Friday, January 22, 2016

Adult cartoon ‘Anomalisa’ is typically insightful, bizarre Charlie Kaufman

By Steve Crum
Those familiar with the films of Charlie Kaufman will expect some strange goings-on in his latest picture, an odd gem via puppet animation called Anomalisa. It’s worth watching. In fact, its bizarreness will grab from the get-go. This does not mean you will grasp any or all of its meaning or purpose when the 90 minute running time concludes. 
Ready yourself for filmed eccentricity, ladies and gentlemen. 
Before delving into Anomalisa (a created word used by the main character), realize that Kaufman has written only a smattering of theatrical motion pictures: Being John Malkovich; Synecdoche, New York; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Human Nature; and this new one. Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York are his only feature film—director works. 
Kaufman himself labels Anomalisa as “existential”—an apt description befitting previous films. His TV-movie, How and Why, involves the discovery of a portal to a supernatural world. In Being John Malkovich, a group of miniaturized humans take advantage of a portal into the brain of actor Malkovich…and literally venture inside and out. 
In the very adult themed, romantic comedy-drama Anomalisa, Kaufman’s first animated film (co-directed by Duke Johnson), a self-help writer named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) checks into a Cincinnati hotel one weekend to attend a conference of telemarketers. He is to be the main speaker, while at the same time promoting his book, “How May I Help You Help Them?”, aimed at an audience of phone sales people. We soon learn Michael has true fans among the telemarketers, including two ladies sharing a room right down the hall.
A technician adjusts the two primary puppets that serve as Michael and Lisa. Note the stabilizing clamps as the puppets are very slightly moved for the stop motion camera.

Once Michael is situated in his room, his loneliness and insecurity prompt a call to an old flame living nearby. Without getting into specifics, the two meet in the hotel bar only to realize why they previously broke up. Michael suffers even more. He should be rehearsing his speech for the next day, but matters of the heart and hormones dominate his thoughts and actions. Director-writer Kaufman takes us along on Michael’s journey of self satisfaction, from pondering his image in the bathroom mirror to shopping for an adult sex toy in a downtown store. He even  hooks up with one of his fans, Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. In addition, Michael has nightmarish fantasies.
Kaufman has said that with Anomalisa he aimed to make us forget we are watching an animated film and accept the characters as real. He succeeds, sure enough, except when he reminds us we ARE watching stop-motion puppetry. For sure, these puppets resemble humans, but their clearly hinged bodies are obviously robotic. A favorite scene: Michael’s lower face unhinges and falls to the floor. He merely picks it up and reattaches it. 
Now that is surreal, very symbolic, and wickedly funny. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-

Friday, January 8, 2016

‘The Revenant’ triumphs as realistic, gritty survival epic

By Steve Crum
Forgive me, Charles Portis and John Wayne, but The Revenant should be subtitled True Grit. However, labeling this gritty action spectacle “revenant” is also very apt since it refers to “one that returns after death or after a long absence.” That definition fits the epic, 2 hours-36 minutes, factual saga told in The Revenant.
Adapted from Michael Punke’s The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, the screenplay was co-written by the director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (director and co-writer of last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman) and Mark L. Smith. The original story is based on the real life experiences of legendary fur trapper Hugh Glass. The “revenge” aspect plays out between Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nemesis, fellow trapper John Fitzgerald, portrayed by Tom Hardy. 
By the time Glass is faced with survival, driven by revenge, he has experienced a Sar Ah (Native American tribe) attack and slaughter of his hunting party (they are hunting for pelts in the Louisiana Purchase wild) and then an unbelievably vicious bear mauling. Surely I am not spoiling the plot since that bear sequence is repeatedly shown in the trailer. Abandoned and left to die by Fitzgerald, Glass is on his own, crawling at first, fighting snow, more Indians (this time the Arikara), and starvation. 
DiCaprio has little to say during the second third of the movie, since he is literally alone. That his character’s throat was damaged during the bear attack reduces his voice to raspy whisper. Yet DiCaprio speaks loudly with his eyes and body language. Glass’s goal is to survive, eventually reach civilization, recover his health, and then wreak havoc on Fitzgerald. 
A real plus of The Revenant is its expansive cinematography focusing on the gorgeous waterways, forests and mountains of the story’s setting of Montana and South Dakota circa 1823. Surprise, surprise. Actual filming was in 12 different locations encompassing three countries: the United States, Canada, and Argentina. Check out those repeated shots angled upward into the tall trees. Let’s give cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki his due here. 
Iñárritu's realistic approach to filming, sans any computer generated effects, added to the difficulty of shooting on location. It took its toll on everyone involved, including the cast. (Several crew members quit or were fired during the production.) Natural lighting was used. The result is telling, a visual treat. Be forewarned that the visuals are sometimes realistically ghastly. 
Don’t expect a passionate love story or even Leonardo batting a passing eye at some lady of the trail. This is a man’s man movie absent of romance—or even comedy. (OK, there is a tad of humor when Glass encounters a friendly Indian midway through.) Alert, however. There is a female-driven sequence that turns out to be a plot definer. Other than that, it is grit-on. 
It is also my choice for Best Picture Oscar of 2015, even though it is opening nationwide today. (The Revenant qualifies since it had limited openings late last year.) Add another Best Director Oscar honor for Iñárritu. And DiCaprio’s performance is Best Actor worthy. The Revenant is quite an achievement.  

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A