It’s … really complicated.

    Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”

    Dir. Spike Jonze

    As if relationships weren’t complicated enough, 21st century communications technology inevitably compounds the problem. We’re still quite early in the century, lest we forget, and Hollywood boldly goes “where no man has gone before” – so to speak. Her, the engaging, very funny, and genuinely fascinating combination of science fiction and romantic comedy – sci-fi rom-com? – from director Spike Jonze, set in the not-too-distant future, imagines just where we may be headed, and sooner than we think.

    Her pushes hard on the idea of artificial intelligence and the implications for human relationships (see Apple’s “Siri” commercials for a hint of where things may be going, which may even have inspired the movie). Theodore Twombly, the marvelously named wimpy main character, played with almost unbearable sensitivity by Joaquin Phoenix, works in the imitation reality business, ghost-writing apparently heartfelt personal letters for the clients of a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Theodore rebounds from the breakup of his marriage by getting into a relationship with a new update of his computer’s operating system.

    Thanks to big advances in artificial intelligence, the new OS is a very human-sounding entity capable of intuition, learning, and apparently real emotion. No longer confined to a single platform like a desktop, the OS, or at least its personality, moves freely across Theodore’s various technology, including his snazzy handheld, virtually anticipating his every need. During the setup he chooses a female identity for the OS (there’s only two choices, apparently). She names herself Samantha, and converses with him, Siri-like, in the easy, intimate voice of Scarlett Johansen, a comforting presence injected seamlessly into Theodore’s lonely psychic landscape via his perfect, and perfectly comfortable, earbud. In short order, they’re sleeping together.

    More than just a rom-com, Her explores the familiar sci-fi territory of the human-machine relationship. The fascination with robots in literature, television, and film is longstanding, and the uneasy relationship is mainly a rich and useful metaphor for the deep-seated American anxiety over slavery. At issue, across nearly all robot stories from the earliest through the entire Star Trek series, Blade Runner, and into Terminator films and the like, is always the question of how we define human. That, and the more dramatic problem of what happens when the slaves try and take over. Robot films, in particular, continuously probe the difference between human and non-human, and the question of what it is that makes one, or something, fully human? Who, or what kind of creatures, gets that status, and why? And who gets to decide? It’s a matter fraught with social, legal, and in sci-fi, technological dimensions.

    Not exactly a robot film, though, the more direct genesis of Her is in Andrew Niccol’s 2002 film S1m0ne, or Simone, which explored the implications of rapidly advancing video editing technology. In that moderate hit film, Al Pacino plays a movie producer struggling to complete a comeback film, sick of dealing with temperamental starlets. He turns to advanced computer technology and creates a virtual actress, Simone, “the perfect woman,” who he edits into his film and then sells to the world as if she were real.

    Thanks to real, or realistic, developments in computer and communication technology, in Her the non-human being in question is again virtual, the essence of an intelligence, no longer confined to a body either mechanical, synthetic, cyborg, or hybrid. This is something of a change of subject for the genre, with the best early example I can think of being 2001, A Space Odyssey. “Hal, open the pod doors!!!”

    It’s this change that sets up the rom-com opportunity; much of the film digs into the question of just what kind of relationship is it, and what does it mean, when the other doesn’t have a body at all. Some of the funniest scenes happen as the human-OS relationship becomes normalized in the culture, and Theodore and Samantha start going on double-dates, vacations, and the like. Samantha sees the world through the camera on Theodore’s handheld, a continuous presence peeking out of his pocket, presumably conversing with others through some kind of speakerphone. At about the same point in the film, however, the camera suggests to us that the OS/human relationship phenomenon is spreading, possibly in an unhealthy way. In several shots we see people in the background going about their business, greater and greater numbers of them solo but clearly conversing and interacting with – who? With someone not there, obviously, which today would mean they’re either deranged or talking on their cell phones. But in the context of this film, we suspect that more and more of them, like Theodore, have become involved with their OS’s.

    Jonze, whose previous credits include the brilliant, quirky, ontological comedy Being John Malkovitch (1999), also wrote the screenplay, and based on the script alone, he deserves whatever awards he gets for the film. It’s as pitch-perfect as Theodore’s earbud. Jonze captures – flat-out nails – the drama and nuance of modern relationships, compounded here with futuristic twists and turns, with precision and a sharp comic sensibility. At one point, the green-eyed monster intrudes on the lovers when Samantha, who has already joined a book club, is MIA briefly and turns out to have been hanging out with a bunch of other OS’s in California, dialoguing suspiciously with the 1960s philosopher and self-help author Alan Watts (Brian Cox), a virtual being reconstructed by the OS’s from historical archives.

    Technology aside, one of the earthier themes of the movie is the problem, and the opportunity, of growth and change in human relationships. Like a great many films, this one opens with a broken relationship and a missing partner. Theodore and his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), essentially grew up together, and then, as humans sometimes do, grew apart. The film repeatedly articulates, and dramatizes through Theodore’s relationship with his OS, the understandable possibility that there’s simply something wrong with him, that in some fundamental way he’s become unable to have a real relationship with a real human. And what does that mean, “real,” anyway?

    As the new relationship develops and plays out, over the course of the film, Theodore gradually does the real work of the film, comes to terms with the failure of his marriage, faces and resolves his grief. And as with his marriage, in the end Theodore and Samantha also outgrow each other. It is in no way a cop-out that the film sets aside the fascinating questions it raises, and resolves its issues by re-framing this unusual and troubling connection, ultimately, as the perfect transitional relationship.

    Showing now at theaters in the greater Rochester area.



    “The film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see.”

    Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite

    “Blackfish,” dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite 

    Blackfish, the documentary currently showing in a very few theaters, by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, argues – or attempts to argue – that keeping killer whales in captivity is a barbaric practice that simply has to end. It is a practice that will probably go down in history as another dark chapter in our relationship with the other animals of this world. It’s not an easy argument to make, and the filmmaker is partly successful. Persuasive despite its shortcomings, Blackfish is a powerful, disturbing film, and well worth the trip into Rochester to the Little Theater, the only local venue currently showing it.

    [Read more...]


    Another Earth (2011, DVD review)

    Redemption in a Parallel Universe

    Brit Marling, “Another Earth”

    Dir. Mike Cahill, with Brit Marling and William Mapother

    There are science fiction movies, and there are tales of sin and redemption, but the genre and the story type just don’t seem to go together very much.  Another Earth, the 2011 film by freshman director Mike Cahill, combines the two elegantly.  The film, co-written by Cahill with a major writing contribution from Brit Marling, takes a relatively simple but intriguing science fiction concept and leverages it into a subtle and heart-wrenching exploration of some of the most devastating and difficult of human experiences. [Read more...]


    Side Effects

    Your doctor knows best.

    Rooney Mara, “Side Effects”

    Dir. Stephen Soderbergh, with Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.

    It’s a little tricky to write about Side Effects, Stephen Soderbergh’s moody new film about depression, treatment, and other things, and avoid a major spoiler problem.  It’s an interesting film that addresses some important contemporary issues, but it starts out as one kind of film and gradually morphs into another kind altogether.  But even saying that has the potential to give away too much.

    The film follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman in her twenties who struggles with depression.  After a brief opening sequence that suggests some kind of serious violence, the film jumps back three months, and thereafter moves forward chronologically.  Emily’s white-collar husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is in jail for insider trading (I know, I know… hard to believe) and is about to be released.  Emily is increasingly depressed, in part due to the pressures of work and the stress of her husband’s bumpy reentry into the business world.  An apparent suicide attempt puts her under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an Emergency Department psychiatrist who chooses not to hospitalize her in favor of private visits and medication.

    [Read more...]


    Get Low (2009, DVD review)

    “Forgiveness is free…but you have to ASK for it.”

    Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, and Bill Murray, “Get Low”

    Dir. Aaron Schneider, with Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, and Lucas Black

    When it was in theaters I raved about Get Low, the first feature-length effort from director Aaron Schneider, to all my friends, but as far as I know the only ones who actually saw it were those I physically dragged to the theater – that, or to my living room this week, when I got my hands on the DVD. The film is an overlooked low-budget gem, based on a true-life anecdote about Felix (Bush) Breazeale, an eccentric, depression-era Tennessee recluse who threw his own funeral party while still alive to enjoy it.

    [Read more...]



    The Thin Line Between Genius and…

    Anthony Hopkins, “Hitchcock”

    Dir. Sacha Gervasi, with Anthony Hopkins, Hellen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson

    Hitchcock, Director Sacha Gervasi’s current film, is of course about legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s particularly about the challenging period in his late career when he made Psycho (1960).  This is no small thing.  Sight and Sound Magazine’s 2012 decade poll voted Psycho at the top of its top-ten list of greatest films of all time, moving it from number two to number one, ahead of Citizen Kane.  Today’s film, Hitchcock, which stars heavy hitters Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, is only the second feature film by director Sacha Gervasi, whose meager previous credits are mainly as a writer.  One has to wonder how he managed to land this project, and its stars, but clearly, someone saw something real. [Read more...]


    Killing Them Softly

    Criminals and Thugs, High and Low

    Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins, “Killing Them Softly”

    Dir. Andrew Dominik, with Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins

    The latest “Brad Pitt movie,” Killing Them Softly, directed by Andrew Dominik, is a heist-gone-bad film, and a real oddity: a gritty thriller with something serious to say. An update of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel, Cogan’s Trade, this adaptation is set in 2008 just prior to the presidential election. The film plays out entirely on the dark, rainy, mean streets of New Orleans, or rather in back rooms and sedans, but the backdrop is the massive crisis in the world banking system. [Read more...]


    Life of Pi

    [Originally published in GeneseeSun.com]
    The Infinite Complexity of God and Tigers

    Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”

    Life of Pi, dir. Ang Lee, with Suraj Sharma

    The long-awaited film adaptation of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel of shipwreck, spirituality, and the food chain, hit theaters hereabouts on Thanksgiving day, appropriately enough.  It was oddly refreshing, somehow, after the traditional day of over-eating, to spend two-plus hours in the dark watching this remarkable movie, with a plot driven largely by the real threat of being eaten.

    The central story of the film and the novel involves a fictional Indian lad, Piscine Molitor Patel (Suraj Sharma), colorfully named after a French swimming pool, a name he later shortens creatively to the nickname “Pi.”  His family runs a zoo in the Botanical Gardens in the French-speaking area of Pondicherry.  Pi’s family attempts to relocate to Canada, zoo included, aboard a Japanese freighter, but a ferocious storm sinks the ship and kills all but Pi and a handful of animals, who are castaway on a lifeboat.  The terrifying shipwreck, which was mostly shot in a studio set, is very effectively filmed, especially so in the white-knuckle 3D version. [Read more...]



    [Originally published in GeneseeSun.com]
    007: Family Values in the British Secret Service

    Ben Whishaw and Daniel Craig, Skyfall

    Skyfall, dir. Sam Mendes, with Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Naomie Harris

    At least in terms of the sheer number of feature films, James Bond is probably the number three cinema franchise of all time, if you consider only those based on individual characters, although he’s well behind the two top contenders, Dracula and Jesus Christ.  There are now approaching 30 feature films alone, counting spoofs and current projects, based on novelist Ian Fleming’s notorious offspring.  The earliest was 1962’s Dr. No, which starred Sean Connery, making this the 50th Anniversary appearance of the irresistible super-spy.  Connery’s portrayal (8 films) of the apparently ageless 007 was followed by Roger Moore (7 films), Pierce Brosnan (4 films), and now Daniel Craig, in his third outing in the role to date, after Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  Craig’s first time out, in fact, Casino Royale, was done as a spoof in 1967, back in the Sean Connery era.  That odd piece of tripe starred both Peter Sellers and David Niven in the lead role, and was directed by John Huston, believe it or not, who also did a couple of cameo scenes, and is the only film I know of with a cast that includes both Woody Allen and Orson Welles. [Read more...]



    [Originally published in GeneseeSun.com]
    Addict and hero: Denzel Washington, flying under the influence

    Denzel Washington, “Flight”

    Trailers for the new “Denzel Washington flick,” Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, are quite vivid on the plane crash disaster part of the film, and coyly vague about everything else. As a result, I halfway expected it to start off like a typical Hollywood disaster flick, ramping up happily to an airborne, warp-speed Poseidon Adventure. It doesn’t quite, though. Instead, it starts off with a scene of extreme morning-after debauchery, with pilot Whip Whittaker (Washington) coming to, basically, to the sound of an alarm clock summoning him to his job, which on this day is to fly a jet airliner with “102 souls on board” to Atlanta. He’s in a hotel room with naked Trina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), who looks maybe like a high-class hooker but turns out later to be a crew member. The two are flat-out hammered; no, make that severely hammered. Whittaker does a couple of lines of coke to get the old battery started, and shows up only an hour or so later to take the captain’s seat in the cockpit. [Read more...]