Monthly Archives: March 2014

Movie Review: Her

HerTitle: “Her”

Director: Spike Jonze

Writer: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

A light and touching comedy, “Her” follows Theodore, a lonely writer going through a divorce who decides to upgrade his computer operating system to one of the first interactive artificial intelligences. As he gets to know Samantha (the A.I.), he realizes that he begins to develop feelings for her, something which he finds out is not that unusual and that others are developing relationships with A.I.’s as well. However, as Samantha begins to evolve and as she doesn’t have a body, things begin to change in their relationship, which has to evolve as Samantha and Theodore each begin to change.

This movie, while lightly comical like Spike Jonze’s other films (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) is actually a very deep look at relationships in general. The typical idea of relationships is that they are static entities. But in reality they are living and growing as the participants live and grow. “Her” take this concept to the extreme, essentially “birthing” Samantha as a fully grown entity of sorts and having her evolve beyond the ability of human understanding. Because of this, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship changes and evolves dramatically and quickly during the course of the movie, showing an extreme version of the fundamental problems that relationships can go through as they change.

But it’s still a comedy. Not a slapstick comedy, but a comedy. It’s an intelligent comedy that is acted very well by Joaquin Phoenix (who seems to be redeeming himself after the “I’m Still Here” fiasco) and Scarlett Johansson, even though we only hear Johansson’s voice. Yet the relationship they develop is believable, along with other character’s reactions to it, from acceptance to denigration, much as interracial relationships used to be handled (and still are in some places).

The problem is that because it involves a computer A.I., I can see some people labeling this movie as science fiction, which is completely unfair. It also has a very pastely production design and some odd fashion choices that some can find and have found distracting. This is a relationship comedy, through and through. It’s touching, it’s genuine, and it’s thoughtful in ways that few films manage to truly be. And it’s still a comedy. I know I keep saying that, but it’s worth the reminder.

“Her” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Nebraska

NebraskaTitle: “Nebraska”

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Bob Nelson

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Woody Grant is an old man with a history of alcoholism and is now suffering from dementia. When he receives a scam letter telling him that he has won one million dollars, he decides that he wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to personally collect his “winnings.” His son David, knowing this isn’t real, decides that he will drive his father to Lincoln personally. On the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne to visit his brother, and there David finds out more about his father’s past than he ever knew, since his father is a man of few words, and they discover who their friends really are.

“Nebraska” is a wonderful and touching film about a son discovering who his father really is as that man slowly slips away. Veteran character actor Bruce Dern finally gets his day in the lead role of Woody Grant, and, oh boy, does he knock it out of the park. June Squibb is wonderfully comical as Woody’s wife, Kate, who never stops talking and doesn’t seem to have any filter. Despite having a bit of a cantankerous relationship, it’s clear that they still care for each other.

The choice to shoot this film in black and white is interesting. Shooting in black and white is an incredibly difficult feat, as the lighting and camera control become so important to provide a contrast usually provided by color. But I can understand the choice. This is a character-centric movie. And constantly flooding the screen with views of colorful sweeping plains (this is Nebraska, afterall) behind the characters would be distracting. But it also gives the movie an older feel. We’re looking into Woody’s past, and the black and white visuals give us a feeling that we are seeing something old, as well gives the film a minimalist tone.

This is a touching and funny film that has deep layers despite its initial stark appearance. Alexander Payne has a talent for making light comedies that can still strike a serious note, and it’s worth the time to watch this film.

“Nebraska” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Philomena

PhilomenaTitle: “Philomena”

Director: Stephen Frears

Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, “Philomena” follows the story of disgraced political official turned journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who picks up a story about a woman who gave birth to child out of wedlock fifty years prior and has been looking for him ever since. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was forced to give her child up to and live in a convent, and the convent adopted her son out without telling her. Stonewalling her every time she tries to find out what happened to her son, Sixsmith and Lee learn that he was adopted by an American family and they travel to the U.S. in search of her lost child.

This story based on true events has a lot of twist and turns, including when Sixsmith finds out that he actually met her son at one point, giving him a personal stake in her story. It was quite interesting to see where the story ultimately wound up, and it takes some very unexpected turns, winding up where you probably wouldn’t guess if you don’t know the story.

The performances are outstanding, and Judi Dench deserves the Oscar nod for playing a precocious and funny but still forgiving Philomena. Steve Coogan is more dour in the film, but plays off Dench’s Philomena very well with a wry humor. Ultimately, this is a buddy movie where one doesn’t work without the other. They balance each other perfectly.

It’s a story that is concerning and at times infuriating, although told with a light and forgiving humor that strangely works. Dench and Coogan make a great team, and this film is worth your while, Don’t expect anything truly groundbreaking, but it’s a well-made and good movie that is quite enjoyable.

“Philomena” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a SlaveTitle: “12 Years a Slave”

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: John Ridley

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender

My rating 5 out of 5 stars

Solomon Northup was a born free black man and lived in New York prior to the end of slavery in the United States. Going on a tour that eventually took him to Washington D.C., he took ill one evening and awoke to find himself in chains and told he was a runaway slave named Platt. Kidnapped and sold into slavery, he spent the next 12 years of his life laboring on plantations in the Deep South until he was rescued.

Based on Solomon Northup’s book of the same name, which tells his real-life story, “12 Years a Slave” is difficult to watch. There are numerous floggings, scenes of physical and sexual abuse, violence, and betrayal. However, I would compare this to “Schindler’s List” in a couple of ways. First, while it is difficult to watch, it is also a film that you feel you must watch and endure because it’s a retelling of a true and sorry chapter in U.S. history. Secondly, it’s a film that his historically important. It chronicles this chapter and reminds us that we should not forget the wrongs that were done.

As of this writing, I have read part of the book this film is based on, and the movie stays fairly close to the book, although it makes some significant changes. However, they are not changes that detract from the movie, and were clearly done for editing purposes and time constraints. For example, most of the parts that discuss how a plantation operates are not in the movie, certain people are combined into single characters, and things of that nature. In no way do these changes detract from the impact this movie leaves.

While the acting is excellent, the directing and the editing are phenomenally well done. It’s clear that Steve McQueen had a real passion for telling this story, and it comes through to impact the audience. This is difficult to watch, but it is also difficult to forget, and it stays with you as a powerful film should.

“12 Years a Slave” earns 5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall StreetTitle: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writers: Terence Winter

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If there’s a movie that is angering, infuriating, frustrating, and yet oddly inspiring, it’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Based on the book of the same name by Jordan Belfort, this is his story. We follow him from his early days before he got his broker’s license, through the crash of 1987, the founding of Stratton Oakmont and the various illegal activities, drugs, and philandering, and ends around the time he is sent to jail and later becomes a motivational speaker.

Since this is a Scorsese film, you already know it’s going to be good, but he does switch things up so that his movies are different from each other. “The Wolf of Wall Street” conveys a sense of fun, not to mention incredible excess right down to it’s three hour runtime. We would almost expect a scene similar to the giant mountains of cocaine in “Scarface.” Everything in this movie is over the top. Excessive drugs, excessive sex, money being flung everywhere. There is no restraint shown anywhere in this movie.

The performances are excellent, as one would again expect in a Scorsese movie. DiCaprio is great as Belfort and turns in one of the best performances of his career. Jonah Hill is excellent as well, although it’s sometime difficult to figure out what his deal really is, and sometimes his teeth get distracting even if they are part of his character (something that Belfort notes in-movie). One of the great additions was Rob Reiner as “Mad Max” Belfort, Jordan’s father, called so because of his hair-trigger temper. Matthew McConaughey even has a brief role in the beginning, and he uses that role to impressive ends.

While the film tells a great and stylish story, it can seem very long. Like I said, the long runtime was probably part of the point, but by the end you might feel as though you’ve run a marathon. While there’s a runner’s euphoria afterwards and a feeling of accomplishment, I question whether we should need to feel that to get the most out of a movie.

A tale of excess and corruption, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a great look into a real-life character and criminal of our time, as well as a look at our time itself. With great performances and Scorsese’s impeccable style, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is worth watching if you have the time and endurance to make it through.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” earns 4 out of 5 stars.