Anomalisa ****|****

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa
David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa

Stop motion animation in film is a genre that has long been geared towards children, with a pervasive emphasis on fantastical creatures and otherworldly backdrops for surreal effect. Recent highlights like Coraline and ParaNorman utilize traditional horror elements and gothic imagery to tell creepy bedtime stories in a non-conventional way. What’s so bracingly original about Anomalisa, the latest work from writer/director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, is how drastically it subverts the traditions of the medium and how authentically it strives to capture the human experience in a way that no other animated film has done before.

The movie follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help author of “How May I Help You Help Them?”, as he travels to Cincinnati to give an inspirational speech at a customer service convention. We quickly learn that Stone is depressed and perceives everyone around him as different versions of the same man dressed in various disguises (all voiced by Tom Noonan). When he hears a new voice outside of his hotel room one night, he finds that a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a beacon of uniqueness in a sea of familiar faces and the two form an instant connection.

Even if this story had been played out in a live-action format, the results would likely still be largely successful but the fact that it’s told not just in stop motion but incredibly fluid stop motion makes this a groundbreaking achievement. The set design and the lighting are impeccable, capturing all of the familiar nuances of a modern hotel and reimagining them for this new, miniature world. The attention to detail simply can’t be understated here; when you realize that the animators had a production goal of 48 frames per day (2 seconds of run time in the film), you begin to appreciate the level of craft that goes into the art form.

Of course, none of this patient effort would matter much if the narrative didn’t match the quality of the animation but luckily, Kaufman has penned his most stripped-down and intimate screenplay thus far. On the surface, it’s a mid-life crisis movie a la Lost In Translation but Kaufman tackles his typical themes of identity and isolation with a more light-hearted and empathetic touch this time around. There are threads of undeniable sadness throughout this film but there are also some unexpectedly playful notes too, perhaps my favorite involving a misleading series of speed dial icons for room service on a hotel room phone.

At the heart of everything is a beautifully rendered love story between Michael and Lisa, in which both characters attempt to push aside their own shortcomings to find a renewed purpose in one another. Like the visible seams in the faces of the puppet models that represent them, these characters have overt flaws that are bluntly put on display for us to examine and to potentially empathize with. In a bizarre way, I began to almost forget that I was watching stop motion at points in the story, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Anomalisa may just be too peculiar an experience to find a mass audience but as a work of life-like animation, it’s a one-of-a-kind gem.

Brooklyn **½|****

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

I feel like a jerk for not liking this movie. Brooklyn is about as pleasant of a movie-going experience as you can expect to have all year; a willfully old-fashioned throwback to a time when dramatic stakes were comparatively trivial by today’s standards. To say that I was underwhelmed by the story might have more to do with some innate desire for conflict than with any particular failings of the film itself. There’s little doubt that it will appeal to many who seek it out but despite a rapturous lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and a handful of visual treats, I couldn’t find enough here to include myself among its ardent admirers.

Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish shopgirl who grows weary of her mundane village and decides to immigrate to 1950s New York in search of new opportunities. There she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber with an amiable disposition and an undying loyalty to his Brooklyn Dodgers. The two fall fast in love and hastily marry before Eilis is called back to her homeland for a family emergency. After only a few weeks, she finds herself becoming reattached to all that she left behind and must make a choice to return to her new husband in Brooklyn or stay in her native Ireland town.

Going into this film, I was not aware of the Colm Tóibín novel that inspired it and while screenwriter Nick Hornby does add some charming touches to the dialogue, the story didn’t have nearly enough dramatic thrust to maintain my interest. Even when I was intermittently wrapped up in the narrative, there was never a point when I had any doubt about how things would turn out. With the exception of Eilis, I was also disappointed with the lack of depth in the supporting characters, who tend to embody sanitized stereotypes rather than lend much needed personality to the story.

Despite this shallowness, Saoirse Ronan rises above and turns in yet another captivating performance filled with poise and confidence beyond her years. Her face has a sort of magnetic expressiveness to it that gives the impression that her character is constantly searching for new and deeper meaning with each interaction. Ultimately, Eilis’ physical and metaphorical journey is the most interesting part of this story and Ronan hits all of the notes of her transformation beautifully. Ever since her breakout role in 2007’s Atonement, she has proven herself to be one of the finest young actresses around and her work here is integral to the modest successes of the film.

Another recent release, Todd Haynes’ Carol, is also a novel-adapted melodrama set in a stylized version of 1950s New York that features a shopgirl as one of its main characters. While that film has more lurid subject material and is aiming to tell a different kind of romance story altogether,  Brooklyn could have benefited from more adventurous storytelling and more fleshed out characters in the periphery. It may win the award for most innocuous movie of the year but it didn’t have enough of its own personality to move me past polite praise.

The Revenant ***½|****

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

The power of film is in its ability to create a totally immersive experience unique to any art form. We sit in a dark movie theater, aware that what we’re about to see costs millions of dollars and took hundreds of people to make, and the filmmaker’s chief task is to essentially make us forget all of that. Some may call it suspension of disbelief but it runs deeper than that: there’s an undeniable magic to those films that effortlessly transport us from time and place. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows this tradition with a rare kind of cinematic conviction and steadfast authenticity that will likely render it timeless.

Amongst the unsettled wilderness of the 1820s American northwest, a band of fur trappers and hunters stave off the harsh elements and Native American aggression to collect pelts for trade. After the party’s scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, his severe injuries begin to hinder the group’s progress and their captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders three men, including hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to tend to his wounds. After a fatal dispute amongst the volunteers, Glass is left for dead and must fight through unbearable circumstances to return to his outpost.

Iñárritu has the poise and confidence of a master filmmaker right from the opening scene, an exhilarating and immensely well-choreographed ambush sequence that reminded me of the similarly stunning D-Day beach raid in Saving Private Ryan. Apart from providing a thrilling action scene to kick things off, he also clues us in early to the type of visceral brutality and natural realism that he goes on to employ throughout the film’s exhausting journey. The story that he tells here is not necessarily a complex one but it’s told with an emotional purity and ruthless honesty that makes the end result as rewarding as the narrative is challenging.

Indispensable to the film’s success is veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Iñárritu previously for Birdman and received an Academy Award last year for his work. Not only is the film simply gorgeous to take in (Lubezki reportedly used only natural lighting while shooting), he tempers the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape with an unflinching eye towards the dangers that spontaneously present themselves. Lubezki also showcases his signature style of close-up here as well, characterized by a low side angle that stays tight on the subject’s face and lends depths of intimacy that the performances may not have otherwise had.

And then we come to DiCaprio. Much has been said of his work here and even more has been said of his chances for winning his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times previously. While the notion that he has been under-appreciated by the Academy throughout his career is just, I fear that the “Overdue Oscar” talk may overshadow just how committed and tenacious a performance he gives in this film. In fact, the same could be said of Tom Hardy, who brings an unrelenting intensity to another memorable antagonistic role that serves as a career-best for him.  The Revenant is bravura filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers.


The Hateful Eight **|****

Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight
Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, appropriately titled The Hateful Eight, is the director’s most self-indulgent project yet and he’s not a man known particularly for his modesty to begin with. Presented to select theaters in 70mm projection complete with a roadshow program and a 12 minute Ennio Morricone-scored overture at its start (with an intermission halfway through), this is his attempt to bring the high art prestige of a classy theater play back into modern movie theaters. It’s a noble effort, one that generated plenty of buzz, so it’s a shame that the film at the center of it all is simply not worthy of the spectacle.

Set during a harsh winter in post-Civil War Wyoming, we’re introduced to bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his outlaw prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they travel in stagecoach bound for Red Rock. Along the way, they also pick up former Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate fighter Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims that he’s on his way to Red Rock to be sworn in as the town’s next sheriff. To stave off the impending blizzard, the four shack up at a secluded lodge but when they start to converse with the other four characters who reside there, suspicions about their motivations and identities begin to grow.

Due to its dedication to a single location and focus on solving a central mystery, the film has drawn comparisons to Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs but that film benefited greatly from a tighter structure and comparatively brisk pace. The intentionally slumberous pacing in the first hour of The Hateful Eight is meant to build up excitement for when Ruth and his passengers finally arrive at the lodge but it comes across more as a storyteller spinning his wheels while we wait for the movie to start. While the dialogue between Mannix and Warren is likely the sharpest in the film, it doesn’t come close to matching the poetry and poignancy of passages from films like Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction.

Unlike those movies, The Hateful Eight is severely lacking when it comes to compelling characters. Tarantino clearly went for the quantity over quality method here with eight loathsome characters who hardly possess any distinguishable traits beyond boorishness and sadistic self-interest. It’s possible to write an interesting story about eight “bad guys” sharing a room for the night but it’s an especially bad idea to paint their personalities in broad strokes and then ask us to care about anything that happens to them as individuals.

Most disappointing, however, is the depiction of violence in the film’s second half. This is an area that I’ve noticed Tarantino begin to slip since the conclusion of his last film Django Unchained. There used to be an artfulness and craft to his action sequences that now feels like it’s been superseded by laziness and sensationalism. A primary example is the extended flashback that comprises the film’s fifth chapter, which adds very little context to the main narrative and whose only purpose seems to be to raise the overall body count. Tarantino has always seemed steadfast on topping his previous effort but The Hateful Eight is a sign that it may be time for him to reign things in.

Spotlight ***|****

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James in Spotlight
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James in Spotlight

Set in the fall of 2001, Spotlight takes its name from the select sector of Boston Globe journalists who, through months of rigorous investigation, uncovered a pattern of sex abuse crimes kept under wraps within the Catholic Church. Along with Globe editors Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), the story focuses on the four members of the Spotlight team: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Together, they doggedly piece through years of evidence and eventually publish the scathing exposé that would take the world by storm.

It’s likely that this is the most heartfelt love letter to newspaper journalism ever put on film. There are a multitude of small details, from set design choices to nuances in the actors’ performances, that clue us into how these investigative minds really work and what it’s like to live a journalist’s life. My personal favorite inclusion is the ever-present pocket-size note pads and frantically scribbling pens, which are seen so often that they practically become main characters in the story. Director Tom McCarthy is fascinated with how these professionals operate on a day-to-day basis and his admiration for their work shines brightly throughout Spotlight.

He also has a commendable dedication to telling this story ethically and with a great deal of integrity, which is not only critical for a movie based on true events but also for one whose central scandal is still in the process of unfolding. As is the case for these type of films, there are many opportunities to take artistic license in trying to spice up the content but the dramatic flourishes are few and far between. Playing it straight doesn’t always make for the most exciting or dramatically fulfilling cinema out there but when it comes to true story adaptation, I’ll take the honest, humble version over the gaudy, glamorized version any day of the week.

This ethic also carries over to the casting as well, as none of the actors (with the possible exception of Ruffalo) seem to be interested in putting on showy performances for award consideration. Instead, they wisely focus on the studious nature of these characters and the work that they carry out together as a team. The film is economical in its opportunities for us to glimpse into the personal lives of the journalists but perhaps even that is by design: we’re kept at a similar distance as the subjects that they interview. Despite the potential lack of depth with the lead characters, the crime victims are thankfully portrayed with the dignity and empathy that they deserve.

I’d be remiss not to mention the overwhelming Oscar buzz that is prematurely swarming this movie. While the nominations have yet to be announced (January 14th is the date for that) and I have yet to see all of the likely front-runners, it’s easy to see why Spotlight is leading in the Best Picture talk. It has the kind of qualities that the Academy frequently fawns over: based on true events, timely subject matter, a recognizable veteran cast. Something about its approach feels a bit too modest for me to throw overwhelming adoration its way but as a piece of workmanlike filmmaking, it’s a respective and responsible effort.