Opens in flashback with our laughing boy’s rebel father being executed by the king, with the weirdly powerful court jester Barkilphedro (literary-horror regular Brandon Hurst) in attendance. The kid’s face was carved by the “Comprachico” clan headed by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann of the 1921 Three Musketeers, dead of anemia before this movie’s release). As they’re sailing away, banned from England for various crimes and/or xenophobia, the boy runs off, rescues a blind infant from the arms of her frozen mother, and stumbles into door of Ursus The Philosopher (Cesare Gravina, would appear in The Wedding March the same year and retire a few months later).

Years later, he is Laughing Man Conrad Veidt (practically a silent horror superstar, having starred in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac), on sideshow tours with the beautiful blind Dea (Phantom of the Opera star Mary Philbin) and their father-figure Ursus (this must’ve proven more lucrative than philosophy). But when they run into Hardquanonne, he uses the laughing man’s existence to blackmail a duchess who lives on the land that Conrad rightfully owns. I would’ve thought if you’re a rebel who is personally murdered by the king, your property is forfeited, but I guess not!

The plot gets silly here – Conrad gets an invitation from hot young party girl Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, wicked star of Freaks), hopes she’ll be in love with him, because that would prove he’s worthy to marry his true love Dea, but as Josiana gets him alone, she receives a note from the queen saying she must marry the Laughing Man in order to keep her land and title, and Josiana reacts by laughing hysterically then hugging her monkey. Conrad is arrested, then instated in the House of Lords the next day – meanwhile his circus family is banished. I can’t tell if the royals are toying with Conrad or if they’re just dense, because everyone throws a fit that he won’t stop smiling, so he flees the castle and makes it to the boat to join Dea and Ursus.

Based on a Victor Hugo novel, remade by Sergio Corbucci in the 1960’s, and again this decade with Depardieu as Ursus. Leni was apparently a talent, followed this with The Last Warning then died of an infected tooth. Conrad, who spoke no english at the time of filming, is terrific. Watched in the dying days of SHOCKtober in honor of this year’s Golden Lion winner at Venice.

Sitting up front at the fake-imax, the movie was as large as I could make it, and for such an interstellar voyage movie, I sure noticed lots of close-ups. It must be a total pain to light and film faces inside space suits, but Gray and the DP from Interstellar find some lovely and mysterious new angles. Wonderful to travel all the way to Neptune and find… the Nicolas Brothers. Malickian crosscutting between past and future with voiceover… and didn’t Malick already cast Brad Pitt in a cosmic movie with hard feelings between father/son?

Ultimately, the movie was a metaphor for my watching the movie. Brad Pitt (me) leaves behind his sweetie Liv Tyler (Katy) because he is dedicated to his mission (killing his father / watching the movie), voyages to the edge of space (or Atlantic Station) on an endless (2 hour) journey all alone (cuz my friends don’t answer emails anymore), enduring hardships on the way (Atlanta traffic!), only to discover that God doesn’t exist, aliens are a myth, and we’re all we have, and returns to Liv Tyler waiting for him at home (again, Katy).

Brian Tallerico on Roger Ebert:

Earthly disasters possibly caused by a creator who has been absent as the world has lost hope — the religious allegory embedded in Ad Astra is crystal clear if you look for it, but never highlighted in a way that takes away from the film’s urgency. Science fiction is often about search for meaning, but this one literally tells the story of man’s quest to find He who created him and get some answers, including why He left us behind.

Pitt gets clued in by family friend Donald Sutherland, flies commercial to the moon (which is like an airport mall, complete with Subway and Hudson News), escapes rover pirates, flies with a new rocket crew to Mars, stops once to answer a distress call and lose their captain along the way. Pitt takes over from the panicky man left in charge for a safe landing, goes to a secret recording studio to send laser voicemails to his dead father, then is told by Ruth Negga that his hero dad actually killed his entire crew, including her parents. She sneaks him back on board the rocket, where he defensively kills the crew and carries on alone to Neptune, to either reconcile with his dad or blow him up with nukes. The former proves impossible, since dad can’t be reasoned with, loving nothing except his absent alien friends, so Brad rides a nuclear blast back home. Some of this sounds silly in retrospect, and some didn’t even work for me in the moment, especially that emergency stop that killed the rocket captain – I guess it’s a medical research ship overrun by a mutant space monkey. I’ve heard whispers of studio tampering but I’m not enough of a Gray purist to assume that he’s got a masterpiece version of this movie stuffed in a closet.

Bao (Domee Shi)
We’d already seen this before Incredibles 2, but our audience must’ve missed that, and found it hilarious.

Late Afternoon (Louise Bagnall)
The obvious artistic achievement in the bunch, smoothly following patterns and colors into memory holes, a fanciful visualization of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother’s thoughts while her daughter is tidying up. Louise is from Ireland, worked on Song of the Sea.

Animal Behaviour (Alison Snowden & David Fine)
I don’t recall Bob & Margaret having writing this obvious, but I do recall this sort of thing being done to death in other animated shorts, including some by Snowden & Fine’s former employer Aardman. Group therapy session with different types of animals ends when a rampaging ape can’t control his anger issues.

Weekends (Trevor Jimenez)
Good editing and visual details, but it’s also the third movie in a half hour to feature dream logic while telling a story about strained relationships between parents and kids. Boy lives with his mom who is pulling her life together, spends weekends in dad’s super cool apartment. I saw the director’s noirish Key Lime Pie a decade ago.

One Small Step (Andrew Chesworth & Bobby Pontillas)
And here’s the fourth, minus the dream logic. I think someone on the academy nominating board had just lost a parent and was feeling very emotional about this subject. Katy said this one was a by-the-numbers Pixar-style story – girl is raised by her shoe repairman dad, is failing to achieve her dream of becoming an astronaut, but gives it another go after dad dies.

Wishing Box (Wenli Zhang & Nan Li)
The jokey, cartoony one – pirate recovers a seemingly empty box that contains whatever his pet monkey wants it to. The monkey finally figures out that his master wants gold coins, and pulls out enough to sink their ship, yuk yuk.

Tweet Tweet (Zhanna Bekmambetova)
Extremely Metaphorical, person walking the Tightrope of Life, growing up, falling in love, losing her husband to the war, and still trudging ever forward, attended constantly by a cutie little bird.

On one hand, we’ve got the wacky misadventures of a failing museum administrator (Claes Bang), but the movie wanders about, exploring different sides of its themes of altruism, trust and honesty. Essentially, Claes fails the test of the Square completely and repeatedly, while the severe compositions give us Michael Haneke flashbacks and the light vocal music tells us not to take Claes’s plight too seriously.

Also, Elisabeth Moss makes a phone call while a monkey paints its face red, and guest artist Dominic West (among others) gets roughed up by an overcommitted performance artist. Matt Lynch: “This works more than it doesn’t mostly because it’s very funny and feels spontaneous even though it’s almost absurdly schematic and can’t stop bluntly explaining itself.”

Part of a Late Horror Masters’ Lesser Works double-feature. Opens with a disclaimer about the treatment of the movie’s monkeys, but they never appeared to be in any convincing danger, except maybe in the final scene. No mention of the treatment of the movie’s parakeets. Monkey tricks are the primary reason to watch this movie, except for George Romero and/or Stanley Tucci completists.

Allan’s car accident:

Allan and monkey giving the same steely expression:

Moody Allan (Jason Beghe of One Missed Call Remake) is badly crippled, so his monkey-researcher friend Geoffrey (John Pankow of Talk Radio) donates a brain-eating monkey to service-animal trainer Melanie (Kate McNeil of The House on Sorority Row) to get Allan a furry helper buddy. Brain-eating monkey in a George Romero movie – what could go wrong?

Mad scientist Geoffrey:

Geoffrey’s boss Stephen Root:

Moody Allan is a bad influence on the monkey, who starts to murder everyone who she perceives as a threat – first setting fire to Allan’s ex (Lincoln NE’s Janine Turner of Northern Exposure) who has run off with his doctor (Stanley Tucci), then electrocuting Allan’s annoying mom (Joyce Van Patten of Bone), killing Geoffrey via drug injection, and most horribly, murdering the parakeet of Allan’s hateful catetaker (Christine Forrest, Romero’s wife). After she threatens Melanie in a rage, Allan manages to dispatch the monkey using only his neck and mouth. We also get a monkey-surgery dream sequence and blurry monkey-POV shots. Mostly dullsville compared to the space vampires. My birds reacted to the monkey chatter, but not to the parakeet.

Alloy Orchestra returned, with a double-feature this time! First up was this highly ridiculous adventure story, full of corny nonsense, but also featuring some fabulous stop-motion dinosaurs and a cool monkey.

A beardy madman (Wallace Beery of wrestling picture fame) insists to a roomful of people, Lost City of Z-style, that his previous expedition had discovered a plateau where dinosaurs still live, but everyone on his team is now missing so he needs a new team. Sportsman Lewis Stone (Stars In My Crown, Queen Christina) would like to come find new creatures to shoot, and his buddy, romantic doof reporter Lloyd Hughes (title star of Rip Roaring Riley), gets himself invited to impress a disinterested rich girl. Professor Arthur Hoyt (the director’s older brother, mayor of The Great McGinty) comes too, and so does Beery’s dead ex-teammate’s daughter Bessie Love (her final film was The Hunger). Everyone proves to be pretty capable (especially the monkey) at getting into trouble and getting back out of it, and the doof falls for Bessie. More impressive than the “oh shit we’re dead, might as well die together” romance is that the dinosaurs, which would seem to have limited area to live and breed, are constantly killing each other and falling into tar pits. The humans manage to bring a live brontosaurus home to London, where it escapes and nearly goes full King Kong, finally destroying a bridge and either swimming away or drowning, it was hard to tell which.

The evening highlight was A Page of Madness, which had a more experimental score and blew everybody’s minds.

Low-key indie comedy about a weirdo misfit pyro stand-up comedian. Bits of surreal dream-logic invade the story now and then, and I like how there’s no “normal” reality that the movie returns to. The comedian buys an apple from a fruit-stand seller in a cheap devil suit, and after eating it an an apple tree starts growing through his skin. He kills his abusive neighbor with a baseball bat, commits petty arson & vandalism, has basic money problems, sometimes bombs onstage and sometimes does alright, and all these things are given equal weight. This could forever sit comfortably on the cult shelf of any video store, if video stores still existed.

Theoretically we’re rooting for pyro drifter Joshua Burge (also of Buzzard and Coyote) even though he’s really not a good comedian, has rage issues and nothing much going on. His rivals, besides the now-dead neighbor, include a bald fellow comedian, the comedy club owner who keeps bumping Josh from the schedule, a werewolf car-lot mascot, a convenience store clerk, a bike thief, a heckler, and of course The Devil. After taking care of the neighbor, Joel has a string of good luck and minor rebellions, but is also getting taken down by the apple tree, and finally he ends up inside the ape suit.

Potrykus in Cinema Scope, on debuting in Locarno:

Growing up, European cinema was always exotic and incredibly distant. I wasn’t prepared for the tables to turn. Suddenly, I felt like we were the ambassadors of not so much American independent cinema, but of the Midwest as a landscape. Ape’s empty city streets and mundane convenience-store bureaucracies were now the exotic. Locarno as a whole quickly picked up on the politics of the film that are normally overlooked in the US, the subtle racial commentary and economic issues. To them, it became a full-blown political film … I plan on sticking around Michigan as long as I can. I think it’s important to stick with the people who understand you and have been there since the early days … In the end, I just want to hammer out a weird little shack in the forest with my friends, not construct a tacky skyscraper with a bunch of strangers.

Bonus: the illustrated movie poster is great… this is the second LNKarno pick with a poster I wanna own (and both movies have scenes where audio tapes get destroyed, hmm). The guy who played the devil became a director, making a string of demon and alien movies… must’ve gotten really into his role. The rival comic and even Dorito Guy are also directors – looks like there’s a happening scene up in Michigan.

Nobody wanted to pick between the Rohmer and the Pasolini, so I brought out the dark-horse Disney flick as a sorry compromise. I heard it might actually be great, but it was… okay. Had to get used to the digital animals looking so cartoony in motion, though their speech and mouth movements were the most realistic I’ve seen since Whiskers, The Kitten Who Can Name Fruit. Admittedly this was probably better in theaters in 3D, but we watched in HD on our big screen with the volume up, so I feel like if there’s real magic, we would’ve felt it. Anyway it was fun.

Songs worked better in context of the cartoon, and were pried into this version, making it feel like it’s referencing the original – so not only a remake for new audiences, but one that wants you to have watched the original. Between that and the cartoony animals wanting so badly to be real, it’s a conflicted movie – one of Disney’s “live action” remakes without much live action (the kid was okay).

Usually I don’t notice celebrity voice casting so much, but it’s hard to miss Christopher Walken (King Louie) and Bill Murray (Baloo). Katy recognized Idris Elba (evil tiger), Scarlett Johansson (evil snake), and Ben Kingsley (fatherly panther Bagheera). Apologies to Garry Shandling and Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o, I guess, for blending in and not sounding distractingly like stunt celeb casting.

Ignatiy V.:

Its jungle is a complete simulacrum: Everything from the birds to the leaves is artificial, which means that nothing can ever stand out as unreal. The ironic exception is Sethi’s manic Mowgli, mugging on partial sets against blue screen; in a digital world realized by a dream team of effects studios, the one real thing seems fake.

Never before realized that Baloo is a sloth bear.

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.