Tag Archives: Fantasy

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

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DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy

FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin

PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
  • Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
  • Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
  • This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
  • The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.


Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)

COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

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DIRECTED BY: , Emeric Pressburger

FEATURING: Robert Rounseville, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Moria Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Ann Ayars

PLOT: During the intermission of a ballet, the poet Hoffman tells a drinking party stories of three women whom he has loved and lost: an automaton, a courtesan, and an ailing singer.

Still from Tales of Hoffman (1951)

COMMENTS: Hoffman is a layer-cake of high art contributions: starting with Jacques Offenbach’s opera “Tales of Hoffman,” edited and altered to fit the running time and the producer’s fancies, with the libretto translated into English for the first time, adding an entirely new ballet scene and requiring extensive choreography for the rest of the acts, staged on lavish sets designed by unsung hero Hein Heckroth, and ultimately delivered through the medium of cinema and a magical camera. Offenbach’s final opus, completed only months before the composer’s death in 1819, seems an unlikely candidate for the most lavish cinematic opera ever filmed. Unlike the major works of Wagner, Mozart, or Bizet, it contains no well-known arias or overtures. What it does offer is a number of evocative scene-changes through a variety of romantic locales, which was what likely attracted and Emeric Pressburger (known, together with their customary production team, as “the Archers”) to the project.

Robert Rounseville makes for a bland Hoffmann; he was cast primarily because he played the part on stage, but in his defense he was one of the only actors to sing his own part (most were dubbed and performed while lip-syncing). Lithe ballerina Moria Shearer (from The Red Shoes) takes the spotlight for two top-notch dances, as the sinuous female dragonfly in the opening ballet and in a comic mode as the stiff automaton. With his expressive eyes and even more expressive eyebrows, Robert Helpmann snakes through the stories (and steals every scene) as Hoffman’s eternally recurring Satanic antagonist; a former dancer and choreographer, he performs no grand jeté‘s here, but always moves purposefully and gracefully. It’s fair to say he is the film’s onscreen star: usually, the actors are hardly more significant than the custom-built marionettes.

The sets, dances, wardrobes, and optics drive the experience, not the actors or narrative. Hoffman tours four major settings—the lily pad lake where the dragonflies perform their mating dance; the workshop of the automaton-maker, peopled with marionettes; the decadent Venice of courtesans; the classical marble halls of the singer’s villa on a remote Greek island—in addition to several minor sets (like the beer hall). Each has its own dominant color scheme: green for the dragonflies, yellow for the living dolls, red for the gondolas and bordellos of Venice, and blue for the Greek island. The Continue reading CAPSULES: THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (1951)

CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Shin Wakabayashi, Yūta Yamazaki, Yūki Yonemori, Yūichirō Komuro, Shinichirō Ushijima, Yūsuke Yamamoto, Maiko Kobayashi, Eita Higashikubo, Mitsuru Hagi

FEATURING: Voices of Kanata Aikawa, Tomori Kusunoki,  Shuka Saitō, Hinaki Yano, Yūya Uchida,  Hiroki Takahashi; Mikaela Krantz,  Dawn M. Bennett, Anairis Quiñones, Michelle Rojas, Brendan Blaber, Ian Sinclair (English dub)

PLOT: Four teenage girls buy eggs from mannequins in hopes of bringing suicides back to life.

Still from Wonder egg priority (2021)

COMMENTS: Episode 1 (“The Domain of Children”) is a promising start. We meet Ai Ohto, a hikikomori heroine with heterochromia, already inside of a dream. Following a brief orientation in Ai’s waking reality (a hermit existence with only her mother and a visiting teacher to relieve the self-imposed loneliness), we go into the following night’s dream, which brings schoolgirls with blurred faces, a talking toilet paper roll, grinning eyeless balls called “see-no-evils” (who will be recurring adversaries), a flashback inside the dream, a crying statue, and a resurrected firefly who offers Ai an egg that contains, he claims, the thing she really wants—a friend. It ends with the firefly revealed to be, in reality, a crash-test-dummy mannequin in a tuxedo who hangs out, along with a more casual mannequin wearing his baseball cap backwards, in a garden where the two sell teenage girls Wonder Eggs out of a vending machine. Each egg leads into a dream where the buyer must save a former female suicide from a metaphorical monster; succeed in enough of these missions, it’s hinted, and Ai will get her dead friend back.

Thrown into this scenario, the introduction is charmingly disorienting, although enough clues are supplied that, by episode 2, the outlines of the plot are comprehensible (aside from the overriding issue of how and why this oddly conceived suicide egg economy exists in the first place.) The series then falls into a “monster of the week” groove; in the second episode, Ai fights a demonic coach to save a gymnast worked into suicide, and in each of the next four installments a new Wonder Egg devotee comes on board, until we have a girl gang of four dream warriors. Each of the characters has a distinctive design and a nice character hook: Neiru is an pretty but emotionally-stunted girl genius, Rika is a peppy and mischievous former junior idol, and Momoe is an androgynous outcast. The missions the girls go on allow the creators to address an array of topics of interest to the target audience: bullying, unrealistic expectations, self-acceptance, molestation, gender identification, obsessive fandom, and, most prominently, suicide. In between battles, the girls bond, and a couple of subplots—Ai’s teacher and his relationships to much of the female cast, hints of Neiru’s backstory—start developing. A few new elements are also added, Continue reading CHANNEL 366: WONDER EGG PRIORITY (2021)

CHANNEL 366: THE SANDMAN (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Mike Barker, Jamie Childs, Mairzee Almas, Andrés Baiz, Coralie Fargeat, Louise Hooper,

FEATURING: Tom Sturridge, Boyd Holbrook, Vivienne Acheampong, Vanesu Samunyai, , voice of

PLOT: Captured by a human magician, the entity Dream escapes after a century and sets about reclaiming his tools to rebuild his realm.

Still from The Sandman (2022)
The Sandman. Tom Sturridge as Dream in The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

COMMENTS: This Sandman is no “candy-colored clown.” Dream is more of a contemplative type, deathly pale, darkly haired, and pursed-lipped. But then, when we meet him, he has considerable reason to be. Roderick Burgess, dark sorcerer extraordinaire, has captured the ruler of the dream lands, and, with his son taking over the guardianship upon the wizard’s passing, kept him incarcerated for a century. So begins Netflix’s chronicle of “The Sandman,” an effects-filled, symbol-heavy, and, yes, dreamy vision of ‘s much beloved comic book series.

Dream is one of seven godlike entities collectively known as “the Endless,” and his realm (“the Dreaming”) is laid out in full splendor as we travel through it while he softly narrates the introduction. Tom Sturridge’s performance as Dream is well up to the task (even accounting for his excessive habit of pursing his lips). The first episode chronicles his capture, hinting at the world’s characters as we observe the Dream trapped in a glass-and-steel orb nestled within a summoning circle. There is a sad twist from the get-go, for we learn that it was not this particular Endless that Burgess was after—he intended to capture Death, to bargain with her to return his dead son.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, as the friendliest Death this side of the divide, and Gwendoline Christie, as a prim-and-proper-and-not-ever-to-be-crossed Lucifer, shine in their roles. Dream’s early encounter with Lucifer in Hell hints of some nastiness to come (in season two, presumably). You see, having escaped his cage, Dream is weakened not only by the long-separation from his realm, but also from the loss of his regalia: a bag of sand which allows him to travel the dream world (as well as summon it); a helm, which allows him to travel freely through the waking world; and most importantly, a ruby amulet which allows him to craft dreams—and destroy them.

The fifth episode is the best. I give nothing away by telling you that Dream does collect his accessories, and it is in the pursuit of the final element—the ruby—that “The Sandman” experiences its strangest turn. Set almost entirely within a diner, the episode explores one man’s dream of a better world: a world in which lies cannot exist. The antagonist, and the man with this dream, is one John Dee (David Thewliss, providing the best performance of the series), the civilly unhinged son of the woman who stole Dream’s gear from Burgess all Continue reading CHANNEL 366: THE SANDMAN (2022)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: INU-OH (2021)

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犬王

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DIRECTED BY: Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Voices of Avu-chan, Mirai Moriyama

PLOT: A blind itinerant priest crosses paths with “the King of Dogs”, a vivacious and deformed creature with a talent for dancing; through the priest’s music and the dancer’s storytelling, they attempt to lay the lost souls of the Heike clan to rest.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I have come to the conclusion that perhaps everything in Masaaki Yuasa’s œuvre should get canonized, particularly as we now have the elbow room to do so. (Night is Short, Walk on Girl was shortchanged due to numeric constraints.) Inu-oh brings an unlikely legend to bombastic life, fusing rock opera, ballet, pyrotechnics, spirits, curses, gender self-discovery, physical transformation; it’s a 21st-century story about a 14th-century performance troupe unearthing the secrets of an 12th-century war.

COMMENTS: It tickles me that Inu-Oh is Masaaki going “commercial.” This stems to a great extent, of course, from the fact that here in the United States, film norms are sickeningly normal: we are reigning kings of the lowest white bread denominator (so much so that it was controversial when Disney took a belated and modest stand against overtly bigoted legislation in its home state). Among the many themes explored in Inu-Oh, gender identity is near the fore, along with the nuances of parental acceptance of someone’s true self.

But let me stop that vein of thought for the moment. This is film for, and about, entertainment. It’s about musical revolution, and the delineation of the esteemed Noh tradition, which harkens back to the middle of last millennium. Inu-Oh follows Noh’s traditional story arc, lacing it with modern rock sensibilities. (Well, maybe not “modern” rock, but certainly strains of Buddy Holly through Jimmie Hendrix and Freddie Mercury.) The titular character is a born performer, despite—or because of—the fact he is a born monstrosity: an unnamed son of a proto-Noh performer, a boy of ambiguous shape, deformed face, and a long, strong arm. He embraces his outcast status, at one point referring to himself as “the Horrible Gourd” in honor of his misshapen mask. But as the son of a dance troupe leader, it comes as no surprise that Inu-Oh was born to jump and jive.

Tomona, the biwa priest, has a comparatively subtler trajectory. The son of a salvage diver, he is blinded at a young age when he and his father retrieved cursed regalia. Masaaki’s visual treatment of this unseeing musician is a treat, as total darkness gains rough outline of form with each sound Tomona hears. Being unable to see, the priest-musician (a biwa is never without his four-string shamisen and bachi) does not fear Inu-Oh, and is so able to help the mutant through his journey. Tomona’s personal journey is also about transformation as he evolves into an increasingly feminine entity, adopting the name Tomaori by the film’s end. The morphing of their name allows them to grow into their true form, but plays havoc with the spirit world, and with their ancestors—as one’s given, or accepted, name is what allows Tomona/Tomaori’s father to maintain contact from the afterlife.

While the first half of Inu-Oh is “merely” steeped in music, song, and dance, the second half is one long string of hand-clapping, foot-stomping musical numbers showcasing the monumental talents Tomona and Inu-Oh share as natural performers. They give the forgotten fate of the Heike spirits full-throated treatment, with Inu-Oh performing transgressively non-traditional storytelling through song and dance, while Tomona positively shreds it on their shamisen. Contemporary shogunate politics play a role in the story as well, as does the concurrent, tragic tale of Inu-Oh’s fame-obsessed father. Masaaki Yuasa never settles for half measures, and every theme—friendship, salvation, transformation, politics, and music—ties together in an animated vortex of vivacity and sonic rollercoaster of rocking melody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This anachronistic rock musical promises a return to the playful, literary surrealism of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ (2010) and its 2017 spin-off, ‘Night Is Short, Walk On Girl,’ but comes up short… There are individual sequences that reach the psychedelic heights of Yuasa’s best work. But too often, this tale of the liberating power of art is about as mind-expanding as an early-afternoon set at Fuji Rock Festival.”–James Hadfield, Japan Times (contemporaneous)