Now in Theaters: March 2017

The Oscars may be over and the nominees are gradually retreating from your local multiplex, but there are still a surprisingly large number of good offerings playing in wide release right now (plus, of course, some crap). Here’s a rundown of some of your options this week.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

The original John Wick came out of nowhere and almost immediately placed itself among my favorite action movies to be released in the past decade, alongside the likes of DreddEdge of Tomorrow, both The Raid films and Mad Max: Fury Road. The action was kinetic and intense, the story was only as complicated as it had to be, the world-building was fascinating but stayed at the fringes and practically every frame looked like it could have been transposed from a graphic novel. John Wick came into the world confident and fully formed; while it may not have had a staggering theatrical run it gained new life upon its home release.

So how does Chapter 2 fare by comparison? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s bigger without necessarily being better. The scope has been greatly expanded as befits this film’s larger budget: there are more locations and characters, the body count is a lot higher, Laurence Fishburne shows up in a scenery-chewing bit part just because he can. The whole thing is still a ton of fun (and, correcting one of the few sins of the first film, doesn’t run out of steam at the end), but suffers a bit without being able to ride on the first film’s novelty.

One of the original John Wick‘s biggest strengths was its restraint in regards to telling its backstory: the depths of the Continental’s assassin underground was only hinted at, but viewers got the idea well enough. Appearing to lay the groundwork for a potential (and, given this picture’s box office performance, likely) Chapter 3, John Wick: Chapter 2 starts filling in gaps in the film world and, unlike the original, feels like it has some work to do. Also, event though I was not personally bothered it is worth observing that this franchise’s gun fetishism is starting to feel a little problematic.

It may suffer a bit given some consideration, but John Wick: Chapter 2 still plays well in the theater and, if you care about this sort of thing, absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen. The bonkers gun-fu is still as fast and furious (and well-shot and -edited, too), and there are a few wildly creative action beats that merit the price of admission by themselves; if you liked the first John Wick there’s no reason not to show up for this one.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Expectations are a tricky thing, but I can’t think of any film that blew them away more in recent years than The LEGO Movie. What could have been merely a crass promotional vehicle for a system of interlocking plastic bricks (and Warner Bros.’ stable of intellectual properties) was instead a manic, joyous meta-commentary on creativity and conformity (and a bunch of other things) with a surprising breakout appearance by LEGO Batman (Will Arnett). Could this small but potent comedic force steer an entire movie?

The short answer is yes, with some caveats.

In The LEGO Movie, Batman’s role was mostly to serve as a character’s insecure jerk boyfriend, (sometimes literally) crashing into and commandeering every scene he was in. In his own film LEGO Batman is still an oblivious force of ego, but he’s also revealed to be crippled by his solitude and emotionally stunted. This film gets the character of Batman as well as well as any of its flesh-and-blood cinematic counterparts, and mines that for comedy in a fairly brilliant first act.

As things progress the film begins to lose the thread, or at least run on LEGO autopilot. Even if this is only the second LEGO-related theatrical release, the brand’s sense of humor has been established on TV and in video games for years. The LEGO Batman Movie at times seems confused as to whether it’s about LEGOs or Batman without successfully splitting the difference. The interlocking-brick-based jokes are sometimes funny, but they get in the way an otherwise perfectly good Batman movie instead of enhancing it (particularly towards the ending). Without The LEGO Movie‘s fairly nuanced additional meta layer, the physics jokes sometimes feel overbearing.

Relatively cerebral criticisms aside, The LEGO Batman Movie mostly works well, and is more successful than most of the “straight” Batman films. Every corner of the frame is constantly crammed with detail; the big screen is a more useful ally to this film than you might expect (the IMAX release would have been justified, if only it hadn’t been released the same week as John Wick: Chapter 2, denying the large format-ready actioner the platform). Worth a watch.

 

GET OUT

Get Out is this year’s compulsory horror movie. Every year, there’s usually one horror movie that breaks out of its genre bubble and demands attention from the mainstream (The WitchIt Follows and The Babadook immediately come to mind), and Get Out confidently steps into this slot with its quick and sparing wit, foreboding atmosphere and searing social commentary. The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele of Keye and Peele fame, and marks Peele’s directorial debut. If Get Out is any indication, the wildly swerving genre plays of the sketch show have honed Peele into an assured and versatile filmmaker, and if this is his first I can only imagine what will come next.

If you managed to avoid the super spoiler-y trailers, keep doing that as they give away pretty much everything. For purposes of our discussion, I’ll say the story revolves around a black man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents at a ritzy backwoods estate. Get Out tackles issues of modern race relations in America with as much bluntness as any film I can remember, especially for a mainstream-ish genre film. This is probably the first horror movie specifically about microaggressions.

There are jolts and the whole thing is scary enough, but the film’s real selling point is its deft navigation of tones between horror and comedy. Get Out is cognizant of its place in genre, with its trappings and audience expectations. “Get out” isn’t just a line of dialogue from the film, it’s what audiences are expected to be yelling at the screen. The protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), isn’t stupid and doesn’t make typical horror movie Final Girl mistakes. Another black character, TSA agent and Chris’s friend (comedian Lil Rel Howery) plays an able audience surrogate who provides most of the film’s comic relief but, smartly, is not overutilized.

As a rule I don’t like horror movies, but I saw Get Out twice on its opening weekend and it only improved on the rewatch. This is different and better than your typical studio horror film, and demands to be seen.

LOGAN

This is the X-Men movie I’ve been waiting for.

The complaint I usually lodge against tentpole superhero movies is that they’re way too big and sprawling for their own good, and many of the better ones succeed in spite of their needlessly large stakes (i.e. the first Avengers); however, many get dragged down by the weight of their accumulated nonsense (I couldn’t tell you what happened in X-Men Apocalypse, I mostly recall a bunch of debris flying around and some yelling).

Logan succeeds in part because it stays within a set of limits. It’s still a comic book movie so there are cybernetic limbs and mutant powers and clones and stuff, but Logan is grounded by a certain sense of reality and plausibility whose absence in the main X-Men films and most MCU films keeps their emotional currency at arms length. Running time notwithstanding, Logan is relatively compact in terms of its cast of characters, scale of action sequences and economy of storytelling. The film doesn’t waste moments, or overstuff them.

The fact that Logan is rated R is not immaterial. Blood and gore is of course not necessary for on-screen violence to be effective, but the visceral and grisly nature of Wolverine’s power set always felt a little neutered in a PG-13 setting (I mean, blades come out of the dude’s knuckles for chrissakes). Setting aside the home-release-only R-rated cut of The Wolverine, the level of violence exercised by the character feels thematically appropriate. To the film’s credit the violence is strong without being gratuitous or exploitative, ramping up considerably over the course of the runtime but not distracting from other important things going on.

For the first time in the franchise (and for Marvel-branded movies in general), this is a movie aimed squarely at smart adult audiences. If this is really how Hugh Jackman is going to hang up his claws, he’s gone out on the highest note possible.

Now in Theaters: July 2016

Summer of 2016 has made for a spotty summer movie season, with some fascinating indies and documentaries balanced out by a lot of blockbuster trash.

THE LOBSTER

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I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a screening feeling as terrible as I did after seeing The Lobster. This brutal satire about relationships and modern dating hit very close to home for me in a way I’m not going to dwell on in a film blog, but makes this film extremely difficult for me to review. Intellectually, I understand the film is well-made and well acted, and darkly funny in a way that should have spoken directly to my sensibilities, but I spent the whole time convincing myself not to walk out. Never has a film felt like it was designed so specifically to hurt me, and weeks later I still find myself feeling somewhat resentful towards it. Maybe I can’t take a joke.

That’s not to say The Lobster isn’t a good and competently-made movie, because it is (and one of the best-reviewed of the year, to boot). The cinematography is stark and striking, the pacing is spot-on, and there are great performances all around (Colin Farrell is as good as I’ve ever seen him). I’m not seeing this a lot in the broader conversation, but watching the film struck me as a tense experience with a constant threat of danger, especially in the back half. This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut, previously he was best known for Dogtooth, another transcendentally uncomfortable film.

I’ll make the same recommendation for The Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man, go into this one blind and don’t watch the trailer. This is such a specific film a trailer can’t really do it justice, and it goes into some interesting and unexpected territory in its second half. The basic premise of the film has Colin Farrell arriving at a resort during an unspecified time in the future, and guests at the resort have forty-five days to find a romantic partner before they’re turned into an animal of their choosing. Terrifying stuff.

 

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

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I reluctantly gave the first Now You See Me the benefit of the doubt, but the sequel retroactively makes the original worse by amplifying all its problems. NYSM2‘s structure hews very close to its predecessor to diminishing effects; for a sequel to an already near-pointless film it does little to shake up the game. The Now You See Me franchise is filled with contradictions, they’re loaded with heavy hitting casts (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Woddy Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, etc) that have hideous material to work with, and for ostensibly being about stage magic there’s an awful lot of unconvincing CG. After the half-baked twists in the original, there’s nothing Now You See Me 2 can do that would actually be surprising, so for all the propulsive music and swishy editing the film is incapable of generating any genuine excitement.

As is the case with many weird projects nowadays, the film’s one saving grace is Daniel Radcliffe. He’s clearly having fun playing a wacky villain and gives the film a boost as it flags, but everybody else is just there for the paycheck. Even Woody Harrelson both reprising his character from the first film and playing something of an evil twin is barely worth a mention. Lizzy Caplan fills the token female slot occupied by Isla Fisher in the first outing with similarly underwhelming results. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any reason for you to pay money to see this.

WEINER

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I’m a huge political junkie so was probably more predisposed than the average person to like it, but nonetheless I found Weiner to be absolutely riveting and one of the best films of the year. This documentary follows controversial former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner during the entirety of his 2013 run for New York City mayor,  during which the embattled politician’s sexting scandal kept getting worse and worse. Never have I seen a film that had so much access to a political figure (though keeping with the subject of documentaries about failed political campaigns, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend Mitt on Netflix).

The film shoots straight and doesn’t really pick sides, Anthony Weiner is a breathtakingly problematic individual regardless of his political affiliation and his wounds are self-inflicted. He struggles, he falls, he keeps making horrendous mistakes, completely incapable of not shooting himself in the foot whenever the opportunity presents itself. It seems like the crew must have followed Weiner around almost 24/7, because the amount of raw, honest and sometimes heartbreaking footage is astonishing.

If you’re a politico like me, reason enough to see Weiner is Huma Abedin. Even thought she isn’t interviewed and rarely engages the cameras, the documentary provides what will probably be the clearest portrait of Hillary Clinton’s guarded right-hand woman and Anthony Weiner’s wife. Watching Abedin’s face over the course of the film as the situation keeps getting worse and she struggles to continue supporting her asshat of a husband is both fascinating and devastating to behold. A must watch.

WARCRAFT

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In a summer littered with stinkers, this may be the worst. I fully acknowledge my lack of Warcraft cred, I was a StarCraft guy as a kid and I have no interest in WoW. Would it have helped if I knew the difference between bright-green orcs and grey-green orcs? I highly doubt it. It’s two hours of generic fantasy nonsense, with broad-stroke characters and settings that made perfect sense in a DOS game from the early nineties, but look like a joke in front of today’s sophisticated audiences. I laughed a few times at some particularly horrific bits of dialogue and couldn’t help but chuckle at the sheer absurdity of it all, but this barely even qualifies as a movie. Things happen because plot and the characters are generic fantasy archetypes at best.

I’ve read that a novel facial motion-capture system was developed for this film, and indeed some of the close-ups work on the orcs, especially in the first act, don’t look that bad. Besides some scattered good work though, the visuals in this movie look atrocious. Bright blue and green blasts of magical energy look good in a video game and help you tell units apart, but on a giant movie screen there’s no need for it. The action is your basic PG-13 hacking and slashing, though I continue to be shocked at how much blood can pass under the R-rating limbo stick as long as it isn’t human blood. There are some cute nods to the gaming crowd (in one scene, the action even goes faux-isometric), but less than you’d expect or hope for. There was no reason for the movie to not include an orc yelling “what?”

It completely tanked at the U.S. box office, but WarCraft is nonetheless the highest-grossing movie based on a video game due to its runaway success in China. I know the big studios have to make money any way they can, but a lot of the blockbusters that are designed to do well in Asia are trope-filled, obvious and filled with clunky exposition (think Transformers: Age of Extinction and Independence Day: Resurgence) and this picture fits the made-for-China mold as well as anything. This is one where if you liked it, I won’t be able to convince you otherwise but by the rest of us it’s been rightfully ignored.

 

 

Relax, FINDING DORY is good

There are fewer scarier possibilities for today’s modern moviegoer than a Pixar sequel. I personally cope with this by tempering my excitement for new Pixar fare in a way I didn’t used to, and emotionally holding out as long as I can to see if the films can win me over (Inside Out did, The Good Dinosaur did not). Is it fair to hold every new movie from the studio up to the “Pixar standard?” That’s a big question, but thankfully we can table that discussion for another day because Finding Dory both manages to justify its existence as a sequel to one of the most-loved family films of the ‘aughts and a comfortable addition to the Pixar canon.

Finding Dory feels retroactively necessary to the first film in a way few sequels do, primarily by taking the title to heart and giving Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the role that pushed her back into the mainstream over a decade ago) new dimensions that were only hinted at in Nemo. Her short-term memory loss is taken seriously as a disability instead of a cute narrative device, and the consequences of her mental handicap are brought into an uncomfortable new light. The sadness in her parents’ eyes as they try to teach a young (and dangerously cute) Dory how to survive is an unforgettable beat.

Dory’s search for her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) provides the narrative thrust for the story, and their clear love for their daughter (expressed through extensive and meticulously-constructed flashbacks) and how that manifests is the most touching take-away from the film. The movie doesn’t venture into the same three-hankie territory as Up or Toy Story 3, but in some ways that’s a relief. There are a few big emotional moments that land well, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.

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The film struggles for the first half hour as it covers familiar territory (there’s an action beat designed to mirror the shark scene from the first film that doesn’t feel essential), and straightens out and takes off like a rocket once it sidelines Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for Alexander Gould). Dory’s new foil is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill) who provides some comic edge and visual dynamism that help the film tremendously. Hope you like tentacles. There are interesting hints in the script that Hank has had a rough go of it, but they’re mostly subtextual touches for those who are paying attention.

Like the best Pixar films, Finding Dory is both consistently and unexpectedly funny. Pixar films are workshopped and tweaked within an inch of their lives, and while this vetting process may take away a sense of individual authorship, it means few jokes are duds. The few obvious pop culture references (some obvious but very funny references to Inception and Alien come to mind) work and won’t date the film but most of the biggest laughs come from well-constructed character moments. Also, make sure you stay through the credits.

It’s not top-tier Pixar (neither, arguably, is Finding Nemo), but it’s a very worthwhile addition to the studio’s stable and justifies its existence in a way that’s unexpected and heartening. Unlike the lesser Pixar sequels (ahem, Cars 2 and Monsters University) Dory succeeds by staying true to its source material and expanding on it meaningfully, as opposed to trying to switch genres or get too clever. You’re going to see Finding Dory no matter what, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

Now Streaming: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

In an effort to be slightly more relevant to my friends who don’t go out to the multiplex all the time, I present Now Streaming. This series will feature interesting films that are accessible to pretty much everyone from home (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now/Go)Our subject today, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is currently available on Netflix.

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In an early scene from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final film in Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson’s loose trilogy about the human condition, an aging, pasty-looking man struggles to uncork a bottle of wine while his wife sings to herself and prepares dinner in the next room. After a half-dozen or so increasingly desperate pulls at the cork, the man appears to suffer a heart attack and collapses on the floor, his wife oblivious to his struggle. The scene cuts.

Following that, we see a mother on her deathbed surrounded by her adult children. One of them is late, and is appalled to see she clutches a bag filled with her expensive jewelry which she intends to take with her to the afterlife. He vainly attempts to wrestle the bag from her while she screams in protesting, berating her in the film’s native Swedish, “that’s not how it works!”

In the next scene, crew members of a ferry hunch over the body of a man who died just after he paid for his beer and sandwich. The crew is left with a dilemma: what to do with the food that’s already been purchased? After a pause, a bystander offers to take the beer, with a noncommittal shrug.

These three “meetings with death” come close to the beginning of the film and give a good idea of what’s in store: Andersson’s deep-focus, perpetually-static camera gazing upon tragicomic dioramas conveying the merciless bleakness of human existence. As with the other films ‘s Andersson’s Living trilogy, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, every shot is static and in deep focus, allowing the viewer ample time to take in the meticulously composed mise-en-scene of each frame. Almost any still in the movie would be suitable for framing.

Some of these sequences are more connected than others, over the course of the film certain characters reappear multiple times (about a quarter of the scenes focus on a pair of miserable novelty-item salesmen, nobody wants to buy fake vampire teeth) and some running gags show up consistently. Several key lines of dialogue appear in different contexts (many characters participate in identical one-sided phone conversations, telling whoever is one the other end of the line, “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine,” though clearly none are happy).

In the film’s final twenty minutes or so, the film takes a turn towards physical violence, and the necessity of this shift is debatable. Let’s be real though, you’re going to be watching this on Netflix and if you’ve already made it 85 minutes in, you’re committed. I laughed more during this film than I do for most things, and I’m not really sure what that says about me. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a little bit of patience, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is fascinating and absolutely worth a watch.

Now in Theaters: May/June 2016

We’re in the peak of the summer movie season, and the results are mixed. Let’s examine:

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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I’m calling it now, this is going to go down as an important movie. Captain America: Civil War represents the full potential of Marvel’s brand of serialized filmmaking. It took Marvel Studios almost a decade of careful planning and patience that their distinguished competition seems to lack to arrive at a film that could not have existed until now. Marvel could slam-dunk this due primarily to the strength of their brand, their audience was already fully on-board before even buying their tickets.

Civil War blasts out of the gate so assuredly, it doesn’t even bother with opening credits. Besides the Marvel after the cold open, there are no title cards or credits of any kind, even for the title  of the film. Instead of sitting politely in the corner of the frame like they would in any other blockbuster, location cards blare in massive white block letters that fill the entire screen. Characters are referred to by their first names almost exclusively, even if we haven’t seen them in a while (he’s Clint, no need to call him Hawkeye). The film also unafraid to put characters we like in a morally ambiguous situation in which nobody is fully right.

Civil War is an interesting adaptation of tricky source material. Some of the biggest moments in the comic arc simply can’t happen in the current state of the MCU (Spider-Man unmasking himself, a bunch of X-Men and Fantastic Four stuff), and personally I wasn’t in thrall of the comics anyway. The film retains some of the bigger things from the comics (the Superhero Registration Act becomes the Sokovia Accords, the Raft goes from being trans-dimensional space prison to sea prison), but instead performs the tricky high-wire act of being both a second sequel in the Captain America series and an Avengers-level cinematic event.

Civil War is big, and plenty of stuff blows up, but the story unspools itself in a  manner that deliberately deconstructs the structure of typical superhero fare. The movie builds in the scope of its action and ensemble of characters until it reaches the masterful and thoroughly cathartic airport sequence, then pares itself back down until only three characters remain to duke it out by the end of the third act. An even dozen heroes (all of whom we actually know) come to blows in the best action sequence in any superhero film ever, but we never forget this is a Captain America movie first.

Civil War is still a Marvel Studios joint, and the genre still has its limitations. The musical score is useless. Besides some second-unit work from the guys that shot the Raid films and some interesting decisions in the final fight, much of the cinematography would blend in with any other Marvel movie. This is all par for the course, though, and doesn’t detract from this film’s set of mammoth accomplishments. Civil War is an absolute tour de force. Go see it again.

 

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

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This one was a pleasant surprise. Neighbors 2 is not tremendously substantive, but it’s smarter than you would think and takes a bemused but thoughtful look at our modern expectations of feminism. The films mirrors the structure of the first Neighbors‘s battle between adjacent lots (same houses, too), but instead of just settling entirely for gross embarrassment comedy acts as an exploration of gender dynamics. The word ‘sexism’ is bandied around a lot and examined in multiple contexts. It also goes out of its way to normalize gay relationships in a way that’s a little heavy-handed but nonetheless appreciated.

Neighbors 2 is a lot of fun, and doesn’t waste time getting too dark. In its own quietly amusing way, it sets up some situations that could be escalated to disastrous levels, but never do. It moves right along and while some of the gross-out stuff isn’t very helpful, it doesn’t get bogged down in endless riffing and remains almost entirely affable and well-meaning. Even Rose Byrne tones it down a little bit. I also continue to find myself surprised by how much I consistently like Zac Efron. I laughed maybe half a dozen times, which is pretty good for me. It’s not essential, but definitely worth a rent when it shows up at your corner Redbox in a few months.

 

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

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I don’t know what it is, but I can’t bring myself to care about the X-Men. I didn’t watch them on TV growing up, and the first X-Men movie I saw in theaters was Days of Future Past. For whatever reason I never connected with the property, and unfortunately Apocalypse did nothing to change that.

X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a terrible movie, but it has the grave misfortune of being released on the heels of the titanic critical and commercial successes of Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, both of which make this movie look antiquated by comparison. Every silly superhero trope that Civil War attempts to deconstruct or Deadpool skewers, Apocalypse barrels into with a grimace and energy beam blast. An awful lot of stuff, especially in the first act, happens because, plot. We now live in a post-Civil War world where just seeing everyone together looking like we expect them to isn’t enough anymore.

With a title like Apocalypse, the movie pigeonholed itself before the script got its first scene heading. As you’d expect, the “stakes” are world-ending, but for all the buildings crumbling and metal particles flying around, I didn’t get a feeling of massive scale like I expected. This is probably due in part to some unfortunately shoddy CG work that disassociates the massive destruction from the spaces the characters inhabit. The film also shoehorns in a few scenes of destruction in places that have no relation to the plot. The action’s climax is staged amid boring piles of rubble.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have much familiarity with the property outside of the films, but I thought there was a lot of stuff in this movie that wasn’t particularly helpful. Like Days of Future Past there’s a flashy Quicksilver sequence that stops the narrative cold for several minutes, but there’s less novelty value this time around. (minor spoiler ahead!) Following the Quicksilver sequence, there’s a lengthy detour that exists just to put Wolverine on-screen for a few minutes, after which he literally scurries away to get back to his own movies. In terms of character motivations, everything to do with the titular villain and his posse is a little too far on the side of implausible. We don’t really need yet another Magneto redemption arc, as serviceable as this one is. It’s all a little too much.

If you’re already in the bag for this movie, there’s plenty of stuff you’ll like. I’m just not sure what the point of the whole thing is.

Review: The quiet devastation of ANOMALISA

Over the course of his film career, writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has proven himself exemplary at the fine art of making me feel like shit and like it. His latest, Anomalisa, continues this trend and marks another splendid entry into the Kaufman canon, blending quirky melancholy, absurdist fantasy and heartbreaking disappointment into a distinctively singular work. It’s also his first foray into stop-motion animation, and he utilizes the medium in a unique way that somehow makes the film feel more human than if the actors were human.

Anomalisa originated from a 2005 stageplay written by Kaufman and was funded in part from a Kickstarter campaign; it’s an intensely personal story he’s been harboring for a long time. Its origins on stage makes sense: the story is small, takes place in only a few setting with only a few characters, and over the course of about a day. Many scenes take place in real-time or close to it.

The film follows a middle-aged business traveler as he spends a night in a high-end Cincinatti hotel before giving a speech the next morning. Within the first few moments of the film, and without it ever being verbally stated, it’s clear the traveler, Michael Stone, is hopelessly lost in life (in a thematic echo to the story and as a nod to Kaufman’s long-standing interest in neuroses and mental disorders, Stone stays at the “Hotel Fregoli,” named after a delusion in which the sufferer thinks multiple people are actually the same person). That he meets the title character and they make a connection almost goes without saying if you’ve so much as seen a trailer, but the true joys of the movie lie in discovery, watching as the world is established and it becomes clear all is not as it should be.

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Anomalisa truly looks like no film that has come before. In a departure from the stop-motion medium’s typical flights of visual fantasy, Anomalisa takes place in an exhaustively realistic (and mundane) world in miniature. Besides the physical spaces the puppets inhabit, the film’s realism comes from its pacing and action. The first act painstakingly follows Stone as he lands in Cincinnati, has a useless conversation with his cabbie and checks in at the hotel. His check-in, in particular, is documented in one slow, methodical take that takes him from the front desk, up an elevator and down a hallway to his room over several minutes.  Nothing “of consequence” happens, but the effect is subtly powerful. In technical terms the “long take” is a bit of a fallacy in animation, but Anomalisa has a few of these very long sequences that contribute to the film’s heightened surreality.

It seems counterintuitive but this film, under the direction of Duke Johnson, depicts moments of emotional and sexual intimacy that are as frank and honest as any I’ve seen on film. The sex scene that has anchored much of the conversation in this film mostly transpires in another of those chilling long takes. If we’re going there, it’s easily the most graphic puppet sex I’ve seen since Team America: World Police.

Much of the joy of watching Anomalisa comes from slowly inhabiting the world, learning the rules and being present in intense emotional moments with the characters so I’ll go light on plot, but rest assured, the film leaves the same kind of emotional wreckage observed in the wake of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s bleakly bittersweet persective on love and loss pulls no punches and leaves just as strong an impression as the truly unique design aesthetic. Highly recommended.

Review: Hail HAIL CAESAR!

Why is it coming out in February?

That was the thought swimming around in the back of my mind as I saw all the amazing trailers and promo spots for Hail Caesar!, the latest directorial project from the Coen Brothers. It looked good, had an amazing cast, Coens writing and directing, Roger Deakins behind the camera, why was this film getting buried after Oscar nominations come out?

The answer quickly became apparent as I watched: it’s too fun for the awards circuit. Hail Caesar! is a straight-up slapstick comedy, designed more for the purposes of joy and laughter than any kind of deeper philosophical or thematic conquest. A lot of jokes involve people falling down or getting slapped in the face. It’s not quite as outlandish or broad as The Ladykillers (there’s no equivalent to the “you brought your bitch to the muthafuckin’ Waffle Hut!” moment), which is good, but it’s fun and silly while still retaining that unique Coen artfulness.

As is any project shot by Roger Deakins nowadays (most recently his Oscar-nominated work on Sicario comes to mind), Hail Caesar looks gorgeous. The film is presented in a tall 1:85:1 aspect ratio (think 16×9 TV as opposed to traditional matted widescreen) and has a warm celluloid glow to it. Several sequences take place on film sets and feature “in-camera” shots presented in full-frame Academy ratio for authenticity. Scarlett Johansson’s elaborately-staged entrance is particularly striking in the unusual ratio. There are several repeated visual motifs (clock and watch faces, a particular camera angle used in the tracking shots where Josh Brolin interacts with his dutiful secretary) that hint at the cruel drudgery of the period’s constant chaos (Hail Caesar! takes place in roughly one day of film time).  Hail Caesar marks Roger Deakins’s return to shooting on film (though don’t get used to it), and the decision makes perfect sense for the post-war era in which the movie takes place.

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Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail Caesar! (Universal)

Performances are stellar across the board, but what else could be expected from Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Alison Pill and Tilda Swinton (playing twins!) being directed by the Coens? It’s clear everyone is having a great time and the material is whip-smart. Channing Tatum, with little dialogue and only a few minutes of screen time, threatens to run away with the entire movie. His tap-dance extravaganza, hinted at in the trailers, is the scene to beat this year.

The story revolves frantically around a Hollywood studio fix-it man (Brolin) who goes about his day solving casting problems in various pictures, hiding his testy stars’ indiscretions from the public and attempting to free a ransomed actor (Clooney) who needs to be on set to avoid production delays. Characters and their problems flit in and out, contributing to a patchwork, sometimes intersecting, sometimes not.

The film has an interesting sense of comedic timing, and several moments stand out that I wouldn’t dare spoil. Suffice to say, sometimes the jokes come rapid-fire but a few are very slow burns. There are a ton of visual gags and there’s no lack of pratfalls and physical comedy. For a Coen joint it’s remarkably tame, and only even got a PG-13 rating for smoking (not going there today) and a few mildly dirty jokes. You can take your mom.

It’s not going to be the best film of the year or anything, but Hail Caesar! has a lot going on and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it looks like a zany comedy. It’s still a Coen Brothers film and has the requisite brains to go along with its charm and good looks. Go see it with a crowd.