REVIEW: Big Eyes

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Big Eyes
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter and Jason Schwartzman

Is it art or is it trash?

Tim Burton’s latest poses this hyperbolic question about the paintings of Margaret Keane several times, but he isn’t (I’m sorry) too keen on exploring it.  Instead, he renders the answer unimportant and focuses on a more generic conflict: Keane (Amy Adams) finding the courage to fight her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) for the right to her artwork after years of letting him take credit for it so it would sell. Walter uses traditional 1960s gender roles against his wife so he can pretend her work is his, at the same time pretending like he’s doing her a favor by getting her paintings out to the public.  That doesn’t sound more generic, but when the movie introduces questions that would make it more interesting and then ignores them, the narrative’s single-mindedness becomes annoying.

Burton also doesn’t allow Keane to grapple with anything that would make her character anything other than a saint.  There’s a brief shot where she reads a brutal pan by a New York Times critic (Terence Stamp), and shame convincingly washes over Adams’ face for a split second before it cuts away to Walter’s theatrical rampage about the article.  The inspiration for her lawsuit against Walter is her joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the script doesn’t delve into it beyond a couple of simple verses; it becomes a way to take the story to its anti-climatic courtroom climax, and little else.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Her

her

Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

Her movie

And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Her

bestshots2013_15

Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

Her-Movie-siri-operating-system-ftr-1024x640

And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting.  The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.

“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody.  Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.

It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely.  American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.

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REVIEW: The Master

The Master
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Laura Dern

The latest film from mythic American auteur Paul Thomas Anderson is an ambitious, beautiful mess.  With 2007’s There Will Be Blood, he announced himself as one of the greatest working directors, altering and unhinging the film community much in the same way that that movie’s protagonist alters and unhinges himself and the landscape.

The Master is both a historical continuation and thematic sibling to that film, which concluded in 1927.  Anderson skips over The Great Depression and World War II, and picks up at the dawn of the 1950s, in a glamorous age of excess and social repression.  Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disturbed Naval veteran, does not belong to this era.  He is too overtly sexualized and too much of an alcoholic to fit in with the tidy, polished department store where he works briefly as a portrait photographer at the beginning of the movie.

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CANNES REVIEW: On the Road

On the Road
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen

Too much goes wrong in the movie adaptation of On the Road that what it does get right  is overshadowed almost completely.  In adapting Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel, the time period is completely lost amid a cast of venerable modern actors who are cluttered together on the screen as if it would be a felony to exclude someone who was in the book.

At almost two-and-a-half hours, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera do with this story what many other bad book adaptations do: they drag things on for too long.  I haven’t read Kerouac’s book, but as many people I know who’ve read it feared, his stream-of-consciousness writing style does not translate very well.  Much of the screenplay is very well-written, to be sure, but the complete lack of atmosphere drains them of much of their power.

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REVIEW: The Muppets

The Muppets
Directed by: James Bobin
Written by: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller (screenplay), Jim Henson (characters),
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen

The entirety of this reboot of The Muppets franchise is about why it’s necessary.  The Muppets will be duking it out with Scream 4 for the title of “Most self-reflexive movie of 2011,” and sadly it’s the same mess of mixed quality and mediocre execution.

Jason Segel and Amy Adams play Gary and Mary, two people who, along with Gary’s Muppet brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), attempt to get the Muppet gang back together for a farewell show.  Segel co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, and it’s unfortunate that such a worthy premise oddly can’t decide if it wants to be funny or not.

In structure and (sometimes) tone this reboot resembles the Seinfeld Reunion season of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Kermit The Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire) joins the oddball trio to reassemble his Muppet posse, with Curb’s Seinfeld reunion line “We’ll do it in a way that won’t be lame,” being implied instead of spoken.  The Muppets are battling to be relevant, and the visual gags and several self-reflexive references are made to do battle with forced pathos instead of being front-and-center.

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