Each November in Los Angeles, the American Film Institute holds its free annual AFI Fest featuring a wide array of cinema from all over the world, with many entries having special screenings and premier galas. This year, associate editor Michael McDermit attended several choice screenings and craft talks at AFI, his reviews of these can be found below.
ANOMALISA (dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)
One phrase my grad school mentor was fond of repeating was form comes from necessity, and if it doesn’t, then the story isn’t in service of the art; it will be flabby or undercooked, its gesture will trump its heart. Charlie Kaufman’s second feature was made using stop-motion animation and very realistic looking puppets telling a story that seemingly could have been done the old fashioned way. Over 1,200 individual faces were handmade and nearly 119,000 unique frames of film shot–but why make it so hard? On a surface level, it is–at the very least–interesting to see how an often underappreciated medium is able to portray its creators, to see what mannerisms read as strange or salient when we view ourselves through a new lens. With stop motion veterans Duke Johnson (who co-directed with Kaufman) and Dino Stamatopoulos ([adult swim]’s Moral Orel) at the helm, the artistry is pitch-perfect: equal parts marveling, pedestrian, and bizarrely humorous. Creative decisions like protagonist Michael Stone hearing every other character speak in the same voice (Tom Noonen) make sense to reinforce the homogenous world, yet only in the third act do we realize the true reason for the film’s format. The picture becomes focused after a turn of scene–an unnervingly long sequence of seduction and intercourse devolves to a grotesque disorientation; there Anomalisa’s painstaking lengths make sense, as the sequence highlights the absurdity of this part of human interaction without feeling exploitative or smutty. The movie moves beyond its deceptively simple storyline, that of a D-minus list celebrity suffering his mid-life crisis just before he delivers a keynote speech on customer service in nowhere Ohio. That the plot is uncomplicated (as far as Kaufman goes) may initially make the film feel like a bit of a minor entry because of the rather muted exploration, however, in traditional Kaufman fashion, its ever-perplexed, never-resolved point of view flays open another aspect of existence we’re often content to omit. Whereas Caden Cotard from Synecdoche, New York (2008) suffered mania from his extreme disconnection and inability to truly feel anything, so too is Michael Stone plagued by a similar far-reaching ennui that has consumed his essence. The film is at times hilarious, at times tender, and overall incredibly sad, but the issue at its core is intrinsically universal–does happiness even exist?–whether we want to admit it or not. That Kaufman’s most human examination is conducted through vessels entirely heteronomous, entirely lifeless, entirely alien is commentary on the concept itself. Something unnamable is fundamentally amiss for all of us. The film takes place almost entirely in a vast hotel, which, for the viewer, becomes a house of mirrors smack dab in the Uncanny Valley.
JAMES WHITE (dir. Josh Mond)
After the screening, one audience member addressed writer/director Josh Mond by first saying, “I feel like what I witnessed wasn’t so much a movie, as witnessing a life unfolding.” In his first feature, which won the AFI Audience Choice award, Mond has created an intimate, unflinching look at struggle and its many facets in New York City. Christopher Abbott, outstanding in the titular role, spends nearly the entire film floundering through the inevitable loss of his mother to a reoccurring cancer. Mond’s camera is closer to Abbott than it should be for nearly the entire film, which begins with a visually taut and arresting opening scene where we don’t leave the character’s trunk for nearly fifteen minutes. The effect of closely shooting his lead actor’s shoulders and face–a flipped take on Gaspar Noe’s behind the head perspective in Enter the Void (2009)–creates an aura of anxiety and claustrophobia in which each of White’s pains is magnified, manifested by the range between a slack and twisted face, always in full frame. At times, it is hard to watch, both literally and metaphorically, as so much that surrounds White is blurred and unfocused. The visual motif, though simple, is effective in connoting the lead’s worldview. What’s most remarkable, though, is the mountain of cliché that Mond sidesteps in a film about the familiar concept of losing a loved one. Each scene is alive with tension that comes through Abbott’s angsty, anchorless performance grappling not only with a role of unwitting caretaker, but simultaneously experiencing the normal throes of a twenty-something coming of age in the fallout of the Great Recession. The threat of mania and its resulting violence looms over the entire feature, but the film is not interested in the usual high events or overdramatizing any aspect of the battle White’s mother (a gaunt and haunting Cynthia Nixon) loudly endures. She does not go gentle into that good night. Both White and his mother are complex, murky characters, seething with what Keats dubbed “negative capability”–the capacity to shift our contexts as a result of reaction, knowledge, or, simply, human fitfulness. The ultimate focus here, as the title implies, is on how the slow, painful loss of a loved one to an indifferent force can send one not completely grounded into a chain reaction tailspin. It’s no surprise to find that Mond rendered most of the story through an autobiographical lens, the rehashing of which the young director said was “hellish… but something [he] had to do.” So, too, in the tradition of Scorsese and Spike Lee, is New York implicated in furthering the suffering, as its cold, gray facades become the container that can not only extinguish any hope of White successfully coping, but threaten to swallow away every character who is without an iron will. Despite the dourness of the acute pain being expressed, James White is more than worth the watch for its lack of sheen, its genuine and unbridled pathos on often sensationalized subject matter.
THE MARTIAN (dir. Ridley Scott) and a conversation with the director
The director responsible for so many unforgettable cinema moments sat down to discuss his career, including his latest foray into space with Matt Damon in this year’s The Martian. Scott’s most talked about moment came early at his revelation of the long-awaited Blade Runner (1982) sequel’s opening shot, but, as what seemed to be a running theme of the festival, Scott highlighted the storytellers as the engines that make great films possible. “Writing is the single hardest thing to do,” Scott said. “If you haven’t got it on paper and you start, God help you.” Scott’s words ring true when one considers some aspects of his infamously muddled-with Prometheus (2012), especially when put next to The Martian, which was adapted from a thorough novel by Andy Weir. The success of The Martian as both an entertaining and (mostly) scientifically accurate film rests on the marriage of sound source material with Scott’s knack to keep things incredibly tense. While Scott’s lens gives the appropriate gravitas to the immense Martian backdrop and space itself, Matt Damon’s clinical yet affable scientist adds to the narrative’s core as a simple survival tale. Damon narrates his every move via journal or speaking out loud, perhaps coming as a response to the outcry that accompanied the Prometheus’s crew’s confusing behavior. The stellar scenery and set design of that film was not enough to save it from succumbing to its characters head-scratching stupidity. Scott spoke at AFI Fest of Damon’s protagonist as the emblem on whom audiences could imprint aspects of themselves amidst a barren and unfamiliar landscape. Consider the already revered line: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” The lowered diction is fun, identifiable, and in this case, it is literal, as Damon’s Mark Watney does utilize actual excrement to fix one of his problems. Obviously, Watney is highly educated, yet his down-to-earth (despite-not-being-on-earth) qualities are ultimately what keeps viewers cheering against the red planet’s always knocking peril. (Alfonso Cuaron attempted the same sort of phlegmatic levity with 2013’s Gravity, but fell short with its backstory attempts feeling forced and pandering). Scott’s filmography casts a wide net, but his best known films can be whittled down into two columns: sweeping epic and personal survival story. Movies like Alien (1979) and Gladiator (2000) end up feeling more personal, despite their expansive settings, mainly because of their focus on strong main characters whereas Scott seems to struggle with anchorless ensembles (Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Black Hawk Down (2002)). Though the audience may feel Murphy’s Law being exploited in The Martian to make its runtime, its anchoring character keeps the journey home one worth taking.
SICARIO (dir. Denis Villeneuve) and a conversation on acting with Benicio Del Toro
The suspenseful border thriller has been in wide release since October, yet remains a relatively underground force in this year’s cinema world. The film is grimly tense, with the suspense mitigated only by Emily Blunt’s wide-eyed enthusiasm in what Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro calls a “land of wolves”. Certain scenes have remained with me since seeing it, including a nightmarishly violent opening sequence in what turns out to be a suburban catacombs. The film is also gorgeously shot, rife with innovative points-of-view sussed out by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, such as the winding roads and fissures of the southern borderlands, and the infrared camerawork in a claustrophobic tunnel that comprises most of the film’s climax. Sicario was the main focus of Benicio Del Toro’s conversation on acting at AFI Fest. The Puerto Rican born actor’s demeanor was affable yet focused and fierce, and much like in many scenes of his every role, he commanded the attention of all in attendance. Much to this author’s delight, Del Toro spent a lot of time championing the storytellers in the crowd, saying that story is the most important aspect of any project he attaches to, even comparing the characters he played to books (Che Guevara was his “thickest”). Del Toro spoke openly about Sicario’s controversial third act shift, revealing that he and co-stars Blunt and Josh Brolin openly joked on set about the film just not connecting with audiences who aren’t prepared for its unorthodox structure. While the film has been criticized for exactly that–as well its unflattering portrayal of Juarez, Mexico which makes Mad Max’s burned out world seem like a day at a health spa–Sicario warrants its twist through the way its characters are drawn in the previous two acts, that is, it makes sense that things play out the way they do because it is logical conclusion for the personalities involved. The film provides a refreshing break from the traditional thriller film mold. Del Toro’s Alejandro is his fiercest performance in years, a man who must focus all of his efforts into not externally combusting for every second of his life that remains.
YOUTH (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Cinema is in no short supply of accounts that follow aging men struggling to come to terms with their quickly draining vitality. Thankfully, Sorrentino’s second English feature is much more About Schmidt (2003) than The Bucket List (2007). The film is a loose but gripping and funny look at the idea that what we leave behind–usually a monolithic struggle for an artist–might not be enough to matter. A pair of octogenarian friends, revered conductor Fred Ballinger and veteran film director Mick Boyle (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, respectively), quietly prattle about a lavish Swiss health spa, which is populated by quirky residents ranging from a young dancer/masseuse with braces to a morbidly obese celebrity of some sort with an enormous tattoo of Karl Marx on his back. If it sounds zany, it is, but each character gets just the right amount of screen time (and at least one killer line) to justify their quirks without needless backstory. The gorgeously filmed gathering of the reeling and weird at times feels a bit like a Wes Anderson picture, but the more weighty air of loss circulates and grounds the whimsy. Sorrentino’s aesthetics show a great maturing from This Must Be the Place (2012), the strange, messy composite of a picture whose elements didn’t quite add up to warrant its quirk. Among the ensemble here, Paul Dano shines as Jimmy Tree, a “serious” actor preparing for his next role (the revelation of which may be the film’s finest gag). At first, Tree feels hollow in his platitudinous studying of the other guests, almost like a poor man’s Johnny Depp who is preparing to copy and paste realness onto his next foray and thinking it a stroke of virtuosity, but Dano gives depth to Tree and makes him relatable through tiny shared struggles. His conversational whipping by Miss Universe, also staying at the hotel, is brilliant. Tree, along with Ballinger, Boyle and nearly everyone else at the retreat are seeking solace from their past achievements, which don’t seem to fit them anymore. It’s not new for an artist to feel constricted by their former works, but Youth provides an authentic look into aging against an always hungry public. A few instances of dialogue walk a thin line between profound and eye-rollingly droll, but Sorrentino’s mouthpieces are just the types that have the capacity to talk like that. This is not the real world. In fact, a distinct dream-like aura surrounds the entire affair, amped up when actual dreams begin intertwining with reality at will. In that capacity, the film owes a bit to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1959) in its intermingling and fancyfree of a character approaching the abyss with more than a few issues left withstanding. Youth tackles memory, infidelity, legacy, dereliction, and death–without feeling weighted down by the moral enormity of it all. The depth of each philosophical quandary is tapered just enough by the surrounding strangeness, beauty, and– like Bergman, wry humor. The fluid tone counterbalances the heavy nature of unfolding events in the monumentally beautiful space. In a spectacular scene, Ballinger is “conducting” the bells around the necks of pasture cows; in another–the scene from the film’s trailer that makes the film seem a bawdy sex comedy–the duo’s flaccid gaze is fixed on the nude Miss Universe who is unaffected by their leering; instead of falling into the “dirty old men” trope, the scene’s message reads as resoundingly sad, as one can almost see their virility and essence escaping in the steam above the spa. Additionally, the film’s best moments belong to the important women dressing the duo down. Boyle’s famed muse (a vitriolic Jane Fonda) hands him a falling out that likely mimics an overwrought scene from one of his movies. And, in the film’s crowning moment, a monologue delivered by Ballinger’s recently scorned daughter (Rachel Weisz) shatters the idealized artist with a battering of familial levity. Reality is augmented in this world in such a way that sorrow and exuberance can exist in the same frame, pleasure and pain becoming fused and inseparable as equally important parts of the whole. The film is most interested in the nuances of art and what it means to create, and its greatest pleasures–gorgeous vistas, highlighted gestures of placidity and acceptance–celebrate the greatest features of film itself. In that way, Youth is drunk on cinema–on art–and while it is ultimately a celebration of creation, it is also a revealing look into the neuroses of those who choose to dedicate their lives to making. Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) is certainly a kindred spirit, especially true in a climactic scene where Boyle imagines his most indelible female characters in an expanse of green field before him. He finally grasps his greatest folly in that none of them are “real”, that the only women he ever loved were fashioned–and therefore constrained–by his purview. Youth is the type of movie that will be lost on those resistant to the type of homage-laden cinema, including Mallick-esque lingering landscape shots and important-with-a-capital-I pronouncements on art & mortality, but the film has quite a lot to say if the viewer is open to listening. If not, well, fair enough, as at one point Ballinger decries: “Intellectuals have no taste” anyway.