The Marvelous ‘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.


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.



Talking About 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.

Chris Rock’s Top Five

Chris Rock stars with Rosario Dawson in his indie flick "Top Five."

Chris Rock stars with Rosario Dawson in his indie flick “Top Five.”

The last movie I saw in theaters in 2014 was Chris Rock’s Top Five, a personal film Rock wrote directed, and stars in about a comedian trying to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. It’s easy to draw connections between Rock and the character he plays, André, but André’s plight is a familiar one for anyone trying to break out of his or her expected role. We often are seen as being one thing even when everything we do demonstrates that we actually fit into an entirely different category. Unfortunately, I think this is what is happening with Rock’s movie itself.

It’s an issue for any independent filmmaker who is racial, gender, or other identity marker flags him /her as good at one particular thing. Women are nurturers and like romance, so their films should be romantic or about families, or perhaps about being female if they are independents (and therefore assumed feminist). Gay filmmakers must make films about being gay or coming out or else they have sold out. And black filmmakers make movies for urban, inner-city crowds, so they must be crude, angry, violent, and suited to an audience that is unfamiliar with and uninterested in the cinematic conventions of independent filmmaking. Rock, as a major comedian with great crossover appeal, is also more closely associated with television, stand-up, and a Hollywood sensibility than he is with the filmmakers he actually resembles, like the late Adrienne Shelley, Richard Linklater, and even Woody Allen.

In the film André has just made a dramatic movie about a Haitian slave rebellion, but whenever he’s interviewed the press only want to know about his reality TV star fiancée and they repeatedly ask about sequels to his most successful comedy movies in which he plays “Hammy,” a bear. When they do ask about the movie, it is only in reference to how many white people are killed in it with half the interviewers offended by the high number and the other half offended by the low number.

In the meantime, André is followed around by an attractive Latina film writer (Rosario Dawson) for the New York Times (only in a movie does this happen) with her own secret identity struggles. As André reveals to her the key moments in his life leading up to their interview, focusing on his struggles with addiction, we see a man imprisoned by his celebrity who is forgotten his art—the thing he loved and which, ironically, made him famous in the first place. But, interestingly, Rock doesn’t elevate André’s forays into seriousness as though that is his more authentic self. The Haitian movie is also an inauthentic endeavor. He is not a misunderstood genius who just needs to break the shackles of his comedy past; he is a comedian who has just lost his way. The desire to move in the direction of drama is inevitable, (because drama is always taken more seriously than comedy and given more weight), but it is not André’s true path and so it is a failure.

I went to see this film on a Monday night in a suburb of Rochester, New York, so that could explain the small audience, but it was also an audience drawn in by Rock’s celebrity and the rap reference of the title ( top five refers to the question each character answers in the film: who are your top five rappers). Perhaps the film can cross over, as Rock himself has, but I’m not sure it has the legs to do it. Though there is some crude humor (in the best sense), and Rock himself is clearly a charismatic performer, this is a more quiet exploration of identity and the difficulty of being authentic, in opposition to the expectations of others. When “others” means millions of people, as it does when you are a successful performer, that struggle is exponentially greater.

Rock’s directorial style is subtle, straightforward, and focused on character interaction rather than sweeping cinematography or fast cuts. It’s funny in some places (over the top, laugh out loud funny), but it is also a very real human story about losing your way. It isn’t a perfect film, and the performances are uneven, but it is a truthful, smart film and one that deserves a wider audience. More importantly, it deserves a more thoughtful audience than it will likely find.

When I returned to the Cape I saw that only the Cape Cod Mall multiplex was showing the film, even though it is actually better suited to an intimate art-house theater. I don’t think it will do well with this kind of release, but then again the typical art house crowd has grown awfully stodgy in the past decade or so, and they may not be right for it either.

This film about resisting outside pressures and fighting against labels to be who you really are may end up a casualty of the current exhibition climate, which demands classification, low risks, and familiarity bordering on duplication.

Film for Art’s Sake

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

Jarvis Cocker singing “I’m Still Here” in Six By Sondheim, which will screen at the Film Art Series kickoff celebration on Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m.

For the past nine years, Howard Karren has been programming a series of films on the outermost tip of Cape Cod. At first, the Film Art series was a program of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), but this year, PAAM has teamed up with the Provincetown Film Society to co-produce the series at the Waters Edge Cinema (237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown). The series kicks off this Sunday, November 2 at 1 p.m. with a benefit reception followed by a screening of Six by Sondheim, a film Karren says perfectly suits the concept of the series, which has always been to show films about art as well as showing films as art themselves.

“I focus on trying to pick titles that are not that familiar… I like to choose stuff that there’s a good chance the audience will not have seen. So there’s a real sense of discovery in that regard,” Karren explains over lunch in Orleans.

The full series schedule is divided into three distinct but related sections, running through May 2015. Karren says while having a thematic arrangement is a useful tool in the curating process, it is also more than that. Each section speaks to the other and someone who attends the full season, or several films from each section at least, can see how the films reflect upon each other and how the vibrant post-screening discussions illuminate shared themes among all of them.

“These folks are not shy about expressing themselves,” Karren says smiling. “It’s a little like a book club in that way. I give my point of view, but that’s really only one voice among many. The thing that excites me is people’s enthusiasm because for me the whole series is a way fro film to be taken serious as an art form. So that’s very gratifying.”

Karren began the series because he says he was “feeling kind of isolated” in his passion for film on Cape Cod, after having lived in New York, a great cinema city. Karren’s background includes studying film theory and semiotics at Brown University, obtaining an MFA in film from Columbia University, and an accomplished career in film journalism, writing for and editing at Premiere Magazine, People, and New York Magazine. In addition to curating the series and working as a consultant to the Waters Edge Cinema, he also writes a column for the Provincetown Banner and co-owns Alden Gallery in Provincetown.


Hadras Yaron in Fill the Void, which screens on Wednesday, November 5 at 7 p.m.

The first part of the series, called “Part I: Women Transcendent,” includes films with great female leads, ranging from the quiet, graceful style of Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer (1951) to the Israeli film Fill the Void (2012) by first-time filmmaker Rama Burshtein about a woman in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Speaking about Fill the Void, Karren says, “The performances [Burshtein] elicits do not feel like they’re in a first film. You would not know it’s a first film.” It was apparently a film that was hard to make for a whole host of reasons, but Karren says the results are extremely moving and explore “the torment of not fitting into the structures and the rules and boundaries for what women are supposed to do.”

The second section, “Part II: Outsiders,” is just as what it sounds like and includes Lindsay Anderson’s bizarre 1971 film O Lucky Man, starring Malcolm MacDowell, The Tin Drum (1979) by Volker Schondorff, and Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 thriller Cat People, among others. And the series finishes with “Part III: Art in the Mirror,” a group of films about art and artists that reflect back on themselves.

“These three parts speak to one another,” Karren emphasizes. “They are united in exploring what it means to be a movie that is a work of art and dealing with the subjects of that in one way or another.”

All screenings are listed here on Cape Cod Film Society’s regular calendar of upcoming film events. Full details about the series selections and ticketing information can be found here. Consider purchasing a a full season pass, which not only gets you into all of these great film presentations and discussions, but also supports the continuation of the Film Art Series. Tickets to this Sunday’s kickoff celebration are $35.