HER



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Ah, AI’s that become sentient.   If there is one very important lesson to learn from movies, it’s that this is never a very good idea.  The argument:
In Electric Dreams, that 1984 movie that gave us a fun disco tune (“it’s got a good rhythm, I can dance to it, I give it an 8”) and a computer, Edgar, that achieves full sentience after having champagne spilt on it, Edgar falls in love with his owner’s girlfriend (a pre-Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen) and tries to kill his rival (with Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort providing Edgar’s voice). 
In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a super computer links up with a Russian one in an early form of détente and takes over the world, threatening to launch some nuclear missiles if everyone doesn’t do what he says (voice artist Paul Frees is the voice this time ‘round).
And who can forget Demon Seed, in which a computer that controls every aspect of a state of the art futuristic house imprisons Julie Christie (in a “was she really that desperate for work that she needed to do this film” role) and forces her to have sex with him so he can reproduce (no, I am not kidding, and the voice work this time is the soothing toned Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn, and though it’s more than a bit campy, it’s actually not as bad as I make it sound and is better than it has any right to be). 
And I won’t even mention 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.
In the new sci-fi, rom com Her from writer/director Spike Jonze, the AI here, Samantha, doesn’t do anything like that.  No, she does much worse.  She non-surgically removes the heart of our hero, Theodore, from his chest cavity; throws it on the ground, splat; and stomps on it until there’s nothing left.
The future world painted by Jonze in this movie is not a particularly optimistic one.  Perhaps the biggest dystopian aspect of it is that men are back to wearing high wasted, Humphrey Bogart style pants (for some reason, the Donna Karen’s of the future didn’t get the memo that pants that cover the belly button look best when worn with suit jackets of some sort); long sleeve shirts that have pockets that are screaming out for those plastic protectors our grandfather’s use to wear; ugly sweaters than could win every Christmas contest; and ironic mustaches worn unironically.
But just as bad are the women.  I mean, they are a pretty weird and awful group in Jonze’s view of things to come.  There’s Theodore’s soon to be ex-wife who has left him for some vague reason she claims is Theodore’s fault; a phone sex hook up with someone who has a really sick fetish you will not believe; an emotionally bonkers blind date who freaks out for no logical reason at all; and Samantha who, well, you know.   Even Amy, Theodore’s best friend, is a little odd, making a documentary about her mother that we’re suppose to laugh at. 
I found it all a little dispiriting myself.
But in the end, how you feel about Her will probably depend on how you feel about the growing relationship of Samantha and Theodore.  It never worked for me and there are several reasons for this.  Though I had no issue with Samantha’s exponential growth in knowledge and emotion, I felt that Theodore’s growing relationship with Samantha was too equally exponential.  He seemed to accept everything far too easily and go along with it all far too quickly to be believable.
What might have helped was if I had a better context for Theodore and his loneliness and life of quiet desperation (such as why his wife was divorcing him), as well as a better context for these OS’s and why he would purchase such a contraption.  Theodore just sees an ad for one and buys it.  No research, no investigation, no asking of friends.  It seemed so impulsive for someone who I would never describe as being remotely impulsive. 
In fact, one of the issues I had with the movie is that Theodore is the central character, but it seems to be Samantha’s story.  She’s the one who learns something, who grows, who goes on a journey—but her journey is all off screen and never really dramatized.  Instead, we follow Theodore who only seems to learn that women, whether of the real or artificial intelligence kind, will just stab you in the back and leave you bleeding to death.  But is that really the point Jonze is trying to make here?
And because I never bought this central relationship, my mind wandered and I began questioning other, less important aspects of the story, such as how someone who is basically a few steps up from someone who writes greeting cards could possibly afford a huge apartment with an incredible view of L.A.; how someone at his wage level could even afford an OS at all (he doesn’t even wait until the price comes down like people do today for computers, phones and TV’s, and I wonder what the monthly fee would be for something like this); and why, when Sam sends some of Theodore’s writings (he works for a business that composes letters for people) to a publisher, the first reaction Theodore has isn’t, “you can’t do that, I don’t own the rights to any of them”. 
I know.  I’m the Grinch here, I fully admit it.  I’m sure I missed the point and need to have my head examined.  But the whole thing just never came together for me.
The acting is quite strong, I admit.  Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead with a post nasal drip and “nerd” glasses (his character’s name is Theodore after all) and he again fully disappears into his role (has he somehow become our Daniel Day-Lewis without our even noticing it?).  Amy Adams as Amy has nothing to do and proceeds not to do it, but she’s always a welcome addition.  And there’s just something about Scarlet Johansson’s voice as Samantha that reminded me of Jane Fonda’s early kitten roles that’s a lot of fun. 
At the same time, I kinda felt the best and most fun performances were given in smaller roles like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s overly friendly, but ingratiating, boss, and Brian Cox as a somewhat pompous Gore Vidal like OS.  And did anyone know that there was a Cher impersonator in the movie?  It says so in IMDB, but I think I blinked and missed her.   It should also be noted that we now have an actor in Portia Doubleday who rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for most Dickensian name.
I also liked Jonze’s habit of suddenly cutting to a silent montage of scenes from Theodore’s past.  There was something moving about this in a way I never found the movie as a whole to be.  And whose ever idea it was to use Shanghai as the future L.A. deserves a bonus (though I did catch the exit sign in Chinese lettering at one point). 
But in the end, I pretty much knew how it was going to resolve itself and I found few surprises along the way.  It’s like watching your best friend dating someone you know is bad for him, but there’s nothing you can say or do, you just have to see it through.  So I did.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS


I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer of sorts.  I love folk music.  I mean, I luuuuuuuuuuuuve it.  I still have CD’s of The Kingston Trio and I had a two album set of Phil Ochs until I disposed of my stereo.  On Pandera I have a Judy Collins radio station on call.  I grew up listening to those melancholy songs of deep despair and whenever I listen to them now, I just feel a huge pang and ache of beautiful nostalgia.  I can still hear the pain in all of it.  Even John Denver, whose songs at the time were sometimes made fun of for being too cheery and optimistic, today sound as dark and depressing as the rest of them.
So I guess that makes me sort of a dork when it comes down to it.  It’s my moment of geek, I guess you’d say.  But it’s possibly my favorite genre of music even after all these year.  So I might be a tad prejudiced in favor of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, from the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen and one of the finer films of the year.
Llewyn Davis, the title and central character, is a singer of that particular brand of music.  But, in many ways, he’s also a victim of very bad timing.  First, he’s a folk singer in New York in 1961, but he’s a solo act.  The folk singing field is burgeoning, but only for groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, Mary, performers with polished acts that are outwardly, rather than inwardly, focused.
Davis had a partner at one time and they recorded an album.  But the partner killed himself and now Davis is singing stag, delivering haunting and heartfelt songs of despair that are more inwardly focused.  He’s very good.  There should be no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed.  But his kind of folk singing won’t break through for a year or two with the arrival of Bob Dylan, the success of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rise of the singer songwriter.   So while the album with his partner did well, his solo effort has failed miserably.
And when he makes his way to Chicago to see an influential manager (played by F. Murray Abraham who gives a remarkable performance in a very small role; his acting mainly consists of just sitting there with what seems to be blank looks on his face, while at the same time expressing more depth and emotion than more theatrical performers in larger roles), Davis is turned down because he is not commercial enough.
He’s also just a few years too soon for the movements that made folk so popular: the rise of the hippies; the Viet Nam war; and the Civil Rights moment.  The songs and performances of Davis’s time were strongly apolitical after Pete Seeger was accused of being a Communist which led to the break up of the group The Weavers.
Davis is also a victim of bad circumstances.  He has a crooked manager.  He is accused by the wife of his best friend of being the father of her baby, even though he wore condoms and as far as she knows her husband could be the father, but still he feels forced to do anything to get money for an abortion (including making a bad business decision).  He is haunted by the death of his partner, traumatized to the point where he can’t bring himself to take on another one.   He is doing so badly, in fact, he has no winter coat and has to beg people for couches to sleep on at night.  And he has this cat that…, well, you’ll have to see the movie for that.
This is not to say that Davis, the human being, is perfect.  He’s incredibly self-absorbed and has difficulty feeling anyone else’s pain (which is both ironic and appropriate for the sort of internal kind of folk he sings).  He looks down on everyone (I always felt the Cohen’s were a bit too misanthropic and ridiculed people in an often unkind way, but either I’ve gotten so used to their style, or they’ve taken the edge off, or it could be that Davis is so imperious that I just can’t look down on the other characters the way he does).  And he always seems puzzled as to why he is not the center of the universe.   Yet for me, I still felt he was more sinned against than sinning.
I’m not sure what has happened to casting directors this year.  I’m not saying they’ve been falling down on the job before now.  But films this year have shown some of the most imaginative and witty casting in some time.  I first noticed this with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (of course, his movies have always been brilliantly cast, no matter how good or bad they were), but it has continued on through such films as Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and now Inside Llewyn Davis.
The title role is inhabited by Oscar Isaac in what is termed a breakout performance.  Relatively new to movies (his myriad of parts have been relatively small until now), he gives a very empathetic performance of a man who keeps struggling even when he’s no longer sure what he’s struggling for.  John Goodman finally has a role that’s not a John Goodman part and he makes the most of a haughtier than Davis, drug addicted poet that imparts a very acute observation about the death of Davis’s partner (with a driver played by Garrett Hudland who is basically playing the same part he played in On the Road, and as weakly).
Justin Timberlake seems to be having fun satirizing himself a bit as Davis’ overly upbeat best friend whose voice is a bit reedier than the hero’s.  Carey Mulligan, as the wife, gives more depth to a somewhat misogynistic role of a woman who thinks she’s been scorned, when she hasn’t (she breaks through the anger of the character and makes her part more real and sympathetic that it comes across at first).  And Adam Driver has a very droll role as the third part of a trio singing a novelty song, providing some very funny background recitative (though perhaps a song that is a bit too harmonic to be as novelty as it is suppose to be).
And it’s all played out against a strong feel of period and place in the design of costumes, sets, dialog and overcast cinematography of never ending snow.
In the end, Inside Llewyn Davis may be little more than a character study and like other movies of the same vein made by the Cohen brothers (like A Serious Man), I’m not sure what it all adds up to.  But also like A Serious Man, I’m not sure I care.  I was just too riveted by Davis and his story to try to make it add up to anything.  And whenever the characters broke into song, I was flung back into those early days of rapture.   The film is as haunting and moving as the lieder that punctuate the action.  What the Cohen brothers may not have achieved intellectually, they have more than made up for instinctually and emotionally.

SAVING MR. BANKS



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When Emma Thompson first appears on screen as children’s author and Mary Poppins’ creator P.L. Travers (sorry, that’s Mrs. Travers to me) in Saving Mr. Banks, she’s pinched face, irritable, unpleasant and deeply unhappy, possessing the personality of the second nanny in the horror film The Omen. 
I know she’s an unlikable human being, so unlikable she probably makes dogs run for their lives just by glaring at them.  But from the first moment I saw her, I loved her and was on her side.  I mean, she has one of the best “save the cat” moments in recent films.  When she can’t get her suitcase into the overhead rack and a mother with a baby comes to her rescue and offers to move her own bag to give her room, Travers responds by asking whether the child is going to be a nuisance since it’s an eleven hour flight.  Now, if you can’t adore someone like that, then you just don’t have a heart.
I suppose part of her immediate appeal to me could be because I’m a screenwriter as well, and so I could easily identify with her fears of what a producer might do to her beloved creation Mary Poppins.  And she has good reason for these fears, with the constant complaints from authors whose novels and plays Hollywood has, well, what’s a good PG-13 word for it—misinterpreted, distorted, altered, disfigured, twisted, warped, raped, sodomized up the anus cavity with a heated iron rod like Edward II…but I digress. 
But it’s not just that.  There’s more to it than just that.  When she arrives in Los Angeles and steps off that plane, she’s confronted by a constant barrage of “it’s a small, small world” happy people with toothsome smiles out of The Sound of Music and a city so brightly lit with mind-numbing sunshine, that all I wanted to do was slap those merciless grins off of everybody’s faces and ask God to do to the city what Mark Robson did to it in Earthquake.
So when she constantly throws her Noel Coward-like snarky comments at one and all; or school teacherly corrects the screen and song writers of the movie to be when they make the somewhat dubious claim that Dick Van Dyke is one of the greats; or she gets so frustrated she throws the screenplay that has so disgusted her out the window, I was yelling “you go, girl” (well, no, I didn’t yell it, I was in a movie theater, after all, but you know what I mean).
And then it happens, the exact same thing that happens to Travers in the movie.  The charm of Disneyland and Los Angeles just wears you down and you have no choice but to succumb to it all.  It’s inevitable.  And there’s no shame in it because it happens to god bless us one and all who transpose themselves to this bright and shining city on the sea. 
And so, like everyone who has come before her, by the end of the film, Travers has embraced the sordid cheeriness of the City of Angels and gives up fighting for control of her story, letting “Walt, you have to call me Walt.  Mr. Disney is my father” turn her no-nonsense, all business nanny into a singing, dancing, twinkling (“and the magic word is”) Julie Andrews.
Saving Mr. Banks is the Hitchcock of 2013.  Based as was Hitchcock on a true Hollywood story of the making of a classic movie, it also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the facts.  But also like Hitchcock, it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.  The screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is witty and bright and full of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (OMG, believe it or not, that did not come up wrong on spell check; spell check actually has that made up word in it) energy and John Lee Hancock’s direction is taut with expert timing.  
It’s not perfect by any means.  The psychology is simplistic and obvious, and there are scenes that aren’t as convincing as they might be, as when Don DaGradi, Mary Poppins’ screenwriter, gets Travers to tap her toes and dance with him (calling Joseph Campbell, calling Joseph Campbell, I think a couple of steps in the hero’s journey got left out here).   And some of the visuals are painfully on the nose (as the change in Travers’ fashion from sensible, brown tweed to free flowing blue and white cotton after she signs over her creation’s life to Disney’s implacable will). 
But gosh darn it all to heck, it just doesn’t matter.  You can point out the problems and bewail and bemoan it all, but that won’t stop the whole thing from winning you over and thoroughly delighting you.  Even when it doesn’t work, oh, my, does it work.
The cast is one of the finer ones of the year.  Both Emma Thompson, as Travers, and Tom Hanks, as Disney, seem to have had something of a Renaissance here.   Neither has really been doing anything of real note lately.  Thompson had been hiding out in small supporting roles in such movies as Brideshead Revisited, Pirate Radio and seasonal revivals of Love Actually.  But now she’s back in a lead and she’s brought all her glory with her. 
And Hanks, who had been making some of the most painfully uninteresting movies of late that a major actor could make (Cloud Atlas, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Larry Crowne), gives the second of two remarkable performances this year, first in Captain Phillips, and now in Saving Mr. Banks, where he brings a mythic Walt Disney down to earth (and does one of these impersonations where whenever I think of the original, now all I’ll see is Hanks).
Maybe both just needed to go through a period of adjustment as they grew older and had to reinvent themselves in order to reinvigorate their careers (most actors do). 
But the movie also has some of the most imaginative casting in supporting roles as well, from Wes Anderson refugee Jason Schwartzman as one half of the Sherman brothers song writing team (B.J. Novak is also solid as the other half); Kathy Baker, who really has nothing to do as Disney’s secretary, but she makes the most of it anyway (she has a terrific bit at the end where she’s laughing as Disney comes into the office because she knows something he doesn’t); and perhaps most wonderful of all, Collin Farrell, who gives a magical and haunting performance as Travers’ dipsomaniac father in the moving and heartfelt flashback episodes.
So in the end, is Saving Mr. Banks a good movie?  Sure it is.  Even very good, I’ll venture to say.  Is it more than that?  God, no.   But like Los Angeles and Disneyland, it’s easier not to fight it and just enjoy the hell out of it.  It’s the only way you’ll get out alive.  Just ask Mrs. Travers.

The Best Films of 2008 or the Howies


Top Ten Movies of 2008

Best Picture: Reprise

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Antartica

Che

The Counterfeiters

Edge of Heaven

In Bruges

Let the Right One In

Love Songs

Tell No One

Waltz with Bashir

 

Honorable mentions:

 

The Dark Knight, Wall-E

 

Special mention for Documentary:

 

Man on Wire

Helvetica

 

A Special List of Movies only shown once in L.A. (at film fests, etc.) in alphabetical order:

 

Before I Forget

The Chaser

The Good, the Bad, the Weird

The Headless Woman

Solitary fragments

Summer hours

 

Special Award for Best ensemble:

 

Doubt (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Note: I know this is cheating, but it freed up spaces on the best acting lists.

 

 

Best Actors of 2008

Best Actor:


Jacques Nolot – Before I Forget

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Francois Cluzet – Tell No One

Robert Downey, Jr. – Tropic Thunder, Iron Man

Karl Markovics – The Counterfeiters

Sean Penn – Milk

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Collin Farrell – In Bruges, Cassandra’s Dream

Benicio del Toro – Che

Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler

Frank Langella – Frost/Nixon

 

 

Best Actresses of 2008

Best Actress:

Melissa Leo – Frozen River

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Juliette Binoche – Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours

Sally Hawkins – Happy Go Lucky

Maria Onetto – Headless Woman

Kirsten Scott Thomas – I Have Loved You So Long

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Angelina Jolie – Changeling

Kate Winslet – The Reader; Revolutionary Road

 

 

Best Supporting Actors of 2008

Best Supporting Actor:

Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Josh Brolin – Milk

Ralph Feinnes – In Bruges, the Duchess, The Reader

Gilles LeLouche – Tell No One

Eddie Marsan – Happy Go Lucky

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road;

Diego Luna – Milk

 

Best Supporting Actresses of 2008

Best Supporting Actress:

Penelope Cruz – Vicki Christina Barcelona

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Kathy Bates – Revolutionary Road

Lisa Kudrow – Kabluey

Elza Lyberstein – I Have Loved You So Long

Amy Poehler – Hamlet II

 

Honorable mentions:

 

Marissa Tomei – The Wrestler

Hannah Shygulla – Edge of Heaven

 

Best Direction of 2008

Best Director:

Che – Steven Sodenbergh

The rest in alphabetical order

 

The Chaser – Hong-jin Na

The Dark Knight – Christopher Nolan

The Good, the Bad, the Weird – Ji Woom-Kin

Reprise – Joachim Trier

 

Honorable mention:

 

Jon Favreau – Iron Man

 

Best Screenplays of 2008

Best Screenplay:

Reprise – Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt

 

The rest in alphabetical order

 

Antarctica – Yair Hochner

The Counterfeiters – Stefan Ruzowitzky

In Bruges – Martin McDonagh

Tell No One – Guilliame Canet, Harlan Coben

AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE PAST



I’m not sure what the biggest crime in the new, based kinda, sorta, but who knows how much on a true story movie American Hustle is: the ABSCAM scandal at the center of the plot or those awful, awful, what the hell were we thinking, fashions we use to wear at the time (some people may think that Michael Wilkinson’s designs are exaggerated for comic affect, but I tell you, they seem painfully close to the real thing to me).
I have to be honest, I did have some trouble with the film at first and for me the issue was Christian Bale in the lead as Irving Rosenfield, a con-man with a fake comb over (got symbolism?).  I have always had issues with Bale, and it’s really not his fault.  But I always felt he was trying way too hard to be Daniel Day-Lewis and he couldn’t quite carry it off.  Where Day-Lewis seems to disappear into his roles, Bale always seems to be saying, “look at me pretending to be someone not remotely like myself”.   And it’s always been a stickler to me when it came to his films.
I also don’t think it helped that the movie started with a rather loooooong introduction via voice over that just never seemed to stop.
But as the story gained traction and the supporting cast made their presences known, I forgot all about Bale’s calling attention to his talent as much as I forgot about Rosenfield’s comb over, which I think says a lot about both, actually. 
And such a supporting cast: Amy Adams as his girlfriend and partner in crime who revels in showing off her side boob as much as her rather convincing, fake English accent (well, it’s better than Irving’s hair); Bradley Cooper as an over eager government agent who, somehow, miracles of miracles, is the only one who looks good in the period clothes and hairstyles (and he’s a much better dancer here than in Silver Linings Playbook); Jennifer Lawrence, riotously hysterical as Irving’s bi-polar wife; Jeremy Renner as a corrupt, but well-meaning mayor with a pompadour that looks like it’s about to take over the world; and  in smaller roles, Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering boss and Michael Pena as a fake sheik. 
If nothing else, American Hustle is one of the most deliriously entertaining movies of the year.   The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell has a fun, frantic 1930’s farcical feel to it.  It seems to revel in the amorality of it all; in the ridiculousness of the situations; and, perhaps most pleasurable of all, in the incredibly neurotic relationships of the characters until the whole thing feels like a Warner Brother’s pre-code movie starring James Cagney in the con-man lead; Carole Lombard as his partner in crime; Jean Harlow as his wife; Clark Gable as the government agent; and Warner Baxter in the cameo as the corrupt mayor.  Throw in a few character actors like Edward Everett Horton as the agent’s boss and Mischa Auer as the fake Sheik, and your back in the days of “more stars than there are in heaven”.
American Hustle also has some of the strongest and most interesting female characters in awhile.  In this, the movie also harkens back to the 1930’s in it’s portrayal of women as alpha females who attract men because they are alpha females (rather than today when alpha females are often ridiculed and put down by screenwriters) and in its portrayal of men who are as willing to make as big of emotional fools of themselves over women as the women are over the men.  And if anything, the women are far more in control of their emotions and destinies than any of the alpha males here.
It’s an attitude I feel is often missing from today’s rom coms (because no matter what else it is, American Hustle at the core is really a love story between two con artists).  Of course, Singer and Russell still had to go into the past to pull it off, but at least they didn’t have to go eighty years to do it.
And the film feels like a step forward for Russell whose last couple off films (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), though entertaining, felt a big tame and familiar, even formulaic.  Perhaps there’s something about the story itself and the screenplay that took over.  Whereas the earlier films felt like standard tropes and familiar arcs directed with an anarchic, chaotic style, American Hustle feels like a story that is all anarchy and chaos directed in, well, an anarchic, chaotic style.  It refuses to let itself be put in a box and Russell didn’t force it, but let it be what it needed to be. 
The Past, the new movie by writers Massoumeh Lahidji and Asghar Farhadi, who also directed (Farhadi gave us the searingly intense A Separation), feels like a table with a leg missing.  It has three dynamic and powerful performances from Bernice (The Artist) Bejo, Tahar (A Prophet) Rahim and  Ali  (who has done a lot of other things, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with him, but his hairpiece is far more convincing than Bale’s) Mosaffa in a sort of love triangle.  And their intensity carries the film for quite awhile.  But in the end, they are let down by a story that doesn’t quite hold up.
It took me awhile to figure out where things went wrong, but it happens about a third of the way through.  In the first part, the story gains a lot of tension as Ahmad (Mosaffa) comes to France to finalize a divorce with his wife Marie (Bejo), only to find out that she’s not only living with a younger man, Samir (Rahim), she’s pregnant by him, and Ahmad’s oldest daughter is virulently against the relationship for reasons she won’t say.
And then the movie takes a completely different turn and begins to focus not on Ahmad, but on the daughter and why she’s against Marie and Samir’s upcoming nuptials, all having to do with Samir’s wife who is in a coma after trying to kill herself. 
Now at first glance, this may sound like an interesting turn of the screw.  But the problem is that this part of the story has nothing to do with Ahmad.  By the time the movie is over, you even wonder why he’s in the story at all.   In fact, almost as suddenly as he arrives, he disappears from the story for a good while as the other characters grapple with secrets being revealed.
There’s only one possible dramatic justification for Ahmad’s inclusion in the story and that is to get his daughter to confess a secret.  But that’s not really enough of a justification for him to be a part of it all, and so the structure seems wobbly and the forward momentum slows down as you’re no longer sure where the story is going.
Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, had a similar structure.  It starts out as a family having issues and then changes course when they hire a caretaker, but she gets thrown out of the apartment by the husband, has a miscarriage and the story becomes about what really happened.  But even there, the outcome of the story affected every single character.  Everybody in the film was inextricably linked to that one incident.  Here, Ahmad is more chopped liver and has nothing to really do.
The film is titled The Past and I’m not quite sure why.  At one point, Samir talks about the need to forget what has come before in order to get on with the future.  But that’s not really what the film as a whole has been about.  And when Samir has his speech, it feels tacked on, as if the writers had suddenly remembered what they had named their story, and now suddenly felt a need to justify it.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, CAMILLE CLAUDE 1915 and THE GREAT PASSAGE



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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second installment in the trilogy that four writers, including director Peter Jackson, have carved out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Basically, it’s just more of the same (even with the ton of plot added that’s not in the book).  The story’s structure seems based on the Perils of Pauline and/or a ride at Disneyland, but the effects aren’t that special anymore (though the dragon Smaug himself has some nice moves, but, god almighty, is he in love with his own voice or what?); the characters are becoming less interesting; and I’m not even sure why people are doing half the things they’re doing anymore (why does Gandalf leave; why does the necromancer care if the dwarves kill Smaug and get their treasure back; why did they need Bilbo along on this trip—I’m sure there are reasons, but I just don’t know what they are now).  No one dies (at least no non-Orc does) because the twists and turns seem borrowed from every James Bond movie in which the secret agent is not immediately killed, but left to die so he can escape to defeat the villain de jour.  Orlando Bloom as Legolas probably has the funniest line in the film when he tells Evangeline Lily as Tauriel that if he was an Orc, she’d be dead; since none of the Orcs seem capable of killing a mosquito with an atomic bomb, this statement is highly questionable (you even begin feeling sorry for the monstrous creatures since they just can’t seem to catch a break—they’re more easily slain than the zombi in Night of the Living Dead). 
In the new movie Camille Claudel 1915, about the sculptress and ex-mistress of the artist Rodin, Camille resides in a mental institution where there are only two sorts of patients.  There are the severely, and I mean, severely mentally retarded, severely autistic, severely psychotic (who are used by writer/director Bruno Dumont both for sympathy and horror as in Todd Browning’s film Freaks) and there’s…Camille, who barely seems to have a thing wrong with here.  That’s right; there’s no Snakepit gradations of mental illness here; no highly functioning people who think they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ; no mere sufferers of nervous breakdowns; no schizophrenics on the level of John Nash.  They’ve either made a complete, in for a penny, in for a pound, break from sanity, or they’re, say, well…Camille.
I’m afraid I had no emotional connection to Camille and her situation.  I believe this was mainly because I had no context for what was happening to her.  Is she someone who is mentally unstable and can’t be left alone (she does show signs of unreasonable paranoia and does think she still has an emotional relationship with Rodin, though they haven’t made contact for twenty years), or is she a poor creature more sinned against than sinning?  From Camille’s perspective, she’s a complete victim, but since every criminal in jail claims to be innocent and everyone confined to a mental hospital thinks they’re sane, her testimony is hardly objective.  So what are we to think of her?
 In the earlier 1988 version of Camille’s story, we clearly see Isabelle Adjani in the title roll slowly losing her mental stability and achieve a complete psychotic break.  But we have no such help here.  And it seems to affect Juliet Binoche’s performance.  Though she plays the part with a ton of energy, she also seems a bit at sea, as if she, herself, is unsure whether to play Camille as someone who is seriously ill or someone who has been put away because she is an inconvenience.
This is Dumont’s seventh film.  His first two films, Life of Jesus and Humanité, seemed so refreshing in their honesty and emotional power, suggesting an exciting new talent.  But since then, his films seemed to have lost something.  For both 27 Palms and Flanders, like this movie, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to convey, I wasn’t sure why he wanted to make the movie, I wasn’t sure what interested him about the subject matter.  Sad to say, the emotional connection he had with his characters and the audience in his first two films seems to be slowly, slipping away. 
The Great Passage, the new movie from Japan written by Kensaku Watanabe and directed by Yuya Ishii, is that country’s entry in the 2013 Oscar category for best foreign language film.  It’s about the publishing of a new, from scratch dictionary and, sorry to say, is about as interesting as reading one (yeah, who didn’t see that joke coming).  The basic premise is the creation of a “living” dictionary that adds modern slang and common words with a more relaxed style to writing the definitions.  The project will take more than ten years to complete, which basically means that when the reference work is released, this “living” dictionary will be dead as a dodo and hopelessly out of date.  How you react to the movie will probably depend on whether you find the cast of characters to be eccentrically appealing on the level of a Cohen Brothers film or an Ealing comedy or not.  I didn’t.  Perhaps it’s best to say it’s no Ball of Fire and let it go at that.