Sunday, November 30, 2008

ANAMORPH (2007) d. Henry Miller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the most difficult questions to answer is the age-old query, “Is it Art?” An object that is art to some may be meaningless drek to others. Some may call an image creative while others consider it obscene. Wrestling with the definition of “art” has bedeviled scholars, critics and connoisseurs for centuries, but one thing most people can agree upon is that art and sadism have little in common. While art can often depict savagery and brutality, it cannot and must not have its inspiration in the purposeful maiming and murder of others just to create a shocking image. Even though there is consensus on this point, there are those disturbed individuals who have tried to create a canvas that is primarily painted with human suffering and blood, and the motion picture ANAMORPH is a look at the attempts of law enforcement to stop such a monster.

ANAMORPH is primarily the story of detective Stan Aubray, a veteran officer who is tormented by memories of a past case involving a serial killer nicknamed “Uncle Eddie”. Stan shoulders an immense burden of guilt and doubt stemming from the handling of that case and its impact on those around him. Five years after “Uncle Eddie” was seemingly brought to justice, another serial killer appears, utilizing identical methods of creating “artistic” murders and documenting his work in the grimmest of fashions. Detective Aubray and his colleague Carl Uffner delve into the darkest corners of the city to stop a madman before this newest painter in human misery adds more innocent victims to his growing collection of ghastly works.

While being a somewhat uneven film at times, ANAMORPH exhibits more strengths than weaknesses and has a fair amount going for it by the time it reaches its denouement. The story of ANAMORPH starts with a fairly compelling premise and it patiently develops its main characters as much as it develops its suspense and primary narrative structure. At times the pacing is a little uneven, but the main character of Stan Aubray, played by Willem Dafoe, is complex, flawed, quirky and quite fascinating due to his compulsive behaviors, obvious intellect and talent as well as his alcoholic tendencies. A great deal of attention and time is given to detective Aubray’s personal and professional quest to solve the case, and the struggles he engages in make the drama and intensity of this film human instead of cartoonish and unbelievable. Scott Speedman’s character of detective Carl Uffner is even more complex, for he starts off as almost an antagonist and maintains many unsympathetic traits throughout the film, but at the same time he is portrayed in a manner that renders him nearly a caricature of an NYPD tough guy. By the end of the story though, some intellect, insight and compassion are developed in his character and as a result, detective Uffner ends up more like an anti-hero than an antagonist. While there are times that the story of ANAMORPH has a feel that is reminiscent of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Paul Lazar who played Pilcher in SILENCE plays the Medical Examiner in ANAMORPH) and the imagery that is created is grisly but does not cross the line into torture porn as SILENCE was able to do so well, the juxtaposition of art and grotesque violence helps ANAMORPH finds its own path through the woods. At times some of the “artistic” imagery and symbolism seems a bit forced and/or obscure and that keeps the storyline from having the razor sharp edge it needed, but most of the time the narrative focus on contrasting artistry and monstrosity is done with an honest and thoughtful effort.

One of the greatest strengths of ANAMORPH was its casting. For a long time, it seemed that motion pictures had become helplessly entrapped in the thinking that all cast members had to be between the ages of 18-24 with the occasional bone being tossed to a veteran screen presence for a “five liner”. That trend seems to be ending to some degree and it was VERY pleasing to the eye and mind to see a mostly seasoned cast do their jobs well. Willem Dafoe is the consummate film professional and his talents help blur a line so that the viewer has a hard time determining whether it was the performance or the way the role was written that made it work. Such is the case with ANAMORPH. Dafoe plays his part with an understated quality, but all through the movie you can tell there are forces just beneath the surface threatening to tear him apart. Even though their roles were small, adding James Rebhorn as Chief Brainard and Peter Stormare as the art aficionado Blair Collet both were inspired choices. James Rebhorn’s granite face and yet lance-sharp eyes make him the ideal “hard-ass” Police Chief and his “that guy” status adds immediate face recognition to your flick. There is something deeply reassuring when you see a “that guy” like James Rebhorn and you say to yourself, “hey, I’ve seen that guy before”. Instantaneous cinematic legitimacy is achieved, just as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had with Scott Glenn and Charles Napier. Another form of cinematic legitimacy is also attained by adding “Mr. Creepy” Peter Stormare, even when he isn’t in the role of a bad guy. One can’t help but feel a sense of sitting in something unpleasant when Mr. Stormare steps into shot and even if your film lacks atmosphere before his entry, it will have an atmosphere all its own afterward. Clea Duvall (Sammy Strickland) and Scott Speedman (detective Uffner), while not household names, were also cast effectively for roles that needed people whose looks were not the focus but rather their troubled personas added to the already tangled tapestry. While Ms. Duvall’s character was not terribly well developed, she seemed to blend effectively with the carefully chosen sets to be part of an underlying current of abhorrent corruption that permeated the story. Scott Speedman’s character only deepened that sense of dread and decline into inevitable disaster. There was an effective chemistry created by the casting of the actors, even if the chemistry seemed headed in a fatalistic direction.

From a visual standpoint, there was a lot to like about ANAMORPH too. It was effectively and creatively shot with a good use of scope that helped to take in the action and all the sets both interior and exterior. What was very fascinating about the choice of sets is that ANAMORPH seemed to try to evoke the grimy 1970s New York look that made movies like TAXI DRIVER so very visceral in their appeal, but at the same time, many of the sets and props also tried to call up an artistic aesthetic that felt dream-like in an disconcerting way. These seemingly opposite visual concepts did not create disharmony, rather they found a way to coexist and even meld. The camera work also utilized color efficiently to keep the cinematic canvas from becoming too morose and the use of special photographic effects to show memory flashbacks of Stan Aubray, while not cutting edge, were successful rendered and worked well with all the rest of the tools on the director’s palette.

ANAMORPH has a small but enjoyable bonus features menu. In addition to three auto-play trailers that engage in advance of the main menu, and the film trailer that is part of the extras menu, there are a couple of rewarding tidbits. There is a 6 minute “Making of Anamorph” mini-documentary with the crew and cast members that looks into the story genesis and the inspirations behind the film. There is also a 2 minute deleted scene that is worth a quick look. While not the “Treasure of The Incas” when it comes to bonus features, it is deeply pleasing to see some extras on a Genius Products disc. Just having the chance to hear Willem Dafoe’s reflections on his role and director Henry Miller’s thoughts on his project help any viewer to have a greater understanding and respect for the film at hand. Bonus features always make a dvd-lover feel like their money was fairly well spent.

Developing an appreciation for art in the many forms that it takes is the journey of a lifetime that some never complete. It is a sad realization, for art is one of the few creations of mankind that truly separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Watching a film like ANAMORPH makes you realize that art can be perverted and twisted like any aspect of our culture, but it is better to look at the image no matter how unsettling and see what is truly there than to look away and pretend that something misshapen doesn’t exist. ANAMORPH is a study in how we look at images in our lives and what we see and sometimes don’t see. Any film that forces us to look, think and then reflect on what was observed and considered has successfully crossed the dividing line between being just another movie and taking the viewer on an artistic journey. What you derive from that journey is in the freedom of art lover, and that is the whole point.

No comments: