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December 8, 2011 5:46 pm
Puss in Boots is very jolly for an hour. Then, like Santa Claus misjudging a chimney, it gets stuck at the moment we hope it will break free and distribute the festive gifts. This has become a pattern with digital-animation comedy: the knockabout finale seizured by surfeit, the excess of gags and characters in a last, frantic, congested collision.
Running around here – or trying – in the overcrowded showdown are two swashbuckling cats (one female), an anthropomorphic egg called Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Puss’s friend and rival voiced by Zach Hangover Galifianakis), two snarling brigands competing for a runaway golden goose, umpteen villagers and rent-a-peasants, and half a dozen warthogs (don’t ask). They all fight and jostle in 3D. The effect, for the audience, is like being caught in a football crowd heading for the exits at the end of Fairytale FC versus DreamWorks Dynamo.
Perhaps kids like their comic effects thus. Never mind the quality, feel the cudgelling quantity. For everyone else the charm of this Shrek spin-off – picking out Antonio Banderas’s lisping feline adventurer for a start-up franchise – will surely lie in the sly parodic wit of early scenes. This moggie, handsome and debonair, dares to order milk in a roughneck-macho saloon, retires with it suavely to a table, then – head down for avid tongue-flicks when no one looks – laps it straight from the tumbler. This Puss pimps his back paws with haute-couture platform boots: “That’s a lot of heel for a guy, don’t you think?” wryly purrs love interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). And there’s a virtuoso split-screen action sequence, a stunt-choreographed tavern fight as elaborate and OTT-suspenseful as a Brian De Palma set piece.
It all deteriorates at the end. But before the film reaches critical mess, Banderas has had time to twirl his vowels, lisp his sibilants and show there might be further furr-longs in this franchise, provided he and the makers keep their wits.
Whatever happened to surrealism? Once it was the youngest thing on the planet, along with love, hope and springtime. Later it became a weird dotard tapping out patterns with a walking stick in a retirement home. Two European films demonstrate the decline. Raúl Ruiz, the Paris-dwelling Chilean who made Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, City of Pirates and the marvellous Proust adaptation Time Regained, died soon after completing Mysteries of Lisbon. This über-snooze of a costume epic, based on a Portuguese novel, has flickers of surreal invention like valedictory memory spasms. Jan Svankmajer, the once great Czech animator, now 77, has made Surviving Life, a compendium of surrealist clichés that twitch heroically, hopelessly, like dying nerve ends.
“What happened to surrealism?” It had its day. It boasted a small vocabulary entirely based on symbols of birth, sex and death, a vocabulary made to seem prolific by its artists’ endless perming of incongruous juxtapositions. Surrealism declaimed this vernacular for half a century. It had a fun time as it approached retirement (Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations). Now it is gathering mourners from round the world.
Precisely because they are candidates for embalmment – are already stiff, stuffed and rouged – Mysteries of Lisbon and Surviving Life have a weird kind of epochal power. The first lasts 4½ hours, is based on a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco and is at times a parody of the picaresque epic narrative based on orphanhood, mistaken identity and stories-within-stories. The fatherless child (José Afonso Pimentel), his priestly guardian (Adriano Luz) and his newly revealed Countess mother (Maria João Bastos), plus countless other costumes attached to characters, ambulate and interweave like some rite of the dead. The film is sombre, gnomic, Iberian, implacable. Only Ruiz’s old surreal mischief – with its air, at least, of animatedness – lend moments of cuckoo charm. The dreamer’s bed rising and floating across a room; the written letter silhouette-enlivened, like a theatre scrim, with a background enactment of its contents . . . But even these touches, few and small, seem the last antic dabs of the kindly mortician.
In Surviving Life the game is up completely. RIP surrealism: here are the obsequies. In an almost literally paper-thin comedy – Svankmajer uses cut-out animation in the Gilliam/Python style (he even features a python as a possibly witting tribute) – the once bouncing Czech who gave us Alice and Little Otik delivers a hit-the-ground-dead Freudian romp about an office worker’s dream life. Filled with eggs, hen-headed nudes, snakes and phallic teddy bears, the film’s inclusion of a knockabout duel between two photo-portraits on an analyst’s wall – of Freud and Jung – only blows the final tell-tale gaffe. Perhaps surrealism is – tout court and all manifestations accounted for – just psychobabble gone artily berserk.
What timing for Another Earth! It reaches UK screens in the very week that another Earth, the closest twin ever observed, has been announced by astronomers. That’s in another solar system. The second Earth in Mike Cahill’s Sundance prizewinning first feature is close to ours. It gazes at us with the same eerie impudence as the planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. But it might be friendlier: it might be a parallel, populated Earth where Rhoda (co-screenwriter Brit Marling), a blonde astrophysicist turned emotionally stricken college cleaner (obviously from Planet Philip-Roth), can atone for the horrific car accident that robbed composer John (William Mapother) of his wife and child.
Amazing is the elevated piffle that scores with Sundance audiences and some US critics. We would love an upbeat Melancholia: a film that dishes out hope with the same quasi-mystical, astro-potty brilliance with which Trier served despair. But the romance between cleaner and composer is contrived, gauche, schematic. The film’s moany-ominous electronic score (by the provocatively named Fall On Your Sword) is in a style of student-movie angst. And the camerawork and acting are both “handheld”: wobbly, ill-focused, exploratory, uncertain where to go next.
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