Anomalisa


Running down the shining halls.

Running down the shining halls.

(2015) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

2016 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Animated Feature
WINS – Pending

Oscar Gold 2016

The world can be an impersonal place. Sometimes we seem to just be going through the motions, surrounded by automatons who are doing the same. Particularly when we’re lonely, we can feel isolated and unappreciated; we might reach out but sometimes we wonder what the point of another unfeeling sexual encounter, another meaningless friendship with vapid people who don’t do anything to arouse any sort of passion in us, might be.

Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a published author specializing in improving customer service. He has a young son and a wife in Los Angeles. He’s successful. A lot of people would consider his situation to be a successful life, but Michael feels far from successful. He’s alone in a crowd; his marriage has hit a rough patch and as he jets to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement, he decides to reach out to an ex-lover and see if she wants to hook up for the evening.

That goes predictably badly; their break-up had been not one of Michael’s shining moments and she’s still a bit bitter about it to say the least. It leads to an unpleasant scene in the hotel bar. Depressed, Michael heads back to his room but in the elevator he meets a pair of girls who are attending his speaking engagement; one, Lisa (Leigh) gets his attention.

That’s because to Michael’s eye, everyone looks the same, sounds the same, says the same things as one another. The world is a dull, dull place for Michael and Lisa is immediately like a breath of fresh air. She’s an anomaly in his life and he begins referring to her as “Anomalisa.”  Even though she lacks self-confidence and doesn’t think she’s particularly pretty or attractive, she welcomes his attention and the two end up in bed.

But Michael is not altogether well and his affliction threatens to pull him and Lisa apart. Is Michael doomed to lead a mundane life of emptiness? Or will he find something that at last, makes him feel alive again?

Kaufman, one of the quirkiest writers in the business, utilizes stop-motion animator Johnson to tell a story which absolutely suits the medium to a “T.” There is a Kafka-esque quality to the movie which can be unexpectedly humorous and occasionally surreal. When we saw the previews for this, Da Queen noted the line on the face of Michael that seems to go around his face; there is a reason for it that will become clear during one of the more funny scenes involving the hotel manager’s subterranean office and a much larger secretarial pool than any hotel manager in history ever had.

Thewlis has one of those distinctive voices, gravelly and British but with a sardonic twinkle in it. He captures Michael’s loneliness but also his narcissism well. Michael isn’t the nicest of protagonists; you get the sense that there is a reason that people don’t respond to him well and yet there is a humanity to him that manages to bleed through the puppetry (more on that in a moment). However, it’s hard to get too attached to someone who performs serial infidelity.

Leigh brings a very vulnerable quality to Lisa; at one point, she sings a version of Cyndi Lauper’s classic hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that is haunting and effective. You wouldn’t call her sexy but there is a kind of sensuality about her; you can see Michael’s attraction to her but she’s a bit on the mousy side. In other words, she’s the perfect foil.

The only other voice heard in the movie belongs to Tom Noonan. He supplies the voices to every other character, male and female. His performance is the most brilliant of all, managing to give a certain amount of individuality to each character while making them sound the same enough to fuel Michael’s strange perception. There is something a little scary about the sameness of everyone here, like something out of The Twilight Zone. The mundanity of Michael’s life fuels the whole story; Kaufman seems to be saying that safety and security is a prison of its own, something I certainly can see.

Where the movie goes wrong is that it gets too mundane sometimes; the movie drags a bit in the middle third and at times seems to be wandering aimlessly in a plot that seems to go places at random. There are some fairly funny moments and certain scenes seem to be added on just to add to the comedy that doesn’t feel like they belong in the narrative. That might well be intentional, but at least for me it didn’t work.

This isn’t for the kids so despite this being an animated feature, do leave them at home; there is a sex scene that is fairly graphic and intense, a scene of Puppet-lingus that may be difficult to wipe from your memory even if you try. Brain bleach is awfully expensive these days, after all. Still, there is enough here that is thoughtful to warrant a look, if nothing else to provoke some stimulating conversation, something ironically Michael doesn’t have enough of. If you’re looking for something to take you out of the ho-hum of life, this is it.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly human. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally confusing. A bit sloggy around the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult sexuality, graphic nudity and strong language. Definitely not for the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Tail Job

The Ides of March


The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling tries to remember his line.

(2011) Political Drama (Columbia) Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei, Max Minghella, Evan Rachel Wood, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin, Michael Mantell, Charlie Rose. Directed by George Clooney

Politics make strange bedfellows for just about anything. Few human endeavors employ more of the worst elements of human nature while trying to appeal to the best. It is a machine that chews up and spits out those who don’t have the stomach for being an absolute prick.

Stephen Meyers (Gosling) hasn’t been chewed up or spit out – and he’s as good a media relations specialist as there is in the business. He’s been on plenty of campaigns in his time but none have captured him like the Presidential campaign of Democratic hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney), governor of the great state of Pennsylvania.

They are in the midst of the Ohio primaries and coming down to the wire. The Democratic nomination hangs in the balance and so far, Morris is leading Senator Pullman (Mantell) by a slight margin. Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Hoffman) is romancing Senator Thompson (Wright) who has over three hundred delegates that will all but assure the nomination. Reporter Ida Horowicz (Tomei) is leaning on Stephen for a story but he doesn’t have one to give her – yet.

Then Stephen gets a phone call from Tom Duffy (Giamatti), the campaign manager for Pullman. Duffy wants Stephen to jump ship and even lets him know that Pullman has Thompson in his camp after promising Thompson the secretary of state position in the new administration. Furthermore, Duffy is trying to get Republicans and Independents to vote for Pullman in the open primary election since the general political trend is that the Republicans have a better chance against Pullman than they do against Morris.

Stephen is distraught but he chooses not to tell Paul at first. When he does, the crap hits the fan. Suddenly the campaign is in the middle of a dogfight and they might not necessarily be the stronger dog in the fight. An attractive young campaign worker, Molly Stearns (Wood) who is also the daughter of the bulldog-like Democratic National Committee chairman (Itzin) may prove to be the key that will either save Morris’ presidential chances – or destroy them.

Clooney, who has several really fine directing jobs under his belt, adds another one here. Based on the stage play “Farragut North” by Beau Wilimon (which in itself was loosely based on the author’s experiences in the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean), the movie has a sense of realism. All the dirty tricks, all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, that fits in with the perception of most people as to what really goes on in a major campaign.

Gosling has had quite a year with appearances in Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love and giving fine performances in both. He is to my mind a star who has shown potential for years (he already has one Oscar nomination under his belt) and has finally arrived as a legitimate star. He hasn’t shown any desire to headline a big franchise-type film, preferring lesser-budgeted dramas and comedies to ply his trade in, but I don’t doubt he could do that and just as well as anybody.

Hoffman and Giamatti are two of the best actors in the business and they play disparate sides of the same coin; one a shark, willing to do anything to win and the other valuing loyalty above all else maybe to his own detriment. Clooney has a supporting role here (as he did in Good Night and Good Luck) but it’s a memorable one. Like Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlett, one wishes there was a candidate out there like Mike Morris. Clooney brings him to life and, surprisingly, gives him a bit of a dark side.

While I found the character a bit more naive than you’d think a media relations manager in a major presidential campaign would be, my main beef with the film is the pacing seems a bit lax. The movie unfolds in an almost nonchalant manner which can be frustrating at times.

There are those who are going to have problems with The Ides of March because those who might have conservative political beliefs may find the depiction of the Democrats as disturbing, even though they are shown to be corrupt in the end. There are others who are going to be a bit put off as well because this is a pretty smart motion picture which requires at least a little bit of intellectual commitment. Those looking to lose themselves in a mindless haze are probably better served to look elsewhere.

REASONS TO GO: Nice thinking person’s political drama with a good sense of realism as to how the political process works. Terrific performances by the ensemble.

REASONS TO STAY: Unfolds at a rather slow pace. Might require too much thought for some. Although it does portray the liberal Democrats as corrupt, Conservatives might not like this either.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the campaign office are posters of Governor Morris that are much like the iconic Hope posters for the Obama campaign created by street artist Shepard Fairey. In fact, the original photo that the Obama posters were based on were of Obama listening to George Clooney speak at a 2006 press conference.

HOME OR THEATER: You won’t lose anything by waiting for it to come out on home video.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw VI

The Great Buck Howard


The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Skyline

The Open Road


The Open Road

Jeff Bridges wondering when his flight leaves.

(Anchor Bay) Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake, Kate Mara, Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton, Lyle Lovett, Ted Danson, Bret Saberhagen. Directed by Michael Meredith

The gulf between fathers and sons can be wider than the Gulf of Mexico and many times deeper. We can reach out to one another but in the end, sometimes there are no bridging gaps when all you have to work with is smoke and mirrors.

Carlton Garrett (Timberlake) is a minor league baseball player for the Corpus Christi Hooks. He’s fairly talented but of late he has been in a tremendous slump and his hopes for a major league career are fading by the minute.

Carlton has a lot more on his shoulders than the average minor league ballplayer though. His father is the great Kyle Garrett (Bridges), Hall of Famer for the Houston Astros, who not so coincidentally own Carlton’s contract. However, Carlton hasn’t spoken to his father in eons. Dad loves to tell stories of the good old days, especially when he’s drinking which is most of the time. While Kyle was hitting homers and getting plastered in anonymous bars all over the National League, Carlton was learning what it was like to grow up without a dad.

Carlton’s mom Katherine (Steenburgen) is also very sick and her condition is getting worse. She desperately needs surgery to fix her heart, but she is hedging a little bit. The surgery is extremely dangerous and she doesn’t want to go under the knife without seeing Carlton’s dad. Carlton is extremely reluctant to do it but he knows his mom might die if he doesn’t. He enlists the support of on-again off-again girlfriend Lucy (Mara) to come with him.

So Carlton tracks down his father at a baseball memorabilia show in Cincinnati and at first jovial dad is all for flying down to Houston, but the flight winds up being canceled and so determined to get his reluctant dad down to Houston as soon as humanly possible, Carlton rents a red SUV and proceeds to drive down there.

Along the way many unresolved grievances will be aired, not just between Carlton and Kyle but also between Carlton and Lucy. However, Carlton’s frustration is going as Kyle does everything he can – in a sort of passive-aggressive manner – to sabotage Carlton’s efforts to get him to Cincinnati. Kyle, you see, has issues of his own.

This is a movie that takes it’s time getting to where it’s going. One wag said after seeing it that he could have driven to Houston from there in the time the movie took to get to Memphis. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but I can understand the sentiment. In that sense, it’s almost a European film only in an all-American framework. The issues, however, are universal – America doesn’t own a monopoly on dysfunctional father-son relationships.

Meredith put together a pretty terrific cast which largely doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Bridges, who filmed this before his Oscar win for Crazy Heart, is terrific as he usually is in the role of the charming but ultimately shallow Kyle. This is the kind of role he could easily do in his sleep but he chooses not to, giving the role his full attention and that just about single-handedly elevates the movie above mediocre.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have any support. Steenburgen is endearing as always and Danson, Stanton and Lovett have too-brief cameos. Timberlake isn’t a bad actor, but he is nowhere near the level of Bridges and it shows. Mara is a gamer in her own right, but once again she is overwhelmed by Bridges’ performance.

This isn’t a rotten movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes a good deal of focus to stay with. Once the actual road trip begins things pick up a little bit but ultimately this is a movie about three people in a car for whom awkward silences are a bit of a blessing.

WHY RENT THIS: Bridges is delightful as always. Supporting cast does solid work, although frankly not up to the level of their best performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key that it’s almost sleepwalking.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language but probably no worse than you’ll hear in the average high school lunchroom…or even middle school gymnasium.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Michael Meredith, the son of former Dallas Cowboys great and Monday Night Football color commentator Dandy Don Meredith, is a frequent collaborator of the German director Wim Wenders.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Amusement


Amusement

Jessica Lucas hear's her master's voice.

(Picturehouse) Keir O’Donnell, Katheryn Winnick, Laura Breckinridge, Jessica Lucas, Tad Hilgenbrinck, Reid Scott, Rena Owen, Kevin Gage. Directed by John Simpson

When a movie, which has been marketed for a theatrical release complete with release date and trailer, goes direct to video, there’s usually a reason. Sometimes it’s because the distributor goes belly-up, but mostly it’s because the movie is really bad. This is particularly true in the horror genre.

Shelby (Breckinridge) is returning home to Cincinnati with her boyfriend Rob (Hilgenbrinck) who has an inexplicable love of driving in convoys. After she bitches to him about driving too fast, they wind up filling up at a gas station with a guy who has been convoy-ing with them for several miles (O’Donnell) and a friendly trucker. The trucker tells them he heard on his CB that the Interstate was a parking lot and that the smokies were out in force laying bear traps, ten-four.

So of course they wind up driving down this deserted road in the middle of nowhere because those kinds of roads are always the alternative to Interstates and Shelby is nervous because she’s sure she saw a terrified woman in the cab of the truck. Rob is skeptical right up to the point where the terrified woman becomes a projectile that goes straight into his windshield. The other convoy guy and Rob try to find out what’s up with the trucker except of course the trucker kidnaps both the girls and Rob and the convoy guy have to rescue them…except we find out that the convoy guy is the real maniac. Jokes on you, Rob.

Tabitha (Winnick) is babysitting the unholy terrors that are her cousins at the spiffy new digs of her aunt. Everything is mostly okay except that her aunt has a thing for clowns and there are dozens of clown dolls everywhere, including a life-sized creepy clown that sits in a rocking chair and stares at Tabitha, particularly when she gets naked (why is it that none of my babysitters ever got naked?) or takes a nap. When her aunt calls to check up on the kids, it turns out that Auntie Clownlover has no life-sized clowns in the house. It turns out that Soylent Green….is peeeeeeeeeopullllllll or at least life-sized clown dolls are people. Either way you slice it, it’s bad for Tabitha, particularly since the guy in the clown suit is the same guy who went all convoy on Shelby and Rob.

Finally, there’s Lisa (Lucas) whose roommate has disappeared with a guy who apparently is staying in a hotel on the edge of town. Worrywart Lisa sends her boyfriend Dan (Scott) in to investigate and he winds up having a close encounter with a Victorola that has a very nasty speaker system. In the meantime, Lisa waits two hours and rather than call the police, decides to go into the spooky hotel where nobody has emerged from since she started watching it and find out for herself what’s going on. It’s brain-dead thinking like that which keeps the horror film industry alive.

Of course, by now you know that the guy in the hotel is the same guy who kidnapped Shelby and Tabitha…that’s right, kidnapped not murdered…and now they are trapped in his insane revenge game that goes back to some terrible event that happened in the fourth grade, which should teach you kids to be nice to everyone because you never know if they’ll grow up to be a homicidal maniac.

The problem here is that the script is just plain awful. Each of the three stories in this kinda sorta anthology has the exact same twist and by the third time around you’re finding much more interesting things by staring into the pattern on your Pepperoni Pizza than you are onscreen, which is quite a shame. Director Simpson actually has crafted a very good-looking movie with a competent cast that had they been given a better story to work with might have actually come up with a pretty darn good little horror movie. Unfortunately, there wasn’t, they didn’t and you shouldn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Very nice production values and the three leads are nice to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a mess; the three stories all have the same twist and quite frankly by the third time around there’s not a lot to hold our interest.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore per se, but there is a good deal of violence and bad language. Like most horror movies, mature teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was initially slated for wide release but when New Line shut down their Picturehouse division, it was left on the shelf for almost two years before being released on video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sugar