Archive for April, 2016


victoria-1The one-take gimmick is nothing new in cinema. Hitchcock gave it a shot back in 1948 with Rope, while most recently we have had Birdman employ camera trickery to imply an effect of one seamless take. It is often a joy to behold such a technique employed, be it for the course of the whole film or a sustained moment within. It is worth noting that Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria is a film which unravels all within one continuous shot, as if you didn’t know it may be difficult to actually notice. Victoria does incredibly well to avoid shots in which it is obvious where a cut takes place, leading to one of the more seamless examples of continuous editing that certainly I have ever seen. A gimmick is just that though if it doesn’t have a greater meaning for either the narrative or the characters within the piece. Thankfully, Victoria has plenty of character and narrative surprise to stand as more than just a cinematic gimmick, proving to be a thrilling and pure experience.

Ever had one of those nights that just runs away with you? Victoria (Laia Costa) is about to have one such night. The young Spaniard, who is now living in Berlin, stumbles upon the company of a group of four local guys whilst out clubbing, all of whom take a shine to her, particularly the charismatic Sonnie (Frederick Lau). Willing to see where the night takes her and eager to embark on a more genuine experience of life in Berlin, Victoria soon sees her night turned upside down when the group asks her to assist them with a highly volatile task.Victoria-2

The nature in which the narrative unfolds across Victoria’s never-testing 138 minute run-time leaves one in a constant state of heightened tension. As we move from the club setting, to hanging out on a roof-top, to the cafe where Victoria works, we are led to believe that perhaps this is the sort of film in which we are witnessing a love story form over the course of one evening. Yet throughout, even during the more intimate moments (a scene in which Victoria demonstrates her piano skills is heart-achingly beautiful) there is a sense of unease, like a Molotov cocktail being held  by an individual desperately rummaging for a lighter.

The use of the long take is a large factor as to why we feel so uneasy over the course of the proceedings, seamlessly following our players up ladders and in-and-out of cars in incredibly controlled fashion. When the second act truly kicks into gear and the stakes become feverishly high, the amount of preparation and the impeccable direction truly come to the fore, as the perfectly placed beats of action turn this character driven piece in to a finely crafted thriller of nerve-shredding tension.Victoria-3

Victoria was shot over the course of one evening, from about 4:30am to 7am, accomplished reportedly in three attempts, and that is something truly incredible when you consider what occurs during the final act (I shan’t spoil anything here, much of the joy of the film is seeing it all unfold). With only a 12 page script, the actors improvised most of the dialogue, leading to very naturalistic performances, with the beautiful Costa and the rogue-ish Lau particularly impressing with a very convincing chemistry that fuels the proceedings even as the situation escalates to boiling point.

It is rather telling that the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is credited before the director once the end titles begin, as his work is nothing short of exceptional. Despite having to keep up with the action, action which becomes more and more complicated as we proceed, Grøvlen maintains a keen sense of composition and framing, never failing to ensure that the image remains sharp and occasionally very poetic.Victoria-4

Victoria succeeds as both a delicate character piece and a highly palpable drama that deserves a great deal of praise for its incredibly smooth mechanics, but also for its attention to characters, especially in regards to a central duo who we care for an incredible amount, an essential component once we enter a perilous third act. It is a film which rewards patience and remains on a knife’s edge throughout, resulting in the most unpredictable film thus far this year. If you can, I urge you to seek it out as soon as humanely possible, strap in and join Victoria in a night you both won’t forget in a hurry.

5/5- A poetic and thrilling experience that manages to effectively wrap character and drama within a startling exercise of technical daredevilry. Intoxicating stuff. 

BVS-1It is no secret that I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the first in Warner Bros. attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe (or the DC Extended Universe, as they appear to be calling it). It was a glum, poorly written, pretentious, and dumb attempt at dragging the icon of Superman into the 21st Century. It fared relatively well at the box-office but both fan and critical reception was divisive to say the least. It is for that reason that this ‘sequel’ to Man of Steel comes with a little added Caped Crusader. The decision to reboot Batman in only the second film of the Extended Universe must have been driven by the desire to reach bigger box-office numbers, and perhaps more favour with fans. Some may say that they were setting themselves up to fail, what with the widely beloved Nolan Trilogy still incredibly fresh in collective memory. As a result, the film hasn’t stormed the box-office as desired, what with a barrage of scathing reviews. Batman v Superman is as inelegant as blockbusters come, perhaps even more so than Man of Steel. But, to say it isn’t fun is to ignore aspects of what is possibly the strangest comic book movie to arrive in recent years.

With the arrival of Superman (Henry Cavill), the world has had to face up to the fact that mankind is not alone in the universe, and must also address who Superman is, what he stands for, and if he can be trusted. In the wake of the destruction in Metropolis caused by Superman’s battle with Zod, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who also practices vigilantism as the Batman in Gotham City, doesn’t believe the Son of Krypton can be left unchecked. With Batman keen to find a way to put the Man of Steel in his place, eccentric entrepreneur Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) sees an opportunity to pit the two together in order to rid the world of Superman for good (or something like that).BVS-2

BvS is a fundamentally flawed film, and that is largely down to a screenplay that fails to carve clear paths of motivations for its various characters found within (and boy, are there a lot of characters). It is an un-structured, cluttered, often aimless, loud, obnoxious mess. It is a collection of set-pieces, dream-sequences, Senate meetings and email correspondences that all amount in a film that while often difficult to follow, is not unlike reading a DC comic-book. Calling upon imagery from The Dark Knight Returns, the art of Alex Cross, story arcs of Dan Jurgens and further Frank Miller texts, this feels a great deal more like a comic book movie than Man of Steel, and in a way more so than The Dark Knight trilogy. It doesn’t entirely forgive it for its sloppy story-telling, but it gives it a relentless sense of pace and means that it is not afraid to get weird. And boy, does it get weird.

Much of the strangeness comes courtesy of Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. His performance belongs in an entirely different film, something that wouldn’t be amiss in a Joel Schumacher Bat-flick. His twitches and eccentricities cloud his agenda, but do make him a credible threat, as it is often hard to predict exactly what he’s going to do next. His motivation is murky as hell, and he is too far removed from Luthor in both the pages of the comics and previous screen incarnations, but he feels dangerous enough to pose a threat, and to push our heroes buttons to get them to rumble in the concrete jungle.

The two heroes themselves are something of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the good. Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a strong contender for being the best screen incarnation we have seen thus far. What about Bale, I hear you cry. Bale’s Wayne was infinitely more successful than his oft parodied Batman, complete with gruff growl, this Bat is made of much meaner stuff, and cuts a far more imposing figure than Bale ever did. The writing does let Affleck down, but he imbues both his Wayne and his Bat with a heap of regret that perhaps only a man with Affleck’s past could. The choreography attributed to this Bat is also a wonder to behold, as his brawler styling truly characterises him as one pissed-off vigilante who is way beyond the point of giving a shit about the lives of the scum of Gotham City. It is a controversial decision, but provides enough weight to suggest that this Batman is one with a history, and not a particularly colourful one. BVS-3

Superman is another matter. Cavill is once again given very little to do in a film which should have been his sequel. This is a Superman who seems to blatantly refuse to state his position in the world, for no good reason other than he’s a bit moody. One of the the biggest fundamental mistakes of this film is having both Batman and Superman as two characters who seem at odds with the world, and whose tactics at deploying justice are not too dissimilar, despite what the film may want you to think (they both kill people for chrissakes). The main reason these characters work well in a universe together is that their approaches to justice are so different, so when you have both of them being depressed individuals, the dynamic simply doesn’t work. This Superman becomes so passive through the course of this film that it is truly hard to invest in him as either a hero or a dubious figure. The actual bout between the two DC titans is well choreographed, but ultimately fails to work emotionally, as the motivations are unclear, with the factor that puts a stop to the fight coming across as hilarious rather an smart.

What truly hampers the film is its attempts to address the criticisms of Man of Steel and in its world-building, namely with attempting to draw threads for next year’s Justice League. The main criticisms of Man of Steel that it aims to address concern the amount of destruction and sheer number of civilian causalities that seemed to be entirely disregarded by the writers (and therefore by Superman). Its constant asides to acknowledge that a certain area is clear are often unintentionally hilarious, and in the end rather pointless as the final act simply descends into the same moronic, button-bashing action stylings that coloured most of Man of Steel. 

The Justice League set up is where the film is at its most lazy and its most laughable. While Wonder Woman, in the form of the beautiful but rather bland Gal Gadot, is present (complete with a rollicking theme), she is disappointingly very inconsequential to the proceedings, seemingly only present so that Bruce Wayne can send her an email containing video clips of other future Justice League members. What Marvel took their time to do over the course of five films, BvS attempts in an email, and it is just as lazy, dumb and uninspired as that sounds. BVS-4

BvS does seem to have weakened the DC Extended Universe more than it has strengthened it. While I enjoyed myself a darn sight more than I did in Man of Steel, there is no escaping that Snyder and co. still get a hell of a lot wrong. Snyder remains a strong visualist, but one who has a poor sense of judgement when it comes to character, while my hatred for David S. Goyer requires another post entirely. What we have here is a strange and disparate movie, one akin to dumping a bucket load of bouncy balls on a table top n the hope that some stay on the surface. It remains to be seen how DC’s future will pan out, and for the sake of the characters (most of whom I have a great deal of affection for), I hope this extended universe can be both critically and commercially successful. Guess we’re just going to have to be patient.

2/5- BvS is Blockbuster Cinema at its most unsophisticated, resulting in an un-intentionally hilarious, only occasionally inspired, yet never dull take on two pop culture icons. 

 

 

 

Clover-1In January of this year, a trailer dropped seemingly out of nowhere bearing the name 10 Cloverfield Lane. A Bad Robot Production with a title bearing the moniker ‘Cloverfield’ was something to take note of, as after years of speculation it seemed we were going to receive something akin to a Cloverfield sequel. Hiding behind a certain Star Wars, J.J. Abrams managed to shepherd this project in plain sight, and was quick to establish that this was not a straight sequel, more a spiritual sequel that would keep the Cloverfield brand alive through an anthology series. It is an inspired idea, allow a certain brand awareness to create Science Fiction projects that allow promising new talents a shot at something well within the public’s attention. Hopefully it is the start of many similar projects, as 10 Cloverfield Lane declares itself to be a thrilling début for its young director, Dan Trachtenberg.

After a fight with her fiancée, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her home in New Orleans, very much aiming to get as far away from her problems as possible. However, as she is driving through rural Louisiana, she is involved in a car crash and wakes up to find herself in an underground bunker. She is approached by a man called Howard (John Goodman) who informs her that there has been an attack of unknown origin on the surface, rendering the outside world as a dangerous, poisonous landscape. With seemingly no choice but to stay in the bunker, along with another inhabitant Emmett (John Clover-2Gallagher, Jr.), Michelle has to decide whether Howard is worth trusting, if something more sinister is at play, and find out whether or not something has actually happened on the surface.

It is best for one to know straight off that this Cloverfield has nothing to do with Matt Reeves’ found-footage monster movie from 2008. While this film does deal with the idea of monsters, it is not quite in the literal sense as Reeves’ 9/11 paranoia driven monster movie, rather more about what monstrous acts can be capable of. It retains a certain sense of paranoia, but in a more pared-down thriller scenario,set predominantly in one location with only three characters involved in the proceedings. It allows for 10 Cloverfield Lane to be a more character driven piece, enabling Trachtenberg to demonstrate strength in crafting tension and with working with actors.

The three players involved all turn in well judged performances, never being too overtly dramatic and grounding the proceedings very well. Gallagher Jr provides a refreshing levity, but the film belongs to both John Good man and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead is our guide throughout most of the proceedings, and she is put through the Clover-3wringer on many occasions, and she does well to earn our sympathy and empathy as a young woman thrown into many an unpredictable and volatile situation. Goodman is the best he has been in years, evoking both sympathy and menace often at the same time to provide a character who remains mysterious and treacherous throughout.

Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane rides on Trachtenberg’s skill at handling a chamber piece, aided by a screenplay which places character over spectacle, for the most part anyway. The final act requires something of a leap of faith, and while it proves to be quite cathartic in the grand scheme of the narrative, it ultimately isn’t as controlled or as sophisticated as what has come before. It segues into another genre not quite as smoothly as it would like, leading to a pay-off that feels strangely uninspired when compared to the superior and tightly wound proceedings of the first two thirds. Clover-4

Dan Trachtenberg, a man who only really had a strong Portal inspired short film under his belt, uses this opportunity to truly showcase his confidence as a film-maker, and particularly a strength with actors as well as high concepts. Even if the more grandiose finale is the weak-point of the proceedings, he still demonstrates a strong handling of visuals and character focus. Whatever he decides to do in the future, it will undoubtedly be a point of interest for myself and many others, as he exhibits traits that could well mark him as, dare I say it, the next Abrams.

4/5- This spiritual sequel carves out its own identity as a taut exercise in suspense and character, marking Trachtenberg as a talent to watch. 

Zootropolis-1Arguably, the output from Disney Animation Studios of late has been better than that of Pixar Animation Studios, not that the two are competing. Since 2010, Disney Animation (with John Lasseter as its head of production) has released Tangled, Wreck it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and now Zootropolis, all of which were graced with strong to exceptional box-office numbers and equal critical acclaim. Pixar, while capable of still producing both critical and box-office darlings like Toy Story 3 and Inside Out, have seemed to lack a certain spark or depended upon hits of yesteryear (continuing to do so this year with Finding Dory). Disney themselves are once again leading the pack when it comes to mainstream animation, and in Zootropolis they have cemented what we were already beginning to suspect; Disney are in something of a resurgence period, one to match the second Golden Age of the 90’s. And this time, it’s political.

In  a world populated by animals of an anthropomorphic nature, whom all co-exist peacefully, young rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has just become Zootropolis’ first rabbit police officer. While often being faced with a certain degree of prejudice due to her size Zootropolis-2and species, Judy none the less is keen to make an impression and prove she’s more than capable to tackle the serious cases often handed out to her colleagues. The opportunity soon arises when she is tasked with a missing animal case, one of many in the city. Teaming up with street-wise con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Judy soon uncovers a conspiracy that could upset the peaceful balance held in the city of Zootropolis

Zootropolis is the type of animation that offers plenty for more adult viewers, despite the fact that it is a feature populated by talking animals walking on their hind legs. It is an incredibly timely tale that deals with various degrees of prejudice, holding a mirror up to American society, both its past and unfortunately its present. It tackles these mature themes through sophisticated allegory, all the while remaining a cute and engaging caper allowing for plenty of fun to be had throughout. Disney has often been very deft at such a balance, but rarely has it felt this timely.

Zootropolis-3Along with this potent allegory, Zootropolis also has a team of animators working at the top of their game. The level of detail in the design of the numerous districts of the city of Zootropolis and its suburbs is phenomenal, with many scenes littered with intrinsic features and visual gags. This is the sort of film which will appreciate home viewing experience so one can pause a frame and pick out all the wonderfully imaginative details that can be found within a chosen scene. The character designs as well hark back to Disney of old, with the 1973 Robin Hood particularly coming to mind through numerous characters.

The general plotting of Zootropolis is perhaps the weakest point of the film. While it does have some smartly applied allegory, it does take a while to get to the truly meatier aspects of its politically tinged plot developments. For the most part, the proceedings take on a noir-ish element, and it is not always all that successful, particularly when it feels the need to reference both films within that genre and popular culture which don’t particularly share any DNA with the proceedings. It means a few of the gags do fall flat, but for the most part the script remains largely witty, if a touch too obviously self-referential in regards to Disney’s history (and future).

Zootropolis does a great deal beneath the surface of being a seemingly traditional Disney animation. It has an incredibly well written central female role, as well as populating the rest of the cast with characters who feel well crafted and well defined, even if this still suffers from the prevalent issue of Disney movies of Zootropolis-4late struggling to deliver a truly memorable antagonist. The voice-cast across all the characters, no matter how small their part, all do excellent work, particularly Goodwin and Bateman, who strike a strong chord as the two leads whose dynamic is incredibly refreshing, proving to be excellent company across the neatly paced run-time.

It shall be interesting to see how long this strong streak lasts for Disney, as they will more than likely succumb to the call of sequelizing their recently popular titles (Frozen 2 is happening, a decision which is surely more financially motivated than it is creative). For now, though, they can revel in what is proving to be a resurgence in which both the studio and the audience benefit, providing films that offer excellent entertainment and important moral lessons for all ages. A shining new era is tip-toeing nearer.

4/5- Textured, progressive and incredibly timely, Zootropolis can easily class itself as an instant Disney classic. 

 

Eddie-1Let me provide you with some context so that you can understand the mind-set that led to me enjoying Eddie the Eagle as much as I did. The day prior to seeing Dexter Fletcher’s latest film, I saw both Anomalisa and The Witch within an hour of each other. That was an ill-judged double-bill, as it left me in something of a funk, as neither film is exactly a bundle of joy. I needed a lift, I needed something to raise my spirits, something so unashamedly joyous to remind me that there are films which are designed to simply provide happiness. The story of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards is one such tale, and a very welcome one at that.

The year is 1988. Ever since he was a small boy, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has had the dream of becoming an Olympic Athlete, despite not being all that gifted in the realm of sport. When it seems as though Eddie has exhausted all possible options in the sporting world, he stumbles across ski jumping, a sport that has had no British representative in six decades. Taking himself off to Germany to learn the sport, Eddie is initially met with ridicule, before being taken under the wing of disgraced ski jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). Together, Eddie and Bronson aim for the 1988 Winter Olympics, an event where Eddie sets out to make British history, provided he doesn’t break his neck first.EddieAct2

This account of Edwards is largely a work of fiction, namely due to the fact that its main focus is on Edwards relationship with a mentor, a mentor who did not exist. It is an approach which allows the film to have a lighter, more whimsical spirit that marks Edwards story as one fit for an inspiring sports movie. Once upon a time this was set to be a Steve Coogan comedy, which probably would’ve treated Eddie more as a joke rather than a figure of inspiration. Which would have been a shame, because there is definitely something to admire in the determination that Eddie showed in the face of a wave of naysayers, persevering despite never being what one would call naturally talented at sport. It is an underdog story that is easy to fall for.

One of the main reasons we find Eddie easy to fall for is Taron Egerton. The rising star absolutely shines in the role, his first true lead performance, radiating a charisma that often over-shadows his co-star, who is none other than Hugh Jackman. The two clearly enjoy each other’s company, but the movie entirely belongs to Egerton, turning in a well-Eddie-3judged portrayal of Eddie, one that is very sympathetic towards its subject and as energetic as a dewy-eyed puppy.

Dexter Fletcher is a director whose two previous films, the refreshingly upbeat crime caper Wild Bill and the tad-too-saccharine Sunshine on Leith, have been films that have aimed to give one a sense that happiness is something that is attainable for any one of any background, as long as their spirits remain high. Eddie the Eagle is a perfect fit for his sensibilities, and he does well to construct a classically structured tale of a sporting underdog. It is a film that very much wears its influences on its sleeve, be it Cool Runnings (it takes place in the same Winter Olympics that saw the Jamaican Bob-sleigh team compete), Rocky or Billy Elliott, it is a tale that feels decidedly wholesome in a very British way. Eddie-4

Much of the narrative of Eddie the Eagle is driven by Eddie’s determination to master his chosen sport under Jackman’s wing. It allows for a series of highly energetic training montages set to a gloriously poppy 80’s soundtrack (Hall & Oates! Van Halen! Human League!), which does mean that there aren’t too many surprises, and much of the conflict that arises throughout feels somewhat forced; conflict for the sake of having conflict. Yet, it does not rob from the fact that the film effortlessly makes you fall in love with the underdog spirit of Eddie Edwards, ensuring that you remain enticed right until the final jump, even if you know the outcome.

4/5- sporting punchline is turned into a supremely charming underdog story, one with a soaring spirit that proves hard to refuse. Inspiring and incredibly good-natured. 

 

 

Witch-1Witches are hard to make scary. They are a prevalent figure throughout folklore, and have been for hundreds of years, be it in cautionary children’s tales, or more macabre tales of straight-up horror. When such a character, style or figure such as this feels sapped of originality, it is often a wise decision to take the figure in question back to its roots. Director/writer Robert Eggers has done just that with The Witch, a film which aims to drag Witches off of their broomsticks, throw them in a 17th Century folk-tale, roll them about in the mud, and send them back out with dirt underneath their nails, ready to creep back into the nightmares of unsuspecting viewers.

Set in 17th Century New England, a Puritan family led by patriarch William (Ralph Enison) is excommunicated from his village – along with his family comprising of wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy & Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson) – due to a crime of conceit. Setting up a farm within a large forest, it is not long until the family is plagued by a series of mysterious, possibly supernatural, occurrences all of which slowly, but surely, tear the family apart.Witch-2

Eggers commitment to the period setting imbues the film with an edge that may make it difficult for some viewers to truly become engage with, but it undoubtedly marks the film as something truly unique. With most of the dialogue lifted directly from 17th Century transcripts, the film creates a similar atmosphere to that of last year’s Macbeth; an atmosphere that is at once intoxicating, uneasy, occasionally frustrating, but oddly spellbinding. The dialogue presents something of a challenge to the actors of the piece, as they must form speech-patterns from streams of dialogue taken from centuries old text. While all the main players provide strong work, it is the work of the younger members of the cast which does the most to sell the setting and its authenticity.

Eggers owes a great debt to his casting director, as the child actors within his cast are what truly sell the moments of terror that befall the banished family of Puritans. Be it through Thomasin’s growing instinct to rebel, Caleb’s sexual awakening or the Twins inclination to cause mischief, we believe them all to be squabbling siblings suddenly faced with accusations of Satanic worship. When the terror begins, it is often that we look to the children to know how to react, as well as look upon in fear as their respective innocent souls are made a target by either the ominous Witch in the woods, or the growing paranoia of their aggressively religious parents. Taylor-Joy, in particular, as Thomasin does tremendous work in a role which certainly puts her through the emotional wringer, while Scrimshaw as Caleb stands out in one particular sequence which truly turns your blood cold.

Witch-3When it comes to the actual horror, most of what is at play here stems from a more psychological breed of fright, meaning that gore-hounds should perhaps look for their thrills elsewhere. Religion is a theme which drives most of the horror, leading to a great deal of threat driven by religious paranoia, as we experience a period in time where life was dictated by ones servitude to the Lord, with the threat of damnation being paramount among the concerns of everyday life.

The paranoia befitting of the time fuels much of the horror, but so does the titular Witch, as it is made abundantly clear to us from the start that the family are indeed being targeted by something within the woods. Eggers shows a great deal of skill in presenting an ominous atmosphere, as scenes of slow-burning tension are stretched out to unbearable lengths, to then suddenly be concluded with a cut to reveal a scene of a horrific nature. It is a very sharp and reserved way in which to stage scares, scares which punctuate scenes with startling images that are hard to forget. It is a patient yet disturbing style of horror which greatly recalls the work of William Friedkin. Witch-4

While the film is often very capable of providing scenes which are unsettling, many of the more overtly supernatural scenes (namely involving the family goat Black Philip) tend to come across as a tad too ridiculous when delivered within an otherwise very authentic setting. This is particularly an issue with the final act of the film, which fully commits to more traditional expectations of Satanic worshipping and Witchcraft. It feels at odds with the carefully crafted authenticity given to re-creating a 17th Century setting, and leads to a pay-off which is predictable and not entirely satisfying. For the most part, however, The Witch stands as one of the most sophisticatedly crafted horror films of recent memory, one that is capable of sending shivers down your spine with images that have proven hard to forget.

4/5- Attention to period detail and exceptional performances from its young cast enable The Witch to succeed as an atmospheric, and occasionally very startling, horror exercise. 

ANOMALISA

Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. He is undoubtedly brilliant, but his work often doesn’t operate too well with those not prepared to view the world through his off-kilter gaze. His world view has provided some terrific screenplays, namely in his collaborations with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and he proved himself to be an quality potent director with Synecdoche, New York. You have to be prepared for his style, his approach, otherwise it can send you on a ride that you may not particularly stay on board with throughout its course. That may well be what happened to me as I sat down to take in Anomalisa. My expectations were set more to receive something with a but more Jonze-esque whimsy injected into it; what I got was full blown Kaufman, and that sometimes isn’t the easiest of pills to swallow.

Set in 2005, the film follows self-help author Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). Michael, despite having a family and great success as a supposed problem-solver, is in something of a depressive spiral, one which has manifested itself in an usual way; everyone he encounters has the same voice and very little to distinguish them as individual personalities. While travelling for a convention, Michael believes he may have found a glimmer of hope in the form of the timid yet enthusiastic Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has come to attend Michael’s conference.Anomalisa-2

This film, it must be noted, is not entirely a Kaufman joint. It is based on a play of the same name written by Kaufman, but it is co-directed by Duke Johnson. Johnson, the man behind Community’s stop-motion Christmas episode, is clearly a key contributor in being the puppet characters of Anomalisa to uncanny life. Anomalisa undoubtedly represents Kaufman at his most technically accomplished, although it could well be that Johnson deserves most of the credit for the simply stunning puppetry on display, considering it is very much his field of work. None the less, the look and movement of the puppets enable Kaufman’s thematic concerns to illustrate themselves through various means, be it plainly seeing the lines in which the face masks are attached, or removing a face altogether. It is an expertly crafted film, one which makes this a far more interesting endeavour than if it had just been live-action.

There are a number of beautiful and very witty moments in Kaufman’s script, one which explores the human condition in an original fashion, but one which ends up being a little too cynical to handle. Kaufman chooses to focus on the psychological effect of an individual who has become incredibly self-absorbed, no longer concerned with forming or maintaining relationships in his life (the hotel Michael stays at is called The Fregoli, also a name of a mental disorder in which an individual holds a delusional belief that everyone is the same person). This characterisation Anom immediately makes Michael an unlike-able protagonist. The choice of Thewlis for the voice of Michael is both inspired and creepy, as we witness this man attempt to find hope, but ultimately squander it, a man who is perhaps beyond help. It makes the proceedings decidedly bleak to experience, with many moments of the final third spiralling out of control along with Michael, resulting in a denouement that ends up being somewhat grating to watch.

What is impressive about Anomalisa is its smaller details. The conversations that Michael has with complete strangers are often very well observed, as is normally the case with Kaufman. The whole design of the world is also very sophisticated in its sparse and authentic arrangement. Much has also been made regarding the love scene within the film, and it is one that is much more genuine than one would find in most live-action pictures, with it and other scenes (namely Jason Leigh’s rendition of ‘Girl’s Just Want to Have Fun’) conveying a raw emotionality that is often lacking from more straight-forward dramas.Anomalisa-4

Anomalisa has frustrated me since I saw it last month. I desperately wanted to love it and embrace it, but just when I thought I was about to, it stretched out its arms and kept me away from truly forming something meaningful for myself. Its view of the world is not one that inspires much hope, and while I respect that that is somewhat the point, it nonetheless dampened my experience and left me in one hell of a funk when leaving the cinema. This has much to do with its draining final third, as much of what comes before it is simply beautiful. As a whole, it is a film unlike any other even in regards to Kaufman. It may frustrate, but there is something very human at play here, and something definitely worth exploring. Just be prepared.

3/5– While masterfully crafted and often very well observed, Anomalisa unfortunately leaves one with a hard, bitter taste, making it difficult to embrace.