Anomalisa

Cast: (voiced by) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

Writer: Charlie Kaufman


Trust Charlie Kaufman to make an animated film unlike any other ever made. As a writer and director known for his visual creativity, surrealist narratives and dreamlike atmospheres, one could only have wondered what he could achieve within the realms of animation. However it is also interesting that a filmmaker known for exploring psychological themes and venturing into the depths of human emotion should choose a format that is by its very nature artificial. While Kaufman showed in Being John Malkovich just how expressive puppets could be, placing the whole story within the world of puppetry is a different thing entirely. However, after about five or ten minutes of watching this film, it became all too evident that Anomalisa could only have worked as an animation. While the story itself is surprisingly simple (given the strikingly complex narratives penned by Kaufman in the past), it is a story that thoroughly embraces the world it inhabits.

The film takes place across a 24-hour period and follows the character of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famed and successful author and expert in customer service going through a midlife crisis. He is unhappy with his work, his family and his station in life and exudes a melancholic air as he drifts aimlessly. He flies into Cincinnati where he is scheduled to deliver a conference and checks into his hotel. Every person to cross his path along the way such as his taxi driver and the bellboy is indistinguishable to him as they all speak with the same inexpressive, monosyllabic voice (Tom Noonan). It isn’t until he hears a voice out in the hallway, an entirely different voice from that possessed by every other character, that he is suddenly awakened from his lethargic state. He discovers that the voice belongs to Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, sheepish woman with low self-esteem who gets embarrassed when receiving any sort of attention. Michael is immediately infatuated and asks her to spend the night with him.

Initially I took this film to be Lost in Translation with puppets, but Anomalisa is actually a very different kind of beast. Although they tackle similar themes of dejection, alienation and romanticism, Kaufman’s is an altogether sadder and stranger film than Coppola’s is. Michael Stone seems at first to be a forlorn soul experiencing a state of estrangement as he traverses this impassive, artificial world. Yet, the more we see, the more one gets the feeling that Michael is the architect of his own misery. After checking into his room he calls up an old flame who lives in Cincinnati, hoping their reunion might lead to something. During their meeting however Michael seems utterly oblivious to the grief he inflicted upon this woman when he left her completely out of the blue eleven years ago. After later meeting Lisa and spending their romantic night together, he readily declares his intention to leave his wife and son for this woman whom he has idealised in his mind only for her to gradually transition into another blank face with that same Tom Noonan voice. Michael shows himself to be less of a crestfallen wanderer than he is a tragically flawed individual doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. His behaviour would be utterly appalling if he weren’t so downright pathetic.

What’s startling about this animation is how it manages to maintain a balance between artificiality and reality. The characters of course look like puppets with their joints and rubber bodies (I should probably mention that there is some puppet nudity in this film that’s handled with a little more artistry than in Team America), but they move and behave like real people. This effect owes just as much to the three actors providing the voices as it does to the puppeteers. So much of the emotion in this film is deftly conveyed through the inflections heard in the dialogue that align perfectly with the carefully crafted facial expressions. The film fully embraces its format as an animation with the use of a collective face and voice being shared by every side character being just one example. There is one particularly great scene following Michael and Lisa’s night of passion that fully demonstrates the effectiveness of this medium in a way that only the mind of Charlie Kaufman could have envisioned.

Just like with any other Kaufman film, Anomalisa is a film that will have to be revisited in order to be fully appreciated. It is abstract in its approach, complex in its thematic discussion and ambiguous in its ending. What resonated most strongly with me however was the emotional weight of it all. This is a tragic film about the agony of mundanity, the strangeness of uniformity and the delusion of an idealised romance. There is a sad beauty to this film, the kind that Charlie Kaufman is so great at depicting. The artificial effect of the puppetry adds an extra dimension to this film that would simply have not been there had it been done in live-action. Anomalisa is just as strange and as fascinating as any one of Kaufman’s other films and is astoundingly unlike any other animated film that I’ve ever come across.

★★★★★

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The Hateful Eight

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino


Nobody does character and dialogue quite like Quentin Tarantino. His command of the English language is both bewildering and astonishing to behold as he crafts astounding cinematic moments through anecdotal conversations and suspenseful monologues. In Pulp Fiction he gave us an entire trivial conversation about hamburgers, TV pilots and foot massages. Not only is this discourse interesting, witty and captivating but also it allows the audience to learn a wealth about the characters and the world they inhabit without them even realising it. The characters themselves are so dynamic, fascinating and entertaining that you cannot help but love them whether they’re ruthlessly vengeful like the Bride, despicably evil like Hans Landa or even sadistically racist like Calvin Candie. This is why I was so excited by the concept of The Hateful Eight. By placing nearly the entirety of his film within a small, secluded cabin, Tarantino has created the perfect environment for his dialogue and characters to truly flourish. The result is stellar.

When a snowstorm strikes deep in the wilderness of Wyoming a collection of unconventional individuals are forced to seek shelter in a cabin and wait the blizzard out. Amongst them are the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the Mexican employee of the haberdashery Bob (Demián Bichir), the Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet cowboy called Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), the civil war general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and another bounty hunter called Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth lets everyone know that he’ll be damned before letting anyone else take his $10,000 bounty from him and will not hesitate to turn his gun on anyone who tries anything suspicious. Tensions rise as these characters start to believe that somebody isn’t who they say they are and so the situation simply plays out from there.

What follows is essentially an Agatha Christie mystery with much more violence, profanity and racism. The real beauty of this film comes from watching the interactions between these characters as they seek to work out what exactly is happening. The tension is rife as they interrogate each other, looking for weaknesses and holes, and wait for somebody to make a move or a mistake. In what is undoubtedly one of the year’s best ensemble performances, the standouts for me were Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The former plays an astute and menacing bounty hunter who constantly gets derided for his race. The role fits Jackson likes a glove as he gives what is quite possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. Leigh meanwhile is a wild, foul-mouthed, erratic criminal who gets sheer glee from being downright malevolent. Amongst an entire group of nefarious characters she is able to distinguish herself as the baddest one in the bunch. These characters take on a life of their own as their actions and interactions propel the story forward and allow the drama to unfold at a rapid yet natural pace.

Tarantino’s dialogue is as always smart, absorbing and stylishly obscene. With each crafty exchange of dialogue and each devious monologue the film’s tension grows more and more palpable as these characters learn more about each other and their situation. The viewer is never quite sure where these characters stand or which ones they can really trust. By setting this film squarely in a cabin surrounded by a tempestuous snowstorm Tarantino allows the claustrophobia to reign supreme as the paranoia slowly seeps in and grows more potent. The film’s build-up of tension is as meticulous and exciting as it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing, also (not coincidentally) starring Kurt Russell. Tarantino’s abilities as a writer and a director shine in this film and are utilised to perfection. Also worthy of praise is Ennio Morricone’s electrifying original score which is every bit as intense and stylish as the dialogue.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this film’s runtime and I simply cannot understand why. The great Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too long and The Hateful Eight is a great movie that makes every minute count. I was completely immersed by the film’s story, characters and dialogue and didn’t look at my watch once during the film’s entire three-hour duration. Tarantino has distinguished himself through his ability to blend genres and what he presents here is a spaghetti-western whodunit that only he could have made. The dialogue is typical Tarantino and is as funny, stimulating and rousing as it has ever been. Every character is compelling and memorable and each one gets a moment in the spotlight. The Hateful Eight is clever, bizarre, intense, unpredictable and riveting. Watching is was an exhilarating experience for me and I think it ranks amongst Tarantino’s best.

★★★★★