Friday, February 14, 2014


What is the nature of a relationship?  How do we connect with those around us?  Is it possible to fall for someone who doesn't even exist on the physical plane?  These questions form the foundation for the movie Her.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a lonely, divorced man who writes commissioned love letters for a living.  When he decides to invest in an Artificial Intelligence operating system (brought to vibrant life through the voice work of Scarlett Johanssen), his life changes in unexpected ways as a romantic relationship begins to flourish.

Refreshingly, the movie does not turn Theodore and Samantha (the O.S.)'s story into a simple joke, the way a lesser film might have done.  Theodore may be met with mixed reactions when he tells people he is dating his O.S., but by and large, he is not seen as a freak or a weirdo for doing so.  In a world where technology isolates perhaps more than it connects, Theodore is lucky to find someone with whom he shares a true partnership.  Even if that someone is a disembodied voice living inside computers.  The film treats their relationship with both humor and gravitas; their story is by turns genuinely funny and genuinely devastating.

Directed by Spike Jonze, Theodore's story takes place in the not-too-distant future.  Clothing and hairstyles evoke familiarity, but don't scream "futuristic" the way a boxy silver aesthetic might.  Technology is advanced, but not outlandish.  The world is recognizable, but not quite our own.  It serves to both engage and isolate the audience from the proceedings, the same way so many characters are alternately engaged and isolated from their surroundings.

Despite a simple title which evokes a running Arrested Development gag ("Her?") and a premise that might seem off-putting to some, Her is a lovely, heartfelt film. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Captain Phillips

In April of 2009, the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates.  After realizing they could not keep control of the ship, the pirates escaped aboard one of the Alabama's lifeboats, taking Richard Phillips, the ship's captain, as hostage.  After days trapped in the lifeboat with the pirates, Phillips was rescued by Navy SEALs.

In Captain Phillips, his story gets a cinematic treatment--but it's far from the rah rah action/adventure story it could have been.  Under the direction of Paul Greengrass, the film begins by contrasting two captains getting ready for their time at sea: the titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), worrying over the safety mechanisms and keeping strict with is crew, and Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) selecting the men for his pirating mission.  These scenes are later echoed when we see the U.S. Navy SEALs at work.

The comparisons are no accident.  Greengrass strikes an excellent balance.  The pirates, though the villains of Phillips's story, are not inhuman or broadly drawn.  As everything spins out of Muse's control (leading to even more dangerous situations for Phillips), you can feel for his plight while still knowing that if you was in Phillips's position, you would absolutely want the SEAL cavalry doing everything in their power to rescue you.

And what a harrowing rescue it is.  The movie is based on a true story which the audience is likely to know, at least broadly.  Nonetheless, Greengrass's ability to build tension is frankly, fantastic.  His signature handheld (or shaky cam) approach may be off putting to some viewers, but he has found a way to use it not only to express the "right there in the action" feeling, but to make every incident--as well as the geography of both ships--clear.  The latter sometimes gets missed with this style of filming, but Greengrass uses proximity and close quarters quite well.

Tom Hanks has always been a reliable, likable performer, but it's possible that the last five minutes of Captain Phillips displays the best performance of his career.  Abdi gives a similarly strong performance; the casting directors did well to pull him from obscurity as a Minneapolis chauffeur.   What could have been a forgettable action story is instead a gripping tale of survival in Captain Phillips.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Based on the short story by James Thurber (well, sort of), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story of a man whose dull, unextraordinary life leads to a series of complicated, heroic daydreams.  In the original short story, that's as far as it goes.  Walter's life does not change dramatically; he still feels the need to escape into his secret lives.

The film version, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, starts much the same way.  Here, Mitty is a quiet, unassuming Life magazine employee, developing photographs and experiencing the beauty of the world vicariously.  In his dreams, he always has the perfect comeback (or the perfectly placed punch) for his bullying workmate (Adam Scott), he always heroically wins the attention of the object of his affection (Kristen Wiig), his life is always bigger and grander and more beautiful.  In the real world, of course, his life couldn't be duller.  There's even a running storyline with an eHarmony employee (Patton Oswalt) doing his best to build Walter's profile into one interesting enough to garner even the slightest bit of attention.

When Life announces it is ceasing its print editions and laying off most of its employees, freelance photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) requests that his greatest work be featured on the cover of the last issue.  The only problem is, the negative is missing.  Deciding to chase Sean down to recover it, Walter draws inspiration from Life's motto, "To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel.  That is the purpose of life."  And so his own adventure begins.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is at its best, both emotionally and visually, during Walter's early fantasy sequences.  The film sets high expectations for itself that it never quite reaches once Walter steps away from fantasy and into real adventures.  Veering too far into sentimentality and coincidence don't mesh with a story whose origin is so bittersweet.  It's a nice movie that had the potential to be a great movie, but never reaches it.