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CIFF 2015: Anomalisa, MacBeth & Carol

October 31, 2015

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Well, that was fast.  This past Thursday saw the 51st annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) come to a close. Having already seen “Spotlight”, the Closing Night film, I wasn’t there – but, festival fatigue had already settled in for me. Although I consumed a couple dozen films and conducted a couple of interviews – it just wasn’t enough. I wanted more, but logistics and priorities found me limited. I wound up only looking forward rather than glancing at all the festival films I unfortunately had to pass up. Considering some of the great CIFF films I’ve seen in past years that haven’t been picked up and released by a studio, maybe I’m better off.  This will likely be my final correspondence of this year’s festival, so I’ll bow out with the last three films I saw there – films that already have release dates and at least two of which you’ll hear more of in the coming months.

My final CIFF viewings were in this order:  “Anomalisa”, “MacBeth” and “Carol”.  That was a good order to see them in – an unintentional Shakespeare sandwich, if you will.  At first glance, these three films couldn’t look any more different from each other, but in retrospect they have more in common than I would’ve thought. Let’s take a look:

  • All three have rich autumnal colors in their palette with meticulous care to art direction, costumes and setting.
  • They also have central characters who are struggling and searching, either internally or externally. Now, that might seem like a common occurrence in film that strange, but the struggles in this films were so prominent in this films, emphasizing characteristics and themes such as: loneliness and individuality (“Anomalisa”), obsession and greed (“MacBeth”) and truth and self-discovery (“Carol”).
  • They are also named after prominent characters in their respective films.
  • “Anomalisa” takes place in Cincinnati, while director Todd Haynes shot parts of “Carol” in Cincinnati for a late 1950’s New York City feel.
  • “MacBeth” and “Anomalisa” feature the acting talents of David Thewlis.
  • Both “Anomalisa” and “Carol” were scored by Carter Burwell, who previously worked with Haynes on 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine”.

The other element all three of these films have in common is that they are highly-anticipated in some respect by certain groups of fandom. Those who have been excited at the thought of the next offering by writer/director Charlie Kaufman are likely looking forward to “Anomalisa”, which he wrote and co-directed with Duke Johnson. Those who follow director Todd Haynes rich body of work have definitely had “Carol” on their radar. And then there’s Shakespeare, who certainly still has his following, but I’d bet this latest iteration of MacBeth is probably building more anticipation for its two lead actors – Michael Fassbender as the title character and Marion Cotillard as his Lady MacBeth.  Regardless of any commonalities I found, these films must be taken on their own merits.

 

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What is most fascinating about “Anomalisa” is how it perfectly captures human complexities and idiosyncrasies, yet all its characters and the world in which they inhabit is hand-made. Literally. The humorous and introspective drama is a stop-motion animation feature consisting of puppets created by 3D printers, all of which are voiced by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan.

The story, written by Kaufman years ago, follows successful author and public speaker Michael Stone, on a business trip to Cincinnati to talk about great customer service skills – such as talking on the phone with a smile in your voice, using empathy and compassion and really listening and connecting with the customer. However, he implements none of this in real life and shows consistent disdain for the people he encounters during his travels, something that many viewers will easily relate to. Michael is struggling to find and connect with someone who is different and unique and finds Lisa, a call center team lead in town for his appearance. He is immediately taken by her and despite some awkwardness, the two get along nicely – yet the odd occurrences Michael experiences in the hotel as well as his own pet peeves and judgements may jeopardize any future possibilities of happiness.

While Michael comes across as a typically flawed and troubled Kaufman character, he is undeniably someone who is interesting to follow. Both Michael and Lisa are fully-realized – first by Kaufman and then by Thewlis and Leigh – as characters we can relate to in one way or another. Characters that feel like us or people we know. So, in an uncanny manner, they come across as truly real people – yet they’re puppets, which provides a visually fascinating aspect to the film. The puppetry design adds an artistic element to the film that almost has a dreamlike quality to it as well as a somewhat detached feel that reminds us something is not quite right. Overall, it’s a wholly original look at human needs, behavior and perception. I may have wanted Kaufman to explore a little the seemingly sci-fi aspect he includes in the story that ultimately feels like it goes nowhere, but nevertheless, I found this to be a masterful film on many levels.

It’s hard to say how such a film will be received by audiences (some may have problems with puppet sex, I suppose), since it feels like it caters to Kaufman devotees. The film will likely get a NY/LA release at the end of December for awards consideration and then become more available sometime in January.

RATING: ***1/2

 

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“MacBeth” comes from Australian director Justin Kurzel, following his 2011 feature-length debut “The Snowtown Murders”, the harrowing true crime drama based on disturbing and troubling events in Australia. It may seem like a huge leap for Kurzel to helm a boldly cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare classic that has graced the big-screen countless times, but there is behavior in this play that is equally disturbing as the characters that inhabit “Snowtown”, if not more.

In case you slept through your lit classes in high school, here’s a brief summary: the play is a tragedy about the eponymous general (Michael Fassbender) who, with the help of his wife/co-conspirator (Marion Cotillard), murders the king and takes the throne only to be overtaken by paranoia and madness. The film also stars Sean Harris, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, and Elizabeth Debicki. That’s about all you need to know storywise.

Kurzel’s violent and bloody interpretation is visually captivating, using atmospheric elements such as fog and smoke to accentuate the mood and tone, but a connection to these characters is missing – especially if it’s operatic iambic pentameter is lost on you, as it is me. It’s all beautifully captured by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective” and “Top of the Lake”), from the highlands of Scotland to the castles of England, but I found the story and characters hard to follow. The costume work and art direction certainly standout though, displaying a reliance on scarlets and ember in a war-torn Scotland – still, it becomes a bit of a lull if you can’t tune into the language of the story.

With its impressive visuals and brazen performances (particularly by Fassbender and Cotillard), the film could’ve easily worked as a silent picture, but we all know Shakespeare is all about the words. There are mysterious allusions and visions of madness and paranoia here, but I was reminded how hard it is to translate the Bard successfully to the big-screen. As much of a fan I am of some of the actors here, specifically Fassbender and Cotillard, I couldn’t but think how someone more well-versed in Shakespeare than myself may appreciate this more. I just felt like I was watching material only certain people could connect with, which unfortunately prevented me from fully investing myself in the story.

“MacBeth” opens in limited theaters in December.

RATING: **

 

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“Carol” marks the first time writer/director Todd Haynes is working off a screenplay he hasn’t written. He partners here with Phyllis Nagy (a theater and film writer/director in her own right) who adapts Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, a writer who at the time used a pseudonym due to its lesbian content. Time is something that plays a huge factor in “Carol” since homosexuality wasn’t necessarily discussed, let alone embraced, back in the early 50s. Just as Haynes paid homage to the style of Douglas Sirk when he made “Far From Heaven”, his latest finds him influenced by David Lean, specifically “Brief Encounter” from 1945, which centered on a married mother whose conventional life becomes increasingly complicated because of a chance meeting at a railway station with a male stranger. They inadvertently but quickly progress to an emotional love affair, which brings about unexpected consequences.

In this case, the expectedly sublime Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, who is in the process of separating from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), which will lead into difficulty when it comes to the custody of their daughter. There is already suspicion that Carol is a woman unfit to mother her child due to her questionable morals and previous close relationship with a close family friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), who is also godmother to Carol’s daughter. One day Carol makes eye contact with a young shopgirl and budding photographer, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), at a department store and the two immediately connect. Carol knowing she is attracted to Therese and Therese knowing the spark has been ignited.  Soon, relationships are cut off and two take a road trip where their love for each other is established and also outed in a most harmful and unfortunate way.

Here is a moving drama that could’ve affectively been made as a silent film. Not because there’s any problem with Nagy’s dialogue or narrative – there absolutely is not – but because Haynes and his two leads show so much without telling us hardly anything. Haynes focuses on the longing in brief looks, the inner turmoil that appears on tired expressions of characters who must hide who they are and the hands that secretly rest on a shoulder or touch another hand – and he has Blanchett and Mara to carry the movie with their intensity and aching. They are both equally astounding in complex roles that require timed subtleties and honed nuances.

Haynes is a meticulous filmmaker and never is it more evidenced than in this measured film. He and cinematographer, Edward Lachman, who previously worked with the director on “Far From Heaven” and 2011’s “Mildred Pierce”, carefully focuses on gestures and gentleness amid bold colors and the cold environments of wintry roads and car interiors. Costume designer Sandy Powell dresses everyone appropriately with just the right cut and look for each character and Carter Burwell’s score is both enchanting and heartbreaking, following the restrained characters as attentively as the viewers. I’ll definitely be expecting multiple nominations come awards time for “Carol”.

“Carol” opens in limited release on November 20th and will widen in the following weeks.

RATING: ***1/2

 

There will be full-length reviews of these films upon their release dates. We’ll see if my stance on them changes at all between now and then. We humans can be quite finicky, but I feel my mind is set on where I’m at right now with “Anomalisa”, “MacBeth” and “Carol”.

 

 

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