PICKS OF THE WEEK
Kirikou and the Wild Beast (B+)
France; Michel Ocelot/Benedicte Galup, 2005, Kino
Right now, we're in a golden age of ultra-computerized movie animation, of the voluptuous sights and fantastic shapes of WALLE and Finding Nemo. But that doesn't mean the older style can't still summon up its old charms -- especially the splendid Japanese fairytales of Hayao Miyazaki and the wonderful "Kirikou" films of French animator Ocelot.
Based on West African folk tales, Ocelot's films revolve around a diminutive tribal tyke named Kirikou, who, in Kirikou and the Sorceress and here, spends much of his time battling an evil, sexy sorceress who likes to harass and imperil his village. Tiny as he is, the amazingly ingenious, resolute and brave Kirikou always comes out on top, especially in one lovely tale where he flees, by giraffe, from the sorceress' annoying wooden robots.
The four episodes of this seemingly minimalist, brilliantly designed and richly colored film are simple-looking, old style, and an unqualified delight. This is an ideal movie for families with kids. The soundtrack includes Youssou N'Dour, and the film was produced by Didier Brunier (The Triplets of Belleville). Bravo to them all.
Warning for those offended by cartoon nudity: In these stories, as in some of real life, the tribal women are in topless sarongs and the children, including Kirikou, wear nothing. In French, with English subtitles.
All My Good Countrymen (A)
Czechoslovakia; Vojtech Jasny, 1968, Facets
Censored, banned and seemingly lost for years, this is the major dissident Czech classic, about a beautiful rural village beset first by World War II and then by the Communist government and collectivization, made by the great writer-director whom Milos Forman calls the "spiritual father" of the Czech New Wave. He and his film are too little known. All My Good Countrymen won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but almost immediately became a casualty of the fall of the Prague liberals.
Both realistic and whimsically fantastic, it's a film that easily ranks with (or outranks) the best work of Forman, Ivan Passer and Jiri Menzel. One can see why it got Jasny in trouble with the Commie Czechoslovak establishment though. It's a celebration of traditional village life and eccentric community spirit that pokes too sharply for comfort at the dogmas of collective farms and the old Eastern European bloc, sending them up with gentle, poetic scorn.
Jasny's village fresco stretches from the '40s through the mid-'50s, and gives us a dazzling, charming little rural ensemble: the farmers, the politically reverent organist, the rebel, the outlaw, the town femme fatale. Speaking as the native of a village of 1,414 (Williams Bay, Wis.), I think its one of the best films ever made about small-town life. Czech critics and filmmakers thought so too, Countrymen placed third on the all-time best Czech films poll. In Czech, with English subtitles. (Extras: Interview with Jasny, booklet with critical essays.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Smart People (C)
U.S.; Noam Murro, 2008, Miramax
"Smart-ass People" is more like it. Despite a super cast and intelligent intentions, this romance of the Groves of Academe didn't ring my bell. Dennis Quaid heroically plays a literature professor who rarely discusses literature or even current events, Sarah Jessica Parker is the disappointed ex-student who becomes his lover, Ellen Page (Juno)is his snippy daughter and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) his seemingly shiftless brother. (The second pair have the more interesting relationship.) They're all good, but I soon tired of their characters, and the movie and the dialogue didn't strike me as collegiate or real. This movie gets some points, though, for at least trying.
Hong Kong; Stephen Chow, 2008, Sony
Kung-fu clown Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer) serves up a sort of Pokemon-ized E.T., in this silly but funny and sometimes even heart-warming little children's adventure-comedy about a poor boy who stumbles on a cute furry little super-pet from outer space and gets into all kinds of Chow-style scrapes with it. Chow plays the boy's noble but impoverished dad, and, in a country where George W. and other rich brats have been allowed to run wild as long as they show up for church on Sunday, that's almost refreshing. (Extras: Documentary, commentary by Chow and others, featurettes, game.)
Irina Palm (B-)
Belgium/Luxembourg/U.K./Germany/France; Sam Gabarski, 2007, Strand Releasing
Two powerful performances, by the smoky-voiced ex-Mick Jagger-muse Marianne Faithfull (the meltingly lovely slim blond who sang "As Tears Go By" and wrote "Sister Morphine") and the superb, sadly neglected Yugoslavian actor Miki Manojlovic (When Father Was Away on Business, Underground), grace this moving, if sometimes sentimental, drama of a shy, middle-aged London woman (Marianne), desperate to save her grandson from a fatal illness, who becomes a sex worker -- doing hand jobs (unseen, through a hole in the wall) for a surprisingly generous sex club owner (Miki). The movie is a little reverse-preachy at times, but the two stars could not be better.
Brand Upon the Brain! (B)
Canada; Guy Maddin, 2006, Criterion
Another of Maddin's biographical japes, this one -- set on bleak-looking Black Notch Island and shot in a style that suggests (as always with Maddin) old movies and the pre-'60s avant-garde -- gives us a childhood melodrama of social repression and weird adventures, and it's enticingly Maddining. Originally presented as a mixed-media live performance show -- which I saw in Chicago, narrated by Crispin Glover -- it works just as well on DVD, narrated by Isabella Rossellini. (You can hear Glover in the supplement.) Here's hoping that Maddin, whom I've enjoyed greatly ever since 1988's Tales of the Gimli Hospital, never joins the 21st century. (Extras: Documentary, two new Maddin shorts, It's My Mother's Birthday Today, with song by Arthur Tracey, and Footsteps; deleted scene, trailer, booklet with Dennis Lim essay.)
Princes and Princesses (B+)
France; Michel Ocelot, 2000, Kino
More Ocelot, and this one's terrific too: a fairytale anthology, done in a modern semblance of the delicately evocative silhouette style of the great pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger, whose 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed remains a cartoon landmark. Here the shadow style is applied to six sparkling, Andersenish, Grimmish stories about princes, princesses and their problems getting to a happy-ever-after. The movie, framed by amusing intros with silhouetted "animators" setting the stage, is exquisite, cute and funny -- especially the last tale, which does a witty spin on the princess-and-frog legend that's worthy, story-wise, of Jay Ward and Bill Scott's "Fractured Fairytales." In French, with English subtitles.
The Gospel According to Harry (B)
U.S./Poland; Lech Majewski, 1994, Kino
The best of the four Lech Majewski features released this week by Kino, is his first feature film: a wry little absurdist fable, set in a bizarre parody of middle-class American life in the desert, and starring Viggo Mortensen and Jennifer Rubin as a beleaguered couple, harassed by the relentless emissaries of modern life and one-time Taste of Honey gamin Rita Tushingham as a busybody mother-in-law. The others Kino Majewskis are his 1997 life-in-a-room semi-autobiographical Polish-language opera The Roe's Room (B-), his Venetian Bosch-and-death-haunted romance The Garden of Earthly Delights (B), and his 2007 semi-autobiographical video poem cycle Glass Lips. (Extras: Commentaries by Majewski.)