Posts Tagged ‘Duke Johnson’

Even when Hollywood tries to make a biting drama, there are always unconvincing elements that desperately attempt to add light to the dolefulness. Whilst Anomalisa is not a depressing, dark drama, it is one of the most honest and therefore damning presentation of human errs. We follow Michael Stone, a customer service specialist who is attending a conference away from home. Michael is a bored, socially inept individual who, by the end, is someone we can both dislike and empathise with. His character’s complexity is nothing revolutionary for film, but it is a man akin to Llewyn Davis – someone rarely seen in cinema – who is distrustful yet reasonable. His short quest to find excitement and fulfilment over the film’s run-time, is a relatable one; like most of Kaufman’s work, there is always something accessible.

Adapted from a stage play, Anomalisa has a very distinctive look and direction. For one, it is entirely played out by puppets. Secondly, it includes just three (voice) actors, two playing the co-leads, and the other playing everyone else. It reflects the artificiality of life Kaufman wants to explore, and comically highlights the universal personalities that peer pressure and social media has created. Stone – and later, Lisa – is a notable exception in the monosyllabic world, one which he is unaware of. Planting a very ordinary man in an even more uniform world is engaging thanks to its identifiable portrait. Stone has many of the same insecurities and bad habits that we all develop over life – wondering how he may overcome them, or to see how they are adding to his ennui, is the narrative’s drive. Whether he succeeds or not is a desire that grows and diminishes as Michael alters his behaviour and, sometimes, decency.

The second pivotal plot point is the titular Lisa (nicknamed Anomalisa by Michael). Once this self-effacing person comes into it, the presentation of humanity comes full frame. The only other person that looks and sounds different, with an air of grace about her, Lisa is a beautiful creature, unknowingly swimming against the tide – like Michael – and more or less happy. Once Michael meets and begins interacting with Lisa, this is also where the meticulous movement of the puppetry gets its spotlight, too. That spark of life Stone sees in Lisa not only lifts the mood, it lifts the strings of the puppets (figuratively speaking, as this is a stop-motion animation). You soon forget you are watching an animation, and get drawn into a very human drama. The romance that blossoms is quick, yet the motions are smooth – it’s a wondrous spectacle to see the otherwise clunky look transition into seamlessness.

As with other Kaufman efforts, the careful construction is maybe felt more so after watching, upon analysis. You are certainly engrossed as everything happens, although to pontificate on its meaning arguably comes later. For many, this will be a draw-back, as it continues with Kaufman’s unconventional methods. It is meant to be alienating in essence, as the faces and voices largely melt into one, and dream sequences and hallucinatory moments jerk you out of the monotony it strives to show. The subliminal qualities are what make Kaufman such a great writer and director – take the movement point, for example, and is something you only notice post-screening, or gradually through thought.

Comedy may not be as palpable as in Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but you will laugh heartily at many sequences. Laughing in the face of misery is often the best defence mechanism, and Kaufman certainly advocates that notion. The nervousness of our main characters is something to chuckle at occasionally, making sure you are not too depressed about the neuroses that plague many of us. It is, at its core, a love story – that always comes with ebullience as well as sadness. To walk away from the film feeling cold shouldn’t happen – what the complications and comedy aim to provide is a warmness that can only be felt by those that understand the multifaceted layers of life. Kaufman certainly understands, and his animated characters, somehow, reflect this better than most real-life actors.

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Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 17.56.26Closing off the 2016 edition of the Glasgow Film Festival is Anomalisa, the directorial return of Charlie Kaufman; here he collaborates with animator Duke Johnson, which is certainly an interesting pairing. The film has received a seemingly endless list of plaudits, including an Academy Award nomination and the Grand Jury Prize in Venice. However, it is an intentionally difficult film to love, making for brave choice to round off the festival.

Anomalisa is a desperately sad film, brimming with pathos towards its two main characters, neither of whom are particularly satisfied with their lives. We follow a day in the life of middle-aged Michael Stone (David Thewlis) – a semi-famous motivational speaker, within the customer service industry – who arrives at a hotel in Cincinnati, from Los Angeles, to give a speech. While there he is haunted by memories of an old flame from Cincinnati, while away from his wife and child. If this all sounds weirdly familiar, you’d be right, Anomalisa is highly self-aware about its own mundanity; indeed, it is a big part of the story.

But what sets Anomalisa apart is a storytelling device, whereby Michael has a mental condition in which he sees everyone with the same face and hears them with the same voice (Tom Noonan). This is fairly disorientating at first, as Noonan’s voice becomes the omnipresent “other” in all instances, meaning one can only distinguish Michael from the crowd. Michael is depressed about the mundanity of his life and this single voice that represents everyone else is a metaphor for how devalued and disenfranchised people can become with life. What is troubling is that Michael isn’t particularly likable himself, which creates an uneasy and anxious mood as the film progresses.

Things change when a female voice is heard, belonging to Lisa (brilliantly performed by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who also possesses her own face; as a result, Michael becomes instantly infatuated with her. Lisa is staying at the hotel with her friend Emily (Noonan, again), who has traveled from upstate Akron to attend Michael’s convention and is hugely self-conscious about herself, after an apparent attack earlier in life. While the film as a whole possesses a dream-like quality – which is a result of the animation – it never loses that authentic human touch, often making it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality.

What’s fascinating about this film is how its use of human-esque puppets and stop-motion animation allows it to reflect everyday occurrences and interactions more realistically than most live action films. As this is an animated film, Kaufman and Johnson are free to show sex and nudity without censorship and while that may sound like a potentially titillating aspect, it is treated as a normal, even awkward aspect of life. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Michael gets increasingly angry at a shower fluctuating between hot and cold, something almost all of us have experienced. Meanwhile, when we get to the sex scene – though it contains erotic aspects – it is also an extremely believable interaction between two timid people who have just met and aren’t too sure about what they are doing.

So Anomalisa manages to really explore the human condition, without displaying any actual humans. The real triumph of Kaufman and Johnson’s film is that they have managed to show – through animation – how humans are passionate, tragic, awkward, frustrated and flawed beings who experience disappointment, as well as fleeting moments of fancy. It’s a tough film to close a festival with, because of the univerally melancholic feelings it evokes. However, there is a warmth in the film’s humor and style that keeps it from becoming too alientating; instead, Anomalisa shows us the moments that make life worth living.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks for reading my coverage of Glasgow Film Festival 2016. Your kind words and engagement has made it all worth it and the festival itself was a real success, with the highest attendance numbers to date. Also congratulations to Mustang for winning the Audience Award, it was a worthy winner.

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