Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 16, 2022 5:24 pm 
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A stop motion trip through hell from the special effects mastermind behind 'Robocop,' 'Jurassic Park' and 'Starship Troopers' is a warped, nightmarish masterpiece, but too grim and lacking in narrative content to satisfy most 'normal' viewers

For fans of dark animated insanity, Phil Tippett's Mad God is a must-see. Others would not want to watch it anyway, but this film, unlike last summer's NYAFF special offering from Takahide Mori, Junk Head, and Shinya Tsukamoto's 1989-1992 Tetsuo, has not only no talking, like them, but also virtually no plot at all. This means there is less to draw you in and hold you. And there may be more to repel you, more gratuitous cruelty, crude sexuality, and scatology. That said, this is a summation of over thirty years of off-and-on work by one of the masterminds of mainstream special effects. It also has early on and toward the end, moments of brightness and beauty. Tippett has worked with Lucas, Verhoeven, and Spielberg, receiving two Oscars and an Emmy for his contributions to pop sci-fi monuments like Star Wars, RoboCop, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers.

Tippett led the famed Lucasfilm creature shop for Return of the Jedi, for which he was awarded his first Oscar in 1984. His last big work was as visual effects supervisor for all the Twilight saga films in the 2010's. He's more or less retired from big supervisory projects for hotshot directors now, and has worked his way up to this, letting himself enter freely into his own personal private choking oozing mass of torture, murder, and darkness, through a series of short films over the past eight years and with the help of Kickstarter.

The first work on what became Mad God was in 1987, date of RoboCop. It's said that when he saw CGI dinosaurs, Tippett thought stop motion animation was going to be dead. But he kept on working in this very artisanal and personal format, which predominates in Mad God, though this film mixes in a number of other techniques, including some digital manipulation and brief live film segments.

Mad God's images, which have been traced to Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, and multiple other influences, even Milton's Paradise Lost, seem much like the ones that teem in the minds of adolescent boys, over-imaginative, slightly (or very) warped young brains that haven't yet developed full moral awareness or a full capacity for human sympathy, and therefore can enjoy (as, inspired by certain movies and comic books, I did myself at 11 or 12, or 13 or 14) imagining howling animals, corpses full of maggots, or cool medieval tortures like the iron maiden and the thumb-screw. A person with a sound and maturing mind and stable emotions normally learns to eschew all this, as I came to prefer Austen to the Brontë sisters, Nancy Mitford to Faulkner, and now wholeheartedly plop instead for bright, cheerful stop motion animations like Wes Anderson's suave, star-voiced Fantastic Mr. Fox or Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's joyously handmade Town Called Panic. And let's put in a plug for Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, illustrating the words of Noam Chomsky, personally lovingly crafted by Michel Gondry in a corner of his Montmartre apartment. Those who revel in work like Tippett's Mad God like visiting dark places. There's nothing wrong with admiring this film, but firmly concluding it's not a healthy place to go. Too bad, because this kind fo work profits from multiple viewings.

As Mad God begins, after a terrifying passage from Leviticus, a corroded diving bell descends amidst a ruined city and the Assassin emerges from it to explore a labyrinth of bizarre landscapes inhabited by freakish denizens. For a glimpse in words of what comes after, see the passage from the excellent BFI review. Mad God premieres exclusively On the horror platform Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand June 16, 2022.

John Bleasdale, Sight & Sound:
More than simple gross-out, Tippett’s film meticulously recreates a universe of relentless cruelty and horror. There are no good guys, no sides even – our ‘hero’ swiftly becomes another victim and is replaced – and literally no dialogue. Vicious overlords speak in baby babble. Torturers dress like doctors. Kubrickian monoliths crush people in a domino rally of death. Everything is mulch: killed, crushed and disemboweled in order to create another generation to be killed, crushed and disemboweled. If George Orwell’s 1984 posited human history as a boot stamping on a man’s face, Tippett adds defecating.

And yet the film is so beautifully realized: every shot, a brutal work of art. The animation employs so many techniques, from puppetry to stop motion, live action (Repo Man director Alex Cox appears as a curly fingernailed mastermind) to digital as to present an exhaustive compendium of the art. Has there ever been such a combination of technical brilliance at the service of such a nihilistic vision? It’s like Pasolini made a Pixar movie. This is not for everybody: it relentlessly hammers home its point and even wild inventiveness can become paradoxically monotonous. But this is a work of a genuine visionary, and has all the makings of an instant cult classic.
The review by Rory O'Connor in The Film Stage is also eloquent in describing Mad God and frank about its limitations. Jacob Mouradian in Film Book is even franker, saying the film's "80 minutes feels plays [sic] rather tiresome and hollow." However fantastically well-crafted, this is a film not a great many people will really want to watch.

Mad God, 83 mins., debuted at Locarno Aug. 5, 2021, and was included in over 18 other international festivals in 2021 and 2022. It premieres on Shudder, the horror platform, Jun. 16, 2022. Metacritic rating: was 65%; as of Jun 14-15-16, has risen to 80%.


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