Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review of The House with the Yellow Carpet

                With a title like “The House with the Yellow Carpet” (1983), you know right off that bat that you’re watching a giallo. Not only is the movie clearly trying to cash in on the precedents of “The House with the Laughing Windows” (1976) and “The House by the Cemetery” (1981), but this particular variation actually includes the genre (which just means “Yellow”) in its original Italian: “La Casa del tappeto giallo.” Director Carlo Lizzani was probably eager to build in an audience, since he certainly didn’t have name recognition or marketing clout.

                Then, too, Lizzani was riding pretty far back on the coattails of the giallo heyday and had an even smaller budget than the meager rations doled out to other Italian B-movies. So it’s not surprising that his film, adapted from the two-act one-room play “Theater at Home,” has as much in common with dialogue-intensive American mysteries like “Sleuth” (1972) and “Deathtrap” (1982) as it does with Argento and Martino’s more ambitious thrillers.

[Image: The menacing yellow carpet falls toward the camera to get the film started.]

                Lizzani’s single set, at least, is unique and handled well. Though not terribly interesting in itself (it suits the screenplay to forego the usual pop-art décor for a more toned-down modernism), he shoots it in cool shades of blue and white, perpetually a little underlit, to give it an unwelcoming air. It also serves to set off the titular prop, a vivid yellow Persian carpet that, we are inexplicably told, “brings out bloodstains.” In the absence of any other dominant color, the carpet becomes a conspicuously powerful focal point and ultimately a lurid symbol of unfulfilled incestuous desire and paranoid murderous madness. Yay!

[Image: The director is not above using blue lighting, an unusual choice for a sex scene, to make the carpet stand out more.]

                The apartment’s two occupants, Antonio and his wife Franca, received the carpet from her step-father on their wedding. Since their apartment is too small for it, they are trying to sell it. Antonio has to step out to stop his car from being towed away right as the prospective buyer, listed in the credits as “The Professor,” arrives to negotiate a price. He turns out to be a creepy, manipulative compulsive-liar whose story changes a dozen times in the course of a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that Franca is forced to play.

[Images: Antonio and Franca go through their morning routine oblivious to what the coming day has in store for them. Despite the apartment being rather cramped, Lizzani stages them so that they cross on separate planes and are almost never in the same room together. Their lack of physical intimacy, compared to the night before, foreshadows Antonio’s absence and potential guilt throughout most of the first act.]

                Trying to figure out exactly what the professor is up to is the primary fun of “The House with the Yellow Carpet.” Giallo-veterans will definitely appreciate how contrived it gets (otherwise it would be too easy for them), but most others will be pounding their heads against the walls and screaming that it’s all nonsense (they’re mostly right). 

But what makes the effort so worthwhile is Erland Josephson’s performance as the enigmatic professor. Josephson is about 3000 notches above the material, but clearly enjoys the chance to slum around a bit. His two previous films, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalgia” (1983) and Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) are towering achievements that are ranked amongst the finest classics of European art cinema. Next to Max von Sydow, he was Bergman’s favorite male actor and turned in beautiful, restrained performances in many of his masterpieces like “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Scenes from  a Marriage” (1973). In “Yellow Carpet” he cackles about killing his family, tortures a scantily-clad housewife with a knife and injects illicit drugs directly into his eye sockets. Frankly, it’s kind of awesome.

[Image: Erland Josephson, demonstrating that critics never gave him his due amongst cinema’s great sadomasochistic loonies.]

                And, or course, it’s all part of some twisted mind game that only the screenwriter, if anyone, really understands. At first, when the professor claims he saw Antonio secretly meeting another woman when they passed on the stairs, we’re almost inclined to believe him. But the longer he chatters on about spending fifteen years in prison, being friends with Franca’s step-father, colluding with Antonio to kill her for money, and so on, the more we realize he’s as crazy as whatever plot he’s up to. I won’t spoil whether he’s an eccentric carpet buyer, an assassin, a madman, a professor, an actor or a psychiatrist (all of which are proposed), but neither will I promise that by the end it will necessarily be all that clear-cut anyway. At least it does sort of have something to do with the carpet, unlike anything mentioned in the titles of most giallo.

                The dialog has that giallo-feel where everyone seems enormously suspicious no matter how casual the topic of conversation. Take for instance, this exchange after Franca takes a 5 second phone call from a prospective carpet buyer:

Husband: “What type of voice did the caller have?”

Wife: “Oh, I don’t know. An ordinary voice.”

Husband: “What do you mean an ordinary voice?”

Wife: “Just a voice, that’s all. Beside the connection was bad. I couldn’t hear very well.”

Husband: “Well was it a man or a woman? Old? young?”

Wife: “A Man. He sounded odd. Sort of ironic. He had a slight accent.”

Husband: “He sounds like he made quite an impression on you. Considering you could hardly hear him.”

                I’m not sure if Antonio is more suspicious for his inappropriately hostile interrogation or if Franca is more suspicious for outright contradicting herself.

                With only four speaking parts, it would seem like there would be a very limited number of combinations for everyone’s agendas, but the writing keeps us perpetually on our feet, meting out interesting, if outrageously unlikely, twists. The plot pulls from the whole library of mystery playbooks, coyly testing out the jealous husband’s revenge, plots to drive insane, maniac on the loose, perpetrator/victim table-turning, “it was all a dream” and much more, before discarding each one with playfully indifference. The movie even seems to know its reliance on Freudian psychology and avant-garde theater ideas were dated; ripe for flippant plot points in a trashy play.

[Image: The strictly black and white set design, especially in the bedroom, struck me as curiously underplayed, but it might just be because my print was blurry.]

                Unfortunately, due to its minimal scope, single set and utilitarian camera placement, there’s less excitement and flair here than there could be, so it doesn’t rank amongst the best gialli and may not win over the wider horror audience. At the same time, a smattering of nudity and adult content make this unlikely to play well for the reserved literary set and the screenplay may be too contrived even for the parlor room potboilers favored by mystery junkies. I’m not sure it has much of an audience, but I’m guessing anyone who bothers to track down a copy of this never officially released giallo will be amenable to its charms.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

[Image: Franca screams out the window of her apartment into an aggressively claustrophobic courtyard (trash chute?) in one of the film’s only trick shots. Look closely (or even casually) at the brick pattern on the left and you can tell we are actually looking down a hallway.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Curricula for Japanese Film

Mad Dog and I were carrying on one of our tangential movie emails and he happened to pass along this question: what would you put in a Contemporary Japanese Cinema curriculum given 12 weeks and only 1 film per week. It seemed like a fun topic worth some real thought.

My first and most fundamental problem is that I’m just not nearly an expert on Japan or Japanese cinema. I’ve never been to Japan, I don’t speak the language and I’m not a Japanophile to the extent of some of my friends. I find it a fascinating culture with a rich past and great movies. I took a single class on Japan’s modern history, read some film books on it over the years and, as my only real qualification, I’ve watched a couple hundred of their films.

And even considering that my viewing experience may be above-average (still nothing compared to people like Donald Richie or David Bordwell), there are still huge gaps in my education. I still haven’t seen two of Japan’s most lauded epics, Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” and Kenji Fukasaku’s “The Yakuza Papers” to name some especially egregious examples. Then, too, my specific interests have led me to specialize in portions of Japanese cinema I favor to the exclusions of others. All this should be understood as one giant apology for my biases, omissions and presumptions.

            So let’s move on to how I defined the project. I interpreted “contemporary” to mean 1987+, semi-arbitrarily. I didn’t include anything really recent (last five years), because I’ve seen very little of it, have been won over by even less and had no time to seriously ponder almost any.

The list is presented chronologically as 14 films (drop two as you see fit) with each followed by a list of potential discussion topics to guide the classroom lectures. I’ve tried to balance variety, influence and quality. Alternatives are listed in parentheses at the end of each film.

            Most of my readers already know I’m a bit of an auteur-theory holdover and so I tried to hit a breadth of great directors without any repeats. If you’re of like mind or just wish to go deeper into the topic of Japanese directors, try my Japanese Directorial History series.

The directors that appear on this list include: Kazuo Hara, Shinya Tsukamoto, Isao Takahata, Takeshi Kitano, Shohei Imamura, Hideo Nakata, Nagisa Oshima, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shunji Awai, Satoshi Kon, Takashi Miike, Tetsuya Nakashima, Mamoru Oshii and Hirokazu Koreeda. Directors that could just as easily have been included are Juzo Itami, Sogo Ishii, Kenji Fukasaku and Hayao Miyazaki.


Contemporary Japanese Film (1987+)

1) The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) – Documentary filmmaking and objectivity, post-war reintegration, Japanese politics, dual monarchy and democracy, individual expression and freedom of speech, social etiquette.

2) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) – Punk movement and music scene, cyberpunk era, Japanese economic boom and social repercussions, technology dependence and fetishism, independent film movement (alt. Electric Dragon 80000 V).

3) Only Yesterday (1991) – Urbanization, widening country/city disconnect, passage into adulthood, memory, role of women, history of anime, unreliable narrators (alt. Spirited Away).

4) Sonatine (1993) – Yakuza, crime and modern crime films, glamorized violence, cult of personality (Beat Takeshi), pace shifting, Japanese comedy and dark humor (alt. Fireworks).

5) The Eel (1997) – Japanese justice system, post-prison experience, working class experience, human-animal relations, sexual projection, late-life romance, community spirit, remnants of the New Wave.

6) Ring (1998) – J-horror, urban mythology, guilt psychology, branding and franchising, marketing national identity, remakes and transnational cross-fertilization, viral marketing and trailer design, orientalism and the commoditization of exoticism (alt. Ju-on).

7) Taboo (1999) – The samurai genre, codes of honor, male bonding, homosexuality and gender politics, taboos and social discourse, narration and limited omniscience.

8) Charisma (2000) – Ambiguity, surrealism, environmentalism, role of science and religion in society, mid-life crisis, depression, specters of the atom bomb, apocalyptic nihilism.

9) All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) – Student experience, school and parental pressures, coming-of-age genre, digital filmmaking, millennial malaise, prostitution, fan obsession, otaku subculture, internet message boards texting and changing modern communication, teen crime, epidemic suicide (alt. The Family Game or Suicide Club).

10) Millennium Actress (2001) – Japanese history, history of Japanese theater and cinema, memory vs. history, modernizing mythology and folklore, genre and meaning, romance, progressive anime.

11) Gozu (2003) – Shock cinema, extremism, surrealism and symbolism, trends in modern art films, death culture, media controversy (alt. Audition).

12) Kamikaze Girls (2004) – Aestheticism, buddy films, fads materialism and commercialization, cultural re-appropriation, Lolita fashion and subculture, neo-feminism, post-modernism (alt. Survive Style 5+).

13) Ghost in the Shell 2 (2004) – Post-cyberpunk era, technological society and singularity, science fiction as reality, identity, philosophy as entertainment.

14) Nobody Knows (2004) – Poverty and lower-class life, single-parent families, marginalized communities, early childhood and development, maternity, abandonment, urban survival, hyperrealism.


            Now all things considered, what I’m more interested in is older Japanese films, specifically the period from the end of WWII through the Japanese New Wave of the 1960’s. So I’ve presented a second curriculum to feature films leading up to 1967. This one was much tougher to narrow down, but I’ve made the discussion topics more precise.

            Directors included are: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda, Kon Ichikawa, Nagisa Oshima, Mikio Naruse, Yasuzo Masumura, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. It’s kind of like getting to assemble my Japanese director dream team!

Post-War to Japanese New Wave Film (<1967)

1) A Page of Madness (1926) – Emergence of auteur cinema and expressionism.

2) The 47 Ronin (1941) – The samurai genre, defining Japanese history and exploring formalism (alt. Ugetsu)

3) Late Spring (1949) – Domestic middle-class life, changing family structures and mono no aware (alt. Tokyo Story)

4) Rashomon (1950) – Literary traditions, narrative experimentation and subjectivity (alt. Harikari)

5) Godzilla (1954) – Post-WWII life, anxiety and dealing with the atom bomb

6) Fires on the Plain (1959) – WWII, spirituality and humanism

7) Night and Fog in Japan (1960) – The student movement, disillusionment and the Japanese New Wave (alt. Cruel Story of Youth or A False Student)

8) When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Feminism, prostitution and changing social mores (alt. Floating Clouds or The Insect Woman)

9) Black Test Car (1962) – The economic miracle and the rise of corporate culture (alt. Giants & Toys)

10) Woman in the Dunes (1964) – Existentialism and the backlash against the bourgeoisie (alt. The Face of Another)

11) The Pornographers (1966) – Shock cinema, sex and rise of the porn industry (alt. In the Realm of the Senses)

12) Branded to Kill (1967) – Yakuza, crime and the reign of genre cinema


            So what about the two decades between 1967 and 1987? It has its share of masterpieces, too, (“Tampopo” (1985) is a particular favorite), but they didn’t come at the same rate. I’ve definitely seen less from Japan in the 1970’s and 1980’s than in other time periods, so that biases me, but it’s undeniable that the industry was going through major shifts that slowed artistic output. Pink films (essential softcore porn, but often an interesting hybrid) were ascendant while the New Wave auteurs slipped out the limelight. It took a generation whose early films were crafted in the 1980’s before Japanese cinema could once again claim a major stake on the international scene.

            And for sake of anyone curious as to what a real curriculum looks like, I’m including the list of films I watched in my History of East Asian Cinema class (as best as I can remember) taught by the great Prof. David Scott Diffrient. It covers films from South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in addition to Japan.

            I was taking this class around the same time I started writing the Film Walrus, so I wrote about many of them in short reaction essays. The links are to way back in my early archives.


Contemporary East Asian Film by Scott Diffrient, 2006/2007:

Black Rain (1989)

Ju Dou (1990)

Farewell, My Concubine (1993)

Sopyonje (1993)

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Vive l’Amour (1994)

Good Men, Good Women (1995)

God of Cookery (1996)

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Taboo (1999)

Turning Gate (2002)

3-Iron (2004)

Three… Extremes (2004)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Review of Hugo the Hippo

I’ve often wondered why “The Yellow Submarine” (1968) didn’t inspire more films, especially considering how refreshingly imaginative and surprisingly popular it was. One of the few places where it seems to have spawned any progeny is in Hungary, where the works of Marcell Jankovics further explored the surreal, psychedelic possibilities of animation.

Hungary is also the birthplace of a bizarre children’s movie named “Hugo the Hippo” (1973), which has been all but forgotten by popular culture. Admittedly, they never embraced it in the first place; it’s short-lived English-dubbed US trial release failed to generate profit. Languishing as a marginalized cult curio financially unworthy of DVD distribution, “Hugo the Hippo” now lurks in the recesses of the bootleg community.

“Hugo the Hippo” has a quintessentially 1970’s vibe with its “Schoolhouse Rock”-esque animation, its anti-authoritarian attitude and its soundtrack sung by the two youngest Osmonds. It’s full of charm and whimsy along with some positive underlying messages, but it’s far more troublesome than most kid’s movies in its depiction of race, class and violence, not to mention parental and political authority. Though it’s decried as too edgy for children and too tame for adults, I only likely it all the more for refusing to stay put, even on a safe middle ground.

From the opening of “Hugo the Hippo,” you might be tempted to think you were watching some type of edutainment special, complete with geographical information on Zanzibar, its sultan and the chief industry: cloves. (A later segment provides some important statistics concerning Mt. Kilimanjaro.) The information sets up a city in crisis, Dar es Salaam, whose shallow harbor is under siege by sharks, halting the lucrative spice commerce. Against the counsel of his sinister Financial Minister Aban-Khan (voiced by Robert Morley) and his European adviser, the sultan decides that the only solution is to employ a dozen hippopotami to clean up the cove. If only politicians today could problem-solve like that!

[Image: The color scheme, at least on the copy I obtained, is rather toned down, but quite unique in its choices. Juxtopositions of low-contrast shades, like in the storm clouds shown here, create rippled, mottled patterns that stand out against solid regions but can still sink into the background behind character cels.]
Hugo, the carefree prince of the Hippo kingdom, witnesses the kidnapping of his family and tribe by Aban-Khan and the sultan’s ludicrous court magician, whose every action is accompanied by random radio sound effects. Stowing away on the trip back to Dar es Salaam and defeating the sharks (who wear various iconic hats and smoke cigars underwater) is only the very beginning of Hugo’s adventures. The film’s second half sees Hugo adopted by the young Jorma in a nearby village and beleaguered by self-serving adults until a courtroom drama showdown with Aban-Kan.

The first twenty minutes or so of the film run the slowest, largely because the hippos have not yet been introduced. Once they arrive on screen, announced with the first memorable musical number, the film really sustains itself as both a musical and an adventure. Unlike traditional animal animations Hugo never speaks, instead preferring to frolic and swim. He rarely even displays any emotional expression beyond pleasure and fear. This has the central advantage that Hugo is almost always either smiling or eating, both states that could be described as adorable.
Aside from the narration, most of the story is told from the point of view of Jorma, a young African boy who prefers fishing and gardening to schoolwork. Even Jorma is not particularly talkative; the film’s action is usually presented through non-diegetic songs instead. While I’m not a fan of the Osmonds in general, the music in “Hugo” is surprisingly catchy and kitschy. It’s often marked by a rough naivety, with little regard for syllable counts, consistent rhyme schemes or minimum lengths.
The lyrics, however, are the lovable, laughable, bewildering core of the film. Katie compared them to essays by third graders, but somehow in a good way. The music video sequences include:

1) It’s Really True
This is the sentimental main song, which plays at the beginning and again, with a cute variation, at the halfway point. It’s relatively weak compare to the others, but sets up the overarching philosophy that “If you accept a strange story as true / a certain enlightenment comes to you.”

2) H-I-P-P-O-P-O-T-A-M-U-S
Which introduces us to Hugo and his family in their underwater amusement-park paradise and features descriptions like “He walks like an elephant / He swims like a whale / His head’s like a pail; it’s pathetic / Oh plainly, his tail’s unaesthetic / Though nature endowed him poorly, / I still love the hippo dearly” (those last two lines presumably rhyming…).

3) You Said a Mouthful
This track capitalizes on a certain key hippo characteristic: their ravenous hunger. Features lyrics like “I’m so hungry I could eat all the P’s in a dictionary / I could eat the carats in a diamond mine” and “I would like to learn geometry just so I could eat the pi in pi R squaaaaaaaaared.” In between, a children’s choir chants “You’ve said a mouthful there.”

4) Mister M’Bow-Wow
One of the stranger songs, chronicling the systematic absentmindedness of local teacher Mr. M’Bow-Wow who “Looks at the world through a telescope turned the wrong way / Listens to words, but he never does hear what you actually say.” Features Mr. M’Bow-Wow riding on an ostrich and electrocuting himself by sticking a fork in a toaster.

5) Where You Go
The ending credits detach entirely from reality to present highlights embedded into strange split-screen configurations like bird outlines, tidal waves and paisley patterns. Yet another catchy tune, the words include “Wherever you go, Hu-go, we go, too / Wherever you go, Hu-go, we’re with you / If you go to jail, we’ll get parole for you / If you go down below, we’ll save your soul for you” and the inevitable cheer “Hip Hip, Hippotomas!”

Conversely, much of the dialogue belongs to the villains, who tend to be authority figures like the cruel Financial Minister Aban-Khan, the inattentive backwards teacher Mr. M’Bow-Wow and Jorma’s totalitarian parents. Unusual is just how nefarious and unsympathetic these characters are: Aban-Khan ruthlessly slaughters all the Hippos except Hugo, Mr. M’Bow-Wow finks on his pupils by claiming that Hugo is – gasp! – interfering with their education while the parents, perhaps most senselessly of all, burn down a magnificent hippo-Eden garden cultivated by the industrious children.

Much of the villainy in “Hugo the Hippo” ventures into outright horror, only enhanced by the strange aura and unconventional artwork. The murder of Hugo’s tribe, for instance, is theoretically cushioned by its metaphorical presentation wherein the minister fires lightning (accompanied by gunshot sounds) at hippo-shaped clouds. Instead of softening the blow, however, this only makes it seem more grandiose in scale and the final shot of Hugo crying (yes, underwater) amidst a pile of hippo corpses hardly shields kids from the truth. (It doesn’t help that a later 360 degree pan of Aban-Khan’s palace shows how the bodies were put to use.)

Nor is there any doubt of what’s going on when flames overtake the screen during the garden razing or afterwards, when the hypocritical townspeople call for the death penalty because the hungry Hugo now pillages their crops.
The scenes where you’re not quite sure what’s going on are arguably even creepier. An especially notable example is brought on by the magician, whose demeanor is like a wacky clown, but whose creations are menacing abominations. He booby-traps Hugo with succulent-smelling magical garden that transports him and Jorma through a nightmare gauntlet. Giant corncob artilleries chase the pair towards pea pod machine guns while other vitamin-rich monsters like an apple samurai and a banana octopus go in for the kill.

[Images: An apple samurai, before and after being split and forming fresh features from the seeds.]

Eventually tricked onto a planet made of cauliflower, Hugo and Jorma are cornered by squash UFOs and hypnotized by many-eyed potato totems.

The magician’s (adult world) garden with its technological and war-mongering aberrations contrasts sharply with the children’s peaceful vegetable patch. Earlier the magician had summoned a robot horse that slurps up all the water in Hugo’s home, while it’s gun-toting cyborg-cowboy rider lassos Hippos with mechanical efficiency. Whether these creations are a commentary on the dangerous encroachment of Western civilization, modern industrialization or just callous adulthood is a bit hazy under all the weirdness. I think it’s probably a combination of all three, plus little too much weed (in this case, as in Yellow Submarine, the drug habits of the creators are well documented).

Woven elsewhere in the film are other digs at modern society and “civilized” behavior in general, especially the failure of humanity to coexist equitably with the environment, animals and each other. Though this sounds potentially heavy and didactic, “Hugo the Hippo” is largely a psychedelic playhouse that has too much fun to preach excessively. It’s moments of terror are quickly overtaken by song and its lesson-teaching tragedies are defeated by simple youthful optimism and good governance.

Perhaps the genius of “Hugo the Hippo” is that, despite violating any number of rules about how to make an acceptable movie for kids, its surreal delivery is perfectly caters to them. Most young viewers will have little trouble deciphering the plot or understanding, intuitively, the themes. Parents expecting straightforward formulas, not to mention film critics, just won’t “get it.” Like Apple Jacks.

Films like “Hugo” take questionable risks to offer up different ideas, new images and fresh feelings and require our imagination to meet them halfway. With “Hugo the Hippo,” it could be very easy to reject the unpolished narrative and unhip songs and miss out on a novel experience that few films, least of all family films, offer. For ultimately this film is less about celebrating the 1970’s (that’s just when most nostalgic fans first saw it) than harkening back to an age when we knew our homegrown illogical fantasy worlds were better than the sane, mature, normal realities where grown-ups live.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ramble on Hungarian Animation

A while back I had the pleasure of enjoying my first Hungarian animation and wrote about it in a review of “Son of the White Mare” (1980). Since then I’ve had some time to watch more and I’ve concluded that Hungarian feature animation, much like Estonian short animation, is one of those well-kept secrets that have been criminally overlooked.

Hungarian animation hit the big screen for the first time in 1973 with “Johnny Corncob” (“Janos Vitez”) by director Marcell Jankovics. It is based on the 19th century Hungarian epic poem of the same name, and follows a brave shepherd who joins the Hussars, rescues France and returns home to find his beloved sweetheart dead. Unperturbed, he sets out on a series of perilous quests knowing that his only chance to be reunited with his love may lie in death. With its jaunty tunes, dazzlingly imaginative visuals and Munchausen-esque exaggeration (at one point he scales a mountain so high he is scorched by the sun), “Johnny Corncob” marks an impressive debut. Jankovic would later go on to make his masterpiece, “Son of the White Mare.”

[Image: Taken from]

The 1970’s and 1980’s marked the heyday of Hungarian animation led by the PannoniaFilm studio (who also did the animation for Rene Laloux’s second film, “Time Masters”). In 1986 they released Hungary’s most famous film, “Cat City,” a secret agent parody about a cat-mouse cold war. Hungary’s most popular film, “Vuk” (1981), A Disney-style anthropomorphized-animals family film, dubbed into English as “The Little Foxes,” remains a national favorite.

While “Vuk” frequently tops the IMDB’s voter-ranked top 50 animated films list (“Cat City” also appears), it lacks the creativity and originality of Jankovics’ work and was not one of my favorites. The artwork peaks in the opening 15 seconds, with a magnificent stop-motion sequence of a watercolor painting soaking in. I found these watercolor backgrounds substantially more compelling than the foxes themselves, though the story is notably more sincere than most Disney/Dreamworks tales.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Western viewers is Hungarian humor, which is highly contingent on untranslatable wordplay. I found this to be a major issue in fully appreciating “Cat City” (though it’s still quite funny) and to a lesser extent the comedic geese in “Vuk” and the lyrics in “Johnny Corncob.” Ultimately, I tend to prefer the films with the more stylized visuals over the ones lauded for their scripts.

In the 1990’s Hungarian animation more or less disappeared before steadily mounted a comeback. The most recent Hungarian animation I’ve seen is “The District” (2004), a rambunctious take-no-prisoners anarchic comedy that successfully toured the festival circuits. The plot involves children of rival ethnic gangs who travel back in time, slaughter mammoth herds and bury them under the primitive city square so that they can be oil barons in the present. The low-budget CG uses an inspired technique that crudely swaps hundreds of mugshots to animate character expressions. The 2D look, along with the politically incorrect and rabidly satiric content drew comparisons to South Park.

[Image: "The District" or "Nyocker" in the native Hungarian.]

Perhaps the trippiest of Hungarian animations, and to my mind one of the most charming, is “Hugo the Hippo” (1973). I’ll give it a full review in the next post.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review of The Hole (1960)

There is something about heist films and prison break films that appeals to engineers. It’s all the planning and problem solving involved. Like deciphering a puzzle or playing a complicated game. I know engineers that wouldn’t glance twice at 95% of everything I watch, but settled comfortably into conversation on the topic of heist and/or prison films.

And it’s not surprising that the two subgenres go hand-in-hand, though it might initially seem like an arbitrary pairing. Both are based around careful preparations, patience, resourcefulness and, trickiest of all, trust. The big difference is that heist films are about breaking in, while prison films are about breaking out.

The enduring popularity of capers and escapers has meant that whole generations have come and gone as the cycle waxes and wanes. That’s not unusual in itself, but amongst actiony genres like these there can be a certain tendency for audiences to fixate on the latest, big-budgetest star-studdedest examples to the exclusion of a long history of neglected cinema. The truth is that heist/prison movies don’t need to be big-budget (true of every genre, but it’s a harder case to make with, for example, sci-fi or war movies) and don’t particularly benefit from big-name stars, but try telling that to people who think prison films were born with “Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and that the genealogy of today’s heist films goes back no further than the 2001 remake of “Ocean’s Eleven” (no offense to either film, both of which I enjoy).

The true genesis of heist and prison films, in the sense that we know them today, almost certainly lies in the field of film noir (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to trace it back to gangster films). And while I’d like to fire off a salvo of early examples well worth revisiting, that’s not quite today’s focus (well, really quick then: “Brute Force” (1947), “Criss Cross” (1949) and “Asphalt Jungle” (1950)). Instead, I’m going to gush about the French presence in the second generation.

Some combination of foreign language, cultural amnesia and the usual preconceptions about French cinema, tends to suppress these masterpieces from wider popular attention in the US. It’s true that despite the imported archetypes and violence, a certain domestic Frenchness remains, its not nearly as alienating as skeptics imagine. In fact, the calling cards of this period have left their own influence on today’s crime classics so clearly that it’s taken for granted: taciturn antiheroes with stylish deportment, suspenseful sequences marked by technical detail and hushed dexterity and either a minute clue or a treacherous betrayal that unravels even the most foolproof of schemes.

Some of the best include Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob the Gambler” (1956) featuring one of the best endings of any heist film and a brilliant performance by Roger Duchesne. Then there’s Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1955) with it’s nearly half-hour wordless jewel theft conducted without any relief from tension (viewers inevitably go silent themselves, lean forward and even sweat) balanced neatly by its gunplay-heavy blood-bathed fallout.

For prison films, there’s Robert Bresson’s exquisitely efficient “A Man Escaped” (1955) about a Frenchman trying to escape a Nazi prison. Its minimalism not only lends weight to every scrape on the stone walls and every splinter in the wooden door, but it transcends the simple thrills of great escapes and makes the act a combination of ascetic ritual, existential parable and rebellious self-assertion all why retaining an undeniable realism (perhaps because Bresson himself was held captive during the war). Bresson’s masterpiece may be “Pickpocket,” but it’s a close call indeed.

A few days ago I watched Jacques Becker’s “The Hole,” a magnificent prison film completed in 1960, shortly before the director’s death. I was slow getting around to the film after not caring much for Becker’s “Golden Helmet” (1952) and finding his heist film “Don’t Touch the Cash” (1954, better known by its French title “Touchez pas au grisbi”) a dignified, but somewhat lifeless entry (others disagree). Becker, never a household name in the US, hasn’t been recognized to the same extent as Bresson, Dassin or Melville, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that “The Hole” spent a long time in exile before being revived by Criterion (who also distribute “Bob the Gambler,” “Rififi” and “Pickpocket”).

The action begins in a cell of the overcrowded Sante prison where quiet meticulous Roland (Jean Keraudy, who led the real life escape), sharp organized Manu, tough prickly Geo and crafty optimistic Monseigneur volunteer to fold boxes to pass the time. Into their midst comes the young innocent (literally) Gaspard, who is serving a comparatively light trumped-up charge after a fight with his wife. Gaspard quickly catches on to the caginess of his cage-mates and inquires about their reluctance to accept him. After a quick debate they decide they have no choice but to tell him: they are planning an escape.

“The Hole” is relatively long (132 min) for a genre movie, but it makes the most of its time by featuring a based-on-real-life escape with so many phases it seems doomed to collapse on itself at every step. The five men will have to break through the floor, file off metal bars, learn guard routes, build jointed dummies, pick locks, sneak, crawl, climb and dig a tunnel through solid concrete before they can see the light of freedom again. And, of course, it won’t be as easy as that sounds.

The plot is especially enticing for the demographic I mentioned in the opening, who like all the clever little touches and quick-witted ingenuity. It might be a prisoner standing on the shoulders of his partner to hide behind a column (and rotating around it while the guard does his rounds), an inspired way of passing mail between the widely-spaced heavily-barred windows using twine and brushes, or the social engineering decision to draw attention to themselves even as the escape draws nigh so as not to seem as though they are trying to avoid attention.

All this leads to the sensation that the film wasn’t written by an intelligent screenwriter locked in an under-furnished tenement with nothing to think about but how to work a romance into the plot so that it will sell; it feels like it was written by an intelligent prisoner locked in a cell with nothing to think about but escape. That’s the way it should be.

Shot in black and white, “The Hole” has something of the dry restraint and attention to detail that makes the “A Man Escaped” so taunt and lean, but the larger cast allows for carefully modulated dialogue, the interplay and clash of personalities and a greater emphasis on the camaraderie and trust integral to a five-man mission. Each inmate has to carry his part of the load, with the experienced Roland taking the lead, but they don’t always agree on how to proceed. One senses the both the hope and fear rise as they get closer to their goal and the mounting dependence on luck, and their unity, to succeed.

Becker’s directing is impeccable, the cinematography is both beautiful and raw and the lighting is a perfect example of how to keep an audience straining into a nearly-convincing darkness without inflicting blindness or frustration. Yet what is probably best remembered about the film, aside from the plot, are the outstanding performances by both professionals and non-actors alike. Jean Keraudy lends a lot of authenticity, and the cast picks up on his lead in underplaying their parts. Even Monseigneur, who would have been a comic relief character in a lesser film, manages to be upbeat without a hint of obnoxiousness. Geo, who has to deliver some of the hardest lines to demonstrate his latent misanthropy, steers thankfully clear of being a personality-handicapped prison bully and puts in some really surprisingly nuances. Meanwhile, Gaspard gives us a likable centerpiece whose naivety is as dangerous as it is charming.

In fact, there’s really no villain figure to help artificially align our sympathies. There’s no sadistic guard, corrupt warden, vindictive kapo or thuggish gang-leader to make our protagonists seem heroic by comparison (in fact, several guards and especially the warden seem fairly pleasant and understanding). All five of the leads really did do something morally wrong, and four of them unambiguously deserve to be in jail. It is only through their escape attempt that we come to see these men as sympathetic humans who possess integrity, teamwork and diligence.

“The Hole” is everything a prison movie should be and a whole lot more than we usually expect of them. It may not have the fan clubs that “Shawshank Redemption,” “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape,” “Escape from Alcatraz,” "Papillon" or “Stalag 17” have, but it sure deserves to.

Walrus Rating: 10.0

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review of Film Noir (2007)

A number of the films I’ve been watching lately have come from Europe’s art film tradition, but with distinctly film noir flavors. They range from the poetic realism proto-noirs of Jean Renoir’s “The Crime of Monsieur Lange” (1936) and Marcel Carne’s “Port of Shadows” (1938) to the self-conscious return-volley in the wake of American noir’s heyday, like Federico Fellini’s “The Swindlers” (1955) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Second Breath” (1966). But while soaking up the immaculate cinematography, dissecting the high-minded themes and admiring the classy gangsters strutting about in trenchcoats and fedoras like they were on a fashion runway, I almost forgot how much I treasure vulgar little B-movies that have no scruples about getting their hands dirty to entertain.

Then along comes “Film Noir” (2007), a [mostly] black-and-white CG film set in a Chandleresque Hollywood and animated in Serbia. The title makes it clear that ambitions aren’t running particularly high in the originality department, but like a good Tarantino, Coen brothers or John Dahl movie, directors D. Jud Jones and Risto Topaloski demonstrate a great deal of skill in knowing what to steal and how to remix the loot. Take the opening: our protagonist wakes up under the big “Hollywood” sign with amnesia and dead body nearby. Did he kill the guy? Have we seen too many similar setups to care?

But then the body is searched and it turns out to be a cop, his crackling police radio telling us what we already can guess, “Shots reported near the Hollywood sign,” while sirens in the distance let us know that time is already ticking down. Our antihero hops into the corpse’s vehicle and uses the officer’s wallet to find the one house where he can lay low and be sure someone won’t be home. Except that when he walks in the door, the dead cop’s coworkers jump out and yell “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” We’re off to a good start.

Sadly, “Film Noir” never really lives up to the potential of that opening fifteen minutes where it looked like the screenwriters could take any film noir cliché they want and spin it down some crazy new alley. But I like the fact that the film never stops trying; serving us a heaping plate of mistaken identities, hunted phantoms, femme fatales, profession assassins, cynical secretaries, unethical surgeons, evil philanthropists and, of course, snuff-film shooting blackmailers. Everything’s undercooked and overindulged, but it’s a stomach ache I almost welcome.

Jones/Topaloski never try to tell us we’re watching anything more than B-movie fluff on steroids, but they also don’t give into parody/homage sloth. The story is constantly shifting, with linking clues that make the fast-paced scene changes and frequent twists into an intelligible story. Our amnesiac on-the-run hero, who may or may not be the worst criminal in the film, is surprisingly personable and sympathetic despite being reckless, manipulative and borderline sleazy. The action and suspense, while too heavily dependent on uninspired precedents, are at least consistent enough to keep the adrenaline pumping. I’m not sure what percentage of this is a compliment, but I felt like I was watching a mindless movie made by some rather intelligent people.

I actually found the computer animation quite tolerable (not up to the level of "Renaissance," however), especially when one considers that this was a relatively low-budget production (note that all the voice-acting is accomplished by about a dozen people each doing several characters) with no significant theatrical or DVD release. The 3D models are reasonably realistic, though pared down and with somewhat stilted movements. The choice to use black-and-white provides the right noir atmosphere.

The monochrome CG meshes so well with the occasional use of live-action black-and-white backgrounds that I didn’t even realize they were cheating until well into the film. Far from being disappointed that level of animation detail wasn’t up to the task, I actually appreciated that it propped up the realism (you can spot all sorts of famous landmarks) and made the images more dynamic.

Red and yellow, especially lighting like on vehicle taillights or the LED digits of a timebomb, are allowed to be colored, creating highlights that give the film a nice dash of luridness. Comparisons to “Sin City” (2005) are inevitable, but somewhat unfair; “Film Noir” isn’t going for the graphic novel look so much as a videogame aesthetic. Anyone who’s enjoyed “Max Payne” or “Grand Theft Auto” will feel right at home. Conversely, anyone who still thinks violent videogames represent the death of culture should probably skip to a different review.

My biggest gripe about “Film Noir” (aside from some truly awful flashbacks to earlier lines) is that sometimes it strays too far from its roots and ends up on the wrong side of town; the turf of the less respectable action genre. I mean, do we really need three helicopter chases? Three? These digressions take us from the anxious fallibility of Sam Spade to the suave invincibility of James Bond, and our suspension of disbelief, not to mention our concern for a character in peril, is lost on the way.

And while I’m aware that film noirs quite literally invented the femme fatale archetype, and thus forfeit any unqualified claims to gender progressiveness (although I would argue that these roles at least gave female characters greater agency, better lines and sometimes even the last laugh), I blame action films for streamlining the use of female characters as interchangeable sex objects. “Film Noir” borrows that concept a little too eagerly, stamping out essentially the same vamp three times with the only real variation being hair color.

While being well-aware that this sounds oddly hypocritical coming just after discussing the film’s misogyny, I still want to mention that the sex scenes are surprisingly above-average. I usually film animated sex pretty unappealing and discomforting (I had to force myself to finish “Fritz the Cat”), but “Film Noir” manages to sustain pretty intense eroticism without as much creepiness as I would have expected. Though the quantity is arguably gratuitous, it fits well with the shameless trashiness being flaunted by the film at large.

“Film Noir” is, of course, no finely wrought work of art. It’s a grab bag of nods, winks and kicks in the shin from a genre I love and am endlessly entertained by. It’s a guilty pleasure that actually makes me blush, but it’s also an energetic carnival of over-the-top crime fiction that I want to celebrate openly (hence the review). So if you’re of the right persuasion, up for a good time and not looking for commitment, spend a night with “Film Noir” (2007). Just don’t take it home to meet your parents.

Walrus Rating: 7.0