Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: Her

Spike Jonze is the master of off-the-wall experimental movie ventures.  Having helmed such creative visions as Being John Malcovich (loved it), Where the Wild Things Are (missed it) and Adaptation ( HATED IT), Jonze is anything but your typical cookie-cutter Hollywood director.  With his latest futuristic AI/Human love story Her, he continues to bring original stories to the big screen.  Her plays out a unique love story that touches on what makes us human and illustrates the growing reliance on technology in our society.

Starring the rejuvenated Joaquin Phoenix (so glad he decided to give up his rap career), Amy Adams (girl is on a ROLL these days), Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde and featuring the raspy voice of Scarlett Johansson, Her focuses on Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a separated loner who in the midst of a divorce begins a relationship with a new computer operating system named Samantha (Johansson). In the not-too-distant future, everyone has an earpiece to listen to their music, hear emails and chat with their computerized assistants (OSes - short for Operating Systems).  Theodore begins the film by playing lots of melancholy music while traveling to and from his job as a handwritten letter-writer, sort of a ghost writer for people who don't have time to write meaningful letters themselves.  We can tell he's in a funk and his impending divorce to Mara's character is affecting his ability to meet new people.  He confides in his friend (Adams), tries to go on a date or two (with Wilde) but ultimately finds his most meaningful relationship with Samantha, his new OS.

Most of the film explores the coupling of Theodore and Samantha.  Samantha is a learning OS and discovers her love for Theodore, while expressing her frustration of not having a physical form to actually "be" with him.  Phoenix does an outstanding job of portraying a socially awkward man who starts to enjoy life again with his new companion.  His soft spoken delivery and shy mannerisms all seem authentic and it proves once again that Phoenix is one of the best actors of his generation.  While we don't get the pleasure of watching Johansson in this film, her verbal performance as Samantha is perfect and should actually receive some Oscar consideration.  Her playful, humorous tone makes it seem like an OS could actually be your friend and companion.  Adams is great once again as the friend that Theodore confides in.  She gives a muted performance that is far different from her brilliant turn in American Hustle.

What Jonze has done with this movie is show that while technology can bring us closer together, it can't really replace the basic instinct of humans needing to be with another human.  Some of the story seems far fetched and I doubt any programmer can deliver the nuances of Johansson's voice in an artificial intelligence within the next 100 years.  There are several awkward scenes including the couple trying to involve a "surrogate" body and a pretty hot-and-heavy "audio sex" scene between Phoenix and Johansson.  Neither of these quirks is enough to over shadow the shimmery brilliance of Jonze's direction.  The cinematography in this movie is simply beautiful to watch.

This is an excellent film that sits with you for a while after you leave the theater.  I was all set to give this a 4 JR rating but I kept thinking about it and how it speaks to long distance relationships and how technology is invading our everyday lives.  It really is a very thought-provoking study on modern-day love.  I feel like I have to bump up my rating to 4.5 out of 5 JRs. for one of the best movies of 2013.  You can probably wait for video on this one, but expect to see Phoenix get some Best Actor consideration and I wouldn't count out a nod for Best Picture as well.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Reviews: The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

I finally got out to see the two movies I'm most interested in right now to finish up my 2013 Oscar homework. Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and David O. Russell's American Hustle are both great examples of how directors at the top of their game can combine great performances with a riveting story to produce engaging 3-hour films that keep us interested and glued to our seats in the theater.  Both films are very good but one is just a little better than the other.

American Hustle is Russell's follow-up to the critically acclaimed (and my personal third favorite film of last year) Silver Linings Playbook.  Like most top-notch directors these days, Russell brings back some favorite actors including the two leads from Playbook Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (a third member of the Playbook cast returns in a cameo as well).  Cooper plays an FBI agent who is trying to take down a ring of mobsters in New Jersey circa the mid 1970's.  He enlists the help of an expert con man (Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld) and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) as they are forced to frame a NJ mayor (Jeremy Renner as Carmine Polito) using a complicated scam involving an Arab Sheik (based on the historic events of ABSCAM).  Roped into this elaborate con is Rosenfeld's wife Rosalyn (Lawrence).

Russell is able to take a relatively complex narrative and make it accessible for a general audience.  He nails the feel of the 70's spot-on in showcasing lavish costumes and settings that fit the era.  Combined with a timely score featuring songs of the decade and some classically 70's intro production graphics, the disco time warp is instantaneous as the movie starts playing.  On top of a great look, this film contains three excellent performances.  Bale is outstanding in the lead role having gained a lot of weight to play the pot-bellied Rosenfeld.  His nuanced performance with a wild mess of a toupee/comb-over is muted but also commanding in every scene he's in.  He would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod if this year's crop of contenders wasn't already so crowded.  Renner shines in his supporting role as Mayor Polito, coming across as a very believable and sincere people's politician.  I'd argue that this is his best acting work to-date.  The real star of this film is Adams though.  She gives her best ever performance as con-artist Sydney Prosser, a calculated, sharp, gorgeous woman who acts like a chameleon throughout the film, slipping into different outfits, accents and mannerisms as the movie goes on.  She deserves to be considered for Best Actress along with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett (I still haven't seen Blue Jasmine though).  Amy Adams was a great actress, but American Hustle just made her a star.

My biggest issue with this film is that it bogged down at times and I frankly didn't really take Cooper's character seriously.  After such an awesome performance in Silver Linings, I think Cooper took a big step down with his work in this movie.  This movie felt a bit too long and disjointed at times but for the most part the drama and tensions really works throughout.  I enjoyed but did not love this film and will barely give it a 4 JR rating (3.75 would be more precise but I can't do that).  Adams and Bale are incentive enough to go and see this one in the theater.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the fifth!?!? collaboration between Marty Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio (all in the past 12 years) and I argue that it might have produced the best performance of Leo's career.  With a runtime of three hours that goes by blazingly fast, we are treated to the story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stock broker that made an astronomically high salary during the 80's and 90's by trading penny stocks and defrauding investors at the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm.  Belfort and his vice president Donnie Azoff teamed up with a group of ambitious salesmen to reap in millions of dollars from investors, turning their profits into lavish homes, cars, yachts and countless raunchy drug-fueled parties.  The film chronicles Belfort's rise to prominence and his eventual run-in with the FBI (led by agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame).

From early on in this film, DiCaprio takes the stage as Belfort, a particularly passionate and energetic go-getter that will stop at nothing to make his fortune.  Through a barrage of graphic nudity, foul language (the most uses of the word "fuck" in motion picture history) and seriously intense drug use, Scorsese showcases the greed and excess that ran rampant in the decades that closed the 20th century.  This is DiCaprio's movie from start to finish.  He totally owns the role of Belfort and his bravado and charisma that turn from polite charmer to a potty-mouthed maniacal drill sergeant, is a performance to behold.  Hill's supporting turn as Azoff provides the proper bit of comic relief.  From his fake white teeth to his jolly build, Hill is the perfect roly-poly sidekick support for Belfort's mayhem.

Sure the nudity is gratuitous and the word fuck is uttered for fuck's sake at times, but it all works in the long run and you really feel like you are along for the ride.  In the end you know that Belfort is going to get caught but like so many of Scorsese's films, you find yourself rooting for the bad guy.  This film ranks right up there with The Departed and Goodfellas as one of Martin's best ever.  His ability to depict drug addiction and to visually convey the effect it has on people is remarkable.  Scorsese has almost single-handedly lifted DiCaprio's acting ability up to where he sits near the top of the greatest actors living today.  I hope DiCaprio will get a nomination although a win is probably unlikely given the fact that Redford and Ejiofor will be nominated as well.

All in all, this movie is purely a 3-hour riot!  Probably the funniest film I've seen all year that has a touch of drama mixed in.  If you don't mind vulgar language, nudity and heavy drug use, I suggest you go see this in theaters and enjoy the ride.  A near-perfect 4.5 JRs for The Wolf of Wall Street.  You can just tell that Leo and Jonah (and Marty) had an absolute blast making this film.

Note: It was particularly weird/cool to see a movie that so focuses on the main character with a name of Jordan.  I'm pretty sure I can splice out some pretty cool audio clips for myself from this one when it is released on video.

Stay tuned for another review later this week and my year-end top 10 list later this month.  Also, prepare for a special edition of Omar Latiri's Arts Review and Commentary (ARC) podcast around Oscar time as Omar and I debate the nominees, predict the awards, and review this year's telecast.  Those of you who missed Omar and I wax philosophical about the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger can find that podcast here.