All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Gregory J. Smalley founded 366 Weird Movies in 2008 and has served as editor-in-chief since that time. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and his film writing has appeared online in Pop Matters and The Spool.

CAPSULE: STOPMOTION (2023)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aisling Franciosi, Caoilinn Springall, Tom York, Stella Gonet, Therica Wilson-Read

PLOT: Ella struggles to complete her famous stop-motion animator mother’s final work after the woman is hospitalized; she abandons that story and starts another when she meets a creepy little girl who invents a fairy tale about a mysterious man “no one wants to meet.”

Still from STOPMOTION (2023)

COMMENTS: The painstaking nature of stop-motion animation—move a puppet a fraction of a millimeter, snap a picture, repeat for an hour until you’ve animated a full second—means that the form is usually relegated to short films. Just ask or what it takes to animate a full-length feature without a million-dollar team of animators backing you. So it comes as little surprise that celebrated short film stop-animator Robert Morgan decided to craft his debut feature as a hybrid film, a mostly live-action story enveloping small snippets of his animated passion. The subject is, naturally, the making of a stop motion movie, and the focus is on the madness inherent in this most laborious and solitary of artistic pursuits.

The film begins in hybridized fashion, with protagonist Ella (a deranged-looking Franciosi) seen in the flicker of a multicolored party strobe—her facial expressions chopped up into stop-motiony frames. Ella is working on an animated feature about a cute fuzzy cyclops (who foresees his own death) for her ailing (and domineering) mother—the daughter supplies the hands, the mom the imagination. Mom, indeed, calls Ella “puppet” (not “poppet”). When Mom leaves the picture, though, Ella flounders, searching for inspiration, until the arrival of a brunette moppet who might be the spitting image of Ella at eleven. Nightmares and hallucinations ensue as Ella abandons the cyclops story and pursues a new one, with new materials and a growing unhealthy obsessiveness.

Morgan’s animations are obviously the highlight, and they disappoint only in their limited screen time. The girl morbidly encourages Ella to use meat, bone, and mortician’s wax to fashion new puppets, which look like the distressed, putrescent protagonists we’re familiar with from shorts like “Bobby Yeah.” The main puppet’s face is decorated with red blotches, like excema scratched raw, and the boogeyman is covered in bleeding sores and patchy hair. The sound design is oppressive, full of screeches, clanks, thumps, and heavy footsteps. A black, egglike blob and icky procreative imagery feature prominently in the second half. The animated segments, delivered via a fairy tale structure that requires increasingly dreadful visits over the course of three nights, scores a spooky vibe. The violent, gory finale highlights some squirmy visuals, but represents quite the tonal shift away from the dread-based horror of the earlier segments.

In his director’s statement Morgan describes Stopmotion as a “psychological piece in the vein of classic Lynch, or Cronenberg,” and the specific films he cites make it appear like he studied this site’s canon for inspiration: Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, Black Swan, Santa Sangre, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE. All of that places the film firmly in our circle of interest. But as a psychological horror, Stopmotion delivers on horror, while coming up a bit short on the psychology. It’s about the madness of creativity, and traffics in concepts like self-doubt, the mystery of inspiration, Eros overcome by Thanatos, and obsession. But, powerful as these themes are, they ultimately don’t synergize in an enticing way. Stopmotion doesn’t add anything new to the portrait of the artist traumatized by their own work; there is no meaty psychological hook for Ella to dangle from. It’s admittedly style over substance, but the surplus of style makes up for a shortfall in substance. Morgan still has room to grow, and if he puts it all together someday, he’s shown the promise to create a masterpiece.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a disappointing path, more than a bit dimestore Freud, hardly managing to reveal Ella’s fracturing psyche to us in convincing terms, and instead succeeding only in having us assume most of what we’re watching is simply Ella’s confused imagination. In the process, though, you do get a tantalizing primer in how modern stop-motion animation works, and how Morgan’s own physical process musters his greasy weirdness out of everyday substances.”–Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: OZMA (2023)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Keith John Adams

FEATURING: Ferdy Roberts, Victoria Moseley, Jun Noh, Gemma Saunders, Alice Margaroli, voice of Éva Magyar

PLOT: An insomniac widower spends the night toting around an on-the-run telepathic jellyfish creature.

Still from Ozma (2023)

COMMENTS: Jeff attributes his only slightly startled reaction to finding telepathic jellyfish Ozma abandoned in his garden to having been “well rehearsed” to accept strangeness through a lifetime of dreaming. If this film had been merely about that telepathic blob with the blinking lights and nothing else, he would have needed less rehearsal. But Ozma is entirely built on dream logic. There’s the pair of squabbling pursuers disguised as cops who use vegetables as truncheons. A woman who illustrates the story of the journey of Cleopatra’s Needle from Alexandria to London through very crude cutout animation. Rifles whose bullets have effects far from what we expect. And that’s not to mention the tiny touches, like Jeff’s unusually large bed.

And there’s one more weird thing. When Jeff begins his opening narration, he’s lying in bed, complaining of insomnia. A walking bass line accompanies his fretting, soon joined by the complaints of a muted trombone. It’s an effective accompaniment, but more noteworthy is the fact that we can see the bassist and trombonist, apparently vamping right there in Jeff’s bedroom as he tosses and turns. Throughout the movie, musicians show up in the frame with the characters, never acknowledged. The use of musicians onscreen—playing nondiegetic accompaniment, yet visible, like materialized ghosts—is unique. It’s a simple idea, but I can’t recall any movie that uses this technique in exactly this way, and none that’s so dedicated to the concept. And it’s a great idea, because the sounds here are outstanding—ranging from multiple jazz combos to a tabla, a dulcimer, and even more exotic instruments like the Ethiopian krar (harp) and the Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute).

It’s all pleasantly eccentric, which is much of the appeal. Ozma does, however, also explore a serious topic: the widower’s pathological, insomnia-inducing grief, which has mellowed from traumatic sadness into a permanent personality feature. Jeff’s entire story, frequently told in voiceover, is addressed to his absent wife. His journey to take the telepathic jellyfish to its appointed rendezvous reflects his adoption of a healthier relationship to his memories. Ozma is modest in means—in its household props and London public street locations, in Ferdy Roberts’s calm portrayal of Jeff, in its reliance on monochrome —but ambitious in its ideas. Ozma is musical, original and inventive: it’s not just the same old tired story about an insomniac toting a telepathic jellyfish around London.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a surreal mission… all at once city symphony, Egyptological noir, oneiric odyssey and heady tale of psychic healing,”–Anton Bitel, SciFiNow (festival screening)