Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anomalisa


The animated feature film Anomalisa, conceived and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and Duke Johnson, is an insightful treatment of disconnection and alienation -- portrayed through stop-motion puppetry. It's astonishing not simply because of the fluid detai in its crafting but the smartness of its conceit: As we age and retreat from life a stifling and stiffening sameness descends that is lifted, occasionally, if we're lucky, by something (someone) genuine and unaffected. That's the story of human relations guru Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewliss) who flies from L.A. to Cincinnati to deliver yet another talk to customer service personnel who read and "loved" his book on the importance of recognizing the humanity in our patrons. Oddly, for Stone, every other person looks and sounds the same (voiced by Tom Noonan) except the shy and damaged (physically and emotionally) Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who drove down from Akron with a friend just for Michael's speech. They provide one another reprieve for a night and the morning delivers, along with scrambled eggs and Belgian waffles, a glimpse of new possibilities. Though the characters are cozy felt figurines, this is no children's feature, as it includes scenes of graphic nudity and simulated sexual relations. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Revenant


The fellow in front of me at the cinema asked the clerk for a ticket to the "mountain man movie." I'm not sure if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant delivered the kind of story that patron was expecting but it IS a tale of a primordial survivalist, who rises from a snowy grave to seek revenge with nothing but his will and a knife. Leonardo DiCaprio is such a fine actor that little needs to be said about the quality of his performance. He is riveting as tracker and guide Hugh Glass, who is attached to a fur trade operation in the western frontier. Bands of Arikaree Indians rout white settlements in answer for the pillaging done during the westward expansion. DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, who had met and fathered a son with an Indian woman, survived such pillaging with only their son, whom he is devoted to. During one of the film's most harrowing scenes, Glass is nearly gutted by a mama bear while scouting. He is left in the care of his rival, an angry and murderous trapper from Texas named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who quickly grows impatient with the badly wounded Glass and tries to help him shuffle off his mortal coil. Glass's son tries to stop him and is murdered for his trouble in front of his father. The horribly mauled Glass is left for dead in a shallow grave, and Fitzgerald and a conscientious but outmatched young trapper named Bridgers (Will Poulter) head back to the fort through some of the most beautiful and treacherous terrain imaginable. A combination of willfulness and beneficence from the Great Spirit moves Glass to drag himself out of the tomb and onto the trail to find Fitzgerald and avenge his son ... and himself. The film is a cinematic feast, astounding and overwhelming (as is much of Inarritu's work), but it is unmercifully bleak and bloody. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Danish Girl


The beauty and truth in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl will not be lost on those who can imagine the pain of being absolutely certain about something that no one else can see. The film, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, stars Eddie Redmayne as Einer and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, a young Danish couple, both painters in the 1920s, who discover his peculiar secret after she asks him to pull on a pair of hose and lady's slippers so that she can finish the portrait of an absent model. What at first appears to be just a fetish for women's garments -- a game for the young lovers -- soon blossoms into his awakening as a woman in a man's body. Then begins a journey that ends with his undergoing dangerous surgery to align body and soul. Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) is far too intelligent to give this story, which is based on the life of an actual transgender pioneer, over to melodrama and anachronistic political pronouncements. It is firmly rooted in the world of the early 20th century with all of its ignorance and inhumanity. In fact, the film has a reverential tone -- set by its sets, music and pacing. It's all lovely but, alas, rather joyless. None of this is the fault of Redmayne or Vikander, who bear Einer's transition to Lili in different but utterly believable ways. Early in the film, Hooper stages a scene with Einer venturing out as Lili to a party with Gerda. At the party, Lili unwittingly draws the attention of a young man (Ben Whishaw) whose proposition to the not quite beautiful and mysterious Danish girl is pitched perfectly, masterful and elegant, which makes the scene -- and the film -- all the more heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Hateful Eight

 
Quentin Tarantino is a student of history but certainly not in any conventional sense. His bloody revisionist histories of both Nazi Germany (Inglourioius Basterds) and the Antebellum South (Django Unchained) delighted his many fans who relish the visual and auditory barrage his films offer. The Hateful Eight is a reading of the post-Civil War westward expansion that features his signature verbosity and violence. Eight snowbound travelers -- criminals, bounty hunters, lawmen and some unaccountable others -- huddle together in a remote mercantile in Wyoming and relive the horrors of the War Between the States, racial and ethnic animosities and the wholesale denigration of womanhood when death comes a-calling. The story actually has the structure and perhap the intentions of a classic drawing room murder mystery but is in fact an orgiastic 70 mm visceral feast of revenge and vindication as only Tarantino can stage it. It features several of the auteur's old reliable players -- Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth -- and a few new faces, most notably Kirk Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins. QT is an acquired taste and his eighth feature, while quite often brilliant, is not for the self-serious or the squeamish.
 

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