It took Berkeley resident and special effects genius Phil Tippett (you’ve seen his handiwork in Star Wars, Robocop, and Jurassic Park, for which he’s credited as “dinosaur supervisor“) over 30 years to complete Mad God. Production began in 1987 and wrapped in 2020, and though the wait has been an extremely long one, it’s been worth it: Mad God (opening on Friday, June 17, at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater) is a genuine masterpiece.
Tippett is the successor to stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen, who had himself taken inspiration from animation pioneer Willis O’Brien’s immortal giant ape King Kong. Boomers grew up marveling at Harryhausen’s creations in films such as Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts, and the The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, but stop-motion’s day was over by the 1980s. Since then, it’s been supplanted by CGI effects, which render what we’re shown on screen more “realistic” while simultaneously making it look completely artificial and — worst of all — reducing the magical to the mundane.
A dialogue-free (bad) acid trip filled with grotesque and macabre stop-motion visions that would have been tailor-made for the midnight movie industry of the 1970s and ’80s, Mad God will definitely not appeal to everyone. Ostensibly the tale of an explorer sent with naught but an unhelpful treasure map into a deadly and bizarre world, the film’s narrative is not its strong point: Its parade of primordial horrors, however, will blow your little mind to pieces while underscoring the futility, fragility, absurdity, and beauty of our all-too-short lives.
It’s hard to imagine stop-motion being executed any better than in Mad God, which begins with a blood-curdling excerpt from Leviticus and concludes with the most bizarre cuckoo clock you’ve ever seen. In between are 80 minutes of astonishing imagery: much of it horrible, some of it beautiful, and all of it unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Highest recommendation!
Impressive imagery is also front and center in Neptune Frost, the remarkable first feature of married couple Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams. Williams, a polymath best known for his poetry and music, scripted this cinematic condemnation of racism, sexism, homophobia, and capitalism, basing it in part on his 2016 LP Martyr Loser King — even including a re-recording of album highlight “Down For Some Ignorance.”
Shot in Burundi, the film (opening on June 17 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater) begins at a Congolese coltan mine, where brothers Matalusa and Tekno endlessly dig for the mineral that makes the miracle of the mobile phone possible. After Tekno drops dead from exhaustion, Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) decides to return home, but on the way stumbles across a rebel camp populated by those who, like him, are unsatisfied with the way things are.
I’ve admired Williams for some time, and Neptune Frost provides him with an opportunity to meld his brilliant wordplay and audaciously original music with Uzeyman’s eye for the unusual. Part science-fiction musical, part kitchen sink drama, and part magical realist parable, this is a unique, thought-provoking piece of art that — while it may have you scratching your head at times — is never less than captivating.