The contour line twitches thoughtfully around the principal figures in the animated feature My Dog Tulip, ruffling with the fur of the Alsatian bitch who is the title character and bristling along the surface of the well-worn, sensible wools that encase her narrating owner, J.R. Ackerley. He is drawn as a long-faced, elderly stiff whose head is a little too small for the shoulders that ride up around it. She is drawn as a marvel of fluidity, able to curl or drape herself into any space where she comes to rest—the favorite armchair, the master’s bed—or stretch at will into an arrow of excited, inquisitive motion.
Sometimes the frame drawn around these two figures will become crowded with the dowdy stuff of London in the postwar years, all gray and green-gray and graying yellow and washed-out maroon, with a few wisps of blue trying halfheartedly to break through overhead. (It was "touching and strange that she should find the world so wonderful," Ackerley recalls on the soundtrack, as you see Tulip reveling in the fullness of a garbage-strewn lot, which overlooks the murky waters of a towpath. Choking clouds of soot rise from factories in the distance, while a train clatters and smokes across the trestle bridge that doubles as a horizon line.) At other times, the world’s furniture disappears from the picture, and the space is flattened to a sheet of ruled paper—irregularly ruled, as if by a schoolchild in a hurry—where Tulip loses her handsome tan-and-black color and becomes a mere outline, strutting across the surface on her hind legs. The ratio of perceptual detail to conceptual doodling varies, depending on the ratio in the narration between Ackerley’s observations and his musings; but always there’s that slight yet insistent twitching of the line, like the twitching of Tulip’s tail (or of another part of her anatomy), imparting a material motion to even the most deliberately prosaic of the pictures and reminding you at all times that My Dog Tulip is the work of clever hands.
Directed and animated by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, from a script that Paul Fierlinger based on the much-celebrated memoir published in 1956, My Dog Tulip was entirely hand-drawn and hand-painted but made on the computer, without paper. Perhaps this hybrid method helped give the film its old-fashioned, crotchety yet startlingly quick-witted nature, which suits Ackerley’s writing so well. The glumly comic self-description he worked up in My Dog Tulip (voiced in the film by Christopher Plummer, deploying an extensive repertory of sighs and lip-smacks) was that of an intellectually distinguished Englishman who had reached a certain age and then gone beyond it without having met that special friend. "Gay" would not be the word. Having grown pettish with age, he rejoiced only in his adoring and fortunately incorrigible pet, whose every unembarrassed micturition, bowel movement, snarling rebuke to her enemies and frolic through the kitchen’s store of vegetables was endearing to him, as an expression of the animal life that he had been denied. In the film, the Fierlingers bring this theme to its appropriate climax in the lengthy sequence devoted to Tulip’s mating. Enough to say that the process is extremely funny, in the way of things that are natural and yet messy, clumsy, subject to repeated failure and disruptive of several social milieus, from the suburban self-congratulatory to the shabby-genteel.
Perhaps one of the reasons Paul Fierlinger captures all this so well is that he is in his 70s and knows something about rueful mirth. He, too, might be speaking, whenever the cartoon Ackerley addresses us from his place within a scene. The other main reason, of course, is Fierlinger’s twitchy virtuosity.
A sourball candy of a movie worth savoring to its last melting away, My Dog Tulip is in its premier theatrical run, playing at Film Forum in New York through September 14.
As the outdoor luncheon party is to French cinema, the briefcase of money to American movies or swirling auto traffic to the Iranians, so are unimaginably large crowds to a certain mode of contemporary Chinese film. They trademark the national experience; they encourage brand loyalty in the audience. If you want your cast of thousands to be made of flesh and blood, then what can you watch in today’s digital era if not a Chinese film?
Last Train Home, an exceptionally strong documentary by Lixin Fan, begins with the money shot: an overhead view of a plaza outside the train station in Guangzhou, where from one edge of the frame to the other all you can see are people packed belly-to-back in a pouring rain. These dots under their umbrellas, though multitudinous, are just some of China’s 130 million migrant workers, who pour in from the provinces to take jobs in the industrial cities. They pour back only once every twelve months, flooding the railroad system, when they return to their homes to celebrate the new year.
Last Train Home starts with these masses; but for the most part it is an almost shockingly intimate picture of a few of the individuals, whom Lixin Fan followed over a period of three years. Chen Suqin and her husband, Zhang Changhua, from a rural village in Sichuan, had been bent over sewing machines in Guangzhou for sixteen years at the start of filming, in 2006. Their two children—a 17-year-old girl named Qin and her younger brother, Yang—had been left behind on the farm, to be raised by their grandmother. You see the parents fret over whether they will be able to visit the kids this year. (The camera comes right into the curtained-off cubicle in the factory dormitory, just large enough for a bed, that serves as their living quarters.) You watch as they scramble for scarce and overpriced tickets, get herded along the platform and onto the train, search hopelessly for some nook where they can cram their luggage. (The aisle is so jammed with bodies that you wonder how the camera crew made room for itself, or dared to try.) And as the long, long journey proceeds, you listen to the father’s lament: "When we’re home, we don’t even know what to say to the kids."
The full force of this remark becomes apparent over the course of these annual cycles, as Qin rejects the authority of parents she never knew, going so far as to curse her father and strike him in full view of the camera. So much for paternal dignity; and so much for the only thing the parents did know to say, which was to study hard. Qin quits school and goes on her own to the industrial city, to seek freedom by making herself into fresh meat. I wish I could say this is the final painful irony of Last Train Home; but the Chinese economic miracle will not be done with these people until every human tie has been severed and every last shred of sacrifice put to waste.
The story is no less devastating for having become familiar in outline and some of its details. You may have seen versions of it in Jia Zhangke’s great films, in Yung Chang’s documentary Up the Yangtze (on which Lixin Fan worked as a sound recordist and associate producer) or in Micha Peled’s China Blue. No matter. Last Train Home has its own contributions to make: a painstaking revelation of individual characters, and an unforgettable closing image of the masses shuffling out of the Guangzhou train station at night, as the plaza, and the father’s life, finally empty out.
* * *
Because modern life is starved for romantic comedies and stylish caper films, I am delighted to be able to recommend a new one of each. They’re identical and are titled Heartbreaker, as in "seducer, deceiver, glamourpuss, cavalier manipulator of affections," all of which tags nicely fit this slick first feature by Pascal Chaumeil. Assuming that a few laughs and sighs, a slapstick whirl and a fantasy getaway to Monaco are all you expect, perhaps the only common meaning of the title that does not suit the movie is "disappointment."
Vulpine and crafty Romain Duris, working in his light charmer mode, stars as Alex, an apparently omnicompetent con man who specializes in breaking up unhappy couples for a fee. His disguises are many, but the method is always the same: to show the woman that she deserves something better in life, such as him. (Not that she can have him.) Needless to say, he is heading for a fall, which he gets when a wealthy semi-gangster hires him to prevent the impending marriage of his daughter Juliette (Vanessa Paradis). She is lithe, poised, cool, redheaded, deliciously gap-toothed, slightly imperious and engaged to a man who is similarly superior in every way. Alex has no choice. For once, he must concoct a persona that will make the woman despise him—which means, of course, that for once he will become the character tingling for a better life.
Having entered the director’s trade as an apprentice to Luc Besson, Chaumeil learned lessons from the pop-movie master that have proved valuable in Heartbreaker: keep the action moving, make the colors bright and don’t forget the audience has paid to be entertained. Nothing that happens will be too unpredictable, or even a little deep. But interesting notions do pop up along the way—the possibility that someone might lie nonstop yet be truthfully perceived, or might reveal a guilty secret and have it received as no darker than beige—and these may appeal to ticketbuyers as a welcome bonus.
I vote to accept.
* * *
As it happened, I saw Robert Rodriguez’s Machete on a day when the latest cache of rotting corpses to be discovered in northern Mexico—seventy-two of them, of all ages and both sexes—became the subject of debate. Had their murderers been a gang that principally smuggled drugs or people? You would not believe how this question intruded on my enjoyment of the dismemberments, disembowelments, impalings, beheadings and all-purpose flayings that Rodriguez, in his exuberance, splattered across the screen in the name of social criticism and Mexican pride, in a film that has been much awaited by the people who await this sort of thing.
I admit, I might have been one of them. When told that I will see Cheech Marin play a shotgun-wielding priest known as Padre, I am likely to show up for a movie. And when the stock figure of the betrayed cop turned vengeance-seeking fugitive is going to be played by Danny Trejo as a federale called Machete (you’ll never guess why), I feel an extra surge of adrenaline. Trejo is credible; he’s got the kind of face that brings a dark alley with it. Subsidiary pleasures? In my advance reading of the credits, these included Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba paired in shamelessly pandering tough-girl roles. (Machete makes no secret of being a boys’ night out.) In the event, I got some laughs out of Robert De Niro as an immigrant-bashing Texas politician who sounds like Robert De Niro when away from the cameras and like George W. Bush when the red lights are on.
As you will understand from that latter detail, Machete is a fantasy about slicing and dicing all those gringos who spread fear and hatred of Mexican immigrants, even while profiting from having them in ready, downtrodden supply. I respect the desire. I have come to question whether indulging it as pop-culture fun is the liberating gesture that so many of us (Rodriguez included) grew up thinking it to be. By the end of Machete—trust me, I’m not giving away much—the film has resolved into a battle of good versus bad vigilantes. But when Mexicans outside the movie theater are expendable in batches of seventy-two, I’m not sure why one group’s lawless bloodletting should be more glorious than another’s.
I think I liked Danny Trejo better as the uncle in the Spy Kids movies, where his favorite tool was a rubber band.