(On Cable TV, October 2017) Spoofing American society’s appetite for fame is self-obvious now that reality TV can launch mini-careers going all the way to the US presidency, but back in 1995, director Gus van Sant had to work harder with To Die For in order to present his mockumentary about an insanely ambitious woman working her way to the top of the local media ecosystem. Nicole Kidman headlines a solid cast made of competent character actors (Matt Dillon, Dan Hedaya, and the incomparable Illeana Douglas) as well as some up-and coming actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck) who have since made a mark. Kidman proves surprisingly game to indulge in the film’s black comedy, preening herself up in a textbook-worthy depiction of psychological disorders. Everyone else stands in her shadow, mirroring how society tries to deal with such amoral dangers in its midst. The film runs a bit long (something that isn’t helped by the pseudo-documentary format) but is seldom dull thanks to the cast and the tone. While To Die For seems to have sunk back in relative obscurity these days, it’s still worth a look, if only as a precursor to the reality-TV era that would begin in earnest half a decade later.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every year brings its new low-key Woody Allen film, this one back to the meditative thriller à la Matchpoint. Here, a university professor bored by life find renewed purpose when he decides to kill a deserving stranger, and tries to get away with it despite growing suspicion by a student with whom he’s having a relationship. Directed without fuss and written to include copious amount of philosophical references (with a plot more or less adapted from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), Irrational Man is the kind of adequate film that Allen has perfected over the years, amusing to watch and generous in allowing actors to inhabit their characters but oddly inconsequential once the credits roll and the story is neatly wrapped. The most noteworthy elements of the movie are the performances: Joaquin Phoenix is good as the anti-hero, while Emma Stone (in her second consecutive Allen film) is serviceable as a curious student. Irrational Man is fine without being exceptional, better than most direct-to-video thrillers while lacking the oomph of more successful criminal dramas.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) Ask me about the ideal qualities of a Science Fiction movie and I’m now more likely to focus on such qualities as ideas, verisimilitude and the impact of progress on people rather than the special effects, action sequences and big bold visions of the future that initially drew me to the genre. Her is practically a case study of those qualities: It’s a low-key but satisfying exploration of a basic SF idea: What if someone fell in love with an artificial intelligence? Writer/Director Spike Jones couches his romantic drama in grounded terms: “Artificial intelligence” is eschewed in favour of “Operating System”, his character inhabit a world not terribly different from ours (although the way his future Los Angeles is clean, built up with a fantastic public transit system may be more science-fictional than a fully-functional AI) and the technology is an invisible part of the background rather than a showy set-piece. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as the mopey loner protagonist, while Scarlett Johanssen brings a strong presence to an audio-only role. (From the moment her voice cracks, we’re onboard with her OS being a real character.) But the real richness of the film is in the ideas it tackles, and those that it alludes to: While the film focuses on a thorny disembodied love story, it’s also set (through a few efficient dialog fragments) against a background of an AI-led singularity event, one that ultimately has deep consequences for the world as much as the protagonist. This is a lovely use of SF Big Ideas, and Her‘s focus ultimately serves it well, both at populating the richness of the central story, but also at hinting at something much bigger going on elsewhere. There are unique scenes and sequences in this film that have never been seen elsewhere so far (including a pair of love scenes that feel genuinely new), in support of a film that’s as interesting a take on social commentary as any “issues” film. It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the film: trying to pick apart the themes alone is enough to keep anyone occupied for a while. (All the way to the hoary “what is love, but a reflection of ourselves?”) Her may be best appreciated in retrospect: the film itself is deceptively simple on a scene-to-scene basis, but it becomes more interesting once you’ve had the chance to think about it for a while. At last, a film that is unapologetically science-fictional, and should please both audiences that don’t like SF as well as jaded SF fans. For once, I’m frustrated by my one-paragraph “capsule” movie review style, because I feel there’s a lot more to be said about the Her than can fit comfortably here in the margins.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) There are times where I feel guilty of apparently not being able to appreciate the acclaimed genius of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and then there are times where I’m comfortable not being enthusiastic about his films. The Master clearly falls into the second category, as it meanders all over the place and almost forgets to actually tell a story. Much has been made of the film’s connections to Scientology, but don’t read too much into it: While Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a decent L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, and while much of his cult’s teachings find resonance in Dianetics, Anderson doesn’t try to tell anything close to a true story. The Master instead focuses on a man left adrift after his military service in World War II, and finding some purpose in associating with the burgeoning cult. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable in the lead role, radiating danger, pain and coiled aggression in nearly every frame. Amy Adams is almost as surprising in a shrewish role far away from her usual good-girl screen personae. And much of The Master’s cinematography is truly remarkable, evoking a deep sense of craft in the way the film is presented. The problem is that none of those interesting things amount to an interesting story. The pacing is deathly slow, the loose ends are numerous and the conclusion can’t be bothered to actually conclude. There’s little here to satisfy fans of sustained narratives, nor clear meaning. I’ll still give a chance to Anderson’s next film.
(On-demand, September 2012) When writers with no understanding or affection for science-fiction turn to the genre, the result is often a mixture of pretentious philosophy, incoherent fantasy and plot-free structure labeled SF in the misguided conviction that you can use the genre label to say anything without scrutiny. So it is that in It’s All About Love’s near-future, we get a blend of human cloning, people dropping dead in public places, Uganda experiencing country-wide weightlessness, all water periodically transforming into ice. These elements make no sense in a literal fashion, but trying to figure out the metaphorical link in-between those events and the on-screen adventures of a divorcing couple soon turns to indifference. Who really cares when the film fails to achieve any kind of narrative momentum? Deadened by terrible dialogue, dark cinematography, arthritic camera moves and major actors who seem stuck in roles they didn’t want, It’s All About Love mystifies more than it enlightens. Joaquin Phoenix mangles an Italian accent while Claire Danes looks bored and Sean Penn seems to have shot all of his plane-bound scenes in half a day. Mark Strong makes an impression in an early minor role, but the doubt remains: how did all those actors end up in this inert and ponderous film? It’s All About Love keeps going long after it should have concluded, and writer/director Thomas Vinterberg doesn’t seem interested in making any part of his film accessible to the audience. With this results (and that’s not even going into the now-legendary tales of the hostile reception the film got at Sundance in 2003), little wonder that It’s All About Love sank without a trace and can now be seen only by sheer happenstance. Some movies are best forgotten.