REVIEW: Anomalisa

13 01 2016

AnomalisaI have often thought of writing a screenplay, taking a Woody Allen-like approach of stashing all the ideas away in case one of them seems relevant or worth pursuing later. Different germs of ideas reach different stages of development, and often when I consider putting fingers to keyboard, my mind drifts to a Charlie Kaufman script. I think about a “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation” and wonder why bother writing when it would doubtfully reach the tremendous heights he scales.

Kaufman’s scripts possess levels of depth that might as well be subterranean. His genius of self-awareness and reflexivity consistently put other writers to shame. So I was taken aback when his latest effort, the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa,” marked something radically different. It was simple.

Most of the film’s complexity comes from the manipulation of the 3D-printed puppets, not from Kaufman’s script. “Anomalisa,” which he co-directed with Duke Johnson, tells a fairly conventional story of one man’s isolation and how an affectionate connection can melt the layers of ice around the heart. When stated as a logline like that, the premise sounds rather like a familiarly dull British dramedy. But Kaufman has a unique angle on it, one better left for each viewer to discover. Don’t read about it before, if at all possible.

Kaufman gradually reveals the central conceit that makes the film special, and then unleashes a tidal wave of sincerity and emotional honesty from lonely business lecturer Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) and Lisa Hesselman (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the woman whose voice penetrates his soul. The rapport they share feels so authentic, which causes some intentional cognitive dissonance as their bodies are not human.

But once Kaufman comes out in the open with the train of thought powering “Anomalisa,” fans of his work may wonder where the twist comes into play. For a subversive writer who nearly always delights in blowing up storytelling conventions, such a straightforward story with just one major revelation of authorial intent seems strange. Perhaps knowledge of his prior scripts even serves an impediment to fully experiencing “Anomalisa” as viewers would otherwise have no reason to doubt its earnestness and purity. The final product is truly sweet and fulfilling – though whether something this quaint really merited years of Kaufman’s attention is another subject altogether. B+3stars

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REVIEW: The Hateful Eight

9 01 2016

Snappy dialogue and intricately planned-out scenes put Quentin Tarantino on the map as a generation-defining talent, so it sure is nice to see him once again embracing that spirit in his eighth film, “The Hateful Eight.” After the bloated, mangled mess of “Django Unchained,” operating within his usual wheelhouse of tension ratcheting conversations and raucous bloodshed feels more welcome than usual.

In many ways, however, “The Hateful Eight” is somewhat of an anomaly in Tarantino’s canon. Sure, it bears the usual stamps of expressive language, scrambled chronology and unapologetic gore, but he appears to eschew his favored postmodern pastiche in favor of a more classical vibe.

This proclivity appears most obviously in his selection of music. Apart from “Kill Bill,” Tarantino has never commissioned a composer to score his films. Repurposing aural cues from other films or cultural products has served as a thread running throughout his filmography, reinforcing Tarantino’s DJ-like position as director. He blends, appropriates and remixes to unify and synthesize disparate styles and genres into something entirely new.

Tarantino does not abandon this approach completely in “The Hateful Eight,” although the majority of the sonic landscape in the film comes from a brand new Ennio Morricone score. The very musician whose compositions Tarantino has deployed to great effect in each of his films made this millennia gets to express himself on his own terms. Morricone grants the production a heightened level of prestige and legitimacy with his participation, allowing it a certain measure of independence. “The Hateful Eight” does not rely on referencing other films to imbue the proceedings with meaning. Rather, Tarantino casts his gaze inwards toward the dark, beating heart of his own work.

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REVIEW: Welcome to Me

8 05 2015

Welcome to MeSeeing as how she got her start on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig is certainly no stranger to satire.  While her work on that topical comedy show often brilliantly pointed out human error and ridicule, most of it pales in comparison to her scathingly incisive new film, “Welcome to Me.”  Eliot Laurence’s script cuts deep to probe some of our society’s deepest insecurities and fears.

He pinpoints that these collective anxieties find assuaging in the self-help gospel preached by daytime talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey.  Take away the free car giveaways, though, and the program really just sold herself as a product.  (Who other than Oprah has ever graced the cover of O Magazine?)  “Welcome to Me” takes this narcissism to its logical extreme, following Wiig’s Alice Klieg as she uses her millions in lottery earnings to mount a show about her, for her.

Her talk show/broadcasted therapy session is not made by her, however.  To get on the air and look impressive, Alice requires the talents of producers at a local television studio.  At Live Alchemy, she finds the perfect blend of dead airspace, crushing company debt, and morally bankrupt executives willing to indulge her every desire.

Led by the slimily obsequious Rich (James Marsden), the station caters to each of Alice’s increasingly bizarre whims, even when they cross the line into literal slander and figurative self-flagellation.  It’s not hard to imagine similar board room meetings taking place at E! debating the Kardashian family.  Alice suffers from a clinically diagnosed personality disorder and manifest her symptoms rather clearly, yet no employee seems willing to protect her from herself so long as the checks keep cashing.  Consider it a less violent first cousin to “Nightcrawler” (or dare I even say, the golden goose that is “Network”).

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REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 22, 2015)

22 01 2015

The Sundance Film Festival arrives, like clockwork, at the beginning of each year to inject a fresh bit of hope into our outlook for the upcoming year in film.  While we tire of the year’s awards season crop, the system begins to harvest its plants to bloom over the months to come.  The festival is great at providing two specific kinds of films: discoveries of major new talents from completely out of the blue, and surprising indie turns from well-known stars.  (Without said talent, the films would never be able to receive any financing.)

“Kill Your Darlings” falls into the latter camp.  This 2013 film was a big step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career reinvention – or at least a full-fledged turn of the page – from only being recognized as Harry Potter.  He stars as a young Allen Ginsberg, far before “Howl” brought the beat poet into censorship as well as the national spotlight.

John Krokidas’ debut feature is so much more than just a showcase for Radcliffe’s talent, though.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it tells a compelling, human story that just happens to be about a renowned poet.  His script, co-written with Austin Bunn, never veers into the realm of becoming a portrait gallery for the nascent counterculture movement.  Sure, there are appearances by William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), but the script never loses sight of who they are as people.

“Kill Your Darlings” does not feel the need for reverence to the towering legacy of a figure, an advantage the film is able to possess in part because it takes place before Ginsberg and his pals went supernova.  The plot begins with a young Ginsberg entering Columbia in 1943, where he quickly bristles with the established order and the canonized poets.  Radcliffe’s performance teems with self-discovery and fully realizes the awakening of an artist; perhaps there is a meta connection responsible for

Yet Radcliffe is not even the movie’s scene-stealing performer.  That honor goes to Dane DeHaan, star of “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who has really begun to build a formidable résumé.  He plays livewire Lucien Carr, an obstreperous rebel.  He takes Ginsberg from a student merely curious about the iconoclasm of Walt Whitman into a full bohemian beatnik.  Lucien also lures him into a love triangle with an older outsider, Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer, that turns bloody and forces Ginsberg to make a tough ethical decision.

“Kill Your Darlings” is part biopic, part drama, part thriller, and part exploration of an artistic movement’s birth pangs.  All these elements cohere marvelously into one wholly satisfying film.  It is one heck of a debut for Krokidas, and it makes a great case for Radcliffe and DeHaan to receive some meaty roles in the feature.





REVIEW: Greenberg

17 01 2011

Noah Baumbach set the bar sky-high with his incredibly personal and deeply moving 2005 movie “The Squid and the Whale,” a very funny but very serious look at divorce from the perspective of the affected children.  Ever since then, he’s struggled to raise that bar.  It’s hard to live up to expectations when they are so big, and because comparison is inevitable, every Baumbach movie to follow his Oscar-nominated effort will have to live in its shadow.

Greenberg” isn’t terrible, but it’s a confused mixture of comedy and drama that strikes strange and unpleasant chords one too many times.  The movie emulates the mayhem of the mid-life crisis as 40-year-old Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) pathetically wanders through life without aim.  His brother tries to get him on track by letting Roger housesit while his family relocates to Vietnam to open a hotel, and the escapades that follow boil down to the misanthtropic Roger running in circles around his own neuroses.

He tries to make peace with his past, particularly an old love (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote the movie).  He tries experimenting with a relationship again, and it’s thankfully with someone off-color enough to tolerate his antics (Greta Gerwig in a charming breakout role).  He stupidly indulges in his own self-pity and self-centeredness.

Roger Greenberg is an unpredictable and volatile character that Ben Stiller plays with a fair amount of pathos and humor.  Yet there’s little development of the character and an even smaller arc, which could be the point.  Even with Stiller trying his best, he can’t keep “Greenberg” from being a barely likable movie about unlikable people.  Try again, Noah Baumbach.  C+