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

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Mood Indigo


Audrey Tautou doesn't mind Roman Duris' extreme case of dandruff.

Audrey Tautou doesn’t mind Roman Duris’ extreme case of dandruff.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (Drafthouse) Audrey Tautou, Roman Duris, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat, Zinedine Soualem, Natacha Regnier, Marina Rozenman, Mathieu Paulus, Frederic Saurel, August Darnell, Wilfred Benaiche, Francis Van Litsenborgh. Directed by Michel Gondry

There are those film directors whose imaginations are so manic and so inventive that most of the rest of us can’t keep up. French visionary Michel Gondry, auteur of such films as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is one of those guys. Something like Terry Gilliam on an LSD trip, Gondry has employed a good deal of stop motion animation in his films and a kind of frenetic sense of humor that is sweet and avant garde all at once. Words don’t do his work justice; he speaks a language all his own and the only way to really understand what I’m talking about is to see one of his films, like his latest f’rinstance.

Colin (Duris) is a wealthy man who lives in a Parisian apartment that looks from the inside anyway as something of a railway car. His private chef Nicolas (Sy) is also his lawyer, a brilliant man who makes wonderful dishes that he sweeps into the garbage before Colin can finish eating them. Colin has created the “pianocktail,” a musical instrument in which the notes you play on the piano keyboard determine which liqueurs and mixers are being added into your cocktail.

With his best friend Chick (Elmaleh) having fallen in love with Alise (Maiga), who also turns out to be Nicolas’ niece, Colin realizes how alone he is and demands to fall in love. Nicolas suggests that he attend the party being thrown by Isis (Le Bon) which would necessitate that he learn a bizarre dance to a Duke Ellington song which has the odd effect of turning the legs of the dancer into elongated rubber limbs that allow the dancer to walk about like an art deco-era cartoon.

At the party Colin meets Chloe (Tautou), a waif-like girl who takes an instant liking to the tongue-tied and socially awkward Colin. The two go on several dates, most of which Colin is convinced that he’s messed up. Finally the two take a ride on a swan boat that is lifted by crane over the city and finally into a train tunnel where the two kiss. Six months later they are ready to be married.

It looks like life is going to be golden for Colin but in truth that is not the case. Chick is in desperate need of money so he can afford to marry Alise, and Colin is happy to lend it to him but instead Chick blows the not insubstantial gift on memorabilia related to his favorite writer, Jean-Sol Partre. Chloe gets a rare malady – a water lily is growing inside one of her lungs – and only being surrounded by fresh flowers can save her.

Based on a novel by beloved French novelist Boris Vian, this comes across as a cross between a romantic comedy, grand opera, French farce and a cartoon from the 1930s. Although the synopsis gives you an idea of the story, it can’t possibly prepare you for the visuals you’ll encounter, including an anthropomorphic mouse that lives with Colin and Nicolas, a doorbell that grows legs and skitters about the apartment until either Nicolas or Colin “kill” it and it returns to a docile state on the wall, an office full of writers who are writing the story as we go along on a conveyer belt full of typewriters like an assembly-line script (possibly a dig at what the movie writing process has become), a transparent limousine and a honeymoon in which it is always raining on Colin and the sun is shining on Chloe.

The imagery in fact can wear you down after awhile and given the fact that the American version is 30 minutes shorter than the French, one can only imagine how Americans would be unable to cope with those extra scenes. The humor is distinctly Gallic and can be deceptively subtle or unabashedly over-the-top.

Tautou, who is now and forever Amelie, is lovely here as the gamine Chloe. She is delightfully puckish and were she an American actress she’d be Greta Gerwig. However Gerwig doesn’t quite accomplish the innocent sheen that Tautou conveys so Tautou often comes off as child-like rather than childish. Duris, one of France’s biggest male stars, has an engaging grin and a gung ho “let the director throw whatever he wants at me, I’ll still be incredibly handsome” attitude.

Be warned that this is a bit darker in several senses as a film than Gondry’s other films have been. As Chloe gets sick, the colors begin to fade from the screen and the apartment is overrun with cobwebs, dust bunnies and decay. As the film reaches its end, the apartment gets almost no sunlight whatsoever. The sometimes silly humor is still in full force but it has a grim, gallows element to it that might be off-putting to those who have just managed to get used to the sunny, optimistic fun tone of the movie’s first half.

The imagery gets almost cloyingly cute at times and your capacity to absorb cuteness may well determine the level of enjoyment you have for the movie. Also I think that seeing the movie when you are able to give it your complete concentration is a plus, although here in Orlando it is playing only at the 10pm hour during its run here which may hurt the ability of older audience members (like myself) to enjoy it as fully as I might have.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly delightful images. Very inventive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly cutesy. Sometimes uses out there images for their own sake.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and partial nudity, mildly disturbing images and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer whom Chick is obsessed with, Jean-Sol Partre, is a spoonerism for the name of one of France’s most decorated philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Science of Sleep
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)


A Town Called Panic

Cowboy and Indians, Cats and Dogs…it’s all the same.

(2009) Animated Feature (Zeitgeist) Starring the voices of Stephane Aubier, Jeanne Balibar, Veronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Christelle Mahy, Vincent Patar, Franco Piscopo, Benoit Poelvoorde, Eric Muller. Directed by Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar

 

When you were a kid (at least if you’re my age or so), you probably spent hours, as I did, in your room playing with your plastic toys, assigning to them personalities and creating entire worlds for them to explore. You would move them around, create dialogue for them and sometimes build sets for them out of other toys, cardboard, shoeboxes, whatever you can find. Some of those playtimes were far more imaginative than anything you’d see on the Saturday morning cartoons.

The Belgian creators of A Town Called Panic realized this and decided to create a Saturday morning cartoon with the same imagination and low budget that they had as kids. Using only plastic toy figures and stop motion animation, they created a television series that was actually a series of five-minute vignettes strung out into half hour television shows. Now, they’re trying their hand at a feature film and it’s alternately charming and strange.

Cowboy (Aubier), Indian (Ellison) and Horse (Patar) live together in the small town where Panic is not just the name, it’s the attitude. Their neighbors are Steven (Poelvoorde) the Farmer and his wife Janine (Dumont) who makes her husband gigantic pieces of toast for breakfast. Horse has a thing for Madame Longree (Balibar), the equine music teacher in town.

With Horse’s birthday around the corner, Cowboy and Indian decide to build him a barbecue. They order 50 bricks over the Internet but due to a computer snafu, that order of 50 bricks becomes 50 million. Cowboy and Indian try to hide their error but the bricks eventually wind up destroying their house. Fortunately, they have enough bricks to rebuild.

But someone keeps stealing their bricks; pointy-headed creatures from the bottom of the sea who arrive through a hole in the ground. Horse, Indian and Cowboy head after them and wind up on a wacky trek to the North Pole (where they are attacked by mad scientists in a mechanical giant Penguin). In the meantime, the shy Horse has to keep giving excuses to Madam Longree why he has missed yet another music lesson.

Even the description here doesn’t do the movie justice; it’s like Gumby on acid. You’d think that a movie as zany as the one I’ve described would move at light speed but that’s not it at all; in fact, one of the main knocks against the movie that I’ve seen is that the pacing is too slow, even for a movie that is only 75 minutes long. Still, there is that out there humor that seems to appeal to Europeans more than all but a select American audience; it’s a bit sad that Americans can’t find the charm and humor as easily in a stop motion film of toys being manipulated as they do in a CGI film of toys being manipulated (i.e. Toy Story).

WHY RENT THIS: Wacky and surreal, will most likely appeal to adults more than children.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes over the top with it’s out of left field.

FAMILY VALUES: Very surreal which might be a bit much for kids but certainly acceptable in terms of violence, sexuality, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Town Called Panic was the first stop-motion animated feature to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is the winning entry of a fan video competition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196,176 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinski

Coraline


Coraline

Not every crawlspace should be explored.

(Focus) With the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr.. Directed by Henry Selick

Do our parents ever pay as much attention to us as we want them to? We get so wrapped up in providing the necessities we forget about the most basic necessity of all.

Coraline Jones (Fanning) is one pissed off little girl. Not only have her parents moved away from everything she knows and away from all her friends, they’ve moved into an apartment building in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and it always rains. Her mother (Hatcher) can’t cook to save her life, is irritable and always busy. Her father (Hodgman) works incessantly and has nothing resembling a backbone. The two bicker and sit hunched over computer screens, all but ignoring their daughter and not listening to a word she says.

For her part, Coraline is not exactly Pollyanna. She whines, complains and is somewhat mean to the only young man her age in the neighborhood, the awkward and ungainly Wyborne (Bailey) who hides his own loneliness with nervous chatter and prefers to be known as “Wybie”. Admonished to explore their strange, drafty old house, Coraline discovers a tiny door that has been covered with wallpaper. After coercing her mother to open the door with a skeleton key, Coraline is disappointed to find the doorway bricked over. It isn’t until darkness falls that the doorway opens into a parallel world that is strangely like her own…only better.

In this world, food tastes better, the garden is more colorful and life is just the way she wants it to be. Replacing her parents are two look-alikes who hang on her every word, give her everything they want and love her much more than her real parents ever have. There are wonderful things to do and Wybie cannot speak. This world is in every way better than the one she’s used to. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in the other world has buttons sown over their eye sockets – that and their constant wheedling for her to stay in this perfect world forever. Coraline soon learns that the most terrible trap is everything you’ve ever wanted.

Director Henry Selick is best known for directing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and while the styles are similar, they aren’t quite the same. This film is based on a Neil Gaiman story and the combination of Gaiman and Selick is a winner just as Burton and Selick were. The visuals here are inventive and memorable. As with his previous film, Selick works in the medium known as stop motion animation, in which actual live objects are manipulated frame by frame to give the illusion of movement and life.

While this is a great movie to look at, it might be a little bit too intense and too frightening for the smaller kids. While this is ostensibly an animated feature that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. Parents should think twice about whether they want their younger kids to view this.

That said, one of the drawbacks to the movie is Coraline herself. She is so nasty, so petulant and so self-pitying that you can’t help but feel that she deserves to find herself in an alternate dimension in terrible peril. It’s not that Fanning does a bad job voicing her; it’s just the character as written is pretty unlikable. That makes it difficult to really care what happens to her after awhile.

Still, although the movie overdoses on the eccentricity from time to time, it’s still so visually impressive and the story so clever you can forgive the occasional excesses and even the excesses of Coraline herself. While this is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale in the darkest sense of the genre, it retains a certain modern edge which gives it a distinct flair.

Coraline is a beautiful, strange movie that celebrates its own uniqueness and dares you to accept it as it is. It isn’t always easy to love, but love it you will. I know I did. The Academy did as well – it is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for next month’s Oscars, although it will have an uphill battle to beat Up. Still in all Coraline has all the goods, and as dark a fairy tale as it is, it’s still the kind that will bear repeated viewings.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly imaginative, this is a movie that rediscovers the painstaking art of stop motion animation and elevates it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little quirkiness goes a long way; a lot of quirkiness doesn’t. How can I root for a character I just want to shake some sense into?

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images may be a little too horrific for smaller kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest stop-motion movie ever made, and also the first one filmed entirely in 3D.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray uses the U-Control system to integrate features, animatics and commentary into the film, allowing viewers to get in-depth information about how difficult this film was to make. There’s also a brief 6-minute interview with author Neil Gaiman discussing the differences between the book and the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The White Ribbon

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Fox family portrait.

(Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Michael Gambon, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson

One thing is true of all of God’s critters, two-legged and four-legged alike and that is that we must all be true to our own natures. If that nature invites danger and disaster, can we but follow the path presented to us or can we diverge into safety and security?

Mr. Fox (Clooney) is a chicken thief, and like all successful thieves he survives by being quick-witted and adaptive. His wife Mrs. Fox (Streep) doesn’t really approve of his line of work, but when they nearly get caught she forces a promise from him that he will find a different career path. He chooses the one that may be of all jobs even less reputable than chicken thievery – journalism.

Years have gone by and Mr. Fox continues to live in poverty in a comfortable hole with his family. He has gone straight but only on the surface; in his heart he is a clever chicken thief liberating poultry from farmers who are unwise enough to allow them to be liberated. Despite his lack of financial wherewithal Mr. Fox decides to buy a home above ground in a beautiful tree overlooking the farms of the three men who control the valley they live in (and three of the meanest men you’ll ever meet). While Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Murray) cautions against it, Mr. Fox goes through with his plan to buy the house anyway even though it will put his family in the line of fire. That family is going through enough as it is with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson) which further antagonizes Mr. Fox’s teenage son Ash (Schwartzmann) who has a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.

In order to pay for his new mansion, Mr. Fox supplements his ink-stained wretch salary with a little thieving on the side, along with the help of his friend and general handy-man Kylie (Wolodarsky) who is prone to spacing out at odd intervals. This incurs the wrath of the farmers, led by the rail-thin chain smoker Mr. Bean (Gambon) who has nothing to do with the Rowan Atkinson character of the same name. They declare war on the fox responsible for the filching of their hard-earned wares, forcing the animals to tunnel for their lives. Can Mr. Fox devise a clever enough plan to save the animals and make everything fantastic again?

I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’ve always blown hot and cold when it comes to director Wes Anderson. While his best moments from movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are arguably as good as any being produced today, he can also turn the quirk factor from charming to overbearing in a heartbeat. He is most definitely an acquired taste and one that I haven’t yet acquired.

However, to my mind this is the best work he’s done yet. The sight gags are often hysterically funny and the tone of the movie is just off-beat enough to be interesting. I suspect that Anderson may have dialed down things a bit in deference to the audience which is bound to include children (the source material is, after all, a classic children’s book penned by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In toning things down and making the movie a bit more accessible, he makes the quirky elements all the more effective.

It helps that he has a great voice cast. Clooney is sly, witty and charming in a Danny Ocean vein, with a heaping helping of Everett (the lovable ne’er do well from O Brother Where Art Thou?) thrown in for good measure. Streep is solid as the very much long-suffering Mrs. Fox and Gambon throws the right amount of hissable evil to his villainous Mr. Bean. Most of the others read their lines in a deadpan monotone which makes the humor a bit dry but emphasizes the irony much better. Those who don’t appreciate that sort of humor will probably find this movie frustrating.

I have to make it known that while this is ostensibly a children’s movie, I think adults may wind up finding it more appealing than the wee ones. Kids are not known for being terribly accepting of things that are different than what they’re used to, and some may find the tone strange or the overall humor a bit boring. There are some over-the-top physical gags that will keep ‘em happy but by and large adults will get this a little more than the Nickelodeon set will.

The animation is stop-motion and highly textured, with the fur of the animals rippling in unseen breezes along with the grass. Trees bend in unison like an arboreal chorus line, and tunnels are filled with dirt, rocks and roots. It is not specifically realistic, more like hyper-realistic (if you take for granted that foxes walk upright, wear tailored clothes and speak with more intelligence than the average human). Animator Harry Selick, the man who did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach was originally slated to animate this movie before delays caused schedule conflicts and Selick would go on to do Coraline. Instead Anderson hired Mark Gustafson who did the California Raisins commercials back in the day. Good choice, that.

Pleasant surprises make going to the movies a pleasure. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this movie but there’s a good chance this will wind up in our home video collection (which will likely be Blu-Ray by the time it gets out in that format). It isn’t often that I can say an animated feature will be appreciated more by adults than by children, but I think that I can say that with confidence here. Certainly there is that sense of magic and enchantment that is necessary in any animated feature, but with a tone and intelligence that is more adult. In other words, this is a movie that doesn’t talk down to children which is a good thing in my book. Next to Up, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of great sight gags and a snappy off-kilter tone make this appealing to fans of indie films and Wes Anderson. Quirky without being overbearing. There are some nice vocal performances, particularly from Clooney and Gambon.

REASONS TO STAY: Although based on a children’s book and marketed to kids to a certain extent, this really isn’t a traditional children’s movie and if your tyke isn’t open to new things, they might find this strange or boring.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly salty humor but really suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tree the Fox family lives in is based on a beech tree on the property of original book author Roald Dahl, and Mr. Fox’s study is a near-perfect recreation of Dahl’s own study in his garden hut where he did most of his writing.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will work just as well on a home screen but I kinda liked it on the big screen. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: MirrorMask