Tag Archives: Steampunk

LIST CANDIDATE: APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

Avril et le monde truqué

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci

FEATURING: Voices of Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, (English dub)

PLOT: In an alternate history where technology never advanced past 1870, young April seeks to find her scientist parents, abducted by unknown forces with superior technology.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: More than one mainstream critic has referred to April and the Extraordinary World as “wonderfully weird.” Checking my movie reviewer decoder ring, I see that when used as a modifier to “weird,” “wonderfully” translates as “mildly and in the least threatening way imaginable.” April may not be super-strange by our standards, but it is at least playing in the right ballpark. This exciting, imaginative and visually superior cartoon it may be able to make the List on the sliding scale: the better the movie, the less pervasive the weirdness required. (Also, there was one walkout in the theatrical audience of three, and walkouts automatically earn List Candidate status).

COMMENTS: Let’s try an alternate plot synopsis for April and the Extraordinary World: in 1870, Napoleon III’s attempt to create an army of invulnerable monkeys (just roll with it) to fight the Franco-Prussian War goes awry, resulting in a world where technology stalls in the steam age and France goes to war with the United States over timber resources in Canada. The “extraordinary world,” not April, is the star of this French import; and what a world it is! The Eiffel Tower is now a stop on the Paris-Berlin steam line, cars run (badly) on wood-burning engines, and our heroine, April, has a talking cat (although that‘s unusual even by the standards of the time). Whenever a scientist—Fermi, Einstein, the Curies—nears a revolutionary discovery that would drag society out of the Steam Age, they mysteriously disappear, abducted by governments who want to use their talents to build super-weapons to fight the ever-raging wars over scarce resources (when our story begins, the world’s coal supply has been exhausted, and nations’ industries are now burning less-efficient timber). This world is not the quaint, cute utopia imagined in much of steampunk literature; although the tone is adventurous rather than bleak, the world is dystopian and polluted. In Europe, freestanding trees are found only in museums, and the streets are covered in ash. It’s not steampunk, it’s sootpunk.

April has garnered comparisons to everything from The City of Lost Children to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with a touch of Metropolis, but I think the most appropriate touchstone here is the works of . Not just Howl’s Moving Castle, even though this one does feature a house that moves on stilts. It’s actually the fully-realized, impeccably detailed fantasy world, the lovingly hand-crafted animation, and the plot centered on young protagonists making their way through an epic setting that spurs the comparison. Like a Miyazki film, April expertly interweaves world-building episodes and light character development with sequences focused on action and spectacle, while leaving aside animated Hollywood’s emphasis on pat morals, clever pop-culture references and jokes aimed over the heads of kids.

If the word “extraordinary” in conjunction with a fantasy-adventure set in a low-tech France starring a female heroine whose name begins with “A” sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. That’s not an accident, as both movies were based on graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, whose name appears in the opening credits under a drawing of a pterodactyl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a visual delight, an animated French steampunk adventure that is smart, exciting and wonderfully weird.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, , Billy Crystal, (US dubbed version)

PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Miyazaki had announced his retirement from directing feature films after 2001’s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
  • One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
  • In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
  • Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.


Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle

COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar Continue reading 146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

85. BRAZIL (1985)

“Port Talbot is a steel town, where everything is covered with a grey iron ore dust.  Even the beach is completely littered with dust, it’s just black.  The sun was setting, and it was really quite beautiful.  The contrast was extraordinary.  I had this image of a guy sitting there on this dingy beach with a portable radio, tuning in these strange Latin escapist songs like ‘Brazil.’  The music transported him somehow and made his world less grey.”–Terry Gilliam on his inspiration for the title Brazil

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughan, Bob Hoskins, Charles McKeown

PLOT:  Sam Lowry is a lowly, unambitious bureaucrat working in the Records Department in an authoritarian society “somewhere in the Twentieth century” who frequently dreams he is a winged man fighting a giant robotic samurai to save a beautiful woman.  An error results in the government picking up a Mr. Buttle as a suspected terrorist instead of a Mr. Tuttle; Buttle dies during interrogation. Sam visits Buttle’s widow to deliver a refund check for her dead husband, and finds that the upstairs neighbor, Jill, looks exactly like his dream woman; he transfers to the “Information Retrieval” Department to access Jill’s personal files and learn more about her, but ends up running afoul of powerful government interests.

Still from Brazil (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Brazil is the second part of Gilliam’s unofficial “Imagination” trilogy, which began with Time Bandits and ended with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  Time Bandits is told from the perspective of a child, Brazil from that of an adult, and Munchausen from an elderly man.  Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm and Monty Python buddy Michael Palin all appeared in Time Banditsas well.
  • Terry Gilliam co-wrote the script for Brazil with Charles McKeown (who also plays Harvey Lime here, and would later collaborate on the scripts for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and playwright Tom Stoppard.  The three together were nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  Novelist Charles Alverson also worked on an early version of the script, but he and Gilliam had a falling out and he was not credited for his work, although he was paid.
  • Besides Best Original Screenplay, Brazil was also nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar.
  • The movie is named after its theme song, Ary Baroso’s 1939 “Aquarela do Brazil” [“Watercolors of Brazil”].  “Brazil” represents the exotic, colorful world (with an amber moon) that Sam dreams of escaping to. According to one story, the film was originally to be titled 1984 1/2, but the title was dropped over worries about lawsuits from George Orwell’s estate (a fine adaptation of 1984 had been released the previous year).
  • Robert De Niro read the script and lobbied to play the part of Jack, but Gilliam turned the star down because he wanted Palin in the role.  De Niro accepted the role of Tuttle instead.
  • Brazil has a legendary distribution story.  The film was released overseas in Gilliam’s original cut, but in the U.S. Universal Studios did not like the unhappy ending and attempted to recut the film, reducing it from 142 minutes to 94 minutes and editing the ending in an attempt to give it a happy ending.  (This studio cut of the film later played on television and has been dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil).  Gilliam opposed the changes and feuded publicly with Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, blaming him personally for holding up the movie’s release, appearing on the television program “Good Morning America” and holding up a picture of Sheinberg, and paying for a full page ad in Variety reading “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie?”  Against studio orders, Gilliam screened the uncut film for free at the University of Southern California.  Curious critics attended the screenings, and before the movie had been released to U.S. theaters, the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Brazil Best Picture of 1985.  In a compromise agreed to by Gilliam, Universal cut only 11 minutes from the complete version, left the unhappy ending largely intact, and released the movie soon after (reportedly so as not to jeopardize its chances at winning an Academy Award).
  • Calling its style “retro-futurism,” Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet credit Brazil‘s art design with influencing their vision for Delicatessen and The City of Lost ChildrenBrazil’s junkyard of the future look also directly inspired the visual sensibilities of movies such as Dark City, Tim Burton‘s Batman, and 2011’s Sucker Punch.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some may nominate Sam’s dream of soaring as a mechanical angel battling a giant robotic samurai, or the torturer posed in his decrepit doll’s mask in the foreground with his tiny victim chained in the center of a massive open-air tower in the distant background, but it’s Katherine Helmond’s personal plastic surgeon gripping and stretching her facial flab impossibly tight that’s the most striking, incisive and unexpected of Brazil‘s many visual non sequiturs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Terry Gilliam explained his vision for the milieu he molds in Brazil as one that’s “very much like our world” but “just off by five degrees.” He was shooting for an atmosphere that’s uncannily familiar, something just strange enough to shock the viewer while still highlighting the absurdities of modern existence. Watching Brazil‘s many surreal touches—as when what appears to be a giant boozing tramp peers over a horizon dominated by cooling towers painted sky blue with white clouds—most viewers will conclude Gilliam overshot the five degrees at which he was aiming. But in the unlikely event the rest of the film isn’t strange enough for you, wait for the finale in which Gilliam pulls out reality’s remaining stops, including a scene where a man is literally killed by paperwork.

Original trailer for Brazil

COMMENTS:  Terry Gilliam wasn’t kidding when he located Brazil “somewhere in the Continue reading 85. BRAZIL (1985)

CAPSULE: SUCKER PUNCH (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING: , Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, , Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac,

PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
Still from Sucker Punch (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.

COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning.  Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet.  This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone.  She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room.  The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.

The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure.  To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter.  The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit.  The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances.  The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world.  Oversize metal samurai?  Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby?  Nazi zombies?  It’s been done.

The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can.  The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.

Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film.  Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack.  Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll.  Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.

It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre.  While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation.  In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Spastic, bombastic, and incoherent, Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a baroque, highly polished chunk of pop culture vomit. A nonsensical mash-up of Shutter Island, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Kill Bill, it doesn’t even have the decency to have fun with its cartoonish obsessions, instead delivering a somber, moody, metafictional melodrama that that thinks it’s about female empowerment but instead has all the philosophical heft of Maxim Magazine.”–Jeff Meyers, Detroit Metro Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)

“…someone who didn’t dream but, just the same, lived very well, yet would want to see, in dreams, a greater dimension of the imagination. For us, someone who is deprived of that is condemned to die. That’s part of what we wanted to say…  If one cannot dream and imagine things, and if one is sentenced to the everyday, to reality, it’s awful.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon,

PLOT:  A mad genius living on an abadnoned oil rig, who is growing prematurely old because he cannot dream, abducts children from a nearby port city and tries to steal their dreams.  His minions seize the adopted little brother of One, a foreigner and former sailor who now works in a carnival as a strongman.  One teams up with a streetwise orphan girl in the nameless, magical city to track down his little brother’s location.

City of Lost Children

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the second and final collaboration between Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after the black comedy Delicatessan (1991).  Caro focused on the art direction, and Jeunet worked with the actors.
  • Caro and Jeunet conceived the idea for the film fourteen years before it was completed.
  • This visual effects spectacular, incorporating early CGI technology, was reportedly the most expensive film yet  produced in France at that time.
  • La cité des enfants perdus was the opening film at the Cannes film festival in 1995 and was in competition for the Palme D’or (losing to ‘s Underground).

INDELIBLE IMAGEThe City of Lost Children is a film that’s built around images: a CGI flea using its proboscis to insert a hypnotic drug into a man’s head, a disembodied brain in a fish tank, and a horde of frightening Santas all compete for honors—not to mention the city itself, a tottering port made up of rambling stairs, arches, balconies and alleys, which resembles Venice re-imagined as a Victorian junkyard.  The most iconic image, however, is gaunt old Krank in his gleaming lab hooked up to his dream stealing machine, a multi-tentacled headdress stolen from the laboratory of an avant-garde Dr. Frankenstien.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The City of Lost Children takes place in a magical city that could not exist except in the imagination, in dreams. It’s a fairy tale, but from the first scene—a child’s Christmas Eve dream that turns unsettlingly weird—it’s clear that this is no standard fantasy world that sets out a few simple deviations from our own, but instead a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is unleashed without respect for the possible.

Short theatrical trailer for City of Lost Children

COMMENTS: There’s a scene early on in The City of Lost Children where a dozing Continue reading 29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)