Category Archives: Fantasy

I did not see that coming: Top 10 April Fool’s flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2016)

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I know. April Fool’s Day was yesterday. But then again, in the grand scheme of things, does that really matter? What is reality, anyway? Besides, this piece is about film, which is scant more than a “ribbon of dreams” (to quote Orson Welles) to begin with. Several years ago, I picked my top 10 mockumentaries in honor of the holiday. So with that in mind, I’ve curated my top 10 narrative films wherein the characters, the viewer, or both are fooled, conned, surprised, or shockingly betrayed. Or was it all a dream…or a living nightmare? Maybe the protagonist is really d- …oops, spoiler alert! In alphabetical order:

Carny–This character study/road movie/romantic triangle is an oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) yet one of my favorite films of the 1980s. Set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival, it stars the Band’s Robbie Robertson as the carny manager, Gary Busey as his pal (and dunk tank clown) and Jodie Foster as a teenage runaway who is swept into their world of con games and hustle. The story is raised above its inherent sleaze by excellent performances. Whenever he inhabits the Insult Clown persona, Busey reminds us that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (at least up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

Certified Copy – Just as you’re lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curveball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Mr. Welles again) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. (Full review).

Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
  • Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.                                                                                                                  
  • You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a masterful screenplay (by Robert Towne), two leads at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll have a film that deserves its designation as a “classic”. I know to expect it now, but that family secret revealed at the end still “surprises” me.

The Godfather Part II – “I knew it was you.” The betrayal (and the payback) remain two of cinema’s greatest shockers, and Coppola’s sequel is more than equal to its predecessor.

Mulholland Drive – David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mind fuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this one of his fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” with David Lynch). Some reviewers have suggested the film is structured as homage to The Wizard of Oz; while I wouldn’t dismiss that out of hand, I’d cautiously file it under “Pink Floyd theory” (see my review below). At any rate, this one grew on me; by the third (or fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts.

Siesta – Music video director Mary Lambert’s 1987 feature film debut is a mystery, wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Ellen Barkin stars as an amnesiac who wakes up on a runway in Spain, dazed, bloodied and bruised. She spends the rest of the film putting the jagged pieces together, trying to figure out who she is and how she got herself into this discombobulating predicament (quite reminiscent of the 1962 film Carnival of Souls). It’s a bit thin on narrative (critical reception was mixed), but high on atmosphere and beautifully photographed by Bryan Loftus, who was the DP for another one of my favorite 80s sleepers, The Company of Wolves. Great soundtrack by Marcus Miller, and a fine supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Isabella Rosselli. The script is by Patricia Louisianna Knop, who would later produce and occasionally write for her (now ex) husband Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries cable series that aired in the ‘90s.

The Sting – George Roy Hill’s caper dramedy is pretty fluffy, but a lot of fun. Paul Newman and Robert Redford reunited with their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid director in this 1973 star vehicle to play a pair of 1930s-era con men who set up the ultimate “sting” on a vicious mobster (Robert Shaw) who was responsible for the untimely demise of one their mutual pals. The beauty of screenwriter David S. Ward’s clever construction is in how he conspiratorially draws the audience in to feel like are in on the elaborate joke…but then manages to prank us too…when we’re least expecting it!

The Stunt Man – How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed several times by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?” That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is  filming an arty WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least. O’Toole really chews the scenery, supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield.

The Usual Suspects – What separates Bryan Singer’s sophomore effort from the pack of otherwise interchangeable Tarantino knockoffs that flourished throughout the 90s (aside from his tight direction) is a perfectly chosen cast (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palmenteri, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin), whip smart screenplay (co-written by Singer and Christopher McQuarrie) and a real doozey of a twist ending. The story unfolds via flashback, narrated by a soft-spoken, physically hobbled milquetoast named “Verbal” (Spacey), who is explaining to a federal agent (Palmenteri) how he ended up the sole survivor of a mass casualty shootout aboard a docked ship. Verbal’s tale is riveting; a byzantine web of double and triple crosses that always seems to thread back to an elusive and ruthless criminal puppet master named Keyser Soze. The movie has gained a rabid cult following, and “Who is Keyser Soze?” has become a meme.

The Wizard of Oz – So the jury is still out as to when to drop the needle. Conventional wisdom advises the 3rd roar of the MGM lion; but there are still those who would argue the case for the 1st or 2nd roar. Then is yet another school of thought that subscribes to waiting until the logo fades to black. I’m sorry, I just realized I’m being exclusionary to readers who don’t have time to fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way, hunting for that sweet spot that syncs up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. At any rate, long before that mashup was but a gleam in a stoner’s reddened eye, Victor Fleming’s 1939 beloved musical fantasy had already been emulated, quoted, parodied and analyzed ad nauseam. Obviously, it’s on my list for 2(!) Big Reveals in the third act.

Sit on this: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2015)

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the kind of film that critics elbow past each other in a desperate scramble to post the earliest time-stamped review that name checks Kierkegaard and Beckett. Just between you and me and the bird feeder, I find Kierkegaard unreadable, and once nodded off during a performance of Waiting for Godot. So rest assured, gentle reader, that you needn’t worry about suffering through smug references to long-dead existentialists and avant-garde playwrights…no siree, Bob.

You have to understand, I never went to college, or even film school. I’m just a simple farmer. I’m a person of the land; the common clay of the American West. You know…

A moron.

(Awkward silence). Give me a sec; I just need to come up with some clever angle now.

How do I summarize a film that is cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes which share little in common save for the fact that they share little in common, I’ll pick one at random, in which a girl recites the following “original” poem in front of her class:

A pigeon sat on a branch, reflecting on existence                                                        It rested, and reflected on the fact                                                                                 That it had no money                                                                                                              It flew home

Now I may not know Schopenhauer from Fahrvergnugen, but I do know Douglas Adams:

The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool                                                                 They lay. They rotted. They turned around occasionally                                  Bits of flesh dropped off them from time to time                                                 And sank into the pool’s mire                                                                                       They also smelt a great deal.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Or should I tell you the one about the two traveling novelty item salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, the titular “stars” of the film) who walk into a bar and begin their pitch, only to be rudely interrupted by a thirsty, horse-borne King Karl XII and his vast army (presumably on their way to Moscow), who have all somehow dropped in from the 18th Century? Oh, you’ve heard that one?

Then pretend I never said anything.

I could describe some of the other vignettes, some funny, some tragic, and mostly absurd…but I don’t see much point. Which I suppose is precisely the director’s point. There is no point in describing the pointlessness of it all. Therefore, he’s made his point.

So am I recommending it? You may remember this exchange from Play it Again, Sam:

Allan:  That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn’t it?

Museum Girl:  Yes, it is.    

Allan:  What does it say to you?    

Museum Girl:  It restates the negativeness of the Universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man, forced to live a barren, Godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless, bleak strait-jacket in a black absurd Cosmos.

Allan:  What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum Girl:  Committing suicide.

Allan:  What about Friday night?

Or you can look at it this way: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch made $8,119 last weekend. Minions made $115,718,405. What does it say to you? Oh, OK. What about Friday night?

Yabba dabba doo-doo: Jurassic World *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2015)

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Jurassic World: What could possibly go wrong?

Velociraptors make for great jumbo-sized bloodhounds. Who knew? That’s but one of the startling revelations in Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow’s remake of Cool Hand Luke. What was that he said? Cool Hand Luke? Is the OP off his fucking meds, or what?!

No, seriously. Hear me out.

Let’s get the synopsis out of the way first. It’s been 22 years since that little “accident” on Isla Nublar. If you’re unacquainted with 1993’s Jurassic Park, here’s the recap: test-tube dinosaurs, humans fleeing, screaming…then munching, crunching, blood, viscera, the end (if you also missed Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, see: recap for Jurassic Park). And if you think that concerned parties have yet to grasp the central lesson (i.e., that placing giant, lizard-brained predators and snack-sized bipeds into close proximity only ends in tears)-you would be…correct. Yes, “they” have now created a massive theme park (based on Sea World), and are charging people an admission for the privilege of putting themselves into close proximity with giant, lizard-brained predators.

An adorable moppet with a cabbage patch head (Ty Simpkins) and his sullen teenage sibling (Nick Robinson) travel to Jurassic World sans Mom and Dad, who are entrusting them into the care of their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is head of operations. She in turn entrusts the boys to her P.A. (thus ensuring that they will soon be in life-threatening peril, like all the young ‘uns in all the previous franchise entries). So much for the “plot”.

But that’s not important right now…let’s get back to my Cool Hand Luke theory.

We can all agree that the idea of positioning T. Rex as the park’s alpha heavy is like, so last millennium, right? No worries, because those ingenious InGen scientists (not unlike the director and his co-screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly) are smart enough to know that if you wanna repackage the same old shit in a different wrapper and fill those seats with asses, you’ve gotta make it bigger…and badder. So they’ve taken the DNA from a T. Rex, a velociraptor, a cuttlefish and added…I don’t know, some Black & Decker chainsaw parts…tossed them into a Bass-O-Matic and set it to “frappe”. Out pops Godzilla on steroids, a mega-predator they dub the Indominus Rex.

But I prefer to call him “Luke”.

Because you see, that ol’ Luke, they got him in a special pen…but they ain’t no prison can hold him, ‘cause he’s a wild, beautiful thing. He’s a crazy handful of nuthin’. And once he claws his way out and starts eatin’ them eggs, look out (I’ll tell ya, my boy can eat fifty of them brachiosaurus eggs, and still have ‘nuff room left for chokin’ down a platoon of park security officers, weapons ‘n’ all). Luke escapes, and who do they send to track him down? Dog Boy, of course (played here by Chris Pratt) and his faithful bloodhounds (played here by a pack of velociraptors). Hell, one of them velociraptor bloodhound dawgies is even named “Blue”! I mean, who can forget Dog Boy’s mournful lamentation: “Look, Cap’n, look what he done to Blue. He’s dead…he run himself plum to death.” Poor ol’ Blue. He was a good ‘raptor…way he used to wag that lil’ tensile tail.

That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. Getting half-serious for a moment, I’m giving the film an extra ½ star for the impressive creature effects; but frankly that’s about all it has going for it. For the life of me, all I can remember (and I just saw it this past Tuesday) is donning the 3-D glasses, watching dinosaurs eat people, and my friend marveling throughout at what has to be a new Guinness record for product placement. Memorable quotes? Can’t remember. Specific standout performances? Can’t remember. Plot points? Can’t recall more than one or two. And I wasn’t even high. Wish I had been.

SIFF 2015: Liza, the Fox Fairy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?). Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).

Fairies in the roundabout: Song of the Sea **** & four more for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 14, 2015)

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Given that we’re all descended from tetrapods (sorry, creationists) it’s not surprising that a number of cultures have developed myths featuring sea creatures who transmogrify into humans (and vice-versa). In Irish folklore, it’s the “selkie”. Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his lovely 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells (see below) with Song of the Sea, a tale steeped in selkie mythology. A 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, it’s currently in belated (and somewhat spotty) release around the U.S.

Moore’s film centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising young son Ben (David Rawle) and daughter Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) on his own, following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. Sullen Ben, several years older than his 6 year-old sister, is experiencing growing pains, exacerbated by the fact that he misses his mother terribly. He pines for the mesmerizing tales about magical creatures that mother would tell him at bedtime. He has difficulty relating to his somewhat odd little sister, who is a mute.

After Saoirse is nearly swept away after inexplicably deciding to wander into the nearby surf in the middle of the night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother (Fiona Flanagan) in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few mentally stultifying days with grandma they make a run for it. However, before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to regale him with.

I can say no more without risking spoilers, except that if you have a chance to catch this beautiful gem on a theater screen, don’t pass it by. Even though this is only his second outing, Moore has fashioned an entertainment that feels like an instant classic; a work imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic that I would put on a par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernible warmth in Moore’s skilled use of traditional hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days.

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 If Song of the Sea hasn’t opened in your neck of the woods, don’t despair. I have several other recommendations, should your heart be set on a St. Patrick’s Day film fest. In alphabetical order, here are 4 more tales of Celtic magic and myth from the Emerald Isle:

Darby O’Gill and the Little People –Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from director Robert Stevenson. Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and a strapping pre-James Bond Sean Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well, considering limitations of the time. The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson would later direct another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.

Into the West– A gem from one of the more under-appreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at that time).

The Secret of Kells– A unique animated fantasy based on traditional Irish folk tales surrounding the origins of an illuminated manuscript from the 9th Century called The Book of Kells (an actual historical artifact, kept on permanent display at Dublin’s Trinity College). There are Tolkienesque touches (a diminutive hero, forest elves, marauding invaders), but this “quest” tale has a refreshing twist…the goal is not power or an attempt to take down a villain, but rather the preservation of knowledge and illumination. For the amazingly vivid look of their film, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, through some kind of “secret” alchemy of their own, seem to have taken some of those marvelous medieval era woodcuts and paintings you see in museums and art books and brought them to life.

The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging live action fairy tale, which, like the aforementioned Song of the Sea, draws its inspiration from venerable Irish legends about the selkies. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal!

Floating weeds: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 1, 2014)

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One of my favorite movies is the 1957 “show-biz noir”, The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick’s portrait of an influential  New York newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster), who can make or break the careers of actors, musicians, and comics with the mere flick of his pen. One of my favorite lines from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s infinitely quotable screenplay is uttered by Lancaster, as he sharpens his claws and fixes his predatory gaze down on the streets of Manhattan from his lofty penthouse perch: “I love this dirty town.” Now, I don’t know if writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu intended this as homage, but there is a scene in his new film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where a character looks down at the streets of Manhattan from a lofty rooftop perch (after accepting a “dare” to spit on a random pedestrian below) and gleefully proclaims, “I love this town!”

Inarritu’s protagonist, on the other hand, would seem to have more of a love/hate relationship with “this” particular town; to get more neighborhood specific, with the Great White Way. His name is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), and he’s doing all he can to keep mind and soul together as he prepares for the opening of his Broadway stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. There’s a lot riding on this project; Riggan is a movie star who has gone a little stale with the public in recent years. His main claim to fame is his starring role in a superhero franchise centering on a character named “Birdman” (I know…rhymes with “Batman”, but I won’t belabor the obvious).

In the meantime, the Broadway locals are sharpening their knives and getting ready to pounce on yet another one of these hack Hollywood “movie stars” who thinks he can just come traipsing into their sacred cathedral, make a pathetic grab at street cred, then go gallivanting back to his Beverly Hills mansion. Locals like Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a powerful New York Times theater critic (with strong echoes of Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker) who tells him (in so many words) that she is going to “kill” his play… before she has even seen it.

Adding to Riggan’s stress is his strained relationship with his acerbic, fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone), who he has hired on as his P.A., and his girlfriend/fellow cast member Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is less than pleased with his ambivalent reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. An eleventh-hour replacement of one of his key players by a mercurial method hotshot (Edward Norton) exacerbates Riggan’s anxiety; especially after he deliberately derails the first preview performance by going off script and upstaging the star with manic improvisations. As Riggan cracks under the strain, he begins to receive advice and admonishments from Birdman (not unlike Anthony Hopkins and his dummy in Magic).

If you love tracking shots, you’ll have a dollygasm watching this film, as Inarritu and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki have seemingly conspired to concoct an extended 2-hour 12 inch dance mix version of Orson Welles’ audacious opening sequence in Touch of Evil. While this gimmick neither detracts nor adds anything to the story (aside from quite literally “moving things along” in the event you should encounter any lulls in the narrative), I felt it worth mentioning for anyone prone to motion sickness. The vacillating tonal shifts from Noises Off-style backstage farce to dark satire, with a light seasoning of magical realism and occasional forays into mind-blowing fantasy sequences, could be jarring to some; yet cozily familiar to fans of Terry Gilliam, or Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

While the central tropes of the film are somewhat dog-eared (Which holds more “truth”-stage or screen? If “acting” is, by definition, pretending, does a performance have to be “real” to be valid, or considered artful? And who gets to call it “art”…the critics? What the fuck do critics know, anyway? Did I just invalidate my entire review with that last rhetorical? Was that a wise move on my part? How do I now make a graceful egress out of this endless parenthetical? Why am I asking you?) Inarritu has framed them in an original fashion.

Most impressively, he has coaxed consistently top-flight performances from a sizable cast, which also includes Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan. Keaton has never been better (and the concept of such a great comeback performance by an actor playing a character who is an actor hoping for a great comeback performance is a veritable Matryoshka doll of super-meta). Oh, and you will believe a man can fly. Or not.

Too surreal, with love: Mood Indigo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2014)

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Drowning in a sea of schmaltz: Mood Indigo

I know “love is strange” (as the song goes), but as posited in Michel Gondry’s new film, Mood Indigo, it’s downright weird (and frankly, borderline creepy). Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

Set in some kind of alternative universe version of Paris, and sporadically annotated by a choreographed typing pool straight outta Busby Berkeley, Gondry’s story centers on a self-styled trustafarian hipster named Colin (Romain Duris), who fills his days tinkering with Rube Goldberg-type inventions like a “pianocktail” (you know, a piano that makes mixed drinks…what are you, new?).

In the meantime, his personal chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) prides himself on concocting offbeat entrees like “trickled eel with lithinated cream, and juniper in tansy leaf pouches…for the pleasure of Sir and his guest” (gee, I wonder how the other half lives?). Then there’s the tiny little dancing man in a mouse costume, who scuttles about on the floor of Colin’s Pee Wee’s Playhouse-ish apartment (don’t ask).

Colin is entertaining his BFF Chick (Gad Elmelah), who is pontificating about his favorite philosopher, “Jean-Sol Partre” (in case we don’t get the Bizarro World joke). Chick is also very excited to share the news about his new American girlfriend Alise (Aissa Maiga), and Colin is jealous and sulky over the fact that he didn’t discover her first; especially since she is Chef Nicolas’ sister.

Not to worry. Enter Chloe (Audrey Tautou), an eccentric young woman with whom Colin Meets Cute at a friend’s soirée. One thing leads to another, next thing you know, bada bing bada boom, they’re playing house. But you know what they say. It’s all fun and games, until someone accidentally swallows some kind of mutant plant spore while gasping in the throes of passion, causing a flower to sprout in her lung (wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that narrative).

The result is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Street of Crocodiles; or imagine characters stuck inside of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video for 90 minutes. The two leads are charming, but Gondry’s tendency to favor form over content keeps shoving them to the side, rendering them moot to their own story. I can see where he’s going with all the surreal accouterments; in fact it’s a school of film making that has become synonymous with his fellow countrymen Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Amelie, Delicatessen, City of Lost Children). But at least Jeunet and Caro seem to know when to rein it in enough to let the narrative breathe. A door bell falling off the wall and turning into a mechanical cockroach that needs to be swatted to stop ringing is amusing once; but Gondry assumes it will be just as amusing the third, fourth or fifth time. It’s not.

Blu-ray reissue: Princess Mononoke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Princess Mononoke – Disney Blu-Ray

I think it’s fair to say that anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have consistently raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades (that’s why I’m a little sad that Miazaki-san recently announced his retirement from directing). Disney studios have been s-l-o-w-l-y reissuing the Miyazaki catalog on Blu-ray. This 1997 Ghibli production is a welcome addition to high-def, as it is one of their most visually resplendent offerings. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but most of the patented Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a ubiquitously violent world. The beautiful score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi.

Quick take: A Letter to Momo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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Here’s something you don’t see every day…a family-friendly anime fantasy from Japan that isn’t produced by Studio Ghibli. That being said, Hiroyuki Okiyura’s film plays a bit like a medley of Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits; sort of a “Stars on 45” conundrum (sure sounds like the real thing, yet makes you yearn to hear the original). It’s a simple tale about a teenage girl named Momo who moves to an isolated island village with her widowed mother. Insular and slow to make new friends, Momo spends her time daydreaming and flipping through a box full of strange, antique picture books (“From the Edo era,” her great aunt tells her after offering to let her to peruse the collection at her leisure). Well, I needn’t tell you what happens once you start flipping through strange antique picture books from the Edo era…next thing you know, you’ve got a trio of goblins in your attic. They’re creepy, but they’re kooky. More significantly, they may give Momo closure on an unresolved issue regarding her late father. The hand-drawn animation is lovely, but the story meanders and the mood vacillates too frequently between family melodrama and silly slapstick to sustain any kind of consistent tone. Still, there are some  touching moments; and younger kids might be more forgiving.