All posts by El Rob Hubbard

CAPSULE: OUT 1: NOLI ME TANGERE (1971)/OUT 1: SPECTRE (1972)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Rivette

FEATURING: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Juliet Berto, Michele Moretti, , Bernadette Lafont, Bulle Ogier, Francoise Fabien, Hermoine Karagheuz, Eric Rohmer

PLOT: Two theatrical troupes: one amateur and one professional, with different artistic approaches, rehearse plays by Aeschylus. Two loners: one male and one female, both scam artists, operate independently of each other. All these players are seemingly connected via a loose conspiracy of “13,” inspired by the work of Honoré de Balzac and .

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The improvisational framework is experimental, but it’s more conventional in its overall form. Rivette’s follow-up feature, Celine and Julie Go Boating, which is indebted to Out 1 in its production and concept, is closer to “weird.”

COMMENTS: Out 1 was long hyped as “the Holy Grail of modern French cinema,” and that was not mere hyperbole. After French television turned the project down, a four-and-a-half-hour cut, Spectre, was edited to screen in theaters (with an intermission). The original version thirteen-hour version, Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me) was screened only once in workprint form in the early 70’s. A re-edited version followed in the late 80’s, and a “finished” version turned up on German and French television in the early 90’s.

At first, watching the complete, restored Out 1 may seem a daunting enterprise, but in a world of binge viewing, it seems very contemporary, while simultaneously presenting a time capsule of France in the early 70’s. Out 1 explores the role of art (specifically theater) in society, interpersonal relationships, and secret societies/conspiracies, all in a way that is very entertaining—much more than the words “experimental feature” would suggest.

Looking at it 45 years later, one thing that helps give Out 1 some perspective are the events of May ’68, which is the hub from which the story revolves around. After a brief period of revolution and the hope of all things possible, we pick up two years later; and while the revolutionary spirit is still alive in the efforts of the troupes, everyone involved is disillusioned with their current reality to some degree. The passing of a note to Colin (Leaud) by an unknown woman—seen as one of the actors in one of the troupes—stirs him to investigate the concept of the “13,” and its effect ripples out among the characters. Is there indeed a conspiracy? Or is the conspiracy merely an abstract concept of a fleeting ideal that may never be obtained, but should always be pursued?

The Noli Me Tangere version, presented over eight episodes, anticipates such shows as “Lost” with its canvas of characters and a central mystery at the core. However, while that mystery provides dramatic momentum, it is not the primary focus; in fact, it isn’t until Episode 5 that it begins to coalesce. A substantial portion of each episode focused on the exercises and rehearsals of both troupes, and their succeeding analyses. It’s a detailed look at theatrical process, and while some may find these sections maddening, they’re an important part of the whole: “acting”  and “performance” are the main subjects, after all. The characters’ interactions with each other at many points are performances, especially the outsiders Colin and Frederique (Berto), whose scams are another form of improvisation. And the entire enterprise is a performance by everyone involved. The Spectre version keeps this basic frame intact, yet at four hours, much is condensed. Scenes are rearranged, some tangents are dropped, and the “Conspiracy of 13” aspect is center stage.

BLU-RAY/DVD INFO: In 2016, Carlotta released a region free box set in North America of both versions of Out 1 on Blu-ray and DVD, featuring a 2K restoration. Also included in the set is a documentary, The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1 Revisited, which is extremely informative, and a 120 page booklet with essays and notes. For those in the UK or with region free players, Arrow UK issued the box set “The Jacques Rivette Collection” which includes Out 1, and the additional Rivette features Duelle, Noroit and Merry-Go-Round.

LINKS OF INTEREST:

Order of the Exile – Jacques Rivette website

Introduction to Rivette – Jonathan Rosenblum essay on Rivetter

Out 1 And Its Double – Jonathan Rosenblum’s essay from the box set release

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Uniquely ambitious, Rivette’s film (technically a serial) spends nearly 13 hours stitching paranoia, loneliness, comedy, and mystical symbolism into a crazy quilt big enough to cover a generation.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: MODESTY BLAISE (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Losey

FEATURING: , , Dirk Bogarde, Clive Revell, Harry Andrews, Rossella Falk, Michael Craig

PLOT:  Master thief Modesty Blaise and her associate, Willy Garvin, are enlisted by the British Government to protect a diamond shipment to a Middle Eastern sheik from a heist ring overseen by Master Criminal Gabriel.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It certainly is strange, even for a comic book film, but in very much the spirit of its time.

COMMENTS: The current craze of adapting comic-book characters for the screen isn’t just a recent phenomenon. It’s only the consistent box-office success that’s relatively new. But, as Modesty Blaise proves, satisfying the preexisting fan base has ALWAYS been the fly in the ointment.

Purist fans of the British “Modesty Blaise” strip (which at the time was more known internationally than in the U.S., and still is) have long complained that the film doesn’t truly represent the source material. Not being familiar with the strip, I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the character to make those criticisms. What is evident, from what can be seen onscreen, is that director Losey, previously known for dramas such as The Servant and These Are the Damned, was going POP in the largest way possible.

The photography (by Jack Hilyard) and design (by Richard MacDonald and art director Jack Shampan) take precedence over anything else in the movie. In retrospect, that might not have been an altogether bad thing. The script—by Evan Jones, based on an original story and script by “Modesty” creator Peter O’Donnell and an uncredited pass by Harold Pinter(!)—appears to be a mess, though the flaw may be in its execution.

The 60’s Pop-art fascination with the comics had its basis in camp. Losey’s approach is no different, going for an arch, self-aware tone, most blatantly during a scene where Modesty, while searching a friend’s apartment, comes across her own comic strip. The movie’s Modesty also can change her wardrobe and hair color at the snap of a finger. Camp also explains the (horribly sung) duets she and Willie have at two points in the film, the last during the final confrontation with the bad guys. The camp isn’t quite as broad as what would soon be seen on television’s “Batman” series; Losey’s approach is more intellectual and narrow, as if channeling  directing a comic book spy film.

The main complaint about the film from purists is Monica Vitti, who in no way resembles the character as drawn. For the film, however, she’s more than perfect, bringing with her the ennui from her roles for Antonioni. Terence Stamp does a serviceable job in his role, basically a pretty boy-toy. The supporting cast (Clive Revell, Harry Andrews) is good, but it’s Dirk Bogarde who runs away with the film as the villainous but fey Gabriel, followed closely by Rossella Falk as his sadistic wife (and beard), Mrs. Fothergill.

Modesty Blaise is not an especially good a comic adaptation, or very weird. Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik both hew closer to their sources and go even more over the top. As an example of mid-60’s cinema Pop Art, however, it is good on its own terms.

DVD INFO: In 2002, Fox released a DVD that was fairly decent at the time—widescreen and anamorphic, although there were no extras. This past summer (2016) brought a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino-Lorber. It includes a commentary by film historian David Del Valle and director Armand Mastroianni which is entertaining—although Del Valle mistakenly credits camera operator Gerry Fisher as the DP. Also in the release are featurettes with first assistant director (and Joseph Losey’s son) Gavrik Losey; writer Evan Jones; and assistant art director Norman Doane. An image gallery and a trailer round out the special features.

252. POSSESSION (1981)

AKA The Night the Screaming Stops

Recommended

“…Viktor Shklovsky wrote about how the job of the artist was to come up with a device that made the familiar seem strange. The ‘strangeness’ sets our brain a challenge, and the process of dealing with it is engaging – not just on an intellectual level, but an emotional one too… In Possession, Żuławski made a marital breakdown ‘strange’ by showing ‘the horror’ – this was not Scenes from a Marriage – it was something else.”–Daniel Bird

“Nothing wants to bite anymore – they want to lick.”– Andrzej Zulawski, from the Possession commentary track.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Heinz Bennent, Margit Carstensen, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton

PLOT: Mark, an agent for some unspecified agency, returns home to his wife, Anna, and son in Berlin only to find that Anna has taken a lover. She splits her time between her home and her lover; however, Mark still wants her, causing extensive conflict between them. He uncovers a previous affair with a man named Heinrich, but she also left him for another—and finding the identity of her current lover leads to mayhem and a rising body count.

Still from Possession (1981)

BACKGROUND:

  • Andrzej Zulawski conceived Possession in the wake of several events—the collapse of his marriage to actress Małgorzata Braunek after being allowed to return to Poland from exile after the international success of 1975’s The Most Important Thing Is To Love, and the subsequent production and shutdown of On The Silver Globe and his second exile from Poland.
  • Zulawski originally pitched the film to Paramount Studio head Charlie Bluhdorn, calling it “a movie about a woman who f**ks an octopus.” They passed.
  • The film played at Cannes and Isabelle Adjani won “Best Actress,” sharing the award for her roles in both Possession and Merchant/Ivory’s Quartet.
  • The final film was chopped up by distributors. The U.S. release was notorious for being a total misrepresentation of the movie: the distributor removed about 40 minutes, reshuffled scenes, and added optical effects to play up and sell it as a horror movie. The Australian version made similar cuts. It wasn’t until 2000 that the original version was available to be seen in the U.S.
  • Possession was briefly released in the UK, but on videotape it was later banned as a “video nasty,” a classification intended for extreme horror films with no artistic merit.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film with many memorable images, mainly close-ups of the characters in various stages of mania, the one that sticks is of Adjani’s Anna being serviced by something coiled around her… and writhing.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink socks; subway miscarriage; Anna’s lover

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It starts out as a domestic drama turned up to 11, which then goes up to 15. The intensity is compelling, especially when most other relationship films at the time went for quiet decorum. Possession throws all that right out the window. And then at the midway point, it drops the bottom out of expectations with the introduction of the Creature.


Possession international release trailer

COMMENTS: There seems to be no major disagreement about Possession joining a list of “weird” anything. The fur begins to fly in the Continue reading 252. POSSESSION (1981)

LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

Na Srebrnym Globie

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jerzy Trela, Andrzej Seweryn, Iwona Bielska, Grazyna Dylaq, Jerzy Gralek, Krystyna Janda, Elizabeth Karkoszka, Maciej Goraj, Leszek Dlugosz, Jan Frycz

PLOT: An expedition crash lands on a planet, and the surviving astronauts establish a tribe and a religion explaining their origins. After a recording of the crash is found, another astronaut, Marek, is sent to investigate and is received as a messiah whose arrival has been prophesied. He becomes involved in a struggle against the planet’s original inhabitants, a birdlike race called the Sherms.

Still from On the Silver Globe

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One of the few science-fiction adaptations that can earn the adjective of “epic,” and not only in terms of not dumbing down its ideas in favor of effects. The Polish government attempted to kill it, and end its director’s career. Despite it being only 80% of a finished film, there are images that will remain in the mind long after.

COMMENTS: In the best of all possible worlds, On the Silver Globe would be more widely known for the epic saga it is intended to be rather than as an unfinished curiosity, and it would’ve been the blueprint for science-fiction cinema to follow, rather than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Or possibly not. After all, its source material, “The Lunar Trilogy” written by Jerzy Zulawski (Andrzej’s great-uncle), which Stanislaw Lem acknowledged as an influence on his own writing, STILL has never gotten an English translation, making it unknown in the U.S. and other English speaking countries. This is one of the few films where its backstory is as fascinating as the actual film.

To wit: after the success of The Most Important Thing Is to Love, the exiled Zulawski was allowed to return to Poland to work. It was at this time that his marriage collapsed and his wife left (we’ll get to that later on…), and he chose to adapt his great uncle’s trilogy. Two years of work went into the enterprise, with most of the shooting done in 1976 and 1977, until the Deputy Minister of Culture and Art, Janusz Wilhelmi, saw some of the footage and in June 1977, ordered the production to shut down. Props, scenery and costumes were warehoused and/or destroyed; Zulawski was once again persona non grata in Poland, couldn’t get any work, and was again forced to leave home. (Out of this experience came the cult favorite Possession). Wilhelmi died in a plane crash the following year (1978), but despite several attempts to resurrect the project, authorities refused to release the existing material; some of the crew members managed to save what they could, but to no avail. By 1986, the regime in Poland had collapsed, but it was too late—too much material had been lost, several actors had died, and cinematic sci-fi was by then firmly caught in the throes of Star Wars‘s aftermath. However, what was left of the film could indeed be presented in some Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ON THE SILVER GLOBE (1977/1988)

CAPSULE: L’ IMPORTANT C’EST D’AIMER (1975) [THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE]

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabio Testi, Jacques Dutronc, Roger Blin, Claude Dauphin,

PLOT: Nadine Chevalier (Schneider) is an actress on the verge of being ‘over the hill’ and acting in films far beneath her talent. Servais Mont (Testi) is a freelance photographer who also shoots pornography for a local crime lord (Dauphin), paying off a debt. They meet on a film set and a definite connection is established and acknowledged; however, Nadine is married to Jacques (Dutronc), a film buff and dreamer, and is still devoted to him.

In love, Servais helps her by anonymously backing a play with a part for her, borrowing the money from a crime lord. But things do not work out as hoped, ending with violence and suicide—and a glimmer of hope at the end.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compared to Zulawski’s previous two films and the two to follow, this would probably be considered his first “normal” film, a romantic melodrama. However, no Zulawski film could be considered “normal”—the intensity is still there, but it stays within the confines of the real world the film establishes, rather than spinning off into its own universe. Plus, it has Klaus Kinski. The Important Thing Is to Love may not be full-on “weird,” but it’s worth a look on its own terms.

COMMENTS:  After the Polish Government effectively banned Diabel and kicked Zulawski out of Poland, he went back to France where he had studied and worked earlier before becoming a director. He worked as a script doctor and appeared in some films before being approached with this project, based on a novel by Christopher Frank, “La Nuit Americaine.”

At heart, the movie is a love story—well, a love triangle—but there’s plenty of room for some of Zulawski’s usual concerns: the cause of Art over Commercialism; the corruption and loss of innocence; friendship and betrayal. Also present is the use of doubling (note the open and close of the film); references to classical works (Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in this case); and, of course, staircases.

The best available release is Mondo Vision’s DVD, which comes in a special and a limited edition (the limited edition including an expanded booklet and a CD of the acclaimed score by Georges Delerue). The DVD also features a commentary by Zulawski and Daniel Bird, along with an interview with Zulawski. Audio is in the original French language, along with English and German dubs and English subtitles.

L’ Important C’est D’aimer was the second Zulawski film to get exposure in the West when it was featured on L.A.’s Z-Channel (as can be seen in Xan Cassavetes’ documentary Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession).

That Most Important... 1

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the films of Andrzej Zulawski are known for their boisterous energy and feverish excesses of sex, violence and the bizarre, his third film L’important c’est d’aimer (The Important Thing Is to Love) is tempered by a richly humanistic story and a shattering performance by Romy Schneider, which she considered to be (and many critics agree) her career zenith.”–Tim Lucas, Sight & Sound (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: HIGH-RISE (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Sienna Guillory

PLOT: Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) moves into an upscale high-rise tower block, designed by noted architect Anthony Royal (Irons), who also resides in the tower. The top floor houses society’s upper crust; the lower floors are where the more commonplace residents live (usually families). Laing resides in the middle. The tower has every convenience—pool, gym, a school and a supermarket—to meet residents’ needs, making it unnecessary for anyone to venture out into the outside world. When trouble develops with the building’s services, violence escalates as the residents form tribes to battle for resources.

high-rise-social

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Being based on one of J.G. Ballard’s seminal works alone might qualify it, though admittedly, there’s nothing weird in terms of presentation… in fact, it might be the most approachable Ballard adaptation since Empire of the Sun.  It’s warmer than ‘s Crash, but in terms of the subject matter, it’s just as unflinching.

COMMENTS: At first glance, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise may appear to miss the mark, being too focused on recreating period detail (Amy Jump’s script sets it firmly in the 1970’s, when Ballard’s novel was first published), but those who stick it out will find it an extremely faithful—and blackly funny—adaptation.

Nailing the time and place to a specific period helps establish the film as a cautionary tale, not unlike something that might be seen on television at the time (like a literary “Play for Today“), but also helps to achieve some of the distancing effect found in Ballard’s prose. It also sets the stage for the use of a certain well-known pop song of the time, first used ironically in a string quartet arrangement, then returning as a sad elegy.

Wheatley and Jump are very respectful to the source material, while also fleshing out things that weren’t quite as explicit in the book. There’s some attention paid to the women and children (the period setting explains the sexism and misogyny shown by some male characters), and while there is no direct explanation of the cause of the mini-society’s devolution, there is a strong hint that it could be a social experiment running its course. As the film ends with a broadcast of a Margaret Thatcher speech, there’s a political dimension as well, which some might scoff at. The recent Brexit vote might cause one to rethink that.tom-highrise1

NOTES:

  • “The Ballardian” interviews Ben Wheatley about the film.
  • Portishead did the elegaic version of Abba’s “S.O.S.” for the film. It was not intended for a separate single release, although the band did approve a video in honor of recently murdered British politician Jo Cox.
  • Producer Jeremy Thomas has spent over 30 years attempting to bring J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to the screen. After projects with and , fell through, he finally hit paydirt with Ben Wheatley.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A wonderfully weird oddity with moments of genius, just not quite enough of them.”–Alex Zane, The Sun (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Weiss

FEATURING: Victor Slezak, Anna Juvander, Michael Kirby, Rob Brink, Diane Grotke, Caroline McGee, Robert Morgan, Mariko Takai

PLOTIn a mental institution, a doctor has enticed patients and staff into staging bizarre microdramas and recording them on film. Is he recording his own mental breakdown, or the larger ills of society?

reagan_sex_s7

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Inasmuch as cult author J.G. Ballard can still be called “weird” nowadays, the film perfectly captures the clinical nature of his themes and uneasy alliances. One scene is a fashion shoot in the midst of a surgical operation. Another memorable sequence has Traven emerging from a 1950s  black sedan on an airport runway shouting “Marilyn Monroe” and breaking into a run with the sound of helicopters on the soundtrack; he inexplicably ends up back at the sedan, vomiting over the front hood.

COMMENTS: The Atrocity Exhibition is another one of the many “unfilmable” novels that some filmmaker, at some point, takes on as a challenge. first took the plunge, being the first to adapt Ballard’s other “unfilmable” novel, Crash, in the mid-90’s, and largely succeeding. “The Atrocity Exhibition“, however, was slightly more challenging for an adapter: there’s no real plot, just linked incidents; the main character is undergoing a mental breakdown affected by mass media; each chapter represents an aspect of the protagonist’s psychosis (his name changes in each segment); and most of the action is psychological. The book is a collection of themes and ideas showing up in Ballard’s work at the time (the mid to late 1960’s), some of which would be fleshed out/explored further in works like “Crash” and “High Rise,” and is much more fragmentary than most novels.

Jonathan Weiss’s approach in adapting Ballard’s work is geared to the experimental film work in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Using stock-film sequences interspersed with new footage, the film is presented as the artifact from Dr. Traven’s project, staged mini-dramas reflecting his obsessions (assassinations, war, celebrity, plastic surgery, the Space Race) which document his—and by extension, society’s—surrender to psychosis. But is it a surrender, or merely an adaptation to the new order?

Exhibition is perhaps the purest adaption of Ballard’s work to date. The low-budget, as well as the unusual nature of the main role, excluded any casting of name stars, and the movie was shot over the period of several years. It’s not as polished or sexy as Cronenberg’s Crash, but it’s even more intellectually rewarding.

the-atrocity-exhibition

DVD INFO: The Atrocity Exhibition had limited festival screenings in the early ’00’s, but no true theatrical release. It seemed it would languish in obscurity until its release on DVD in 2006 by Reel 23, a European company—Region 0, but on the PAL system—now a pricey import, if you do some hard looking. You get a good transfer of the film in picture and sound, highlighting the score by J.G. Thirwell (“The Venture Bros.”, “Foetus”), subtitles in French, Spanish, German and Dutch, and an informative commentary track by the director. But what makes this release special is a second commentary track with the director and J.G. Ballard together. Ballard doesn’t stick around for the last 20 minutes of the film, pretty much having said whatever he needed to.

A contentious interview with Jonathan Weiss can be found on the “Ballardian” website, along with the review that touched things off.

Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), selling high-quality and high-end audio equipment, is Jonathan Weiss’ current venture.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weiss works superbly with the material here, creating the most Ballard-like visual representation of the author’s work on the screen… They are all meaningfully integrated into the screenplay – if not in any immediately comprehensible way, at least in a way that is true to how Ballard envisioned it in his writing – and thankfully not in any pretentious rapid-fire montage.”–Noel Megahy, The Digital Fix

LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

Diabel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  Leszak Teleszynski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Malgorzata Braunek, Monika Niemczyk, Wiktor Sadecki, Iga Mayr, Anna Parzonka, Maciej Englert, Bozena Miefiodow

PLOT: In 1793, during the Prussian Army’s invasion of Poland, an imprisoned anti-royalist nobleman, Jakub, is freed by a Stranger-in-Black, for reasons unknown. Returning to his home and family, he finds only chaos and madness: his father dead, sister insane, his mother a prostitute, and his former fiance pregnant and now married to his best friend. Encouraged by the Stranger who comes and goes at will, Jakub starts dealing out some hardcore revenge with a straight razor and slipping further into madness; but, who is this Stranger and what exactly is his game?

diabel-3

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This is perhaps the first Zulawski film that has most of the elements that he became known for in place. From the opening frame onward, it is completely balls-to-the-wall in intensity, making ‘s The Devils look like a model of restraint.

COMMENTS: “Tell me, does the world seem horrible to me because of my illness or because it is really like that?”

Zulawski’s second feature film was banned in Poland for 18 years (!) and essentially got him exiled to France. In an interview with Stephen Thrower and Daniel Bird for “Eyeball Magazine,” Zulawski explains the how and why of it.

At that time (1971),  a tragedy happened in Poland in this very repressive and bloody regime. A part of the Communist establishment wanted to seize power. In order to do this they devised a very clever trick. They provoked youth – innocent, naive university youth especially – to start a series of protests on the streets against censorship, lack of freedom. They did it on purpose. Then the Communists turned to the Russians, the landlords, saying ‘this government of Poland cannot control the population, so you have to fire them and take us because we know how to deal with them.’ They organized a savage repression of the Polish young people in March 1968… they destroyed the university education system and this generation of young people who were trapped into this protest went into oblivion. They are nothing today; they were never educated, they went to jail, etc. So I wanted to tell this story but obviously I couldn’t say it with the Polish government’s money. So I put it under the masks and costumes of the 18th Century, when several tragedies annihilated Poland and the situation was about the same. It’s the story of a police provocateur who infiltrates a group of young people preparing something patriotic and beautiful and who just destroys the whole thing.

Obviously, the authorities twigged quickly that The Devil was not the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE DEVIL (1972)

CAPSULE: THE PROPHET (2014)

AKA Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet

DIRECTED BY: Roger Allers (supervising); Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, , , , , Michal Socha (segments).

FEATURING: Voices of , , , Alfred Molina, , , John Rhys-Davies, John Kassir

PLOT: Based on the book of poems of the same name by Kahlil Gibran. A foreign poet, Mustafa, has been held under house arrest for several years. With the arrival of a ship, he is set free to return to his home country. Escorted to the ship by a couple of soldiers, he converses with them and with the townspeople; but circumstances change along the way.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of the segments illustrating Mustafa’s sayings/writings are appropriately abstract, taken as a whole together with the framing story, The Prophet is extremely ambitious, but not weird.

COMMENTS: The Prophet has long been a passion project of Salma Hayek-Pinault; thankfully, she had enough experience and intelligence to realize that animation was the best medium to adapt Gibran’s book, a prose poem in long form that would be a challenge to fashion into a conventional narrative.

Enlisting Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, was a good decision, since both tales are essentially illustrated journeys of messianic figures. Allers takes the basic framing device of the title character heading to a ship that’s taking him home and expands upon it, adding new characters Kamila (Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and her daughter Almitra (Wallis), who has become a mute troublemaker since her father’s death. These two are the characters for the audience to identify and sympathize with. The film adds a political dimension—Mustafa has been under house arrest for several years, and the journey to the ship may not be quite as innocent as presented—and the ending is different than in the book, although it is spiritually consistent.

Another smart decision was the idea to have different animators bring to life the various sermons by Mustafa, eight of which have been chosen: “On Freedom” (Socha), “On Children” (Paley), “On Marriage” (Sfar), “On Work” (Gratz), “On Eating & Drinking” (Plympton), “On Love” (Moore), “On Good and Evil” (Harib) and “On Death” (the Brizzi’s). Along with giving each story its own personality, the method also retains the metaphorical qualities of the sermons—if it were done in live-action, most of the visualization would’ve probably been literalized and not worked as well.

It’s a refreshing change to have animation appropriate for both adults and children that doesn’t involve talking animals or pop culture one-liners, and is an adaptation of an acclaimed literary work, to boot. G-Kids acquired the movie for theatrical release in the U.S. and home video. The DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes about the movie, one with interviews of Hayek and Allers, the second concentrating more on the technical aspects (although none of the segment animators are featured). There’s also an animatic used in the making of the film.

PROPHETTHE-KAMILA

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Half-baked animated fantasy Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a kids film for anyone who mistakenly thinks that the one thing that would improve animated masterpiece Fantasia is an overwhelming number of pretentious aphorisms.”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

chi-raq-650

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)