Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Superpower-Driven Narrative

If you are one of the many aspiring directors who are interested in making Hollywood blockbusters, but are worried because you’re artistically inclined, frugal, or otherwise disadvantaged, don’t worry. The Film Walrus is endeavoring to help you out with a handy guide to making crappy films that sell like collectable cross-marketed hotcakes. Today’s lesson: superhero movies.

Everybody (males 13-30, the “everybody” that counts) loves superhero movies and it’s a good place to start if you’re worried about straying into sincerity, sophistication or originality. The key thing to note is that you have a lot of flexibility, since audiences will flock to see a superhero film even if you don’t call it a superhero film. What do I mean? Many, if not most action films are really just superheroes flicks in disguise. Take James Bond, swap the tuxedo for a cape, and voila! Take Dirty Harry, swap the cop outfit for a cape. Take John McClane, swap the wife-beater for a cape. Rambo, Jason Bourne, Jackie Chan, Captain Jack Sparrow, Shane, Julius Caesar, Flipper, Willy Loman, etc, etc, etc.

The point is: if capes seem too sissy to you, they can be disposed of. The superhuman abilities are what matter. All we need is a handsome male lead we can identify with plus the escapist fantasy of being more powerful than everyone around us. The ‘handsome male lead’ part of the equation is an interchangeable cog that you can leave up to the producer. We’ll focus on what’s really important, designing what I call the superpower-driven narrative, a more financially consistent alternative to character-driven screenwriting.

Most of the heavy lifting happens right here at the beginning, brainstorming what superpowers to give your hero. Try and be creative, but don’t sweat it if you’re not; there’s plenty of alternatives to new ideas!

1) Remake an earlier movie. There are tons of films like “Man Made Monster” (1941) and “4D Man” (1959) that are ripe for fresh incarnations. If you’re worried about fans of the original hating your ill-conceived attempts to modernize the story (Note: you should describe your decision to add misplaced comic relief, flimsy technogadgetry CG and supermodels that serve no purpose but to pose for the poster art as “updating the film to be relevant in our modern day and age.”), just find some actor from the original film who’s still alive and put them in a walk-on cameo. If the dissidents still don’t fall in, shout “series reboot!” and tint all your production stills darker. Don’t ask why, but people go wild for that.

2) Adapt an as-yet untainted work, preferably something with more pictures than words like a comic book or magazine ad. Saturday morning cartoons from ¾ of a generation back (remember your demographic; you want to aim for licensed nostalgia, not historical awareness or cultural literacy) are also acceptable. Make sure to put on a big show of how “loyal” and “into” the source material you are, while changing everything important to make it more commercial. You’ll also want to pare down the vocabulary and squeeze out any talky character development, what I like to call “the residual pall of the written word” (if you didn’t understand that, you’re well on your way!). Audiences can smell the reek of intellectual ambitions from miles away, and you can bet they’ll wrinkle their noses.

3) Rely on total nonsense. Pick out some random creature and contrive to have the hero cross-DNA with it. Maybe he has tapeworm powers, turns into a capybara during full moons or is half-dragon. Go further. Maybe he has robot DNA (from being infected by a mutated computer virus) or is part hurricane (ooh, topical!) or was raised by wild vending machines (consider the tie-ins!). He could be born with shotguns for limbs. Maybe his father was a ghost and his mother was a pop rock band. The less sense it makes the better! Give your screenwriters something challenging to explain. If the logic gets dicey, throw in a meteorite.

4) Feeling lazy? Just pick a cool job like spy, assassin, rogue cop, film blogger or cooper and make them insanely good at it. Superhuman strength and a tendency to never get shot go without saying. If it doesn’t sound cool, add a prefix like ‘super,’ ‘cyber’ or ‘turbo’ to their job title.

OK, now that we’ve got some superpower ideas, let’s rank them into three groups by asking, “Does this make our protagonist essentially invincible?”
1) Yes
2) Almost
3) No

Powers of the second type are what we’re after, but the others are useful, too. If you want to go with a first order power, then invent a weakness. It’s OK to just use kryptonite, but call it something else and make it glow a different color. Or apply a variation of the “vampire catch,” like all his powers go away during even-numbered hours or whenever he hasn’t eaten enough combo value meals (remember, it doesn’t have to make sense).

The third order powers can be used for sidekicks, midlevel henchmen and minibosses (you should be keeping the videogame supplement in mind at all stages of production). If you really insist, you can go with a band of heroes with lesser complimentary powers or batch two or three abilities together for a hybrid hero. If it seems contrived for one person to gain multiple unrelated powers, have an elderly mentor character wave his hands and mumble something about military experiments or ancient prophecies.

Now while those options are doable, it’s the powers of the second order that are goldmines. They maximize cool while still leaving room for tension. Now this is where superpower-driven narrative comes into play, as the various implications of your chosen superhuman skills basically write the plot of the movie for you. In fact, the whole first half of the movie should be spent doing little but indulging the most obvious superpower applications that pop into your head.

But eventually we need to introduce a serious threat. Take a moment or two to brainstorm how the hero’s weaknesses might be exploited. We don’t really need these to imperil him (the villain can always just hold his girlfriend hostage), but we’ll use them if we choose to introduce a “surprise” villain who has the same powers as the hero, but evil and a smidgen stronger. This is a nice little screenwriting shortcut that makes for great final battles, but if you have leftover superpower ideas from up above, feel free to do a more distinctive final boss.

We’re almost done! Just stir in a fistful of angst for our main character, aggravated by a father figure who gets killed immediately after the audience has established an emotional bond. Tack on a romantic interest who the hero must keep in the dark “for her own protection,” much to the detriment of their relationship. If you’re trying to look progressive, give her some witty banter or a minor superpower or have her reveal that she knew the hero’s alter-ego the whole time when she saves him (gasp!) just when all hope seems lost. Just make sure she’s hot.

Now scribble out a couple one-liners, hire a team in South Korea to do the CG explosions and plug in an extended charade implying your superhero is actually torn about the morality of vigilante justice. (Remember, if the hero cries about it a little, the audience doesn’t have to feel bad about all the graphic murders). Lastly, pick a set piece for the final showdown. I recommend a [blank] factory (fill in the blank with something awesome, preferably flammable) or a national landmark. The End. Roll credits.

The target is to get approximately two minutes of decent action movie fodder so that you can cut together a trailer. Anything past that is icing on the hotcakes. Don’t worry if you didn’t use all the potential of your chosen superpower, you can skim through the fanfic later and steal their ideas for the sequels.

Alright, let’s put this guide into action:

What should our superpower be? How about bilocation, the ability to be in two places at once? Perfect for comedy setups and explaining away poor continuity. It comes from the Bible (probably) so the rest just writes itself.

Secret sect of ninja monks has been protecting humanity since the dawn of time. Cynical handyman is revealed to be unlikely Chosen One destined to repel a dark lord that returns every 100 years. Sexy nun is put in charge of training him to use his superpower. He can only die if both versions of him are killed at once, so we crosscut between one being chased through catacombs and another fighting gargoyles, which are actually petrified aliens. Vatican City turns out to be a spaceship. Yadda yadda yadda and we end up in a zero-G final showdown on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Go home. Bathe in cash.

It’s really that easy!

Keep an eye out for future installments where I’ll explain what to do if you blow your entire budget on explosions in the pre-credit sequence* and how to fix a script that doesn’t call for any helicopter scenes**.

* Have characters constantly refer to the pre-credit sequence as “The [blank] Incident” and flashback to the explosion.
** Add helicopters.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz

While coming up with candidates for the character meme a little bit ago, it struck me that Bunuel movies came to mind quicker than expected (“Belle de Jour,” “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” and the recently Criterionized “Simon of the Desert” amongst others). After all, Luis Bunuel isn’t exactly what I would call a character-driven storyteller in the traditional sense, but maybe his non-traditional approach is what makes his work all the more memorable.

Bunuel doesn’t round out his characters with the type of psychological realism that explains all their actions and makes them seem like real, rational people. He often leaves motivation ambiguous and behavior erratic (“The Young and the Damned,” “Belle de Jour,” “This Strange Passion”) or uses characters as primarily symbolic vessels (his early shorts, “The Exterminating Angel,” “Phantom of Liberty,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). In extreme cases like “That Obscure Object of Desire,” he managed to do both, undermining familiar notions of character access and identification by casting two actresses in the role of the fickle female lead.

But what makes Bunuel’s characters so great is that when he chooses to get inside their head, he literally brings their mind to life. His ability to plumb the depths of repression, fantasy and fixation and then visualize it on film is amazing. It made for characters that may make little sense within our everyday reality, but which fit logically into an often nightmarish neighboring surreality whose very contrast forced viewers to think about conventions, institutions and personal habits that Bunuel felt were too easily accepted or outright wrong. Sometimes this led to controversy, sometimes to laughter, and often to both.

One of my favorite Bunuel characters, to whom I was only recently introduced, is Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso) of the ironically-titled “The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” (1955). Like many men in Bunuel films, his dominant trait is an unhealthy sexual obsession, in this case merged with a murderous compulsion. Archibaldo believes himself to be a serial killer, and very early in the film he turns himself in and confesses as such, but luck (good? bad? tough to tell…) has condemned him to innocence.

[Image: Archibaldo with razor.]

As a spoiled rich kid during the Mexican revolution, Archibaldo was reluctantly raised by a pretty governess with whom he frequently clashed. One day his parents give him a music box and the governess tells him a fairy-tale about how the original owner could play the tune and then strike enemies dead through thought alone. As she speaks, Archibaldo opens the music box and a stray gunshot from the fighting outside snuffs out her life. Archibaldo is thereafter convinced that he is a cold-blooded killer, a fixation confirmed by a string of similarly fatal coincidences throughout his life.

Archibaldo oscillates humorously between wanting to satisfy his criminal and sexual desires and wanting salvation from them. He sees women merely as a means to gratification or redemption and he pursues stunning beauties towards both ends, but without satisfaction. They step on his pride, he vows revenge, and they inevitably die before he can kill them.

Archibaldo still blames himself for their deaths, and so he’s plagued with ever mounting guilt. He remains blind to his true crimes, pride and selfishness, and ultimately lacks remorse. Bunuel, who never fails to get the last laugh, flaunts the legal verdict as equivalent to moral one, rewarding Archibaldo with a happy ending that implies the possibility of an unearned romance.

The irony is not merely that Archibaldo thinks he’s a killer and isn’t. It’s also that society thinks he’s an upstanding citizen and he isn’t. The local clergy, the government and the social elite all pat him on the back and hold him up as an exemplary member of the community. What’s especially subversive is that they continue to hold their high opinion of him even after he’s confessed what a troubled, volatile and dangerous person he is under the façade. Society is shown to be absolutely complicit in Archibaldo’s misguided honor system and to care little for anything but outward appearances and deference to decorum. (In some ways, I’m reminded of the critique of superficiality in “American Psycho.”)

[Image: Few people dream about their wedding nights in quite the same way as Archibaldo.]

“The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” has fewer of Bunuel signature surrealist sequences than some of his better known works. There are several scenes where we see Archibaldo carry out murderous plots (which are often symbolically loaded and a little weird), which we later discover take place only in his imagination. These scenes are absent the non-sequitur cuts and freeform imagery of dream sequences, as Bunuel intentionally makes them disturbingly indistinguishable from reality.

The only exception is a fantasy that takes place in a featureless fog, perhaps a way to show how absorbed Archibaldo becomes when overcome by his compulsions. Perhaps my favorite surreal touch is the music box tune that rises unbidden in Archibaldo’s mind and sounds like its off-key, slow-motion and underwater.

[Image: The victim in one of Archibaldo’s pitch black visions of imagined murder, serving milk. Our puritanical hero is fond of saying “I don’t touch alcohol.”]

I suspect that Bunuel was managing to fit enough of his satire into the literal narrative that he didn’t feel the need for as many of fantastical digressions. Indeed, the film works pretty well as both comedy and thriller in a way less jarring (if less exciting) than his more eccentric work.

[Image: Years later, the music box rediscovered!]

The black and white cinematography is highly polished, demonstrating a higher budget than Bunuel had managed prior to the 1950’s. Like “This Strange Passion” (1953) before, “The Criminal Life…” makes heavy use of architecture (though less Dali-esque here), particularly Archibaldo’s cavernous estate and the ritzy nightclubs and gambling joints that he frequents. In keeping with his inability to form sincere human relationships, Archibaldo is defined largely by setting and inanimate objects. The luxuries that surround him in his mansion, his tailored suits and his sports car mark his as a member of the wealthy elite, but his music box, razorblade and a manikin replica of one of his intended victims all give physical expression to his warped perspective.

[Images: Archibaldo, torn between a dummy and the real thing. He tries to pretend like he’s being playful, but he’s also stoking his kiln between smooches in preparation for a postcoital cremation.]

The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz” is available on a DVD set that also includes “Land Without Bread,” “The Young and the Damned” and “This Strange Passion.” It’s a great deal. I noted that the box and DVDs were prominently labeled region 2, but they played on two region 1 machines I tested. You can also wait for Criterion to put it out, which isn’t currently on their agenda, but they’ve gone on Bunuel-releasing rampages before (“Simon of the Desert” and “The Exterminating Angel” most recently). Personally, I find it comforting that there still remains many Bunuel films I’ve yet to experience and that it’s only a matter of time…*

Walrus Rating: 8.0

* Of course, if there are any distributers out there reading, I’d prefer sooner rather than later.
[Image: "I assure you that morbid sensation gave me a certain pleasure."]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review of The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1966)

Here’s some of my mental diary entries from a couple of days ago:
00:00:00 I put my latest Netflix disc into my DVD player and take my seat.
00:00:18 The DVD menu appears (in Russian) and I become immediately aware that I have accidently requested the wrong movie.
00:00:40 After getting the menu to show up in English I decide I’ll give the movie a chance anyway. Otherwise, I will no longer have an excuse not to get some chores done around the apartment.
00:01:30 Movie begins. No subtitle options. I set the audio to English. Three women (sisters?) start speaking in terrible dubbed rhymes. I reconsider previous decision.
00:08:00 Strange little troll creatures appear and start attacking a medieval kingdom. I’m starting to kind of like the movie.
00:15:00 I’m totally drawn into the strange Soviet-era fairy-tale that is unfolding and quite honestly impressed by some of the special effects and visual design efforts. I’m learning to stomach the awful poetry translation.
00:82:00 Movie ends. Evening deemed a success.

So that’s how I came to see “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (1966) by Russia’s cinematic wizard Aleksandr Ptushko. I didn’t recognize his name at first, but I’ve actually been looking for his groundbreaking puppet film “The New Gulliver” (1935) for quite some time (if anyone knows where I can buy a subtitled version, please let me know). I’d also seen one of his lesser films on MST3K, but don’t hold that against him. Despite my lack of real familiarity, I’m thinking Ptushko is definitely a director worth knowing.

“The Tale of Tsar Saltan” starts out in typical fairy-tale fashion with a humble maiden getting wed to the Tsar and her two jealous sisters plotting to make the marriage as brief as possible. While Tsar Saltan is out fighting armies of pygmy trolls, his wife gives birth to their son Gvidon. The villains do some creative editing on their correspondences and make it appear that Saltan wants his family sealed in a barrel and dropped to the bottom of the sea. Despondent, but blindly obedient, his vassals do the deed.

But wait! The Tsarina’s beseeches the sea to spare her and they wash up on an empty island with only a single tree. Her fast-growing son has already become a full-grown man, and he rescues a swan who helps make him king of a frozen city full of domes and spires. He lives in great wealth due to a singing squirrel who procures golden emerald-filled nuts, but he continues to feel that something is missing. It isn’t a private army of amphibious giants or a beautiful wife with a precious gem shining from her forehead. Those help, sure, but it’s a chance to meet his father that brings about the ballet finale.

This plot felt mighty odd to me, but it certainly beat watching another uninspired Cinderella adaptation and Ptushko makes it more exhilarating still through his knack for fantastic use of color and magical imagery. I’m wondering if Russian filmgoers would have been so familiar with the story that they wouldn’t have been as dumbfounded by it (can someone from Russia answer that?), but I really enjoyed being in the state of I-have-no-idea-what-crazy-twist-is-coming-next for pretty much the whole duration.

The story does have some flaws, particularly the use of fairy-tale repetition and cardboard characters. The acting is pretty theatrical, with only Larisa Golubkina (as the Tsarina) excelling, which is actually especially impressive since she is really only required to be modest and pretty. The writing can also be pretty painful, though I’m sure in Russian the original 1831 poem by Aleksandr Pushkin’s is considerably more respectable. Translating across languages while trying to maintain the rhyme scheme and match lip movements is doubtlessly a nigh-impossible task, but I think they could have outdone “I’m going to go walk over there / and see if I can hunt a hare” (he then kills a bird of prey) or “Why, O Prince, are you so sad / When on this day you should be glad?”

But I need to get on to the real point of “The Tale of Tsar Saltan,” which is the presentation. Everything is just so ambitious and clever and gorgeous. The costumes are bold and shiny, with the distinctive trolls making a fine contrast. I’m not quite sure how Ptushko made them so short (midgets? children? actors bent forward with their elbows on their knees?), but they’re so darn adorably evil. When he brings in the giants he mostly relies on forced perspective (much the same way Peter Jackson did to make his Hobbits appear so short), with many of the set pieces rivaling Karel Zeman for technical challenge. In one scene where the giants attack a ship, he cuts between two versions: one with a regular-size ship and forced-perspective giants and another with regular-size giants a smaller replica of the ship populated by children wearing the costumes (and conveniently not facing the camera).

The puppetry used for the singing and dancing squirrel is rather silly (expect a smidgeon of similarly head-shaking Soviet sight-gags throughout), but otherwise the island kingdoms are magnificent. The huge-looking cityscapes are accomplished by using sets that run seamlessly into impeccable murals. Gvidon’s tour of the silent city, complete with flash-frozen running children, spouting fountains and a dove flying from a tree of crystal apples, is an unforgettable sequence.

Even though it’s often easy to see through the special effects, I don’t consider their datedness to be a bad thing. One can easily sit back and suspend disbelief or admire the amount of craft that went into them. I’d suspect that modern viewers, especially kid weaned on CG, may find the innovative tricks quite charming and well fitted to the story.

I only wish I could show you some screenshots. The sketchy DVD wasn’t recognized by my computer, so you’ll have to use your imagination. You can also check out some of the artwork by Ivan Bilibin that inspired Pushko’s adaptation here.

Anyone with a taste for fantasy should give this a chance. Preferably, find a copy better than the one I watched. “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” isn’t likely to ever get as much attention as “The Thief of Bagdad,” “The Wizard of Oz” or “The Neverending Story,” but it does deserve more than its measly 59 votes. I only wish I’d watched it on purpose.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ten Great Characters

I’ve been tagged by Agitation of the Mind and Cinebeats for a movie meme to choose 10 favorite movie characters. Note that the specific criterion is not necessarily the actor or the performance, but the character.

I admit that I had some difficultly deciding how to approach this list in addition to the usual trouble paring it down. I ultimately failed to draw much distinction between actor, performance and character, with many of my choices favoring those fortuitous moments where the three planets align. I also fiddled around a little to make sure I had ones that reflected a bit of my personality.

As a final disclaimer, let me dub this a list of ten characters that deserve their due rather than my absolute favorites, because memory, sloth and a desire to avoid repeating other lists I’ve been perusing lately have limited me.

Ten Great Characters:

1. Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky), “The Cremator”

Karl is smug, psychotic and philosophical, but so exquisitely crafted from tics, obsessions, idiosyncrasies, perversities and unfortunate historical circumstances that he can stir laughter and revulsion simultaneously, all the while compelling our utmost attention and defying any attempt at sympathy.

2. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), “Kind Hearts and Coronets”

Alec Guinness grabs all the attention with his 8-fold role as the victims, but Dennis Price;s Mazzini is the absolute embodiment of the genteel schemer and sophisticated serial killer in this detached dark comedy.

3. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), “Night and the City”

Widmark is at his very best as Harry Fabian, a two-bit con artist and tragic dreamer in over his head as he tries to hustle his way into sports management and the gambling racket.

4. Billy Budd (Terence Stamp), “Billy Budd”

Any number of Terence Stamp roles could have made the list (including “Theorem” (1968), which Cinebeats led me to via another list), but I have a soft spot the seafaring messiah figure Billy Budd. Herman Melville’s posthumous novel (which I haven’t read) also gave birth to other great characters: Captain Edward Vere (played excellently by Peter Ustinov) and Master-at-Arms John Claggart (best realized by Denis Lavant in the mesmerizing French pseudo-remake “Beau Travail”).

5. Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins), “Bob Roberts”

A conservative Bob Dylan who runs a corrupt grassroots campaign for senator. Robbins’ political farce is a stroke of genius that combined his acting, writing and directing talent.

6. Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), “Metropolitan”

It’s tough for me to tell whether I just like Chris Eigeman as an actor or the character that Eigeman inevitably plays in every film since Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan.” His vitriolic, sarcastic commentary on the upper-class intellectual world he’s fully immersed in endeared him to me as a sort of willfully superficial Daria.

7. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), “Out of the Past”

Bogart’s hardboiled detectives are just as deserving, but I’m backing Jeff Bailey, an ex-shamus sucked back into doomed freefall after a cruel taste of the quiet life. This noir role is even more cynical and tainted than other genre highlights, augmented by some great lines and Robert Mitchum’s hard-edged performance.

8. Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), “Possession”

For courage and pitch, Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill steal the movie, but it’s Heinz Bennent’s Heinrich who could best be described as “quite a character” in that vague derogatory sense. Director Zulawski imagined him as an amalgamation of every guy he hated, with the result being twisted, funny and outrageous.

9. Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), “Ikiru”

Only an actor like Takashi Shimura could have handled so delicately the role of Kanji Watanabe, a dying bureaucrat who wants to do one worthwhile act before giving up the family, career and society that never loved him. Bittersweet, and yet not too sentimental, Kanji Watanabe is one of the most inspirational characters I know.

10. Eeyore (Ralph Wright), “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” amongst others.

Eeyore, the pessimist par excellence, didn’t just symbolize my transition from childhood Tigger-person (spastic and jolly) into young-adult Eeyore champion (whiny gloom-goblin), he helped save me from my depression by making it funny. My outlook on life and my sense of humor have never been the same since.

First runner-up:
Vienna (Joan Crawford), “Johnny Guitar”

After embarrassingly noting my gender-biased all-male line-up, I’m including my first runner-up, Vienna (Catherine of "Jules and Jim" was also very, very close). Vienna is a western leading lady like none before or after, a no-nonsense self-made saloon owner and seething psychological wreck. She dishes out daggers from her bloodshot eyes, poison darts from her tongue and bullets from her pistol.

And now to tag some other blogs. Partake at your own discretion.
The Grump Factory (consider it a double-tag so that Tim and John can make separate lists)
Why Film, Exactly?
Film Forno
Kinoblog – Mad props if you use only Eastern European characters.

And just for fun (not that the last list wasn’t), here’s a bunch more characters (specifically, title characters) that I love:

Some (More) Great Title Characters:
Baron Munchausen (John Neville), “The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen”
Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles), “Mr. Arkadin”
Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.), “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser”
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), “The Royal Tenenbaums”
Barbarella (Jane Fonda), “Barbarella” and Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti), “Modesty Blaise”
Barton Fink (John Turturro), “Barton Fink”
Keoma (Franco Nero), “Keoma” and Django (Franco Nero), “Django”
William Walker (Ed Harris), “Walker”
Mr. Freedom (John Abbey), “Mr. Freedom” and Lemonade Joe (Karel Fiala), “Lemonade Joe”
Diabolik (John Phillip Law), “Danger: Diabolik” and Judex (Channing Pollack), “Judex” (1963)
Belle de Jour (Catherine Deneuve), “Belle de Jour”
Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”
Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ernesto Alonso), "The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz"

And the list just goes on and on…

Some day soon I'll have to do a list specifically for villains, but I'm a little listed-out (listless?) right now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Iceberg Arena: Beyond the Cat Countdown Part III

This is the third part of a three part series counting down the best animated cat movies I’ve seen. This post features animated canine and rodent cinema.

While I’m a certified cat person (complete with regaling loose acquaintances about how my cat sleeps with one paw over her eyes and twitches about when she has little kitty nightmares), I thought I’d make a minor concession to other pet owners following the Cat Movie Countdown in my last posts. Given that the world of animation is chock full of anthropomorphic creatures I could probably put together something (perhaps not a top ten) for bugs, horses, rabbits, monkeys, birds, foxes, bears, dinosaurs (there’d have to be a lot of words like ‘Before,’ ‘Land’ and ‘Time’ along with roman numerals not often seen by the movie-going public) and even pigs and elephants (who wouldn’t want to see Dumbo, Babar and Thailand’s Khan Kluay duke it out!).

However, I’m opting to stick to denser foliage. In a move that surely Chuck Jones and Tex Avery would appreciate, I’m presenting a list for the critters that chase cats and the ones that cats chase. I’ve listed them in countdown order, without reviews. Taken as a whole, mice movies tunnel a few notches below cats, and dog films dig even deeper, though I’d throw a bone to the plague dogs and Bolt.

Note that Disney is clearly comprised of dog people, or more likely, their research polls have shown that dogs are easier to merchandize to the family demographic. They have six about dogs compare to only one about cats.

Dog Movies:
10. Balto
9. Snoopy Come Home
8. Oliver & Company (dog movie by dint of cast majority)
7. The Fox and the Hound
6. Lady and the Tramp
5. A Goofy Movie
4. All Dogs Go To Heaven
3. 101 Dalmatians
2. Bolt
1. Plague Dogs

Compiling the Mouse Movie list led to some controversy in the Film Walrus household as to what exactly should qualify (a frequent debate during the list item brainstorming sessions held between me and Katie). We wanted to include rats, so we expanded the title to make it a rodent list. Then the question of “The Wind in the Willows” (1983) and “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949) came up, since they star a mole. I correctly argued that moles are not rodents. Chipmunks, however, are.

Mice Movies (and other rodents):
10. The Chipmunk Adventure
9. An American Tail
8. Fun and Fancy Free
7. The Rescuers Down Under
6. Blood, Tea and Red String
5. The Rescuers
4. The Great Mouse Detective
3. A Mouse and His Child
2. The Secrets of NIMH
1. Ratatouille

Friday, April 10, 2009

Iceberg Arena: The Cat Countdown Part II

This is the second part of a three part series counting down the best animated cat movies I’ve seen. The final part will feature canine and rodent cinema.

5. Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

“Night on the Galactic Railroad” adapts freely from the novel by the pre-war Buddhist writer Kenji Miyazawa about the poor son of sick mother, Giovanni, and his mysterious train voyage across the stars with his best friend Campanella. The galactic railroad takes them through themed constellation stations full of surreal landmarks and eccentric passengers, including a man who harvests herons for candy and the ghostly souls of the sunken Titanic. Giovanni begins to suspect that the train is taking Campanella to afterlife (the Southern Cross), a fear that is confirmed when he wakes up on Earth alone and learns that Campanella drowned during the night’s moon festival while saving the school bully.

Director Sugii’s lugubrious religious allegory unsettled fans of the original work who weren’t expecting the characters to be cats (an artistic choice never explained) and confused those unfamiliar with the novella (amongst them, me) even more. It doesn’t help that the chapter titles are given in Esperanto and the thick symbolism is at once heavy-handed (prepare yourself for a bevy of crosses) and inscrutable (what the hell is with the bird candy guy?). Yet what emerges from the gentle dreamlike flow of the adventure is a mature and emotionally resonant tale about a brave child’s imagination, curiosity, friendship and loss. The low-on-action pacing and atmospheric spiritualism hasn’t been welcomed by fans of conventional American or Japanese anime, but I find it, along with “Angel Egg,” to be a worthwhile experiment.

4. The Cat Returns (2002)

Ghibli’s semi-sequel to “Whisper of the Hearts” (of which “The Cat Returns” is something of a story-within-a-story) is a light-hearted fantasy about a schoolgirl named Haru who can understand cats. One day she instinctively saves the life of a cat in danger and learns that he’s the prince of Cat Kingdom. Amongst the many rewards she’d prefer to reject are dead mice and a marriage proposal that leaves both parties unhappy. A mysterious voice advises Haru to seek out the Baron, a cat statue come to life, and Muta, an obese feline rogue, to save her from transforming into a cat and losing her stake in the human world.

Like with other Ghibli films, especially the kid-friendly “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” this film is warm-hearted, sincere and appropriate for pretty much all ages. The plot can be a little too cute for its own good, but the characters are well-realized enough to add a necessary grounding in realism. It also helps that the visuals are so strong, with Ghibli’s trademark eye for detail, color and light bringing to life Japanese suburbs, Victorian alleys and magical kingdoms.

3. Cats Don’t Dance (1997)

Danny, a song-and-dance tomcat hoping to make it big in Golden Era Hollywood, steps on the shoes of Darla Dimple, “Hollywood’s Sweetheart,” when he improvise on his single line (“Meow”) while an extra in her star vehicle. He’s immediately blacklisted, framed in a studio disaster and rejected even by the other would-be sensations whose dreams have also been crushed by humanity’s lack of interest in animal stars. Though initially depressed, Danny contrives to stage a massive musical comeback that wallows gleefully in garish “final number” excess.

Warner Brother’s underappreciated gem was strangled in the cradle by executives who doubted its potential (much like in the plot), cutting off marketing funds and limiting the release. They managed to lock in a box office failure for themselves, which is sad given the film’s success as a self-aware throwback to classical feel-good backstage musicals and its polished “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” type wit. It walks the line drawn by Pixar, whereby the film appeals to kids with its bright colors, catchy tunes and non-stop action while amusing adults with razor-sharp studio-era references (Darla Dimple, a sadistically villainous Shirley Temple, is especially memorable). At least director Mark Dindal was able to go on and make Disney’s equally delightful anomaly “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

2. The Cat Who Walked By Herself (1988)

This obscure Russian film caught me by surprise. It’s an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling pourquoi story (short origin tales that take the format “how the leopard got his spots” or the like). It’s narrated in silky whisper by a house cat to a toddler who’s pulled her tail. Apparently the child forgot that thousands of years ago, humans and cats came to an agreement not to do so. Mixing stop motion, cutouts and paintings, a primal fable about cavepeople’s evolution and dependence on animals unfolds, with the cat providing wry commentary.

Intricate constructions and an eclectic art design make this one of the most visually arresting cat films ever made, though few have even heard of it. It also manages to capture the personality of cats and the sense that they see themselves not as pets, but as masters of their domain (unlike dogs or horse, food and scratches behind the ears only buy temporary loyalty). Like in many of Kipling’s other writings, the atmosphere of unfathomable magic and exotic creatures foregrounds nature as an exciting power to be reckoned with and humanity as gruff interlopers in over their heads. The occasionally drab character designs and use of ritual repetition are notable flaws, but the craft, originality and wisdom behind the production won my admiration.

1. Felidae (1994)

Soon after arriving in a new apartment building with his owner, Francis begins to investigate a series of brutal sex murders in the neighborhood. His amateur sleuthing turns up a viscous gang, a deadly cult, a blind beauty, a brilliant technophile, a secret catacomb, feral femme fatales and evidence of an unethical research program carried out years ago that may hold the key behind it all. The closer he gets to the truth, the more bodies pile up around him, but the crafty killer is clearly playing a larger high-stakes game destined to force Francis into choosing between his mind and his morals. Felidae, by the way, is the scientific name for the family of cats.

The sinuous noir plot is the best on the list by far, with metaphoric implications that stretch from Nazi war crimes to modern scientific debates. Its dark tone, unsparing imagery and mature subject matter was a major risk for an animated film (Germany’s most expensive), but Akif Pirinçci source novel ensured an artistic pedigree high enough to pay off in its niche market. The animation is also stellar, aiming for realism (nailing cat mannerisms and their social hierarchy) to create real tension and intrigue. I’m not too sure about the title track by Boy George, but overall this is THE cat film to see.

Next week, top ten countdowns for animated dog and mice movies.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Iceberg Arena: The Ten Lives of Cartoon Cats Part I

This is the first part of a three part series counting down the best animated cat movies I’ve seen. The final part will feature canine and rodent cinema.

I grew up in a relatively large family and there were always pets around in case human companionship wasn’t enough. At one time or another we had fish, toads, lizards, crabs, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats (always more than one), dogs and even horses. Having experienced some breadth of the animal kingdom, I can say definitely that cats are superior to dogs. While I’d love to go into a great deal of discussion to prove this case, the internet has already done that for me.

Cinema has been rather kind to kittens over the years, featuring them frequently as minor characters, especially in horror movies where their noisome mischief often tricks the audience into thinking the killer is nearby (yes, a list of cat scares is pending). In real life, I find that it usually just means that my cat, Claws Kinski, has knocked something over in the kitchen and I have to go clean it up.

Kinski has, by and large, been less kind to cinema. She tends to ignore whatever I’m watching in favor of falling asleep or glaring across the room at me. Her reviews are only slightly less harsh Vincent Canby’s.

Less often are cats are given their due in starring roles. When they are, it tends to be in animated films where schedules and performances don’t have to rely on their admitted fussiness and fickleness. These cartoon cats are the topic of today’s Iceberg Arena Battle Royale, pitting ten animated feline flicks against each other.

I could have done a straight up top ten list, but that would imply that I actually liked all the films on the list (I’d give two of them a remorseless thumbs down) and that I’d seen more than ten (which is technically true if you include “The Lion King,” but I’m sticking to domestic cats). So instead I broke up my list and reviews into a three part Iceberg Arena, where one animated cat movie is eliminated at a time until a single winner remains.

Let the Cat Movie Countdown begin:

10. Fritz the Cat (1972)

Fritz the Cat shocked audiences in 1972 as the first X-rated animated theatrical feature. It tells of the ramblingly adventures of Fritz, a smug chauvinistic thug on the prowl for pussies across a crime-strewn USA. Fritz is cynical, exploitive and selfish, but hardly the worst element in this pessimistic satire of the turbulent 1960’s that’s filled with explicit sex, violence, bigotry and depravity. As is often the case with shock cinema, the message is confused by the inability to tell whether the film is reveling in or reviling its subject matter. The drama never manages the energy of the Angry Young Man movement from which it tears a page, while the comedy can’t get far enough past juvenile locker-room humor to effectively skewer American culture. Even Robert Crumb, writer of the source comic, disavowed the picture.

Director Ralph Bakshi may be the most important name in American independent animation, but he’s probably one of my all-time least-favorite directors. His animation is bottom of the barrel, but his intentionally grimy coloring and skill at exaggeration and grotesquerie does make for a unique and original style. His later films would repeat the formula ad nauseam and mix in ugly live-action footage to patch over the holes, never with much success. With Fritz, at least, he blazed a trail for other indie animators to follow.

9. The Aristocats (1970)

The threadbare plot of The Aristocats involves a wealthy old lady who plans to will her estate and fortune to her beloved cats, much to the dismay of her long-suffering butler Edgar. The scheming manservant slips the cats a milk mickey, scoops them into a sack and sets off to chuck them off a bridge. It really pretty grim for a Disney film, but the actually fate Edgar has planned is never clear, as he’s interrupted and the prisoners escape. The pampered cats are taken in by O’Malley the alley cat and are introduced to Paris’s bohemian scene through Scat Cat and his band of feline swingers before they return home for a predictable showdown.

It’s uncommon for even Disney to just “go through the motions” as overtly as they did with Aristocats, slapping together a boring, mechanical family feature whose premise (a musical comedy about cats in Paris) and best ideas were stolen from “Gay Purr-ee” (see #7). Nearly every aspect is bungled, especially the hokey voice-acting and the forgettable music, headlined by the anti-climactic “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat”. The sigh-inducing comic relief, which features two elderly dogs and a pair of old-maid geese (for a kid’s movie, a major portion of the supporting cast is geriatric), consumes half the film in place of plot and character development. The only really standout element is the animation, especially the beautiful background images of Paris.

8. Cat City (1986)

I mentioned “Cat City” when I rambled about Hungarian animation, and although I don’t consider it a great example, it’s still quite a bit of fun. A secret agent mouse (alright, so this maybe should’ve been counted as a mouse movie) must visit a cell of his organization in Japan to obtain a secret weapon to fight off the growing influence of the cat mafia. Along the way he outwits a whole litter of whiskered assassins who’ve rented a futuristic car for the chase. The maze of surprises and plot developments that ensue would exhaust even a lab rat.

Despite being a smash hit in Hungary and the USSR, “Cat City” never got significant play in the states, largely because of its language-based puns and references to Hungarian culture. Still, much of the humor is broad enough to be understood internationally, drawing from easily recognizable tropes like parody (James Bond in particular), cartoon violence and bumbling villains, but with a streak of more adult humor that parents might want to watch out for. The animation is probably the biggest weak point, with the style feeling dated and rushed.

7. Gay Purr-ee (1962)

Eight years before the Disney clone, UPA made this charming musical featuring the voice of Judy Garland as Mewsette, a housecat from the French province of Provence who is seduced by the luxuries of the Parisian leisure class. Her countrified mouse-nabbing suitor, Jaune Tom, and his boyish pal Robespierre head out in hot pursuit. They’re reunion is repeatedly foiled by Meowrice, a con artist who trains Mewsette My-Fair-Lady-style as a mail-order bride while shanghaiing the men on a ship bound for the Klondike gold rush.

UPA’s signature limited animation isn’t going to appeal to everyone, especially since it can dip a little close to Saturday morning cartoon quality. Chuck Jones’s influence is clear in the exultant bold colors and comic lack of realism, as well as the many references to high-culture literature and art (including a fabulous montage of famous paintings reimagined to star felines), not to mention cinema. Ultimately the plot remains pretty uninspired, but the music and design work still stand up.

6. Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Outer Space (2003)

This ambitious project by a two-man Japanese team follows the adventures of Tamala, an immature, foul-mouthed female cat searching the Orion constellation for her real mother in a cyberpunk future. She is stranded on a planet where the friction between cats and dogs is exploding into riots and killing sprees. Through dream sequences and museum visits she gradually awakens to her origins as an immortal corporate mascot and vengeful reincarnation of the goddess Minerva. While still unaware of her destiny, she strikes up a brief relationship with Michelangelo, who is traumatized by her apparent death and rebirth.

Gutsy, original and unconstrained by tradition, co-creators “the trees of life” construct one of the most odd and ambiguous cat cartoon yet made. The jerry-built plot bites off more than it can chew with an outline modeled after Pynchon’s postmodern tome “The Crying of Lot 49,” a tense corporate setting not far from Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and inflections from Roman mythology and modern feminism, yet I can’t help applaud the effort. The isometric black-and-white animation has a retro videogame look that feels comfortably synchronized with the bizarre mishmash of ancient, modern and futuristic iconography.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review of Lilith

If you’re interested in seeing a lot of impressive performances by young actors all in one place, give “Lilith” (1964) a try. It’s the earliest film I’ve seen for both Peter Fonda (who plays a sensitive nerd!) and Gene Hackman (as a chauvinist hick) and the second earliest for leads Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, who both put in superior performances to their respective breakthroughs (“Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and “Breathless” (1959)). It also has some choice minor roles for Kim Hunter (“The Seventh Victim” (1943), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)) and Jessica Walters.

[Image: (left to right) Jean Seberg, Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda.]

Most of the cast wasn’t actually famous yet. Far from an ensemble film, “Lilith” is more a character piece with a superb supporting cast. Beatty stars as Vincent Bruce, a shy and semi-aimless ex-army man who decides to intern as an occupational therapist for an expensive local asylum (for reasons that don’t become clear until near the end of the film). His sensitive and non-judgmental attitude make him an effective and popular staff member, but trouble starts when he falls in love with Lilith, a beautiful and beguiling schizophrenia patient.

If you’ve seen other regular-guy/psychotic-girl romances like “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), “Possessed” (1947), “Betty Blue” (1986), “Fatal Attraction” (1987), or “Mad Love” (1995), you know this type of relationship never works out. Actually, you probably didn’t need to see those films to come to that conclusion. The compelling differences here are that Lilith isn’t quite a villainess and Vincent rarely even tries to draw her towards sanity. He’s too busy getting sucked into her world, and it’s tough to blame him. She exudes a mysterious, mystical and erotic glow; a confidence in her personal reality with its own private language (literally) and, as the head psychiatrist puts it, it’s sense of rapture. The sane people never stand a chance.

Director Robert Rossen and his cinematographer Eugene Schufftan (who’d done special effects for “Metropolis” (1927) and won an Oscar on Rossen’s previous film, “The Hustler” (1961)) do an excellent job creating an atmospheric backdrop for the tragic romance. They’re clearly intent (and successful) on giving the sensational B-movie premise an artful treatment. There is an appreciated absence of canted camera angles and shots of people gazing into broken mirrors.

[Image: Framing with froth.]

Poplar Lodge, the asylum for members of wealthy families, is something of a paradise where Vincent thinks to find contentment, peace and purpose for the first time in his life. He spends his time talking amiably with the patients, playing games, walking through the beautiful grounds and supervising picnics. Little time is spent on the less dignified and more stressful side of the business, like practicing safety procedures, restraining patients, defusing arguments, cleaning up messes, dealing with setbacks, etc., although they are alluded to early on.

[Images: Many of the evocative, somewhat foreboding tone shots simply frame Beatty as a dark figure amidst the verdant scenery.]

The staff at Poplar Lodge is relatively hands-off and they show a respect and refusal to condescend that’s ahead of its time (and demonstrative of the filmmaker’s maturity as well). In fact, Rossen and his characters often sympathize and even openly admire their wards. Dr. Lavrier, the head of the institute, notes that many of his patients are geniuses, poets and artists in their own right, but unable to cope with an acute awareness not possessed by “sane” men and women. He describes them as persons who have “…seen too much with too fine an instrument.” Much of Rossen’s film is really about the seduction of such madness, with Lilith’s sexuality only an outward facet of its temptation.

The name “Lilith,” depending on your mythology variant, was either a demon seductress, the sin-spawning first wife of the Biblical Adam or a primal creature born directly from the Earth. All those connotations are relevant here. Lilith, in the film, is particularly associated with nature, especially water and light. She enjoys holding her prism collection up to the sunlight, for instance, and stares at the sparkles in water. When she bends down to kiss her reflection, the ripples distort the image and she muses that “my kisses kill her.”

[Image: A reverie on the power of love to destroy. One could see “Lilith” as a rare film in which love is too powerful a force, such that it leads only to madness and destruction.]

Despite Lilith’s undeniable appeal, Vincent has more than enough warnings to keep his distance. If medical ethics weren’t enough, he actually witnesses her toying with a fellow patient (Peter Fonda), almost killing him over his amorous affections. One of the most disturbing scenes has Lilith compulsively seducing a little boy while Vincent stares on. Her affinity for childlike logic only makes it more uncomfortable.

We hardly the need the film’s bizarrely ominous imagery, including nature slides of a schizophrenic spider’s deranged web and a jousting tournament where lancing rings becomes an aggressive sexual metaphor. But apparently, it’s not enough to scare off Vincent and, personally, I go nuts for that type of thing.

[Images: One of these spiders was schizophrenic. Can you guess which one?]

Shortly after their relationship is consummated, Vincent discovers (presumably because Lilith wants him to discover) that she indulges in other affairs, including ones with women (which was probably still rather scandalous in 1964). When Vincent catches her in the act, her cocksure response is priceless: “If you should discover your god loved others as much as he loves you, would you hate him for it?”

Jean Seberg can pucker her lips and sneer with almost the same facial tic, and endows her character with an integrity that maintains a nebulous state between femme fatale and vulnerable patient. Beatty is equally up to the acting challenge, giving a performance that owes a great deal to Dean and The Method. His long pauses before answering questions, lack of eye contact and his tendency to hold his hands near his mouth, amongst other habits, create a finely-detailed performance. I mentioned how much I liked the supporting cast as well, which is largely due to director Rossen and novel author J. R. Salamanca sticking to a simple rule: develop every character you introduce or cut them from the story.

[Image: Jessica Walters plays Laura, Vincent’s ex-girlfriend who entered into an unhappy marriage after Vincent was drafted. She gets one of the film’s best lines: “Vincent, now you remember when I said I’d never really let you make love with me until I was married? Well now I’m married.” I was kind of disturbed by how attractive she was in 1964, given that I mostly know her as the uber-WASP matriarch from “Arrested Development.” I thought it was fitting to get a screenshot of her with drink in hand.]
[Image: Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development.]
Rossen’s staging really helps delve into the character relationships, aided immensely by the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. There is a preponderance of over-the-shoulder shots, not just for conversations, but often just to show the way characters watch each other. It creates an atmosphere where it feels as though everyone is watching everyone else, a mood befitting a place populated by psychiatrists and paranoids.

Rossen uses wide gulfs in his deep staging to emphasize the gulfs between characters, especially Vincent and Lilith’s two brands of self-imposed alienation. But the over-the-shoulder shots and the fact that both planes are in sharp focus, ensures that the characters are still united in the frame; unable to avoid their connections. It’s as though the camera were joining the screenplay in mocking clinical distance.

[Images: Four pairs of over-the-shoulder shots across rather extreme distances.]

As Vincent and Lilith’s draw closer together throughout the film, Rossen shoots them in tighter framings. Even the edits appear to flow together in long, lingering cross-fades. The compositions parallel not only the Vincent’s increasing emotional bondage to his patient, but his psychological one as well. It provides a visual metaphor for his slide inextricably deeper into Lilith’s dangerous mental frontier. It’s left ambiguous whether he will ever escape.

[Image: The symbolism here probably doesn’t need explaining.]

“Lilith” (1964) definitely fits a profile I find amongst several of my favorite films. It’s a deep focus, black-and-white picture (from a time when those were out of fashion) filled with mystery and insanity. It’s such a solid drama likely to find few detractors, but it’s the hint of primal forces outside the realm of straight drama that really draws me in. The description matches some of my other favorites like “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and “The Innocents” (1961).

Walrus Rating: 9.0