Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Her

Him. And the Mustache. They're cops.

Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, is the best romantic prequel to the Terminator franchise I can imagine.

Jonze has always been an enigma to me. I love the man and the bulk of his work. His smart, sarcastic and trippy music videos, short films and television work (he’s a producer on the Jackass series and films, for example, even going so far as to make appearances in old age make-up) are nigh ingrained in my DNA. I even loved his performance in David O. Russell’s Three Kings as the skinny redneck soldier, Conrad Vigg.

But when it comes to his feature film work, I’ve always loved the ideas behind them better than the actual finished product. There was something keeping me from connecting, even as I found them to be intellectually fascinating. Even though I didn’t love the film, I still think Charlie Kaufman should have undoubtedly won an Oscar with his screenplay for Adaptation. It’s a brilliant piece of work. (I’ll go ahead and confess that despite my best intentions, I still haven’t seen Where the Wild Things Are, so feel free to throw your rotten eggs now, indie cinemaphiles and/or hipsters.)

Her, his first ‘adult’ work not written by Kaufman, is by far his most accessible film for me. Part of it may be the fact that, for a science fiction film, it is deeply rooted in modern technology. Most of the ideas seem like they are extensions of what early adopters are using now and it feels like it is a period piece from ten years in the future. Aside from the characters wearing high-waisted pants and looking like they buy their clothes at Silver Lake thrift stores, I mean. Hell, in a movie about artificial intelligence, the most unbelievable aspect is the idea of people actually embracing railway travel in LA.

Aside from a cartoony moment or two that seem amplified to show just how weird and scary humans are, probably an ironic attempt to humanize the computers, it is a very down to earth story that is rooted in the “realness” of feelings and an extension of how relationships have begun to work in a digital world. It’s funny the hesitance that the main character shows to let people know the nature of his relationship given how accepting most of them are. The stigma of online dating has drastically disappeared, but the idea that an online relationship is not real and that people will see through that still exists in the back of people’s minds as they worry about telling their friends.

As someone whose most serious and longest-lasting relationship to date began online with a cartoonist girl from halfway across the country (way back when in the annuls of ancient history), I’ve seen firsthand how connecting with someone without the benefit of physicality works. Some people even go so far as to classify this as a more “pure” form of love because it consists solely of getting to know the person and not letting physical infatuation get in the way. This is even touched on in the film. Personally I’ve never believed that. No more than I would the people for whom a purely physical relationship with almost no mental connection is the most pure form of love, hearkening back to our more animalistic instincts. One denies our basic humanity. The other leaves us slaves to it.

But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? The whole idea of Her is finding “someone” that fills the ever-changing hole in your soul, despite an utterly complex and ever changing state of being that runs the gamut in terms of your needs. It also asks a question we may have to answer soon; whether feelings from the digital aether are any less legitimate than those that originate from our squishy, organic brain chemistry. The feelings that we claim make us specifically human. If we create something that has the same results, does that make them any less real?

At the center of this philosophical dilemma is Theodore Twombly, a writer that makes a living composing personal letters for other people. It seems like a bizarre and outrageous idea. But when one contemplates how many people have tried to express their feelings with a perfect mixtape because they lack the ability to communicate their feelings through words, it suddenly becomes much more understandable that one would hire a professional to convey what they themselves can not. As a recently divorced man in the middle of a terrible funk, he succumbs to Apple-like advertising for new software that promises to change his life. To be fair, it definitely does that.

Joaquin Phoenix’s typical performance style mostly consists of scenery chewing or being a depressed, wall-eyed sack of mashed potatoes with little transition in-between. And Her suits his second skill set well. Sometimes it seems like he’s a refugee from a mumblecore set looking for a gonzo student film. Thankfully Jonze manages to have him stretch and he gets to show some real joy in-between his moping. In these scenes, he really shines. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, is the voice of Samantha, Ted’s new artificially intelligent operating system for his computer. Her slightly husky voice and inquisitive manner make it plausible that someone could build a real rapport with her. It also shows that she should probably do more voiceover work. Like Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta, I find it a shame that the Academy Awards doesn’t recognize performances outside the mainstream in which actors manage to create something compelling without the aid of all the tools normally at their disposal.

Her is frequently funny. Sometimes laugh out loud funny. But it is also uncomfortably intimate with scenes that, while seeming reasonably realistic and artistically valid, are just plain hard to watch for us Midwesterners. Just a warning, I would be mortified to view this film with my parents. It’s so frank with its ideas on sex that I’m actually surprised it ended up with an R rating, despite it not seeming exploitive or necessarily in bad taste for the most part. (Guess I’m just used to the MPAA being on the wrong side of these things.) It also holds some very heartbreaking moments. Its a film that is actually frank with most of its ideas but is free enough to let you interpret them yourself.

Despite my prosthelytizing¬†on what the film seemed to obviously mean, I could see ten people seeing it and many of them walking away with different viewpoints on the characters and what they just went through depending on their experiences. I suppose that’s the true heart of Her. Its plot revolves around people changing at different rates as they take in the world. So it makes sense that the film would change along with its audience.

(Five damns given out of five.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: American Hustle

Do the hustle

The con movie, like its close cousin the heist movie, is a weird animal. As long as you present a protagonist that is somehow charming or likable, you can get people to follow complete scumbags and root for them to pull one over on whoever they are trying to rob or scam. In David O. Russell’s newest film, Christian Bale is the con man that becomes our loosely-defined hero, and his odyssey through an ever-escalating sting is at turns humorous and uncomfortable. To call American Hustle Russell’s Boogie Nights is not accurate and a bit reductive, but not completely out of line, either. They’re both a strange mix of comedy and explosive drama, often in the same scene and they both involve outsiders from the weirdest era in American history.

Since the film is loosely based on actual events, it makes sense that it is set in approximately the same era that the original “Abscam” scandal occurred, aka the 1970s. But there’s more to it than that. I have always seen the 70’s, despite being born in them, to be the decade that America was lost in sleaze and ugliness. And not so much even the good kind of sleaze like corny porn films and grindhouse movies. But more that everything about it seems unpleasant. The clothing and general sense of design and style went against all common sense in the broadest terms of even the most basic rules of taste. Music was by and large awful (thank God for The Ramones coming along as an antidote to disco and arena rock) and sex lost the icky but playful naivete of the 60s free-love hippies and just became kinda icky. And that’s not even getting into the political arena. So it makes sense to set such a sleazy (but goofy) story of crime, sex and political expediency in this period. When your most virtuous character is a bribe-taking politician, you know that things will get worse before they get better.

And when the first shot in your movie (following the nice touch of an era-accurate Columbia logo) is a fat, bald Bale navigating an incredibly complex technical ballet to set up his comb-over, it expertly sets up that the whole film will be about people building huge facades to fool the world, but most importantly themselves.

It’s a film with a very nihilistic point of view; everyone lies to everyone, but they especially do it to themselves. Some people are just better at it than others.

Thankfully, that depressing thought is wrapped in some very broad but very good performances, beginning with Bale playing far against the type that he established with the larger budget fare he’s been in like the Batman films. It’s the kind of physical transformation that we saw from Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, but more startling because it isn’t just some make-up job for a gag. He commits to and embodies the character. Opposite him is Amy Adams as his partner in crime and Bradley Cooper as an FBI agent that conscripts them into his service and slowly seems to lose his mind as he sees more and more opportunity for glory. While I think he’s the wrong choice for the voice of Rocket Raccoon, I’ve liked Cooper ever since his days on Alias. I would say without a doubt that this is some of his best work. The tightrope he walks as he goes around the bend is taut through the film and, despite chewing scenery like a beaver, he never quite falls off. Also, I am convinced that he and Louis C.K. could be a comedy superteam.

You’ve also got Jeremy Renner doing something new as the Conan-haired New Jersey mayor that gets swept along in their schemes. He represents the old ways and the older generation. The family-style backbone of New York from the earlier part of the 20th century. There’s a fantastic juxtaposition in the film using music, swinging from a disco tune accompanying Cooper’s next-gen, drug snorting fed to Renner and Bale singing along to Tom Jones’ mega-hit crooning of Delilah that works to show the difference between the new guard and the small-time folks caught up on the new mechanisms emerging, about to be caught under the wheels of ‘progress.’

That said, the best work in the film may belong to Jennifer Lawrence’s manic housewife that is equal parts self-destructive narcissist and manipulative sociopath that lashes out to hurt everything she cares about.

Set against a set of super-hits from the 70s that K-BILLY would give a stamp of approval, these characters seek to screw each other over at every turn and the point seems to be seeing who truly does end up coming out on top. The finale is suitably satisfying without glamorizing any of these amoral Looney Tunes too much. They take themselves very, very seriously, but thankfully we can laugh at their delusions. And possibly some of our own. If we happen to see them there.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Someone learned to use photoshop!

The Hobbit series continues to pale in comparison to its Lord of the Rings predecessors while still being far from a complete waste of time.

The Desolation of Smaug is a step-up from the previous film in terms of keeping things moving and justifying its run time. The appearance of Smaug himself certainly doesn’t hurt, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice pouring through the theater speakers like melted black licorice.

Just a note before I get into the meat of this review; I’ve heard some folks complaining about the way Smaug isn’t real enough. As part of this particular story, that doesn’t really bother me personally. Though since Peter Jackson is trying so hard to turn this story into the kind of epic that the previous films encompassed rather than the quaint adventure tale that actually makes up the book, I can understand why some people may be unhealthily focused on how an imaginary creature doesn’t look real enough. (Despite the fact that there are no such things as dragons. Not the fire-breathing and/or talking kind, at the very least.) For me, Smaug works because I feel the personality of the creature emanating from him. This is the most difficult thing for computer effects people to capture. The kind of lightning in a bottle that Ray Harryhausen brought to almost all his creations, despite the fact that no one would ever accuse him of realism. In this case, I felt it.

When it comes to the main storyline, the parts of the book that take the longest (staying with Beorn, the shape-shifter, or the imprisonment by the elf king) are done and over in a flash, while things that are not even in the books are given plenty of screentime.

Take Tauriel, for example. A character created for the films and portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she actually works better than some of the things taken directly from the slight tome that the film is based on, maybe because she better fits the kind of film Jackson is making.
But the kind of film Jackson is making is a fun one. The action scenes (which conversely are much longer than they are in the books) manage to be the kind of roller coaster ride he’s famous for. In the instance of the famous barrel ride down the river, almost literally so.

The other good thing about this chapter is that the dwarves are managing to differentiate themselves. Personalities assigned to them are beginning to shine through. I can’t really fault the first film for having a tough time with their characterization, because there’s very little of it in the book. Sure, there are a few bits here and there for a select few of them, but in most cases, the fact that there are so many seems to exist only for the comic relief of listing their names in Tolkien’s book.

It is perhaps not ironic but at least an overlooked effect of this improvement that leads to the Hobbit of the title seeming less like a lead character of his own film and more like part of an ensemble. Especially between the dwarves and the side-adventures of Gandalf that are pushing the prequel aspects of the story much farther than one would expect. He comes in direct contact with forces and visions that make you wonder why he wasn’t better prepared at the beginning of Fellowship of the Rings.

So all in all, it’s a slicker, more action-oriented ride than the first film with less overt direct references to the original trilogy. But it also has the worst, most anti-climactic ending of any of the Tolkien films since Fellowship. In the end, if you didn’t like An Unexpected Journey, Smaug most likely will not change your mind about the Hobbit trilogy. Even with the improvements, it’s still overlong and it still is trying to make the story into something that it’s not. There and Back Again promises to be more of the same. But at least now we know what to expect of these films. A good time at the movies. Just not the earth-shaking time we had expected two years ago.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)