Dreaming of ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’

Told like one of Georges Méliès’ féeries stories, “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a balancing act — a Jenga tower that could have easily toppled over.

On one hand, you see the romantic and tragic tale of “Romeo & Juliet.” On top of that, you see the quixotic influences of Miguel de Cervantes, the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali and the gothic characters often found in Tim Burton films.

The fragile balance is even more precarious when beautiful, almost life-like animation is interspersed with musical numbers in a steampunk world.

And then suddenly, Georges Méliès (Jean Rochefort, Stephane Cornicard) appears in an animated film he might have written, directed or invented once upon a time.

Written and directed by French author Mathias Malzieu based on his book and album, “La Mécanique du Cœur” (which translates to “Mechanics of the Heart”), “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a surrealist and dreamlike fairytale about another boy named Jack (Mathias Malzieu). This one didn’t nip at your nose, climb beanstalks or rip throats from prostitutes in London. This Jack was born in Edinburgh on a night so cold that his heart became encased in a block of ice.

Luckily, the witch doctor Madeleine (Marie Vincent, Emily Loizeau) was able to repair Jack’s frozen heart, replacing it with bits of gears and magic. Instead of a beating and bloody heart, Jack was given a cuckoo-clock, which chimed when it was startled and smoked when he felt any passion.

To protect his mechanical heart, Jack was given three rules to live by: 1. Never touch the hands of the clock; 2. Control his temper; and 3. Never fall in love. Naturally, he breaks the rules and becomes infatuated with a girl named Miss. Acacia (Olivia Ruiz, Samantha Barks).

Like Salvador Dali paintings, the film stretches time and probability. In one moment, you’re longboarding through desserts; in another, you’re climbing the sky — flying and falling through scenes filled with pop-up houses, bouquets of glasses, cats with elongated necks and smoke made out of paper.

Malzieu and his co-director Stéphane Berla present us a magic show walking the tightropes of a surrealist dream.

It isn’t a smooth walk. It floats and falls. Pushes and pulls. Flickers and stops in seemingly random bursts.

It’s a film full of contradictions filled with things that shouldn’t exist. A man with a spine of a xylophone. Humans with elephant ears. And a boy with the cuckoo-clock heart.

Yet somehow, all these pieces fit together like misfit toys — both ugly and beautiful, forgotten and loved.

“Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” was directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu based on Malzieu’s book and screenplay. The film contains original music from Malzieu’s band Dionysos.  

Listening to ‘The Name of the Wind’

The best way I can describe how it felt like when I read “The Name of the Wind,” the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle series, is that scene in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” — the one where the sick boy urges his grandfather to keep on reading.

It’s been a while since I’ve found an adventure quite like this — a page turner so engrossing that it consumes me entirely.

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“The Name of the Wind”
By Patrick Rothfuss
661 pp. DAW. $17.85
2007.

It’s broken heart is Kvothe, an unassuming barkeeper with vivid red hair and ever-changing greenish-colored eyes.

Kvothe’s story is illustrated in two parts: the past and the present — nestled inside each other like Penrose steps.

In the present, Kvothe is a haunted man, quietly trading stories to a traveling writer while hiding from the inevitable hellhounds.

But even as Kvothe tries to escape his past, it sweeps him up and defines him.

In the past, Kvothe was a myth more than a man — a thief who survived the cruelest of conditions, escaping caves of cyclopes beneath the bellies of sheep. Kvothe was a candle burning from both ends — a child prodigy who’s lived lifetimes within days.

Now within days, Kvothe narrates the stories of his lifetime: The stories he’s heard, stored and made.

“The Name of the Wind” is a minstrel’s song like Homer’s “Iliad or “Odyssey” — a clever and epic tale promising magic, fighting, torture, poison, true love, revenge, joy, sorrow, songs, heroes, villains, bullies, monsters, women, bandits, knights, patrons, kings, singers, tinkers, princesses, mercenaries, demons, fairies, pain, poetry, poverty, shipwreck, debt, lies, truths, passions, and miracles.

This story more delivers on its promises.

 

The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

Why we’re ‘Homesick for Another World’

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Homesick for Another World” is a book about pimples and obesity. It’s a book about women who wear too much makeup and men who wear women’s blazers.

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“Homesick for Another World”
By Ottessa Moshfegh
294 pp. Penguin Press. $26.
2017.

Each of the characters within this collection of 14 short stories perform little sins that show their inner ugliness. Sometimes it’s changing the answers to all their students’ state tests so that the students could pass their exams (“Bettering Myself”). At other times, it’s not calling their mothers (“Nothing Ever Happens Here”), staying with absent and paranoid boyfriends (“The Weirdos”), lusting after the young girl next door (“An Honest Woman”), not calling an ambulance when a pregnant woman starts bleeding inside their homes (“Slumming”), or going to a remote family cabin to smoke weed and escape an almost-due pregnant wife (“A Dark and Winding Road”).

Written in first person, these uncomfortable vignettes portray the minds of sinners shrouded within protective bubbles of arrogance and self-entitlement. A man with unemployment benefits collects cash from an old and dying uncle (“Malibu”). A recent widow tries to vengefully cheat on his dead wife after almost 30 years of marriage (“The Beach Boy”).

These stories are about loneliness and the search for human connection; however, more often than not, this quest leads us to lazy eyes and clumps of white deodorant under armpits. Moshfegh’s characters reek of humanity: the moist, stank of original sin. It’s a stench we’re painfully familiar with and why we’re homesick for another world.

‘The Grownup’: Gillian Flynn’s Rubin vase

You know that optical illusion where you swear you see a vase but your friend keenly sees two faces. That’s the kind of story Gillian Flynn’s “The Grownup” is.

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“The Grownup”
By Gillian Flynn
62 pp. Crown Publishers. $9.99 US.
2014.

Originally published as part of George R. R. Martin’s “Rogues” anthology under the name “What Do You Do?,” “The Grownup” is like the Rubin vase exercise, holding two images in the same frame.

The main character is an wannabe writer who is a voracious reader. She catalogs great lines for her memoir and begins with this one: “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.”

Written in first person, “The Grownup” is a classic story about an unreliable narrator. We don’t ever find out her name, but if we believe the narrator, she grew up conning people out of their money, telling them stories that they wanted to hear. Now she’s a fake aura reader who also gives hand jobs for money at this joint called Spiritual Palms.

This becomes problematic when she meets Susan Burke, a wealthy client whose family moves into Carterhook Manor, an 1893 Victorian mansion. Susan thinks the house is haunted and our heroine would love the extra cash; the latter, however, isn’t as easy as it seems.

At 62 pages, “The Grownup” is a slim novella. Yet within those 62 pages, Gillian Flynn (author of book-turned-movie “Gone Girl”) skillfully maneuvers the twists and turns she’s so well known for.

While “The Grownup” is a quick read, it’ll have your second guessing what you believe.

Why you should be binge-watching ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Have you ever danced when no one’s watching? Really danced. You know, the kind of dancing where you’re blasting bad punk rock songs that somehow ends up in jumping on your bed doing ridiculous air guitar solos?

That’s what it kind of feels like binge-watching Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s TV musical rom-com “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It’s heroine Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is the kind of bad-ass that could give Emma Stone a run for her money in “Easy A” – the kind of fearless and impulsive heroine who quits her lucrative job at a big New York City law firm to move to middle-of-nowhere So-Cal to chase after an ex-boyfriend (Vincent Rodriguez III) that she had a brief two-month summer fling with at summer camp when she was 16.

Crazy and stupid? Yes. But on some level, it’s also absurdly amusing to watch. I mean, who hasn’t imagined that prince charming whose kiss wakes you up from your nightmares, that prince who rescues you from imprisonment, that prince who marries you out of poverty and generally makes your life more pleasant? And here’s a gal who’s taking charge of her life and actively trying to find him.

While we know real life doesn’t work this way and that a guy can’t fix our anxieties and depression, Bunch plays out these impossible fairy-tale fantasies — these fantasies that tells us that we can actually make it after quitting that miserable $95,000 job and moving to an island to scoop ice cream. That fantasy that we can be happy somehow and that we don’t have to medicate with pills or alcohol and that all your problems could magically disappear. To add to the fantastical and improbable, the cast at “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” occasionally break into original songs, singing about sexy French depressions, heavy boobs and urinary tract infections.

At times, the lyrics to the music sounds like the whimsical type of things a child would make up when narrating her whole life in song — not that that’s a bad thing. The “I have friends” song is extremely catchy and filled with cheerful optimism and self-denial.

At other times, the musical numbers parodies things we’re familiar with. It’s opening number “West Covina” (and its reprises) is a homage to those big, sweeping, Broadway musicals numbers where a character sings about those life-changing moments. In another number, a troupe of plaintiffs sing “Can you hear a trickling sound?” to the tune of “Les Miserables'” protest anthem “Do you hear the people sing?”

The music’s inspiration is wide and eclectic, though. The actors give a nod to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and old Hollywood in a song about settling for less.

A bartender (Fontana) plays a piano solo at an empty bar on Thanksgiving to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” a one-man boy band (Rodriguez) sings about kissing childhood dramas goodbye, and a pair of Jewish American Princesses perform a rap battle.

Even when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” seems like it’s following fairy-tale conventions, it’s constantly breaking them. The show’s heroine (Bloom) sings about being the villain rather than the fairy-tale princess and a bird abruptly flies away when Bloom attempts to sing to it.

What’s more is that Bunch isn’t some silly, damsel in distress; she’s a smart, resourceful and successful lawyer with degrees at both Harvard and Yale. Her prince also isn’t a white John Smith who kidnaps Pocahontas; the leading man’s a really nice Filipino bro named Josh Chan with white sidekicks like White Josh (David Hull) and Greg Serrano (Fontana).

And while the show’s girl-chases-after-guy plot seems to throw feminism out the window, Bloom and McKenna also insert scenes girls wish would really happen in real life. A musical number showing a guy seeing the ritual a girl goes through when preparing to go on a date with him ends with the guy calling up all his past hookups and apologizing for taking how he took how they looked for granted.

Bloom and McKenna’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a guilty pleasure and binge-watching all 18 episodes of its first season feels eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food all by yourself, but even so, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a refreshing show with substance — featuring a diverse and multiracial cast; witty, self-deprecating commentary; and encouraging the healthy kind of belly laughs that almost tastes as good as gooey marshmallow and caramel swirls with fudge fish.

The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” was created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna. The show’s first season is available on Netflix. 

 

Why you should be binge-watching ‘Mr. Robot’

The first thing you learn about Eliot Alderson (Rami Malek) is that he’s an unreliable narrator.

He meets with psychiatrist Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben). He talks about the men in black that follow him. He’s a junkie addicted to morphine pills. And he’s a depressed and paranoid schitzophrenic.

(You’re a voice in his head.)

But despite all this, Malik’s voice is hypnotic and even if his story sounds like a grand conspiracy theory, “Mr Robot” hits upon a nerve (this one encouraged people to Occupy Wall Street).

The tale Alderson spins is a superhero fairy tale, a modern retelling of Robin Hood. Actually, it’s one part “American Psycho” and one part “Robin Hood” — and the good and bad guys are painted in black and white like the bianary system of ones and zeros.

In Alderson’s story, anarchists work to dismantale the system of wealth and capitalism, to get rid of crippling student debt and eliminate the amount of money in your banking account.

Alderson’s twenty-first century superhero doesn’t don a mask, cape or sword. He wears a dark hoodie which wraps around him like a cloak. Behind a computer, he can take down child porn dealers, rapists and drug dealers. He’s hacked everyone he knows and fed online police tip lines.

But first back to Eliot, our paranoid narrator. By day Alderson works at Allsafe Cybersecurity, an online security firm with his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and her douchey boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport). The firm’s contracted to protect big multi-national banking conglomerates like E Corp and it’s suppose to guard against hackers like him.

You can probably begin to see the problem here. By principle, Eliot cannot stand everything that E Corp, which he nicknames Evil Corp, represents. Evil Corp’s empire of 1 percenters is run by guys like Senior Vice President of Technology Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom) — guys with slicked back “American Psycho” haircuts who specializes in “murders and executions.” What’s more, Evil Corp, a symbolism for capitalism itself, supposedly owns 70 percent of the global consumer credit industry including a large portion of people’s debt.

Eliot’s occupation gives him insider access to Evil Corp and perhaps that’s why Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) contacts and recruits him to his fledgling vigilante hacker group fsociety. Their goal: to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Created by Sam Esmail, “Mr. Robot’s” a wonderfully mad story that you wouldn’t believe. But recent current events seem to give this story credence. I mean, would you have believed that a child sex trafficking ring was held in the basement of a D.C. pizza joint with the help of top democratic politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton? And if you did, would you have walked into this pizza joint with a loaded gun to investigate?

Or would you believed that a group of Russian hackers could sway a major U.S. election? And if you do believe in either of these things, whose to say there isn’t a small vigilante hacker group in Coney Island named fsociety who could topple world markets and eliminate all debt?

Clap your hands if you believe.

“Mr. Robot” was created by Sam Esmail. The first season is available on Amazon Prime. 

When you don’t ‘Burn After Reading’

Part of the fun of “Burn After Reading” is that it feels like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to. When the film begins, you’re literally dropped into CIA headquarters, playing voyeur to an analyst (John Malkovich) whose about to be fired from his position.

In subsequent scenes, you’re privy to infidelities, confidential divorce meetings and cosmetic surgery appointments, following such a vivid cast of characters that you feel like a spy.

Written and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, “Burn After Reading” invites you into the convoluted and cockamamy story of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a lonely gym receptionist who would like a number of “necessary” plastic surgery procedures to attract men like Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). The problem: her insurance won’t pay for the procedures and she can’t afford them with her salary.

When her coworker, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), finds a mysterious CD containing notes from ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich), they decide to blackmail Cox for a ton of dough.

What they don’t know: Cox’s CD is neither worth anything nor does he have the money Litzke and Feldheimer are looking for — especially not with ongoing divorce proceedings with his wife (Tilda Swinton).

The entire ensemble are excellent and the acting is wonderful. None of the characters in “Burn After Reading” are likable, but they’re eccentric and memorable — the type of people you’d gleefully gossip about if you knew they actually existed. “Burn After Reading” allows you to be that fly on their wall and eavesdrop on things you probably shouldn’t.

Joel and Ethan Coen are Shakespeares in the own rights. “Burn After Reading” is a ridiculous farce, but it’s so cleverly woven that you can’t help but become intimately entangled in the story. In some scenes, you’re literally in the closet with another character while watching another man undress. In other scenes, you’re watching the narrative from close sidelong profiles of men who rather not be seen.

But even if “Burn After Reading” lures us in like moths to a flame, it’s not a particularly nice movie. The humans and their failures are cruelly held underneath a microscope and we can’t help but watch.

“Burn After Reading” was written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki. 

Checking into ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’

One of the scariest parts of “American Horror Story’s” fifth season, “Hotel,” isn’t when a monster rips apart the seams of the bed to pull you under with him. It happens at broad daylight on any ordinary day.

You take your son to the carnival and turn your back for just a second. When you look back, he’s gone. You and your wife file police reports and send out search parties, but even after a year, there’s no trace of him. The chances he’s alive are slim, yet the lack of a body fuels your hope, which wavers with each passing day until it’s tiny and dim.

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, “American Horror Story: Hotel” is filled with the pain of existing without a purpose. That’s what the Hotel Cortez feeds off of — the pain and despair of its guests and patrons. Most of them are stuck for eternity inside the Hotel Cortez, forever destined to haunt the art deco hotel’s endless hallways.

Our entry point inside these horrors is Homicide Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), whose working to catch a “Se7en”-style L.A. serial killer he nicknames the “Ten Commandment Killer.” After the killer calls Lowe’s cell phone from inside the Hotel Cortez, Lowe checks into the hotel to catch the killer. The hotel gives him answers, alright, but perhaps they’re more than he’s looking for.

While each season of “American Horror Story” can live solely on its own, this season of the anthology most closely resembles “Murder House.” Not only is the setting a character of its own, but the hotel’s also founded in the same city and era as the “Murder House.” Murphy and Falchuk bridge the “American Horror Story” universe further by featuring some cameos from the first season including Murder House owner Dr. Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook).

But while “Murder House” made you feel alive, “Hotel” makes you sad. Designed in the 1920s by nouveau riche oil baron James Patrick March (Evan Peters), the Hotel Cortez is a place of art deco grandeur that loses it’s luster and purpose with each passing year. Originally, it was built as “a perfectly designed torture chamber” by March, a man who killed for sport. (March is loosely based off of real-life serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built his own “Murder Castle” during the late 1800s in Chicago, Illinois.) Now, it’s fate is undetermined as designer Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) threatens to buy it.

While its future is debated, the hotel’s experienced a ghastly past. Loosely based off of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel, which was the home of serial killer Richard Ramirez (Anthony Ruivivar), the Hotel Cortez is the type of place where you drown yourself in the tub, accidentally overdose on heroin or blow your brains out. If that’s not morose enough, all the ghosts who died there can’t leave.

“Hotel’s” haunting and scary in the way that depression is scary. You’re not exactly afraid of it, but you’re afraid all the same. You wake up one morning feeling sad or restless or angry or not feeling anything at all, going through the motions but wondering why. Meanwhile your mind’s checked into this dark place that you’re not sure you’ll ever check out of.

‘Hamilton’s America’: a non-stop roller coaster

It’s 2014 and Lin-Manuel Miranda describes his life as a roller coaster — as if he were strapped into the ride as it’s climbing up. At this point of his life, he’s waiting for rehearsals to begin while still composing the words to “Hamilton.”

At this point of his life, “Hamilton” hasn’t sold out in its off-Broadway production at the Public Theater.

“Hamilton” hasn’t been touted as “the greatest thing we’ve ever seen ever” on the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.”

“Hamilton” hadn’t moved to its Broadway location at the Richard Rodgers’ Theatre.

“Hamilton” hasn’t won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. 

At this point of his life, Miranda’s just moved into a new apartment, waiting for the birth of his son and preparing for “Hamilton.”

“This is the part of the roller coaster’s that’s just going up,” he says.

And that’s what watching Alex Horwitz’s PBS documentary “Hamilton’s America” (2016) feels like — as if you, too, were on strapped into a roller coaster as it climbs the tracks. The pinnacle of this ride would have been seeing the musical in its entirety on the Broadway stage with its original cast members, but watching “Hamilton’s America’s” premiere on PBS Friday may have been the next best thing.

“Hamilton’s America” builds with momentum, taking you behind-the-scenes as Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton — America’s founding father who derived much of the modern banking system, penned most of the Federalist Papers and was shot by Aaron Burr.

You probably know more of his story — like how he was George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolutionary War or how he was was “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman.”

Much of Hamilton’s modern fame is due to Miranda’s musical, which you’ve probably sampled on iTunes, Spotify or YouTube.

But while watching a complete run through of “Hamilton” would have been educational and entertaining enough, Horwitz’s documentary delivers both history and insight. Told by interviews from Miranda, Senator Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, President Barack Obama, composer Stephen Sondheim, rapper Nas and historian Ron Chernow, “Hamilton’s America” gives you an understanding of Hamilton’s accomplishments as well as Miranda’s creative process.

The inspiration behind “Hamilton” is Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton.” Miranda saw Hamilton’s story as a hip hop story and wrote and performed its title track as part of the White House’s Poetry, Music & Spoken Word Night in May 2009.

He spent the next seven years researching and writing the words to “Hamilton,” visiting historical sites such as Valley Forge National Historical Park, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Mount Vernon.

The project gained speed with the help of Tony Award-winning musical director Alex Lacamoire and director Thomas Kail. But the real magic is in Miranda’s words — which translate history to music and brings lessons from the classroom to life.

“What it did was capture the fact that the Founding Fathers were to some degree flying by the seats of their pants and making it up as they went along,” said President Obama. “And the fact that the experiment worked was a testimony to their genius and you can draw a direct connection to what the founders were doing and what we’re doing today.”

That’s one of the remarkable things about “Hamilton’s America” — that his story is ours. But to hear “Hamilton” in our language of rap and R&B and hip hop makes it more real than reading it in a textbook.

Just like how the “Hamilton” musical made American history more accessible, Horwitz’s PBS documentary makes the musical “Hamilton” accessible to the America who’s heard the music, but haven’t been able to buy tickets to the show.

But while “Hamilton’s America” teases us with performances from the musical, it doesn’t satiate our thirst to watch and learn more.