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.

A pretty ok movie, mostly notable for all the definite articles in the credits:

We’re in Russia – all the names and signs and newspapers are in Russian, then halfway through the movie they decided the setting was well established and signs start appearing in English. Captain Anton Walbrook (year after The Red Shoes) visits the card games every night but never plays because he’s determined not to lose. So he visits a creepy bookseller to learn some useful tips:

The creepy bookseller is overdoing it:

Anton learns about a terrible old woman who knows the supernatural secret to winning at games of chance (their big card game is just betting 50/50 on a single-card draw). He pretends to be interested in the pretty girl (Yvonne Mitchell of Sapphire) who works for the old lady (Edith Evans, Ghost of Christmas Past in the Albert Finney Scrooge) by plagiarizing love letters, gets close enough to threaten the old lady, who promptly drops dead, then idiot Walbrook tells the girl his whole scheme. He gets the secret of the cards from the dead woman, wins a fortune then loses it all (and the girl) the same night. Shocktober 2021 Challenge: no more movies from the British, they are simply frightened by everything.

As far as I could remember from watching the early Criterion disc in 1999, this was a short-ish movie about bell casting, so imagine my surprise discovering that it’s a long-ish episodic movie about a painter with an extended bell-casting sequence at the end. Not my favorite Tarkovsky – too Catholic, and I think we’re supposed to know something about 1400’s Russian art history going in, because otherwise there’s not much drama following around this painter who never paints anything.

Turns out I also remembered the intro – a man flying away on ropes and balloons – a soviet myth according to the commentary, of the first flight of man – followed by a shot of a horse rolling over. Andrei and fellow painter/monks Kiril and Danil take shelter in their travels and witness a profane jester being brutalized by the cops.

Danil, Andrei, Kiril:

Some years later, an elder painter named Theo invites Andrei to work with him, invoking jealousy from the other monks, particularly whiny bitch Kiril, who beats his dog in anger (the movie is not kind to animals in general). Andrei takes along his slacker assistant, gets into an escapade with some naked pagans, some people get blinded, then there’s a long section of war and torture because a prince and his brother are feuding, and I didn’t know the motivation for most of this until reading a plot summary later – I thought the point was “the 1400s were terrible, yet Andrei still managed to paint beautiful things”. At the end of this though, Andrei has quit painting, or even speaking. Funny to watch this movie about a painter not painting, the day after Devotion, which features writers not writing.

Theo and Andrei:

Painters, not painting, as usual:

The movie jumps forward a decade to the part I remember – a young bellmaker’s son is approached to cast a new bell for a church, by order of the prince, who will throw a party if they succeed and kill them all if they don’t. Young Boriska claims that his recently deceased father passed on the secrets of bellmaking, but actually the kid is making it up as he goes, publicly barking orders and commanding a hundred men, but privately sick with worry. Andrei and Kirill are hanging around while all this is happening, doing nothing helpful, and it ends with the triumphant ringing of the new bell, then a color slideshow of period icons.

Boriska:

The opening abduction scene will make more sense eventually, and even then, it wasn’t until I started playing the commentary that I could say with any confidence what’s happening in the open. The household scene that follows quickly reminded that we’re in the hands of the Hard to be a God director – full of movement and talking, bustling activity in every corner of long roving camera takes.

Yuri is a military doctor in 1953, bald with a mustache, an important man who will be brought low by forces that we twenty-first-century non-Soviets can hardly fathom without audio explanation. It’s sure entertaining though, and practically as foul and brutish as God. Sound effects are good – dubbing is bad, but I’m constantly checking subtitles since the movie never shuts up for a second, so we’ll call it even.

Birdie!

Learned from the commentary: the movie is in two parts since they could get double budget if it was submitted as two films. One character with a cane umbrella would be seen as a hilarious foreigner by Russian audiences since he wears galoshes. There are major literature and poetry references throughout (I caught Viy and Sadko). German didn’t look through the camera viewfinder or select lenses, considered cinematographer Vladimir Ilin a co-author of the film, “the lighting cameraman has to be an artist too.”

The doctor gets home, but his son in voiceover says he never saw his father again… there was a double in the film, being trained what to say in case he was captured, and other doubles and siblings, so maybe I got some characters confused, and I only played the first hour of the commentary. It involves antisemitism, the death of Stalin, and a scandal called The Doctor’s Plot, which refuses to make sense no matter how much I read about it. To be clear though, the movie’s power comes through fine even not knowing what’s happening – in fact, I wonder if it’s the whole point not to know. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog, along with salami.” The doctor ends up on a train, tormenting the abducted man from the opening scene, and looking intense:

German:

Another part of the population was starving in the gulag, but we ignored that reality; we only knew ours, and I can assure you that from that point of view, living in a totalitarian regime isn’t all bad. People who don’t want to know lead an adorable life. That’s why even today a lot of people in our country yearn for totalitarianism.

Released from church school on vacation, all the students immediately steal from the market, assault women, and generally terrorize the town. Three dim individuals get lost in the country and find a barn to bed down. In the night, a crone hits on Philosopher Khoma Brutus, and flies away with him when he refuses her, but he knocks her down and beats her senseless with her own broom – crisis averted. I mean, the old witch transforms into a beautiful young girl, but that’s probably nothing to worry about.

But back home, the Michael Shannon-looking rector sends Brutus to give last rites to a landowner’s lovely daughter, who was beaten nearly to death by unknown assailants in the night. Brutus is terrified, tries to escape the whole way back to the farmhouse and… stuff like this starts happening:

Also, cranes!

The now-dead girl’s very unhappy father locks Brutus in the chapel for three nights to pray for her soul. Night one goes okay – she rises from her coffin, but the magic chalk circle he draws around himself keeps her away. “A cossack fears nothing,” he swears drunkenly to the guards… survives an all-night assult by her floating coffin the next night, but the stress turns his hair white, and he tries again to escape.

He’ll get a thousand gold pieces if he survives night three, goes into the chapel drunk as hell, then the movie pulls out all the stops. The effects are just great, like Goofball Cocteau. Shadows and projections and disembodied arms and skeletons, dwarves and wall-crawling demons and many-eyeballed goblins, attack from all sides, but he’s safe in his chalk circle. Then everyone steps the fuck back when she summons Viy, a golden-eyed giant, and when the foolish cossack locks eyes with the beast, his soul is lost and the monsters descend on him.

Russia’s first(?) horror movie, supposedly based on the same Gogol story as Black Sunday. Lead actor Leonid Kuravlyov came up with Tarkovsky, but only appeared in his student film, and is better known for starring in the sci-fi comedy Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future. One of our codirectors died in 1984 – the other, Kropachyov, did production design for Hard to Be a God. Art and effects by Russian animation legend Aleksandr Ptushko, whose 1935 stop-motion feature The New Gulliver sounds cool.

Not trying to brag or nothin’, but I kept telling myself this movie felt like Atomic Blonde, only to find out later that it was secretly codirected by that movie’s David Leitch, so I guess I know my Russian secret-agent hit-man action thriller directors. I skipped this Keanu Reeves revenge flick when it came out, but I keep hearing good things about it and the sequel, so finally checked it out in between viewings of American Made.

The late Michael Nyqvist with Dennis Duffy:

Keanu is sad after his girl’s death from illness, left only with the dog she left him, an awesome car, a weapons arsenal, and intense murder skills, so when the local crime lord’s son kills the dog and steals the car, Keanu will not be persuaded to stop killing people (this one is more revenge-driven than the previous movie I watched, which was simply called Revenge).

Fun movie, with some interesting comic-booky elements (a hitman society with a safe-zone hotel headquarters), with appearances by Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Jerry Horne, Lester Freamon and Cedric Daniels.

“I’m exhausted, I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”

Following The Road Movie, here’s another Russian dark comedy with segments that went over my head (because I didn’t try very hard to keep track who was who). The first thing I noticed is that this is a real movie, with a proper script and professional-looking camerawork and editing. I point this out because In The Loop felt like a big-screen version of a Thick of It (or Parks & Rec, etc.) episode, loose mobile cameras, cutting only for laughs and covering (sometimes badly) for dubbed lines and alt takes. Now that we get what I’ve been craving, an Iannucci movie with proper lighting and fancy sets, I guess I’ll take the In The Loop version after all. Great performances in both, but if that fake-documentary style is what’s needed to keep the comedy sharp and constant, then so be it.

This still might end up being the funniest movie of the year, with ringers Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as members of Stalin’s inner circle who start jockeying for position the moment their feared leader has fallen, having choked while laughing at hate mail sent by musician Olga Kurylenko (To The Wonder). The ringers are joined by Paul Whitehouse of The Fast Show, army leader Zhokov (Jason Isaacs of the first Resident Evil), Simon Beale (Rachel Weisz’s older husband in The Deep Blue Sea) and some others, and eventually Stalin’s idiot son Rupert Friend (Homeland) and daughter Andrea Riseborough (who also costarred with Olga K. in Oblivion).

Stalin’s children:

I’m not gonna recount every humiliation and double-cross (though Beale does end up dead and on fire) because that’ll take some of the fun out of watching this again in a few years. The blatant criminal behavior by weak-minded, disloyal men in high government offices didn’t remind me of anything in particular, no sir, just a bit of fun.

Woof, this was bad, but I should’ve guessed from the trailer I saw in NYC with all the “you won’t BELIEVE what happens NEXT”-style quotes in huge print across the screen. A seemingly endless (but only 70 minutes!) string of car crashes and weird happenings captured by Russian dash-cams and ripped off youtube.

“Danger in 200 meters” says one car’s navigation system just before encountering a truck driving slowly in reverse, wiping out all the cars in its path. I rewound a couple times the exploding light poles leading to a blackout after a truck tumbles over. “Fucking asshole,” deadpans the driver witnessing this – there are a couple heroes, but mostly the drivers act annoyed but unsurprised by the damage on display.

Typical/hilarious subtitle:

Quick montages of smashes and explosions are used as buffer material between longer single-take segments. With every new edit, you brace yourself anew for something terrible to happen. Along with Caniba, the other True/False movie Katy wisely avoided, the movie gives us nothing and lets us draw our own conclusions – and at least one person probably died in the making of each. I don’t typically click around youtube looking for the best car-crash videos, so I appreciate that someone has spent the time to curate them for us (and some are incredible) but that’s all this is.

“Your life was hard at times, but hard is not always bad.”

Dark and bleary, twisted and smeary, gives the sense of walking through paintings without the greenscreen feel of The Mill and the Cross.

The Son is home to visit his dying Mother. She can’t go for a walk, so he carries her. They decide that mom should live, then she promptly dies. He goes out and cries next to a shadowy tree, while a song plays beneath the breeze. A relentlessly slow movie that dares you to stay awake – certainly innovative and artistic, but maybe I’m not as excited as everyone who ranked it as a great film of the 1990’s. Probably watching it in a cinema would help, instead of DVD, which was the best I could find.

Nick Cave “wept and wept, from start to finish”:

The son leaves the house and moves into the exquisite landscape that surrounds it. It is in these long, lingering, nearly motionless scenes that the film rises to heights of the most breathtaking beauty. Sokurov’s landscapes are not burdened by any desire for realism. His scenes are transformed into cinematic canvases, far closer to painting than to film, awash with artificial, opalescent light. These dream-born vistas recall the work of the German Romantic painters of the early 19th century: in particular those of Caspar David Friedrich, in which everything is softened by a milky lustre. The vastness and mystery of this heightened nature creates a spirituality not dependent on any formula of traditional Christianity. And the care Sokurov applies to these fastidiously crafted scenes echoes the care with which his characters treat each other – the devotion to detail, the unhurried tenderness, the love.

Adam Cook on Letterboxd:

The son takes over the motherly duties. He carries her like a newborn child and shows her the world which has become new and foreign to her as her memory begins to fade. It is a very touching and tender portrait of their relationship but nothing is explained and no backstory is forthcoming. The son had clearly done something that shamed him in his past but what this act was is never revealed.

This was made right between Whispering Pages and Russian Ark, both of which I kinda loved, though I gotta admit Sokurov is usually a tough watch (the recent Francofonia was surprisingly/relatively easygoing). Played Berlin in the international showcase “Panorama” section (along with Chasing Amy – that’d be a jarring double-feature).