Friday, May 31, 2024

May Quick Picks and Pans


Stone Poster

Stone (1974) For those who weren’t there at the time (and I think that covers most of us), director/co-writer/co-star Sandy Harbutt gives us a taste of the Australian biker culture of the early ‘70s. The title refers to the main character (played by Ken Shorter), an undercover cop, who infiltrates biker gang, “The Gravediggers,” to investigate a series of killings of their members. Harbutt does a nice job depicting their gritty, freewheeling lifestyle. They live by their own rules, preferring to live on the fringes of society, instead of the 9 to 5 world. Stone becomes entranced by their scene, but can never quite be one of them. The film features some very good performances, including Harbutt as Undertaker, the gang’s leader, as well as many real bikers as extras. Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max and Mad Max: Fury Road) steals the show as the hedonistic Toad.   

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Arena Poster

Arena (1989) This low budget direct-to-video (at least in the U.S.) sci-fi action flick with big ambitions is as superficial as a bowl of sugary kids’ breakfast cereal, but diverting enough. Set on an intergalactic space station, Paul Satterfield stars as Steve Armstrong, a man who aspires to compete in what has become an aliens-only fighting match. Besides the fact that a human hasn’t competed in the ring in 50 years, he must contend with a crime boss and his toadies. Probably the film’s biggest distinction is that it featured three actors who would go on to star in two prominent ‘90s sci-fi series: Claudia Christian (Babylon 5) as Armstrong’s manager Quinn, and Armin Shimmerman and Mark Alaimo (Deep Space Nine) as the antagonists. The not-so-special effects and flimsy sets are nothing to write home about, but the unique creature designs are kind of fun. If nothing else, it’s easy to see the potential for this to be remade with a bigger budget.   

Rating: ***. Available on Prime Video and Tubi  

Ruby Poster

Ruby (1977) Piper Laurie stars as fading has-been Ruby Claire, in director Curtis Harrington’s supernatural drama. When her gangster boyfriend is shot down (shown in the opening flashback scene), he vows revenge against the men who betrayed him. Flash forward 16 years later, with Ruby reminiscing about old times and running a backwoods drive-in theater. Leslie (Janit Baldwin), her special needs daughter, becomes the conduit for her deceased father’s spirit, as he exacts revenge against those who wronged him. The bodies pile up in a hurry, although the authorities never seem to snoop around. Laurie’s slightly unhinged performance is the only reason to see this near miss that never quite coalesces. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Midnight Pulp


The Monster of the Opera Poster

he Monster of the Opera (1964) In director/co-writer Renato Polselli’s middling horror movie, a theater troupe is terrorized by a centuries-old vampire and his curse. He’s drawn to Giulia (Barbara Hawards), a dancer whom he believes to be his reincarnated lover (who also damned him to a life of vampirism). There’s some nice black and white cinematography, particularly with an opening dream sequence, but little else to recommend this one. It’s too bad The Monster of the Opera is mostly bark and little bite, filled with boring dance numbers, endless bickering, and more diaphanous negligees than a Jean Rollin film. 

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Midnight Pulp

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant Poster

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971) Bruce Dern stars as Roger, an enterprising young doctor experimenting with grafting second heads on animals. He longs to find a human test subject, and sees the perfect opportunity fall in his lap – transplanting the head of an escaped serial killer on the body of a giant mentally challenged man (you can probably guess this isn’t a brilliant idea before the murderous rampage ensues). Pat Priest plays his neglected wife Linda, who passively endures her husband’s shenanigans, and Casey Kasem co-stars as Ken, a colleague who suspects something unsavory is afoot. This movie makes the thematically similar The Thing with Two Heads (1972) look like a classic by comparison. 

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi


Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen


The Fabulous Baron Munchausen Poster

(1962) Directed by Karel Zeman; Written by: Karel Zeman, Jirí Brdecka and Josef Kainar; Adapted from works by Gottfried August Bürger, Rudolph Erich Raspe and Gustave Doré; Starring: Milos Kopecký, Rudolf Jelínek, Jana Brejchová, Karel Höger, Rudolf Hrusínský, Jan Werich, Eduard Kohout and Bohus Záhorský; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****


Baron Munchausen

“My one wish was to get the right idiom for my plan: to capture the surreal world of Baron Munchausen. I wanted this romantic fantasy to be unleashed from mundane reality, so I used imagery resembling prints from the period. At the same time, I decided to treat color like a painter on a canvas. I put it only where it was necessary.” – Karel Zeman (from Blu-ray featurette, “Why Zeman Made the Film”)

A hearty thanks to Rebecca from Taking Up Room and Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews  for hosting the It’s in the Name of the Title Blogathon, spotlighting movie titles that feature their respective characters’ names. I’m proud to discuss, for your consideration, Karel Zeman’s aptly named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962).

Baron Munchausen on a Seahorse

Since Rudolf Erich Raspe anonymously published his fictionalized account of Baron Munchausen’s* adventures in 1785, the exploits of the famous spinner of tall tales have enchanted and captivated readers. Raspe’s original work spawned a number of spinoff books, plays, radio shows, and of course, motion pictures. Munchausen became the subject of several silent-era films (including Georges Méliès 1911 short, “The Hallucinations of Baron Munchausen”). Sadly, many of the early short films are presumed lost, but arguably the most noteworthy cinematic examples are three feature-length films, released in 1943, 1962, and 1989, respectively. The infamous 1943 German version, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was made under the watchful eye of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (intended as a morale booster). While not overtly pushing a Nazi agenda, for many (including this reviewer) it’s impossible to separate the movie from its notorious origins and the monstrous regime that launched it. Terry Gilliam’s lavish, big-budget 1989 version, also titled The Adventures of Baron Munchausen gained its reputation as a troubled production, riddled with cost-overruns. Bookended between these versions was Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, his third feature (after 1955’s Journey to the Beginning of Time and 1958’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (aka: Invention for Destruction). As with his previous movies, Baron Munchausen employed his knack for combining live action with animation. 

* Fun Fact #1: Yes, Baron Munchausen was a real person. Munchausen, the character, was based on the real-life Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, a retired German military officer, who was known for regaling anyone who’d listen with wild stories of his exaggerated and imaginary exploits.

Baron Munchausen, Princess Bianca, and Tonik

The opening scene finds the eponymous Baron (Milos Kopecký) traveling to the moon, where he encounters characters from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, as well as (for some reason) Cyrano de Bergerac. He meets an astronaut named Tonik (Rudolf Jelínek), and believing him to be a resident of the Moon, decides to take him on a tour of Earth. Their first stop is Turkey, where they meet the despotic Sultan (Rudolf Hrusínský).  Much to the Sultan’s chagrin, Munchausen and Tonik are smitten by Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová),* who’s being held against her will. Thus begins a nominal love triangle, but it’s clear that Bianca only has eyes for Tonik. Although initially peeved at the princess’ preference for Tonik, the Baron’s jealousy doesn’t last long – after all, he only has one true love, himself. They hastily make their escape, with the Sultan’s army nipping at their heels. They’re rescued by a Dutch trading ship, but after they face the wrath of the vengeful Sultan’s navy, they’re cast adrift in the open ocean, where they’re subsequently swallowed by a giant fish. Their quixotic journey continues across the globe guided by the Baron’s indomitable wit and boundless imagination. 

* Fun Fact #2: According to film writer Michael Brooke, at the time the film was released, Brejchová was more popular in her native Czech Republic than her husband, renowned director Milos Forman.

Giant Fish and Pyramids

As a self-taught animator,*/** Karel Zeman honed his techniques with each project, working through the myriad challenges of his films like mathematical equations. Using Gustave Doré’s artwork as a template, his paper cutout animation resembles book illustrations that leapt off the pages. His signature blending of live action and animation creates a fairy tale look. Particularly impressive is a tracking shot through the Sultan’s palace, arranging multiple cardboard planes to create a three-dimensional space. He also frequently used split-screen techniques, combining live actors with paper cutouts in the background or foreground. The effects are delightfully old-fashioned, giving Zeman’s film a charm that can’t be compared to modern efforts. It's not about seamless integration of the imagery, but indicative of a different filmmaking tradition that favors creating fanciful visuals over hyper-realism. While I’m not going to initiate a debate about which approach is “better,” the analog, mostly in-camera effects never fail to entrance. Created by a small team of dedicated craftspeople, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen possesses a handmade quality that can’t be duplicated by a bunch of people clicking away on computers. 

* Fun Fact #3: Zeman learned about the mechanics of animation by studying a “Felix the Cat” cartoon frame by frame. 

** Fun Fact #4: Despite his early artistic predilections, Zeman’s father forced him to attend business school.


The Baron Rides a Cannonball

Amidst the high fantasy, Karel Zeman reveals a sense of humor worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. In one terrific gag, the Baron and Tonik attempt in vain to break down some double doors in the Sultan’s palace, only to watch Princess Bianca effortlessly open them. When Tonik innocently steps on a rug in the Sultan’s throne room, he unwittingly triggers a swarm of spears. And on the Dutch trading ship even the ship’s figurehead enjoys taking a brief smoke break. Along with these playful flourishes, the film presents a satire on the human condition. While in the presence of the mercurial Sultan, Baron Munchausen speaks the “language of high diplomacy” (consisting of musical harmonica sounds) as a means of communication.

Inside the Belly of the Fish

In The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Karel Zeman takes you to imaginary places that never existed, but you somehow wish they did. His approach to visuals is distinctly different compared to his contemporary Ray Harryhausen, but the end results are just as mesmerizing. Zeman’s version of Baron Munchausen argues that imagination and fantasy are more powerful than knowledge – and in the context of the distinctly engaging visuals, who could disagree? While Zeman left an indelible impression with his film, there’s something about Munchausen that transcends generations and bears repeating. Who knows when or where the next iteration of the indomitable Baron will take us, but one thing’s for certain: you can’t keep a good fibber down.


Sources for this article: “Why Zeman Made the Film” Blu-ray featurette; “Baron Munchausen; Facts and Fibs,” by Michael Brooke; Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015 documentary)