The first fifteen minutes of this ninety-minute movie was one long story about when Hampton Fancher was out of work, dating Teri Garr and getting into trouble. I was worried, but I’m here because of Experimenter, and don’t know who Fancher is, really, and I’m home alone on a snowy day, so let’s see where this leads. This segment is heavily illustrated with clips of performances by Garr (who I recognized) and Fancher (who I didn’t, because we don’t see him until part three).

Part two is text on screen and still photographs, covering Fancher’s family life, running away at 15 to become a flamenco dancer, marriage to Lolita star Sue Lyon, and acting career. Next, we see him in the present, and it’s another fifteen-minute, barely-relevant story, ending with his cheating death because he felt bad about dumping a girl while on a press tour.

“Actually, this story is so terrible I’m not gonna tell it.” Fancher’s best friend Brian Kelly (star of Flipper) is paralyzed while out with Fancher and has to quit acting. Then a short segment about Fancher’s attempted screenwriting career, a failed meeting with Phil Dick. All of this finally comes together majestically in the final segment, as a series of coincidences, friendships, bizarre interests and weird life choices culminates in Fancher writing Blade Runner. In the end, this doc was better than Blade Runner 2049 (which Fancher also wrote!)

It was the baby-monitor jump-scare that lost me. Intriguing backstory open before the movie changes directions, centering on Amy Adams (far less electric here than in Arrival, and given much less to do) reading the rape-murder-revenge novel written by her ex Jake Gyllenhaal, visualizing it starring him with Michael Shannon as a dying cop who doesn’t play by the rules. I suppose the ending should be cynically satisfying, as Adams becomes obsessed with the novel, contacts Jake to meet him and talk about it, and gets stood up. By that point though, who could care about Amy and Jake’s old relationship problems (she got an abortion without telling him, and dumped him for Armie Hammer) or his elaborate literature-based revenge plot, when the bulk of the movie has become the novel itself, a grimy, joyless, desert desperation story? And who can say why Adams gets so sucked in, to the point where she starts seeing jump-scare monsters inside her assistant’s baby monitor, a moment that felt so outrageously cheap that I optimistically figured it would be justified later, or at least be the beginning of a series of visions?

Also it opens with naked fat women dancing in slow-motion. And hey, here’s Love star Karl Glusman and Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone, both of them returning from another 2016 movie I found ugly and misguided. Standard dialogue scenes were filmed in a flat and boring manner (and the movie is mostly standard dialogue scenes). Diana Dabrowska in Cinema Scope and David Ehrlich on Letterboxd both compliment the camerawork, so maybe I missed something there. At least Jake G. is very good in his role, and Shannon is always pleasant to watch.

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”.

Ruiz made a series of films in the mid-1980’s involving sailors, pirates, children, islands, treasure and magic. There’s an explicit Treasure Island reference in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), and in between the similarly-themed City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, he made the movie Treasure Island, and wrote a book called In Search of Treasure Island.

As I learned from The Golden Boat, I’m not a big fan of Ruiz’s English-language films (actually Klimt was good). Treasure Island is full of fascinating work, especially when the plot comes together at the end, but while watching all I can think of are the language problems. Most actors (not Martin Landau or Anna Karina) are badly dubbed. Dialogue is imperfectly translated and conveyed, and performance styles are inconsisent – I tried to overlook it, but it’s too clunky to ignore. Little things make me think Ruiz wasn’t at the dubbing sessions (paella is pronounced “pai-YELL-ah”). And it’s cool that Jean-Pierre Leaud was cast, but distracting to hear him speak with no trace of French accent.

Ruiz’s Treasure Island isn’t an adaptation of the novel… not exactly, anyway. After a while it starts to follow the story when young Jonathan’s father dies while his seaside home is being visited by Landau (who asks to be called The Captain), then after Jonathan runs off he’s picked up by a sailing shoe salesman named Silver.

Some mutinies and mercenaries later, it comes out that this is an annual reenactment LARP, performed with a different Jim Hawkins every time. Captain Silver is the professor who invented the game, an “expert on game theory” (maybe not coincidence: when Silver gave his real name I wrote it as Omar Amiralay, which is also the name of a Syrian filmmaker who was active at the time). Jim/Jonathan sees through the ruse when he realizes during a gun battle that the fighting is fake, so he goes off alone, commandeering the ship with only Israel Hands (who soon dies) aboard. I start to lose track of the characters as the roles shift (The Dead Father returns as the ship’s doctor, for instance) – shades of the re-enactment identity-blending of The Territory. Even the narrator, who we assumed all along to be Jim/Jonathan, is revealed to be another character, who kills J/J offscreen at the end.

Jim and Helen:

Martin Landau, who dies, comes back to life, declares Jim is his son during an earthquake, and jumps out a window:

It’s fun to analyze the movie afterwards, to go through the screen shots and read reviews – maybe a less painfully-dubbed version exists in another country and will come out someday (argh, a restored print played Paris last month – the poor dubbing remains, and the movie has lost 15 minutes). Anna Karina is very good as J/J’s mom, anyway.

Karina and Helen:

Don’t think I got all the characters straight. Multiple possible captains – besides Landau we’ve got Silver (Vic Tayback of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), the French Captain (Yves Afonso, who appeared with Karina and Leaud in Made In USA), and Mr. Mendoza (Pedro Armendariz Jr. of Walker in a Yankees hat). Mendoza is obsessed with a different ship-mutiny novel, Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. There’s the doctor / Dead Father (Lou Castel, Bruno Ganz’s driver in The American Friend) and J/J’s aunt Helen (singer Sheila). Crabb (Michel Ferber) imprisons J/J, Ben Gunn shoots diamonds from a slingshot. That leaves Israel Hands (Jean-Francois Stévenin, the immortal Max in Le Pont du Nord), Squire Tim Moretti (Jeffrey Kime, the doomed Jim in The Territory), and back on shore before the adventure began, Leaud as a writer (and possibly the narrator), and the creepy Blind Man (Charles Schmitt). Jim/Jonathan himself is regular Ruiz star Melvil Poupaud, returning from City of Pirates.

The island scenes (second half of the movie) were filmed on the coast of Senegal, where Katy is now.

Back on land, The Blind Man with Karina:

Played in Cannes in 1991 alongside Yumeji, Boyz n the Hood, Hearts of Darkness, and three African films. Rumor is that Chris Marker assisted Ruiz in some way. A four-hour cut was planned, but I don’t think it was completed (nobody claims to have seen it).

Ruiz in conversation with J. Rosenbaum:

Treasure Island was a complete misunderstanding, because the money was there at the beginning and then suddenly the money was gone [not there anymore]. So I had to reduce the budget, and do it like a kind of B movie. This movie starts very strangely, with a good atmosphere, and then suddenly we are in a typical TV serial, because it was shot in continuity, so you can see the point at which the money starts to vanish.

From Michael Goddard’s book:

As [the film’s introductory] television transmission is interrupted by a power cut, we are informed that its tale of a coup d’etat, diamonds and treachery continued in Jim’s head. In other words while we may be aware that stories originate elsewhere and come to us from the outside it is we who continue them as they take possession of our imaginations; so before even introducing any of the elements of Treasure Island, the key theme of possession by prior stories that make up not only Ruiz’s film but in a more implicit way the original novel itself is already established.

As in the cartographic game in Zig-Zag this is a game played in real spaces with real lives and deaths but it is no less fictional than the novel on which it is based, while the latter is increasingly read not as fiction but rather as an instruction manual for how to operate successfully in the Treasure Island game.

JW McCormack:

For one thing, the pirates don’t look much like pirates, more like guerillas, revolutionaries. Jim’s friends the Doctor and the Squire appear without much fanfare. Other characters, like participatory academic Aunt Helen, are without an analogue in the book. The Oedipal strains of the Disney version have gone haywire, as everybody claims to be Jim’s father and nobody seems terribly concerned with treasure. But as Jim says — or, rather, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says, since we learn three quarters of the way through that he has literally run away with the script and has been telling the story from Jim’s point of view — “I didn’t see why we couldn’t just carry on without the treasure. It was an adventure anyway.”

But alas, no reconstruction is perfect: in perhaps the funniest joke in the movie, Silver, disappointed that the action has fallen so far from the book, echoes the sentiments of any reader who has ever been outraged by a movie straying from its source: he fires a machine gun into the air while shouting “It was not written! It was not written!”

Ruiz interviewed by D. Ehrenstein:

When I reread Treasure Island recently I discovered that the structure was stronger than the material. The way Stevenson tells the story is so remarkable that it could be about anything – pirates, kidnappers, whatever. We are surrounded by stories that are like houses we can enter. We play amidst these stories, sometimes being involved in two or three of them at once. In one you’re the hero, in another you’re a secondary character. These scripts are the society in which we live – if you want to be a sociologist. It’s a notion I feel more and more. This has been expressed in many ways – by Stevenson, by Orson Welles, Borges, and many others – this notion that certain stories have the structure of dreams. For those stories it’s as if the cinema had already been invented.

Hour-long, splendorously Wellesian, elegant little movie about storytelling, made between Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake. Why does nobody ever talk about this one? A French production (I watched the English-dubbed version) based on a novel by Karen Out of Africa Blixen and shot by Willy Les Creatures Kurant.

On Macao (a Chinese island then controlled by Portugal), Welles is a fat rich man who takes things very literally, cares only about his accounts, which his accountant (filmmaker Roger Coggio) reads to him every night. One day, Coggio reads his boss the prophecy of Isaiah instead. Welles doesn’t like prophecies, things that are not yet true, so he counters with a “true” story he heard about an old man who hires a sailor to sleep with his young wife, to produce an heir. He’s enraged when the accountant tells him this is a fable, retold by many sailors with variations, and Welles insists that they perform the story for real so that somebody in the world will be able to tell it truthfully. He’s got the old eccentric rich man part covered, now just needs someone to play the young wife and poor sailor.

A poor sailor:

In the town square, the great Fernando Rey (a couple years before Tristana) gives some back-story. It seems that Jeanne Moreau (same year as The Bride Wore Black) grew up in the house Welles now occupies, until her dad killed himself over a 300-guinea debt to the old man. Coggio talks her into playing the wife out of curious revenge – she agrees for a price of 300 guineas. They pick up an honestly down-and-out, recently-shipwrecked sailor (Norman Eshley of a few 1970’s murder films – one thinks of Welles’ own role in The Lady From Shanghai) and pay him five guineas to play the role (he doesn’t seem familiar with the fable).

Coggio awaits Moreau’s reply:

Afterwards:
– “Now you can tell the story”
– “To whom would I tell it? Who in the world would believe me if I told it? I would not tell it for a hundred times five guineas.”

And the accountant finds Welles dead in his chair.

This Is Orson Welles reveals that there were supposed to have been a series of short films based on Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) stories. The Heroine was canceled after a single day’s shoot, and A Country Tale was to star Peter O’Toole. Welles would later adapt another Blixen story into The Dreamers.

PB: You were interested in the idea of power…
OW: No. He doesn’t have the power – you show that it’s meaningless.
PB: He fails-
OW: It doesn’t even begin to work – it’s a dream. That’s the whole point of the story. He has no power: not that he does have it, but that he pretends that he does. It all turns to ashes.
PB: Why does he die?
OW: He’s getting ready to die when the story begins. And he dies when the thing can’t work. He dies of disappointment, in his last gasp of frustrated lust.

Senses:

Welles was only in his early 50s when he made The Immortal Story for French television, but it appears as an almost too perfect summary of his career; a metaphorical tale of impotence, memory, power and mortality made on a tiny budget in Europe it both chases its own tail and is a deeply felt film of melancholy mood and sensibility. The film has the quality of a miniature; short in length and minimalist in design. It also appears depopulated, as if the product of a fragmented dream or imagination.

Tarsem’s previous movie The Cell had a crappy story and bad acting wrapped around a handful of intensely cool but disconnected imagery. This one has a simple but decent story and good acting, with about half the movie being intensely cool imagery, finely intertwined with the rest of the plot. A quantum leap forward!

The gimmick of not having a gimmick (no digital effects, etc) was distracting as hell. We were always “what country do you think that is” or “THAT isn’t a real place is it” or “aha, that’s GOT to be a digital effect” or “is the little girl acting or not, she seems so natural.” From online trivia we learn it’s a remake of a 1981 Bulgarian film and the little girl was often improvising.

Movie itself is a wonder. In Princess Bride’s framing story, grandpa Peter Falk is reading a great, classic storybook, so the bulk movie has to be great and classic, and it lives up – but in The Fall we have an unreliable narrator, suicidal, heartbroken, wasted on morphine, making it up as he goes along. In a sense this makes the story more unpredictable, but it’s also a huge cop-out because if the writing is poor you can say “oh it’s supposed to be poor, didn’t you get that?” And it is kinda poor. Our hero the masked bandit with his lost love and archnemesis kinda fizzles, and his side characters Luigi (“explosives expert” who only uses explosives once, suicidally at the very end), The Ex-Slave and The Indian just make poses and look beautiful against the exotic scenery, getting shown up by the problem-solving Charles Darwin and his pet monkey. So it doesn’t sound too good and it’s probably not, but if you’re gonna throw out images this nice, I’ll let your thin plot slide. Carried over from The Cell we’ve still got some nightmarish imagery too. When their guide The Mystic is captured, being chopped to death with an axe (barely offscreen), crying and repeating the safe word “googly googly”, small birds flying out of his mouth, that’s a thing that gets stuck terribly in my head while I’m trying to sleep.

Movie ends with a montage of Keaton and Chaplin stunt scenes, half of which I recognized, in a belated homage to stunt men (our hero is one, ended up in the hospital with the little girl by falling badly off a bridge). Weird. Nobody I’ve heard of in the cast, which makes sense. If you’re shooting a self-financed movie over four years in 20+ countries, you’re not gonna get many recognizable actors to sign up. However, Lee Pace (our storytelling hero) is now starring in Pushing Daisies.