The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

2013 Favorites

We now return you to 2014, already in progress

blackberrysnackSame rules as usual: winners are selected from the past year’s films that I’ve seen and written about on the blog.  This time around, I’ve limited each “Best” (including Pictures, Actresses, and Actors) to three winners instead of five (with an exception only if one film had two same-gender leads), and kept the single winner for the “body of work” category.  I’ve added “sleepers” this year as well.  First-time readers: note that each of the three listed items in each category are joint “winners” (not that they receive anything but my approval), not three nominees with one winner.  Use the left-side navigation to find my original write-ups of each film.

In some particular order:

—–

Best Pictures

Blue is the Warmest Color

Inside Llewyn Davis

Short Term 12

Sleeper: 12 Years a Slave

—–

Best Actress (single performance)

Brie Larson as Grace – Short Term 12

Judi Dench as Philomena Lee – Philomena

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma – Blue is the Warmest Color

Sleeper: Amy Acker as Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing

—–

Best Actress (body of work)

Mia Wasikowska

—–

Best Actor (single performance)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup – 12 Years a Slave

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis

Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski – The Iceman

Sleeper: Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines – The Butler

—–

Best Actor (body of work)

Michael Fassbender

—–

Best Supporting Actress

Ellen Page as Izzy – The East

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey - 12 Years a Slave

Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines – The Butler

Sleeper: Jena Malone as Johanna Mason - Catching Fire

—–

Best Supporting Actor

Keith Stanfield as Marcus – Short Term 12

Matthew Goode as Charlie Stoker – Stoker

Jared Leto as Rayon – Dallas Buyers Club

Sleeper: Jake Johnson as Luke – Drinking Buddies

—–

Best Screenplay

Frances Ha – Greta Gerwig

In a World… – Lake Bell

The East – Brit Marling

—–

Best Director

Lake Bell – In a World…

Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

Joel and Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis

—–

Favorite Characters

India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska) – Stoker

Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) - Inside Llewyn Davis

Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) – Blue is the Warmest Color

—–

Best Cameo

Cameron Diaz as herself – In a World…

—–

Worst of the Year

The Wolf of Wall Street

Note: The Desolation of Smaug was very, very close.  Maybe next year, PJ.

—–

Most Unfortunately MIA

Jessica Chastain

Note: I’m aware of her practice of filming 5 or 6 movies back-to-back, not appearing in anything for a year, then having all 5 or 6 of those released at once.  But someone’s habit of taking long absences does not make one miss them any less.

—–

Oddest Thing to Happen Involving Richard Lives

Wentworth Miller’s sister quotes me on her “Everything Wentworth” blog, but requires me to sign up for an account and wait a month to be “approved” before seeing what the quote is.

—–

Predictions for Next Year

Adam Driver will be on the list of winners, but not for the Star Wars sequel.

—–

See you this year.  -RH

Dallas Buyers Club

‘Cause you’ve only got one

dallasFew of us are enlightened by the fact that the FDA is an organization interested only in profit and control.  That said, one unfortunate aspect of Dallas Buyers Club, a character study of Matthew McConaughey’s version of the real-life Ron Woodroof – a Texas cowboy unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV – is that the most moving scenes are spoiled by the marketing, a fact made more unfortunate in that a film so greatly lauded turns out to be surprisingly formulaic and sentimental.  If not for the cursing and occasional groping, it could air on ABC’s family night.

None of this is to discount the very real struggles depicted therein, nor the performances.  Woodroof, after his diagnosis, meets Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him about the only FDA-approved drug suitable for treating AIDS: AZT.  He bribes another hospital employee to get him the meds, only to realize that AZT (in conjunction with his cocaine use) is detrimental to his health.  When the deal with the employee falls through, Ron drives to Mexico to get more AZT from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is essentially poison.  He prescribes Ron peptide T and ddC, drugs unapproved by the FDA, and Ron finds that his health quickly improves.  He lives far past the 30-day death sentence given to him by the hospital, and quickly realizes that he can make money and help people by importing these drugs and selling them to other HIV-positive patients.

Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, also HIV-positive, who befriends Ron in the hospital and eventually becomes his partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”  The remainder of the film involves the successes and struggles of the Buyers Club, culminating in the all-powerful (and seemingly omnipotent) FDA shutting them down, as well as the characters’ respective battles against the knowledge that they do not have long to live.  Rayon and Ron form a reluctant partnership that transmogrifies, perhaps too quickly even given the constraints of a two-hour narrative, into a rather sweet friendship.  Rayon gets a pretty nice share of the narrative later on, as we get a glimpse at his relationship with his father, who has all but disowned him and can say nothing complimentary aside from “I guess I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes.”

The disjointedness of the narrative speaks volumes to the conflicts of the characters: here are people who can never be sure, at any single moment, what turn their health will take, and are essentially waiting for terrible things to happen to them.  The plot movement closely mirrors this “day-to-day-ness,” linked only by a mechanical squealing in Ron’s head that bookends the entire story and threads important moments together (sometimes functioning as an easy transition effect).

Leto’s performance as Rayon has received endless accolades, and for good reason, and the performance itself and the decision to place a transgender character in a big-budget movie (the first time I can remember this happening) completely warrant them.  But a close viewing reveals something a bit sad: Rayon’s existence in the story serves no purpose other than to help Ron get over his homophobia.  Rayon’s time and amount of focus in the film do not even gain him the status of deuteragonist; he functions as the “manic pixie dream girl” who helps the man come to terms with his issues before disappearing (in this case because he’s the film’s sacrificial lamb, which also serves to motivate one of Ron’s big decisions).  This character, not to mention this story, deserves better than that.  Rayon’s potential is limitless and his appeal undeniable to anyone with half a heart and a fraction of a sense of adventure (has anyone looked more beautiful dancing badly onscreen than Leto in this?)  If scenes like the one between Rayon and his father were more numerous and came earlier (or were at least more evenly balanced with Ron’s), we’d have a more fleshed-out family of characters here.  Instead, we have a traditional “guy gets over his issues after meeting good people” story, going from referring to Rayon as “whatever the fuck you are” to embracing him in a long, genuine hug.  The film is rife with deliberate imagery (could the bull rides from the opening and final shots be any more obvious in their joint purpose?), which only hammers in the shopworn theme of “one man overcomes adversity,” a dish the Academy is devouring this year.

The film is worth seeing once for the quality of McCoughnahey’s, Leto’s, and Jennifer Garner’s performances, and its treatment of HIV-positive characters.  I’m not sure it warranted McCoughnahey’s protracted speech about Neptune, though.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013); written by Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Matthew McCoughnahey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.

Philomena

Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

 

 

Short Term 12

Before you can be their friend…

Still of Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in "Short Term 12."I don’t know what I can say about Brie Larson that doesn’t sound like the words of a Benevolent Blurbster on a DVD sleeve (check out Rampart for a taste test).  But I’ll try again.  Somehow, she’s managed to pop up as one of the most endearing guest characters in the five-year run of Community while also doing films like Rampart, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, which may just render mainstream my routine gushing about her.

Short Term 12, written and directed by Hawaiian filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, is what should be considered the quintessential American film over glitzy, self-congratulatory Hollywood love letters like Argo and Hugo.  Here, we have a film that tells an honest story about foster homes for “underprivileged” kids, and moreover, about the people who work at those homes (or one, at least).  The film never attempts to send a thematic message about foster care, save that those who have positive experiences growing up in foster homes may have a better awareness of their inner workings as adults (and thus may be more likely to succeed in working at a care facility, while others may come in with unrealistic expectations or ulterior goals).

Grace (Brie Larson) works as a supervisor at Short Term 12, a care facility for “underprivileged” kids of varying ages.  The story begins with Grace and her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), who works alongside her, telling foster-care fish stories to greenhorn Nate (Rami Malek), who is about to work his first day on the job.  Just as they’re getting to the best part, an alarm goes off, and Sammy (Alex Calloway) bursts out the door in his underwear, screaming and charging across the field.  Grace and Mason tell Nate to hold that thought, and the trio chase Sammy down.  It’s a big, nearly comical moment until we wonder how often this happens and why Sammy might keep trying to escape.

We’re soon introduced to the rest of the kids, including Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the latter of whom is approaching his 18th birthday and will soon be leaving.  Nate makes the mistake of introducing himself with the line, “I’ve always wanted to work with underprivileged kids,” not realizing that these kids do not define themselves by pigeonholey government jargon, and is appropriately reprimanded by Marcus, who asks, pretty honestly, “What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Grace provides the film’s eyes.  Layer after layer of her character is revealed, and it’s done as naturally as if we’d befriended a real person.  During foreplay with Mason, she suddenly slaps him across the face and tells him to stop.  We later learn that she was sexually abused by her father, who once made her pregnant and is now in prison.  A new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever),well-documented as a “cutter,” is brought in to the facility, and Grace immediately bonds with her due to similar habits when she was younger.  They compare scars, but not in a macho way.

The film, much like life, follows a non-pattern of events that do not seem to be working in any particular harmony.  Story beats have only to do with revelations about Grace, and her decisions that stem from them.  Early on, she becomes pregnant by Mason, and they must decide what to do (she makes an appointment to get an abortion, but tells Mason that she wants to keep the child, and things stay up in the air until later).  She finds out that her father is being released from prison, and even though it’s not likely that she’ll ever see him, she knows what it’s like to feel that he’s always watching her, and she vents all of this by trying to befriend Jayden, who has similar problems at home and reveals it only to Grace (who cannot do anything about it due to Jayden’s lack of directness).

Grace’s interactions with the kids, much like our interactions (as audience) with her, follow very organic threads.  She’s an expert in her field, but can still make missteps in getting to know the kids, because everyone needs something unique.  What calms Jayden down pisses Marcus off, and sometimes Jayden doesn’t want to interact with anyone at all.  When she tries to escape the facility (and later, when she goes to stay with her abusive father), Grace cannot be an observer any longer.  She makes her case to her supervisor (Frantz Turner) in a scene that puts the screws to every emotion, and brings back adrenaline-filled memories of Jessica Chastain shouting at Kyle Chandler in Zero Dark Thirty a couple of years ago.

And much like Jessica Chastain in any of her movies, Brie Larson carries nearly every scene of this character-centric piece.  Grace is equal parts introspective and outwardly strong-willed when she needs to be.  She’s hardened herself to her duties – able to withstand being spat upon, smacked, verbally abused, and even having a cupcake smashed into her face – but is genuinely sympathetic to the needs of the kids due to her own experiences.  Brie Larson plays every line, movement, and facial expression with the utmost passion, carefully chosen mannerisms, and an evident understanding of the character.  The rawest care is all over this film, a film that could have easily been the story of Nate, a goofy middle-class kid who works at a foster facility for an extra credit, but learns to love the kooky kids through a series of humorous, anecdotal misadventures.  No.  No room for that here.  Everything is honest; nothing is too precious.

Besides Grace herself, the other most interesting character (as wonderfully acted as everyone is, including Mason), is Marcus, who tries out some of his hip-hop lyrics on Mason, who reacts as anyone with a heart and an ounce of common sense would when Marcus comes out with a full-on rap (filmed in a single shot) about his traumatic childhood, his mother, and the fact that he will never know what a “normal life” is like.  He asks Grace to shave his head, and sheds very real tears when he sees that he has no lumps or scars beneath his once-ample hair.

This film drives in the fact that the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press are fading from relevance and simply becoming avenues for celebrities and old white folks to congratulate one another, while the best films are being screened at non-televised festivals and ceremonies where all that matters is the art.  With the near-complete snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis and other great films, the continued snubbing of Community, and the complete ignoring of Short Term 12 – which picked up incredible honors at the Athens Film Festival, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, the SXSW Film Festival (Grand Jury Narrative and Narrative Audience Award!) and many others, including actress awards for Brie Larson – the process of finding the real material might become, if it hasn’t already, as precise as finding good books: ignore what’s on the shelves at the front.

Short Term 12 (2013); written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield. 

 

 

Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.