Tag Archives: Steampunk

47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)

Tajemství hradu v Karpatech

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“This story is not fantastic ; it is merely romantic. Are we to conclude that it is not true, its unreality being granted ? That would be a mistake. We live in times when everything can happen — we might almost say everything has happened. If our story does not seem to be true to-day, it may seem so to-morrow, thanks to the resources of science, which are the wealth of the future.”–Jules Verne, “The Castle of the Carpathians”

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michal Docolomanský, , , , Evelyna Steimarová

PLOT: Despondent after a failed love affair, Count Teleke explores the Carpathians with his manservant in hopes of forgetting his misfortune. The pair discover a mysterious castle on a mountainside and a man half buried in the road, and make their way to the village of “West Werewolfston,” where they learn more legends about the stronghold. Accompanied by the buried man, a civil servant who’s also obsessed with the castle, Teleke decides to investigate the mysterious edifice, where an evil Baron and a mad scientist are developing a powerful weapon.

Still from The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For all the incredible gadgetry that appears in The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians, the most unforgettable one may be the tiny pistol, no larger than a thumb, that the count pulls out to protect himself at the first sign of danger. (The bullets would have to be about the size of water drops, and locating the tiny trigger would be a chore).

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyes and ears on a staff; desiccated diva

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the steampunk, slapstick Czech parody of Gothic literature you never knew you needed—until you heard it described in just those words.

Restoration trailer for Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians

COMMENTS: The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians is the last entry in a loose Czech trilogy parodying genres popular in the West: Continue reading 47*. THE MYSTERIOUS CASTLE IN THE CARPATHIANS (1981)

44*. POOR THINGS (2023)

“Nature gives children great emotional resilience to help them survive the oppressions of being small, but these oppressions still make them into slightly insane adults, either mad to seize all the power they once lacked or (more usually) mad to avoid it.”― Alasdair Gray, Poor Things

DIRECTED BY: Yorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef

PLOT: When a pregnant woman throws herself off a bridge, scientist Godwin Baxter spots an opportunity to conduct an unprecedented science experiment by transplanting the fetal brain into her mother’s body. The result is Bella, a woman with a grown-up physique and an infantile mind, who develops at a rapid rate and soon discovers many adult pleasures not otherwise accessible to an impressionable youth. Speaking with a frankness about herself and others that flies in the face of standards for propriety, she leaves home to explore the world, first in the company of caddish attorney Duncan Wedderburn and later as an employee in a Parisian bordello, returning  home  to discover that a figure from her past has located her.

Still from poor things (2023)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bella’s very raison d’etre is to explore the world on her terms, following her bliss and flagrantly disregarding social niceties. Nothing better expresses this impulse than her spin on the dance floor, staggering about in full thrall to the music, limbs flung in every direction, and doing so with such verve and joy that even Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan is compelled to join in.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble burps; “I have to go punch that baby”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A spectacular blend of quirky plot, offbeat setting, and demented execution, Poor Things is joyously inappropriate. In a film where virtually nobody behaves according to convention, the heroine is someone who casts aside any semblance of decorum in favor of a life lived as she chooses. The result is an unexpected blend of Frankenstein, Big, Candide, and The Opening of Misty Beethoven.

Official trailer for Poor Things

COMMENTS: The most dreaded phase for parents rearing a child is Continue reading 44*. POOR THINGS (2023)

FANTASIA 2023: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KURAYAKUBA (2023)

クラユカバ

Wanderers in the Darkness

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DIRECTED BY: Shigeyoshi Tsukahara

FEATURING: Voices of Hakuzan Kanda, Tomoyo Kurosawa, Raikou Sakamoto

PLOT: Ne’er-do-well detective Sotaro is hired to investigate a series of disappearances coinciding with a touring carnival, and descends into “the Dark,” an undercity plagued by gangs and, it is rumored, supernatural concerns.

Still from Kurayukaba (2021)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Jazzy steampunk, circus evil, and eldritch mystery shroud this animated action/noir gurgling with easy-going humor, and its big top finale makes for a wild ride of Caligari-style wonderment.

COMMENTS: There is a lot that makes sense about our protagonist, Sotaro. He’s a detective because his father was one, he’s disheveled because business is slow, and he’s got something of a sidekick in the form of a scrappy street urchin named Saki—because, frankly, a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective would. He also has two qualities to his credit, at least in the eyes of a newspaper man who wants an investigator: he’s broke, and takes a relaxed view of his own well being. This makes Sotaro (after some booze and cajoling) the perfect candidate to take a dive into “the Dark”, an underground labyrinth and cave system teaming with ancient shrines, modern hoodlums, renegade law enforcement aganets, and ghostly, carnivalistic evil.

Kurayukaba‘s visual style is reminiscent of a dog-eared, old comic: watercoloring bleeds, and a papery quality renders the image tactile at times. The hero’s world-weariness does a dance with his deep-seated vivacity: while he’s only shown drunk or hung-over, his quick wits and powers of observation make him the ideal “reactive protagonist” (contradiction in terms that may be). As he explores the glorious, cluttered mess of “the Dark,” the pastel-steampunk world below the surface comes alive in a confusing maze of train cars, gears, bridges, and colorful characters. The case concerns the recurring disappearance of random victims, with a chaotic muddle of black markings the only trace of evidence. Conspiracy is in the air, as these events are typically hushed by the powers-that-be. And Sotaro is on the case because—well, he’s on the case because he needs the money; he was hired because he has a long history with “the Dark.”

Rarely, if ever, before have I had the pleasure to witness this particular visual fusion found amongst the mysteries of Kurayukaba. Among the oddities to enjoy are an armored demon train reputed to haunt the labyrinth; a Greek chorus of clockwork birds on a merchant’s display stage (which reminds me of the strange behavior of our dear detective’s office parrot…); and Sotaro’s various flashbacks. His explorations continue his father’s work, culminating across the generations in a fantastical centerpiece. Kurayukaba is inspired by ’20s-era visuals and sound, with a particular bent toward German , and the film meanders along its tracks with an ongoing rota of eccentric characters and phenomena, de-layering an age old conspiracy until a vibrant, hallucinatory climax that ties the case together while resolving Sotaro’s difficulties with his father. After the explosion of light, sound, and spectacle, our tired hero can finally go top-side and have himself a well-earned drink.

Read our interview with director Shigeyoshi Tsukahara and producer Shinnosuke Yoshida.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s never a dull moment in this animation from Shigeyoshi Tsukahara, which mixes a detective story with an exuberant tale of a city’s mysterious underbelly all presented with steampunk verve.”–Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film

21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

Avril et le monde truqué

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DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares,

FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Marion Cotillard,  Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, Paul Giamatti (English dub)

PLOT: In 1941, during the reign of French emperor Napoleon V, the world’s scientists have vanished, technology has not progressed for the past six decades, and the environment has been devastated by war, coal consumption, and rampant deforestation. The French Empire hunts the remaining scientists, hoping to enlist them to work on the government’s behalf. After April’s parents are kidnapped by a mysterious electric cloud, the precocious girl teams up with her grandfather, a petty thief with divided loyalties, and her talking cat Darwin to track them down, and possibly find a solution to all that ails the planet.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Nominated for the César for Best Animated Feature; it lost to The Little Prince.
  • The most literal translation of “truqué” in the film’s French title is “rigged” or “fake.” The film’s English subtitles translate the title as April and the Twisted World.
  • An alternate history, the film’s point of divergence is the death of Napoleon III, who in our timeline lived to instigate the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. His prosecution of the war was such a failure that he was captured by the enemy, and his subsequent  rule inspired fierce opposition, ending his hopes of founding a dynasty.
  • Among the scientists whose disappearance has arrested the technological progress of this alternate world are Édouard Branly, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel, Louis Pasteur, Enrico Fermi, and Sergei Korolev. Also, that may be penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming giving a large sentient Komodo dragon a massage.
  • The film’s drawing style is modeled after cartoonist Jacques Tardi, who is credited as the creator of the “graphic universe” and gets a shout-out in the credits under an image of a pterodactyl.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing can quite compare with the first sight of a pair of Eiffel Towers looming over the Paris skyline, eventually revealing themselves as the central station for a fire-powered continental tramway that looms over the coal-stained cityscape. The image is so iconic that it figures prominently in the story, captured in April’s beloved snowglobe and playing a role in the film’s climax.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Ambulatory meta-mansion, spore rocket

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film’s individual elements—setting, story, design—are each slightly off-kilter on their own. But combined, they add up to a unified vision of strangeness. With each plot development, the film manages to elevate the already bizarre circumstances to even greater heights.

English-language trailer for April and the Extraordinary World

COMMENTS: Say the word “steampunk” and your first thoughts Continue reading 21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)