Saturday, June 28, 2008

Review of Gandahar (Light Years)

Working on the last two science-fiction projects (Stealing Oscars Robin Hood Style and Ranking Sci-Fi by Year) has rejuvenated my interest in the genre. Collating recommendations and sifting through other websites, lists and reference books has given me about 200 titles to track down. I’ve already discovered some real treats in areas I’m pretty weak on such as early 1950’s SF (“This Island Earth” showcases some impressive special effects while “The Man from Planet X” proved, yet again, the amusing resourcefulness of Edgar G. Ulmer) and New Zealand SF (both “The Quiet Earth” and “The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey” deserve wider audiences).

Then there’s Rene Laloux, sort of a rediscovery for me. Back in college, Katie and I worked at a campus library. I was particularly fond of putting the vast film collection into Library of Congress Classification order (yup, I’m that much of a nerd). Katie kept an eye on the movies getting checked in and out. Between the two of us, we picked up a lot of movie recommendations just by listening to eccentric patrons and handling several hundred VHS and DVDs each day. That’s how Laloux’s “Fantastic Planet” (aka The Savage Planet) found its way into my VCR. An animated cult SF French-Czech collaboration?! It was exactly the type of thing that made monotonous shelving duty worthwhile.

Truth be told, Laloux’s film didn’t have overwhelming appeal for me. My experience with animation was limited (and this still pretty much holds) to Disney, Pixar and post-1980 anime. “Fantastic Planet” was made in Europe in 1973 and took its influences from traditions I was entirely unaware of. I was bowled over by the creativity, but didn’t engage with the visual style, which I took to be awkward and primitive. When all was said and done, I really liked the film, but I want to see it again with the benefit of greater experience.

Studying up on SF last week, I learned that Laloux had created two other animated SF features: “Gandahar” (aka Light Years) and “Time Masters” (a French-Hungarian collaboration that I’ve not yet seen). I bought a copy of “Gandahar” with mid-level expectations and ended up being rather impressed.

“Gandahar” (1988) features an overflowing plot, cramming in enough ideas to fill half a dozen films. The English version has been substantially recut (by Harvey Weinstein), rewritten (by Isaac Asimov) and rescored. The result is a mixture of major achievements and minor flaws in a ratio that makes me more than a little curious about the original.

It begins with a mysterious laser attack on the peaceful paradise civilization of Gandahar. At the capital city, Jasper, a matriarchal council appoints Sylvain to investigate. Early on in his journey he is captured by a subterranean tribe of twisted mutants (with some really creative combinations of limbs and facial features) whom Sylvain initially mistakes as The Enemy. In truth they are the discarded embarrassments of Gandahar’s genetic experimentation. Though they have been cast from Eden and forgotten by their creators, they are menaced by the same new foe and offer to help Sylvain.

Sylvain soon discovers that a race of metal automatons is marching into Gandahar, firing lasers from their fingers that instantly petrify victims. They transfer the resulting statues into eggs and ship them through a glowing pink portal at a seaside fortress. Sylvain and a svelte female ally sneak aboard a boat and travel to the center of the ocean where I giant brain (the size of an island and voiced by Christopher Plummer) named Metaphorphis lurks. While acknowledging that he feels some connection with the “men of metal,” Metamorphis claims that he did not create them or order their attack. Indeed, they have come through the door of time from a thousand years in the future. A skeptical Sylvain agrees to be put into stasis at the bottom of the sea for the duration so that he can emerge in the distant future, learn the truth and fulfill the prophecy of saving his civilization a millennium after its destruction.

“Gandahar” is based on Jean-Pierre Andrevon’s novel “The Machine-Men Versus Gandahar” and features more than just an exciting SF adventure tale. What really impressed me is the world-building, particularly the rich exoticness of the Gandahar civilization. Almost all of their needs are accomplished by bioengineered solutions, for instance, genetically modifying birds to be image-transmitting scouts, breeding enormous crabs as protectors and training strange beasts as planes. Even Sylvian’s “gun” fires fast-growing seeds that thrust roots and thorns through their targets. Many of the otherworldly flora and fauna are not fully explained, enhancing the sense of a wider universe outside the narrative.

I’ve seen the concept of a bioengineering-based civilization used in novels (Harry Harrison’s “West of Eden” series) and videogames (the Zerg in Starcraft), but it’s typically too esoteric and difficult to film for movies. Laloux’s visionary adaptation brings the idea to life in a very fluid and provocative style that often reaches the point of beauty. The cultural implication are also interesting: one character comments that if they had developed mechanical power they’d be more fit to defend themselves, but Gandahar’s leader asserts that there is a moral high ground in finding only organic methods. That idea, never fully developed, is contradicted by the expulsion of the mutant “accidents” and some revelations about the source of the metal men.

I don’t want to overestimate the social conscience and metaphoric layers in “Gandahar,” because while it is a fairly intelligent and thoughtful film, it falls short of the depth and allegory in “Fantastic Planet.” I wish there was more time spent on social structures (the mutants, presumably, would have very complicated medical and labor policies) and less time spent on the quest of the lone hero, but others would probably find greater detail to be overly dry and expository.

The hero-quest mentality is at the center of my biggest complaint about the film, namely the character design. 1980’s entertainment saw an extreme comeback for hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity (perhaps a backlash to feminism), notable in the rise of action hero stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Films like “Heavy Metal” (1981) and “Fire and Ice” (1983) set the prototypes for the archetypical animated 1980’s heroes: courageous simpletons with sculpted torsos, mythologized mandates to kill in the name of unambiguous good and long-legged, ample-breasted love-interests and/or villains.

“Gandahar” is guilty of most of these clichés, though occasional attempts are made to temper them. The mutants, for instance, follow a plot arc that gives an unusually positive message relative to the lingering traces of body worship and ubermensch philosophy that often make me uncomfortable with this type of adventure. Gandahar’s matriarchal government and ubiquitous upper-body nudity are more questionable, feeling a little bit more like repackaged male fantasies (towering valkyries, uninhibited natives, etc.) than genuine attempts at depicting a society free from our own biases.

On a more superficial level, the choice to color upper lip and not lower lips makes everyone look like they have icky mustaches.

Poor character design, especially when it alienates the viewer from relating to characters, can have a disproportionately large impact on an animated film. My usual mantra of “stay open-minded” has led me to appreciate unusual styles like the retro denizens of “Metropolis” (2001) and the Parisian caricatures of “The Triplets of Belleville.” Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the character design (like the celebrity star system in live-action films) makes or breaks animation in commercial release more often than all the other artwork involved.

“Gandahar’s” painted cast isn’t fatally ugly, but they fall into the uncanny valley and rarely muster enough personality or wit to distinguish themselves. Disney, Pixar and many animes have mastered the art of character creation (not just their appearance, but the voice, movements, expressivity and persona) and ridden their formulas to commercial success. I often find their work overly familiar, but I can’t deny the edge it gives them over films like “Titan A.E.” and “Polar Express.”

I’m undeniably more concerned with the visual elements of most films than the auditory, so I find myself unwilling to pronounce the film “butchered” by the English dub and rerecorded soundtrack. Such big names as Christopher Plummer, Glenn Close, Penn and Teller, and Brigitte Fonda added voice talent, generally doing a passable job (Plummer, as usual, is the standout). I’d love to hear the original Gabriel Yared score, but I couldn’t help enjoying the rousing 80’s grandiosity of the American release.

“Gandahar” should be a requisite curio for any SF or animation collector, with enough imagination pumped into the story and setting to excuse the lackluster characters. It walks the line between action-adventure and mindbender, ultimately lunging towards the former when I’d prefer the latter, but capable of satisfying both sides.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Revenge Is a Three Course Meal

Ms. 45 (1981) vs Bang (1995) vs The Brave One (2007)

Filmmakers, the movie-going public and I all have something ignoble in common: we never tire of revenge thrillers. The roster runs so long (list idea!) that it’s worth analyzing their appeal for a moment. It’s not terribly surprising that the notion of achieving quick, uncomplicated justice in the classical eye-for-an-eye sense is one that can be savored by anyone who ever felt hurts or abused. Especially now that people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Due Process have spoiled our sense of entitlement to revenge.

Films can help provide a pleasantly vicarious vent for everything from the flash of anger at a minor personal snub to the communal outrage at high-profile criminals slipping through the legal system. On the silver screen we can lay things out in simple, consequence-free terms and celebrate vigilante righteousness where we would, hopefully, be more skeptical in real life. Or we can have our vengeance and decry it too, by backing any number of tormented, morally-ambiguous anti-heroes who get killed in the end.

There’s something a little bit shallow and blood-minded about admitting to liking revenge thrillers, but I almost always find them fascinating and involving. The era and genre have hardly mattered to me, with cinema moving from westerns where mysterious strangers perpetually search for “the man who killed my brother” (or father, family, etc.), to the existential gangsters of “Point Blank” and “Get Carter,” and to today’s modern crime-horror cocktails. A fine example from the current decade comes from South Korea, where director Park Chan-wook has made a provocative Vengeance trilogy that carefully dissects the minutiae of spiraling, subliminal and collective revenge respectively.

Cinematic vendettas are often situated along discrete and personal quests, symbolic of nothing but a need for the protagonist to achieve their own redemption through a bloody purge or, alternatively, a final act of forgiveness. Occasionally a character acts, at least implicitly, as a representative of a wronged or oppressed community, with the film having wider implications about social roles, class relations, power structures and so forth. Today’s Iceberg Arena will focus on a specific subgenre of this second group: the female revenge drama.

While I enjoy “The Bride Were Black” and its postmodern remake “Kill Bill,” I’m leaving them out of the debate since I feel they are more involved with style and methodology than in the thematic potentials of revenge. The contenders will be Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45” (1981), Ash’s “Bang” (1995) and Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One” (2007). Although the recent reviews and press about “The Brave One” have already alluded to its relationship with past female vigilantes, I haven’t seen many that explore the topic in much depth.

Plot Summaries

“Ms. 45” is a good starting point, not only because it’s the earliest of the three, but also because it is the purest. Ferrara had made only one other feature film, the crude and violent “Driller Killer,” about a disturbed artist who uses his trusty power tool to dispatch drunks and hobos. “Ms. 45” has the same grainy, New York vibe and the same sense of casual urban violence channeled through loneliness and insanity.

Thana is a mute Manhattan clothing designer whose shyness locks her out of healthy social interactions. While being raped for the second time, she manages to kill the latter assailant with his own automatic .45 handgun. She disposes of the corpse with grim detachment and then rides the pistol to empowerment under her alter-ego of Ms. 45. Though starting in self-defense, she soon seeks out chauvinist prey and crosses the line into killing men with less and less cause. In the famous Halloween costume party finale, she dons a nun’s habit and puts on bright red lipstick for a ballistic purge of male domination.

“Bang” is far and away the least well-known of the bunch, directed by the monosyllabic “Ash” with money he raised working as a male stripper. In high contrast to Ferrara’s sordid New York nighttime allies, “Bang” is set is sunny L.A. It co-stars Peter Greene and has Lucy Liu in one of earliest film roles (playing a prostitute), but the focus is on a struggling Asian actress named Darling. She is submitted to humiliation and abuse by her landlord, a crazy hobo, a sleazy producer and a cop.

When the officer offers to drop some trumped up charges in exchange for sexual favors in the nearby woods, she snaps. She gains the upper hand, in addition to his gun, uniform and motorcycle. Leaving the cop handcuffed to a tree in his underwear, she explores the city through the eyes of the dominator. Darling attempts to balance her newfound freedom and power, with her underlying goodness and the city’s diverse complexity.

“The Brave One” is a Hollywood take on the woman’s revenge story, diluted enough to accessible and relatable. Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a NYC radio host who is attacked by muggers along with her fiancé and dog. After her partner dies and the police make no headway, she sinks into depression, stews in her frustration and eventually purchases a gun on the black market. Soon after, she witnesses a grocery store robbery and is forced to defend herself, providing her first taste of murder and revealing a penchant for cleaning up scum.

The crime spree captures the attention of the media and general public (who discuss the matter on her radio show), not to mention the police, who resent someone “doing their job for them.” Though she never seriously doubts of her rightness, the killings do take their toll on Erica’s personal life, especially when she forms a relationship with the detective in charge of tracking down and arresting the vigilante.

Execution and Themes

Despite the similarity of premises, each of these films deals with their revenge tales in a different fashion and with different thematic concerns. “Ms 45” is an exploitive action-horror film, designed to be raw, disturbing and over-the-top. It avoids dialogue and focuses on images, often the gore, but also the alienating quality of the dingy interiors and menacing cityscapes. It celebrates its own trashiness and freely mines the potential for irony and symbolism (as in the satire of gender roles inherit in the lipstick + nun’s habit outfit), but remains generally grave and confrontational.

The central questions getting mused are “Where is line between vigilante justice and murder?” “Is armed empowerment an inevitable slide towards the abuse of power?” and “Is normality, or even sanity, possible in an environment of fear, danger and violence?” Of course, these issues are just the genre basics, but they are expressed with a unique, counter-culture boldness.

The world of “Bang” is far less brutal and nightmarish, ultimately closer to reality and its daily hassles, crudities and offences. Sexual acts are not forced in the sense of explicit rape, but expected as a matter of commerce: a means of paying off debts, getting ahead in your career or escaping punishment. Darling experiences the ways that being female, a minority and poor make her vulnerable to exploitation and harassment. There is something more frustrating and infuriating in the abusive power structure that ensnares her than in the violent assaults by two-dimensional criminal thugs in “Ms 45” and “Brave One.”

Darling’s empowerment also travels a much different course than the other films. Though she dons a stolen police uniform and packs a pistol, she isn’t out for blood. She finds the experience of role-playing the authority figure exhilarating, and she is at least as eager to use her power compassionately as to abuse it for revenge. Her adventure involves letting embarrassed lover off the hook, smoking pot with a pair of Hispanic brothers who lend her roadside assistance, and trying to catch a drug dealer in an underserved block in Compton. The absence of murder is both surprising and initially unsatisfying (in a genre-expectation way), but the level of realism and honesty in her day as a cop is both compelling and poignant.

The questions floated throughout the film include “What is the role of the police?” “What are the flaws in the [power] structure of our society?” and “How can justice be achieved for everyone in city of such size, history and diversity?” One of the major themes is that there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

“The Brave One” has the shiny gloss of a big-budget action or crime film, but director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Butcher Boy”) and leads Jodie Foster and Terrence Howards invest it with more intelligence and thoughtfulness than one would expect. Unfortunately, the morality is often oversimplified: the villains abuse a dog to help the audience reach a critical mass of hatred, Erica Bain finds herself in daily situations where she manages to be “acting in self-defense” right before she kills and her foes have no personality and little dialogue outside of cursing and humiliating innocent people. Plenty of critics dismissed the film because the actual vigilantism was just too pre-packaged as unambiguously righteous.

Where “The Brave One” gets interesting is in the performances, particularly the relationship between Erica Bain and the detective who begins to suspect her of conducting the criminal clean-up. You can feel the level of respect and sympathy they secretly have for each other, and appreciate the way that law and order, justice and duty get muddled as a result of their friendship. Jodie Foster is the best lead actress of the three films and her nuanced performance makes relating to the character uneasily easy. While her character could use more healthy doubt and inner turmoil over her actions, she does struggle with the inability of revenge to fill the hole inside her.

The key questions in the movie are “Does every citizen have a responsibility to fight back against crime?” “Can decisive individual violence be more right than due process, trial by peers and legal red tape?” and “Should a well-meaning vigilante be allowed to get away with it?”

Bottom Line

“Ms 45” is a gritty, culty B-movie with surprising punch packed behind its schlocky exterior. Its low production values and somewhat predictable arc make it a below-average viewing experience, but it compensates by providing both guiltless bloodbaths and food for thought (a rare combination). There is both authenticity and insincerity in its attempts to deal with topics like revenge, vigilante justice and feminism with potential to alienate those seeking both entertainment and enlightenment. I find the film interesting, but a little too obvious for long term debate and a little too unpolished for technical appreciation.

“Bang” comes out the most original and thoughtful, with the widest scope and most honorable intentions. It has the ambling, episodic indie feel of a film that tries to tackle too much and looses some of the momentum, continuity and cohesiveness in the process. Yet it works as a meditative love letter to L.A. in a scribbled, but sincere, handwriting. This also fits with the low-budget sets, taking advantage of shooting in the streets and using people who look and sound like life. Moments of humor and kindness make it more entertaining than your typical revenge thriller, though it’s less gripping, visceral and violently gratifying (which will be a plus to some and minus for others). I think it is the deepest and most rewarding, though also the most scattershot.

For technical prowess and all the visual, casting and set design advantages that a budget provides, you can’t beat “The Brave One.” The screenwriters triy too hard to legitimize vigilantism and manipulate the audience into their point-of-view, but when Foster and Howard speak they make the script sounds good. We get deeper inside the characters in “The Brave One” than in the other films, but we just scratch the surface of the social implications that the material suggests. The film is often so concerned with providing the pleasure payoff of revenge, action, mystery, tension, romance, etc. that it doesn’t really challenge the audience or investigate the ambiguous issues. It goes through the motions, but borrows too heavily from other sources and peddles such simple answers to hard questions that it leaves the conscientious viewer still hungry.

Subjective Numerical Breakdown
(I did not actually use these numbers for deciding the winner, but they might be of interest in deciding which movies to see.)
Winner: Bang

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985)

Jiri Barta’s 1985 “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” (aka “Krysar”) is probably one of the only film that can be categorized as woodmation. Eschewing the smoothness and elasticity of clay, Czech stop-motion innovator Barta had thousands of characters, props and sets hand-carved in jagged, rough-hewn wood for his unusual fantasy-horror masterpiece. Filled with false perspectives, oblique angles and impossible vantages, Barta’s film takes the Grimm Brothers tale through cubism and German Expressionism while leaving a distinctly Czech flavor.

The core of the original tale remains, with a mysterious piper enchanting a rat infestation into the river and returning for his reward. However, the beginning and end are altered to give the story a darker hue (opposite of most fairy tale adaptations) and a more barbed message. Barta depicts Hamelin as a greed-ridden den of petty misers, operated by the mechanical gears in a mountainous clock tower and greased with the currency of commerce and corruption. In the grey bustle of this soulless miniature capitalism, humanity has been twisted into monstrous caricatures.

Rats borrow through the crumbling foundations of the village, symbolically nibbling through the town crest, feeding on the abundant waste and stealing from the covetous natives. One morning the rats overrun the city completely, but the ribald royalty is too torpid to react.

[Images: (Top) A side view of the rat population borrowing under the village proper. Plenty of loaded greed-erodes-the-foundation-of-society visual metaphors to go around. (Bottom) A butcher fends off a surge of bloodthirsty rats.]

The Pied Piper arrives, a lone hooded figure on a nearby hillside. Wailing electric guitar distortion heralds his windward entry into the village. He demonstrates his musical magic before the unctuous king, who offers $1000 in exchange for purging the vermin outbreak. Hundreds of drowned rodents later, the town returns to its avarice and vice, but the king refuses to lighten his coffers for the savior.

[Image: Sooner or later, everyone must pay the piper…{cue electric guitar solo}]

In the original story, the piper waits for townspeople to go to church and then enchants the children into a cave from which only a single child escapes. That’s pretty grim, but Barta’s version has an even more dark and mythic tone. The piper marches by torchlight into the upper spires of the giant mechanical cathedral that dwarfs Hamelin. There he holds a whispered moonlight consultation with a deathlike statue of Jupiter who halts the flow of time with his primordial hourglass. The waking townspeople are greeted not by the sun, but by the vengeful notes of the piper, transforming them into rats and compelling them towards the same aquatic demise.

In the wind-swept emptiness left behind, an old fisherman who watched the events unfold from afar enters the city guided by the cries of an innocent infant who was spared. The Pied Piper vanishes, his cloak left behind to flutter into the air.

[Images: The fisherman takes the child out of the dead city and towards a verdant dawn in typical Biblical fashion.]

Giving the classical tale an anti-capitalist overtone is typical of Barta’s work, which is available on the DVD collection “Jiri Barta: Labyrinth of Darkness.” There is a harsh denouncement of consumer society in almost all his shorts (at 53 minutes, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is his longest), although it is often softened by his love for novelty and whimsy. Depending on your perspective, his work is not necessarily political in nature, with the focus usually geared towards the essential opposition of humanism and materialism. Greed, habit and conformity are always shown as destructive forces, a message which could be regarded as a critique of either American or Eastern Bloc societies.

The vice and wickedness sequence that launches the film does indeed harp for a little too long, but the film builds momentum. The story never quite catches up to the presentation, but it makes a good fairy tale frame for the amazing handcrafted woodwork. Everything from the slashed-up set design to the repugnant villagers exudes personality, coming out like a cross between “The Cabinet of Caligari” and the “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but with a startling originality and tactile quality of its own.

Barta has a strangely omniscient power behind his cinematography, often showing cut-away profiles of the village, overhead views of the town square and the secret moments of lonely misers stacking, tabulating and hoarding their coins. His artistic choices show bold individuality (a characteristic often offered as the antidote to his dystopic visions) and an ability to break in and out of the stop-motion medium to get the effects he desires: the scrabbling of live rats, the oozing of a broken egg and the blooming of color in an unexpected animation sequence. Barta does things like dramatically varying the relative size of the rats (so that they are sometimes almost human-height) to create striking, disorienting scenes.

[Images: Examples of Barta’s unusual forced perspectives and visual distortions. Note, for instance, the size of the ring relative to the fingers presenting it.]

Another oddity that invites investigation is the untranslated pseudo-language that Barta employs. Dialogue is quite convincingly unnecessary for this tale (and would likely risk dispersing the delicate antiquated atmosphere) since the use of emotive mise-en-scene, exaggerated gestures and inflections and careful storyboarding guide our attention.

[Image: One method for getting around dialogue is seen in a haggling sequence, in which both parties spew imaginary coins from their mouths to fix the price.]

Considering that I was scared of the ex-Disney, G-rated “The Secret of NIMH” as a kid, I would recommend not putting this one in heavy rotation for the little tykes. Shots of bloody rat corpses, drowning rodents and a subplot with a heavily-implied rape-murder probably make that a no-brainer, but it’s really the merciless tone, unrelenting pessimism and unpleasant imagery that make this one potentially traumatizing.

But while this might not have the crowd-pleasing factor of “The Lion King,” it is definitely a must-see for grown-ups with an interest in stop-motion. Fans of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, in particular, should absolutely not miss the “Labyrinth of Darkness” DVD. It comes with an eclectic filmography of shorts that include:

The Ballad of the Green Wood – An experimental woodmation that plants the seeds of “Pied Piper.”

Club of the Abandoned – A tragicomic play acted out with broken manikins. One of Barta’s most intricate and famous shorts.

The Design – A blunt attack on mass production and utilitarian architecture using paper cutouts and drafting paper.

Disc Jockey – A mix of animation and cutouts, all of them circular, in the life of an unseen DJ. Unfairly maligned for its abstractness.

The Last Theft – A Guy Madden-esque live-action silent film about a jewel thief and vampires.

Riddles for a Candy – A silly shape-shifting riddler that doesn’t translate well, but twinkles with cuteness.

The Vanished World of Gloves – A compressed historical survey of cinema told by an enclave of gloves whose lost civilization is accidently excavated at a construction site. A personal favorite.

Much of Barta’s work was on my backlog for the Poor Little Animated Shorts series, but I’m glad I was able to dedicate a more detailed treatment just for him. Keep an eye out for two possible upcoming features by the great Czech master: “The Golem” and “In the Attic or Who Has a Birthday Today?”

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXIX

Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son – (Ken Jacobs) Jacobs’s deconstructionist experiment repeats a scratchy 1905 short three times. The first and last runs are shown without interference, but for 107 minutes in-between Jacobs changed the way audiences look at film, zooming in, freeze-framing, reversing and slowing things down until he had reduced cinema to the interplay of black and white grains. It’s 9 parts boredom per 1 part revelation, but every bit ahead of its time. Decades after its 1969 screening, the digital revolution kept the promise Jacobs made.
Artistry: ** Fun: * Strangeness: ***

The Trial (1963) – (Orson Welles) One of the most derided of Welles’s directorial efforts, this adaptation of Kafka’s story is actually the closest in tone to the book. Joseph K finds himself on trial without any crime, evidence or witnesses. No one will come to his aid and he remains lost in a sea of bureaucracy. Welles composes the film as a series of immaculate B/W images in magnificent sets that take precedence over narrative coherence.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ** Strangeness: ****

Tropical Malady – (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) Thailand’s most acclaimed and hardest to pronounce director confused audiences the world over with this experimental hybrid of myth and modernity. A kindly soldier named Keng meets and falls in love with a local named Tong who lives on a farm in the jungle. Their quiet, caring relationship treads familiar ground for Queer Asian Cinema, but halfway through the film Weerasethakul shatters everything. One night, Tong wanders into the woods and disappears. Soon after, Keng pursues, gradually becoming aware that Tong is a shapeshifting jungle demon, but still willing to hunt and be hunted for his love.
Artistry: **** Fun: * Strangeness: ****

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – (Jaromil Jires) This Czech New Wave fantasy-horror film allegorically explores the phantasmagorical borderline between the civilities of Christianity and the excesses of paganism. Valerie is a young girl on the edge of sexual awakening, beset by familial, societal and religious repressions and haunted by vampires. Adrift within an over-exposed dreamscape of symbolism and ambiguity, Valerie finds that a magical pair of earrings may be her only protection.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Veronica Voss – (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) Veronica Voss is the drug-addicted former actress that once rocketed to success during the Nazi regime. She is now under the dubious care of Doctor Feelgood, and only love-struck sports writer Robert dares to rescue her. Fassbinder paints many of the most powerful scenes in a blinding blanket of searing white.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review of Incredible Cat Tricks

With its professional camera use, multiple takes to optimize performances and inclusion of sets, “Air Bud” (1997) was every inch the Hollywood blockbuster. It turned Buddy, a talented sporty Golden Retriever, into an international celebrity and launched a series of spinoffs that capitalized on (some would say exploited) his success. It was a triumph of advertising and passable technical competence that will remain a marginal part of America’s long and prestigious tradition of gimmickry.

But the same year that “Air Bud’s” became a slam dunk success, a scrappy independent animal flick was struggling for survival. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that “Incredible Cat Tricks” is the superior film, a showcase of staggering brilliance that has been labeled by some critics as the Citizen Kane of cat trick movies.

“Incredible Cat Tricks” (1997) stars Princess Kitty, known the world over as “the world’s smartest cat” (actual ranking unknown given the variability in standardized testing) in her film debut. Often dismissed as merely well-groomed, Princess Kitty gives the performance of a lifetime as herself, a pampered grouchy cat forced to do degrading parlor tricks by a megalomaniac owner (Karen Payne, also playing herself) with too much time on her hands.

The subtlety of Princess Kitty’s role is admirable, presenting the hard-bitten world-weary lethargy of a cynical showcat sick of the spotlight’s soulless warmth and desperate to curl up in the shadows of a broken career. Her frustrated growls and attempts to bite her owner reveal the fissures in a fraught relationship with a naturalism that borders on complete inattention. Meanwhile, Payne is spot on as the slightly insane, totally clueless self-promoter who lapses into eccentric monologues about her pet’s past incarnations as an Egyptian empress.

The comparisons to Citizen Kane are particularly apropos, given its structure as a biographical roman à clef centered on the cat trick industry titan, Princess Kitty, and told through a complicated web of interviews and flashbacks that operate without ever really accessing the subject herself. Instead, her tale is told through a humane society worker, a Telemundo gameshow host and the woman who knew her best, but who ultimately never really knew her at all: Karen Payne. Their testimony builds a patchwork of personality, a network of contradictions that denies the easy answers and slick simplicity of “Air Bud.”

While critics might have accepted a tragicomic anti-heroic feline biopic, they weren’t in the least prepared to respond to the bold technical experiments that place “Incredible Cat Tricks” at the frontlines of the avant-garde. The free-style, nearly satiric appropriation of neorealist and dogme 95 methodology to give the film a look of unrehearsed immediacy is both refreshing and shockingly against the grain of Hollywood wisdom. “Incredible Cat Tricks” doesn’t just shun the obsessive drive for perfectionism that shooting multiple takes entails; it embraces mistakes as happy accidents. The director goes even further towards naked honesty, exposing the very artifice of the medium by dipping the mic boom into the frame.

Partial blame for the relatively obscurity and general critical dismissal of “Incredible Cat Tricks” is the fault of a mismanaged distribution and marketing campaign. Only available for $25 on VHS from (the Film Walrus found a copy gathering dust at his local library) the box art promises 60 minutes of amazing cat tricks. It’s a promise the film just can’t keep, and perhaps no 52 minute movie could.

Still, after the half an hour of Princess Kitty biography and promotional material, the 20 minute cat trick performance sequence is a marvel of minimalist virtuosity that more than makes up for the blatant misadvertising. Shot with a straight-on monotone framing against a featureless blue background, the trick sequence forces our attention to focus only on Mrs. Payne and her star performer. The owner’s Princess Kitty T-shirt is the only item of expressive detail, a daring statement on celebrity narcissism. It creates an eerie photographic doppelganger that shares the stage with its 3D counterpart, silently commenting on the psychologically irreconcilability of the actor/role double-life.

How incredible are the cat tricks themselves? After the hype drummed up throughout the preceding promotional half hour, the spectator is confronted with a shocking emptiness. Art is pulled through time towards its primal state. The theater collapses. The circus collapses. The street-side organ grinder collapses. All that is left is performance reduced to its most essential state: a cat batting at chimes. It may not create music, but it signals something a great deal more profound.

Whether you accept “Incredible Cat Tricks” as a documentary, vaudville spectacle, unintentional comedy or metaphorical critique of the Hollywood fame factory, Princess Kitty has a little something for everyone. Though films like “Best in Show” and “Gates of Heaven” have mined the pet-owner relationship for semi-documentary pathos before, “Incredible Cat Tricks” may come closest to the real thing.

Walrus Rating: 1.5

*This review was written in consultation with the Film Walrus’s in-house animal film expert, Klaws Kinski. Prof. Kinski sits on the National Board of Disdainful Cinematic Snobbery and on my window sill.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Golden Walruses: SF Edition


I had a lot of fun with last week's Oscar revisionism. It combined my love for science-fiction, list-making and academy-bashing all in one place and started a lot of conversation about nostalgic favorites, long-standing classics and intriguing obscurities. However, noticing that the format I choose (trying to beat previous Oscar winners) made some years almost impossible to overcome, I decided that an even more indulgent list was needed. So it’s time for the first ever Golden Walrus award season.

Here’s the basic idea: I’m going to pick my favorite SF films for each year (sans commentary) and list all the others I think are worthy of interest. I started with a list of about 400 SF films I’d seen, and removed entries that I doubted anyone would champion (or was too embarrassed to admit having seen). I’m trying to be pretty inclusive, so I’ve not removed popular films that I personally don’t like and I’m including films that fall under the heading of “so bad they’re good.” I’ve also included SF films I know about, but haven’t yet seen.

Now anyone else can write in and help me expand the list. The finished product will be a ballot that readers can use to select their favorites for each year. You can send me your choices (in the comments section or at my email, and the points will be tallied to establish winners (some day). You can send in a ballot any time, although as the list of contenders grow, you might want to check back in.

1) The definition of SF is very, very broad. I am including any fantasy or horror films with significant SF aspects, any fiction set in space, anything set in the future where there is definite social or technological change, some alternative history, most superhero with superpowers, fictional plague outbreaks, stuff with robots, television adaptations, comedies, pseudo-documentaries, musicals, etc. Anthology films are fine but no standalone shorts below 30 minutes. If you are wondering about a borderline case, ask in the comments or just trust your gut feeling. Any film that someone ranks (and is acknowledged as SF) will get a place on the ballot. Hopefully I will not die of typing.

2) You can rank any number of films per year, and they will be scored as 1/rank. So the movie your rank #1, scores 1 point, #2 scores 0.5 points, #10 scores 0.1 points, etc. This way you can honor as many films as you want without anyone having an overwhelming influence. If you don’t like a movie, just don’t rank it at all (rather than ranking it with a really low number).

3) Release dates will be determined by IMDB. It has occasional mistakes, but it will keep us consistent. Please correct any I get wrong.

4) You can send in new ballots as you see more films, but only your most recent will be used for scoring.

5) Only ballots with rankings on at least 20 years will be scored. I don’t want to be snobby, but I would prefer to see a final list that shows something more than simply the most well-known SF films.

The List So Far:
* Films I have not yet seen (so don’t be angry that I didn’t rank them).

Others) First Men in the Moon*
Others) Algol*
1) Aelita: The Queen of Mars

1) The Lost World
2) The Crazy Ray


1) Metropolis


1) The Woman in the Moon

Others) Just Imagine*

1) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
2) Frankenstein

1) Island of Lost Souls

1) King Kong
2) The Invisible Man
Others) Deluge*, It's Great To Be Alive*

Others) Master of the World*

1) Bride of Frankenstein

1) Things to Come
Others) Flash Gordon, The Invisible Ray*

1) Lost Horizon


1) Dr. Cyclops

1) Man Made Monster

Others) The Corpse Vanishes*

Others) The Lady and the Monster*


1) Panic in the Streets
2) DOA
3) Destination Moon
Others) Rocketship X-M*

1) The Man in the White Suit
2) The Thing from another World
3) The Man from Planet X
4) When World’s Collide
5) The Day the Earth Stood Still

Others) The Unnatural*

1) The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.
2) Four Sided Triangle
3) Robot Monster
4) It Came from Outer Space
5) The War of the Worlds
6) The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
Others) Donovan's Brain*, Invaders from Mars, The Phantom from Space

1) Them!
2) 20000 Leagues Under the Sea
3) Godzilla (aka Gojira)
4) Creature from the Black Lagoon
5) Tobor the Great
Others) Devil Girls from Mars*, It Came from Beneath the Sea*, Target Earth*

1) Kiss Me, Deadly
2) The Quatermass Xperiment
3) This Island Earth
4) Journey to the Beginning of Time

1) Forbidden Planet
2) Invasion of the Body Snatchers
3) Earth Versus the Flying Saucers
Others) It Conquered the World*, World Without End

1) The Incredible Shrinking Man
2) The 27th Day
Others) 20 Million Miles to Earth*, The Invisible Boy*, Kronos*, The Night the World Exploded*, Not of This Earth*

1) The Fabulous World of Jules Verne
2) Fiend without a Face
3) The Crawling Eye
4) I Bury the Living
5) The Blob
6) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman
Others) The Fly*, From the Earth to the Moon*, Queen of Outer Space*

1) The World, the Flesh and the Devil
2) The Tingler
3) Journey to the Center of the Earth
4) Plan 9 from Outer Space
5) On the Beach
6) The 4D Man
Others) The Giant Gila Monster*, The Killer Shrews*, The Wasp Woman

1) Village of the Damned
2) The Time Machine
3) The Angry Red Planet
4) Little Shop of Horrors
Others) Beyond the Time Barrier*, The Horrors of Spider Island, The Human Vapor*, The Last Woman on Earth*, The Lost World*, The Secret of the Telegian*, A Visit to a Small Planet

1) Baron Prasil
2) The Day the Earth Caught Fire
3) The Absent-Minded Professor
Others) The Amphibian Man*, The Mysterious Island*, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea*

1) The Manchurian Candidate
2) The Brain that Wouldn’t Die
3) The Cybernetic Grandma
4) The Pier (La Jetee)
5) Panic in the Year Zero!
6) The Day of the Triffids
Others) Journey to the Seventh Planet*

1) Ikarie XB-1
2) Mantango: Attack of the Mushroom People
3) X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes
4) The Yesterday Machine
Others) Children of the Damned, The Nutty Professor

1) Dr. Strangelove
2) Fail-Safe
3) The Time Travelers
4) It Happened Here
5) The Last Man on Earth
6) Godzilla vs. Mothra
Others) Dogora, First Men in the Moon*, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians*

1) Alphaville
2) The Tenth Victim
3) War Game
4) Pinocchio in Outer Space
5) Planet of the Vampires
6) Frankenstein Conquers the World
7) Willie McBean and His Magic Machine
8) The Earth Dies Screaming
Others) Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, The Satan Bug*, The Wizard of Mars

1) Who Wants to Kill Jesse?
2) Seconds
3) The Face of Another
4) Fantastic Voyage
5) Fahrenheit 451
Other) Dimension 5*, Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

1) Privilege
2) Weekend
3) The End of August at the Hotel Ozone
4) You Only Live Once
Others) Billion Dollar Brain*

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey
2) Barbarella
3) I Love You, I Love You
4) Yellow Submarine
5) Night of the Living Dead
6) Charly
7) Planet of the Apes
Others) The Astro-Zombies, The SuperVIPs

1) Horrors of Malformed Men
2) Marooned
3) The Illustrated Man
Others) Journey to the Far Side of the Sun*

1) Colossus: The Forbin Project
2) On the Comet
3) Beneath the Planet of the Apes
Others) The Mind of Mr. Soames*, The Space Amoeba*, Toomorrow

1) A Clockwork Orange
2) THX 1138
3) Punishment Park
4) The Andromeda Strain
5) The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Others) Diamonds Are Forever, Gassss!*, Glen and Randa*, The Omega Man

1) Solaris
2) Slaughterhouse-Five
3) Silent Running
Others) ZPG: Zero Population Growth*

1) The Holy Mountain
2) Hourglass Sanatorium
3) The Day of the Dolphin
4) The Savage Planet
5) Sleeper
6) Soylent Green
7) Ivan the Terrible: Back to the Future
8) Westworld
Others) The Deathless Devil, Idaho Transfer*

1) Zardoz
2) Young Frankenstein
3) Phase IV
4) Dark Star
5) Space Is the Place
6) Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla
7) Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Others) The Terminal Man*

1) Death Race 2000
2) Rocky Horror Picture Show
3) Shivers
4) A Boy and His Dog
5) Rollerball
6) Footprints on the Moon
7) The Stepford Wives
8) Black Moon
Others) Escape from Witch Mountain, The Land that Time Forgot, The Noah*

1) The Man Who Fell to Earth
2) Logan’s Run
Others) King Kong*, Mission Stardust

1) Eraserhead
2) Star Wars IV: A New Hope
3) Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea
4) Dinner for Adele
5) Close Encounters of the Third Kind
6) Demon Seed
Others) Empire of the Ants, The Island of Dr. Moreau*, Quintet, Wizards*

1) Superman
2) Capricorn One
2) Star Crash
3) Invasion of the Body Snatchers
4) The Boys from Brazil
5) The Cat from Outer Space
Others) Deathsport*

1) Alien
2) Stalker
3) Time After Time
4) Star Trek 1: The Motion Picture
5) The Brood
6) Black Hole
Others) At the Earth's Core*, The Lathe of Heaven*, Mad Max, Meteor*, Moonraker, Phantasm

1) Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back
2) The Falls
3) Altered States
4) Death Watch
5) The Martian Chronicles
Others) The Apple, Contamination*, The Final Countdown, Flash Gordon*, Galaxina*, Saturn 3*, Superman II

1) Time Bandits
2) Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
3) The Mystery of the Third Planet
4) Outland
5) Escape from New York
6) Scanners
Others) Heavy Metal, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Looker*

1) Blade Runner
2) The Thing
3) Tron
4) Time Masters
5) Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
6) Android
7) Turkish Star Wars
8) The Secret of NYMH
9) ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
Others) Airplane 2: The Sequel, Burst City*, Liquid Sky*, Swamp Thing*, Turkey Shoot (Escape 2000)*

1) Videodrome
2) Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi
3) The Last Battle
4) Testament
5) The Little Girl Who Conquered Time
6) The Dead Zone
7) The Day After
8) War Games
9) Chronopolis
Others) 2019: After the Fall of New York*, Anna to the Infinite Power*, Blue Thunder*, Born into Flames, Brainstorm*, The Man with Two Brains, The Return of Captain Invincible*, Rock & Rule*, Superman III, Twilight Zone: The Movie

1) Threads
2) Repoman
3) 1984
4) Brother from Another Planet
5) The Terminator
6) Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer
7) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
8) Ghostbusters
9) Sexmission
10) 2010: The Year We Make Contact
11) Gremlins
12) Night of the Comet
Others) , The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Beyond the Eighth Dimension, Dreamscape*, Dune, Firestarter*, Iceman*, The Last Starfighter, Starman

1) Brazil
2) Phenomena
3) Back to the Future
4) Vampires in Havana
5) The Re-Animator
6) The Quiet Earth
7) Angel’s Egg
8) Lifeforce
Others) Cocoon, Enemy Mine, Explorers*, Starchaser: The Legend of Orin*, Weird Science*

1) Aliens
2) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
3) The Fly
4) Kin Dza-Dza
5) Castle in the Sky
6) Peggy Sue Got Married
7) Flight of the Navigator
8) Little Shop of Horrors
Others) Deadly Friend*, From Beyond, Highlander*, Man Facing Southeast, Night of the Creeps*, Short Circuit*

1) The Red Spectacles
2) On the Silver Globe
3) Neo-Tokyo
4) Robocop
5) The Hidden
6) Predator
7) Wings of Honneamise
8) Hellraiser
9) Robot Carnival
Others) Bad Taste, Innerspace, Robot Carnival*, The Running Man*, Spaceballs

1) The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen
2) Time of the Gypsies
3) Gandahar (aka Light Years)
4) The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey
5) Times to Come
6) Akira
7) Alien Nation
8) They Live!
Others) Alien from L.A.*, Earth Girls Are Easy*, Gandahar (Light Years)*, Killer Klowns from Outer Space*, Mac and Me, Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack

1) Tetsuo: The Iron Man
2) Patlabor: The Movie
3) Lady Terminator
4) Millennium
Others) The Abyss, Back to the Future II, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Blood of Heroes, Communion*, Ghostbusters 2, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Leviathan*, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Visitor of a Museum*, The Wizard of Speed and Time*

1) Patlabor II
2) Edward Scissorhands
3) Total Recall
4) Tremors
5) Back to the Future III
Others) Circuitry Man*, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, A Handmaid's Tale, Hardware*, Moon 44*

1) Terminator 2: Judgment Day
2) Delicatessen
3) Until the End of the World
4) The Rocketeer
5) Naked Lunch
Other) 964 Pinocchio*, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Stray Dog, Zeiram*

1) Olivier, Olivier
2) Lessons of Darkness
3) Freejack
4) Timescape (Grand Tour: Disaster in Time)
5) Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer
Others) Alien 3, The Lawnmower Man, Love Potion No. 9, Split Second*, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

1) Jurassic Park
2) Coneheads
3) Demolition Man
Others) Body Snatchers*, Fire in the Sky*, Fortress*, Universal Soldier*

1) Stargate
2) Accumulator 1
3) Star Trek: Generations
Others) Blankman, No Escape*, The Puppet Masters*, Terminal Voyage (Starquest)*, Timecop*

1) City of Lost Children
2) Ghost in the Shell
3) Twelve Monkeys
4) Memories
5) Waterworld
6) Strange Days
7) Powder
8) Outbreak
Others) The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Droid Gunner*, Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic, Judge Dredd*, Screamers, Species, Virtuosity*

1) Star Trek: First Contact
2) Unforgettable
3) Independence Day
4) Tenchi Muyo in Love
5) The Arrival
6) Mars Attacks!
Others) Barb Wire, The Island of Dr. Moreau*, Multiplicity*, Phenomenon, Space Jam, Space Truckers*, Tremors 2

1) Cube
2) End of Evangelion
3) Men in Black
4) Gattaca
5) Contact
6) Open Your Eyes
7) The Fifth Element
8) Face/Off
Others) Alien Resurrection, Event Horizon, Jurassic Park II: The Lost World, Mimic, Nirvana*, Omega Doom, The Postman, Retroactive*, Scorpio One*, Spaceman*, Starship Troopers

1) Dark City
2) Pi
3) The Truman Show
4) Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade
5) Six-String Samurai
6) The Hole
7) X-Files: The Movie
8) Sphere
9) Disturbing Behavior
10) The Faculty
Others) Deep Impact, Last Night, Sphere, Armageddon, Godzilla, Lost in Space, New Rose Hotel, Skyggen*, Soldier*, Star Trek: Insurrection, Small Soldiers

1) The Matrix
2) Being John Malkovich
3) Charisma
4) Galaxy Quest
5) The Iron Giant
6) eXistenZ
7) Deep Blue Sea
Others) The 13th Warrior*, The Astronaut's Wife*, Bicentennial Man, Godzilla 2000, Muppets from Space, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, Virus*, Wild Wild West

1) Possible Worlds
2) Battle Royale
3) Wild Zero
4) Vampire Hunter D
5) Happy Accidents
6) The 6th Day
7) X-Men
8) The Cell
9) Frequency
10) Pitch Black
11) Space Cowboys
Others) Dune, Hollow Man*, The Last Man*, Mission to Mars, Red Planet, Titan A.E.

1) Donnie Darko
2) American Astronaut
3) Series 7: The Contender
4) AI: Artificial Intelligence
5) Metropolis
6) CQ
7) Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
8) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
9) Electric Dragon 80000 V
10) The One
Others) Avalon*, Ever Since the World Ended*, Ghosts of Mars*, Imposter, Jurassic Park III, K-PAX, Planet of the Apes, Replicant*, Tremors 3, Trinity*, Vanilla Sky

1) Minority Report
2) Solaris
3) Cypher
4) 28 Days Later
5) Equilibrium
6) S1m0ne
7) Spiderman
8) Lilo & Stitch
Others) 2009: Lost Memories*, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Hypercube, Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, MIB II, Resident Evil, Signs, Star Trek: Nemesis, Teknolust, The Time Machine*, WXIII: Patlabor 3

1) Doppelganger
2) Save the Green Planet!
3) X2
4) Robot Stories
5) Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem
6) Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space
7) The Animatrix
8) Paycheck
9) Code 46
10) The Matrix Reloaded
11) Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines
Others) Daredevil, It's All About Love*, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Matrix Revolution, Nothing, The Time of the Wolf, Timeline*

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2) Primer
3) Innocence
4) Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence
5) The Incredibles
6) 2046
7) Howl’s Moving Castle
8) The Final Cut
9) The Place Promised in Our Early Days
10) Steamboy
11) The District (Nyocker!)
12) Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
13) Appleseed
Others) Avatar (Cyber Wars)*, The Butterfly Effect, Casshern, The Chronicles of Riddick*, Cube Zero, The Day After Tomorrow, Dead Leaves, District B13*, Dreamboat Surprise*, FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions*, The Forgotten, Godzilla: Final Wars, Hellboy, I Robot, Immortal (ad vitam)*, Paranoia 1.0, Spiderman 2, The Stepford Wives

1) Serenity
2) V for Vendetta
3) Batman Begins
4) Chicken Little
Others) The Island, The Fantastic Four*, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, The Girl from Monday, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, King Kong*, The Man with the Screaming Brain, Puzzlehead*, Robots, Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, Zathura: A Space Adventure

1) The Prestige
2) Children of Men
3) The Fountain
4) Renaissance
5) Ghost in the Shell: Solid State Society
6) The Host
7) A Scanner Darkly
8) Paprika
9) Deja Vu
10) Slither
11) Southland Tales
Others) Electroma, Idiocracy*, Superman Returns, X-men III: The Last Stand

1) Sunshine
2) Grindhouse: Planet Terror
3) Futurama: Bender’s Big Score
4) The Man from Earth
5) Meet the Robinsons
6) I Am Legend
7) Yesterday Was a Lie
Others) 28 Weeks Later*, The Invasion, Spiderman 3, Transformers

2) From Inside
3) Timecrimes
4) Cloverfield
5) Iron Man
6) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
7) Christmas on Mars
8) Hellboy 2: Legend of the Golden Army
9) Jumper
10) Repo! The Genetic Opera
11) Speed Racer
Other) Hancock*, The Time Traveler's Wife*
Currently Closed

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Review of Suddenly, Last Summer

Expect a follow-up to last week's discussion of Science Fiction and Oscars soon, but for now, a review.

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who tends to receive universal acclaim for “All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Barefoot Contessa.” While I agree that these are all fine films, enduring masterpieces even, I’m upset that his reputation drops off in discussions that move beyond these classics. There are few directors I find myself wanting to defend as often as Mankiewicz, but his less-famous films seem unusually beleaguered with inane criticisms.

Some examples: Contemporary critics bickered about the casting of Marlon Brando in the musical “Guys and Dolls,” despite the fact that he plays marvelously semi-against type, sings gracefully and helps out a film adaptation that may actually be better than the stage version. “The Quiet American” was lambasted by many, including original author Graham Greene, for changing the overtly anti-American ending, despite the fact that the noirish amoral fog condensing on every frame still delivers the central disillusionment and critique of Western foreign policy in a film that is gorgeously shot, brilliantly acted and thematically complicated. (I know my friend Molly with back me up on that front.) Complaints that Mankiewicz screenplays were too talky dogged his entire career, though personally I’d rather listen to Mankiewicz dialog for two hours than see almost any three globe-trotting action-packed epics.

The film I want to talk about today, “Suddenly, Last Summer” also has its share of deriders, this time concentrating on the stereotypical negative depiction of a homosexual man who figures at the center of a peculiar gothic plot. I’m going to address that in more detail later, but first the story.

Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is a neurosurgeon at a crumbling state asylum, who sees an opportunity to acquire badly-needed funding when one of the richest women in the region invites him over on “a matter of great urgency.” Mrs. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), the twitchy overbearing mother of non-prolific poet Sebastion, who died “suddenly last summer,” wants the doctor to lobotomize her niece (Elizabeth Taylor) who was traumatized by the incident. When Cukrowicz meets Catherine Holly, the niece, at a private mental institute that is expelling her for unbefitting behavior, he begins to suspect that she is not insane, but rather the victim a terrible shock. Her mind has submerged the memory Sebastian’s death and it becomes clear that Mrs. Venable wants the operation to ensure it never resurfaces.

The Tennessee Williams play on which the film is based consists of just two monologues, a format ideally suited to Mankiewicz verbally-driven narratives. His skill at delicious wisecracks takes a backseat to his serious side, loaded with façade-tearing claw-and-fang diatribes (made all the more vicious by the real-life behind-the-scenes animosity between Hepburn and Taylor) and spells of “Heart of Darkness” gothic poetry. The characters pick their words with supreme precision, slip into jolting spasms of profundity and repeat certain phrases (like “suddenly, last summer”) with metrical dramatic emphasis in a way that will either drive you nuts or mesmerize you.

Perhaps the most memorable monologue is Hepburn’s description of the moment went Sebastian “saw God” and simultaneously lost his faith while travelling in the Galapagos Islands. On an empty beach he saw turtles hatching from buried eggs and racing towards the sanctuary of the sea while the sky turned black with birds that swooped and dove on the creatures, flipping them on their backs and devouring the soft flesh of their underbellies while they squirmed. Only one in every hundred survives. Sebastian tells his mother that those doomed turtles are mankind.

If this sounds a little over-the-top, it is, especially delivered by Hepburn while in Sebastian’s fantastic tropical garden, complete with a Venus flytrap that she hand-feeds flies, a life-size statue of the angel of death and whimsical references to the Garden of Eden. The other major settings include an over-crowded asylum and a sun-baked island village, both depicted with ominous overtones and keyed to haunting music. If the locations weren’t enough to signal that we’ve entered into the nightmare depths of madness, than the performances should make it abundantly clear.

Montgomery Clift virtually disappears when Katherine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor enter, usually by their preferred methods of, respectively, being lowered in by an elevator-mounted throne (I’m not kidding) and burning herself onto the celluloid in a comet blaze of rage, panic and seduction. Hepburn is at her creepiest (although I’m of the minority opinion that she is a little creepy even in her comedic and romantic roles) and Taylor is at her vampiest, and they both have enough sexual repression to give the constant impression that the entire set is about to spontaneously burst into flame.

The type of acting in a movie like this often times gets incorrectly classified as melodrama or camp, complete with the usual negative connotations. As an advocate of unconventional acting modes I get really fired up about the narrowness of critics and movie-goers who insist that naturalism is the only acceptable style of performance. Our perceived need to relate to, identify with, or at least recognize a performance is highly overrated in my opinion.

I’m a big enthusiast for silent film gestural acting, expressionism, melodrama, hyper-realism, method acting, camp, animation, deadpan, etc. I love the drained existentialism of “Buffet Froid” and “Vengeance Is Mine,” the overly idiosyncratic roles in the work of Welles and Argento, the sugar-pop fantasy personalities of musicals, the hypnotized zombie-delivery of “Heart of Glass,” and many other styles for which no one has yet coined a succinct and descriptive term.

The type of acting in “Suddenly, Last Summer” reminds me of films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Possession” (and other Zulawski features), “Bug,” “Inland Empire” and “High Strung.” I think of it as “intensified” acting. It’s a way of imprinting intensity, insanity and anxiety on the screen. It’s not always done well, and at worst it can come off as self-important scene-swallowing perpetrated by vulgar peddlers of jumbo-sized emotions.

I’ve been digressing, but now it’s time to get around to the issue I promised to address. Should “Suddenly, Last Summer” be dismissed as homophobic?

Sebastion, whose face is never actually shown, is eventually revealed to be gay through various flashbacks and insinuations that spell things are pretty directly for a 1959 film. He dresses fashionably in white silk suits. He writes one poem per year, while enjoying a summer vacation on an exotic island. We learn that he habitually “uses” people, an act he considers synonymous to love, and looks down upon humanity with disdain. In the film’s first major reveal [SPOILER ALERT], we learn that he cavorts with Hepburn and Taylor merely to use them as bait for hooking suitably lively young men. In the most vivid example, he dresses Catherine in a white swimsuit, that naturally turns translucent when wet, and has her splash about in front of the chain-link fence that separates the wealthy tourists from the hungry masses. [SPOILERS ENDS]

So we are not dealing with a progressive depiction of a homosexuality by any means, though I don’t think it’s exactly stereotypical either. What seems clear to me is that his general cruelty is not supposed to be due to his homosexuality, but a result of his misanthropy and detachment. It is only the deranged and incestuous Violet that sees his central flaw as being attracted to men (hence her desperate attempts to deny it and cover up the evidence), and I think it would be unwise to accept her perspective as the authorial one even though she provides much of our insight. Consider, too, that Sebastian’s homosexuality is revealed in the false climax. The central trauma, the final monstrous revelation, turns out to be a direct reflection of his own apocalyptic worldview; a punishment for the crime of exploiting, of coldly “using,” the humanity that he considered beneath him.

In one last salvo, I’d like to point out that the original author (Tennessee Williams), the screenwriter (Gore Vidal) and the lead actor (Montgomery Clift) were all, themselves, homosexual. Williams and Vidal, in particular, showed consistently progressive liberal tendencies in their writing, and I think a deeper look at their characterization of Sebastian reveals that they are more interested in exploring the breakdowns and borderlands of human relationships than in parroting the status quo. The choice to let the audience neither see nor hear Sebastian is certainly conspicuous, and should lead one to consider what the writers intended by only describing him through the eyes of others and only explaining him through the agendas of survivors.

But whether you care about sexual politics are not, “Suddenly, Last Summer” is a compelling viewing experience, with more than enough to recommend it. See it for the controversy I’ve discussed, the colorful off-screen drama or the Elizabeth Taylor bathing suit sequence, but stay for the decadent sets, overflowing script and intensified acting.

Walrus Rating: 9.0