The Good Dinosaur (2015, Peter Sohn)

First film watched in 2016 and it’s… pretty good? Kinda of a Lion King-cribbing story with dialogue mainly consisting of Big Life Lessons and setup for them. We liked the concept – talking, farming dinosaurs and barking, feral humans – but I paid more attention to the (beautiful!) lighting than the characters. Only voice I definitely recognized was Sam Elliott as the daddy t-rex rancher, but we’ve also got Jeffrey Wright as Mufasa and Steve Zahn as an evil pterodactyl.

Arlo is small, afraid of everything, bad at his chores, and present when the river floods and his dad dies. Will he go on a great adventure and learn how to overcome his fears and become a responsible adult? Yes! He and the human he names Spot help each other out, dodge carnivorous dinos, find food and figure how to get home, all set to blandly soaring music. I sound like I’m being dismissive, but I got so emotional my head hurt.

Director Peter Sohn made Partly Cloudy, the stork short. Original/replaced director Bob Peterson cowrote Pixar’s best features, but even better, he’s the voice of Roz in Monsters Inc and Dug in Up. Changes between the cancelled version of the movie and the final release: Arlo is younger, major unspecified story changes and whole voice cast replaced except for Frances McDormand as Arlo’s mom.

Sanjay’s Super Team (2015, Sanjay Patel)

Imagination-memoir, in which young Sanjay learns to fuse his interest in a televised superhero team and his dad’s Hindu prayers. A bit of culturally-diverse fun, and a massive improvement over Lava. Looks like Patel has been with Pixar since at least A Bug’s Life.

TV Specials from the Tail End of 2015

A Wish For Wings That Work (1991, Skip Jones)

First time I’ve watched this since its highly anticipated TV premiere. It’s like Rudolph but with Opus – he helps Santa with a problem and is rewarded with a fly-around by the ducks that used to laugh and call him names. Highlight is when Opus is injected into a scene from Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon after an ad break.

Opus was Michael Bell (Duke in G.I. Joe), neighborhood pig and ducks were Joe Alaskey (Plucky in Tiny Toons, Bugs and Daffy in Looney Tunes: Back in Action), and uncredited appearances by Robin Williams (botching a NZ accent) and Dustin Hoffman (goofing on Tootsie). Director Skip Jones was a Don Bluth animator.

Breathed was not happy with the final result, and I can see his point. Still the only appearance of Bloom County characters on TV – technically Outland characters at this point – though Breathed’s Mars Need Moms book was adapted as a crappy-looking flop feature film, and his story Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big was adapted into a short the author called “an unmitigated technical disaster – unfinished and unwatchable.”

Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live (2015, Jody Shapiro)

A weird hour-long mash-up of scenes from Rossellini’s Green Porno live tour, behind-the-scenes tour footage, coverage of the book tour, the original short films, and related stuff, like following a scientist to observe mating seals. “It is essential that what I say is scientifically correct. Otherwise I’m a nut – and who needs another nut?” I didn’t realize she’s done two other series called Seduce Me and Mammas, and an hourlong documentary called Animals Distract Me. Jody Shapiro also shoots and produces Guy Maddin films.

A Very Murray Christmas (2015, Sofia Coppola)

In which a bunch of our favorite actors who cannot sing very well, and a handful of actual singers, congregate in Coppola’s underlit Lost In Translation hotel to act sad, goof around and gradually cheer up. The band Phoenix was the best part, with Chris Rock’s off-time backing vocals a close second.

Chris Isaak Christmas (2004)

Watched in hotel while getting ready for the family Christmas. A million times more festive than the Bill Murray one, with more upbeat music.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe

Funny look at a depressing year. Good bit on the media’s changing attitudes on the humanity of refugees, and Brooker finally got to address his spooky Black Mirror PM pig-sex prediction on the air. Stanhope got cut for being too controversial… hope his segment turns up sometime.

Shaun The Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas (2015, Jay Grace)

Like the movie, but shorter, and with troublemaking nihilist llamas which are even worse than the pigs.

Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley)

Last film watched in 2015, and it’s a good one. Impossibly gorgeous and perfectly-lit Saoirse Ronan is in every scene, which should be enough of a recommendation, but it’s also a good story – a small-scale immigrant drama and minor love triangle given epic scale through grand filmmaking.

Eilis (which looks like Ellis, as in the island, now that I see it written) is sent abroad to New York by beneveolent priest Jim Broadbent, leaving her mother and sister Rose behind in Ireland. After a rough ship ride she settles in at her department store job with Parker Posey doppelganger Jessica Paré and a boarding house run by Julie Walters with other girls (incl. Arrow star Emily Rickards) who are looking for men and enjoying the night life. Quiet Eilis manages to attract a serious guy – an Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen of Afterschool) with big dreams of a family housing business. After her sister’s sudden death she returns to Ireland to see her mom and friends, starts hanging out with Domhnall Gleeson, locally considered a major catch. Will she abandon her Tony and her golden dreams of America to stay comfortably at home with Gleeson? No!

Novel by Colm Tóibín, adapted by Nick Hornby, directed by Crowley (Boy A, Closed Circuit). Up for three oscars, but not everyone loved it.

M. D’Angelo:

… feels weirdly sanitized, like somebody’s pseudo-nostalgic conception of the ’50s based on movies from that era. (Compare and contrast with Carol, which admittedly inhabits a different milieu but is unmistakably grounded in lived experience.)

Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)

The very definition of a great ensemble cast, each character given similar tasks throughout the investigation but with different personal connections to the church and the case. Hulk Ruffalo and Michael “Birdman” Keaton are joined by Rachel “Passion” McAdams, John “Iron Man’s dad” Slattery and a gentle mustache named Brian James under new boss Liev “brother of Wolverine” Schreiber as reporters investigating a pattern of sexual abuse in the catholic church.

D. Ehrlich: “earns comparisons to Zodiac and All the President’s Men, but is also more modest and anonymous than either… less sticky. still, builds an immense momentum with its earnestness.”

M. D’Angelo: Thoroughly enjoyable, but the only aspect of it that wowed me was Liev Schreiber’s deliberately off-putting performance; I imagine McCarthy repeatedly telling him “Let’s try that again, but give me more absolutely nothing this time.”

M. Harris:

I know some people think that Tom McCarthy’s direction is utilitarian; I couldn’t disagree more. His steady medium shots and groupings of men (mostly men) in conversation in offices, behind overcrammed desks, in restaurants, clubs, doorframes, and well-appointed sanctuaries are not the product of lack of visual imagination but of serious thought about how best to tell a story of journalistic process and the uneasy co-functioning of big urban institutions (church, paper, courthouse). The empty weekend office in the film’s final sequence, with Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron at work in the distant background, has stayed with me as much as any shot from any movie this year.

Wild Tales (2014, Damián Szifrón)

Five stories of People Driven To The Brink: a great opening segment set on a plane, then four mediocre, pointless segments. Kinda fun to watch for a while, but I can’t believe the acclaim this thing got. Went up against Leviathan, Timbuktu and the winner Ida for the foreign oscar. I guess its defenders hoped the artistically-serious vote would cancel itself out and the goofball candidate would take the prize.

First episode has a flight full of people who gradually realize that they all know the same guy – and they’ve each wronged him in some way – and he’s the pilot. Then comes the best part of the movie: the opening titles.

Part 2: a diner waitress realizes the sole customer one night is the gangster who drove her father to suicide. The chef poisons the guy’s son then stabs the gangster. Part 3: rich guy vs. normal guy road rage incident goes out of control, ends with explosive deaths. Fourth: an explosives expert’s car keeps getting towed, ruining his family life. Guess what he does? Next, rich family’s son drunkenly kills pregnant woman, family pays their gardener to take the blame, bribes are negotiated then gardener is murdered by dead woman’s husband. Finally, a bride discovers at wedding that her husband has been cheating, makes a scene.

Editing to music: something more movies should do. It’s fun and easy.

After portraying the producers as wolves, vultures and lions:

A massive hit in Argentina. “Every story in Wild Tales has to do with the clash between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed” – Quintín writes about how the movie cautiously addresses the problems facing Argentina, convincingly calls it an important film despite its light-violent-entertainment appearance to outsiders like myself.

It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)

Weirdly, for one of the best romantic comedies of all time, I had much trouble remembering this a couple weeks later and had to look up the TCM synopsis – unlike The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday and High Society and What a Way to Go!, which I recalled as well as I ever do. So I’d better watch this again sometime.

Anyway, heiress Claudette Colbert (between Lubitsch films The Smiling Lieutenant and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife) is on the run from her overdetermined life and meets chivalrous Clark Gable on the bus. He’s a reporter who agrees to help her if he gets an exclusive story – shades of Roman Holiday – but unlike that movie, this is one of the madcap screwball comedies where writing out the plot would take longer than rewatching the movie – the gist being that the two of them fall gradually in love after spending much travel time together, and she finally flees her society wedding to stay with Gable.

Unhappy bride:

Criterion ad copy: “The first film to accomplish the very rare feat of sweeping all five major Oscar categories (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, and best screenplay), It Happened One Night is among the most gracefully constructed and edited films of the early sound era, packed with clever situations and gags that have entered the Hollywood comedy pantheon and featuring two actors at the top of their game.”

S. Winer:

That first autobus ride is clearly an alien experience for the heiress, who has until this point remained unaware of the greater world around her. At first, she is uncomfortable with her fellow passengers, but eventually she joins them in song and then feels sympathetic pain for the plight of a mother and son who don’t have enough to eat. (Explicitly here, and implicitly throughout the film, Capra is making a brave choice for a romantic comedy by telling us that this is no movie fairyland but very real Depression America — where buses might serve those who could no longer afford cars and hitchhiking those who could afford neither.)

F. Nehme:

In what must be the movie’s most famous scene (although it has a lot of competition), Pete demonstrates, at length and with a fantastic amount of condescension, the proper way to hitchhike: “It’s all in the thumb.” Ellie, splendidly deadpan, watches an entire traffic jam’s worth of cars zip by Pete and his magic thumb, then slinks over and lifts her hem to reveal one of the loveliest legs in movie history. Cut to slamming brakes, then the couple in the rumble seat of a car. But here’s the thing: The man who has stopped (played by Alan Hale) turns out to be a road thief, bent on stealing their remaining suitcase. For all Ellie’s triumph, the creep was looking for a mark, and probably would have stopped in any event.

The Good Fairy (1935, William Wyler)

Pretty-good movie with convoluted plot based on a Hungarian play with English dialogue rewritten by Preston Sturges. Wyler didn’t have a knack for this sort of thing. Comic timing is off from the start, and the Frank Morgan character crosses the line from annoying the protagonist to annoying the audience, but the second half seems to settle into a nice groove, thanks to the soothing influence of actor Herbert Marshall.

Margaret Sullavan (of The Shop Around The Corner, also set in Budapest) is quite good anyway. She’s an orphan recruited by Alan Hale (does he buy her? adopt her?) to work at his movie theater. Trying to avoid sexual harrassment in the street she latches onto sensitive, protective Detlaff (Reginald Owen, Scrooge a few years later), who works as a waiter at a restaurant where she meets wealthy, sexually aggressive annoyance Konrad (Frank Morgan, Sullavan’s costar again in Shop Around The Corner) who works for hilarious drunken gov’t minister Eric Blore.

Through a series of preposterous events, Margaret, who wants only to be a “good fairy” and help others, gets Konrad to enrichen randomly-selected destitute & honest (the movie isn’t necessarily saying he’s destitute because he’s honest) lawyer Max (Herbert Marshall, star of Trouble In Paradise). She then tries to carry on a relationship with Max while pretending to Konrad that they’re married, all under the watchful eyes of Detlaff.

Wikipedia: “In particular, Sturges added a movie-within-the-movie in which the actors communicate in one-syllable sentences.” Beulah Bondi of the Sturges-written Remember the Night plays the orphanarian, and the musical remake I’ll Be Yours a decade later featured Sturges regular Franklin Pangborn.

We also rewatched the Sturges-written Remember The Night for Christmas.

Len Lye

Shorts! I have discs and discs of shorts and rarely watch them. I’m awfully excited about the new blu-ray of avant-garde shorts from Flicker Alley, but how can I justify buying it when I’ve got a hundred shorts collections just sitting around unseen? Let’s watch some, shall we?

Doodlin’: Impressions of Len Lye (1987, Keith Griffiths)

Lye was a New Zealander who could’ve inspired Colin McKenzie through innovation and ambition. When standard animation techniques were too laborious and expensive, he started scratching and drawing directly onto film stock… and when film itself was too expensive he turned to sculpture – but kinetic sculpture, truly gigantic metal works, some of which he filmed. He’s designed a twisted metal “temple” which hasn’t yet been built.

Len demonstrates one of his metal works:

Lye lived in a lighthouse – flashbacks to Brand Upon the Brain – and moved to Samoa for a couple years, concentrated on “old brain” tribal art, wanting to reject Western art styles and doodle from the subconscious (see: Tusalava). Handmade films and unconscious creativity – of course Brakhage was a fan. After WWII, Lye was a director for the March of Time news series while working on silhouette photography.

I’d previously watched Tusalava at home, Kaleidoscope and Colour Flight at a Canyon Cinema screening, and Free Radicals and Rainbow Dance within the documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film. Here are some more I’ve been able to find. Quotations are by Lye biographer Roger Horrocks.

Birth of the Robot (1936)

The documentary didn’t even go into Lye’s stop-motion work. This combines character stop-motion with an abstract sequence. I believe a female robot sends raindrops made of music to turn a man who died driving his car in a sandstorm into a male robot. At the end it’s revealed to be an ad for an oil company, but who cares. “Lye enlisted the help of avant-garde friends such as Humphrey Jennings and John Banting to make the amusing puppets.”

Trade Tattoo (1937)

Musical montage of work in factories and docks and markets, exploding in shifting patterns with wild colors. I guess it was meant to be an ad for the postal service, or maybe a PSA telling you to post letters before 2pm. Partly composed of Night Mail outtakes!

A Colour Box (1935)

Color is less brilliant now that we’re down to standard-def, but this Re:Voir DVD still looks super nice. Abstract lines and patterns run down a film strip to bouncy music. I don’t think he edits to the music, just creates fast visuals then adds something upbeat on the soundtrack. Another postal service ad at the end, meaningless numbers (6 lbs. 9d.). “Lye’s first direct film, which combines popular Cuban dance music with hand-painted abstract designs, amazed cinema audiences. Color was still a novelty, and Lye’s direct painting on celluloid creates exceptionally vibrant effects … in Venice, the Fascists disrupted screenings because they saw the film as ‘degenerate’ modern art.”

Kaleidoscope (1935)

Watched this one before, an ad for cigarettes. Although the films have titles and credits, and the bulk of them is just music and animation with the product placement coming in at the end, so it’s more fair to say they’re sponsored shorts than advertisements. More white space in this one, with clearly defined shapes.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

Boldly colored silhouette mattes as a musician/sportsman whirls through changing backgrounds, leaving psychedelic trails behind him. An ad for savings accounts, obviously. “Lye filmed dancer Rupert Doone in black and white, then colored the footage during the development and printing of the film, adding stenciled patterns.” This is all making me itch for Jeff Scher / Norman McLaren retrospectives as well.

Colour Flight (1937)

More black in this one, a disturbingly pulsating smile behind wavy-line jail bars, then an eruption of dots and lines, some outer space imagery, and a last-minute ad for Imperial Airways (which was bought by British Airways in late 1939).

Swinging the Lambeth Walk (1940)

Okay, this one is synched to the music, wonderfully, with swinging soundwave lines and jellybean dots of color. I like that he uses filmstrip perforations to create patterns. Abrupt edits in the music, as he picks from multiple versions of the song. “For this film Lye did not have to include any advertising slogans; friends at the Tourist and Industrial Development Association, shocked to learn that Lye and his family had become destitute, arranged for TIDA to sponsor the film – to the horror of government bureaucrats who could not understand why a popular dance was being treated as a tourist attraction.”

Colour Cry (1952)

Something different, even more abstract and fuzzy, shadow images with bright, distorted colors, soundtracked by harmonica and yowling vocals. The doc says he used Man Ray’s techniques for this one, “using fabrics as stencils”.

Rhythm (1957)

Footage of an auto manufacturing plant, spastically edited to fit a musical rhythm. The doc mentioned that Lye had trouble with U.S. advertising companies. Chrysler paid for this short but wouldn’t use it because they apparently weren’t fond of the tribal drumming on the soundtrack.

Free Radicals (1958)

More African drumming. Scratched twisted lines rotating in 3D space. Funny that after all the colors and manic patterns he came back to simple white figures on a black background. “The film won second prize in the International Experimental Film Competition, which was judged by Man Ray, Norman McLaren, Alexander Alexeiff and others at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.” Seen this a bunch of times on my laptop, and I’ll bet it’s awesome on a big screen. Hey Anthology Film Archives, ever think of opening a Nebraska location?

Particles in Space (1966)

Brakhage’s favorite. Plays like a sequel to Free Radicals, bringing some of the high-energy musical movement and complex patterns into its general design. Spots of white against an inky black, glistening like the ocean in moonlight. I think some of my listed release years are wrong – IMDB cannot be trusted.

Tal Farlow (1958)

Upbeat jazz guitar with synchronized white scratch lines which are definitely meant to evoke guitar strings. Finished by his assistant after Lye’s death in 1980.

I couldn’t find his “live-action film about the need to be careful in addressing letters,” or his first puppet film Peanut Vendor, or his war propaganda films. The new blu-ray mentioned at the top of this post includes Bells of Atlantis by Ian Hugo, which Lye worked on, so I’ll be watching that soon.

Blackhat (2015, Michael Mann)

I’m not one of those hardcore action auteurists who claims Paul W.S. Anderson is the best Anderson, Tony Scott is the best Scott, or the latest Universal Soldier sequels are masterpieces. But when it comes to Michael Mann, jeez… he can make a farfetched movie full of generic action elements where Thor plays a computer hacker and it still comes out great. This movie’s trailer make it look ridiculous. There’s no way to convince any right-thinking person that Blackhat (or Miami Vice) is a good movie based on plot description. But to see it in motion is a whole different thing. It’s one thing to talk tech about framing and light and editing, it’s another to experience it in a work of art – from Jauja on one side to Blackhat on the other. I’m not saying it’s my favorite movie (made the bottom rung of my top 30 of the year), just want to emphasize that it’s a very good, an impressive work, not to be confused with your standard fun action flick like Mission: Impossible 5.

Sloppy code:

Thor is assisted by old friend Dawai (Leehom Wang), and falls for the friend’s network-engineer sister Lien (Wei Tang: Leehom’s Lust, Caution costar, also in this year’s Office). Viola Davis is another ally, and the under-armed Thor will need all of those he can get against a militarized terrorist hacker whose goal turns out to be personal enrichment, not state or religious warfare. The movie got me rooting for the U.S. government agencies with unlimited resources, but of course cyber-criminal Thor is no gov’t puppet and escapes them at the end. Meanwhile, Mann out-Finchers Fincher, the camera zooming inside a computer from ethernet to transistors.

Keyboard from underneath:

J. Cataldo for Slant:

Hemsworth is never entirely convincing as imprisoned genius hacker Nicholas Hathaway, but he does work fabulously as a chunk of human marble, hurtled through a series of inventively shot, fluidly frenetic set pieces … Mann expands on the woozy handheld work that made Collateral and Miami Vice so tactile and entrancing, his camera collapsing the spaces between bodies and objects without sacrificing spatial coherence, creating an artfully abstract collective muddle as neatly structured systems collapse into one another.

Adam Cook for Mubi:

The results are far from what one would call traditional realism. Instead, what we have is a sensory realism that wants you to know how guns fire bullets, and what it feels like when they do, and the means to do so are impressionistic, unusual, and embrace both the advantages of digital technology and its “flawed” properties that can render individual images strange, pixelated, and alien … Locating the evolution of this digital language as solely something within the art/artist is reductive: the world has changed, is changing, and Mann isn’t just using the latest tools for kicks, but is implicitly keeping up with our relationship to the world, which retains the same dramas, tragedies, and dilemmas, yet shifts in its forms and manifestations.

As usual, Cinema Scope’s take is the best, but unusually it’s because Adam Nayman doesn’t take sides. From an I.T. point of view, the only time I called total bullshit was when the whitehat hax0rz showed up in person to a bank and stole all the money by gaining access to the front-desk receptionist’s computer.