HER



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

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.

HITCHCOCK


Hitchcock the movie is something one might describe as having an identity crisis (which might be appropriate considering the subject matter).  It’s a few parts mid-life crisis; a few parts artist at a cross roads; a few parts sexual obsession; a few parts middle aged love story; a few parts homage.  In the end I’m not sure whether it holds together or whether everyone is so brilliant at their jobs, that they cover up the fact that it doesn’t really hold together.  I strongly suspect the latter, but I didn’t really care.  I was too thoroughly entertained to really worry about it.  Whatever else it is, Hitchcock is a ton of fun and I’m not talking about Sir Alfred himself.

The basic storyline revolves around the great (in size and stature) director desperate to do something fresh and challenging after the success of the very commercial and lightweight North by Northwest.  So, naturally, when his eyes land on a novel that everyone thinks is pure trash, what can he do but read it.  And it has all the elements he is looking for: serial murders, grave robbing, incest, Oedipus complex, transvestitism, and most important of all…the chance to be the first director to show a toilet in an American film.  And thus Psycho was born.

The title role is played by Anthony Hopkins.  Except for the girth, he really doesn’t particularly look like the man himself.  This was apparently a conscious decision.  When he was put in the makeup, the less like Hitchcock he seemed (that’s one of the odd things about art—the more realistic it is, the less realistic it is).  But when Hopkins opens his mouth and that stentorian voice carefully enunciates his lines in lugubrious wave after lugubrious wave, all you can see is Hitch.

Hopkins is supported by Queen Elizabeth II as Alma Reville (or Helen Mirren as she is more commonly known).  The rest of the case is basically name that impersonation with the more memorable being James D’Arcy as a slightly more than effeminate Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson as a perky, hey, look at me, I’m Janet Leigh.  Perhaps most surprising is Jessical Biel doing a very credible job as Vera Miles.  Meanwhile, Toni Collette wears glasses and Kurtwood Smith reprises his role from That 70’s Show by playing the head of the ratings board.

The extremely witty script is by John J. McLaughlin.  The extremely witty direction is by Sacha Gervasi (a bit far from Anvil: The Story of Anvil, perhaps—or perhaps not).  

BOYS AND THEIR TOYS: Reviews of Iron Man 2 and Toy Story 3


After leaving Iron Man 2, I think my friend Jim summed it up best when he said that you know you’re in trouble when the only scene in an Iron Man film (a movie filled, well, overwhelmed really, with big technical set pieces), the only one that really makes the audience sit up and take real notice, is a relatively small and contained fight scene in a hallway headed by Scarlet Johansson, a set up for her role in upcoming Nick Fury films. She changes her hair (into strands that look like whips, making her into a beautiful Medusa), puts on a body tight uniform and gets to quiet work taking out an army of men with more ease and style than even Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel did in The Avengers television show. No mean feat as fans of that series can tell you. It’s not that Iron Man 2 is without any pleasures. Robert Downey, Jr. is back and he’s still fun and his Nick and Nora Charles type banter with his assistant Gwyneth Paltrow still has some wit to it. But the biggest plus to this Marvel comic book brought to celluloid life is the villain, the snarling, sociopathic meany Ivan Vanko inhabited with tattooed viciousness by Mickey Rourke. Playing a Russian scientist who believes Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter ego) did his father a foul turn, Rourke marches down a race track in all his steroid glory throwing power driven whips that can slice metal in half with a flick of the wrist. Beyond this, though, there isn’t much to see. There is a rather frightening set piece where Stark’s arch nemesis Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) has stolen the Iron Man technology and has Iron Man like robots appear on stage to the theme songs of the four branches of the military, showing how easily fascism can worm its way inside the military industrial complex. But it’s also a movie where the robots start shooting up everything in sight and just never manage to hit a person (kind of makes you wonder why Hammer even bothered if they were such poor shots). The casting doesn’t always help. Though Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle (who took over for Terence Howard from the first movie in the role of Rhodey) are good actors, they never seem like they really belong. And the script is a bit clunky. Justin Theroux is the only one credited as screenwriter, but it feels a bit like it was written by committee. There’s a set piece where Cheadle dresses in an Iron Man suit and he and Downey, Jr., have it out at Stark’s palatial mansion for no apparent reason but to see a lot of things blow up and to set up a plot turn later on. The funniest moment probably has to be when Clark Gregg as Coulson (one of Nick Fury’s agents) tells Stark not to leave the premises or suffer dire consequences and they’ll be watching; Stark leaves the premises, comes back, and Coulson (who for some reason wasn’t watching), slaps him on the wrist like an ineffectual nun and says not to do it again (wow, when they mean dire, they mean dire). That’s probably how the studio is going to treat the next installment of the franchise.
I also went to Toy Story 3 with my friend Jim and Jim’s initial reaction was surprise at how dark it was. Yeah, it is, at least darker than the other two. I don’t know if that’s why I liked it the best of the three, but my friends probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it (that there was only one Randy Neuman song certainly had to help). There does seem to be something here that is deeper, more richly emotional, and therefore, inevitably much darker than in the other two. Toy Story 3 begins when Andy, who when he was a child spoke as a child and played as a child, but now that he’s leaving for college, puts away childish things, planning to assign Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, the Potato Heads, etc. to the attic while taking Woody with him (after all, would you want to wake up every morning in college without your Woody with you). Through a series of misunderstandings, the toys end up at a daycare run like a prison from one of those chain gang movies in the 1960’s (I believe there is a specific reference to Cool Hand Luke). Not only must the toys escape their day care penitentiary, they must also escape the prison of disbelief—that Andy really wanted to get rid of them and never see them again. What would a Toy Story movie be without new toy characters and this one comes with a metrosexual Ken doll who likes to try on clothes, doesn’t understand why no one else does, and finds his perfect mate in Barbie. There’s also a psychotic teddy bear (hard to believe, huh?); a monstrous baby doll that becomes more sympathetically pathetic as the story continues; and perhaps most delightful of all, a Buzz Lightyear that gets stuck on Spanish mode and becomes a Latin lover straight out of a Ricardo Montalban film. The story itself (screenplay by Michael Little Miss Sunshine Arndt) is perhaps the most exciting of the three (one of the odd things is that nobody I know can even remember the plot of the second film) and it has one of these plots that paints everyone into an impossible corner, only to be saved, of course, at the last minute. Jim thought I probably saw the rescue coming since I’m a writer and usually do, but this time I had no idea, possibly because I was too caught up in the story to even think about it. My friends hate it when I deconstruct popular entertainment, but I can’t help it (you should hear my take on Air Force One). So one of the reasons I liked Toy Story 3 is because of what it had to say about how important toys are to a child’s development in the way that it encourages imagination and teaches them to create. I know. I have a bad habit of taking the fun out of fun, but still, it works for me.