Weiner-Dog (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to offer you an escape from your problems; he makes movies to confront you with them.  Ever since his 1995 breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he has repeatedly offered up grim, uncomfortable stories of the dysfunction lurking just beneath the banal surface of suburban American life.  His films are variations on the interconnected themes of failure, depression, and emotional isolation.  Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Yet the quirky writer/director has developed a loyal cult following who continue to be mesmerized by his sardonic vision of the world and the broken, faltering lives of the people who live in it.  Indeed, there is an almost masochistic fascination to these sad little fables of modern life, not unlike that can’t-look-away feeling you get when passing a gruesome accident scene on the highway.  Coupled with this morbid appeal is his tendency to feature recurring characters in his films (usually portrayed by different actors) alongside the new ones.  The desire to see what has happened to some of these familiar figures (and the hope that they have somehow managed to improve their dismal lives) is undoubtedly key in keeping his fans coming back for more, and it provides a major hook for the filmmaker’s latest effort, “Weiner-Dog.”

Those familiar with “Dollhouse,” which remains Solondz’ most popular and successful work, will immediately recognize this title as the nickname bestowed on that film’s pathetic anti-heroine, middle-schooler Dawn Wiener.  Though clearly intended to invoke that connection, and though that much-beloved character does indeed make her long-anticipated return here, in this case the name refers to a new central figure- a dachshund who becomes the pet of four different, unconnected people through the course of her life.

First, she is gifted to a young cancer survivor, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), providing the boy with a brief respite from the stark home environment created by the antagonistic and seemingly loveless marriage of his affluent parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts).  Then, she is adopted by the now-adult Dawn Wiener (the gifted Greta Gerwig)- still awkward and desperate for affection- who takes her along for the ride as she accompanies an old schoolmate on a road trip.  Changing hands again, she becomes the pet of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter barely clinging to his job as an unappreciated teacher at a film academy.  Finally, she ends up as a companion animal for Nana (the always-stellar Ellen Burstyn), an elderly and misanthropic invalid who receives a surprise visit from her long-absent granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet).

That’s it.  The dog connects the segments by her presence, but otherwise these are stand-alone vignettes, composed around Solondz’ usual themes and exploring the various ways in which human beings treat each other- and themselves- very badly.  As anyone familiar with the director’s work would anticipate, there’s not much hope to be found in these stories, and where there are glimmers of it they are subverted by the surrounding circumstances; and yet, the film has a strange and terrible beauty.

This is the hallmark of Solondz’ work; he shows us life at its cruelest and most demeaning- almost always with the explicit qualifier that it is we ourselves who are responsible- and yet he makes it somehow lovely.  He also makes it darkly funny; he is, above all, a social satirist whose stunted, minimalist dialogue conveys both depth of insight and an arch sense of ironic humor that revels in making us laugh at the things which most disturb us.  It might be argued that the laughter is a defensive reflex, a release of uncomfortable tension; this may be true, but it’s an authentic response, nonetheless.

Cut from the same cloth as his earlier films, this is perhaps Solondz’ most elegantly-made work to date.  Cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a low-key study in composition that subtly elevates the aesthetic and allows us just enough of a cool perspective to distance ourselves without being able to completely detach.  That’s important, because Solondz wants us to reconnect with the primal emotions- fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, resentment- within us all.  He warns us that if they are left in the darkness to be stoked by our failures and losses, they can make our lives like those he shows us on the screen; those lives might seem absurd, exaggerated, and extreme, but he never lets us believe they are anything other than truthful.  Brutally truthful.

For non-Solondz-fans, it should be noted that “Weiner-Dog” (like all of his work) is likely to put off many viewers.  It’s bleak and unrelenting, with a pall of despair that hangs over it from beginning to end.  Animal lovers, especially, should be warned to consider carefully before seeing it; for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

 

Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

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Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, 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.