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.

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.

OSCARS 2012: BEST ACTOR ADDENDUM



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I now have an addendum to my previous entry on the race for Best Actor.   As of right now, the top five will be: Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) to win; Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and John Hawkes (Sessions) as Lewis’s only competition; Richard Gere (Arbitrage: career nomination); and Denzel Washington (Flight—getting incredible buzz).  
At this point, because of the Oscar voting time table now, an actor is really going to have to blow away the voters in order to get a nom; the more days go by without a movie opening that has an actor in it that is on the additional possibilities list, the less likely they will be nominated.  The only other actor with potential now, I think, is Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables, but I suspect he’s not going to make it.  He may be great in the movie, but the movie will open too late and just not excite the voters enough (and he’s too young for a career nom). 
Others that are possible are Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) and Billy Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson), who have the advantage of playing real people, but the voters already have Lewis and Hawkes for that. There’s also Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), but the more I see the previews, the less substantial the performance and part feels when it comes to the Academy and when it is held up against the other possibilities (at the same time, it’s being distributed by the Weinstein Company and never count out a Weinstein actor—though it may be Jennifer Lawrence who benefits from that association more than Cooper).   
Of course, what could happen is that once again, Gere doesn’t get his career nom and someone else gets in; his promoters had really better get to work.

ANALYSIS OF THE 2012 BEST ACTOR OSCAR RACE


For my next Oscar entry, I will now turn to the Best Actor race.   There is an irony here.  This is stacking up to be a weak year for movies and for nominations in all categories.  At the same time, the Best Actor race is quickly becoming not just crowded, but overcrowded. 
Of course, this always happens.  No matter what else, Hollywood and movies are so male oriented that no matter how weak a year it is in movies, the men always come out ahead.  As Spencer Tracy said when he was asked whether he should get top billing over his female co-star, This isn’t the Titanic (though there are some in the industry who are suggesting we might be reaching suck a critical stage—but that’s a different story).  At the same time, this weakness will probably have some effect even on this category and that is on who will win.
DANIEL DAY LEWIS (Lincoln):  At this point, there seems to be only one sure thing (the bet your grandmother’s farm on it, etc.) and that is Daniel Day Lewis will be doing a threepeat by winning the Oscar for Lincoln.   Normally, getting a third Oscar period, especially in this short a period of time, is almost impossible.  But as was mentioned, this is a weak year for nominations.  This means there is a lot of competition to be nominated, but not to win.  In addition, it’s what’s called a gimmick nomination—Lewis is playing a real person (ole honest Abe) and it’s a big budget film directed by Steven Spielberg.   Nuff said.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX (The Master):  Lewis’s only real competition and as the days near the voting deadline, we’ll see if the forward momentum leaves Lewis (or Lewis peaks too soon) and it goes to Phoenix.  When it comes to The Master, the critics love it, but the regular people (who vote for the Oscars) don’t seem to so much.  But Phoenix’s performance is about the only thing anyone agrees on, so he should easily receive a nom. 
RICHARD GERE (Arbitrage): Almost a sure thing.  The industry has been wanting to give Gere a nomination for some time (especially starting with Chicago).  He’s not a great actor, but he’s now been around a long time, paid his dues, and gives solid performances in solid movies.  He also has never rested on his looks, but has continually picked roles that stretch him (or try to stretch him—when it comes down to it, he’s not Gumby, damn it).  Gere  is the sort of actor that Hollywood respects, but can almost never give an Oscar to, but they do look to try to give him a nomination at some point so they get it over with so they never have to worry about it again.  For references, this is like John Wayne—who did go on to win one, so you never know; Gene Kelly; Dennis Hopper, etc.   It’s what is called a career award or nomination in industry parlance.
Special note: there generally aren’t any women that come to mind that fit this sort of nomination—women rarely get career Oscars or career noms.  Their nominations almost invariably come from an appreciation of their performance (make whatever social comment you want here). 
That’s as far as I can go right now.  The rest are still unknown quantities.  Jean Louis Trintignant was considered a shoe in for Michael Hanake’s Amour, but he now may get lost in the last minute shuffle.   The others being considered are getting good buzz, but are to some degree still unknown quantities or it’s still unclear how people are responding to the performance.  This includes:  John Hawkes (The Sessions—very good buzz); Denzel Washington (Flight—getting really good buzz and Washington doesn’t do badly come Oscar time); Hugh Jackman (after years of whining at not being cast in a musical, he finally has been, but I never predict when it comes to movie musicals until they open—movie musicals are too likely to crash and burn); Bradley Cooper (The Silver Linings Playbook—unknown quantity, though the previews look a little too formulaic and sentimental for my tastes); Anthony Hopkins (unknown quantity and he doesn’t particularly look like Hitchcock); Bill Murray (Hyde Park on the Hudson—it didn’t work when he went tres serious in The Razor’s Edge, but maybe second time’s the charm). 
That’s it right now, but like in the presidential elections, polls change daily, so keep checking back in.