Fascination for Animation

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[Voodoo by Gobelins Studio, France]

No one can doubt my commitment to the art of animation. When most of the other graduating seniors at Burlingame High School went to Disneyland for an all-night celebration, my two best friends and I went to an international animation festival at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Judging by the reactions of those who went to Anaheim, we got the better of the deal.

For those who want to go beyond the Hollywood studio version of animation, there is an annual compilation known as the Animation Show, now in its fourth incarnation, playing June 13-19 at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. Mike Judge, who so delightfully warped our minds with Beavis and Butthead Do America, has once again organized his favorite animation shorts from around the world. Among those to peel your eyeballs for are Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian, in which a whitebread dude is caught by his girlfriend with…well, the title tells it all, and the droll delivery of lines perfectly compliments the childlike illustrations. HBO is planning a series based on this and won’t that be something to enjoy…without the kiddies.

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[Angry Unpaid Hooker by Steve Dildarian]

Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker is from Germany’s Stefan Mueller and it is far and away the most hallucinogenic of the bunch. When a cop shows up after a noise complaint, three separate apartments and their tenants interact in the most surreal and wildly unpredictable of ways. Swiss filmmaker George Schwizgebel, working through the National Film Board of Canada, produced a dizzyingly complex, interlocking series of lovely imagery in Jeu, one that seems like it could have been made by M.C. Escher The French studio known as Gobelins has a richly artistic reply to the Indiana Jones saga in the colorful Voodoo, as a group of arrogant explorers force their way into the wrong ancient temple and pay a superbly supernatural price for their intrusion. And the British team of Smith and Foulkes make the topic of death awfully cheery with This Way Up. In it, two undertakers have the Devil’s own time simply burying a casket and one wonders whether they will meet their deadline or meet their Maker.

For those who are true animation cineastes—and those who like to extend the boundaries of their film knowledge in general—there is the incomparable Facets Multimedia in Chicago. They are the place to go when you can’t find it anywhere else and they have a really charming, unique four DVD collection of a highly inventive San Francisco animator, the Lawrence Jordan Album.

Jordan used many techniques but is best known for cutting out, colorizing and adding effects to engravings. Nowhere else is this technique used to such great impact as in his well-known and astonishing version of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Using Gustav Dore’s artwork, Jordan also managed to get Orson Welles to recite with undeniable power this epic poem. It reminds us of how Welles so assuredly took the stage and film world by storm.

Jordan’s shorter films are quite picaresque and the unpredictability of usually inanimate objects moving through detailed, engraved backgrounds is oddly relaxing, if one allows for a release of narrative and savors the visuals and the often classical music beds that Jordan relies upon. He shows too a willingness to combine animation and documentary technique in Cornell, 1965, during which Jordan worked as an assistant to artist Joseph Cornell and his technique of making boxed assemblage.

There is no better way to summarize the exacting nature and perseverance needed in animation than Jordan’s two year production on The Sacred Art of Tibet, found on the fourth and final DVD of the collection He overlays Tibetan painting and sculpture with live action images of natural beauty and a female voice-over serenely introduces us to major biographical figures in Northern Buddhist philosophy. It’s a reminder that animation was and still is so much more than cute little talking animals selling you a product, that it can and should be, at times, mystifying, hard to define and beyond the normal considerations of live action filmmaking.

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[The Visible Compendium by Lawrence Jordan] 

Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “Bloodline”

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“I think I’m just a reasonable guy,” says documentarian Bruce Burgess in front of a sold-out, opening night crowd at the Laemmle Sunset 5, “who’s looking for the truth.” Normally, directors of documentaries do not need to explain or defend their film subjects. But Bloodline, Burgess’s first documentary feature film, has tapped into a societal fascination with the historical Jesus.

Burgess, along with his producer Rene Barnett, conducted a Q&A with an audience that was highly passionate, informed and participatory to such a degree that it would be the envy of most filmmakers. But then Bloodline, using researchers and experts, analyzing ancient scrolls and clues in artwork, strongly suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that the Catholic Church has known this all along and that there are members of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion who are trying to disseminate this information, sub rosa, even while being connected to the Vatican.

The Priory of Sion may be familiar to those who read Dan Brown’s international best-selling novel, The Davinci Code. And while that book plays fast and loose with many historical facts, it laid the groundwork for serious consideration of the central thesis in Bloodline, namely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, that they may have had children and that the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who was resurrected needs to now be viewed from a non-biblical perspective.

This remarkable documentary not only explores a burial tomb in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, where a mummified body and artifacts verified to be from the 1st century A.D. have been found, but it also follows Burgess and amateur archeologist Ben Hammott, who deal with unnerving threats to their exploration. Burgess, in direct address rather than voice-over, poses fair questions about what has been found and its ramifications. Without grandiosity and with marvelous dramatic tension, he exposes a series of sinister events during the three-year production. They include tapped phone calls, the suspicious death of alleged Priory member Lord Patrick Lichfield one week before a scheduled interview, the intimidation of an on-camera interview subject by an unidentified man and finally, someone cutting the brake line to Hammott’s van during his explorations in Rennes-le-Chateau.

The filmmakers have a spokesperson for the Priory in the icily imperious Brit named Nicolas Haywood, whose screen presence is not only subtly menacing but who confirmed to Burgess and Hammott that with The Davinci Code, and the 1982 nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, there will be more revelations regarding the historical Jesus. Burgess informed me that Haywood acknowledged, “There are definitely members of the Priory who are in the intelligence services both in England, in France and in the United States.”

The filmed discovery of that undergrown tomb in France, which could only be shot with a special camera through a narrow airshaft, will lead to an excavation very likely this summer, although it will require avoiding a collapse of the entire, sealed off tomb. “I’ve knocked around the Valley of the Kings a bit and other tombs,” Burgess says with charming English understatement, “and this will be a hard one.”

While Burgess has been criticized by religious groups, not unexpectedly, and has been humorously dubbed a “Ziploc bag archaelogist,” the crowds at the Sunset 5 and the East Village Theatre in Manhattan, where Bloodline opened, suggest a public hungry for re-evaluation of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Burgess’s previous television work has included mysterious topics like the infamous Area 51 at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada–where extraterrestrial-military complicity has been alleged–a series of Bigfoot sightings in a rural Oklahoma town, CIA assassins and yes, the search for the Holy Grail. “It’s gone on and on and on,” Burgess says of the Jesus-Mary Magdalene secrecy, “a bit like some of the UFO stuff, Area 51, where the secret is kept so long, no one knows why they’re keeping it.” He also cites historical precedent for the Catholic Church revising long-held truisms. “With Mary Magdalene, they did it overnight. In 1969, a papal bull was issued, and said there was no evidence she was a prostitute.”

Burgess feels that irrespective of the identity of the mummy–already verified as having a Middle Eastern origin–and whether the artifacts can be linked to Jesus or Mary Magdalene, that Bloodline and the movement for a more humanistic interpretation of these figures will eventually lead to doctrinal changes in the Catholic Church. He mentions the eventual possibility of women priests, gay priests and bishops and perhaps even a reconsideration of the requirement for priestly celibacy, a doctrine that many feel has impacted the sexual molestation scandals that have in recent years rocked the Church.

“If we can get to the true historical Jesus,” Burgess says, “I believe from what I’ve been told and from what I’ve ingested in doing this film that his true ministry would be far more powerful, far more beneficial, far more enlightening toward mankind than church doctrine. In other words, it would start to enable us to be all we can be.”

“The Ultimate Trip” Returns: 2001 in 2008

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(Actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood at 40th anniversary screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills)

I have a friendly disagreement with a journalist-screenwriter friend of mine, Mike Tunison. He thinks the movie that changed his view of life, the universe and everything, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, was Star Wars. For me, it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a sold-out event April 25 to honor the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s remarkable adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” hosted by Tom Hanks. After the presentation in 70 millimeter, six-track sound, as it was originally shown, there was a panel discussion with actors Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, effects artist Bruce Logan and Daniel Richter, a mime who wound up playing the ape known as Moonwatcher and took nine months to choreograph the animal movements in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.

Hanks delivered a long but charming speech prior to the screening itself, introducing celebrities including former astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. “I believe Buzz is called Buzz,” Hanks explained deferentially, “because everyone talks about Buzz when he leaves the room.”

Hanks recalled his reading the Mad magazine piece entitled “201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy” before actually seeing the film for the first time at a domed theatre near the Oakland Coliseum. He marveled at the transition Kubrick created between an ape tossing a bone—newly invented as a weapon—into the air, and its transition into a spacecraft: “In the history of cinema, there has never been as great a time cut…or one that has cut out as much time.”

After the screening, culminating with the still visually transporting “star gate corridor” and the otherworldly music of Gyorgy Ligeti—perhaps leading to the film’s original promotional copy of “The Ultimate Trip”—Trumbull elucidated many of the technical aspects of making 2001. He reminded the Samuel Goldwyn theatre crowd that there were no computers used in the making of the film, that sixteen separate16-millimeter cameras were synched up to project data screens inside the depicted spacecraft.

There was no optical printing to be had, as George Lucas did during the production of Star Wars. So, when Kubrick wanted to project an ancient landscape for the apes in the beginning of the film, it involved a mindboggling use of 20,000 watt arc lamps, front projection onto a surface that was 50 percent mirrored with reflective beads and temperatures in the studio that reached 130 degrees. Richter recalled bulbs constantly exploded and had to be replaced, especially whenever a studio door was opened and a jetstream of air entered the space.

Lockwood tried to dispel the legend of Kubrick as a director who shot numerous takes, pushing actors to the brink, insisting that the only scene that required a lot of takes was when he and Dullea were inside a pod and had their lips read by soon-to-be renegade computer HAL-9000. He contended it was 35 takes. But forty years did not diminish the memory of Richter, who as Moonwatcher had to kill a fellow actor-ape named Richard Wood 42 times. Perhaps Edmund Kean was wrong when he said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Dullea wrung applause from the audience as he explained the harrowing method of shooting him re-entering the spaceship through an airlock without a helmet. It was done with rigging and a leap from two stories high. A former circus stagehand had to grab the rope at a certain point to prevent Dullea from breaking his neck.

These details of jerryrigging equipment, 40 years ago, makes even the cinematic effect of 2001 even more monumental. The detail, the use of music, the sense of wonder, mystery, spirituality and yes, ineffable loneliness that Kubrick created in his “Ultimate Trip” is what sets it apart from other science fiction films that had the benefit of more advanced technology.

For those who wish to learn more about the production, the Academy will have Trumbull return with others for “2001 in 2008,” on May 21, a program featuring more information on the making of the film, as well as previously unseen photos and unused footage of—with all due respect to Lucas and my friend Mike—the greatest space-related motion picture ever made.

Errol Morris Doc “Reframes” Abu Ghraib

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I am sitting two feet away from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. He is screaming at me. And I couldn’t be more pleased.

Morris’s latest documentary feature, Standard Operating Procedure (released by Sony Pictures Classics and Participant Media in Los Angeles on May 2) is not just about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and its administration by the U.S. military. With the same trademark élan evident in The Fog of War, his Academy Award- winning doc on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morris’s S.O.P., which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, weaves together an overwhelming number of topical strands with remarkable clarity and artistry.

But it is the sentencing of seven soldiers–M.P.’s at Abu Ghraib–and the refusal of the military, US government and population at large to look beyond this “framing” of the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi detainees, that is the reason Morris, generally the most genial and polite of interview subjects, vented his frustration after a question of mine.

Specialist Sabrina Harman, as guard on the night shift for the 372nd M.P .Company, explains in S.O.P.  that she took photos not only of naked Iraqi prisoners but the dead body of a detainee named Manadel al-Jamadi, who was murdered after an interrogation by a CIA officer, whose name is known to the military. She insists the photos were not for perverse pleasure but because she felt compelled to document the repugnant activities in Abu Ghraib.

“Why wasn’t the CIA officer ever charged?” Morris shouted toward me with uncustomary vehemence. “Why was the only person ever threatened with imprisonment over the death of Al-Jamadi, why was it Sabrina, for taking a goddamn photograph that exposes the military, exposes a crime? To me it’s a metaphor for the whole goddamn war in Iraq.”

Among the interviewees, Morris surprisingly managed to capture on film six of the seven “bad apples” of the 372nd M.P., excluding Cpl. Charles Graner, responsible for arranging such disturbing, indelible images as an Iraqi with a hood standing on a box, with wires hanging off him or a pyramid of naked detainees. Graner received ten years, as the stiffest sentence of those charged, but S.O.P., upon careful scrutiny, points to culpability at higher levels.

For example, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, 800th M.P. Brigade, was eventually relieved of command and demoted by President George W. Bush. Morris selected clips of his 17 hours of interviews with Karpinski to reveal that Karpinski was responsible for rebuilding and running the entire, decimated prison system in Iraq. When she inspected Abu Ghraib, interrogation techniques used there were shielded from her view. Karpinski could not identify the staggering mix of civilian contract interrogators, CIA officers and, in military lexicon, O.G.A. (Other Governmental Agencies) going in and out of cells at the prison. Most damning of all, when Karpinski became aware of the systematic mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, she informed Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who promptly ordered her to do nothing. She became the highest-ranking scapegoat in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal and her onscreen gaze is suffused with cold resentment.

Morris’ collaborator on the book version of S.O.P, author and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, has stated that rather than wondering about finding a “smoking gun,” irrefutable evidence of the definitive culprit of Abu Ghraib, that “Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.” Morris opens his documentary by contextualizing the prison, which was emptied of all its prisoners in the Fall of 2002 by Saddam Hussein. Under US occupation, Abu Ghraib became the center of military intelligence, despite its legacy for torture and murder of prisoners under Saddam.

Conditions in the prison breached the Geneva Conventions. Military sweeps brought in detainees, often relatives of suspects, without any confirming intelligence. A prison population of 200 grew to an unmanageable 1500. Food was scarce and often contaminated. And in one of the most obvious abrogations of Geneva, Abu Ghraib was located in a war zone, within the bloody “Sunni Triangle,” where daily shelling of the prison made the psychological conditions inside even more volatile.

Photos were widely distributed electronically among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, beginning in October of 2003, which included images taken by Cpl. Graner of PFC Lynddie England and Specialist Megan Ambuhl, two women who posed with a naked, leashed prisoner called “Gus.” In a stunning parenthetical in this documentary, Morris delves into the fact that Graner was simultaneously having sexual relations with both England and Ambuhl, the latter now his wife.

Lieutenant-General Sanchez is not the only officer who escaped justice for a coverup. It was January 13, 2004, when Specialist Joseph Darby turned a CD of Abu Ghraib photos into the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. The result, as we learn in Morris’s work is this: Three days later, Colonel Thomas Pappas issued an amnesty for all military personnel who possessed the Abu Ghraib photos. In essence, this enabled the wholesale destruction of all evidence connected to the scandal.

Ironically, Spec. Harman had earlier attempted to disseminate the photos within the US media and with considerably lesser results. “You know, Sabrina burned a CD,” Morris explained. “Shortly after the death of al-Jamadi, she was sent back to the US on a leave. She tried to show the photographs to someone at CNN who didn’t really want to look at them.”

The evening I returned from the press roundtable with Morris, the news on television put S.O.P. into clearer perspective. The Associated Press revealed that a group within the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney, with the approval of Bush, labored to find legal justification for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques they knew to be objectionable and unacceptable under international law. Between 2002 and 2003, the Justice Department had issued several memos from its Office of Legal Counsel.

As I heard the news, I recalled Morris’s furious rhetorical question from just hours before: “How many torture memos does a government have to promulgate before you get the idea they might be interested in promulgating torture? How many? What would satisfy anybody?”

Morris mentioned that there have been 13 separate investigations on Abu Ghraib, what he refers to as “almost an investigative filibuster.” His reframing of the significance of those prison photos, those who took them and those who controlled how they were perceived, is a distillation of a million and a half words of interview transcript, along with thousands of pages of unredacted reports and about 270 photographs that shook the world but has left it materially unchanged.

“The photographs have stopped us from looking further and demanding answers,” Morris said, “almost as if we’ve gone into this state of shock and nothing more is needed. It’s a democracy still and I still have some residual faith in that democracy. And I believe that part of moving past the stain of Abu Ghraib is confronting what actually happened there. Not scapegoats but confronting what happened there.”

[S.O.P. producer Participant Media has created a social action network regarding human rights and the documentary, at www.takepart.com.]

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New Film Programs Abuzz in L.A.

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There is something in the air and it’s more than Spring pollen. The film programming that has currently reared its head in the Los Angeles area seems more than usually compelling. One can begin with the always inventive and cutting edge American Cinematheque, programming at both the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

At the Egyptian, the “Oh, the Animation” program recently took the most macabre of subjects and transmogrified them into filmic whimsy. Australia’s Paul McDermott had his marvelous animated short The Girl Who Swallowed Bees on display. Using cut-outs, paint, pen and ink and live action, this astounding work tells the tale of a girl who wishes to end it all but when the aforementioned insects take refuge in her body, things strangely become euphoric. McDermott uses perfectly the honey-smooth voice of Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) and charming, evocative music from Adrian Van De Velde.

Also impressive in the program was Argentinian Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Lapsus, a deceptively simple looking black and white animation about a tiny nun who loses her head, literally, as she enters a symbolic area of the unknown. Zaramella brilliantly creates humorous but profound sight gags that speak to life versus death, faith versus doubt and our ever-curious flirtation with the dark side of life.

Where else but at the Egyptian would a cineaste find a series like “Velvet Hustlers and Weird Lovemakers: Japanese 60s Action Films,” running April 25-27? One also looks forward in May to a week of films from the British consulate and, at both the Egyptian and Aero, a 70-millimeter film festival.

Speaking of the latter format, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills has a sold-out screening April 26 of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Tom Hanks hosting and special guests star Keir Dullea and effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. But ongoing is their “Great to Be Nominated” series of Oscar noms, each Monday at 7 PM, through August 25. It spans films from 1993-2007 and this is the fifth and final year of the program, so don’t say you were told too late to participate in what is turning into a golden Spring of film exhibition.

The Cream of the 60s Crop Concludes

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“What is the meaning of The Cream?”

Rather than a complaint to a waiter about spoiled milk, this was part of the verbatim written reaction prolific British film producer-director Tony Palmer received from American execs upon presenting them with his music documentary All My Lovin. Palmer winged out from London to wig out a delighted closing night Mods and Rockers Film Festival audience at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre with the aforementioned, as well as the premier UK rock trio in their alleged last concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Cream Farewell Concert and Palmer’s poetic travel doc with the drummer of The Cream, Ginger Baker in Africa.

Palmer, a protégé of Ken Russell, was not a rocker (nor a mod, for that matter), in the days when he did music docs on Puccini, Wagner, Callas and Stravinsky. But John Lennon urged him to do a piece that would not only display the music of Britain’s top rock acts but a mélange of views both witty and urgent, the socio-political views of such folks as Paul McCartney, Hendrix, the Who, Donovan, many of the previously expected suspects of this remarkable Mods and Rockers Fest 2007. Frank Zappa acerbically and wonderfully recalls having Marines onstage with the Mothers of Invention, singing military songs and then mutilating a scale model doll on cue. Author Anthony Burgess roundly tears into 60s youth and music but lightly backpedals when it comes to the use of marijuana.

But Palmer isn’t just kidding around, as he intersperses the more serious quotes with jolting imagery: Holocaust corpses, a burning Buddhist monk in Vietnam. This 1967 film was actually originally relegated to a time period after signoff on the BBC. It was, Palmer told the crowd and Festival founder and high wizard Martin Lewis, aired after a priest delivered a closing “Epilogue” for the night, followed by 30 seconds of darkness. Happily, the DVD of All My Lovin will illuminate home video viewers next month.

“I don’t know if they’ll let you get away it,” Eric Clapton told Palmer after he saw All My Lovin and doubted its eventual airing. Thankfully, Palmer has done so and his coverage of The Cream onstage at the Royal Albert Hall sometimes becomes video art, with flaring colors, getting across the body heat of the performers, including Jack Bruce’s powerful singing and most especially Baker’s snaky arms and writhing head during an extended drum solo. Asking Baker and Clapton to demonstrate, in the relative calm of a studio, specific blues guitar and drum techniques is a unique and additional treat.

Palmer is not quite sure why he agreed to go along with Baker in 1971 from Algeria to Nigeria, for the creation of Ginger Baker in Africa but Baker’s narrative, which sounds more like spoken song lyrics, is a pleasant choice. Whether it’s a jam with Lagos musicians, a wild dance sequence featuring Fela Kuti or an offbeat animated retelling of their arrest on a technicality, this doc constantly surprises.

As befits the best attended M&R Fest, one that exceeded the fondest wishes of many with scores of live musical performances and music luminaries, Lewis had a closing night coup: psychedelic pop icons Strawberry Alarm Clock—including five of the six original members—were pleasantly coerced into performing in the “clubhouse,” the rear room of the Pig and Whistle restaurant next door.

“Incense and Peppermints” went to number one in 1967 and the Strawberry Alarm Clock did an elongated version of it in the clubhouse, one that took the controlled fuzzy tone of that lead guitar and expanded on it, gnarly and thrashing, yet returning to the sweet melody of it.

That’s why this writer so loves 60s music and culture and this essential Fest, every year at the Egyptian. Through a lens smudged with global warming and depleted uranium and suitcase bombs and the fallout of collapsing bridges and levies, one can look back at the 60s and smile. Not because the era was free from itsown strife. Maybe a major accomplishment of the 60s was a willingness to protest war and racism and sexism and pollution and just American empire in general. And in film and music, 60s artists could deeply, purely express a righteous wellspring of rage or a giddy, feel-good, even spacy expression of the hope provided by the thing that we still, albeit shakily, hold onto: that all our loving combined, even as a psychological construct, is far more valuable than glib, clever despair.

An Unidentifiable, Exotic Taste

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[Paprika, written by Satoshi Kon and Seishi Minakami, based on the novel by Yatsutake Tsutsui, directed by Kon. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.]

Animation is ideal for stories that inherently warp reality and feature rapid transformations and scene changes. It was the ideal art form for a family-friendly whirligig like Disney’s Aladdin and it’s breathtakingly apropos in Japanese director Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The story involves a device, the DC Mini, that can capture one’s dreams on electronic equipment. But when one goes missing from a psychic laboratory, it turns out that all external reality can be shifted by the illicit user, who must have come from within the company.

Thus, the circumspect Dr. Chiba Atsuko, her alter-ego Paprika, the gluttonous inventor Himuro, a cop who is haunted by a partner’s death and others undercut each other’s attempts to dominate reality. The stunning anime imagery can range from an explosion of blue butterflies coming out of a character’s head, to a giant, traditional Japanese toy doll decimating a downtown area in a fit of pique.

Paprika, like many anime projects, explores themes like the clash of Western and Eastern cultural iconography and the nature of identity. But its ongoing rush of normally inanimate objects or creatures wreaking havoc, mixed with the corporate skullduggery, are an absolute joy to behold and worthy of a second look, especially down the road on DVD.

[Critical Moment: Overwhelmingly visual stunner, with nice touches of humor and character development. At the top of the list for not just anime but animation.]

“Once” in a While, a Unique Approach

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[Once, written and directed by John Carney. Released by Fox Searchlight.]

John Carney, who has written and directed the low-budget, low-key but heartfelt musical film Once, has a special communication with his star, Glen Hansard. Carney is a former member of Hansard’s current group The Frames. Furthermore, keyboardist Marketa Irglova forms a solid triumvirate as Hansard’s immigrant love interest in this film, shot in Dublin.

Hansard, a busker (a role that suited him in Alan Parker’s The Commitments), finds the irrepressible Irglova relentless in pursuing a friendship that he tries to turn into a romance, in the course of a week. The music that they make together is so lovingly crafted and rendered with such passion on film, that the nominal story takes a back seat.

Most indies that choose amateur actors hurt the project’s believeability but Carney uses his players in a wily, run-and-gun way that emulates documentary filmmaking. That said, Hansard, should he decide to lay down his guitar and re-Frame his career for a while, certainly could hold his own with more polished film actors.

The screening, held at Harmony Gold in Hollywood, featured a Q&A and a live performance of the film’s music by Carney, Hansard and Irglova, whose musical talents are undeniable and captivating. Multimillion dollar film musicals must dazzle with greater and greater set pieces. Carney seems to have discovered that the micro-budget musical can go a long way on great songs and an utter lack of pretension.

[Critical Moment: Marvelous musical performances, simple plot, shaky cam but an authenticity that wins over audiences.]

“Whatsamatter? Don’t You Like Musical Comedy?”

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[Roy Scheider makes a big production out of dying in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.]

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the 1979 film, All That Jazz, directed by the astoundingly gifted Bob Fosse, on May 7. As confirmed by many of those involved in a Q & A, All That Jazz could not be a studio movie today. It almost wasn’t one for Columbia and Fox almost 30 years ago.

Richard Dreyfuss was going to play Benzedrine, booze and babes addicted Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon. But executive producer Daniel Melnick told the audience that Dreyfuss arrived one day with his attorney and agent and secretly confided, “I can’t see my fat Jewish ass onstage being a dancer.”

As a result, Roy Scheider gives the performance of a career as Gideon. It is there in his face during a hospital hallucination, after open heart surgery, when he escapes his bed and lovingly kisses an aged, dying woman. You see his conflicted feelings as Jessica Lange, as a white-clad angel of death, entices him to leave this world.

Among the group onstage after the film was world-class cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who flew in from Italy. “Peppino” shared emotionally how after they wrapped, Fosse put Rotunno in a chair in the middle of a soundstage, had dancers perform around him and whispered in his ear, lovingly, “I hope I have embarrassed you, Peppino.”

There is so much talent involved: Oscar-winning editor Alan Heim, the acting and dancing of Leland Palmer and Ann Reinking, as Gideon true loves, past and present. Yet it must all come back to Fosse, whose real life carousing, heart condition and need for obsessive tinkering are caught in a remarkably creative, visual manner. This stage dancer, choreographer and director captured dance on film in one of the most thrilling manners imaginable. Fosse’s work is worthy of the highest accolades, beyond the film’s Oscars and Golden Palm at Cannes. His script, with Robert Alan Aurthur, previewed Fosse’s own early demise. Melnick stated many actors, before Scheider signed, refused to do All That Jazz, if the Gideon character died. The proper response might be held within the otherworldly hospital hallucination, where Scheider as Gideon as Fosse looks up, as if to God, and asks, “Whatsamatter? Don’t you like musical comedy?”

Should We Believe in The Hoax?

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(Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) hands his editor (Hope Davis) a line as faux Howard Hughes biographer in The Hoax.)

The Hoax, screenplay by William Wheeler, based on the novel by Clifford Irving. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Released by Miramax.

With whom should we sympathize when a hoaxer who’s been imprisoned complains about the accuracy of a Hollywood film depicting his hoax? Lasse Hallstrom has made an entertaining film about acknowledged, accomplished, arrogant forger and author Clifford Irving (Richard Gere.) When he is turned down by his longstanding publisher McGraw-Hill and his editor Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) on his latest book, Irving daringly claims he has permission from reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to write his biography.

In real life, Irving claims he had four other books under contract and the ruse was not out of desperation but a sort of collegial prankster spirit. That may be but Hallstrom, who so pleased this writer and author John Irving with his elegiac film adaptation of The Cider House Rules, does get into Irving’s head impressively. A startling sequence when he must confront his marital infidelity in front of his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) shows the pathological level of self-deception in Irving.

It’s a terrific cast, including Stanley Tucci as icy McGraw-Hill publisher Shelton Fisher, who suspects the worst and while continually writing bigger checks to Irving, venomously promises to prosecute him if Fisher is duped. The always watchable Alfred Molina plays Irving co-conspirator Dick Susskind, weak and easily manipulated. One character flaw in Wheeler’s otherwise well-crafted work is the question why Susskind fell in with Irving and continued to be in thrall to him.

Still, it’s a delicious ride, as Gere as Irving “channels” the voice of Hughes for his devious purposes and bluffs his way deeper and deeper into literary trickery. The actual Irving may rightfully argue about the liberties taken with the supposed truth of the tale in the film, but Hallstrom ties it nicely into the 70s era, including a newly provided theory about the wily Hughes using Irving right back to serve his own political ends.

Critical Moment: Some major liberties with Irving’s circumstances. Fine performances. Very watchable cast. Satisfyingly captures pathology of a brilliant but delusional hoaxer.