Only watched a couple of these lately, but I’d better write ’em up before they get lost and forgotten…


Baby Snakes (1979, Frank Zappa)

Definitely overlong and indulgent… don’t know why Zappa thought we needed to spend so much time backstage with his band goofing around and improvising with props for the camera – not exactly feature film material. And I detest audience participation at rock shows – it’s super fun for the two fans onstage, less so for the rest of us.

Gripes aside, the bulk of the movie is a terrific rock concert, and the highlight is the claymation work by brilliant, possibly crazed animator Bruce Bickford… complex cityscapes, crowd scenes, closeups, Frank and his bandmates and groupies, all constantly morphing into monsters.

Foreground: clay Frank at the clay film editing table
Background: Frank at the film editing table


Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015, Brett Morgen)

I don’t feel a morbid urge to read the diaries of dead rock stars or watch their home videos, but I heard this was good, an immersive montage edited according to emotion more than narrative, not a traditional rock doc. But whoever wrote that had a pretty strict definition of traditional narrative, because this is a straightforward, chronological doc, trying to get inside Kurt’s head at the different stages of his life and fame. There’s some Scanner Darkly rotoscoping of reenactment footage (a good compromise) and halfway-decent flash animation of his teenage drawings to illustrate his confessional audio tape collection. Interviews with Krist and Courtney and Kurt’s parents and ex, lots of good photos and concert footage, and a terrific mocking impression he does of Chris Cornell (edit: RIP, Chris). I hadn’t really listened to Nirvana since the late 90’s and mostly the movie gave me the urge to do that – discovered that the bonus discs of concert stuff on the album reissues are reeeeally good.


PJ Harvey in France on the Hope Six tour


Chumbawamba in 1996

What The Eyes See (1987, Pavel Koutský)

Starts out pretty ordinary then goes nuts. A happy-go-lucky wooden Amish man is saddened when a fat guy, a moonface, and a green Swede yell at him. He wanders, head low, being verbally attacked from all directions. Then the animation slows to a halt and we see the animator’s hands moving the little guy around… wide shot to the animator walking around the studio posing and filming the scene… then he slows down and we see giant hands manipulating the human animator. Reverse back into the original scene, where the wooden guy kicks the ass of the next fella who gets in his face.


Strazce majaku (1968, Ivan Renč)

A ship-traveling dandy sexually harasses the boat’s mermaid figurehead, who awakens and heads into the sea to distract the man in charge of the coin-op lighthouse protecting some jagged rocks. She finally drives the lighthouse keeper insane until he retreats inside, projecting his vainglorious dreams on a movie screen using a phonograph horn and pretending to rescue a toy boat in his bathtub, while outside, the real boat runs into the rocks and sinks. I love this. Got a bunch more Czech shorts to go through later.


The Old Lady’s Camping Trip (1983, Les Drew)

Opening credits reveal this was presented by the Fire Prevention Association, so we know it’s not just a casual character moment when Cousin Jim is introduced smoking in bed. Jim is a regular clumsy firebug, and the Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe is unusually fire-conscious, bringing extinguishers and smoke detectors on a camping trip.


Every Dog’s Guide to Complete Home Safety (1987, Les Drew)

Opens with a cool low-angle view of a spider racing through a house, then turns into the same kind of pleasant-enough kids’ cartoon as the camping trip one – a “safety dog” just wants to practice roller skating but the family dad keeps putting him in dangerous situations as prep for an “iron dog” competition. In the end the dog skates/wagons the family to a hospital when the pregnant wife needs a ride, I’m not sure why.


Evolution (1971, Michael Mills)

History of planetary species in ten minutes. Brightly colored planetary landscapes beget giggling single-cell eyeballs beget water plants and fishies beget land creatures beget monkey-things beget intelligent space-traveling aliens. Innovative approach to reproduction and mutation and natural selection (and creature design) with typical gender division stuff: all creatures are assumed male except the big-titted ones who knit while bearing children. Oscar nominated the year of The Selfish Giant and the inferior Crunch Bird, Mills made a bunch more shorts that would be worth looking up.


La Salla (1996, Richard Condie)

I’ve seen this before, ages ago: early, hideous computer animation with a big-nose opera-singing guy in a room full of living objects making inappropriate sounds, like a surreal indie Toy Story demo. Lesson learned: never open the door. The last of a series of Canadian shorts made by Condie, Oscar nominated the year Quest won.

The first roundup of misc shorts since the last one.


Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody (2013, Patrick McHale)

Wirt and Greg are heading somewhere, manage to get a ride with pumpkin-man John Crops to vegetable city, where they accidentally unleash the fury of the crows. Would play as a deleted scene from Over The Garden Wall if not for bluebird Beatrice’s different voice and some more cartoonish facial expressions. I’m guessing with the Harvest Melody subtitle that he’d planned to make more standalone shorts like this, but then they made the full series.


The Umbrella Man (2011, Errol Morris)

A web mini-doc on a single detail of the Zapruder film: a single man with an umbrella on the cloudless day Kennedy was shot. Interview with JFK assassination expert Tink Thompson, who sets up the mystery, then explains it was discovered that the man was making an obscure visual protest against a policy by JFK’s father.


Demon in the Freezer (2016, Errol Morris)

“Why is it so important to make the monkeys sick?”

The argument over preserved samples of smallpox virus – whether they should be kept, and for what purpose? Floated: vaccines and biological warfare with the Russians. I don’t know a whole lot about smallpox but it sounds horrible.


Dog (2002, Suzie Templeton)

A sick/dying/dead dog, a father, a boy, a murder, a patch of either blood or mold upon a wall, and the most disturbing stop-motion I’ve seen this side of Robert Morgan.


Oskar Kulicke and the Pacifist (1952, Kurt Weiler)

I loved The Apple, so watched some more puppet shorts by Weiler. Bricklayer Oskar endures the whining of a pansy pacifist then sets him straight, asking how the pacifist will like it when he’s conscripted after a U.S. invasion. No, pacifism is dumb and learning proper use of arms is essential, Oskar concludes.

The U.S. military elite:


Heinrich The Dysfunctional: A German Elegy (1965, Kurt Weiler)

Surprising to watch this right after the other, since it’s about a failed German invasion of Poland in 1472 due to misfortune and royal idiocy. King of Libnitz attacks Cracow in order to obtain liquor and a young bride. After recruiting a traitorous young goat farmer, the king makes it to the enemy castle, only to be pissed on by the local kids and sent home on a manure cart, all his cannons destroyed. “The fatal flaw of the heroic German character: thirst trumps wisdom.”

Last-minute reprieve for the goat farmer:

Ceremonial welcome:


Nörgel & Söhne (1968-70, Kurt Weiler)

Three-part story of how the nomadic Nörgel clan developed tools and farming, then trade, then currency. Character-based stop-motion with some fun material tricks with liquids, animals and the heavens. Nörgel becomes more of a brutal slavemaster the closer he gets to modern capitalism, and in the end he retires and reads Marx’s Das Capital (historical chronology is shifty in these movies) and regrets the awful thing he’s done.

Barter calculations:


Street of Crocodiles (1986, Quays)

Live-action man spits into the machinery, activating it, and releases stop-motion man who creeps into a dusty world of pulleys and screws populated by hollow-headed dolls. Wonderful string music. I still don’t know what it all means, been meaning to get the Bruno Schulz book forever now, but it’s all so dusty and textural and mesmerizing in its mysterious movements.


Quay (2015, Christopher Nolan)

Eight-minute trip to the Quays’ workshop featuring some Street of Crocodiles puppets and commentary on their methods. I suppose splashing Nolan’s name across the blu-ray package was meant to get new people interested in their work, kinda like “JJ Abrams presents Phantasm: Remastered“. I hope it’s working.


Esperalia (1983, Jerzy Kalina)

A guy goes slow-mo crawling through the forest overlaid by patterns and rotoscope lines, seeing visions and phantoms, with an increasingly disturbed soundtrack.


The Public Voice (1988 Lejf Marcussen)

Magnifying glass reveals the blueprints beneath paintings, the lines behind the lines behind the lines. Slow zooms in and out as patterns and figures slowly prove to be details within other works, a visual art history folded into itself. I didn’t recognize most of the work, but there’s some Dali and Bosch in there.

Finally watched this Laika movie. I love love loved the look, beautiful stop-motion with ghostly effects. A total visual triumph, and I wish we’d caught it in theaters. Didn’t expect the screenplay to suck, though. Overall story is fine, weird kid in town can see ghosts, has to use his powers to save the town from a vindictive witch, but most of the plot points and dialogue were boring and obvious, led by a veritable who-cares of voice acting. Maybe it’s just because we watched it on Halloween (Katy’s sole SHOCKtober film) and treaters interrupted the movie every five minutes so I couldn’t get sucked into its particular atmosphere.

The cast:

The crew:

Back in the day I’d flip through the Norman McLaren DVD box set regularly, but times change and you get old and overwhelmed with things and one day you realize you haven’t watched any McLaren in six years.


Blinkity Blank (1955)

Advanced hand-etched animation – musical battle of red dot vs. blue dot, flickering and transforming into different images for an instant at a time.

R. Koehler called it “possibly his greatest film, in which McLaren discovered the effect of not drawing on every single frame.”

J-P Coursodon:

One may briefly notice (provided one doesn’t blink) a flurry of feathers, a parachute, a bird cage, a pineapple, an umbrella that turns into a hen-like figure, as well as many undescribable doodles that keep bouncing all over the screen. “This is not a film you see,” wrote French critic André Martin in 1955, “it’s a film you think you see.” You do hear, however, and not just think you hear, Maurice Blackburn’s dodecaphonistic score … with strikingly percussive synthetic-sound punctuations added throughout like so many punches by McLaren’s scratchings on the soundtrack.


C’est L’aviron (1944)

Gentle boat ride in sync with a vocal French tune, constant 3D zoom forwards (and sometimes backwards) over sea, through clouds and towns. There’s a behind-the-scenes film explaining how it was made,


Spheres (1969)

Mathematical dance of stop-motion spheres against a morphing cosmic backdrop. Codirected with René Jodoin in 1946, with music added two decades later.


Love on the Wing (1939)

A post office advert – see also the Len Lye shorts – in which two postal letters are in love. Fast-paced, surrealist-inspired etched animation, characters constantly morphing into different figures.


La Poulette Grise (1947)

Variations of chicken/egg paintings, contorting slowly to a vocal song by Anna Malenfant (doesn’t that mean Anna Badchild?). At the end, the chicken sails away upon a crescent moon.


A Little Phantasy on a Nineteenth Century Painting (1946)

Chalky animation upon a reproduction of an Arnold Böcklin painting.


Là-Haut Sur Ces Montagnes (1946)

Another generative painting, a nice pastoral scene


Book Bargain (1937)

Short doc with voiceover showing the process of printing the London phone book. Cool machinery but kind an unexciting industrial film.

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.

Magical, delicate-looking stop-motion retelling of the Little Prince story, in which I guess he leaves his beloved rose, wanders some asteroids meeting strange adults, then crashes on Earth’s desert where he trades wisdom with a stranded aviator. Surrounding this, in a more Pixar-like CG animation style, is a sort of Little Prince Expanded Universe, in which eccentric Jeff Bridges tells the story to a neighbor kid who’s being meticulously groomed to be a serious-minded adult. When Bridges is sick, the girl flies into space to find the Little Prince, who has been corrupted by adulthood. You think of the Little Prince story as a fairy tale and the grey-cube grown-up CG world as reality, so it’s fun when they merge into one adventure at the end. Life Lessons seem pretty uncontroversial: protecting your inner child and holding onto important memories, but it’s all told in a pleasantly unusual way. This movie was dumped onto Netflix, but we drove an hour to see one of its rare theatrical screenings, and it was worth it for the gorgeous stop-motion scenes alone.

I recognized the director’s name from the great animated short More, which also features lead characters with colorful inner lives trying to break out of conformist grey-box worlds. All-star cast but the best voices were the non-actor kids, except for Bridges, and I’ll give credit to Ricky Gervais as “the conceited man”.

Customer service expert Michael stays at a hotel named after a paranoid delusion in which all people appear to be the same person in different disguises. I didn’t know this until after the movie, but it works anyway because everyone except Michael has the same face and voice (Tom Noonan, paterfamilias of The House of the Devil). Michael is dreamily British-accented but erratic-acting David Thewlis, and life’s the same old drab nightmare for him until he meets someone with a unique voice: Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His awkward affair with her lasts one night, after which she becomes Noonan-voiced and Michael leaves her, runs home to his Noonan-family.

Full of small pleasures in dialogue and puppet movement, and larger, weirder wonders (Michael’s subterranean gay-panic dream, Japanese automaton from sex shop, stop-motion recreation of a My Man Godfrey scene). Surely need to watch again – need to watch all Kaufman’s movies again.

Opened in Venice with A Bigger Splash, Francofonia and The Clan, winning what appears to be second place to From Afar. Award shows mostly considered it in animation categories, where it universally lost to Inside Out. Made the top-ten in the Skandies anyway, along with acting and screenplay mentions.

R. Porton in Cinema Scope:

The superb deployment of puppets and stop-motion animation in the work of Jan Svankmajer and the Quay Brothers highlight the vicissitudes of the macabre and the fantastic. Kaufman and Johnson’s film, although superficially more prosaic, manages to make the banalities of a business trip as chilling as anything in Alice or Street of Crocodiles. Towards the end of Anomalisa, Michael concludes that the real lesson of his visit to Cincinnati is “there’s no lesson at all,” a fitting coda to a movie which refuses to offer its audience glib bromides or anything more than cold comfort.

Happy to come across this again – haven’t seen it since the VHS days. Awesome, hour-long stop-motion with live actors interacting with the miniature creations, which must’ve been difficult. Dark sci-fi fairy-tale following tiny Tom, born to normal-sized parents, then abducted away to a torture-lab, adopted by a tiny-people society, and brought on a guerrilla mission with a well-armed little guy. Death and horror is around every corner, and pretty much everyone is doomed. The grimy, insect-filled design is marvelous, would be cool to see this in HD someday.

Stills cannot convey the majesty:

Oh no, writer/director Dave Borthwick died a few years ago, after codirecting a kids’ animated feature. Dave’s “Bolex Brothers” partner Dave Alex Riddett is a stop-motion cinematographer (Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, way back to the Sledgehammer video), and the Bolexes also produced the great short The Saint Inspector.