Isle of Dogs (2018)

isleofdogs_poster_trailerToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

For fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson, the arrival of a new movie by the quirky auteur triggers an excitement akin to that of a ten-year-old boy opening a highly-coveted new toy at Christmas.  For them, something about the director’s style conjures a nostalgic glee; the puzzle-box intricacy with which he builds his cinematic vision combines with the detached whimsy of his characters to create an experience not unlike perusing a cabinet of curiosities, bringing out the viewer’s inner child and leaving them feeling something they’re not quite sure of for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on.

Those who love his work – and there are a lot of people in this category – find it immensely satisfying.

Those who don’t are left scratching their heads and wondering what the point was to all that tiresome juvenilia.

Anderson’s latest, “Isle of Dogs,” is likely to meet just such a split in opinion – and this time, thanks to accusations of cultural appropriation, marginalization, and outright racism, it’s not just about whether you like the directorial style.

His second venture into the field of stop-motion animation (the first was “Fantastic Mr. Fox” in 2009), it’s an ambitious fable set in a fictional Japanese metropolis named Megasaki, twenty years into the future.  The authoritarian mayor, the latest in a long dynasty of cat-loving rulers, has issued an executive decree that all the city’s dogs must be exiled to “Trash Island” – including Spots, the beloved pet and protector of his twelve-year-old ward, Atari.  The boy steals a small plane and flies to the island, where he enlists the aid of a pack of other dogs to help him rescue Spots from the literal wasteland to which he has been banished.  Meanwhile, on the mainland, a group of young students works hard to expose the corrupt mayor and the conspiracy he has led to turn the citizens against their own dogs.

In usual fashion, Anderson has made a film which expresses his unique aesthetic, marked with all his signature touches: his meticulously-chosen color palette, the rigorous symmetry of his framing, the obsessive detail of his visual design, and the almost cavalier irony of his tone.  These now-familiar stylistic trappings give his movies the feel of a “junior-adventurer” story, belying the reality that the underlying tales he tells are quite grim.  The cartoonish quirks of his characters often mask the fact that they are lonely or emotionally stunted – and the colorful, well-ordered world they inhabit is full of longing, hardship, oppression, and despair.

“Isle of Dogs,” though ostensibly a children’s movie, is no different.  Indeed, it is possibly the director’s darkest work so far, and it is certainly his most political.  Though it would be misleading to attribute a partisan agenda to this film, it’s not hard to see the allegorical leanings in its premise of a corrupt government demonizing dogs to incite hysteria and support its rise to power, nor the social commentary in the way it portrays bigotry based on the trivial surface characteristic of preferring dogs to cats.  Make no mistake, despite its cute and fluffy surface and its future-Japanese setting, “Isle of Dogs” can easily be read as a depiction of a world possessed by the specter of Nationalism, and a clear statement about life – and resistance – in Trump’s America.

In terms of visual artistry, Anderson has outdone himself with his latest work.  The painstaking perfection of the animation is matched by the overwhelming completeness of the world he and his design artists have executed around it.  Myriad elements from Japanese culture are used to build the immersive reality of Megasaki (and Trash Island, of course), and the director adds to his own distinctive style by taking cues from countless cinematic influences – Western and Eastern alike.

Of course, the film’s setting and story invite comparisons to the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa – whose iconic Samurai movies were an acknowledged influence.  Anderson mirrors the mythic, larger-than-life quality of those classics; he uses broad strokes, with characters who seem like archetypes and a presentation that feels like ritual.

These choices may have served the director’s artistic purpose well – but they have also opened him up to what has surely been unexpected criticism.

Many commentators have observed that, by setting “Isle of Dogs” in Japan (when he himself has admitted it could have taken place anywhere), Anderson is guilty of wholesale cultural appropriation, co-opting centuries of Japanese tradition and artistry to use essentially as background decoration for his movie.  In addition, he has been criticized for his tone-deaf depiction of Japanese characters; his choice to have their dialogue spoken in (mostly) untranslated Japanese serves, it has been said, to de-humanize and marginalize them and shift all audience empathy to the English-speaking, decidedly Anglo actors who portray the dogs.  There has also been objection to his inclusion of a female foreign exchange student as the leader of the resistance, which can be seen as a perpetuation of the the “white savior” myth.

Such points may be valid, particularly in a time when cultural sensitivity and positive representation are priorities within our social environment.  It’s not the first time Anderson has been criticized for seeming to work from within a very white, entitled bubble, after all.

Even so, watching “Isle of Dogs,” it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a movie about inclusion, not marginalization.  It invites us to abandon ancient prejudices, speak up against institutionalized bigotry, and remake the world as a place where there is room for us all.

It’s a message that seems to speak to the progressive heart of diversity.  Whether or not the delivery of that message comes in an appropriate form is a matter for individual viewers to decide for themselves.

For Anderson fans, it will probably be a moot point.

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God’s Own Country (2017)

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When “Brokeback Mountain” arrived on the scene in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that a big-budget Hollywood film about a same-sex romance between two sheep herders could even get made, let alone go on to become a critically-lauded, multi-award-winning cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, it had its share of detractors, but the favor it gained within the mainstream was a clear sign that the tide was turning with regards to LGBTQ acceptance.

In those pre-marriage-equality days, its tragic tale of love thwarted by social intolerance was a somber testament of truth for the millions of queer people who had lived such lives through the generations that had come before – and make no mistake, it’s still a story that needs to be told.  Even so, there are many who felt that the film’s star-crossed lovers deserved a happier fate.

Now, twelve years later, they just might get a second chance – at least by proxy – in filmmaker Francis Lee’s quietly breathtaking debut feature, “God’s Own Country.”

Set in the bleak highlands of modern-day Yorkshire, it centers on Johnny Saxby, a young man who lives and works on his family’s struggling farm.  By night, he escapes from his grueling existence by drinking himself into a stupor at the village pub; occasionally, he finds temporary escape in anonymous sexual encounters with other men at the cattle auction or, presumably, from the surrounding area.  His routine is disrupted, however, when his father brings in Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant worker, to help with the sheep during lambing season; though he is at first resentful and abusive of the new hired hand, a powerful attraction soon develops between the two men.

How things unfold from there is the main business of the movie, and it would be bad form to reveal how it eventually plays out; suffice to say that, despite the similarities in their subject matter, “God’s Own Country” is a very different experience from “Brokeback.”

It is, of course, patently unfair to define Lee’s heartfelt and highly personal film in relation to another movie, no matter how much the comparison begs to be made – but it’s hard to avoid pointing out at least one particularly telling detail.  In “Brokeback,” the two protagonists face homophobia from both without and within; but in the contemporary world of “God’s Own Country,” that homophobia is more of a phantom threat than a concrete one.  The people around Johnny seem to accept his sexuality; and although he himself struggles with internalized shame, it may have less to do with being gay than it does with a fear of intimacy.

It’s this that makes the movie as far removed from “Brokeback” in tone and attitude as it is in the time and place of its setting, and it makes all the difference.

Lee’s film is a patient, understated, and touching portrait of two men as they find the courage to break through barriers – not social, but personal – to reach each other.  It’s a struggle we’ve seen explored by heterosexual lovers in countless romantic dramas, but for gay couples on the screen the obstacles have historically been cultural or political.  Though such factors may lie at the root of Johnny and Gheorghe’s issues, there is no need for them to change the world to be together – only themselves.  In this way, their story is perhaps more closely related to Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Weekend” than it is to that other sheep wrangler movie.

Comparisons aside, “God’s Own Country” stands tall on its own considerable merits.  Inspired by his coming of age in Yorkshire (the movie was filmed in his own village, with the farm where he grew up only a short distance from the shooting location), Lee has written and crafted a lovingly detailed work, as rigorous in its painstaking authenticity as it is poetic in its cinematic expression.

There’s much to appreciate in Lee’s directorial approach.  He proves himself a master of visual storytelling, communicating some of the film’s most potent moments with little or no dialogue, and orchestrating a rich symbolic subtext with subtle visual cues throughout – like the muted reds and blues of Gheorghe’s knit sweater, which make it shine amidst the movie’s stark grey palette like a multi-hued beacon of hope.  He is equally shrewd in what he doesn’t show; he largely eschews the wide landscapes typical of such pastoral romances, instead keeping his camera – and the story – focused on the personal and intimate.

He also draws superb performances from his actors.  Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make Johnny and Gheorghe, respectively, as genuine as they are endearing; their natural ease with their surroundings– Lee put them to work on a farm for several weeks before shooting – underscores and enhances not only the realism of their acting but of the movie itself.  Most importantly, they have a rare chemistry that wins the audience from their first meeting – and places their love scenes among the sexiest big-screen pairings in recent memory.

In the smaller (but crucial) roles of Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones give quiet, dignified eloquence to characters who, in a lesser film, might have been rendered as course and one-dimensional stereotypes.  Far from being antagonists, they provide a rich and fertile ground from which the film’s love story can grow.

It should be noted that “God’s Own Country” does contain some full-frontal nudity and relatively explicit sexual content.  This will doubtless be reason enough to entice many viewers within the film’s target audience, but there is so much more in this little gem of a British import to warrant seeking it out.

Though it may not attract much mainstream attention, “God’s Own Country” feels important.  When a movie about two men who fall in love with each other doesn’t feel the need to justify its own existence by advancing a social or political agenda, it’s proof that the turn of the tide signaled by “Brokeback,” not so very long ago, has carried us at last to an era in which a “gay movie” can simply be called “a movie.”

The fact that it’s also an excellent movie is a welcome bonus.

 

 

Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Guys Reading Poems (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

“WHEN you have tidied all things for the night,
And while your thoughts are fading to their sleep,
You’ll pause a moment in the late firelight,
Too sorrowful to weep.”

So begins “Solitude,” by Harold Monro, one of 32 works that comprise most of the spoken words in Harold Lee Hughes’ new feature, “Guys Reading Poems.”  The mood it captures is tangible, and suggests the ideal state of wistful melancholy from which to appreciate this delicate cinematic creation.

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him; to cope, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  This ostensible premise serves as the centerpiece in a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout- fear and grief, anger and sorrow- is evoked both by the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to pack so much heavy emotional content into an average-length movie; many filmmakers have tried to channel these kinds of demons into some kind of celluloid catharsis, only to fall short of the mark.  Such efforts are often constructed either as overwrought psychodramas which offer trite resolutions for the sake of closure, or else as fantasies which obscure the issues behind mythological tropes and pseudo-symbolic whimsy.

Hughes has taken a middle path; “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy- which means that it is also neither.  Instead, it walks a line between realism and artistic conceit; multiple layers emerge from each other as a progression of imagery takes us from past to present to future, through reality and fantasy and places in between.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual; a prologue depicting the courtship of father and mother plays like a lovely pantomime of archetypes, and the rift which develops between them later- as well as the conflict it creates in their child- is eloquently communicated by body language and artful cinematography.  As for the reciting interlopers, they may be somewhat disorienting, at first, but soon become a comfortable presence; like a Greek Chorus, they give voice to the soul of the story.  It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization can yield an authentic emotional connection, allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like a lotus flower blossoming in a dream.

The array of poems incorporated includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and WeHo poet laureate Steven Reigns, among many others; no less crucial, however, is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.  Lushly lit and richly photographed, “Guys Reading Poems” is a movie that revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply imbedded memory.  Combined with a flair for artistic design and a deft use of symbolism (which avoids heavy-handedness without sacrificing clarity), this results in a movie of distinctive style and beauty which lingers in the mind’s eye long after viewing.

As for the onscreen talent, they face the task communicating complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably.  At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars; but it is Patricia Velasquez as the mother- brooding and cold, yet vulnerable and tragic- who, appropriately, dominates the screen.  Rounding out the principal cast is Alexander Dreymon as the father; charismatic, and impossibly handsome, he balances tenderness with a hint of swagger as he provides an embodiment of the elusive masculine ideal.

Of course, the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” so the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles.  Their soulful delivery provides the movie’s beating heart, and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes.  Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience- and each of them, like Dreymon, are stunning examples of the male aesthetic.

In fact, the preponderance of maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (piercingly established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), inevitably suggest a gay subtext.  This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an unmistakable allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the entwined longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency- all these themes have deep resonance within the LGBTQ community, and all are intricately woven into every fiber of “Guys Reading Poems.”  Never overt, but vivid nonetheless, it’s a layer of meaning that makes this a full-fledged addition to the queer cinema canon.

Even so, Hughes’ film has a universal appeal.  By channeling the pain of damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, he has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile these psychic scars within their own life.  It’s an interior landscape that can be recognized by almost anyone, of course; and by treating it with candor, acknowledging its dark beauty, and honoring its inseparability from identity, Hughes has given us a movie which illuminates the path to transcendence.

“Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such unlikely to achieve widespread success at the box office; but for those of us who appreciate the bravery required not only to confront these difficult issues, but to explore them in such a public and honest manner, it is a much-appreciated effort and worthy of being sought out.  It deserves to be called essential viewing.

Goodnight Mommy [Ich seh, Ich seh] (2014)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

With Halloween right around the corner, most of the cool kids will want to include an outing to a nice, creepy horror flick amongst all the other seasonal festivities.  If that includes you, but you are bored to death by variations on the “Found Footage” formula (and their perfunctory cheap scares), you might want to seek out a showing of Goodnight Mommy.  Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, it was Austria’s 2014 submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.  It didn’t get the nomination- but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

Set at an isolated house in a deceptively tranquil woodland, Goodnight Mommy evokes a modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tale as it introduces us to Lukas and Elias, a deeply-bonded pair of twin pre-teen brothers whose mother has just returned home from having extensive facial surgery.  Almost immediately it becomes apparent to them that more has changed about her than just the features still concealed beneath those intimidating bandages.  Her personality is different: she is colder, harsher, and, worst of all, inexplicably intent on driving a wedge between her two sons.  Gradually they become convinced that she is an imposter, and they begin an effort to expose her- but soon it becomes clear that the biggest question may be how far they are willing to go to discover the truth.

There are a lot of things that grab you right away about this movie.  The opening sequence, in which we first see the twins roaming together through a cornfield, immediately sets the tone.  They (and we) are inside a vast bubble of isolation, one which seems serene and peaceful but is in fact alive with unseen and vaguely unsettling activity- revealed by the carefully orchestrated soundscape of buzzing insects and rustling winds, just the beginning of a soundtrack which favors natural ambience over the use of music.  There is a score, but it only emerges for brief and infrequent intervals, and is all the more effective for it.  Then there is the cinematography, the opposite of what you see in the Paranormal Activity movies and their ilk.  Instead of a herky-jerky handheld camera, we get the stately elegance of widescreen, 35mm photography with the kind of artful framing and clean lines that make the film as good-looking and stylish as the country house of its setting.

All this technical excellence makes it clear that Goodnight Mommy is not a film made by hacks, but it would count for far less if the content were not on the same par.  The directors make sure that it is: their script is complex and tantalizing, doling out clues and hinting at secrets even as it provokes us with new mysteries and confronts us with surprises.  We know from early on that we are being manipulated; Franz and Fiala show us the world only through the eyes of the two young protagonists, carefully filtering our perceptions through them and making us both dread and anticipate the shift in perspective which we sense must be coming.  This sense of impending menace is compounded by the performers: real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz are perfectly cast, exuding both sweet sadness and a kind of otherworldly distance which makes them the perfect blank slate upon which to hang the audience’s expectations; and Susanne Wuest, as Mother, walks the thin line between being menacing and sympathetic with dexterity, keeping us unsure, almost until the very end, whether we should fear her or feel for her.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a horror film if there were not also some outright creepy, maybe even gruesome imagery along with all the psychological unease, and although I don’t want to give anything away, I can promise that it delivers (and that if you are squeamish about bugs, you might want to be prepared to look away a few times).

Goodnight Mommy does have its flaws.  The cost of keeping its characters ambiguous enough to preserve our uncertainty is that sometimes it’s hard to connect with- and therefore care about- any of them; and like many horror films, the story hinges on a gimmick, one which will probably be fairly obvious to most savvy moviegoers pretty early on.  Nevertheless, the film works superbly because it doesn’t rely on standard elements of genre formula to have its unsettling effect.  Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but Goodnight Mommy disturbs because it reveals real-life horror, the kind that makes us lie awake at night and worry about those we love.  In the end, it seems more tragedy than thriller.

That said, it’s still pretty thrilling.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

There is a popular perception that animated movies are pure kid-stuff, designed to lure families to the box office and to generate lucrative marketing tie-ins.  After all, animation pioneer Walt Disney used this formula as the foundation for a financial empire that continues to dominate the entertainment industry today.  Of course, Disney’s films (at least the early ones) were also artistic triumphs, and there have since been numerous others that rival them in stature.  Nevertheless, even the most open-minded critics often tend to join the general public in considering “cartoons” as belonging to a separate-and-unequal category from live-action filmmaking, and often overlook them in any discussion of serious cinema.

This intellectual bias may often be warranted; but occasionally, a film like “Kubo and the Two Strings” comes along to challenge it.  Set in Ancient Japan, it’s the story of a boy who lives with his strangely afflicted mother in a cave by the sea.  Every night, she tells him half-remembered tales of his long-lost Samurai father; every day he spins them into adventurous yarns to entertain the nearby villagers- aided by magic which allows him to manipulate pieces of paper with the music from his shamisen. He is careful, though, to heed his mother’s warning and return home before nightfall, in order to avoid the watchful eye of his grandfather, the Moon King, who wishes to steal him away to his kingdom in the sky.  One day, however, Kubo lingers too long at a village festival, and suddenly finds himself caught up in an adventure of his own- aided by a monkey and a man-sized beetle, with his two terrifying aunts, the Daughters of the Moon, pursuing him every step of the way.

This deceptively simple setup provides the basis for a magnificent visual journey, full of magic, which blurs the lines of reality and challenges us to jump seamlessly between different levels of existence.  This is no small feat, and the fact that we never question it is a testament to the brilliance of its technical execution- the bulk of which was performed using the same basic techniques that took King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building over 80 years ago.  Though some assistance was provided by modern CG technology, most of what we see on the screen was achieved by posing models, one frame at a time, in front of a camera.  This painstaking effort certainly pays off; Kubo’s story comes to life with such palpable reality that the viewer might almost forget to be dazzled by it.

What’s impressive about “Kubo and the Two Strings,” though, is that its story more than lives up to the technical wizardry surrounding it.  Though it evokes the traditional folk tales of Japan, “Kubo” is entirely original, its screenplay written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler from a story by Shannon Tindle.  Even so, as guided by director Travis Knight, it maintains a strong sense of mythological authenticity as it delivers its own version of the classic hero’s journey; the mystical elements which comprise much of the story’s framework are presented as factual conditions of the plot, yet the deeply resonant symbolism they possess- a quality downplayed by most such films aimed at contemporary American audiences- is given equal weight.  Similarly, while the film doesn’t avoid sentimentality, it never manufactures it to generate an unearned emotional response; rather, it allows the story and its characters to provide it, in appropriate doses, when it arises naturally.  As a result, “Kubo” manages to amuse, frighten, touch, and surprise its viewers- whatever age they might be- all the way through to its lovely, delicate, and bravely bittersweet ending.

Of course, there are many other factors contributing to the film’s success.  Its visual design is a marvelous blend of stylization and historical detail, effectively transporting us to the story’s time and place from the very first frames- with the aid of a majestic and immersive score by Dario Marianelli.   As for the voice cast (led by Art Parkinson as the title character and including the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, and Ralph Fiennes), it must be mentioned that “Kubo” has drawn some heat for using mostly white actors.  Conroversy aside, those actors deserve credit for their fine work, which plays a big part in making “Kubo” into the special experience it is.

It’s a bit early to start making lists of the year’s best films, but when the time comes, I think it’s a safe bet that “Kubo and the Two Strings” will be on a few of them- anti-animation prejudices notwithstanding.  It fully deserves that honor.  It’s a multi-layered, visually stunning work which tells a powerful story without pandering to its viewers- and a film like that, animated or not, is very rare indeed.

Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

Youth [La giovinezza] (2015)

YOUTH (2)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

At this time of year, movie houses are suddenly filled with films clearly intended as “award bait,” each one marketed as the next big winner in an effort to attract your attention and your box office dollars.  Discriminating movie-goers, of course, know that most of these are often just the usual mainstream studio fare masquerading as art films- but usually, in their midst, one can find the genuine article.  This year, one such contender is “Youth,” an English language film by Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino.

With an impressive cast of veteran heavy-hitters, “Youth” belies its title by centering on two elderly characters- Fred and Mick (played, respectively, by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), who are vacationing at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps.  Fred, a renowned conductor and composer, is faced with a hard-to-decline invitation to come out of retirement for a very special command performance, which brings up long-suppressed feelings over his absent wife; Mick, a respected film director, clings to his self-acknowledged illusions while crafting the script for his next movie, which he envisions as a definitive “testament” about the nature of life and art.  Personal struggles notwithstanding, these two old friends spend their time together talking only of “good things,” and mingling with the other guests, who include (among others) a hot-shot movie star, a now-obese former soccer legend, and the newly-crowned Miss Universe.  Clearly, this hotel boasts an exclusive clientele.

If the above description doesn’t read like much of a synopsis, that’s because “Youth” is not really a plot-driven film.  Sure, things happen- Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) has some romantic complications, and a number of background characters have their own dramatic arcs throughout- but these serve more to illuminate the ongoing meditation that is the true focus here.  Instead of rising and falling action, we are given ebbing and swelling emotion, conveyed less by what we see and hear than by what we feel- or, perhaps more accurately, what we sense.  In this way, Sorrentino allows us to experience his characters at an empathic level, and turns what seems to be a story about the existential struggles of privileged people into a contemplation of the human need to connect.

This is no simple accomplishment, but Sorrentino makes it seem effortless.  His movie is a study of the contrast between surfaces and what is beneath them; from beginning to end we are treated to atmospheric, richly-detailed visuals, photographed (by Luca Bigazzi) with an eye towards capturing both the idyllic settings and the subtle activity within them.  Breezes billow through canopies, steam rises from still water, sunlight pierces shadows; and populating the scene are the placid figures of the hotel’s guests, evoking speculation about the interplay of forces taking place behind their own inscrutable exteriors.  The cumulative effect of this visual counterpoint is a growing awareness of the inner lives of the characters which gets its ultimate payoff in a moving finale involving a performance of one of Fred’s songs- actually a piece written by the film’s composer, David Lang, which would get my vote for the Best Song Oscar, if I had one.

Of course, it’s not all accomplished with subtle cinematic style; a great deal also depends upon the characters themselves- and, therefore, upon the players who portray them.  The perfect front man for all this under-the-surface exploration is Caine, who gives us yet another sublime performance; his Fred is a masterpiece of understatement, conveying monumental passions with the slightest quaver of his voice or nuance of his expression.  Keitel, as Mick, provides a fitting contrast with his earthy, passionate persona, and there are equally effective contributions by Weisz and Paul Dano (as the movie star).  However, it’s Jane Fonda, in a brief-but-show-stealing turn as Mick’s muse and favorite actress, who makes the most spectacular impression; she explodes into the proceedings like a thunderstorm, and the effect of her performance lingers for the remainder of the film.

“Youth” is one of those movies that are hard to recommend with certainty.  Despite its familiar, English-speaking cast, it’s as European as can be; Sorrentino invokes his idol, Fellini, with situational references (there are clear parallels to “8 1/2”), stylistic homage, circus imagery, unabashed symbolism, and infusions of surrealism.  In addition, with its languid pace and heavy reliance on subtext, it often runs the risk of alienating viewers who prefer more actively engaging fare.  For myself, I found it intellectually challenging, emotionally complex, and deeply resonant; if that description appeals to you, I encourage you to see it for yourself.  At the least, you will be treated to a display of artistry by all of its participants; odds are good, though, that you will also walk out of the theater with a deeper connection to your own humanity- and in today’s world, that can only be good thing.

45 Years (2015)

45_YEARS

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride LA

Roughly midway through “45 Years,” there is a discussion about the buildup of melted glacial ice due to climate change, and how it will eventually break through the geography that contains it to come cascading down the mountainside and obliterate everything in its path.  It’s an ominous scenario which provides a vivid metaphor for the process of emotional devastation charted by out British writer/director Andrew Haigh in this, his latest slice-of-life drama about the complexities of a relationship.

Adapted from the short story “In Another Country,” by David Constantine, “45 Years” follows an aging couple, Kate and Geoff (screen legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), through the week before a party celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.  As they go about the business of planning the event, Geoff receives a letter notifying him that a body has been found- that of his former girlfriend, who perished in a fall while they were hiking through the Alps together, 50 years ago.  Though Kate has known of this occurrence, the news triggers a resurgence of long-withheld memories in Geoff, and as they gradually come to light she begins to question everything she has assumed about her relationship with her husband, and to suspect that their long and seemingly happy marriage has been built upon a lie.

In a way, Haigh’s latest film serves as a companion piece to his previous feature, “Weekend,” Both are, at their core, about a relationship threatened by the emotional baggage of past experiences; in one, the ability of the couple to open up to each other allows them a hope of breaking through the boundaries between them, while in the other a lack of openness results in a gulf which may ultimately be impassable.  Though the former film features two young gay men at the possible beginning of their relationship, and the latter is about a mature heterosexual couple at the possible ending of theirs, they could essentially be bookends of the same story, each serving as a mirror in which we can find food for thought about the way we deal with our own baggage.

Once again,” Haigh’s screenplay relies heavily on naturalistic dialogue, allowing him to direct his actors towards emotional honesty and coax from them the nuanced performances required to reveal the layers between the lines.  It was this meticulously-crafted realism that brought acclaim to “Weekend,” and in “45 Years” it is perhaps even more tangible.  One reason for this, of course, is that here he is blessed with two of the most gifted film performers of their generation, both clearly still at the top of their form.

Courtenay, evoking memories of the young, passionate intellectuals he portrayed in the British social realism cinema of the early sixties, is superbly opaque as Geoff.  The qualities of those youthful characters are here transposed into an older iteration, so that the “angry young man” has evolved into a grumpy old one, and the aloof emotional distance now disguises itself behind the distracted dottiness of the aged; we never doubt the honesty of the feelings he expresses, but we are never sure how many others he obscures behind that benevolent mask, nor can we tell if he is hiding them even from himself.

As much as Courtenay is guarded, Rampling wears her heart on her sleeve.  With the likable but inscrutable Geoff as her husband, it is Kate’s perspective we must share, and the actress uses all her long-renowned intelligence and bravery to show it to us with absolute clarity.  Taking us on a downward progression, from the easy confidence of a woman in complete control to the insecurity of one uncertain of everything upon which she has built her life, it is up to her to provide the movie’s emotional center.  She is more than up to the task; her luminous performance is no less clear for its sublime subtlety than her beauty is diminished by the lines which grace her iconic face.

As great as both stars are individually, “45 Years” works because together they are incandescent.  The relationship they portray feels so heartbreakingly real that at times one almost forgets the film is not a documentary- and it is here that credit must come back around to Andrew Haigh, who has not only provided the collaborative freedom to cultivate the brilliance of his stars, but used a sure hand behind the camera to merge subdued realism with visual poetry in a way that asserts itself as pure cinema without ever being flagrant.  It is a rare movie that allows its major revelations to take place without a single line of dialogue to underscore the moment; “45 Years” is self-assured enough to do so, and Haigh is a strong enough director to pull it off.

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

WITCH

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, is a horror movie which asks us to suspend our modern-day disbelief in order to accept that witchcraft, black magic, and Satanic possession are as much a part of the real world as its family of 17th Century protagonists considers them to be.  Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” and based on the lore of a region and era in which widespread hysteria over such matters infamously culminated in the Salem witch trials, it informs us that much of its dialogue is taken directly from official transcripts of first-hand accounts from the period.  It strives to convince us of its authenticity, seeming to insist that our ability to accept the literal truth of what it shows us is crucial to our understanding of the story.

Set in New England of the early 1600s, it follows a family of settlers who have been cast out of their Puritan community for their preaching their own strictly conservative beliefs.  They establish a farm on the edge of the wilderness, where father William rules the family with a firm but loving hand; he daily performs the hard work required to maintain their home with the help of his eldest, daughter Thomasin, and her brother, Caleb; mother Kate tends to her newest baby, while the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, spend their days playing with the goats in the stable.  For a time, they seem to thrive, living an austere but tranquil life.  Their fortunes take a turn, however, when baby Samuel, while under the watch of Thomasin, suddenly disappears from their midst.  Though William insists the infant was taken by a wolf, it soon becomes apparent that another sinister presence from the woods is responsible, and as its mysterious grip tightens around the isolated family they find themselves terrorized by events that challenge not only their deeply-held faith in God, but their faith in each other, as well.

In the hands of many directors, this plot would undoubtedly be the framework for a host of lurid thrills and cheap shocks.  Indeed, throughout The Witch, horror buffs may find themselves repeatedly expecting the requisite “surprise” pop-up frights, and waiting for the slow build to explode into a progression of ever-grislier mutilation and carnage.

Eggers, however, has a different experience in mind; through both his screenplay and his meticulous staging of the film, he avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on maintaining and reinforcing the kind of realism more reminiscent of a subtle period drama than an over-the-top fright flick.  Not only are the costumes and the settings simple and historically accurate, the language of the dialogue is written and spoken with the ring of period authenticity.  The cinematography (elegantly executed by Jarin Blaschke) uses mostly natural and available light to remain firmly rooted in the real world while still using plenty of shadow to evoke the implied darkness lurking in the heart of the story, and Eggers artfully frames his shots to create painterly images that are nevertheless tangibly naturalistic.

Perhaps most critically, the actors are uniformly superb, a true ensemble cast.  Each member of the family is portrayed with the kind of absolute honesty that reveals complex and unexpected layers of humanity; even the youngest children are remarkably believable, a fact which enhances the overall effect of the film’s horror immeasurably.  All deserve equal credit.  .

It is the film’s well-crafted realism, though, that may prove its fatal flaw, for some audiences.  Everything about it, from its title to its haunting score (composed by Mark Korven), tells you that it is a horror film, but- on the surface at least- it doesn’t play like one.  The pace is slow, and the implied menace is rarely shown.  Even the title character herself barely appears onscreen, though we are emphatically expected to believe in her.

The brilliance of Eggers’ movie, of course, is that it never really does expect us to do that.  The movie hinges on the certainty that we will question the reality of this family’s experience and analyze it on a deeper level.  This is no cautionary tale about danger in the literal woods; rather, it’s a warning about what happens when we isolate ourselves within our beliefs- at odds with our communities, our loved ones, and our own true nature.  The interpersonal drama of the little family we are shown gives us plenty of clues about the real evil that is tearing them apart, and it comes from within, not from without.  It is this sly and subversive subtext running through its center that makes The Witch stand apart within its genre.  It may not terrify, but it provokes, and that is what will linger in your memory.

Well, that, and a certain black goat…