REVIEW: Carol

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Carol
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Phyllis Nagy (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (book)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson

When Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) see each other for the first time, at a department store in 1950s New York City, their first shared look is a barrage of confusion and longing, of instant connection stifled by societal codes.  In other words, it’s love at first sight.

Moments after that frozen-in-time first glance, Carol shows up at the doll display where Therese works, and asks about Christmas gifts for her daughter.  Therese doesn’t have the doll she wants in stock, but she suggests a new state-of-the-art miniature train set.  “I like your hat,” Carol says of as she walks away, Therese’s eyes widening as as she stays behind with the other Santa hat-donning store clerks.

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REVIEW: Her

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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.

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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

Our Favorite Performances of 2011

1. Kirsten DunstMelancholia– In Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic new film, Dunst creates one of cinema’s most fully realized portraits of numbing depression.  In all of her performances, Dunst has shown a skill sometimes greater than the films she is in.  Here, she takes the role of Justine, a woman who self-destructs on her wedding night and takes shelter with her sister as the planet Melancholia goes on a collision course with Earth.  Key Scene: In the deepest part of her depression, Justine even needs help getting down to the dinner table.  Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) made meatloaf, her favorite dish.  When Justine tastes it, her face crumbles, and she says it tastes like ash.  That’s all that will be left of the planet in a couple days, and she can’t wait.

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REVIEW: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Steve Zaillian (screenplay), Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer

Everything surrounding this American adaptation of a best-selling Swedish book seemed like a perfect fit.  Who better to chronicle a dark story about a serial killer that involves a clever computer nerd than David Fincher?  It’s a combination of everything he’s done so well as a director, from Zodiac to last year’s The Social Network.

Add in a cast full of talented character actors and a breakthrough star performance from the unknown actress Rooney Mara, and it sounds like a filmmaking and financial grand slam.  Though Fincher weaves his distinct visual pleasures through Steve Zaillian’s condensed/slightly altered version of Stieg Larsson’s bulky narrative, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a long movie filled with many names, twists and bursts of violence.

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