When your eccentric silent-film-worshipping Canadian indie feature opens with a credit for Louis Negin you’re definitely admitting a Guy Maddin influence. Convoluted, fictionalized story of Mackenzie King, a politician introduced at the Hospital for Defective Children falling for a harpist. Just in chapter one there’s an Isle of Dogs cable car, a muppet cockatoo, and Negin as King’s mother – with nine chapters to go, it’s all a bit much. That’s not a complaint, it’s an admission that I need to watch a second time.

Lotta androgyny and excellent deco designs… guy who looks like De Niro in Brazil with a cactus hand, and love interest who looks like a young Pearl Forrester (this is Catherine St-Laurent of Tu dors Nicole)… I had fun.

Justine Smith in Little White Lies:

In one sequence, a series of candidates pledge their allegiance to the Great Disappointment (aka the Canadian flag) and engage in a series of mediocre competitions to test their passive-aggressiveness and thresholds for shame. Far from being a representation of Canada’s best vying for leadership, the sequence reveals a succession of pitiful and desperately vain men who act as though becoming prime minister is their birthright. They wish to govern the country not to make it better but to facilitate their own ambitions.

L-R: muppet, dad, Mackenzie

Brutish Adam Driver and delicate Marion Cotillard get together and have a magical singing baby, to the consternation of accompanist Simon Helberg – and it’s all performed as an opera written by Sparks, who appear (along with the director and his daughter, the film’s dedicatee) with the cast in the great opening number. A good pick for my first movie back in theaters for over a year.

I read so many articles on this, and have gone back and forth about aspects of it, but it seems like a movie that’s gonna last. Bilge’s second Vulture article helped with the ending (which I didn’t love at the time), Sicinski’s analysis also useful (“even its flaws are kind of endearing”), and the GQ interview with Simon Helberg gives insight into Carax’s methods. And from the NY Times:

At first, Carax turned down the offer, not wanting the film’s fraught father-daughter relationship to confuse his own teenage daughter, Nastya, or invite speculation on the parallels between the film and his life, given his tendency to transform his male leads into proxies of himself. He reversed course, however, when she took a liking to songs Sparks had sent him, creating the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.

Going through some animation and avant-garde DVDs on a Saturday afternoon, looking for shorts I’ve never seen before… time well spent.


Cinq minutes de cinema pure (1926, Henri Chomette)

Silent light shines on glassy objects… spinning and cross-fading, never lingering more than a few seconds on each pattern. We go unexpectedly outside to a forest and pond with blown-out white skies in the final minute. It’s pure cinema, I suppose. Chomette was René Clair’s brother.


Dots (1940, Norman McLaren)

Hand-drawn on 35mm (including the soundtrack!), a rhythmic dance of blue dots on a red field, short and very fun.


Mail Early (1941, Norman McLaren)

Public service announcement to not wait till the last minute to send your Christmas mail, via lively hand-drawn envelopes flying across screen to a jazzy Jingle Bells.


Mail Early for Christmas (1959, Norman McLaren)

The remake is shorter and crazier, all flashing light and pattern (etched on film with “vibra-drill”), the title message coming through in single-frame flickers.


Lines Vertical (1960, Norman McLaren)

The line pongs left and right, multiplying again and again until the background color field starts to shift as the line-dance gets more complex. Various optical illusions: imagining the filmstrip flying upwards is easy with this short, and at a few points the lines’ relative thickness with their back-and-forth motion gives the impression of cylindrical columns. Music sounds like electric harp emulating wind chimes and is very soothing.

The lines definitely get un-vertical at the end:


Mosaic (1965, Norman McLaren)

Lines Horizontal is literally Lines Vertical turned on its side, so I skipped to Mosaic, whiich is the two of them superimposed and processed somehow. I was expecting a shifting line grid, but I got dots, maybe the vertices of the intersecting lines. More sputtering hand-drawn sounds (now with added reverb), the white dots flickering to color in brief spots.


Two Greedy Bear Cubs (1954, Vladimir Degtyaryov)

Early post-Stalin film from the first History of Soviet Puppet Animation DVD. Bright fairy-tale stop-motion puppetry about two sibling bears who promise to share equally, but fight over the bedding and over their breakfast, then when they find a gigantic block of cheese they can’t figure how to split it equally until a helpful fox comes to help, creating unequal sides, then biting chunks off the larger piece each time the whiny bears complain about their smaller share, until the bears are left with crumbs.


Kolobok (1956, Roman Davydov)

Love the look of this one, like the wooden incense-smoking figurines my family used to collect. Six decades before Pixar’s Bao, a childless couple bakes a gingerbread bun and it comes to life. The bun romps through the fields and woods, taunting the bear and wolf while singing a happy song about how delicious it must be, until a fox (again with the foxes) chases it to safety at home where it lives happily with its family.


How to Kiss (1988, Bill Plympton)

A classic example of Plympton finding a multitude of ways to turn something lovely into ghastly images. Our lovers end up dead or mutilated many times over – practically a horror movie.


Nosehair (1995, Bill Plympton)

Man struggles to remove a nosehair, and I thought this would end up like Wisdom Teeth, but it goes in remarkable new directions, too many to describe. The hair turns into a line, and for a while the movie becomes a riff on all things animators can create from simple lines. Can’t believe I’d never seen this, it’s one of his greats.


Aria (2001, Pjotr Sapegin)

You know it’s classy from the opera music, but it also opens with some explicit puppet sex. After a fling with a sailor, the Island Woman gives birth… and never cuts the cord, so she and her daughter fly each other like kites. That is not even nearly the craziest thing that happens, for when the sailor and his Barbie wife come to take the child away, the woman undoes herself, down to her puppet armature and beyond, some 14 years before Anomalisa.


The Dingles (1988, Les Drew)

Gentle, over-narrated kids’ cartoon about a woman and her three cats who experience a minor drama when a thunderstorm arrives.


The Magic Pear Tree (1968, Charles Swenson)

A Decameron story. Jean visits the Marquis, he makes her prove her love with difficult tasks before he’ll have sex with her. A cheap-looking silly-ass movie, so of course it’s oscar-nominated. Swenson later wrote Fievel Goes West and produced Rugrats, Jimmy Murakami produced, and the overqualified voice cast includes Agnes Moorhead (Citizen Kane) and Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove).


Hell’s Bells (1929, Ub Iwerks)

You don’t expect a Disney cartoon to take place in hell. Betty Boop-lite antics as demons and bats dance and transform to the music. The Silly Symphonies tend to seem more like a bit of fun than anything of great interest… time-filler content before the feature. Carl Stalling, however – I hope he died a billionaire.


Projekt (1981, Jirí Barta)

Apartment building is drafted in stop-motion, then furnishings and residents are added, each with their own art style and soundtrack, until all the soundtracks are playing at once, then the architect runs a roller over the building until everything is colorlessly conformist again. Pretty great.


Ballad of the Green Wood (1983, Jirí Barta)

Now beyond paper and ink, he’s animating light, wood and water, mud, worms and plants. An anthropomorphic piece of split wood is eaten by a crow, who becomes part wood, transforming into a wood-demon crow-bat harbinger of winter, until a wooden soldier arrives and slays him to bring back the spring. I think from the art style that it might represent Christians burning pagans? It brought to mind Hannah Gadsby‘s “am I made of box?” and also was amazing in every way – I’ve seen Jirí Barta’s name around before, and now I must see everything.


When the Leaves Have Fallen from the Oak (1991, Vlasta Pospisilova)

A long one, almost a half hour. Superb puppet animation, very talky and unsubtitled, but I usually knew what’s going on. Devil arrives in a whirlwind to a drunken failure of a farmer, will give him magic contraptions to make the farm thrive if he only signs a contract surrendering his firstborn. The farmer attempts suicide when collection time is near and… an old man hears his story then rolls around in honey and feathers? Anyway the farmer ends up in hell himself, running a daily routine of freezing / boiling / hard labor / drinking, until he breaks the cycle by refusing to drink anymore. Another devil contract to bring the farm back to life, this time he fools the devil by promising something when the leaves of an evergreen begin to fall… surprised it’s so easy to fool the devil, but it’s nice to see things work out for once. Vlasta also did animation for directors such as Kihachiro Kawamoto and Jan Svankmajer.


Is The Earth Round? (1977, Priit Pärn)

A boy reads that you can prove the earth is round by walking in one direction until you end up where you started – so he does, but arrives home as an old man. Appreciate the seventies freakout rock & roll, and when his empty pockets become wings and fly him out of the city.


Hotell E (1992, Priit Pärn)

I did not even nearly follow the metaphors here. After a couple of prologues, the movie splits between two worlds: a clock-driven monochrome fly-infested hellscape, and a music-video new-age dreamscape, each mirroring one of the prologues. There’s a door, and they begin to intersect. Movie goes on for ages, always repeating actions but always in new variations. It seems angry.

“There’s a problem with your films. I don’t understand it. It’s not clear at all.”

A Belgian movie, watched for the Shadowplay thing, but I opted to cover Ferat Vampire instead because this one seemed… more difficult. As the red curtains open and the film begins, diorama-like, full of seared memories and dream logic, I tell myself “don’t call it Lynchian, that’s what everyone has said about it,” but Goodreads tell me that Smolders wrote a book about Eraserhead and Vimeo says he made a video called Lynch Empire, so nevermind, it’s Lynchian. This is his only feature to date, in a 35-year career of shorts.

Kids walk towards the camera, a bug is pinned to the wall, twin Poltergeist II preachers are flashback-puppeteers, causing a wolfman to kill the girl to big choral music, like hymns with some Thin Red Line mixed in. The girl lives again, only to be killed with scissors. Then the doctor, who is viewing these memory-plays by peering into our suit-wearing protagonist’s ear, says he’s fantasizing and he never had a sister, let alone a murdered one, and he needs to chill out.

Our man has an a static Crispin Glovery intensity, and a facial birthmark so we can conveniently tell who plays him in flashback, living in a city under near-permanent eclipse (the second time in 24 hours I’ve thought of Dark City). He works as the bug guy in a museum – a zoo worker in a room full of film cans – and we’ve seen multiple sets of identical twins at this point, making this the second movie this year after the Mandico short to be strongly reminiscent of A Zed & Two Noughts.

Enough with all the comparisons to other films – we go into overdrive when a black woman (the museum security guard) appears, sick and naked and pregnant, in his bed. We hear her thoughts, untranslated (at least on my DVD), while he deals with his stress by watching anthropological films of a beardy colonialist white man (his father, and the museum director). She make him promise not to leave, he immediately runs into the hallway while she gets killed by the ghost of his dead sister, then turns into a cocoon that births a white woman who goes to the museum, naked but for a leopard-skin coat, and murders a taxidermist, the sun comes out and everyone gets annoyed, and now the allusions/symbolism are out of my league.

Anyway, the closeup of leaf insects are great. This would seem to be a cult movie in need of a cult. Smolders was reportedly born in Kinshasa, says in the extras that his film’s vision of Africa is “a fantasized territory based on stories written by … large museums which … fanatically classified a universe that they didn’t understand.” He also says that the story’s logic is based on the rule that “what happens to a character is exactly what he most fears, yet desires at the same time.”

A country song playing over the production credits, nice color in the opening scene, which features a scarfaced Udo Kier – even before the stylin’ comics-page opening titles, this is already classier than any Puppet Master movie I’ve ever seen. I think it’s considered a reboot… I suffered through the first eight movies, skipped (for now) parts 9-11 (The Axis Trilogy), and rented this as soon as I found it. I’m rewarded with a topsy-turvy world, in which noble Toulon is an evil nazi in a Puppet Master sequel which is somehow decently good and mildly interesting, with lead actors who are actually worth watching (Thomas Lennon of The State and Nelson Franklin of Scott Pilgrim).

I mean I don’t want to oversell it, but we’ve also got Barbara Crampton as a cop, Charlyne Yi, a bartender named Cuddly Bear, a hotel convention with more knife murders than in the previous movies combined, and lines like “This incident is starting to turn into a happening,” from writer S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99)…

…and a big ol’ “TO BE CONTINUED” at the end. The directors made a bunch of Swedish horror movies together, and will hopefully make at least one more of these stupid killer puppet things, preferably right away.

There’s a new Puppet Master movie out this year, so I am falling behind – decided to watch the last of the “classic” series. It’s the Puppet Master clip show, featuring scenes from the other movies in roughly chronological order, with a framing story of an anti-Toulon woman reading a giant book, presumably the official novelization of Puppet Masters 1-7, then trying to get the secret of eternal puppet life out of some vaguely Toulon-looking guy (Jacob Witkin of the Evil Bong trilogy). She’s an assassin, who conveniently claims to have killed the survivors of previous movies, so no more sequels I guess.

We start with the Greg Sestero movie, go through the nazi era to parts one and two, then the laser tag sequels. With all these craptastic movies crammed into one hour, the few decent performances stand out: Guy Rolfe, and surprisingly Cameron, the asshole computer rival in part four. I thought the flashbacks would be a “best of Puppet Master,” so a montage of murder scenes, but the writer/directors (ashamed, working under pseudonyms) assume we watch these movies because we care about the fleshed-out history of original puppetmaster Andre Toulon, so it’s all the mythology stuff (with some good murders mixed in). As a result, this is probably the best Puppet Master movie – but if you’re some kind of idiot who watched the previous seven of these, then there’s no need for it, unless we’re gonna need all this recapping in order to follow Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys.

“Full Moon Pictures presents”

Oh God, it’s happening. I delayed for seven years, watching the occasional Dollman or Demonic Toys movie, but there are still Puppet Master sequels to watch, and eventually I must watch them.

“A Charles Band Production”

Don’t be too impressed – IMDB says Band produced 30 movies that year.

“A Joseph Tennent Film”

Since his previous Puppet Master sequel only a year earlier, director David DeCoteau had made about seven movies under various aliases.

Retro Puppetmaster

It’s so retro that Puppetmaster is one word again – a throwback to the first movie, or a misspelling due to overall franchise confusion and underpaid titles writers?

Flashbacking from 1944 to “long ago” Cairo, a sorcerer is stealing the secrets of the gods, and everyone in this temple is repeating their lines of dialogue in order to pad the scene.

Vincent Price-ish sorcerer holding scroll of forbidden secrets:

To Paris 1902, and enter flamboyant Ilsa, who is acting her heart out, and uptight Marguerite, who seems to be appearing in this movie at gunpoint and reading her lines phonetically. “Don’t go into any opium dens,” Ilsa is advised as she heads for a puppet show. She meets Young Toulon (now played by Greg Sestero, soon to become infamous in The Room) backstage when sewer-dwelling Dark City fellows hire hit men to take out a hobo after the show.

Sestero is not strangling this hobo, he’s checking for signs of life:

The prop and costume budget on this movie seems higher than the talent budget. “I understand. You’re a 3000-year-old sorcerer from Egypt and you want to teach me the secret of life.” Afzel (Jack Donner, DiCaprio’s dad in J. Edgar) shows Young Toulon how to resurrect the soul of his dead hobo friend into a mute wooden puppet with oversized arms, telling him this is the most precious power in the history of the world, which I dunno. The new wooden puppets are cool: I call them Skeletal Surgeon, Primitive Screwhead, Sergeant Cyclops and Hobo Hulk.

“It is time to act,” say the Dark City Goons, and not a moment too soon… oh, but that’s not what they meant. While Toulon is off being arrested and beaten by Ilsa’s ambassador father’s soldiers, the DCGs head to the theater and psychically murder all the puppeteers by blurring the film over their faces. Cornered, Afzel proactively blurs himself to death.

Blur-attack:

Self-blur suicide:

After all this plot and dreadful dialogue delivery, Toulon only has 30 minutes left in the movie to transfer the souls of his dead friends into the wood puppets and direct them to murder the DCGs. “We shall be avengers.” It’s actually not bad as far as origin stories go.

They set out to search the country for the Dark City Goons, but they’re standing right in the other room, so we get our first showdown straight away: the DCGs’ film-blurring powers vs. a bunch of stabby, strangley little puppets. The DCGs are dispatched by a falling chandelier, then the voice of Sutek shouts “live again,” and two of them do, with newly green-glowing hands. The remaining DCGs (their leader, the appropriately-named Stephen Blackehart, was later in Super and both Guardians of the Galaxy) decide to get to Toulon by kidnapping his girl.

Lovely Ilsa: Brigitta Dau, a voice on My Little Pony in its least-popular era:

Blackehart, probably:

Second showdown, on a train this time, where everyone talks real slow to allow the puppets time to get into position. It’s all kinda underlit and non-dramatic, so DeCoteau tries tilting the camera around to build some energy. The puppets team up on one guy and Toulon punches the other out the window. As with the rest of the Puppet Master movies, it feels like they’re desperately stretching out scenes to make a contractually-obligated runtime.

In 1944 postscript, properly aged Toulon (series fave Guy Rolfe) builds anticipation for another movie by telling his puppets that he’ll tell them what happened to the original puppets “at another time” – but it would be four long years before the clip-show Puppet Master: The Legacy, a cheap and shitty move even by this series’s standards, then came the Demonic Toys faceoff, and in the 2010s a new nazi-themed trilogy began, so I guess we’ll never know.

“Full Moon Entertainment Presents”

1993 was the year of Puppet Master 4, Remote (IMDB: “my best advice is to skip it”), Mandroid (from the writer of Dr. Moreau’s House of Pain), Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight (sequel to Mandroid), Arcade (with Seth Green, “a virtual reality game begins taking over the minds of teenagers”), dinosaur flick Prehysteria, Robot Wars (Robot Jox sequel starring Barbara Crampton) and Subspecies 2.

Dollman and the nurse… can you tell how tiny they are?

Another guy is breaking into the toy warehouse from Demonic Toys? New security guard (Phil Fondacaro, the troll in Troll) doesn’t notice this guy just wandering in and dying on the floor, then the toys are back in town – plus an army guy and minus the teddy bear I think, taking the Puppet Master approach of adding and removing evil toys on a whim.

I like the new PTSD-GI-Joe doll:

Weirdly power-hungry dwarf security guard:

Elsewhere, tiny Dollman finds a hot tiny girl who “got shrunk by aliens” – I don’t remember this happening. Turns out this is a crossover between Dollman, Demonic Toys, and something called Bad Channels (“in space, no one is safe from rock ‘n’ roll”). How do I know? Because Dollman vs. Demonic Toys – only a one-hour movie – spends as much time as possible running flashbacks from its three predecessors.

Can Dollman, shrunken Nurse Jude and Demonic Toys survivor Tracy Scoggins keep the Toys from taking over? Yes, easily. Dollman shoots them with his little gun and they explode. Sorry for the total lack of suspense. Before that, the Toys are warping prostitutes into another dimension in order to summon their master (the Puppet Master?), and the final showdown involves the Baby toy trying to rape the shrunken nurse. Directed by madman Charles Band himself and written by Tarantino friend Craig Hamann, both of whom should stay away from children.

Sometimes called In The Hands of a Puppetmaster, presumably to distinguish it from the terrible Donald Sutherland movie The Puppet Masters and Full Moon’s Puppet Master series. Another Taiwanese-occupation historical drama, the center part of a trilogy with City of Sadness and Good Men, Good Women. City of Sadness seems more memorable than this one did since I had ol’ Tony Leung to latch onto. This one is more detached from the action, which is broken up over a longer timeline.

A true-ish story narrated by the film’s real-life subject, who appeared as an actor in previous Hou films. We don’t see him on-screen for the first third of the movie. His appearance brought to mind American Splendor, only with less humor and no cartoons. Wiki: “Based on the memoirs of Li Tian-lu, Taiwan’s most celebrated puppeteer, this story covers the years from Li’s birth in 1909 to the end of Japan’s fifty-year occupation of Taiwan in 1945.”

Real Mr. Li:

from V. Canby’s original Times review:

His story is revealed in a succession of short, often oblique but vivid vignettes. These begin with a dramatization of a family row about whether the baby is to bear the name of his mother’s or father’s family, a tale cut short by the real Mr. Li’s terse soundtrack interjection: “That’s how I was born.”

There are harrowing tales about his mother’s death, his unloved stepmother, his disinterested father and his rebellion as an adolescent, when he was apprenticed to a traveling puppet-theater troupe. From time to time, the audience is given long, wonderful chunks of Mr. Li, as a boy and as a young man, working his delicately fashioned hand puppets during performance.

A synopsis can’t convey the particular quality of “The Puppetmaster”; that is, the seductive way Mr. Hou takes the audience into a world of arcane rituals and rites. The director’s fondness for the meditative, stationary camera, which was favored by the Japanese film master Ozu, no longer looks borrowed but reimagined. The lack of camera movement and the long takes, in which an entire scene is shot without a cut, reflect the searching manner of an old man as he tries to make sense of the past.

The camera occasionally simply stares at a room or into a series of rooms that open one out of another before a character has entered or after a character has departed. It’s as if the mind of this singularly alert survivor were dealing with Proustian associations, memories uncovered by a kind of afternoon sunlight, or a cooking smell or the touch of someone long gone.

Young Fake Mr. Li:

I had trouble keeping up from the very start, when the old man narrates his own birth and explains why he’s got his mother’s last name. Obviously a movie that rewards a second viewing, once you’ve got a basic grasp on the plot. Neither am I sure which actors played what parts – usually I can use the IMDB cast to help figure out which characters were which, but not today.

Older Fake Mr. Li:

N. Schager:

That Li ascribes his origins to a set of legal provisions immediately connects him to his occupied homeland—a disempowered territory now defined by the rules and regulations of a foreign party—just as his age-old profession ties him to the ancestral traditions of Taiwanese culture. Such associations run throughout Hou’s biographical tale, with Li’s rebellion against his abusive father and stepmother, his exile from puppeteering after the Japanese forbade public performances, his compulsory work for a Japanese propaganda puppet troupe (part of the government’s “Japanization movement”), and his ultimate triumphant rebirth as a celebrated artist all designed to reflect the upheaval of a country in which the indigenous population was forced to accept that, as one drunken Imperial Army soldier tells Li, “You can never escape the fact that you are a colonized islander. A third-class citizen.”

By having Li relate altered versions of things we’ve already witnessed, Hou strikingly points out how the act of remembering invariably sparks a metamorphosis of what’s come before. Yet just as importantly, such a device allows the filmmaker to express the passage of time by asking viewers to experience the film’s occurrences in both real-time and, through our own reliving of certain scenes more than once via Li’s delayed annotations, the past. This process of experiential repetition is the film’s most arresting and vital structural component, linking now with then, the real with the semi-real, in a web of era-intertwined symbiosis.

I wish our gov’t would put on propaganda puppet shows:

When he’s eight, his grandmother gets sick, but as she’s recovering his mother dies instead. His girlfriend Big Eyes is sent away. Grandfather dies and little Li is beaten by his stepmom. But he gets his dad to let him join a puppet troupe, after which he’s traded away to other troupes for years and finally founds his own (called Also Like Life – so that’s where Shooting Down Pictures got their domain name from).

Japan starts interfering, prevents all outdoor performances in Taiwan, killing puppetry dead. Li moves in with an opera group, meets a prostitute named Leitzu. “I had told her before that I was married with children. But what about us? We are travelers that meet on a path.” Back into puppetry (and back with his family), he joins a couple of Japanese propaganda puppet theater groups, gets into a scuffle with an occupying officer, but gets away with it because of his fame and regard.

At the end of the war he has a terrible evacuation from Taipei. The whole family catches malaria and his youngest son and father-in-law both die. He joins a new theater group – the final shot is of the townspeople disassembling Japanese planes, after he’s told that the money to pay him comes from selling scrap metal.

Grunes: “The title refers to both Li’s profession and Taiwanese history under the Japanese, who appropriated Taiwanese puppetry for their own propagandistic purposes and who otherwise impressed their own culture on the Taiwanese, making puppets of them.”

T.M. Hoover:

It’s long but not big, complex but not epic, morally committed but not given to proselytizing, and offers no grand spittle in the face of the cruelty of colonization. Instead, it gives us the story of a man who had to organize his life around circumstances he did not want and, through the juxtaposition with the source of those trials (some of which had nothing to do with politics or other alterable conditions), talks of what one has to do when the gods throw thunderbolts at inconvenient times.