academy award

The Marvelous ‘Anomalisa’

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA, by Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa is a modern-day manifestation of the goals of the surrealist movement as establish some 90 years ago.While this review was written without the benefit of any special knowledge of the process by which  Anomalisa was created, (and process is central to surrealism), what we experience as an audience is Kaufman’s ability to make visible the very process of thought, just does Andre Breton declared as the goal of the surrealist project in 1924.

In Anomalisa, we see the world through the eyes of a successful business group, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who is in Cincinnati as keynote speaker to a conference on customer service. The stop motion animated puppets are all strikingly similar, all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan), regardless of gender, age, or other individual  qualifiers. All, I should say, except Michael and a customer service rep/groupie of his named Lisa, (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). In fact, it is her voice that first attracts Michael to her. Obsessed with meeting the woman whose voice stands out against the aural monotony of everyone else, he tracks are down and finds that she also looks different  from everyone else. And while her personality, intellect, and appearance are all very generic, Michael find her fascinating and irresistible simply because she is an anomaly.

Anomalisa is a film that raises a lot of different issues within the small world of these characters. Stone is a man in search of something different. He’s mastered his profession and, like many middle-aged people, has lost the passion that brought him through his career. He’s also come to realize how very generic the world is. Even as we all know that each individual person is unique, we are more similar than we are different, and so Stone is at a point where he desperately needs to be challenged with something or someone truly different. In his pursuit of “something different,” Stone latches onto Lisa without really seeing who she is. It’s as though he’s actually imagining her and not really seeing her for who she is.

ANOMALISA

David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, ANOMALISA

The film shows Michael’s skewed perception quite directly, both through the use of sameness in voice and appearance of the characters and by showing the plainness of Lisa and Michael. It struck me in a sex scene between the two characters that you could never see this in a live action film because lead actors don’t look like real people for the most part and if their bodies do, they are usually not shown in sexual situations. It was strangely fascinating to see two people making love who, despite the fact that they are animated, more closely resemble the average person than any actual actors do in American cinema.

Kaufman, who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, to name a few, and directed the highly underrated Synechdoche, always brings a touch of the surreal to his scripts, here succeeds in creating a world that is both absurd and totally recognizable, filled with characters who are irrationally rational, in a story that is very real but told with unreal visuals. It is at the core of the Surrealist ethos to occupy the spaces between the real and unreal, the logical and illogical, the rational and irrational, conscious and unconscious. Kaufman always succeeds in doing this in fresh ways that take Surrealism into the 21st century without reducing the power of that movement’s potential. He is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that resembles the world of Anomalisa, filled with strikingly similar films that no one seems to recognize for their dullness. I am so glad this film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I saw it last year and I hope Cape Codders will get the chance to see it now that the Oscar nomination has brought it to mainstream consciousness.

 

 

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Talking About Selma

SELMA

Left to right, foreground: Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films

A film about Martin Luther King, Jr. has a few obstacles to overcome at the outset. For one thing, much of the audience already knows the story, and for another thing that story ends in the main character’s assassination. But perhaps a more difficult obstacle is the perception that the film is like a serving of plain, unbuttered, unsalted vegetables–something you won’t enjoy and don’t want, but which you know you should have because it’s “good for you.” It is this perception that kept some audiences away from movies like last year’s 12 Years a Slave, and no doubt it will keep some from seeing the movie Selma. But in both cases, missing the movie is more than just a lost opportunity to absorb something you “should” watch; it means missing an excellent film with a compelling story.

I was fairly neutral in my expectations when I went to see Selma at the Chatham Orpheum Theater last week. I don’t read much in advance about the films I see, but it would have been impossible not to know that Selma was a potential Oscar contender. With that in mind, I had the slightly jaded expectation that it would be “that kind of film” – one Hollywood could get behind because it was good for everyone’s image and because it was just nonthreatening enough to embrace. But as the film unfolded, I was quickly drawn into something much better than that; something that made a part of history I already  had strong feelings about become even more real to me.

Director Ava DuVernay does not shy away from the brutal realities, and her script, co-written with Paul Webb, does not tack on any false, feel-good moments to make us feel everything is okay. It’s not okay. In fact, in the current climate one cannot help but connect Dr. King’s words and methods with recent cases and Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere, despite the more complex circumstances of those devisive of cases.

More importantly as the film follows Dr. King from his Nobel Peace Prize win through the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, we meet a range of people who demonstrate moments of strength and often, moments of human weakness. No one really comes across as a pure hero in the comic book/Hollywood sense. This includes President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Even Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is revealed to be a human being with doubts, flaws, and weaknesses, particularly in his tense relationship with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who is shown to be torn apart both by his infidelities (just hinted at, never shown) and the terrifying spotlight he has shed upon their family.

At its core, this is a film about politics and the push and pull between living one’s beliefs, controlling ego, and playing the game that needs to be played. Peppered throughout this story of power and playing politics, there are horrifying, true incidents of racist violence that are portrayed unflinchingly. I was shaken–literally jumped in my seat, in fact–very early in the film by something I knew, from history, was going to happen. It’s hard to describe such moments without destroying their impact for those who have not yet seen the film, but anyone who has seen it knows what I am talking about. (If you’ve already seen the film, I recommend checking out this NPR interview with the director for more details: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375756377/the-sounds-space-and-spirit-of-selma-a-director-s-take). This is why for me, the Oscar nomination is confusing. The best things about this movie can be attributed directly to both the editing and the directing, so how can it be that Selma was nominated as Best Picture, and then have no other nominations other than for one song? What does the Academy think makes it the Best Picture?

Another point of contention out there is the criticism of how LBJ is portrayed. I was unaware of those criticisms when I went to see the film last Friday, so I wasn’t  looking specifically at whether or not they were valid complaints. But afterward, when I heard and read these criticisms, I was surprised. LBJ is not portrayed as a bad guy or as someone with no interest in helping the civil rights movement. If that were true, I’d call it a major flaw in the film, but when I watched Selma, I felt it was very clear that he was a politician – the president, in fact – and so he was pulled in a lot of directions. The weakness in the portrayal, which is what I think has given rise to this criticism, is in Wilkinson’s performance, which lacks conviction (not to mention the right LBJ accent and manner).

In contrast, Oyelowo does an excellent job becoming Dr. King in this film, as does Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace. In addition, I was taken by newcomer Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights marcher who was brutally beaten and shot to death by Alabama State Troopers, while trying to protect his mother and elderly grandfather in 1965. In fact, the scene in which he is murdered was one that still shakes me, a week later.

Selma has flaws, for sure, but overall it is so well put together and so meaningful in what it represents that those flaws recede into the background. About midway through the film, I was consumed with the desire for my 11-year-old son to see the film. My son is white and he lives in a place where there are not many people of other racial backgrounds. This doesn’t make him racist and it doesn’t predict anything about who he is or how he will interact with people of the world, but it does shelter him from having to think about things that a black 11-year-old boy would have to be aware of. I don’t have to have “the talk” with my son, as African-American mothers do. And even just acknowledging this one reality, makes me ill.

I realize now that I was consumed with wanting him to see Selma because I feel it is a story about us – it’s our history, too– and I want him to have some context for understanding the dynamics in the world that don’t necessarily touch him here on Cape Cod. I have taught him about these things; we have discussed Ferguson and the Holocaust and other atrocities as they come into his consciousness, but I don’t know a better way to show him the historical context for the Black Lives Matter movement than through the medium of film. My hope is that he will get it, viscerally, feel it in his bones. I hope he will see how movies can be important and bring things to light that are hard to really fully imagine. And I hope it will help drive home the point that Dr. King’s message mattered then and still matters now.

It’s possible that he will get none of this from Selma, but I am at least looking forward to talking with him about it. While it is a disturbing movie (rated PG-13), if you have children over 11, I hope you’ll think about taking them to Selma, as well, if only for the potential conversations it may provoke.

Do Not Avert Your Eyes

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

It has taken me a while to write about 12 Years a Slave, which I saw several months ago, because so much has already been written about it. But with the film now back in theaters on the Cape, now is as good a time as any to weigh in. But also, as I hear more and more from people who have avoided it for fear of being too deeply affected  by it, I want to encourage you to see this film in a movie theater, while you still can. Although it is already available on-demand and probably will soon be on Netflix, the theater affords us a dedicated space for connecting with the characters and with the past that is not easily duplicated at home.

When I was 11 years old, my father took me and my brother to see Alan J. Pakula’s devastating Sophie’s Choice. While the horror of the Holocaust had already been brought to my attention by my Jewish grandmother (only in passing, like when a movie about it might have been on TV), and the film itself did make an impression on me, my deepest memory of this movie is of my father uncontrollably sobbing in the car afterward. He tried to explain to us why the choice Sophie had to make broke him down like that (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – go see it and then read this), and I think we got it on some level, but not completely. His reaction is testament to the power of the film, and it may be one of the things that drew me to study film later, in fact.

Sometimes movies are extremely difficult experiences and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

As you probably know by now, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a real-life African-American from New York State who, despite having been born a free man, spent 12 years as a slave in the South after being kidnapped. The film shows us his journey from freedom through slavery and back again, with some of the most wrenching, magnificent moments coming at the very end when Northrup finally does return home.

The film, while widely praised, has had some detractors who found the director’s choice to not allow us to look away (by cutting or moving the camera to a safer angle) too extreme for the violence and degradation represented here. But for me, the scenes in question are necessary and as uncomfortable and difficult as they need to be. They are not the most devastating of McQueen’s choices.

Much critical attention has been paid to a particularly violent scene in which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to beat a fellow slave, Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o) because her slave master (Michael Fassbender) is unable to do it himself. Yes, this scene is very hard to watch, but for me it is the more subtle scenes that are the most affecting. For example, there is an absolutely breathtaking scene where Northup is strung up to be lynched, but is saved at the last minute. While he waits to be cut down–his neck still in the noose, but feet lightly grazing the ground, enough to stay conscious–McQueen gives us a long-shot so we can see the other slaves, many of whom are children, going about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary is dangling from a tree. It is like a dream, but not. No one flinches, no one cries or screams, no one is surprised. The sounds of daily life, mixed with the birds chirping and sounds of an otherwise pleasant day, go on. It isn’t that McQueen is trying to show that these people don’t care about each other, it’s that this is the routine humiliation and violence of everyday life for them. That moment saddened me so deeply; it was more powerful a statement than anything I’ve seen on film in recent memory–certainly with regard to slavery.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Ejiofor’s powerful, subtle performance drew me in, and made me not only think about, but really feel, as a free person, what it would have been like to suddenly lose my freedom with no real hope of returning to my family and my life. And at the same time, while I did not identify with the white plantation owners/slave masters, I also saw greater depth in them than I had before. The direction is powerful and the editing choices, deliberate, painful, and beautiful in a way. And that is my point: something can be horrific and revolting to watch and yet profoundly beautiful in its embrace of the cinematic potential.

In some respects, it resembles Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist, also based on the records of a survivor. In that film, Adrien Brody, (who plays the lead character) slowly descends from being an attractive, talented, middle-class young man to a half-dead, starving fugitive from the Nazis. Again, this is a painful film, but I can’t imagine a more cinematic and beautiful telling of Wladislaw Szpilman’s true ordeal. And yet, portrayals of Holocaust suffering–as devastating as they are in many, many films–seem to have obtained a level of acceptance that we still do not have, at least in the U.S., for slave stories. Perhaps Americans can’t stomach our own past, preferring to look at the atrocities of other cultures from a safe distance across the ocean, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we just haven’t been offered the opportunities to revisit this aspect of American history because we don’t have a lot of writers and directors interested in pursuing it. It’s taken a British director to bring this point home and he does so with great skill.

What do we want out of our movies? Is it only an entertaining escape, a good story, a pleasant evening with a friend? Why are our expectations–no, our demands–so low when it comes to this art form. When you’re at the movies, in the dark, looking up at that screen, you should be given an experience to take with you. And whether it is a thrilling, tightly constructed cinematic adventure like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (especially so in 3D), or a piece of our history that we haven’t truly come to terms with even 150 years later, we should be made to feel something substantial. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “the poet must not avert his eyes,” and neither should the  audience.

A Different Kind of Romance

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)

In Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which he wrote and directed, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed professional letter writer living in the not so distant future. In the midst of a breakup with his wife, Theodore’s life is in flux. His apartment features lots of space and empty shelves; he kills time playing videogames featuring foul-mouthed characters who berate him; and he mopes about in a state of apathy, simply going through the motions of life. Then he updates his computer to a new operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and they fall in love.

Much has been made of this uncanny romance between a man and his computer system, but while Jonze’s plot is ripe for opening up a discussion about the limits of human beings vs. the limits of technology, or about the dilemma we now face as a society overly dependent upon technology, it would be a real stretch to say that’s what Her is ultimately about. In Jonze’s hands, this is a story about what it means–and what it has always meant–to be human.

The near-future world in which Her takes place is very much like today, and there isn’t any scathing critique of our tech-obsessed culture. It is merely the setting. In fact, when Theodore makes a great reveal about his relationship with Samantha to his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), she barely bats an eye, having developed her own deep friendship with her OS since leaving her husband. It’s as though dating and falling in love with your computer’s operating system is only a slight deviation from the norm, neither perverse nor even eccentric. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) and his live girlfriend. The more provocative issue is about how human beings continue to struggle with expressing ourselves to each other. We can and often do share intimate details with the great void of the Internet via so-called “social networking” sites, but how do we communicate offline? We’re still stuck in the same human-to-human dynamic that Jonze has always shown as awkward and difficult.

This point is made marvelously clear in Theodore’s profession as a personal letter writer, writing beautiful love letters, congratulatory notes, and familial communiques for the less creative masses who no longer even know how to write a letter to their wives, grandmothers, or children. Like in Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, our hero is a writer, sensitive and capable of revealing emotions through the written word. But where Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, has a distinctly misanthropic undertone (as does their other collaboration, Being John Malkovich), Jonze’s own scripts are more hopeful, with leads who are outsiders, not totally comfortable with who they are, but also considerate to a fault–people who just mean well. Theodore is doing the best that he can, as is Samantha, who, in her own computerized way, is just learning how to be more human.

What makes Jonze so unique and singular as a writer/director is his attention to the ways in which human beings communicate. It’s easy to get carried away with the quirkiness factor and discuss Her as unique for the human/computer love affair at the center of the plot, but to do so is to miss the overriding themes of this, and I’d argue all of Jonze’s feature films so far: the ways in which love causes us excruciating joy and devastating pain in equal measure; and the awkward process of growing (up) as human beings, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Other Jonzian touches evident here are in the way he gives us characters who, as offbeat as they are, appear almost mundane against the even greater absurdity of the people and society surrounding them. For example, in Her, Theodore calls a service that connects people for an intimate phone-sex encounter. As their dirty talk progresses, the woman on the other end reveals a fetish involving dead cats, making Theodore seem incredibly normal by contrast.

I am a great admirer of Jonze as a director, and everything about Her maintains those feelings, but I am even more impressed with him as a writer with each film he writes. Although widely misunderstood as a badly made children’s film, his previous film Where the Wild Things Are was perhaps the best written film about the experience of childhood, written for adults. This is why Maurice Sendak fully endorsed the film even as it took major liberties with his sparsely written original children’s story. Her is a continuation of this type of work for Jonze, exploring the vulnerabilities of the human experience in a fresh, compassionate way.

Oscar Thoughts: This is my pick for Best Original Screenplay.