Review: Her (2013)

If you’re like me, you enjoy the show Futurama, and were overjoyed to hear of the reboot of the series. There’s an episode early in the first season of the reboot called “Proposition Infinity” where Bender campaigns for “robosexual marriage” (between robots and humans). The episode actually brings up a lot of great discussion about what love really is, and in 2010 when the episode debuted, it was a great satire of the raging gay marriage debate (still raging today, for many states). I bring this up because “Her” (2013, Spike Jonze) is a refreshing look at how people develop relationships, and what the definition of a “real” relationship is.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes love letters for a living. It’s his job to come up with all the mushy notes that people write to their significant others/family members/spouses so that people don’t have to do all the romantic legwork themselves. Ironically, Theodore finds himself in the final stages of a divorce, and spends most of his free time playing video games or occasionally going out with a handful of friends. When Theodore sees an ad for OS1, the OS that is “not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” he decides to buy one. The resulting personality is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female consciousness that Theodore desperately needs in his life. Their relationship is more professional at first. Samantha is more of an AI personal assistant than a romantic partner, but quickly self-improves her programming to be there for emotional support and more. I won’t spoil where this is going. Just go see the film.
It’s hard for one actor to carry a film like this by themselves, for the most part, and Joaquin Phoenix does a phenomenal job in this role. His loneliness is palpable, and his joy is authentic as he begins to fall in love with Samantha. Different from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” headed by a lone Sandra Bullock, I’m not sure another actor could have done as well as Phoenix in that role, and I think any actress could have done what Bullock did in “Gravity” (Note: I thought she was excellent in the role). Additionally, Johansson’s voice talent as Samantha is nothing short of stellar. Her laugh is like music, and she really helps to bring to life the real feelings that the OS is processing.
It’s interesting that, in a live-action film, there’s so much voice work for characters who are never seen onscreen, even in a digital form. Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and even Spike Jonze himself voice some of the online personalities of “Her.” Each of these characters, despite their brief time as part of the plot, helps convey just how connected Theodore is to technology, and in doing so, shows him something about himself by the end of the film.
Speaking of lessons learned and how the film conveys them, William Butler and Owen Pallet rightly deserve the Academy Award nomination for best original score. Loads of mellow piano music sprinkled through the film perfect the melancholy tone of the movie, yet provide uplift in all the right places. Combined with the futuristic and minimalist production design, there’s lots of “space” in the film to help echo Theodore’s sense of loneliness as a character going through a divorce and conflicting feelings of falling in love with a computer program.
“Her” is a film that boldly steps in a new direction, exploring the very nature of human relationships and dependence on technology. Its three Academy Award nominations are well deserved, and it’s got my personal vote for Best Picture on lock.



Revisiting a Classic: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In the hit late 1990’s cartoon Recess, the teacher Ms. Finster devises a devilish punishment for the playground miscreants: the box. The protagonist, T.J. Detweiler, is forced to spend a whole ten minutes of his recess in the box. Referencing, of course, the first night in the prison camp for the titular character, this episode of Recess shows the lasting impact that Cool Hand Luke had on the collective memory of society. With an Oscar nomination for Paul Newman, and a win for Best Supporting Actor for George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke is one of those movies that gets constantly referred to in other pop culture. Still listed as 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes 46 years after its release, Cool Hand Luke is highly regarded as a classic film in every sense of the word.
A decorated war hero with a history of insubordination, Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) gets 2 years of hard labor in a Florida prison camp for drunkenly cutting the tops off of parking meters. He makes a quick enemy out of Dragline (George Kennedy), and after a boxing match in which Luke refuses to give up, they become fast friends, and Luke begins to emerge as a leader, motivating the inmates to finish paving a road in less than a day. After eating fifty eggs (“No man can eat fifty eggs!”), Luke truly gains “leadership” of the group, but is sent to the box by the Captain (the warden), fearing Luke will escape after he learns his mother has died. Luke makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, and his final attempt leaves the audience with a twisted end and an oddly-satisfying sense of Luke as a tragic hero.
Cool Hand Luke is a great example of the prison escape genre of film, utilizing many archetypes of characterization, such as a rebellious inmate who may be serving an unjust term (or not, as the case may be), a warden as the main antagonist, and the process of gaining respect from his fellow inmates. The camera spends a lot of time on Paul Newman, despite having a pretty loaded cast list, and being that Cool Hand Luke was shot at the height of his popularity as an actor, it’s no surprise the film features gratuitous scenes of Newman sans shirt. The eyecandy of Paul Newman is nothing, however, compared to the gorgeous composition of shots within the movie, often looking down at the prisoners, never up. It paints them in the light of exactly what they are: criminals. Additionally, the soundtrack is surprisingly versatile for 1967. The scene when Luke eats fifty eggs comes to mind, when another prisoner taps on Luke’s stomach, and is rewarded with a dull thudding sound, as if to say he couldn’t possibly consume another egg.
The famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” will forever be immortalized due to the film, even sampled by Guns ‘N’ Roses for “Civil War” on their Lose Your Illusion II album in 1991. Every film has its handful of haters, but as Captain states, “Some men, you just can’t reach.”


Review: Catching Fire (2013)

In the film industry, we talk a lot about the doom of the sequel. Thankfully, Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, is like The Two Towers, or as one reviewer put it, The Empire Strikes Back of the series. This is decidedly a good thing. When the first film came out, fans of the book trilogy (written by Suzanne Collins) were generally pleased with the result, but something felt off. With a new director at the helm and a bigger budget for the second go-around, Catching Fire is decidedly the better of the two films.
Set in a dystopian future where “Panem” is split into twelve districts controlled by the Capitol, and the venerable President Snow (Donald Sutherland) reigns with an iron grip. Two children from each district are chosen at random to participate in the Hunger Games, and District Twelve’s recent victors, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home, and prepare to go on a Victor’s Tour. However, things in Panem aren’t as happy-go-lucky as President Snow would have the people believe. Katniss and Peeta’s refusal to kill the other in the first film is seen as an act of rebellion rather than survival, and causes strife within the districts, begging the question of the necessity of the Games in the first place.
As always, Lawrence delivers a convincing and emotional performance. Katniss has grown as a person, just as Lawrence is growing as an actress, and Lawrence does another great job portraying the composure of Katniss, while allowing her vulnerable side to come out. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Haymitch is spot-on just as last time, being the drunken mentor to Katniss and Peeta, who still manages to come through for the pair and offer guidance as necessary. However, the film’s best performance, in my opinion, comes from Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Plutarch Heavensby, the man who replaced Seneca Crane as head gamemaker. Hoffman is as devious and cocksure as Heavensby, constantly advising President Snow to sit back and enjoy his spectacle, with his ever-devious smile and slicked-back silver hair. You don’t want to miss this performance, to be sure. However, the portrayal of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) left something to be desired. Claflin’s performance seemed if nothing else, mechanical. Odair is a man for whom the audience sympathizes greatly, however, Claflin struggles to be convincing as the outwardly-cocky and inwardly-wounded Finnick.
Acting performances aside, Catching Fire, much like its predecessor, does a fantastic job of bringing to life the characterization of each district. District Twelve is a stark and brutal world of coal miners, made worse by the crackdown of a new head Peacekeeper. District Eleven is a hair better, but only because they’re agricultural workers, as described in the novels. By contrast, the Capitol is an veritable cornucopia of impeccably-coiffured men and women sporting outlandish costumes and multicolored hairstyles. The architecture, too, reflects that of a utopian society with its ultra-modern styling and sharp lines. At a party, Katniss and Peeta are encouraged to vomit after consuming a large amount of food in order to eat more. It draws a stark contrast to the starving people of the districts, and the production design does a great job of showing this sharp contrast.
For fans of the book series, Catching Fire is another faithful representation of Suzanne Collins’ series. For fans who haven’t read the books, but enjoyed The Hunger Games as a film, again, this is a worthy sequel. Like many fans of the series, I’m excited to see what the third film, Mockingjay, will be like, split into two parts as the conclusion of all films-based-on-books have been in recent years. With Harry Potter, it was necessary, Twilight, perhaps. But Mockingjay? I’m not so sure, but I’ll hold my judgment until the film is released. For now, Catching Fire will just have to hold our attention and anticipation until the next release.


Review: Ender’s Game (2013)

The construct known as the Battle Room in Ender’s Game is a lot like the film itself. It’s got lots of elements that–when the viewer understands the action taking place–seems totally instinctive, but when the viewer may be an uninitiated member of the Enderverse, can seem awkward and at times, incoherent. Ender’s Game is a film adaptation of a novel of the same title, written in 1985 by Nebula Award-Winner Orson Scott Card. For decades, Card’s novel has been hailed as an outstanding piece of children’s literature, enjoyed by young and old alike, and spanning an entire series of excellent sequels and parallel novels, novellas, and short stories set in the same universe. According to an interview with Card by Wired, this film is the sixth attempt to put Ender’s Game on the big screen, and the only one that came to fruition.
Fifty years ago, the Formics (also known as “buggers” in the books) attacked Earth, looking to colonize our planet. We fought them off at the cost of millions of lives under the leadership of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), but we always knew they would return. The International Fleet (IF) instituted a program where the best and brightest children were sent to a special Battle School in orbit around Earth to train and become Earth’s next great commander against the Formics. Ender’s Game is the story of a young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who is thought to be just the commander Earth needs by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford).
It’s always tough to review a film of which you’re such an ardent fan of the book series it’s based on, and Ender’s Game is no exception. Additionally, it’s also unfair to judge the film solely based on its faithfulness to the book because, while the book is a sci-fi classic released 28 years ago, it’s still incredibly likely that audiences may not be familiar with the work at all. A film based on the book needs to be able to stand by itself.
That said, I had a few issues with the film itself. My first big qualm is the pacing. For such a short book (~350 pages, depending on your version, and even fewer when you discover that the film entirely cuts out the Peter/Valentine subplot, which I won’t discuss here–read the book!), the film moves way too fast, glossing over points that are important, and bringing up important pieces of backstory that easily could leave the uninitiated with a feeling of confusion. A great example of this is the fact that Ender is a Third. Families on earth are only allowed to have two children, and so it’s a big deal that the IF allows the Wiggin family to have a third child. This isn’t really touched on, other than in a flippant comment made by Ender himself. Throwing out multiple terms used in this world and then not defining them is a surefire way for audiences to begin with some confusion. In addition to bringing up terms related to the series and not explaining them, Ender’s Game allows itself to really just blow past every scene in the film. The entire film is a study in the sense of urgency felt by Colonel Graff and Major Anderson (Viola Davis), but this opportunity to create tension in the plot, the film feels like it’s in a race to the finish to get each scene over with as quickly as possible, with some relationships between Ender and his friends feeling glossed-over and robotic, all in the service of getting it over with. Lastly, I had a real problem with Butterfield’s acting in a handful of scenes. Ender is frequently frustrated in the film, and when getting worked up, Butterfield has a tendency to stop acting with any inflection or emotion in his voice and simply say his line. A handful of other characters are guilty of this, but it’s most glaringly evident in the main character. Despite that flaw in a couple shots, the vast majority of the film’s cast delivered believable performances, notably Harrison Ford as Graff, a man for whom the ends will always justify the means. He comes frequently at odds with Major Anderson on how much pressure to put on Ender, and the two of them have an obvious screen chemistry. Their arguments are a joy to watch.
As I said above, it’s unfair to knock a movie for doing things differently than in the book. That being said, there’s a few minor points in the novel that were overlooked in the film, and I feel that they warrant some attention. First off comes a technique that Ender used in the Battle Room. He has his army fold their knees up to their chest and freeze their own legs, using their lower body as a shield from which to fire between their legs with, and presenting a smaller target to the enemy. This is a critical part of the book, because it–coupled with a battle against two armies and the strategy used there–helped to foreshadow tactics used later in the film. It’s also a great example of how Ender uses the odds he faces to his advantage and creating unconventional ways to win. Secondly, Major Anderson is a man in the book. I don’t have a huge qualm with this for the simple fact that Viola Davis did a fantastic job as Anderson. Anderson is in charge of the Game at the Battle School, and also a child psychologist. Davis brings to the role a stronger sense of compassion than was portrayed in the novel, often arguing that Graff needs to give the kid a break. Finally, the setting of the film’s climax was just flat-out incorrect. There were characters not present that should have been, and the aforementioned Valentine/Peter subplot comes to a close at this time, as well. It’s a touching moment in the book, and I think the movie really missed an opportunity to show Ender’s more compassionate side.
Ender’s Game has some breathtaking visuals and a strong cast to back it up. Aside from a handful of hiccups in plot and acting, it’s a worthy film and the first of what will hopefully be several forays into the Enderverse of Orson Scott Card’s award-winning series. No book-based film ever lives up in comparison to its source material, however Ender’s Game has always been described by the author as a really challenging book to bring to the big screen because much of the driving force behind the plot happens within Ender’s mind. Orson Scott Card was happy with the way this film dealt with that challenge, and so was I.


Defending a Guilty Pleasure: The Case for “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” (2004)

Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan really loves his airplane, a modified P-40 Warhawk. He stresses over its condition constantly, grimacing every time it takes the smallest hint of damage. It’s a safe and familiar environment for him to do fantastic things. In much the same way, director Kerry Conran feels safe and familiar within the realm of classic science fiction, and uses the genre to its fullest potential in a number of innovating ways to create one of my favorite films.
It’s really hard to say something new about a divisive film like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, especially when you’re reviewing it nine years after its release. The fact is, that there are very few films of its ilk. Boasting some of the best visuals of the past decade and a visual style all its own, Sky Captain is one of those films that you either love or hate. Though critics seemed to mostly give it positive reviews (72% on Rotten Tomatoes), most users disliked the film (46%). Most of my friends have never heard of Sky Captain, and after explaining a bit about the film, they seem uninterested. I’m pretty sure they’re wrong, and here’s why.
Shot all on a soundstage using mostly bluescreen to fill in the environments, Sky Captain is a study in making a film almost entirely digital with the exception of live actors. Written and directed by Conran, Sky Captain is an homage to science fiction, comic books, and the radio broadcasts of the 1930’s and ‘40’s.
The film is based on a six-minute short by Conran, titled “The World of Tomorrow” in which some flying robots attack New York City. When the short was shown to John Aynet, he immediately picked it up, and Gwyneth Paltrow upon seeing the short volunteered for the film at a lower rate than usual. Centering around Joseph “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) and reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow), the duo uncover and attempt to stop a secret plot by the director of the mysterious Unit 11, Dr. Totenkopf (represented by deceased film star Sir Laurence Oliver, brought to life through the usage of archival footage) or risk the end of the world and all life as we know it.
One of the really great things with this film is its stylization and the usage of technology to create the world of the film. As mentioned previously, the entire film was shot on a soundstage, mostly with bluescreen. While some may see this as the beginning of the death of practical special effects and set building, it’s amazing to see how, even in 2004, such a feat was possible. The only parts of the film that weren’t digitally created were some sets, and the actors themselves. In crowds, extras were shot on the soundstage, and added in as needed in a number of places. This gives the film a very comic book-y feel in comparison to other films.
Speaking of the feel and style of the film, comic books are the perfect analogy here. There’s a few scenes towards the beginning, especially that give a feel of comic books brought to life, for example the crowd pointing towards the sky at the invading robots, or policemen raising their Tommy guns to defend New York, both in a group of three, one after the other. It’s noticeable enough to be iconic. Additionally, the film is in color, however, it’s colorized and filtered in such a way that it looks like an old photograph, with lots of fade, and each object in the frame has a “glow” about it. It looks like a classic science fiction film from the 1950’s and I love every minute of it. Everything from the costumes, to the dialog, to the design of the gadgets and robots in the film screams classic science fiction from this film. It’s an homage. A labor of love.
Finally, one of the great things about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is the sheer number of nods to other works within the film. A few of the bigger ones are Polly’s line “They’re crossing Sixth Avenue… Fifth Avenue… they’re a hundred yards away…” which is a direct quote from Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast hoax, the oversize radio tower when a distress message is sent to Sky Captain is a direct reference to now-defunct RKO studios, a picture of Godzilla in a brief glimpse of a Japanese newspaper, and the numbers “1138” in homage to George Lucas (whose first film was called THX 1138, and who later used the number in a variety of other ways in his other films). The list goes on, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t. The laundry list of classic references by the filmmakers shows the true labor of love that is Sky Captain, and makes the film that much more enjoyable for the style espoused in this film.
It’s not the greatest film of all time, but having such a poor popular response, and a mixed critical response, as a genre piece, I believe that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is worthy of the title “guilty pleasure.”
Except in my case, there’s nothing guilty about it at all.


Review: Anchorman 2 (2013)


Have you ever been reminded of an old favorite TV show or movie and go back to watch it, only to discover that it’s just not the same as you remember?  All the jokes are the same.  So are the characters and setting.  Anchorman 2 is a lot like that.  It remembers what it used to be and tries to imitate the original, but somehow, just doesn’t quite live up.

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is back again with his news team, and this time, he’s got a network gig.  After losing his cushy gig as the main anchor, Burgundy struggles to get back on top as the best anchor in America.  Similarly, Anchorman 2 struggles to make me think it’s the best comedy in a long time, which it certainly isn’t.

Anchorman 2 is yet another victim of the recent trend of trying to reboot franchises or make sequels to movies that have long lived past their prime.  The original is still smart and hysterical, but the reboot isn’t worth it, once again.  It relies on the same old jokes too many times during the film to really warrant much of my attention.  “Great [pop culture reference]’s [object]!” is Ferrell’s exclamation-of-choice too many times.  It isn’t funny, by the twenty-seventh time he yells it in the film, and it’s only mildly funny the first time.  It’s formulas like this that make me think the film is, all too often, trying too hard.

The advertising campaign and hype for this film really were what sold me on getting excited for part two of one of my favorite comedies.  Will Ferrell, love him or hate him, really surpassed himself with the public appearances and guest spots, most recently on ESPN in an interview with Peyton Manning.  The guest spots were nothing short of brilliant, and really helped to increase the “legend” of Ron Burgundy in the real world.

That said, it leads me into what I really liked about this film.  Once again, the news crew doesn’t fail to make me laugh hysterically.  There’s some great gags in the film that I won’t spoil here, but unfortunately, at least fifty percent of the film’s best moments are spoiled in the excessive number of trailers we’ve all seen online, on television, or in theaters.  By the time you see the jokes in context, some of them have lost their freshness.  The sheer ability for a film like this to be treading on what we know will be familiar territory, and still surprise me for the outrageously out-of-context humor is commendable.  These are the moments where Anchorman 2 is at its best, even though some of them probably go a bit too far.

I came into the film with low expectations, but to my surprise, they were surpassed.  That’s not to say, however, the film couldn’t have been a good sight better, because this film will fade into obscurity whenever the first one is mentioned.  I’ll admit, to be sure, that I laughed my way through Anchorman 2, but one for the ages, it is not.  I enjoyed watching the last hurrah of Anchorman, but one can only hope that they won’t go for broke and spawn a third film.  You stay classy, Ron.


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