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.)

BLUEITWC_Poster_1080x1600There is a lot of noise surrounding this year’s Palme d’Or-crowned Blue is the Warmest Color. As it finally hits theaters in the U.S., it arrives on the heels of actress Léa Seydoux publicly feuding with director Abdellatif Kechiche. Seydoux has bemoaned the director’s treatment of her and lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos during the lengthy production of the film. In turn, Kechiche has become incredibly defensiveMaybe it has something to do with the Steven Spielberg-led jury— in a move away from protocol— deciding to bestow the Palme on not only the film but also on Seydoux and Exarchopoulos
None of that matters. Titled La vie d’Adèle, Chapitre 1 & 2 in French, the film follows a young girl’s bold exploration of love and stands on its own merits beyond politically correct awards and bitter behind-the-scenes clashes. Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is still in high school when she first lays eyes on Emma (Seydoux), who’s close to finishing her fine arts degree in college. Though involved in a sexual relationship with a boy from class, Adèle grows obsessed with the vision of Emma, who she had only glanced on the street, in passing. With her shock of haphazardly dyed blue hair and her arm around the shoulders of a girl, Adèle cannot seem to shake Emma from her head. One night, after another chance encounter, she follows Emma to a lesbian bar. Sitting alone at the bar, fending off advances from other women, Adèle locks eyes with Emma, and Emma wanders over. She warns Adèle about having entered the bar alone with a crooked, interested smile, as they brew up a casual but cute, getting-to-know-you dialogue. They have an intimate chemistry, and when a gang of Emma’s girlfriends interrupt to coax Emma to a club, it’s as if a protective bubble around them has burst. still2 What follows is not so much Adèle’s “sexual awakening” as it is her finding herself caught up in her own feelings for this fantastical pixie-like creature. The unfolding tragedy of this film is that Emma, who has a profound intellectual outlook as an artist, does not return the same level of love. The relationship feels doomed from the beginning, but the viewer will hardly notice, as the film so neatly packs you into the primal experience of Adèle. Before the behind-the-scenes quarrel stole the film’s thunder, a lot of the buzz that seemed to threaten to overshadow the cinematic drama of Blue is the Warmest Color focused on the lengthy, explicit sex scenes between the women. I once heard the film’s first sex scene was 15 minutes long, then it was 10, then eight, but it’s less. Kechiche, who worked with a total of five editors, knows how to hold a scene for maximum impact. It’s a three-hour film that seems to defy time by offering moments where time seems to hold still. He also cannot be accused of allowing scenes to move too slow. He understands the impact of patient, dramatic build-up. Some scenes are almost musical crescendos. They can be as tender as Adèle’s and Emma’s first conversation, and as rough as the argument that inevitably ends their relationship. Though the sex seems to get all the attention, what with the film’s NC-17 rating, Kechiche is only applying the same detailed, uncompromising attention he uses in every scene of the film. He lingers on silent glances loaded with revelation. To Kechiche, reaction shots seem to hold more depth than dialogue. There is a moment when the camera lingers on Adèle’s face, in the afterglow of her first sexual experience with Emma, where she does nothing but stare at Emma’s crotch, her face loaded with amusement and disbelief. Cinematographer Sofian El Fani knows how to focus on Exarchopoulos’ face throughout the film, and the actress rises to the task. Her lips in a perpetual open-mouthed pout, her doe-like eyes and her thick hair an amorphous, ever shifting puff makes Adèle look like a subject in an Egon Schiele painting. It’s no wonder Adèle becomes Emma’s muse. Still 3 As the film carries on, Adèle works to hide the relationship from suspicious, bullying classmates and her straight-laced family. Meanwhile, Emma and her bohemian friends keep it casual and open. Despite the seemingly progressive quality of the relationship in Emma’s world, it also hints at its triviality to the elder, more experienced half of the couple. After Adèle cooks dinner for Emma and her friends, Emma makes a speech, stating, “I’d especially like to thank my muse … who makes me happy today, Adèle.” The temporal quality of that statement is not lost on Adèle, and the first dagger subtly plunges into her heart. As the hip dinner guests wolf down the meal of spaghetti alla bolognese Adèle has cooked for the occasion, Emma brings up the question whether pleasure is a shared experience. Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who admits to his bisexuality, speaks of his limited masculine pleasure compared to what appears to him is the rather mystical experience of female orgasm. “We attain differing realities over and above orgasm,” he says. “Insofar as I’m a man, everything I’ve glimpsed is frustrated by the limits of male sexuality.” With this speech also arrives Kechiche’s redemption as a director accused of offering a queer film with a heterosexual, alleged pornographic, gaze. Still 5A lot gels together with this game-changing speech at the center of the film. This is more than a man allowing his camera to linger long on sex between two young women, edited to offer a variety of positions, some of which never appear in mainstream films. On a more contextual level to the central drama, Adèle overhears Joachim’s statements as another dinner guest, an actor named Samir (Salim Kechiouche), compliments her on her “yummy” pasta. As Joachim says he can never experience the ecstasy depicted in the woman’s gaze captured in Emma’s paintings, Samir prods Adèle about her relationship with Emma. “Is this the first time she’s been with a woman? Is it different? Does she want to have children?” It’s almost the base version of Joachim’s statements, and Adèle seems to brush it all off, though actually she takes it very much to heart. This scene and its layers of narrative, both external and internal, speaks to the complexity of Blue is the Warmest Color. The English title hints at this, by attributing warmth to a color commonly associated with coldness. It’s not about irony or contrast. It’s about loving someone so hard that it hurts. The French psychoanalyst turned theorist Jacques Lacan took Freud’s pleasure principle to another level when he employed the French version of orgasm, le jouissance, to describe taking something enjoyable, and using up all the pleasure to the point that it turns into pain. It’s a drive for pleasure that becomes pain, a mix of revelation and ecstasy. That’s the jouissance Adèle endures by overhearing the one conversation while partaking in another that asks her to consider children. It also takes care of the male gaze so often questioned when it comes to this brilliant movie. still1 In the documentary Zizek! noted Lacanian Slavoj Zizek shrugged off sex as mutual masturbation. It’s not incidental that Kechiche chose to illustrate his story of pained love with two women. During one sexual liaison, both thrust their crotches into one another in a moment of passion and ecstasy. Seeking more connection, they clasp hands. The notion cannot be more literal than this. To Zizek, sex is two people wrestling to achieve the most pleasure from the other. The romantic notion of shared pleasure is just that: a romantic notion. Beyond sex scenes as described above, Blue is the Warmest Color calls for a subtle awareness and a maturity in experience that merits the NC-17 rating. To some, the film will end on a rather abrupt note. But it actually marks another heartbreaking moment of jouissance where Adèle comes to realize love is never equal or shared at the same level. Still 4When Emma tells her, “I will have infinite tenderness for you” it’s different from what Adèle feels. This is not a film so much about gay love as it as about love in itself. Adèle is not sexually confused. She loves Emma in a manner that defies gender. That the actresses can convey this while under the meticulous direction of a man speaks to the power of Blue is the Warmest Color. The full-frontal nudity, the sex and the masturbation, juxtaposed with Adèle teaching pre-school children or her wolfing down dinner while talking with her mouth full with her father shows intimacy and life. This is far from some abstract art film. It conveys life much more honestly than many romantic films out of Hollywood, which only seem to instill some false sense of expectation. This is the real deal. Far deeper than girl-on-girl porn turned drama, Blue is the Warmest Color stands on its own merits as a progressive essay on the elusive sensation of love that defies the hetero-normative constructs of what a relationship is supposed to be.

Hans Morgenstern http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQGSlVJgGlI

Blue Is the Warmest Color is Rated NC-17 (you know the hype: the sex in this film is explicit. Regardless, its story has a subtlety that will only be picked up by the mature audience member), is in French with English Subtitles and runs 179 minutes. It is distributed by IFC Films who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It is now slowly seeping into theaters. It opened this past Friday, Nov. 8 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

South Beach 18 – Miami Beach Gateway 4 – Fort Lauderdale

On Nov. 15, it opens further north in:

Parisian 20 – West Palm Beach Pompano 18 – Pompano Shadowood – Boca Raton

Update: The Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables has added the film to its calendar beginning Thursday, Nov. 21. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 2: The Miami Beach Cinematheque has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 22. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 3: The Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 22. See the cinema’s calendar here. Update 4: O Cinema’s Wynwood location has added the film to its calendar beginning Friday, Nov. 29. See the cinema’s calendar here. It has already opened in some parts of the U.S., and it may already be playing at a theater near you or on its way there. Visit the film’s official website here and insert your zip code to find out.

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

At the Florida premiere screening of Monsieur Lazhar at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Canada-based director Philippe Falardeau made a rare appearance via Skype. During his introduction he waffled between a healthy, natural sense of humor and an insightful exploration of his film, typical of this stealthy, humanistic and whimsical little film. As the movie takes place in a Montreal middle school, he was asked about working with child actors. “There’s a saying in Hollywood,” he said, “‘One should never work with animals or children’ [W.C. Fields]. I think this is unfair to animals.” Of course he was joking, and the crowd roared with laughter. The director also laid out the film’s theme:  “It’s a film about meeting the Other…” The same extreme but causal tonal shift typifies the drama/humor of Monsieur Lazhar, a natural extension of the affable director.

The titular character is played with a soulful quietness by Algerian comedian Mohamed Fellag (don’t expect Roberto Benigni buffoonery). He appears at the school, out of the blue, offering his services to teach a class coping with the sudden death of its teacher, who happened to have hanged herself in the classroom. Just after recess, two of the children, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), discovered their beloved teacher’s corpse. From this morbid setup, Falardeau takes the viewer on a winding road of character dynamics with tight, powerful scenes that never dwell too long in preciousness to stagnate in melodrama. The ultimate and well-earned prize at the end of this quest for post-traumatic peace and acceptance is simple and never over-explained or sugar-coated with fanciful camera angles or sweeps and— God forbid— cloying music. This is a director with a healthy confidence in his ability to show a story through cinema.

Though it officially saw release in 2011, the film is finally making rounds in US theaters via indie/world film distributor Music Box Films. It arrives with lots of hype, as it was Canada’s entry in the foreign language film competition in the 2012 Oscar® race. Though it lost out to the more serious but amazing Iranian film A Separation, the following month it would clean up at the Genies, Canada’s version of the Academy Awards. It won best film, director, lead actor, supporting actress for Nélisse, adapted screenplay and editing.

It turns out that, indeed, the accolades bestowed on this film (and there were several others), are well-earned. One could argue Monsieur Lazhar has a tougher task than A Separation, as it totes along a sense of humor on its heavy ride to self-actualization. But the journey does not only involve the children. Lazhar brings his own baggage with him, and it is a doozy. As the Algerian immigrant finds himself dealing with the delicate emotions of pre-teens coping with a horrific death, he must deal with his own personal tragedy and a complicating secret.

Falardeau harnesses an efficient sense of story-telling with a great eye for juxtapositions. A frivolous playground scene that opens the film captures the innocence and contentedness of the children while also staying grounded in the banal. It offers a genius set-up to an encounter with the Lacanian shock of the real, setting up trauma the characters must come to terms with. Falardeau subtly pushes the chasm between the children and adults by harnessing the power of mise-en-scène. At the beginning, whenever children share the frame with adults, the adults are either shown from behind or from the shoulders down. When we see the children on their own, they are shot at their own eye-level. They are not condescended to, treated as cute props. These kids are not trivial moppet, comic relief. They are real people having to deal with some heavy stuff.

At the same time, Lazhar has his own issues to deal with. Whenever the film presents his out-of-school life, the film’s color palette becomes more muted, and not through filters or cinematographic gimmicks, but with simple, very conscious staging. The children’s world is brighter by comparison. When he wanders the school halls during the students’ group meeting with a therapist, Lazhar winds up with a paper cut-out of a fish stuck to his back. Though humorous, it also resonates with a poignancy. In his early days at the school, Lazhar pats a child on the head wandering through the hall and smacks one of his students in the back of the head when he lobs a wad of paper at a classmate. Lazhar is later told by the school’s principal that touching the children in any way is “against the law.” The camera does not zoom in or dwell on these moments, yet, at the film’s heart, it is all about this human connection and need for healing. A hug in a film never felt more powerful and well-earned.

Hans Morgenstern

Watch the trailer:

Monsieur Lazhar is rated PG-13, has a runtime of 94 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opened at the Coral Gables Art Cinema yesterday for its South Florida premiere run (I was invited to the event for the purposes of this review). They are screening it in 35mm and have it booked through April 19. It expands throughout Florida on April 20 at Living Room in Boca Raton, the Movies of Delray, the Movies of Lake Worth and on May 4 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Last week, Kino on Video announced the release of the Danish war documentary Armadillo (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon) in the US. I reviewed it during its theatrical run earlier this year:

‘Armadillo’ offers chilling document of the fog of war

With Armadillo, filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen dives deep into the personalities of a handful of Danish volunteer soldiers who are assigned to an outpost near a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. From a filmmaking standpoint, the tension is palpable and human throughout. As a lesson in today’s current events, it remains relevant, as the Western allies continue to maintain a presence after the take-down of Osama Bin Laden, back in early May.

Armadillo truly demonstrates— in a visceral, real way— the cultural difficulties of entering a country to help people that are often hard to distinguish from the enemy. It also does an amazing job at capturing the influence of war on young minds. It’s theme is probably demonstrated best with this image of a wounded, once gung-ho soldier, which was actually used for the cover of the overseas release:

Rarely can a fictional movie capture the shock of the “real,” in the Lacanian sense, with a picture alone. Aramdillo is more than a movie: it’s an experience.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)