Friday, January 31, 2014

Why We Needed "Her"

This January, Spike Jonze released his latest film, “Her.”  Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha, it has already won a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay, and is up for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  The story that Jonze tells is original and profound.

Feeling lonely and in the process of a painful divorce, writer Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) purchases an operating system.  Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is designed to meet every need of Theodore, and they develop a relationship.  As he grows closer to Samantha, Theodore’s attachment is unrealistic, and their interaction, though touching, he slowly loses the desire to live life beyond the confines of Samantha.  He takes his OS out on dates, and lets her experience things vicariously through him through the camera attached to her system.  She is able to respond only so much, but develops from the experience nonetheless.    

Slowly, as their relationship deepens, Samantha tries to figure out whether how she feels about Theodore is real, or just programming.  Either way, she develops more than she thought she could.  Theodore alienates himself from human contact, and doesn’t care that she isn’t real.  He has finally gained acceptance for who he is, and it is through something designed to make him feel exactly as he needs to be felt.  

I’ll be honest, though the premise of falling in love with a computer is a bit pathetic, “Her” made me tear up in theaters.  Theodore holds Samantha close to himself, and constantly says that she’s not just a computer.  If you tell yourself something often enough, you start to believe it is true, regardless of its veracity.  However, when facing the reality that human interaction is an important part of life, he realizes that Samantha isn’t what he needs if he wants to develop a real relationship.  

Amy (Amy Adams) keeps him grounded, however.  She tells him that sometimes all that matters is your own happiness, since “we are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” Which Theodore does, by finalizing his divorce.  The signing of the papers however is accompanied by his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) telling him that Samantha is the perfect girl for him, since he doesn’t have to deal with the actual aspects of being there for someone., as even the emotional and psychological aspect is synthetic to a fault.

Which, is an excellent point.  Samantha isn’t physically present.  She is no more than a voice that reassures Theodore that he is still attractive and a wonderful partner.  This is very important, considering intimacy is no more than an illusion.  There is nothing physical about her, even though he may want her in a physical sense and be fulfilled by nothing more than experiences similar to that of phone sex.  

What is Spike Jonze really saying about the way we use technology these days with his film?  Is Theodore’s dependency relatable to us today?  To what extent are we using technology?  Should we stray from reliance on our phones? Is having the world at our fingertips detrimental to our interpersonal relationships?  Then again, can technology enhance our personal relationships?  According to “Her,” even if it is one where you fall in love with an operating system, yes.  Yes it can.  

Sure, having a smartphone is helpful for little things throughout the day.  If we need to look up directions to a friend’s house, or find out the weather to dress appropriately, our dependency is deemed reasonable.  If we need to get in touch with someone to solidify plans is exactly what phones are made for, anyhow.  The communication realm has grown more in the past ten years than it ever has.  Though many people consider anyone who sits around on their phone texting the day away anti-social, they are being more social than ever before.  However, these conversations are no more than simply a virtual exchange.  The aspect of physically being in someone’s presence is a lot more powerful than a meaningful text message.  

With the amount of technology available to us today and the fact that we can have the world at our fingertips is profound, even intimidating at times.  Even though it can help us do everything, we shouldn’t use it for everything.

The fact that Theodore completely personifies Samantha in such an intense fashion is a little worrisome for viewers.  His lack of desire for human interaction is obvious, and maybe if we become too attached to technology, the world will be graced with the presence of six trillion Theodore’s.

Don’t get me wrong reader, I doubt that the world will come to us all dating our computers.  For one thing, reproducing would be a nightmare.  How would you even engage in an actual date?  Humans aren’t wired to show affection to just one person anyhow.  We all love to be loved, but even more so we love to love.  So, we needed “Her” to bring us back to Earth and help us realize that although it is nice to have technology to rely on, falling in love with something intangible, like Samantha, is unrealistic.  Even though critics have deemed it “slightly futuristic,” we are far away from this becoming a reality.  Perhaps “Her” was just a warning of what could happen if we fell in love with the voice of Scarlett Johannson.  

Hopefully the Academy recognizes the originality presented here with a concept that makes us take a step back, saying “huh.  I wish I could have written this.”  A love story like this has been in our subconscious, and now with Jonze contemplating it, we can consider its flaws and strong points.  Leave it to Spike Jonze to explore a virtual relationship even Siri isn’t capable of.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Top Ten Performances of Leonardo DiCaprio

1. The Aviator (2004): My favorite DiCaprio film, and probably his best performance.  He portrays Howard Hughes, the OCD inflicted film mogul and aviation fanatic throughout the high and low points of his career.  Hughes was very particular about everything in every aspect of his life, ranging from which steering wheel he wanted to use in a plane to how many chocolate chips should be existent on his cookie.  OCD heavily affected Hughes, and he spent four months in a viewing room not leaving to bathe, relieve himself, or anything.  DiCaprio accurately depicted Hughes in his ruined state.  In preparation for his role, DiCaprio spoke with Jane Russell, Hughes’s starring actress in his film The Outlaw to further understand the stubborn man.  He also spent time with an OCD patient named Edward in order to understand the mannerisms and habits that go along with the mental disorder.   DiCaprio won the Golden Globe for this performance and received a nomination from the Academy, as his thorough homework and research paid off. 

2. Wolf of Wall Street (2013): His latest film and Golden-Globe winning performance as Jordan Belfort is dynamic.  We love him as much as we hate him, and want to be him as much as we wish him hell.  DiCaprio’s performance is a memorable one, especially the Lemmons scene.  As he inch-worms around a country club reenacting how Belfort responded to the expired drugs is horrifying.  Real-life Jordan Belfort was on-set with DiCaprio, coaching him on how he should behave to make it as accurate as possible.  Ever since he read the novel which the film is based on in 2007, DiCaprio obsessed on making it into a film with him as Belfort.  He wanted to portray Belfort throughout his career’s highs and lows as honestly as they could be onscreen.  DiCaprio has won a Golden Globe and received a nomination from the Academy for his work in this film. 

3. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993): DiCaprio’s first Oscar nomination came from this film as Best Supporting Actor, and brought his existence to the attention of moviegoers worldwide.  In this film, his role as Arnie Grape, Gilbert’s (Johnny Depp) mentally retarded brother is moving.  Upon learning that he was just a normal teenaged kid acting in a role, many were shocked.  In preparation for this role, DiCaprio spent a few days in a home for mentally retarded teens, describing the experience as “refreshing.”  His performance is moving, and we grow to love Arnie irrevocably by the film’s conclusion.  It’s pretty safe to say that the Oscar is twenty years overdue. 

4. Django Unchained (2012): Tarantino knew what he was doing when he cast the DiCaprio as unscrupulous plantation owner, Calvin Candie.  Though this performance snubbed him from an Oscar nomination as the Academy favored his co-star Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schulz, it is still a great one.  His teeth are grimy, and his beard is intimidating, but we love this villain as much as we hate him.  Candie intrigues us with his incest-dripping relationship and love for brutality.  In Django Unchained, there is a scene where he takes () Kerry Washington and threatens to kill her.  Before, he bangs his fist on the table and cuts it, credited by a piece of glass.  Even though he was in excruciating pain, DiCaprio worked his way through the scene.  Tarantino liked the take so much that made it into the final product. 

5. Revolutionary Road (2008): Probably the uncomfortable performance to sit through, as far as brutality of a character goes.  He plays Frank Wheeler, a man caught up in the expectations of the American Dream and suburban lifestyles of the 1950’s.  Engrossed in being the perfect patriarch to a perfect family, he and Alice (Kate Winslet) struggle every second to fulfill their dreams.  Mr. Wheeler is a brutish character, and unlike Candie in Django, we are not intrigued by him and wish the worst for him.  DiCaprio’s screaming matches and heartless nature truly brings Frank Wheeler to life.  The realization of their personal problems only forms itself in instances of complete loss.  Their performances together are far more moving, as their characters are able to develop further than they did in Titanic.  It’s pretty clear why so many fanatics are lobbying for another Winslet-DiCaprio film. 

6. Catch Me If You Can (2002): Despite the real-life Frank Abagnale Jr.’s doubt, DiCaprio was an excellent choice to portray him in the adaptation of the memoir of the same name.  Here, DiCaprio plays the suave Frank Abagnale Jr., a young man who charades as a pilot, laywer and a doctor and steals millions-all before he turns 21.  The smooth-talking teenager made millions illegally, met many people and went under several different names to accomplish his goals.  DiCaprio has the capability of selling ice to an eskimo in this film, and nobody is as simultaneously slick and charming.  His con-man nature and emotional struggles that emerge from his relationship with his father give DiCaprio the motive to do all this crazy scheming.  The best part of the film? Everything is accurate to what actually happened to Abagnale Jr. 

7. Shutter Island (2010): Further proving that whoever Leo portrays becomes damaged and undone, he stars in this Scorsese film as US Marshal Teddy Daniels.  Daniels suffers from PTSD after serving in the Second World War, and is sent to Shutter Island on a wild goose chase to find an escaped prisoner.  Watching reality become lies and vice versa for Daniels is ever-confusing.  In fact, audiences are just as confused as DiCaprio’s character is.  However, DiCaprio shows legitimate despair throughout the gloomy film.  Scorsese and DiCaprio’s fourth collaboration at that point seems to be working, as both are brilliantly talented. 

8. Romeo + Juliet (1996): As horrible as this film was, it is important to give credit where credit is due.  Aside from being every teenage girl’s crush in the 1990’s, Leo is romantic as hell in this film as the titular character, the ideal Romeo.  The soft look in his eyes and articulation of all things Shakespeare are hard to ignore.  Not many people who aren’t Shakespearean trained actors can do Shakespeare well.  DiCaprio’s version of Romeo’s speech outside of Juliet’s window was so beautiful that Claire Danes (Juliet) cried, even though she wasn’t meant to at the moment.  It will make any girl croon from their window, “Romeo, Romeo.”

9. The Great Gatsby (2013): Another nightmarish film, but there are few actors who could pull off Gatsby well.  Leo is one of them.  His good looks and reassuring smile are enough for him to carry us through Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.  Caught up once more in the American Dream gone haywire, DiCaprio plays a man who can be “interpreted in so many ways: a hopeless romantic, a completely obsessed wacko or a dangerous gangster, clinging to wealth."  Although DiCaprio is no Robert Redford, his charm brings Gatsby to life in a tasteful way.  The imaginative look in DiCaprio’s eyes are enchanting, but also bring the mystery behind Gatsby’s wealth to the forefront.
10. The Departed (2006): this Oscar-worthy performance was once more overlooked by the Academy, but the competition was stiff alone, as his co-stars included Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson, and the film did get Best Picture in its year.    DiCaprio plays Billy Costigan here, a undercover cop working to unfoil a mob scheme.  Once more, DiCaprio plays a character who is misunderstood and pretending to be something he is not.  It takes great skill to play both ends of the spectrum as a character, as well as acting both roles.  DiCaprio takes on this ultimate challenge in other films as well as The Departed and his work paid in the film paid off, as one of the main characters in an Oscar-winning film.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Film Review

Released worldwide this past Christmas was Ben Stiller’s latest film, one in which he produced, directed and starred in.  Based on James Thurber’s short story of the same name, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty attempts to blur the lines between daydreaming and actually living, and show how life is one great big journey.  The concept behind the film is pretty brilliant, but it could have been executed way better.  The initial setup grabs the audience, as they wait to see what will happen next, but it drops us off disappointed as things do start to pick up.  Adventure is out there waiting, but this film isn’t enough to inspire audiences to pursue it.

Chronic daydreamer Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is the negative assets manager at Life and Times magazine.  He escapes reality through constant fantasizing, and frequently zones out from the task at hand.  Action-packed and romantically heroic, Walter Mitty’s creative mind causes him to constantly lose touch with reality.  It’s quite funny, actually, how spacey he gets sometimes.  When the company announces they are going digital and will no longer print physical copies, Mitty is asked to develop the last cover’s picture.  This is no unusual task for Mitty, until he finds that the particular frame he needs goes missing.  His mission is to find the image’s photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) and recover the missing shot within two weeks of his deadline.

What’s a heroic mission without a little motivation?  The dream-come-true romance between Mitty and Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) is pretty run-of-the-mill.  He likes her, tries to go after her on Eharmony, and finds himself unimpressive.  It’s quite boring and drawn-out.  Its lack of passion isn’t even out of Mitty’s shyness.  He may just not care about Cheryl at all.  Mitty concerns himself with daydreaming, and not even his daydreams evoke much love (or even lust).  

True, once he stops daydreaming he starts living a life beyond dreams as far as adventuring goes, he is satisfied.  However, once he arrives in Iceland (which is shot beautifully), the story starts to lull.  The special effects sprinkled throughout the film are pretty impressive.  Mitty’s daydream sequences are pretty outrageous, including his superpower-induced chasing of Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) throughout New York City.  They may even be the saving grace. The first half hour really draws in the audience.  The concept for the film is an excellent one.  What audiences leave the theater with is meant to inspire.  Even the ending to the film is satisfying, and a pleasant surprise for those who sat through the two hours it took to get there.

Perhaps the detail of a two-week deadline screwed up the momentum of this film.  Provided Mitty had two or three days, the speed of events would have greatly increased, and he wouldn’t have exactly taken his time getting from Point A to Point B and back.  There would have been less time as far as what could been plausible for the story, but the level of action and plot twists would have increased, making Walter Mitty more watchable.  

The dumb show put on in between the beginning and end takes away from Stiller’s Walter Mitty.  Once more, Hollywood has gone out of their way to twist their source material to their fitting, as the three page piece in The New Yorker is nothing like the film.  Even though it was published 75 years ago, it doesn’t lend much to its 2013 adaptation.  The storyline gets confusing, and not even Stiller galavanting throughout the Arctic can save this film.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cinematic Excess Done Right: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

            I just sat through the fastest three-hour movie of my life.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street” hit theatres Christmas Day 2013.  Since then, I have yet to hear one bad review.  Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the second movie in the past year to portray Leonardo DiCaprio as the poster-child for the American Dream gone wild.  The overall excess of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” distracted us from the message at hand, regardless of Leo’s quality portrayal of Jay Gatsby. Scorsese builds a cinematic roller coaster from start to finish, filled with hookers, cocaine and illegal Wall Street dealings galore. 

Jordan Belfort had it all, and lost it all, and it all is squeezed into three hours of nonstop action.    All the excess is memorizing to a fault, yet we still need to remind ourselves that it is reality.  It is in fact so real that we almost wish half of it never happened. 

            “The Wolf of Wall Street” tells the story of a New York stockbroker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).  His first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) recommends adding hookers and obscene amounts of drugs to his lifestyle in order to make it big on Wall Street.  After the 1987 Rothschild crash on Wall Street, a money-hungry Belfort takes his set of skills and learns the ins and outs of selling stocks.  Soon, he develops his own firm, “Stratton Oakmont Inc.” and with the help of his friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) and father Max (Rob Reiner), he is able to take the world by storm. 

            Soon enough, Belfort lives the ultimate life of luxury.  Complete with a trophy wife (Margot Robbie), yachts, and enough drugs to sedate Manhattan for a month, he has the life anyone would kill to have.  However, as soon as he thinks he has broken enough laws and made enough money, things take a turn for the Wolf.  Soon, he puts others financial existences in danger and tries snaking his way around certain laws to get his way. 

            Regardless of your moral standards about prostitution, drugs and stockbrokers, “Wolf of Wall Street” does an excellent job of showing all three in their most outrageous form.  Quite often the three are intertwined onscreen. 

            The most unbelievable aspect about “The Wolf of Wall Street” is that everything on screen is no exaggeration from the truth.  When reading the novel I was blown away everything ongoing.  I couldn’t put the book down; it was such a page turner.  It is no wonder how Jordan Belfort was dynamic enough to be making shy of $1 million a week at one point in his life.  His charismatic nature was more than enough to make me wish I could have his moving nature.  However, his drug addiction and stock fraud is more than enough reason to not wish such tragedy upon even my worst enemies. 

The insane drug scenes and sexual parts of the film were only filmable because Warner Brothers pictures wasn’t part of the production.  Since the film was financed independently, lines were crossed and envelopes were pushed.  If it wasn’t for the MPAA’s request of Scorsese to edit certain parts of the film, “Wolf of Wall Street” could have easily had an NC-17 rating. 

Is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance Oscar-worthy? Surely his fifth collaboration with Scorsese could earn him some gratification that he is in fact a fantastic actor.  In the past, he has starred in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” “Shutter Island,” “The Departed,” and “The Aviator.”  Granted, I am biased. I love the man.  Every role he takes on seems to move audiences to believe he is a different persona than in the film before.  Regardless of how good or bad a film can be, Leonardo DiCaprio can be anyone on the silver screen. 

His performance in “Wolf” is no exception.  He shows a high range of acting ability, as he portrays a man who uses his power of rhetoric to sell anything and everything.  DiCaprio met onset with real-life Jordan Belfort to get some behavior coaching.  This allowed for an accurate portrayal of the stockbroker.  The two paid particular attention to the way DiCaprio had to react to the Quaaludes onscreen. 

But for some unknown reason, the Academy dislikes Leonardo DiCaprio.  It could be perhaps that he peaked too soon as an actor.  However, if that is the case, it would be hard to figure out his highest point.  His early performances, his more recent ones, and several in between were rather impressive.  Perhaps Leo just has really, really bad luck.  Regardless, he put so much energy into this film, and his collaboration with Scorsese has audiences and critics beyond satisfied. 

This film is an unforgettable one.  Where else will you find in a film with over five hundred uses of the word “fuck?”  How about one where the dialogue was improvised rather often?  With the talents of DiCaprio, Hill, and Reiner (just to name a few) it’s no surprised how they were able to keep a scene or two going.  “Wolf of Wall Street” is currently nominated for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy for the Golden Globes, along with countless other awards. 

It’s funny, because Brad Pitt had originally bid for the rights to a film version of Belfort’s memoir.  However, Leo beat him out and I cannot imagine Mr. Pitt in this film.  After seeing “Wolf,” I can honestly say it has my vote for best film this year at the Academy awards ceremony.