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Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 1996
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Although the move from animation to live action clearly was a gradual one (after all, ‘Alice‘ contained quite a bit of live action, while ‘Faust‘ was a live action film augmented with puppetry and animation), ‘Spiklenci slasti’ (Conspirators of Pleasure) can be regarded Jan Švankmajer’s first non-animated film, even if it stills contains a few bits of stop-motion and pixilation.

The change of technique doesn’t mean a change of style, however. The film is 100% Švankmajer throughout, with its complete lack of dialogue, its sound design (which is very reminiscent of that of animated films, indeed, with its emphatic sounds – we even hear the nonexistent sound of blinking of eyes), its idiosyncratic use of music (each individual has his/her own accompanying piece of music), its extreme close-ups, its sets of old buildings in a state of decay, and of course, a high dose of surrealism.

‘Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure)’ is an erotic film without sex. The titles are shown on a background of 18th century pornography, but the movie itself contains very little nudity, which is male only.

Main protagonist of the film is an unnamed bearded bachelor (played by Petr Meissel and identified as Mr. Pivoňka by Švankmajer). The film starts with him buying a sex magazine, but soon the magazine makes way for far more disturbing and puzzling acts of pleasure, involving a cupboard and a chicken. Mr. Pivoňka’s antics are interlaced with that of a postwoman, a mustached man, his lonely and abandoned wife, who’s a newsreader (Anna Wetlinská, who really was a newsreader), and the shop owner from the first scene, who’s secretly in love with Anna Wetlinská, and who builds an elaborate contraption around the television set she appears on.

The first 45 minutes are one big build-up to the pleasure acts themselves, and this is the most satisfying part of the film, because Švankmajer keeps the viewer puzzled where all the efforts of these people go to. Unfortunately, the acts of pleasure themselves are less compelling, as they’re not necessarily perverse as well as weird, and maybe this section is a bit overlong.

The shopkeeper’s machine is the absolute highlight, but the postwoman’s actions are absolutely grotesque, and that of Mr. Pivoňka and his neighbor, Mrs. Loubalová, sadomachistic, very violent and even morbid. Their acts involve the most animation, as their acts involve animated stuff dolls coming to life. But by now one could argue that the animation is more of a special effect than an element of style, although the pixilation still is used as a mean of surrealist story telling.

As the film comes to a finale, the boundary between reality and fantasy gets crossed. Anna Wetlinská seemingly takes over the shopkeeper’s machine, and comes to a climax herself. In the end the people’s fetishes get mixed, while Mr. Pivoňka’s mysterious ritual appears to have severe real life consequences indeed…

Nevertheless, one would like to know more about the postwoman and her incomprehensible rituals, as she seems to be some kind of facilitator of the desires of others. Also Anna Wetlinská’s bad marriage deserved a little bit more attention.

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is a very original and entertaining movie, but the film remains on the shallow side and lacks the layered surrealism of ‘Alice’ or ‘Faust’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Conspirators of Pleasure’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

Watch the trailer for ‘Brave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: November 23, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Le cerceau magique © Émile Cohl‘Le cerceau magique’ starts with a live action sequence taking place in a park.

There a girl brings her broken hoop to her uncle, who conjures a new one, a bigger one, and an even bigger one. The last hoop is a magical hoop, able to change the man’s and girl’s outfits into 16th century costumes.

Happily the girl runs off with the hoop, which leads to a short string of images showing life in 1908 Paris. But at one point she hangs the hoop on a wall, and here the real film starts, because inside the hoop all kinds of images form and move, like origami animals, some dice forming a word, a paper man with a wheelbarrow circling the hoop from the inside, a compass drawing a flowery figure, a moon-face, a clown balancing on his nose, etc. The film ends when the girl takes the hoop from the wall again and bows to the audience, implying that she was the conjurer of these images.

‘Le cerceau magique’ is a unique film because it features both stop-motion and drawn animation. Rarely are these techniques used together. Cohl even adds live action to the mix, leading to a quite enjoyable film, if a rather directionless one. Unfortunately, the surviving print is very bad, and quite a bit of the middle section is indistinguishable through the wearing of the film.

Watch ‘Le cerceau magique’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le cerceau magique’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

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Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: April 18,1941
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Baggage Buster © Walt DisneyThe start of Goofy’s solo career was eventful, and all his five earliest solo cartoons can be regarded as key shorts in the evolution of the character.

‘Baggage Buster’ is a particularly transitional cartoon. The short was made after Pinto Colvig’s departure to the Max Fleischer studio in Miami, leaving Goofy voiceless. The result is that in ‘Baggage Buster’ Goofy has become a completely silent character, while by 1941 silent characters already had become a rare feat.

Of course, director Jack Kinney and his team would use this fact to their advantage in the great ‘how to’ cartoons, starting with ‘How to Ride a Horse’ sequence in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ of two months later, but in ‘Baggage Buster’ Goofy still is his 1930s self. After ‘Baggage Buster’ Kinney never reverted to this version of the character, and he was only revived in a few Mickey Mouse shorts, and in the Goofy cartoons ‘Foul Hunting’ (1947, by Jack Hannah) and ‘The Big Wash’ (1948, by Clyde Geronimi). In these two cartoons, however, Goofy speaks again, leaving ‘Baggage Buster’ being the sole cartoon in which our character remains a strange mix of the 1930s Goof and the 1940s silent character.

Like Donald had been in his first solo cartoon, ‘Donald’s Ostrich’ (1937), Goofy is a station master at some remote train station. And where Donald had to deal with an all too hungry ostrich, Goofy struggles with a magician’s trunk. The trunk knows quite some tricks, and even defies gravity, giving Goofy a hard time. The most bizarre scene is when Goofy’s body largely disappears inside the magician’s hat, leaving him walking on his arms.

The cartoon ends with the trunk producing an endless stream of animals, and soon Goofy’s little station is flocked by e.g. a lion, an armadillo, a shark, a flying squirrel, a giraffe, a crocodile, a stork (carrying a baby), a seal, an elephant, an ant eater, and even a sperm whale and a dinosaur…

As is often the case with cartoons dealing with magic, however, the humor never reaches great heights, as the magic permits an ‘anything can happen’ mantra, which spoils the fun. It’s so much funnier when cartoon magic is applied without the ‘it’s magic’ excuse.

Goofy’s looks once again are more streamlined than before, but only with ‘How to Ride a Horse’ he would reach his new appearance, which would last until he was redesigned once again, for ‘Tennis Racquet’ in 1949.

Watch ‘Baggage Buster’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 3
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Goofy’s Glider
To the next Goofy cartoon: The Art of Skiing

‘Baggage Buster’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

 

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: March 25, 1939
Stars: Two Curious Dogs, proto-Bugs Bunny
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Chuck Jones uses the silly rabbit from Ben Hardaway’s ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt‘ (1938) and makes it a magician’s rabbit in a cartoon featuring his earliest stars, the “Two Curious Dogs”, which had made their debut in January in ‘Dog Gone Modern’.

In ‘Prest-O Change-O” the two dogs flee from a dog catcher into a magician’s house, where the tall dog meets the rabbit, while the small dog struggles with a “hindu rope”.

Jones’s handling of the material is very Disney-like, slow in action and with much attention for situation comedy. Unfortunately, his two dog characters are anything but funny, and the complete film fails to impress. The rabbit, a forerunner of Bugs Bunny, is as unsympathetic as he was in ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt’ and rightfully gets punched in the end. He doesn’t talk, however, but shows the weird laugh he got in ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt’.

‘Prest-O Change-O’ doesn’t add anything, however, and the rabbit remains unappealing. So, after this film this particular rabbit was transformed into another design, making its debut in ‘Hare-um Scare-um’ of five months later.

Watch ‘Prest-O Change-O’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Prest-O Change-O’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’

This is the second of four cartoons featuring a Bugs Bunny forerunner
To the first proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon: Porky’s Hare Hunt
To the next proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon: Hare-um Scare-um

Director: Paul Driessen
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

De schrijver en de dood © Paul DriessenIn an old castle a medieval writer is writing such lively stories, it  attracts Death’s attention.

The writer tells a story about a peddler and his son, who has a touch of magic. All goes well, until Death comes in, and messes with the writer’s stories to ruin them and fill them with death and misery. Nevertheless, he fails to kill the son, who’s the writer’s main protagonist. With his magical powers the young boy escapes certain death several times. However, when in the end, the writer turns out to be same man as the little boy in his stories, Death has the last laugh.

‘De schrijver en de dood’ is one of Paul Driessen’s darkest and gloomiest films. His typical black humor is not absent, and is best visible in the little snapshots, which disrupt the story’s continuity for small morbid gags. But more than in any other of his films death is more disturbing than funny, and the sadness and misery are heartfelt. At the same time, it’s also one of Driessen’s most poetical films. The images are rich and full of fantasy, and in his own way Driessen creates a convincing medieval world to marvel at.

Watch ‘De schrijver en de dood’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘De schrijver en de dood’ is available on the DVD ‘The Dutch Films of Paul Driessen’

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