Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fantastic Planet (1973) movie poster

director René Laloux
viewed: 12/04/2015

A few years back, I watched Fantastic Planet and totally loved it.  Since that time, I actually tried to watch it with my kids, but have run into a consistent and confounding conundrum: when the DVD would arrive from Netflix, I couldn’t get it to play on my DVD player.  Foiled multiple times, I gave up.

Yeah, I still have DVD player.  I have an old TV, that doesn’t do HD.

Well, for the month of December, my daughter decided that our month-long genre would be animation.  Queuing what I had on hand, I decided to give Fantastic Planet another try.  I put it in the player and it came up on the main home screen and would allow me to navigate around.  I thought we’d be good.  But no.  It failed to play again.

So, I gave it a go on my laptop, which was not something I was too keen on.  I like to see films on as big a screen as possible, not at all diminished.  But you know, we went ahead and watched it since it played on my computer.  (I know that this is the boring stuff that doesn’t belong in a “movie review”.  Whatevs.)

I don’t know that I have anything to add to my last writing about the film.  Felix fell asleep.  Clara enjoyed the film, I think.  I think it is brilliant.

The Cremator (1969)

The Cremator (1969) movie poster

director Juraj Herz
viewed: 09/20/2014

Unlike other films of the Czech New Wave, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator has a uniquely different aspect.  Shot in black-and-white, the film is set in the years before WWII, during the rise of the Nazi party and its eventual influence and takeover of Czechoslovakia.

Rudolf Hrušínský, looking like a lost relative of Peter Lorre, plays the titular cremator, Karel Kopfrkingl, a man with spiritual aspirations for his work that reach outside of Western beliefs.  For all his strangeness and creepiness, combing corpses’ hair and then his own with the same comb, he is a man with some moral grounding and a family of which he is largely proud.

But creepiness will out.  And as creepy as he is, his seduction by the Nazi party members and his opportunistic grab at power expose the even darker depths of perdition into which he is willing to reach.

The film feels like it could have been a significant influence on David Lynch, at least visually.  It’s a strange one, almost a horror film, almost comic, verging close to many things but maintaining its unusual, eerie world view.

I don’t know what else to say.

Alice (1988)

Alice (1988) movie poster

director Jan Švankmajer
viewed: 04/04/2014

Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) is probably one of my favorite movies.  The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen it in more than 15 years, I’m pretty sure.  It is a film that I had been wanting to watch with the kids for a long time, but it had turned out that they had already seen it with their mother, for whom the film is also a favorite.  Clara didn’t remember it, but Felix did.  It was in this vague middleground that held it out of the queue for what turns out to be far too long.

If you are not familiar with Jan Švankmajer, this is certainly the place to start.  It’s his first and best feature film, a loose yet spiritually-aligned version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It’s actually a fascinating counterpoint to the lush and lovely Disney version of the story that we had watched recently.  Where Disney’s 1951 film is a Technicolor fantasia, Švankmajer’s is an eerie, strangely nightmarish world of pure oddity.

Švankmajer is a stop-motion animator and film-maker who uses puppets and found objects, like food, or other effluvia in his figures.  In his Alice, the White Rabbit is a taxidermied rabbit with its teeth rather prominently poised.  Bones and real, dead animals comprise much of the strange universe that Alice ventures into, starting from her real world room in which these objects exist around her.  Recurring themes of drawers being pulled open (with their knobs always coming off), revealing a litany of various objects: safety pins, scissors, wood-shavings.  It’s a dank, Old World dreamscape that Alice ventures round in.

Švankmajer also employs a rather unusual technique for his voice-over of the story.  Alice speaks the words of the text, often cutting to a close-up of her mouth and she says them.  It punctuates a rhythm throughout, sort of jarring, but relatively musical, through a film with little talking to speak of.

The contrast between this Alice and the Disney Alice in Wonderland, is that many of the same sequences occur, highlighting the films’ extreme difference in approach.  In Švankmajer’s Alice, the caterpillar is a sock with eyeballs, in a room overrun with socks, tunneling like worms through a wooden floor.  Švankmajer’s Alice is full of Freudian images, of dark surrealism and strangenesses that one could hardly conceive of on one’s own.

It’s Švankmajer’s masterpiece.  He has many, many wonderful short films, and some other good or very good features like his Faust (1994) or Little Otik (2000).  But this, the least literal, though most fantastical of Alices, is a film unlike any other.

Daisies (1966)

Daisies (1966) movie poster

director Věra Chytilová
viewed: 03/24/2014

I’m having an odd streak in my “great movies I’ve never seen” movie-watching of late.  I recently watched director Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) but sadly the director passed away just before I saw it, while I had the DVD at home from Netflix.  And just now, planning to watch the Czech film Daisies, director Věra Chytilová passed away.  I wound up watching it in memorium, if you will.

I suppose it is not so odd with these films from a similar era, directors in their eighties, it’s just strange coincidence.   Not good news for other aging directors of great films that I’ve never seen.

Daisies is an irreverent, oddball, almost slap-stick comedy of the avant-garde.  It features two young women, Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, acting out in bizarre, surrealist ways, with an array of visual asides, camera effects, colors, cuts, weirdness, silliness, and lots of food and eating.  What’s so refreshing about it is that it’s a feminist film but a feminist film with a great sense of fun and impropriety, but still quite polemical in its way.

It vaguely reminded me of aspects of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, perhaps the more abstract or animated sequences.  That said, the comedy is less traditional and skit-like.  It also resonated as a real contrast to a film like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a brilliant if intensely downbeat feminist movie.

An emblem of the Czech New Wave, it’s a wonderful, strange, and fun little film.  It’s easy to see how one could dig into it for analysis, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Toys in the Attic (2009)

Toys in the Attic (2009) movie poster

director Jiří Barta
viewed: 03/15/2013

Toys in the Attic never even played on the big screen in San Francisco during its brief release last year.  We had to wait for this Czech stop-motion animated feature to hit DVD before we had a chance to see it.  And it was perhaps only thanks to my rather intensive scouring of coming films to even know that it had been released in the States at all.

Set in an attic, a myriad discarded toys live in a vivid and strange eclectic world.  A girl doll, a marionette, a teddy bear, a lump of clay with a bottle cap hat and stub of a pencil nose comprise the main group of protagonists. But their strange fantasy world is invaded by a long snake-like tube with an eye, spying for a creepy bust of a man, who is informed by a pincher bug with a face.  It’s all pretty weird if all you see in animation comes from Disney or Pixar, but for Czech animation, it’s a comparatively less bizarre array of figures.

Stop-motion animation still stands out in my mind as perhaps the most uncanny of all animation techniques.  Using real figures, objects, sometimes actual people, it also employs real lighting, basically utilizing a camera shot by shot, gaining all the inherent “realism” of a photograph and natural three dimensionality. The uncanny comes from the invented movement.  Some stop-motion tries for as much believability as possible, particularly when stop-motion has been used for “special effects” (something almost unheard of nowadays but still employed up through the 1980’s).  But even the best stop-motion effect are still quite obviously unreal, fantastical, and not utterly natural in their movements.  It’s an odd, sort of jarring thing, which some people probably really hate but I have always loved.  I’ve always loved that weird effect of stop-motion.  Maybe because of its uncanniness and weirdness.

Director Jiří Barta employs stop-motion, more traditional animation, and pixilation for the film Toys in the Attic, but the characters, design, world, everything is an inherently surreal thing, and the uncanny aspects of stop-motion, like in other Czech animation, taps into that vein and mines it deep for its style, tonality, and ideas.  For the uninitiated, it’s probably plenty weird.  For others, it’s plenty cool.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) movie poster

director Jaromil Jireš
viewed: 12/27/2012

This is one far-out flick.

I can’t seem to recall where I stumbled onto the recommendation for this, but it was a good one.  Czech director Jaromil Jireš presents a rich and very weird fantasy cum horror coming-of-age film.

It all starts with menstruation, magic earrings, horny priests, vampires, and incest.  Or at least with menstruation.  The onset of adulthood, subtly depicted in blood dripping onto a daisy, casts the 13-year-old Valerie into the strange world of adult sexuality and familial truths.

Frankly, it wouldn’t do any good to try and explain the narrative.  It’s very dream-like, drifting, Surreal.  Images of a creepy “monster” called Weasel is a sort of 1970’s, furry-eared Nosferatu.   Grandma sells herself for her youth, Valerie’s semi-John Lennon-looking “brother”, Eagle, is the only one really looking out for the teenage beauty, who also witnesses many scenes of odd sexuality.

Played by the then 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová, Valerie is a lovely “Alice in Wonderland,” tripping through the daisies, the devils, the dreams, catching glimpses of sex, death, and beauty in this very wild, fantastic film.  Really quite something.

Fantastic Planet

Fantastic Planet (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. René Laloux
viewed: 01/27/08

René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet is a wonderful anomaly in feature length cinema, from an animation perspective, from a science fiction perspective, from a surrealist perspective,…heck from any perspective.  Released in 1973, it is Laloux’s first feature length film (the DVD includes three of his earlier shorts which are also amazing), it is an adaptation of a Czechoslovakian allegorical science fiction novel referring to the Russian control of Czechoslovakia.

The animation style is unusual, limited, but the design style is what is much more radical.  The designs are highly “drawn”, showing ink lines in figures both foreground and background, the style is highly illustrative, something one my more commonly see in a book, rather than animated in a film.  The figures and design flow from early Surrealist designs, but tempered into a fluidity that speaks as well of the time of the film’s creation, the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, that psychedelica influence of design.

An adventure tale, if you boil down the narrative, of a repressed race of small human-like people, the Om’s, and their oppressors, the giant, blue, vaguely robotic Draags.  But, like the style of the drawings, the narrative is limited, not overwhelming with description, open enough to feel less “explained” all the time, a sensebility that I think seemed to exist for a while in science fiction that left more questions and a lack of clarity that expanded the genre.

The only films that came to mind at all were a couple of other European animated films from the near time vicinity, George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (1968) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non troppo (1977) and director Ralph Bakshi’s work to an extent.  But, this film is completely unlike anything else.  I’d seen only part of it back in the 1980’s at a friend’s house and had been meaning to see it again all these years.  It’s certainly the stuff of cult filmgoers and acid heads.

It’s only real downside is the soundtrack which comes and goes into the same sort of music one might expect from a porn film of the same period.

French illustrator, Roland Topor, worked with Laloux on this film, offering a large part of the design and aesthetics.  He and Laloux worked together on some of Laloux’s previous short films, which, if you do see this film on DVD, I recommend watching if you enjoyed this feature.  It’s a brilliant, amazing film.  Vive les anomalies!

Little Otik

Little Otik (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Jan Svankmajer
viewed: 04/04/03

Little Otik, Jan Svankmajer’s latest semi-animated Surrealist film, tells the story of a childless couple who create a child and its resultant monstrosity by roughly hewing a figure of a baby from a scraggy tree stump. The child’s hunger overgrows all else, turning their “baby” into an insatiable beast who ends up devouring their postman and many of their neighbors.

Svankmajer focuses a great deal on food and the process of eating throughout the film, lingering the camera on family mealtimes and particularly on the less apetizing aspects of the act. The central metaphor of the barbarous creature that their “child” becomes seems perfectly explicit. Though what is the significance of Otik’s origin? He comes from nature but is made utterly unnatural by the action of his human “parents.”

Svankmajer, for those of you unfamiliar with the director, is an animator who relies largely on pixilation, using three dimensional figures, sometimes puppets and sometimes “natural” objects. The effect of this is that the object often has natural photographic depth and lighting, yet moves with a clearly other-worldliness. In Little Otik and in the last film that I had seen of his, Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), the bulk of the film is simple photographic narrative, with small portions comparatively small sections of animation.

The film is based on a Czech fairy tale . I don’t know how well-known the original fairy tale is (I was not familiar with it myself), but it does seem to follow many traditions of fairy tales. The more traditional version of the fairy tale is told in parallel with that on the the main, photographic narrative. It is animated in a stylized 2-D technique as it is read by Alzbetka, the precocious ten year old heroine of the film.

His 1988 version of Alice in Wonderland is hands-down his best work (Alice) and his Faust (1994) is particularly interesting as well. Little Otik is a good film, but not as strong as his best.