Coming Attractions

Processing soon: 300: Rise of an Empire
For fun: Upcoming gear grinder on modern day music in period films and an opinion piece on
actors playing the same person.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Her

What makes a person? Is it their thoughts? Personality? Their presence? Or simply their impact on others? Spike Jonze's "Her" forces you, the viewer, to ask these very questions. For those of you familiar with Jonze's work, these types of questions really shouldn't surprise you: 1999's "Being John Malkovich"broached similar territory, albeit in a slightly more abstract fashion by focusing on individuality within amalgams of personality. Whatever your views on these types of movies, when it comes to thought experiments or abstract conundrums Mr. Jonze clearly knows what he's doing.

Taking place in a peaceful future setting (likely 30-50 years from now), Her shows a society and culture even further embedded with technology. Cell phones are a thing of the past, eschewed in favor of small earpieces (a la the alternate universe version of phones depicted in FOX's tv showFringe) that reads your emails, calls your contacts, and generally runs most of the "errands" of your life all with a simple voice command. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix playing the awkwardly named Theodore Twombly, a recently martially separated and rather lonely individual that dictates intimate and well written love letters for strangers. The catch being that he's paid by the "sender"to compose and write it himself, while the person receiving it is none the wiser. Spending his day quietly muttering into a computer microphone and then quietly muttering commands to his ear piece on the train ride home, Theodore's life seems to serve as a template of everyone around him.

The people of the world of Her all mutter quietly into their earpieces, in fact it's almost as if the director made it a point to rarely show two people interacting with one another directly. Theodore's loneliness isn't his own, everyone seems to be drowning in it. This rather noticeable quirk in the film strongly reminded me of the famous refrain from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink". Indeed, it appears the closest real interaction people seem to have comes from the earpieces, why meet with someone when they are just a voice command away? This leads up to a rather humorous scene involving the main character and a sex chatroom of sorts, featuring cameo voice work by both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. However, this isn't to say that interaction isn't common: through the use of numerous flashbacks, it's clear how close Theodore was to his soon to be ex-wife. Enter Samantha. The film eventually finds Theodore in an electronics store, and through a rather clever bit of exposition he listens to a targeted advertisement (similar the eye scanner technology used in Spielberg's Minority Report) tell him about a new computer Operating System featuring the first true Artificial Intelligence.

Perhaps the most entertaining scene occurs during the install process of the newly purchased OS. When asked about his relationship with his mother, Theodore goes into a long rambling and non-committal statement that the computer more or less cuts off with a curt "Thank you". After the setup is complete we are introduced to Samantha. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson (in what is arguably one of her best roles, despite never appearing on screen), Samantha exhibits all the traits and quirks of a person. Not only that, but she adapts and reacts to the electronic "world" around her: Which at this point in theorized time could more or less be equated to the real one given the amount of reliance humanity is depicted as having toward archived and readily available data. From here, the development of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha is handled both charmingly and realistically. After all, if Samantha truly IS a person, which the film very clearly shows- why wouldn't or couldn't a "normal" relationship develop and progress the same way as any other?

Of course, this doesn't get you past the limitation of Theodore actually having a physical body whereas Samantha is a disconnected and abstract voice. How and where the relationship ends up, is definitely worth the investment of your time and features a rather moving and heartfelt conclusion. The story itself is only strengthened by the talent shown with its cinematography. Often lingering on the display of Samantha's name on the future equivalent of an iPad during her and Theodore's long conversations, or languidly shifting through crowds of people serving as islands unto themselves, or then wildly swinging around a restaurant early in the movie with the main character on a rather disastrous first date after having a few too many drinks: this is a type of camera work connected with the emotion of the scene. This is something that can easily be blown out of proportion, think the fast cuts of the Bourne trilogy or the frenetic shots of Michael Bay's latest humdrum action film, but Her keeps it up with style and truly adds to the overall look and feel of the film in a very positive way.

The movie of course isn't without some weakness. Featuring a nearly pointless supporting role by Amy Adams, who is cast as the purposely quirky friend used the spout some pretty groan inducing lines (better seen in a dime a dozen rom-com or chick flick), we really didn't need her thoughts on the situation Theodore finds himself in (or that hair). Despite this lone blight, Her is a surprisingly engaging film that will find you truly invested in the relationship between a man and an artificial intelligence. With that I'll leave you to ponder: what makes you, you?

... spaces between the words are almost infinite...
  • A contemplative and beautifully shot film that resonates with strong emotions, Her not only captures the trials and tribulations of a relationship but appeals to our fascination with where our future may be headed. 
  • The film cleverly captures what loneliness can mean when you're surrounded by an ocean of people without being in your face about it. In this universe, being a person unto yourself is merely an accepted fact. 
  • The film isn't all drama and wisely mixes in some pretty entertaining and genuinely funny moments using not only the main character's awkwardness but the way society is depicted in general. 
  • Theodore and Samantha's relationship feels very real and nuanced and you easily find yourself invested in where these two will go. This of course is strengthened by the great writing and fantastic acting by both Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. 
It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity...
  • Amy Adams delivers a rather grating performance as a friend and neighbor of the main character that adds very little to the story.
  • Those who disliked Being John Malkovitch, or the even more "out there" Adaptation starring Nicholas Cage, may have some issues with the quirkiness that is inherent in films by Spike Jonze.
Verdict: Her is a thought provoking film hidden within the confines of a non-traditional romantic comedy. Vaguely reminiscent of a variety of films from Minority Report (as far as the setting is concerned) to last year's surprise hit Warm Bodies (sans zombies), this is a film that will have you invested in the lives of the main characters well after the credits roll. 

Check out this hilarious send up of the movie featuring Jonah Hill and a surprise "Cera-gate".



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Archer Vice: A Kiss While Dying (Season 5, Episode 2)

As I stated in the previous review, one of my main concerns over the first episode this season was the very forced ending preview of what was to come. In my opinion, the greatest strengths of previous seasons was in the surprise of new episodes- you never really knew what antics Archer and company would get into next (aside from clever mini-previews during the credits). Astute viewers of last week's ending would have been able to piece together a lot of the plot that occurs this season. Which coming into this episode really hurts it, at least at first.

This week we see that what's left of ISIS has been forced to move into, as Archer puts it, "Casa de Addams family" AKA the Tunt manor (secretary Cheryl's family home). I found myself really enjoying this bit, and it points out one of the show's greatest strengths in how its built up these characters over the years and always ends up utilizing even the most trivial of details as an eventual callback. After breezily getting us up to speed with their new digs (including some great Krieger and Woodhouse gags), we get down to the start of the cocaine business. Mallory has found a buyer and sends Lana, Archer, and Pam (after Krieger hilariously assumed Mallory was joking when she asked him to design a foolproof way to transport it) to Miami to complete the transaction.

From there, we slowly cut between the action in Miami and back at the Tunt manor in New York. Which brings me to the weakest section of the entire episode. Cuts between the field and office are usually some of the best scenes in the series however, this episode stutters a bit in this regard. Ray has decided to become Cheryl's "voice coach" to help her toward the goal of being, "THE country's best country singer and some of Canada". While Archer and company meet the intermediary Ramon, who is reprising his role from way back in season one's "Honeypot" episode, the show cuts at annoyingly quick intervals with egregious pacing. One cut in particular to the manor lasts less than 4 seconds and is way more distracting than funny. However, after this small misstep we get back to a more natural style longtime fans of the show are used to. After Ray gives up for the day as Cheryl's voice coach, the gang in Miami is brought to the buyers who are none other than the hired hit-men that happen to be gay (long story) from the same "Honeypot" episode, Charles and Rudy.

As is typical with shows of this age, bringing back old characters can either help or hinder a show just as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proven over on sister network FXX. Archer manages to do this just right: it has been long enough to warrant a revisit to these "Honeypot" characters, it doesn't feel forced, and they actually add something to the story (season nine of It's Always Sunny could have used a refresher of this). Lets just hope Archer manages to hold this balance, and not make it a gimmick.

Continuing the plot, after Charles and Rudy end up stealing the cocaine Archer and company regroup back at Ramon's taco stand. They decide to steal back the stolen goods and get the money that was promised, and Ramon leads them to where Charles and Rudy live. The ensuing standoff then hints at a season long "big-bad/protagonist" a la Barry from season four (here's hoping the triumphant return of Conway Stern! I'm sensing a pretty badass Crockett & Tubbs vibe if this ends up being the case), and then all three returning characters apparently die. The show concludes with a hilarious reveal that the money was in fact counterfeit and that Charles, Rudy, and Ramon duped them all. What I most enjoyed about this scene, is how it calls back to season two's "Jeu Monegasque" in that the plan used is revealed via voiceover and quick flashbacks. The final scene before the credits works rather well, with Charles chiding Ramon (and nodding at the audience) at how ridiculous it was for them to fake their deaths when they already had the counterfeit money and the cocaine.

I had my sincere doubts at how this episode would work since the recurring characters were already revealed last week and a lot of the plot could be surmised, however there were enough surprises and hidden laughs to make this a pretty strong second episode. Lets hope the season can keep the momentum going.

Potato, Po-treason...
  • Great re-use of the Tunt mansion as the now functional headquarters of the former ISIS employees, but where's Babou??
  • Really enjoyed how subtle the use of Krieger was this episode, he practically stole the show in office antics this week! My fears of him being overused seem to have been unfounded, which is a good thing.
  • Loved the way Pam quickly becomes addicted to cocaine, after she's strapped into a body-cast laced with the stuff. Her fast talking antics after Archer is injured were classic!
  • The reappearance of Ramon, Charles, and Rudy from season one was a welcome addition and they were used in a meaningful and truly hilarious way.
  • Great to see the re-worked Archer opening credits! Judging by wikipedia's listing of the show being temporarily named Archer Vice, it appears this may be only used for one season. Based on how well the Heart of Archness episodes and the back and forth on Ray's paralysis worked, I have great faith in the writers being able to pull it off.
  • Can I just repeat at how hilarious and brilliant the double-cross of Ramon, Charles, and Rudy was?!
It was still a stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid plan!
  • Some of the mid-episode cutting between Miami and the Tunt mansion was a little out of whack.
  • Ray was still a bit under-utilized this episode.

Verdict: This episode has a few minor hiccups in the middle, but managed to pull together to be a rather strong showcase for the remainder of the season. Featuring some old faces, a coke addicted Pam, and a hilarious double cross- things are looking good so far!

The re-worked Archer title presumably being used this season. It's so 80s! I get such an awesome Scarface, Miami Vice, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City vibe!

Note: Just wanted to add a quick little postscript everyone. I recently decided to start a new blog on a radically different topic: Alternate History. The blog is titled "A Branch Historic" and can be found here. Fear not film and television fans, this doesn't mean the reviews will end as I plan to continuously update both blogs. As always, thank you everyone for reading and have yourselves a great 2014!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Archer Season 5, Episode 1 "White Elephant"

Note: I've decided to try to cover my favorite tv shows this year, most will be written assuming you know the characters and have already watched said episode. So it goes without saying, that if you don't want to be spoiled on the latest episode you should probably stop reading this now. If you haven't given Archer a shot, I'd strongly suggest giving Netflix a visit where the first 3 seasons are streaming (hopefully the 4th will be added soon!). Enjoy the review!

Archer has grown through the years to become one of the most consistently funny animated shows on television. Airing on FX for its now 5th season, show creator Adam Reed has decided to ditch the core concept that centered on the spy agency ISIS and take it in another direction. So without further adieu here's the review for the first episode of what's sure to be a game changer of a season (or maybe the danger zone of one?).

"White Elephant" opens in an almost dreamlike sequence that manages to do what most season opener episodes do: re-introduce the main characters. Despite being remarkably similar to the first episodes of previous seasons, in that it features Archer walking through the office while the main characters say snarky things, it still manages to work. Archer giving out roses to various characters serves a dual purpose in giving some nods to previous plot lines (Lana being pregnant) and the gist of what each character does and who they are (secretary Cheryl/Carol giving coffee and Archer teasing accountant Cyril) to new viewers of the show. The cold open quickly moves from this overly ridiculous situation that Archer so deftly does into more serious territory: a gigantic explosion that rocks the top floors of the building where ISIS is located.

We are then treated to a full out assault on ISIS by masked and heavily armored assault team. It's always hilarious to see the running gag of endless gunfire that doesn't even touch any of the main cast, but this time we were treated to the end of the long running "Brett gets shot" storyline. Of course, we also get more of Archer being Archer with him trying to figure out the name of Beeker's boss on The Muppets (an answer he arrives at that pays in dividends by episode end). Eventually, turns out the assault team is the FBI because yeah... ISIS hasn't actually been doing things that were sanctioned per se or even legal. After Mallory asks no one to talk to the feds because she can get them all out of it, almost everyone talks. We then run through a hilarious scene intercutting between Cyril, Pam, Cheryl, and Ray telling the feds all the illegal things they've done over the years.

One of the things that's always been great for me about Archer is how internally consistent it is within its own universe. The things that happened in previous seasons are remembered despite how ridiculously hilarious they often get. The characters continue to grow and it feels like decisions and actions made in previous episodes have a real weight on what happens next. The only other animated show that I can think of that pulls off this level of continuity is the original run of Futurama (pre-Fox cancellation). Being reminded of all the totally insane things this group has gotten into the previous seasons was a great re-fresher and how everything was told in such a offhand and insignificant matter only added to the hilarity.

Eventually, we get to the only weak point of the entire episode. After Mallory is forced to shut ISIS down in exchange for everyone's immunity, the crew discovers they have a way to continue making money: by selling cocaine. Whereas most episodes would have probably ended at this point after someone makes a snarky comment, we are instead treated to a literal clip show of what appears to be a long preview from the rest of the season. I found myself being irritated by this, because while a lot of the things shown looked hilarious and awesome I really didn't want to be spoiled. I almost wonder if Reed was forced to include this by FX, since he's essentially ditching the main thing that's kept the show going since the pilot. It is an incredibly brave decision to essentially take the show off the rails to an unknown destination, but I would have thought at this point FX would have had a little more faith in the talents of Reed.

Unless of course, Archer's "flashforward" (ugh, that phrase alone just brings up bad memories of a certain terribly executed 2009 NBC show) was put there to intentionally throw us off. I would be very happy if it turns out most of the things that were previewed to us were purposely shown incorrectly so we can still be pleasantly surprised by what is sure to be another great season of Archer.

Tighly... by my childhood's throat...
  • Archer's back and is definitely ready to make some changes to the format! Even if it pulls another  hilarious "Ray's paralyzed" type plot by season end it looks to be glorious.
  • Great re-introduction scene of all the characters, somehow the show can still pull this off even though similar season openers have done almost the same thing.
  • The reveal of ISIS being assaulted by the FBI was done in a truly hilarious way. The fed in charge of the operation was used to great effect to serve as the stand in for the real life obnoxious nerd in your life (in this case me) that would pick the FBI reveal apart as needlessly dramatic.
  • Love the anti-clip show aesthetic used during the interrogation scenes of Pam, Cheryl, Cyril and Ray with them basically describing all the wacky situations they've gotten into previously as a matter of course and not in any way shocking.
  • Great to see that Krieger will be given a bigger role this season, since his voice actor is actually given a title credit this season! Lets hope it doesn't ruin the character by having him be more prominent and a little less mysterious, some of the best Krieger moments after all happen with him offscreen yelling at the rest of the gang.
It was figuratively killing me...
  • Wasn't really feeling the whole "preview" of the season to come, it felt lazy which is something Archer usually doesn't do. Let's hope the writers justify it by maybe purposely having mislead us into thinking we know where things are going. After all, Archer himself has never been a very reliable narrator...
  • More of a nitpick, but would have been nice to hear a little more from Ray this episode.
Verdict: Archer has always been a consistently funny and original show, by ditching the core concept that's held it together the last 4 seasons new life has been breathed into it. It's an incredibly brave and intriguing move, and I for one am extremely excited to see where it goes from here.

Get yourself a refresher on a collection of clips from season 4.