Friday, January 8, 2016


Opening in the Valley today:

AnomalisaA middle-aged man from L.A. flies into Cincinnati for a speaking gig. He’s the author of a popular tome on customer service, and people murmur his name when he walks into his hotel lobby. He checks into his room, tips the bellhop, orders some room service, calls an ex-girlfriend who lives in town. The setting is mundane and his behavior is entirely unremarkable, though a deep sadness and loneliness suffuses the atmosphere.

All of this, by the way, is depicted in painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation. For a while, I thought that this was the object of the cinematic experiment—could stop-motion lend its sense of stylized wonder even to this sort of naturalistic, slice-of-life drama?

But eventually [spoilers coming, by the way], the tension at the heart of this strange story becomes clear, as we realize that everybody in the movie except our hero, Michael, speaks in the same voice. Michael speaks in the gentle British-accented tones of David Thewlis, but his wife and young son on the phone, the ex-girlfriend, the cabbie, the desk clerk, people on TV, and everybody else speaks in the unnerving adult male voice of Tom Noonan.

It’s clear that this is how Michael’s been hearing the world for a long time, because he springs into action when he suddenly hears an unfamiliar voice passing in the hall. He tracks it down to a young woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s staying in the hotel. Lisa’s a sweet, slightly dowdy woman with poor self-esteem. Lisa—who is an anomaly, get it?—and a girlfriend (with the usual voice) have come from Akron to hear Michael speak, so she’s starstruck when he begs her to spend time with him.

Written by Charlie Kaufman (based on his own radio play), who co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, this solipsistic fantasy grows even more bizarre from there on, in the manner of Kaufman’s earlier pop-absurdist weirdness like Being John Malkovich or Synecdoche, New York. It’s also sexually graphic, with results that are both touching and surprisingly erotic.

This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, obviously, but on its own terms it’s among the strongest and most emotionally charged pictures of the year. Kaufman takes his time, letting the freaky conceits establish themselves gradually, and also allowing Michael’s terrible sense of isolation to become overpowering.

Lisa is the movie’s greatest success. She’s tremendously likable, and in the face of Michael’s rather predatory neediness, Kaufman, Johnson and Leigh make us feel urgently protective of her.

The RevenantProbably because there’s a part of me that still thinks of him as that little kid from the sitcom, the adult Leonardo DiCaprio is an ongoing amazement to me. In this adaptation of Michael Punke’s 2002 novel DiCaprio is entirely credible as Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who, on an ill-fated pelt-hunting expedition in South Dakota in 1823, was savaged to the point of death by a bear, then abandoned by the men charged with staying with him. Horrifically wounded, he nonetheless dragged himself across hundreds of miles of wilderness, for the sake of survival and revenge.

This historical incident (it was also the basis for 1971’s memorable Man in the Wilderness, with Richard Harris) has been embellished, giving Glass an even more spaghetti-western-ish motive for his vengeance. Director Alejandro G. Innaritu stages scene after scene of gruesome and grueling violence—Indian attacks, the bear mauling, murders, scalpings, disemboweling animals to sleep in their carcasses—with undeniable primal force.

The final clash between Glass and his chief enemy (Tom Hardy, who’s superb) is a standard action-movie grapple, and somehow banal. But on balance, The Revenant is potent stuff, and vividly acted by DiCaprio, Hardy and Will Poulter as the young Jim Bridger.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Inarittu’s previous film, the rhapsodically received Birdman, was about a movie star prepared to end his own life because his acting career wasn’t going quite as well as he’d hoped. This time Inarittu gives us a hero who literally crawls out of his own grave, eats raw meat and cauterizes his own wounds with gunpowder just to keep breathing. It’s kind of hard to pin down Inarittu’s philosophy.

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