Archives for posts with tag: love

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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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Before Alfonso Cuarón got all grave on us (tee hee), he was making romantic comedies and they were rather good!

Here, in his first feature film, we have the story of an unlikely lothario, Tomás Tomás, who is careless in his affairs to the point of disregarding his personal safety as well as that of the women he seduces. This leads him into a series of very difficult situations, and as his life gets more complicated, he begins to realize that his lifestyle doesn’t serve him once he falls in love with his beautiful neighbor, Clarissa. Add in a whole bunch of other stuff and you’ve got it!

I imagine this film being made by a French team and starring Romain Duris and not being quite as good. The zany 90s feel of it (I seem to be catching quite a few 90s flicks in the recent months) is fun, and there are so many fine touches, such as jokes repeating like leitmotifs, that it’s endearing even as it ends up slightly predictable. I am regret having just enough Spanish to know that significant wordplay is going on, but without understanding what it might be. Sólo Con Tu Pareja may have the second best dream sequence of all time, though, after Dumbo. Ah wait. That’s a drunk scene, not a dream sequence.

[Cue Inexplicable Mexican Wrestler]

Let’s get serious, though: Cuarón is amazing. Even as this film feels like juvenilia, it’s very good quality for a 90s romantic comedy. If it had been the first of his films that I’d seen, I probably never would have guessed that he’d go on to make Children of Men, for example, and Sólo Con Tu Pareja does not come close to his other work, but I’m still happy to have seen it. I haven’t even had a chance to see Gravity yet and I love this director like Tomás loves Clarisa. I really hope he has a long and fruitful career. (His non-directorial production credits are also awesome…)

I just quickly read A.O. Scott’s NYTimes review of the film and I think he largely agrees with me. Good job, Anthony! Which reminds me, this film features one of the five most tasteless jokes I’ve ever seen in a film. Intriguing? I guess you’ll have to watch it, then, because I’m not going to tell you what it is! (Tee hee!)

Now I need to learn some Spanish. I want to know the exact language when Tomás asks Clarisa, “You feel an abyss between us?” And she answers, “Yes. A very small one.”

Alright, I’m off to look up every Claudia Ramírez film ever made.

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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Terrence Malick proves it is possible to make a film beautiful enough to contain the beauty of Olga Kurylenko!

It was completely by accident that the last film I watched, Now You See Me, concluded in Paris and this one begins there. That commonality aside, I was happy to move from schlock to quality. À la merveille (the French title) resists being summarized; the happenings are minimal, and this alone sets it apart from plot-driven garbage. At the center of this film is a couple, an American man (Ben Affleck) and a French woman (Kurylenko), who try to keep the ecstatic flame of love burning despite multiple challenges of both practical and emotional varieties. Wait, Wikipedia says Kurylenko’s character is Ukrainian, something I’d guessed at but wasn’t sure; there might be some clear evidence I missed, but it doesn’t matter, since the film isn’t really about any of those details. This is about the ebbs and flows of passion.

Every last shot of this film is gorgeous, even those showing impoverished neighborhoods and wasted construction landscapes. The camera swoops in close to its subjects, drops down low to show the ground brush, sweeps up to capture the panorama. Often the shots drift past the characters to capture light on the horizon, or some other aesthetic feature of the environment. A few shots I’ll always remember: the tide coming in at Mont St. Michel, the placid gazes of a herd of bison, Kurylenko walking along the desolate sidewalk of strip mall America. And yet, as might already be clear, this film doesn’t deny the real from bursting up to interrupt ideal beauty. Poverty, ecological ruin, barrenness, estranged children, infidelity, crises of faith…these things arrive to break the spell of love. And yet, love remains, though changed.

There is very little dialogue, with almost the entire film being narrated by lyric monologues in the form of addresses. Each character says, “you…” and speaks to the beloved directly, as if in a letter. This works very well in the case of Javier Bardem’s character, a Catholic priest who suffers from doubt and addresses himself to God, seemingly absent. This also helps to limit the amount that Affleck speaks, which I think was a good choice. As a brooding, taciturn figure he can get by, but things might have faltered if they had tried to make him much more expressive. Rachel McAdams also performed better than I would say is her usual, particularly thinking back to her recent role in Brian De Palma’s (crappy) Passion. Kurylenko is the one to watch, and not just because she is so gorgeous. She is excellent in her show of playful abandon when love reaches its peak, likewise when the bottom falls out and her being becomes split between despair and intense affection. She really steals the show in every scene, even when she holds less of the camera’s focus. On a related note: I think Malick did an amazing job of showing how her playful, youthful behavior can shift from being perceived as delightful in the early stages of love to childish and irritating when love loses its sheen. She stays lovely, but we can start to see how one could fall in and out of love with her.

Over all: gorgeous, and yet with no easy resolutions. It reaffirmed my decision to live in Europe however. I need to stop watching films with Olga Kurylenko, though (but she speaks French and speaks it well!).

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