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CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: TOYS IN THE ATTIC (2009)

Na pude; Na pude aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?

DIRECTED BY: Jirí Barta

FEATURING: Vivian Schilling, Douglas Urbanski, Forest Whitaker, , Joan Cusak (US dubbed version)

PLOT: When the doll Buttercup is kidnapped by a plaster head, a teddy bear, a marionette knight and a mechanical mouse must journey to the other side of the attic to save her.

Still from Toys in the Attic [Na Pude] (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Trust the Czechs to take the basic notion of Toy Story (the private lives of toys when their owners aren’t around) and turn it into a creepy stop-motion parable about totalitarianism wherein a head and his army of vermin kidnap a doll and attempt to brainwash her. Sure, it’s a bit weird, but apparently Czech children are into “weird”…

COMMENTS: It seems lazy and obvious to describe Toys in the Attic as 50% Toy Story, 50% , but that’s exactly the way it plays out. The movie, which takes dusty Communist-era toys and knick-knacks and brings them to creaky life, splits the difference between sentimentality and nightmarishness straight down the middle. The tale begins by introducing the retired playthings’ domestic life, as mother-figure Buttercup prepares breakfast for the other toys: a mechanical mouse with button ears, a battered teddy bear, a wooden Don Quixote marionette who speaks in rhyming couplets, and some sort of nutty clay homunculus with a pencil nose and a bottle cap hat. Their first act of business is to roll a die to figure out who has a birthday that day; the cake’s candle flames are simulated with a cascade of colored tinsel. The toys then each march off to their daily jobs (for the knight Sir Handsome, this involves slaying an inflatable dragon; when his pencil lance pierces its hide, a monkey nurse pops out and patches the beast up). Meanwhile, the bust of a Head spies on the happy toys via an eyeball embedded in a slithering hose, and their storybook existence is shattered when a little girl finds Buttercup and accidentally leaves her in the area of the attic controlled by the Head. The Head, whose existence in the household is never rationalized, is a magnificent creation, spookily realized by a live actor (which ironically makes him an alien creature in the artificial stop-motion world). He’s a bespectacled apparatchik with spies everywhere and a voice like Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy.” Besides his “snakey eye,” his minions include a house cat who goes undercover as an old man, a scorpion with eyeglasses and a  mustache, and a chorus line of rotten potatoes with Rockette gams. And there’s even more weird stuff along the journey, including a floods made up of pillowcases and garbage bags, watches that inexplicably turn into black holes, and a celebratory disco feast thrown by the Head. As in Svankamjer’s animated worlds, the animated objects here are antique and distressed: it’s a world of recycled tin cans, rusty nails, and unfinished furniture. There’s a nostalgia for the perishability and endurance of handcrafted things. Besides the Svankmajerian stop-motion, traditional animation also pops up in unexpected places throughout the film: when Buttercup opens a hand-drawn window in the attic, she sees a bird drawn in a kid’s cartoon scrawl pecking and flying about. If you’re looking for a “logical” explanation, I think that the movie could be understood as an imaginary story made up by the little girl who discovers the old toys to entertain herself on an otherwise dull afternoon at grandma’s house. The film has that loose, improvisatory, anything-can-happen quality of “make believe” stories that children tell themselves, before adults channel their narrative understanding into predictable logical corridors. (For similarly crazy, but brighter-toned animated Eurokiddie fare, check out Belgium’s A Town Called Panic). There’s a narrow window for American kids to enjoy this. With the eyeball-on-a-stalk peering into secret places, it’s too frightening for very young kids, and many older kids will be put off by its anti-Pixar sensibilities, its drab color palette and its overall foreignness. Adults, of course, can enjoy it at any age.

Jirí Barta began making animated films in the 1970s, but Na Pude was only his second feature-length effort (the first was 1986’s Krysar, AKA The Pied Piper of Hamlin, which is currently in our reader-suggested review queue). He had not made a movie for twenty years before this one. Vivian Schilling, who voiced Buttercup, also wrote the English translation, directed the American voice actors, and designed a new title sequence. Schilling was previously best known for writing and starring in the laughable 1990 Joe Estevez sci-fi snoozer Soultaker. Ms. Schilling, consider yourself redeemed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…easily earns a capital-W for weird.”–Matt Pais, Redeye (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PSYCH: 9 (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Andrew Shortell

FEATURING:  Sara Foster, Cary Elwes, Michael Biehn, Gabriel Mann, Ryan James,

PLOT: A records clerk working the graveyard shift in a shut-down hospital has puzzling,

Still from Psych 9

ghastly visions that may or may not be connected to a string of murders and her own past. As she strives to interpret the unusual events, she becomes ensnared in the uncanny, plummeting into a morass of sick secrets, murder, arson and madness.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPsych: 9 sports a delightful, creatively non-linear plot. The story is conveyed via a reality-blurring mixture of flashbacks and delusions blended with the present.   Aside from the clever story-telling technique however, Psych: 9 is an otherwise conventional psychological thriller, with mystery and horror elements.

COMMENTS:  Roslyn (Foster) takes a night job sorting records in a defunct, mostly deserted, eerie old hospital. At work, a sleazy security guard (James) likes to leer, her nervous husband (Mann) likes to visit, and an off-kilter detective (Biehn) is taken to calling on her. Her only trustworthy ally is a shrink who is busy sorting records up on the fifth floor, and he’s somehow just a little bit too nice.

The detective is investigating a series of sensational hammer murders in the hospital’s creepy neighborhood, and the shifty-eyed husband, Cole, who drives a taxi, just happens to be in the vicinity every time the murders occur. Suspiciously, Cole can’t account for the whereabouts of, you guessed it, his long, sharp geologist’s hammer missing from his toolbox.

To make things even more coincidentally unsettling, Roslyn was born in the hospital where she now works and has some undisclosed issues about her past. Disturbingly, these past issues connect to troubling uncertainties about her present. Complicating matters, she starts seeing scary apparitions that may or may not really be there. Roslyn also has occasional daydream/nightmares. They are deepening in intensity and increasingly resemble psychotic episodes.

Roslyn does her best to maintain her composure by delving into her duties, and she has her Continue reading CAPSULE: PSYCH: 9 (2010)