Tag Archives: Fable

351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

Psiconautas, los Niños Olvidados; AKA Psyconauts: The Forgotten Children

“Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.”–“The Parlour Companion” (1818)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Voices of Andrea Alzuri, Félix Arcarazo, Eba Ojanguren. Josu Cubero; Lauren Weintraub, Jake Paque, Sofia Bryant, Dean Flanagan (English dub)

PLOT: This fable takes place on an island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals years after a nuclear disaster has devastated the ecology and economy. Dinky, an adolescent mouse, plans to run away with her friends, hoping to leave the island and find a better life. She desperately wants her boyfriend Birdboy to accompany her, but the feral child is addicted to pills and too absorbed in his own problems to join the small crew.

Still from Birdboy, The Forgotten Children (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Birdboy: The Forgotten Children began life as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez. Pedro Rivera, a screenwriter who had directed one animated feature at that time, read the book and got in contact with Vázquez to see if he would be interested in adapting the book into a movie. The two made the short “Birdboy” in 2011 as a proof of concept, then were able to raise funds for the feature film.
  • Psiconautas won best animated film at Spain’s 2016 Goya awards but it was not a financial success, grossing a mere $13,000 in Spain and only $52,000 worldwide.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When Birdboy’s adolescent brain finally breaks and his horde of shadowy bat demons break loose, flocking up his lighthouse lair and coalescing into a dark dragon with glowing red eyes and a vicious pincer beak.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Abused alarm clock; adopted luchador pup; addicted nose spider

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Birdboy is the story of cute, drug-addicted baby animals stranded on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic island. It’s got talking alarm clocks, piggy banks, and inflatable ducks, all of whom have tragic stories to tell. It’s not afraid to give a puppy a rifle, or put one in a skintight leather mask. But for all of this sarcastic nihilism, it’s not a black comedy, but an empathetic fable and an immersive spectacle, told through beautiful and often psychedelic animation.


Trailer for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

COMMENTS: Birdboy is, honestly, a pretty easy sell. It’s got cute Continue reading 351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

FELLINI’S LA STRADA (1954)

Most film historians and critics credit La Strada (1954) as the first Felliniesque film. A major success which won the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film, La Strada moved into the top tier of world film directors.

Like most romantic spiritual mythology, the appeal and accessibility of La Strada is found in its simplistic symbolism. Yet, the simplicity is also deceptive. My painting professor from art school once advised us that “obsession is often a good thing.” Here, we see the Fellini we have since come to know emerge with his obsessive themes of circuses and seasides in compositions populated by what would become archetypical figures. Fellini’s wife Giuletta Masina is cast as the eternally naïve gamin Gelsomina. Masina clearly patterned her character after . Fellini had used Masina, albeit briefly, in their first collaboration, The White Sheik (1952), and would extend that characterization in what is possibly their best work together, The Nights Of Cabiria (1957). Cast opposite Masina is her counterpart, Anthony Quinn, as the strongman Zampano. Quinn could be likened to Arthur Thalasso’s Zandow from Langdon’s The Strong Man (1927), or Eric Campbell’s “Goliath” from a number of ’s films. or even Pablo Picasso’s Minotaur. Rounding out the surrealistic trilogy is Richard Basehart’s high wire act as The Fool.

Zampano needs to replace his previous assistant Rosa and purchases the young, slow-witted Gelsomina from her mother. Zampano is cruel and brutish to his charge, but like Langdon’s waif, an inexplicable higher force seems to protecting her. Her pantomime act endears her to the circus crowd and she becomes the main draw.

Still from La Strada (1954)Although the relationship between Zampano and Gelsomina is abusive, somehow it works, according to the divine plan, until the serpent enters Eden. Being Fellini, the symbolism is not as Biblically simpleminded as that, and we are introduced to The Fool through pagan entertainment fused with the symbolism of religious fiesta. He appears elevated, adorned in cherub wings, but angels fall in myths, and on the ground the Fool  proves to be no angel. Although his concern for Gelsomina initially seems to be genuine, he is apt to manipulate her. The Fool’s relationship with Zampano is more clearly combative. He mercilessly taunts the strongman and Fellini injects a hint of a previous, cruel ménage a trois with Rosa (a substitute for Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam).

Long-suffering, Gelsomina’s virtue is a channel to the enigmatic infinite. She mourns Zampano’s treatment of others instead of her own sufferings under his hand (sexual abuse is hinted at, but wisely avoided). Gelsomina’s status as a model of feminine submissiveness is revealingly emphasized in a convent vignette.

We are privy to Zampano’s lack of self-awareness and empathy that stems from his own past abuse. It is not his continuance of the cycle, but abandonment of Gelsomina, which finally severs her allegiance to him. The gripping, catastrophic finale echoed Tyrone Power’s shattered geek in Nightmare Alley (1947).

The Marxists, among others, saw Fellini’s break from neorealism here as a betrayal and, despite all the accolades gifted to La Strada, the film and its creator provoked a sea of controversy. Like Chaplin, Fellini celebrates the derelict. To the subscribers of ideological pragmatism in art, the ultimate blasphemy was Fellini’s portrayal of post-war Italy filtered through the dual lenses of naturalism and fantastic parable. The director’s legion of early admirers would brand him nothing less than a heretic after his later forays into opulent surrealism.

Nino Rota’s haunting score and Otello Martelli’s ethereal, nuanced cinematography add considerably to La Strada‘s seductive quality. Rota’s theme music proved to be a resounding popular success on European radio for decades following.

 helped finance the film’s restoration and introduces a Criterion Collection release that predictably is loaded with a wealth of extras. Among the supplements is an audio essay by film scholar Peter Bondanella, the documentary Federico Fellini’s Autobiography (which originally played on Italian television), and a second, charming documentary focusing on Masina and her off-screen, on-screen collaboration with Fellini.

CAPSULE: THE RABBI’S CAT (2011)

Le Chat du Rabbin

DIRECTED BY: , Antoine Delesvaux

FEATURING: Voices of François Morel, Maurice Bénichou, ,

PLOT: The adventures of a talking cat owned by an Algerian rabbi, who innocently blasphemes, wants to be bar mitzvahed, and tags along on a quest to find the black Jews of Africa.

Still from The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eccentrically conceived, The Rabbi’s Cat is an oddity of animated Judaica, but it’s not quite special enough to crack the List.

COMMENTS: Almost as strange as an Old Testament story, The Rabbi’s Cat begins in earnest when the titular feline swallows a rival pet—a parrot—and thereby gains the power of speech. The cat’s owners, a rabbi and his daughter, are surprised by this unusual development, but not quite as shocked as one might expect; the rabbi is more upset by the fact that the cat’s very first words are a lie (“I didn’t eat the parrot”) then he is by the fact that the conversation itself violates God’s laws of nature. That odd tone persists throughout this episodic film, which never finds a surefooted approach to its bizarre conceits but nonetheless remains witty and fascinating most of the time. The cat is conceived outside of human Jewish traditions, so he finds Bible stories ridiculous (“even a kitten wouldn’t fall for that!,” he complains about Genesis’ creation narrative), and when he blasphemes it seems innocent. But he also desires to be a Jew like his master and beloved mistress, and becomes obsessed with being bar mitzvahed, despite the fact that he shows no allegiance (and in fact a good bit of skeptical hostility) towards the teachings of the Talmud. The story is set in the 1930s in an Algeria populated by uneasily coexisting Jews, Arab Muslims and French Christians, but the multi-ethnic paradise of Algiers is eroding: antisemitism is on the rise, and Nazism lurks around the corner. Perhaps the turmoil of this pre-WWII world explains why the story is so jumbled up; or, perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the film is adapted from a five-volume graphic novel series, and strains to fit in too many incidents, characters and storylines into its running time. In the course of the tale, the cat gains the power of speech, then loses it after uttering a forbidden name of God (although for unknown reasons he can still speak to other animals and to Russians); just as arbitrarily, he starts talking again after being treated for a scorpion sting. A cousin with a pet lion, a Russian Jew smuggled in a crate of books, a bloody duel between an alcoholic Tsarist and a scimitar-wielding Bedouin, and the cat’s semi-erotic obsession with his master’s curvy daughter also jostle for our attention. The animation style wanders almost as much as the narrative. Although most of the film is drawn in a style only a little more elaborate than Hergé’s “Tintin” scribblings, there’s a surrealistic dream sequence, done in an even simpler and more childlike style, in which the rabbi literally cries an ocean of tears then lounges in his own salty discharge (smoking a waterproof hookah and nibbling on passing fish). And for unexplained reasons, when the cat and his companions actually discover the ancient hidden city of the Ethiopian Jews, the style changes again, so that the characters now appear as bizarre Hanna-Barbera caricatures of themselves, complete with huge round eyes. Mildly surrealistic touches like this, along with the script’s disinterest into sticking to any one plot or style for very long, make this a weirder (and richer) experience than it had to be.

Sfar wrote five volumes of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics between 2002 and 2006. In 2009 he paused his cartooning career and turned to film directing with the fantastical biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which incorporated a puppet to represent musician Serge Gainsbourg’s libido.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A horny talking feline who wants a bar mitzvah is just the start of the weirdness in the loopy yet unfunny animated feature ‘The Rabbi’s Cat.'”–Kyle Smith, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE DEVIL’S CARNIVAL (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Terrance Zdunich, , Briana Evigan, Jessica Lowndes, Dayton Callie

PLOT: A suicide, a jewel thief, and a thug’s girlfriend die and find themselves at an afterlife circus run by the Devil; he reads the stories of their sins retold as fables, which they re-enact to musical accompaniment supplied by carnies.

Still from The Devil's Carnival (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Devil’s Carnival is a lot like director Darren Lynn Bousman’s previous horror musical effort, Repo: The Genetic Opera, only on a smaller scale. If that one didn’t make it onto the List, then logically this one shouldn’t, either.

COMMENTS: Hell is eternal musical theater! I knew it! The Devil’s Carnival looks like refugees from a circus took over unused sets from Moulin Rouge. Hell’s color scheme is candy apple red and hot dog mustard yellow, and all the demons have mime-white faces with black and red designs equally inspired by medieval harlequins and KISS. The plot to this musical is delightfully warped, in more ways than one. It involves suicide, thievery, and women in masochistic relationships, but it also benefits from a wild narrative that veers between reality, fantasy, and song and dance numbers at a whim. Fittingly, none of the denizens of the carnival seem the slightest bit surprised by any of it; the three hellbound souls receiving their poetic punishments wonder why they’re suddenly at a state fair designed by David Lynch for all of five seconds before they start accepting the dream at face value. I always like it when a movie script takes on too much and mixes its metaphors. Carnival starts off as Dante by way of Cirque du Soleil, then, one-third of the way in, after each of the three stories is already in progress, the Devil starts reading a book of Aesop’s fables which illustrate the sins (adding to the confusion, the last section, “The Devil’s Due,” doesn’t even refer to Aesop—the quote’s from from Shakespeare and the plot’s from nowhere in particular). Along with the three fables, we also get a backstage peek at the Devil’s lieutenant casting the night’s morality plays and a subplot about the Lucifer-God rivalry, all shoehorned in around a dozen songs in a movie that’s only an hour long. The script’s a mess, but I don’t mean that as a criticism: the overabundance of ideas and references in The Devil’s Carnival gives the entire enterprise a loose and crazy feeling that’s appropriate and appealing. The costume and set design is superlative, and the demonic hoofers—the Hobo Clown, the Painted Doll, and plastic-haired greaser Scorpion—are all a morbid hoot. Where The Devil’s Carnival loses me is with the songs. They are impressively staged and consistently performed in a Weimar-era German cabaret style. The Hobo Clown, ragged hat extended for alms, croons a demented doggerel silhouetted by footlights while a topless woman is whipped in the background (like all of Carnival, this is a surprisingly PG-13 rendition of some very dark material). But the melodies, while appropriately carnivalesque, aren’t memorable, and the libretto can’t match the ambition of the mise-en-scene. There’s too much repetition, and more than once the lyrics fall back on the cheap trick of incorporating children’s nursery rhymes to cop a little irony. Songs like “Kiss the Girls,” with a man menaced by a gang of sexy clowns in Bozo’s of Hollywood lingerie, look great, but make little sense. The lip-syncing is also frequently off, providing another distraction. Ivan L. Moody, a veteran of several minor metal bands with a surprisingly melodious baritone, gives the best performance; but the best conceived number is “Prick,” a love badly sung by a painted waif to a bullfrog that makes clever use of the double meaning in the title. Still, there is nothing here that you’d want to put on your I-Pod (Repo cultists, many of whom bought this soundtrack on the release date without having heard a note, may naturally disagree). Divorced from their presentations, the songs are all competent but forgettable, and, like its predecessor Genetic Opera, it’s that lack of memorable tunes that keeps The Devil’s Carnival from making the leap to the next artistic level. If Bousman could just borrow the talents of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or even , for just a week sometime, he might make something really magical. The film is part of a planned series, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Carnival may not have blown me away, but the best compliment I can give it as that it has me looking forward to the next installment—and, it makes me consider looking backward to reassess Repo.

While Bousman continues to make horror movies like Mother’s Day within the Hollywood system, The Devil’s Carnival cements his credibility as a cult filmmaker and suggests he’s dedicated to the more interesting, less-marketable horror-musical concept. The mid-range production values, cable TV-friendly naughtiness, cliffhanger ending and hour-long length of Carnival make it look like a pilot for an HBO series, although there’s no evidence it was ever intended for the small screen. The marketing of the film, which was self-financed by Bousman and partner Terrance Zdunich (who wrote the script and plays the Devil), is innovative: a VOD/Netflix streaming release, supplemented by a collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray (limited to 6660 copies) and a “carnival road tour.” Hopefully this nontraditional distribution strategy will work and allow the pair to retain their artistic independence by selling directly to the fans.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dismiss Repo and Carnival as weird musicals for weird people if you like, but there’s always room for a filmmaker who treats his ticket-buyers well and delivers something sort of … unsafe.”–Scott Weinberg, FearNet (contemporaneous)