#274: Alois Nebel (2011)

Based on a graphic novel trilogy from Czech artists Jaroslav Rudiš and Jaromír 99 (who also write the screenplay), filmmaker Tomáš Luňák’s debut movie Alois Nebel is an existential rotoscopy animation about identity and disconnect. Film noir mystique filtered through Buñuel-like surrealism, it’s narrative problems don’t stop you from being compelled by the lusciously rich visuals.

Alois Nebel is the name of our dour hero, voiced and embodied on screen by Miroslav Krobot (who previously delighted in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London). Alois is a decoy protagonist, with his significance in the film’s overarching narrative being incidental; yet it is through his fractured perspective that the story unfolds.

An ageing guard at a baron train station, his life is as routine as the locomotives that pass him. At least, that’s what his stoney-faced exterior leads the people around him to think. Behind it all, he is tormented by hallucinations of his childhood: stripped from the clutches of his mother in Nazi-occupied Prague.

Back in the present day, the only tangible narrative thread is the story of ‘The Mute’ (Karel Roden), a silenced man who is chased over the Polish border carrying an axe, an old photograph, and skeletons in the proverbial closet. When Alois’ nightmares start to become more vivid, and his co-worker wants to steal his job, he is thrown into a local mental asylum. Bunking with ‘The Mute’, the pair form a taciturn relationship which will suffer grave consequences once they escape the ward.

Although there are further plot developments that help, I found Alois Nebel a difficult, confusing film to engage with. There are so many ways that director Luňák obfuscates the plot. Firstly, it’s already an illusory story – filled with contextual flashbacks and flash forwards, and two central characters (one an actual mute) who barely speak a word between them. Even when they are dominating the screen, the rotoscoped animation makes it incredibly difficult to register any facial expression or emotion (a problem that Linklater got around by making his actors exacerbate their movements in his rotscopic animation movie A Scanner Darkly). If you really want to ‘get’ Alois Nebel, having an extensive knowledge of the Czech Republic slang, rural locations, folklore and the relationship with Nazi Germany in WW2 may come as an advantage, as Luňák certainly isn’t giving us any expository tips.

Regardless of these plotting and cognition problems, Alois Nebel is a stunning mood piece. That mood may be glum, but the beautiful, Waltz With Bashir style rotoscopy is alluring from the very opening scene of a train sluggishly approaching the screen, right through to the unyielding shots of an inmate being lobotomised in the asylum. It’s pure aesthetic vision, and Petr Kruzík’s moody score often helps lay on some emotional attachment to it all, even if we fail to understand what the hell is going on.

I should clarify, my problems aren’t in being confused with the plot, but confused by the point or directorial message of the whole thing. Is it style over substance? Looking at individual sequences in the film, I’d disagree- the visuals really are that breathtaking. As a whole film, however, Alois Nebel coasts on the comic book-like design, and in the process deals with it’s war-time story a little too impersonally, or unjustly. In the end, at a slight 84 minutes running time,  Alois Nebel’s canvas will certainly draw you in.

Yes, that was a pun. Fuck you, pun haters.

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Were you like the thousands of Alien fan boys and girls that were disappointed with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus? Don’t worry, I may have found the perfect remedy to soothe your extra-terrestial ailments.

Take a look at this beautiful short from three wonder kids studying at Gobelins L’Ecole de L’Image, Paris. A stunning animation which encapsulates all the science fiction tropes we know and love: isolation, mystery and exploration.

More of this please. More now.

#208: Fritz the Cat (1972)

Animal House

For his first film, writer/director Ralph Bakshi decided to do what no one else had ever attempted: to create a feature-length, adult cartoon. The result was Fritz the Cat. Sometimes hilarious, juvenile and downright bonkers, this is a consistently provocative satire on the hedonistic counterculture populating the college halls of New York in the sixties.

Perhaps more infamous for it’s tumultuous production history rather than merits, the titular character was borrowed from the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. Moving the outrageous character from comic strip to the big screen, Crumb was never happy with Bakshi incarnation, resulting in heated arguments, lawsuits and Crumb removing his name from the production altogether.

Hardly with plot, per se, Bakshi situates the foul-mouthed feline Fritz right in the middle of the social turmoil pervading the changing city streets, presenting the character anthropomorphically as a restless college student at NYU who decides to “bug out” and experience everything America has to offer him, which consists primarily of experimenting with sex, drugs, and revolution. Forty years on from it’s release, faux-bohemian Fritz is remarkably similar to the quotidian “hipster” of today. Selfish and misguided, Fritz is equally amusing and annoying, constantly spewing clichéd counterculture platitudes without knowing their true sentiments.

A total phoney, Bakshi’s harshly drawn Fritz is a representation of liberal values gone awry, the antithesis of capitalism, yet still a participant in the regime. The movie makes a strong statement right from the opening sequence, which shows a construction worker pissing from a high-rise scaffold onto a passing by hippie’s head. With exacerbated, cross-species orgies and psychedelic drug binges, Bakshi attacks the hyperbole with unequivocal grotesquerie, leaving you in audible fits of laughter or wincing in discomfort at the change of a frame.

The film is also very interesting as an American artefact. Although paying both homage and parody to the liberal movement, it is very much a product of it, with the film not only the first x-rated animation, but the first to be made independent from studio finance. A fifty-strong army of practitioners created the rough-and-ready animation, with Bakshi heading out onto the streets of downtown NYC to make field recordings with real-life bums, college grads, and family members voicing the praying rabbis. He also uses the convention of animated animals as stand-ins for human characters, taking it to its outer extremes by equating various species with social subcultures. African-Americans are portrayed as crows, police officers are pigs, and anarchic revolutionaries are reptiles or white rabbits.

Aesthetically aged and thematically repetitive over it’s miniature 78 minutes running time, Fritz the Cat underlying messages about social hypocrisy on all levels still has a strong bite to it. It’s South Park for the seventies and remains one of the more creative and daring forays in feature-length animation.

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Although obscure, Fritz the Cat is available on DVD in most online stores.

If you’re unaware of Robert Crumb then I can wholeheartedly recommend Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, as well as the man’s excellent Kafka comic panels and The Book of Genesis comic book series.

144: Rio (2011)

Birds of Paradise.

Treacherous summer monsoon showers in Copenhagen. This is getting silly now. If only I was somewhere sunny, somewhere exotic. Somewhere like Rio. WELL I AM! Kind of.

The third of four filmic experiences today is a majestic feast for the eyes. Produced by Hollywood’s third most reputable CGI animation company Blue Sky Studios, Rio is a fish-out-of-water (or should that be bird out of nest?) ditty about a domesticated macaw named Blu (voiced by ageless Jesse Eisenberg). At risk of Blu’s breed going extinct, bumbling scientist Tulio invites he and his keeper Linda (Leslie Mann) to his native Rio de Janeiro to mate. In doing so, Blu embarks on the exotic adventure of his dreams. Sweet-sounding, right? Well, it is, until all the black market trade offs and bird snatching.

With risk of CGI-animation becoming banal, Carlos Sandanha’s Rio is another enjoyable but ultimately forgettable cinematic feast for the eyes. With a warming soundtrack and glorious colour tones that would leave a Nemo rescue team turning the cold, watery shoulder, it’s a fun ride whilst it lasts. Just don’t expect WALL-E tears here. Leave them at the door, please.

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