[Screenshot]The Monkees were kind of like the Bee Gees in reverse. The Bee Gees started their career as a respectable band producing work with artistic merit that nobody remembers anymore, and then they had a #1 disco hit and became a big joke. The Monkees started as a joke, a blatant spoofy cash-in on Beatlemania, dreamed up by marketing executives and calculated to please. And then, as their popularity faded, they rebelled against their chosen role and ended their career in popular obscurity but with a certain amount of critical admiration. I’ll admit I knew pretty much nothing about this period of the Monkees’ career except that it existed. But the most conspicuously and aggressively independent act of the Monkees’ ephemeral existence was probably this surreal and largely incomprehensible feature-length film.

It is not actually all that good a film, like so many works of late-60s surrealism. It features cameos by a bewildering array of cultural figures from Frank Zappa to Sonny Liston to Annette Funicello, and it’s co-produced by Jack Nicholson (with the Monkees’ original progenitor, Bob Rafelson), but somehow all of this talent doesn’t end up giving the film any sense of direction. It’s choppy and confusing, with apparently unrelated scenes which don’t seem to work towards anything in particular. There are antiwar bits and anticommercial bits and self-mocking bits and long segments which don’t seem to have a purpose at all. As a cultural artifact it’s not bad, since it’s a good portrait of how attitudes had rapidly changed both towards and among the picture-perfect and manufactured darlings of the British Invasion, but it’s very difficult to enjoy on its own terms.

There’s also a lot of musical numbers, of varying quality both musically and cinematically. Probably the most notable song, and the most striking visual effect in the film, is “Daddy’s Song”. Seriously, if you’re interested in Head, save yourself 86 minutes and just watch that 4 minute clip. It’s the best song in the film together with the best visual effects in the film, and at the end we get to see Frank Zappa deadpan his way through a cameo and to top things off we get some utterly unnecessary weirdness. The rest of the movie is basically the same kind of thing only not as good.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


Simon le mage

[Screenshot]Simon le mage (or Simon mágus as it is sometimes called; international collaborations often seem to have two titles in different languages) is a difficult movie, and one that feels a bit like it belongs in a different age. Were it not for the peculiarly modern opening soundtrack (Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, incongruously enough), I would quite reasonably have presumed this film was contemporary with, say,Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which it rather resembles aesthetically. It plays some of the same tricks of pacing and cinematography as Solaris, with wide grand panoramas with an underlying feeling of staticity, and also an unusually long and dull view from the window of a vehicle. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually care for Solaris that much, and Simon possesses its aesthetic without its feeling of mystery. Enyedi tries to infuse the story with a sense of the mysterious, but somehow it all seems nonsensical instead. The resurrection contest is of course the center of the plot, making the other elements seem entirely irrelevant, and more like loose ends than mysteries. As one example, we learn in one scene that Simon’s interpreter has been in disguise, but the fact that she was, and her reasons for being so, are never again mentioned. Most of the story is like this, leaving me to my impression that the entire film may be at a level that I am simply not getting. It is beautifully composed, as mentioned above: even as a deliberate homage, imitating Tarkovsky’s cinematography is no mean feat. Some of the effect is spoiled by the rather imperfect transfer, but that I expect from Hungarian cinematic releases in the US (even when in collaboration with a more prosperous mation, alas). On the subject of the two participating natons, a point of some dissatisfaction: it’s fairly significant when people are speaking Hungarian and when they’re speaking French (particularly in the absurd café scene, conducted entirely in French despite Simon’s complete ignorance of the language), but the subtitles don’t differentiate. Anyone with an ear for European languages can figure it out, but I’d still have liked to see a typeface or color distinction made.

See also: IMDB.

Micmacs à tire-larigot

[Screenshot]I have generally a good track record with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I adored Delicatessen and Amélie, and liked City of Lost Children pretty well. He’s struck me as basically a French Terry Gilliam: gorgeous scenery, dark comedy, and a liberal helping of complete weirdshit. And I like Terry Gilliam (or at least, I like most of what he’s done), so generally the similarity has worked out well for me.

I’m afraid that I reservedly have to pan Micmacs. I’d still take it over any given four or five films by any other director, but it is not exactly the top of Jeunet’s game. There’s a lot of whimsy and comedy, but the basic soul of the work feels like it’s gone missing. Part of the problem from where I stand is that Jeunet, even in lighter works, has always kept me pretty off-balance. There’s a mystery, or a heavy shroud of surreality, or at least some incidental force which suggests much greater depth to the work than is apparent on the surface. But in Micmacs, pretty much all is as it seems, and the entirety of the work is mired in reality. There are early hints that there might be some deeper meaning to the shell-casing and the sketch which are Bazil’s smoking guns, but in the end it comes down to a revenge-fantasy thickly larded with political subtext. Yes, the squalor of the scavengers’ camp (and of poverty in general) is beautiful rather than dreary, and there’s a light touch of surreality over the whole work, but ultimately, it’s too relentlessly tied to real-world politics to really fly the way his previous delightful works had.

But lest I give a false impression of this film, let me reiterate that I actually liked this movie quite well. It’s extraordinary when it comes to settings and tone (Jeunet’s cinematography is generally pretty inspired), and at times quite funny, with the campy rivalry elements played to the hilt and the quirky scavengers given ample room to shine. Even working in a somewhat less-than-ideal space, Jeunet does a lot better with this work than I would trust most directors to. If you like Jeunet’s style, this won’t make you feel like your time’s been wasted; but expect something closer to Amélie than to Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. Visually, it bears much in common with the latter, but tonally, it’s definitely in a much more lighthearted and simplistic headspace.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

A Devil at Noon

I saw this as part of the 35th Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre; it’s thus a bleeding-edge new play, with all the experimentalism and quality variation that might entail. As experimental new plays go, it’s not bad, although it’s riddled with pitfalls for the unwary. The first act is largely bewildering, consisting mostly of apparently unrelated monologues and extended mime sequences with foley effects. I knew from the blurb that it was supposed to be, after a fashion, a Philip K. Dick-flavored work, so I expected bewilderment but with a greater thematic cohesion, and by the intermission I was totally lost and really hoping the second act put it all back together.

To its credit, the play did end up eventually tying together most of its disparate threads (I’m still scratching my head about the symbolism of the oft-repeated moon motif), and does so in a manner properly in line with what I expect from Dick inspiration: confusion of identity and reality, with discourse on the interaction of creativity and perception. By the end of the evening, I had felt like I had digested a satisfactory work, while at the intermission I was quite certain it was a hopeless mess. From an expectation-management point of view, I’d call this work problematic: I think a fair part of the audience gave up at intermission. There were aspects that might’ve been tightened up to give it, even early on, a bit more drive and purpose: either dropping or better contextualizing the strange moon segments, and shortening the dialogueless mime segments (to be as unspoilery as possible: the mime/foley elements which serve in the place of actual stage setting actually have a plot-relevant purpose, but the sections where they’re manipulated without dialogue really slow the play down). However, for those of us who persisted to the end, I think the play ended up being a treat. If it could be structured in a way to give the audience greater faith that it’s actually going somewhere, it’d be even better.

As for the details of this specific performance: Actors is generally a good group, and they did well here. Leading actor Joseph Adams displays a moderate range, mostly on the wryly contemplative side but bringing some animation to the character when called for; Rebecca Hart’s range, which seems a bit more limited at first (her role seems to be the Quirky Younger Love Interest) opens up dramatically and she rises to the occasion. The other actors have less demanding roles but work well with them. The foley (and where necessary special effects) were good, and in spite of my distaste for the overuse of the mechanism, I have to register admiration for the extent to which the actors and sound crew made the no doubt difficult effect synchronization work live.

See also: premiere at Actors Theatre.

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

I’m trying to bone up on my modern geeklit, and Murakami’s one of those names that comes up as authentically literary fiction. I picked this one up more-or-less at random, and have a fairly nebulous idea of how it fits into his ouevre (it’s apparently a follow-up, in a shared-world sense, to a previous trilogy, although it stands on its own). It collects a variety of themes and styles into one place: the overall tone felt neo-noir, but the plot wanders through a very mildly fantastic urban adventure, dwelling chiefly on the futility of most modern vocations (almost all the adults in the story seem to be heartily dissatisfied with their jobs) and the illusions people maintain out of cultured civility. It’s ultimately a character study, about how our narrator and his entire social circle lead unspoken lives, and that their own lives only begin to make sense when they delve deeply into others’ lives. It’s a strange story, shot through with elements of the fantastic and a sense of a Big Picture which is never entirely revealed, which is mildly disappointing: it’s possible that the overall purpose is better revealed in light of its prequels. But even taken in ignorance of what the big lead-up is to, it’s a book with comfortable and pleasing themes, seeing the narrator grow closer to others and gain a greater comfort in his own skin and a greater contentment thereby.

I very much liked the style of the work as well as its overall structure. There’s a combination of the frenzied and the relaxed that makes it work, that in the midst of crisis and adventure the protagonist has time and energy for minutiae, in a way that reminds me, perhaps irrationally, of the emphasis on the minute in The Mezzanine. There’s a strong sensory sense in the narrator’s memories of the women he’s known, and of the places he’s been, which may explain the comparison to some extent.

Mostly, I just found this book to be an effortless page-turner, though. The narrator is sympathetically thoughtful, and his world is peopled with largely flawed but enjoyably deep personalities. There are bits that are odd bonuses for me: seeing the narrator mention the Beach Boys wasn’t wholly surprising, as the book’s named after one of their songs, but seeing a mention of the obscure 1971 Surf’s Up album— well, in truth it made me certain, if nothing else, that Murakami takes pride in his acquaintance with obscurities, which is a fine, geeky thing to do. Wandering from the obscure into the overly twee, I’m not sure I can really approve of the inclusion of a succesful but self-loathing novelist named Makimura; that’s maybe a little too self-indulgent.

See also: Wikipedia.

The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

[Screenshot]Experimental animation is kind of hit-or-miss for me. I’ve figured out that I like Švankmajer more than Brothers Quay, and that surreal cel or computer animation doesn’t work for me. Kawamoto’s work somewhat falls into the second category, I’m afraid: it’s stop-motion, but largely with flat cutouts, and I found his particular brand of surreal often impenetrable. The first film in this collection, “Breaking of Branches is Forbidden” went on way too long for a story with no sound: there was a narrative, but it was ultimately flat and had trouble carrying the story purely with largely unexpressive puppets. The next several were more successful, in no small part because they were shorter. Both “Anthropocynical Farce” and “The Trip” were rather static in their cinematic composition, but interestingly enough designed to hold my attention. “A Poet’s Life” was an unqualified success, compositionally and plotwise, and “House of Flame” and “Dojiji Temple” were both authentically skillful and intriguingly transcended the limitations of stop-motion.

This is a mixed bag, like any collection of disparite works. I’m afraid I soured on the whole thing to a certain extent because the weakest material was first. That’s surely a function of its chronological ordering. I’d probably give “Breaking of Branches” a miss but the rest are worth the time spent on them.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

新世紀エヴァンゲリオン劇場版 Air/まごころを、君に/The End of Evangelion

[Screenshot]Good news: I am running out of Evangelion-related media to plague you all with my reviews of. In fact, this is the last one for a while.

So, End of Evangelion. The justification for this work is noble enough: the last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion were among the most pointless and incomprehensible thing ever to be graced with the name of “animation”. In addition, Hideaki Anno wanted to do it because he was getting death threats, which is good customer service but bad counterterrorism (if we send Anno enough death threats, maybe he’ll make End of Kare Kano, too!).

The first half (as seen in Death and Rebirth) actually slots pretty well in where Episode 25 was, with all of the characters more or less in the right psychological states and with the plot progressing along lines which more or less make sense (obligatory shocked comment: “Oh, Shinji, you didn’t.”). The SEELE assault seems pretty unmotivated, but, hey, they had no apparent motivation for the first 24 episodes; why should they start now? Most of what happens in this part actually works well, since there is minimal incomprehensible weirdshit and some authentically powerful scenes (Misato’s farewell and Asuka’s triumphant return particularly worked for me). So the first part (often called “Episode 25′”) worked, from where I stood. It was long on action and emotion and short on handwavy mindscrew.

But then there’s Episode 26′. And there it all goes to shit, diving headfirst into a tremendous amount of Jewish and Christian symolism as filtered throguh the sensibilities of people who subscribe to neither faith. Everyone natters about Adam and Lilith and Third Impact and Rei Ayanami, and then a giant squishes everybody into orange Tang. I felt like I needed better subtitles, or maybe an instruction manual. It’s monologuey and incomprehensible and surprisingly boring for an apocalypse. It’s still far better than the actual Episode 26, although some of that can be accounted for by the wise decision to actually animate people’s lips this time around.

Visually both episodes are spectacular, but I expected nothing less, really. The English dub is halfway decent. The actual film, however, is still kinda crap. There’s a no-win situation here: Death and Rebirth has the actually good parts of this but no closure; End has the closure but you almost wish it didn’t (Rocks Fall! Everyone Dies!).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.