Romance

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

Before Midnight

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After watching Before Midnight, the third installment in the two-decade-long cinematic romance between the Parisian Celine and the American Jesse, I re-watched Before Sunset from 2004. I wanted to find connections between the two films, the two most recent in the series so that I could compare the preoccupations of the characters in Sunset and how they evolved over the nine ensuing years to become the characters in Midnight. Thematically, the films are seamless, and, all taken together, the three Richard Linklater films are really an outstanding example of how to bridge fully realized human beings across an entire trilogy. Linklater and his stars and co-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have mined so much from the core of their two characters, so many naked human truths, that Celine and Jesse now seem to exist in that boundary between fiction and reality. We see so much of ourselves in them that they may as well be real people.

Be warned: Before Midnight is no romance. It’s a horror movie. It is a bitter, mocking, cynical rebuke to the hopefulness of the previous films. That’s not a criticism; it’s a simple fact of the film as much as it is a simple fact of life. Do not look for hope here.

Celine and Jesse are now in their forties, the parents of twin daughters, and living a messy and difficult life in a big city (Paris), as so many parents do everywhere. The film takes place at a writers retreat on a Greek island where Jesse, Celine and their daughters have been invited. Linklater places us in the midst of the colony’s earthy and writerly residents. We eavesdrop on their conversations, most of them about marriage, relationships, sex and (the transience of) love, getting the gamut of opinions from the colony’s ensemble. Teen lovers express their youthful rejection of true love while the colony’s more aged souls have found peace with the idea of heartbreak and come to accept the idea that love means letting go. In the middle of that is Jesse and Celine, who find themselves at the brink of some cruel terrors and realities.

Celine is disenchanted with Jesse, as a lover and as a man. At one point, around a table with the others, she begins to mock Jesse’s vision of an ideal woman and slips into a “blonde bimbo” routine, cooing and pouting as she pretends to flirt with him. It’s embarrassing to watch, even more so as Jesse chooses to play along. It’s also embarrassing because, as eavesdroppers here, we never fully understand the dynamic within this small group. It feels unhinged, the friendships false or artificial. Linklater and company never adequately establish the relationships so the openness and cordiality at play here seem alien and unconvincing. Still, the confessional nakedness of these opening sections felt reminiscent of Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle–the film has that awkward yet generous European vibe about it–and I did find that refreshing in a contemporary American film.

“Naked” and “confessional” describes the film in its entirety as Celine and Jesse must decide how to proceed in life. Jesse feels a powerful guilt and parental pull toward his now-teenaged son (from his broken marriage) living in the States. He misses him, wants to be a steadier presence in his life. In fact, the most devastating scene in the entire film is its opening, when Jesse has to say goodbye to his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport as the latter has to return to the States after a summer in Europe. We see Jesse, the father, doing his best to be strong and convivial toward his son, but his tentative gestures–all he wants is to hug his son and never let go–and his look–the look of a heartbroken parent–tell the truth.

Later, as Celine and Jesse head off to a private overnight stay at a nearby resort, the film’s ugly and jaundiced truths bare themselves as Celine, sensing Jesse’s conflicted heart, reacts to seeing herself as either the villain, keeping Jesse from his son, or as the victim, who must forever compromise her youthful dreams in molding herself to be the obedient spouse. To be fair, her anger is understandable: She has carried the burden of bearing and raising their daughters, keeping house and cooking while maintaining her career as Jesse pursues his writing. Celine’s barbs are particularly vicious, demeaning Jesse’s manhood, intelligence, his sexual and literary prowess, among everything else. Jesse, for his part, is as cocky and full of himself as ever. But he still grounds this relationship, his optimism now tempered by a newfound realism. Regardless of their openness, the sense of imminent terror here is palpable, the imminent break, of two lives approaching the point of no return.

What Before Midnight offers in terms of verbal firepower, it lacks in subtext and undercurrents. Nowhere does it achieve the breathtaking power of that first scene. The effectiveness of that opening airport scene was all achieved in those undercurrents of heartbreak and loss, conveyed simply and silently. The temperature of Before Midnight soon becomes a rising, overheated trajectory of verbal jabs and accusations. Everything is literal, right on the surface, leaving nothing to be gleaned elsewhere.

Others might say,”Of course, it’s all on the surface. These are raw, immediate issues that need to be expressed between two people.” I say that’s totally legitimate; people have arguments like this all the time, everywhere, but it doesn’t make for great cinema. Before Midnight is a bold movie, but it never achieves poetry (minus that opening scene) because Linklater and his stars never vary the tone, their dramatic strategy; it’s all in-your-face and the whole thing is an much an act of emotional aggression toward the audience as it is toward its characters.

To be fair, this is the same strategy employed in the previous two films. But when I watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m not listening to the dialogue so much as watching the performances, trying to discern deeper secrets and foreshadowings, to discern the implications of what’s said. Before Midnight, on the other hand, is a difficult film to watch. We sense nothing in its depths. Maybe that’s the point, I have to wonder; maybe there’s nothing to be sensed below what is stated explicitly. Its depiction of an unraveling relationship, of harsh words and tough realities, heartbreak and what’s it like to stare into the unforgiving chasm that is the rest of one’s life make it an important and worthy film, though not a particularly lyrical one. I admire its honesty and wish this couple well.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed, Jennifer Prior, Walter Lassally, Athina Rachel Tsangari

Silver Linings Playbook

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You have to hand it to David O. Russell. Since his debut feature, Spanking the Monkey in 1994, he has steadily proven himself to be a worthy descendent of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. More than any other Hollywood filmmaker, Russell has demonstrated a facility with nutty situations, screwball energy, and eccentric characters, the kind of facility that recalls Sturges in his Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek heyday, the kind that approximates the manic farce of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot together with the acerbic wit and sentiment of The Apartment. Movies like Flirting with Disaster (my vote for Russell’s best movie), I Heart Huckabees, and his latest, Silver Linings Playbook all have the pace and hysterics to match Hollywood’s screwball tradition and no other filmmaker seems capable of sustaining a sense of sheer lunacy–that is, an edgy, barely contained craziness–over a feature-length movie without losing his audience. Yet, as entertainingly oddball as Playbook is, the movie derives much of its pleasure from its offbeat energy, soft-heartedness, and the roiling tensions that preoccupy its largely two-dimensional characters.

Insanity, or at least some degree of it, is all over this movie. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solatano, just released from a mental institution after a violent episode that’s scared off his wife. He moves back in with his parents, played by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, vows to clean up his act, and win back the affections of his estranged wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), who’s taken out a restraining order on him. Of course, Pat functions in a kind of manic delusional state, just as his father–as warm and genuine as he is in his love for Pat–is an obsessive-compulsive Eagles football fan whose life pivots on the outcomes of football Sundays. Because he can’t get to Nikki, Pat enlists the aid, however grudgingly, of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), one of her friends. Tiffany herself has more than her share of emotional issues; she’s struggling to put the grief and guilt over her husband’s death behind her. So she pours her energies into a dance competition and makes a deal with Pat: if he agrees to be her dance partner in the competition, she’ll cooperate in his attempts to win back his wife. Pat and Tiffany’s uneasy alliance warms to a mutually dependent friendship that, after some ups and downs, blossoms into, you guessed it, an old-time romance.

Five years ago, Mark Wahlberg–an actor who’s been featured in three of Russell’s movies–would have played Pat; the role of the off-kilter yet adorably sweet working-class misfit seems tailor-made for an earlier Wahlberg incarnation. Cooper gamely fills Wahlberg’s shoes here; his comic timing and intensity level matches that of his predecessor. And, as the volatile Tiffany, Lawrence is consistently watchable. De Niro and Weever nicely counterpoint each other with the latter serving as a kind of buffer for the neurotic excesses of the former. But, when all’s said and done, Silver Linings Playbook is as aggressively offbeat as it is aggressively by-the-numbers. This is a tried-and-true, paint-by-numbers rom-com whose adherence to convention is masked by Russell’s brand of anarchic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, so the story goes–what’s different this time around are the players and the twists in the path that lead us to the end. Russell doesn’t really offer a new take on family or interpersonal dynamics and we never feel that Pat, Tiffany, or anyone else here are particularly authentic human beings, just a collection of tics, oddities, and obsessions. But, for what it’s worth, Silver Linings Playbook is grounded in real heart–an embrace of such eternal virtues as true love, parent-child bonding, and self realization–and it delivers the kind of sharply timed laughs that Sturges and Wilder would’ve appreciated.

Grade: B-

Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Ker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles, Brea Bee

Trishna

For more than twenty years, Michael Winterbottom has kept up a restless pace, directing almost a movie a year. So he can’t be faulted for being lazy or blocked. And there’s always thoughtfulness, a sense of purpose at the core of everything he’s attempted. But, perhaps as a symptom of his assembly-line approach to his filmmaking, Winterbottom’s track record is, by and large, pretty mixed. For every In this World and A Mighty Heart, he’s churned out half-baked product like Code 469 Songs and his latest, TrishnaWinterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Read the full review

Monster

With her performance in “Monster,” Charlize Theron charges down the gates that have confined her to typecasting limbo and sets a new standard by which to measure her future work. In Patty Jenkins’ writing-directing debut, Theron plays Aileen Wuornos, the Florida prostitute who killed six men in the ’80s before she was caught and, in 2002, executed.

“Monster,” at heart, is not a slasher movie but a tortured love story between Wuornos and her teenage girlfriend, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Their relationship is a refuge from the despair in their separate lives: Wuornos’ lifelong degradation at the hands of men draws her to the affections of a female partner; Shelby, a lesbian, clings to Wuornos because she allows her the financial and sexual escape from the conservative stranglehold of her family.

The manipulative and desperate nature of their relationship is what kicks “Monster’s” narrative into gear. To ensure their cash flow, Selby cajoles the reluctant Wuornos into continuing to ply her trade. One night, in a fit of rage, Wuornos shoots the man who has just tortured and raped her. The trauma of this event takes her already dubious attitude to men into the realm of full-blown murderous hate.

Jenkins’ direction is assured throughout, but her opening scenes are the most powerful, depicting that sad, provincial America of trailer parks and roller rinks—that trashy, seedy outpost of frizzy hair and Journey ballads by which we are just as fascinated as depressed. As it goes, “Monster” gets increasingly bogged down in its more literal-minded melodrama, as Wuornos kills and steals, and the couple tries frantically to dodge the law. Jenkins’ ethereal early scenes are trampled over by hardworking but labored episodes of escalating tensions.

Between the two leads, Theron handily dominates. With the help of some weight gain and Tony G.’s masterful make-up effects, Theron’s transformation, down to her cocky strut and countrified twang, is startling. More than that is how confidently and naturally Theron humanizes a woman long-branded in the media as a monster. For her part, Ricci cannot reconcile Selby, the dreamy-eyed adolescent with Selby, the manipulative black widow, into a cohesive characterization. As a result, she stumbles along to Theron’s beat. Adding his salty, flint-eyed presence to the mix is Bruce Dern who graces the movie briefly as Thomas, Wuornos’ trusty father-figure.

“Monster” is a workhorse of a character study. Its plodding, sporadically effective script may not entice much, but it finds a haunting eloquence thanks to Theron’s lacerating, career-defining performance.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley

Intermission

Dizzily paced and structured, the Irish import “Intermission” charms with its “never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat” exuberance. Theater denizens, Mark O’Rowe and John Crowley, the movie’s writer and director respectively, juggle elements of romantic comedy and farcical crime caper with hardly a misstep or stumble. After a somewhat annoyingly “virtuosic” opening that comes staggering at us with a chopped-up, documentary-style jitteriness, “Intermission” finds a sure and brisk footing. Before long, you’re swept away in its pell-mell of interweaving narratives by a couple of crack storytellers who seem audaciously at ease in their newfound medium.

Dewy-eyed and pouty-lipped John (Cillian Murphy) calls it off with his girlfriend, Dierdre (Kelly Macdonald), and almost immediately regrets it. He finds that it’s too late to make amends, however, because Dierdre is already bedding down with Sam, a middle-aged and married bank manager in the thick of a raging mid-life crisis. Eager to mend her tattered self-esteem, Sam’s jilted wife, Noeleen (Dierdre O’Kane) sets her sights on Oscar (David Wilmot), John’s rangy, sex-starved pal. Noeleen’s unleashed libido, not to mention her pent-up rage at her delinquent husband, loosens Oscar’s goose but it also, comically and mid-coitally, beats the poor schlub to a pulp.

John and Noeleen aren’t the only ones stung by rejection. Ever since her last boyfriend shit on her, literally, Dierdre’s sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson), has let herself go and has the moustache to prove it. Sally’s bitterness has her hissing and snarling, but she’s got a tender soul which her widowed mother (Ger Ryan) tries patiently to nurse back to health.

Following the old rule that if you can’t get them back, then get back at them, John throws in with Lehiff, a petty, thuggish punk (played with gusto by Colin Farrell) in a scheme to kidnap Dierdre and hold her ransom to Sam. It so happens that Lehiff is in the cross-hairs of the brutish Jerry Lynch (the indomitable Colm Meaney), Dublin’s answer to Popeye Doyle by way of the self-serious vanity of Inspector Clouseau. Lynch is on a one-man crusade to scour Dublin’s streets of scum and achieve local stardom, while he’s at it, if a reality-TV producer has his way. Meaney mines the great tradition of comic blowhards; he clads Lynch in the armor of male bravado, but one that can’t hide his pathetic inner gloom nor his idiosyncrasies (in this case, an obsession with Celtic mysticism).

Through all its whirl and bluster, “Intermission” comes through a remarkably winning and tender character study—a patchwork of contemporary Dublin’s lovers, hoods and regular Joe’s. O’Rowe and Crowley impressively dovetail their various stories through well-timed turns, parallels and intersections. Add to its ambitious script and direction an ensemble of on-target performances, and you have a rare seasonal treat: a rowdy comedy unafraid of honesty and with a direct appeal to the heart.

Grade: A-

Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Mark O’Rowe
Cast: Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Brian F. O’Bryne, Colm Meaney

Happy Hour

A few scenes into “Happy Hour,” I found myself frozen with fear. I dared not move lest, by doing so, the pain of watching it might become worse. It was a similar reaction to being gripped with intestinal cramps. The scenes in writer-director Mike Bencivenga and co-writer Richard Levine’s comic drama play like cogs in a mechanically driven story, one that bogs itself in sophomoric dialogue and in clichés that together recall the subgenre of the Suffering Alcoholic Writer—think “The Lost Weekend,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. Unlike those predecessors, however, “Happy Hour” is strictly college-level compost, content with its mediocrity, if not wholly unaware of it. Bencivenga’s scenes all bear a simple setup-punchline structure—strewn with smarmy one-liners, thin character development and glib observation—not surprising considering his background in sketch comedy. Finally, it’s a shock that his and Levine’s script garnered enough attention to attract first-rate actors like Anthony LaPaglia.

LaPaglia plays Tulley, an over-the-hill Manhattan writer slumming as an advertising copy editor while cobbling together a novel—presumably his magnum opus. Tulley lives bitterly in the shadow of his condescending father—a famous author—and nocturnally drowns his miseries in booze alongside Levine (Eric Stoltz), a rooster-plumed dandy whom the hardboiled Tulley has inexplicably befriended and Natalie (Carolyn Feeney), a sassy schoolteacher who he hops into bed with the night they meet. The three strike up a barfly camaraderie and all’s well until Tulley finds out he’s dying—news that forces him to confront his creative and paternal demons. The movie hereupon assays a gamut of difficult themes, from love and mortality to alcoholism and friendship, but the results are decidedly inept: Tulley and Natalie’s romance feels about as sexy as a Bud Light commercial; LaPaglia is trapped into doing the boozy writer schtick by way of Philip Marlowe; Stoltz’s Levine is but an airy, asexual fop with no sense of purpose other than what the movie requires of him; and Feeney, with her misty-eyed earnestness, as Natalie, seems she’s in a whole other movie, something more akin to “Beaches” or a made-for-TV programmer. This confusion only underscores chronic and inherent problems in the material itself.

Never does “Happy Hour” give the feeling that it had to be made, that this story needed to be told. Steeped in a flat, visually stagy approach and clichés right down to its superfluous, Chandler-esque first-person narration and loungey soundtrack, “Happy Hour,” is at a loss for anything fresh, vital and authentic It aims ultimately for soul-stirring upliftment. But, its good intentions aside, Bencivenga’s movie ends up a bit like that maudlin, wisecracking drunk who crashes your favorite bar before he’s hauled away. Just hope he never comes back.

Grade: D

Directed by: Mike Bencivenga
Written by: Mike Bencivenga, Richard Levine
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Eric Stoltz, Caroleen Feeney, Robert Vaughn, Sandrine Holt, Mario Cantone