Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

Carol


A different type of Christmas Carol.

A different type of Christmas Carol.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Amy Warner, Michael Haney, Wendy Lardin, Pamela Evans Haynes, Greg Violand, Michael Ward, Kay Geiger, Christine Dye. Directed by Todd Haynes

We sometimes look back at the 1950s as a kind of idyllic era, a time when America was the pre-eminent world power (although I’m sure the Soviet Union had a thing or two to say about that), when life was simple and the American way of life was at its peak. However, for all the affection we have for that time period, there were some undercurrents that were much more ugly than our collective memories would credit.

Carol is set in 1952 as America’s post-war paradise was in full flower. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it can be said that the movie is about the relationship between shopgirl Therese (pronounced as if it rhymes with “caress”) Belivet (Mara) and well-to-do housewife Carol Aird (Blanchett). While Christmas shopping for her daughter, the elfin Therese catches the patrician Carol’s eye and things evolve from there. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship the two women have in mind is frowned upon in that era.

To make things more complicated, Carol is in the midst of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Chandler) who has already endured a Sapphic affair by his wife with her friend Abby (Paulson) although that, we learn, actually took place before he married her. The thought that his wife has been intimate with another woman apparently drives him a little bit batty, but he loves his wife and wants her to stay, but his problems with alcohol and rage make that impossible. Carol is trying to keep things low-key between her and Therese but left alone and needing to get out of town, the two women hop in a car and head vaguely West, not really with any specific destination in mind although once they get to Chicago they stay at the swanky Drake Hotel. However, the repercussions of Carol’s actions will force her to choose between her needs and her daughter.

This is exquisitely acted, with likely Oscar nominations coming to both Blanchett and Mara. While this is clearly not about Carol as much as it is about Therese, film title notwithstanding, Blanchett gives Carol an icy upper class veneer with a warm center when it comes to other women. She is graceful and a bit brassy; after a loud fight with her husband witnessed by (and to a large extent caused by) Therese, Carol in an exasperated tone exclaims  “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes!” It’s the type of line that would have been uttered by a Joan Crawford or a Rosalind Russell, but not nearly as well as Blanchett delivers it.

Mara’s naturally gamine features have gotten her comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, although she is somewhat more sophisticated an actress than Hepburn. She does have Hepburn’s charming youthful inexperience, but beneath that is a sexuality that lights up the screen, particularly later in the film when the relationship between the two women begins to get physical. Mara is very much desired by a good deal of men in the story, not the least of which is her boyfriend Richard Semco (Lacy) who very much wants her to be his wife a little further down the line. His earnest delivery is perfect for a character who is completely puzzled that his girl simply isn’t behaving the way she’s supposed to.

One of the characteristics of the era was its elegance and from the exquisite fashions to the furniture and settings, the movie gets it down pat. They capture the speech patterns of Manhattan sophisticates, which was more genteel than we’re used to hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evocation of 1950s New York that captured as well as this one for a film not made in that era. I think that an Oscar nomination is very likely for costume designer Sandy Powell, whose fashions here are beautiful, simple, stylish and perfect for the time period.

And yet for all the praise I’m heaping on the movie, you’ll notice the rating doesn’t seem to match and here’s why. The movie takes a very long time to go a very short distance. The addendum at the end of the movie is nearly pointless, as by that time we’ve emotionally checked out of the film. Haynes has a definite case of the on-too-longs and the film would have benefitted from some judicious editing.

But let’s be clear about this – I’m very much in the minority when it comes to the critical opinion of the movie, which you can tell from the scores below, so do take my remarks with a grain of salt but the thing that really makes me wonder about the universal critical acclaim is this question; would the movie have received the same kind of praise if the couple at the center been heterosexual? I have a very disturbing feeling that it would not.

This is a beautifully shot movie with superb acting performances, and on that basis alone you should likely go see it. Certainly if you’re an Oscar buff, you’ll want to catch the lead performances which are likely to both be nominated. However, be aware that you may find some of the movie a bit tedious and mannered, which while it fits in with the era it’s set in, may indeed not necessarily fit in with modern moviegoing audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Blanchett and Mara deliver award-worthy performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is much too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, brief nudity and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Highsmith said she was inspired to write the novel after a chance encounter with a blonde woman wearing a fur coat in a department store in 1948.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far From Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tomboy

New Releases for the Week of January 8, 2016


The RevenantTHE REVENANT

(20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge. Directed by Alejandro González Iňárritu

Hugh Glass, a legendary explorer of the American frontier, is attacked by a bear and left for dead by his own hunting party. Betrayed by his closest friend, Glass endures incredible odds to recover from his injuries, survive harsh elements and gain vengeance for unendurable grief and pain. The movie opened for an Oscar qualifying run and has garnered laudatory reviews and huge buzz. It’s definitely the movie to see this week.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity)

Carol

(Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel (and said to be auto-biographical), a married woman in the 1950s New York who is trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience falls for an ambitious dreamer of a store clerk. The two embark on an affair in an era when sexual relations between two women was taboo. When the husband discovers her infidelity, the wife is torn between her children and family and a life unfulfilling to her and rebelling against society’s norms to live the life she wants.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Regal Winter Park Village, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language)

The Forest

(Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Noriko Sakura. An American woman journeys to Tokyo to find her twin sister who had ventured into the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji and disappeared. She discovers that the forest is notorious for being a place where people commit suicide and their angry and tormented souls haunt the forest. She will have to fight these spirits and the darkness within her to learn the fate of her sister – and survive her own trip into the forest.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and images)

The Masked Saint

(Freestyle) Brett Granstaff, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Diahann Carroll, Roddy Piper. A former professional wrestler discovers a different calling and retires from the ring to become a small town pastor. However, he finds his flock gripped in the vise of poverty and crime. Donning a mask, he moonlights as a costumed vigilante while trying to evade police and criminals both while reconciling his violent alter ego with his standing as a pastor and family man. Apparently, this is based on a true story.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, UA Seminole Towne Center

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements)

Wazir

(Reliance) Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar, Aditi Rao Hydari, John Abraham. Two unlikely friends – one a wheelchair-bound chess grandmaster, the other a fearless police officer – are brought together by mutual grief. The two decide to aid one another in a cat and mouse game against a ruthless opponent lurking in the shadows who seeks to raise the stakes to the ultimate.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Mystery
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Pan


Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

(2015) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougall, Cara Delevingne, Tae-joo Na, Jack Charles, Bronson Webb, Mike Shepherd, Brian Bovell, Kurt Egyiawan, Jimmy Vee, Paul Hunter, Spencer Wilding, Dean Nolan, Giacomo Mancini, Ami Metcalf. Directed by Joe Wright

Most of us are familiar with the boy who never grew up, whether through the stage play or the Disney animation. Author J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan was not terribly forthcoming when it came to his origins, other than what we all know – that he was an orphan who was kidnapped and brought to Neverland where he became leader of the Lost Boys and took on his nemesis, Captain James Hook. But how did he become leader? Where did Captain Hook come from? How did Peter get his sword? And what was he like before he became The Boy Who Never Grew Up?

In Blitz-scarred London during the Second World War, young Peter (Miller) has lived his entire life in an orphanage, run by the malevolent Mother Barnabas (Burke) whom Peter suspects of hoarding the war rations of the Orphanage. With his partner-in-crime Nibs (MacDougall) Peter is also highly suspicious of the rapid disappearance of the boys in the Orphanage; adopted, say the sisters; sent to the country for their own safety, say the sisters. Peter says bunk!

His suspicions soon prove to be correct as it turns out that the boys are being kidnapped by pirates, taken in a flying galleon (which engages in a thrilling battle with Spitfires that are already dealing with the Luftwaffe bombers) and brought to a strange island floating placidly above an ocean which sits in the heavens. This is Neverland and it is ruled with an iron fist by the famous pirate Blackbeard (Jackman) who uses the boys as slave labor in the mines who are digging not for gold but for Pixum, the concentrated remains of dead fairies which Blackbeard killed by the thousands. However, they have all fled to the Fairy Kingdom which Blackbeard cannot find and he is growing frantic; the Pixum preserves his youth and vitality and he will die without it. Peter, kidnapped by the pirates but saving his pal Nibs in the process, ends up in the mines with an adult – James Hook (Hedlund), who is friend to nobody but for some odd reason takes to Peter.

There is also a prophecy among the natives that a boy would come, a Pan warrior bearing the symbol of their tribe (pan pipes) that would kill their oppressor and lead them to freedom. When Peter discovers that he has the ability to fly, Hook sees a way out of the mines and enlists Peter and the overseer Sam Smiegel (Akhtar) – whom Hook addresses as Smee – they are successful but end up captured by the natives led by Princess Tiger Lily (Mara) whose father (Charles), the chief of the tribe, orders that Hook fight the tribe’s most valiant warrior. If he defeats their champion, the three of them go free. If not, the three will be put to death. Tough place, Neverland.

The fight is interrupted by Peter who is discovered to be wearing a chain bearing the tribe’s Pan symbol and Hook blabs about the boy’s ability to take flight. The trouble is, Peter isn’t confident that he can repeat his feat and Blackbeard is on his way to reclaim the boy, whom he sees as not just a threat but as a means to lead him to the fairy kingdom. A final battle will ensue and ’tis life or death. Will Peter become the warrior and leader he is destined to be?

Well, yeah. That’s the thing about prequels; you know essentially how things are going to turn out. Therefore it is important that the journey getting there is interesting. Certainly the visuals are amazing, with majestic flying pirate ships, skeletal prehistoric giant birds and native Neverlanders exploding into multicolored dust when the pirates kill them. Visually, this is a treat.

Story-wise, not so much. The movie plods along with virtually no energy. Peter Pan is meant to make our spirits soar, to allow us to recapture (or retain) our childhood. None of this is really uplifting or enjoyable. It feels like all the effort went into the visuals but the story itself got little more attention than being an excuse for some spectacular production design.

There’s also the odd propensity to use anachronisms, like the miners greeting Blackbeard with an a Capella performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” or the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They both take us out of the movie and remind us that we are watching a movie. The surest way for a filmmaker to sabotage his or her own film is to use pop songs inappropriately.

Jackman, as Blackbeard, alone appears to be having fun here. While he looks something like a demented Cavalier, he has a joie de vivre that is missing from the rest of the movie. Miller as the titular character isn’t bad but he isn’t memorable either. He has some potential I think but he is thrown into the cinematic fire, essentially being expected to carry much of the load of this film and it really is an awful lot to expect out of an inexperienced kid (this is his first feature film). That he acquits himself as well as he does is a minor miracle.

Hedlund for some odd reason chooses to play Hook as the love child of Indiana Jones and James Cagney. It isn’t an embarrassing performance but quite frankly his odd line delivery is distracting and I don’t think he got a lot of direction on how to play the character. The man who is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan should be much darker than this Hook is who comes off mainly as spoiled and scared. There’s no sign of the great pirate Captain Hook here which is a shame.

The movie has been getting roundly panned by critics (couldn’t resist) and has been a box office bomb. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you’ve heard it is, but it isn’t very good either. I’d put it up there as mediocre mindless entertainment that might be too dark for the kids and too childish for their parents. Considering the amount of money spent on this, I have to say that the audience has much better uses for their time than on this early serving of turkey.

REASONS TO GO: Great production design. Jackman is clearly having fun with this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and top-heavy. Doesn’t have the heart that Peter Pan films should have.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material, some mild cursing and fantasy violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Bardem was originally offered the role of Blackbeard but turned it down.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Death Valley

New Releases for the Week of October 9, 2015


Pan

PAN

(Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Cara Delevingne. Directed by Joe Wright

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s literature but there isn’t much that is known about his early years. Director Joe Wright aims to remedy that situation, showing us the tale of a young orphan spirited away from the orphanage in London to a magical island ruled by the wicked pirate Blackbeard. To survive he will need to united the tribes of Neverland, led by the impetuous Princess Tiger Lily, but he won’t be able to win at all without the help of a ne’er-do-well explorer who happens to be a fellow by the name of Jim Hook.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material)

99 Homes

(Broad Green) Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern, Clancy Brown. After being evicted from his home, a single father has only one chance of getting it back – by going to work for the despicable and ruthless businessman who evicted him in the first place. At first, he does it for his mother and children but as he gets further ensnared in the businessman’s web, he discovers that in selling his soul he’s been sentencing himself to a kind of purgatory on Earth, and extricating himself from that might even be more impossible still.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R  (for language including some sexual references, and a brief violent image)

Big Stone Gap

(Picturehouse) Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Jenna Elfman, Jane Krakowski. The pharmacist in a small coal mining town in rural Virginia has resigned herself to being alone for the rest of her life. She is in fact content with that fate, living a fulfilling life of use and purpose. However, she discovers a family secret that shatters her illusions and changes the course of her life forever.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal The Loop, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for brief suggestive material)

Coming Home

(Sony Classics) Gong Li, Daoming Chen, Huiwen Zhang, Tao Guo. In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, a dissident is sent to a labor camp. When he returns home, he finds that his beloved wife no longer recognizes who he is. Masquerading as a friend of her husband’s who was in the same camp, he tries to find a way to convince her that he is her husband. This comes from Zhang Yimou, one of the most honored directors in China.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)

He Named Me Malala

(Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousefzai, Ziauddin Yousefzai, Toor Pekai Yousefzai, Khushal Yousefzai. Most of us have heard the name of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who courageously stood up for the education of girls in Pakistan and was targeted by the Taliban for elimination. Shot while returning home on her school bus, she survived her injuries despite overwhelming odds to become a symbol for the rights of women to make something better of themselves. This documentary not only tells her story but shows Malala at home as the ordinary teenage girl that she is, although truth be told she is something far more than ordinary.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats)

Ladrones

(Pantelion) Fernando Colunga, Eduardo Yanez, Miguel Varoni, Jessica Lindsey. The sequel to Ladron que roba a ladron follows the continued exploits of a pair of thieves turned crusaders for social justice. Now retired from the game, they come together for one last heist – this one against a ruthless family of land owners who are trying to wipe away an entire town in order to build condos. Putting together a new team of misfits, they’ll have to have cojones the size of watermelons to pull this one off.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Caper Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal The Loop
Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language, some sexual content and historical smoking)

Meet the Patels

(Alchemy) Ravi Patel, Geeta Patel, Champa V. Patel, Vasant K. Patel. Ravi Patel is an actor/filmmaker who was born in America to parents who emigrated from India. He is rapidly approaching 30 and is single, having broken up with his white girlfriend of two years that he couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents about. They are anxious to have grandchildren and see their son married. Therefore they go old school; the parental matchmaking process. Captured on film by his documentary filmmaker sister, the film shows insights into the Indian culture and the heart of a loving family that is common to all cultures. This played at the South Asian Film Festival last weekend at the Enzian and is beginning a regular run; you can read my review of the film here.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, brief suggestive images and incidental smoking)

Sleeping With Other People

(IFC) Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Adam Scott, Katherine Waterston. Two college friends, who have gone on to lives of serial infidelity, reconnect and become friends again. Vowing to remain friends because they are terrible with relationships, they find themselves falling for each other against all odds. Look for my review on this tomorrow.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sex Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, language including sexual references, and some drug use)

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

New Releases for the Week of January 10, 2014


Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 

(CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Max Casella. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

A young folk singer trying to make it in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961 finds himself homeless with a cat that isn’t his in tow in a brutal New York City winter. The only ray of hope is an audition for a music mogul who could kickstart his career or once again shatter his dreams into a million pieces. This has been getting some pretty strong Oscar buzz.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

August: Osage County

(Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper. A trio of strong-willed women who don’t particularly get along all that well are drawn back home to the somewhat eccentric woman who raised them for a family crisis. With spouses, children and exes in tow it doesn’t take long for chaos and heartbreak – not to mention the occasional possibility for redemption – to ensue.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for drug material)

Dumbbells

(GoDigital) Brian Drolet, Hoyt Richards, Jay Mohr, Carl Reiner. A former star college athlete finds himself working as a trainer in a rundown gym. When the new owner of the gym hits upon the idea of setting a reality TV show in the gym, it is met with much resistance from the complacent staff. However, the athlete and the owner form an unlikely alliance to save the gym, change attitudes and generally kick butt.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Her

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara. A hopeless romantic man, heartbroken after the demise of a long-term relationship, flounders in social awkwardness. Then he gets a new personalized operating system for his computer devices and everything changes – he falls in love with the voice and personality of his new operating system.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity)

Hercules: The Legend Begins

(Summit) Kellan Lutz, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Johnathon Schaech. The legendary demigod, son of Zeus and a mortal woman, is betrayed by his stepfather – an evil, ambitious king – and exiled. Resolved to address this injustice, the extraordinarily strong warrior resolves to overthrow the king and takes the first steps on his road to immortality.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG=13 (for sequences of intense combat action and violence, and for some sensuality)

Lone Survivor

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana. The true story of four Navy SEALs sent out into the mountains of Afghanistan to neutralize an Al Qaeda leader only to find themselves confronted with a much larger force than their intelligence told them. Faced with an impossible moral decision, they will put their lives on the line for each other and reflect in doing so the very highest ideals of the U.S. military.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: True Life War Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)