Archives for posts with tag: emotion

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I am sad to report that, despite major advances in artificial intelligence, the Future wears high-waisted trousers.

Spike Jonze has only directed four feature films, but the quality of those features has been outstanding (though I say this without having seen Where the Wild Things Are). He really has a knack for exploring loneliness within a generally comic atmosphere, and even though the worlds he creates are always one to two parts absurd, there’s always a very human heart beating in the center of them. In Her, the seeming gimmick is the idea of a world where the latest advance in artificial intelligence is giving everyone the gift of their own, super-evolved personal assistant. Of course this becomes a vehicle to questions about what it means to open yourself to change, to love and do so without grasping at the loved one in fear, and to move with grace into what comes next. There’s one of Jonze’s signatures: you’re laughing at the novelty bit, but then it leads you right into a fit of cathartic weeping! Damnit, Spike, you got me again.

The script deserved its Golden Globe. One thing that makes it so impressive is the incredibly diversity of voices it accommodates: epistolary voices that come in letter form, the host of characters, the ones among them that we could say inhabit a different mode of being than what we consider to be human being, and they are all distinct and memorable. On voice alone the script would be impressive, but then that’s just part of the narrative. And one thing I’ll say about the narrative is that it’s not exactly surprising, but that’s to its credit. It fits in the category of stories where we have a general feeling of where we are headed, and yet every moment still feels as fresh and worthwhile as if it had been a total revelation.

The acting is superb. I think I already knew it when seeing him in The Master (2012), but it was while watching Her that I thought to myself that Joaquin Phoenix is truly one of the great actors of our time. I know I’m not alone in thinking it, and I know there are people who think he is a buffoon. Whatever he may be in our world, on screen he is a marvel, and this film is just another bright example. Everyone else in the cast was also excellent, though I did at one point imagine someone else being cast in the role of Samantha rather than Scarlett Johansson. She made a good performance, though.

So this film isn’t without its flaws, it isn’t quite as good as Upstream Color and I could critique it if I wanted to. (C’mon Spike, how much simulated sex did we really need to get the point???) But overall, I was so very happy to have seen it. I recommend it without reservation.

But please stop with the high waisted trousers.

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flowers of shanghai

In the upscale brothels of 19th century Shanghai, much happens that is nothing happening at all, but in a haze of opium smoke!

Flowers of Shanghai tells the story of a handful of upper class “courtesans,” their wealthy clients, and the milieu that surounds them. In the ornate rooms of their enclaves, subtle intrigues are played out as the courtesans jockey for favor, manipulate each other and their clients when possible, and when real emotions filter through the web of relations. We learn how the girls are bought at a young age by a mistress, raised to become courtesans (if they have the ability), and work towards purchasing their freedom, or toward being married to one of their wealthy clients. Meanwhile the men do their best to navigate this world without ceding too much power, drinking much along the way.

This is a difficult movie to watch. Nearly every sequence is long and fades to black in a way that feels foreign. There is the near-constant hum of the same music throughout the 130 minute runtime. All but a few shots are taken at night, with only dim lamplight in the rooms, causing every scene to feel sombre and dark. The characters themselves are sombre. They vary between taciturn and chatty, with the latter position mostly taken up by servants and the wily, while the main characters tend to speak in fits and starts, always turning their phrases at oblique angles. And the sheer repetition of movements and activities starts to feel as oppressive as the darkness.

But this difficulty serves a purpose, I think. The effect is that you begin to really notice how tedious the lives of these characters comes to be. For someone idealizing the glorious past of Chinese culture, it might be easy to spend the first third of the film admiring the costumes, the decor, fetishizing the graceful movements of the courtesans as they smoke their pipes and drink tea. Even the most avid fan of the period, though, will start to notice that the characters are always doing something with their hands. They take the pipe, the pack the pipe, they light the taper, they blow on it, they light the pipe, they smoke it, they blow out the taper, they empty the pipe, they take a towel to wash their hands, they drink some tea, they eat something, then they take their pipe again and repeat. They are constantly fiddling with objects, almost as a means to pass the time. The cups are small, so the tea must be poured again and again. And again.

All of these tiny, banal activities crowd their lives, like the contracts that rule them too, and they take the place of real interaction in many cases. So much debate revolves around contracts, and earnings, and the jealousies that erupt over attention paid in the form of money. At the most moving moments, you realize that these are all substitutes, stand-ins for what they really feel–they’re the Chinese screens veiling more familiar fields of human experience: love, anger, lust, jealousy, fear, and loneliness.

I say see it. But early in the evening, while you’re still pretty alert. You’ll want to turn the lights on all the way, later. To counteract the opium haze of the Flower Houses.

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I’ve learned that in the future (and in space, for that matter), it’s very much like on the Titanic: even as the ship sinks, the band never stops playing.

No really, someone please tell J.J. Abrams to let the string section take a rest once in a while, and I don’t mean just when the brass is blasting. The Star Trek universe has never been so sonorous! Okay, okay, jokes aside: the soundtrack in this film is overbearing on the same level as in Inception, and if you know me, you know that’s a pretty harsh criticism. Please, anyone, send a note to filmmakers everywhere: silence is amazing too. And where would a bit of silence be more appropriate than in a SPACE movie? Honestly, I wish Abrams and his imitators would trust the audience to have spontaneous emotional reactions on their own, rather than soundtracking us into it. Even in blockbuster scifi reboots, we are capable of a little finesse on the level of pathos. Give us some credit as an audience, J.J., please?

Aside from sound, this film is just fun. I enjoyed the writers’ moves to really give every character in a conflict a position that was at least somewhat reasonable. The acting wasn’t worth sending my mother an email over, but it was on par for big budget blockbusting. The special effects were gloriously over the top. And the story was enjoyable, with or without the nods to the Star Trek films of yore. I even laughed a little.

I admit, I had hoped that, true to its title, this film would have taken the Enterprise into darker realms, similar to when Alfonso Cuarón helped steer the Harry Potter film series into more troubling waters with The Prisoner of Azkaban. Perhaps I can still hope for this in future Star Trek instalments.

Simon Pegg: corny Scottish accent, but I loved it. You’re still on my Christmas card list.