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.

ON THE ROAD



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The new movie On the Road is filmed with the energy and chaos of jazz being played by musicians on Benzedrine.  It’s full of jagged rhythms and scenes cut together as if they were half improvised.  It grabs you at first as does the beautiful period detail, with sets and costumes that fill you with a certain excitement the moment you’re confronted by them (production design by Carlo Conti; costume design by Danny Glicker). 
But Benzedrine doesn’t last forever and On The Road quickly crashes into a hung over morning after because this story about members of the beat generation is also about a group of people who think they are interesting, but aren’t (almost never a good premise for a drama).  Actually, it’s a little worse than that.  It’s about a group of people that the screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles think are interesting, but neither gives all that compelling a reason as to why we should think so too.
The movie, of course, is based on the popular cult novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac.  It’s a sort of, kind of autobiographical tale in the best Wolfe/Proust tradition (all the names were changed, but apparently not to protect the innocent, because there was never any question as to who was really who in the first place).  The story revolves around an aspiring writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac) who doesn’t have anything to write about.  Into his life comes Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), introduced to him by Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsburg). 
Dean first appears to our naïve little hero fully naked, opening the door having been interruptus in his coitus with his sixteen year old wife, Marylou (how Jerry Lee Lewis can you get).  The idea, I presume, is to show just how free and uninhibited Dean is.  But all it shows is the hypocrisy of the movie and how unfree and inhibited the production is: the confrontational in your face Dean is shown wearing that fig leaf that all movies like this use—he’s seen only from the waste up so as not to offend anyone watching from the safety of their auditorium seats (oh, the irony, the irony).  To the filmmakers’ credit, they do a bit better with the bisexuality, but only by a bit.
Dean is suppose to be a symbol of someone who makes his own morality and lives life on his own terms, fully free of the shackles of 1950’s America.  But I have two issues with this:
The first is that I saw no shackles.  Sal lives in his mother’s apartment (apparently room and board free), with no real job to speak off, coming and going as he pleases, doing drugs, and if he’s not getting sex, it’s not because of society’s priggishness, he’s just not any good at the art of seduction.  When these kinds of characters are portrayed in contemporary films, they usually live in their parents’ basement, playing video games and watching internet porn all day long.  But I don’t think Rivera and Salles see the parallel.  In actually, the only real symbol of the shackles these poor fellows must endure are the tickets they get from highway patrolman when they are racing down frozen highways at breakneck speed, often with the windshield encrusted with ice, robbing them of any visibility (gee, getting a ticket for exceeding the speed limit—those fascists). 
The second issue is how this freedom of Dean’s is defined.  Everyone wants to be Dean, but not because of an existential idea of liberation.  They want to be Dean because he can get his sixteen year old ex-wife to give him a blowjob without his asking while he’s driving a car, even though she knows she’s going to be dumped when he returns to his present wife upon reaching San Francisco.  They don’t want freedom.  They want women to humiliate themselves sexually for them.  And that’s just a whiff of the misogyny run rampant here.
To its credit, the movie ends not with Sal’s embracement of Dean’s credo, but with the realization that Dean is not a symbol of liberation, but an all out sociopath.  At the same time, this realization leaves a bad taste in the way Sal is more than a bit of a dick in his last encounter with his erstwhile hero.
The movie as a whole is not helped by not being particularly well cast.   Garrett Hedlund was building a nice career for himself with strong appearances in such films as the highly recommended Control and the not so highly recommended, but not a complete failure, Brighton Rock.  But here, sad to say, he brings little to the roll of Sal.  Sam Riley as Dean brings about the same.  Neither seems to have the ability to do anything with the characters that’s not already there.  And since nothing is there, well, you know, Q.E.D. and all that.
The supporting cast is filled with tons of cameos, most successfully Elizabeth Moss as a frustrated wife who doesn’t know how to fit into this insane world she finds herself trapped in (true to the nature of the piece, the other women tell her that giving blowjobs will make her happy), and even more successfully, Viggo Mortensen, who steals the show in a few scenes as Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs.  It’s an amazing little snapshot, but part of his success might possibly be that his character is the only one able to cut through the bullshit and call Dean the sociopath he is (finally, you think to yourself).  Amy Adams makes an appearance as the pre-manslaughtered by way of William Tell second wife of Burroughs, but she has nothing to really do and proceeds not to do it.
Walter Salles and Jose Rivera were responsible for the much more successful Motorcycle Diaries, a movie with some similar ideas, at least in structure.  In that movie, likewise inspired by true events, a young Che Guevara and Alberto Granado also hit the road.  But the difference is astounding.  While Motorcycle Diaries is a moving and often powerful movie about two friends who come to realize the breadth of injustice in the world and that they must do something about it, On the Road is about two friends who learn, well, nothing really.  Well, I suppose one could say that Sal learns how to leave a friend sick and dying in the cold while he goes off to exploit him for literary purposes, but I’m not sure I’d brag about that.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS OSCAR 2012



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Continuing my analysis of the 2012 Oscar race, it’s time to look at the Best Supporting Actress category.  This category has one of the same issues as the Supporting Actor category: for every lead in a movie, there are numerous supporting roles.  At the same time, as usual, it does look like the group is getting narrowed down to six or seven.
This category does have two unique issues this year.  One is that, unlike the Supporting Actor category, career noms are rare in the female categories (there are exceptions, like Lauren Bacall, Sylvia Sydney and Ann Southern).  The nominees are on average much younger than their male counterparts.
The other issue I wrote about in my entry on Best Actress.  This is a weak year for women, so some actresses have to make a decision whether to push themselves in the lead or supporting.  In a normal year, actresses like Jessica Chastain and Helen Hunt, and even Helen Mirren maybe, might have gone for a supporting nom.  But this year, they may be feeling that they might be able to get a lead nom (Jessica Chastain has apparently decided to go for it).   Also, Helen Mirren definitely has a leading role and a good chance of being nominated.
Now the list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables.  This is actually a difficult prediction to make since the movie hasn’t opened yet, so it’s an unknown quantity.  But the buzz is so…buzzardly, that it seems like for now, this is what is going to happen.   She’s also a lead actress taking a supporting role (Robin Williams, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Helen Hunt for The Sessions.  Pretty much a sure thing.  It’s an excellent performance that is really being pushed.  And the possibility of John Hawkes getting a Best Actor nom will only help her.
Sally Field for Lincoln.  Also pretty much a sure thing.  Like Hunt, it’s hard to see how this won’t happen.  It’s a strong performance in a movie that is doing better than people predicted and may, now that Argo has peaked perhaps too soon, actually win best picture.
Amy Adams for The Master.  As I’ve said before, the movie went over my head and I don’t really understand people’s ravings about Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (I felt that it wasn’t their acting so much as their characters weren’t that well written).  But everybody seems to think this is a done deal.  But I suspect that the people behind the push for The Master may have to put some extra effort just to get the voters to see it since my impression was that it didn’t have that great a reception (except by critics, which may help turn the tide as the critics awards start dribbling in).
As for the other possibilities:
Maggie Smith for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  In many ways a surprise for me.  The movie kind of came and went.   But it’s Maggie Smith, who is one of the world’s finest actresses, and with the right push, they may be right.   There’s good buzz here.
Ann Dowd for Compliance.   I personally hope she makes it.  She’s great and it’s always fun when an unknown in a small movie makes the list (Melissa Leo in Frozen River and Richard Jenkins in the Visitor).  My friend says she may get the Jacki Weaver nomination (they are both character actors, older women, relatively unknown before their movies were released—Weaver got a nom for Animal Kingdom).   There is only one problem here and that is that Jacki Weaver may get the Jacki Weaver nomination.
Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.  A popular movie and Weaver is very good so she may be dragged along with the other nominees.  Poor Bradley Cooper if she does, because he will be the only major actor in the movie not to get a nom.
There are other names out there, but as of right now, no one that serious.
However, something should be said about Jessica Chastain.  For awhile, she was assumed to be running in the supporting category for Zero Dark Thirty, then she changed to lead.  One issue here is that the movie hasn’t been released, so it is an unknown quantity.  What most people were commenting on, though, is what part could she have in a film about the killing of Bin Laden that could be a lead?  This may be a bit chauvinistic an observation, but we are curious.  And it does seem, as far as I can tell, that the Golden Globes have put her in lead (and they make the determination before the voting commences).  So we shall see whether Chastain has talked herself out of a nom or not.

THE MASTER


I am quite convinced that Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of the new sorta controversial film The Master (sorta because in the end, the controversy surprisingly didn’t revolve around whether it was or wasn’t a story about Scientology, but whether it was any good or not) fully understands his movie and everything that happens in it.  Unfortunately, if I’m going to be completely honest here, I didn’t understand anything in it.

The basic plot is about the intersection of two men, broken down alcoholic Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix, giving it his all), and the leader of a cult in its infancy Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who isn’t quite as effective).  But it’s this intersection that is the main issue for me and the reason the movie never quite got off the ground: these two men who become absolutely fascinated with each other (to a homoerotic degree), but without any convincing reason for it.   It all begins when Quell makes his drunken stupor way onto Dodd’s boat and instead of being thrown into the brink, Dodd takes Quell under his wing.   Why?  I haven’t the faintest idea.  And why does Quell stay?  Well, other than free room and board and the ability to make his bootleg whiskey with the approval of Dodd, I also haven’t the faintest idea.  And without clear and understandable reasons, or at least convincing ones, I’m not sure that this story can ever really work.

Phoenix plays his role with a stooped and nearly hunchbacked set of shoulders and a distinct (or often, indistinct) mumble.  Like Anderson and the film, I’m not sure what Phoenix is trying to do here, but in many ways, I think Phoenix is at least doing it rather brilliantly.  Quell is sexually obsessed, seeing erotic possibilities in everything (from standard Rorschach tests to a somewhat bizarre scene at a private home where Dodd sings “I Will Go No More a Roving” where, from Quell’s perspective, all the women are naked—well, Amy Adams is sorta naked—she presents herself rather modestly, but that’s what three Oscar nominations and a strong agent can do for you).   What may be hard to believe is that women go ga-ga over him when there are much better looking men around.  If his character made sense, then his performance might be much more memorable.  But there are times when it seems he’s do the ultra-method approach to cover up that there is something lacking on the page.

Hoffman has a different issue and here, for me, Anderson makes the same mistake he made in There Will be Blood when he cast Paul Dano as an up and coming preacher of national repute.  It was impossible for me to believe that thin-voiced, scrawny Dano could ever become a Billy Sunday and I still claim that only people who have never seen a preacher at a revival service could think so.  In the same way, Dodd is supposed to be the leader of a cult about to go big.  But Hoffman, who is one of our finest character actors (a modern day Charles Laughton in many ways), shows almost no charisma and gives no indication as to why his character would be able to attract anyone to his beliefs.

The rest of the cast get the job done.  Amy Adams has moments here and there, but like the rest of the actors, she seems a bit lost as to what is driving her character.  In the end, the best performance is probably given by Christopher Evan Welch as a doubter who questions Dodd at a party scene—but in his defense, he has the best written part.

Even the cult that Dodd’s creating doesn’t feel all that impressive or seems that well thought out.  The most interesting aspect of it is a series of questions Dodd asks Quell that forces Quell to confront something about himself that is unpleasant (this is the only scene that indicates that Dodd might be more than the man behind the curtain).  The least interesting aspect of the cult seems based on a basic past life regression belief (certainly an effective approach to attracting believers, since many cults have been built around reincarnation, but not particularly original or exciting).  The most puzzling aspect is a series of strange exercises that Quell is put through in order to help him break away from whatever it is that is holding him back—but since these exercises make no sense and seem arbitrary (which may be the point, but I don’t really know, which is the main issue I have with the movie), they don’t really connect (and go on forever—the food is terrible, but such large servings punch line).

The strongest parts of the film are the technical aspects.  It’s beautifully shot, the cinematographer (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) capturing a stark beauty of the post war world.  The sets (production design by David Crank and Jack Fisk and set decoration by Amy Wells) give a haunting period feel and make us regret that so much of this architecture is being lost.  But perhaps most impressive are the costumes by Mark Bridges that make full use of what is perhaps the strongest line of design in American history for both men and women (and these are perhaps some of the best tailored outfits I’ve seen in a movie for some time).

I admire Anderson and have loved such films as Hard Eight, Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love (though only half of There Will Be Blood).  He is one of our finest filmmakers.  But in the end, for me, The Master was basically Elmer Gantry but without Elmer Gantry or Sister Sharon Falconer, perhaps not the best approach.

P.S.  For those trivia lovers out there, that’s Patty McCormack, the bad seed from The Bad Seed, as Mildred Drummond.

A WOMAN’S PLACE: Reviews of A Woman in Berlin and Julie & Julia


A Woman in Berlin is hardly what the previews prepare one for. The coming attractions suggest a hard hitting expose, ripped from the headlines type movie about a sordid bit of WWII history, a story that has been more or less ignored in histories of the time: the rapacious use of women when the Russians marched into Berlin at the end of the war. It’s not that it’s not about that, but in reality, this awful situation is really more the backbone of the story rather than the gist of it. For when all is said and done, this is really an old fashioned 1930’s star crossed romance. I may get in trouble for saying something as outrageously inhumane as this (of course, no one really reads this blog, so who’s going to know), but it’s the type of movie that once upon a time would have starred Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich with Adolphe Menjou, at his oily best, as the man she gives herself to in order to survive; her husband would have been played by an nonthreatening leading man like Herbert Marshall. It’s one of these new movies (like Blackbook and Flame and Citron) which is suppose to be a revisionist look at the morality of WWII where we are asked to reconsider the idea of bad guys and good guys. This is a perfectly acceptable idea, but the revisionism is a bit hunt and peck in this movie as written by the director Max Farberbock and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann. Though a couple of atrocities committed against the Russians are mentioned in passing, one would never know that six million Jews died at the hands of the German (one wants to muddy the waters, but not muddy them too much it seems). In spite of all this, there is much worth seeing here. The subject matter is important and the leading lady is German actress of the moment, Nina (Yella, Jericho) Hoss. And the fate of the star crossed lovers at the heart of it does leave one with a tear in the eye.

Julie & Julia is that movie about Julia Child and another real person that isn’t as famous. I could repeat the usual analysis of it in which people point out the story line with Julia Child (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep; poor girl, she actually has to go to the Oscars again) is great, but the part with Amy Adams, a good actress stuck with a dull, uninteresting character, isn’t so much so (it’s even hard to understand, based on the excerpts read aloud in the movie, why anybody even read her blog). Instead I’ll focus on an odd through line that I found somewhat disturbing. For a movie that has two women as central characters, the movie as a whole doesn’t have much positive to say about women as a whole. In the screenplay by director Nora Ephron, there are two kinds of women. There are the friends of Julie, high powered businesswomen played at the height of soullessness in their best Faye Dunaway/Diane Christiansen manner by an assortment of actors. They’re the bane of Julie’s existence and ridiculed mercilessly by Ephron. The other kind of women, the ones that Ephron seems to approve of, are nonthreatening, never even considering doing a man’s job. For Julia, it’s to take a cooking class without the goal of becoming of chef and then writing a cook book; for Julie, it’s writing a blog about cooking and then writing books. Nice, safe womanly things to do (even in Julia’s world, the male chefs are accepting and encouraging, it’s the female who runs the cooking school herself who is the gorgon). Though on the outside this movie would seem to be an antidote to the misogynistic turn of romantic comedies like The Proposal and The Ugly Truth, once the surface is scraped away, it’s not really that much different.

Reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard


Sunshine Cleaning is a movie about estranged sisters who bond after starting a business cleaning up crime scenes. It’s one of those formulaic films that have been the basis of American movies since the dawn of silents: someone goes on a three act journey and has a character arc change by the end. As such, the movie is obvious and takes no real chances. At the same time, the script is intelligent and well written (by Megan Holley) with some moving moments and it’s doubtful the audience will be disappointed. It also has some fine acting, especially by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the sisters and a fine supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins, Jr. In the end, it doesn’t quite work as well as it should because the gimmick, the cleaning service, actually overshadows and distracts from the hero’s journey rather than really informs it. The sisters bond more in spite of it all rather than because of it. And there’s one scene, where Amy Adams attends a baby shower, that doesn’t have a strong enough pay off and falls flat. It probably doesn’t help that she has a big speech about what she’s gotten out of cleaning up crime scenes when in reality it’s Blunt who is the one who has come to realize what Adams has supposedly, but not really, learned here.

The Great Buck Howard also has Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn (though this time Zahn is playing the typical Steve Zahn role, complete with unflattering mullet). Like Sunshine Cleaners, it’s also formulaic as well as entertaining and intelligently written (this time by Sean McGinly, who also directed). In it, a man played by Colin Hanks, leaves law school in a huff and against the wishes and knowledge of his authoritarian father (play by Hanks’ real life father, Tom Hanks, who probably isn’t as authoritarian as his character or Colin would probably have never entered show business). In the end, …Buck Howard works better than Sunshine Cleaning because the gimmick here, an over the top character based on the real life over the top mentalist Kreskin, is more central to Hanks’ character arc and provides an ending that is wittier and cleverer than Sunshine Cleaning’s. It’s also buoyed by a delicious performance by John Malkovich as Howard and an equally delicious performance by Tom Hanks playing an unsympathetic character, something he’s actually very good at and the kind of role he hasn’t really played since perhaps That Thing You Do. It’s nice to know that if the public grows tired of Hanks being cast because he’s instantly likeable, he can always take a page from Alan Alda’s page book and revive his career by playing assholes.