REVIEW: Otesánek (Jan Svankmajer, 2001)

This was my first and long overdue venture into the world of Svankmajer, a Czech filmmaker who has a penchant for stop-motion. Honestly, I was not sure if Otesanek ("Little Otik" in English but also known as "Greedy Guts") would be up my alley. More than anything I was in search a new sort of film experience. As it turns out, Svankmajer hooked me in the opening moments and had me going throughout.

We follow the tenants of a lower middle class apartment building presumably in Prague, particularly the two lovers Karel (Jan Hartl) and Bozena (Verinoka Zilkova) who desperately want a child but cannot concieve due to their mutual sterility. Much patience is involved in developing the details of the situation as the main story does not begin until a considerable amount of time has passed and Karel finally, as a sweet gesture for his wife, carves a tree stump to look like a child. Bozena instantly latches on to the inanimate object and appears mad with motherly instinct as she nurses the stump to life - a life in which it will never have its hunger satisfied by anything less than human flesh.

This is all a rendition of an old Eastern European fairy tale under the same name. The tale, like most of its kind, is quite simple but Svankmajer has delved deep and found intricacies to expound upon in a subtle manner. We have parallels drawn by edits such as the swineherd Otik swallows being related to the cops on the cases of missing people and we have overarching themes such as humanity's gall in thinking we can interfere with some of life's mysteries. The stop motion interwoven with live action during the scenes in question is to die for.

If you're like me and are aching for an uncompromised, uncensored, unique film with the MPAA gradually taking over American filmmaking, Czech this one out. It's startling, haunting, intricately woven and really, just plain brilliant.


REVIEW: Marie Antoinette (Sophia Copolla, 2006)

Quite obviously based on a true story, Sofia Copolla (Lost in Translation) takes a vaguely different approach to the period film with the story of quite possibly France's most famous queen. A young, Austrian princess (Kirsten Dunst) is brought to France to wed her betrothed husband and faces separation anxiety, ridicule and marital struggles of unfamiliarity amidst extravagant pampering. The story opens with her transfer between countries and continues... and continues... and continues.

The first half of the film was quite good due to Copolla's choices in composition, pacing and music cues. The story seems simple enough - after Antoinette's move to France she can't quite seem to "excite" her prince enough to consumate their marriage. This is really the only driving force behind the beautiful-looking picture. All the side stories seem frivolous and only exist to add length. Unfortunately, this main storyline ends at about the halfway mark, leaving us with an episodic series of dilemmas that come across as pointless due to our squandered investment in the original (apparent) intention. Thankfully the pseudo-hypnotic qualities of the dialogue and the cinematography don't fade much.

Focusing on the consequential first half, one may find some poignant parallels to modern society - particularly the gossip blog community. The royal environment as Copolla has crafted it appears as a very sheltered one in which the women merely live while the men do most of the important work behind the scenes. So what better to do with your time if you were a woman than get dressed up real nice and talk about people you don't like with your friends? Perhaps Louis XV (Rip Torn) and his foreign mistress the so-called Duchess of Polignac (Rose Byrne) would make for good conversation and a fantastic way to widdle the day away. In fact, as far as the film is concerned, you could call the king and the duchess K-Fed and Britney and you wouldn't be too far off.

So this film is certainly memorable for its nearly brilliant aspects but falls short of classic when it drones on and on over subjects it has already addressed more poetically in its first half. It seems too minimalistic in style to continue and attempt to encompass Antoinette's entire reign. I wouldn't steer you away from it, though. It's unique enough to at least be viewed once.