Finally, A Movie About Circumcisions

[Headline, Huffington Post, 01/30/12]

This blog existed, originally, to host movie reviews. I expected to write many a word about foreskins. I was ready to write about afterskins as well, if any such should be found and filmed.

Imagine my disappointment at the dearth of material. How many reviews can you write about Moolaadé? And that’s female circumcision, which is not what I had in mind at all.

Eventually then, this site became a hangout for soreheads who wanted to ban circumcision, and for circumcision queens (don’t ask). Scuffles broke out. A pecking order developed, based on foreskin square-footage. It was an outrage.

So I cut and ran. I sliced off that part of the blog.

Sure, when a movie like “Neanderthal Cut” came out, I spilled a little ink over its depiction of Mankind’s first (inadvertent) circumcision, by chert. And “The Shame and the Glory,” about the artist Graarbeaart, who would paint only ripe tomatoes and the circumcised penis.

Are circumcisions making a comeback? They were so big during the silent-movie era! Can this blog finally stop temporizing and take the subject in hand? I’ve heard that the combination of IMAX and 3D has many directors interested in movies that compare and contrast the circumcised and uncircumcised member. Polling as audiences exit the theater indicate that 85% of men are indifferent to the images, cut or uncut. The other 15% have strong feelings. Matters are more confused with female audience members. Confronted with a 50-foot “thing” in its original wrapping, many were not sure just what they were looking at. Whatever it was, however, most agreed that it wasn’t worth the $14 ticket.

Advertisements

Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus

First, a word about The Asylum, a movie studio/distributor that produces low-budget, direct-to-video movies. The Asylum was organized in 1997 by three cinema executives. It took the trio a while to discover their niche: knockoff films that hit the rental shelves at the same time as the knockoffees from which they are knocked off. For example, The Asylum released “De Vinci’s Treasure” at the same time as Columbia Pictures’ “The Da Vinci Code.”  “Almighty Thor” arrived  with “Thor.” The Asylum is responsible for the excellent “Snakes on a Train.” An Asylum movie budget is low, well under a million dollars; the movie is produced in less than four months. No Asylum movie has ever lost money.

Wrt the creature-vs-creature movies, what is the relationship of The Asylum movies to the Roger Corman movies? Can you knock off a knockoff? Or do the creature movies of these two Hollywood low-budget production moneymakers represent some sort of evolutionary sybiosis? Please find out and report back.

So anyway, Mega Shark is back. Meggie is a favorite around here after he or she ate a 707 and the Golden Gate Bridge in Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. In that movie, Meggie might have been supposed to have perished in the end, at the tentacles of the giant octopus. Yet here he or she is, overacting for us once again, as directed by Christopher Ray, who is 34 and has been working in the business for a long time already, now with four titles under his belt as director; son of Fred Olen Ray, who himself has directed many a classic, including “Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros,” “Housewives from Another World,” and “Bikini Time Machine.” Fred is an officer at Retromedia, Synthetic Film Works, and Firebird International in North Hollywood. Point me to a directory, with dirt, that summarizes the activity of these various great B-movie companies. But no. Exploitation films come in so many flavors and have such a glorious history that I’ll settle for one comforting fact: drive-in movies and grind houses are gone, but the DVD player, streaming video, digital video equipment, and cinema software make exploitation more alive, vibrant, and pervasive than ever.

Warning. Warning. Warning. The DVD, or mine at least, contains no commentary track. You’ve got to sit there and watch the movie qua movie, like it or not.

Is The Asylum going soft? Crocosaurus merely steps on her first victim, doesn’t eat him. But wait. She is definitely grinning. The first hint that this is a feel-good movie, a possible monster love fest.

Note to self: I’m not here to rag on MSVC. For example, that hat on the Indiana Jones wannabe? To me it looks new. Still has its brown fuzz. That’s the sort of detail I’m not going to go on about.

And welcome back Meggie! You’ve learned to do barrel rolls, like a dolphin at Marine Park. Reader, before you scoff at the notion of a shark doing a barrel roll, check this out… Aww, nevermind, it’s not there anymore. Anyway, I think that Meggie is just frolicking, happy to find a Navy destroyer to play with. Sure, they’re firing anti-aircraft shells off his dorsal fin, but that’s just a tickle. Watch out, Meggie, or you’ll accidentally sink your new friends, killing off a good-looking babe in the process!  (Don’t worry. The boat doesn’t really sink. It’s the Lane Victory, tied up at Pier 94 in San Pedro. Available for weddings, reunions, summer cruises, and making cheap movies.)

Another light-spirited actor in the movie: Jaleel White. He’s made a career of being a good-natured  guy, on TV shows such as  Full House (1987), Family Matters (1989), Step by Step (1991) and Meego (1997). Here he is Dr. SomebodyOrOther, a scientist who can repel or attract sharks by making the sound of a “dying fish.” Whatever you do, don’t make that sound at home if you live by the beach; it’s a little like the moaning during orgasm, which might explain some of those cases of coitus interruptus selachimorphaus reported in coastside cities. <- Writing something like this is what happens to you when you watch low-budget movies.

Sure, at one point it looks like shark and croc are fighting, but there’s fighting and then there’s love-tussling. Riddle me this: why are they always biting each other’s tail? Why, with all the biting, does neither creature get hurt? Why do I have bite marks all over my buttocks, which cost me $400 plus the hotel room for a night?

Before I forget: congratulations to the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park. This is the 5,000th movie to use them, here standing in for a coal mine in the Congo, where ten extras or so shovel and pick till Crocie shows up and sends them running off to Palm Avenue in Burbank to collect their paychecks for the day. Or down to the South Coast Botanic Gardens in Palos Verdes (take the 110), for a couple of pick-up shots while not bumping into all the other crews there already.

Note: Meggie jumped the shark multiple times in Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus. Will he do so again? Let’s find out. Sinking the Lane Victory doesn’t count. I’m convinced that was an accident. Swallowing a sub, though, perhaps that was a little thoughtless of him, or her.

My favorite line in the movie: “They’ve got to stop hitting the shark! He’s got a nuclear submarine inside him.”

If you’re wondering about star Gary Stretch’s nose, he used to be a prizefighter. He obviously got poked in the snoot more than once. He also dated Raquel Welch when he was younger than her two kids. She was 57 at the time. He goes through the movie with something wrong with his face. Makeup? A skin condition? He has also been in some decent movies, but such is Hollywood. Joan Crawford played Dr. Brockton in Trog.

One of the fun things about watching B-minus movies is listening to the line readings in them. The young woman at the beginning of MSVC commits some real head-scratchers before she gets eaten.Perhaps she has a speech impediment; ditto Gary Stretch. If they’re doing it on purpose, it proves that a little acting training can be a dangerous thing.

Sonje mentions the moment when the doctor is running through the ship being attacked by Meggie and passing bodies lying dead for no reason. I liked the moment when he stepped into a room, picked up a wet suit to put on, and, as the shark destroys the boat, delicately pushes the room’s door shut, to change in privacy.

A few movie facts:

– There are saltwater crocs, so it’s ok for Crocie to spend all that time in the ocean.

– For an excellent croc movie, I recommend Rogue (2007).

– While the crew was shooting on the beach at Leo Carrillo State Park, some pelicans flew by. Production value!

– The babe-osaurus  in the movie is Sarah Lieving. She doesn’t do the I’m-worried Anna Torv thing or the goofy Anna Paquin thing. She’s real serious, but without the burn of Lena Headey or the brains of Angelina Jolie. She’s got by-God white teeth, though, and she worked in one movie as a stunt driver. And she’s living the dream.

– I can’t remember if Meggie is a boy or a girl, or if we even know. He/she is referred to variously as “he” and “she” in the script.

– Something I’d like to check: budget and box office for this Asylum effort vs the same for Corman’s Dinocroc vs Supergator.

– There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of CGI helicopters, no doubt checked out of The Asylum helicopter locker.

– A lot of time and thought and budget is spent on croc eggs. Shark wanting to eat the eggs; croc wanting to protect the eggs. I’m thinking that there is a pro-life or pro-choice message hidden here, but I’m not sure what it is.

– No animals were hurt during the making of this movie, not counting whatever happened to Gary Stretch’s face.

Dinocroc Vs. Supergator (2010)

“Dino” and “Super.” Do they have sex? They’re different species. You don’t see crocs and gators hooking up that much, but you know why? Because in the animal documentaries, they’re living in different neighborhoods and in the zoo, they’re kept apart – rather cruelly, I think.

But down in the sewers, where all those flushed-down crocs and gators and turtles and goldfish live, gators and crocs are liable to hook up all the time. So why not in this movie? Because we don’t want to lose the kid demo with an R rating? I saw one of those flicks make over in the Valley, where the guy was dressed up in a gator suit with a hole cut in it, if you know what I mean, and the girl wore a Little Mermaid costume. Perverse. But fun, because they had a SpongeBob stud running around in the background chasing his starfish buddy and then they… but that’s a different movie. Here, the scientists tell us that gators and crocs are mortal enemies. Hey, men and women are mortal enemies. Ask my wife ha ha. But you confront a red-blooded dude croc with a hot female gator and watch the fireworks. “Mommy, Daddy, are you fighting? Daddy, are you hurting Mommy? What’s all that moanin?”

But are this supergator and this dinocroc the same sex? What the heck difference does that make? Let’s move on.

Oops! Hold on! Wait a minute! What am I thinking? We’re not talking gator/croc love, that thing is a dinogator. It walks on its two hind legs, like a T-Rex. This guy is not going to toss some mud-lovin croc babe who crawls around on all fours! Fergeddaboutit. Plus, up on those two legs, Dinogator does seem to mince.

Roger Corman’s name is slathered all over the DVD box. It’s like he’s become a sort of Betty Crocker of B movies. The man is 86 but his money is still good. He produced, or was involved in the production of, Dinocroc (2004),  Supergator (2007),  Sharktopus (2010), Dinoshark (2010),  and the upcoming, wait for it, Piranhaconda (2011). Make sure that you catch the earlier flicks for the full backstory on our protagonists. As for Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009) and Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus (2010), Corman wasn’t involved in those embarrassing knock-offs.

Jim Wynorski (“Jay Andrews”), the director of myriad exploitation movies, actually shows up in this one. As far as I know, it’s his only appearance on film. He was set to shoot a scene and the Hawaiian local he had for the job simply couldn’t say his lines. Wynorski had to step around the camera into the shot and do it for him. You probably know Wynorski from his hits, such as Busty Coeds vs. Lusty Cheerleaders (2011) and The Hills Have Thighs (2010). He made this film for Corman on spec; they sold it to the SyFy Channel with no deal in advance. Corman didn’t get to the top of the mountain without guessing right most the time, as he did here.

And a moment of silence for David Carradine, who had quite a few unreleased movies in the can when he accidentally killed himself. I’m assuming that he’s still alive in these posthumous movies. Decrepit but alive. Kids, if you like to strangle yourself while masturbating, be sure to do your homework in advance.

The movie was shot in exotic Kaua’i and the Pasadena arboretum. There is one reason to watch it: turn on the Corman/Wynorski commentary and listen to them respond to questions from Perry Martin. Learn something about location shooting, casting, funding, and other aspects of low-budget movie-making, while in the background a gaggle of actors make a paycheck and the two stars eat a lot more than is good for them, without much chewing.

Choose Me (1984)

Watched Choose Me again the other night. Still love it.

Alan Rudolph wrote and directed it. How I think it happened:

Alan is sitting in a bar in Hollywood, waiting for someone like me to show up and drink with him and talk shop. He draws a diagram on a bar napkin. Three men, say, and three women. Each man hooks up with a woman, then they switch around a couple of times, the couples. It happens mostly in a bar like the one Alan is sitting in. The rest of it happens in a house like his house. A Hollywood house with a classic 40s vibe. Alan is going upbeat, technicolor noir. Everybody smokes. If the cigarette still has length, stick it in the corner of the mouth; smoke it down to the fingernails.

There will be a deep ambiguity at the core of the movie, Alan decides, right up front. That’s key. Gravitas and the comic. The hero, the main guy, the lead – perfect for Keith Carradine, he was great in Nashville, Keith with his hair slicked back, what a mug – is either a crazy liar or a f**king hero – I’ll never say which for sure, Alan thinks. First the audience will assume crazy, then hero, then crazy, then hero, then… at the end, we’ll take thirty seconds to rub their collective nose in the ambiguity, so they’ll all go Who wrote that?

The other actors, Patrick Bauchau makes a good bad guy with his accent, John Larroquette makes a good schmoe. The women? Can’t get Sarandon, so cast Leslie Ann Warren as the first lead, and Genevieve Bujold as the second, and Rae Dawn Chong as the young one.

Now I just need Keith to “interact” with each of the women, and the bad guy deals with them too, but he only yells at them or cuffs them onscreen, doesn’t get to smooch them or worse. The schmoe interacts with the lead woman, but only so he can go all hangdog on her for the rest of the movie. Poor man’s Greek chorus, him and Rae Dawn.

Done plotting. No, wait. Keith and the bad guy have to fight at least once.

Now, the direction:

All six actors are reading my lines. I want those lines to stay mine, not become theirs, so they all have to do their readings word-by-word. First audience reaction to this? That none of the actors can act. But nah, that can’t be right, they’ll think. Rae Dawn gets dumped on by the critics sometimes, but the rest are blue-ribbon. It can’t be them. It must be the director pulling the strings. It must be that the movie is like a play, or a musical, or something. Those upbeat-noir colors. That street set. The coincidences. That guy noodling with his saxaphone all the way through. Teddy Pendergrass treating the movie like his own private music video.

And boom, Alan is done, just as I walk up and tell him that I’ll have what he’s having.

Only, I’m not complaining because Alan is a very smart dude and he throws a lot of style up there onto the screen, provides a smooth, hip trip. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for Bujold.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

What is a Kell?

George Kell played third base for a number of Big League teams and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was also a long-time baseball announcer. Sadly, he died last year at the age of 86. I like baseball movies, so I was thinking maybe this one was about some secret of George’s. But I guess that would be “Kell’s Secret” or “The Secret That Kell Knew” or something like that, not The Secret of Kells, which without the apostrophe would mean the secret of more than one Kell anyway. George’s brother Skeeter did play one full season for the Philadelphia Athletics.

There is a Kell, Illinois, situated between Salem and Mt. Vernon. There are not many souls living in Kell. Here is what I know about it: “Today Kell is located on Kell Road, a road that serves Kell, but seems to go nowhere, and comes from nowhere.” I misdoubt the movie is about this village. I might like to visit it, just to drive up and down Kell Road.

There is a Kells north of Belfast where you can get a nice little home for £247,000.

But I don’t fancy the climate. Tomorrow’s high in Kells, 4°C, which is 39°F. Here where I sit, it was in the 70s today. Civilized.

I have been asked to watch this movie and comment upon it by Ideathy at Filmspotting. Ideathy is ten years old and lives in Portland, Oregon. She tells me in advance that this is an awesome movie. Thank you, Ideathy. I will watch it and I will tell you if I also think that it is awesome, which I hope that it is.

I have not exhausted my knowledge of the Kells communities scattered over the Earth, but looking at the cover of the DVD box, I deduce that the content of this movie is related to The Book of Kells, which hails from Kells, County Meath, 40 miles from Dublin.

The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest artistic treasure, if you don’t count alcoholic drinks, red hair, and blarney.  The book comprises the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, if I’m not forgetting anybody. The text is illuminated with calligraphic art – the pinnacle of that art on the British Isles.

There are three thoughts I want to share before I watch the movie:

First, books were invented. Sometimes I forget that. “Book” is a cognate of “beech.” Perhaps the first books were written on beech bark. The Latin word for book, “codex,” means “block of wood.” Papyrus scrolls were the preferred method for storing written information, all the way up to the Christian era in Europe. The codex was first mentioned late in the first century AD, but didn’t catch on for several hundred years. Books for a long, long time were made for and owned by the rich. They weren’t meant for reading, mainly, but for the contemplation of the art they contained. The Book of Kells was a sacred object, kept not for day-to-day use in a chapel but for spiritual inspiration.

Second, there was a period of, say, 500 years, between the ever-so-slow disintegration of the Roman Empire and the gradual reawakening of Western civilization, that we refer to as the Dark Ages. During this period, when Europeans hunkered down and lost their Latin and Greek learning and hadn’t yet acquired any alternative wisdom from the Arabic expansion, intellectual knowledge was hard to find. What there was of it left, was kept safe and hidden away in, among other places, the religious monasteries of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Third, beginning in the 790s A.D., and through the next several hundred years, the Vikings became a dominant force in Europe. They ranged from North America in the west to Constantinople and the Volga River in the east and they periodically sacked the monasteries of the British Isles, with their gold and precious relics, and other holdings.

I may spoil the plot in what follows, but I’m guessing that if you are reading this, once you start the movie, you won’t be watching it for the plot anyway, but for the art that is present in the film.

And as the movie begins, oho, I see that it’s drawn in a way to suggest the nature of the decorative art that illuminates the sacred books of those years – between the fall of Rome and a new flowering of knowledge, trade, and learning that began in the 900s. TSOK is animated with the shapes and styles of The Book of Kells itself.

The movie is about Brendan (Evan McGuire), a ten-year-old boy who is a novice in a monastery. Some of the monks in the monastery illuminate sacred texts. That is, they write out parts of the Bible and other holy works, decorate the pages with traditional Celtic iconography, and assemble the pages into a book. The leader of the monastery, Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach, has lost interest in this art, in favor of building strong walls around the monastery. As if in the Old West, with Native Americans on the loose, the Abbot wants walls, big strong walls, because the Vikings are coming and that ain’t good. When these pagans see the strength of the monastery walls, though, he explains, they will understand the strength of the Christian faith. We can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, a master illuminator, Aiden, arrives at the monastery with his cat Pangur Ban and a book that he has been working on.  (Aiden is voiced by Mick Lally of County Mayo, who sadly died last August. In the movie, to me, Aiden looks a lot like Willie Nelson. Lally had a cold when recording the voice track, so the character sniffles). Aiden comes from the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Iona was a major Christian center during the Dark Ages and the Vikings worked it over pretty good. So Aiden is bailing. Plus, he needs a special berry that provides the raw material from which to distill a special green ink.

Some flash animation early demonstrates Brendan’s drawing skills with chalk and we understand that he’s an artist in waiting. He quickly teams up with Aiden.

The stage is set for Brendan to disobey his uncle by venturing into the old-growth Irish forest nearby to collect berries for Aiden and meet the denizens of the woods, including Aisling (Christen Mooney), a little girl/big white wolf.

Someone somewhere refers to Aisling as a changling, because she changes between girl and wolf, but just to be precise, a changling is a magical creature of one sort or another who is secretly swapped with a human baby. That’s not Aisling. Nor is she a werewolf, of course. She’s the big white wolf and all the rest of the wolves are black. Hmm. The black wolves are bad-ass, but they won’t cross the big white caretaker of the forest. Brendan calls Aisling a fairy. “Fairy” is a generic term that covers a lot of ground, and Irish fairies exhibit a variety of shape-shifting abilities. Maybe Aisling is related to the magical Irish black dog, or to the selkies and kelpies. Come to think of it, she’s not just girl or wolf, she can also zip around in the air, and she transforms Pangur the cat at one point into a flying something-or-other. Probably the closest magical Irish would be the Tuatha Dé Danann, ancient and somewhat immortal invaders of Ireland in the distant past. I think that, in the end,  Aisling possesses that kind of magic that allows her to do whatever the script needs her to do, but also allows her to be menaced and threatened as necessary, also per order of the screenwriters. (Aisling as a girl’s name wasn’t used before the 20th century, in case you keep track of anachronisms in the movies; Aisling is a type of Gaelic poem developed in the 1600s and means “dream” or “vision.”) Aisling in this movie was originally conceived of as a teen, but romance with the young monk wasn’t to be part of the movie, so she was whittled down to the age of eight and modeled a bit on the director’s kid sister. That way, Brendan’s monkhood isn’t threatened and his girlfriend doesn’t keep turning into a wolf. Although I guess that Bella and Jacob in New Moon (2009) were able to work with that. Aisling has some back story that doesn’t make it fully into the movie – Crom wiping out her family, so forth.

The last wolf was shot in Ireland in 1782. Wolves lasted on the island for 35,000 years. That’s a lot of litters. They walked, or loped, over from Europe back during an ice age when the English Channel wasn’t covered with water. I guess they liked the neighborhood, because they stayed. There are efforts to reintroduce wolves into Ireland but this is not going to happen outside of a fence. Insufficient open space. I mean, even in the U.S. with all its room, a couple of kids go skiing in Vermont in Frozen (2010) [SPOILER] and the reintroduced wolves in the New England woods there ingest the kids’ innocent carcii right on the slopes! Carcii used to mean carcasses but now for reason it seems to mean “weed.” On a lighter note, the golden eagle has been successfully reintroduced into Ireland. Also, that’s real Irish flora onscreen. Honeysuckles. The artists stepped out into the woods, or perhaps someone brought them The Irish Tree Finder before they started drawing.

The special green berry that delivers a magical green ink is, in fact, not a berry but the egg of the gall wasp. It makes a brown ink but the animators let that fact pass. Green it is, in the movie.

The film progresses through spring, summer, autumn, and winter, with the abbey walls growing, the Book of Kells illumination proceeding, and the abbey itself filling with refugees. The Vikings are on their way.

Not often mentioned at the Oscars is the fact that the nominated animated films routinely outgross, in total, the nominated live films, even though there aren’t as many of them. I suppose this means that kids and their parents fund the industry. Anyway, TSOK was nominated in 2009 along with Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, and Up, which won. TSOK’s financial performance wasn’t up to snuff, unfortunately. It is to be hoped that the DVD release will do better. Regardless, this movie will always be with us, because it is a work of art and no mistake. (You can watch the movie instantly on Netflix.)

Movie notes:

– Abbot Cellach is based upon a bartender that directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, and art director Ross Stewart, know. He’s voiced by Brendan Gleeson, who remained associated with the project from 2001 till its release.

– The cat Pangur Ban is voiced by Venise du Bois du Roy. I believe Venise to be a human, not a cat, but I can’t prove it. There is an old poem written by an Irish monk in the 800s: “I and Pangur Ban, my cat / ’Tis a like task we are at; / Hunting mice is his delight / Hunting words I sit all night.” “Pangur Ban” means whiter-than-white. I’ll resist the impulse to post a picture of my two Pangur Bans, the sisters Elizabeth and Goofy. White cats are graded on a scale of one to ten, ten being pure white (I think). Elizabeth and Goofy are nines, each with a gray mark on the top of the head. As they grow older, sunscreen will be required, because their pink ears and noses have no protection against the sun. Only pure white, grade ten cats with blue eyes are prone to deafness.

– The monastery monks include one with a modern-day stereotypical Italian accent, Mama Mia! Hey, let’s give Latin time to die out and to be replaced by Italian. Or maybe I’m wrong. The earliest written vernacular Italian, as opposed to the earlier vulgar Latin, is dated in the mid-900s.

– The monastery in fact includes a variety of non-Irish characters, not to be PC but to symbolize the interconnected influences of the various Mediterranean cultures. From 500 to 1000 A.D., most intellectual knowledge and learning were flowing from the Arab world to the post-Roman world.

– Writer/director Tomm Moore. Why the extra “m”? Why did Don Nelson, the NBA player and coach, name his son Donn? Is it because Don is for Donald and Donn is for Donnie? Aaronn, now that makes sense. Fortunately my father Joe didn’t name me Joee, because then I’d feel obligated to name my son Joeee.

– I could be wrong, but I think one of the monks is Mr. Magoo.

– I googled “Irish movies” and cat – 139,000 hits; “Irish movies” and dog – 21,000 hits. Just sayin.

– There are cuckoos in the woods. The cuckoos in Ireland migrate to and from Africa, spring and autumn.

– When you begin looking into the exact contents of the Book of Kells, you quickly find yourself learning about the early fathers of the Church, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, and the Eusebian canon, which describes a method of dividing the scriptures into readable pieces (modern chapters and verses came along later), and lists of Hebrew names, and, in no time, increasingly arcane branches of the Christian theological tree. I’ll leave that to you.

– The artists researched scriptoriums – the rooms where the monks did their work. They’ve included equipment to make gold leaf, dyes, and so forth in the movie.

– Lots of lively Irish music, some performed by the excellently named Rossa O’Snodaigh.

By the way, while I’m thinking of it, the film is unrated, and already, at the beginning of it, I’d warn parents – and I’m speaking as a helicopter grandparent here – that there are moments, plenty of them, in this movie that are too intense for the very young.

TSOK teaches some history, and begins doing so right from the start. I like movies that teach some history. Truman (1995), Ike: Countdown to D-Day (2004), Thirteen Days (2004), The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001). Rossellini’s history films. Movies like that.

For example, we learn that the action in the movie happens at the Abbey of Kells. I think I knew that an abbey is a type of monastery, governed by an abbot. If I didn’t, I could figure it out in a hurry in the movie, because the monks and the Abbot show up directly.

We also learn that in some of the old abbeys, as I mentioned above, monks decorated (illuminated) pages of sacred text and assembled the pages into books. The most famous such book is the Book of Kells. When Aiden shows up at Kells with his special book, we infer that the book was begun on the Isle of Iona. As it happens, of the various academic theories relating to the origin of the Book of Kells, this is the most popular.

I asked myself, as I watched, what an abbey is, exactly? Beyond being a sort of monastery, I mean. When I checked Wikipedia and the Catholic Encyclopedia, all the information that they provided about abbeys dealt with ancient ones, those that closed or were closed during the Middle Ages. Westminster Abbey used to be an abbey, and kept the name, but it hasn’t actually been an abbey since the 1500s. Henry VIII shut down the Westminster monastery and his daughter later established it as a collegiate church. I’ve also read Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen’s first book to be completed for publication, but then only published after her death.  😦  ), but in the book, Northanger has been converted into a family’s personal estate.

Also, the Wiki and Catholic articles never quite explained why an abbey is an abbey.

So I googled “California abbeys” and found Saint Michel’s Abbey (Norbertine) in Silverado, Saint Andrew’s Abbey (Benedictine) in Valyermo, and the Abbey of New Clairvaux (Cistercian) in Vina. I called one of them and spoke for an hour to its sub prior. (Each abbey elects its own abbot, who then appoints a prior and a sub prior to assist him. Or, in the case of The Sound of Music (1965), an abbess. I don’t believe that there are any abbeys for females on the West Coast of the U.S.) I asked the Father what an abbey was and whether abbeys have always been around or had gone away and come back, and whether they are thriving these days.

What I learned was that if a monastery wants to become an abbey, it must receive permission from the Bishop of the diocese that it’s in and then from the Council of Religious Orders at the Vatican. These permissions are no small thing, because once an abbey has been granted them, it becomes a permanent institution. It cannot be removed, even if it goes broke or gets bombed to smithereens during a war. The Bishop is making a commitment to the future when granting permission, a commitment that later Bishops must honor. On the plus side, an abbey can be an excellent resource for a diocese to have. The abbey can serve as a source of priests (assuming that its order isn’t cloistered). Its priests can teach in the community, minister in the churches, so forth. Abbeys take steps to remain financially self-sufficient.

One difference between the beautifully situated California abbeys and the abbeys of old, at the time that they were founded, is that the old abbeys were mostly located out in the wilderness, in the uncleared, untamed, brambly, unpopulated countryside. The abbey in TSOK stands next to a forest where the old gods still live, along with those wolves.

I don’t believe that any Catholic religious order of the last 500 years has founded an abbey; abbeys are old school; it’s the old orders that found them.

The history of the Book of Kells, real and imagined: According to TSOK and a plurality of experts, the Book of Kells was begun in Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Iona was one of the oldest and most important religious centers in Western Europe. The abbey was important in the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland and was founded by St. Columba when Iona was part of the Kingdom of Dál Riata. Legends say that it was Saint Columba himself, in the 500s, who started the Book of Kells – St. Columba of, as Aiden says in TSOK, three hands, twelve fingers to a hand, a third eye, and a magical crystal which acted as a magnifying glass, opening up those hidden secrets of nature too small to be seen by the naked eye – the physical details of insect wings, for example, leaf veining, and other patterns that could be glorified in the decorations on holy pages.

The movie includes some plot around magic crystals, lost and found, and when Brendan finally lays hands on one, we see him use it to make his first marks of the pen in the Book.

The Vikings sacked Iona frequently, including in 806. Pace the Abbot Cellach, walls didn’t do much good. Aiden was fleeing such an event when he showed up with the book and his cat at Kells in the movie. The Book was completed at Kells and resided there, being stolen and recovered at least once,  until it moved to Trinity College in Dublin in 1661, where it is now to be found.

How the book was kept from the Vikings at Iona and later at Kells, which was also sacked multiple times, or whether the Vikings just didn’t want it, we don’t know. Evidently they did want the cover with its gold, though, as the cover is missing. In the movie, the Vikings steal the cover but then get et by the wolves with Brendon standing by. Why he recovers all the pages of the book but not the cover constitutes a little plot hiccup.

The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels, a fragment of Hebrew names, and the Eusebian canons. It is also called The Book of Columbia. The lettering uses black, red, purple, and yellow ink and the lettering and illumination of the pages is (majority opinion) the work of two monks, whom we’ll take to be Aiden and Brendan.

The pages include Celtic knots, Celtic crosses, triskelions (triple spirals), animals, humans, and other traditional decorative elements. Knot decorations began in Roman times, spread to many cultures, with different styles coming to be associated with different countries. Celtic knots like the one below then turned back to influence decorative art throughout Europe.

The color, the imagination, the invention, the art and beauty all blossomed in barren cells in the middle of the wilderness. The term “devotional ecstasy” has been invoked.

Over TSOK’s ten years of creation, its animation tasks were spread far and wide, because its funding was spread far and wide. The first 20 of its 80 minutes were created in Kilkinny. Other artists worked on the film in Belgium, France, Hungary, and Brazil. For example, the Belgians did the crows that fly through from time to time, warning of bad times coming. The Hungarian and Brazilian studios did all of the final cleanup. A list of those involved in the production, distribution, and funding of TSOK. In the nature of internationally funded artistic efforts, the logistics of keeping everything moving forward was a constant challenge. Production software helped integrate everyone’s efforts, but frequently, just as one group was ready to go, another group was off on some other project.

Two hundred artists worked on the movie. Which means that in theaters throughout Ireland and elsewhere, and later in hundreds of living rooms when the DVD came out, families gathered and at some point or other in the movie burst into cheers as a son or daughter or mother or father suddenly pointed at the screen and exclaimed, “There. I drew that crocus! The yellow one!”

Keeping all the animators coordinated over time and space required a lot of charts and book keeping, in addition to the coordinating software. At one point, the Irish animators were mostly working on other projects and French, Brazilian, and Hungarian artists came over to Kilkinny. The art director broke down the dialog line-by-line phonetically for them because otherwise there was no telling whether an “ee” would come out onscreen as an “ah” or a long e. This is not to mention the Irish accents. But huh? Lip-reading a cartoon? I went back and watched the characters talk, and… I dunno. When they go “ooo,” their mouths get round, I can tell that much. More than once the animators said, “Oh, that’s what they’re saying” when they were provided with the transcripts. This is a level of detail in the drawing that never occurred to me.

The animation is old-school pen and ink. Although drawn mostly to imitate the style of insular art (that is, art of the British Isles back in the Dark Ages, or as Lucky Jim’s wife or girlfriend used to say, The Dark Age), for the viewer unfamiliar with that style of art and its history, an initial reaction to the movie might be that it’s Samurai Jack-like (simple, or masking, animation of the characters in the foreground), semi-anime. The movie doesn’t have to run very long, though, for it to become clear that the art onscreen has more going on in it and for it than might at first be apparent. The strong outlines are unlike the outlineless art of S. Jack. The eye is entertained, and then entertained again. Director Moore names Klimt and Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterson as influences. Ebert predicts that the young will enjoy the movie in the way that my grandchildren enjoy Thomas the Tank Engine on DVD: they don’t know or care that it’s old fashioned and partakes not of the CGI of Transformers (2007). They just like it.  But, as Ebert felicitously puts it, “the Transformers-damaged generation” will experience the visual language in the film as they would a foreign language.

Note: the official keeper of The Book of Kells came down from Dublin and visited the animation studio in Kilkinny. He approved of their work.

Klimt

Watterson

Most of the movie is drawn to be flat, as if on the page, as if a sort of tapestry art. The animators also found a computer method of thickening the drawing outlines during cleanup, to get a stained-glass effect.

Triptychs are used.

The film’s action transpires over a year, and the animators present the forest and abbey in all four seasons – four times the drawing chores.

The Vikings/Northmen are drawn in the abstract, so as not to offend the Scandinavians and, perhaps, not to scare the children too much, though their sounds and shapes are pretty scary anyway.

I found myself wondering about which perspective techniques were being used, if any, in this attempt to emulate the book itself. If nothing else, figures farther away are smaller than those nearer to us. Roger Ebert then reminded me that perspective itself was discovered in the Renaissance. Well, not quite. A quick brush-up on the subject reminds me that Ebert, like most of us, is liable to over-simplify in a brief article, being limited in the number of words he can apply to a given subject. So, let me reword to say that the movie is drawn to include, and so illustrate by example, many of the illuminations and illumination techniques of the monks working in the 700s. The history of perspective, one way and another, or one way or another, extends all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. Geometric perspective, written up no later than 1021 by the Iraqi Alhazen in his Book of Optics, is not notably present in the body of the movie.

The animators did choose to introduce modern perspective when Brendan steps into Crom’s underground cave. Color is desaturated and a Cromish purple is introduced. I’m not sure why Tomm Moore opted for the modern here. Perhaps simply to heighten the drama and increase the subjective distance between the normal abbey world and that of the old god. Brendan’s final confrontation with the god works in flat, no-perspective 2D, but it happens in a dream state distinct from the cave action that leads up to it.

Also included in TSOK are some crow’s-eye views, straight down. Not sure what perspective this is. In the shot below, Brendan and Pangur are standing at the center of the circle.

The film includes a number of dream/remembered/Crom sequences that are rendered in a simplified flash animation. Moore seems just a tad defensive about the sequences, perhaps because of flash’s initial reputation as a beginner’s tool or because some of that animation represents production compromises based on $$. To help differentiate the flash portions, the animators have equipped them with borders, indicating that not only are they imaginary within the world of the movie, but that they are also a half-way stop on the way to the illuminations that Aiden and Brendan will actually draw on the pages of the Good Book. The borders, or frames, include paleolithic/magalithic symbols (concentric circles, crooks, sun wheels, yokes), and use muted colors, as opposed to the vibrant colors of the rest of the movie.

One reviewer noticed that every snowflake in a snowstorm was individually drawn and unique. Well, they aren’t all unique, at least in this scene, but they’re nice little snowflakes, all right.

Ratings reminder: In the snowflake scene above, the Abbot, who has been skewered by a flaming arrow, is about to get a sword in the kidney to go with it. A church full of monks and peasants goes up in flames. The director points out that we never actually see anyone roasting, or otherwise meeting their Maker, except way out there in the extreme distance, little figures falling from the walls, so forth. So that perhaps the kids won’t realize how many casualties we’re dealing with here. They can’t miss the Abbott’s situation, however. And also, there is lots of red, if no blood. The wolves, the Vikings, and Crom Cruach all act in inappropriate, angry, and unrestrained ways. My correspondent in this matter is ten years old and she liked it, but be warned.

Crom is probably the least scary of the bunch. He is imagined as a creature from the briny depths, self-lit, living on the ingested dreams of others (visible through his transparent skin). His eye is a crystal, the crystal that Brendan and Aiden must use as a magnifier to render the tiny bits of detail in their work. Brendan confronts the snake, takes the eye, and uses a piece of chalk to trap the monster in a circle. In TSOK, curves always trump angles, and this snake has a lot of corners. The animation is abstract, clean, an exercise. In the end, Brendan leaves Crom to consume himself, eyeless, mouth to tail, as pictured in The Book of Kells, a symbol of eternal rebirth and renewal. What Saint Patrick began, the plucky Brendan finishes.

In this frame, Brendan is that little bit of fluff to the left of Crom’s head.

In the film, Brendan’s special task is to illuminate the Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells – its most notable page. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christ’s name, in Greek. Taken together as shown, they’re one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians.

The Chi-Rho page:

The page, like the rest of the book, has dimmed somewhat with age. The animators, through Brendan, revitalize Chi-Rho in the film’s final scenes.

I wondered a bit as I watched the movie, whether fundamentalist Christian film reviewers might not be bothered by this sacred book’s associations in TSOK with pagan religion. I mean, in baseball the Tampa Bay Devil Rays suddenly became the Tampa Bay Rays. Halloween is not OK with my neighbor because kids dress up as Satan. Sex is a gateway to dancing – no, that’s the Baptists.  My mom hates it when I paint myself blue on April 24th and reverse-sacrifice a chicken at midnight (give it back its egg and apologize for the omelette that I ate that morning).  You can use the Bible to improve your aim, as in The Book of Eli (2010), and that’s OK, or you can use it like a crossword puzzle, as in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009). Judging from the movies, the Koran isn’t as effective in these respects. The Talmud, I don’t know, but if it helps you find the lost Ark of the Covenant, that’s got to be worth something.  At one point in TSOK, Aiden bemoans the loss of his crystal and Brendan suggests that they pray, to Saint Columba or possibly to God, but Aiden tells him that any prayers will need to be addressed to the former owner of the crystal, Crom Cruach, who ran things before the One True God showed up on the isles and Saint Patrick sent Crom packing.

What are young Christian moviegoers to make of this turn of events? Yes, pray to Crom, not to the more potent deity Who has supplanted him and to Whom the Kellian monks owe proper allegiance. Crom, fertility god or solar deity, still surviving in the 800s, though just barely, worse off than the wolves, out in the Irish forest beyond Kells (abbeys were set up in areas of utter wilderness, back in the day), Saint Patrick or no  Saint Patrick, Crom, who can turn darkness to light, they say, as can, hopefully, the Book of Kells itself. Or even better, Crom to whom Conan prayed, especially in Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent, Crom, god of the Cimmerians, as created by Robert E. Howard down in central Texas, south of Abilene, back in the 30s before Howard killed himself. I discovered Conan in the late 50s, but his stories were not easy to find before they came out in paperback, championed by L. Sprague de Camp. I found one Gnome Press book in the Glendale Library, another at Luke AFB, a third on the local bookmobile, and a fourth at the County library. The County library itself was hard to find, located in downtown Phoenix half a mile from the new city library (not at its present location), which I found useless, except that I discovered The Lord of the Rings books on a book cart in the reading area there, also in the 50s, before anybody knew who Tolkien was (LOR came out in three volumes, 1954-1955). Jeez, where was I? Crom as movie bad guy. When Saint Patrick came along and was shown Crom’s image, he smashed it with a sledgehammer, or with his crozier, and it turned to dust and the blood of Crom’s victims welled up from the tumulus. The animators included some visual references to this event (the blood) but we do not recommend that you point this out to your younger viewers. Warning: “crozier” and “tumulus” will be included in your quiz later.

But no worries. A Christian critic approves the movie “for families, as it celebrates the potent melding of creativity and faith. We were reminded of what Henry Ward Beecher, a nineteenth-century Protestant minister, once said: Imagination is the secret marrow of civilization. It is the very eye of faith.”

TSOK undertakes the difficult task, in terms of storytelling, of introducing two major, unrelated bad guys, one of whom is finished off, or at least frustrated, with plenty of movie left, and the other of which is left to continue the Viking depredations for another few centuries, though one batch of Northmen, unless I mistook what I was seeing, did get eaten. Plus, the story must juggle the hero, his fairy muse, his mentor, his surrogate father, his crystal, his sidekick (the cat), his quest, and some other stuff too. In other words, a lot of story, a lot of plot. Any deficiencies of tension in the story arcs, however, are pretty well camouflaged by the art on the screen. I’ve seen the movie multiple times and with each new viewing, for me at least, the story slips further into the background as I am engaged by the art on the screen.

Tomm Moore maintains a Secret of Kells blog. Check it out for a lot of interesting information about the movie and related topics. Moore was invited to a St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House by President Obama this year.

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

Filmspotting has a Movie Dictator Club. My Canadian friend Matt the Movie Watcher assigned me Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) a while back . The Criterion version that I watched is immaculate. Set in the 1940s, this naturalistic (till the director starts riffing) film of country life in Quebec is fresh enough to have been made yesterday. The Canadian National Film Board helped with its production; correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this might have been the first major example of Quebecois film. The NFB has funded quite a few works that feature drama in lesser-known areas of Canada and without it, film in Quebec might never have got off the ground. I grew up in a small rural town in the late 40s and early 50s and instantly related to the setting and characters in this movie. It was filmed in Black Lake City and at the Thetford asbestos mines in Québec.

I can recommend the movie without reservation to anyone interested in a quiet, closely-observed visit to a small town in the country in the 40s, featuring a variety of interesting characters making a hard life seem a little easier that it probably is – especially since the town is dominated by an open-pit asbestos mine that coats everything, including the lungs of the residents, with carcinogenic dust.

Having said that, it strikes me that the director, Claude Jutra, who here adapted a short story for the screen and directed the movie, turned his back on the possibility of making a classic film, ending up with a very good movie instead. I’ve just posted a review elsewhere of “Mother of Mine,” and I had the same thought about the director of that film, Klaus Härö. In both cases, the director seems not to trust the tremendous power of the basic story that he is dealing with and instead tacks on an unnecessary melodramatic narrative that entertains us in the moment but can’t stand up to scrutiny later, relegating both films to the category of rural picaresque. Jutra might well have worked from a checklist here that includes a teenager breathing his last, a journey over unpaved roads with a hard-to-manage coffin (when “As I Lay Dying” was published, this trope should have been moved to the Pantheon and left alone there), a teen’s first look at the adult female rack and I’m not talking about Bambi’s mother here, so forth. A documentary about Jutra is included and it’s as interesting as the film itself. A life of struggle to make movies by a gifted man with money woes. Puts me in mind of Orson Welles.

I also seem to be developing an aversion to characters who stare straight ahead without speaking, leaving us to divine their thoughts and relieving the author of the responsibility of writing intelligent and original dialog for them. Jacques Gagnon, who plays a young man whose final sudden coming of age is compressed into the confines of a day or so, underacts in a way that perhaps mimics the frozen silent wastes of those great northern forests up there, which will probably be filling up with refugee polar bears any day now.

And Bravo! to Olivette Thibault, who gets her ashes hauled here at the age of 57 by a youngish Jutra himself.

Mon Oncle Antoine is filled with interesting characters and interesting moments, entertains in its every frame, and is a gem indeed. Thanks to Matt for choosing it!

Androcles and the Lion (1952)

Having watched Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), I continue my G. B. Shaw refresher with Androcles and the Lion (1952).

As I mentioned when reviewing the earlier films, Shaw takes pains to get his point across, one way or another. His preface to Androcles runs longer than the play itself. Bottom line: Jesus had some good ideas but they mostly died with him. Let’s not worry about it (says I, not Shaw). Aesop, who wrote the original, would be scratching his head, I presume.

This is only about half Shaw, anyway, the other half being Hollywood, or Gabriel Pascal’s notion of it. After Pascal’s successes with Pygmalion and Major Barabara, he went all in with Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), filming in Technicolor with Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains, in Egypt (or not. Conflicting info on this), before the war ended. When that flopped, he backed off on Androceles and left most of Shaw’s thoughts on Chrisianity out of the movie, substituting fun with the lion and gladiators. Being dead, Shaw probably didn’t care. [Or maybe there is another whole history here that I’m missing. Androcles came seven years later and was released into a different England that CAC. If I ever do the research, I’ll come back and edit this. Or get it right in my CAC review.]

When I saw Victor Mature gazing down from a balcony upon Jean Simmons in this one, I immediately asked myself, what chemistry is this? Victor, dressed in his Roman legionaire togs, looked tired, world weary, aging. Just his role, or too many late Hollywood nights? I remember when I first noticed Pacino looking old. He never tried to hide it and I respected him for that. It turns out, I like haggard. Some, age hardly touches. Paul Newman. Some age early. Tommy Lee Jones got the gig in Space Cowboys (2000), side by side with Garner, Eastwood, and Donald Sutherland, and didn’t look out of place with those three geezers at all. Supposedly, he was their contemporary. Either way with Victor, the true ravages of age or a role calling for a worn-out legionaire, I took his interest in Simmons, who was dressed, or wrapped, in a simple white fabric and was in her early twenties at the time, radiating a mixture of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor with plenty of black-and-white closeups, and at least one moment in that white shift when we can tell she’s excited to be hanging with Victor, I took Victor’s interest, I say, to be that of an older man called upon to reflect on life’s beauty and missed opportunities. Then I discovered that he was only 38 when he made the movie and that whole train of thought went out the window. Just as well, cause later when he and Jean start to breathe heavy whilst discussing religion, he looks younger, though still with that mug of his.

The two of them, Mature and Simmons, went on the next year to make The Robe (1953), wherein Burton takes pride of place and wherein Simmons wears the same white clingy thing that she’s flaunting in Androcles (well, she’s flaunting what’s in the clingy thing, I guess), and then The Egyptian (1954), again with the white clinger. The Egyptian is the effort that occasioned that famous quote about the male star’s bosom being larger than the female’s. More tanned, too.

Jean Simmons, like Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle and Barbara Undershaft, gets more than 50% of the spunk and argument in the movie. Here, though, rather than facing a Professor Higgins or Barbars’s  magnate father, Simmons deals with a diffuse collection of hypocrites, plus the hunky lunk.

Shaw taken up by Rex Harrison, Leslie Howard, and Wendy Hiller is one thing; Shaw taken up by Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, and Jim Backus, well, that’s something else. It’s not exactly that this is Shaw 4 in the franchise, but Gabriel Pascal picked the best for 1938, then the next best for 1941. Shaw worked with him on those; but by the time Androcles  rolled around, Shaw had left the building. Not to worry. Innumerable Shaw plays have been filmed, and filmed again, since then. I have seven more on reserve, just in case I haven’t had my fill yet.

[Taking a break to remind myself what a catbird seat is. Ah, that’s better. But still not where it came from in the 1800s.]

What else? Androcles later played the owner of Mr. Ed. Alan Young. 91 and still working. Has been associated with a cultural treasure trove of properties, from The Hulk to ER to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to Doogie Howser to Batman to the Chipmunks. My God, the man is a legend.

Movie notes:

Robert Newton, who owns the most amusing moments in Major Barbara (1941) as Bill Walker, is back here ten years later, to again provide LOL moments in the movie, as Ferrovius.

Jim Backus , with Mr. Magoo straining to get out, puts me in mind, for some reason, of The Phil Silvers Show (1955). Similar vibe.

As they march along, back in A.D. 161 (or whatever year it is supposed to be), the Christians sing a lusty version of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Never mind the anachronism. Between verses, the members of the group remind each other that every man jack of them is about to become lion chow. Some soldiers.

“man jack” comes from cricket, where the worst batsman is listed at number 11 (i.e., 8, 9, 10, jack).