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"Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that."
(Michael Stone, voice of David Thewlis)
"And so it goes," Kurt Vonnegut might have said about Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's Anomalisa, an eerie stop-motion animation about a customer service motivational speaker who goes through the usual boredom of a night in a lonely city. Lost in Translation's tepid welcome of a fading movie star (Bill Murray) comes to mind immediately.
The Michael Stone quote headlining this review is a cliché he uses in his speech to his customer service conference attendees. Yet it masks the challenge Michael faces each moment of his existential agony: With a world of puppet-like, look alike creatures, Michael searches not only for their individuality but also for his place among them and the happiness that is eluding him.
The defining action for him is his romantic relationship before his lecture with one of his fans from the admiring audience. Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a demure, plain young call-center rep thrilled by his attention and hardly versed in the steps of romance. Yet, because of her quirky individuality and his limited charm, they get along, giving Michael a brief moment of rebellion (he does have a family, after all).
There's a disguised depth this animation gives in the face of not distinguished characters and even less action. However, the everyday business is weighted with the sympathy we may have for this lost middle-aged, unremarkable character. His searches, his losses are ours made unique in his being a puppet. Therein may be the grandeur of this animation: If identity is so difficult for a puppet to find, how insane is our human search?
Perhaps that is the genius of Charlie Kaufman. Look up his filmography on IMDb: It's impressively odd and, well, brilliant. Just don't expect anything extraordinary on the surface, except maybe a puppet sex scene. In the end the exterior banality will force you to look inside yourself for sympathy with the characters. Don't despair because a night in another town isn't usually that great anyway.
"Each person you speak to has had a day, some other days have been good, some bad." Stone
"If they are sullied it is your fault!" Dad to Grandma in a
religiously-conservative Turkish household.
Five beautiful Turkish sisters in the exquisite film, Mustang, endure torture sometimes mentally unbearable (for them and the audience) as they suffer the consequences of playing innocently in the sea with a few lads. Grandma, as you can see in the quote above, suffers as she wrestles with the old against the new.
While I have heard that around the world conservatism can be unfair to women, this Turkish setup is both realistic and unreal at the same time: Marrying off young women as a way of curbing their youthful vigorstrict but effective in a conservative world where virginity before marriage is a necessity and non-virginity a death sentence, at least metaphoric and sometimes literal, I fear. A scene in the hospital checking a girl's virginity after her honeymoon is disturbing.
Writer/director Deniz Gamze Erguven and writer Alice Winocour have crafted a story for the ages about how women continue at the hands of patriarchs and the establishment to suffer the loss of freedoms we take for granted. Pre-teen Lale (Gunes Sensoy) witnesses the steady peeling off of her sisters for marriage while she plots an exit she hopes will scale the iron gates and gratings her Uncle has constructed to short-circuit their rampant joie-de-vivre.
It's not so much the realism (but unreal beautiful girlsnow, come on casting, do they have to be that good looking? Hey, wait, my 5 daughters were!). That bit of implausibility is neutralized by a sense of conservative Turkish life as accurately showing the prisons young women can inhabit, called home. Each occurrence of sisters' showing spunk or plain life seems countered by old women steering them into lives of virtue, namely serving men.
Yet, girls will not easily be contained: Young Lale secretly learns how to drive in order one day to bolt to liberal Istanbul. The film balances this rebellion against the girls' increasing imprisonment. Although some might liken the Mustang girls to the five Lisbon sisters of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, the difference is in the cultures: The Lisbon sisters were living some of the dream, and the Mustang girls never had it at all.
Then there is my favorite Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which school girls vanish into the rock. That's probably figurative for the evanishing innocence of teenage girls but more probably how some cultures are hell bent on making women just fade away.
"I became a lesbian because of women, because women are beautiful,
strong, and compassionate." Rita Mae Brown
"Measured," "minimalist," "downtempo," and "underplayed" are four adjectives among many to be applied to the distinctive indie art film, Carol. Each one is a compliment to director Todd Haynes, who has perfectly evoked the '50's of Patricia Highsmith's then thought-to-be potboiler, The Price of Salt.
That was then, for now lesbian love stories have to wait in a long line of daring pop cult such as transgender stories. The mature Carol (Cate Blanchett) and shop-girl Therese (Rooney Mara) fall in love through a series of longing looks in the first 20 minutes that seem stretched to infinity.
However the film is a classy allegory about the repressive middle of the last century when a woman could lose her child for loving another woman. Such is the heart of the tensionwill Carol lose custody? Will she be able to get visitation? How damaging is a recording of her with her lover? Seems pretty tame by contemporary standards, but Haynes makes each frame carry a gravity that the times would lay on such lawless action.
Will the ladies get the Oscar nod? I think so although it will be a challenge to separate consideration of the vigorous Cate in Truth and the nuanced Cate in Carol. In the former, Cate plays Mary Mapes, the high-profile producer of a disputed 60 minutes segment; in the latter she is an understated society wife whose actions are reminiscent of a spy, who must hold her cards close or be exposed and punished.
I have a working knowledge of the '50's, and this film is spot on from costuming to set design, from the cars to the chatter. Along with that accuracy is the evocation of the prejudice women were subjected to then and a bit even today. The comfort of it all to me is that we no longer smoke in restaurants. Hooray!
"It's a curious, wanting thing." Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
"Nature red in tooth and claw" Tennyson
The 19th century's romanticism and growing naturalism inspired Tennyson to describe in these lines the dark side as Darwin would change forever our benign view of man and nature. Director/writer Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu and writer Mark L. Smith adapt Michael Punke's novel in a naturalistic way that makes the 156 minutes seem as long as it must have taken noted explorer Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio) in the 1820's to recover from being buried alive in the wilderness he helped open.
After being mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrade in trapping, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who also murders Glass's son in front of him, Glass drags himself 200 miles! back to civilization to exact revenge. Although it is a survival/revenge story, with the usual formulaic occurrences, DiCaprio and Hardy succeed in making it real, tortured, and visceral in the extreme.
I can try to guess how much discomfort DiCaprio went through for this Oscar-worthy performance, which lacks only the variety and nuance of speech that characterizes frequent Oscar winners. What the role demands and delivers is the almost insane will to survive and revenge.
A heavy dose of naturalism (not just realism but realism with bedrock of rawness and violence) is best exemplified in the mother bear protecting her cubs by savaging Glass, a tour de force scene. The Pawnee Indians also illustrate the harsh world with one chief briefly cataloguing what the white man has taken from the tribes.
Needless to say, the cinematography by Tree of Life's Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning in sharp grey to reflect the winter conditions that contrast with the snow. Rarely does the sun shine, and in figurative terms it shouldn't because this is a grim world where animal pelts are a man's riches, and a life can be lost for a simple miscalculation or an indifference bred of Nature's seeming carelessness for human life.
Glass accepts, as all must, Nature's final demand: "I ain't afraid to die anymore. I'd done it already."
"One of them fellas'll kill everybody in here..." John 'The Hangman'
Ruth (Kurt Russell)
Quentin Tarantino movies, such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, linger like pop culture artifacts long into the memories of geeks and movie lovers. The Hateful Eight will follow along those lines with its emphasis on light-hearted violence that supports themes of racism sexism, and nationalism, among others.
"The Hangman" bounty hunter John Ruth is transporting Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hanged in Red Rock, and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) has a couple of dead bodies to be transported in the same stage coach for collecting his bounty. Stuck at a way station in a Wyoming storm in post-Civil War, they and five other shady types spend two days sizing each other up and eliminating the bounty competition.
Underneath the gruff exterior of each eccentric character is a point the gifted director is making: Daisy is a woman, most unusual to be hanged in any age, but just as unlikeable and ornery as any of the rotten men--a sure-fire comment on today's egalitarian military.
Warren is regularly referred to as "Nigger," reminding us that racism is both in our history over a hundred years ago and our present. Yet, he commands the stage as he demands respect even to claiming a personal letter from President Lincoln, a comment on the liberation of blacks long ago and the lingering combat with whites.
Some will be put off by the pervasive violence. However, violence is a part of the Tarantino experience, a statement about the dangerous culture we live in and the need to trivialize it in order to defeat it.
Besides, some of the film's humor comes from the unexpected mayhem and t casual way characters commit it (think Travolta and Jackson characters in Pulp Fiction). Fortunately most of the characters seem to deserve their fates, making the experience cathartic to some degree.
Because much of the action takes place inside the station, Tarantino is able to compose his shots like a stage play in which the antagonists can face off against each other in the frame, whose 70 mm projection allows for serious space between to emphasize their individual isolation. That's not to say the director is negligent in his wide open shots outdoors--the snow covered landscape with the six horse stage coaches in the distance is thrillingly made for the 70 mm. A nomination should be forthcoming.
Although The Hateful Eight is not my favorite Western, as The Magnificent Seven is, it ranks next to Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles and Tarantino's Django Unchained for tickling me about the genre I grew up on.
"Now, what would make a man brave a blizzard and kill in cold blood? I'm sure I don't know! You'd be surprised what a man would do . . . ." Major Marquis Warren
"Why would a man take his own life at the age of 50?" Dr. Bennet Omalu
For 28% of pro footballers, head problems not just restricted to dizziness are a result of the pounding every week in the NFL. Dr Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, in Concussion, based on a true story, begins in 2002 the outside-of-the-league autopsies that will eventually expose the CTE impairment and other life-threatening results of the professional battering.
As gently and convincingly played by Will Smith, the doctor eventually gets the NFL and world's attention by scientifically exploring the dead bodies of former players. As in the tobacco wars, the corporation, in this case the league, denies any connection, but that stand is bound to deteriorate as devoted scientists and doctors who know the players are forced to admit the causal relationship.
The film is absorbing when it plays like a medical thriller, perhaps like something Michael Crichton would write in non science fiction. When Concussion tries to integrate the more melodramatic elements of Dr. Omalu's life such as his marriage and the couple's miscarriage, the film becomes mired in tears and melancholy, unfitting for a story worth telling about the professional struggle alone.
Concussion's emphasis on the need for public awareness of the probable danger of tackle football is well presented, even though the NFL seems like a Bond villain's empire. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue started The Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury to explore the injuries and left the results with new commissioner, Roger Goodell.
Although settlement for players ensued, the concussions are still around.
Based on a true story, Joy depicts the rise of the titular female
inventor and entrepreneur, Jennifer Lawrence, who rose to fame by
hawking her Miracle Mop on QVC. The story is much more than about
business success, for Joy is a 1970's housewife who supports four
generations in her house, including her ex-husband, Tony (Edgar
One of the strengths is the sympathetic but realistic tale of more than one failure by a woman who has had enough of it early on in her life. That she is a woman is a card never played by director David O. Russell, who could have legitimately called on it in a time when Joan Rivers and a few other accomplished women were just beginning to break through the ceiling.
Neal (Bradley Cooper), the producer of QVC, gives her the first break, but not because she's a beautiful, albeit untried inventor, but because she can sell him on her mop. Even with a businessman father, Joy has serious business setbacks that would have crushed a lesser human. But she is resilient and resistant to awkward attempts to direct her business by an unauthorized sister and his dad's wealthy girlfriend, among others.
Although Russell has danced through several dramatic and comedic hits, most with Lawrence and Cooper, I can't remember his intruding the drama with awkward voice over narration by Joy's grandmother (Diane Ladd). The smooth-running film didn't need help from a voice, even if it projects into the future to explain Joy's success to come.
Joy is a solid drama peppered with humor and a fine ensemble: De Niro is no stranger to playing a conflicted father with a big heart, and Ramirez does a good Bobby Cannavale from Venezuela.
"Synthetic collateralized debt obligation . . ."
A docudrama about the bank-mortgage failures of 2008 has the potential for being BORING. Not so with Margin Call, which dealt with discovering the bank failures in a pleasingly clear exposition that kept the drama high and the technical explanations simple. With the same writer along for the ride, The Big Short is not quite as digestible about sub-prime mortgage shorting (see above phrase) but clear enough to see some very smart people betting against the mortgages, profiting if they fail.
But that means hoping our fellow Americans will bail out the banks, which they did through massive government infusion of money. Mark Baum (Steve Carrel) is the conscience in a film full of amoral opportunists, most of whom were just living the American dream by siphoning fees from outrageously easy loans. Yet even Mark is not perfect.
Christian Bale as Mike once again shows he is in the top tier of film actors along with Daniel Day Lewis and Tom Hardy. Mike is the one who first spies the sub-prime pattern of weak loans to workers who can't eventually keep up with payments or whose houses have put them "underwater." His sleuthing and profiting represent the ethical dilemma the film so well and regularly showcases: Does anyone care for the little guy while you are cashing in.
What The Big Short has in spades, however, is humor, e.g., "Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I'll have my wife's brother arrested." Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) The technical terms mixing with street language are frequently parsed by characters or text that makes sense. Many clear lessons are delivered by pop-cult notables like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdon, whose command of the spoken word helps relax the film's more arcane moments.
Super cast, even producer Brad Pitt has a pivotal role as a retired trader. The smart dialogue, effective close ups, and made-to-order topicality offer The Big Short as a movie to see while we move into Oscar's season.
The recent documentary Amy, depicting singer Amy Winehouse's rise and
fall at about the same age as Janis Joplin reminds me that all rockers
are not the same, especially females. Janis: Little Girl Blue depicts
Joplin as much more focused than Amy and much more in control of her
own life. Except for in death, where both succumb to substance abuse,
even the relatively more stable Amy.
This Janis doc does an effective job showing the arc of her brief life, from a country girl in Texas to the rocker who led the way for women in the industry and eventually the world. Why the eventual failure given her great fame and fortune? It's simple, really: She wanted to be loved, and not always finding that devotion, she could turn to music and drugs for support and fulfillment.
Along the way, the doc gives insight into what makes this blues mama run: In her own words she says ambition is the desire to be loved. She's not a "Cry Baby" about not getting the love she wanted from some of her friends and family; actually family members talk to us and appear to have supported her through it all.
Her straight-laced parents couldn't be expected to wholly embrace the counter-culture queen, who began innocently singing folk tunes in her early teens and ended singing blues that reminded one critic of "desperate mating calls." Professionally she gets plenty of love from the likes of Khris Kristofferson, whose Me & Bobby Magee was her best-selling single ever and band mate David Goetz, who observed that she turned into a caricature of the blues mama that the media had helped to create. Dick Cavett interviews her with an unusual affection different from his usually detached persona. At one point he can't remember if they were intimatea nice touch of amnesia that doesn't belie a bit his attachment to her.
Janis: Little Girl Blue informs about Joplin's career from folk to hard blues, gives insight into the driving emotions of her ambition, and amply shows her singing talents that made her a child of Aretha Franklin and her own person.
A greatly satisfying bio of a great singer.
"How do we blow it up? There's always a way to do that." Han Solo
Although the above looks like a toss off, wisecracking line from the ultimate aging buccaneer, it does reflect the spirit of the seventh edition of the Star Wars franchise: can-do, keep 'em laughing when you go, life is simplethe light and the dark. Once again the Star Wars world lights up with the youthful vigor it showed for the first time in 1977.
Director J.J. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan and his crew have crafted a space opera that not only replicates the original by having its major players return as elder statesmen: Solo, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but it also adds attractive new comers as if they were replacing the last three. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is like a new Solo, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is like a much more active Leia, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is like the less formidable Darth Vader. They are all fitting new heroes, promising the series life for years to come.
This time the good guys of light, The Resistance, are fighting the well-organized forces of the dark, The First Order. The good vs. evil is nothing new in its motifs and attitudes, but the characters within are full of life and individuality, even the bad guys. Above them all is the swashbuckling Solo, played with such finesse and charm by Ford that you may long to have him front and center in the subsequent chapters. Yet, the melancholic feel you have watching him do his smart-alecky turn is recognizing you must let him go to the newer modelthat's life, and that's the humanity underlying the swagger of him and the film.
When Solo and Leia meet, these two veteran actors underplay with tenderness for each other and presumably their careers that thoughts of them as disposable and old school are dispelled. She is after all, a general in the resistance and he the same old adventurer. George Lucas sure knew what he was doing. Now it's not his anymore but a brilliant Force called Disney.
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