Skip to main content

You're the only other person in the world.

Anomalisa
(2015)

(SPOILERS) As with all Charlie Kaufman’s films, there’s brilliance in Anomalisa, points where he pins down the neurotic fragility underpinning our (individual) reality. This picture in particular is determined to make life additionally difficult for itself, however, by assuming the manner of its protagonist as a more remote, less accessible piece than, say Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a state of affairs compounded by the uncanny stop motion animation. Anomalisa is slow, hypnotic, arresting, but while often profound in its insights, like the malaise of its central character it isn’t profoundly affecting.


Kaufman’s starting-point was the Fregoli delusion, whereby an individual may perceive others to be one person in disguise, and from such cerebral beginnings come cerebral, rather than emotive, filmmaking. He wrote Anomalisa initially as a radio (or sound) play, with the same cast of David Thewlis (as self-help author Michael Stone) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa Hesselman, whom Stone meets at a conference and perceives to be different and special), with the other parts are all played by Tom Noonan. The puppets reflect this; Michael and Lisa are distinctly sculpted, but Noonan’s characters, reflecting Michael’s perception that everyone else is the same, are cast from the same mould but with different appliances (the features resemble a disconcerting amalgam of Imelda Staunton and Cillian Murphy).


Not a whole lot happens; Michael arrives at a hotel (The Fregoli), experiences various annoyances, attempts to hook up with an old flame, then meets Lisa, whom he seduces. But it’s the minutiae of these mundane or otherwise events that command attention. And, as is always the case with Kaufman, lurking within is the very real fear that something may be seriously awry with existence itself, as expressed through the antic aspect of a disturbed mind (a mind that exerts influence over others in its delusion). Most striking here are the moments where Michael appears to become aware of his nature as a puppet, an entity without true freewill, so giving substance to his fear, and so momentarily wrapping us in his mind-set.


Thewlis, a mere near-quarter of a century ago, wrapped us in another warped mind, that of Johnny in Naked, and if Michael Stone is much more subdued and repressed, he is no less disordered. In particular, his sexual gambits show him, above and beyond his persistent dismissiveness and short temper with others, to be entirely self-serving and manipulative. Married with a son, he shamelessly attempts to engineer a one night stand with Bella, the woman he deeply hurt when he abandoned her a decade before. All the time he bemoans how there is something wrong with him, but is his objectification of others the symptom or the cause? He quickly forgets about Bella when he comes across Lisa, but in turn, once he has had his satisfaction, the lustre wears off, and her features resolve into that pervasive identikit state.


The use of puppets, and eerily naturalistic puppets at that, is something of a stroke of genius, even if it was borne of circumstance rather than express intent (it was suggested by co-director Duke Johnson). Parts of Anomalisa, such as the unidealised intimate sex scene, are quite staggering, while others, such as the extended dream sequence, are already uncanny because the whole film is, and so attain an additional power.


If Michael ultimately reduces his experience to some rather banal statements (“What is it to be human, what is to be alive?” he asks his audience at the seminar), one might assume Kaufman’s ruminations and perpetual crisis of existential doubt result from an essentially atheistic position, since the self-involved appeals often bear a passing similarity to vintage Woody Allen. But while Kaufman is noncommittal (he merely passes opinion that “God is no kind of anthropomorphic entity, if he exists” which seems entirely reasonable), one nevertheless gets the impression that his characters are alone, isolated and bereft in their worlds, and the only sustenance the questionable soul can gain is fleeting contact with another. And, if they use and discard another, what difference does it make, because, after all, they are all alone, isolated and bereft in their world? Stone is fatigued with life, and nothing brings him joy, certainly not his wife and child (for whom he buys a Japanese sex doll because he can’t be bothered to make an effort with his shopping; notably his son is learning his father’s ulterior, possessive traits), and lust provides only a brief respite.


One might complain that Kaufman himself is an immensely intricate, self-involved one-trick pony; that he never says anything else. But then, if his engine is one of the discontented artist, unhappy with the illusion life consistently serves and unable to retrieve the truth within, without or wherever pertaining to it, finding a glimmer of light or hope would be to dampen his fuse (oh, for his earlier, funnier films!)


Anomalisa becomes particularly despondent (not that it isn’t enough anyway) if we conclude that “Lisa” is actually the Japanese sex doll (the one he presents to his son, mysteriously dripping with ejaculate) and his illicit encounter is actually no more than a particularly sweaty wet dream. Kaufman doesn’t like to provide answers to his content, no doubt because the mystery is part of the package, and the unadorned truth is much less thought-provoking (in this case, it may also be because both possibilities are equally valid – that the restored Lisa he sees as “her” letter to him is narrated, is also real). I think what separates Kaufman out, is that he manages to restate his abiding themes in different and contrasting contexts, and it’s usually only as one contemplates them with hindsight that the similarities converge. Perhaps, if he got to make more than one film every eight years, we’d become heartily sick of him going on and on and on again, but as it is, come 2024, his next picture ought to be every bit as rapturously received.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What happens at 72?

Midsommar (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films in. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly similar critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory. That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have here, content-wise, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.