Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, Travis Knight)

The ultimate meta-storytelling, misfit-family, humans-vs-gods, origami-magic, epic-quest movie featuring the ultimate ass-kicking monkey.

My only complaint about the gorgeous stop-motion, which features a centerpiece sailboat battle that is possibly the best scene I’ve ever seen accomplished in animation, is that it’s all so perfectly executed that you often can’t tell it’s stop-motion.

We stayed through the credits to see my favorite armaturist’s name on the big screen – way to go, Spake!

J. Spiegel:

I was pretty much an emotional wreck for the last 25-30 minutes of Kubo. It’s not that I was surprised by the twists–very soon after we meet Monkey and Beetle (the former of whom voices Kubo’s actual mother), it’s pretty clear that they’re not just metaphorical stand-ins for his parents, but literal ones. It’s that the way the script handles the notion of accepting death and treating it as a fitting end to our “story” was unexpected and achingly humane.

D. Ehrlich:

The physical reality of their characters conveys an otherwise impossible sense of impermanence, and reveals stop-motion to be the perfect vehicle for a story about the beauty of being finite. The movies have explored the afterlife almost as thoroughly as they have life on Earth, but this one is so powerful because of the precision with which it articulates these immortal ideas of transience.

Lightning strike:

T. Robinson for The Verge:

One of Laika’s ideals is that only one animator should work on a given scene at a time … for instance, in a scene where Kubo stands in a wooded area and a wind blows through the trees, that’s the work of a single animator moving every leaf and branch separately. The process is incredibly laborious: On Kubo, 27 animators worked simultaneously on their own scenes, each trying to achieve the company goal of 4.3 seconds of animation per week, and more often, only hitting about three seconds per week.

The Last Performance (1929, Pal Fejos)

Conrad Veidt, Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist, again plays an intense guy with too much eye makeup, this time as stage magician Erik The Great. He can hardly wait until the young girl he stuffs into boxes and pretends to saw in half turns 18 so he can marry her, but the girl Julie (Mary Philbin, star of Phantom of the Opera, Merry-Go-Round, The Man Who Laughs) doesn’t seem anxious to marry the elder magician.

Dangerous Conrad:

Julie:

Assistant Buffo:

Film Quarterly: “In the course of his act, Eric demonstrates his hypnotic control of his assistant, Julie, and also his power over the audience, in a series of short cuts on his eyes and the faces of the audience, and then swirling images of the city, with Eric’s face looming in superimposition over it all.”

Erik hires a dude named Mark after catching him break into his apartment, as his assistant Buffo’s assistant – so now Erik, Buffo and Mark are all in love with Julie. Buffo (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy, later a director) gets caught mouthing off that Julie doesn’t love Erik, and Mark gets caught sitting on a bench with her (bench-sitting was 1927’s version of sex), and Erik dramatically overacts overreacts, announcing at a fancy dinner that Mark and Julie will marry, as the camera glides over a crowded dinner table in a way I didn’t know could be done back then. Then Erik frames Mark by having him murder Buffo on stage in a box full of swords.

Mark and Julie on the whoring bench, Conrad’s massive shadow over them:

Mark and Julie at trial:

Nothing’s as thrilling as a big courtroom ending, and so Erik and Julie demonstrate how the murder-box was supposed to work in front of a judge. It’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it. But out of nowhere, Erik confesses and kills himself with a knife, leaving Mark and Julie – a thief and an unemployed magician’s assistant – in each other’s arms. I’m being flippant, but it was a good movie, if not Lonesome-caliber. Also released as a part-talkie, but Criterion’s got the silent version. Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot The Jazz Singer the same year, later A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Doctor Faustus (1967, Richard Burton & Nevill Coghill)

Basically a Richard Burton heaven-and-hell monologue, plus a few conversations with baldy Andreas Teuber as Mephistophilis, some fleeting glimpses of Liz Taylor, and one fart-joke scene. Idiot Faustus, supposedly a scientist with a thirst for more knowledge though we never see anything scholarly beyond some lab equipment in the first scenes, signs a deal with the devil – his soul in exchange for all the power and riches he wants for the next 24 years. But Faustus (who speaks his own name roughly twice per sentence, lest we forget it) doesn’t want to be king, he wants only to impress the current king with his magic tricks. We don’t know what other powers he has or desires, since he seems to spend all 24 years fretting about the bargain he made instead of enjoying it, being tormented by angel voices emanating from a cool arrow-pierced mannequin in his lab. Sounds like theater but it looks like a proper film, full of cool effects and dissolves.

Cast a Deadly Spell/Witch Hunt

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991, Martin Campbell)

“Los Angeles, 1948. Everybody used magic.”

Nice enough TV-movie with some good performances and a great premise: a noir detective story in a world where magic exists. Our hardboiled hero Lovecraft (Fred Ward, the year after starring in Henry & June) who doesn’t use magic due to an incident that killed his partner is hired by a rich guy (David Warner, an HP Lovecraft fan judging from his IMDB resume) to retrieve his Necronomicon. Ward runs into ex-flame Julianne Moore (this might count as her first starring movie role), tries to avoid thug Raymond O’Connor and his zombie, and finally protects Warner’s unicorn-hunting daughter from Warner’s own convoluted world-dooming scheme.

Clearly influenced by Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a lower budget, magic creatures and spells popping up in every scene (accompanied by overdone cartoon sound effects). Campbell went on to make some James Bond movies


Witch Hunt (1994, Paul Schrader)

“For some of hollywood’s biggest stars and studio moguls, it’s time to name names.”

When I heard Schrader had made a sequel starring Dennis Hopper, I couldn’t get a copy fast enough. Unfortunately it’s such a bad movie, it makes me wonder if I didn’t severely overrate the previous one by calling it “nice enough”. This one has fewer puppets, more early (too early) digital effects. And I love Hopper, but he doesn’t seem right for the role, speaking too slowly, looking out of his depth.

Shakespeare is summoned as script doctor:

Eric Bogosian (writer/star of Talk Radio) is a slimy anti-magic senator, starts a literal witch hunt by arresting and arranging to burn Hopper’s witch neighbor (now played by Sheryl Lee Ralph of To Sleep With Anger) for defying “the unnatural activities act”. I don’t know if this is a prequel or what – Hopper has different reasons to avoiding magic than Fred Ward did, and Raymond O’Connor’s zombie is back from the other movie. Penelope Ann Miller (Edna Purviance in Chaplin) is love interest fatale “Kim Hudson”, there’s a movie-star lookalike whorehouse a la L.A. Confidential run by a transvestite lipsync artist, more characters with obvious names (a cop called Bradbury), and Julian Sands with a heavy fake accent. And morphing – remember morphing?

Mouseover to see Hopper vomit a crow:
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The first couple minute are nice though, with clips from 1950’s industrial films recognizable from MST3K and a reference clip of Reagan testifying before HUAC.

The Magician (1958, Ingmar Bergman)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy! I never imagined that such a thing existed. And it is so wonderful, as gorgeously filmed as Monika but altogether more fun. I have not been watching many Bergman films, and maybe it’s time to do something about that.

When Albert Vogler’s “Magnetic Health Theater” rolls into town, all its participants are accosted by the local authorities and challenged to prove themselves a worthwhile entertainment before they’ll be permitted to perform for the public. These participants include Vogler himself (Max von Sydow, even more impressive than usual), the famed mute illusionist, with Mr. Aman (Vogler’s assistant, actually his wife in disguise, Ingrid Thulin), potion-maker Granny (Naima Wifstrand), a young coachman (Lars Ekborg, male lead in Monika) and sideburns-sporting huckster Tubal (Åke Fridell, Monika’s father). Oh, but on the way, they pick up a dying alcoholic actor (Bengt Ekerot, appropriately played Death in The Seventh Seal), who’s a corpse by the time they arrive.

L-R, that’s Tubal, Granny (in the shadows), coachman Simson, Vogler and Aman/Manda:

The challengers – Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson, lead in The Sacrifice) and his wife with police chief Starbeck (under a hilarious wig) and “royal medical adviser” Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand, who’d play a character named Vogler in Persona) with a silly intellectual’s beard and armless spectacles – are pitting their science and law against the trickery and deceit of the traveling show, confidently toying with the visitors.

L-R: Vergerus, Starbeck, Egerman:

Also in the house are Sara (Bibi Andersson of Persona) who likes the group’s coachman, young Sanna, cook Sofia (Sif Ruud of Port of Call) who likes Tubal, and violent-tempered Antonsson (Oscar Ljung of The Virgin Spring)

Antonsson, Sanna, Sara, Sofia:

It all gets complicated once night falls. The Magician’s wife is unmasked, he reveals himself not to be mute (this had already been “scientifically” revealed when Vergerus grabbed his tongue), everyone is sleeping around, and the “dead man” charges through the dark kitchen snatching some brandy, then actually dies later on. The next morning the show goes off rather badly, with the men in power pulling back curtains to reveal the trickery. But Vogler succeeds in “hypnotizing” Starbeck’s wife into humiliating him (she relishes the opportunity), then severely freaks out Antonsson, who retaliates by attacking and killing Vogler. This should be a sobering moment for the locals, but the police chief immediately announces Vogler’s death to be nobody’s fault, and Vergerus races upstairs to perform an autopsy on the so-called magician – where Vogler switches bodies with the dead actor and tries to haunt Vergerus out of his rational scientist mind.

In the end, Tubal and Granny are quitting the troupe and Sara is joining, running away with her coachman, when they are stopped in the driveway. Everyone assumed they’ll be arrested, but in fact the King has requested a performance, so Vogler leaves in triumph. I loved the story, and the characters are distinctive enough that I kept most of ’em straight. Besides the comic madness, the whole thing is rich in meaning and mystery.

G. Andrew:

The Magician struck some as a little frivolous in comparison to [the films Bergman made just before and after]: much of the film was in the comic register, and what’s more, the sequence that constituted its dramatic climax sounded echoes of the populist horror genre.

…one of Bergman’s portraits of the artist as an all too human, less than wholly honest manipulator of others. Acutely self-critical, he was highly aware that, as a director in the cinema and the theater, he was using tricks of the trade to persuade audiences that they were witnessing something “real” or “truthful.” Vogler, too, under­stands that his demonstrations of bizarre behavior and miraculous phenomena are in the end a matter of smoke and mirrors, and he’s racked by doubt and self-loathing, made all the worse by the gullibility of many spectators—Mrs. Egerman, for instance, her adoration stemming from a forlorn hope that he’ll somehow cure the enduring grief she feels at her daughter’s death. Many people, the film suggests, are to some extent complicit in the deceptions of which art is necessarily composed—though as Mrs. Egerman’s housekeepers, Sara and Sofia, amusingly reveal in their sly responses to the proffering of love potions by, respectively, Vogler’s cocky coachman and his philistine manager, not all those who are told stories are quite as susceptible in their rapid suspension of disbelief as they may first appear. One can never be entirely sure as to who’s most deceitful, who most deceived.

And oh look, the day I’m posting this (but two weeks after I watched the movie) I learned that its cinematographer Gunnar Fischer has just died at age 100. He also worked on Monika, and surprisingly, Tati’s Parade.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1977, Karel Zeman)

Not the Mickey/Fantasia/Nic Cage Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but based on a novel called Krabat: The Satanic Mill, recently filmed again as a post-Twilight live-action feature. Second-to-last film by Zeman, who died in ’89. I’ve only seen one of his earliest shorts, though I’ve been meaning to watch his Baron Prásil for a long time now.

A poor kid named Krabat ends up at an enchanted mill run by an evil one-eyed wizard, with a staff of boys. Every year the wizard challenges the oldest to a duel, beats him by cheating, and then buries him in the grave the boy dug earlier that day. But Krabat has found a reason to live, an enchanting young girl whom he secretly visits, so he teams up with another boy to learn the magical secrets to defeat the evil wizard.

I was not bowled over by the animation at first, which looked like cut-outs with hinged joints, but as the story sucked me in and I started noticing subtle details, like the odd timing of the transformation scenes and the apparently live-action smoke, fire and water effects, I gained a greater appreciation for the movie by the end.

Lord of Illusions (1995, Clive Barker)

“I was born to murder the world.”

Watched for about the fifth time whilst trying to think of something to write about Johnny Guitar. It’s not a great movie, mostly because of pacing problems and dull dialogue scenes, but it’s better than most. Barker shoots plenty of shirtless men in S&M-inspired gear and he’s full of neat visual ideas, but needed about twice the budget (not likely for a Scott Bakula-starring horror) to pull it off. I still enjoyed it significantly more than Capra’s Meet John Doe, which I half-watched with Katy, the poorly-encoded soundtrack burbling out endless long speeches. Detective Scott Bakula was yet to achieve his post-American Beauty comeback, Magician Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) would play Dr. Mindbender in the G.I. Joe movie, the girl went on to play Jean Grey in the X-Men movies, and evil baddie Daniel von Bargen is best known for having a cheesy line in The Postman.

Tangled (2010, Byron Howard & Nathan Greno)

I think I liked it better than Katy did, but then, she’d seen The Princess and the Frog so I had lower expectations – the most recently-produced Disney animated movie I’d seen was Atlantis (and before that The Lion King). Didn’t find it as edgy and Shrek-like as the poster and trailer promised (which is a Good Thing), just a perfectly-paced, well-animated classic adventure story.

Backstory: the kingdom’s magical rejuvenating flower is used to heal the pregnant queen, so her daughter’s hair takes on the flower’s powers. Evil stepmom witch kidnaps the young princess so that the hair will keep her forever young (by that logic, why doesn’t Rapunzel’s own hair keep her from growing past the age of five?) but Rapunzel yearns to escape in order to see up close the lanterns released in the kingdom each year in memory of the missing princess. That accounts for the classic fairy-tale part, then the thief, a royal guard’s white horse, Rap’s pet chameleon, and the tough bar patrons who wish to be mimes represent the hyperactive post-Aladdin Disney.

Actors: I didn’t recognize Southland Tales star Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, nor the Voice of Chuck as the thief, nor Doc Ock’s wife in Spider-man 2 as the old witch, nor Ron Perlman as the thief’s twin thug associates, nor Pixar regular Brad Garrett, nor Jeffrey Tambor, etc, etc.

Pedigree: One of the directors did Bolt, the writer worked on Cars, and supervising animator Glen Keane (the Family Circus author’s son), who sounds like the main man behind the look of the film, has been a Disney guy since the 70’s.

Donkey Skin (1970, Jacques Demy)

I think most Jacques Demy studies begin with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and end with The Young Girls of Rochefort, pausing to mention that he died young and was married to Agnes Varda. I enjoyed those two so much that I figured his other films couldn’t be that bad, so I checked this out since the video store didn’t have Lola. Not only is it not-bad, but I challenge anybody to find anything wrong with it.

Catherine Deneuve (the same year as Tristana) plays a young princess. A few months after her mother passes away, the king (Jean Marais, not looking too different 25 years after his other fairy-tale film, Beauty and the Beast), with no other attractive princesses in the land, decides to marry Catherine.

Funeral for a queen:
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Catherine, a sheltered princess who spends her days with parrots and blue-painted dwarfs sees nothing wrong with this – after all, she loves her father. Fortunately, her fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig (the year after Mr. Freedom, and looking much classier) knows it’s a problem so gives Catherine a series of costume-design challenges to pose to her father to delay the wedding. When he passes them all, making her dresses the color of the sky, the moon and the sun, she asks for a dress made from the skin of the prize donkey which shits gold and jewels. Seems like a cruel slap at the kingdom, but he does it, and she flees for the country wearing the freshly-killed donkey.

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Doing small-town drudge work in public, but secretly sleeping comfortably in her shack with some magical fairy help, Cath attracts the attention of Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin, who starred in Z after playing the military poet who is driving away in the final shot of Rochefort). He meets her, loses her, then does the Cinderella thing with all the girls in the land, only instead of a slipper it’s a ring that fits only her hand, and announces they are to be married.

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Just then, a helicopter (!) drops in carrying the king, who is going to marry the fairy godmother – a hilarious ending to a story that started pretty dark (death, incest, donkey-killing).

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Demy (in homage to Cocteau?) uses slow motion and reverse effects as cheap movie magic to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere. Hmmm, and painted people hiding in the walls and Cocteau’s name in the credits and his leading man in the cast – I guess he was an influence after all.

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Lovely music by Michel Legrand and lovely cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, both returning from The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Dialogue that prefigures the helicopter:
CD: “Can a spell wear out like a dress?”
fairy godmother: “No, but it can weaken like a battery.”
“A battery? What is that?
“Nothing – I’m getting old!”
“But fairies don’t get old.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten.”

Also: birds galore… a giant stuffed white cat as a king’s throne… iris-fades to solid colors a la Le Bonheur… force fields… talking flowers… horses painted red… pretty much a must-see movie.

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Katy, Jan 2013: “I mostly liked it.”