Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Iceberg Arena: Unofficial Pinocchio Sequels

[Image: I just had to lead with this picture.]

When it comes to adapting classic fairy tales, folk tales and children’s literature there’s a certain burden in knowing you’re not likely the first or the last interpretation that will hit the screen. One has to weigh how true to the original to stick, whether to modernize the setting, if it’s wise to borrow from other adaptations and so on. And then there’s always that nagging half-hope, half-doubt: will this be the definitive version? The one everyone remembers?

Disney has certainly had no end of success winning that debate in the popular conscious. They’ve made highly-praised animated adaptations that have often stood the test of time even when working from source material that had seen plenty of previous versions like “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.” I’m considering all of these films for potential Iceberg Arena comparisons, since I think some of the rarer alternatives are just as good or outright better, but that’s not quite what I’m up to in this post.

No, today’s focus is on a film that Disney did first, and I think best: “Pinocchio” (1940). Comparing it to any other version (Roberto Benigni’s unbearable live-action adaptation anyone?) would just not be fair without issuing handicaps. I considered featuring only sci-fi adaptations of the 1883 novel including the disastrous CG “P3K: Pinocchio the Robot” (Malcolm McDowell, if you're ever that hard up for money again, please come to me) and the love-it-or-hate-it epic “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Finally I decided to stick to refreshingly shameless animated unofficial sequels to the 1940 Disney classic.

Now to count as unofficial sequels these films had to be clearly set after the original story and make references to uniquely Disney elements that do not appear in the original novel. Thus the vaguely-deranged Russian animation “Pinocchio and the Golden Key” (1959) doesn’t count, because it is an original adaptation based on The Adventures of Buratino Buratino. That quasi-spinoff novel was the invention of Aleksey Tolstoy, who tried to tell his children the story of Pinocchio, but couldn’t remember how it went.

So today’s duelers are the Belgian artifact “Pinocchio in Outer Space” (1965) and Filmation’s surprisingly creepy “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” (1987), two films that will probably not top very many most-beloved family entertainment lists (one list they did make it onto, purportedly, was Disney’s black one). I was certainly expecting these films to be ill-conceived and bizarre (in fact, I was counting on it), but I was shocked by something else about them: I actually liked them. Seriously! Maybe it’s my love of animation, kitsch, obscurity and strangeness, but I found them to be a lot of fun.

Both films include the device of Pinocchio returning to his wooden puppet form for irresponsible misbehavior (Pinocchio in Outer Space) and taking his freedom for granted (Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night) respectively, only to go on a series of adventures to earn his humanity once again.

Pinocchio in Outer Space:

The film begins with a overdramatic ostentatious documentary-style intro about the possibilities of space, propelled by the type of unqualified optimism towards science that marked the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, complete with a bold declaration that the following story is a reconstruction of what would actually happen if a puppet boy traveled into space. This transitions into an animated sequence where the Blue Fairy and her crotchety mother – who is knitting on a pastoral plot of the Milky Way – are disturbed by the rockets and satellites that are whizzing by.

We eventually get around to the actual story, wherein Geppetto’s workshop is suffering hard times due to its low-tech toy-line (kids want rocket ships). Pinocchio, wooden once again, sees a news report about Monstro (oops, I meant Astro), a space-faring whale that is terrorizing interplanetary traffic. With only a quarter to his name, he decides to pursue the bounty on Astro in the hopes of saving Geppetto’s shop and becoming a hero worthy of being a real boy.

Not far from his home he runs into the wily fox and his feline sidekick, just as in the original. They convince him to buy a pamphlet on hypnosis written by Professor B. A. Fraud, reasoning that he can use this power to ensnare Astro. Soon after leaving his dubious pals, Pinocchio is almost crushed by a spaceship piloted by Nurtle, an alien Twurtle (not to be confused with their terrestrial cousins, turtles) who looks a lot like Jose Carioca and serves as the Jiminy Cricket surrogate.

Pinocchio and Nurtle set off for Mars where they are attacked by gigantic sand crabs and take shelter near the nuclear reactors of a derelict alien metropolis. They find laboratory setups for giantizing a whole host of desert creatures and an underground aquifer where they speculate Astro was raised before mutating and turning on his masters. However, before they can find any real answers a sandstorm nearly buries them alive and they escape mere moments before the city goes nuclear. They have little time to celebrate their escape before Astro appears, leading to a climax where Pinocchio learns that there’s more to hypnosis than shouting “You are a statue. You are a statue” over and over again.

What’s great about the plot of “Pinocchio in Outer Space” is that it seems entirely unselfconscious. There’s no hint of irony or intentional outlandishness while Pinocchio dabbles in hypnosis, traipses about on Mars, flees from alien crabs or battles a space whale. The film virtually bursts with the innocent enthusiasm of an eleven-year-old fascinated by astronomy and smitten with pulp sci-fi adventures, and this whole-hearted zest really cancels out the sickly feeling of watching a cheap rip-off.

The result is fun, kitschy and zany. I even enjoyed the dated edutainment factoids about space that are often, much to my amusement, totally incorrect. There’re also little details that make me think the writers actually enjoyed themselves. Pinocchio tries his “You are a statue” hypnotism on a trio of ducks and is pleased with his 33% success, not realizing that the bird that remained frozen is the wooden decoy of a hunter (a nice parallel to Pinocchio himself). Or take a little exchange where Nurtle expresses some skepticism about the existence of Astro, and Pinocchio argues that you’d know if he were lying because his nose would grow.

The script isn’t exactly brilliant, but it is occasionally rather ballsy and that can be a fair exchange in cult B-movies. I found it especially galling (but maybe in good way) when Nurtle, outpacing the Martian mushroom cloud behind him as they escape the abandoned city, mentions offhand that now they’ll never know who the Martians were or why they bred giant monsters. And he means it. No explanations. I’m not sure if I’m baffled by the haphazard loose-ends or impressed with the beguiling ambiguity. I’m probably happier not knowing how much of this is just poor writing.

Another pleasant surprise was the animation, which is not half-bad. Though it doesn’t really distinguish itself from or live up to the 1940 film, one can actually tell that this is a four-year labor of love. The characters are fleshed out (even Nurtle, who doesn’t have the benefit of a well-established precursor), animated with vigor and verb, and voiced with personality and affection. The backgrounds are often fairly detailed, with some standouts like the Martian metropolis and Geppetto’s workshop.

Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night:

Norm Prescott, co-director on “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” eventually helped found Filmation, a television studio most famous for its low-budget animated series based on Star Trek, He-Man, the Ghostbusters and the like. The studio would eventually venture into feature films that road on the coattails of previous classics (“Journey Back to Oz” and “Happily Ever After” being the other two), including their most ambitious: “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night.”

The plot, seen from a distance, is really just a convoluted clone of the original set one year later and with some throwaway subplots, a love interest and an evil supervillain. Actually, that does make it pretty different...

Pinocchio and Geppetto are revisited by the Blue Fairy, who lectures about the importance of free will and brings to life Pinocchio’s toy glow worm Gee Willikers to be his conscience. No mention is made of Jiminy Cricket, more likely because of rights issues (Filmation was beleaguered by Disney lawyers throughout the production) than an acknowledgement of crickets’ three-month life spans. Pinocchio then sets out to deliver a valuable jewel box, only to be waylaid and conned by a sly raccoon and his monkey stooge (Honest John and Gideon in the original), getting him grounded that night when Geppetto finds out.

The film really gets going after Pinocchio violates his probation to go set things right, heading off to recover the jewel box. He is drawn to a carnival that enticed him the previous day and falls in love with a marionette named Twinkle who puts on a salacious performance while singing about running away from your parents doing whatever you want (upping the double-layers of the 1940’s “I’ve Got No Strings” with a clever triple-meaning refrain line “No one to hold me”). Afterwards, Pinocchio sneaks backstage and is kidnapped by the organ-grinding puppet-master Puppetino (who acts so much like a rapist that the scene never aired on TV) in what surely ranks amongst the most disturbing scenes in an animated children’s film.

With the help of Gee Willikers and the Blue Fairy, Pinocchio escapes, but learns from the still-scheming con artists that the jewel box is now in the dexterous hands of Puppetino. He riverboats down to find the carnival’s next stop, but is swallowed by a whale and entered the empire of the night, a ghostly world of fantasies and nightmares. There he visits the Land Where Dreams Come True and engages in a showdown with the four-armed demon lord The Emperor of the Night.

Perhaps the film’s most notorious scene is at the Land Where Dreams Come True, which actually exceeds the equivalent Pleasure Island in the original (where Pinocchio is transformed into a Donkey during a night of revelry). “Empire of the Night” goes even further, trippier and more terrifying. After entering a night club called the Neon Cabaret full of unlimited toys, Pinocchio indulges in mugs of absinthe, hallucinates that the leering faces around him are melting and then engages in a psychotropic self-indulgent disco dancing duet with Twinkle that involves spinning around on rainbows discs across abstract lightshow patterns while Playboy silhouettes composed of stars frolic around him.

This surreal euphoric high is followed immediately by the confrontation with the satanic demon villain, in a one-two mood-swing punch that probably spawned a lot of nightmares in young viewers. In the end he must escape the sinking ship (who knew we were on a ship?) through a series of implausible doors. One is so tall he has to tell lies so that his nose grows long enough to pull the handle and soon after he must confess truths to shrink it down enough to pass through a revolving door. Weird, but inspired.

However, counterbalancing the exquisitely overwhelming climax are heavy chunks of wasted time spent following Gee Williker’s subplot. He’s as much of a wet blanket as Jiminy Cricket, but without the charm or tunefulness. He spends most of the film vainly trying to argue with Pinocchio, who rightly ignores him, and then gets lost and has a bunch of lame time-killing adventures with Lt. Grumblebee and a large frog that rampages on an insect village. These scenes ruin the pacing of the film and don’t really belong.

Then there’s the Blue Fairy who keeps telling Pinocchio that free choice is the most powerful thing in the universe, but then admonishing him every time he doesn’t make the choice she wants. I guess that’s like real life.

The character design is more distinctive than “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” but much less appealing and hampered by 80’s-bad voice-acting. The good guys are especially weak: Geppetto looks like a jangly skeleton, Pinocchio’s cheekbones poke out distractingly and Gee Williker’s comes off as a carryover from a bad Fleischer cartoon. The villains, however, are a welcome upgrade. The raccoon/monkey con artist duo actually works and their dialog/performance is a far more convincing version of shifty shysters than other adaptations, even if the accents are rather offensive. Puppetino is almost too creepy and stands far above most henchmen (I hate the slow-witted buffoon variations) while The Empire of the Night makes most Disney nemeses seem like Heidi.

The background art is a notch or so above “Pinocchio in Outer Space” in terms of consistency. It also has better atmosphere, especially the carnival (even when it is seen from a distance) and the Empire of the Night. Yet at the same time it doesn’t have quite the same charm and sincerity.


Relative to my expectations, both of these films were real winners. If you’re already a disciple of the 1940 version and you’re tolerant towards a little artistic theft, I’d actually say it’s worth indulging any curiosity you might have. I probably wouldn’t show “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” to little children and “Pinocchio in Outer Space” might be a little quaint and naïve for adolescents, but I’m sure some kids could latch on to either. Besides, good parenting or not, I’m of the belief that a little outrageous surrealism is a healthy childhood vaccine against conformity indoctrination.

Anyway, I’m giving the gold to “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” but objectively it’s probably the other film that most people would prefer.

Winner: Pinocchio in Outer Space

Saturday, February 21, 2009

St. Louis Theater Guide

[Image: The Tivoli Theater in the Delmar Loop, St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Derek Dohler.]

Though I haven’t been in every theater in St. Louis, I’ve had a lot of time in the last 5+ years I’ve been living here to soak up the cinema offerings. I thought it might be nice to do an overview of the venues around the city and with some helpful information and colorful personal commentary that might be of interest to newcomers and long-haulers alike. There will be plenty of subjective bias in my ratings and critiques, but I’m trying to make the coverage rather expansive; including art house screens, megaplexes, college programs and novelty theaters.

Not that anybody goes to theaters any more, if statistics can be trusted. A great deal of time and energy was spent by my college professors and today’s modern film theorists to explain why travelling to a community setting and seeing original film stock is still vitally important to maintaining a healthy culture, but American aggregate skepticism is still on the rise. Big screen HD TVs with surround sound systems are luring cinephiles back to their couches, while noisy crowds, endless condescending previews (now with outright commercials), uncompetitive ticket costs, post-apocalyptic food-shortage snack prices and downright lackluster selection has driven audiences away from theaters.

And even I have to admit that I’d usually rather sprawl out in my cosy living room and watch a DVD with nominal market clout than subject myself to what increasingly feels like intentional indignities perpetrated by the callous theatrical distribution system. But sometimes I rouse myself for something worthwhile, rare or at least likely to spur enlistments from like-minded friends, and you know what? I still end up enjoying just about any trip to the silver screen.

So here’s my St. Louis Theater Guide. Take it or leave it.

Moolah Theater & Lounge
3821 Lindell Blvd, St. Louis
Rating: 8.0
The Moolah is a relatively recent addition, run by Cinema St. Louis in a converted Shriner’s temple. The towering outer façade is designed around baroque freemason architecture (somewhere between beautiful and gaudy) and is well-matched by the polished, handsome interior. The atrium is clean, classy and bright, but inevitably crowded and its popularity has forced the management to adopt an awkward color-coded ticket system for admitting the audience in phases. Off to the side of the main entranceway are an upscale bar (you can take drinks into the theater) and a lounge with seating and a billiards table. The screening room itself is advertised as “St. Louis’s largest living room” due to its popular section of overstuffed armchairs with plenty of leg room, arm room and accommodations for food and drinks. The size, comfort and novelty factor make this one of the more impressive experiences for film viewing that harkens back to the days of classical Hollywood movie palaces. The Moolah’s biggest shortcomings are the inconsistent choices for its single screen and the huge crowds that make early arrival a must and restroom trips a must-not.

Chase Park Plaza
212 N Kingshighway Blvd
, St. Louis
Rating: 8.0
Cinema St. Louis’s other luxury theater is built into the ground floor of the historic Chase Park Plaza hotel with a winding and spacious entranceway that one can almost get lost in. The hotel’s bar and café provide a nice compliment to the movie-going experience, though food isn’t available particularly late. Other dining and night out options are easy since the hotel is situated in the well-developed Central West End and is a short walk from Forest Park. Despite the prime location and some of the smallest projection spaces in St. Louis, the five screens rarely have seating problems. Other advantages include free monitored parking across the street, excellent sound systems, hand-painted wall art, an old-fashion silent movie organ and gentle classical music (I can’t stand the looping pop-music used to create a sound floor in most theaters). The film selection generally features big-name indies and well-reviewed works (it’s currently showing the five Oscar nominees for best picture), with the trailers restrained to a minimum and targeting a moderately discerning audience.

Galleria 6
2448 St. Louis Galleria Mall
Rating: 3.0
The odd man out in the trinity of St. Louis Cinema’s theaters is the Galleria 6 cineplex located in the Galleria mall. The Galleria itself is a midline mall with a variety of small shops and big chains, leaning more towards the latter. There are plenty of large semi-nice restaurants and an expansive food court that screams “land is not a premium” with its sprawling and usually sparsely-populated eating and resting areas (perfect for meeting up with companions). The theater is squished off to the side of the food court and has an underlit dungeon feel, not particularly improved by the general griminess and obnoxious advertising displays. Both the employees and clientele are on the very young side, with the film selection catering to that audience and generally not straying far from successful genre fare.

1005 McCausland Ave, St. Louis
Rating: 5.5
The single-screen Hi-Pointe Theatre is St. Louis’s oldest (note the old-timey spelling) and shares mini-landmark status with the enormous “Amoco” sign across the street (which has been preserved despite the gas station changing to a BP). It has the dubious of honor of standing at the corner of one of the worst five-way intersections ever designed and provides almost zero parking (I suggest following Skinker Blvd a block behind the building). The theater used to be owned by Landmark and would show interesting and often risky indie and foreign pictures, but it recently closed for several months and was reborn with new, more mainstream, proprietors. There have been several waves of remodeling, but the atrium and roomy seating still maintain their classical, vintage charm. The staff has a reputation as film-savvy hipsters and provides some of the friendliest theater service around. A regular feature is the custom (often pun-based) taglines that appear on the marquee.

Tivoli (Delmar Loop)
6350 Delmar, University City
Rating: 9.0
The Tivoli Theater is a prominent fixture of the Delmar Loop, St. Louis’s college cultural center and one of the most popular strips in the city due to its variety of independent stores (Vintage Vinyl being a top recommendation), coffee shops and Thai cuisine (like personal favorite Thai Pizza Café). The Tivoli has three screens: two smaller galleries on either side and an opulent primary screen known for its decorative flourishes and special events. The interior design of the foyer and concession area gives off exactly the right atmosphere, with vintage movie posters along the walls, evolving memorabilia displays and an intimate waiting area with small café tables. The staff is clearly dedicated, with familiar faces staying on over the years, a regular brochure on upcoming features and a key position at the heart of the St. Louis film festival. Celebrity guests, director Q&As and packed midnight screenings of cult films are not infrequent. The selection of movies tends to be interesting and varied, with quick turnover and relevant news clipping and essays displayed around the box office. Parking is inadequate and the traffic heavy on Fridays and Saturdays, but taking a stroll from a distant sidestreet is rarely unpleasant. Since the Tivoli was in walking distance of my university, I used visit it especially often and I have many fond memories.

Plaza Frontenac Cinema
Plaza Frontenac Mall, St. Louis
Rating: 7.0
Landmark’s largest St. Louis venue is the six-screen theater at the north end of the Plaza Frontenac Mall. The extremely upscale shopping district possesses few stores where any visitor not chauffeured in their Rolls Royce would reasonably spend money, but it can make for pleasant window shopping. There is no food court or quick and cheap meal options even in the surrounding area, but there are several fancy restaurants nearby and a variety of wines, coffees and mixed drinks are served along with the usual concessions. Wooden furniture on the second floor provides an eating and waiting area, but be sure to note that the only restroom is partway downstairs across the thoroughfare from the theater. The screening rooms are relatively small, the acoustics only average and the chairs uncomfortable, as I’ve often noted during film festival marathon sessions, but it’s still better than average for a mall location. The place where the Plaza Frontenac really excels is the film lineup, showcasing the greatest number of critically lauded recent works in the area. The moderate crowds are made up of polite enthusiastic cinephiles and quiet upper-class retirees, since there isn’t much besides wealthy suburbs in the vicinity.

St. Louis Art Museum
One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis
Rating: 6.5
In addition to being a fantastic art museum, SLAM also had an exciting film retrospective series that focused on classic and experimental films not available on DVD. These series usually revolved around a specific auteur (Jacques Rivette and Roberto Rossellini being particularly memorable) or tied into a temporary exhibit elsewhere in the museum. Informative speakers and detailed pamphlets provide context. Another favorite highlight was live musical accompaniment for silent films. The theater is tucked behind the museum proper, with plenty of parking above a nice view of the zoo and park. There is lots of seating inside the auditorium (clearly designed to serve for multiple types of events) and the ticket prices are low. The only drawback (and the main reason for my point deductions) is the rarity of screenings. I’m sure the issue is financial, but this is a case where I’d be happy to pay more taxes. The film program is currently offline completely, purportedly while renovations are underway, but it is sorely missed and without it there are few sterling repertoire options available in St. Louis.

Winifred Moore Auditorium (Webster Film Series)
470 E. Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves
Rating: 8.5
The premier film series in St. Louis is undeniably the Webster Film Series, a popular program sponsored by Webster University that features an eclectic mix of retrospective and new releases. The series exudes a genuinely independent vibe, with truly alternative films (documentaries are a specialty) often accompanied by introductions, Q&As and workshops with the filmmakers. Their well-organized calendars give you three months warning to plan your attendance and include capsule reviews to help with the obscure titles. The auditorium is built in a former chapel. The grand gothic architecture remains, but the pews have thankfully been converted into slightly more accommodating seating (there is still lots of room to improve in terms of comfort). Finding the building can be rather difficult for first-timers (look for the circle drive with international flags) and street parking is usually required (you may have a long walk during popular showings), but much of the audience is made up of Webster students who can simply walk on over. Best of all, the prices are cheap: $5-6 compared to the STL std. of ~$8. My only serious complaint is that sometimes the managers change up the schedule on short notice without updating the website. Still, if you have only one non-DVD resource for cinema in St. Louis, the Webster Film Series should be it.

Schlafly’s Bottleworks (Strange Brew)
7260 Southwest Avenue, Maplewood
Rating: 7.0
Actually part of the Webster Film Series (see above), Strange Brew is an addendum sponsored by Schlafly’s Bottleworks and geared specifically towards cult films. The Schlafly’s premises include a restaurant, gift shop and the brewery itself where visitors can take scheduled tours. They show a movie on the first Wednesday of every month in the back room where they have a bar and dining area. You can settle into the heavy wood furniture and get food and drinks while you watch. Tickets are cheap ($4) although the edibles are a bit pricy. Still, if you’re fond of heavy Northern dishes like venison chili and beer bread, this is your place. The small room (~40 seats) can fill up rather quickly, especially with popular films, but the programmers do an admirable job picking eccentric enough options that the niche audience is usually the right size. Projection is done on a small screen, usually from DVD, but occasionally on film stock. Titles include sci-fi B-movies (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”), cult documentaries (“Endless Summer”), blaxploitation (“Watermelon Man”) and offbeat comedies (“Bob Roberts”).

Brown 101 (Washington University Films & Media Program)
One Brookings Drive, Washington University
Rating: 5.0
While it isn’t up to Webster’s high standard, my alma mater also tries to foster a thriving cinema culture and an excellent film series. Screenings, still open to the public, are held almost every weeknight in Brown 101 but financial reasons have caused the university to cease publicizing the schedule (excessive groundskeeping, overpriced lecturers and semesterly concerts remain subsidized, however). The titles tend to be old and frequently tilt towards academic and art house interests, but many are rare opportunities to see essential and exotic films not available on DVD. The short intros typically provided by the professors are welcome, but sometimes it can take far too long before the films get underway. Limitations on the equipment mean that there are also occasional breakdowns and poor sound quality, but at least the screen is large. The seating capacity is also enormous, but the chairs are cramped and designed with awkward little fold-away desks. A balcony level (and I don’t just mean an elevated platform like at the megaplex) provides a great view. First-timers (and second-timers) should bring a campus map to find the underground parking or street meters and to navigate to the otherwise unmarked building.

St. Louis Science Center IMAX
5050 Oakland Ave, St. Louis
Rating: 5.0
The St. Louis Science Center is an iconic bit of St. Louis architecture (the Obata-designed hyperboloid planetarium in particular) and family-friendly tourist location. The center includes plenty of activities for children of all ages and provides a wealth of interesting facts and trivia. The main building includes an OMNIMAX that shows primarily science documentary material that can certainly be exhilarating if you’ve never been before, but is probably not going to be a regular spectacle for most film-goers. As part of special promotions with the big studios, occasional major releases are presented on the OMNIMAX and usually attract huge audiences.

Wehrenberg Ronnie’s 20
5320 S. Lindbergh Blvd, Sappington
Rating: 6.0
The Wehrenbergs have been operating theaters longer than any other family in America, beginning shortly after the St. Louis World’s Fair. They continue to hold their own against AMC in St. Louis with 145 screens across 10 locations. They are looked upon fondly by the natives, in spite of (or perhaps because of) their cheesy logo sequences. I certainly won’t discuss all of their branches, but I will talk about the original, which also happens to be my favorite. Ronnie’s 20 has the requisite overblown exterior and features an equally excessive interior that boasts an IMAX, a two-story arcade, a trailers-only theater screen actually built into the main hall and auxiliary concession areas in the east and west wings. Considering the percentage of arcade machines that are indefinitely in need of repair and the late-80’s sound effects coming from the remainder, the atmosphere late at night can sometimes reminds me of a haunted carnival, which I actually prefer compared to the raucous seething bustle during the early evening. Still, I feel mildly affectionate towards Ronnie’s and find it one of the more palatable options for blockbusters. The number of screens tends to mean there are plenty of options and enough room for a few riskier sleeper hits. Advanced screenings are often times hosted here, but be sure to show up very early. You can depend on plenty of parking in the vast lot and several economical dinner choices nearby (I recommend the “Eat Rite” diner).

AMC Esquire 7
6706 Clayton Rd, St. Louis
Rating: 1.5
I’ve never been a huge AMC fan (I grew up not far from a ridiculous AMC 30 in Kansas that had its own zipcode just for screens showing “Kangaroo Jack”), but the Esquire really is the bottom of the barrel. I used to go here frequently in college since it was the absolute closest to my dorm, but I can rarely remember having a pleasant experience. The ticket lines are long and slow, the building packed and filthy and the movie selection confined to the most odious studio excretions. The main central screen, however, is at least impressive for its gigantic stadium seating that seems to attract catcallers of all ages and opinions, leading to an obnoxiously “interactive” and distracting viewing experience. Let me set the scene: small children go crawling around between the rows scavenging for scraps, under-aged teens fornicate in the darkest recesses, local gangs wage knife-fights in the aisles, deranged drifters laugh, cry and boo at all the wrong times and old hobos with nowhere else to go snore loudly in the pockets of rotting popcorn too foul for the looters and muggers to approach. Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but you get the picture.

Keller Plaza 8
4572 Lemay Ferry Road, St. Louis
Rating: 3.5
Not too many people make it far enough Southeast in St. Louis to visit this somewhat rundown dollar theater, but it’s one of the few places to catch cheap second-run showings and I’m already coming to appreciate it. Situated atop an unexpected hill, it can be surprisingly difficult to find and access, but it does big business with the lower-quadrant genre and kiddy fodder. These are films that are being discussed whenever you hear someone saying “I might be interested, but not at full ticket price.” Unfortunately, much of the prospective audience continues to discuss the film even after they’ve reached their seats, so skip the family films if you can’t stand a talkative crowd. The architecture is extremely basic and practical, with the atrium and corridors a little too large such that on slow days you can hear the echoes and feel the emptiness. I would recommend the building go through some renovations and repairs, but that might ruin something of the low-budget charm. Note that despite being referred to as a “dollar theater” admittance is actually closer to $3-5 and don’t go hoping that the food will be discounted.

Skyview Drive-In
5700 N Belt W Belleville, IL
Rating: 2.5
So it’s not technically in St. Louis or even in Missouri, but the Skyview is the closest drive-in to the city and is just barely within practical distance for novelty and nostalgia seekers. You might not remember the tickets costing so much, but the low-fi portable speakers and incessant mosquitoes might ring a bell. The experience is a lot of fun with a large group of friends, but it can be exasperatingly difficult to find anything worth seeing. Skyview has a reputation for arranging double features that don’t take into account taste or run time (the last time I was there the dual flops ran well over 4 hours). When the weather, the quality of the movies, and the schedules of your cadre all align, this can be worth a try.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review of Flatland

It might be a little obvious that I’ve been catching up on animation recently (see “Grendel Grendel Grendel,” “The Legend of the Sky Kingdom” and "West and Soda"), which has always been a subject of interest for me. My tastes have been shaped by the requisite American Disney upbringing, an enduring friendship with eclectic anime enthusiast Mad Dog, my career-fueled programmer’s interest in CG and my genetically-coded, but previously dormant affinity for Czech puppetry and stop-motion. This last month or so I’ve stepped up my animation ingestion with plans to eventually make a top 100 list more interesting than the few I’ve seen and, of course, I’m reviewing occasional features along the way.

Animation often gets shunned from highbrow film circles. The perception seems to be that American animation is for kids, Japanese anime is for adolescent males and European animation can safely be ignored as an inconsequential niche market. I’ve never agreed with that assessment, but it’s become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents any film unwilling to conform to these expectation from getting wide distribution or recognition.

[Image: Highbrow circle.]

But times are changing. We’ve had an Academy Award for animated features since 2001 and there’s been enough mainstream competition that Disney’s never even won. Anime has long since moved from subculture to pop culture, even if it only rarely gets admitted into high culture. Even European works are seeing occasional DVD releases, though we still have a loooong way to go. Don’t get me started on Russia. And while it used to be that animations of all stripes were few and far between, it's actually hard to keep up with them nowadays.

The technology has changes as well. In the same way that handheld 16 mm cameras in the early 1960’s and digital cameras in late 1990’s opened up greater freedom and accessibility to independent artists, improved off-the-shelf software has changed animation. It used to be that animation required so much time, money and staff that filmmakers couldn’t pursue individual interests or take artistic risks. There are few precedents for solo (or near solo) animation (Piotr Kamler’s 1982 “Chronopolis” is a rare exception) until Bill Plympton in the 1990's and the last few years with the emergence of films like Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008), Tol's "Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space" (2003), M. dot Strange’s “We Are the Strange” (2007), John Bergin's "From Inside" (2008) and Ladd Ehlinger’s “Flatland” (2007).

Some of my readers might remember that I was once eagerly anticipating “Flatland: The Movie,” which also came out in 2007, but which is actually a different movie entirely. Flatland: The Movie had a celebrity voice cast going for it, but ran only 34 minutes long, cost $35 and was released to mixed reviews. Ehlinger’s “Flatland” faired much better and I was pleased with the copy he makes available.

The original 1884 novel by Edwin A Abbott follows an unassuming square living in the 2-dimensional world of Flatland. He experiences several dreams in which he imagines 1-dimensional and 0-dimensional kingdoms whose denizens are unable to comprehend his own reality. The square’s own presumptions are then challenged when he is visited by a sphere, who pulls him out of his plane so that he can experience the previously indescribable reality of the 3D Spaceland. Although he initially mistakes the sphere to be a god, he experiences the revelation that there must be dimensions beyond even the third, an epiphany that outrages the sphere and gets him imprisoned as a raving heretic in Flatland.

[Image: A Sphere, as his cross-section appears in Flatland.]

The screenplay by Tom Whalen updates this story into a modern context, though wisely maintaining most of the original concepts about how a 2D society would function. He adds a great deal of extra detail and several subplots to round things out, although little of it adds much to the film and most of the ideas are left hanging. Squares rebellious hexagonal daughter, the death of the king’s irregular-sided son, a suicidal radical female, shiny mysterious glowpoints imported from a Northern kingdom, a campaign in Spaceland to destroy Flatland (with no convincing motivation), Sphere’s religious corporation “Messiah Inc.” (which doesn’t seem to have an income source or purpose) and many other elements are presented, but not really developed into a satisfying whole.

[Image: The number of sides on a polygon typically indicates intelligence or caste. Triangles are the grunt soldiers while circles are the politicians and priests.]

Whalen does deserve credit, however, for his narrator intertitles. Especially near the beginning of the film, he inserts his wry commentary into the action to explain the setup (rather than wasting time with an intro) and demonstrate a certain level of self-consciousness about the book’s shortcomings (particularly its chauvinism and bluntness). I actually kind of missed the little text interruptions when they more or less gave way to the action as we enter Spaceland, but at least it isn’t overdone.

The core ideas about geometry and dimensionality still remain the compelling edge to “Flatland” and Ehlinger/Whalen do a good job translating (and rotating) them to the screen. You don’t get material that lends itself this well to visualization very often, so it’s worth talking about how Ehlinger’s computer animation brings Flatland and Spaceland to life.

Of the 2D and 3D realms, I felt Flatland was surprisingly more compelling and I’m glad it gets the lion’s share of the runtime. Careful attention to props, layout and background give these scenes a clean graphic design neatness that turns the low-budget into an asset.

Better yet, Ehlinger manages to interpret simple polygons like triangles, squares and circles into character designs that are really quite original. Seen from an overhead view, the audience is treated to the internals of each flatlander, including their viewing eye, waving flagella feelers, blood vessels, brains (with tiny sparking synapses), pumping heart and so on. It gives the viewer an eerie god-like feeling, like looking at angular amebas on a slide, which makes Sphere’s messiah complex easily understandable.

[Image: Senator Chromatistes, an irregular polygon and the leader of a colorization faction.]

The camera zooms into Square’s brain for dream sequences or pulls back to reveal the highly symmetrical architecture. By keeping the camera perspective along simple normals and parallel lines, Ehlinger mimics the strictness of Flatland’s rigidly structured society while still leaving room for plenty of subtle gags in the presentation.

[Images: Entering into Square’s mind for a dream sequence.]

The transition into 3D makes for a nice change-up in the plot, style and graphics, but Spaceland lacks the charm and quiet beauty of Flatland’s design. Ehlinger’s rendering of Sphere’s hovercraft, floating citadel and billboard strewn skyways doesn’t match the originality of his 2D work.

While admirable for the work of one man modeling imagery alone, it’s impossible to overlook the reliance on simple shapes and repetition. While this is arguably an artistic decision meant to focus our attention on the geometric foundations of reality, it lessens the impact of bursting into a greater dimension. The smoothness of shapes (I think little to no bump mapping is used), the scarcity of textures and the high light reflectivity used for every surface, gives Spaceland an artificial plastic look that isn’t very appealing.

[Image: Sphere introduces Square to Spaceland.]

But most of that is just pickiness when you consider the level of polish that is achieved with only one animator and in only 18 months. Ehlinger never really pushes graphics as a primary concern anyway; it isn’t intended to dazzle so much as to illustrate the adventure, satire and thought-experiments. When it does rest too long in a single place, one can feel the emptiness start to creep in, but Whalen’s screenplay smartly keeps the characters more mobile and active than the novel. Elsewhere a couple of special effects like surface warping, plenty of quality voice-acting and a good deal of humor (I could have done with more geometry puns, though) pick up the slack between this and large-scale productions.

Flatland may not be a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s a forerunner of what I hope will be a growing movement. Fans of the novel or of DIY CG should definitely give it a chance and support the independent spirit and personal determination that is pushing alternative computer animation forward.

Walrus Rating: 7.0

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review of West and Soda

It’s hard for me not to approach any old western parody with skepticism (I’ve seen so many not worth the hype), but an animated spaghetti western parody is another matter. Much of the appeal of spaghetti westerns comes from their ability to push genre conventions over-the-top and take glorified violence, vigilante justice, frontier resourcefulness and elegiac existentialism to extremes. What better way to take things up a notch than to abandon live-action limitations entirely?

Indeed, “West and Soda” (1965) is at its best when it pulls gags that wouldn’t be possible outside of animation:

Slim and Ursus, a pair of sadistic henchmen, walk into a bar and everyone freezes in fear, including a card shark’s deck as it arches through the air.

Cattivissimo, the land-grabbing villain, tells time with a clock that fires bullets at his birdcage to mark the hour (the poor bird obligingly cuckoos in terror as it dodges lead).

Clementine, the beautiful rancher who owns the only square of green (literally) in the otherwise barren desert valley, gets up in the morning, walks over to her cow and opens a refrigerated compartment in its stomach to get a bottle of milk.

Johnny, our taciturn hero with eyes perpetually hidden under the brow of his cowboy hat and posture so laidback he’s ever on the brink of falling backwards, puts on a final shootout performance that would shame most circus acts let alone gunslingers.

These quick one-off jokes are gimmicky, impractical and borderline non-sense, in short, everything a good cartoon comedy should aim for. “West and Soda” doesn’t apologize for introducing cleverness for its own sake and is frequently willing to venture into the absurd to get a laugh.

Where “West and Soda” is at its worst is in the same places most novelty and comedy westerns flag: story and delivery. The typical pattern is to set up some obvious old west cliché, only to “subvert” it by changing one aspect (in this case, by animating it) or “defying our expectations” at the last minute. In theory, this is supposed to be a surefire formula for hilarity, but in practice this means that we sit through 90% clichéd rehash for 10% payoff, with the payoff usually all too obvious far in advance. I know “Destry Rides Again,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Cat Ballou” have a lot of fans out there, they spend so much time retreading familiar territory on their way to punchlines.

That’s not to say “West and Soda” is boring, but whenever it tries to move the story along one can see straight through the coat of paint and right through to the bare bones skeleton. I appreciate that Westerns often rely on simple stories, and that’s fine, because it’s a genre that usually distinguishes itself through performances, setting and cinematography. However, those elements are hard to simulate in animation and often less satisfying. Director Bruno Bozzetto does try, and he makes up some lost ground with his ingenuity and sense of humor, but he doesn’t go far enough.

The voice acting and character designs take advantage of revisionist western templates: underplayed protagonists vs. overwrought villains. But personality is missing, especially for the female characters caught in between, like virtuous rancher Clementine and barroom hostess Esmeralda.

The background animation is also pretty lacking, though it emphasizes the emptiness and desolation of the landscape. The color palette sticks to brown earth tones, sometimes with a suitably muddy watercolor texture rather than a solid hue, but the painted terrain rarely musters the majesty of a Ford or Mann movie, or even a good painting. One exception is a sequence of shots pulling outward from a jutting rocky pillar where Cattivissimo is raving his maniacal plans. The series of cuts diminishes him to a distant fly speck and silences his tirade as the desert canvas overtakes him. Ultimately the low-budget intrudes further than one can ignore (the final chase is particularly flat), and it becomes tiresome to look at images with no detail, variation or beauty.

Even in the most minimalist westerns, formerly unimportant details (the wind blowing dust across dirt, a bead of sweat running through the hero’s unshaven bristle, weathered planks of knotty wood creaking under the villain’s leather boot as he rises from his barstool, etc.) move in to fill the vacuum. Without details, “West and Soda” doesn’t have that atmosphere or sense of place that it needs. It feels too much like a Saturday morning cartoon: amusing, but forgettable and interchangeable.

So I found myself experiencing a continuous conflict in enjoying “West and Soda” between the crazy little inspirations that made it funny and different and the big overriding issues that made it dull and typical. In some ways I just wish it had just been more ambitious; more aggressive. Some of the money could have been diverted away from filling in the classical story and put into spinning off into its intricate tangents. This is exactly the tactic Bozzetto would later take with his most famous film, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976) a pessimistic parody of “Fantasia” as envisioned by a profiteering hack.

So is “West and Soda” funny enough to be worth seeking out? It depends on your tolerance for comedy westerns and your expectations for animation as art. I’m not a big fan of classical westerns or comedy westerns, but I’d say overall this one nudged my thumb upwards.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Iceberg Arena: Ridiculous Japanese Monster Mayhem

A part of my youth will always be tied to Godzilla. I inherited my father’s love for the king of monsters and shared his excitement about obtaining Godzilla paraphernalia. I remember Christmases and Father’s Days when we gave him bulky Godzilla VHS box sets, a Godzilla T-shirt (a semi-abstract image of his shadow against a skyscraper which he still regularly wears) and action figures that are proudly displayed in his office.

But most of all I remember the films, in bits and pieces that make about as much sense as the wholes. I remember how much fun is was to watch giant monsters crush tanks, trample Tokyo and beat and the crap out of each other.

Now much older and living on my own, I revisit Godzilla less frequently, but was recently reminded of the reptilian ringleader when looking at an action figure display at the St. Louis Delmar Tivoli Theater. Thinking myself somewhat of a Godzilla completist, I was shocked to discover he’d had a full 29 features leading all the way up to 2004 (ending with “Godzilla: Final Wars,” which I watched with my dad). Most of my experience had been with the Showa era (the classics from 1954 – 1975), which many consider to be the height of cheesiness.

Godzilla originated in 1954 as the brainchild of director Ishiro Honda. The story was a parable about the dangers of the atom age embodied in the form of a giant dinosaur-like monster that terrorized Tokyo. In later sequels Godzilla would reverse roles and become a sort of guardian for Japan, defending it from all sorts of strange monsters that ranged from Mothra (a giant moth) to MechaGodzilla (a robot version of himself). Godzilla’s design was tweaked over the years, but his powerful screeching roar and the atomic beam he fires from his mouth have remained staples.

Feeling a bit nostalgic, I decided it was time to fill in some of my gaps in the Kaiju (giant monster) genre and stage a showdown of the most ridiculous Japanese monster movies. Ishiro Honda was an obvious place to start since he’d been my favorite director from the genre and I knew he had several unusual non-Godzilla films (“Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People,” for instance, which I once screened at Splice). I also acquired “Godzilla vs. Biollante” (not by Honda), known as the “lost” Godzilla films due to its brief theatrical release and unavailability on R1/R2 DVD.

So here are the competitors:

Dogora the Space Monster (1964)
Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)

Now much like my Rutger Hauer B-movie Double Feature the rules are somewhat different from the usual Iceberg Arena format. Instead of competing to be the best movie in the traditional sense, the winner will be decided by which film is the worst in a good way.

I will award Astro-Points for things like ridiculous premises, outrageously bad dialog, inexplicable occurrences, weird plot points, totally awesome monster abilities, induced head-scratching and general silliness. Ordinary badness like poor lighting or boring stretches do not earn Astro-Points.

The points awarded for each item will appear in brackets.

Dogora the Space Monster:

[8] Premise: A team of double-crossing jewel thieves is interrupted mid-heist by a giant squid from outer space who summons cyclones to suck up concentrated carbon. This is bad for the crooks, who are seeking a large shipment of diamonds, and bad for the hero cop, whose girlfriend lives near a massive coal mine. This was Honda last single-monster outing.

[3] Eventually the military concludes that Dogora was created when swarms of wasps (apparently flying around in the ionosphere) interacted with radioactive space cells. They therefore divine that wasp toxin should destroy Dogora, distributed by parachuting barrels of it into the air and pointing robotic hoses towards space (which fire about 30 feet up).

[3] When the toxin does take effect, it transforms Dogora, now a cloud of jellyfish-like bubbles, into rainbow-colored meteorites that rain down like skittles and crush the jewel thieves.

[2] For extensive use of a musical saw on the soundtrack to create an eerie alien warble.

[1] We are treated to a floating hobo in the opening scene. Other than this, the film never really exploits the fact that humans are carbon-based and Dogora largely ignores the cast, contrary to the poster art and DVD cover (seen above) which claim, “It devours buildings and people.”

[1] Dr. Munakata, who we’re told is one of the world’s leading crystallographers, asks “Coal and diamonds are both made of carbon, right?”

[1] Dogora only appears in its widely publicized squid form for a handful of seconds through an effect where mist is superimposed on a squid superimposed on an image of the sky. Dogora is actually seen in this form for longer in many of the trailers, which repeat the shot several times throughout.

[1] The requisite American character, “Mark Jackson,” karate chops three times as many people as the nearest Japanese character. As in the real world, a single mild blow on the back of the neck knocks the victim out instantly.

[1] The jewel thieves wear the world’s most conspicuous white gloves even when engaging in nighttime stealth operations.

[1] For several stock footage scenes of satellites spinning around or just sitting there.

Total: 22

Frankenstein Conquers the World:

[12] Premise: Near the end of WWII, Nazis smuggle the immortal heart of Frankenstein from Frankfurt in the hopes that Japanese scientists can harness its cellular regeneration to create bullet-proof super-soldiers. A german destroyer transports the organ to a Japanese submarine, who then delivers it to Hiroshima just before the dropping of the atom bomb. 15 years later, a waif child is spotted killing small animals in the area. Dr. James Bowen, an American doctor living locally, manages to capture the creature, later discovered to be Frankenstein’s monster. The artificial man grows into an enormous giant, escapes from captivity and is suspected in the destruction of several mountain villages. The truth turns out to be that Baragon, a tunneling dinosaur with a glowing horn (and no backstory), is at large and mega-Frankenstein may be on the only one who can stop it.

[4] After successfully defeating Baragon during a raging forest fire, there’s still the question of what will happen to the 20-story Frankenstein. No problem. With less than 4 minutes left in the film a gigantic octopus comes out of nowhere, grapples with Frankenstein and pulls him into the ocean. I wish Hollywood films had that much unfathomable panache when dealing with loose ends.

[2] Frankenstein escapes from his chains when he grows so big that his shackles cut through his arm and the limb falls off. It’s later found crawling around with a life of its own.

[1] Dr. Bowen teaches his Japanese assistant (later to be his wife) “American humor.” She catches on quickly. When admiring his ability to cook beef (the sole element of American cuisine), he explains that the first step is to buy a good cut of meat. She quips back that really the first step is to “lasso a cow.” Both burst into laughter and fall in love.

[1] For Mrs. Bowen’s inexplicably giddy excitement when her husband suggests they visit the grave of a patient he couldn’t save.

[1] For the dialog exchange:
“If only we didn’t have to kill Frankenstein.”
“Well unless you can think of some other way to kill him, we’ll have to.”

[1] For at least three irrelevant scenes involving go-go dancing.

[1] For the actress who responds to a nearby avalanche as Baragon busts through the side of a mountain with “Did you hear something?” and for the fact that nobody else does. We never see this character again.

[1] The film stars American C-actor extraordinaire Nick Adams, former hanger-on pal of James Dean and Elvis Presley, who’d promised three years earlier “I will never make a picture abroad.”

[1] Alternate titles include “Frankenstein Versus Subterranean Monster Baragon” and “Frankenstein Meets the Giant Devil Fish.”

Total: 25

Godzilla vs. Biollante:

[9] Premise: Dr. Shiragami, a once ambitious scientist now quietly wiling away his time experimenting with plant telepathy, crosses secret government Godzilla DNA with rose petals and the remains of his dead child Erika, inadvertently (well, actually it seems like it would have to be pretty advertent) creating Biollante, a towering rose-monster with thorny vine tentacles (arguably one of the lamest monster premises ever). As something of a sibling to the gargantuan lizard king, it calls out to Godzilla, who is busy decimating Japan, and several titanic battles ensue.

[4] The Japanese Self-Defense force tries to kill Godzilla with a mirror-lined hovercraft that reflects back his atomic ray “1000 times stronger” and by firing bazookas at him containing syringes of bacteria that eats his vital nuclearness. Not only is the poor understanding of science hilarious, but the visualization of these silly ideas is appropriately over-the-top.

[2] Dr. Shiragami communicates with Biollante through his young female telepathic assistant. At one point he abandons her on an empty ocean platform to try (unsuccessfully) to reason with the approaching Godzilla.

[2] After Godzilla defeats Biollante for the final time, its spores ascend into outer space and Dr. Shiragami sees the image of his daughter’s now-smiling face superimposed in the glowing particles like some sort of trippy mirage.

[2] For perhaps the worst soundtrack in any Godzilla movie I’ve seen. Whether triumphant, comical, ominous or upbeat, the music never fits the action. One suspects that the composer was not given even a rough cut of the film to work with and that a deaf studio stooge ironed the musical tracks onto the celluloid at random.

[1] The various factions duking it out on the ground are a little difficult to follow, but one appears to be a silent assassin hired by an Arab company whose nefarious (?) plot involves ending world hunger with a Godzilla-spliced strain of super-wheat.

[1] There’s also a couple of American agents working for a company called Bio-Major trying to steal the anti-nuclear bacteria for some unclear reason. You can tell they are American because one is African-American and their dialog consists of English expletives.

[1] Once Biollante blooms, it is able to spew radioactive acid vomit.

[1] Godzilla emerges from the inside of a volcano, after a terrorist bomb disturbs his sleep.

[1] The bazooka battle with Godzilla takes place along the riverbeds that wind through a Japanese commercial district, a huge set that is actually pretty cool.

Total: 24


Honda’s “Dogora” was a major disappointment that really failed to do much cool with its crazy ideas and skimped on the special effects needed to be considered a kaiju classic. However, the director made up for it with “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” a film so consistently silly and yet strangely inspired that I was never bored. Meanwhile, “Godzilla vs. Biollante” won’t be regarded by any as the best in its series, but it is far from being the worst and had enough bizarre concepts to remain more memorable than most.

Winner: Frankenstein Conquers the World

Friday, February 6, 2009

Review of Legend of the Sky Kingdom

Africa’s first animated feature, the Zimbabwean stop-motion adventure “The Legend of the Sky Kingdom” (2003), may not have stirred up much mainstream buzz, but it’s left me itching for discussion and debate. It deserves to be acknowledged as an astounding technical achievement and a testament to artistic resourcefulness, but also got me thinking about the role of religion in cinema and the way values are transmitted to children through entertainment.

[Image: Coastal reel canisters near a cliff of VHS tapes.]

“The Legend of the Sky Kingdom” was shot on a home-built camera and features a cast and setting constructed almost entirely from discarded junk (director Roger Hawkin’s called his methodology “junkmation”). Far from achieving a grimy, dirty feel with an industrial or post-apocalyptic vibe, Hawkin’s has converted trash into a resplendent world of homely robot characters, ingeniously intricate creatures and meticulous magical locations. Dogs with crocodile clip jaws, trees with melted straw branches, waves of undulating plastic bags and many other tiny inspirations bring our imaginations to life.

All this laborious design work would stagnate relatively rapidly if the movements weren’t convincing, but here the crew remains as polished as any Aardman animation. Motions are smooth, expressive and clear. Most characters move and talk in distinct ways, with each mechanical device choreographed in keeping with its unique components .(Katie, owing to her mechincal engineering training, identified dozens of cleverly appropriated devices that I couldn’t even name!)
The film was shot in English, so I was even able to admire the way the mouth movements match the syllables. The voice-acting is sometimes a little too precious (I was nostalgically reminded of Gumby), but it’s chock full of personality. Italiano, the inevitable Italian stereotype, should have been a source of groans and cringes, but emerged as my favorite “performance.” You can really sense the cast having a lot of fun and giggling between takes while giving a benevolent monkey troupe a ridiculous French accent or voicing a sleazy lizard with a wheedling lisp.

Outside of Italiano and his partner Badza, the main characters are Blockhead, Lucky and Squidge. They begin the film as oppressed slaves in the dingy underground city of the Evil Emperor. The band of would-be heroes gets thrown in jail trying to escape, but there they discover Telly, a book-sized robot which gives them key guidance. After making a leap of faith onto an invisible bridge (a scene too reminiscent of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) they emerge onto the surface world.

Once in the open air, the story becomes a great deal more loose and episodic. The overarching goal is to reach the Sky Kingdom, a legendary paradise that can be reached only by trusting in Ariel, the incorporeal son of the Sky Kingdom’s ruler. However, if their meandering path seen on a top-down map is any indication, their journey is less about crossing geography than overcoming a sequence of obstacles and challenges. It doesn’t take long before the story gives way to a rather pushy peachiness and falls into a dull formula: an obstruction is encountered, the team consults Telly or prays to Ariel who then provide a deus ex machina solution and everyone shouts the films’s endlessly repeated tagline “Believing is seeing!”

By now you’re probably noticing what most people in the audience are noticing: the rising pitch of religious sermonizing. It’s quickly impossible to ignore. The allegory, almost subtle at first, gets shoved down our throat: underground city = material world, sky kingdom = heaven, Ariel = Jesus, Telly = Bible, Evil Emperor = Devil, etc, etc. By the end of the film our heroes must even pass through the valley of death to reach the sky kingdom.

Now I’m usually a fan of cinema dealing with moral quandaries, messiah figures and religious themes, but there’s a line between parable and propaganda. I have three major problems with how “The Legend of the Sky Kingdom” conducts its missionary work.

Firstly, there’s the issue of being honest and forthright. The Russian stop-motion Jesus bio “The Miracle Maker” (2000) and the popular “VeggieTale” Christianity animations are two examples of excellent productions that are quite explicit about their religious agendas and benefit from that openness. “The Legend of the Sky Kingdom” doesn’t mention religion, Christianity, Jesus or anything like that in the marketing or DVD packaging, not even in the downplayed form of “spiritual quest” or “metaphorical journey” or whatever. The film even exerts a conspicuous effort not to tip its hand until we’ve become emotionally attached to the heroes.

The hint of subterfuge angers me more since the film is geared towards children. It’s arguably no worse than indoctrinating our youth with a lust for unconstrained consumption (commercials), the idea that all women are helpless princesses in need of rescue or ugly evil witches to be slain (fairy tales) or that explosions, blunt force trauma and murderous grudges are cool (cartoons). Still, non-Christian parents will have every right to be angry at the film.

But surely most family films have some underlying moral code beneath the surface, right? Yes, and I think that’s fine and dandy. However, this is not the generic commonly-accepted morality (CAM) of society at large. Except for the blandness it can sometimes take on in inept hands, I rarely complain about the “cruelty = bad, community = good, diversity = tolerable, work hard, believe in yourself and never give up” message that constitutes 95% of family-friendly entertainment. My issue with “Sky Kingdom,” and my second complaint, is that the message is not particularly universal.

The literal refrain of the film, “Believing is seeing,” is not something I personally agree with. However, I don’t see any great harm in advocating faith up to a point. It’s the notion of unthinking, uncompromising, uncritical faith in a mystical force that bothers me. I finally put my foot down when the five travelers arrived at the Jungle of Confusion, or the “Jungle of Intelligence” as its gatekeeper, Prof, calls it. It’s a labyrinth that can’t be navigated using any system of logic or reasoning, but calling upon Ariel gets them led directly to the exit.

[Image: “Prof,” an evil professor bird who tries to trick our heroes by advising them to use intellect and believe in themselves.]

I don’t trust anything that tells me not to think for myself and I became increasingly disturbed by the film’s advocacy of outsourcing decisions to Telly and Ariel. I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong to consult holy scriptures or use prayer when confronted with tough decisions, but you can’t blindly yield responsibility for your actions and expect it turn out as idyllically as it does in “Sky Kingdom.”

As for the CAM idea of religious co-existence, forget about it. Sky Kingdom makes it abundantly clear: there is only ONE WAY into paradise and it is through ONE PERSON and that person is the son of the ONE HEAVENLY FATHER. Anyone who says otherwise is a monster or a minion of the Evil Emperor.

But despite the prickly issue of religion, I should mention that the film is still otherwise reasonably acceptable for children. The two complaints I’ve aired above can be easily overcome by going into the film with your eyes open (preferably with a sympathetic religious background) and, if watched with children, discussing the film afterwards (something I would almost always recommend).

My third complaint, however, is more fundamentally damaging. It is simply that the increasingly aggressive proselytizing gets in the way of the story. Eventually the secondary meanings become more prominent than the literal events and so the literal events begin to make less sense. The eventual loss of a real story in exchange for metaphoric lessons saps the film’s ability to sustain disbelief, tension and emotional depth.

I would still say this film is absolutely worth it for its technical prowess and kid-friendly characters (both visually and vocally), but I can’t help thinking it’s seriously wounded by its agenda. What could have been a 9/10 for me if it had retained the story-driven creativity of the opening third, just doesn’t live up to its full potential.

Walrus Rating: 6.5

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of The Witch's Hammer

Considering that fame of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” and its use of witch hunts as a metaphor for HUAC’s anti-communist trials, it may seem a bit ironic that Czech director Otakar Vavra chose to use witch-hunting as a metaphor for the politically reversed situation of communist leader Gustav Husak’s liberal purge. The fact that its message still holds true, however, does reinforce that the miscarriages of justice spawned by mass paranoia and agenda-motivated, fast-track trials are not tied to any single political circumstance.

Indeed, these works remain relevant even in modern American politics as questions of torture-facilitated interrogations continue to be debated. Moreso than in “The Crucible,” Vavra’s film “The Witch’s Hammer” (1970) is specifically preoccupied with the torture issue. The brutal methods used in witch interrogations had been previously addressed in “Witchfinder General” (1968), but I’m actually a bit out-of-step with the cult line in finding that film a bit unsatisfactory.

“The Witch’s Hammer” takes its title from the 15th century Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for witch-hunting inquisitors that set scant limitations on the use of pain and trickery for extracting confessions. The work is not mentioned by name in the film, but it makes two cameos. At one point it shows up as “the only book I need” on the desk of Boblig, the self-serving anti-intellectual judge who orchestrates a spiral of accusations, trials and stake-burnings. It casts a more chilling shadow in the form of an unconventional narration by a mad-eyed monk, who reads lurid passages about witch rituals while staring directly into the camera and not otherwise commenting upon the actual story events.

Our hero is Lautner (Elo Romancik), a good man well-versed in legal practice whose honesty and courage stands in great contrast to Boblig, a greedy conniving hypocrite who instantly recognizes a chance to snatch power and never lets go. The performances are top notch all around, but the various voices of reason tend to be less interesting than the petty villains. I think Vavra intentionally defuses any hope for heroism or righteousness to prevail by leaving us with the stolid, common-sensical Lautner. His unwilling to bend makes the search for his breaking point all the more excruciating.

Vladimir Smeral’s smugly impish Boblig is ultimately the performance that remains the most memorable. His diabolical campaign is triggered by an uncompromising priest who later comes to regret his zealousness and is sponsored by a malleable duchess too foolish to recognize her own tyranny. But Boblig’s greatest ally is the fear and inaction of the townspeople, who keep their heads down and hope justice will prevail unaided until it is too late to save anyone.

“The Witch’s Hammer” is one of the most effective witch-hunt movies I’ve seen, in part due to its dead serious tone and unadorned black-and-white presentation. The scenes of thumb screws, whippings and burnings are arguable more horrifying with the New Wave stylistics played down. The camera looks on with horror, but remains as trapped as the characters to do anything about the heinous proceedings. The editing has more freedom, giving us behind the scenes access to Boblig’s gang, the prison cells and the mysterious monk narrator, but it can’t escape the task of chronicling cruelty. Some of my reservations with “Witchfinder General” stem from its borderline-exploitive embrace of the undertaking.

In contrast to “The Crucible” and the variants it inspired, there are several themes that are given particular emphasis in “The Witch’s Hammer.” These include the unreliability of information obtained through torture, the catch-22 logic of law in the grips of fanaticism and the susceptibility of little men and large institutions alike to corruption and collaboration. The criticism of the contemporary Czech political situation was thinly veiled and untempered by any suggestion that the broken system was self-correcting or redeemable. There’s even a bitter blast of injustice in the film’s coda, which explains that Boblig went on to enjoy a long and happy life, even marrying.

Like "The Crucible," “The Witch’s Hammer” is set in the late 17th century, but the European setting made me think it was nearly medieval. There's an even greater level of pessimism and oppressiveness, though it's arguably harder to relate to. In some sense it reminds me of Frantisek Vlacil’s “Marketa Lazarova” and “Valley of the Bees,” but the cinematography and music aren’t nearly as moving. The Facets DVD I watched also suffered from occasional subtitle timing issues and could have used better picture contrast. Still, this is movie definitely worth seeing and not easily forgotten.

Walrus Rating: 8.0