Movies, movies, movies: It’s that time of year

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a movie geek. I love quirky, obscure films as well as the critics’ darlings. I revel in the technical, behind-the-scenes details about filmmaking. That’s why I enjoy the discussions at my Meetup film group. People like Al, Brad, Julie, Celine, Rebecca, Rui, Peter, Marisa and Kristine bring new insights to our discussions.

Here’s my perspective on some of the current batch of award winners and nominees, as well as some that should have made it but didn’t.

But first, something completely different….

The Kevin Smith trilogy: Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma

The film group had a rousing discussion of Kevin Smith’s work recently, focused on these three films. I watched them all again and discovered new things about each. If you think Smith’s films are goofy and sophomoric, I would like to disabuse you of that idea.

Clerks (1994) is about two convenience and video store clerks, Dante and Randal, trying to get by and figure life out. Best line: “This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers.” Jay and Silent Bob appear as two stoners. Dante and Randal occasionally engage in philosophical musings about life and love. It’s shot in black and white on a very low budget and filmed in and around Monmouth County, New Jersey. Scene cards announce mood changes like Syntax, Purgation, Catharsis and Denouement.

YEE.tifChasing Amy (1997) has more plotline and higher production values as it follows two friends and partners who have created a popular comic book series, Bluntman and Chronic. Their Holdup Studios is in Red Bank, NJ. The main plot concerns Holden (Ben Affleck) falling in love with a bisexual woman who turns out to prefer girls, much to Holden’s distress. Jason Lee is terrific as his partner. Jay and Silent Bob play pivotal roles when Silent Bob finally speaks and explains to Holden about why he’s still “chasing Amy” and why Holden should recognize his mistake and deal with it.

Dogma ((1999) is on my all-time favorite film list. I will tell you just a snippet of the story: Two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) want to return to heaven and think they have found a theological loophole that will get them back in. The cast is amazing (Chris Rock, George Carlin, Alan Rickman, Selma Hayek, plus Jay and Silent Bob.). I have always thought of Dogma with glee as an anti-religious film and that suits my irreligious attitudes. But it is really a film by a disappointed Catholic who wishes his church would do better. Well, I still love it.

Dogma opens on the boardwalk in Asbury Park and continues to a church in Red Bank. It’s set in Springsteen country, the geographic soulmate to Chicago.

2013 favorites

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

The_Great_Beauty_posterThis film has already won the Golden Globes’ award for best foreign language film. As I wrote in my diary, this is a gorgeous film meditation on love, life and death, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Toni Servillo plays Jep, an Italian journalist who would be called a flaneur in 19th century Paris. He’s a party animal, but after his glorious 65th birthday party near the beginning of the film, he begins to reflect on his life … and what lies ahead. Rome has never looked so beautiful with this splendid cinematography and amazing tracking shots. The film is poetic, sad and very funny as Sorrentino takes witty jabs at the church, journalism and anti-aging techniques. The film is often compared to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but I think that comparison is superficial. Jep is a much more self-aware person than Fellini’s Marcello.

Sorrentino also wrote and directed one of my favorites (a possible cult film?) of 2013: This Must Be the Place (2011). I wrote about it here.

Two documentaries: The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom

The Act of Killing is a stupefyingly chilling film about the men who led the death squads that killed more than a million people in Indonesia in the 1970s and are celebrated as heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets them to reenact their deeds in whatever dramatic genre they choose, in costume and makeup. The result is goofy and horrendous.

20 Feet from Stardom celebrates the backup singers (almost all women) who give rock and roll stars the sound we love. Several singers are profiled in the film, as are many of the musicians they worked with, including Bruce Springsteen. The singers nearly all worked in the background for their entire careers, as my review describes. But nevertheless it’s a great, happy film and now is available on DVD.

Five best-picture nominees (I won’t pick winners)

Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. How often do you see a film in black and white? It takes some audacity to do that in a straightforward way. The film is partly striking road movie and partly wrenching human story. Excellent performances by Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb.

American Hustle, directed by David O Russell, has been called homage to a wig factory. The re-creation of ‘70s hair and fashion is outstanding and cringe-inducing. Did we really dress like that? American Hustle has a great, witty script and a joyous set of plot twists and turns. A lot of great acting, but Christian Bale’s personal transformation is amazing. His extra 40 pounds and the elaborate comb-over make him unrecognizable. For two other films—The Machinist and The Fighter—he lost so much weight that he looked near death. The physical changes almost make you overlook the acting, which is superb.

HerPosterHer by Spike Jonze. I’ve written about this and compared the “Her” story to that of the Richard Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. This is an excellent film and really thought-provoking, both about our attachment to technology (mea culpa) and our difficulties with personal relationships. It deserves a lot of awards–for the film, for Joaquin Phoenix as the lead, and for the original script. Her has generated much online discussion, about the film and its implications, including this insightful article about Spike Jonze in Paste Magazine.

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron, who directed two of my favorite films ever—Children of Men (2006) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). I saw Gravity in 3D at an Imax theater and the physical effects are simply breathtaking. Sandra Bullock’s performance is very good. But I don’t think this film in any way deserves the best-film award. It’s simply too much bells and whistles, too little drama, plot and character development.

12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is also breathtaking in a different way. It’s a shocking slap in the face to those who forgot what slavery was like—the human condition that the United States enabled for so many decades. At least two excellent performances—by the leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as supporting actress. 12 Years won the Golden Globe for best film and it may be the sentimental favorite to win the Oscar.

Three films that deserved more attention

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_PosterInside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ film about Greenwich Village in 1961 was one of my favorites of the year and many critics placed it in their top five or ten for best film. But it didn’t get much Oscar love. Just a couple of nominations for technical awards. I acknowledge my own bias—the film is about the music business and lets me reminisce about life in the sixties. But I still think it deserved better. If not best film, then for directing and original screenplay.

Blue Jasmine, an excellent film by Woody Allen, may earn a well-deserved best-actress award for Cate Blanchett. There are other fine performances in this film—Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Carnevale and Andrew Dice Clay (yes, really!), as well as an excellent, thought-provoking script.

Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche was shockingly neglected in every category. I was surprised that it wasn’t nominated in the best foreign language film section. It did win some regional film awards in that category, including France’s Lumiere Award and the Palme d’Or. And the young lead–Adèle Exarchopoulos—received several regional acting awards.

I reviewed Blue here briefly in December and said: This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at three hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics.

It was a good year for films, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why some of my favorites were neglected.

Related posts

Samantha vs. Galatea. My review of Spike Jonze’s fanciful and fascinating film, Her.

Reliving the Sixties: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which I compare Llewyn Davis’ story to Bruce Springsteen’s–only with a better ending.  Imagine how happy I was to hear Bruce say exactly that in his long interview with Ann Powers, NPR’s pop music editor. Bruce says: “My life was, it was Inside Llewyn Davis with a happy ending, you know. I was, you know, I was that guy. I was the guy sleeping on the couch in midtown and taking the subway to Greenwich Village.”

Reviewing Spike Jonze’s Her: Samantha vs Galatea

Spike Jonze’s new film Her is a charming, tender love story with a soulful 21st century edge. I loved the film, but the story was familiar. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer who falls in love with a computer operating system. In 1995, Richard Powers wrote Galatea 2.2, a novel about a writer who loves a neural network that he teaches to know and understand literature and the world. In both stories, the computer companion turns away from the lover and shuts down.

HerPosterJonze’s film is visually delightful with sterling performances from Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the voice of the OS. Phoenix plays a likable character for a change; he’s lonely after a recent divorce and opens an account with a new operating system (its logo is an infinity sign) that promises companionship. That’s how he meets his new OS, who chooses the name Samantha. She says she has intuition and that’s how her personality will continue to develop. “I continuously evolve,” she says.

At first Samantha is a friendly assistant, waking up Theodore, sorting his emails, alerting him to appointments. But as she evolves, she becomes more of a companion and eventually a lover. The brilliant thing about both actors’ performances is that they are so convincing despite their physical restrictions: Theodore has only a voice to react to. Samantha is only a voice with no corporeal presence. Both performances should receive award nominations.

The film is set in the not-too-distant future in a Los Angeles that looks something like Shanghai. Theodore is a writer who creates computer-generated analog love letters for clients at a company called

Tbeodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is also going through a divorce. She’s a video game developer and Theodore tests her perfect-mom game, which takes away points for poor-mom performance. Amy has some great lines. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” and, best of all:

“Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

Theodore lives well in a modern LA high-rise. The color palette, mainly of his wardrobe, is rich in orange, red and gold. The office of BeautifulLetters is primarily pinks, fuchsias and deep reds. I kept trying to decide what the designer was trying to tell me with those emotionally charged colors. Technology is not cold and inhuman? In addition, the film features music by Arcade Fire, one of today’s great indie rock bands.

GalateaPowersWhen I first read about the film and in the days since I saw it, I keep thinking of the excellent Powers novel. Powers is one of my favorite authors; I think of him as the Tom Stoppard of novelists. Like Stoppard’s plays, his books combine science or technology topics with music, literature, character and plot. He was very prescient in writing Galatea 2.2 almost 20 years ago—before smartphones, apps or Siri. The leading character (who happens to be named Richard Powers and shares some features of Powers’ biography) is working as a sort of humanist in residence at the University of Illinois in a center for advanced sciences. His project is to teach a neural network (an artificial intelligence device) to understand and interpret the great works of  literature as well as “geography, math, physics, a smattering of biology, music, history, psychology, economics.” Richard and the scientists create a device named Helen, a funny, smart, charming personage with whom Richard develops a strong personal relationship. The goal of the project is for Helen and a human graduate student to take a Turing test, which examines a computer’s ability to show intelligent behavior equivalent to a human’s. Unfortunately, Helen loses the Turing test and at the end of it says “Take care, Richard. See everything for me.” The politics and meanness of the world cause Helen to implode and shut down.

At the end of Her, Samantha has expanded her OS clients, while Theodore thought he was her only lover. He asks Samantha how many others she has a relationship with. She answers “8,316.” How many are you in love with? he asks. “641.” She explains “The heart is not a box that gets filled up. It expands (as we live).” At the end, Theodore logs on and learns his operating system is not available.

Galatea, of course, is the name of the statue carved by Pygmalion of Cyprus in mythology; the statue comes to life and George Bernard Shaw adapted that story into his play Pygmalion. Later someone decided it needed singing and dancing and it became the musical My Fair Lady. (I never prefer a musical.)

More on Richard Powers

If you enjoy literary fiction, I strongly recommend you check out Powers’ work. Besides Galatea 2.2, my favorites of his many novels are:

  • The Gold Bug Variations (which combines genetics, Bach’s music, computer science and Poe’s stories).
  • Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about an historic photograph and a technology editor who becomes obsessed with it.
  • The EchoMaker, about an accident victim who suffers a brain injury known as Capgras syndrome, which won the National Book Award in 2006.

Powers holds a chair in English at the University of Illinois. His undergrad and graduate education is in physics and literature. Early in his career, he worked as a computer programmer. He was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius grant”) in 1989. And he graduated from DeKalb High School, a year or two before my older son.