REVIEW: Her

2 10 2014

Writer/director Spike Jonze’s “Her” is an uncommonly thoughtful film, one that is lightyears ahead of what we can really even fathom.  Most works tackling the topics of technology and humanity are set in distant futures, yet they never seem to escape the mire of our present times.

“Her,” on the other hand, dares to imagine a world only tenuously related to our own.  Jonze’s vision is hardly disconnected from contemporary concerns, though.  It just requires us to adjust our frame of reference to imagine issues we may not have even contemplated.  As a result, Jonze is able to urge us to see the world differently – a very worthwhile way to wield the power of cinema.

In his unspecified future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix’s socially isolated Theodore Twombly finds romantic companionship not in another human being, but rather in his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  The soothing sultriness of her voice allays our concerns about intelligent computers, so we’re never worried about her turning into HAL from “2001.”  Instead, we can focus on the very unique insights their relationship yields about intimacy and emotional mediation.

All that we think we know is up for reconsideration in “Her,” even the very nature of love.  In the hands of many directors, this kind of existential revelation might leave us feeling depressed or hopeless.  But Jonze, with a respect for artificial intelligence and an optimism for the future that feels quite groundbreaking, deposits us at a higher ground of understanding that almost overrides any emotional response.

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REVIEW: Rush

21 10 2013

Ron Howard is a pretty reliable director to deliver well-made movies that everyone in the family over the age of 11 can watch when it plays TNT on Sunday afternoons.  He really has come to hone the craft of making generally agreeable prestige pictures, from “Apollo 13” to “Cinderella Man” to “Frost/Nixon.”  At times, his movies can really hit the spot when I’m looking to be entertained somewhere in the range of mindfulness and mindlessness.

Rush,” though, fails to meet Howard’s normal lowest common denominator criterion.  While it’s thrillingly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, the DP who brought you “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” the film hardly runs like a well-oiled machine.  It’s leaking oil all over the place.  Thankfully, no one was around to light the fatal match.

Most of its problems begin at the script, so deeply rooted that there was probably very little Howard could do to direct his way out of its flaws.  Peter Morgan’s screenplay for “Rush” crashes and burns from the moment it begins – with clunky, obvious narration that he could have easily worked into subtext.  It proceeds unevenly and never really developing the rivalry between its two protagonists, the lothario James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth of “Thor“) and the weaselly Type A Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl of “Inglourious Basterds“).

Both give decent performances, particularly Brühl, who has several moments where he flirts with tremendous power.  But neither can transcend the clichés that mire “Rush.”  Perhaps Howard could have stepped in to add more gravitas to their head-bashing where Morgan made them inane schoolyard boys with clashing egos.

Alas, he did not, and “Rush” delivers little of what its title promises.  There are well-executed racing sequences that at least keep our attention, which is actually a fair accomplishment since I am not very invested in or knowledgeable about Formula 1.  But in a movie about racing, isn’t that the expectation?  In “Rush,” these sequences are coherent and interesting on a most basic level.  Beyond that, however, there isn’t an interesting or daring visual choice in the entire movie.  I saw every wheel in the film turning just as I saw every turn coming.

You could say I’m an expert driver behind the wheel of film criticism.   But really, I just fancy myself as just a normal moviegoer armed with the knowledge that one gets from seeing too many films.  And I’ve come to the point where I’ve taken so many laps around the movie theater that I really don’t want Ron Howard taking me for a spin anymore unless he can recapture a spark of ingenuity and adventure.  It doesn’t have to be experimental or even all that daring.  It just needs to be fresh enough to be agreeable.  C+ 2stars





REVIEW: Drinking Buddies

27 07 2013

Drinking BuddiesThe mainstreaming of mumblecore continues in summer 2013 with Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” picking up the baton from Lynn Shelton’s summer 2012 crossover film “Your Sister’s Sister.”  Swanberg, picking up on so much of the nuance that makes us human, has made one of the best cases for his emerging movement’s tropes to be taken up by higher-caliber comedies.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.  Swanberg, however, shows that plenty of drama can be found in all the conversation dead space in our lives.  In fact, it’s often the stammering, muttering, and fumbling for words that says the most about how we really feel.  If “Drinking Buddies” were any further away from Aaron Sorkin-speak on the dialect spectrum, it would be a silent film.

These moments of insight into the characters’ feelings make them feel so much more like us, not just lines of dialogue on a page.  Swanberg’s script allows so much wiggle-room for actors to explore, and the cast of “Drinking Buddies” explores it to fascinating ends.  As Kate and Luke, old friends fond of the brew, Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson share an unconventional and unpredictable chemistry.  We’re never sure where their inebriated antics will take them, but it’s always a gripping watch.

There’s also the context of their quasi-flirtatious conversations – both of them are in serious relationships – that adds a level of suspense to the proceedings.  Kate is tied to the coldly intellectual Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is nearing engagement to Jill (Anna Kendrick in her best performance since “Up in the Air“).  There’s none of your usual clichéd couple drama here … just two pairs that feel like they could be friends of ours in real life.

“Drinking Buddies” doesn’t aim for grand statements on life, love, and commitment.  Swanberg’s film finds that just showing normal people going about their lives can be a rewarding exercise without overreaching and adding significance.  B+3stars





REVIEW: In Time

27 02 2013

The concept behind “In Time” is actually fairly interesting, and maybe that’s why I was willing to overlook some of the film’s shortcomings.  In a dystopian ultra-classist 2169, people stop aging at 25, and living any longer than that requires you to literally buy time.  Extra time seems to come from just one extra strong and special handshake.

Such a kind of transfer begs the question of why people don’t just go steal it from the rich people why they sleep.  Or why people don’t just use tight grips or shake with superglue.  Needless to say, the broad strokes of inspiration blinded writer/director Andrew Niccol to the many plot holes in this world.

Watching the movie from a post-Occupy world certainly highlights this extreme case of social inequity as the rich live forever and the poor die young.  From my sociology classes in college, I can tell you that inequality is corrosive for society and poverty is quite literally a lethal force.  “In Time” is very conscious of these things and holds an interesting mirror up to the audience watching the film.

Sadly, that mirror is fogged up by some sloppy storytelling and a plot that ultimately can’t sustain beyond the novelty of the “time as life” concept.  The characterization is decent, but the cast of good looking actors who can still pass for 25 – including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Matt Bomer, and Alex Pettyfer – don’t do much to elevate the material.  The intelligence of the social commentary ultimately gives way to a fairly standard action film, but the themes raised in the beginning are enough to make me feel that “In Time” was not entirely wasted time.  B-2stars





REVIEW: People Like Us

1 10 2012

“People Like Us” is the kind of tender, domestic drama that has become a specialty for writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, and Noah Baumbach.  It’s a story meant to provide insight into the human spirit by focusing on a tortured soul in a time of great duress and total life upheaval, lifting up the power of our relationships to either make or break us.  All achieved with the power of pathos.

Well, this movie doesn’t have the Baumbach brain.  Nor the McCarthy might.  And it doesn’t even come close to achieving Payne and Reitman heights.  But consider the two movies that writer/director Alex Kurtzman, along with his co-writer Roberto Orci, scribed prior to “People Like Us;” they were “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Not exactly tender, heartfelt human dramas.

I’m not a proponent of grading on a curve (although I am a staunch proponent when it comes to my test being graded), but I will say that I’m wiling to cut Kurtzman and Orci some slack because they didn’t churn out “The Descendants” or “Up in the Air” on their first try.  (I will note, however, that “Citizen Ruth” and “Thank You for Smoking,” their respective debut features, are both highly impressive.)  All things considered, “People Like Us” is an entertaining and fairly keenly observed film.  It hits a few flat notes along its journey, but there are enough powerful and touching moments scattered throughout the film to make it redeemable.

As Sam, a barterer whose shady dealings lead him into hot water with the SEC at the time of his father’s death, Chris Pine shines in a role that allows him to shed the cocky exoskeleton coating him from too long in rom-com purgatory.  Baring flashes of his raw soul, he’s fairly easy to sympathize with in spite of his character’s frustrating actions.  Like Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” it’s not an announcement that a true dramatic virtuoso has arrived on the scene, rather a signpost pointing towards greater things to come.

The real story of “People Like Us,” though, is Elizabeth Banks.  Her struggling mother Frankie, a former alcoholic trying to keep her world in orbit, is the key to Sam coming to peace with a painful and unacknowledged part of his past.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her in all good intentions trying to restore her faith in others while we know she’s headed down a path that can only lead back to an all too familiar pain.  And it’s Banks who makes her such a light on the screen.  Frankie is not merely a character in her gifted hands.  She’s a person, with troubles, with issues, with worries, with anxieties, with struggles, with small triumphs … like us.  B





REVIEW: The Change-Up

6 08 2011

It’s a stretch to call “The Change-Up” a comedy.  The movie feels like a two-hour gag reel of failed jokes axed from an offensive stand-up comedian’s routine.  It puts you on edge, too, because you are always scared that it’s going to go one step too far and really offend someone like Michael Richards or Tracy Morgan.

Sophomoric and immature humor can be funny at times, but when anything relies solely on it, the act gets old really quickly.  The movie tastelessly hurls pot-shots at mentally challenged people, Down syndrome patients, Japanese people, and Catholics, just to name a few, trying to get a laugh at their expense.  This kind of shock jock technique treads a thin line between making a statement or commentary and exploiting stereotypes for personal gain; “The Change-Up” is so far on the wrong side of that line it really isn’t funny.

Not only that, the movie as a whole just doesn’t produce the laughs that it should.  The writers of “The Hangover,” who penned the stale reimagining of “Freaky Friday” that can barely be called a script, took the wrong lesson from their smash success.  We didn’t respond so overwhelmingly positively to “The Hangover” because of its raunchiness and vulgarity; that’s standard order in Hollywood R-rated comedies nowadays.  We responded because it was outrageously original and a fun ride because we never knew what to expect.

“The Change-Up” represents that lazy and misplaced mentality that  doubling the crudeness and gutting the inventiveness down to next to nothing will still produce a good comedy.  As evinced by all the jokes that fall terribly flat and the ability to see the wheels of the movie turning the whole time, it doesn’t produce anything except a rollickingly predictable and forgettable time at a movie that should have you rolling on the floor.  And alas, there are probably more body changing movies out there than decent laughs in this movie.

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REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

27 07 2011

From the very beginning of Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” a very uneasy unevenness settles on the screen.  The movie feels torn between whether to be an alien invasion movie that happens to be set in 1870s New Mexico or a Western movie where the villains happen to be aliens.  Rather than make an executive decision and splice the genres, Favreau settles for an unhappy medium, vacillating back and forth between which of the two he’d rather use for the particular scene.  The resultant jumble is just that, a movie that haphazardly joins various elements from both genres to create a bitter hodgepodge that barely satisfies on basic entertainment levels.

The film basically glides by plotlessly for nearly two hours, floating on the very thin premise that feels like an infantile idea to begin.  Combining cowboys and aliens sounds like a game played by a five-year-old when his mom throws the “Star Wars” toys in the Lincoln Logs bin.  It might be fun for a little while as the two clash, but we eventually come to the realization that the novelty can’t sustain, much like that child probably would as well.

The kids-at-heart writing this story, otherwise known as the guys who gave you such wide-ranging projects as “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” the television show “Lost,” “Children of Men,” “Iron Man,” and the unforgettable classic “Kung Pow: Enter The Fist,” have the attention span of that five-year-old child.  They fail to take the movie anywhere worthwhile past the original jolt of imagination that inspired them to combine the two worlds in the first place.  Once they get the whole thing assembled and need to get the plot rolling, they abandon it to play with Legos and leave the movie going on autopilot.

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