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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s what’s coming up next on TCFF!
What do you think about either one of these films?