2013 Movies

Her

Sometimes movies take you back to a painful place in your life, or they can open your mind and heart to untold possibilities.  The movies that resonate most with me are those like Her, which struck an emotional chord with its subtle, deeply moving performances and beautiful cinematography.  The film captures the very essence of what it feels like to be in love, from those early stages of rapture, to the uncertainty and fear experienced when a once vibrant love affair begins to dwindle.  To be in love is to feel new and alive in a way that you’ve never felt before, and director Spike Jonze (Where The Wild Things Are) has given us a very interesting, moving film.

The film is set in an unspecified period in the future.  Jonze doesn’t overwhelm us with flying cars or anything too deep within the realm of sci-fi; rather he shows us a very plausible world where our gadgetry and technology are significantly advanced.  We’re introduced to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, The Master), a quiet unassuming man who works as a “letter writer,” an odd profession involving personalized hand-written correspondence akin to a greeting card.  Theodore seems reclusive, but he isn’t without social graces.  We see him interact with others, but there is a hint of social ineptitude.  One day he purchases a new operating system for his computer, and his life begins to change.

The operating system is an interactive upgrade, capable of basic tasks like reading his email, but much more.  If a person were able to read your emails, check your browsing history, read every tweet or Facebook post you’ve ever written, and all of the appointments in your calendar – a picture would begin to emerge.  The operating system can do this in an instant, and so it quickly learns about Theodore’s personality and the recent events in his life, including a pending divorce.  Theodore was able to choose the operating system’s gender, and chose a female that ultimately named herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon).  Initially he uses Samantha as a functional tool, but she is so advanced that she responds emotionally to him.  Eventually they form the equivalent of a long-distance relationship, conversing regularly and bonding deeply.  Samantha is able to share Theodore’s world because there is a camera on his mobile device and he can hear her with an earpiece.  They go on “double dates,” and even have phone sex.

I don’t really want to discuss the plot any further; I think I’ve set it up for you sufficiently.  I’d rather point out the things that I enjoyed about the film.  Firstly, Phoenix turns in one of his most memorable performances.  This guy is really talented when he’s not making faux documentaries (I’m Still Here).  Theodore and Samantha’s “relationship” waxes and wanes, and the slight tonal shifts Phoenix conveyed were outstanding.  The ebb and flow of their relationship was fascinating, because Samantha is never pictured (obviously).  That means that Phoenix has no counterpart to physically play off of, and that Johansson must do EVERYTHING with her voice.  It was brilliant.

Secondly, Jonze did some incredible things from a visual perspective.  The staging and usage of color and light was genius.  In one scene, Phoenix is shown up close as sunlight filters through the camera lens, the drops of sunlight flickering to and fro. We feel the emotional connection between characters and feel like we are taking the journey with Theodore.  In another scene, Samantha composes a melodic ditty that perfectly captures the shared moment between the two.  Sound, light, and color blended perfectly as we witnessed a magical emotional display.

Some may reduce this movie to its plot and say that it’s about a man who falls in love with his computer – but that would be a disservice to the filmmaker and all involved.  This was a film about love and that deeply human connection that we so desperately need to establish with another person – whether we admit it or not.  And while Samantha wasn’t human in the actual sense, we never doubted the authenticity of their connection – and that’s kind of what makes the movie so special.  When you’re in love the sun shines brighter.  You view the world through different eyes, and Her captured this perfectly.  There were elements that reminded me of Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – so if you liked anything about either of those movies, I think you’ll enjoy.  Grade: A-

The Wolf of Wall Street

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”  There are few among us whose lives embody the words of famed journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but some people come close.  Jordan Belfort was such an individual, setting Wall Street ablaze in the early 90s like a real life Gordon Gekko on crack.  No, really.  On crack.

Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby) began humbly, learning the ropes as a rookie stockbroker at a modest Wall Street firm under the tutelage of senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McCounaghey, Dallas Buyers Club).  Hanna’s words of advice would form the blueprint for Belfort’s lifestyle, with Hanna advising him on everything from drug usage to a schedule for self-pleasuring.  Belfort did well for himself, a natural salesman gifted with a silver tongue.  That gift of gab would serve him well after his first brokerage house folded and he found himself selling penny stocks in a Podunk “firm” off the beaten Wall Street path.  It’s a huge step down at first glance, but Belfort quickly realizes an untapped gold mine.

Soon, Belfort was suckering pitiful souls out of their investment in a pump and dump scheme that left him with eyes on even bigger sights.  He recruited a handful of buddies back home, various hustlers in their own right.  With a trusted core in place, he opened his own firm called Stratton Oakmont, applying all that he’d learned to much bigger fish.  Dealing exclusively with wealthy investors, their profits increased even more and they were making money hand over fist.  Raucous office parties including hookers and cocaine were not uncommon, and capitalist hedonism ruled the day.

The film chronicles Belfort’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall from the precipice of a lifestyle filled with sex, drugs and a never-ending supply of money and women.  Scorsese effectively pulled back the curtain, exposing a lifestyle that few of us will ever witness.  Belfort’s indifference about the lives he ruined took a backseat to his zealous pursuit of the almighty dollar.  It was a familiar motif, with greed serving as faceless antagonist.  Eventually Belfort will burn out, and if the law doesn’t get him, the drugs will.

DiCaprio’s character was abhorrent, but there was a devil-may-care affability that I found likable – at least initially.  If you like to root for the bad guys in movies, it’s one of many reasons you’ll love this film.  DiCaprio has the astounding ability to immerse himself in a role so deeply that I don’t even see him anymore.  He was Jordan Belfort.  Although Belfort’s professional judgment was morally bereft, DiCaprio showed the duality of the character through the loyalty of his personal relationships – particularly his friendships.  Enter Jonah Hill (This Is The End) as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s neighbor who observes his lifestyle and wants in.   Hill is really a gifted comedic actor, evincing versatility with a perfect balance of humor and levity.  From Superbad to Moneyball, his range is impressive and was on full display here.

Belfort’s story was the inspiration behind 2000’s Boiler Room, and comparisons to that movie and others of its ilk such as Wall Street are nearly inevitable.  Where Wolf surpasses its predecessors is in its deft storytelling, courtesy of Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) and Belfort’s source material.  Furthermore, Martin Scorsese hasn’t missed a beat as a filmmaker.  The same man that brought us seminal classics Goodfellas and Casino nearly 20 years ago is just as adept behind the camera now as he was back then.  In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me of Goodfellas in many ways, from the immediate narration of its protagonist to the hallmark Scorsese score.

The film was unquestionably a vehicle for DiCaprio’s talents, but the supporting performances were nearly as strong, with impressive turns from the aforementioned Hill and Margot Robbie (Pan Am), who smoldered as Belfort’s mistress turned second wife Naomi.  I initially resisted the prevailing notion that DiCaprio was one of the preeminent actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to agree.  His resume tells no lies, and this performance ranks right up there with the likes of his turn in The Departed, although he did not receive an Oscar nomination for that role.  He’ll certainly receive one here, and he couldn’t be more deserving.  He and Scorsese are every bit the tandem that Scorsese and DeNiro once were, and this pairing might be their best.  Grade: A.

This post first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

American Hustle

For me there’s nothing like that familiar buzz of excitement I feel when I’m anticipating a new movie.  I eagerly awaited American Hustle because crime dramas are among my favorites, and I looked forward to the reunion of Oscar nominee David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and charismatic lead actors Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).  Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), and Jeremy Renner (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) rounded out the talented cast, making for a promising lineup.  Awards season is upon us, and you’ll hear lofty praise for American Hustle in the coming weeks and months.  While it’s not the instant classic I thought it might be, I found its performances to be nearly flawless – and it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.

The film takes place in 1978, and much like my fascination with Argo I have a personal interest in a depiction of the time period around which I was born.  The film centers on the relationship between three people: a con-artist couple and the federal agent with whom they cut a deal to avoid jail time.  Irving and Sydney (Bale and Adams) have a passionate, tumultuous relationship based on a shared, volatile chemistry essential to their grifter lifestyle.  There is genuine affection between the two, but the dynamic of their relationship is inherently complicated.  Irving is mired in a loveless marriage to Rosalyn (Lawrence), an immature, impetuous woman from whom he cannot extricate himself.  Despite their apparent unhappiness, they have a lasting connection that isn’t easily broken.

Irving’s loyalty to Rosalyn and her young son preclude him from making a clean break in favor of Sydney, and this drives a wedge between the pair despite their uncanny success at separating fools from their money.  After being caught mid-hustle by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), Sydney and Irving are given little choice other than to cooperate with authorities by bringing in some proverbial bigger fish.  Richie is ambitious and wants to make a big splash with a significant bust; he’ll do anything to break up a major criminal enterprise.   His “cowboy” attitude jeopardizes Irving and Sydney, as they’re the ones who must do the double-crossing of any prospective mark.  As their relationship woes increase, Sydney grows less enamored with Irving and more willing to exact a measure of revenge with Richie, who is all-too compliant.  Whose side is she on, and are two well-oiled hustlers really ready to drop a dime?

David O. Russell delivers once again, always able to elicit the best performances from Cooper and Lawrence.  Cooper is starting to bring a characteristic realism to his roles, and there was a manic, visceral quality about his performance.  Bale turned in another transformative performance as the well-intentioned Irving.  His character could have easily been a sleazebag, but Bale made him a sympathetic figure for which viewers could feel compassion.  Lawrence made her supporting role a layered and textured one, conveying subtle depth beyond first blush.  Russell’s storytelling was superb, and I appreciated the briefly non-linear way he began the film.  The performances were buttressed by authentic cinematography and costuming, which masterfully captured the era.  The movie seemed to get a little stodgy about halfway through, but I thought it rebounded well in its final act.  Definitely worth checking out.  Grade: B+

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I’m reluctant to admit when some of my favorite actors or actresses fail to deliver.  This time, it’s the flavor du jour, Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).  I adore her as much as everyone else does, don’t get me wrong.  Her unassuming demeanor and down-to-earth personality make her a breath of fresh air in Hollywood, not to mention her undeniable talent. That being said, her presence wasn’t enough to elevate The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to my lofty expectations.

When we last saw Katniss Everdeen, she had emerged victorious from The Hunger Games alongside Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right).  Both temporarily left their lives in District 12 behind as they fought to survive in a Darwinian cage match.  Pulling the strings was President Snow (Donald Sutherland, Horrible Bosses), a subtly nefarious plutocrat who kept the majority of the citizenry under his thumb after a failed uprising.  When Peeta and Katniss return home to District 12 things are bleaker than ever, as people scramble for essential resources.  President Snow wanted to use the Hunger Games as a twisted tool of both oppression and inspiration, as participation is involuntary, yet contestants are expected to fight proudly on behalf of their district.

Snow recognizes Katniss’ influence, and feels threatened by its implications for his own stranglehold on the populace.  He doesn’t want another uprising and must smite Katniss’ influence before she galvanizes the people.  He mandates that the next Hunger Games will be comprised solely of past champions. Talk about the odds not being in your favor.  Once again Peeta and Katniss must battle to the death, only this time their competition is infinitely more formidable.  Katniss’ team of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, Movie 43) try their best to prepare she and Peeta for the challenges that lay ahead, though Katniss is overly protective of Peeta, perhaps feeling guilty for not completely returning his feelings.  They must form new alliances if they want to survive; yet Katniss senses that the stakes are even higher this time.

I haven’t read the books on which the movies are based, and perhaps that explains some of my opinions regarding this sequel.  I was very intrigued by the concept of a “best of the best” Hunger Games, but the actual competition portion of the movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  I won’t elaborate too much, so as not to spoil it for you, but I don’t think the competitive dynamic between contestants was as exciting as it could’ve been.  I also thought the movie ended very abruptly and left me wanting more.  This was odd, considering the lengthy run time – but a friend explained to me that the book ends equally abruptly.  Oh.

Finally, we come to Ms. Lawrence.  Save for one scene, I wasn’t that impressed with her performance.  She was beautiful and striking as Katniss, but the actual quality of her performance left me wanting more – and I know she’s capable of it because I’ve seen it.  I’ll give you a small example, and feel free to disagree.  If you’re supposed to be crying – I expect your face to be dampened with tears.  I think that’s a simple expectation, but it’s one that wasn’t met here.  I’m still in the tank for J-Law, but maybe she needs weightier material like Winter’s Bone to truly flourish.  I look for her turn in American Hustle to make me forget I ever faulted her abilities.  Final verdict?  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was pretty good.  Not great.  Grade: B.

The Best Man Holiday

I’ve always enjoyed ensemble movies.  They’re entertaining and usually characterized by good chemistry amongst the cast, as well as layered performances.  Fourteen years ago viewers were introduced to a group of college friends who were reuniting for a wedding in The Best Man.  Lance (Morris Chestnut, Kick-Ass 2) and Mia (Monica Calhoun, Love & Basketball) were college sweethearts tying the knot after a fulfilling but trying relationship that tested Lance’s fidelity.  The titular best man was Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, Between Us), best friend of Lance and good friend to the couple.  In the days leading up to the wedding, friendships were tested, but love prevailed.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the friends have experienced a large measure of success.  Jordan (Nia Long, Mooz-Lum) has become an even more powerful television producer, though she is still unmarried.  Harper and Robin (Sanaa Lathan, Contagion) have married and both have enjoyed success as a best-selling author and chef, respectively.  Julian (Harold Perrineau, Snitch) and Candace (Regina Hall, Think Like a Man) are married with children and have opened a charter school for children.  Shelby (Melissa De Sousa, Miss Congeniality) is hilarious as one of those fame-hungry “Real Housewives” that the Bravo network has made famous, and Quentin (Terrence Howard, Prisoners) has also made his mark in the entertainment industry, irreverently charming as ever.  Once again, Lance and Mia are requesting the honor of everyone’s presence.  This time they are inviting everyone and their families for a holiday weekend of fun at their New York estate.

In a group of friends, you will find all sorts of emotional dynamics at play.  Usually at least one person will have entertained a romantic or lustful thought about another friend.  In the movie, Jordan and Harper have a history, and Harper and Mia have a history.  There are residual emotions that have lain dormant over the years, including envy and guilt.  Secrets abound, as everyone isn’t quite as successful as they appear to be.  Harper’s last novel flopped, and he’s suffering from writer’s block.  Julian’s school is in financial trouble, and Jordan seems like a commitment phobe destined for a life of solitude with her blackberry, despite having a handsome boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian, Good Deeds).  Most significantly, Lance hasn’t truly forgiven Harper for old transgressions.  He and Mia seem to be hiding something, even though by outward appearances they have it all.  When the gang is reunited, old insecurities (and drama) resurface.

Although I’ve mentioned the original film, I don’t think it is a necessary prerequisite for viewing the sequel.  Director Malcolm Lee masterfully referenced the original movie in the opening credits, neatly updating the audience on all that has transpired since 1999.  Brief but pertinent flashbacks to The Best Man created the perfect opening scene, from both a functional and artistic perspective.

The performances were solid, with Taye Diggs turning in the most impressive effort, in my opinion.  In the original movie, Terrence Howard stole the show and has subsequently had the most commercial and critical success, but here it was Diggs whose performance touched me most.  The storyline called for some emotionally draining subject matter, and the movie takes a melodramatic turn in its third act.  I liked the weightiness and relevance of the storyline, but it did get a little corny towards the end.  I’m really only thinking of one scene in particular, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think it detracted from the movie.

I hate to sound like a cliché, but I laughed and I cried.  I was entertained throughout, and I thought Lee recaptured much of what made the first movie so enjoyable.  The characters had distinct, relatable personalities that were clearly drawn and familiar.  The cast enjoyed a chemistry with one another that made viewers feel like they were catching up with old friends themselves.  While I don’t expect The Best Man Holiday to unseat Thor as the #1 movie in America, I know that most who saw it found it immensely entertaining.  I was looking forward to this one, and I wasn’t disappointed one bit.  Grade: B+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Dallas Buyers Club

My quest to see the Oscar nominees continues, as I decided to check out Dallas Buyers Club last week.  Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street) stars in the semi-biographical account of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, a patient who sought alternative means of procuring medication after being frustrated domestically by U.S. pharm laws and their attendant bureaucracy.  McConaughey is enjoying a career renaissance, having recently shed his image as a rom-com mainstay in favor of more complex, challenging roles.  In Dallas Buyers Club, his career continues its surprising divergence as he gives a tour de force performance.

Woodroof is a hard-living rodeo rider, depicted as the macho, archetypical cowboy. He is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live, facing the unbelievable realization that his life is over.  His friends ostracize him, believing that he is homosexual.  Now a pariah, Woodroof’s options are limited.  When his doctors suggest that he participate in an AZT trial, he signs up in the hopes that he won’t receive the placebo.  He feels helpless and at the mercy of his doctors, as he’s unable to guarantee that he’ll receive AZT in the trial and unable to purchase it out of pocket due to FDA regulations.  Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) co-stars as Eve, a doctor who finds genuine friendship in the ailing Woodroof.

Desperate for life prolonging drugs, but unable to secure them from American doctors, Woodroof begins to obtain AZT illegally from a source inside the hospital.  This routine transaction leads to a connection in Mexico, and soon Woodroof is smuggling drugs into the U.S. and selling them out of the trunk of his car to other patients, many of who were in the AZT trial.  Only these drugs are different.  While in Mexico, Woodroof meets the rogue Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, Broken City), who educates him about the deleterious effects of AZT and administers a cocktail of various supplements and vitamins that will be more effective.  The components aren’t FDA approved for usage in the U.S., but as a man on borrowed time, what does Woodroof have to lose?  Soon he is smuggling the product back to Texas and selling it to patients as an AZT alternative.  As clientele and profits grow, he decides to form a club where the black market drugs are given freely with the cost of membership.  If you aren’t a member of the Dallas Buyers Club, he can’t accommodate you.

During a previous hospital stay, Woodroof reluctantly befriended a fellow patient and trial participant named Rayon, a sensitive transvestite beautifully portrayed by Jared Leto (Chapter 27).  Initially Woodroof’s homophobia prevents any real connection, but eventually they bond through the futility of their shared condition and warmth of companionship.  The film takes us on an emotional journey as Woodroof grapples with his own fateful mortality, while becoming a cult crusader in the field of healthcare reform.  Why should it be illegal for him to improve what little life a dying person has left?

The filmmakers explore our notions of morality and justice, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit and will to survive.  McConaughey’s dedication and preparation for the role cannot be denied.  The physical transformation he undertook resulted in the gaunt, haggard appearance of a dying man.  I can’t imagine the wealth and depth of emotion it takes to convey the despair and frustration of impending death, and then to reveal a flicker of hope and passion as you fight for a larger cause.  Bravo.

Everything I just said about Matthew McConaughey can be applied in equal measure to Jared Leto, who gave a performance that shows he can hold his own with anyone.  It was beautiful and courageous, and I have a hard time deciding if he or Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is more deserving of an Academy Award in their supporting category.  Dallas Buyers Club was poignant, but inspiring.  It will challenge your perceptions about disease and how you treat others; it will connect you with your own humanity.  Although certain aspects of the film were draining to witness, I thought it was meaningful and deserving of its critical acclaim.  Grade: B+

Ender’s Game

Sometimes a movie takes you by surprise.  I had no desire to see Ender’s Game until a friend suggested it.  The science fiction genre isn’t a real draw for me, and neither are kid-themed movies.  That being said, Ender’s Game was darn good.  Based on a novel of the same name, the film chronicles the development of Ender, a young boy who is destined to save Earth.

The movie begins at an unspecified future date, after the planet has narrowly survived an intergalactic battle about 20 years prior.  The military believes that the best defense is a good offense, and looks to the best and brightest children to form the army of tomorrow.  This underlying premise was fascinating to me.  There’s something creepy about viewing children in adult-like settings and situations rather than the protective lens through which they are usually portrayed.  Here, the characters behaved like adults, displaying both callousness and wisdom beyond their years.  Despite their maturity and the responsibilities with which they’re tasked, the viewer never forgets that these are just kids – even if they don’t act like it.

Among the gifted recruits, young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) quickly distinguishes himself.  Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford, Paranoia) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis, Prisoners) of the army identify leadership qualities in Ender.  He is compassionate without being weak, strategic rather than emotional in his decision-making.  When provoked, he will defend himself, but he does not need to intimidate others.  He is gifted but humble, secure that his abilities will speak for themselves – thereby precluding the need to best his classmates.  Ender is the perfect balance of compassion and aggression.

After identifying the best of the best, Colonel Graff and his collection of multi-culti super kids head to space for training.  Ender’s abilities may have Graff and Anderson hooked, but they do nothing to endear him to his peers, who are envious of all the attention he receives.  Eventually he wins over the other recruits by showing that he will stand up for himself and challenge authority.  To put it simply, some people are natural born leaders, and Ender is special.  This was highlighted in a really great scene where Ender masterminds a winning strategy in a critical training exercise.  While Ender goes through his training, Graff and Anderson keep a watchful eye on their prized pupil.

In the movie’s final act, Ender must complete his training successfully before being entrusted with command of the International Army.  The fate of humanity depends on his readiness to protect Earth.  I won’t spoil the movie’s resolution, but hopefully I’ve said enough to entice you.  I enjoyed the psychological elements of the movie; from the way Ender expertly navigated the social pitfalls posed by the other recruits, to the manner in which Graff and Anderson dissected his behavior.  Asa Butterfield was a charismatic leading young man, and he embodied the character well.  I was so taken by the movie that I thought about naming my kid Ender if I ever have a son.  Yeah, I’m buggin’.

Grade: B+