Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fritz the Cat (1972)

This movies was released the same year as my previous entry, Solaris.  That is where all similarities end. 

Running Time: 80 Minutes (Only 2 of which you might feel comfortable watching with your grandmother.)

Directed By: Ralph Bakshi

Based Upon: The comic strip Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb.

Voice Cast: Skip Hinnant
Rosetta LeNoire (Yes, the Rosetta LeNore who stared in Family Matters)
Ralph Bakshi
Phil Seuling

Plot: “In the age of awakening, Fritz (voice of Skip Hinnant) -- New York University student and one cool cat -- embraces every new experience that crosses his path, including easy sex and drugs. But Fritz ends up holding the dynamite that will detonate the ultimate 1960s statement when he joins a group of radical hippies. Based on underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb's revolutionary character, Fritz the Cat became the first X-rated cartoon.” - Netflix. 

“Would I like this movie?” - My wife.

(Awkward Silence) - Me.

How I discovered it:  This is another one that I was vaguely aware of for decades but didn’t really know anything about it until I took a class in animation.  Most likely the first time I had ever really heard a reference to “Fritz the Cat” was in an episode of The Simpsons (Season 7.  "The Day the Violence Died") in which Comic Book Guy shows Bart the following clip. 

When I was a kid, I just thought that this was a funny spoof on cartoon violence.  I had no idea that it was a direct reference to a famous movie from the 1970's.  

Speaking of The Simpsons, Bakshi has stated, “Now they do as much on The Simpsons as I got an X rating for Fritz the Cat."   

Memorable Moment: Who would ever be able to forget an animated inter-species bathtub orgy?  Yep, won’t be able to get that image out of my brain no matter how hard I try.

    •    Director Ralph Bakshi was miserable producing educational animated films before he went on to Fritz the Cat, which was a more personal project.  He has been quoted as saying,  “The idea of grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous."

    •    Bakshi had reportedly never heard of the comic strip until he came across it in an East Side Book Store.  He claims that he instantly wanted to turn it into a movie. 
    •    Funding, animating and finding a distributor for America’s first X rated cartoon is a story that deserves its own movie.  Needless to say everyone behind this film were fighting an uphill battle the whole way.
    •    For the opening scene (in which a group of construction workers complain about the debauchery of today’s youth) Bakshi supposedly paid two actual construction workers fifty dollars each and drank scotch with them while recording their conversation.  This is why the sound quality in this scene  is so raw.  The same technique was used for the sequence in the Harlem bar.
    •    In terms of box office Fritz the Cat is the most successful independently animated features of all time.
    •    Robert Crumb (the artist behind the original comic strip) was dissatisfied with the finished film for various reasons and has disassociated himself with the movie.  Bakshi has been openly critical of the cartoonist’s response.

Connection to Other Works
  • The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was a sequel was released in 1974.  Neither Bakshi nor Crumb were involved and the sequel is generally considered an inferior work.   
  • Bakshi went on to direct Coonskin, which also features anthropomorphic animals.
  •  Apparently footage from the film was edited to created the music video for Guru’s 2007 song “State of Clarity.”

Who Should Embrace it: The two groups of people who should definitely check out this movie are: 1) Anyone with a strong interest in the history of animation.  Everything I have read about Fritz the Cat indicated that it was a definite turning point for western audiences.  2)  Anyone interested in 20th Century American history.  Watching this film is like opening a time capsule that contains the humor, rage, politics and psychedelic art of the early '70's.

As for the rest of us, the film still possesses an ability to shock and entertain.  However, like El Topo there are few people who I would personally recommend this movie to without a disclaimer.  (The poster itself says ‘We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!”)

While many of us in 2015 are no longer phased by "adult content" in an animated feature, we as a society have (rightfully) become more sensitive to jokes about rape, race and domestic abuse.  Therefore, there are moments in this film that modern audiences could potentially find more offensive than their 1970's counterparts.  Fritz still manages to push the envelope, although for different reasons than it did when it was first released.

In short, this film is a great piece of history, but audiences looking for some superficial, edgy, mindlessly offensive animated entertainment might do well to look elsewhere.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

SOLARIS - 1972

Running Time: 165 (very philosophical) Minutes

Directed By: Andrei Tarkovsky

Based Upon: The 1961 novel by the same name by Stanislaw Lem. 

Staring: Natalya Bondarchuk
Donates Banionis
Juri Jarvet
Anatoli Solonitsyn

Plot: “Scientist Kris Kelin travels to the mysterious planet Solaris to investigate the failure of an earlier mission.  But when his long-dead wife appears on the space station, he realized the planet has the power to materialize human desires.  Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi cult classic, based upon Stanislaw Lem’s novel, presents an uncompromisingly unique and poetic meditation on space travel and its physical and existential ramifications” - Netflix.

"This exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious, this great examination of the limits of rationalism and the perverse power of even the most ill-fated love, needs to be seen as widely as possible before it's transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be 2001 meets Last Tango in Paris.' What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning over in his grave." - Salman Rushdie (Author of The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children)

How I Discovered It: I was completely unaware that this movie existed until 2002 when Steven Soderberg came along and made a (considerably shorter) American remake staring George Clooney (I’m assuming I don’t need an IMDB link for him).

I have never seen the American version.  Ironically it may be a more obscure than the original since this remake was a complete and utter flop.  (Although critics didn't seem to mind it too much.

 Memorable Moment: When Kris Kelin first arrives on the Solaris space station, he finds that the "futuristic" equipment lining the walls have been torn out and the corridors are covered in refuse.  The station has been left in such a ruin that it is a miracle that life support still works.  During his journey through the station (which is currently inhabited by only two other men) he catches glimpses of a woman in a blue night gown and a short man who one of the surviving scientists seems determined to keep inside his quarters. 


    •    Tarovsky (the director) and Lem (the author of the original novel) collaborated on this film. However, neither were terribly proud of it.  Tarkovsky has openly stated that Solaris is his least favorite of his movies (although it is his most popular among Western audiences).  Lem was disappointed with the film because his original novel focused on “science’s inadequacy in allowing humans to communicate with an alien life form.”  The film version focused on “Kelvin’s feelings for his wife, Hari, and the impact of outer space exploration upon the human condition."  Lem supposedly claimed that Tarkovsky created a cinematic Crime and Punishment rather than a film version of Solaris.  (I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing.) 
    •    Won the Grand Prix Special du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.
    •     Natalya Bondarchuk (who plays Hari, Kelvin’s long dead wife) was only in her late teens when the movie was filmed.  She originally did not receive the part because of her young age (something that would never happen in Hollywood) however, the director re-considered half a year later after watching her other work. 
    •    This is the second adaptation of the novel.  The first was a Russian made for TV movie released in 1968.

Who Should Embrace This Film: My immediate answer is, “Anyone who loves Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.”  The two films have more in common than just being  philosophical space sagas.  They also share a similar pace (which some may mistake as being "boring").  In fact, it has often been rumored that Solaris was filmed as the Soviet's answer to  2001, which was viewed as a promotion for the American space program.

 This rumor is somewhat ironic because while the films have a great deal in common on the surface, in a way they are opposites of one another.  2001 was a major leap forward in special effects and while it does contain one of cinema’s most notorious villains the human characters are (purposefully) machine-like.  On the other hand, Solaris contains almost no special effects (other than occasional hallucinatory shots of the planet’s ocean surface) and those who inhabit the space station are remarkably complex characters.

I would sooner recommend Solaris to someone interested in philosophy than  than someone seeking sci-fi thrills.  The pace is slow and much of the film is taken up by conversations regarding the nature of reality/humanity.  The first 40 minutes don’t even look like what one would expect form a science fiction film.  I absolutely believe that most people would appreciate this film, but I don’t know how much they would enjoy it.  To be completely honest, I personally didn't enjoy a great deal of the film in terms of entertainment.  This is a difficult film (in some ways more difficult than 2001).  However, I am glad that I experienced it.  The concepts, performances and conversations (and certainly that final haunting image) are certainly worth our patience.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fantastic Planet (La Planete Sauvage) – 1973

Running Time:  72 (Mind-Expanding) minutes

Directed By: Rene Laloux

Based Upon: The 1957 novel Oms En Serie by French author Stefan Wul

Voice Cast: JeanValmont

Plot:A band of humans -- known as Oms -- are kept as domesticated pets by an alien race of blue humanoid giants called Traags in director Rene La Loux's animated sci-fi classic….The story centers on an Om named Terr, who escapes his subjugation with a Traag learning device and eventually uses it to educate other Oms and incite them to revolt.” – Netflix.

This trailer isn't 100% save for work (especially if you work in a place that hates surrealism).

 How I discovered it:  Remember that 2000 movie The Cell staring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn?  There is a brief moment where Ms. Lopez’s character is watching Fantastic Planet.  

I remember seeing this movie back when it was in theaters and wondering, “What the hell is that?”  I somehow (probably IMDB) found the name.  Since then I have seen it on several lists of best animated and best fantasy films. 

Once again, this blog has given me a reason to watch a movie that I’ve been putting off for over a decade. 

Memorable Moment:  Here is the scene that stood out to me the most while watching the film.  It isn't much of a spoiler because it doesn't have much to do with the rest of the film.  We never learn why these characters go through this transformation or what it means, this is a film whose surrealistic visuals go beyond it's relatively standard plot.   


·      Fantastic Planet was an international production between France and Czechoslovakia.  Supposedly, there was almost a coup in which the French director was nearly overthrown to be replaced by a Czech director.
·      In America the film was distributed by Roger Corman, who was mostly known for low budget B-movies and exploitation entertainment.  Among other films, he was behind Death Race 2000, Rock ‘n’ Role High School, and Piranha  (The sequel to which was directed by James Cameron.) 
·     The film won the Special Jury prize at Caans film festival in 1973.
·      Writer Roland Topor was one of the founders of The Panic movement.  This surrealistic movement was also co-founded by Alejandro Jodorowsky who coincidentally directed the film I watched last week, El Topo.
·      The director and writer both (supposedly) worked in a psychiatric hospital and both (once again supposedly) drew inspiration for their surrealistic art from the patients.  

     Who Should Embrace it: While Fantastic Planet's popularity was certainly helped by the drug culture in the 1970's, there is more to the film than just sequences that look funky on an acid trip.

      The movie is filled with strong themes of the horrors that take place when one group takes superiority over another.  A scene in which the Traags exterminate a park that is  home for a horde of tiny humans clearly mirrors the holocaust.  

Likewise, one doesn't have to read too deeply into the film's subtext to see that this is a film that criticizes how we treat members of other species, even our own pets.  The gigantic Traags continually torment and abuse the human-like Oms, often forcing them to fight to the death.  (However, the Oms also do this to one another.)  The race that dominates the planet stubbornly insists that they are "superior" to their smaller counterparts and consistently prevents them from meeting their full potential.  

      And yes, the main draw is the visuals.  This is a film that one watches more for the design than for the plot (in a good way).  Fantastic Planet truly is one of the most imaginative films I have ever seen.  While the 1970's soundtrack can be unintentionally comical at times, the images remain surprisingly unique and fresh.  The film's Daliesque landscape makes Avatar's alien ecosystem seem dull and gray.  This is a film for anyone looking for either a humanistic work of art or simply wants to witness animators push the boundaries of human imagination. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

El Topo (1970)

Running Time: 125 (extremely surreal) Minutes

Directed: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Staring: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Brontis Jodorowsky
Mara Lorenzio
David Silva

Plot: "In this surreal Western, avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky uses allegory and religious iconography to tell the story of a gunfighter, El Topo (Jodorowsky), who wanders the desert on an odyssey seeking enlightenment. But first, he must defeat four master gunfighters and dig a tunnel to free a colony of deformed underground dwellers from their dark confines." - Netflix

"What the hell was that?" - Me after watching El Topo.

I should warn that this trailer does include some disturbing (NSFW) images. 

How I discovered it: No idea.  I have been vaguely aware of this film's existence for quite a while.

It does appear in my copy of 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die.

It is also in 101 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die.

I probably picked it up in one of these two volumes.

Memorable Moment: Where do I begin?
  • El Topo and his naked young son riding through the desert.
  • Our "hero" facing one of the gun masters in a landscape covered in dead rabbits. 
  • The cavern filled with deformed/mutilated men, women and children.
  • A religious ceremony in which its practitioners play Russian Roulette.  
  • The occupants of the cave mentioned above breaking free and running to the nearby town only to be slaughtered.
  • El Topo returning to the four gun master's graves to find that they have been turned into bee hives. 
  • The hundreds of examples of seemingly random religious/philosophical/political symbolism that bloats this movie. 
I just can't decide.

Background: El Topo was considered one of the first "official" midnight movies.  It was almost exclusively screened at 12AM. 

This was Jodorowsky's debut feature, but he had already worked for years as a theater actor and playwright.  He was one of the founding members of the Panic Movement in 1962, in which he explored how terror, violence and humor could be combined.

This was apparently one of John Lennon's favorite movies, and he helped it find distribution.

"There's not enough art to justify the sickening reality of Jodorowsky's artistic method. The meaning of the film is not to be found in the mystical camouflage of the gunfighter-turned-guru-and-martyr (for what, one wonders?...), but in the picturesque horrors and humiliations" - Gary Arnold.  The Washington Post.  

The film has been made a part of Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series.   

Who Should Embrace It:  I honestly can't think of a single person who I would recommend this movie to without adding, "Just so you know, it gets really unsettling."  This extra caution isn't just because of the violence.  Taken by themselves, there aren't many images that are much more extreme than what you would find in your early Tarantino movie.  What made this movie really hard to watch was that it was impossible to predict when the audience would next be faced by a grotesque image.  Most mainstream films follow at least some kind of formula.  El Topo is a seemingly random parade of violent/sickening/surreal images that are often completely unpredictable. 

My first reaction is that fans of Eraserhead would enjoy this film.  There is literally no other film that is more mainstream that I could compare this one to in terms of tone.   Almost every shot in the film contains symbolism.  As far as I (and many other critics) can tell, there is no overarching theme to these symbols.  Instead, Jodorowsky reached into a grab bag of tropes from The Bible, classic philosophy, Freud and the war in Vietnam and scattered it throughout the film.  Some people have praised him for this, others have just found it nauseatingly pretentious.

At the end of the day, I would suggest this film to anyone who has a strong stomach against violence (including violence against animals) and who wants to see a movie unlike anything they have ever seen before or ever will again.

Connections To Other Works:  While this is not a direct connection, there is a documentary entitled, Jodorowsky's Dune which presents what may have been created if the director of this cult film had directed the film adaptation of Frank Herbert's masterpiece. 

For years there were rumors of a sequel being in the works with Marilyn Manson apparently being involved.  

Supposedly, this was a strong influence on the movie Rango.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

EMPIRE'S LIST: 100 Best Films in World Cinema

I recently discovered a list that Empire Magazine made several years ago: 100 Best Films in World Cinema

Obviously, this list is exploding with movie nerd controversy.  (Just look at the comments section)

Personally, I'm not the biggest fan of ranking films (or books).  How does one compare SPIRITED AWAY with BATTLE ROYAL?  Is SOLARIS ranked at #68 because it's just slightly better than RING, which is ranked at #69?

Anyway, enough with my grumpy old man-like complaining.  What I've been trying to do recently is promote movies that people might normally overlook (myself included).  There are many here that I've never heard of and I'd be surprised if I'd seen a third of the films on this list.  However, many will definitely be appearing in future entries. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) (1960)

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Directed: GeorgesFranju

Staring: PierreBrasseur

Based Upon: Les yeux sans visage by Jean Redon

Plot: “When his daughter's face is terribly disfigured in a car accident that he caused, a plastic surgeon becomes obsessed with making things right. But his plan to give his daughter her looks back involves kidnapping young girls and removing their faces.” – Netflix.

“That sounds unpleasant.” – My wife’s response to the above description.

 This is the first film I have watched specifically for this blog. 

While I believe that the first two entries (8 ½ and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) are masterpieces, I wouldn't say that Eyes Without a Face is for everyone.  

How I Discovered It: I probably first read about this film in my copy of 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.

However in the past month (since I decided to watch it for this blog) I have heard about Eyes Without a Face from at least three separate sources.  It's sort of like how when you hear a word for the first time you will undoubtedly hear it again within the next 48 hours.

Memorable Moment: I would have to go with the infamous surgery scene (mentioned above), in which the male lead removes a young woman’s face to transplant it on his deformed daughter.  There is little gore in the rest of the film (at least until the last five minutes), which makes the scene all the more shocking.  

The surgery is hard to watch today so I can't imagine what it was like in the 1960's before intense gore became a staple in most horror films.  Theater patrons supposedly fainted during the first theatrical release.     

Background: The Eyes Without a Face was directed by George Franju, who apparently had mostly worked on documentaries up until this point.

The director was cautioned not to include gore (which would upset French censors), tortured animals (which would upset English censors) and mad-scientists (which would upset German censors).  Of course, all three of these are included in the film, which did end up being heavily edited in many areas.  

The movie has become a cult classic.  Many view it as an allegory of the Holocaust.  Franju had already directed a series of documentaries in the 1950's concerning World War II.

Eyes Without a Face was released in America in 1962 with the title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.

Who Should Embrace It: I would recommend Eyes Without a Face to fans of “quiet horror” (is that a genre?).  It is a film that focuses more on tone, suspense and setting than jump scares.  There is little gore outside of the surgery scene but the film is filled with images that will linger in your memory.   
I would say that fans of The Others and The Sixth Sense should check it out. The movie is undoubtedly worth the time of any follower of Hitchcock.  The film does have a slow pace but it is worth the wait.  Franju knows exactly what to show in explicit detail and what to leave up to the viewer's imagination.

This is not a movie to watch if you are in the mood for something that will move quickly or a film where everything is explained and wrapped up in a tidy bow.  The ending is very ambiguous.  Also, animal lovers should be warned that it is heavily implied that the doctor experiments on dogs.   

Connections to Other Works:  As you may have guessed, it has been suggested that the face removal surgery scene inspired the face transplant in face/off.  Ironically, the scene filmed in the 1960's is more graphic than the scene in the R rated 1990's action thriller.

John Carpenter (one of my personal favorite horror directors) has claimed that the expressionless white mask in Eyes Without a Face was an inspiration for the Michael Myer's mask.  

This film may have also inspired the Billy Idol song, Eyes Without a Face.  

So if nothing else, at least the movie gave us that.