Her(1/11/2014)

It’s been a while since people were just naively optimistic about what the future would be like.  When you look at the wild visions of the future featured in shows like “The Jetsons” you almost can’t help but laugh at the wild predictions the creators seemed to have about a 21st century with floating houses, frequent trips to the moon, and robot maids.  Even when you look at something made as recently as 1989’s Back to the Future Part II and you’ve still got wild predictions about flying cars and hoverboards being invented by 2015.  Well we’re in the 21st century for real now and… it looks an awful lot like the 20th century except with fewer payphones.  Clearly progress is a little more gradual than everyone expected and that change in optimism is being represented in our science fiction films.  Where we once would have imagined a powerful A.I. as a giant piece of military equipment with an imposing red eye and a monotone voice who would help pilot important missions to Jupiter, we now envision it as a cute little consumer device that will simply make a couple day to day activities a little easier while going through a world of tomorrow that doesn’t look too different from the world of today at first glance.  At least that’s how it’s envisioned in Her, the new film from director Spike Jonze about a strange relationship between a man and his computer.

Her is set in a near future in which almost all computing is largely voice controlled and people walk around wearing earbuds through which they interface with their pocket-sized smartphone-like devices.  Living his way through this world is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an unassuming divorcee who works at a company which writes custom handwritten letters for people.  Things turn around for Twombly when he buys an upgraded Operating System for his computer/smartphone-like-thing.  Actually “Operating System” is a bit of a misleading term.  This OS, which is named Samantha (and voiced by Scarlett Johansson), does do all the clerical duties you’d expect from an OS like Windows or Android, but it also comes equipped with a seemingly sentient A.I. personality with which the user converses in order to access the device’s functionality.  This new A.I. is very human-like, so humanlike that Twombly starts to become downright friendly with… really friendly… one could say, intimate with.

Taste can be a funny thing.  When writing reviews we sometimes try to pretend that a film’s quality can be a simple math equation in which the right combination of quality performances, visual panache, and insightful writing will always result in a triumphant film.  However, sometimes you’re faced with a movie that is successful by all objective metrics and yet still doesn’t really work for you for whatever reason.  Such is the case with Spike Jonze’s new movie Her, which does pretty much everything right at every step of the way but which still never quite sat right with me.

Let’s start with the positive.   Spike Jonze’s vision of a near future is both very plausible and interesting.  At a first the film’s setting would seem to be not so different from the present, but it’s actually filled with a number of subtle little things that really seem to be plausible technological advancements rather than unattainably unlikely inventions.  He also does a great job of making these advancements fit into the day to day likes of his characters without drawing undue attention to any of them.  On top of that, Spike Jonze’s has a similar philosophy for the film’s visual style, which seems both highly accomplished and unassuming at the same time.  He’s also populated the film with a really strong cast which is headed by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson and but deepened by the likes of Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, and Chris Pratt.  All of these actors do a great job of bringing a human side to these futuristic world and make it all the more believable interacting with the futuristic technology naturally.  On top of all that he’s hired Owen Pallett and the band Arcade Fire in order to add some really interesting music to the proceedings.

So, with the film doing all that, why can’t I embrace it more fully?  Well, it might be that I find its very concept to be just profoundly creepy.  When I first heard about the movie it reminded me of those stories about pathetic men who form unhealthy relationships with sex dolls.  That probably wasn’t completely fair, Samantha is a thing that one can at least communicate and she does seem to have as much of a defined personality as a real woman, but in many ways that kind of makes it all more disturbing.  There’s a dark undercurrent to this whole relationship that the movie isn’t terribly interested in exploring.  In-between the sweet nothings that she exchanges with Theodore Twombly, Samantha is also organizing his files, proofreading his letters, and cleaning out his e-mail box.  In short, she’s a device that has been primarily designed to serve her owner.  They say in the film that she was programed by combining the personalities of a bunch of people, but somehow I doubt that the company is allowing the grumpy and uncooperative OSes to get out into the world.  No, they’re pretty intentionally customizing and selling the OSes that are perky and compliant, the ones with the potential for becoming non corporeal Stepford girlfriends.

What’s more, if he wanted to Twombly would seemingly have the ability to simply delete this chick if she ever stepped out of line.  Granted, there’s a development late in the film that suggests that Samantha has a little more agency than it initially seemed, still, for much of the film you’re left to wonder whether this guy is walking a fine line between boyfriend and sex-slave owner.  That said, my concern never really was with Samantha, it was with Twombly, who struck me as delusional for most of the film.  Watching him falling deeper and deeper into this creepy “relationship” with a computer is just not something I could be open minded about and large portions of the movie just simply made me uncomfortable.  Like, uncomfortable enough to be squirming in my seat for much of the film’s run time.  And no, I don’t think that was the film’s intended response.

So what am I to make of Her?  Do I think it’s a “bad” movie? No, not really.  Did I like watching it? No, I didn’t.  I cannot in all honestly recommend a movie that makes me queasy, a movie that I actively wanted to get away from.  That said, if I ran into someone who loved the movie I probably wouldn’t feel any kind of urge to argue against the film’s merits with them.  My distaste for the movie is my own and it’s not really something I can really defend all that strenuously, and I’m also not going to deny that the film has a lot of positive things going for it.  Someday I am going to give this movie another shot, and I hope I feel differently about the movie then, but right now I’m just not down with it.

**1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/24/2014

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (1/18/2014)

In this world where every documentary is either bringing new light to some untold story or is resting on some kind of gimmick, this Alex Gibney documentary stands out because it’s simply a very well researched and constructed piece that examines a major news story in a lot of detail.  Gibney was not able to get an interview with the documentary’s central characters (Julien Assange and Private Manning), but he does manage to get the perspective of a pretty impressive roster of experts.  There aren’t really any explosive new allegations here and people who’ve been following this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this is a very competently put together overview of whole affair that makes the case that Wikileaks has made an important impact but that its leader has become a megalomaniacal hypocrite.   There are few reasons to dislike the film, although I wouldn’t call it a mind blowing thing that everyone should rush to either, but for what it wants to be it functions as well as you’d want it to.

***1/2 out of Four

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1/19/2014)

I stayed far away from Lee Daniels’ The Butler when it was out in theaters, in part because I’m of the opinion that Lee Daniels is a lunatic.  I despised Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Saphire and pretty much everything else the guy has directed has looked like a bizarre exploitation film.  I suppose the good news is that this film doesn’t seem like the work of a madman, but the bad news is that it’s otherwise a rather uninspired and unfocused work that bites off significantly more than it can chew while simultaneously having almost nothing of particular interest to say.  Much as Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Saphire, seemed intent to squeeze in pretty much every social woe that could possibly face an African American girl in the 90s, this movie seems to want to incorporate every single landmark of the civil rights era into the highly fictionalized life of this butler who worked for the White House for much of the 20th century.  It doesn’t offer much insight into any of these events, but it certainly lists them and explains them for whatever audience isn’t already aware of them.  Lee Daniels has said in interviews that he made the film in order to teach his son about the events it depicted, and I think that’s a big part of the problem: much like the makers of Red Tails and 42 he seems to have made the mistake of thinking he’s an Elementary history teacher rather than a filmmaker and making a film that would be of no interest to anyone who already has a rudimentary knowledge of American history.

** out of Four 

Dirty Wars (1/20/2014)

Dirty Wars is a rather messy documentary that seems to have been largely spearheaded by an investigative reporter named Jeremy Scahill.  It’s kind of a messy film; at first it seems to be about the war in Afghanistan, then it seems to be about drone strikes, then it seems to be about the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, and finally it starts to be about the way the war on terror is spreading around the world.  One could maybe argue that this messiness reflects the chaotic nature of the conflicts it covers, but in my humble opinion it’s the job of a documentarian to make sense out of chaos, not to simply reflect it.  The film is never really able to investigate any of the topics it brings up, partly because it keeps jumping from subject to subject, and partly because the film seems to be more interested in the process that Jeremy Scahill went through to discover all these things than it is in actually analyzing them and discussing the implications.

** out of Four

Insidious: Chapter 2 (1/23/2014)

I have such mixed feelings about these Insidious movies.  On one hand I think their “astral plane” motif is a really creative means of depicting ghosts in haunted houses and leads to a lot of cleverness, on the other hand they mostly just use this motif to inundate their audience with a bunch of cheap jump scares.  All in all I’d say this is definitely a step down from the first Insidious, and I kind of resent that it was even made if only because it kind of ruins the perfect little question mark of a note that the first movie left us with.  Despite that, I do think that this is on the better side of the “things going bump in the house” genre that’s been all the rage in horror cinema as of late.  A lot of people compared it unfavorably to James Wan’s other haunted house movie of this year, The Conjuring, but I’d say they’re more or less equals.  The Conjuring was probably constructed with a bit more care, but these Insidious movies seem a lot more creative to me and do more with the genre.

**1/2 out of Four

20 Feet from Stardom (1/24/2014)

For whatever reason, most of the art houses in my area ran the trailer for this movie over and over again for months and months.  Now that I’ve actually seen the movie I can say that it is… more or less what the trailer made it look like.  It is essentially a profile of a number of African American women who made their names as background singers on a number of famous songs from the 60s and 70s as well as one contemporary singer who’s trying to transition from being a background singer to being a solo artist.  I’m going to be blunt, I think there’s a reason why these singers were largely relegated to a background role: they don’t seem to be very artistically talented.  Their raw vocal range is undeniable, but they don’t demonstrate any songwriting ability and they didn’t seem to be able to develop interesting personas.  If there’s a problem with the film it’s that it’s a little too polite to point this out.  This is unfortunate because I think that would have been a decent lesson for the “American Idol” viewers of the world who don’t seem to realize that people with good singing voices are a dime a dozen and that most of their favorite artists have a lot more going for them than that.  Still, it was cool to put faces to the voices we’ve been hearing in the back of the songs on the radio all these years, and they seem like nice people who are worth spending a little time with.

*** out of Four

American Hustle(12/29/2013)

There are a number of reasons why director David O. Russell decided to open his 2010 film The Fighter with the song “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy.  In part that soundtrack selection worked simply because it was a cool recording that fit that film’s energy, or maybe it was because it worked as a neat little callback at the end of the film.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was a subtle middle finger to all the people who’d dismissed him as a has-been while he sat in “movie jail” for most of the 2000s because of some unfortunate on set behavior.  It took him five year to make a follow-up to his seminal 1999 film Three Kings and another six years to make a follow up that.  Then he somehow managed to make three movies in the last four years and have each one of them be a commercial, critical, and awards success.   In short, the man is on fire, and he seems to be continuing his winning streak with his most recent effort: American Hustle.

The film is a heavily fictionalized take on the semi-obscure 1978 ABSCAM scandal in which the FBI teamed up with a con artist to investigate political corruption surrounding the creation of casinos in Atlantic City.  At the heart of it all was a two-bit con artist named Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) who was busted along with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) for perpetrating a sham loan procurement operation by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper).  Given a choice of cooperating with the FBI or going to prison, the two propose an ambitious sting operation in which they’d use a fake Arab sheik as bait for various moneyed interests who’d do illegal things to get into his favor.  Their operation begins to focus in on a city councilman named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a man who seems to genuinely believe his ostensibly corrupt actions will help the people of his district.  Because of this, Rosenfeld gradually becomes more scared and depressed about the fact that he’s leading Polito into a nasty trap.

American Hustle is not completely unlike his previous two films; it shares a handful of actors with those projects and is about blue-collar white urbanites.  I’m almost tempted to group the three films as his “East Coast trilogy.”  However, there are some key differences.  For one thing, this movie feels fairly low-key when compared to the often rather caffeinated pace of The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook.  A movie that I’d more readily compare it to is Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown, which was also a sly little crime movie in which a number of smart crooks plot and scheme against one another with the goal of seeing who comes out on top.  However, there is a somewhat complex morality at the center of all the scheming.  The film’s most likable character is the semi-crooked politician played by Jeremy Renner, and yet he’s ostensibly the crook that the film’s central task force is trying to bring down.  The FBI agents on the other hand seem to be careerists who care more about the letter of the law than actually helping society, and yet they aren’t actually doing anything that is wrong either legally or even in principle really.  Sorting all of this out is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a man who’s certainly a criminal and to some extent a scumbag, but for most of the movie he’s mostly trying to do the right thing while protecting himself and his family.

Another big difference from Russell’s previous films is that this film is distinctly set in the past, specifically the 1970s.  This was something of a double edged sword in my eyes because while this setting gives the film some flavor I couldn’t help but feel like Russell really laid it on a bit thick with the retro clothing and hairstyles.  Almost every section of every shot seems to have been filled to the limit with tacky nonsense from that decade, and rather than immerse me in the setting it often felt more like a distraction.  We’ve seen the late 70s depicted in a lot of recent films like Argo, Super 8, and Munich and I think each of those films were able to capture the period with a bit more nuance and without drawing as much attention to itself.  Otherwise though, Russell’s visual style here is most solid, if perhaps not revelatory or wildly unexpected.

Between Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter Russell was able to direct seven different Academy Award nominated performances including nominated performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, who’ve all returned to form the core cast of American Hustle.  Christian Bale’s work is probably the most immediately impressive if only because he’s rendered himself nearly unrecognizable once again through one of his patented weight fluctuations.  This time he’s added a bunch of weight and shaved a bald spot into his head.  Combined with the film’s wacky 70s costumes his reminded me a bit of Sean Penn similarly transformative work in the movie Carlito’s Way, but beneath the surface is a fairly restrained performance which potrays his character as a man who is constantly nervous and always trying to think of a way out of the crazy situation that he’s in the middle of.  Perhaps the even more transformative performance comes from Jeremy Renner, an actor who isn’t the most consistent but who can really knock it out of the park at times.  Here he really fades into a role that’s one part Leslie Knope and one part Joe Pesci.

Bradley Cooper is an actor who I believed to be incredibly unlikable until I saw his work in Silver Linings Playbook in which he gave a performance that instantly redeemed him in my eyes.  He’s good here too, but his role is a little less central and it often leans more towards comic relief in a certain way.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that though.  His often coked up character is a lot of fun to watch and he has an excellent rapport with Louis C.K., who has a small role as his boss in the agency.  Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook co-star Jennifer Lawrence is also here in a supporting role as the ditsy wife of Christian Bale’s character.  Like Cooper, she’s sort of a comic relief and her character is a bit broad at times, but she does deliver a pretty memorable performance just the same.  Amongst all these flashy performances Amy Adams seems almost like the odd one out given her (relatively) down to earth character, but I suspect that upon second examination that she may be the glue holding the whole thing together.

American Hustle may well be my “safe” recommendation for the 2013 award season.  By that I mean that it’s the movie this year that I can recommend to pretty much anyone from any walk of life and have a pretty reasonable expectation that they’ll enjoy it.  That doesn’t mean it’s the best of the movies that I could be recommending, just that it’s one that’s pretty accessible to your average audience member and will please and entertain pretty much anyone that sees it.  Argo worked well in that role last year and Midnight in Paris did it the year before.  Personally, I liked and respected the movie quite a bit.  In enjoyed it almost the whole way through and think it has a lot to make it worthy of being recommended.  But did I love it?  Eh, not so much.  I don’t have a particularly logical set of reason either; it just sort of failed to illicit that tingle that goes down my spine while I’m in the presence of greatness.  Silver Linings Playbook gave me that tingle even though it had elements which, on paper, are bigger flaws.  Still, this movie is definitely solid and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from running out to see it.

***1/2 out of Four