The Present (2014)

2016 #114
Jacob Frey | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Germany / English

The PresentA short film about a boy and his dog, The Present was a graduation short for the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (yeah, I copy & pasted that), which has since won more than 50 awards after playing at film festivals around the world. Reportedly it also single-handedly landed its animator/director a job at Disney — he went on to work on Zootopiatropolis.

The simple story sees a videogame-obsessed boy given a mysterious box by his mother. Distracted long enough to open it, inside he finds a puppy, and… well, the film’s only four minutes long — you’re better off watching it than having me describe the story.

Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a sucker for cute dogs nowadays, be they real or animated — I gave Disney short Feast a full five stars last year. If you enjoyed that, then I’m certain you’ll like The Present too. There are other similarities: it’s about a guy bonding with his dog; it’s told in near-silence, with the big emotional reveals left for you to pick up through the pictures rather than explanatory dialogue; and it certainly tugs on the heartstrings to a similar degree.

In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say The Present may even be the better of the two — though it’s a close call.

5 out of 5

You can watch The Present free on Vimeo.

P.S. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.

Come Together (2016)

2016 #185a
Wes Anderson | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Come TogetherChristmas adverts are all the rage these days, thanks to the likes of John Lewis and their beautifully affecting tributes to the holiday season / twee pieces of emotionally manipulative crap (delete as appropriate). This year clothes retailer H&M got in on the act by hiring everyone’s favourite go-to example of an idiosyncratically quirky director, Wes Anderson, to helm a short film-cum-advertisement — the first part of that equation being why I’m reviewing it here.

For me, Anderson pitches the tone just right. Rather than making a four-minute festival of sappiness that rots your brain with its generic sugary sentiment, or a music video for a slow breathy cover of a once-famous song, or a long build-up to a cheap punchline, Anderson instead brings his own familiar style to a brief narrative that comes to a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion. In the process, he’s made an advert that doesn’t feel like an advert — another reason to factor it in here.

I suppose for that same reason it almost fails — I’m no more or less likely to shop at H&M than I was before (in truth, I had to even double check they were a clothes retailer) — but as brand awareness goes, well, it doesn’t make me want to kick their teeth in until they go away and never bother me with one of their stupid adverts every again. Suck on that, John Lewis.

4 out of 5

Come Together can be watched on YouTube here.

The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)

2016 #159
Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*

The Quay Brothers in 35mmChristopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”

Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)

Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.

In AbsentiaFor all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.

Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…

The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, The CombMichael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.

Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.

It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is Street of Crocodilessometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.

Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.

4 out of 5

The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.

Further Reading

* Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^

Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

2016 #107a
Marv Newland | 2 mins | streaming | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

At the risk of my blog becoming some kind of film-watching Inception, with a host of viewing goals within viewing goals (the titular one; “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” / Blindspot; all those ones I mentioned in my review of Home on the Range), here’s something new I’m setting out to do (in a vague, loose, ‘will get there one day’ kind of way):

Regular readers will surely remember iCheckMovies, the movie list website where you can check off films you’ve watched and see how many you’ve seen on particular lists, like the IMDb Top 250, or They Shoot Pictures’ 1,000 Greatest, or 179 other ‘official’ lists (or 8,603 user-added ones — seriously). Obviously you can use this as an empty-headed list-completing exercise (and some people do), but it’s also a way to motivate watching well-regarded movies, and to discover new ones.

(What does this have to do with Disney’s dear deer meeting Tokyo’s greatest monster? I’m getting to that.)

There are several lists in particular I have my eye on, for one reason or another. Getting around to some more films on those lists was part of the motivation behind my selections for this year’s WDYMYHS, for example (most of the motivation, if I remember rightly). However, even while I’m a decent way through completing some lists, I happened to notice last night that there are a handful of those 181 official lists on which I have precisely zero checks. 26, to be precise, which in some ways sounds like a lot, but in others is only 14%. Naturally, this inspired one particular thought: to endeavour to get at least one check on every single list.

(The bereaved fawn and gigantic lizard are coming up imminently.)

There are pretty obvious reasons why I’ve never seen any films on many of those lists — quite a lot are country or continent specific, and as Western film viewers we’re notoriously poor at having seen movies from, say, Africa. The lack of acclaimed films I’ve seen from the likes of Belgium, Finland, Holland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, and Spain is my own fault though, I guess. Anyway, this is something I intend to rectify in the coming days / weeks / months / years / decades — however obscure some of my missing lists may seem, there’s at least one film I’ve heard of on all but one or two of them, so there’s that.

Anyway, I started with the easiest list of all lists: Best Cartoons Ever – A Gift List From Jerry Beck. This list contains “the 50 greatest cartoons of all time, from a poll of 1,000 animation professionals conducted by author/film historian Jerry Beck for the 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.” There’s all sorts of famous stuff on there, from 1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, to Mickey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie, to acclaimed classics that appear on multiple other lists, like Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? But I started with possibly the shortest of the lot: 92-second one-gag short Bambi Meets Godzilla.

I say “one-gag” — there’s one headline gag, but I’d argue there are at least five jokes slipped into the film’s minute-and-a-half running time. Describing the ‘plot’ would be pointless, especially when it would be almost as quick for you to watch it yourself on YouTube; or, if you really want, a couple of years back a fan restored/remade it in 4K with 5.1 surround sound (seriously), which you can watch here. It loses a lot of its charm in that form, if you ask me. Either way, there are less amusing ways to spend 90 seconds of your time.

Why is this film notable? In fact, is it notable? Well, it was voted in to The 50 Greatest Cartoons by some of 1,000 animation professionals, so there’s clearly something there. It was created by animator Marv Newland while he was a film student in L.A., after a live-action project he’d been planning to submit was scuppered (according to Wikipedia, uncited, that was due to the loss of “an essential magic hour shot”). Newland created the short animated gag in his room and submitted that instead. It’s a pretty straightforward piece of animation — black-and-white line drawings, some text, few moving elements — with a couple of music tracks on top (Call to the Dairy Cows from Rossini’s William Tell, which you might not know by name but will certainly recognise, and the final chord from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life).

Maybe it’s the subversiveness that makes it significant? It comes from an era when that must have been a factor, surely — there’s a certain Monty Python-ness to it, and it was made the same year Flying Circus first aired. Perhaps it just has some familiarity — I’ve seen comments by people saying it was regularly screened at sci-fi conventions throughout the ’70s, and it was attached to film prints and VHS releases of Godzilla 1985. There are even two sequels, Son of Bambi Meets Godzilla and Bambi’s Revenge, which weren’t made by Newland and are apparently hard to come by. I suppose Beck’s book must explain its inclusion, but if anyone has a copy of that to hand then they’ve not bothered to quote its entry online.

Anyway, for what it is it’s very effective, but it is slight, so I shall give it:

3 out of 5

An inside out pair of shorts

Pixar’s latest opus, Inside Out, was naturally accompanied by a short film in cinemas. On Blu-ray (out today in the UK), it’s accompanied by two. These are they, reviewed in nice quick drabbles.


Riley’s First Date?
2015 #179a
Josh Cooley | 5 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

In this ‘sequel’ to Inside Out, Riley is going to hang out with a friend… who turns out to be a boy, which sends her mum and dad — and their anthropomorphised emotions — into paroxysms of worry. Is this the 12-year-old’s first date?

The straightforward story is built on clichés of male and female parental reactions to their kid growing up and encountering the opposite sex (mum tries to be cool, dad gets protective), but then it’s only got four minutes so needs that shorthand. Nonetheless, it manages roughly as many laughs as the feature, even if they are easy targets.

4 out of 5


Lava
2015 #179b
James Ford Murphy | 7 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

The short that accompanied Inside Out in cinemas is essentially a music video for a folksy ballad about a pair of volcanoes who are in ‘lava’ (read: love) with each other.

It’s quite beautifully animated, with realistic CGI (apart from, you know, singing volcanoes) that eschews stylisation without giving in to the urge to shallowly emphasise its photorealism, but other than that I didn’t much care for it. The story and song — inspired by an underwater volcano that will one day merge with Hawaii — are a little too twee. It’s not really sweet, nor sickly, just kind of uninspiringly quaint.

3 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

A pair of shorts for summer ³

Time flies: it’s five years since I last did a “pair of shorts for summer” post. But these things linger long in my memory, and so the series (I say “series” — I did two) is revived this year… but only with reposts.

So, we have the two previous “pair of shorts for summer” posts (a pair of pairs!), and the final two archive repost shorts (a new old pair! Or something.) Or, in its own way, 2x2x2 — 2³! I do think these things through y’know (well, sort of).

OK, I agree it’s not really worth getting excited over. But several of the shorts featured are actually very good, so there’s that.

Feast (2014)

2015 #28a
Patrick Osborne | 6 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

FeastThis year’s Best Animated Short Oscar winner is a charming little tale of a dog and his owner. I absolutely adored it, though there’s little doubt that it was helped to victory by being produced by Disney and released theatrically alongside Best Animated Film winner Big Hero 6. I haven’t seen any of the other shorts nominees, but you only have to look at clips of The Bigger Picture and learn a little about how it was made to see that it’s a monumental technical achievement, if nothing else. But I’ve not seen it, so perhaps a nomination was reward enough.

Anyway, Feast is the (mostly-)silent story of a stray dog and his adoptive owner, told from the dog’s point of view through their shared meals. The little dog is the man’s faithful companion, particularly for all the wondrous food he provides, but when the man finds love, will our little canine hero be subjected to healthy food for the rest of his life?

Essentially one long montage, Feast is the very model of economical storytelling. With nary a word of dialogue — certainly, none that drive the plot — we quickly learn everything we need to know, see everything the characters are thinking, and follow their decisions and motivations. It’s obviously a slight tale — it’s only six minutes long — But it's empty!but nonetheless packs an emotional punch. Viewers have been known to shed a little tear (though fear not, dear reader: it doesn’t come via a Marley & Me-type ending).

Whether Feast is the greatest or most groundbreaking short on this year’s ballot, I wouldn’t like to say. It is, however, a lovely rendering of a beautiful little story about, truly, man’s best friend.

5 out of 5

Feast is available on the Blu-ray (and DVD, I guess) release of Big Hero 6, out in the UK today.

Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

2015 #26b
Steve Purcell | 21 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

Toy Story That Time ForgotThe second Toy Story TV special, and the fifth short adventure for the characters that perhaps should have had their last hurrah in the third feature film, is little more than a crushing disappointment.

When Woody, Buzz, and a selection of the now-extensive supporting cast are taken to a friend of Bonnie’s for a play date, they get lost in his toyroom and come across the Battlesaurs, a line of toys who — ignored by Bonnie’s friend, who does nought but play on a games console — have established a whole society, ignorant of the fact they’re plastic action figures.

Toy Story That Time Forgot manages the tricky feat of feeling both too rushed and too long. There’s no time for mystery or surprise as it hurtles through the plot — not that there’s too much of that, either. Half of it recycles Buzz’s arc from Toy Story 1 (he doesn’t know he’s a toy! Then he finds out, and he comes to love it!); the other half is a villain with what I think is an original idea (he’s delighted the kid doesn’t want to play with them because it means he can rule over the other toys), but isn’t given enough time to be developed.

It’s pretty obvious how all of this will play out, meaning that, even with a frantic pace, it feels like it takes too long to get through it. It doesn’t go anywhere much with the concept, so feels repetitive in the middle — Buzz and Woody are captured then set free three times. Three. If that time was spent building up the world or characters’ motivations, it’d be fine, but those elements are only seen in snatches, or raced past in single lines of exposition, with time instead devoted to adequate but uninspired action sequences.

Battlesaurs!The whole thing just feels undercooked. Apparently it took three years to make, with two of those dedicated to development. The Battlesaurs toy line was imagined in full, for example. There’s evidence of that on screen, but it’s just an impression that there’s a lot of background work we’re not getting to see. A TV special gives them limited time to explore the new world they’ve created, of course, but Toy Story of Terror used the time perfectly, almost feeling longer and more significant than it was. By contrast, Toy Story That Time Forgot feels short, wasteful, and insignificant.

3 out of 5

Tomorrow, Sky Movies Disney are airing the Toy Story trilogy and its two TV spin-offs on a loop from 6am until 2:40am.

Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King (2014)

2014 #70
Drew Pearce | 14 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

All Hail the KingPresently it looks as if Marvel’s burgeoning TV empire (as I write, seven distinct series are in the works) has taken over the kind of short-form storytelling that had previously been the preserve of these DVD/Blu-ray-debuting One-Shot short films; which, if true, will leave this as the last one. That’s a shame, both because they have such potential, and because I don’t think All Hail the King is a particular high.

Set sometime after the end of Iron Man 3, we catch up with ‘villain’ Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley) to see how his prison life is going. As you might imagine from the chosen lead character, it’s primarily a comedy. Kingsley is surprisingly adept at this humorous role, but it’s a little rehash-y of the main film’s greatest hit(s). The best bits are fan service: placation for vocal critics of how Shane Black’s movie treated one of Iron Man’s more iconic foes, and a witty closing cameo (after the one in Agent Carter, that looks to become a signature move of these shorts).

As an entertaining and brief diversion, All Hail the King is fine if you have access to it, but not particularly worth seeking out. I doubt we’ll be getting a spin-off TV series this time.

3 out of 5

All Hail the King is available on the Blu-ray release of Thor: The Dark World.