Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

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  • Road Games (1981)

    aka Roadgames

    2016 #132
    Richard Franklin | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG

    Road Games

    I hadn’t even heard of Ozploitation thriller Road Games before April last year, when Make Mine Criterion posted an excellent write-up proposing it for release by Arrow Video. That piqued my interest, so when it was announced for release by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment the very next day, I jumped on a pre-order lickety-split. Just a couple of months later, a film I had only recently found out about was in my hands, in a better-than-its-ever-looked remaster, having arrived from literally the other side of the world, for about the same cost as a new release from Masters of Cinema or Arrow, i.e. under £14, including postage. (Makes you wonder how Criterion justify their £17.99 price tag…)

    Leaving aside the wonders of today, the film stars Stacy Keach as lorry driver Pat Quid, who one night happens to witness some shady goings on that may’ve been a murder. The next day he’s given the task of transporting a container full of carcasses to the other side of the country, because there’s a butchers’ strike over there and Aussies need their meat goddammit! On the road, he spots a vehicle connected to the possible-murder, and wonders if he’s on the trail of a killer — or if the killer’s on his. The tension only deepens when he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may become the next victim…

    It's impossible to find good quality stills from Road Games

    Road Games’ low-budget roots and exploitation-derived genre tag may give the impression it’s a slasher movie or something, but nothing could be further from the truth (though there is one gory shot — so gory it’s a wonder the film got a PG in the US). Rather, it could best be described as Rear Windscreen, because fundamentally it’s the same story: our hero spies on a guy from a distance because he thinks he saw him commit a murder, but is it all in his head? Where Hitchcock staged that impressively in a single confined location, writer-director Richard Franklin opens it up to the whole Australian outback. In some respects that’s an even more impressive feat — of course neighbours are smooshed up against each other, but long-distance travellers? However, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that Quid keeps bumping into the same people, such is the skill of the construction.

    Keach makes for an affable lead, whether chatting to his dog early on or bonding with Curtis after he picks her up. Their shared ponderings about the possible murderer are just as effective as the Stewart/Kelly interactions from the Hitchcock film, though perhaps more conspiratorial. It’s easy to draw these comparisons and mirrorings with Rear Window, but it does Road Games a bit of a disservice — it’s not simply an off-brand remake or set-in-a-different-location pseudo-sequel. That said, the parallels are equally unavoidable. There’s also some Duel in the mix, as the killer notices he’s been noticed and turns the tables on our hapless trucker — an inversion, of course, as in Spielberg’s film it’s the trucker who’s the villain.

    Seeing red

    Basically, while acknowledging these undoubted similarities, I’m trying not to make Road Games sound too derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s a masterful mystery, using ever-building tension to create a properly nail-biting thriller, which leads to an unpredictable final act (the benefit of many an independently-produced thriller is that it doesn’t necessarily have to comply with a studio’s view on how it should end). While it may owe a debt to one or both of the aforementioned movies, it’s a gripping work in its own right; one which deserves a bigger audience.

    5 out of 5

    Road Games placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

    2016 #134
    W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

    Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

    For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

    Dr Buckaroo Banzai

    There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

    In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

    Villains

    Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

    3 out of 5

    * Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

    Raising Arizona (1987)

    2016 #164
    Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Raising Arizona

    Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

    My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

    I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

    3 out of 5

    * For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^

    Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #97

    It’s the story of a man, a woman,
    and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 104 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 22nd June 1988 (USA)
    UK Release: 2nd December 1988
    First Seen: VHS, c.1991

    Stars
    Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Super Mario Bros.)
    Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Addams Family Values)
    Charles Fleischer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gridlock’d)
    Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, The Virgin Suicides)

    Director
    Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Beowulf)

    Screenwriters
    Jeffrey Price (Doc Hollywood, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
    Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West, Shrek the Third)

    Based on
    Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a novel by Gary K. Wolf.

    Animation Director
    Richard Williams (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, The Thief and the Cobbler)

    The Story
    When cartoon movie superstar Roger Rabbit is accused of murder, rundown private detective Eddie Valiant overcomes his dislike of toons to take the case — which masks a much bigger conspiracy…

    Our Heroes
    Eddie Valiant is an alcoholic Hollywood PI who used to work high-profile cases involving toons, but now dislikes them because one killed his brother. Nonetheless, an innate sense of justice (and a pair of handcuffs) brings him to the aid of Roger Rabbit, the manic major cartoon star who’s accused of murder and on the run for his life.

    Our Villain
    The cheerily named Judge Doom, the sinister and literally-black-hatted judge responsible for Toontown who has developed a special substance especially for killing toons, called “Dip”. Very keen to introduce Roger to it.

    Best Supporting Character
    Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s human (well, cartoon human) wife. A slinky, sexy, 2D femme fatale, she’s the cartoon character even people who aren’t attracted to cartoon characters are attracted to.

    Memorable Quote
    “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” — Jessica Rabbit

    Memorable Scene
    When Judge Doom and his henchmen discover Roger in hiding, he and Eddie escape in a cab — an anthropomorphic toon cab called Benny. Cue a chase involving a real human in a cartoon vehicle, which exemplifies the film’s technical chutzpah.

    Technical Wizardry
    The whole film is a technical marvel, what with many of the lead characters being created in 2D animation integrated into live-action footage. What’s even more impressive is that they’re 2D characters who exist convincingly within a 3D space. Production went to a lot of effort to pull this off, including using life-size models on set. (And if you need proof of how hard it is to do right, watch Cool World.) In total, 326 animators worked full-time on the film, drawing and painting 82,080 frames of animation. Animation director Richard Williams estimates that, after including storyboards and concept art, well over a million drawings were completed for the film.

    Making of
    With a production budget estimated at $70 million, Roger Rabbit was the most expensive film produced in the ’80s. Animation is expensive, of course, and the team were dedicated: when Eddie takes Roger Rabbit into the backroom of the bar to cut the handcuffs, the ceiling lamp is bumped and swings around, meaning lots of work for the animators to match the shadows between the live-action footage and the animation — something most viewers aren’t even going to notice, at least not consciously. Apparently “bump the lamp” has since become a term used by Disney employees to mean going the extra mile to make something special even when most viewers won’t notice.

    Next time…
    Three short animations starring Roger Rabbit were made to promote the film and screened with other movies (they’re all available on the DVD/Blu-ray release). Although the original book is very different (and therefore any sequels to it are presumably unlikely to provide suitable movie material), Gary K. Wolf has nonetheless penned two follow-ups: 1991’s Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? and 2014’s Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? Talk of a movie sequel has occurred ever since the original film was a hit — J.J. Abrams met with Spielberg in 1989 to work on an outline and storyboards, for example. Nat Mauldin wrote a prequel titled Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon, about Roger and his animated friends having to rescue Jessica from the Nazis in 1941, but Spielberg decided he couldn’t satirise the Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Retitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, the screenplay was reworked to cover Roger’s rise to fame on Broadway. That version got quite far: Alan Menken wrote five songs and test footage was shot that mixed live-action, traditional animation and CGI, but it was abandoned when the budget spiralled over $100 million. Nonetheless, various people involved have expressed their interest ever since, with numerous scripts supposedly in the works. Even Bob Hoskins’ death hasn’t stopped such talk, though it seems to have led to a definite focus on any follow-up being a prequel.

    Awards
    4 Oscars (Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award to Richard Williams for “animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters”)
    3 Oscar nomination (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
    1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
    4 BAFTA nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design)
    1 Annie Award (Technical Achievement)
    3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Director, Special Effects)
    5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bob Hoskins), Supporting Actor (Christopher Lloyd), Supporting Actress (Joanna Cassidy), Writing, Music)
    Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

    What the Critics Said
    “This splendidly entertaining film, which craftily combines live action with cartoon animation, […] is an absolutely new and novel motion-picture concept. Illusion on the big screen has never been better executed or more uproarious in effect. Assuming you can withstand the laughs during the first 10 minutes of the film — with its dazzling, breakneck animated sequence and introduction of the goofy star, Roger — then brace yourself; you`re in for the ride of your life, disbelieving all you will see and hear.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

    Score: 97%

    What the Public Say
    Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a children’s film; it’s too noir for that; there’s scenes of drinking, smoking, sexual intrigue and murder. The strong animated aspect, however, draws children into the film and these dark overtones engage them in a completely different way. That’s one of the things that’s so special about Roger Rabbit; you feel as if you’re watching a film made for an adult audience using elements that appeal to one’s more childish side. The USA and UK ratings of the film are a PG, so younger audiences can still watch. However, the twisting noir-esque plot focusing on Judge Doom’s attempt to destroy The Red Car trolley service and ToonTown in order to build a freeway can be hard enough for adults to follow. […] This is why the film works so well; everyone is committed and the characters show no awareness that they’re in a PG rated noir with elements of comedy; they commit as if they are in a 1940s, life-or-death, grown-up movie.” — queenieem, the6fingeredblog

    Verdict

    “Effects movies” used to mean lots of model work and now of course means non-stop wall-to-wall CGI, but you could also apply it to Roger Rabbit, considering the monumental effort involved in animating half the cast, not to mention props and locations. But that would undersell it, because while the technical achievement remains impressive today (bearing in mind the limitations of the time) it’s all in service of the characters and the story. Even as you marvel at the visuals, you’re engrossed by the mystery and kept amused by the gags, including clever and witty references to cartoons and film noir.

    I’ve always liked Roger Rabbit, but I re-watched it recently for this project and discovered I really love it. I think it’s underrated, even — it’s a masterpiece.

    #98 will be… the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.

    Christine (1983)

    2016 #85
    John Carpenter | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    ChristineOne of a couple of films John Carpenter directed “for hire” in an attempt to restore his Hollywood reputation after the box office failure of The Thing, Christine is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel about a car possessed by evil. Yes, a car. I guess if you wait long enough, anything and everything will be possessed by evil eventually (in fiction, at any rate).

    Despite that pedigree, Christine is about as scary as… well, I was trying to think of something soft and fluffy that hasn’t ever been used in a horror movie, but that list is increasingly short. But you get my point: it’s not scary. Its 18 certificate is earned by an abundance of very strong language — which, according to screenwriter Bill Phillips, was added for that exact purpose: the film wasn’t violent enough to get an R, and they didn’t think people would see it if it was a PG (this being before the PG-13), so they just inserted a lot of swearing. It’s still a pretty entertaining film, though, thanks to some humour and the almost-there thematic subtext of America’s obsession with the automobile.

    The central (human) character is Arnie, a nerdy teen who becomes obsessed and then empowered by the eponymous vehicle. Keith Gordon is pretty good as this “worm that turned” type, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic way: he’s a heightened version of a nerd at the start, and a heightened version of a car-obsessed teenage dick later on. One review I read reckoned the film “sacrifices character logic” — what, there’s a flaw in the logical behaviour of a guy who’s semi-possessed by his demonic car, you mean?

    Girl on girl action, of a sortEven if Carpenter was doing it only for kudos with the studios, he still turned in solid work. Christine may not be scary, but she is menacing, and her attacks work as individual sequences. Unsurprisingly it’s not his strongest film, and it’s not the greatest adaptation in the Stephen King movie canon either, but if all movies by jobbing filmmakers were this good then we’d be luckier moviegoers.

    4 out of 5

    Christine is one of the first releases from new UK Blu-ray label Indicator, out today.

    The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)

    2016 #159
    Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*

    The Quay Brothers in 35mmChristopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”

    Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)

    Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.

    In AbsentiaFor all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.

    Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…

    The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, The CombMichael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.

    Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.

    It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is Street of Crocodilessometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.

    Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.

    4 out of 5

    The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.

    Further Reading

    * Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^

    Return of the Jedi (1983)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #73

    Return to a galaxy far, far away.

    Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 132 minutes | 135 minutes (special edition)
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 25th May 1983 (USA)
    UK Release: 2nd June 1983
    First Seen: VHS, c.1990

    Stars
    Mark Hamill (The Empire Strikes Back, The Guyver)
    Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Patriot Games)
    Carrie Fisher (The Empire Strikes Back, The ‘Burbs)
    Anthony Daniels (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
    Peter Mayhew (Star Wars, Comic Book: The Movie)

    Director
    Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle, Jagged Edge)

    Screenwriters
    Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Silverado)
    George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith)

    Story by
    George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Radioland Murders)

    The Story
    As the Galactic Empire construct a new Death Star, Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker — the Rebel Alliance’s best hope of defeating the evil Darth Vader — is busy rescuing his friend Han Solo from the clutches of crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, the powerful Emperor waits, intending to convert the young Jedi to the Dark Side…

    Our Heroes
    Luke Skywalker: Jedi Knight.
    Han Solo: defrosted resistance captain.
    Princess Leia: sister, love interest, bikini-wearer. Is it just me or does Leia get a pretty poor deal as the trilogy goes on?

    Our Villains
    Quite possibly the greatest villain ever created for the movies, Darth Vader. Here he’s on an arc of redemption, so there’s also the Emperor, who has the appearance of a wizened old man but is strong in the Force. As Vader himself puts it, “the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” Uh-oh!

    Best Supporting Character
    R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are introduced to Jabba the Hutt (well, unless you watched Episode I or the New Hope Special Edition first). A giant, fat, slug-like crime lord who is impervious to Jedi mind tricks and apparently has a fondness for metal bikinis, he’s as physically repulsive as are his methods and mores.

    Memorable Quote
    “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” — Mon Mothma

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “It’s a trap!” — Admiral Ackbar

    Memorable Scene
    The speeder bike chase — arguably the best action sequence in the entire original trilogy. Considering this is a series of films that include three or four duels with frickin’ laser swords, that’s some feat.

    Memorable Music
    John Williams’ music is an essential part of the Star Wars experience. While no single tune in Jedi is as iconic as the Main Theme from A New Hope or the Imperial March from Empire, the overall score is as good as ever.

    Technical Wizardry
    The background plates for the speeder bike chase were captured by having a Steadicam (operated by the system’s creator, Garrett Brown) walked through a forest while filming less than one frame per second. When played back at regular 24fps, this 5mph stroll came out more like a 120mph hurtle. They spent three days filming to get enough footage for the whole sequence.

    Truly Special Effects
    These days, the answer to the question “how did they do that?” is “CGI”. Back in the ’80s, however, they had to be a bit more creative — leaving an abundance of achievements worthy of inclusion here. For example, the shot where the Imperial fleet spring their trap on the Rebels was the most complex matte shot ever attempted, with dozens of separate model elements having to be printed in. Or there’s the puppet work. Jabba was full-size, of course, and the 2,000lb costume was operated by four puppeteers: one for his right arm and jaw, another for his left arm and tongue, both of whom moved his body; another had a cable control to move the mouth and nostrils, using his feet to work bellows to simulate breathing; and the fourth moved his tail. Plus the smoke for when Jabba uses his pipe was apparently created by someone smoking a cigar and blowing it up a tube. For the Rancor, on the other hand, Lucas wanted to use a Godzilla-style man in a suit, but the tests didn’t work very well. The final result is not stop-motion, as you might expect, but an 18-inch rod puppet. Filming it was treated as a live-action shoot, though various techniques were used to conceal the methodology, like slow-motion or running the film backwards — anything they could think of to help remove the sense of “Muppet-ness”.

    Letting the Side Down
    When it comes to Lucas’ Special Edition fiddling, most people focus on the “Han shot first” complaint. Personally, I find the change at the end of Jedi — where Hayden Christensen has been pasted over Sebastian Shaw as Anakin’s Force ghost — more egregious. That said, the stupid song & dance number in Jabba the Hutt’s palace runs it a close second. On the bright side, the added shots of planets around the Empire celebrating the destruction of the Death Star helps aggrandise an otherwise low-key post-climax celebration.

    Making of
    So, that metal bikini, eh? What a blatant bit of fan service by that dirty old George Lucas! Well, apparently it actually came about because Carrie Fisher herself complained about her all-covering costumes in the first two films meaning you couldn’t tell she was a woman. Costumer Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ design was inspired by the work of famed fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, but whoever decided it should be made as such a rigid piece wasn’t thinking ahead: the solidness of the top meant it didn’t move with Fisher’s body, and she refused to use double-sided tape, so before each take someone from wardrobe had to (to quote IMDb) “ensure that her breasts were still snug inside the costume”. Nice work if you can get it. Nonetheless, several scenes had to be reshot due to what we now call “wardrobe malfunctions”.

    The Ewok Line
    To quote from the How I Met Your Mother Wiki, “The Ewok Line correlates the birth year of a person and the subsequent appreciation of Ewoks […] Those born on or before May 25, 1973 have a low appreciation of the film’s creatures, while those born after this date have an affinity for them. This is because those who saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, which was released theatrically on May 25, 1983, who were 10 or under still loved their teddy bears, giving them an increased appreciation for the Ewoks.” I was born in 1986 and, yes, I love Ewoks. I mean, how can you not enjoy their silly mix of teddybear cuteness, gobbledegook language, and Empire-beating military competence?

    Previously on…
    Return of the Jedi picks up on the cliffhanger from The Empire Strikes Back, which of course continued the story of Star Wars. Many, many other films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, and whatever other media you can think of, take place before and around these movies.

    Next time…
    Ooh boy… Well, primarily: 16 years later, George Lucas returned to the world he created for the infamous Prequel Trilogy, finally filling in those missing first three Episodes. Chronologically, the saga picks up after Jedi with last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and will continue in Episodes VIII and IX. Aside from those main tenets, there’s an unimaginable mass of stuff in what’s known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe: TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, and anything else you can imagine — and it’s only going to continue growing in the future. Most of what was generated before Disney bought Lucasfilm may have been wiped out by whoever’s in charge now, but that doesn’t mean people don’t care about what went on in it. Of particular note is Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy of novels, which kickstarted the prominence of the Expanded Universe, and which many fans used to view as effectively being Episodes VII, VIII and IX.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Special Achievement in Visual Effects)
    4 Oscar nominations (Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
    1 BAFTA (Visual Effects)
    3 BAFTA nominations (Make Up Artist, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
    5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Mark Hamill), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects)
    5 Saturn nominations (Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Billy Dee Williams), Director, Writing, Music)
    Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

    What the Critics Said
    “The characters and dialogue get lost somewhere between the bug-eyed monsters and the exploding spaceships, but it is all so much fun it probably really does not matter a whole lot. […] Because so much of Return of the Jedi concentrates on makeup and special effects, and perhaps also because much of the dialogue (and acting) is so bad, it is pretty hard to get too involved with the characters, who came across with much more human interest in The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the movies. In a sense, the extraterrestrials are a lot more human than the people.” — Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

    Score: 80%

    What the Public Say
    “[A] thing I like about the scene in Jabba’s palace is the teamwork between all of the heroes in their mission to rescue Han Solo. It reminds me of a heist in way, since you got the droids, Chewbacca, Lando, Leia and Luke all working together and serving different purposes in rescuing Han. I also love the fact that the reason they are all working together is because they all care about Han. It just goes to prove that Star Wars isn’t just a huge spectacle but a story about family and friendship, which makes it a lot more personable.” — Jacob Bartley, Apocaflix! Movies

    Elsewhere on 100 Films
    I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of Return of the Jedi’s modified DVD version, I said that “there seem to be only minor differences or effects improvements here — it does make you wonder what the fans were kicking up such a fuss about”, and noted that “the speederbike chase is one of the trilogy’s greatest action sequences. And Ewoks are cute.” Then, treating the film as the sixth part of the saga, I wrote that it had “the biggest failing of the films as a single series: the prequel trilogy is endlessly obsessed with the prophecy about Anakin bringing balance to the Force; it isn’t mentioned once here. A dubbed line or added shot with Yoda saying something would’ve been nice.”

    Verdict

    Once upon a time I decided Return of the Jedi was actually my favourite Star Wars movie. I watched them again last year and changed my mind again, and wondered quite what I’d been thinking before. Jedi does have a lot to commend it, from multiple memorable set pieces to some effective character work with most of the principals, but it’s certainly not without its flaws, which have only been exacerbated by the prequel trilogy — as the climax to a mythic six-film saga, the finale of Jedi lacks some heft. Arguably it only reaches towards classic status by association with its two predecessors, but on its own merits it’s still an exciting space adventure.

    #74 will be… six weeks on the road in the winter of 1931.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #72

    The Return of the Great Adventure.

    Also Known As: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

    Country: USA
    Language: English (and German, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic & Nepali)
    Runtime: 115 minutes
    BBFC: A (1981) | PG (1987)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 12th June 1981
    UK Release: 30th July 1981
    First Seen: VHS, c.1991

    Stars
    Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Witness)
    Karen Allen (Animal House, Starman)
    Paul Freeman (The Long Good Friday, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie)
    Ronald Lacey (Take a Girl Like You, Red Sonja)
    John Rhys-Davies (The Naked Civil Servant, The Lord of the Rings)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn)

    Screenwriter
    Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard)

    Story by
    George Lucas (THX 1138, Return of the Jedi)
    Philip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Right Stuff)

    The Story
    1936: adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US Army to retrieve the mythical Ark of the Covenant, which they believe is on the verge of being uncovered in Egypt, before the Nazis can get their grubby mitts on it.

    Our Hero
    Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and obtainer of rare antiquities, Indiana Jones. Good with a whip; not good with snakes.

    Our Villains
    Dr. René Belloq, essentially the evil Indy: a fellow archeologist with fewer scruples, who often takes credit for Indy’s hard work and is now in bed with the Nazis. They’re most memorably represented by creepy Gestapo agent Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, who was cast because he reminded Spielberg of Peter Lorre.

    Best Supporting Character
    The daughter of Indy’s mentor, and his one-time love, Marion Ravenwood, who’s roped in because she happens to possess an artefact with a clue to the Ark’s location. Feisty and capable of holding her own (some of the time, anyway), it’s a shame she didn’t appear in the initial sequels — at Lucas’ insistence, apparently (he also kept her out of the spin-off novels). She eventually returns in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the only character from the first three films to be brought back for that adventure (besides Indy, obv.)

    Memorable Quote
    Sallah: “Indy, why does the floor move?”
    Indiana: “Give me your torch… Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

    Memorable Scene
    Goodness, where do we start? Well, how about the start! Having made his way safely through a boobytrapped cave, Indy switches a bag of sand for the idol he’s come to retrieve. Unfortunately the trap is not fooled, and Indy has to run out as the place collapses around him and all the traps are triggered — including, most famously, a giant rolling boulder.

    Write the Theme Tune…
    It’s only one of the greatest movie main themes of all time. Composed by John Williams (of course) it’s technically called The Raiders March, and is a combination of two ideas Williams wrote for Jones’ theme that Spielberg suggested be put together to make one piece.

    Technical Wizardry
    The film is naturally packed with stunts, one of the most memorable being when Indy is dragged under and out behind a moving truck. To achieve it safely, more clearance was created under the truck by constructing one that was higher than normal and digging out the centre of the road. The shot was filmed at 20fps, lower than the standard 24, so that when played back the truck appeared to be moving faster. The feat was performed by stuntman Terry Leonard, but Harrison Ford was actually dragged behind the truck for some shots. When asked if he was worried, Ford replied, “No. If it really was dangerous, they would have filmed more of the movie first.”

    Truly Special Effect
    The climax, when the Ark is opened, was a field day for ILM. Techniques used include “animation, a woman to portray a beautiful spirit’s face, rod puppet spirits moved through water to convey a sense of floating, a matte painting of the island, and cloud tank effects to portray clouds.” Plus the villains’ heads melt (a gelatine and plaster model exposed to a heat lamp), collapse (a hollow model with the air sucked out), and explode (which nearly landed the film with an R rating).

    Making of
    Have you heard the one about the scheduled sword fight and everyone being ill? You have? Oh, okay then.

    Next time…
    The film was a massive success, so has spawned tonnes of media. Primarily, three direct sequel films, with a fifth set for 2019. Then there’s the three-season TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, 13 adult novels, 33 Young Indiana Jones novels, 11 “choose your own adventure”-style books, eight German novels (which have never been translated into English), numerous comic books, and 19 computer games, including nine with original storylines and two Lego Indiana Jones games. Also, a stunt show at Walt Disney World in Florida based on Raiders that has been running for 27 years. Whew!

    Awards
    5 Oscars (Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Visual Effects, Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing)
    4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score)
    1 BAFTA (Production Design/Art Direction)
    6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Artist (Denholm Elliott), Cinematography, Editing, Music, Sound)
    7 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Actress (Karen Allen), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
    2 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Freeman), Costumes)
    Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

    What the Critics Said
    “Yes, it’s as entertaining as you have heard. Maybe more so. Raiders of the Lost Ark is, in fact, about as entertaining as a commercial movie can be. What is it? An adventure film that plays like an old-time 12-part serial that you see all at once, instead of Saturday-to-Saturday. It’s a modern Thief of Baghdad. It’s the kind of movie that first got you excited about movies when you were a kid. (Translation for today’s children: It’s better than anything on TV.)” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

    Score: 94%

    What the Public Say
    “Spielberg and George Lucas had, in the same year, rewritten the rules of the science fiction genre; Lucas with Star Wars and Spielberg with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what could they do together? Greatness, it turns out. Their contribution: Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best, most exciting, most brilliantly written action movies of all time. It’s fun, it has a great sense of wonder and adventure. It’s scary, it’s bloody, it’s violent but you never come away feeling unclean. It has a hero, Indiana Jones, who is fallible but not a wimp. […] I can talk all day about Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I must simply conclude that the movie is just plain fun” — Jerry, armchaircinema

    Verdict

    George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up for the first time here, recycled elements from movies beloved in their youth, and produced something new and exciting that is still a reference point for blockbusters 35 years later. (We’re getting homages to homages now, aren’t we? Weird.) It’s pretty much a perfect adventure movie: relentlessly paced, packed with action, lightened with humour, full of likeable heroes, who are brave and competent but also a little bit flawed, and hissable villains, with scene after scene of imaginative situations and fabulously staged derring-do. It’s perfectly distilled pulp adventure, and pure cinematic entertainment.

    Many Bothans… died to bring us #73.

    Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

    aka Hotaru no haka

    2016 #67
    Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

    It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

    So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

    Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

    I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

    Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

    4 out of 5

    Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.