There seems to be no exhausting the raw eyeball pleasure to be had from old-fashioned handmade (or semi-handmade, or whatever) animation, and we may be well living through a pop renaissance of it.
The eruptions below the Pixar/Dreamworks budget tier have been spectacular and international, beginning perhaps with 2003’s “The Triplets of Belleville,” learning from Miyazaki, Oshii, Aardman and the Quays, moving on to Kim Moon-saeng’s “Sky Blue,” machinima, “The Corpse Bride,” “A Scanner Darkly,” “Persepolis,” “Coraline,” “Waltz with Bashir,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Mary & Max,” “Sita Sings the Blues,” “Fear(s) in the Dark,” “The Secret of Kells,” and now the Belgian nonpareil “A Town Called Panic.”
The variety of toolboxes and styles at work seem limitless (the seductive but uniform look of pure 3D computer animation is getting tiresome just as other approaches proliferate), but it’s the personal engagement that makes most of the films sing.
Many of the recent films naturally take the frame-by-frame scale of animation to eulogize the lost universe of childhood, but the wry obsessives behind “Panic” (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar) go one step further — their free-associative, lunatic mini-landscape is peopled by toys, and the only thing missing from every shot is the presence of real kids’ hands manipulating the figures.
The filmmakers admit in the DVD supplements that they found materials at flea markets; the characters and props vary in sizes and provenance, as if the film emerged spontaneously from a ramshackle junk drawer. “Toy Story,” Schmoy Story — this is the movie that takes make-believe play as its form. It’s a giddy litany of foolishness, about almost nothing but its own good times, and its textures and sensibility are as high-spirited and zippy as a grade-schooler’s imaginings after a few bowls of Cap’n Crunch.
Horse, Cowboy and Indian — often complete with green plastic patch attached to their feet so they can stand — live together in a house amid a tabletop farming community where the animals brush teeth, read and run errands. It’s Horse’s birthday — the realization of which initiates a catastrophic Rube Goldberg adventure for his roommates involving 50 million bricks, a family of frogmen, a romance with a horse piano teacher, a visit to the earth’s core, a giant robot penguin run by evil scientists, a war fought with flying swordfish and catapulted cows, and so on.
There’s a Gumby vibe happening, and a Wile E. Coyote inevitability rules the action, but forget the very idea of “story” — the point of the film is to embody the inspired runaway-train nature of juvenile make-believe. If you have ever spent substantial time in the company of miniature figures of any kind, this movie will infiltrate your memories.
The movie ignites a great deal of childlike good will — amid the chaos, there is always an unalloyed urge to rebuild and clean up. Life is good and no bad news matters if you can still get lost in play. But for the most part, “A Town Called Panic” is beguiling because of the speed, timing and eccentricity of its textures — like all good animation, its movement and visual panache spellbind in ways that cannot be articulated, and perhaps shouldn’t be. Just keep your eyes open.
In another universe, the last few weeks has been witness to a deluge of DVD’d film noir, with no less than 16 films released by Warner, Sony and Olive, and so noiristes can revel yet again in America’s favorite die-hard film genre instead of trying to find satisfaction in new Hollywood. Just a few highlights:
“Pushover” (1954) — Richard Quine’s urban espionage chess game stars Kim Novak in her first credited role as a bank robber’s girlfriend, fucked and surveilled by Fred MacMurray’s wasted cop, “Rear Window”-ing her and eventually deciding to usurp the thief, grab the money and the girl, and fatefully tripling up the body count of “Double Indemnity.” Only in noir does death signify a happy ending, and movies end with lines like “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”
“Deadline at Dawn” (1946) — Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a Cornell Woolrich book, and theater master Harold Clurman directed (his only film), and Susan Hayward is a cynical whore/taxi dancer with a go-die look that decides to help dim sailor Bill Williams find out who really killed a woman in a flat somewhere in Manhattan. Clurman’s late-night spatial layouts are gorgeous, but the show here is Odets’ dark-poetic dialogue in the mouths of a superbly directed cast. Someone is said to have “a face like the back of a hairbrush,” and when Hayward and Williams are hiding in the corpse’s apartment, she hisses, “Do you hear anything?” “Your breathing,” he whispers back; “Is that what that is?” she replies…
“Union Station” (1950) — Rudolph Maté’s concise and character-packed kidnapping policier features Nancy Olson as a dame pulling into Chicago who sees a gun she shouldn’t have, and William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald as Windy City cops looking to foil a kidnapping plot. The titular station is captured in its mid-century glory, even if footage was also shot on New York and L.A. trains.
“Human Desire” (1954) — Fritz Lang remakes Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine,” with Broderick Crawford, Glenn Ford and of course Gloria Grahame, and it’s less paradigmatic noir than Zolaesque tragedy.
“Armored Car Robbery” (1950) — Richard Fleischer, an unsung noir champ, directed this crime thriller, which almost wastes Charles McGraw as a happy cop until his partner is gunned down in the titular heist (performed by lizardy sociopath William Talman with assistance from, among others, Sam Fuller buddy Gene Evans). After that, look out — McGraw could eat the entire cast of “The Expendables” in a single yawning bite. This double-biller is a brisk 67 minutes long and not a minute is squandered.
“The Phenix City Story” (1955) — A based-on-fact Phil Karlson corruption screed about the eponymous Alabama town, its controlling crime syndicate, the assassination of its attorney general and the martial law that followed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who grew up in Alabama and was nine at the time, has always said this lurid, full-throated pulp is, in fact, how it was.
“Crime in the Streets” (1956) — A lesser known Don Siegel, introducing John Cassavetes as a street thug intent on killing a neighborhood snitch, despite social worker James Whitmore’s efforts to steer him clear. A good example of a noir sub-branch: the Actor’s Studio bell jar melodrama, on TV show sets and performed like a circus act (especially by Mark Rydell’s fey delinquent). Still, the portrait of Cassavetes’ miserable, poverty-beaten ghetto family is tough for the day.
“The Brothers Rico” (1957) — Karlson again, but not hyperbolic so much as novelistic, this Georges Simenon-based saga follows legit businessman Richard Conte as he gets dragged back into The Organization by his two brothers, both of whom are on the run after a hit. A dense web of familial and criminal alliances slowly reveals itself as Conte’s haunted player bounces across the country in search of his brothers, and the sense of America you get is as one huge criminal enterprise. The moral bullet in the heart of all three “Godfather” films is here, too, as is wads of untranslated Italian, an uncommonly brutal climactic shootout, and Harry Bellaver as an Arizona scumbag steering the movie into fatalistic waters.
“A Town Called Panic” (Zeitgeist Films) is now available on DVD; “Pushover,” “Human Desire” and “The Brothers Rico” are now available as part of “Columbia Film Noir Classics, Volume II” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), “Deadline at Dawn,” “Armored Car Robbery,” “The Phenix City Story” and “Crime in the Streets” are now available as part of “Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume 5” (Warner Home Video) and “Union Station” (Olive Films) is now available on DVD.
[Additional photos: “Pushover,” Columbia Pictures, 1954; “Human Desire,” Columbia Pictures, 1954; “The Brothers Rico,” Columbia Pictures, 1957]