Wednesday, February 26, 2014

HER

Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams,
Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara



"Her" is set in a futuristic LA where technology has completely taken over our lives. We meet Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) a loner (going through a divorce) who works as a letter composer for a company.  Basically he writes love letters for other people and he is quite adept at it. 

When he installs a new operating system (OS) in his computer, it completely takes over every aspect of his life. From sorting his files to arranging dates for him, "Samantha" is the name of the female voice that assists him. Soon enough, Theodore develops a very special bond with Samantha and even calls her his 'girlfriend'. 

This Spike Jonze directed piece thoroughly explores their relationship. It is a complex love story of a lonely man and his endearingly adorable OS.  In this day and age where social media reigns and social isolation is quite rampant, "Her" is a fitting tale of a pure connection, albeit it is between a human and his self aware computer personality.   

But this romantic connection would certainly ring a bell with anyone who has been in an online relationship.  A bond that develops from spending hours on end chatting with each other through an IM (instant messenger) facility.  A budding relationship that mostly unfolds through a monitor and a keyboard. But where one's most intimate feelings and sentiments are shared without the awkwardness of a face to face encounter.  It most certainly feels 'real' between the parties involved even though some skeptic would say otherwise.

I admit I've been in several of these online relationships so I could surely commiserate with Theodore's sentiments.  But having said that, there comes a point when  the normal thing to do is to go beyond the online chats and have a face to face encounter.  There lies the 'obstacle' for Theodore and Samantha.  She is not human and as we find out towards the ending, she has been programmed and uploaded several times in different computers so let's just say her loyalty is questionable.  Plus the glaring fact that she is NOT human.

Most of the background and landscape scenes were shot in Shanghai, China. Apparently in Spike Jonze's brilliant mind that is how Los Angeles would look like in the future. Strange looking skyscrapers, minimalist apartments that rely heavily on computer gadgets, people communicating through an earpiece and a small rectangular device.  It is all very well represented on screen and it plays out well with the alternative subject matter.

But the praises must go entirely to Joaquin Phoenix. He is in almost every scene but he underplays, bringing a gentle irony to his role even at the most climactic moments. He is mostly lost in his thoughts and those of the operating system moulded to fit his psyche.  His awkwardness and boyish giggles make him seem authentically vulnerable yet at the same time a sympathetic somewhat endearing character.

Even though we can’t see what Samantha looks like, her sultry voice is warm, caring and a bit playful at times. One would imagine that someone with such a nice (for lack of a better term) voice would have quite a pleasing personality if she was a real person. But the mere thought that she is voiced by the sensual Scarlett Johansson, you can't help but personify the face behind the voice.

I'd have to say that "Her" is not for everyone. If it were a food item, it would take an acquired taste to really appreciate and savor its uniqueness.  Yet what makes the film so provocative is that the nature of love, companionship and obsession is both universal and timely.  The contours of the relationship between Theodore and "Samantha" can easily be read as one between two normal people with all senses in tact. It’s a love story for our time and for all time.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE BOOK THIEF

Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush
Emily Watson, Nico Liersch

"Courage beyond Words"


This film starts with a creepy voice over. I say creepy because it is the Grim Reaper's voice and he is narrating the story of Liesel. A bit morbid if you ask me but I figure that is how it goes in the best selling book by Markus Zusak from which this film was adapted.  

Set during the second World War in a small German town, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse)  is adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Her foster parents are a childless working class German couple and as the film progressed, they hide a young Jewish man in their basement.  He is the son of a former war buddy of Hans whom he credits as saving his life.

The film also mentions briefly the Holocaust - mostly in association with Max (the one hiding in the basement) but it also shows how the Third Reich banned books which they said would undermine their superior race.  It also shows how they trained the youth to be certified Nazis members. 

The actors speak English with an on and off German accent which can be a bit distracting. Yet they are still able to personify their characters with just enough emotional flair as they can muster. 

There are certain loopholes in the development of the plot.  Certain scenes carried on at length while other side plots were largely left for the audience to decipher on their own.

Perhaps as I haven't read the book, I lacked some background information which could have explained the circumstances better.  In particular, towards the end where the scriptwriters seem to have run out of time so they squeezed it everything before the credits scrolled.

Overall, the film teaches us the importance of reading and how books play such an important role in our upbringing. It also presents a perspective on the ordinary lives of the citizenry from the other spectrum of the equation - the Germans.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

THE MONUMENTS MEN

George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman,
Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban,
Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin

"It was the Greatest Art Heist in History"


All this time, I thought that "The Monuments Men" was shown in 2013. In most of his interviews, George Clooney kept talking about this project like it was an opus. Ok, granted that he was the one who directed it, I guess we should allow him to gloat a little.  

Yet half way through the film which is based on a true story, this nagging feeling crept up on me that Clooney was doing a poor job in presenting the story of this brave group of men. Towards the end of the second World War, a platoon was formed that consisted of highly esteemed art curators and art historians. They were tasked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to salvage and redeem vast amount of masterpieces that was looted by the Nazis. Upon their retrieval, it should be returned to their rightful Jewish owners/collectors. They chose to call themselves "The Monuments Men". 

Instead, Clooney (yes I blame him since he co-wrote it as well) turned his film into a comedy. As Capt. Frank Stokes, (George Clooney) the head of the platoon, he paired his 'crew' into twos and assigned them to different parts of Europe to search for the hiding places of the valuable loot. Thus we are inundated with scenes of comedic pairings where one is basically a sidekick of the other.  Set along to really loud annoyingly irritating 'comical' music whenever they had a breakthrough in their task.  

Then Clooney throws in a love angle for Matt Damon's character, James Granger with Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett with a phony French accent), the secretary of a high ranking Nazi officer who kept records of every piece of artwork which passed through her office for documentation purposes. It is her record books which finally gave the Monuments Men valuable information on the whereabouts as well as the real owners.

The Monuments Men could have been a great movie, had it highlighted the dangers in the clandestine work of this special platoon. Instead, they were portrayed as caricatures who goofed around like they were on a picnic instead of being in the forefront of the various battlefields in Europe.  It is very unfortunate, they were not given a proper tribute for their thankless job in accomplishing such a gargantuan task.

I guess the mere fact that he cast comedians (like Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban) would have been an indication. He added humor to drum up the interest in the story. But this angle immensely diminishes the very people he wanted to honor by making this film.  The ensemble cast though are composed of very talented actors who unfortunately were not able to draw out the true personalities of the characters they were portraying. 

"The Monuments Men" truly wanted to recall an important part of history by showing the effects of war on not only the soldiers, civilians, and society. But also the devastating costs on the damage done to art masterpieces. It is imperative we preserve the arts and culture for the future generation to have a better understanding of history.  But the film missed its mark by presenting a boring film that could not hold the audience's attention let alone its interest in knowing exactly what happened and how it happened.

Monday, February 10, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper,
Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

"Everyone Hustles to Survive"


The film starts with Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) painstakingly arranging his comb over in front of a mirror with an unbuttoned shirt showing his beer gut hanging out of his hairy chest. If you are sensitive, you would cringe at this very unpleasant sight. But if you not, you will chuckle and watch as he puts in a lot of effort for his hair piece to look 'perfect'.

I believe it is the same with director David O. Russell as he goes to great lengths to showcase the compelling story about a pair of con artists.  His keen eye to make everything look authentic from the characters' wardrobe, their hair style as well as the entire neighborhood is praiseworthy.

Set in the 1970's and early 1980's, it involves an elaborate scheme hatched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation aided by a convicted con-man (Irving Rosenfeld) to set up corrupt politicians who accepted bribes. All of these incidents are captured on videos. This sting led to nearly a dozen arrests including U.S. senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a handful of other politicians in the state of New Jersey. This is the reason, the disclaimer "some of this actually happened"  was flashed across the screen at the beginning of the film.

So while this whole sting incident did occur, Russell's film is also highly fictional with regards to the life of conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner in crime and in bed Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). When Rosenfeld is caught, he makes a deal with an ambitious rogue FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him capture other con artists.  

But the operation takes on a whole different dynamic when politicians enter the picture.  Suddenly, the entrapment shifts from simply setting up con men to capturing as many politicians on the take as possible. 

The viewer must be warned to keep their eyes and ears wide open and see beyond all the big hair, the comb over, the cleavage and the whole 70s retro stuff.   Essentially, there is a complex storyline which sublimely unfolds with a nice plethora of 70s songs in its soundtrack.  Many multidimensional characters are thrown in the mix and side plots overlap with the main story ... so it can be quite confusing to keep up with everything that is going on.  

Yet the impressive ensemble cast composed of talented actors (who have all worked together at some point in some of Russell's previous movies) do more than their share to make "American Hustle" an engrossing film to watch.  

There are lessons to be learned and messages to be absorbed even when we are distracted by the height of Jeremy Renner's hair, Christian Bale's comb over, Bradley Cooper's hair curlers, Jennifer Lawrence's nail polish and Amy Adams' cleavage!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson,
Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson,
Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman

"Remember who the enemy is"


I saw the first installment of this franchise and I liked its premise. More so than the one with the vampires and the werewolves. Yet when "Catching Fire" first came out in the theaters, I passed on it as I tend to be a non conformist and didn't want to see it just because the whole world was viewing it.  Heh!

I just learned that one of my favorite supporting actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a heroin overdose.  It's really sad but he leaves us with a wide array of movies to view and cherish. It will always be a worthy testament to his brilliant acting skills.

So to honor his memory, I searched my folder of movies to find an appropriate one that showcased his talent. I thought that "The Master" was too heavy (will probably see it one day!) so I settled with Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is cast as Plutarch Heavensbee, the overall coordinator of the Hunger Games. His character takes over the previous gamemaker who had to suffer the consequences of his bad decision to let two tributes win the Games.    It is a short role but highly significant and sadly he wasn't able to finish shooting his scenes for the final story in this trilogy.

"Catching Fire" takes off a year after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) won. As part of their 'reward', they have to go on a propaganda tour to all the districts to promote the Games. But there is an undercurrent of rebellion festering in the districts as the citizens demand more freedom from the totalitarian form of government run by President Snow.

To get their minds off their grumbling rants, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to stage another game, The Quarter Quell.  It is like an All Stars version of the Hunger Games as all 24 previous winners are the tributes who will battle each other for the ultimate title.

New cast members (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone) play some of the other tributes who are all well developed characters.  While Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland all reprise their roles as the characters we have grown to like, love and/or hate.

The film still packs a lot of action filled sequences especially once the Quarter Quell games start rolling.  But there is a darker, more gritty edge to the plot as evidenced by the growing rebellion in the districts. It adds more intense drama in the backdrop while the the otherwise fun form of  "entertainment" is splashed across huge TV screens.  It is staged yearly as a form of escape from the doldrums yet now more than ever the populace are getting restless and use the Games as a catalyst for reforms from the oppressive regime of President Snow.

Of course, the real standout in the film is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen.  We see her grow from the naive 'hunter' in the first film to a more mature woman with a lot of anger and angst eating up inside her. She is torn between fulfilling her role as one of the winners and her personal battle to escape from all the pageantry and manipulation orchestrated by the authorities. She has more axes to grind even as she is seen parading in her full regalia to please the crowd at the Capitol.   Jennifer Lawrence was born to play this role and whatever role she is cast in, she never fails to disappoint.

"Catching Fire" ended quite abruptly perhaps to build up the excitement and anticipation for the finale.   Yet I think they should have handled it with more finesse as the sudden and quite brutal cliffhanger was too jarring to the senses. More so as you know you need to wait a whole year just to know the conclusion but by then our short term memory would have forgotten all the essential elements!   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig,
Sean Penn, Adam Scott

"Stop Dreaming. Start Living."


Based on the classic story by James Thurber, Ben Stiller directs and casts himself in the lead role as Walter Mitty.  An introverted man who works in the photography department of LIFE Magazine. He is stuck in a monotonous job so he escapes by zoning out and daydreams about a much more vicarious life.

But his life is about to drastically change as he discovers that the negative of the photo for the magazine's final cover (it is ceasing publication and venturing into the online format) is missing. Walter, with the encouraging help of a co-worker/love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), springs into action on a quest to solve the case of the missing negative from its source.

Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) is the famed yet reclusive veteran photographer who captured the missing shot, now known as negative no. 25.  This journey to hunt down O'Connell leads Walter through Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Along the way, he reignites former passions, like skateboarding and hiking, and his daydreams become more and more unnecessary.

Whimsical is the word that comes to mind when I think about this movie. Ben Stiller does an excellent job in presenting and acting out this unique character.  His able direction, buoyed by a vivid cinematography and a good soundtrack of suitable songs is well paced. The story has all the right mixture of comedy, action and drama.

This movie kicks quite a punch with its apparently obvious message. Many of our (day) dreams are just a few steps away from being realities. All it takes is self determination and a strong belief that it is all within our reach.  So stop whining and complaining and go out there and grasp the opportunity to turn the ordinary into extraordinary adventures!
 

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