Anomalisa & 11.22.63 (2016)

Some culture that we’ve consumed not from our list recently has been Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and the J.J.Abrams / Stephen King production of his novel 11.22.63.

Anomalisa

What a fantastic film. Written and directed by one of our favorite writers in Hollywood today, Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation film about a man whose existentialist difficulties with life have caught up with him on a business trip and subsequently have him teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Difficulties with his marriage, a relationship he really hasn’t gotten over that ended a decade ago, dissatisfaction with his calling, money, sex life, relationships, and loneliness have all culminated into one night. What is most striking about this story is not only the words the characters speak – something that is absolutely beautiful and unforgettable in John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine, Adaptation, and Synechdoche – but also the format and execution that he decided on for this film. With only three actors and no physical manifestations of any humans in the piece, the film does so much more than tell the story. What is most fascinating about this film is that on the surface it is the simplest film he has ever made, and yet it is dearly the most complex in terms of what it all means. It follows his normal themes of existentialism, a humunculus-driven examination of the curiosity of this life and how meaningless and meaninglessly complicated it is in the scope of actually experiencing real things while we are here… But he does it using the artificial itself, and there is even an artificial stand-in for what is real and what is needed in the form of an antique sex toy that is foreign in culture and language, disassembled, and leaking a fluid that the audience is left to deduce from where and what it is.

Regardless, the film was exactly what I expected from a Kaufman film. It is funny, disorienting, and full of human intricacy and questions about life and the nature of living. An absolute masterpiece.

11.22.63

I read this book as the first Stephen King joint since I was fifteen, and I was blown away. King is a master storyteller, and he is also a genius. He is a great writer, but you can tell he is constantly holding back to appease to the widest audience possible, except that there are little places in his books where the corners of the sticker tear away in a single sentence and his wings unfurl into something magnificent. When I read 11.22.63 as an adult almost twenty years and an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature later, I was seriously in awe at what he is able to manage on the page. I mean really. He is able to draw the most beautiful compromise between content, character, and context, and deliver something accessible and beautiful to his audience.

The problem with King is the problem with directors and other writers. His movies are garbage – not his fault, but the fault of the artists who try to fit too much in, do too much with their interpretation of the text that it loses its mood and tone, or simply don’t have the budget or the actors to do much better than a network television special. Why was Kubrick’s Shining so good? Honestly, because he didn’t try to make the book and he had the talent and the budget and he wrote it and ….hell, he is Kubrick.

This show, however, is insanely good. It leaves a lot out, and I mean a lot, but that is the beauty of what has been executed here. Enter Bad Robot and JJ Abrams. That said, it is well written, and focuses on characterization and making them three dimensional rather than the horror or the spooky aspects of time travel. If you explain it, you ruin it, right? It is also notable what the writers leave out – absolutely no need to cover everything. Next, fantastic performances and direction in every episode. Simply put, the manner in which the piece is executed shows an attention to detail and stunning dedication to authenticity and believability. The entire ensemble with Franco at the helm is something to be very proud of…That said, the piece isn’t filmed on location in New England and avoids the story about the town it takes place in, so that was a bit of a disappointment. Finally, the budget. They spent the money to make all of this a show to remember, and frankly, I can’t remember a piece taking King’s work as a series and executing it so well with the exception of Shawshank, Misery, Stand By Me, and Apt Pupil…Maybe Green Mile…But these are the drama pieces that he wrote with great characterization that focused on the work as a marker of mood and tone, and not just a plot while the characters walk themselves into a meat grinder.

Hulu, Bad Robot, and everyone involved should be proud of this one. Looking forward to the rest of the story in the next few weeks.

#66 Vampyr (1932)

A man arrives at an inn. He is brought into a spooky, terrifying world that he didn’t expect. We discover the bizarre and disorienting experiences as he discovers them, and so the seventy-five-minute fantasy of disorienting images, bizarre angles, and creepy moments barrels along at a surprisingly swift pace. Based on the short story Carmilla from Fanu’s Through A Glass Darkly, this film does a lot of really cool postmodern tricks in a relatively short period of time. This is the first sound picture that Carl Theodor Dreyer made, and while it did not see commercial success at the time of its release, the Schneider book notes that this film is an excellent introduction into why “many critics regard him as possibly the greatest of all filmmakers.”

We watched Vampyr on Criterion DVD #437, and enjoyed many of the extensive special features, essays, and other writings contained in the package.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampyr

Jennifer

I  have a particular fondness for watching many of these much older films.  The level of craft and creativity that goes into achieving the special effects makes watching this films enjoyable on two levels – first for the narrative and acting itself, and second for puzzling over how they were able to achieve certain features or scenes in the film.  This film is brilliantly crafted.  At times this film seems to have been overexposed.  Some of the movie’s portions are grainy while others portions are blurry, but these elements all add a dreamy nightmare quality to the film.

The movie takes place in a small French village.  Allan Grey rents a room at a small inn.  During the night, a strange man enters his room,  then leaving a package with instructions that it should be opened upon his death. Allen gets out of bed and begins searching the area for answers and an explanation.  He walks to a nearby estate and find the man and his family.  A vampire has bitten one of them.  This is where the narrative really begins to pick up speed and story lines start to connect.  For me, there were times in the film that I found the story confusing or somewhat hard to follow, but I also liked that this movie made me really think critically about the characters and the actions, and question what is reality and what was not.

Garrett

My favorite aspects of this film were in many ways the technical elements that seemed incredibly ahead of its time. I was literally shocked at the various methods of Dreyer’s use of camera angles, aperture tricks, use of architecture and shot composition, the varying point of view, the bizarre and completely immersive narrative structure and continuity, and a hundred other little details that are magnified in this little brilliant package. I was literally in shock at the marvels of this film, gasping at moments that were just mind-blowing for the time (and for all time). I had two very memorable takeaways from the film. The first was one long shot that followed every character when the young Gisele was being carried into the house about two-thirds of the way through the film. In one perfectly orchestrated shot that lasted about a minute, the camera comes indoors and follows them carrying her through the house and capturing every character’s reaction and preparation. The other was the use of perspective and special effects concerning the coffin point of view near the end, and then the use of overlay and jump cuts to do some really impressive things. I thought that it was also kind of bizarre that there was one place that the film was strangely off, but it was likely the period – the use of the book as a narrative piece in a sound film. Maybe it bridged the gap between silent films and talkies, but man was it awkward and inconsistent at times. Still, if it is the bridge, it works. The soundtrack and titles were spectacular.

I also decided to read Carmilla since it came with the DVD, and posted the following review to Amazon and Goodreads…

I read this book, as well as the liner essays, to coincide with a post on a blog I am writing with my wife called “before we die films” on WordPress where we discuss the relevance and impact that the “1001 films to see before you die” has on us. This book (and essays) contained a great deal of material that all had separate sort of things to say about them, and our review for the film is over at the blog.

The screenplay…
First, the screenplay to Vampyr was excellent. It was well written and interestingly different than the film in a lot of cool ways. The prose within was definitely worth including in the Criterion DVD. The film is a little unclear at times based on what is happening (but it IS absolutely beautiful), so it is interesting to look at what the intended choices were going to be to see it executed on the screen. It is also interesting the differences in what they wanted to make versus what the final product looked like, including the ending, the addition of the dogs which were central to the piece, and other stuff that didn’t make it.

Carmilla…
Carmilla was an interesting and beautifully written piece that differed from the film in many, many ways. It is easy to see how the director used it in his work, but it is also clear that there is a huge difference. What I found fascinating about this novella is its really cool narrative structure, bouncing between first-person and then frame-narratives to drive the plot forward. The other-worldliness is also engaged through spooky diction and a strange unclear queer relationship between the main characters of the piece. I thought it was incredibly edgy and raw for a Victorian story, and while I have very little experience with vampire tales, this one is simply a very well written story that happens to have a bizarre vampire story as its centerpiece. Without giving too much away, the final scene where the tale ended made my skin crawl and engaged a hearty gross-out laugh. My wife asked, “what?” My only response was, “you don’t want to know, but it was awesome.” A great reading experience.

Le Fanu’s “Vampyr’s Ghosts and Demons”…
This essay was on many of the technical aspects of the film that I was not aware of, including the history of its genesis, its reception, and how it fits into the career of the artists involved. Fascinating.

Newman’s “Vampyr and the Vampire”…
This was my favorite essay, mainly because of my background as an English major. Essentially it is a history of the genesis of the vampire itself, and how the novel was brought to the screen taking Carmilla and the history of the trope into consideration. Really enlightening and added a lot to the experience of the film and the novella.

Koerber’s “Some notes on the Restoration…”
I mean, interesting considering the fact that huge chunks of the film are missing and the audio did not match up with what they had. What I found really crazy as I watched was the fact that some of the restoration work made the film look significantly newer than it is. Quite an achievement.

Weinberg and Weinberg’s “interview with Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg” …
This was also my favorite part as I learned the most from this essay. This includes the insane filming schedule, the casting choices, how the film was funded, and a lot of other really cool facts about the film through the mouth of one of the central characters of the film even happening. Again, a really fascinating read.

 

#63 M (1931)

A hypnotizing film of horror, suspense, and brilliant storytelling, M is about a man who commits crimes that lead to the overarching accusation of the state rather than the criminal (who is a child murderer, at that). M takes viewers on the hunt for a serial killer that resembles the surprises, angles, and shadowy disembodied voices of a funhouse in hell. A cast of underground misfits and completely inept investigators prowl toward the child murderer like sly cats and lumbering dogs through the night, until eventually the group that finds and prosecutes their man (in a completely just, fair manner) comes as a surprise with a grand staging of a heist where nothing but the man himself is the prized booty.

Lang presents a gorgeous, complicated, spectacular, and intricate narrative that is a surprise for 1931 cinema – so much so that Schneider’s book notes that one of MGM’s top producers “assembled all his writers and directors for a screening…then criticized them en masse for not making films as innovative, exciting, profound, and commercial as this.” Of course, nothing like this would fly in the United States – even today (unless perhaps as a book?) – but it is no wonder that it is Lang’s favorite lifetime achievement. This film chugs along like a steam train, leading toward a brilliant climax and haunting final words. We watched this film on Criterion DVD, and we were surprised and sat in wonder at this spectacular achievement in production, direction, and performance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M_(1931_film)

Garrett

This was a film I knew nothing about going into it – and to make matters even more ridiculous, the whole first half of the film I mentioned to Jennifer “gee, that guy is really similar to Peter Lorre” without having looked at the cast list. Then I did, and felt stupid. I knew it was a Fritz Lang film and have seen some others, but this was an early venture and knew nothing about it. It isn’t surprising to me that this was what he considered his great work.

Story aside, there was some real magic happening on the screen. I will likely never forget the notable long single shots of the city’s underbelly as the camera weaves among patients at a dive penny delicatessen or drinking and partying at one of the city’s seedy criminal bars. The camera suspensefully waits for the audience, sound merely leaking from off screen while Lorre’s eyes scream in silent terror along with a lack of a soundtrack carries the film. The really great ensemble cast of hundreds whose individual and principal stories don’t become clear (like the mystery) until the third act but follow a very modern CSI sort of suspenseful execution before it was a thing. The almost obsessive geometric framing of each frame, such as the use of the compass on the map, Lorre’s character cornered in the street by the gang that’s tailing him with the camera looking straight down into the conflict, and the investigator looking through the folder that explains the investigation so far. The simplicity and suggestiveness of some of the more sparse shots from the very beginning with the shadow stalking the little girl, the ball bouncing out into the grassy field, and the balloon with cheap paper embellishments hitting the electric wires that may have unwittingly predicted the Hindenburg disaster the year president Hindenburg beat the Nazi party into office in 1931.

The story’s execution as an ensemble piece was also pretty interesting. Most mysteries of the time used Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie structure as a template, bringing together the criminal and the single gumshoe at the end. This mystery is more of an ensemble, city-wide operation with little flits of information making it to the audience throughout the first half. The protagonist and antagonists are as mysterious as the unsolved crime, and the audience only catches one glimpse of the criminal as momentarily as the other hundred characters make an appearance. The horrifying realization and little devices that Lang presents through the hour and forty minutes all come together in the end in a satisfying terrific denouement that highlights the true talent of a young Lorre in his beautiful end monologue.

This was very modern for the early days of film, and Lang beautifully executed some cool, experimental things with the way the story is told and took a lot of edgy chances with camera angles and focal points to create suspense. A brilliant, paranoid portrait of prewar German society that literally is on the razor’s edge of Hitler’s rise to power.

Finally, it is great to have watched this and understood a variety of mentions of the film – including many in books I am currently reading such as Wright’s Going Native – to fully understand the implications, strength, and weight Lang’s piece carries in modern consciousness. A great movie.

 

Jennifer

As soon as you see the little girl’s ball roll away and her balloon’s string gets tangled into power lines, you know things will not end well for her.  This movie uses very jarring and purposeful imagery to tell much of the story.  Rather than showing or listening to the mother of the missing girl worrying, we just cut to her empty seat at the family table.  There are no actual acts of violence shown.

The story itself is unique.  A murderer is preying on a town.  In an unlikely turn of events, local criminals (under increased surveillance by police)  and beggars, including a blind man,  join forces to catch the criminal.  Working together they are able to both catch him and set up a “trial.”  Interestingly, real criminals were used in the movie, and twenty-four cast members were arrested during filming.

As the film continues it’s masterful building of suspense, the identity of the killer is not even revealed to the audience until more than halfway through the movie.  Once his identity is established, we see him stalking out his next victims and several children just escape his grasp.  While he is on the hunt, we see the network of criminals and beggars hunt him down, and the suspense of the movie grows.  He is eventually apprehended after a great chase.  Rather than alert the police, a mock trial begins.  This part of the movie is perhaps Lorre’s best performance in the film.  He stares out at a packed room of criminals eager to have his blood on their hands.  But he implores them to consider that they chose their life of crime, while he is helpless to control his evil urges.  The police then descend on the trial and the film closes with his actual trial.  The mothers of the murdered children implore the court to please keep a close watch on your children.

It is speculated that this message is in part a cautionary message about the Nazi regime – that one should not get too lost of swept up in the hysteria of the Nazi party.  Filming of this movie was actually halted by the Nazi party, who thought that the movie was an anti-Nazi film at first.  Once the Nazis took power, the film was banned.  Lorre’s Jewish ancestry forced him to flee Germany shortly after the movie’s release, and his fame in the United States was solidified for all time to become the Lorre we know today.