London Film Festival 2015 – the final days

We’ll wrap up our LFF coverage, which has been sparser than we’d hoped, on Wednesday. Our last batch of reviews covers the surprise film, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and Mamuro Hosada’s grandly entertaining anime The Boy and the Beast.

anomalisa

Anomalisa (d. Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman scr. Charlie Kaufman)

The origin of this year’s surprise film Anomalisa, Kaufman’s first since the magisterial Synecdoche, New York, lies in Carter Burwell’s Theater of the New Ear project from 2005, which staged live readings of audio plays by Kaufman and the Coen Brothers in London, New York and Los Angeles (Anomalisa was performed only in LA, with the same voice cast as the film, in place of the Coens’ Sawbones). Animator Duke Johnson, whose most widely seen work to date is a couple of animated sequences in the sitcom Community, approached Kaufman with the idea of filming the play with stop-motion puppetry, and the film was partly financed through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Kaufman’s other New Ear piece, Hope Leaves the Theater, was notable for its formal tricksiness, with its title character (played by Hope Davis) starting out as a member of the audience until she is upbraided from the stage by Meryl Streep for her poor theatre etiquette. Anomalisa is structurally more straightforward – it’s a more or less straight comedy drama with one twist that gradually becomes obvious over the film’s opening minutes; that all but two of its characters, whether male or female, are voiced identically by one actor (Tom Noonan).  It turns out that this is how protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) hears voices – everyone from his son on the phone to the receptionist at the aptly-named Hotel Fregoli speaks with Noonan’s voice (in one of the film’s best jokes, this extends – before we know of Michael’s affliction – to both singers of the flower duet from Lakmé, which is going through his head as he arrives at Cincinatti airport). The other exception is Lisa, a cripplingly shy young woman Michael meets on the eve of a conference speech he is to deliver (about –ironically! – how good customer service is predicated on treating customers as individuals) who speaks with the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Michael’s reaction to this is the engine that drives the film’s story.

Michael Stone, then, is a classic Charlie Kaufman protagonist, alienated to the point of depression from his fellow humans by a surreal authorial intervention. But in Anomalisa, both Kaufman’s method and his anxieties come across as rote and unexamined, in a way they haven’t before. The arc of Michael and Lisa’s story is obvious before Lisa even appears, the ironic counterpoint provided by the content of Michael’s speech is barely any more penetrating an insight than a hack standup comedian complaining that checkout workers in shops, like, don’t really care if you have a nice day amirite, and there’s a low point reprise of the “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich” sequence from Being John Malkovich that could be in the dictionary under both “pale imitation” and “diminishing returns”. It seems only fair to note that Anomalisa started out as a pinch-hitter in a much more ephemeral context, and I would expect Kaufman’s next film to be considerably more substantial.

Visually, Anomalisa is stunning – the puppets are hugely expressive in face and body, the sets they perform in beautifully evoke the corporate no-man’s land of mid-market hotels, and there isn’t a bad shot in the thing. There’s more than enough comic and dramatic business to sustain the film’s trim running time and the voice work from all three performers is excellent. Other people overwhelmingly seem to find Anomalisa’s driving ideas and emotions more fruitful and moving than I did – I should note that I can’t rule out the possibility that I just couldn’t take it seriously because I couldn’t unsee Michael’s very strong resemblance to Rodney from Only Fools and Horses, which is probably because I’m suffering from some kind of delusional neurological syndrome. – Indy Datta

The Boy and the Beast (d. scr. Mamuro Hosoda)

the-boy-and-the-beast

Hosoda’s follow-up to Wolf Children sees him consolidate his reputation as the anime film maker most likely to find sustained international mainstream success in the wake of the retirements of Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki and Takahata. The Boy and the Beast is a parallel worlds fantasy that starts by introducing its secondary world  and its rules in a fairly crude and goofy info dump – in a small town called Jutengai (which occupies the same physical space as modern Tokyo) populated by various kinds of beast people, the town’s ruling lord (a venerable old rabbit, like an anime Yoda) has decided that he will be exercising his right to become a god, just as soon as he decides what kind of god he will be (the eventual punchline to this joke may well be the festival’s best), creating a vacancy for lord of Jutengai, which will be contested in ritual battle by the smooth, aristocratic Iozan, and the lairy, bearlike Kumatetsu (think Mifune in full-on roistering mode, but also some kind of bear-man). Meanwhile in Tokyo, a young boy Ren loses his mother and, with his father not in the picture, runs away rather than be brought up by his mother’s overbearing, uncaring family. Naturally, he soon finds his way to Jutengai through a secret portal (having first picked up a baby mouse sidekick, for some reason), where he finds himself reluctantly apprenticed to Kumatetsu. Over the next decade, as Ren slips between our world and the world of beasts at will, his surrogate father-son relationship with Kumatetsu comes under strain as he starts to find his way in the real world.

Hosoda’s film is engaging throughout, with clean lines, big emotions and judicious injections of rollicking low comedy. If Hosoda’s work here lacks the delicate lyricism of Ghibli’s best work, that’s a choice (as the loveliness of his The Girl Who Leapt Through Time demonstrates), and his climax, which brings the story’s two worlds together movingly, delivers in spades.  – Indy Datta

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