Her

January 28, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

We live in a very interesting time when it comes to social interactions and relationships. With the advent of social networking through this Technological Age, it seems as though we can be impersonal and personal at the same time without it being a dichotomy or contradiction. In Spike Jonze’s “Her”, we are taken through a very personal journey for the characters that is as real for them as it can be for the viewers watching. It doesn’t try to stand alone as a statement of what technology is doing to us as people, however, nor does it make some kind of general social statement about humanity devolving in any kind of way.

It tells the story of a seemingly lonely guy named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who may seem detached but is able to successfully write love letters for clients at one of the most curious companies ever. It may be arbitrary but it certainly serves as a good purpose for the theme of the film. In some cases he’s known his clients so long he can actually come up with thoughts of theirs that they may not have even told him to put down in writing. He’s lauded for his efforts by a co-worker, Paul (Chris Pratt), and he seems to be happy with the job. But he has an emptiness in his life that we learn comes from the impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he’s known since childhood. Fragments of their relationship are spliced throughout the film, giving us a glimpse into their happiness, and demise. We’re not exactly sure what broke down between them, but it becomes more apparent as we get to know Theodore more. He is immersed in technology. He’s one of those guys who will always have the latest tech gadget–but instead of being introverted about technology, he seems to use it for social reasons. He logs into a one-night stand hotline to have phone sex with strangers (sort of like Chat Roulette) and has a rather amusing if over the top encounter with a random girl (voiced by Kristin Wiig). He is turned onto a new kind of AI operating system that grows in intellect the more you use it, and Theodore decides to invest in one, choosing a female voice that names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

Her relationship with Theodore starts off more like Siri for iPhone but quickly develops into a more familiar one, and then a romantic one. Theodore is instantly hooked, but has some distractions…such as a first date with a girl his friend has set him up with (played a little too convincingly by Olivia Wilde). His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is in a relationship herself, married to a somewhat inauspicious guy, Charles (Matt Letscher) who is never afraid to criticize her even when she’s showing a film she made to Theodore. The date starts off well but goes awry and Theodore confides in Samantha, drawing them closer together.

This is where the film really becomes absorbing. Once they fully accept being in a relationship together, all of the parallels of what a relationship is are explored. He calls her his “girlfriend”, even to his soon to be ex-wife, who mocks his relationship and tells him he can only have a meaningful relationship with “his laptop”.

But things aren’t so rosy for Theodore and Samantha. There are jealousies, accusations, things that happen in a normal relationship, that begin to challenge their situation. It’s all very natural–but it’s all very synthetic at the same time. In a way, Theodore is Samantha, programmed to be a way that cannot change. But can he accept himself being alone, and not being lonely?

This sort of plot is not exactly wholly original. We’ve seen stories of Artificial Intelligence being used as characters in relationships. Spielberg’s “AI” and Andrew Niccol’s “S1m0ne” come to mind. But I like that Spike Jonze makes this a very intimate, personal story. One that you become so wrapped up in because you start to put yourself in Theodore’s place. And Johansson’s performance is so instantly appealing, you start to fall for her as well. Every jolt of something unpleasant between them is felt, and when you feel something is slipping away, you get that same feeling you would if you were going through the same thing with your significant other.

Even though it sounds a bit heavy, it’s emotional impact is embraceable, rather than something that weighs it down. It gives the film so much more depth by exploring the ups and downs of a serious relationship. In a way, it’s more powerful than some films about two actual human beings in a relationship. Never seeing Samantha allows our imaginations to conjure up what she’d look like, what her expressions were, and I didn’t necessarily actually picture Johansson a lot of times. There are some laugh out loud moments, too, such as when Theodore is stuck at a certain point in a video game he’s playing. The character he interacts with (voiced by Jonze) is very funny, if a bit obnoxious and rude.

The film is very satisfying, and I think it could pass as a date movie. Not a first date movie, though. That may be a little much…and a bit too revealing. It’s like going to a palm reading for couples on your first date. You want to have a little mystery.

But even watching alone, it can be greatly appreciated. The performances are very strong, and credible, and the journey is one that’s very sweet and endearing throughout. Try not to hit on any computers on your next visit to Fry’s, though. May be a little awkward.

My rating: :D

American Hustle

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

David O. Russell has been one of of the best filmmakers of the 21st century and his last film, “Silver Linings Playbook”, was my favorite film of the year. In “American Hustle” he reuses many of the same actors he’s been using for his past few films, and brings another great story to the screen. There’s a caption at the beginning of the film letting us know that “some of this actually happened”. The true part of the story centers around a con set up by the FBI to nab politicians, including the mayor of Camden, NJ as part of what they called “Abscam”.

In the film, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small time crook posing as a legit businessman who embezzles money from his clients. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and for the first time in his life he falls in love. He is already married, and has a child, whom he tries to take care of. But his double life as a con artist keeps him from being anything close to an All American Dad. He hires Sydney to play the part of his assistant, going by the name of Edith Greensley and is busted by a potential client named Richie (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once they’re busted, Rosenfeld has one shot to stay out of prison by helping the FBI go after bigger fish in a program they call ABSCAM. Rosenfeld goes along with it, but finds himself becoming genuinely friendly with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The mayor is not corrupt at all, and Rosenfeld shares a similar childhood background. Meanwhile, the FBI sets up a staged meeting with the Arab Sheikh (Michael Pena) as a potential investor to work with the mayor. But things get complicated when it’s discovered that the mayor, while being free of actual criminality, is involved with big time criminals that gives Irving some doubts as to the plan working. He also doesn’t want to sell out his now friend, something he’s never really had to confront. For the first time in his life, he has an actual moral dilemma. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also becomes friends with Carmine and his wife Dolly, which complicates things as well. Rosalyn is a dangerous girl–smart, but also absent minded sometimes. But Irving really doesn’t have a choice but to go along with everything, even though he starts to see Sydney seemingly having feelings for Richie as they start to work together.

This is all pretty familiar territory as far as plot and theme goes. But with a strong cast and David O. Russell’s unique touch, it brings the film out of anything formula and turns it into a rather special film to experience. Bale’s Irving is a very conflicted person, and at times you’re not really sure what’s going on in his head. Even when he’s narrating the film. He has a heart condition, and at times stresses himself out almost to the point of having a heart attack. His demeanor never really shifts, even when his comb-over is messed up by Richie at one point.

The whole film has a comedic tone but also an underlying seriousness that keeps it credible. It doesn’t ever cross the line into obvious comedy, except a few moments including an altercation between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (well played by Louis C.K.). “American Hustle” has laughs, but also moments of poignancy that gives the film depth. It may not be as great as “Silver Linings Playbook” but it’s certainly another great addition into David O. Russell’s filmography.

My rating: :-)

Man of Steel

July 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

“The world’s too big, Mom.”

“Make it small.”

Superman has been probably the most recognizable super hero ever created. Back in the 50’s, he made his way from comic book form into a TV legend. In the late 70’s, we finally saw Superman on the silver screen (I’m not counting “Mole Men”). Richard Donner did a spectacular job transcending the super hero into a gorgeous blue and red symbol of justice. He was kind, sensitive, and well…super. He was indestructable. Maybe we needed a hero like that during the waning days of the Cold War, I don’t know. But we embraced Superman.

Then, things got a little…weird. While “Superman II” was a fantastic sequel (either version you see), “Superman III” saw the decline in the franchise. And do we need to go into “Superman IV: Quest For Peace”? This marked the end of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman. We were given another taste in 2006 with the elephantine “Superman Returns”, a complete waste of time and money. And what we unfortunately didn’t realize was that between the mess of IV and “Returns”, we had 2 very good TV shows still making Superman a great story (“The Adventures of Lois & Clark” and “Smallville”).

I had always wanted to see “Smallville” be made into a feature film rather than see the franchise rebooted from the start again. But then Christopher Nolan stepped in, and things seemed to be heading in the right direction.

I wish, though, that it had headed to the right director. Zack Snyder, a notoriously whimsical visual director who seems to constantly be bereft of any thematical or narrative arc, takes the helm here and like he did with “Watchmen”, he makes an ambitious but completely lost movie. At least he didn’t permeate the film with stop-and-slow motion camerawork, though. And, he was given half a good script to work with.

Things get started a bit slowly, however. Not only is this an origin story for Superman, it’s also loaded with backstory for Krypton itself. The first fifteen minutes feel like it belongs more in a sci-fi action yarn than a superhero film. But we are given a handful of characters, Jor-El (well played by Russell Crowe), his wife Laura (Ayelet Zurer), and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Jor-El and Zod saw eye to eye on only one thing: that Krypton was dying. How they want to go about preserving the race beyond the planet’s demise is another matter. Zod is militaristic, so he stages a coup against the Council. Jor-El thinks this is not the way to go about things, and tries to send the first biological born child on Krypton to another planet to start a new race there. This infuriates Zod because he wants something called a ‘codex’ that is sent along with Kal-El, Jor-El’s son. Jor-El is murdered, and Zod and his gang are imprisoned. Krypton eventually falls apart.

But before that happens, Kal-El lands on earth, and we are immediately thrown into the future about 30 years to see an already grown Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) who seems to already be intent on saving people with super powers. He saves people on a rig that’s on fire, and also saves the life of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) while searching on a ship that came from Krypton that could tell him about his past. Lane was part of a research team that was excavating things in ice, and found the ship as well.

Clark has had a troubled past, we learn through flashbacks. As a kid, his father (extremely well played by Kevin Costner) believes these powers he has will be seen as a threat to human kind and tells him not to use them. Clark saves a bunch of kids on a bus and this disappoints his father. “What was I supposed to do, just let them die?” he asks. “Maybe,” his father trails off in response.

This father/son angle is the strongest part of the film. I wish it would have stayed on this path. There is a lot of guilt that Clark takes with him into adulthood, which also explains why he’s so intent on helping people. But this isn’t explored all that much because…

…Krypton is destroyed and the jailed rogues led by Zod are freed, and go searching for Kal-El. They find him, send a message to the world that “You Are Not Alone”, and then send a message to America that they need to give up the alien or be destroyed. Clark, who by now has been identified in print because of a leak by Lois Lane to a blogger, turns himself in.

After that, the film just becomes a joyless exercise in action and extremely noisy explosions. Now, in the middle of all this is a very quiet, patient story of a man who is told he has this great gift and can save mankind. Superman has always been a very Christlike story. He is both god and man. He has the power to save, heal, and he can make the world a better place. His struggle with his identity, and his struggle with his father’s acceptance and self-acceptance is a very good story. But it doesn’t pay off because Superman has to stop Zod.

And the biggest problem I have with this is that there is no dramatic tension between Zod and Superman. Zod is Jor-El’s nemesis, not Superman’s. Sure, Zod killed Superman’s father; but Superman never knew his father. He never even knew where he came from until he was an adult. Zod is simply a cosmic villain, and Shannon plays him at such a heightened, cartoonishly overzealous level that he’s never really anything more than a raving madman. His henchmen do a lot of dirty work, causing another “miniboss sndrome” (the film takes a detour to show us 10-15 minute long sequences of the hero vanquishing lesser villains just to fill space); and, to my surprise, Superman does some dirty work himself. He nearly demolishes half the city of New York while taking Zod with him.

This isn’t the Superman we love! Superman would never destroy anything; and if he did, he would do that thing where he spins around the world a bunch of times to fix what he had broken.

While Henry Cavill turns in a very good performance as Superman, Amy Adams seems very miscast and out of place as Lois; and the two share no chemistry. The only chemistry that really blossoms is between the young Clark and his father. There the movie is very good. It just doesn’t last long enough or follow through for me to completely buy the whole package. The special effects and fights are grandiose, but they grow very tired very quickly because we know how it’s going to end and I’m kind of tired of seeing New York City get demolished in the movies.

This movie was too big. When they made it smaller, it was effective and sound. Instead of going so big, they should’ve kept it smaller. Then it would have been, like young Clark, focused.

My rating: :?

The Fighter

January 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Out of all of David O. Russell’s films, which include “Three Kings”, “I Heart Huckabees”, and “Flirting With Disaster”, this may be one of the most accessible to a regular audience. And strangely, it’s one of his most character-influenced. This is a film about people; and more specifically, family. It’s got a boxing background story, but it’s not really about boxing. Maybe that’s why it was called “The Fighter” instead; then again, we already have a film called “The Boxer”. In any event, Russell’s mark isn’t exactly all over this picture–but it’s still very well made, and it’s extremely well acted.

It tells the true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who was what they call a “Stepping Stone” fighter–basically any fighter that contenders use to beef up their stats or make themselves a contender by beating them. Ward’s problem is that he has no real direction, and a huge part of that is because of his has-been crack-addicted brother, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale) who still brags about “knocking down” Sugar Ray Leonard years ago. His brother is also his trainer but he’s far from reliable. He also doesn’t get good match-ups because they’re set up through his mother (Melissa Leo in a role that would be criminal not to nominate an Oscar for). In one instance, he’s supposed to fight someone to get him back on track. He’s fighting a “stepping stone” himself; but the boxer comes down with the flu and instead of backing out and re-scheduling, he fights the back-up fighter who is 20 pounds heavier than Micky and pummels him.

Micky is caught between two worlds. After he is dismantled in his last fight, he is approached by someone to train in Las Vegas, and work for him. His mother, and family including 9 sisters, are appalled. But Micky new girlfriend, played very well by Amy Adams, believes it’s his ticket to freedom and to be a real contender. But Micky doesn’t want to leave his mom or his brother. He believes family is the most important thing to him.

And family is the most important thing to this film. It deals with family dysfunction; and yet, I think as you look at your own family, you can see some connections and actually relate to some of the situations that Micky goes through. You can also begin to understand why he needs his family; but also, why he needs to break away. Micky is literally in a fight between his “new” family (the boxing family), and his own real family. And that is the essence of this film.

There are surprising laughs in this film, too. The sisters are priceless, and some of the things that Dicky does are quite amusing, albeit ridiculous and dangerous. The sick sense of humor this film has at times may be the only indication that it’s David O. Russell’s work. But much like “The Wrestler”, the director takes a back seat to the narrative and lets the story tell itself through its characters. I still have to remind myself that film is directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Overall, this is a solid film. Most of that credit is due to the actors, however, and not as much to the filmmakers or writers. While they are fine, the acting is top notch. Wahlberg is Wahlberg; there really isn’t much to his character to begin with. But Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are just absolute showstoppers. When they are on screen, your eyes are completely glued. They bring this typical “underdog” story to life. But I like the angle that here’s a boxer who is totally dominated by other people; and ultimately, it’s his own choice how he actually makes his breakthrough. But he can’t do it alone. Some may say that omitting the Gatti fights was unfair because that’s what really made Ward a champion. I would maintain again that again, this is not a boxing story. It’s a story about family. And with that, it works just fine the way it is.

My rating:  :-)

Doubt

January 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“Doubt” is most talked about because of the acting, and that’s just. This is what you’d probably call an “actor’s” movie. These are movies with typically weak or thin plot lines, and only serves to promote the acting jobs of A-list actors/actresses who want Oscars.

I think that may be a bit unfair to “Doubt” because the movie is *about* something, not just an excuse to put some of the best actors together in the same movie. Now, that does not mean that the acting isn’t superior to the story, but the themes of invulnerability, the power of conviction over proof, and of course…doubt itself, is very well done. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley does a fine job of tying the film together with a nice MacGuffin that isn’t an object, but a suspicion. Meryl Streep is outstanding (may steal the Oscar from Jolie) as Sister Aloysius, the er…suspicious allowishus, literally.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a charismatic and upbeat minister who wants to spread gospel about love and understanding, and begins the movie with a speech about how doubt can bring people together in a time of uncertainty and chaos (the film takes place one year after the Kennedy assassination). He builds a bond with one of the altar boys, the only black boy at the school, because he feels sorry for his disposition, and knows he has no friends. Sister James, played wonderfully and emotionally by Amy Adams, is the teacher who first notices a “change” in behavior of the boy, named Donald, after a private meeting with Flynn. He also has alcohol on his breath, due to an incident where he was caught “stealing wine” from the altar, in which case Donald would have to relinquish his altar boy status.

When Sister James tells Aloysius, she immediately is convinced that Flynn has abused Donald and wants to get rid of Father Flynn immediately. Sister James doesn’t know what to believe, as she’s more of the innocent and naive, and positive minded type. But Aloysius, who rules the Parish that they all belong to with an iron fist (she is principal of the school), knows without a doubt that he abused the boy. She thinks it’s for the well being of Donald to get rid of Flynn, ignoring the fact that Flynn has been the only one who has given the boy any attention at all.

There is never any evidence given, nor is there a scene in which Father Flynn has shown his guiltiness. The film, like the play it is based on (also by Shanley), simply plays on the lines of suspicion and not on proof. And that’s where the film is strong.

The ending scene seemed a bit unnecessary, but I saw where Shanley was going with it. The film, to me, concluded about ten minutes before it ended, but it didn’t drive me crazy or anything.

This is mostly a “thinking” and “talking” movie. Not a lot of action, not too much going on on the surface. It’s all in the words being spoken, and that is a dead giveaway that this was a play. Much like “GlenGarry, Glen Ross”, or “12 Angry Men”, there aren’t too many changes of scenery, and there is a LOT of dialog. But it’s a very well made film, and worth seeing if you want to see the best acting of the year.

My rating: :smile: