TCFF 2015 Day 6 Recap + Reviews: Anomalisa and Too Late

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We’ve passed the halfway point of TCFF already, with just four more days to go in the 11-day cinematic festivities. There are still a whole bunch of great films coming in the next few days!

The highlights of the past few days are definitely meeting the talents and filmmakers attending the film fest!

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Director Dennis Hauck, John Hawkes & Jatin Setia

It’s especially gratifying to see Alexandria, MN native John Hawkes being honored with a North Star Award for Excellence after the screening of his film Too Late (review below). TCFF will screen other Hawkes films, including Winter’s Bone and Me and You and Everyone We Know“It’s our version of the lifetime achievement award,” TCFF executive director Jatin Setia said of the North Star Award for Excellence. “It’s a brilliant, brilliant body of work thus far in his career.” Amen to that. I had hoped he’d be nominated for his performance in The Sessions, which also screened at TCFF in 2012.


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Anomalisa

This is one of the most anticipated screenings at TCFF and the theater is packed. The film has received unanimously positive reviews out of other major film festivals, and Charlie Kaufman is a beloved writer/director. I’m not terribly well-versed in his work however, having just seen Adaptation, but I’m definitely familiar with his work. I think it’s safe to say he is one of those writers with a distinct style that it’s more of an acquired taste. Anomalisa is his first stop-motion film and it’s definitely not an animated feature for kids. It deals with a rather heavy subject matter about a man crippled by the mundanity of his life.

As the film opens with the protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) on a plane, I was immediately amazed by how good the stop-motion quality. Though the lines of the puppets’ faces are left in, the expressions are quite realistic and even the skin textures and hair are meticulously done. The eyes are especially interesting to look at, as they truly convey human emotion. Kudos to Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson for crafting something that, despite not actually having real people in it, has a very human story about existensial crisis.

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This is the only still image I can find of this film

Michael seems to be one of those people who have it all (as is the case in many Kaufman’s stories), he’s a successful customer service expert with a best-selling book ‘How Can I Help You Help Them?’ He’s in town in Cincinnati for a conference, and it’s apparent he’s very disillusioned with his soul-sucking corporate job. The film takes place mostly in a single night in an upscale but impersonal hotel that only aggravates Michael’s feeling of isolation. To illustrate the humdrum life seen through Michael’s eyes, everyone else he comes across (both men & women) have the same voice, voiced by Tom Noonan. That is until later on in the film when he meets a fretful customer service rep staying on his floor named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She struggles with self esteem, always thinking that she’s not at all special, but Michael assures her she is unlike any other he’s ever met… anomalous Lisa, hence the film’s title.

To say that the film is bizarre is putting it mildly. But it’s to be expected from Kaufman, and there’s definitely surreal elements in the way the story unfold. It’s also hilarious in parts, most notably when Lisa sang a Cindy Lauper song for Michael. The sexual themes are prevalent right from the start, with Michael witnessing a guy in the next building masturbating and later we see a fully-realized sex scene. The scene is eerily realistic and not at all comedic, which is a technical feat considering it’s puppetry. I have to say it creeps me out a bit and I bet I’m not the only one squirming in my seat watching that.

I also find that though I can relate with the theme of isolation and loneliness, it was hard for me to get into the character who is downright unlikable and frankly, unrelatable. I remember a line from the documentary A New High that plays on TCFF’s opening night where a character said ‘Though life doesn’t always go my way, I choose joy’ and throughout the film I felt that life is about what we make of it and Michael chooses to dwell on the banality of his life.

Ultimately, Anomalisa is a film I appreciate and even admire, but not love. It just doesn’t connect with me emotionally, and I find the petulant manner of its hero aggravating. But on a technical level, the animation quality is top notch, given its relatively small budget (crowd-funded via Kickstarter), that is no small feat. It lives up to its title in that there is nothing else like it, a uniquely-told and crafted existensial drama that no doubt will get people talking for years to come. How profound this film really is however, is up to the viewer, but I think Kaufman’s fans will be pleased with this one.

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Too Late

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Good things come in small packages. Last night, Twin Cities Film Fest attendees were treated not only to a new indie film noir starring Minnesota native John Hawkes but also a post-show Q&A with the actor and writer/director Dennis Hauck. It’s always interesting to see actors in person after you see them on screen, and my usual reaction is how much smaller they are in person. But I digress.

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Too Late, Hauck’s debut feature film, stars the Alexandria-born (and Oscar nominated) Hawkes as Mel Sampson, an L.A. private detective haunted by his past. In a recent Star Tribune article, the author said Hawkes has a history of playing bleak characters (“Winter’s Bone,” “The Sessions”) and this one is no different…but he plays them so well. The film begins and ends in a very “Pulp Fiction” type fashion (and then, as if to prove the connection, Robert Forster, star of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, came on screen while I was thinking this) with a mix of the romanticism of Once thrown in the middle.

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If you’re confused it’s okay because that’s not really the point. Not to say this movie doesn’t have a coherent plot (it’s one of those you want to watch again once you reach the end to get everything straight) but I found myself wondering what would happen next. Part of this is because the movie was shot with only five, single shot, uninterrupted scenes. (The film is about 100 minutes long so each “section” of the movie is about 20 minutes.) In the post-show Q&A Hauck talked about how the camera equipment was often too heavy for one person to handle for 20 minutes so there are slight jiggles in each scene where the camera was shifted from one camera person to another. Yes, in addition to the story, this movie is a treasure trove of unique filmmaking.

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Taking the classic tapestry of old Hollywood from the beginning scene overlooking the city to the middle scene in a projection room at an old drive through, the cinematography of shooting this movie on 35mm film adds to its appeal. I also found it to be expertly cast – Hawkes injects his world weary character with a sweet, unassuming charm (in the post-show Q&A Haucks mentioned that he wrote the script with Hawkes in mind) and Crystal Reed (Dorothy) and Dichen Lachman (Jill) both avoid the “stripper with a heart of gold” mentality to give their characters a relatable depth.

The movie was very well received with the sold-out crowd spontaneously applauding as the credits rolled and I hope it gets wider release as it’s a worthy addition to any moviegoers list.

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Here’s what’s coming up next on TCFF! 


What do you think about either one of these films?

 

Spotlight on ‘It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong’ + interview with director Emily Ting

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It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

Synopsis: Ruby and Josh spent an unforgettable night together in Hong Kong a year ago, and now their brief encounter is about to get a second chance. As effervescent as a perfect first date, this charming walk and talk romance takes full advantage of the chemistry of its leads, the playfulness of their exchanges, and the magical landscape that is Hong Kong at night.



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There is something about real-time romance drama that I find intriguing. Perhaps because it automatically made me think of the Before Sunrise trilogy. Now, this film is set over the course of two nights, but for the most part it takes place a year after the first night they met.

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Ruby is a Chinese American toy designer from LA who visits Hong Kong for the first time on business. I think that’s so cool to see an unusual profession for the female lead, and the more I spend time with her, the more I like Ruby. As she was stranded trying to get to her friends’ party, she runs into Josh, an American expat who ends up escorting her to her destination. The more time they spend talking through the vibrant and colorful street of Hong Kong in the nighttime, they find themselves being more drawn to each other.

I feel that perhaps there was an instant attraction the moment they met, but it’s obvious there’s a connection. Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg are a couple in real life, so perhaps that helps make Ruby and Josh’s connection so palbable. There’s an effortless chemistry between the two, even though all they do is talk and having drinks in public. I’m familiar w/ Jamie but this is definitely her strongest performance I’ve seen from her. On the other hand, this is the first time I saw Bryan in a film and I definitely want to see more of his work.

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The second time they find each other again, a year has passed and there have been changes in their lives. Ruby’s got a promotion and is now in a relationship. Josh has left his job in finance and now pursuing his dream to be a novelist, something Ruby suggested in their initial meeting. I LOVE great dialog in movies, and It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is full of them! I find myself nodding as I witness their conversation, and think about them long after the film’s done. Ruby asked Josh the difference between being an expat and an immigrant, for example, why he is considered an expat living in Hong Kong, whilst her Chinese parents making a new life in the United States is considered an immigrant. I also like how the film plays with stereotypes, as Josh can speak Chinese whilst Ruby can’t as she grew up in California, that sort of thing.

Emily Ting‘s done a lot of short films prior to her feature debut and I must say I’m impressed in the way she crafted the story. Everything flows nicely and in a natural way, the actors seem comfortable and fit the roles perfectly. But the strength of the film is in the dialog, which comes to life as the night wears on. The combination of the undeniable chemistry of the leads, set against the backdrop of the glittering lights of the city is rather intoxicating. I never thought of Hong Kong as romantic, but it certainly feels that way here.

The ending might frustrate some as it doesn’t tie things nicely in a big, red bow. But that’s the idea. The filmmaker is set on asking the question, ‘What happens when you meet the right person at the wrong time?’ Well, that question will certainly linger with you long after the end credits roll.

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Interview with Emily Ting

Q: Before I jump into the questions specifically about Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, I have some general questions about you as a filmmaker. There’s been much [welcomed] discussion about the blatant gender inequality in Hollywood, even FBI is now involved with an investigation into gender discrimination. What has been your experience as a female filmmaker, do you encounter much hardship in getting your projects into fruition?

I actually think this is a great time to be a female filmmaker right now, only because there is so much welcomed discussion about the issue.  But I do hope that someday being a female filmmaker would just be the norm and not the exception to the rule. As for my own projects, because they’re all independently financed and many of them self financed, being a woman didn’t really factor much into the equation. But it would be interesting to see what kind of opportunities I may get going forward. And that is why it’s important to support indie films because they provide a platform to voices that are often underrepresented in Hollywood. 

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Filming w/ Bryan and Jamie

You’ve done several short films before this one, what made you decide to make the jump into feature film?

I think that most filmmakers dream of making a feature at some point in their career. But I do think that it’s important to learn the process and hone your skills on shorts before you jump into your first feature. Even with several shorts under my belt, I still felt extremely nervous tackling my first feature!

How’s the experience been in directing your first feature? Please tell me what your biggest challenge or most memorable moment making this film.

Making my first feature was both extremely satisfying and incredibly terrifying. And making that first feature in a foreign country only made it that much more challenging – from working with mostly a foreign crew to shooting most of the film in an uncontrolled environment. I think the biggest challenge for me was to overcome the hurdle of my own insecurities as a first time director. The majority of my set crew had more experience with their respective jobs than I did, which was a daunting but exciting feeling.  Sometimes, I would let that knowledge get inside my head, but I also learned to let go and really listen and trust my crew and cast. It gradually became a very collaborative process.

I love the premise of this film, where did you come up w/ the idea? Is it something personal to you or something that came about through someone you know?

I had lived in Hong Kong for 5 years as an expat prior to moving back to the US. As much as I found the city exciting and gorgeous, I never quite felt at home there. I found it quite hard to connect to people for some reason.  I’ve always wanted to make a film about two people connecting in this occasionally alienating city and build a love story around that. The idea sat with me for a long time until one night, I actually met a fellow expat, and we spent a night wandering around the city and talking together. I thought we were building a connection, but then, I found out later that he had a girlfriend. I felt like a fool for making this flirtation up in my head. So, I went home and wrote the screenplay that eventually became the film.

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Shooting on the Mid Levels Escalators

Sounds like you shot the film on location in Hong Kong. I read that The Avenue of Stars is currently closed for revitalization, so that must be a relief you’ve captured it on your film. Tell us about the filming process, how long it took, the challenges, etc.

Yes, the Ave of the Stars is a major location in our film and I can’t believe that it’s being closed down for so long! And I am so happy that we were able to capture it on film for the time being. If we had gone into production now, we would’ve lost the most beautiful location in our film. Shooting in Hong Kong definitely came with a unique set of challenges. We shot at the start of Monsoon season and it would rain every single day. But some how we got really lucky and it would always stop raining when we would roll cameras. It was really easy and cheap to get permits, but we didn’t have the budget to close down any streets so my two actors were constantly just acting amongst the real crowds of Hong Kong.

The film is designed to have these really long walk and talk sequences that’s meant to all be done in a single take, but they were often ruined by people on the street waving to the cameras. And sometimes people were downright hostile, yelling at us to get off the street. We would either go and appease them or change location on the spot. But all those challenges were worth it because we now have a beautiful looking film set in the gorgeous city of Hong Kong, which totally sets us apart from so many other films out there. 

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Lastly, how did the casting process go? Did Bryan Greenberg and/or Jamie Chung audition for the roles?

I got really lucky with the casting of my first film. I’ve always wanted Jamie for the role of Ruby. And I had a relationship with Bryan already, having produced two films with him. At the LA premiere of one of the films, I was telling him about this script I had written, and he mentioned that his girlfriend would be perfect for the role. And it turns out that he was dating Jamie at the time! Talk about serendipity! I sent the script to him and two weeks later, they signed on. Casting your first film really doesn’t get much easier than this!


Thanks for the interview Emily, it was lovely meeting you at TCFF!

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Thoughts about the interview and/or the film?