There are movies in theaters right now that aren’t “Star Wars.” It’s true. I spent some time over the holidays getting caught up on more interesting cinematic offerings.
“Anomalisa” is such a great little movie. A handcrafted piece of perfection. The kind of weird, wonderful independent gem that should be seen by every self-respecting fan of cinema. It’s an achingly beautiful character drama done using stop-motion animation, a style seen more in holiday specials like “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” or “A Year Without A Santa Claus.” The animation perfectly frames the story of Michael Stone (David Thewlis) a middle-aged man who is uninspired by the world around him. Everyone he meets is an echo of the same person leading him through life’s little moments with little excitement. He flies to Cincinnati as a keynote speaker for a conference and tries to reconnect with an old flame. Like all his other interactions, it goes poorly. Michael morosely teeters from one listless moment to the next until he hears a voice cutting through the clutter and forces him to act.
Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a sweet, insecure girl who is used to being overlooked. But her voice is like a beautiful song in a sea of murmurs. Michael is instantly smitten, quickly embracing the idea of jettisoning his current wife and family for the only anomaly that exists to him in this world … his Anomalisa. Writer and co-director Charlie Kaufman has created so many beautiful melancholic movies, but “Anomalisa” is on another level. This might be his masterpiece. A human drama staged with puppets. A story that deftly navigates between comedy, drama and the surreal.
“The Big Short” has far larger ambitions but struggles to attain them. The film is a strange hybrid of styles and tones trying to tell the story of the 2008 housing crisis, which nearly leveled our economy. It’s not exactly the most engaging material, something director Adam McKay openly addresses in sequences when trying to explain subprime mortgages and mortgage backed securities. Sometimes the concepts are so obtuse that he enlists Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie in a bathtub to try and break down complicated financial philosophies banks used to reap untold fortunes—thanks to a combination of corruption and moral repugnance.
The film framework is told from the perspective of a group of investors looking to “short” the housing market and make billions from its forthcoming collapse. Christian Bale plays an investing savant who realizes the mortgages being bundled and sold as securities are in danger of going bust. Word gets out to a number of other investors with different agendas, and before you know it, a handful of money managers realize the world’s economy is on the verge of collapse (but they will profit handsomely). There’s a lot of moral grandstanding in “The Big Short,” and rightfully so. The banking industry was greedy to the point of almost eviscerating the civilized world. But the choice of protagonists seems weird since they are basically the same type of money grubbing assholes who put us into this position in the first place. Watching a bunch of money managers with a faulty moral compass opine about corruption in the banking industry is kind of funny.
Still, it’s a very entertaining and educational examination of a major crisis. The performances are top notch from a great cast, which includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt. Watching “The Big Short” made me realize how good Ryan Gosling is at being likable and how good Christian Bale is at being unlikable. Bale might be the best actor on the planet and playing fascinating, off-putting people. That alone is worth admission price.
If “Anomalisa” is an example of achieving perfection in its creative pursuit, and “The Big Short” is a noble effort that doesn’t quite achieve its lofty goals, “Concussion” is a movie that never finds its footing. Stumbling around like a quarterback who just had his bell rung. Based on a true story, “Concussion” is about Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a pathologist who stumbles onto an amazing discovery: Football players who expose themselves to repeated head trauma can end up suffering excruciating long-term medical side effects. Who’d of thunk it?
Much like “The Big Short,” “Concussion” presents us with an easily identifiable enemy. In this case it’s the multi-billion dollar National Football League who works overtime to try and shut down Dr. Omalu’s research and silence his findings. “Concussion” is a little late. After 10 years of articles, stories and documentaries about the negative impact of concussions to professional athletes the narrative feels redundant. Will Smith is a likable guy who makes Omalu a charming underdog. He’s flanked by great actors like Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks. However, the material is thin. Every conclusion they come to is something anyone with an ounce of common sense deduced decades ago. Dr. Omalu was able to help shape the science and give the terrible condition a name, making “Concussion” an educational movie but not a very entertaining one.
Four out of five stars
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Directed by: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
The Big Short
Three out of five stars
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Adam McKay
Two and a half out of five stars
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Directed by: Peter Landesman