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Recent Movies: Anomalisa; Mustang; The Witch; Old Movies: The Last Detail

March 14, 2016

Recent Movies

Anomalisa

Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a middle-aged, upper-middle class family man travelling to Cincinnati to deliver a corporate lecture on customer service. While there, he reacquaints with an ex-lover who was heartbroken by their breakup and then shows interest in another young woman whom he meets at the hotel. “Anomalisa” is a stop-motion animated film.

The film begins with some questions. One is, why are all the characters’ faces split in the middle? Another is, why are all the women’s voices (except one) voiced by a man? (In fact, Tom Noonan voices all the men as well except Michael.)

The answer to the first question takes time after the film’s conclusion but the second is more easily answered during a breakfast scene near the movie’s end.

The highlight – and a big one at that – is a romantic conversation scene followed by a sex scene. The sex scene is warm, loving, and compassionate. This is a rarity as sex scenes in most modern films are cheap, vulgar, and casual. The romantic scene that precedes it is even more compelling.

Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) could easily represent many modern young women (and perhaps young men too) who seem to find every reason possible to believe that they are “not good enough”. Lisa measures herself according to the more superficial societal standards of looks, career success, education level, and perceived intelligence. In this powerful scene, Michael is easily able to see Lisa’s greatness despite her low self-esteem.

As a character study, Michael could be called a sex/love addict or someone with pathological intimacy issues. This is evidenced in an earlier scene with an ex-lover and further exposed throughout the movie.

There is an implication that much of Michael’s misery comes from the corporatization of our modern world – something he helped create. The film could have been even more fascinating if it dealt further with this theme.

However, it remains above par and how could it not be? The screenplay is by the brilliant Charlie Kaufman who also co-directed with Duke Johnson. As the writer of such gems as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, his latest could only be equally unusual in a fascinating way. Likewise, Thewlis and Leigh are very powerful in their roles.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

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Mustang

In a small Turkish seaside village, five orphaned, school-age sisters live under the care of their traditional grandmother and uncle. The girls’ free spirits lead their elders to force them into a domestic prison and prepare them for arranged marriages.

At first glance, one is tempted to compare this film to “Fiddler on the Roof”. They both involve five young sisters who have no brothers and the main plot point is to have the girls “married off” according to cultural customs that are outdated and oppressive. The main difference is that in “Fiddler”, the villains are outside the family and community; in “Mustang”, they are within.  (It is also easy to compare this story to “Pride and Prejudice”.)

Director Deniz Gamze Erguven has done a superb job with her directing debut as she conveys an atmosphere of young, happy spirits conflicting with depressing circumstances. She elicits fine performances especially from Gunes Sansoy as the youngest and most rebellious sister. But the greatest contribution to “Mustang” is its rich screenplay co-written by Erguven and Alice Winocour. It has many gems worth pondering. These include: a beginning and end that meet full circle in a surprising way; a different fate for each of the girls; a bizarre scene in which a bride’s virginity is aggressively confirmed. (It might have been hilarious if it weren’t so frighteningly close to the truth in many areas of the world – past and present); a scene in which someone “turns lemons into lemonade”, using a very bad situation to their advantage.

There are also some interesting characterizations in the smaller roles. The grandmother is tyrannical overall (though not nearly as bad as the uncle) but she occasionally shows that she really cares for the girls’ well-being. This is best shown in a funny scene involving a televised soccer match. Her sympathies cause an inner-conflict as she has to save face to hold good standing within an oppressive community.

Another interesting character is a laid-back, long-haired truck driver. His appearance makes him an outsider; yet, his treatment of women and girls makes him far more pious than certain hypocrites who claim piety.

With its broad variety of drama, sadness, humour, lightness, plus a very emotional ending, “Mustang” is truly one of the best films released in 2015.

RATING: * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Screenplay by Deniz Gamze Erguven and Alice Winocour

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The Witch

During New England ’s Puritan era, a family of six (including a pregnant mother) is banished from a community and forced to fend for themselves in the countryside. Once there, supernatural forces intensify their paranoia of witchcraft.

The story is sparse but compact. While its ending is too mysterious and leaves many holes, it is still fascinating in its own special way.

The greatest flaw in the film is that much of the dialogue is incomprehensible. It has the right intention in using old English and an older dialect. However, as some important lines are muddled, much gets lost.

Despite this flaw, the acting is quite good as are the production values. There is a suitably bleak mood that rightly surrounds a family falling apart in facing great difficulty. Their dour, paranoid views of God, Satan, and witchcraft don’t help matters.  One wonders if their belief systems are at least as horrific as the outside forces.

Overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses.

RATING: * * *

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Old Movies Seen for the First Time

The Last Detail  (1973 – USA)

Two U.S. Navy petty officers (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) must escort a young sailor (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to Maine where he must begin an eight-year prison sentence in a military prison for a petty crime. With stopovers in four big cities along the way, the officers want to show the prisoner some fun before his sentence. As this was the 1970s, a good time was had by all……..at least until the party had to end.

At the time of release, this movie was controversial for its profanity – language that would unlikely raise an eyelash by today’s terms except for occasional sexist and homophobic remarks. There is also an attitude of women being objects of pursuit rather than as people with their own desires and pursuits. This attitude would be very typical in many films that would follow. But these wannabe copycats miss out on the heart and courage of “The Last Detail” thus showing their inferiority to a true original. Copying only the smut, without the soul, is a copout.

Despite their rough ways, the officers show a genuine concern for the sailor as they know better than he does the fate that awaits him with cruel Marine prison guards. The courage of the film shows in its open criticism of its nation’s military though this was more a reflection of its time – an attitude that would be dismissed decades later as “unpatriotic”. It is best reflected in a scene in which a young, power-groping officer is in a position of authority that is beyond his years and competence.

The pacing by director Hal Ashby is smooth and leaves viewers feeling like we are part of the multi-day party as well as the melancholy that precedes and follows the journey. Whether the guys visit various bars, a chanting spiritual group, a party, or a bordello, the interiors are believably low-key; they would probably have been more superficially flashy in a higher-budget film.

The ending is also low-key compared to the events that precede it but we can feel the frustration and sadness of the characters.

Final praise must go to the trio of actors who work very well together. Nicholson conveys so much with just a smirk or a muttered comment; Young is the perfect anchor for the group; Quaid is totally believable as someone too naïve and innocent for the world that surrounds him.

And a bonus within this grand experience: a cameo role played by Gilda Radner before she became a major star.

RATING: * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Directing by Hal Ashby

 

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