820c19bcb286feee291bdcf31bce90d7For lovers of foreign art house film, the collaboration between Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann stands as one of the great cinematic relationships of the 1960s and ‘70s. One can argue how much of an influence their affair brought to their work, but a magic permeates the resulting films, which began with Persona (1966) and ended with Bergman’s last film before his death, Saraband (2003). Humanity and passion leaps off the screen in these films. Bergman’s understanding of the way two members of the opposite sex relate has hardly ever been equaled, and it came from somewhere very real.

In the documentary/memoir by neophyte filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, Liv & Ingmar, Ullmann reads short passages from her 1978 book Changing, answers Akolkar’s unheard questions and offers anecdotes that gradually culminate to reveal an undeniable source for Bergman’s penetrating films: a passionate love affair whose flame continued to burn even after their break-up, a long-enduring friendship and Bergman’s eventual death in 2007.

At first, the film feels a bit indulgent and heavy-handed, but it builds nicely to express something greater about the relationship, beyond the two human beings involved in it. As Ullmann reflects on her early life with Bergman, Akolkar layers on the images, scanning landscapes or empty interiors the couple once inhabited together. He likes superimpositions, augmenting them with delicate piano and string melodies by Stefan Nilsson. Akolkar tries to add Bergman’s voice via letters he wrote, which are read by actor Samuel Fröler. It can seem chintzy, but one has to forgive these ham-fisted efforts, as Liv & Ingmar actually becomes quite neatly focused.

Akolkar hardly takes tangents away from the relationship. In fact, some unfamiliar with the story of this creative couple might wonder what happened to the significant others Ullmann and Bergman were married to when their affair brewed up on the set of Persona (she was 25, he 46). Liv_and_Ingmar_1_0She simply says she left her husband for him, and we never hear what happened with his wife (he was then on his fourth of five marriages). Some may wonder what became of the daughter they had during this affair (she’s a successful author in Norway). But Akolkar remains smartly focused on the dramas of the relationship, juxtaposed with a smattering of key scenes from the films they made together, like Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and Shame (1968), that show Ullmann engaging with male characters clearly implied as surrogates of Bergman in the form of the director’s favorite actor, Max von Sydow.

Though the films of Bergman and Ullmann are presented in highlights that seem to connect observations from their personal lives to certain scenes in the films, Ullmann is presented as something much grander than an idealized muse. She was a channel to a force of energy that resides between all passionately connected couples. Bergman recognized her for what their experience together brought to Bergman’s work, famous for its awareness as a mirror to the audience. Bergman’s films were not autobiographical of their relationship. They presented a sort of truth rarely achieved in cinema: something honest to human emotions. She says, he once told her about her role in his movies:  “’It has to do with you, Liv, because you are my Stradivarius.’ And I think it was the best compliment I ever got.”

But it was a tumultuous relationship. Reflecting on her memories on the set of Persona, she says, “I would start to cry, I was so much in love.” Meanwhile, he wrote, “This is a little like Hell … almost romantic.” Liv-and-Ingmar_1They moved into a house he built on Faro Island, where they shot Persona. It soon became far from idyllic, as he built a taller wall around the property and began to control her comings and goings to only one day a week.

She ultimately became lonely in his company until their daughter was born. “My daughter and I would help us be real people,” she declared. However, she does not blame Bergman as an oppressor. “It was loneliness, but that loneliness belongs to me … because we all have that. It’s how we deal with it that makes a difference.” Ullmann does not romanticize this relationship, though she does cherish it. It had its flaws, but feeling any bitter resentment would mean she would have to hate herself as much as she sometimes hated Bergman. Instead, she understands she was growing up and changing. Reading from her book, she says, “When I cried, stormed against him, when he shut himself in his study, when he left me for a day, while it was all very painful, I knew that it did help me develop.”

They did eventually split, but she observes, it would ultimately make their relationship healthier, as their working relationship would continue though the love affair had ended. As noted already, they worked together up until his final film. After she left him and returned to Oslo, Norway, to act on stage, he still wrote her letters dwelling on his misery without her. She reflects on it, thinking of the separation as a grand action they had to undergo. “You let go,” she says. “It’s an important lesson in life.” The distance is a divide, but it’s also a link in their bond. She says the distance allowed her to “build a bridge,” and it was important.

In Liv & Ingmar, this intense relationship is offered as an object to be reflected in the art of their films, and she is grateful for the outlet. “I have a lot of anger in me,” she admits, “and I’m so lucky I have a profession where I can let it out.” LivIngmar2Ultimately, Ullmann achieved even greater fame in Hollywood, getting covers in “Time”and “Newsweek,” making an appearance on “the Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and earning an Oscar nomination for Emigrants (1971). “They thought I was the next Greta Garbo,” she says.

She says Bergman expressed only happiness for her success and a friendship blossomed. “We had been painfully connected but only when it was over had we become true friends,” she says, “and I was really over him.” Their collaboration began anew with Cries & Whispers (1972).

Their relationship was real in a sometimes ugly, cruel way, but it was also banal and infused with an honesty of love that comes with a perspective of hindsight. Liv & Ingmar turns out to be a beautiful, meditative film imbued with the nostalgia of reflection from a perspective that only the twilight years can provide. It’s a link Ullmann deeply explores and values for what it is, highs and lows intact. They were separate beings with a unique, irreplaceable bond that seems to define who they were and ever will be, beyond their own deaths. Both Ullmann and Akolkar seem keenly aware of this, ending the film on a sweet, spontaneous moment, which Akolkar had the good fortune to capture on camera that reveals how alive her love for Bergman remains beyond his passing. “We made each other alive,” Ullmann says. “It doesn’t matter if it hurts.”

Hans Morgenstern

Liv & Ingmar runs 83 minutes and is unrated (nothing to be offended by). It opened in the South Florida area at the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater over the weekend and continues through the week. Eventually, you’ll be able to see it as an extra when the Criterion Collection releases the first U.S. blu-ray of Persona (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Criterion provided a DVD screener of Liv & Ingmar for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

linconnu-du-lacStranger by the Lake, the first U.S.-distributed film by French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie stands out as a strikingly confident work. His little-known filmography dates back to 1990 and includes six other feature films, so he has had experience to build on. But watching his latest film with only knowledge of his surreal earlier work, which includes a world featuring unseen creatures called ounayes, it becomes easy to see why Stranger By the Lake stands out as his breakthrough movie.

Though grounded in a recognizable, real world, the specter of the unknowable still hangs heavy over the film’s action, which is shaped by primal sexual desire and a rather kinky flirtation with mystery. It focuses on a motley crew of gay men cruising for sex along the bank of a lake over the course of a few days during summer vacation in some part of France. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is new to the lake. He strikes up a conversational relationship with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a pudgy older man, who sits on the rocks with his arms crossed but never seems to partake in any of the sexual activity. Then there’s Michel (Christophe Paou), an athletic swimmer with a bushy Magnum P.I. mustache, who Franck passionately falls for.

Franck’s interest in Michel comes across in glances, and Michel’s lover does not like the look of it, so he presses Michel to leave for a romp in the nearby woods. Franck pairs off with another man in a Batman T-shirt. After Franck and “Batman” have their fling, which includes vivid ejaculation (ramming home a reference to le petit mort), lake_promo1Franck spies Michel drowning his clingy lover. Though Franck had told Henri he had not planned to visit the lake the following day, he shows up anyway. When Henri asks Franck what changed his mind, Franck eludes the question. However, the implication is clear:  His desire for Michel has only been enhanced.

The film features plenty of nudity and sex, including, as noted, stuff some might only see in hardcore pornography (body doubles are used for these scenes). The casual nakedness and dangerous love recalls the darkly comic 1971 Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, about a French settler who is practically adopted by a tribe of barely-clothed cannibals, given a wife, only to be eaten. The all-consuming and visceral desire of Franck for a man who he has spied drowning his lover gives Stranger By the Lake a similar ominous, primal vibe.

Sex for these men may be casual, but it is never without its complications. It serves a purpose in loading glances and adding a certain heft to the dialogue. linconnu_du_lac2Though these men seem to be able to talk intimately about sex, they exchange many questions never entirely answered. Conversations become taboo. When a masturbating voyeur stands near a naked Franck and Michel as they talk in the bushes, Michel tells him to go away. “Can’t you see we’re talking? Come back when we’re fucking.”

Stranger By the Lake is not about the plain-sighted but what lies beneath it. These men may seem to bare all (even Michel’s psychosis is put on plain display). However, there is always the unknown psychological that informs unspoken motivations: the unconscious. Guiraudie presents the fatal drowning and Michel rising from the lake afterward to put on his clothes and walk away in one long take, all from the perspective of the trees, where Franck has hidden. It’s a brilliant metaphor for that inert but essential place in the mind inexplicably linked to the death drive. It’s Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos, rising up from the pool of the unconscious incarnate.

The unknowable is further enhanced by witty dialogue that heightens the notion of a narrative based on questions. When Franck and Michel have their first sexual tryst, Michel asks Franck about his lover. Franck denies having one but then asks Michel, “And what did you do with yours?” The men exchange questions that remain unanswered as often as they reveal intimate thoughts of desire or self-worth, yet there is knowledge loaded in the questions that goes beyond dramatic irony and speaks to a dark, unmentionable drive below the surface. It’s perfectly represented in an earlier, casual chat between Franck and Henri when Henri warns Franck of the alleged presence of a 15-foot long silurus (or catfish) in the lake that is never seen in the movie.

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Guiraudie maintains his focus brilliantly by staying devoted to the setting. The film never moves to any other location beyond the lake, the woods and a make-shift parking lot by a dirt road. He uses little stylization. The pacing is well controlled, never fast enough to call attention to itself or languorous enough to bore. Though the film has no extra-diegetic score, one of the first standout cinematic characteristics of Stranger By the Lake is its sound. The rustle of leaves from a wind that sends tree branches waving, the lapping of the water on the shoreline, the sound of gravel crunching below the feet of the men: this is the film’s score. It’s natural, but also heightened in its central position without any distracting music. In its own bizarre way, it adds to the film’s sinister, surreal and psychological quality. The sound of the water during Franck’s first swim in the lake adds a heft to the quality of what will be the murder weapon.

Guiraudie harnesses the power of his minimalist style to produce quality cinema— if you are not distracted by explicit gay sex. His sensibility is typically French, a country that has produced some of the most efficiently focused films in the world. The film’s biggest strength against this neat backdrop is its tightly packed dialogue, which is at once revealing and full of mystery. It only gets better as the film moves on when a police inspector intrudes on the men with more questions and climax with a scene of perfect, intriguing mystery. Guiraudie, who won the directing Prize of Un Certain Regard at 2013′s Cannes Film Festival, will certainly become a filmmaker to watch.

Hans Morgenstern

Stranger By the Lake runs 97 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (it’s adult, psychologically and viscerally). It opens in South Florida area this Friday, Feb. 7, in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood and at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s Facebook page.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Gloria_1Black humor that is at once in touch with mortality, yet life-affirming is not an easy feat. In Gloria, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio achieves the fine art of tapping into dark comedy through ironic storytelling without falling into sentimentality. This film presents an honest look into the life of a woman in her “golden years.”

The plot sounds simple:  Gloria (an assured and brilliant Paulina García) may be aging but appears young in spirit as she seems on a quest, determined to find something other than loneliness. The divorcée and mother of two grownup children, who no longer need her, appears to be looking for her next role, as she frequents the nightlife scene for seniors in Santiago.

One night, she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a retired naval officer who quickly falls for her. As a man possibly implicated in Pinochet’s brutal reign, he’s also searching for a fulfilling second chance at life. Smitten by Gloria, he thinks he may have found a partner ready for an adventure. However, he soon reveals his short-comings, including a rather slavish devotion to his helpless ex-wife and two needy, grown-up daughters. Although the couple starts with bounds of good intentions, this is not a love story.

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Gloria is Leilo’s fourth feature film. His character development is subtle and careful. The inhabitants of this film feel well-rounded, and their choices are not in service to some convoluted plot. Rather, the film presents an intimate look at a woman’s life at an age where women are usually taken for granted or written off as irrelevant.

While Gloria is looking for her next chapter, she is unsure of what that might be. She tries a variety of interests, but the deep look at this baby boomer is also an exploration of traditional gender roles in changing times. Without a compass, Gloria finds that independence is not necessarily about fulfilling a role, a struggle that may leave many of the graying middle-class population around the world shell-shocked. It is perhaps this universal longing that has us rooting for Gloria and has made this film a success on the film festival circuit.

García, who appears in practically every frame of the film, won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival, last year. Her performance delights with a multifaceted exploration of the middle-aged female body, from sensual and confident to insecure and needy.

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The genius of this film is that it not only explores a woman renegotiating the terms under which she lives her own life. It echoes some of the changes Chile has recently undergone. The right to divorce was only legalized in 2004, with wide public support. Before that, divorce was not possible. Couples would simply separate, in the best case scenario.

For Gloria, separation— and possibly divorce— happened about 10 years ago, or so we learn during a rather tense family dinner. The experience of being a divorcée is a new one for Gloria and by extension, Chileans. The dinner scene to which Rodolfo is invited, and also includes Gloria’s ex, brilliantly captures the awkwardness of this complicated baggage. The close look into this woman’s life is a well-made narrative about navigating unchartered terrains, where having oneself in one’s corner is sometimes not only enough but the best place to be in.

The film explores issues of acceptance, independence and the joy for life, and it does so with a sense of humor. It’s such a joyful ride, and even though the film is explicitly about a woman, it’s not necessarily meant for female eyes only. If there was another film that reminded me of the stylistic choices in Gloria, it would have to be Blue is the Warmest Color (Film Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the pain of loving). Using a naturalistic style that emphasizes the solitude of the characters with a lingering camera and little stylization like contrived extra-diegetic music, both present intimate portrayals of women’s lives minus the stereotypical love-conquers-all narrative.

Ana Morgenstern

Gloria runs 110 minutes, is rated R (for a healthy helping of natural talk and nudity) and is in Spanish with English subtitles. It opened in South Florida this past Friday, Jan. 31 at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, it expands gradually northward in the following order:

Feb. 7 at AMC Aventura
Feb. 14 at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale
Feb. 21 at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton

Roadside Attractions sent a preview screener for the purpose of this review. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

lenny-cooke_poster-01In recent years, several sports documentary filmmakers have made some celebrated documentaries about winners. In 2008, you had two major ones: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, about a legendary tie football game in 1968. More Than a Game followed the high school basketball team that made LeBron James famous. Some subject matter sometimes went beyond winning on the field or court. Sports can change lives for the better, as the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated proved about inner city youths saved by a football coach.

But compelling sports stories don’t always have to be about the winners. With their new documentary Lenny Cooke, the fraternal team of Ben and Joshua Safdie present a promising high school basketball player who, back in 2001, was once ranked number one on a national level, when scouts were also looking at LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But, as no one knows Cooke’s name today, one can imagine where he ended up.

The brothers Safdie are not here to make a portrait of a loser, however. Cooke just happened to be one of the many mortals chewed up by the pressures of the NBA machine. Cooke was so prominent a player, ESPN cameras followed him around while he was still in high school.

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Early in the film, Cooke takes ESPN reporter Tom Farrey to a rundown section of Bushwick with an entourage of friends following. Cooke walks Farrey over to a two-story building and points to some boarded up windows where says he grew up. “It’s a four-family house, knowwhatimsayin?” He notes his family shared the home with “a couple of crackheads. We had the dirty Puerto Ricans” before “the rats took over.”

He also shares dreams of building a movie theater and a YMCA right nearby. But it’s an empty aspiration modeled after superstar player Magic Johnson. Farrey points to Cooke’s jacket emblazoned with almost two dozen NBA team logos. “Who do you want to play on that whole coat there?”

“I want to play for whoever gonna be a lottery pick.”

It’s that cavalier attitude that will ultimately sink this promising 6-foot-6-inch athlete. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts, not just from ESPN camera crews, but also his friends and family. Lenny_Cooke_still_in_Lenny_CookeEven an anonymous bag handler at a train station recognizes Cooke’s physique as the epitome of a born basketballer. “Get that money, baby!” he tells Cooke. “School is always gonna be there.” After the man walks away, Cooke turns away and says, “Shut yo ass up.”

The filmmakers use a vérité style capturing Cooke at such tell-tale, casual moments that reveal a doomed contradiction in a young man who may not be following a dream he has not entirely set his heart on. When he finally decides to make himself available to the NBA draft, after 18 months of not even playing basketball, he quietly weeps at a press conference during the announcement. He is never picked and ends up playing in minor leagues to ever-dwindling audiences.

The Safdie brothers follow Cooke from his high school heyday up until the present day. The chronological narrative serves to provide some subtle drama for those who do not follow basketball or know Cooke’s story. The filmmakers, who are embarking on their first documentary feature with this film (earlier works include the mumblecore films The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddylonglegs), prove they have a sensitive eye for revealing scenes. Who knows how many hours of footage they had of Cooke over the course of 13 years, but they know how to chop it down to create a dynamic, cohesive story and still make their subject endearing. They do not offer any voice-over narrative or ask any off-camera questions. They are there to mostly observe and document.

There is some manipulation in the choice of music, which first kicks off with “Shook Ones Part II” by Mobb Deep, but later turns into the hard bop and free jazz cacophony of Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Lenny_Cooke_presser_in_Lenny_CookeAlso, they sometimes allow the camera to linger a little too long during Cooke’s 30th birthday celebration, where he ends up singing and breaking down in tears as midnight arrives and most of his friends have all gone home. Then comes a jarringly surreal but superfluous encounter between the elder Cooke and his younger self that hammers its point harder than necessary.

For the most part, though, the Safdies remain reserved and nonjudgmental as they present a captivating testament to the cruel corporate culture of professional sports and one of its tragic casualties. Though it can feel exasperating at times, Lenny Cooke comes across as an important story, handled with enough distance that shows sensitivity to its subject while offering an objective critique of what broke him down.

Hans Morgenstern

Lenny Cooke runs 90 minutes and is unrated (expect some real language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Jan. 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Her_poster_artWith Her, director Spike Jonze offers one of the strongest and most prescient films of his career. Using a delicate sense of humor and compassion, his fourth feature film ingeniously explores emotional territories perverted by the filter of technology to get to rather melancholy but profound truth. The film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently separated man in a not too-distant but unspecified future who upgrades his operating system on his computer, which takes care of his calendar and runs his home by peeking into his emails and files on his hard drive or cloud. The OS happens to be gifted with the sound of a pleasant, smoky-voiced woman (Scarlett Johansson), who calls herself Samantha. As they get to know each other, the flesh and blood man and the disembodied voice grow closer. Could this intimacy really be love or some deranged level of madness symptomatic of humanity’s ever-growing reliance on computers?

It sounds eerie, but Jonze dives into the question with such a sensitive touch, the film never feels anything less than heartfelt. He never condescends to his characters— be they human or A.I.— or present them as anything less than beings yearning for a little intimate connection. Reminiscent to the delicate touch he used on his previous, criminally underrated, feature, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze takes you by the hand and asks you to come along on this cinematic journey with as much tender attention he pays to the magic between the film’s two main characters’ blossoming connection.

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The script by Jonze (a winner in last year’s Florida Film Critics Circle competition) offers loose-limbed, natural dialogue that focuses on feelings and affection instead of exposition. It doesn’t matter how far in the future the film takes place or how computing has evolved to this point. Jonze focuses on emotional connection, using the setting and circumstances to stay zeroed in on the transference between characters.

It helps that Jonze has some brilliant actors to work with. Phoenix elevates mild-mannered to elaborate heights of endearment. He never seems creepy or pathetic. You never pity him as he begins to fall for Samantha. She’s chipper and eager to please. Her choice of language is casual but warm in a sense that she cares about her tasks. His reactions to her statements are loaded with bemusement and surprise that double for both the blossoming odd relationship but also a curiosity about the mystery behind the silky voice whispering in his ear via a wireless earpiece.

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As the film carries on, there are misunderstandings and attempts at growing intimacy that reveals their relationship as something complex, with varied degrees of longing between both of them, as if they are locked on an emotional see-saw. Many movie directors have clumsily tripped over themselves to present idealized notions of regular people falling in love, and the product is usually superficial. However, Jonze explores so many of the subtle nuances of these little connections, often only using deceptively simple dialogue, he keeps Her from devolving into some gimmick. The director never allows this seeming contrivance to get in the way of his experiment, which is as much about examining the growing bond between two people who were once strangers as it is about some of the deepest connections that defy flesh and blood and come from within the individual.

The film unfolds sometime in an unspecified future. Theodore has a job at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com reciting letters for lovers, which are printed out in handwriting. This could be a funny joke if it did not feel so timely. It shows how disconnected humanity has become from its own experience of loving by presenting a world where love has been outsourced to a business. Human disconnectedness is everywhere in Her. In the background, most of the populace wander alone, looking out at the space before them with a distance in their eyes, seemingly talking to themselves, connected to another existence by a single, cordless earpiece. Though the film never specifies an era, it’s not far from what we are currently experiencing in public spaces with smart phones.

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Jonze considers it all. Why do people seem to settle on unflattering high-waisted pants? Women scarcely wear makeup and bed head seems to be the “in” hairstyle among both genders. Arcade Fire’s spare soundtrack even reflects this sense of lack. The music features sighing organs, building toward a climax that never seems to arrive.

On a superficial level, Jonze establishes a beautiful world that seems a mix between Ikea rooms and children’s indoor playgrounds. An elevator features the shifting pattern of tree branches projected on the walls, as it climbs upward. The cubicles in Theodore’s office feature translucent walls in primary colors. It’s a comment on a state of further arrested development adults seem to go through in this future, as escaping more complex and ever-mysterious human relations seems to have become easier for this state of humanity. Theodore half-jokingly confesses to his friends that his evening conundrum is choosing between Internet porn and video games.

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Of course these characters are aware of the special and difficult elements of falling in love, or at least the humans with “non-artificial intelligence,” as Samantha calls them, have such awareness. As Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) says, “Falling in love is like some socially acceptable form of insanity.” To Samantha, it’s a new experience, and she offers Theodore a playful, fresh innocence devoid of true consequences. Meanwhile, Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is especially disgusted when Theodore confesses he is “dating” his computer. “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” she tells him upon hearing this revelation. That she and Theodore have baggage may be a burden, but it’s a reality in a world looking for more and more ways to escape reality. However, his workmates do not seem too upset, as it seems this phenomena of having a relationship with an OS is not uncommon in this world, and they go out on double dates together, getting to know Samantha just like any new girl to their world of friendship.

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It’s a miracle that Jonze does not turn the movie into a freak show. Instead, he has brewed up a rather enthralling essay on loneliness and the role desire plays in the search for another being to fill that ever-present “empty” that informs desire. However, Jonze takes it to a higher level more akin to the notion of Lacan’s llamela, that, in simple terms, demonstrates how we all project ourselves in everything we desire, but those things or persons, ironically, can never truly complete us. It is especially associated with the libido and intimate relationships with others. It’s amazing how many examples of this appear in Her.

When Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman (Olivia Wilde), the two constantly seem to project on the other in a game of getting-to-know-you that reveals nothing about the other person (the credits fittingly name Wilde’s character as “blind date”). When they get buzzed on alcohol, she calls him a puppy dog and he calls her a tiger, but then he switches his animal to a dragon that could tear up a tiger… but won’t. It’s all rather clumsy and awkward, and when it comes to a decision to move somewhere beyond their self-involved banter, there’s little elsewhere for this man and woman to go— alone together.

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The disconnection is both a frightening symptom of the escapist possibilities around them and also something that speaks to a rather innate characteristic that is the flawed human being, something unattainable by the artificial intelligence of Samantha. As she works on intuition, she feeds off Theodore’s information, which sometimes includes lies he tells himself, but can also come from the tone of his voice. We don’t know, and it does not matter. In the end, there is no other. It’s just a disembodied sense of self. It’s all there in the poster, Theodore’s mustachioed face and the lowercase word “her” underneath it.

Hans Morgenstern

Her runs 126 minutes and is rated R (language and brief moments of nudity). It opens pretty much everywhere in the U.S. today, Jan. 10. Warner Bros. Pictures sent me an awards screener for consideration in this contest.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

August Osage CountyBlack Comedy is a difficult brand of humor to pull off. The line between what’s funny and sad or horrific becomes so slender many directors just fall off it. Director John Wells does not necessarily fail to channel the grim humor of August: Osage County, but the film’s occasional honest laughs just seem rather overwhelmed by the tragic relationship of the dysfunctional family at the center of the film, which sees wide release this Friday.

It’s not that this new-found tragic sensibility for Tracy Letts’ play, for which he also provided the film’s screenplay, is unfortunate. The film version winds up becoming a rather operatic journey of a family coming apart at the seams after its patriarch Bev (Sam Shepard) wanders off one day and commits suicide. He leaves behind his cantankerous wife Violet (Meryl Streep) whose bitterly left to face her own oblivion as she suffers from mouth cancer, and, boy, does she ever let loose on her three adult daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis who all hold their own against Streep).

Like any film based on a play, the best parts are the writing and acting. The entire cast seems inspired by this bleak work and all rise to the occasion. Highlights also include Margo Martindale as Violet’s not entirely innocent sister, Ewan McGregor as the over-permissive father to the daughter of Roberts’ character, Barb (Abigail Breslin).

When the film appeared in limited release, I wrote a review for Hollywood.com. Jump through the website’s logo for the full critique, which turned out being more positive than most reviews for this movie:

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Hans Morgenstern

Here’s the trailer:

It opens in the South Florida area this Friday, Jan. 10, at most multiplexes. My Hollywood.com review also appears on Movietickets.com, where those in other parts of the U.S. can enter their zip codes to find the closest theater hosting screenings.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903Despite his status as a big time Hollywood director, Martin Scorsese deserves consideration as an auteur who can still assert his independent ethos to produce work that does not neatly fall into the category of classical Hollywood cinema. Sadly, his latest work reveals what can go wrong when such a talent goes unchecked. There’s something rather soulless and harrowing about his latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street. It reveals the travesty of self-indulgence on many levels, and the ultimate victim is the viewer.

The news in advance of this film was it needed to be cut back from an original four-hour run-time. Recently Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, participated in an interview where she revealed Scorsese had considered releasing the Wolf in two parts (read the interview). One can only wonder how much easier to swallow the film might have been in two doses and whether there had been some subtlety lost in cutting out an hour’s worth of material for the endurance test that ultimately saw release. Might the repetitive Bacchanalia seemed less redundant? Could there have been some actual character development that allowed you to care for the asshole dweebs that constantly rampage across the screen?

The film follows the rise and fall of coke-snorting, lude-popping, prostitute-fucking, slick-talking king swindler Jordan Belfort (a kinetic, unrelenting Leonardo DiCaprio). His talents are revealed during orgies and phone conversations, not to mention several speeches to his crew. img8For three grueling hours, the Wolf of Wall Street agonizingly drones on toward an inevitable conclusion that just does not come soon enough. Why did this film have to carry on so long and feature so many monologues by such a despicable character? I just wanted to see this asshole jailed already. Instead of feeling moved by the slight crash down to earth for this character, by the end, all I felt was relief that this mean movie had ended.

The film is a satirical affair based on a real human being and his autobiography, also titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort was one of those late ‘80s masters of the universe who eschewed any sense of principle for maximum profit. “Was any of this legal?” he says. “Absolutely not.” He worked his way toward the big fish investors by offering penny stocks in unreal shiny packages of bullshit. The slimy con man reels them in using only words and enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter what junk he peddles, they buy it (Belfort has since moved on to become a motivational speaker). The investors invest in crap, and Belfort reaps the commission.

Soon, Jordan has created an industry using just a telemarketing script and a stable of petty drug dealers eager to learn the language that will sucker almost anyone to give up their money. Over the course of the film, we only watch Belfort grow richer. He upgrades his car, his house, his boat and even his wife. All the while, the film gives him nary a redeeming moment to even give one shit about him.

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The decadence of after-work parties that include orgies in the office as soon as trading stops are complexly choreographed affairs that will leave you reeling in disgust or delight as horror and humor collide with a reckless sense of tone. Cocaine and Quaaludes freely flow, as does degradation of humanity, particularly to women. Greed is the ultimate motivator for both the wolves and the prey. Early in the film, during one party at the office a woman takes center stage to have her long hair shaved off for $10,000, which she plans to spend on breast implants. It’s a moment of stark depravity that has a rather tragic resonance for any sense of pity for these characters.

For much of the film, you follow Jordan at the height of his most unsympathetic. One cannot even call this man a misanthrope. He’s just an asshole. There is never a moment where he struggles with his conscience. The film never seems to consider the victims. All we know of them are their muffled voices on the other side of a telephone lines. Jordan speaks to them of the riches they are bound to gain while giving the phone receiver a stiff quavering middle finger and silently mouthing the words “fuck you!” while his lackeys gather around and snicker. Jordan seems to hate his customers for their greed, despite how much of his own greed he is satisfying.

It’s a smart depiction, but after seven or eight similar examples featuring gimmicky, jokey scenes that includes cocaine snorted off ass cracks, Jordan’s right-hand Donnie (Jonah Hill) whipping out his dick in the middle of a party to beat off to Jordan’s future next wife img7(Margot Robbie) and Jordan experimenting with a dominatrix who sodomizes him with a candle, the point is made. It doesn’t matter whether you change the music, the setting or vary the speed of the film. There needs to be a sense of something beyond the greed preying on the greedy to merit this film’s languorous duration of indulgence, otherwise it all just feels voyeuristic, inane, cruel and pointless.

One of the film’s few interesting moments happens way too late to redeem this film. After OD-ing on Quaaludes at a country club, Jordan crashes so hard he calls it a “cerebral palsy high.” Just then, an emergency that could incriminate his racket arises, and he must drag himself to his Lamborghini during a moment of drawn-out slapstick. When he arrives at home, after crawling down the street, he feels some pride at having driven the car the one mile without even scratching it. The following morning, however, it’s another story.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

That duality of perspective is essential to contrast the often romantic presentation of the character’s slash and burn ride to his mountain of millions. It’s a shame Scorsese cannot present enough moments like this. When the final scene arrives, offering a hint of a more grounded world featuring more common men, it’s just too late. You have to wonder where these people were throughout the entirety of much of this high-pitched movie, which screeches along like some speed metal album without any dynamics.

There’s just hardly any sense of humanity in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film feels like watching voracious garbage disposers noisily grind up refuse. You’re just glad when the noise finally stops and all that trash has run its course. All you’re left with, in the end, however, is a greasy residue of emptiness. One should expect more from the director who gave us Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.

Hans Morgenstern

The Wolf of Wall Street runs 180 minutes and is rated R (beyond unchecked Scorsese, there’s lots more to be offended by). It opened pretty much everywhere in the U.S. yesterday, Dec. 25. Paramount Pictures hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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