the head’s ear put the idea in his brain.

The puppet master?

The puppet master?

The evil golden head deploys hordes of beetles to terrorize poor Buttercup and hires a house cat to don clothing and trick the doll girl into stumbling into his bent corner of the attic. Once inside the land of evil, Buttercup is placed under arrest until she agrees to wed the head. She is forced to clean out the furnace all day and all night while the head’s cronies only dump more soot and ash on top of her whenever she gets done. Buttercup remains defiant to all of the head’s advances.

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

Back on the other end of the attic, Sir Handsome and Teddy discover their beloved Buttercup is missing. Together they start on a quest to bring her back from the land of evil. A brave lady mouse—who runs the attic radio—tinkers together to construct a flying machine out of an old vacuum cleaner and other discarded junk. She and a plump piglet toy band together with all of the other little toys and scraps (mostly wooden chess pieces) and fly out to meet Teddy and Sir Handsome who are already well on their way.

Pillows bloom and rise out of old dressers and steadily rise only to link together and snow on them like big, fluffy clouds. The cat opens up a wardrobe unleashing an inundation of blue sheets, cloaks, and fabrics to represent a terrible flood for the traversing toys. Most of the perils are truly imaginative and, yes, adorable.

What fun.

What fun.

At last our heroes meet up together, but then are plagued by more moth-eaten horrors sent by the golden head in the land of evil. The golden head has spies everywhere and will not tolerate simple toys trespassing on his side of the attic, nor will he risk Buttercup’s emancipation before he can brainwash her and make her his. Don’t worry. Things get hairy, but it all works out in the end and Barta has more animation tricks up his sleeve to share before this delightful excursion comes to a pleasing finale.

The Head.

The Head.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a beautiful film with much to love and to look at. It is sweet and charming and full of imagination and quirky gimmicks—like Teddy’s vanity when he shines his nose and brushes his teeth incessantly or Schubert’s battle to stay in one piece during a rainstorm on the roof—and the entire family is sure to enjoy it. I do admit that I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a big difference between these films and much of it has to do with the animation style. The slick and beautiful computer generated world of Toy Story is colorful and complex and it reminds me of certain toys I had growing up, but In the Attic is rich like a quilt made by your great-great grandmother. The characters of In the Attic feel like toys that always were. Where Toy Story’s characters are more like adults who understand the preciousness of the love of a child and depend on it yet banter and reason like grownups, In the Attic’s characters are independent and have the personalities and subtleties that only a child would give them during playtime. In addition to actually being three-dimensional they behave as I would imagine toys would behave had they lives outside of a child’s imagination.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

All in all In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a rare treat. It’s a completely innocent child’s fairytale full of adventure and friendship. It’s rich in nostalgia and imagination and it’s really cute. As I sat in the theater and let the simple, dully colored, tattered figures do their dance, I wanted to believe in this attic universe. It felt like how I always imagined my grandfather’s basement to be when I was a kid. His basement was full of old gadgets, toys, objects, pictures, and furniture and I always suspected that whenever I turned off the lights that it had a mind of it own.

Schupert.

Schupert.

Although still not available on home video, I have since emailed the production company of this film and they have responded with hints of an English dub for re-release for British and American theaters and possibly a subsequent DVD/bluray release. Let us hope that we may soon obtain copies and curl up under an old blanket by the fire and watch it with our families. [Update: yeah, scratch all that. It’s out now].

Top 1o Reasons to See In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?

1. It’s an adorable movie the whole family can enjoy.

2. It marks a legendary animator’s return to his craft.

3. They travel by land, air, and sea on their quest.

4. The mechanisms and social structure designed by the characters in the film are really clever and fun to watch.

5. It has deeper political themes instead of tired pop-culture references for the adults in the audience.

6. Jiří Barta fashions an entire world with its own rules and it is a pleasure to admire.

7. It’s got it all: damsels in distress, heroes, villains, monsters, adventure, inventions, and comedy.

8. If Švankmajer’s Alice was too dark or weird for you then this is a good alternative.

9. Teddy’s cheeks when he smiles are so freaking cute!

10. There is a weird thing with a pocket watch toward the end that is amazingly cool.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 13, 2010