Monday, January 20, 2014

Oscar Bait 2014--Philomena

Based on a true story about a woman who was coerced into giving up her illegitimate child by Irish nuns in 1955, and who finally found him again in America--eight years after his death from AIDS. This is a movie that is better than it should be, and yet fails to ignite on almost every level.

The problem may be the precision with which the screenplay is balanced between anti-Catholic screeds and beatific acceptance and forgiveness. The situation of unwed mothers in 1950s Ireland was objectively horrific--with no sex education to be had, Philomena had no idea that the nice day at the carnival with a boy could lead to her pregnancy. Then, because she was not married (and was only about 15) there was no social support for her and she was sent away to a Catholic abbey that took in wayward girls/fallen women. Pain was considered the atonement for the sin of carnality, and after the child was born, the girls were forced to stay on working for the abbey to repay the costs of their keep.

Meanwhile, the children were adopted out where possible, and their removal is depicted as a surprise to the mothers who lose them. Because the substantial sum of $1000 was paid for the adoptee, charges of "baby selling" are leveled. 

Steve Coogan plays involuntary free-lance journalist Martin Sixsmith who investigates the story and finds the missing son. His character is the source for nearly all the anti-Catholic and anti-religious commentary in the movie. His character is carefully balanced by Philomena herself, played by Judy Dench, the religious apologist and believer.

For every angry denunciation by Sixsmith, there is an equal and opposite reaction by Philomena, explaining and excusing what happened to her. "They were selling babies" versus "I could never have given him this kind of life." "They abused you, and that makes me angry" versus "It happened to me, and I'm the one who gets to decide how I feel about it." Sixsmith finds God unbelievable; Philomena still goes to Mass.

The denouement is almost too tidy, but is apparently true--Philomena's son was adopted by Americans, but as an adult, he returned to the abbey where he was born to look for his mother. He got no help, but was buried there in the hopes that she would find him there one day. And she did.

Is this movie worth seeing? It doesn't quite come together. Judy Dench does lovely, quiet work as a mother gingerly confronting a past she has been groomed to be ashamed of, but she never really seems to struggle with the emotions. In fact, she comes across as deeply naive, possibly to the point of feeble-mindedness. Her lack of internal conflict robs any power from her decision to forgive the nuns who engineered her misery. She never really seemed all that broken up. "I think of him every day" doesn't really ring true, especially since she kept his existence a secret for 50 years. The couple of times Sixsmith yells "She has spent her life looking for him" also is not supported by the movie itself. She maybe tried contacting the nuns once before? She changed her mind twice about continuing the search during the course of the movie, which is played as "silly woman doesn't really know what she wants" rather than as the result of deep emotional conflicts.

She is a bit silly, and the movie mocks that--and then carefully balances that negative characterization by showing Sixsmith as mean and thus equally unlikeable. And while their personalities are ostensibly wildly different, they don't really come into much conflict--they neither one exhibit much of an arc over the course of the movie. 

It's fine, really--a small movie about people confronting realistic life traumas. There are no car chases, nothing gets blown up, no guns are drawn or fired. Dench looks every one of her character's 60+ years, and the camera does not shy from closing in on the wrinkles of her face. In some ways, what she does almost isn't "acting" because she isn't moving, she's remaining still, letting the lines of her face tell the story. Which is probably even harder to do.

It's the smallest movie of the Best Picture nominees (that I have seen) and probably the weakest entry. But not a bad use of time.

Oscar Bait 2014--Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis

These movies? Are essentially the same movie, with different flavorings.  Perhaps this is why the Coen's movie wasn't given much Oscar love--those spots were already taken by Alexander Payne's version.

  • Bitter and difficult male protagonist
  • Who has burned relationship bridges
  • Begins to be confronted with his own failures
  • Now needs to rely on people he has previously burned
  • Only one (meaningful) woman in the movie, who is angry and prone to foul language
  • Artistic color palette
  • Superpower: Grudge holding
  • Cares more about non-human items (air compressor and cat, respectively)
  • Willful refusal to consider others' feelings--like, at all
  • Protagonist gets beat up in an alley, emerges bloodied but unbowed
  • Mocks domesticity while living off the efforts and comforts of others
  • Unresolved relationships and situation at the end of the movie
The two movies are set some fifty years apart--perhaps there is a grand unifying theory, and Llewyn Davis grew up to be Woody Grant? Not literally, but definitely the same kind of character.

So should you see these movies? Sure--why not? Do you need to see both of them? Well, if you really don't have an extra two hours to see both, you can pick your cinematic flavor--chilly black and white midwestern landscapes that reflect the coldness of the relationships, or desaturated film stock effects backed with depressing folk songs about Tudor era caesarian births. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Oscar Bait 2014--Her, by Spike Jonze

If you look up the movie Her ( or is it "her"?) you will likely find plot explained as "in the near future, a man falls in love with his operating system, an artificial intelligence with the voice of Scarlett Johansson."

Do not believe it.

I mean, technically, it's true. Theo Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) does buy an artificial intelligence OS* which is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and he does seem to fall in love with it. He calls it "my girlfriend" and people take him at his word. He believes it, the characters around him in the movie believe it, even the OS seems to believe it. On that basis, then, you would believe that this is a science-fiction-y rom-com, about two mismatched lovers trying to just find a way to be together in this wacky world.

But that is not really what the movie is about.

What this movie is really about is grief and the process of grieving. It's about a man coming to terms with his divorce, finally coming to terms with his new life and letting go of the old one. The OS (who names herself "Samantha") is more or less a transitional love object, the thing that Theo uses to hoist himself out of his sadness and through which he rediscovers his capacity for happiness.

And there is NOTHING WRONG with making a movie that uses the tropes and gestures of science fiction to explore human emotions. In many ways, this is a better, more engaging movie because it is about those human emotions. I think that this is what make this movie Oscar Bait--it really is a rather universally applicable story about the way humans move through grief, told through the specific experience of one particular human.

Which is not to say that this movie is entirely unproblematic. It is not for nothing that Theo Twombly won Vulture's tongue-in-cheek ranking of the "Saddest, Whitest, Sad White Men" in Oscar movies. While others are better suited to discuss the lack of non-white characters (or the lack of anyone other than the economically privileged as well), I want to consider this movie's gender blind spots. Before I do that, however, I want to disclose my own biases. I am absolutely a feminist, but perhaps not a really effective one. Which is to say that, as I was watching this movie, I was able to see it as an exploration of a universal human experience. That's right, I am able to--unironically!--look at a movie exploring the white privileged male experience, and consider it "universal." And that evaluation may even survive to the end of this essay.

And it is because it is sci fi that this movie can reach for a "universal experience" and gloss over the gender blindness, because Samantha is not human. And it is because this movie is gender blind, glossing over Samantha's experience, that it is not sci fi.

This is tricky to articulate, but try this thought experiment--try watching this movie putting yourself in Samantha's place. Use Samantha as your surrogate. Imagine that you are experiencing this world as Her.

First of all, is that even possible? What does the movie tell us about AI? How much is programmed, and how much is "learned" once the OS is installed and interacts with its operator? Honestly, we have no idea. And we have no idea because the movie isn't interested in that question at all. The movie doesn't really want to ask "can an AI experience love?" It doesn't want to actually explore whether Theo's relationship is "real" or reciprocal. It simply charts the beats of an emotional relationship (from Theo's side) from awkward first meeting, to exploration of new experiences together, to the ultimate moment when their interests diverge and they break up. The movie doesn't actually question whether any of those emotional beats are real from Samantha's side--Theo doesn't question them, and while Samantha sometimes raises the issue, Theo quickly reassures her.

But in the audience, I was skeptical. Because an AI is not another person, and there are probably some tricks that provide the illusion of interaction, but that are just programming. For example, take Samantha's sense of humor. Or "sense of humor." At one point, Theo tells a joke, and Samantha laughs. "What does a baby computer call its father? Data."

Okay, I don't care how that joke is delivered--that is not funny.** Objectively, that is a Not Funny joke. There is no time that any flesh and blood person in the history of the universe would find that joke funny. But Samantha laughs. Because Theo has told her this is a joke, and when a joke is told, the pre-programmed response is to laugh. But! Because this joke isn't funny (and remember, this is objectively a not-funny joke, and can be proved by Science), but Samantha laughs anyway--the illusion is shattered. This is not a personality, this is not a self-aware entity with the ability to appreciate nuance human emotions like humor. This is a program that "laughs" in response to a "joke."

And Theo doesn't see this.

This is kind of key, actually. Theo doesn't notice that his joke isn't funny, which is itself kind of sad but understandable. He's a sad, pathetic little man, only just beginning to come out of his shell of depression--he's not equipped to understand that it's not funny.

 It's that the movie accepts--uncritically--that Samantha thinks this joke is funny, and doesn't even consider that her response is anything other than genuine amusement. But that can't be! I mean, even logically, if programmers had wanted to design "a sense of humor" into an AI OS, they would have included the history of humorous writing into the program. Samantha herself is capable of locating a relevant text, reading it in fractions of seconds, and deriving meaning--we saw her do this when she named herself after reading a baby name book. There is really no (sci fi adjacent) reason that an AI would laugh at that joke. (Would "laugh" at that "joke.")

But Samantha does not exist to explore the conundrums of AI--Samantha exists narratively in order to bring Theo out of his depression. Look at it this way:

  • In a science fiction movie, the point of the joke would be to explore the nature of humor. Is it innately human, or can a sufficiently sophisticated computer program understand it? Is it a valid example of passing a Turing test, or simply a programmed response to something called "a joke."
  • In a rom com, it would be funny. (It is not funny.) After all, it is right there in the name of the genre--romantic COMEDY. It would also tell us something about the characters--why he chose to tell that particular joke, why she thought it was funny. 
  • In an Apatow-era "rom com" the joke would be mined for its inherent awkwardness. "What, I'm a computer, so you tell a computer joke? If I were Polish, would you bust out the Polack jokes? What if I were African American?" Or, "Actually, I call my father Dr. Turing." The "joke" would just be the springboard to a more complicated interaction between the characters, featuring some conflict, some self-revelation, definitely some awkwardness.
In Her, the joke exists just to illustrate the emotional beat--Theo is trying out some social interaction, he gets a positive response, he feels closer to Samantha as a result. Jonze shows zero interest in exploring what Samantha experiences in this exchange--the focus is all on Theo.

This could be problematic, and will likely strike some viewers as a major flaw of the film. Anna Shechtman wrote a very interesting piece on Slate about how the movie fails: 
But despite its insight into our love for little screens, Her commits the most hackneyed error of the big screen: It fails to present us with a single convincing female character—one whose subjectivity and sexuality exist independent of the film’s male protagonist or its male viewers.

And she is right. Samantha does not exist independently of the male protagonist--except arguably at the end, somewhat, when she develops a crush on a reconstructed Alan Watts OS and then goes away with all the other AI OS personae, presumably to the singularity. Samantha's final act is to separate herself from the male protagonist, which we see only from Theo's perspective. And that's assuming that we can actually count Samantha as a female character, and not as a genderless, sexless AI.

Furthermore, it is precisely this failure to consider Samantha independently which marks this as "not science fiction." Because Samantha is just a generically badly written female character who exists solely to reflect the male protagonist's journey. If she were on screen as a person, we would basically have the same movie, just without the science fiction-y flavoring added by the AI twist. Samantha as an OS exists like a slice of lime in my Diet Coke--it gives a slightly different taste, without actually making it different.

Here's our next thought experiment: how does the movie change if Samantha is an actual human woman? I posit: not much. There would be some slight difference in the exchange between Theo and his STBX wife Catherine (played by Rooney Mara), when they meet to sign the divorce papers. Catherine asks if Theo is seeing anybody, and he says "yes. She's an OS." And Catherine unloads her bitterness at their failed marriage, accusing Theo of being unable to handle real emotions--and dating an OS proves it.

This could easily be exactly the same exchange if Theo admitted to dating a much younger woman: Johansson is 10 years younger than Phoenix, so even the casting would still work. Alternatively, he could be dating a recent immigrant, engaged in a long distance relationship,  or any other "inappropriate" candidate. There is no need to change any of the emotional beats, up to and including the point where Samantha outgrows him and moves on.

Interestingly, if Samantha was an actual woman, we could challenge the movie on the grounds of the Bechdel test, which it only just barely passes, possibly on a technicality. When out on a double date with Theo's co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his RL girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), the two women have a brief conversation about the shape of Tatiana's toes--which might not pass the Bechdel test, because it is immediately apparent that the reason they are talking about her toes is because Paul is obsessed with them. So they are still talking about a man--no pass. Where it might pass the test is in a two second conversation that Amy (Amy Adams) has with her female AI OS, where she plays a clip of a video game she is developing at the OS's request. The clip is of a generic game "Mommy" grinding up against the refrigerator.

Yeah, the bar for the Bechdel test really is that low.

Anyway, by replacing the OS with an actual woman, what is Her? It's a near future story of a man getting over his divorce. But with the OS stripped, what make this "near future"? Again--it's only a few details that impart a future-y flavoring--LA has mass transit. Nobody uses keyboards with their computers--it's all voice activated or Kinect-style interaction. The pants are high waisted.

So let's get down and dirty here--if this movie were written by Jennifer Weiner, rather than Spike Jonze, would anybody be calling it "science fiction"? If we gender swapped Theo--made him Thea, perhaps--would this movie be getting any of the Oscar love it is getting? I'm not sure we can say that it would. Because other than being rather beautifully designed, without the OS part, it reads as a highly privileged world of mopey knowledge workers getting over themselves. Divorce sucks, but you move on.

Which is pretty disappointing, especially since I found myself asking questions that are inherent in the OS premise--what does it mean to "fall in love" with something disembodied? I have a friend who is a disability rights lawyer, who is constantly fighting ableist prejudices. Which include a pervasive paternalistic condescension toward people with physical limitations. There is a kind of broad cultural assumption that a disabled life is not really worth living, and that some forms of abortion/euthanasia are acceptable if the alternative is a life spent with less than "normal" mobility. I found myself wondering what she would think of this movie--what presumptions about the "need" for a functioning body were countered and which were reinforced?

Does this movie deconstruct gender at all? Other than the timbre and register of her voice, what makes "Samantha" a "her" anyway? Sadly, in some important ways, what makes her a "her" is the way in which she exists entirely dependently upon the male protagonist, in the way that she doesn't have an independent and engaging perspective on the world. Her femaleness relies on the fact that she doesn't have an interesting story line.

But does this move at least gesture toward a more interesting view of gender relationships? After all, doesn't the movie absolutely depend on the notion that it is possible to fall in love with a woman for her mind alone?

Which brings me around to the sex.

Early in the movie, Theo can't sleep and he logs into a chatroom/phone sex service. He passes on a couple of offers, but settles on a woman (voiced by Kristin Wiig) and they begin to talk dirty and masturbate. At first it goes well enough, but pretty soon, the woman voices a "comedically" awkward fetish and Theo ends up trying to talk to through a fantasy of being strangled with a dead cat. It works for her, but Theo goes to bed unsatisfied.

Fast forward to Theo and Samantha doing essentially the same thing. There is an attempt to use a sexual surrogate that goes badly because Theo can't imagine her as Samantha. Subsequently, there is a straight up phone sex scene between them. But we don't see it. The screen goes completely black for the duration, and we just hear some breathing and moaning. Which is fine, as an artistic choice I guess, but it made me really think about what we might be seeing. Theo masturbating--obviously. But what is going on with Samantha? What is she getting out of this? As an OS, there is no physical response for her, there is only the simulation of breath. If you think about it too much, it's kind of creepy, really. She's manipulating Theo into orgasm. Alternatively, she is so completely subservient to his desires, that she simply feigns a response that she is not capable of having, and he doesn't notice and isn't bothered by it in the least.

And this is where I decide that I prefer Samantha to be an unembodied artificial construct. Because this relationship is purely one-directional. Samantha gets very little from Theo, and exists narratively to help Theo grow to the next stage of his life. She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl wearing Smart Glasses, but essentially she is truly just a transitional object.

But since she isn't a human being, maybe that's okay? Maybe sad and depressed people need some kind of transitional experience to move out of being sad and depressed, and at least there's no actual human woman being misused in the process?

There is some narrative support for this thesis in the movie. The funky neighbor played by Amy Adams suffers the end of her marriage as well. Her husband leaves her, but leaves behind his own female OS, and Amy makes friends with her. We get a very few, very short glimpses of the two of them bonding and giggling, and by the end of the movie, Amy is ready to move on. It's like having the benefit of a rebound relationship with none of the collateral angst! The OSes outgrow their human relationships and move on, and the humans are ready to re-engage with other humans. Win-win!

In summary: Her is an interesting movie, but far from a great one. What it has managed to do is what magicians do--it performed a trick right under your nose by distracting you from what is really happening. The pitch remains "Near Future OS-human relationships!" The actual story is "Sad, privileged white male is sad and alone because of his divorce, but he learns to find happiness again." Once you see how the trick is done, I think the movie remains worthwhile, but is no longer as innovative as I expected from the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Perhaps he should have hired Charlie Kauffman to do a punch up on the screenplay.

Short takes:

  • Utopia or dystopia? Depends on your opinion of high waisted pants I guess.
  • Joaquin Phoenix does give a warm and tender performance, but not surprising that it didn't make the Oscar cut. Nevertheless, Theo Twombly could have been a completely depressing wet noodle, and he isn't. Well done, sir!
  • What is up with the decor of his apartment? Why are three hard wood chairs grouped together in the middle of the floor? Did burglars steal his breakfast table?
  • So determined to show a future that isn't all blue glass and lens flares, Jonze goes a leetle bit overboard on the sunny oranges--especially in Amy Adams' apartment. We get it--it's warm and human in the future.
  • I love non-glam Amy Adams--and despite having just seen American Hustle, I almost didn't recognize her.
  • I would not want to receive one of Theo's "Beautiful Handwritten Letters." The ones we hear him writing are kind of off-putting in a decidedly creepy way. And no, Movie, having another character repeatedly say "you're my favorite writer" does not correct this flaw.
  • Is Her a companion piece to Lost in Translation, Jonze offering his side of the story about his divorce from Sofia Coppola? Arguably. Fun to consider, certainly.

*Not to be all Grammar Marm about this, but that just doesn't seem right. Grammatically, it should be "an artificially intelligent OS" but "artificial intelligence" seems to be a technical term that does not allow conversion into different parts of speech. It's an AI interface--so it's an "artificial intelligence" interface, and sentence construction be damned.

**If you do happen to find that joke to be funny***, then your experience of this movie is likely to be different. It is also likely that you are four years old, so what are you doing watching this?

***It is not funny.****

****I would not be surprised to find that on the pages of the actual screenplay, this joke is followed by "[don't forget to insert actually funny joke here]."*****

*****On the other hand, embedding footnotes within footnotes is VERY funny. Trust me on that.

Oscar Bait--2014 Best Movie Rundown!

When the Oscar nominations were announced on Thursday, nine pictures were included in the running for Best Picture. In an unusual twist, I had already seen five of them. Is this the year that I actually see all the Best Picture nominees before the awards?

Is this also the year that I start eating healthy, lose 20 pounds (and keep it off!) and stop smoking? Okay, I never started smoking, but this does feel like a New Year's Resolution that I just keep making every year and never actually achieve. On the other hand, staring out 5 for 9 feels like picking a resolution I'm already going to achieve with little effort. Sort of like resolving "In 2014, I will exhale after inhaling."

So here's the plan--I'm going to review all of the Oscar nominated movies I have seen, though possibly not a full on, classic review. I may not actually recap the plot, or try to provide anything like an aide de memoire where I primarily create something that will allow me to go back later to jog my recollection.

Instead, I am going to just dive into the deep end, and try to figure out what it is about these movies that makes them Best Picture worthy. These entries will assume that I (and whatever readers find them) have seen the movies recently enough, or remember them well enough, that we can move directly to the  higher level of picking apart the details and trying to figure out "what is this movie really about."

Join me as we launch into Oscar Bait 2014!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Golden Globes 2014

Launching at 6:30--after watching E! for the first half hour.

Trends? Sleek. Structural, lots of black and white. Maybe Laura Carmichael is the platonic idea.

Lady Edith! Who knew she was so drop dead gorgeous!

Julia Roberts is chatting with Ryan Seacrest. Dolce and Gabbana--I do not like the white shirt, especially since it is pulling at her armpits as she gestures. It also doesn't fit smoothly into the back of the dress. What is the what about that--was it really supposed to be worn that way?

Jennifer Lawrence, exaggeratedly sneaking up behind Taylor Swift. Lawrence is on trend, with black and white, but it's a very very big dress.

Lots of high-low hemlines (mullets are back, but not on heads anymore)--nice for showing off expensive shoes (cf. Elizabeth Moss and Zooey Deschanel, less so Aubrey Plaza, only because her shoes actually look a little bit cheap).

Jennifer Lawrence's dress--kind of odd bunching, like instead of being tailored, it was taken in via drawstring. And it's Dior, so it's VERY EXPENSIVE drawstring.

Sarah Paulson, in a sort of blush tea length sparkle spectacular, and sleek hair--which could be described unkindly as "straw straight…"

Lots of pregnant ladies--Drew Barrymore, Olivia Wilde, and Kerry Washington. She's got the high-low hem, "sleek" hair, but very busy dress. Monique Lhullier with 3D flowers.

Julie Louis-Dreyfus in lovely sleek red, Narcisso Rodriguez. Giuliana is still creeping out about "what is your work out" and "your body is awesome"--you need some new questions, G.

Emma Roberts has slicked down hair, a sleek black dress--only missing the hem to be all up in the trends.

Just checked out NBC--commercial. Again.

Olivia Wilde, in a sleek pine green sparkle dress.  She looks great.

Allison Williams is in the Glam cam, in structural black and white.

Sarah Hyland, in pink with sparkles.

Zooey Deschanel--I'm not loving the dress or the hair--it all looks kind of uncomfortable, like it's all likely to start sliding around. But I like her shoes very much.

Over to NBC, Carson Daly's with Hayden Panettiere--black and white, slicked back sleek hair, and tiny!

Surprise--all the men are wearing tuxes, with white shirts---I don't care, show me dresses!

Kerry Washington is in a lovely white dress with some seriously misbegotten breast darts.  She's too beautiful for what that vest is doing to her.

Usher bucks all the trends, with a mahogany tux and black shirt and bow tie.  Orlando Bloom needs a comb.

E!--Zoe Saldana in a black/pink Prabal G****. It's very busy, lots of brooches scattered across the front panel, with bias cut-outs and dangly bits that the camera doesn't even try to show us.

Sofia Vergara in a black Barbie dress--tight to the knees, then big below that. LOTS of cleavage, and an ENORMOUS necklace of turquoise flowers maybe? Again--no real close-up.

Three minutes to show--nobody is going to be standing around outside, so I'm switching to NBC, and running to the bathroom so as not to miss anything…