Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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The American military has always been at the forefront of technological innovation often working on the fringes of scientific credibility in its constant search for new ways to locate and eliminate enemies. At times the military's eagerness to gain an edge over its adversaries has led it to some strange dark places many of which are chronicled in The Men Who Stare at Goats British author Jon Ronson’s real-life account of the U.S. government’s efforts to create an army of “psychic supersoldiers."
If you’re not familiar with the world of psychic warfare (and really why would you be?) the book’s title refers to an experiment conducted during the 1980s at Fort Bragg North Carolina in which specially trained soldiers using methods culled from the top-secret First Earth Battalion Operations Manual attempted to stop the heart of a goat using nothing but the power of the mind. The ultimate goal obviously was to develop the skill for eventual use on enemy combatants.
Chock full of similarly wild yet credible stories The Men Who Stare at Goats’ strange-but-true subject matter lends itself perfectly to film adaptation. Its structure — a disparate collection of loosely related vignettes covering over a 30-year timespan — does not. Nevertheless director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan gave it a shot refashioning the material to such an extent that the movie is no longer “based upon” Ronson’s book but instead merely “inspired by” it.
Thankfully Heslov kept intact two of the book’s greatest strengths: its lively irreverent tone and its fascinating array of colorful characters. The latter is no doubt what attracted the film’s star-studded cast led by George Clooney as Lyn Cassady a fidgety veteran of the “psychic spy” brigade whose chance meeting with journalist Bob Wilton Ronson’s onscreen counterpart (played as an American ironically by U.K. actor Ewan McGregor) provides the catalyst for the storyline.
As Cassady squires Wilton through the Iraqi desert en route he claims to a contracting gig he regales the awe-struck reporter with stories of the New Earth Army and its founder a Vietnam vet-turned-New Age acolyte named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). In the early '80s Django now a ponytailed flower child managed to obtain Army approval to spearhead a pilot program that would to train a legion of “warrior monks” to read minds pass through walls and disable enemies through a wide variety of non-lethal methods.
Any program like the New Earth Army is bound to attract its share of bad apples amoral folk who aim to use its teachings to enrich themselves and cause harm to others. In The Men Who Stare at Goats the entire rotten orchard is represented by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) a sleazy manipulative charlatan whose devious machinations ultimately serve to bring down the entire operation.
Goats is at its loopy best as Cassady cycles through various off-the-wall anecdotes of Django and his increasingly bizarre training methods. But it falls apart when Heslov attempts to weave it all into a coherent storyline complete with a climax centered on a hairbrained scheme to spike the water supply at an American fort with LSD. It's understandable that Heslov felt compelled to invent something that could bring some resolution to the story but getting everyone high on acid? It sounds like a gimmick stolen from one of the lesser Revenge of the Nerds sequels.
Needless to say that last part wasn’t in Ronson’s book.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
Essentially about the offbeat relationship between two very distinct people with anything but normal families Gigantic centers around the search for meaning by Brian Weathersby a 29-year-old high-end mattress salesman who is looking for something to anchor his life to. He becomes determined to adopt a baby from China but soon gets involved in an unexpected and wholly different kind of romance when the quirky and pretty Harriet aka Happy wanders into his showroom and falls asleep on one of the beds. Along the way he must deal not only with her loudmouth father Al but also his own dippy parents and two older more successful brothers.
WHO'S IN IT?
When describing the charms of Gigantic all roads lead to Paul Dano who underplays Brian in a wonderfully droll deadpan-style reminiscent of the great Peter Sellers in Being There. Dano who has done this low-key kind of act before in Little Miss Sunshine is truly winning without expressing visible emotion and letting others play off his blank canvas. As Harriet Zooey Deschanel also takes what could be a one-note character and invests her with complexity and quirky humanity. You can't take your eyes off of her when she's on-screen. Veteran actors Edward Asner and John Goodman play the pair's fathers and both adapt their oversized personas beautifully to the precise rhythms established by the stars. Goodman gets great mileage out of his character's bad back problems and is better than he's been on screen in years. Jane Alexander as Brian's mother also has a couple of wonderful moments. Hot comedian Zach Galifianakis takes on the film's oddest role as a mysterious homeless man who keeps showing up to attack Brian.
Co-writer and first-time feature film director Matt Aselton takes a cue from directors like Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude Being There) and Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel in creating a tone and distinct minimalist sandbox for his actors to play in and it works beautifully for those in the audience who don't need every little detail explained. By dialing it way down he gets an aura of originality not attempted in many comedies these days.
By crossing the line between fantasy and reality and intentionally blurring his main character's emotional well-being a unique device is used throughout that will require patience and suspension of belief before its ultimate payoff toward the end. The less adventurous viewers may not want to make the investment.
A restaurant double-date between Dano Deschanel plus Goodman and his date is brilliantly written and acted as Brian is grilled in vivid detail by Harriet's take-no-prisoners dad.
BEST GREETING BY A STONER:
A slacker friend who has probably already smoked his lifetime supply of weed asks and answers his own question with every hello: "Hey dude What's up? Not much."
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If you can find this indie gem in theaters go! But it should be hitting the video shelves before you can say "Hey dude. What's up? Not much."
The Chinese proverb that all emotions are intertwined and so are people is depicted in The Air I Breathe using four very diverse characters from very diverse worlds known only by the emotions they represent. The story starts off with Happiness (Forest Whitaker) a lonely banker who realizes he has let life pass him by until he decides to take chances much like his mysterious client Pleasure (Brendan Fraser). What Happiness doesn't know is that Pleasure is the lead henchman to a gangster named Fingers (Andy Garcia). Happiness overhears co-workers talk about a sure bet at a horse race and decides to bet more than he has and so ends up owing Fingers. Meanwhile Fingers wins a contract to represent popular pop singer Sorrow (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and she turns suicidal when she finds out he is her new manager. Then she takes an interest in Pleasure. And in another story Love (Kevin Bacon) is frantically searching for a rare blood type to save his old girlfriend (Julie Delpy) from a snake bite. It just so happens Sorrow has the type Love is looking for. Finally Fingers' self-absorbed nephew Tony (Emile Hirsch) is flying into town and he just wants to have fun; Fingers assigns a reluctant Pleasure to the task. Sure you could say that Gellar is just playing herself as she deals with rude journalists and overzealous fans but she plays a range of emotion and pathos she hasn't tapped into since the end of her popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fraser is equally surprising. He's not played someone so stiff and unpleasant since he made a splash with indie film Gods and Monsters. Fraser also shows a strong range as Pleasure who ends up becoming surprisingly sympathetic. Bacon and Whitaker are in rather low-key roles that don't seem to push their talents and Hirsch is simply irritating in his one-note role. Garcia is famous for playing gangsters (Godfather Part III anyone?) and Fingers is just as brutal and deadly named for his preference to cut off people’s fingers. His presence is chilling every time he walks into a room. He embodies fear the emotion which seems to linger over or tamp down the emotions of the others. First-time director/co-writer Jieho Lee makes a superb debut with an A-list cast and a compelling story. Even though it has the feel of an ancient Chinese proverb The Air I Breathe is set in a Western city (in actuality it was shot in Mexico City) and is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz: Sorrow as Dorothy blithely seeking her career; Love as the Scarecrow; Pleasure as the heartless Tin Man; and Happiness as the Cowardly Lion. Fingers' role is not only both the good and bad witches he is also the Great and Powerful Oz as well who manipulates their lives but ultimately has no power at all. Lee tosses in subtle filmic references to his movie influences but the over-the-top third act takes away from the fine subtleties he sets up early in the film.
The story of the late great Johnny Cash depicted in Walk the Line is not quite all encompassing. The film dramatizes just one moment in Cash's life: his tumultuous 20s and rise to fame. The young Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) married and straight out of the army struggles with his music finally finding his patented blend of country blues and rock music. Haunted by a troubled childhood Cash sings songs about death love treachery and sin--and shoots straight to the top of the charts. On tour he also meets and falls for his future wife June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) whose refusal to meddle with a married man only further fuels the fire and contributes to his eventual drug addiction. Their cat-and-mouse love story provides the film’s core but unfortunately can’t quite overcome Walk the Line’s formulaic nature. Biopics are generally good to actors. Phoenix and Witherspoon could easily each walk away with Oscar statuettes for turning in two of the most jaw-dropping spellbinding performances since well Jamie Foxx in Ray. Neither actor had any musical background whatsoever but they both underwent painstaking transformations for the sake of authenticity doing all of their own singing as well as guitar-playing for Phoenix. The actor's performance is purely raw and visceral; his vulnerability is aptly palpable at first but then he becomes the Cash with the unflinching swagger. Witherspoon's Carter is Cash's temptress and she'll be yours too by movie's end. She eerily reincarnates Carter as if she was born to play the part. If Walk the Line is the ultimate actor's canvas then Phoenix and Witherspoon make priceless art-and music-together. While good for the actors biopics can prove to be difficult for the director. It’s hard to highlight a person’s life without it coming off like a TV movie of the week. Unfortunately director James Mangold (Copland) plays it safe with Walk the Line. The duets between Johnny and June on stage are about the only electrifying moments of the film. The rest is pretty stereotypical. And it isn’t because the film only focuses on certain years of Cash's life. It's simply not possible to fit a lifetime into the short duration of a film. The problem instead is that Mangold's presentation of Cash's life would lead one to believe that Cash actually exorcised his demons. But in reality his lifelong demons are what endeared him to the layperson. There was nothing cut and dry about the Cash story--and adding a little grit would have given Walk the Line the edge it needed.