Her (2013)


RB score:  6/10

Yeah, in school terms, that’s kind of a D-.  RB is not among the critics who went absolutely wild over this film. 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes – it clearly struck a chord with many.  I didn’t have a bad time watching it, mind you, which is what tipped the balance over a score of 5.  The low grade is really for the excessive hype and the lack of delivery to equal the type, on the part of writer/director Spike Jonze.  Combine that with some glaring plot holes that seem lazy as opposed to creative inspiration, and a story, that, let’s face it, really doesn’t go anywhere, and I have a hard time understanding what people love about “Her”.

Our protagonist is named Theodore Twombley, gently played by Joaquin Phoenix.  He composes love letters for a company that caters to people who don’t know how to write letters to their significant others.  He makes enough money doing this to afford a pretty nice condo set in some futurisic city (plot hole #1 – if sappy writing pays that well a lot of us should be rich) that is supposed to be Los Angeles but is so clean, shiny and sterile in appearance (plot hole #2) it no longer looks like a city, more like a really cool graphic.  It’s population dense and pristine at the same time.

Even though his employer is essentially a dot.com internet site, Theodore commutes to the office to do this writing (plot hole #3).   Just your average, typical corporate drone of the future, using the voice activated commands on his phone to delete email on his way to work.   He is going through the last stages of a painful divorce, portrayed mostly in flashback scenes with actress Rooney Mara, and some undeniably good acting from Phoenix. You certainly can’t accuse him of overacting, in fact he underplays Theodore Twombley to the point where the character is difficult to sympathize with at times.

There are some typical divorced-person developments, including going on a blind date and spending time on internet dating sites.  Oddly, he fantasizes to, only naked pregnant women, and this is never explained.  The only “normal” human element I get out of any of his activities is the platonic friendship with his neighbor, played by Amy Adams.  All the othe female characters, including the OS he falls in love with, are so strange it makes me wonder if Jonze hates women.   One of the flashback scenes shows Theodore and his ex-wife with a baby.  What happened to this child?  (Plot hole #4 and by far the most irritating to me),  Did the baby die, did she ever exist?  Is this why he only looks at nude pregnancy pics online, because they didn’t have a child?  We’ll never know as there are zero clues or explanation given.

One day he installs a new operating system, named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johannson, that “learns” how to mimic human thoughts, emotions and behaviors.  This is where I feel the movie’s potential is most wasted.  So Samantha keeps track of his appointments (not original… hello, Microsoft Outlook), wakes Theodore up for work, and becomes his confidante.  Soon they explore the city together and take a walk on the beach, with the camera lens of his iPhone peeking out of his shirt pocket so that his imaginary friend oops excuse me, OS can “see” what he is seeing.  I guess that’s the best Jonze could come up with since he couldn’t very well have them running over a field to meet each other, to demonstrate how their love is growing.   Of course, Theodore and Samantha must consummate their relationship, which thankfully, along with another TMI, laying in bed at night scene, is mercifully filmed in the dark so we don’t have to watch.

All too soon, familiar cracks develop in this romantic bond between the man and his computer.  Samantha becomes more demanding and Theodore starts to feel controlled.  In one scene she says petulantly, “We haven’t had sex in three weeks.”  Theodore replies that this is normal for relationships.  If this is the future, we are all in trouble.  If your OS gets its feelings hurt you have more than just relationship issues to contend with – you can’t get your email, a modern tragedy.

However, relationships with computers apparently have additional barriers beyond the physical.  The knowledge that the operating system doesn’t just love only him hits Theodore like a brick.  He is shocked to find out Samantha is coversing with 4000 others and is in love with some 600 odd of them.  Why not?  Developing personality or not, she isn’t a person… she’s technology.  Yet, instead of exploring the science fiction aspect of this story, and possibly making the movie more interesting, Jonze returns to the romcom-ish aspect by making Samantha oddly controlling at the same time.

One scene in particular where Samantha attempts to bring their relationship to another level, and Phoenix conveys, in his consistent, passive presentment, Twombley’s tormented soul, was about the only place in the movie where I felt sympathy for him.  Testament to skilled acting here because as mentioned, the acting style is very understated yet he does an oustanding job of letting the audience into the world of such a gentle spirit and the inherent unfairness of this spirit feeling so much anguish.

Plot hole #5 occurs when Samantha goes through all this writings and sends them off to a publisher who then writes to say he is going to compile the letters into a book.  Some might find this to be a tad intrusive, no matter how good the intention, from either a partner or a machine.  Theodore is touched and overjoyed, and why not, he’s going to be a published author, the often unfulfilled crown jewel of writers everywhere.  But his letters are supposed to be confidential – what happens when one of Theodore’s customers reads their personal love letter in a best-seller?

Weaknesses such as that in the screenplay really can’t be overcome by even the most visually appealing, futuristic design.

I’ve got news for you, Spike Jonze – falling in love with a sexy voice, not original.  People becoming more involved with their computers than with other human beings – not original.  How to transcend this into something more insightful, is what “could have been” for this movie, and it kind of makes my blood boil he didn’t do more.

Up In The Air (2009)

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RB score:10/10

Billed as a fun romp through the world of the road warrior – those who live out of a suitcase, it was that indeed yet it was more, following the pattern of other Reitman movies – an exploration of modern life that amazingly steers clear of familiar formulas.  George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who has a job that allows him to live exactly the expense-account lifestyle he wants.  His company, euphemistically called “Career Transitions”, sends Ryan around the country as a sort of hatchet-man for hire.  Ryan takes us from the arrival gate to the rental car lot to the hotel in true road-warrior style.  Layoffs and pink slips were at the forefront of the national consciousness when this movie was made, and it was a novel topic for mainstream box office.  The premise is a tad unrealistic: We all know that downsizing companies are not about to pay someone else to terminate their employees when they would just have their managers do it, but it is interesting that critics had no problem with that plot point. Perhaps it’s because companies take so many inexplicable actions that nothing surprises us any more.  Ryan loves his life on the road and has everything about travel down to a science – one carry on bag, how to determine which line is moving faster at security, even a cynical appreciation of the use of his name when it comes up on airline employee screens as a frequent traveler.

Somehow, Clooney’s Ryan is an oddly likeable character, even as we witness him giving people devastating news and then efficiently moving on to the next airport. No one wears a business suit better but the guy isn’t superficial.  I think his likability stems from his complete and brutal honesty, both with the audience and with himself, that sort of distracts us after the ax has fallen.  He freely acknowledges his lack of roots and inability to form lasting relationships with refreshing, witty and nonjudgmental candor.    One evening at an airport Hilton lounge, he strikes up a conversation with a woman executive, played flawlessly by Vera Farmiga.  I’ve not seen this actress before but as usual Reitman’s casting is spot on.  Farmiga as Alex is fit, elegantly dressed and beautifully coiffed, providing a perfect visual foil for Ryan.  Chemistry is evident when Alex and Ryan take out their wallets and start comparing notes on hotel, car and airline loyalty programs, with sparks flying almost immediately.  After spending the night together, they part ways with the understanding that this will be a commitment free relationship,. meeting up when their travel schedules permit, and with no expectations on either end.  In a way Ryan has met his perfect woman.

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Things are not so perfect after he returns to the office.  His boss Craig, played with his usual faultless timing by Jason Bateman, has hired a newly graduated rising star employee Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick.  Craig is such a realistic “management” type; Reitman avoids relegating him to the cliche boss role but instead captures what all too many managers are like; less evil than they are clueless after having lost touch with their front line operations.  Craig is so sold on Natalie as his new star employee, that he calls everyone to the home office to see her presentation on cost cutting.  True to Millennial form, Natalie demonstrates how the company can save money by conducting terminations using videoconferencing technology, and thus pretty much eliminating the travel budget.  Perky, precise and with a severe ponytail and not a single hair out of place, Natalie concludes her presentation by reminding the road warriors that they won’t need to be on the road any more.  At this point we are not expecting anything more out of Ryan other than disappointment at being grounded, but there is where Reitman’s dexterity comes into play.  We find out that Ryan has a little more depth than that, and brings something more to his job that fooled us initially into thinking it’s easier than it is, because like anyone who gets good at something, he makes it look easier than it is.  He puts Natalie on the spot and asks her to role-play a termination.  She’s full of confidence yet her lack of experience becomes immediately apparent.  Like managers everywhere with a golden child employee, Craig isn’t about to be convinced of any negatives surrounding Natalie’s ideas, and instead sends her out on the road so she can learn more about the business from Ryan, prior to implementing her proposals.

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It’s an interesting subject to begin with, the plight of downsized workers in America, and not a particularly cheery one.  To his credit, Reitman hired quite a few real life unemployed people and asked them to describe what it was like.  The young director deals with some heavy issues with a surprisingly light touch, such as the uncomfortable truth that it isn’t all that easy for people in their 40s and 50s to find work, no matter the experience level.  And this is not to say that the movie trivializes unemployment, or some of its real and tragic outcomes.  I’m just impressed at Reitman’s ability to convey his insights in a subtle fashion.  He really is showing us views of America at 30,000 feet, and the symbolism there is striking.

The next phase of the movie is all road-trip fun and character development.  Many of the more humorous sequences occur as Ryan and Alex next meet in Ft. Lauderdale, with Natalie in tow.   Beautiful filming on location and more product placement for Hilton Hotels and American Airlines.   Another nod to the Millennial generation is given in how Natalie’s boyfriend breaks up with her via text message., however, Reitman deftly works to keep his characters and storylines from ever becoming two-dimensional.  Ryan not only surprises us with different sides to his character, he develops real feelings for Alex, an increasingly complex personality.  Ryan may have met his female road-warrior soul mate, but for everyone who has thought they have found this person late in life, we are reminded that the more of the story that has already been written, the less likely it is to be able to start a new one.   Most importantly, the relationship between Ryan and Natalie completely avoids any romcom temptation to turn into some vapid romance – and remains solidly and unambiguously that of teacher-student, mentor-mentee, however you wish to think of it.  In this way I think the movie celebrates real-life connections and friendships very convincingly.

Ryan has an imperfect relationship with his siblings and extended family – we are taken along for this ride as well, and it is just as entertaining and insightful as every other aspect of this film.  There is a pivotal moment towards the end when Ryan reaches a milestone in his travels, and by that time many themes are resolved one way or another – but not all.  To say more would be a spoiler.  Superb writing and direction, not to mention fine performances, yield a finished product that gets even better with subsequent viewings.  Many thanks to reader Paul for reminding me about this film.  It is exceedingly enjoyable viewing and a slick accomplishment for young director Jason Reitman, nominated for 6 Academy awards (Picture, Director, all 3 leads, no wins) and of course a boatload of other awards and nominations. For anyone who missed it during its successful theatre run 5 years ago, it’s a safe must-add to your home collection.

And, I might never get to say this after a review again:

Thanks for flying American!

Labor Day (2013)

RB score:  9/10

More than anything this movie is about the art of filmmaking.  No, this isn’t the plot, this is what director Jason Reitman, who I’m becoming a dedicated fan of,  is bringing to the screen, with his keen insights utilizing simple metaphors to delve way beyond the surface of a human story.

Single mom Adele, with her 13 year old son Henry are on a mundane shopping trip when the escaped convict Frank observes them and decides they will be his targets.  Adele searches through the sale racks for new clothes for  Henry as the boy walks away to gaze at a magazine rack where every cover contains a beautiful woman looking at him invitingly.  Thus we are introduced to the subplot before the main storyline  gets underway.

Frank convinces Adele to give him a ride and this plot point caused some hand wringing in the critic ranks as being implausible.    Such reviews totally miss the point.   Life can, and often is, just as “improbable” as the film.      Letting go of what is probable or not, comprises an essential element of the artistry here necessary for the viewer to absorb the movie’s themes.

Reitman is examining more closely the wide variety of prisons that people get in.  Not just conventional prison. Consider the prisons that many people dwell in, such as the boy in the wheelchair, in a prison of his abusive mom, only able to escape for one day.  When they first came to the door I couldn’t figure out where Reitman was going with that element.  Well of course he demonstrated the prison of someone in a wheelchair who couldn’t even communicate effectively let alone realize any of the joys of normal childhood.   Beautiful use of irony here since the prison escapee gave him the only free afternoon he knew.

The film’s subplot is also completely believeable even if individual details seem not to be.  Young Henry is susceptible to the manipulations of a cute, but toxic girl from school and for a while is caught in his own peculiar form of prison.   Later, having evaded the prison of life with his dad and the corresponding new family, he goes back to spend a year there as the film resolves its themes and we see that Henry had to compare prisons, as we so often do in life, to discover where relative freedom exists. This is again, not unrealistic.  Maybe you could point to  the most improbable point being when they agree to give him a ride.   But often this is what chronically depressed people do – make incoherent  decisions.   When the prison is your own mind, the mind isn’t free to consider consequences, and that’s the world Adele lives in.

In the car, Frank had asked them to let him stay at their house for a few hours.  Up until this point I had been vaguely impatient at the director’s choice of soundtrack and camera work, but by the time we get to the scenes of Frank, Adele and the boy at the home, a few things are happening that kept me first, glued to the screen and eventually, breathless with admiration.   And I’m not referring to the scenes where Frank, grateful for having a place to stay, tackles the entrenched neglect and does many repairs in and around the home.  (A man enjoying chores that much was the only unrealistic point in my view).  It’s that the quality of development starts to take off here,  peeling back the layers of not only the film’s characters, but of the themes that Reitman gracefully details as the film progresses.  Ordinarily I’m not fond of the flashback sequence as a movie device however Reitman does them so well here, expertly and seamlessly woven in to advance the plot and character development, with only minor visual cues as a bridge.  Also, I found myself admiring the camera work and wondering why certain shots were used. Not in the critical sense, more in the analytical sense that a really good film can inspire in the viewer.   Mostly, though, the viewer is immersed in a trio of fine performances.  Could’ve would’ve should’ve been Oscar material, but what does RB know.

A single point deduction for occasional irritating soundtrack choices.