Monday, March 31, 2014

Happy Belated Birthday, Blog!

I realized that as of March 17 of this year, this blog has remained insatiable (despite a few hiccups here and there) for the last four years! If you'd like to see how far we've come, read my VERY first review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland here.

Toby and I thank you for your continued readership and support, whether you've been reading for all four years or have just stopped in today. Four more years! :D

Toby and I, looking on towards the thrilling future of things to critique!

Current Reels: The A.I. relationships in Her show us what it means to be human

Better bonding through A.I. - Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix.

A friend and fan of my blog Will Siss, who runs his own successful blog at Beer Snob critiquing craft beer (and really, what goes together better than a good movie and some good brews) suggested that I do a comparison with Her and Lars and the Real Girl, which was my movie pick this past Valentine’s Day.

While they are very different films, the heart of both is how successful relationships, no matter how unconventional, help take us out of our solitude and make us evolve into better people. It also tears open the envelope that we tuck all of our secret attractions into – those hidden desires and wants that we can’t talk about in polite company, but are real and vital to us all the same. I firmly believe in the notion The Princess Bride taught me – we are as real as the feelings we feel. 

The film takes place in disturbingly not-too-distant future Los Angeles, centering on the quiet life of Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix dressed in his best hipster suits), a writer who composes "personal, handwritten" letters on his work computer for people that don’t have the time or the talent to do so. (Think Cyrano for the digital era.) Indeed, the writing makes Her tick, and why I am pleased it won the Oscar for best original screenplay. Director and writer Spike Jonze seems to have found a happy middle ground between his more pedestrian works such as Jackass and the ultra-meta muddle that was Where the Wild Things Are. For instance, there is a delightful trash-talking A.I. alien that Theodore encounters in a video game he's playing that grounds the film nicely with his pointed reality checks.

A man, the sea, & the love of his life. Photos courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.
There's a lot that Lars and Theodore have in common - Lars is painfully shy and can’t get a girlfriend, so he buys a doll off the Internet. Theodore can’t admit that his marriage has collapsed and refuses to sign the divorce papers, so he develops a romantic relationship with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who continues to be sexy even in voice only.) They take something nonthreatening, something outside themselves, and use it as a security blanket, but in both instances, that step inevitably leads them to rolling out of their comfort zone and facing the hard truth that while romantic relationships are wonderful, they are also a lot of hard work. Amy Adams does backup in a small but important role as Amy, Theodore's human friend who has formed a less intense but still valuable relationship with her OS as well. 

Her demands patience; the story's spool unwinds with slow deliberation that made me realize how fast-paced and action-packed most films nowadays are. It is a slow walk through the park of someone's private life - surprisingly sensual, unexpectedly complex, incredibly deep. I found myself at one point going a bit pink in the dark theatre during a particularly impassioned sequence, even when there was absolutely nothing explicit being shown on the screen. The futuristic atmosphere is enhanced by part of Her being filmed in Shanghai, a great center of otherworldliness. I can recall a very specific evening in that city in 2011, wandering around the half-deconstructed behemoths from the 2010 World Expo underneath arches of fluorescent light, near a sculpture of giant stainless steel dancing bears. Doesn’t get more surreal than that.

The result of Her is a truly unconventional love story that addresses our innate problem with change, and it is a problem because EVERYTHING changes - even operating systems. Technology evolves, people evolve, and life takes couples down different roads and isn’t always kind in making those roads converge in convenient ways. "The past is just a story we tell ourselves," says Samantha at one point. It is appropriate the line is hers, because as an OS, that statement is literally true. But it is true for us as well. Lars and Theodore show us the only "real" we have is what is happening right now, and we need to appreciate each moment that comes to us, and be open to the possibilities ahead.

Toby sez: Sexy, sweet, and thought-provoking. Tried my patience at times, but the good writing and ultimate message won me over. But did anyone think to get lonely Theodore a cat? 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Audiobook Spotlight: Born Standing Up makes listeners sit down and think

One Wild and Crazy Guy: Image courtesy of Audible, Inc.
Here's the honest truth - I never really thought much of Steve Martin until about five years ago when I picked up his novel, Shopgirl. To me, he was just the goofball in feel-good comedies like Father of the Bride and that "wild and crazy guy" hanging out with Dan Aykroyd in the beloved bygone golden years of Saturday Night Live.

I was so floored by the delicate beauty that is present within the writing, effectively cloaking the core strength of the main character, Mirabelle, until the time is right. It shows the kind of despairing beauty that is Los Angeles, and the oft-seen but seldom discussed phenomenon of the significantly older man/younger woman relationship that blooms in the desert of loneliness and is so often doomed to fail by the harsh rays of reality.

 I kept flipping back to the cover and thinking, wow, STEVE MARTIN wrote this? And that was when I began to see Martin, whose humor as a child/teen I never quite got, as someone very different than the image I had formed in my head of the prematurely white-haired buffoon. 

In Born Standing Up, Martin takes his wry humor and turns it in on himself without being self-indulgent. Listening to the author relate his own words, cracking his own jokes, creates the sense that the story is being told just for you. Punctuated by banjo solos composed by Martin himself, the story of his evolution into the actor/musician he is today is a strange brew of concise and expansive, honest and circumspect. This is no "Steve Martin unplugged", no tearful confessions, no rants of the pressures of being a star. Indeed, at just a touch over four hours, it is a quick read/listen, and yet no less satisfying for the journey it takes you on.

There's a part of the book where Martin confesses that he's never been very good at acknowledging his fame with others; people expect him to be the off-beat, wacky guy that they see when he's off the stage or screen, when in reality, he is rather reserved. This made me recall a great story Rich, my dear friend from college, told me about spotting Martin in a quiet wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City a few years ago. He was wearing a black ball cap low over his face. Rich politely approached him, and said, "Excuse me. Are you Steve Martin?" Whereupon with a certain amount of dread, Martin turned his eyes to him and said warily, "Yeeesss..." To which Rich said, with the kind of affable charm that I can so easily envision thanks to our 10+ years of friendship, "Okay, cool. Have a great day!" and left him alone.

While I doubt that I will ever have an opportunity to meet Martin, or that he would even be pleased to make my acquaintance, I cannot help but admire the astonishingly wonderful writing that comes out of this contemplative, banjo-strumming fellow - the man he is when he puts "The Jerk" and "The Wild and Crazy Guy" on the shelf.

Thanks Steve, for finding a way to show us the thoughtful guy behind the funny face.

Listen to an audio sample here. 

Toby Sez: Author's voice and banjo riffs add depth and charm to this concise and honest tale of one man's road towards comedic success.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

First impressions of Her; Critic comments on the Oscars via Twitter tonight!

Ellen lookin' sharp and rockin' the iconic gold little guy
 Hey guys! If you don't already follow me via Twitter, go click on that handy little Follow button below. I'll be Tweeting my impressions of the Oscars tonight.

Also, my brief synopsis/impression of the movie Her was favorited by the movie's official Twitter page! That kind of thing never gets old. Keep an eye out for the forthcoming full review treatment.