Archive for the ‘animation’ category

Isle of Dogs

July 15, 2018

isleofdogsWes Anderson’s stop-motion fantasy Isle of Dogs supposedly unfolds in a futuristic Japan, but it really takes place in one of the many neat boxes in Anderson’s head. And yet Anderson’s characters always yearn to escape their boxes. In Isle of Dogs, the mayor of the fictitious Megasaki City commands that all dogs, supposedly infected with a species-jumping flu, be shipped off to Trash Island and mostly left to fend for themselves. The story begins when the mayor’s 12-year-old ward, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), flies a rickety plane over to the island to find and rescue his “bodyguard dog” Spots (Liev Schreiber). Atari encounters a pack of dogs who agree, mostly, to help him find Spots.

Like Anderson’s maiden voyage in stop-motion, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs owes itself to a great many craftspeople besides Anderson, chief among them animation director Mark Waring, who worked on Fantastic Mr. Fox and a couple of Tim Burton’s stop-mo projects. Anderson also shares this story’s credit with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as Kunichi Nomura (voice of the dog-hating mayor). Yet the movie always feels utterly Anderson. Some read his style as rigid or controlling, which it can be, but again, thematically the films are most often about breaking out of the confines of one’s situation, family, location; essentially, Anderson’s characters rebel against him.

At this point, when Anderson does stop-motion, it’s the purest expression of what he strives to do in live-action, screamingly symmetrical, not a hair out of place, etc. In stop-motion, even the hair out of place is out of place for an aesthetic reason; the use of real fur in stop-motion is usually a no-no because it won’t stay reliably still and the eye can catch it moving from frame to frame, but Anderson loves that effect, so the characters are covered in fur. Thus: chaos inside obsessive order. When the dogs in Isle of Dogs get in scraps, they kick up cartoonish dust clouds rendered in cotton. Steam coming out of the nostrils of an angry man looks like string. Using such a clunky, analog style calls attention to the creative workarounds and inventions, but here it also seems like a sly wink at the tech-obsessed entertainment of Japan.

Anderson corrals the usual large cast, though among the dogs, only Bryan Cranston’s battle-weary stray Chief and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-loving Duke are especially individualized. Nobody in the film really pulls ahead to grab the golden ring as the dominant hero — it seems a team effort, with the American foreign exchange student voiced by Greta Gerwig only one of several components in the campaign to free and restore the dogs. (As for charges of cultural appropriation leveled against the movie, I’m partial to Moeko Fujii’s New Yorker defense enumerating various details in the writing or sight gags comprehensible and enjoyable only to Japanese viewers.) The film is also, by virtue of existing in Anderson’s astringent, deadpan reality, the rare dog movie without a drop of maudlin dead-dog bathos. Our young hero buries what he thinks is his beloved dog and moves on.

Isle of Dogs started filming a month before the 2016 election (and was in pre-production long before that), so its echoes of the world in which we now find ourselves — a harmless, loyal population being expelled from a country while politicians lie about them — are coincidental. And Anderson is never much concerned with current affairs. But in his world, two packs of starving dogs at least stop to wonder whether a package of rancid food is worth fighting over, and when the mayor makes a gruff anti-dog statement, he at least gives the floor to a rebuttal. I wouldn’t mind living in a Wes Anderson film: The people there, even the dogs, seem more rational and polite than what we’ve got here. Perhaps that means all of Anderson’s films, even the ones without talking animals, qualify as fantasies.

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Tehran Taboo

February 25, 2018

Pari, Elias and Sara in a RestaurantWith animation, you can do anything, including circumventing repressive laws. In Tehran Taboo, the feature debut of Iranian animator/director Ali Soozandeh, the actors were filmed in various studios and locations in Germany, where Soozandeh has been self-exiled for 25 years. The backdrop of Tehran, where the film could not be shot due to its subject matter, was created via computer imaging; the actors were rotoscoped, or painted over with animation. The technique has been in use for about a hundred years, but never, I think, has it been used so directly in service of freedom of expression. (Usually it’s done to cut costs, or because it can look cool; the last major filmmaker to employ it was Richard Linklater in 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly.)

Tehran Taboo is a triptych of connected stories about sexual hypocrisy and misogyny of the sort that flourishes in Iran in the wake of the country’s rise of theocracy. Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), a prostitute, has to bring her mute little boy along with her on jobs; she wants to divorce her incarcerated, drug-addicted husband, but she needs his signature denoting his permission, which he won’t give. Eventually Pari gets what she needs from a judge, in exchange for her being a sort of kept woman for him; in her new apartment, she meets a neighbor, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi), who wants to find work outside her home, but she needs her husband’s signature denoting … yeah, you guessed it. Sara is also pregnant, and her husband and his parents are concerned she might have a third “miscarriage.”

Pari finds herself helping a student and struggling DJ named Babak (Arash Marandi), who had a tryst with young woman Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) in a nightclub toilet. Donya, who says she is engaged to be married to a brute never seen from the neck up, tells Babak he took her virginity and now must pay for surgery to make her hymen seem whole again. This system is insane — especially for women, of course, but secondarily for the men whose egos and blinkered consciousness it is constructed to protect. Babak just wanted some fun with a woman who liked him, and now he has to come up with a large chunk of money for a ludicrous, bogus mutilation.

Soozandeh and his gifted actors demonstrate how this kind of society mars everyone; however, some can thrive within it, while others fall. It seems to depend on how successfully one can turn off one’s humanity. The movie has been said to be a little outdated — the mores depicted in Tehran Taboo reputedly reflect how things were around the time Soozandeh left the country (although they’re not much better in a lot of ways now, and homosexuality is still punishable by death). Still, the movie speaks volumes about life for women in societies that value patriarchal religion over female experience. Yet Soozandeh keeps things personal, the conflict arising from the decisions women and men are forced to make in a place where only the elite can claim to have much agency.

The narrative is bleak and, in one case, tragic, but Soozandeh and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (I assume his compositions and color schemes were retained in the rotoscoping process?) don’t make Tehran Taboo a glum experience visually; the hues pop, rendering Tehran with a glittering magic that helps us understand why people would want to stay there despite the oppressive theocracy. (What creators of dystopian fictions always get wrong is the gunmetal-gray atmosphere of cultural blandness. If you’re going to lock down the people’s minds and souls you should at least allot them a few shiny things to look at, like skyscrapers at night, or their phones, or Netflix.) And amid the repression and pain there are some transcendent moments, some sweet shards of joy and leisure. The thickly lined bodies join together, come apart, fly or fall. Tehran Taboo captures a certain heated mood of fleshly revolt against the fundamentalist matrix — overripe at times, but vital.

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

October 1, 2016

brain-wouldnt-die-122215How can anyone not love a movie in which a woman’s bitter disembodied head snarls to a mutant locked in a closet, “I’m only a head … and you’re whatever you are…”? The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is amazingly sleazy and ghastly and cheap and, yes, deeply lovable. It has as its proto-feminist heroine a woman who has been whittled down to her mind, which gives her new psychic powers that she doesn’t hesitate to use against the men of science who presume to shape her destiny. Playing this woman, Jan Compton, in the early scenes, Virginia Leith is somewhat interchangeable with the film’s other female characters; once reduced to a head, though, Leith hisses and growls in her newly husky voice, and she becomes an image of perverse beauty and strength.

What happens to Jan is that she’s decapitated in a car wreck; fortunately, or unfortunately, her fiancé Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) is a maverick surgeon obsessed with experimenting on humans. A past experiment has already resulted in the aforementioned mutant in the closet, and now Dr. Bill wants to find Jan a new body upon which to transplant her head. This appalls Jan, who simply wants to die, but while she’s kept alive she must figure she may as well wreak some havoc. She develops a telepathic bond with the hidden mutant, who is responsible for most of the movie’s inky, black-and-white bloodshed.

Brain has a sweaty, lowdown, skid-row charm. Dr. Bill keeps frequenting places of ill repute (a strip club, a beauty contest) while Abie Baker’s dirty instrumental ditty “The Web” honks and fidgets suggestively. Meanwhile, his disabled assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniels) taunts Jan and cringes from the thumps made by the closeted mutant, who seems to function as Jan’s id. The movie, made in 1959 but not released until 1962, has a deep streak of misandry. Women in the film are targeted by men, abused, scarred, robbed of their agency. Jan alone, having forfeited her physique, has the power to burn the rampant misogyny down to the ground.

All of this comes packaged in a movie whose technique is, to put it gently, basic. I’m annoyed by the mundane reviews calling it “inept,” though. Brain creates and sustains an eerie, clammy psychosexual mood. Dr. Bill, who resembles a cross between Vince Vaughn and a young Aidan Quinn, bops along smugly to havens of pulchritude; of course he’d go to strippers or beauty contestants when body-shopping for his fiancée. He settles on Doris (Adele Lamont), a photographers’ model with a scarred face from an abusive ex. She loathes men, but goes home with Dr. Bill because he promises corrective plastic surgery. Also, she senses that he doesn’t want her for sex, which is true; he just wants her for her body. Heh heh heh. At times Brain is interchangeable tonally with several classic E.C. Comics horror tales, the vicious and morally polluted kind written so indelibly by Al Feldman.

The mutant, when we see him finally, is played by Diane Arbus giant Eddie Carmel wearing make-up that turns his entire head into a riot of mismatched patchwork flesh. He’s supposed to be a failed experiment, but seems more like something pinched together like Play-Doh out of leftover meat by a bored, spiteful god. The mutant, who kills every man he sees and rescues Doris under Jan’s command, is the movie’s only sympathetic male — or is he male? Anyway, he or she is Monster, allied with no-bodied Jan and disfigured Doris, maimed by man, or created as their current ruined selves by man. I’m sorry, but a movie that tucks this many discordant but reverberant subtexts and ideas into a grindhouse narrative deserves so much better than to be derided by hipsters. A refugee from the mad-lab Z-budget pictures of the ‘50s, Brain in its seamy and leering way agitates more loudly for the then-nascent second-wave feminism than a squarer, more conscientious work could hope to.

Batman: The Killing Joke

July 30, 2016

killing_joke-640x356There’s a whole lot to unpack in Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated effort shown in theaters for two nights before its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Based on a lionized 1988 comics story written by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bolland, the movie supposedly asks, as the comic did, why some people respond to trauma by going mad while others get stronger. Moore’s story did this by setting up the classic antagonists Batman and the Joker as two men deformed by grief in their own ways. One man became a hero, determined to make sure no one else was murdered in an alley like his parents were. The other man became a supervillain, an anarch cackling at the cold cruelty of the universe. Dark as Batman is, he’s essentially an optimist — he believes his holy war on crime matters — while the Joker is a nihilist.

Whatever depth survives into the movie comes from Moore’s comics script — a script he himself disavowed years ago, uncomfortable with its grimness and with the way it handled Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, the crimefighting daughter of Batman’s tacit colleague on the Gotham police force, Commissioner Gordon. The Joker disables Barbara with a bullet to her spine, then kidnaps her father and torments him with photos of her naked and in anguish. Why? To prove that anyone is only “one bad day” away from being a basket case like the Joker, who on top of being disfigured also lost his wife and unborn child in a random accident.

The Killing Joke comic is rather short, so the movie pads things out by devoting its first full half hour to Batgirl. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello invents a smooth gangster who calls himself Paris Franz, who’s obsessed with Batgirl. When she isn’t trying to catch Franz, Batgirl is mooning after Batman and, eventually, having sex with him on a rooftop under the watchful eye of a gargoyle. Aside from being pointless, this extended prologue makes the story about Batgirl, a focus and emphasis it was never designed to bear. Yes, Moore later regretted what he’d done to Batgirl (with DC Comics’ enthusiastic editorial indulgence, creepily enough), and the way his story uses her as a way to test her dad’s mettle is unfortunate at best. But expanding her role before the story proper begins doesn’t add any weight to her suffering; it just turns the story into The Sorrows of Young Barbara, first sexualized by Franz, then rebuffed by Batman, and finally brutalized by the Joker.

It’s good, though, that a post-credits scene sets Barbara up as Oracle, a wheelchair-bound but brilliant and powerful hero who fought crime via computers for years after her injury. And there’s little quibbling to be made about the vocal talent here — Killing Joke reunites Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong, who respectively voiced Batman, the Joker, and Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures. There are some Easter eggs for longtime Batfans, such as a monitor in the Batcave showing various iterations of the Joker over the decades, nodding to Nicholson and Ledger. If you don’t expect this Killing Joke to pack the wallop it did when you first read it 28 years ago, it’s smoothly rendered. Once it gets to Moore’s story, it’s slavishly faithful, which means it eagerly reproduces every element that has struck readers as problematic for the last few decades (including its continuing insistence on referring to the dark ride Commissioner Gordon takes as a “ghost train”). Still, as with the animated adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, if all you ever wanted was to see the iconic Batman story in motion, here it is.

One other thing: Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R (for “bloody images and disturbing content”). It’s not the first DC superhero film to be so classified: the “ultimate edition” of Batman v Superman released on Blu-ray a couple weeks back earned an R for increased violence. This sort of thing — age-restricted versions of superheroes that began as kids’ entertainment — is what Alan Moore came to disdain, though his own work popularized the trend towards grim and gritty. More off-putting than the violence here — which, aside from a bloody head shot here and there, isn’t much worse than in the PG-13 Dark Knight Returns — is a moment when a gangster refers to the Caped Crusader and Batgirl as “Batman and his bitch” (an addition by Azzarello, not Moore). Not to sound paternalistic, but I think young girls who like Batman (and Batgirl) and might want to see this movie can probably wait a few years before hearing that particular insult. They’ll be hearing it soon enough and often enough. They don’t need to hear it in a movie about a man — or a woman — who dresses as a bat and fights crime.

Hitler’s Folly

May 29, 2016

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At only 67 minutes, Hitler’s Folly is mercifully brief, but I nearly noped out of it at the 45-minute mark. The conceit of this mockumentary, a puerile effort written and directed by the animator Bill Plympton (The Tune, Cheatin’), is that Hitler’s grand ambition was not world domination but a cartoon version of Wagner’s Ring cycle. In one of the film’s many unconvincingly faked “vintage” bits of footage, we see a man being interviewed, identified as an inmate at a concentration camp. The man wants us to know that the camps were misunderstood: They were workplaces for people who were laboring on Hitler’s epic cartoon, and they were so named because everyone had to concentrate very hard on their work. That’s when I almost found something better to do.

But I stuck it out, not that it improved much. There was one joke that almost got a faint chuckle out of me, when Hitler, after the war, finds a job at an ad agency and invents telemarketing. But for the most part the “satire” is terribly tired when it isn’t tone-deaf. We know, of course, that Hitler was a frustrated artist; this was the subject of a little-seen drama called Max, from 2002. Plympton has extrapolated this factoid into an oafish alternate history in which everything Hitler did was on behalf of his big artistic attempt starring his beloved character Downy Duck. There might be a whiff of satire in reimagining Hitler as a monomaniacal Disney, but very little of it has real-world resonance. We don’t, for instance, find many parallels between the two men.

If you want an alternate-history mockumentary about film, it’s hard to outdo Forgotten Silver, the brilliant little jape co-directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes that was so pristinely crafted it fooled the majority of its New Zealand TV audience. Hitler’s Folly isn’t nearly as ingenious; sometimes one suspects that the joke is actually how poorly the photo trickery is faked. At their best, mockumentaries — even if you recognize the actors in them, as with Christopher Guest’s films — have a grain of realism, a veneer of truth, that lulls one into acceptance of their reality. Plympton’s film, though, is too broad — too cartoonish, you could say — to be taken on any level other than a schoolboy riff on the theme of Hitler as artist.

The joke about harmless concentration camps may stick in your craw in a world where Holocaust deniers exist, and likewise, a film that gentles Hitler into a misunderstood cartoonist tends to trivialize the victims and survivors of the Nazi atrocities that Plympton passes off as a mission to bring a Wagner cartoon starring a duck to the world. In general, Plympton doesn’t earn the right to play with Nazi imagery this way, nor does he redeem his audacity with humor, much less wit. The Holocaust, I know, is not untouchable as a subject for dark comedy — the gold standard in this regard remains Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties. That film, however (appropriately) unpalatable, had a point and a point of view. Hitler’s Folly doesn’t. It’s a bad idea someone should’ve talked Plympton out of; it’s Plympton’s Folly.

The idea is that we’re seeing secret footage collected by an historian and entrusted to a documentary filmmaker (well-played by Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook, who deserves better). A hidden locked box contains old video as well as brittle old Hitler sketches and priceless comic books, including the first issue of Captain America, with the famous cover of Cap punching out Hitler. Leaving aside the questions of whether Hitler would have kept artwork that disrespected him — and why Captain America is fighting Hitler in the first place, since in the film’s context all Hitler does is work on a movie — I wondered what the issue’s Jewish co-creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom also served in World War II, would have said about Plympton’s little jest. Streaming for free on Plympton’s website starting this week, Hitler’s Folly, I guess, is his Memorial Day gift to a demoralized nation. Gee, thanks, Bill.

The Prophet

March 6, 2016

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Does everything need to be a movie? Even the staunchest film buff might wonder from time to time. Some material — a book, a comic, a Broadway show, a concept album — is perfectly content to stay what it is and not get amped up and dumbed down to placate the multiplexers. The enduringly popular The Prophet, a book of spiritual prose poetry by the Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran, might seem to be that kind of material. Like the Ancient Mariner, its titular protagonist stops and talks to random listeners; unlike the Mariner, the Prophet, Al-Mustafa, relates no compelling narrative, but a series of ruminations on life, death, love, work, and so on. Movies were made out of such comparable ’60s dorm-room faves as Jonathan Livingston Seagull and The Little Prince, but Gibran’s work has for almost a century seemed happy enough to exist as a pocket-size book.

Now there is an animated film “inspired by” The Prophet, and its driving force is co-producer Salma Hayek, who has Lebanese roots on her father’s side. The film is a personal project for Hayek, who also voices a character in the movie, a character that, like most others onscreen, does not actually figure in Gibran’s book. No matter. Hayek has clearly undertaken this project because she wants it to reach children in some way, even in somewhat watered-down and very abbreviated form (the script often just paraphrases Gibran, and only eight of the book’s 26 poems are tackled). And even the least generous viewer might have to admit, it could have been a lot worse. One shudders at the thought of a Disneyfied Al-Mustafa (shortened here to Mustafa) belting show tunes (“Your Children Are Not Your Children,” performed by Adam Levine ft. Lorde).

We sort of get a Disney version anyway, because writer-director Roger Allers, who helmed The Lion King, devises a framing sequence that seems a bit Aladdin-y, complete with young heroine Almitra running all around a street bazaar in a typical boisterous Disney opener to hook the kids. Once the movie settles down, it improves. Almitra, who hasn’t spoken since her father died, accompanies her mother Kamila (Hayek) to a remote spot where the poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson) is under house arrest for seditious poetry. Kamila goes there every day to clean house, but then Mustafa is mysteriously set free, and on his way to the ship that will carry him home he meets various people whom he favors with his insights on life, death, love, work, and so on.

It’s here that The Prophet becomes a sampler of work from animators the world over, from Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) to Bill Plympton (The Tune) to Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) to Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells). A lot of this stuff is elegant, imaginative, first-rate (although my issue with Plympton as a guy who does animation to show off how clever he is — a sort of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu of cartoons — persists here). The visualizations of Gibran’s concepts are sometimes so arresting that I, for one, lost track of what narrator Neeson was saying — not an effect Gibran would have wanted.

Viewed as part of the continuum of animation history, a work whose ancestors include Fantasia and, structurally, Heavy Metal (in which a girl is told stories by a glowing green ball), The Prophet works much better. The “in” to the more abstract and experimental sections is the bland Allers-designed frame, with such uninspired touches as Mustafa’s affable guard Halim (John Krasinski) harboring a crush on Kamila. I know it’s there to ease Disney/Pixar-reared kids into the good stuff, but every time an interlude finished and we trudged back into dull Allers territory, I could feel myself deflate and my attention slacken. The ideal presentation of Gibran’s work is still to be found on bookshelves worldwide (or perhaps in the 1974 album, read by Richard Harris), but as a calling card for eight indie animators, it gets the job done.

Anomalisa

February 21, 2016

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As if to show that the Oscars can still gesture towards meritocracy, the emotionally wild and tangled stop-motion effort Anomalisa is actually, amazingly, one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature. It doesn’t have a chance in hell of winning — not against a Pixar film — but I’ll be rooting for it just the same. Anomalisa is the first film in seven years by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), who shares his directorial credit with stop-motion artist Duke Johnson (the Christmas episode of Community, among other things). Kaufman’s screenplay began life as a “sound play”; that it has become something often ravishingly visual, wrought in perhaps the most tactile of animated media, is one of the film’s many ironies.

The movie follows the slumping figure of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis and sculpted to look a bit like Edward Woodward), a motivational author specializing in advice for customer service reps. Michael checks into a fancy Cincinnati hotel before a scheduled lecture, and as he interacts with various people we can perceive his problem: Everyone other than Michael, male and female, young and old, is voiced by Tom Noonan, who doesn’t do much to differentiate each person vocally. That isn’t Noonan’s fault, it’s a major theme in the movie: To Michael, everyone has begun to sound the same, as though the entire world spoke with the same vaguely creepy voice. (There’s a paranoid delusion that everyone you meet is the same person, and the film’s hotel, La Fregoli, is named after it.)

Michael wades numbly in a sea of Noonans until he meets Lisa, voiced shyly and affectingly by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lisa can’t stop putting herself down, and she has rather banal things to say, but Michael can’t get enough of her voice; it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but Tom Noonan. (No offense meant to Noonan, who does have a nice way with speech — and who has directed some underseen films that could have inspired Kaufman himself — but listening to him all the time might be like being stuck inside the “Malkovich Malkovich” scene in Being John Malkovich.) Since Lisa doesn’t sound like anyone else, she is an anomaly — hence, Anomalisa. Michael invites Lisa back to his room, they talk, she sings, he weeps, they make love. If you think Kaufman will leave well enough alone, though, you don’t know Kaufman.

Why is it Lisa, and not, say, her friend Emily, or Michael’s ex Bella, or a sullen waitress, who speaks with the voice that unlocks Michael’s soul? We’re not meant to know. She distinguishes herself by her lack of sameness — aside from her voice, she has a slight disfigurement near her right eye, hidden by a sheet of streaked hair — but though she sounds appealing, an aural oasis for Michael and for us, she doesn’t really stand apart in terms of personality or intellect. This is, if anything, an even more damning detail and nail in Michael’s coffin. Is it possible to objectify a woman by her voice the way one would with her physical attributes? If so, Michael manages it.

Anomalisa fits perfectly with Kaufman’s other oddball, theatre-of-the-absurd efforts that devote a large number of moving parts to tell small stories that are really the biggest stories. In Kaufman’s only other directorial outing, the astounding Synecdoche, New York, he focused on art as life and vice versa. Here he meditates on love and how rare it is to find the real deal, and how common it is for the lonely person to lunge at anything that seems like love. Michael sits across from Lisa at breakfast and realizes, perhaps for the first time, that it isn’t her, it isn’t any of the people who cause him pain; it’s him. This is all done — beautifully — in stop-motion because Michael is manipulated by forces beyond his control. Anomalisa is a great film. Charlie Kaufman isn’t getting any younger, though, and we’ve spent seven years without any movies from him. Here’s hoping the next one gets financed more easily.