Nebraska

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In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.

This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.

As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.

Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.

The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.

If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray

The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.

Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.

It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of  clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.

Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.

Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.

Remember the “May 11, 1980″ sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley

Inside Llewyn Davis

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I like movies whose plots meander. I like movies whose plots are non-existent, films that are more experimental in their narrative approach. But what’s most frustrating is when a movie loses sight of its thematic purpose, one that floats along, teasing the audience with suggestions of a bigger picture without delivering anything as bold and definitive. Inside Llewyn Davis is that kind of movie.

That sense of floating defines the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961. He was once part of a folk duo, but his partner committed suicide some time in the past and Davis is still bitter and aggrieved over it. He scrapes by on his share of the door on nights when he plays gigs at local coffee shops. Otherwise, he slums along on the kindness of others, crashing on their couches night after night.

One such friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s got sad eyes, a perma-frown and who upturns Llewyn’s world when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. Much of the time, Jean berates and belittles Llewyn, says he’s a loser, a good-for-nothing. She says she wants an abortion. So it’s up to Llewyn to scrape together the money for it. Underneath her critical nature, though, we sense that Jean really cares for him, but his lack of gusto and direction frustrates her, breaks her heart; her insults and passive-aggressive interactions with him are Jean’s ways of denying her deeper feelings.

When Jean’s current boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), a chipper, go-getting folk musician on the brink of big success, enlists Llewyn in a song session, the latter finds the way to raise the money that Jean needs. This session is the film’s bright spot, a change from the doldrums that characterize the rest of the story, as Jim leads Llewen and backup singer Al (Stark Sands, who’s brilliant) in a rendition of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an inspired and hilarious riff on the Kennedy-inspired folk songs from that era. This is the Coens, collaborating with their brilliant music producer T. Bone Burnett, working in peak absurdist form.

It’s following this session, when Illewyn takes the cash he earned to a doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion that Llewyn Davis registers one of its more emotionally resonant heartbreaks: The doctor tells him that Jean’s abortion will be free because a previous girlfriend, also pregnant by Llewyn, decided to keep her child and, unbeknownst to Illewyn, moved back to Akron. The emptiness and worthlessness Illewn feels at this moment haunts the rest of the film as he strikes out for Chicago to seek out a talent manager (F. Murray Abraham) and land himself a shot at success.

That trip to Chicago is the film’s centerpiece as Llewyn hits the road alongside the laconic, slightly menacing Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) behind the wheel and, slumped in the back seat, Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted jazz musician. When he’s not in a drugged stupor, Roland will chew your ear off with his rambling stories of his jazz exploits as Goodman goes on to steal the movie with his towering, grotesque portrayal. Hedlund, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Peter Stormare’s mute killer in Fargo (which I prefer to this rehash).

Indeed, much of this sequence seems lifted from earlier, more successful Coens brothers efforts. The oppressive gloom that hangs over the rest-stop diner evokes the interiors of that decrepit hotel in Barton Fink. Goodman’s over-the-top presence is itself a sight gag–one he completes with the use of canes for both his hands–in the vein of the offbeat fringe characters in the Coens’ best-known comedies. The Coens also trundle out the POV shots of the passing highway, illuminated by headlights, seen to more pressing narrative effect in Fargo. With the deep, menacing thuds on the soundtrack, the road itself becomes a sinister character here. But to what end?

We ask that question because we never get a clear enough picture of what Llewyn Davis is trying to say. The film has a frustrating, neither-here-nor-there quality. A portrait of an artist on the brink of realizing his own failure, a talent born ahead of this time and thus unappreciated, a man whose bottomed-out sense of self-worth (owing perhaps to a miserable relationship with this father) renders him incapable of success whether in his career or his relationships: Llewyn Davis seems to grasp at all of these ideas. What we know for sure is that Llewyn has dwindling faith in himself and his abilities, he’s principled to a fault, and, if things don’t turn around for him, he’s doomed to waste his life away. But that’s only the set-up to a story that the Coens decide not to see through.

Instead, we get beautiful images of a grey and unforgiving America and an ensemble of topnotch performances–Isaac, in particular, is completely convincing as a talented but discouraged man (his musical performances feel natural and lived-in) trying his best not to gamble away his ideals to the commercial machine.

There is also the matter of a recurring character of an orange tabby cat throughout the film, a pet belonging to Llewyn’s uptown friends, whom he accidentally lets out and must take care of. I haven’t spoken of it because I believe it’s part of the grand Coens tradition of red (orange, in this case) herrings. Its purpose is beyond me.

We scramble for meanings when a given film can’t decide what it wants to say. The Coens’ largely brilliant filmography (including their recent masterpiece A Serious Man) have earned them considerable mileage with fans, so, to some extent, Llewyn Davis coasts along on our good will. But as admirable and well-acted as Llewyn Davis is, it’s simply too airy and insubstantial a treatment of personal failure to make a lasting impression.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Robin Bartlett, Jeanine Serralles

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Peter Jackson continues to his triple-feature cash-grab with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of his epic endeavor to split up one novel into three gargantuan features. Jackson’s approach interweaves elements from Tolkien’s ancillary writings and journals into the central narrative of The Hobbit and the results are, at times, ambitious and interesting and, at others, redundant, padding on more story than this trilogy needed.

Martin Freeman was the best thing about the first in the series, An Unexpected Journey. His seriocomic screen personality was the perfect fit for the role of the uptight, provincial, ultimately heroic Bilbo Baggins. But, apart from the final act, Freeman is largely relegated to the background in Desolation of Smaug, which concerns itself more with how the dwarves win the alliance of the elves (something not in the book) as the latter begin to suspect that the orcs’ hell-bent pursuit of the dwarves to keep their leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) from reclaiming his crown could, in fact, presage more ominous troubles involving the dreaded Sauron. So, Jackson sneaks in Orlando Bloom, resuming his role as Legolas, to please fans pining for more reminders of his original series along with Evangeline Lilly as the pretty elfin warrior Tauriel who (in another deviation from Tolkien) bats her eyelashes at the ruggedly handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).

The exploits of the elves and dwarves, with Bilbo in tow, are woven together with the story thread of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) journeying toward a confrontation with the orc chieftain at their mountain stronghold and his realization that Middle Earth’s current troubles are only a prelude to more epic confrontations to come. The Gandalf sequences are among Smaug’s strongest and feature something that Jackson excels at: Depicting physical menace, whether in the form of a hulking orc (the orc leader is really pretty terrifying in these Hobbit films), the orcs’ monstrous dog-like consorts or in the phantasm of a mocking Sauron. These figures, placed in the nightmarish setting of an evil and decayed fortress, combine to create a visually striking and an emotionally powerful experience.

Luckily, Jackson also scores in many other action sequences, principally in the lengthy confrontation between Bilbo and the much-hyped dragon, Smaug. The first half of it, anyway, when Jackson allows his effects designers to showcase the exquisite creation that is Smaug–richly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch–meticulously rendered from snout to tail. A glimpse of the Smaug is (almost) worth the price of admission.

The second half of this sequence, however, features all that’s wrong with Jackson’s handling of action; the entire sequence falls apart as the perils and pacing ramp up and any sense of spatial coherence is utterly lost. Once things get fiery and noisy and chaotic between Bilbo and the dwarves and Smaug, Jackson does whatever he feels like, spatially, for the sake of action-scene convenience (look to the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring for similar liberties taken, though why carp when that movie was so masterful in other ways?)..

It’s what drives me nuts, time and again, about these movies: the relative nature of space. The needs of the chase precede the logic of architecture, so the halls, the forge, the staircases are as spacious and as fluid as Jackson needs them to be, appearing arbitrarily as the scene hurtles onward. The effect is childishly silly, especially in the moment when Smaug finds himself facing a monumental statue of a dwarf-king. It appears out of nowhere–without explanation! How’d it get there? Who built it? When? Why?). As we’re wondering, the sequence disintegrates as the most lubricous climax is unleased.

Jackson fares better with the gorgeous evocation of Lake Town, a trading village near the dwarves’ erstwhile kingdom at the foot of The Lonely Mountain. It’s also where the best performance in Smaug can be found–from Stephen Fry playing Lake Town’s mayor, who’s deliciously pompous and corruptible. Though a caricature, Fry’s mayor gives Smaug a relatable human dimension.

It’s natural to be repelled by Jackson’s commercial- and franchise-minded motives, and there’s much about The Desolation of Smaug that falls apart partly because of the director’s complete inability to stage spatially disciplined action. But, ultimately, Jackson delivers escapist entertainment that–like its Hobbit predecessor–functions as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food as we find ourselves in settings and among characters we’ve come to love. And for fans of Tolkien and of Jackson’s big-screen adaptations (like me), that familiarity is often enough.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace

American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

Her

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It’s tempting to dismiss this mopey techno-romance as just another spin through the solipsistic post-hipster universe of Spike Jonze, but Her is just too prescient about how humanity’s dependence on technology will escalate to include our total emotional well-being, too well-acted and, finally, too wise and gentle in its prescription for the survival of human interrelationships for any trash talk. While its limited characters can make Her a long slog, Jonze’s observations about the sad, misguided intersection of humanity and technology won me over.

In near-future Los Angeles–gorgeously rendered by designer K.K. Barrett and art director Austin Gorg–the superb Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and soulful Theodore Twombly, one year removed from a painful split from his emotionally fragile ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara, who’s become a specialist in playing disturbed and/or volatile women). He’s kind of a proxy letter-writer working for an Internet company specializing in crafting customized letters commissioned by its clients to any variety of recipients (relatives, friends, the parents of fallen soldiers, etc.).

In his ability to exude empathy through these letters, Twombly is not unlike another lost urban soul–Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card writer in (500) Days of Summer (another self-consciously quirky romance set in L.A.!). Whereas Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the moon-eyed Zooey Deschanel, Twombly meets his ideal woman in Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system played by Scarlett Johannson. She’s a Manic Pixie Virtual Girl.

In fact, the whole world is awash in these revolutionary operating systems; people buy them up and, before long, there’s an entirely new economy and sub-culture created from millions of these newly formed hybrid relationships. After the iPhone and Siri, the advent of a sentient OS companion seems like the logical end point in our desire to synchronize consumer technology with our every human whim and need. And in a culture of dysfunctional relationships, serial self-absorption and a spiraling increase in our collective narcissism, it’s only natural humans would turn to the relatively nonjudgmental safety of a “personal” relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, Her’s Los Angeles is an unending forest of skyscrapers and sleek surfaces–the fusion of Hong Kong and present-day L.A.–everything bespeaking a cool nonchalance. The city isn’t foreboding or unwelcoming–it’s simply disinterested.  As social satire, this is wickedly on-point and a much-needed commentary on where we are today.

The society that Jonze depicts isn’t so much bleak or alienating as it is fraught with the terror of failure and abandonment; disconnection and loneliness, therefore, are our default emotional settings. Still, it’s not Orwellian: Theodore enjoys a close friendship with his college friend/neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who’s married to Charles (Matt Letscher), an absolute drip and control freak. And, at work, the cheery receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is a reliably sunny presence in Theodore’s life.

There’s misery here, for sure, but you look around, and you don’t see much to stand on: The characters we meet are all white, middle class, well-to-do, educated first-world citizens who’ve never–from what we know–suffered much or sacrificed. They’re over-the-hill hipsters who presumably moved out of their Silverlake bungalows and into gorgeous, ultra-modern downtown lofts when they hit their 30s and are still crying about how they can’t have a relationship. You want to scream, “Get the fuck over it!” But then we wouldn’t have this film and the rewarding ruminations that follow.

Those ruminations begin after Samantha enters Theodore’s life, and, quickly, he falls in love with her. Hyper intelligent and programmed to “evolve,” Samantha falls in love right back. Soon, Theodore is in the midst of a relationship more fulfilling than any he’s ever had with a human. This is when Her gets interesting as Jonze takes the tropes of the star-crossed romance and posits them into his novel framework. The results are fascinating as Samantha learns to feel everything from sexual ecstasy to embarrassment and shame, especially when the matter of her not having a body comes up. When Theodore, smarting from Catherine’s demeaning his relationship with an OS, lashes out passive-aggressively at Samantha, you can’t help but feel her pain, the sting of her wounded self-esteem. Then, you realize, you’re feeling deep sympathy for a computer. One moment stands out: When a little girl, speaking into the iPhone-like device where Samantha’s “lives,” asks why she lives inside a computer, she answers sweetly, “I have no choice.” I have no choice: An existentialist’s worst nightmare. And that is when, to me, she became tragic and beautiful, and when I fell in love with her myself. Moments like that are the film’s miracle.

But even after the two make up, Jonze isn’t finished as he enters the territory of distrust, jealousy and heartbreak that marks the full maturation of a relationship that’s taken its bruises … and the writer-director keeps on going, beyond considerations of mere romance and into the meaning of life and death itself. This is American filmmaking venturing out to its very edge, and Jonze manages to balance himself beautifully. He does it the way of all great storytellers: By journeying from the anxiety of the ego–which occupies everyone in this film from the first scene–to deep into the soul where Theodore finds self-realization in moments captured with lyrical beauty and emotional honesty. Her does American cinema proud.  

Grade: B+

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

All Is Lost

all is lost_pic

All is lost and nothing gained in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s one-man, high-seas survival saga in which Robert Redford plays the lone occupant of a beleaguered yacht crippled in the Indian Ocean. Known in the credits only as Our Man, the traveler spends the movie’s 105-minute running time just trying to stay alive as, first, his yacht then the lifeboat to which he has to retreat fall apart. It sounds like a terrific existentialist adventure story and perhaps an inquiry into why we choose life over death, into our impulse to survive despite the universe conspiring against us. But the 31-page outline from which Chandor directed provides only the scaffolding for a more ambitious movie; the scant script, for what it is, gives the Cliffs Notes version of the deeper, more profound character study that never transpires on-screen.

To their credit, Chandor and his cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini maintain steady control of what we see. There is an admirable barebones quality to the film’s aesthetic: Mostly, we watch Our Man go about repairing his yacht after it suffers a collision with an abandoned shipping container, detail by detail, from sizing up the situation and pumping out the seawater to patching the hole in the side of his yacht and making fixes to the mast. We relish these details purely out of the novelty of watching a yachtsman tending to his vessel.

But Our Man’s lot turns for the worse–and doesn’t stop turning in that direction for the duration of the movie–after a storm destroys the yacht and nearly kills him. The storm sequence is harrowing, visually thrilling at times, and I really found myself pulling for Our Man out of a simple knee-jerk sense of sympathy for a given story’s protagonist. The remainder of All Is Lost is spent in a deteriorating life raft as Our Man learns to navigate his way into the local trade routes and hailing down a passing container ship. Again, as a beat-by-beat examination of details, this is sturdy, watchable filmmaking.

The problems, though, begin with Chandor and Redford’s scant–there’s that word again–treatment of their lone character. It’s not that we know few circumstantial details about him–his family, where he’s from, why he left civilization–these details don’t matter much in comparison to what drives his heart and soul, his inner life. Redford is an eminent screen figure so I found myself giving him a lot of slack as I found myself straining to understand his character, to read (possibly too much) into every little morsel of information for signals of that inner life: What he ate, drank, how he dressed, how he slept, and to decipher every facial expression for something, anything. A detail I greatly enjoyed was how he shaves (calmly? spitefully?) while a possibly deadly storm brews outside–I found that bit fascinating–but, beyond that, there’s nowhere near the exploration of his character, which needed to be as generous as the ocean surrounding him.

I’m not saying we needed more dialogue or exposition. I mean that Chandor and Redford could’ve been craftier and more tantalizing in what they revealed of Our Man. Reveal, like the layers of that proverbial onion, what his heartbreaks have been, what his soul pines for through the details revealed when he thinks you’re not watching: The books he reads, letters, photos, visible tattoos, anything that could offer us a way in and a reason why this man has chosen exile over suicide. As is, Our Man is a blank: nearly expressionless (except for one awkward, too-little-too-late outburst), and, as viewers, we struggle to care much whether he lives or dies.

Chandor’s previous credit was the interesting but very prosaic drama about the Wall Street financial scandal, Margin Call. It was a talky, visually flat affair. All Is Lost, meanwhile, required radically new skill sets: a wholly different artistic temperament and a fluency with the medium that ultimately Chandor doesn’t have. This story needed a filmmaker with a commanding talent at depicting physical struggle–Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway is the far better option if you want to see an against-the-elements survival drama. Chandor doesn’t have the stature and isn’t up to finding ways to keep us rooted to a single character in the midst of a featureless environment, and neither he nor Redford fully take on the challenge of bringing Our Man to life.

Where I feel All Is Lost lost me was the instant the camera left Redford’s side and Chandor opted for recurring underwater shots of marine life swimming past the underside of the raft. It’s a very generic kind of image, first made famous in the shark’s-eye shots from Jaws. But in Jaws, these shots identified with a character’s point of view, namely, the shark’s. But in All Is Lost, they’re just something to vary up the coverage and otherwise serve no purpose. We already know there’s danger and uncertainty surrounding Our Man; we don’t need the underwater shots of menacing fish to underscore it. It’s instances like this–when great material meets an average approach to it–that are the real bummers at the movies.

Grade: C+

Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford