Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Her


A selfie of a happy schlub.

A selfie of a happy schlub.

(2013) Science Fiction Romance (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Kristen Wiig (voice), Bill Hader (voice), Matt Letscher, David Azar, Portia Doubleday, Brian Cox (voice), Laura Kai Chen, Gracie Prewitt, Robert Benard, Lisa Cohen, Claudia Choi. Directed by Spike Jonze

There has been a revolution in personal communication. We now have more ways than ever to communicate with one another. Why then are we becoming less connected?

In the near future, a man named Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) – a name a screenwriter might have given a comic character in, say, 1926 – lives in a downtown high-rise. He once wrote for the L.A. Weekly but now works for a dot-com that offers the service of writing handwritten letters for those who don’t have the time or the gift to do it themselves. Theo’s letters are beautiful and emotionally expressive but for some reason he has trouble expressing his own emotions to those around him. His wife Catherine (Mara) has finally given up on Theo, and the two are divorcing for the most part acrimoniously although clearly Theo is still hung up on Catherine.

Smart phones have gotten smarter in the future and do more for us. Now there’s a new Operating System for our computers – one which is a true artificial intelligence, learning and growing as it becomes used to you and your needs. The voice of Theo’s calls herself Samantha (Johansson). At first, she’s a super-efficient personal assistant, making sure he makes his meetings and appointments, checking his e-mail and text messages for him and so forth. However, she has a curiosity about things and Theo is more than happy to help her out. Soon he feels a kind of connection to this disembodied voice and why shouldn’t he? She’s programmed to serve his needs.

However that connection grows and deepens as she becomes the perfect woman for him. They even engage in a kind of cybersex that is at once erotic and disturbing. He’s fallen in love and that’s not even considered weird – his good friend Amy (Adams) who is undergoing the break-up of her own marriage of eight years has also developed a deep friendship with her own personalized operating system.

But there are drawbacks to this new kind of love. There’s no physical body, no physical connection. Sure there’s cybersex but no touching. Surrogates (Doubleday) are tried but for Theo it doesn’t really work well. The relationship is largely inside his head and the physical presence is almost an intrusion. When he goes on a blind date with a particularly needy girl (Wilde) that doesn’t work either.

What kind of future do these relationships have, particularly when one party is growing – or perhaps more accurately evolving – at a significantly faster rate than the other? For the moment Theo doesn’t care – he is just learning to enjoy the moment thanks to Samantha.

The movie asks some really deep questions – what is love, and what does it mean to be human? Both of them are intrinsically tied up with one another. For those who might think it far-fetched to fall in love with a voice, consider this; many people have fallen in love with people they’ve only texted and chatted with on the Internet. Are their feelings any less valid because they haven’t had physical intimacy? Of course, the difference is that there’s a potential for physical intimacy whereas in Theo’s case there simply isn’t.

Phoenix is given maybe the toughest job an actor can get – take what is essentially an uninteresting guy and make him relatable to the audience. In that sense, his performance may not be getting any Oscar buzz but it may be as great a performance as those that are receiving it. Theo is the kind of guy we’d never spare a second glance at with his throwback mustache and excuse-me air.

Adams shows more vulnerability than I can recall in any of her performances. It’s a far cry from her role in American Hustle where she is outwardly tough and smart but inwardly has issues. Here her character has been sapped of strength and vitality by life; she is working on a documentary film that will serve as her dissertation but there’s no life to the project; it’s inert and boring and she knows it. She hasn’t given up exactly – she’s still a good friend to Theo – but this Amy has lost her way.

Jonze who has mostly made quirky pictures from the scripts of other people wrote this one himself and he throws all sorts of fine little details – for example, the future fashion isn’t having your pants down around your ass but instead up high and there are a lot of earth tones. There are no flying cars but there are high speed trains that take you just about anywhere. Even L.A.’s skyline resembles that of Shanghai (which is a bit of an inside joke since the Shanghai skyline was used in place of L.A.’s).

The question is here not just what humans are but what we are becoming. There is a bit of parable to the proceedings here. We have become obsessed with being connected but make no connections. How many times have you gone to a restaurant and seen everyone at the table texting away on their smart phones? Even when we’re together we aren’t present. Is that unhealthy or is it simply adapting to our new technology? I suspect that it’s a little bit of both.

Some movies tells us their views on the human condition and that alone gives us something to think about. Her is more about pointing out the direction we’re heading in and allowing you to draw your own conclusions. This is the kind of movie you’ll be turning over in your head and discussing with your friends for weeks after you leave the theater. I can’t think of higher praise than that.

REASONS TO GO: Examines what it is to be human. Thought-provoking. Believable future.

REASONS TO STAY: The emotional resonance may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few instances of rough language, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the filming of some of the rougher emotional scenes, Amy Adams would sing songs from Broadway musicals to cheer herself back up. Phoenix soon began joining her but both stopped when they noticed Jonze filming their impromptu duets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wall-E

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Answers to Nothing

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld