Thursday, August 25, 2016

Top 10 Obscure Films (pt. 2)

Loads of films are obscure for a very good reason. Browse through Netflix and you’ll find an endless supply, most of which have names like Alien Terror Train and star some poor motherfucker like James Van Der Beek. Death metal screeches on the soundtrack as James battles CGI aliens that look like they were created on a Lite Brite, it any wonder my boyfriend and I just watch Top Gear over and over?

Anyway. Some films don’t deserve to be obscure. I once made a list in order to draw attention to lesser-known cinema of real quality. Time to add to the museum! Try out the following films; each one’s a modest little gem.


Delicatessen (1991)
The whole world fell in love with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001, but a full decade earlier, he was fine-turning his unique brand of clockwork whimsy, and wasn’t afraid to weird people out. Delicatessen is a film in which every aspect -- characters, setting, plot -- seems to function as a piece in a twisted game of Mousetrap. Set in some vague, post-apocalyptic hinterland, the film concerns the inhabitants of a ramshackle boarding house, most of whom have resorted to murdering and eating new tenants. But they’re French, so they’re at least somewhat polite about it. Jeunet’s invaluable collaborator, Dominique Pinon, plays the latest victim-to-be, who turns the tables on les cannibales in a mix of pitch-black comedy and Terry Gilliam-style surrealism. It’s a hoot. It’s far from Jeunet’s best work (that’d be A Very Long Engagement, with Amélie as a close second), but as a debut, it could hardly be juicier.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Let’s do a test. I’m going to give you a list of names: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric, Sergi López. If you recognize at least two of these people, there’s hope for you yet. If you just went, “All those guys are in a film together? Hot damn!” then you’re one of the tribe. This global cast of awesome character actors join forces to play London immigrants who discover a sinister, gruesome conspiracy within the hotel where some of them work. (Hint: Human organs come into play.) Stick “traditional” actors in this scenario and it might be a good thriller...but when it stars refugees, vagabonds, the forgotten and ignored, it gains a fascinating resonance. I love when a film’s genre is merely an excuse to dive into a deeper issue. This grim little caper has a lot to say. Tautou leaves behind her adorable pixie schtick (see Amélie, above), and as for Ejiofor, well...long before 12 Years a Slave, some of us knew how great a career he had coming. Just saying.

Dog Soldiers (2002)
Dog Soldiers is the sickest, dirtiest, grungiest, and meanest werewolf movie I’ve ever seen. All of which is intended as high praise. Right now we’re enjoying a high-minded horror trend with films like The Babadook and It Follows, but let us not forget that good horror doesn’t need underlying themes and symbolism. It doesn’t need to be discussed in film studies classes. Dog Soldiers is about a squad of British troops training in Scotland, who find themselves utterly besieged by vicious lycanthropes. That is all the plot we need or expect. Director Neil Marshall would later make The Descent, a truly great horror movie, and Dog Soldiers was his gore-drenched warmup routine. The werewolves -- bodybuilders with fake wolf heads -- look and feel so much realer than any CGI could accomplish; I stuck them on my Top 10 Movie Monsters list so long ago, and they haven’t gotten any less awesome. Wanna see Liam “Davos Seaworth” Cunningham turn into a hairy, fangy murder machine? Of course you do. All horror buffs should have this in their archive.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
The best documentaries conduct their images like an orchestra, each new movement composed of an intricate array of different elements. Director Errol Morris is a helluva conductor. He’s made plenty of films, but I’m always mesmerized by this one, which stars four men: a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robot scientist, and a mole-rat expert. What’s a mole-rat expert? Only he can say for sure. Morris doesn’t just intercut these eccentric dudes’ testimonials, he interweaves and overlaps them until they become a single story: the endless struggle of humankind to tame chaos. These four guys are compelled to take something that doesn’t make sense -- a shrub shaped like a giraffe, a rodent that lives like an insect -- and construct their own little microcosm, their garden or circus ring or museum exhibit, where they may impose order. That sort of insecure god-play is what drives our species, for better or for worse, and Morris’s collage of stock footage, Super 8 mm, old Clyde Beatty serials, and tipsy circus music demonstrates his own controlled chaos. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a universal, provocative theme disguised as a documentary.

Help! (1965)
I fucking adore this movie. It is so stupid, so ridiculous, so lacking in brain cells, and I’ve loved it since childhood. Yes, it stars the Beatles at the height of their fame. Someone decided it’d be cute to stick the Fab Four in a James Bond spoof, and cobbled together a plot in which Ringo gets a sacred Hindu ring stuck on his finger, and is chased across the globe by a sacrificial cult and a mad scientist. John, Paul, and George just kinda tag along, pausing now and then for musical numbers (they do “Ticket to Ride” on skis!), and once I reached adulthood, I came to appreciate how utterly, cripplingly stoned all four Beatles were during the entire shoot. You can smell the roiling waves of Mary Jane seeping from every cranny of the film. And that makes it even more endearing. Rife with kooky humor and unfocused one-liners (“Hey, it’s a thingy! A fiendish thingy!”), not to mention timeless pop music, Help! is all I really need to appreciate the glorious stupidity of the 1960s. Pure fun.

Ma Vie en Rose (1997)
Next up, two films that examine the innocence of children in a hard world -- and do so with great poise. Ma Vie en Rose translates to “My Life in Pink,” and it’s a sorta sweet, sorta cynical tale about a young French boy named Ludovic who believes he’s a girl. That’s it. Too young to be gay or trans, to wear any sort of political or social label, he simply knows, with cute tenacity, that he’s a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and that one day the universe will correct this oversight. We watch, wincing somewhat, as the adults in little Ludovic’s world react with all the offended bluster and close-minded bafflement you’d expect. If that sounds too depressing, don’t worry. The film uses the visual language of a sitcom -- cozy suburbs, 50s colors -- to paint its hero(ine)’s dilemma with comedic love. When Ludovic schemes to marry the boy next door (his father’s boss’s son...cue laugh track), we chuckle and then feel melancholy. But it’s not a hurtful film. It inspires thought.

Mysterious Skin (2004)
This one is hard to watch. Very hard. But its sheer power deserves notice. Based on the equally unflinching novel by Scott Heim, it stares straight into the abyss of pedophilia -- not by draping it in horror-movie slime, but by unpacking the psychology of its victims. Thus, when two young Kansas boys are sexually preyed upon by their Little League coach, one of them thinks he likes it and grows up to be a gay hooker, while the other is so traumatized that his brain flips an emergency kill switch and he becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens. The boys turn into damaged young men, as the film moves from the dreamy expanse of the Midwest to New York City during the AIDS crisis. Yeah, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who plays the gay one) is quite fine, but the story’s “sexy” elements are like a wound. You may not find a better argument against sexual abuse; it doesn’t rant and rave, but merely follows the abused down their quiet, broken path. We all know someone on that road.

Rivers and Tides (2001)
Now for a gentler which relaxes the viewer with zen. Art is subjective, and the worst kind (in my opinion) feels it has to make some sort of wannabe-profound statement, some political or social claptrap that only makes sense in the artist’s ego. However, Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy merely...creates. This dreamy documentary shows off the man and his work. He wanders the wilderness -- forests and beaches, placid rivers and snowy mountaintops -- and crafts amazing sculptures with the materials he finds at hand. Stones become a mystical dolmen; ice turns serpentine; trees are woven and leaves are blended like paint, all from Goldsworthy’s patient and skillful fingers. The “message” of his art is that beauty is all around us and nothing feels more beautiful than to create, even if your creation vanishes within the hour. The movie drifts along, showing us all manner of visual poetry, and as I watched it, I felt the pleasant urge to make something myself. So I wove a potholder. My fingers pulled and teased the loops of fabric, and I felt a little of the pleasure Andy Goldsworthy must feel. Try it sometime.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
For the best animated film you’ve never seen, we can thank Nina Paley, who made Sita Sings the Blues after her husband moved to India and dumped her. Heartbroken, Paley found a spiritual sister in Sita, heroine of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, who was similarly done wrong by her man. From this ancient tale, Paley creates a kaleidoscopic visual marvel, utilizing five or six different animation styles, each of which has more character than ten thousand Minion sequels. Sita’s ordeals take the form of Bollywood musical numbers, paired with old recordings by Jazz Age crooner Annette Hanshaw, intercut with droll nitpicking from a trio of shadow puppets and snippets of Paley’s personal ordeal. It’s all a big revenge fantasy, but it’s beyond entertaining. Paley seems to have been inspired by everything from Monty Python to “End of Ze World,” and the result is that the animation itself becomes an endless source of deadpan comedy. Sita Sings the Blues laughs at genre. It’s gorgeous to look at, it’s educational, it’s feminist. It’s on YouTube. Watch it. That’s all!

So Dear to My Heart (1949)
Let’s end on the warmest, coziest note. Disney’s Song of the South, with its archaic racial attitudes, is considered an embarrassment. However, at around the same time, they made So Dear to My Heart, a guileless buried gem. It’s about a young Indiana boy (Bobby Driscoll) who adopts a black lamb and raises it with aspirations of winning blue ribbons. G-rated tribulations and life lessons follow, as our hero receives guidance from a conspiratorial uncle (Burl Ives) and a pragmatic granny (Beulah Bondi) whose role is to say no, then immediately relent. The plot is punctuated by delightful, impressionistic animated sequences -- an example of Walt Disney’s boundless need to experiment with the medium. Is it sentimental? Pious? Simplistic? Yes to all three, and don’t you feel like we need that more and more these days? So Dear to My Heart gives me the warm fuzzies, and not just because of Burl Ives, whose singing voice could have ended wars. It represents an innocence that no longer exists (more so if you consider what happened to Driscoll), and that kind of nostalgia should never become obscure. I’ll keep fighting the good fight. Help me out and spread these films around.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Swallows and Amazons

I don’t tend to wax political on this blog. It’s for movies and video games and being nerdy. However, I can be a bit topical now and then. For instance, while recapping American Horror Story: Hotel, I had the opportunity to make some bitter comments about the state of America’s youth. To whit: I believe we coddle and shelter our children far too much, leaving them A) hideously ill-prepared for the real world, and B) toxified with entitlement, with the belief that life will be a series of blue ribbons just for existing. It makes me very angry. But y’know what’s better than anger? Antidotes. Today, I’m not here to rant and rave. I’m here to examine children’s entertainment...not as it is today, but as it once was. Let’s visit a place where kids are allowed to fly free, yet still held accountable. A place where adventure means ADVENTURE and not a heavily chaperoned Easter egg hunt where Daddy finds all the eggs for you. Let’s talk about Swallows and Amazons.

I feel like a ton of people have at least heard of this book series. Swallows and Amazons was written by Arthur Ransome in the 1930s and ’40s, and read to me by my parents when I was a tyke. Lately, I’ve been revisiting the series and have just finished the fourth book. Imagine my amazement when I abruptly discovered that they just made a freakin’ Swallows and Amazons movie and it’ll be released this very month. What a coincidence, because rereading them, I feel like they represent a very good, very important mindset in regards to children. They were written for kids and represent a world of adventures and discoveries that lacks any Harry Potter-style trappings. Most of the books contain nothing that couldn’t plausibly happen in real life. There’s no fantasy or magic. An antagonist here and there, but no real villains. The young heroes have some scrapes but are never in actual danger. And they succeed, not because they’re the Chosen One or the son of Zeus or whatever, but because they are smart, resourceful, learned, brave, and commonsensical. And, most of all, because they are allowed to be kids.

The first book, Swallows and Amazons, takes place during the summer holidays in Britain’s lake district. The Walker siblings are chilling by a gorgeous lake, praising heaven that jet skis haven’t been invented yet, when they find a little sailboat, the Swallow, and make it their own. John Walker is the stalwart (if insecure) eldest. Susan is the mother figure, cook, and voice of reason. Titty (yes, Titty; stop snickering, assholes) is the dreamer and schemer whose imagination fuels the others. And Roger is the hyperactive little brother who can’t wait to show you his airplane impression, his loose tooth, and the fact that he’s maybe possibly almost able to swim. Aboard the Swallow, the four kids quickly brand themselves explorers. Their mother (a badass Australian) and father (an absent military man) give their blessings, and the “Swallows” are soon camping on their very own island. Turns out they’re sharing space with Nancy and Peggy Blackett, aka the Amazons, a pair of local sisters who cheerfully despise all things feminine and would rather be pirates. Then there’s the Amazons’ uncle, known as Captain Flint (and based on Ransome himself), who owns a houseboat, a parrot, and a lifetime of cool stories. There’s buried treasure too. There’s everything a child could dream of.

The Swallows and Amazons books are clearly set during a particular period, yet have a timelessness; the kids don’t really seem to age, and Ransome is always vague on what year it is. What’s important is that the books fall between the World Wars, a period when England had realized just how bad things could get, and responded with appropriate brio. Kids didn’t need to be pampered; they could be handed adult responsibilities early. They could be trusted and encouraged. Throughout the twelve books in the series, the Swallows and the Amazons experience one awesome holiday after another. They shipwreck and climb mountains, dig mines and build igloos and accidentally sail across the North Sea. In the fourth book, Winter Holiday, they’re joined by two new friends, Dick and Dorothea Callum, who represent the nerd demographic; they’re bookish and ditzy and their extensive knowledge of astrology proves mighty useful. Ransome clearly wanted his young heroes to be every child, every boy and girl with a spirit. He wanted all kids to read his books and go, Wow, I could do that! I should do that!

This, I think, is what we need more of. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t happily hope for a letter from Hogwarts. But if they go out and explore, build, create, and imagine, they’ll have their very own Hogwarts, Narnia, Terabithia, you name it. The kids in the Swallows and Amazons books make their own world and inhabit it with only minimal chaperoning. Oh, they’re always under the benevolent eye of adults, but never in a stifling way. The character of Captain Flint is crucial; he pops up to mentor the kids and occasionally save their bacon, but he’s still an honorary kid himself. Two of the books, Peter Duck and Missee Lee, feature less plausible stories, with actual danger and high-seas swashbuckling and evil characters (some racism, too...but we must forgive this as a product of its time). We’re meant to believe the Swallows and Amazons themselves “wrote” these two books, an act of metafiction that allows them even more imaginative freedom as characters. Their world is just as cool as Harry Potter’s, but nobody dies and everything is always perfectly fine in the end. That’s what’s great: Ransome isn’t arguing that we should just let kids do whatever they want...but he does insist that they be handed the keys to their own kingdom.

I was thinking the books would make a great movie, but I wondered if it’d ever come to pass in this day and age. Some modern kids would, alas, certainly find Swallows and Amazons boring compared with the usual stuff they read. And Hollywood producers would likely feel the same way. “How can this be a movie? Nothing happens in it!” Stories aren’t allowed to take their time any more. The new movie’s made by the Brits, which is good, but still feels it has to shoehorn in some “cinematic” elements. We have the Swallows, the Amazons, the sailboats, the island. But now Captain Flint is an ex-spy being chased by bad guys, or something, and certain parts of the trailer look like a throwback to the 1990s when most kids’ movies were riffing on Home Alone and/or Free Willy. Also, Captain Flint has gone from a big fat guy in his late middle age to the modestly hunky Rafe Spall. And Titty is now named “Tatty,” for obvious reasons. I guess I’ll reserve judgement, because this is better than nothing, and it does capture the right sort of time and place. I wish they could have preserved the innocence of the book and avoided having adult villains, but concessions must be made.

After all, the movie might lead more kids to the books. And if they can get past the books’ lack of “modern” story elements, they may find themselves inspired. Every one of the young heroes is a fine role model for some age demographic or other. And let’s talk about gender! Not only are there more girl characters than boys (a major rarity in kids’ books with coed casts!), but none of the girls are any weaker or less capable than the boys; they may have flaws (Peggy’s afraid of thunder), but nothing ever stems from gender stereotypes. Susan is the most “girly” girl character, but she’s not portrayed as a wet blanket, a nag, or a scaredy-cat. She can tie nautical knots with the best of them, and then make wholesome rice pudding and afternoon tea. The highly tomboyish Nancy and Peggy, the quixotic Titty, and the scholarly Dorothea likewise avoid typecasting. When combined with the boy characters, this group of pals form a perfect cross-section of childhood, leaving no one out, sharing that unique sense of daring and discovery.

I’ve seen what kids are like when they explore. I’ve watched kids build shelters from tree branches, or take apart computers, or turn over rocks to reveal gross, slimy glory. I’ve been a kid like that. And, yeah, I also see kids lost in iPhones and banality, their parents too listless to nurture their minds, or too paranoid to allow their progeny off a short leash. A lot of what you see in the Swallows and Amazons series has gone dormant. But not extinct. You can’t kill a particular mindset. It’s still there, waiting to emerge from its cocoon. The notion that kids’ lives need a little more wonder, a lot more hands-on discovery and practical application of skills. Teach a kid to cook. Or to identify constellations. Hell, teach a kid to program their own computer game. It’s one step away from the death of the imagination, and one step closer to a group of young friends sailing their own little boats, camping on an island, never out of sight of their parents, but free just the same. If you like, take out the boats and the lake and substitute your own preferred adventure.

The Swallows and Amazons series won’t solve any societal problems on its own. But it might help. It could ignite a spark in the right child’s mind, or (just as crucial) the right parent’s mind. So when I say “A great series of books for all ages,” that is what I mean. When my parents read it to me, we all gained something from it. Now, lacking kids of my own, I pass on the spark to you, reader. Begin Swallows and Amazons and note what happens. How you surprise yourself. Then read it to a child, or give it to a child to read, and watch their face.

There. See it?