Experimental

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

Hotel

You can’t say Mike Figgis isn’t adventurous. If “Timecode,” his foray into multi-screen storytelling, had us on our toes, then “Hotel,” the writer-director’s follow-up keeps us firmly on them. This time, he has reshuffled his technique; the four-frame look of “Timecode” comprises only one of “Hotel’s” delirious grab-bag of tricks as Figgis fiddles frequently with the size, shape and texture of his images.

Figgis sets his movie in a phantasmagoric Venetian hotel where a menagerie of greedy, kinky, and downright neurotic guests gather to shoot a lusty, lurid adaptation of “The Duchess of Malfi.” Their wound-up, ego-tripping director, Trent (Rhys Ifans), quickly alienates his actors and is almost killed by an assassin dispatched by Jonathon (David Schwimmer), his murderously jealous producer. With Trent in a coma, Jonathan takes over directing duties and works his wiles on Trent’s girlfriend (Saffron Burrows). On top of that, the hotel’s spooky staff likes to abduct guests for their own diabolically gastronomic and sexually fetishistic purposes. Figgis paints a gallery of characters, by turns amusing and excruciating. If Salma Hayak as a documentary-shooting diva is borderline embarrassing, others like Schwimmer, Burrows and Ifans come off more expertly. Likewise, Figgis’ multi-pronged visual style can seem arbitrary one moment and inspired, even hypnotic, the next. Still, it’s through its anarchic, try-anything chutzpah that this bizarrely erotic satire succeeds and entertains.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Mike Figgis
Written by: Heathcote Williams
Cast: Max Beesley, Saffron Burrows, Valentina Cervi, Salma Hayek, Lucy Liu, John Malkovich, Burt Reynolds

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is the second collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and music video maestro Michel Gondry (their first was 2001’s “Human Nature”). It certainly bears the hallmarks of Kaufman’s self-reflexive fantasias, but, in its merging of narrative form and experimental technique, this is pure Gondry, and a dazzling showcase of his conceptual imagination.

Throughout his career, Gondry has mined the trove of his own dreams and childhood memories. Nothing quite makes sense in Gondry’s world but, in that secret language of dream-logic, in which sound and image mingle like the synaptic phantasmagoria of deep sleep, his cinema can be downright revelatory as you’re experiencing it.

Dream-logic lies at the heart of “Eternal Sunshine,” a romantic comedy that questions what it would be like if we could eliminate our worst, most troubling memories. Joel and Clementine’s relationship was littered with them. So, it’s no surprise that, when they break-up, Clementine (Kate Winslet), a hippy-trippy party girl, decides to erase her memories of shy loner Joel (Jim Carrey), using a memory-erasure process invented by a charlatan-neuroscientist, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). When Joel finds out, he decides to follow suit, if only to spite the impetuous Clementine. Assisted by a pair of feckless technicians, Stan and Patrick (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), Mierzwiak places what looks like a souped-up colander on Joel’s head and, with his subject in deep sleep, sets out to slash-and-burn all traces of his Clementine memories.

But, about halfway through his “erasure,” Joel realizes just how much he loves his memories and decides to go AWOL. What follows is a most unusual chase picture as Joel, with Clementine in hand, flees across the far-flung regions of his mindscape, as Mierzwiak tries desperately to track him down, mercenary-like. As Joel and Clementine encounter figments of his darkest memories, she helps him to make peace with them, and, as they re-live the rosiest days of their courtship, they brace against the inevitable destruction at the hands of the memory-erasers soon to come.

Kaufman’s script also interweaves Mierzwiak’s own woes with Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his lovestruck office assistant. She’d rather be musing over Alexander Pope quotations with the good doctor than getting naked and stoned with her boyfriend, Stan. What’s more, Patrick, privy to Clementine’s past, finds himself smitten with her and, cribbing from Joel’s notes, he clumsily woos her with his schoolboy wiles.

If anything, Gondry could have pared Kaufman’s script to its essence—Joel’s odyssey—and used its taut frame to develop his abundance of visual ideas. Gondry’s kinetic style, along with Kaufman’s crammed script, overwhelms its otherwise pitch-perfect cast. Carrey and Winslet are terrific, but their wonderfully moody scenes together seem needled by the material’s frantic demands, as if Gondry is constantly jabbing at them with his restless, anxious camera. Still, “Eternal Sunshine” is undeniably ambitious filmmaking and a feather in this year’s cap of indie movies. Its message that, try as we might, we’re forever stuck with the very people who drive us crazy can be read as Kaufman-esque in its cynicism, but I’m too won over by Gondry’s sunshine to be anything but delighted by it.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Michel Gondry
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Adams, David Cross, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson

Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” won the Palm d’Or and Best Director prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, marking the resurgence of a gifted filmmaker whose talents seemed tamed recently in service of more traditional dramas. If “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) and “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), were dazzlingly wrought portraits of lives on the fringes of society, “Elephant” meanders through the more recognizable territory of high school. More importantly, it’s bravura filmmaking, subtler in approach than either “Cowboy” or “Idaho,” but just as exhilarating.

The title of Van Sant’s movie refers, among other things, to the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. The conspicuous pachyderm, in this case, is the issue of gun violence in American schools, something that stampeded through our collective consciousness in the late-90s, brought most vividly to mind by the Columbine incident. In “Elephant,” Van Sant sets out to talk about it. Just how incisively or effectively he manages to do so, though, is frustratingly questionable.

The movie offers a portrait of an American high school. Van Sant’s characters are students whose paths intersect in the course of a routine day. There’s nothing routine, though, in Van Sant’s approach as he weaves together a mosaic of delicately interlaced storylines. “Elephant’s” most bustling scenes in hallways, offices and classrooms are so assuredly choreographed that they recall the most adroit Altman movies. The movie builds on a cyclical structure, following one storyline before flashing back to pick up another. In this way, Van Sant fleshes out vividly believable characters, bringing them, one storyline at a time, to the edge of his narrative, while allowing a hypnotic, unsettling tension to hang over the movie as we anticipate its inevitable outburst of violence.

Harris Savides’ camera glides along in step with “Elephant’s” largely non-professional, teenage cast. The movie’s immaculate visuals are matched by Leslie Shatz’s expressive sound design, intermingling Beethoven’s classical piano with ambient noise and wild sound to arrive at a disconcerting blend of disparate elements that perfectly serves the movie’s tone.

Van Sant shrewdly withholds judgment and steers clear of moralizing his subject. But, after it’s finished, you’re still wondering what it all adds up to. “Elephant” may be pointing to the insidiousness of violence, lurking in the woodwork of our society, no more unusual than the rest of the banalities of high school life. But Van Sant ends his movie so abruptly, glibly cutting away from his final scenes, that he left me to trip all over myself to come up with the movie’s justification or even any sense of its message. “Elephant” is one of this year’s boldest movies, technically, but, in refusing to assert any point-of-view about what troubles modern American youth, Van Sant’s loses heart and flees the scene of the crime.

Grade: C+

Written/Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Carrie Finklea

Film Socialisme

Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme” is likely to be an unbearable experience for anyone other than for Godard himself and his most hardcore adherents. The veteran filmmaker has pieced together a prohibitively obscure, free-association polemic on his pet theme of politics– the politics of nations, races, religion, relationships, communication, gender, essentially the entire fabric of post-colonial civilization – and how it’s processed through the meat grinder of post-modern pop culture.

The first half of “Film Socialisme” takes place on a Mediterranean cruise ship and the second in and around what is presumably a family-run gas station. The visual texture of the first half ranges from the clean, crisp high-def views of sea, sky, the ship’s decks and cabins to the degraded surveillance-camera images found, for example, in a striking image of disco-dancing guests. Godard returns frequently to a collection of mysterious characters, young and old including a musician played by Patti Smith, a photographer, his companion and a number of suspicious men (the press notes suggests various identities for them, including war criminals and detectives).

On the ship, Godard alternates between vignettes of his characters and of the ship’s passengers, depicted as a piggish, unthinking herd of hedonists – stand-ins for Godard larger vision of our consumerist society.  Intertitles with different place names: Barcelona, Naples, Egypt, Palestine, Odessa signal montage sequences in which Godard mixes archival newsreel clips, excerpts from sword-and-sandal epics and original footage in poetic statements about oppression, injustice (Godard’s sympathy for the Palestinian struggle is obvious, especially in an intertitle in which white Arabic letters are superimposed by blood-red Hebrew letters) and historical revisionism.

The dialogue consists largely of disconnected observations. The accompanying subtitles do not aid our understanding. Instead, the subtitles offer another layer of Godardian agitprop as they simply abbreviate snippets of what’s being said into semi-intelligible, political garble: “space is dying,” “governments wrong,” “see before read,” “bygone landscapes,” etc.

The land-based half of “Film Socialisme,” set at the country gas-station, continues the visual style and graffiti-like use of subtitles as a father, mother, son and daughter exist in a state of ennui and communication breakdown while a pair of female TV journalists, a llama and a donkey linger on the property. The color-coding, the stylized gestures, the selection of musical choices on the soundtrack all recall Godard’s 60’s era experimentalism (think “Weekend” or “Pierrot le Fou”), but stripped of playfulness and vitality. What lingers now is the feeling that, with age, Godard’s cynicism has hardened and his vision turned inward. “Film Socialisme” shows no interest in connecting with an audience; it exists impassively as something to be observed more than experienced.

Godard’s cinema can be rigorous and galvanizing as anyone familiar with his 1960s output would agree. Forty years on, he’s as troubled as ever with our subservience to the world’s military-industrial-corporate nexus. And he’s still the same cinematic prankster that he was in the 1960s – toying with the clichés of genre and shattering formal expectations. But there’s a stark difference between “Vivre Sa Vie” (1962) and “Masculin Féminin” (1966) and something like “Film Socialisme”: The crucial element of exuberance that charged the early films is gone, replaced by a bitter, reactionary aloofness. It’s as if Godard took to heart his own declaration of the “End of Cinema” in his pseudo-Apocalyptic “Weekend” (1967) and retreated deeper and deeper into his own one-man bunker.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Catherine Tanvier, Christian Sinniger, Jean-Marc Stehlé, Patti Smith, Robert Maloubier, Alaim Badiou, Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Élisabeth Vitali