Thursday, January 30, 2014


 “Falling in love,” says a character in one of Her’s many moments of rumination, “is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

It doesn’t get any crazier than a guy falling for his computer—even if that computer comes with Scarlett Johansson’s husky voice, and a quirky sense of humor to boot. But on second thought, the notion of literally online dating may not be as preposterous as we think. After all, as complains and concerns mount over Facebook replacing friendships and the fact that we text more than we talk, there have been books, panels, and statistically backed studies on technology's increasing dominance over our lives. But what differentiates director Spike Jonze’s debut screenplay is that it’s he doesn’t use this premise to paint a panicked, cautionary tale deploring the pathetic state of physical human relationships in the digital age. Her is, first and foremost, a genuinely poignant love story.

In a slightly postmodern Los Angeles (shot partially in Shanghai for optimal futuristic smog-tasticness), heartbroken and emotionally drained divorcĂ© Theodore Twombly (a mustached Joaquin Phoenix in high-waisted pants, exhibiting a vulnerability and rawness that makes us forgive him for 2009) has resorted to a melancholy and lonely existence. From his day job digitally composing Hallmark-style letters for clients who have trouble expressing themselves, to the 3-D video games and chat room hook-ups during bouts of insomnia, a startling majority of his interactions are now based on technology—including his newly purchased OS-1, an operating system that’s advertised as having the ability to listen, converse, and mature as though it has a mind of its own. Pleasantly surprised by the sophistication and personable charm of this A.I interface, Theodore strikes up a friendship with “her.” Their effortless rapport allows Samantha (as she names herself) to evolve from being his personal assistant to his confidante, and before long, the gadget becomes his girlfriend in a curious romance.

As absurd as this boy-meets-software plot seems, Phoenix and Johansson create a palpable chemistry* that makes the relationship feel authentic. The dynamic between Theodore and Samantha is unexpectedly sweet, and so much of what they do feels like what any ‘normal’ couple would: date night at a carnival. Naps on the beach. People-watching at the museum. Samantha even exhibits those dreaded but typical “jealous girlfriend” traits when Theodore attempts a blind date with another woman. Intuitive and understanding, Johansson’s disembodied but truly disarming performance convinces us that Samantha isn’t just an automated voice—she’s a soul.

There is that one teeny issue, though: she’s not an actual person, and we become increasingly, painfully aware of it as she starts—to use her own words—"becoming more than what they programmed." As Samantha begins transcending the limitations of time and space to grow at a rapid rate that Theodore, as a human being, will never be able to keep up with, it becomes all the more a mystery as to how on earth their story will pan out.

At the surface, it’s easy to assume that the message here is that our dependence on technology will lead it to replace human relationships and turn us into a species of reclusive robots, but Her is ripe with ironic juxtapositions that suggest a meaning far more complex than that tired prediction. Jonze’s imagined “tomorrow,” for one thing, isn’t the dystopian mess that so many other storytellers project the future to be. Theodore is doleful, extreme close-ups often highlighting his isolation, but the world around him is cheerfully alive: floor-to-ceiling windows of his apartment look out onto a vast cityscape of towering skyscrapers and subways overflow with commuters. Lego-brick reds and blues dominate the color scheme of his office while street performers lend the city an air of sprightly vibrancy. While Theodore’s emotional detachment drove his own marriage to failure, he makes a living out of writing letters that, ironically, require insight and verbal eloquence. Sure, it’s somewhat depressing that people in this age outsource their expressions of love, but at least there’s still value for nostalgia and celebration of relationships in Jonze’s fabricated future.

Most strikingly, Samantha may be a piece of software, but it is she who reignites Theodore’s passion for the world and its possibilities in a way that his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) or only friend (Amy Adams) haven’t. He confesses, "sometimes I think I've felt everything there is to feel." In contrast, she marvels at her ability to experience the most simple of sensations, even without a body. And they talk—something that (in my opinion) isn’t done nearly enough between couples that consist of two actual people.** The emo factor goes into overdrive at times—the scene with Theodore strumming a ukulele and Samantha serenading him with saccharine lyrics comes to mind—but let's give him a break, he's romancing a computer and starved for companionship. Samantha,  as enamored by life as Theodore is disillusioned by it, awakens him to the beauty of feeling, whether it’s heartbreak or happiness.

In lamenting but also celebrating Samantha’s influence and capabilities, Her doesn’t demonize or glorify technology as the assassin of human relationships. Nor is Jonze revealing himself as an old fashioned purist making a bitter critique of electronic communications taking over our real ones. The intent here seems less pedantic than that, more like an exploration of what it means to be intimate, to be lonely, and of the ideals that we hold others to. Computers need not dumb down our experiences with each other, but neither do they cut it as shields from our basic human needs to feel and react, to love and be loved. With soulful performances and a sensitive directorial touch, Her is beautiful, strange, unique—at its heart, a surreal yet simple love story that doesn’t forecast our emotional demise, but reminds us to live.

*A pretty impressive feat, considering they share zero screen space together. In fact, there's no better occasion to confirm that Scarlett isn't just a pretty face.

**And no, it isn’t because they lack physical intimacy. Watch the movie—they’ve got that covered, too. Kindasorta.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

American Hustle

Oscars 2014 contenders have been announced, and with The Wolf ofWall Street and American Hustle scoring five and ten nominations respectively, The Academy sure seems to love a heist film. But despite enduring comparisons between the directors (David O’Russell’s work has been perceived as “Scorsesean” on more than one occasion), the two movies couldn’t be more different. Whereas WOWS favors outrageous plot points over character arcs, American Hustle not only incorporates those arcs, but also makes them its centerpieces, so much so that the film’s narrative becomes an afterthought. 

Con man Irving Rosenfeld (a pot-bellied and balding Christian Bale) has made a thriving career of giving out fraudulent loans and selling phony art, along with his partner/girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who poses as a sexy British aristocrat in order to lure in unsuspecting victims. When FBI agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper) busts their scams, he offers to release them on the sole condition that they lend him their bamboozling “expertise” on additional undercover missions, including entrapping New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) in a bribe scheme and exposing corruption in Congress. But with unexpected budding romances, aspirations gone awry, and Irving’s borderline-lunatic wife (Jennifer Lawrence) threatening to upend it all, the mission becomes more complicated than anyone anticipated.

From the very first words that appear on screen—“Some of this actually happened”—it’s apparent that Hustle isn’t interested in being a historically accurate reproduction of Abscam. In fact, I’m still at a loss as to why O’Russell would choose the 1970s scandal as the foundation of his narrative, as aside from the constant guessing-game we play over who’s really conning whom, the details of the sting operations are—dare I say it?—dreadfully boring. Perhaps in an effort to spice things up a bit, he and co-writer Eric Warren Stinger throw in elements of dark comedy, drama, and romance into what is, at the surface, a crime tale. Though entirely possible for a film to inhabit more than one genre, the yawn-inducing nature of this plot just isn’t gripping enough to pull off that cocktail of categories. The leftover effect is a disjointed storyline that comes off as suffering a bit of an identity crisis.

Instead, the capers, the betrayals, and love triangles all become purely vehicles to propel what are essentially the characters' emotional journeys. O’Russell himself has spoken at length about foregoing a more "procedural" script for one that allowed him to delve deeper into his now-signature cinematic tropes of defeat and reinvention. If that's the intention, he delivers spectacularly, etching lovably flawed individuals who are reaching, often by half-witted and hilarious means, for a shot at a better life. It’s a rare filmmaker who can distract a heist film with multiple characters studies and get away with it. O’Russell succeeds largely by way of his deep love and masterful command of his characters, but no less due to the mesmerizing cast he has assembled to embody them.

It is impossible to take your eyes off this ensemble, and not just because they’re bedecked in unabashedly kitschy 70's garb (from Richie’s fierce perm and Sydney’s plunging necklines to Rosalyn’s oversized furs and Irving’s tinted aviators, hair and wardrobe must have been the most fun departments to work in on this film.) Christian Bale disappears into his role as a crook with a conscience, thanks in part to his unbecoming comb-over and surprisingly spot-on Bronx accent,* but also to his profound understanding and portrayal of the heart hiding under the layers of Irving’s crushed velvet suits. 

Bradley Cooper reaches new levels of adorable as an 
ambitious, if not slightly bumbling, law enforcement official who’s desperate to make it big, but constantly getting in his own way. A small-town beauty with an alter ego, Amy Adams is raw and vulnerable as Sydney, sly and seductive as Edith Greensley, and absolutely riveting as both. Jennifer Lawrence is the (surprise, surprise) unequivocal scene-stealer in a role that Irving himself puts best: “the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Manipulative, high-strung, dangling her son in front of her husband as bait to keep him committed to their marriage, Rosalyn is a temperamental grenade and Lawrence rightfully relishes the part. Forget Hustle’s mediocre plot; you could film these people sitting in a room watching paint dry, and they’d still set the screen on fire. Here, as broken dreamers looking for second (or third, or fourth) chances to find the glory they so intensely desire, their performances and chemistry lend the story an energy and soul that save it from becoming a total snooze.

But the film’s crowning glory isn’t even part of its diegesis. American Hustle’s soundtrack comprises songs that aren’t necessarily from the story’s decade or even by U.S artists, and yet ooze a retro aura that complements—no, enhances—the era perfectly. From Duke Ellington’s swingy jazz to the hard rock of the Electric Light Orchestra, the music often takes the place of dialogue in scenes and becomes a character all its own, with a swagger that the actors themselves can’t achieve.

For all its clunky storytelling, there are enough compensating qualities of American Hustle that make it undeniably alluring. It may not be the best film I’ve seen this year,** but in compelling the audience to root for the redemption of its ruptured characters, as well as its own trajectory to the top of award ballots everywhere, it’s a reminder that the American Dream may still be one worth chasing.

*The guy is Welsh! Welsh! And I only know that because I just Googled it. All this time I thought he was Australian. Basically, Christian Bale wins at accents.

**I’m obviously in the minority with this opinion, considering that this just happened. Right after this happened.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Every time I'm about to watch anything even remotely connected to politics, finance, or science fiction, I'm overcome with a certain degree of panic and reflexive inclination to hate it, thanks to my chronic inability to comprehend the "technospeak" of those genres. So if it weren’t for the free tickets provided by the Singapore Film Society, I would have cowered from The Wolf of Wall Street. Adapted from a former stockbroker’s memoir of manipulating his way from middle-class to millionaire by scamming investors and laundering money, the film’s unavoidable inclusion of trading-floor jargon was almost too intimidating for the right-brained likes of me.

But as screenwriter Terence Winter put it in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, “all you need to know is that if this thing goes up and explodes, it's bad." So, fellow econ dummies, have no fear if you can’t differentiate an IPO from a BLT. WOWS mercifully doesn't expect you to have even an elementary grasp on how stocks work, focusing more on the effects of illegally maneuvering the market rather than the mechanics of it.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in one of his most flamboyant roles to date) starts off as an honest enough man, aspiring—like any determined 20-something—to make it big in the world of finance, until his employer crumbles under 1987’s market crash. His insatiable hunger for wealth then leads him to take over a penny stock company and ultimately branch out into his own firm with a motley crew of thugs-turned-brokers, launching them on a crooked path to the most inconceivable riches using the most unauthorized tactics.  At Stratton Oakmont, fraud and deceit are the names of the game: a game Jordan and his minion-like staff plays so well that they overshoot the finish line and land in the underbelly of success.

What ensues is, for lack of a better word, crazy. From dwarf-tossing in the workplace to cocaine-snorting off strippers’ backsides, Martin Scorsese seems to have gone off the deep end in depicting Jordan’s and his associates’ total abandon of their consciences, perhaps in an attempt to mirror the characters' spirals into lives of excess. At points, I was laughing out of sheer incredulity at the ludicrousness on screen; for instance, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, a particular highlight of the film as Jordan’s crass and classless right-hand man) standing on a desk and urinating onto a subpoena, or the disproportionately lengthy sequence of Jordan, having gulped down a few too many Quaaludes, on his stomach and literally worming his way headfirst down a flight of stairs. At a mammoth 3 hours, with scenes that don’t know where to end, the movie spins into a long-winded, lecherous display of a world where laws are far from black & white, and those who live in it are ruthless in their single-minded pursuit of whatever their addictions may be—in this case, the treacherous trifecta of drugs, sex and money.

And yet, Jordan’s dramatic leap from upright employee to underhanded con artist is somewhat unconvincing. One minute he gets paranoid at the mere thought of a hit of crack, orders 7-Up at lunch, and is wide-eyed at the prospect of a six-figure commission. Not twenty seconds (of screen time) later, he's popping ludes like Tic Tacs, guzzling martinis by the hour, and snorting coke with his own 100 dollar bills.  It’s not so much a case of misrepresentation—many accounts of the finance world in the 1980s point to the complete plausibility of Jordan’s “hobbies”—but one would hope that more than a few of the film’s 180 minutes could be allotted to the inner psychological workings of his ethical erosion, to lend the film some dimension. Instead, the transition is reflected in one coked-up, boozed-up, f-bomb infested* spree of debauchery after another.

It would be one thing if the excess amounted to a unique lesson or came with an unexpected twist. But Belfort’s story, while entertaining in its outlandishness, has nothing groundbreaking to offer by way of either a distinctive lesson or, more importantly, an emotional connection. The incessant swearing quickly loses shock value; the drug trips all begin looking the same. More than once, I had to take a mental time-out from the events on screen to marvel silently at the fact that this film was in fact made by Scorsese. Despite his trademark epic runtime as well as signature uses of voiceover narration and frenetic camerawork, WOWS lacks the redeeming element of humanity that usually underlies the auteur’s characters, whether it's Goodfellas' Henry Hill or Raging Bull's Jake La Motta. It’s disappointing that a filmmaker of his caliber seemed to simply forget the editing stage for this project, letting his characters become caricatures and his plot become a parody. Granted, DiCaprio and Hill undoubtedly offer up unforgettably extravagant performances, but with so many unscrupulous personalities filling up the frame, it’s difficult to muster up a liking, sympathy, or even reluctant tolerance for any of them. The only thing left to feel is exhausted by it all.

The Wolf of Wall Street may be based on a true story, but it’s also an unnecessary exercise in imparting a message conveyed to us all too often by movies past: basically, greed, constant acquiescence to temptation, and cheating = bad ideas. I'd have put a spoiler alert before that sentence but let's face it, you can probably recognize the moral of the story about 15 seconds into the trailer. My two cents: spend 3 hours on something a bit less profane and a little more fulfilling than a movie that will take as long telling you to do just that.

*A record 506 times over the course of the movie. Apparently, there are people who count this stuff.