Archive for December, 2013

A Note on ‘Her’

December 9th, 2013 No comments

Truffaut and I have two things in common. 1) We both get particularly precious when we talk about film, becoming painfully pretentious as I quote people like Truffaut. 2) We believe great films and directors present optimistically the potentiality of human nature.  That is to say, they almost naively approach the world with an air of childlike optimism that reaffirms your faith in life.  This is why I adore Spike Jonze’s Her.

Her is an unlikely, very original and strangely conventional love story set in a futuristic Los Angeles. Now, I say conventional despite this particular relationship never really being explored before.  It’s conventional because, regardless one of the members of the relationship is not actually real, it is just a love story that explores loss, jealousy, heartbreak, loneliness and the enduring human capacity to love.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a quiet and lonely man who is dealing with an impending divorce.  Through the letters he composes for other people at his job we are shown a romantic soul with a gift for words.  He desires a human connection, like it appears everyone in his world does, but they are all increasingly held captive by their technology.  Even the most eventful human interaction his has is with an online chat with an anonymous woman named SexKitten (Kristin Wiig), where they have “phone sex” and she promptly hangs up.  His video games are fully interactive, Alien Boy (Spike Jonze) cursing at him and throwing playful insults.  With such a detachment from people, with so much communication being virtual, it’s no wonder he builds an emotional bond with his new operation system (OS).

Samantha, played on set but off camera by Samantha Morton and later voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a companion OS designed to learn everything she can inorder to be the perfect companion, which includes picking up on humor, voice inflection and as it turns out, emotion.  As desires increase, expectations develop with each other in the relationship, things get surprising complicated between Samantha and Theodore.  You believe everything about what they are experiencing, which is the major trick for this sort of story.  As soon as anything rings untrue, the spell is broken.

Both Johansson and Phoenix are phenomenal, so heartfelt and sympathetic you feel deeply for a two people who never share any screen time.  Phoenix’s turn as Theodore is tender, courageously honest and more moving than anything I’ve seen in a romantic film over the last decade. He walks a very delicate line between the authentic and the absurd which quickly made this my favorite lead performance of the year (sorry Chiwetel, the race is insanely close).

And while the film can get “heavy,” there is a tremendous amount of comedy as Samantha and Theodore try to make their relationship work.  There is a notable scene where Samantha considers getting a physical surrogate to help the romance between them.  And that scene goes further to show how desperate everyone in this world is to be part of a special relationship.  And later, during one of their arguments as jealous rears its ugly head, we are reminded that he his dating his computer! We laugh at the writing and also at ourselves for caring so much.

Aside from the surrogate, the other three women that Theodore interacts in the physical world are played by Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Amy Adams.  Adams is Amy, a neighbor and long time friend that seems to share some of Theodore’s loneliness and insecurities (a lot of those brought on by a condescending, pompous husband played by Matt Letscher).  Adams is her ever-charming self as she encourages Theodore without any hint of judgment.  The full supporting cast just helps make this my favorite love story since Eternal Sunshine.

A SPOILER (of sorts) IS COMING so stop reading if you want….

One final note.  This poignant and original story is so marvelously structured we become emotional invested in a bizarre relationship that in the end makes us question which interactions we value.  We’re always concerned about technology turning on us that it’s rare to find a movie that raises the more terrifying question; what if technology simply abandons us? What if it feels it has outgrown us? Where have we invested our emotions? What dependency have we developed?   And this is where that childlike optimism comes in from Mr. Jonze.  The film shows us that all interactions can be valuable if we approach them with trust and abandon.  And when one connection is gone, there is the hope of another.  And considering plunge into love after a bad break up is optimistic in itself. Falling in love, as Amy says, is the weird form of socially accepted insanity.  There is a final breath at the end of the movie, where I felt we could see a bright future, there will be insanity again.


Categories: Patton Notes, See It Tags:

A Note on “Inside Llewyn Davis”

December 7th, 2013 No comments

 Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of the title character, a folk singer that struggles (sometimes less than admirably) in the early ‘60s folk music scene in New York City.  He sleeps on couches and hitches rides with hardly a penny to his name.  He is the quintessential embodiment of the romantic starving artist.  However, other than characters Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Troy (Stark Sands), nothing about this story is bright or cheerful, much like the music itself.  It is, after all, exploring the tormenting creative life.

Llewyn drifts though his life and career with hardly a thought for the future, trying to avoid any connections that could distract him from his music. Even when Jean (Carey Mulligan) presents information that could alter the course of his entire life, he looks for the quickest option to cut all attachments.  Llewyn and Jean stand in stark contrast to one and another.  Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn with a hard, rough exterior but you can tell is sentimental and compassionate underneath.  Carey Mulligan always appears delicate and sweet, but she gives Jean a vitriolic and caustic personality that stings even more coming from someone that appears to be so kind.  They both give engaging and nuanced performances that drive this film.

Despite Llewyn’s attempts to control his destiny and efforts toward success, he does seem to self-sabotage He sticks with a manager who is most likely stiffing him on any profit from album sales, he berates friends that are the most helpful to him and he antagonizes other colleagues in his profession.  He even refuses future royalties on a song he doesn’t think is good but will clearly be a hit.  He just wants to get paid immediately.  Perhaps great success scares him more than failure, which he already knows. (The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t?) This character, and even the themes of the film, remind me of another critic-darling released this year, Frances Ha.

Both films examine characters motivated by their craft and a deep need to express themselves in New York City, just in different eras.  One is tackling folk music; theother is attempting to be a dancer.  The differences in how the themes are explored are what make one film a success and the other not.

Frances Ha failed to engage me. It presented a character that was doing very little to better her situation or pursue her career.  Instead she makes irrational decisions like going to Paris for two days despite being broke, just charging it to a credit card. Llewyn on the other hand confronts managers about payment, hitches a ride out to Chicago for a chance to play for a legendary folk music manager and even though he detests “pop sounding” music he lends his musical talents to Jim’s ridiculous protest song. And when things are at their worst, he pays for the opportunity to get back into the Merchant Marines.

This intimate character portrait is not the typical Coen film, which is what makes them such masters of cinema. They have an amazing ability to cross genres and adapt their style very specifically to the stories they are telling. One thing that remains consistent is their ability to write and direct supporting characters that don’t just serve the plot but add rich texture to every scene.  The first, there is Troy Nelson, a corn-fed country soldier with wide-eyed optimism and a smile that Llewyn tries desperately to wipe from his face.  Adam Driver gives a standout performance despite being so briefly featured as the folk singer Al Cody. His additional vocals to the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” turn a poorly conceive protest song into something absurd and yet very catchy.

The photography is beautiful, shot by the great French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement). Many of the frames could be stand-alone album covers for 60s folk albums (ie. Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’). The color palate is nearly monochromatic, helped considerably by the bleak New York winter, with simple desaturated splashes of color on specific characters. This cold visual style is a perfect compliment to our antihero’s general disposition and adds to the feeling of helplessness in his life. The weather won’t even give him a break!

We are very luck that Joel and Ethan Coen never opted for a life in dentistry or accounting or, say, the Merchant Marines back when they were knocking on doors looking for financing for Blood Simple. That is not to demean anyone’s choice to be a dentist, merchant marine or accountant; those are great professions just not for artists. The difficult uncertain road of being filmmakers paid off for the Coens and they have an understanding of that process that made subtle moments in this film possible.  Toward the end of the movie Llewyn heckles a fellow folk musician on stage and while he’s being dragged away he screams, “I hate it!  I fuckin’ hate folk music!”  So is the life of an artist with his craft. It’s a craft you simultaneously love and hate; it has a control over you where you think, “if only I was not so compelled to be a (filimmaker, painter, writer, dancer, folk singer, etc) I could be happy doing anything else.”  Half of the torment is in knowing you are a slave to whichever craft you are a part.  And we should be happy that people like Llewyn Davis could never be a merchant marine and Joel and Ethan could never be accountants.


Categories: Patton Notes, See It Tags: