Her – Review

Film: Her (2013)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt

Directed by: Spike Jonze

Produced by: Spike Jonze, Megan Ellison, Vincent Landay

Written by: Spike Jonze

Music by: Arcade Fire

Running Time: 125 minutes

Rating: R

Her

OK, so I haven’t posted here in awhile. Things over at The Artifice, though, are changing rapidly, and rather than look at that negatively, I see it as something that’s reopening the door to this blog. This could mean that I’ll be posting here more often (cue the celebration!).

Anyway, enough of that — let’s get to the good stuff. The 2013 year in film has greatly benefited from the Oscar-season surge, and one of the films leading that charge is Spike Jonze’s mildly futuristic romantic dramedy, Her. This is one of those films where you see the trailer and think, “This could be AWESOME if they hit all the right notes, but if they take even the slightest misstep, it will be TERRIBLE.”

Fortunately for Jonze and company, the result was the former. The concept of falling in love with an operating system with artificial intelligence seems utterly ridiculous at first, but Jonze makes us frighteningly realize how not-so-far-fetched it is. The story takes place in the future, but we realize that it’s supposed to be the very near-future, given that the abundance of technological intrusion into people’s lives is only marginally higher than it is our current world. This, combined with the film’s brilliant acting and writing, make it not only believable, but completely absorbing.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, an introverted man whose occupation in this unique world is writing love letters for other people. This vicarious activity seems fitting for him, since he is lonely in his personal life since becoming separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), with whom he is in the process of finalizing a divorce. He does have a close friend in Amy (Amy Adams), but it’s clear that he’s been spending less time with her too, as part of the malaise he’s mired in.

Enter the OS. Theodore purchases an operating system with AI designed to learn, adapt, and evolve like a human being. Theodore soon sees these capabilities in action and begins to realize that he can talk to his OS — who names herself Samantha — about complex subjects like relationships, and not just use her to help organize his emails. Theodore’s intimacy with Samantha grows as they form a relationship.

Rather than turn into a 100% comedy about a man’s relationship with a computer operating system, Her uses the storyline of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship to deliver a lot of messages about the role of technology in our world, what makes us human, and what people look for in intimate relationships. Not to sound overly philosophical or like an old man looking down on technology — I’m as guilty as anyone — but everywhere you go, you see people staring at their phones or some other type of device with a screen. It’s fair to say that people might not be taking in the world around them as much as they should be, but the flip-side of that is that technology is becoming the world around them. Her explores that equally fascinating and frightening notion. Given how much we interact with technology today, how big of a leap is it really to imagine having intimate relationships with it? Even if you don’t really buy that last part, Her can still be interpreted as a (mild) hyperbole about the role of technology in human life.

At the same time, though, Her makes us consider what even makes us human. Is it perhaps the ability to not only understand human emotions, but to feel them as well? After all, Samantha has no physical body, yet Theodore is drawn to her. Again, the idea of a human-OS relationship sounds ridiculous at first because one of the entities is not even a living thing from a scientific, biological standpoint. But since she is designed — by humans — to learn and evolve like a human, she can interact with humans on an emotional level. While not scientifically human, this capability makes Samantha essentially human on a deeper level. There’s a reason this movie is called Her and not It.

Continuing with this idea, it would again seem ridiculous to imagine Theodore becoming drawn to an operating system — an entity with which whom he could never have a physical relationship. But his attraction to her and the reasons why are really not crazy at all: she listens to him, she appreciates him, she challenges him, she becomes someone he can confide in, and he naturally feels (for awhile, anyway…not to give away too much) that she is completely loyal to him and no one else. Aren’t these the types of things people look for in any meaningful, deep relationship? The more we think about this in relation to the Theodore-Samantha relationship, the less crazy it seems.

As mentioned before, the acting in Her helps make it all come together. The last time I saw Joaquin Phoenix in a movie was in The Master, when he was a raging, alcoholic war veteran. To go from that to seeing him as the timid, shy, sweet Theodore Twombly was breathtaking, and shows the true range he has as an actor. Then — and I don’t mean this to sound insulting to her work, because she’s a fine actress — but this is one of the best roles Scarlett Johansson has ever played. Her tone, inflections, and subtleties added so much substance to Samantha’s character, and the chemistry she had with Phoenix (as non-traditional as it might have been) was a key element that helped make the film work as well as it did. Lastly, similar to Phoenix, it was pretty cool to see Amy Adams go from the calculating con-artist role she had in American Hustle to Theodore’s sweet, caring, and loyal friend in this film.

Her could have gone in the direction of completely-absurd-comedy by taking any of the numerous jokes available with the man-falls-in-love-with-OS surface plot. In fact it easily could have failed completely in any number of ways because of its core storyline. But in the end, it is incredibly intelligent, deep, and affecting — and still very funny. It also stays away from a cliche ending, which helps make it a film that will stay with viewers for a long time. It might take some time to fully sink in (as it did for me), but it’s easily one of the best films of 2013.

Tommy D’s Score:

4 tommy ds

 

 

 

 

4/4 Tommy Ds

Rosemary’s Baby: What Horror Films Should Be

Before we get into this post, I feel like I should say hello again, because it’s been ages since I posted. That’s because I’ve been posting on The Artifice, as I mentioned a while ago. I thought I might still be posting on this site occasionally, but as you can see, that simply hasn’t happened. However, I just found out the hard way that The Artifice doesn’t publish reviews or articles that delve into old films. While disappointed, I felt that this entry needed a home, so I’m putting it on my site and experiencing some nostalgia along the way. I hope you enjoy the article!

Film: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassevetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Produced by: William Castle

Written by: Roman Polanski (based on the novel by Ira Levin)

Music by: Krzysztof Komeda

Running Time: 136 minutes

Rating: R

Rosemarys-baby-Poster

I generally do not consider myself to be a big fan of the horror film genre. But I do love a good psychological thriller, and the best of this genre is my favorite type of film to watch. That’s one reason why I loved Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Upon reading more about the inspiration behind that film, I saw that Natalie Portman likened its tone to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s classic adaptation of Ira Levin’s horror novel. Rosemary’s Baby was a film I had always heard of, but reading this made me decide to finally check it out. And with that, we can cease the first-person anecdotes and talk more about the film.

There will be some spoilers in this post, but after 45 years, one would think that we’d be entering statute-of-limitations territory, so I’m not about to apologize, even though I just saw the film for the first time (ha). Rosemary’s Baby is about a young woman named — you guessed it — Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who has moved into a new apartment in New York with her husband, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassevetes). They meet a seemingly nice but quite eccentric elderly couple, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon, respectively). While Guy becomes friendly with them, Rosemary is more concerned about their oddities. Soon, she and Guy conceive, which she doesn’t even realize until after she wakes up from a vivid nightmare featuring a demonic presence. From this point on, Rosemary becomes increasingly concerned about her baby, and peculiar events throughout the course of her pregnancy — including the strange behavior of her husband — only intensify her worries that there is a sinister, perhaps even Satanic, plot brewing for her baby.

What makes Rosemary’s Baby such a captivating psycho-horror film is not the cheap thrills you see in many of the lackluster horror films of today. It’s its overall atmosphere, or tone, as Natalie Portman articulated in comparing it to Black Swan. There isn’t really one moment in the film where you would jump out of your seat from being startled, but its ever-growing dark tone puts this feeling of unease and suspense in the viewer that just does not leave — even well after the film’s conclusion. As Rosemary (played exceptionally well by Farrow) descends into a state of deep fright and paranoia, that uneasy feeling in the viewer’s stomach (or at least in mine) intensifies at the same pace. This might not sound like a pleasant viewing experience, but the film is so encapsulating through its direction, storytelling style, and acting (namely Farrow and Gordon, the latter of whom won an Academy Award for her performance), that we find ourselves fully invested despite abdominal uneasiness we might feel. (Coincidentally, Rosemary experiences abdominal pain and uneasiness throughout much of the film — so we’re literally feeling what she’s feeling!).

Another key overarching element that makes this such a masterful psycho-horror film is that — much like Black Swan — pretty much everything is from Rosemary’s perspective, and despite the horrific ending, we still never really get fully, 100% concrete proof that everything she had feared had indeed happened. To be fair, I’m of the opinion that we’re supposed to believe that Rosemary’s fears did truly manifest themselves, and that she was not out of her mind. Too many strange things happened and the ending had a decent amount of closure, so for me, the only explanation is that Rosemary imagined everything, but I don’t buy that.

Nevertheless, we never actually see the baby (which serves as the equivalent of the ‘monster’ in a prototypical horror film) in the film’s climax — we only see Rosemary’s horrified reaction to the sight of it. This makes the climax all the more chilling, and — even though the explanation of what happened seems to be readily apparent and just about proven — it also stays just behind that line of 100% concrete proof.

Rosemary’s Baby is categorized as a horror film, but that to me has a lot to do with the time the film came out. Nowadays, this would be better categorized as a psychological thriller — but this is really what horror films should strive to be. It seems that to be called a horror film,”slasher” elements, quick startling scares, and/or blood and gore are things that have to be included. Those things, though, don’t really make for a quality film. Do they make a film scary? Certainly. But Rosemary’s Baby is every bit as scary, albeit in a completely different way: its tone and psychological nature make it altogether unsettling. That is what makes a quality horror film, and films in the 1970s such as The Exorcist were horror films in this vein as well. These types of movies still exist (the aforementioned Black Swan is a prime example), but the horror genre has become too muddled by the cheap elements mentioned before, which are indeed scary in the moment but become easily forgettable. That’s why I say I don’t like horror movies in this day and age, but I love psychological thrillers, because they make you think and they stay with you long after viewing. Ironically, I have to remove the “horror” label from the latter type so that it’s more quickly distinguishable, even though those are the best types of “horror” films that exist, in my humble opinion.

Have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? What do you enjoy more — these types of films or the more graphic horror movies of today? Let me know in the comments section below!

Tommy D’s Rating:

4 tommy ds

 

 

 

 

4/4 Tommy Ds

Check Out The Artifice

I know I haven’t posted here in quite a while, but I wanted to let everyone know that I’ll now be writing film-related articles on a newly launched site called The Artifice. It is currently in its beta stage, but I just published my first article about Argo and Ben Affleck’s recent success as a director. Check it out here.

Also be sure to check out the rest of the site and some of the other articles on there. Soon it will be filled with rich, varied content about film, television, comics, and more. As for my blog, I won’t say that my days of writing for it are over, but I will be primarily writing for The Artifice now. Nevertheless, since articles on there have to be unique, and since not everything I want to write about would necessarily fit the aims of that site, I could still be writing on this blog occasionally. But for now, enjoy perusing The Artifice!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Review

Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Nina Dobrev, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky

Produced by: John Malkovich, Russell Smith, Lianne Halfon

Written by: Stephen Chbosky (based on his eponymous novel)

Music by: Michael Brook

Running Time: 102 minutes

Rating: PG-13

This past Friday night, I was mentally preparing myself to drive home from work in LA’s Carmageddon traffic when an idea struck me: why don’t I just see a movie in one of the theaters nearby in order to kill time, have some enjoyment, and then avoid the brutal rush hour traffic? This was a perfect plan.

Except then I found out my options were limited. The only feasible move from a timing standpoint was to see a showing of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I decided to go forward with this — I was hoping it would be a decently enjoyable, not-overly-cheesy, time-passing teen flick. What I ended up getting was more than I ever expected, and I was incredibly happy with my decision to see this film.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower might seem like a very conventional high school coming-of-age film, but somehow it transcended the cliches that come with that genre. In short, the lead performances were terrific, there was a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and the story was truly genuine and heartfelt.

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, 3:10 to Yuma) plays high school freshman Charlie, a very intelligent but socially awkward and shy adolescent. Charlie also battles a haunting past, which has seen his best friend recently commit suicide and his aunt — with whom he was close — die in a car accident years before. We find out more about this latter event and Charlie’s overall struggles as the film progresses.

Charlie is thus dreading high school and is very apprehensive in all respects at the story’s outset. Soon, though, he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller in a refreshing non-psychotic-murderer role) and Sam (Emma Watson in a refreshingly non-Hermione-Granger-role), step-siblings who immediately let him join their circle of friends. Patrick describes Charlie as a wallflower, but in a positive light — observant and intelligent. Charlie is touched that for the first time in his life, people are noticing and respecting him for who he is.

Charlie also develops a close bond with his English teacher, Mr. Anderson (the always awesome Paul Rudd). Charlie has an aptitude for the subject and is an aspiring writer, and Mr. Anderson gives him personal reading and writing assignments as a way of piquing his interests and helping him develop his talents. This theme of writing and self-expression is prevalent throughout the film, as Charlie effectively tells us the whole story through letters to an anonymous friend he has never actually met.

Lerman displays quite a bit of talent in playing Charlie. We all know that our adolescent and teen years entail a multitude of emotions. As Charlie, Lerman conveys awkwardness, apprehension, sadness, joy, exhilaration, and, of course, sexual arousal and tension. Throw in the grief and psychological struggles from the haunting events of his past, and we have a character who is feeling quite a lot. Lerman shows us all of these emotions in such a way that is not only believable, but actually makes us empathize in a way. His story is one to which anyone can relate to some degree.

Emma Watson turns in an effective performance of her own as Sam, one of Charlie’s new friends and the object of his romantic desire. She and Lerman have a good on-screen chemistry, and seeing her character bring Charlie out of his shell is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film. Watson — who, if you did not know from watching the Harry Potter movies, is British — also has to put on an American accent for this role. Overall, I thought she did a fine job in spite of a few minor slip-ups I thought were barely detectable. In any event, she plays a multidimensional character whose layers we see come to light more as her relationship with Charlie grows. Thus, these characters are both helping each other reveal their true selves.

As good as Lerman and Watson are, though, I almost feel that Ezra Miller as Patrick stole the most scenes out of anyone. Largely a source of comic relief as a result of his cheerful and jocular nature, he also shows a more serious side (warning – minor spoiler) after the revelation of his secretive homosexual relationship with one of the school’s football players — who wants to hide his homosexuality — leads to a brutal fight and some lingering emotional struggles. However, Charlie and Sam are there for him, once again showing us that they are as important to him as he is to them.

What brings all of these outstanding performances and strong themes together is the creator of the source material — Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky wrote the 1999 novel on which the film is based, and he also adapted his book into the movie’s screenplay. Now, that’s not the first time we’ve seen an author turn his/her book into a screenplay, but what makes this film unique is that Chbosky also directed. Thus, no one can really complain about any mismatches between the novel and film, because the book’s author had primary creative control over what ultimately made it to the big screen. This was evident in how fleshed out the characters were, how moving the story was, and how resonant the coming-of-age themes were.

For me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower reminded me that genuine and heartfelt coming-of-age films can be greatly affecting. I was pleasantly surprised that my mild expectations for this film were exceeded so greatly. If we’re speaking objectively, In my opinion, this movie deserves to be put into the same category as John Hughes’ classic coming-of-age films.

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

3.5/4 Tommy Ds

The Master: Masterful Execution, Sub-par Story

Film: The Master (2012)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Music by: Jonny Greenwood

Running Time: 137 minutes

Rating: R

To this point, few films this year have had as much hype as The Master. The latest installment from American film auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights), The Master sees Joaquin Phoenix emphatically reminding us that he is still a world-class actor after that bizarre rap artist hoax. We also see Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in another memorable performance as the eponymous “master,” and Anderson at technically-proficient best.

Unfortunately, while The Master succeeds in acting, direction, cinematography, music, and overall technique, it falls short in terms of a captivating story. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an unstable, violent, alcoholic drifter whose condition is made worse by him having  just returned from World War II. He stumbles upon a yacht one night in drunken pursuit of women, but he instead meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader (or “master”) of a faith-based organization (or, to put more simply, a cult) known as “The Cause.”

Broken and without much direction in his life, Freddie is a perfect guinea pig for Dodd. Dodd subjects Freddie to mental exercises not altogether dissimilar from hypnosis (although Dodd vehemently denies claims that his techniques fall under this category), promising to “wake him up” and help him break away from the things that are plaguing him. Freddie is often humiliated in front of the other fanatical members of “The Cause,” but his mental weakness renders him incapable of leaving Dodd and the organization for quite some time.

Hoffman is the perfect actor for Lancaster Dodd, as we see an omnipresent confidence and charisma in spite of the absurdity of his claims and belief system. We also even wonder how many of Dodd’s followers truly, 100% believe in everything he espouses. His son, Val (Jesse Plemons, who Breaking Bad fans will surely recognize if they’re completely up-to-date on the series) even tells Freddie that he is making up everything as he goes — but it is clear that Val and perhaps others are too invested and/or afraid to do anything about it.

Amy Adams gives The Master its other terrific acting performance, eschewing her oft-seen likeable, sweet-girl persona for Dodd’s more cold and rigid wife. She is also involved in the film’s most subtly creepy scene that, for me, brought back flashes of Black Swan. You’ll know what I mean if you have seen or will see the film.

The Master is also a beautifully-shot film, filled with vivid imagery and numerous noticeably unique camera angles. As I said earlier, it is indeed a masterpiece from a technical standpoint. But I felt like it had problems with the story. And yes, now we can get to that.

After the film’s conclusion I was left wondering what I was supposed to get out of it. Now, I’m often a big fan of intentional ambiguity, so long as the remainder of the story is captivating enough and I have enough investment in the characters. As terrific as the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman were, the story structure did not really make me care enough about their fates. Freddie is a rage-filled drunk who stumbles upon a fanatical cult, can’t break away from it for a while, then finally does, having not really undergone a profound change. What are we supposed to take from this? Cults are bad and ultimately unhelpful if not harmful? Okay. A man as broken as Freddie can never quite fix what ails him? Okay, whatever.

To be sure, The Master is a highly intellectual film, but I had trouble gleaning much else from it than this. As an avid fan of pure cinema, I enjoyed its technical precision and excellent performances — I think both Phoenix and Hoffman should be up for Oscars. But as someone who was looking for a story to affect me emotionally and really get my mind racing, I was left underwhelmed and without much feeling of resolution. I welcome comments that can offer more meaningful interpretations of the film, but I really see The Master as a mediocre story that comes close to — but doesn’t quite — transcending that weakness through how well-made it is.

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

2.5/4 Tommy Ds

Killer Joe – Review

Film: Killer Joe (2012)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon

Directed by: William Friedkin

Produced by: Nicholas Chartier, Scott Einbinder

Written by: Tracy Letts

Music by: Tyler Bates

Running Time: 102 minutes

Rating: NC-17

Finally, I can break out of my work-induced hiatus and get back to writing. A short time ago, I saw Killer Joe, an incredibly violent but darkly funny film based on the play by Tracy Letts, and directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). The film was so twisted that it was slapped with the dubious NC-17 rating.

I read about the premise of the film and was interested, but we ultimately lured me to the theater was a chance to attend a Q&A with Friedkin himself right after the film’s conclusion. This was one of the first examples of my new life in L.A. paying dividends toward my interest in film.

Anyway, before we get into that, let’s talk about the film itself. And yes, this plot is absurd. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer in Texas who falls into a huge amount of debt and is thus left scrambling for money. He concocts an idea to hire someone to kill his mother — supposedly an awful person, which isn’t hard to believe given the nature of the rest of the family — so that he can collect the insurance payout. He tells this idea to his father (his mother’s ex-husband), who reluctantly agrees. The alleged beneficiary of the insurance payout is actually Chris’s sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), but Chris figures they can all split it, which will still leave him with enough to get out of debt.

Chris hires the film’s namesake, “Killer” Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey in one of his better performances), to perform the service. Joe is a contract killer who also happens to be a police detective, so he’s a fairly corrupted individual to say the least. Joe demands an upfront fee for his services that Chris and his father cannot provide. Just when Joe is about to call off the deal, he notices Dottie, and decides to keep her as a retainer until they obtain the money following the murder.

Of course, this movie wouldn’t be any good unless the s**t really hit the fan, which it does to a pretty high degree. Between family lies, greed, misunderstandings, slimy characters, and a psychotic contract murderer, Killer Joe builds up to an unfathomable bloodbath of a conclusion that is nevertheless bleakly funny in an incredibly strange way. Are there any likeable characters in this movie? Maybe Dottie, but even that’s a stretch. That’s why by the end of the film, you don’t even know what you want to happen. While it can be hard to get into a movie if you don’t have anyone to root for, this unconventionality actually works for Killer Joe, as the audience can allow itself to be absorbed by the pure absurdity of the story and simply enjoy watch things unfold in a mostly unpredictable way.

McConaughey naturally owns this film, with twisted performance that is both funny and somewhat scary. In the film’s early stages, one would see him as the most detestable character, but as it progresses, the viewer will begin to realize that — frighteningly — he might not be the most odious character after all. But still odious. Just to be clear.

Emile Hirsch, a solid and underrated actor in his own right, delivers a fine performance as a pathetic, pitiful person (alliteration intended) who resorts to the most immoral measures to try to keep his life on track. The great character actor Thomas Haden Church provides much of the film’s humor through his offbeat, slightly aloof character, and Gina Gershon rounds things out as Chris’s increasingly loathsome stepmother.

Getting back to Friedkin, the long-time director shows he still has something left, delivering a weird but nevertheless captivating film. In his Q&A — where I unfortunately was not able to ask a question due to high demand and time constraints — Friedkin talked about the film’s tone and its NC-17 rating. He said that when the film got that rating, he knew he’d have to go forward with it because to cut out any of its material after that would have fundamentally altered some of the film’s most important aspects. He also was funny in eschewing blame for the film’s graphic material, saying, “Just remember — I didn’t write this s**t!.” One of the other things he talked about that I thought was interesting was about how there is no redemption for any of the characters in this film. This structure worked because of how despicable most of the characters were. We knew things would end badly, but we just didn’t know exactly how, and that’s when Friedkin and Letts delivered an unforgettable ending.

That being said, Killer Joe is not about to go down as one of my favorite films, but for a movie that’s surely going to continue to be overlooked, it is a very unique experience with fine performances from a very solid cast. If you think you can stomach grotesque and (intentionally) over-the-top violence and bloodshed, then give Killer Joe a try.

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

3/4 Tommy Ds

The Lives of Others – Review and Discussion

Film: The Lives of Others (2006)

Starring: Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Volkmar Kleinert

Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Produced by: Max Wiedemann, Quirin Berg, Dirk Hamm

Written by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Music by: Gabriel Yared, Stephane Moucha

Running Time: 137 minutes

Rating: R

This is not only a review, but a discussion of the film. As such, it is primarily targeted toward people who have seen the film and contains numerous spoilers.

I had always heard positive things about The Lives of Others, a 2006 German drama, but I had never gotten around to watching it. Until recently. And I was not disappointed.

The Lives of Others takes place in the 1980s in the socialist state of East Germany. A Stasi security officer named Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe, who sadly passed away in 2007, not too long after the release of this film) is assigned to bug the apartment of a successful playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebasitan Koch) and listen in on the activities of Dreyman and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Initially a ruthless interrogator and spy, Wiesler’s views begin to change when he learns just how corrupt the socialist party is (Minister Bruno Hempf wants to find incriminating evidence against Dreyman simply so that he can have Christa-Maria to himself), and as a result of sympathy for the genuine desires and feelings of Dreyman and Christa-Maria.

With this storyline, The Lives of Others becomes a truly touching piece about the best aspects of humanity. While the idea of a Stasi officer going soft is essentially fantastical, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (that’s one hell of a name!) talked about how the film’s setting is really just a backdrop for an overall greater message:

I didn’t want to tell a true story as much as explore how someone might have behaved. The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an account of what actually happened.” (www.guardian.co.uk)

von Donnersmarck’s film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

While the problem still exists that no Stasi officer would have behaved as Wiesler did, I was able to temporarily suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be absorbed by the story — a true credit to the level of quality in the film-making. The Lives of Others does not have a ton of action and is driven mainly by dialogue, exposition, and visuals. Nevertheless, it is thoroughly engrossing from start-to-finish primarily as a result of these elements. Additionally, von Donnersmarck expertly builds tension through instilling in the audience the ongoing thought that consequences will unjustly arise from characters choosing to do what is right instead of what is easy (yeah, I know, I paraphrased Albus Dumbledore).

This idea is best exemplified in one of the film’s climactic scenes, where Wiesler is forced to interrogate Christa-Maria about the exact location of a typewriter Dreyman used to anonymously write an article about the concealed suicide rates in East Germany over the past few years. Wiesler’s boss, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), suspects — correctly so — that Dreyman wrote the article and only needs to find the matching typewriter to have enough evidence to arrest him. Wiesler, of course, having been listening to Dreyman’s activities all along, knows all about this, and where the typewriter is located.

Thus, Wiesler is put in the conflicting position of needing to appear to Grubitz that he is doing his job, but also not betraying Dreyman and Christa-Maria. What’s on his side is that he had met Christa-Maria before in a cafe, urgently telling her that her talent as an artist is something she should value highly and is a representation of who she truly is. Therefore, through his eyes and some cryptic language (I might add that this whole scene pretty much became a class in the Ulrich Muhe school of acting), he communicates to Christa-Maria that she can trust him while simultaneously eliciting a confession out of her.

Wiesler proceeds to quickly drive to the apartment and move the typewriter, thus getting Dreyman off the hook. It is this act that illustrates his full shift over to the other side but also results in the destruction of his career — and in the tragic death of Christa-Maria, who was overcome by guilt after believing she betrayed Georg. Sadly, Wiesler was in too difficult a position and ultimately could not save both Dreyman and Christa-Maria, but his efforts would ultimately come to Dreyman’s attention and lead to a truly fantastic concluding scene.

This ending encapsulates von Donnersmarck’s message about glimmers of home and positivity existing in a world of seemingly overwhelming darkness. The writer/director discussed the difficulty of portraying this:

A serious film will acknowledge the darkness of mankind, but it will end on some kind of message of hope. It’s very easy to write impressive dark stuff. The hard thing is to take the dark stuff and suggest a solution, even to hint at a solution.” (blog.oregonlive.com)

In order to first establish the “dark stuff,” upon which everything else can be built, von Donnersmarck employs a unique and highly effective color palette that serves as a perfect visual representation of an oppressive, socialist state. Everything is dim, the sky is always gray, and muted colors rule the setting. Everything is just so plain, watered-down, and dull. The gloominess engulfs everyone and everything, as Dreyman describes in his thoughts on East Germany’s high suicide rates. See, now I’ve almost forgotten if I’m talking about the film’s colors or the oppressiveness of the East German government!

Of course, von Donnersmarck then has to show us glimmers of hope. We already know that he does this through the admirable change that Wiesler undergoes, but another way he does it is through conveying the idea that art represents hope. Dreyman is uncoincidentally (dictionary.com says this is a word, so there) a playwright, and his girlfriend uncoincidentally an actress. They are artists, and while generally respected in the state, they both begin to become disillusioned with how the state is stifling their talents, desires, and ambitions. Even someone like Dreyman, who is initially shown as a devoted communist and non-threatening citizen, ultimately cannot live in this type of world. Dreyman is eventually pushed to more rebellious action after his close friend, director Albert Jerska (Volkmark Kleinert), commits suicide (an example of the oppressive state of East Germany defeating an artist), as well as when Christa-Maria finally refuses to see Minister Hempf (largely as a result of Wiesler’s actions). Thus, Wiesler is not the only character to experience change. While Dreyman’s transformation might not be as dramatic as Wiesler’s, is is nevertheless a noteworthy parallel.

Regarding Wiesler, the film does a great job of showing that even he — a Stasi officer — cannot get ultimate fulfillment out of his life. There was a scene that some might find gratuitous, but that I thought was extremely important in telling us more about Wiesler’s character. In this scene, Wiesler is at his apartment and has a prostitute come over. When the appointment is up and she has to leave, he pleads with her to stay, to no avail. Thus, we see Wiesler as a very lonely and unhappy man, which makes his transformation more believable (the aforementioned fantastical elements notwithstanding). He sees how deeply in love Dreyman and Christa-Maria are, and in a way, he lives vicariously through them. He therefore does not want to see them be punished.

All of these great elements in the film are unified by a scintillating original score from Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha. The music captures the gloomy tone von Donnersmarck wanted to establish, but also somehow contains that glimmer of hope as well. For me, one of the signs that a film has succeeded is when I become so invested emotionally that I begin to get chills down my spine. The combination of the story and this music caused that. Like much of the rest of the film, the music is — and I know this sounds paradoxical but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the film — simultaneously subtle and in-your-face.

There’s a lot more I could discuss about The Lives of Others, but I feel this is a pretty good summary of some of the things that stood out to me. If you’ve seen this film (which, if you’ve read this entire post, I hope you have), then feel free to comment on some of the things you liked about it (or didn’t like…if that’s possible). And if you haven’t seen this film, hopefully you skipped most of this post, but more importantly, you should see it immediately — even if you don’t like reading subtitles for a whole movie. This one is worth it.

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

4/4 Tommy Ds

Safety Not Guaranteed – Review

Film: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin

Directed by: Colin Trevorrow

Produced by: Michael B. Clark, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, John Hodges

Written by: Derek Connolly

Music by: Ryan Miller

Running Time: 86 minutes

Rating: R

Note: Some spoilers

After hearing some positive word-of-mouth about the indie comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, I figured I should check it out, and I was not disappointed.

I called it a comedy — which it is, primarily — but we don’t find out whether or not we can augment the description to “sci-fi comedy” until the very end. The film is about a disillusioned girl in her early 20s (Aubrey Plaza) named Darius, who, while interning at a Seattle-based magazine, embarks on an investigation of a classified ad that asks for a person with whom the anonymous person can go back in time. And he does not guarantee safety.

Given a P.O. box address to pair with the writer of the ad, Darius (Plaza) accompanies one of the magazine’s writers — Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) — and another intern, Arnau to Ocean View, Washington. Once there, Darius tracks down and eventually meets the writer of the ad, Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass). Operating under the guise of someone interested in joining Kenneth on his time-traveling quest, Darius soon begins to connect with Kenneth and starts to wonder if he really is as crazy as she thought he was. Jeff, meanwhile, has made the trip to track down an old girlfriend and reconnect with her.

While Safety Not Guaranteed has an absurd premise, it succeeds because of its fleshed-out characters, sharp writing, and ultimately heartfelt narrative. The film has also turned me into a fan of Aubrey Plaza, who is making a name for herself with her extremely dry, dead-pan comedic style. This style was also a natural fit with the disenchanted, directionless state of her character. It is through this strange investigation and meeting someone as offbeat — but genuine — as Kenneth that Darius is able to rediscover some semblance of happiness and purpose in her life.

Jeff, meanwhile, comes across for much of the film as a selfish, egotistical, and shallow man. However, the film gives his character some nice development. While not related to the main narrative of Kenneth’s time-travel quest and Darius’s growing relationship with him, the side-story of Jeff re-connecting with an old love interest fits into the film nicely.

When Jeff first revisits this woman, Liz (Jenica Bergere), he is disappointed that she is no longer the girl he remembers from his younger days. But as he actually begins to interact with her on a deeper level, he comes to appreciate her to a great extent. He wants her to travel with him back to Seattle, but she rejects him, thinking that it is just another fling like the ones he had in his youth. Jeff is heartbroken, as he had only just now found some meaning in his life, but cannot see it through because he took things for granted when he was younger. As such, Jeff lives vicariously through Arnau, urging him not to let his youthful years simply pass him by.

Darius, meanwhile, is still young and jumps on an opportunity to get to know Kenneth, thus breaking out of her disillusionment. This main storyline brings us to an ending that is simultaneously implausible and incredibly uplifting. Are there some cliche moments and a few instances of mild sugarcoating? Sure there are, but they are overcome by all the other positive aspects of the film — the three-dimensional characters, the witty-but-not-only-geared-towards-hipsters script, and the messages about the importance of enjoying your youth.

We always hear the phrase “mid-life crisis.” But rarely do we hear the phrases “quarter-life crisis” or “mid-20s crisis.” Safety Not Guaranteed addresses these ideas and thus has some level of novelty. We often see coming-of-age style films about disillusioned teens or films about middle-aged people going through an aforementioned mid-life crisis, but the mid-20s/early-30s demographic is conspicuously ignored, which is why I appreciated Safety Not Guaranteed. This is a time in life where people may begin to question some of the paths they’ve taken and if things are going to unfold in a way that will make them happy, but ultimately, as this film tells us, it is a time to not pass up opportunities or take things for granted (even if safety is not guaranteed).

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

3.5/4 Tommy Ds

Savages – Review

Film: Savages (2012)

Starring: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, John Travolta, Demian Bichir

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Produced by: Moritz Borman, Eric Copeloff

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone

Music by: Adam Peters

Running Time: 131 minutes

Rating: R

I wasn’t expecting much going into Savages, but in the midst of a long week I needed an escape into a cinematic world of something, so Savages it was.

This might be one of Oliver Stone’s better directorial efforts over the past few years, but that’s not saying a whole lot for one of Hollywood’s top directors of yesteryear. With Savages, Stone offers a hard-hitting drug story that is undone by some poor acting (though not by everyone) and a ridiculous ending that tries to be novel but ends up just being stupid.

In brief, Savages tells the story of two young guys (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson) who grow highly potent marijuana after one of them — Chon (Kitsch) — smuggled seeds out of Afghanistan after serving as a soldier there. They share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively) — she goes by “O”, which I suppose is an accurate representation of her character’s general cluelessness towards everything) — and everything seems to be harmonious. But we know it cannot stay that way, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie.

Chon and Ben soon come into contact with a Mexican cartel that offers them a partnership deal. The duo refuses, and — looking to flee from the wrath of the cartel — they ask O to go to Indonesia with them for a year. But the cartel kidnaps O before they can leave, and from there, much violence and savage behavior among everyone ensues.

The best aspects of this film where Stone’s pull-no-punches approach — most evident in his raw and unflinching portrayal of violence — and the acting of Salma Hayek as the ruthless cartel boss and Benicio del Toro as one of its members. John Travolta was also amusing — albeit slightly over-the-top —  in his role as a corrupt DEA agent whose loyalties are unclear throughout much of the film. However, all of these actors had supporting roles. The leads pretty much paled in comparison to this group, and that detracted from the film.

Taylor Kitsch is the big nothing of Hollywood this year. John Carter? Fail. Battleship? A decent box office hit, but not for quality acting or a quality picture (these are the types of films that generally make money these days). So, in my book, fail. And Savages? Meh. Kitsch plays a constantly pissed-off former soldier whose solution to everything is to kill the bastards and be as stereotypically bad-ass as possible. There was not really much going on with Kitsch’s character, and he failed to add any more subtle dimensions.

Aaron Johnson — the lesser-known name who nevertheless turned heads for his role in Kick-Ass — actually brought more to his character. We see Ben as someone who is very intelligent and good at what he does — growing and selling pot — but who slowly begins to realize that things are getting a little too big for him. Johnson effectively portrayed the mental struggle of a man who did not want to be doing what he was doing but was acting simply because he felt he had to.

Then there’s Blake Lively as O. First, the decision to have her narrate the film was a very bad one, in my opinion. We see her character as some shallow beach girl (comparably shallow to Lively’s acting ability) who doesn’t really see any issues in being with two weed growers/dealers at the same time. And we as the audience are expected to accept her words to us as if she’s so philosophically in tune with the world? Yeah, right. But hey, maybe the whole idea is that she is profoundly changed by the end of the film, right? Eh, no, I don’t think so.

I won’t say too much about the film’s ending (minor spoiler alert for this paragraph), but there were two things that really bothered me about it. First, the approach of “Hey, we’ve shown a fairly derivative drug movie so far, so let’s have a really cool and unique ending that  will blow people’s minds!” didn’t really achieve its goal. Instead of thinking, “Wow, that was awesome!” I thought, “Really? That’s what’s happening here?” The other thing that bothered me was that if all these characters are savages, then they really should all reap some harsh consequences — i.e., they should all die — in the film’s conclusion. I’m not a sadist, but I felt like that would have been the most appropriate conclusion to the story. But, alas, not everyone dies, and Savages thus takes the easy way out.

To be fair, I have not read the eponymous novel by Don Winslow, upon which the film was based. So I don’t know to what extent this absurd ending and the overall ideas presented in the film were taken from the source material or to what extent they were Hollywood-ized.  What I do know is that Savages, while never boring, fails in several key areas, thus giving us an overall mediocre film.

Tommy D’s Score:

 

 

 

 

2/4 Tommy Ds

For my 100th Post, I Will Adjust Some Ratings

The purpose of this post is mostly explained in the title. Given the recent change to the Tommy D Talks Movies rating system, I — as promised, and because of my own obsessive needs for consistency — I am going back through this entire blog’s history and picking out certain review scores to adjust. Most will be adjusted as a result of the change from quarter-point to half-point increments (and no, the rule of rounding up will not always apply), but others will be adjusted simply because watching and rating more movies has given me a better idea of benchmarks over time. I could go back to each post and make the edits within each one, but that would be too much even for me.

I do want to emphasize that the ratings are more of a fun way to classify movies; what I like to focus on more is the content and deeper analysis in the reviews. But like I said, the completist in me needs to do this. And on top of that, what better way to celebrate the one-year history of Tommy D Talks Movies with a 100th post that looks back at so many past ones?

Without further ado, let’s get started with this ambitious task. Here are the movies whose scores are being adjusted:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II: Originally 3.25/4, now 3/4
  • The Fugitive: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • American Psycho: Originally 3/4, now 3.5/4 (I now recognize it as a pretty damn good cinematic achievement)
  • A Beautiful Mind: Originally 3.75/4, now 3.5/4
  • The King’s SpeechOriginally 1.75/4, now 1.5/4 (what an overrated snooze-fest)
  • 25th Hour: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • eXistenZ: Originally 2.75/4, now 3/4
  • Zodiac: Originally 3.5/4, now 4/4 (I saw this movie again recently and was blown away. It’s so detailed and complete, and incredibly underrated. It didn’t get a single Oscar nomination for 2007. That’s a crime.)
  • Taxi Driver: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • Warrior: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • Contagion: Originally 2.75/5, now 2.5/4
  • Drive:Originally 3/4, then 3.75/4, now 3.5/4 (this was a tough one)
  • Mulholland Drive: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • No Country for Old Men: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • Pan’s Labyrinth: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • The Debt: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • The Conspirator: Originally 2.75/4, now 2.5/4
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • Midnight in Paris: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • The Artist: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • Rear Window: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • The Help: Originally 2.75/4, now 2.5/4
  • Shame: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • Hugo: Originally 3.25/4, now 3/4
  • War Horse: Originally 2.25/4, now 2.5/4
  • Take Shelter: Originally 3.75/4, now 4/4
  • Rushmore: Originally 2.75/4, now 2.5/4
  • The Hunger Games: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
  • 21 Jump Street: Originally 3.25/4, now 3/4
  • Ted: Originally 3.25/4, now 3.5/4
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