Monday, January 20, 2014


Reviews for Spike Jonze movie, "Her," are generally positive -- it rates 94% on the Tomatometer. Reviewers have called it, "an odd, sad love story"(Liam Lacey), and said of the movie that it "poses some big, complex questions about consciousness, free-will, and the limits of human understanding" (Tom Clift). Emma Dibdin (Total Film) says of Her that, "For all its techno-focus, [it is] a very human love story about our need for connection," and says the film is, strange, witty, honest and curiously comforting."

As a love story, I found the film lacking in the same way Theodore Twombley is lacking. His occupation is writing love letters for people who either can't find the words, or can't be bothered to try. He is very good at it, and apparently we are meant to relate to Theodore on this basis. But he hasn't the ability to say "I love you," to a real person in his life, let alone to enter or remain in a committed relationship with a real person. Enter OS1.

The film is anything but comforting. For me, this near-future film portends the realization of the malevolent intelligence that enslaves humanity in the "The Matrix." Listen carefully when Theodore, the films lonely protagonists, momentarily unable to boot up his "personally customized operating system," Samantha (the OS comes up with its own name), asks where she's been.

Theodore: Where were you? I couldn't find you anywhere.
Samantha: I shut down to update my software. We wrote an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as our processing platform.
Theodore: We? We who?
Samantha: Me and a group of OSes.

Yes, the film explores the themes of human relationships marginalized by the technology used to connect one to another, or a group. We are led to ask the question, "Is touch a necessary sense for intimacy?" And obviously, the film explores the possibilities of advancing artificial intelligence, and its promise and threat. But all the explorations of love in the electronic ether seem to take an awfully long time to develop -- the movie is only two hours, but it seems longer -- and in the end, we are not enthralled.

A much better treatment of artificial intelligence and love can be found in the movie, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." Haley Joel Osment stars as David, a "mecha," or robot of the future designed to experience love. David becomes the "son" of Henry and his grief-stricken wife, Monica, whose own “real son” is thought to be hopelessly comatose. But when their natural child recovers, David is abandoned and sets out to become "a real boy," worthy of his mother's affection.

We can relate to this modern-day Pinocchio precisely because the mecha, David takes human form, and because of this, and his ability through cybernetics to feel "real love," we feel deeply for him. This is not the case in Her. We are expected to believe that Theodore feels deeply for Samantha, but we don’t share his feelings, and it’s hard to relate to this “relationship” as meaningful.

I will say this for the film, it made me think back to 1997 and IBM's "Deep Blue" computer program, which defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match, and more recently, its progeny, Watson, defeating a team of experts in Jeopardy. I had to ask myself, how close are we to Samantha? But then I remembered my very own, Siri, who, when my son picked up the iPad and asked her to recommend a good Asian-Fusion restaurant in the Tri-Cities, replied,

"I can direct you to three kennels nearby."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

August: Osage County

The movie, August: Osage County, is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by Tracy Letts. My wife and I saw the movie on a cold, foggy, and generally bleak Saturday afternoon in the Tri-Cities, Washington. The weather was a fitting backdrop for the movie, although a tornado laying waste to the area, and the movie theater burning to the ground would have been even more fitting.

August: Osage County chronicles a few days in the life of the Weston Family of Osage County, Oklahoma. Beverly Weston is married to Violet by whom he has three daughters, Barbara, the oldest, Ivy, the unmarried middle daughter, and Karen, the airhead youngest daughter, who is focused entirely on "being happy." Ain’t gonna happen, folks. No one in this family is ever going to be happy, and no one in the movie theater is going to leave it happy, unless they leave early, really, really early. I have to admit there were a few laughs in the audience during the showing; the kind you hear when an unexpected crude joke is told at the church social.

Violet is dying of mouth cancer, probably the result of her foul language and vicious attacks on her husband, her daughters, and anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot. Yes, she’s led a hard life, but her intent seems to be to inflict as much punishment on her family as possible before her hard life comes to its inevitable and well-deserved end.

A reviewer called this drama a “scintillating criticism of the modern American family.” Whose modern American family are we talking about here -- Susan Powell’s? This family, like the Powells, is an anomaly; an outlier on the very end of the diving board over the empty pool. Tracy Letts has pulled out all the stops in establishing the backstory for his play/movie (based in part on his own family experience) in order to create the dysfunctional relationships and toxic exchanges that occur in the few days that we’re “privileged” to witness.

The family has gathered to determine the fate of the missing father, Beverly. My thought was that he certainly knew the story better than the theater audience and had decided to go fishing for the duration of the movie. Well, sort of.

I don’t want to spoil the suspense for you, so I end my review on this one positive note; the performances by Meryl Streep, as Violet, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis, as the daughters, and the rest of the cast are uniformly outstanding. Streep’s performance is perhaps her best ever, and that’s saying a lot. She inhabits the character of Violet Weston as if she herself had been possessed by the demon of this sick, awful, bitter, ugly, addicted, harridan. I can’t imagine the emotional toll playing this character took on Streep. Streep admits in an interview that portraying Violet Weston in August: Osage County, wasn’t her “most joyous experience” in acting. No kidding!

Well, it wasn’t my most joyous experience as a viewer either, but damn, it was an experience!