Reviews: The Magic Lantern: To Start With

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by Adam-Troy Castro

adamtroySo last issue we launched this space with this magazine’s first installment of The Remake Chronicles, a look at the stories that get made and remade in motion picture form. This issue, we initiate the feature that will more-or-less alternate with it: The Magic Lantern, a movie review column that will occasionally deign to cover whatever giant tent-pole offering pays the bills at the multiplex this month, but will somewhat more often concern itself with the offerings that most genre fans don’t know about, the treasures and less-than-treasures that can be found in various formats, either theatrically or on home video.

Not to put too fine a point on this, friends, we find this work holy. Too many of us can discuss the same dozen movies ad nauseum, but have absolutely no familiarity with that which hasn’t been focus-grouped, market-tested, and sold to us via sneak-peaks, artfully planned leaks, interviews, and divers other species of carefully molded salesmanship. Very few of us know that the best films are often those that few of us have heard about, that star nobody anyone has ever heard about, and that won’t ever form the toy inside a Happy Meal. The genres of fantasy and science fiction horror are particularly rich with such offerings, and if the titles in question can be provided with a little more circulation, it’s possible that more fans turning to the subject of genre film will be able to talk about something other than why Avatar sucked, why Charlize Therone could have easily leaped out of the way of that giant toppling horseshoe, and why M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is even worse than the movie he made before it.

Seriously, guys, there really are other movies to check out. Some of them require some searching. Some of them require you to sit through subtitles. Many are worth the time you would have spent watching the movies you already know by heart. I mean it.

Take this fascinating comedy… about boredom.

51lgqfSJlkLThe Bothersome Man (Norwegian; 2006). Directed by Jens Lien. Screenplay by Per H.V. Shreiner. Starring Trond Fausa Aurvåg , Petronella Barker Per Schaaning. 95 minutes.

A man is delivered by bus, on which he’s the only passenger, to a ramshackle way station in the middle of nowhere. From there he is delivered by car to a metropolis of exceeding blandness. He is kindly provided with a job and an apartment. The job is not challenging and the apartment is functional. People are polite enough, and the women reasonably willing to respond to his overtures. But no conversation he ever joins ever has any life to it; no pleasure of the flesh he indulges in gives him any satisfaction; every interaction he has with any other human being is utterly without color and energy. It is like living in a cocoon of cotton wool. It’s even worse than Boise, Idaho.

A taste of what awaits him is provided in the very first scene, an creepy flash-forward set on a subway platform which he shares with a couple making out at length. It may be the very least erotic kissing scene in movie history. It is moist and it is intimate and it is as without passion or pleasure as the lip-lock of aquarium gouramis. It is creepy as hell. The woman’s eyes remain wide-open throughout, and her expression suggests that she’s thinking of something else, perhaps what color drapes need to be acquired for the living room.

During his long residency in this city, our hero finds nothing more emotionally genuine.

The movie isn’t interested in spelling out exactly where he is. An American movie would likely have Morgan Freeman or an eminence of equivalent heft show up and explain to our befuddled protagonist, in about as many words, that he’s in Hell now and might as well get used to it. That scene would be deemed necessary not just for the audience member who refuses to make the obvious cognitive leap but also for the potential future audience member who needs that explanation boiled down to two sentences, and spoiled in the coming attraction. To this viewer, the lack of explanation works to the movie’s favor. It seems obvious that this poor shmo has been delivered to an afterlife that is at best Purgatory, more likely a place associated with lava pools and pitchforks, and that he is expected to remain imprisoned here forever. It should be even more obvious when it is graphically demonstrated to him that death is no escape. (He heals from the inevitable messy attempt at suicide.)

Other viewers of the film, not so tuned in to Twilight Zone logic as we are in the subculture we share, speculate that the movie may be intended as a satire on our over-medicated, materialistic society, insulated from all possible sources of joy. There are clearly elements of that, but no, I think they’re wrong. Go for the simplest explanation. It’s Hell, all right. And the movie’s ultimately about what happens when our hero discovers that there may be a way to tunnel out, and make his way to a realm of bright color where it is actually possible to hear music and smell freshly-baked bread: not to put to fine a point on it, Heaven.

Here is the question: is it possible to countenance a movie that makes boredom fascinating? There is a scene in the recent Oscar nominee, Nebraska, where a bunch of old folks sit around a television watching a football game, and between breaks in the action engage in long pointless circular conversation over the cars they drive or used to drive, while the youngest member of their gathering listens in awed silence, amazed that such energy is being expended on exchanges that provide no useful or helpful information and ultimately circle back to where they start. His amazement and growing exasperation is where the humor sits. The Coen Brothers punctuate many of their films with conversations of just as questionable utility. It can be and has been hilarious, especially if the audience is provided with a viewpoint character driven to the point of distraction of being trapped in a room with dialogue of the sort. I don’t know how you feel about scenes like that. Done right, they absolutely and totally convulse me. The Bothersome Man is about the hell of living (or, if you prefer, afterliving) in a city where all human interaction is like that. It has a steady and cumulative comedic weight — and ultimately, something to cheer for, as our hero refuses to be beaten down.

Want something a little more energetic? Perhaps a heroic fantasy?

UnknownStrings (Norwegian / Swedish/ Danish / British, 2004). Directed by Dane Anders Rønnow Klarlund. Screenplay by Naja Marie Aidt. English version voiced by James MacAvoy, Catherine McCormick, Julian Glover, Derek Jacobi. 91 minutes.

and —

Not to be confused with about four other movies made in the last decade or so that share the same title, Strings is entirely performed by marionettes

— your eyes are already glazing. Marionettes. Captain Scarlett. The Thunderbirds. Thanks a lot. Call again.

Okay. Listen up. This is what makes the movie special. Strings is set on a world populated by wooden marionettes who know that they’re marionettes. They are a hundred percent aware that they are all connected to strings that stretch upwards toward Heaven. They have no idea who or what pulls these strings, but they exist in accordance with this one simple and all-defining fact. That they have fixed features that do not permit the facial expression of grand emotions does not prevent them from living a story that depends entirely on such emotions, and so we have a tale of suicidal despair, of quests for vengeance, of true love, of racial hatreds, wars fought over terrible misunderstandings, and of the fate of kingdoms decided on the battlefield… all as understood by a society of sentient marionettes.

It works. It really, really works. It helps that the story respects its opening premise enough to consider its implications. For instance, for obvious reasons, the concept of a roof is wholly unknown to these people. They have walls, but no roofs; when it rains, they just have to stand there and get wet. Yes, even the king. If you need a literal direct line to Heaven, that’s just one of the physical consequences.

Just as inevitably, prisons only require cross-bars over doorways; the strings cannot pass, so the puppets cannot, either. Distant cities on the horizon are visible by the way the skies darken above them, representing the gathering of many marionettes in a small concentrated place. The movie even presents us with the miracle of marionette reproduction — a form of birth that is entirely artificial and yet so completely in line with the logic of this alien time and place that it is wholly beautiful. It evokes the sense of wonder that all good fantasy films should strive for and that almost none achieve. Yes, of course that’s how a Daddy marionette and a Mommy marionette have a Baby Marionette. What else did you expect? Pregnancy?

This is a seriously inventive and exhilarating film, and those who resist the dubbing of foreign movies on principle can watch the English-language version without guilt, because nobody involved has lips.

Finally, for fans of Indiana Jones…

adele-blurayThe Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (French, 2010). Directed by Luc Besson. Louise Bourgoin, Mathieu Amalric, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Jacky Nercessian. (107 minutes).

This one’s an unclassifiable soap-bubble, so light and frothy and yet charming in its own way that it survives its own essential aimlessness. Directed by the action-movie factory Luc Besson, it presents us with the exploits of Adele Blanc-Sec, from the French comic-strip heroine, who proves early on that she has the tomb-raiding skills of a Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, but is substantially less super-competent when she returns to Paris and finds herself having to break an elderly professor out of prison in order to control the rampaging pterodactyl that is only an incidental by- product of her pressing need to revive an Egyptian mummy. Meanwhile, a wholly incompetent police inspector, interested only in his next meal, also finds himself assigned to track down that pterodactyl, and remains perpetually thirty seconds behind all the evidence around him. What is it with these French police inspectors, I wonder.

One of the great oddities of this film is that, sleek and eye-popping as it is, it is by no means an action movie. Yes, Adele does demonstrate her resourcefulness in that tomb sequence, but once she gets back to Paris there are no other action sequences of note; the climax involving all the mummies is marked by a straight-faced politeness in which everybody, alive and undead, behaves with a remarkable degree of civilized concern for their social obligations. Again, an American movie would no doubt end with a building on fire, and a fight to the death amid massive property damage. This one gives you the exact opposite, and it’s so charming and unexpected in context that attempting any analysis of it would make it collapse like a soap bubble. It’s a movie that could only exist inside itself, and it excuses the slightness of its story and its deliberately anti-climactic conclusion by getting by on charm. It also helps that it has at its center one Louise Bourgoin, who is adored by the camera. The pleasures are slight, but they are undeniable.

Finally, because it has its own sense of strangeness even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, science fiction or fantasy, check out the Korean charmer Castaway on the Moon (2014), which contrives to strand its protagonist on a deserted island — in the middle of a major modern city, from which he cannot avoid seeing skyscrapers whenever he looks up. It is a treasure indeed, and should keep you going until we meet again next month.

In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.

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