Mustang (2015, dir. Deniz Gamze Erguven)

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While Mustang takes place in modern day Turkey it is a story that could happen at any time and almost any place. Five adolescent sisters suddenly have their lives changes when their guardians: their grandmother and uncle, decide they are becoming corrupted by secularism. They have everything that could provide them contact with the larger world taken away, from cell phones to laptops to clothes considered improper to makeup. They begin to seek out arranged marriages for the older girls and the imprisonment takes its toll on the girls.

Told from the perspective of the youngest, Lale, the film is made with a lot of confidence and skill. The camera is mostly handheld and conveys the youthful energy of its characters. Sunlight is also used quite effectively to act as a force that still connects the girls to the world. The subject matter could very easily lead to a bleak, hopeless film but director Erguven is able to sustain a sense of hope at the end of this nightmare. Each of the girls experiences the loss of their freedom in different and interesting ways.

When questioned on her wedding night on why she didn’t bleed after sex with her husband, the eldest sister finds it easier to just confess to having slept around with boys when no one listens to her explain she was a virgin. Another sister, seeing that an arranged marriage is inevitable, convinces her boyfriend to ask for her hand as a way to reclaim some of her freedom and choices. Choosing this story to be told through Lale’s eyes is perfect because it puts us at a disadvantage as it relates to the details. Like Lale, we have to try and figure out what is happening in the world as we go.

There have been some comparisons to the Sofia Coppola directed The Virgin Suicides, but beyond the very basics of the story, there is very little similarity. While The Virgin Suicides is told exclusively from the male perspective, Mustang a very intimate look at these young women’s lives. You gain a greater understanding of how each character is processing the experience rather than the broad strokes of Suicides.

The film must maintain a fine balance between the realism of its situation and refraining from despondency. There are moments in the latter half that are a shocking jolt in the midst of Lale’s dreams of escape. If there is a central message here it would be about the power of determination and will. Lale never resigns herself to the loss of her freedom. From the minute the girls are locked away, she is shaking the bars on windows, spying on locations of keys, and plotting an escape. The film has a quite a bit in common with films like The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.

Filled with humor and joy, Mustang is a timeless story. It transcends any particular religious or geographic specifics and conveys an experience that is felt by women across the globe at varying levels of intensity. Societies seem to have a preoccupation with controlling the will of their female citizens, based on a fear of loss of control. Director Erguven states firmly that this type of energy is impossible to contain and through Lale she tells a story that gives hope to those who may feel like they have no more freedom.

The Boy (2015, dir. Craig Macneil)

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As someone who works with children approximately the age of the title character, watching The Boy is a very interesting experience. It’s fairly well known that during the Victorian Period, the cultural perceptions of childhood changed. Prior, children were seen as small adults and their exposure to hardship and cruelties of life was seen as the norm. In the late 19th century, social justice groups began to criticize the harsh conditions that children were forced to endure and demanded better. Childhood was now seen as a precious, fragile time for these angelic beings to develop. Even Peter Pan was born out of this mode of thinking, along with a myriad of literature aimed at children that approached its material from a place of gentleness. Craig Macneil’s The Boy attempts a character study focused on questions surrounding what happens to a child who has to live through the aforementioned brutality.

Set in 1989, The Boy points its watchful eye on Ted (played with remarkable coldness by Jared Breeze). Ted has grown up at the Mt. Vista Motel, located in some lonely corner of the American Southwest. Ted spends his days collecting roadkill for quarters and wandering the brush around the property. One rainy night, Ted causes a car crash that brings Colby (Rainn Wilson) to the motel for an indeterminate time. Colby is a mysterious figure who avoids the hospital and the local law and this intrigues Ted. At the same time, an anger is growing in Ted that troubles his father (David Morse) and is leading to a violent conclusion.

This is mostly definitely a character study and eschews any sort of heavy plotting towards that style of film making. The camera lingers on Ted and we intentionally view long moments of mundane wandering. As a result, the horror of the film is amplified by the slow burn. I would understand if a viewer became massively frustrated in the first half of the film because it does take its time putting all its pieces in place. Ted’s sociopathy is hinted at and I found myself questioning if there was anything wrong with him, if instead of being mentally ill he was simply a child who was working through feelings of confusion and alienation. The finale of the film removes any doubts yet still holds our lead character in a gray space where his actions could be viewed as justifiable revenge in the mind of an abused child.

The standout aspect of The Boy is the acting. When plot is secondary, a director must have a cast that can develop their characters in organic ways. Jared Breeze is so convincingly cold and distant as Ted, and brings out pathos and emotion only when absolutely necessary. It is incredibly unsettling how well this young actor brings out the complicated psyche of Ted. David Morse and Rainn Wilson, the actors who share the most screen time with Jared, both deliver subtle and powerful performances. Morse, a character actor whose face you know already, is pathetic and infuriating as Ted’s father. He lived the same life as Ted, raised by his father at the motel and admits he doesn’t want this life for his son, but an invisible guilt appears to shackle the patriarch to this place. Even more interesting is Rainn Wilson as the mysterious Colby. We never quite get the gritty details of Colby’s past but so much can be inferred by what we are told. He desperately doesn’t want the police to search his damaged car in the local junkyard and his kinship with Ted is left open for interpretation. Is he actually developing the fatherly relationship the boy doesn’t have with his actual dad? Or is Colby just using the boy to process his own guilt about his past crimes?

The Boy is an incredibly dry and slow film. Don’t expect a campy melodrama pastiche of Psycho despite the setting and themes. The film traffics in one of my favorite element of great art: ambiguity. Lots of questions are left on the table. We never really know “Why?”. And that is okay. So often that’s the question we’re left with in real life, in the wake of tragic violence committed by the grown men Ted might grow up to be. Here, we are allowed a microscope to examine the birth of such evil in detail. What we learn is that the origins of darkness in the soul are more complicated than we would like to think.

Anomalisa (2015, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

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My first encounter with Charlie Kaufman, like most who know his work, came in the film Being John Malkovich. Kaufman wrote the screenplay and it was a truly off kilter, intriguing film. It seemed that more of his work came in quick succession via Human Nature, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. After a brief lull he released his directorial debut: Synecdoche, New York. And now is his strangest visual work, Anomalisa.

Anomalisa is the story of Michael Stone (the voice of David Thewlis), the author of books on effective customer service. He’s come to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at some sort of convention (the film keeps those details vague). Michael has a problem when it comes to other people, something I won’t spoil here, that causes him to never fully connect or interact in a meaningful way. He eventually meets Lisa (the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh) and he begins to think things are turning around for him.

Like all of Kaufman’s work, this film has already burrowed itself into my mind and I know it will stay with me for a long time. His greatest talent is his ability to mine such unpleasant and neurotic landscape of our psyche in ways that make it difficult to look away. Synecdoche examined a man’s yearning to find a deeper connection with others, but Michael doesn’t seem to desire a means to overcome his personal issues. He wants the connection, he knows vaguely what is wrong with him, but he inevitably gives up. Everyone around Michael is very pleasant, even when they get angry they sound soothing. This lack of emotion seems drive Michael deeper into need to be separate, while frustratingly want to communicate. It is intentional that the only scenes in the film that don’t have an annoying level of background noise are when Michael escapes to his hotel room.

The choice to make Anomalisa a stop motion animated film might seem like a bit of visual vanity if you’ve just seen the trailers. The filmmakers strive for realism out of the characters, which they truly achieve. It is the context of Michael’s disorder when he views others that makes the animated elements essential. There is no way the film could have been done in live action and get across the alienation that the animation choices provide. A crucial scene between Michael and Lisa in the film’s third act is the ultimate realization of why stop motion was essential to the film.

This is not a “fun” movie to watch, much of Kaufman’s work is not. There was a backlash as the film made its way through the film festival circuit about the unsavory aspects of the Michael character and speculation as to what moral judgments Kaufman was attempting to convey. In my own viewing, I never felt that it was communicated to the audience that Michael was a positive character and I do not believe Kaufman was attempting to make him sympathetic. The director simply wanted to make him a “true” character. What Michael does is what hundreds if not thousands of despondent, aimless, middle aged men do every day. It doesn’t make them right, but the film is not intending to promote an idealized view of the world. At it’s core, this is anti-indie film. When you look at works that exemplify the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” genre you find an absence of real emotion. Kaufman’s response in Anomalisa is to show the truth of those scenarios playing themselves out. Your life will not be saved through a fateful meeting with a spirited young woman who will awaken something in you. Young women are not thresholds through which middle aged men pass to rediscover themselves.

If you allow yourself to view Anomalisa on Kaufman’s terms you will end up with a film experience that will not leave you easily. If you are uncomfortable, then that is good because that was the intent of the film. Anomalisa is about the narcissistic malaise most privileged people find themselves in after achieving a certain level of success. It is about the struggle humanity continually has in forging real connections with others that don’t focus on what emotional energy you can take from them.