Archive | January, 2016

Anomalisa

22 Jan
Anomalisa's Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) might be losing his mind

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Charlie Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich,Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has always been something of an art-house anomaly when it comes to delivering quirky curios that sate the highbrow quest for something different and challenging. His latest, Anomalisa, certainly fits the bill.

The film is a stop motion-animation journey into the psyche of a self-centered motivational speaker who may or may not suffer from some form of psychosis. It’s slow moving and mundane yet profoundly unearthly as it plumbs the human condition and the eternal quest for fulfillment.

The project, which Kaufman originally conceived as a sound play (think a podcast or radio) for composer Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers, came to life via a Kickstarter campaign and a partnership with stop-motion animator Duke Johnson, a man with such credits as Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole on his CV.

The rendering of place and people — the puppets were made in part from a 3-D printer — are astonishing in the degree of detail and craftsmanship, especially the miniature sets which are limited to the inside of a hotel, an airplane, a cab, and a dildo bodega. The overall effect becomes a stirringly piquant amalgam that’s something like The Polar Express meets Team America: World Police.

The cast too is limited — there are just three performers. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh voice the two leads, while character actor Tom Noonan speaks for everyone else — women, men, and children. It’s a strange olio shoehorned into a rather regular tread as Michael Stone (Thewlis), a customer service expert, British ex-pat, and something of a minor celeb (author ofHow May I Help You Help Them?), flies into Cincinnati to give one of his speeches at a convention. Everything is a bit off as Michael lands. The male singers behind the choral music on his iPod are horribly out of sync. Everyone speaks with the same voice (Noonan’s) and has the same general facial profile regardless of age, gender, or physical size. And when he gets in a cab desperate for a cigarette, there’s a no smoking sign because the driver is asthmatic.

Everything moves in small, sleepy slices like that, but the film is rife with tension, mostly between Michael’s ears. The name of the hotel that Michael checks into, the Al Fregoli is a tell, and early on we learn Michael has an angry ex-lover, a wife, and child back home in L.A. he’s detached from, and a high opinion of himself. Besides observing a man masturbating in an office across the way and an ill-advised drink with an old flame, nothing really extraordinary happens in Cincinnati. But then Michael meets Lisa (Leigh). Continue reading

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

19 Jan

<i>13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi</i>

Much will be made about the political ramifications of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, but the reality is Hilary Clinton is never mentioned once. The movie does, however, cast an unflattering light upon the nameless U.S. officials monitoring the situation from afar via drone while boots on the ground take fire from teeming insurgents and face insurmountable odds. Politics in this landscape are unavoidable, yet at the core, 13 Hours is a tale of grit, courage under fire and the Semper Fi brotherhood forged between a half-dozen men who draw paychecks from the CIA to keep their unappreciative Ivy-League-educated wonks safe in the middle of a terrorist hotbed within revolution-flipped Libya on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

Memories of the 2012 siege of the U.S. Embassy and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens remain fresh, but the film, adapted from Mitchell Zuckoff’s similarly titled book by Chuck Hogan (The Town), casts a bigger net than merely regurgitating what was shown in news clips and spun politically at the time.

To get there, we sit on the shoulder of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), a former Navy SEAL saying goodbye to his family and heading overseas for the inevitable shitshow. The opening flash points blasted onto the screen “digital dossier style” informs us that, of the United States’ 292 diplomatic outposts in the world, 12 of them are in perilous areas, and two of those are in Libya. Right after Silva is picked up by his Global Response Staff (GRS) lead, Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), there’s an immediate showdown with some heavily armed unfriendlies in a crowded alleyway. Bravado and bluster gets them through, but these buff, bearded lads can back it up. Continue reading

The Revenant

7 Jan

 

 

Throughout his career, Alejandro González Iñárritu has set his eye on struggle and the imminence of death. “Amores Perros” (2000), the cornerstone film that made Iñárritu an international commodity, featured a “Cujo”-esque canine able to rip flesh from bone with ease. In 2014’s “Birdman,” Michael Keaton’s play-staging thespian hung on the verge of ruin and suicide and hears voices too, though not to the degree Javier Bardem’s shadowy Spaniard does in “Biutiful” (2010) – he can actually see death. Iñárritu’s latest, “The Revenant,” borrows elements from all three of those achievements as it sends Leonardo DiCaprio’s imperiled frontiersman on a Jobian trek across the frozen northern plains – mostly on his belly.

010616i The RevenantThe title refers to one who returns from the dead or a long absence. Some definitions have it as a ghost or specter, and all are apt in Iñárritu’s ordeal of great suffering. Right from the start, blood gets spilled as a party of American fur trappers in the early 1800s is beset by Arikara warriors. Viewers, like the furriers, don’t see the Native American detachment coming until the visceral twang of a well-guided arrow sails across the screen and pierces the throat of an unwary skinner. Being at the mercy of a largely unseen assailant registers eerily like the band of mercenaries in “Predator” being picked off one by one by a near-invisible alien force.

DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, the outfit’s guide along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), get the survivors on a boat down the mighty Missouri River, full, foreboding and a major player in the film. Ever too much the sitting duck on the water, where you can feel the presence of waiting arrows at every bend, the party lands and goes it afoot. It’s there, among the ferns and pines while scouting ahead, that Glass is mauled by a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. The scene is long, brutal and squirm-worthy as Glass’ flesh is peeled from his back and his body pulled from and flung into Emmanuel Lubezki’s impassive, ground-level camera. The orchestration of sound, imagery and the frothed grimace on DiCaprio’s face is as stomach-knotting as it is poetic perfection. Continue reading

Concussion

4 Jan
By Tom Meek  |  December 23, 2015  |  12:11pm
<i>Concussion</i>

I’ll grant this about Concussion, the docudrama exposing the deadly ills of repetitive blows to the head in the NFL—it’s not didactic or even self righteous, as one might suspect and be put off by. Instead, it’s reasonably smart, balanced and, despite a matter-of-fact approach, deeply human. It also brings a fresh and informative perspective to the medical issue, describing how the deteriorating downstream physiological effects of head banging were discovered and the NFL’s efforts to suppress those findings. And nestled deep inside all the corporate wrangling lies a compelling immigrant success story to boot.

We begin shortly after the new millennium with “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse, excellent as the tortured lineman), a four-time Super Bowl Champion now disfigured, hearing voices and practically homeless living in his pickup truck. Even though he’s an adored legend of the city of Pittsburgh, no one seems to notice or care until he commits suicide and is rolled in on a gurney for an autopsy. The pathologist on duty, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), happens to be from Nigeria, doesn’t have U.S. citizenship and by default is immune to the commercially spoon-fed love of America’s most watched sport and the machinery surrounding it. Against minor protests around the morgue (don’t defile our hero), Omalu gets down to his clinical task and initially finds Webster’s brain normal but his curiosity piqued by evidence of Webster’s deranged habits (pulling out his teeth and glueing them back in), he keeps digging, spending several thousands of of his own dollars for outside tests to arrive at the CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) diagnosis we’re all now too acutely aware of.

Continue reading

Joy

4 Jan

There was a time the anticipation of David O. Russell’s next project carried the excitement of a Christmas package. No matter what he had achieved before, he was always onto something new and radically different. His first films ranged from an angry, depraved coming-of-age tale (“Spanking the Monkey”) to a Desert Storm “Wild Bunch” of sorts (“Three Kings”) and a quirky little ditty that seemed stolen from the vault of Wes Anderson (“I Heart Huckabees”). After that, Russell spun up the reliably crafted “The Fighter,” a satiating and admirable effort but also something pat and conventional, and from there the cinematic pixie dust of unpredictability and quirk seemed gone. That’s not to say “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook” didn’t have their merits – they were exceptionally well acted (Oscar nods all around) and competently composed – but missing were those hidden pockets of wonderment among the rough edges.

122315i Joy“Joy” marks more of the same – not a bad thing, as it features the ever determined yet effervescent Jennifer Lawrence, back under Russell’s instruct for the third time. But even given Lawrence’s vast talents, is the invention of the Miracle Mop as worthy a fact-based feature as “The Fighter” and “American Hustle”? It’s all about scale. “The Fighter” was rooted in the hardscrabble world of boxing, opioid addiction and the tawdry cauldron of the struggling working class, while “Hustle” reveled in the cheesy polyester fashion and over-the-top personas of the late ’70s. Here, Lawrence is on her own to pull the yoke as the titular inventor of the now-famous mop, but oddly enough (copyright issues?) the name “Miracle Mop” never gets mentioned, though the real-life Joy Mangano does serve as an executive producer. One can only assume her endorsement.

The film follows your basic rags-to-riches arc with some interesting change-ups and Russell trying to knead in sardonic seeds of irony along the way. More interesting than the birth of that mop are the conditions we find Joy living under: a cramped Long Island house with her divorced parents (a stoic Robert DeNiro and a lurking Virginia Madsen, nothing short of excellent), her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez), an aspiring lounge singer living in the basement, and their two children. The place is remarkably civil considering all the broken bonds and deserves greater examination, but Joy cuts her hand cleaning up a spilled drink and gets the bright idea for the house cleaning device. Continue reading