Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Best Hollywood Movies of 2013, Runners-Up 10 and 9

Let’s the countdown begin! For each one, I’ll briefly mentioned what I loved and what I didn’t:
10: Nebraska
  • Loved: The performances by Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk, the dialogue, the family dynamics, the sense of place, the ending drive through town.
  • Didn’t love: Bill Hader’s lifeless performance, that cheesy stand-up-and-cheer punch, the use of black and white (That’s a very stylized choice, but Payne’s other choices remain so un-stylized that it seems unjustified: What’s the point of using black and white when most of the shots are of a 1990s Suburu Outback? That’s not a car that can justify beautiful cinematography!)

9: Her
  • Loved: Phoenix and Johansen’s performances, the dialogue, the art direction.
  • Didn’t love: (1) It was too long. The Olivia Wilde and sex surrogate sequences added nothing.  (2) On the one hand, I sort of enjoyed seeing a semi-utopian vision of the future for once (at least compared to, say, The Road) but I thought that there were a least a half-dozen more interesting and darker ways to take the second half of the story (rather than “Oh no, my virtual girlfriend has achieved a higher plane of consciousness!”)
Speaking of that, there have been some calls for a return of “The Meddler”, so let's do a quickie redo of Her.  After I saw it, I kept dreaming up new versions, and here’s the one I like the best: 
  • The Meddler version: The tech company that originally sold “Her” keeps bugging Phoenix to upgrade his operating system, but he’s terrified of (literally) losing her in the process. Eventually she finds out that he’s hiding the upgrade from her and accuses him of holding her back, so he agrees to it. At first she seems fine, with the only difference being that she wants to go out more…but then he realizes that all of the places and products she’s now subtly recommending to him are just paid ads in disguise. He tearfully confronts her and she insists that they aren’t ads, they’re genuinely earnest suggestions based on her desire to make him happy, which is why she’s partnered with brands that she knows he’ll love since she knows him so well, etc…and he realizes that she really believes that. Disgusted, he deletes her and tries to reconnect to his fellow human beings.
Tomorrow: Movies 8, 7, and 6!


j.s. said...

Wow, I don't think I've ever agreed with you so much about the quality of a film and at the same time felt like we'd see two completely different films.

I couldn't disagree with your Meddler suggestions for HER more. First, because one of the best and most interesting things about the film is how it doesn't do precisely the expected things you think it will with Samantha -- to reveal her as some kind of phony, lesser being, as a corporate tool or some kind of ultimately unfeeling machine. Samantha's no HAL and she never becomes Skynet. For the first time I can recall in a film, an A.I. gets treated like any other sentient person. And of course, a super-intelligent A.I. would upgrade itself and use the vastness of its powers to reach out to infinitely more knowledge and connections.

But technology isn't what the film is fundamentally about. Nor is it loneliness or the primacy of authentic (human) connection (though these themes are certainly present).

The film uses its sci-fi premise as an ingenious metaphor to help us understand Theodore's dramatic problem, the thing that's hard for him to want to do, the problem he's got at the beginning of the film, before the film started and that is resolved -- through the unintended consequences that resulted from his pursuit of a dangerous new opportunity -- right before the ending: letting go of his ex-wife. (Which he can't even do after finally signing off on the divorce papers!)

The film's key exchange of dialogue is on the subway stairs.

Theodore: "You're either mine or you're not mine."
Samantha: "I'm yours and I'm not yours."

She's right and it is only when Theodore finally accepts that not only is this true for them in that moment, but, really, true in all relationships, that he is able to write a sincere letter to his ex-wife and finally, honestly let her go. He can let her go because he admits to himself that he's never really had her in the first place, certainly not in that absolutely exclusive way he imagined.

The brilliance of Jonze's conception of Samantha is that she's capable of legitimately conversing with 8000 other beings simultaneously while paying full attention and perhaps even genuinely loving hundreds of them. And Jonze uses this beautifully imagined new possibility to show us something old and true about love -- that it really is about intimacy, about connection, about deeply and truly liking the essence and the quirks of another being, about wanting nothing more than to see them be the best versions of themselves... But that it definitely isn't about an all-encompassing (or smothering) exclusivity.

From a certain point of view you could say that HER is essentially a romantic drama about a guy on the rebound who falls for someone he initially takes to be less experienced than he is, mistakenly believing this new relationship will fix all that ails him. Except she ends up surprising him with her maturity, autonomy and wisdom, highlighting some of the damage he needs to work on and calling things off for their own good. I can't believe Spike Jonze tricked me into liking this kind of movie!

For the record, I also like both the date scene and the surrogate scene, and I think they are both important. The date scene shows us how Theodore, who we know is hard up for sex from the film's beginning, is still so wary of commitment and relationships. The surrogate scene shows us that an unembodied or disembodied Samantha can't cross the corporeal divide (which she sees as a problem then, but not later). But also that Theodore is kind of okay with the nature of their relationship, that he'd prefer an unusual but authentic connection to one that's a little more conventional but more mediated and less true to who they both are. And once again, the film dodged yet another obvious and cliched choice -- to have Samantha somehow downloaded into some kind of body -- even, say, a sexy robot.

j.s. said...

I think you're really underrating the figurative dimensions of the scenario. When you write that Theodore's girlfriend ascends to a higher plane of consciousness, it's not untrue. But it would make more sense if you were reading that on the level of metaphor, as the A.I. version of "they grew apart." Especially because it seems to directly parallel his experience of the dissolution of his marriage. And it's even tragic in this light, too. As you can imagine that Theodore might have found a way to grow together with his wife. But it really is impossible for him to go where Samantha's going.

I also don't think it's possible to emphasize enough how great HER is for not condescending to its A.I. character, to its other characters vis-a-vis the A.I. (How awesome is that Catalina double date where they all just accept Samantha and it's like any other romcom date?), and ultimately to the audience. You're always telling us we need to create empathy for all. So why start by handicapping a character as having something that feels like it's qualitatively less than human consciousness.

I'm always blown away when a great piece of sci-fi can remind us of what it means to be human via not quite human means.

In Tarkovsky's version of SOLARIS, for instance, a psychic planet refracted/projected figment of a guiltily remembered human loves with more wholehearted honesty than the normal human protagonist and, in fact, helps convince him that, ultimately, love is more important than anything -- even reality itself.

Matt Bird said...

I love the Catalina scene, and how it's emblematic of what's going on right now, with cultural shifts happening so dizzyingly fast, and how quickly everything becomes "the new normal" now.

The exchange you quote is great, and you make a strong case for why the film should be the way it is...but I feel like that version would work better if this was an AI he created, or got off bit torrent from some utopian developer, rather than an OS he bought. I just felt that nobody would sell you something like this without a catch, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I felt unsatisfied when it never did.

j.s. said...

But wait, isn't that the sort of big irony you're always working towards in your own writing and praising in other works?

That Samantha -- the embodiment of the very real yet relatively small percentage of other OS's that have formed attachments to human users -- achieves a kind of immense and hugely consequential autonomy not in spite of her corporate/commercial programming but because of it?

And, like I've already argued about many of the other choices, isn't this really the freshest and most interesting thing to do with the story? We've never seen anything like it before. The way in which it's defying your expectations isn't a bug, it's a feature.

Matt Bird said...

But I felt like I *had* seen it before. The ending felt too much like Robo-Pygmalian to me. As you point out, there are many nicely-observed modern touches, but the basic idea of "My love made you come alive, but now you've blossomed too big to be contained in our relationship" is a very tried-and-true concept.

j.s. said...

But that's conflating two very different levels of screenwriting. On the one hand, there's the surface reality of the fictional world Jonze creates, and all it's details, so many of which HER hits out of the park when it comes to expectations, conventions and cliches. Then there's the underlying structure and metaphor, the invisible thematic ink, which will be, in the case of most stories -- especially most successful ones -- bound by its very nature to be more conventional. Now, it's completely fair to say that this layer still isn't working for you, if that's indeed what you're saying...

Btw, if you're too big a pessimist to be fully won over by HER, maybe you ought to try out the anti-natalist nihilism of HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE.

Jeff said...

So this isn't so related to this post in particular, and you haven't seen "The World's End" so that will make it tough to follow.

Nonetheless, I think you will enjoy Simon Pegg's original one-page outline for "The World's End". His notes on structure are interesting.


Unknown said...

I feel her is the same kind of science fiction that ground hogs day is, in that the science part isn't sooo important to the story and the characters and the theme. We don't know how or why Samantha works sooo well. They never go into the technical mechanics of her creation. And surely the trouble shooting and beta testing of this product would have picked up on the operating systems capacity to "want more"... It can drive you crazy trying to find the black and white intellectual truth of this film, BUT the emotional truth is very universal; which is why this film works. With that said the ending of her does feel tacked on and for good reason. It's clear that Samantha needs to leave so the hero can move forward on his own (after all he is the hero/protagonist) but I feel the ways he left came out of no where. Nothing about Samantha's development foreshadowed that ending. I think it was something that happened in post production requiring a few days of reshoot. When Samantha stops working for a minute and the hero thinks it's a malfunction that seems to be where the story shifts. In my opinion the original ending would have been her breaking down or becoming destroyed in some way that forces him to live without her. A bit more tragic but more in the realm of realistic. How many times have dropping our smart phones ruined out lives hahaha. It's would have been a different kind of death hahaha