This is an interesting movie. It appears to be innovative, but its plot has been hashed out countless times. It is the indie version of a romantic comedy. That recipe is rarely a thought provoking one, but it is here. Maybe that comes from the subtle science fiction world that writer/director Spike Jonze creates in Her. Therein the performances are uniformly excellent, from Joaquin Phoenix’s mustachioed bachelor, to Amy Adams’ neighbor, to Chris Pratt’s secretary. The music was even good, which I did not expect from The Arcade Fire, whom I did not expect to know how to compose a score. But what I do not know and cannot figure out, is why Spike Jonze, who has only made three other movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) of which he only wrote Where the Wild Things Are, wrote this story and made it into a movie.

Joaquin Phoenix before he meets his new operating system, Samantha.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) before he meets his new operating system, Samantha.

Despite all those positives, there was some pretty awful dialogue that came out of nowhere. For example…while I cannot find the actual quote, Olivia Wilde says to Theodore, the jist of it is, You’re not like all those other guys who just fuck me and I never hear from them again, are you? At that point in their date, a first date, a blind date, things had gone well and they have been making out. And this was Olivia Wilde playing a Harvard educated, funny, version of Olivia Wilde. If anyone is doing the not-calling-back in her relationships it will be her. And this is a guy named Theodore with a pedophile mustache. This criticism shall be labeled “Blind Date,” since that is the actual name of Wilde’s character in this film. As a general rule, it is not a good sign for a character to not have a name. It usually reflects a lack of completion in the mind of the writer.

Blind Date (Olivia Wilde) enjoying some Asian fusion on her date with Theodore, © 2013 Annapurna.

Blind Date (Olivia Wilde) enjoying some Asian fusion on her date with Theodore, © 2013 Annapurna.

My second criticism is the “SexyKitten” phone sex scene. Kristen Wiig, mid phone coitus, tells Theodore, or “BigStud” or something, to choke her with the dead cat that is by the bed. We get to feel like we are in Theodore’s shoes, eww, gross, what a crazy lady! It is broad comedy and it did not particularly work. Later in the movie, there is the “sex” scene between Theodore and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The screen goes dark as we hear both of them. It is really interesting in that it helps the audience view them as equals. On the other hand, darkness makes for a non-moving going experience. Staring at a black screen is pointless. Even though it is pointless, it was different.

Things being thought provokingly different are nice. Throughout the movie the artsy shots reminded me of a Terrence Malick film. In some ways this is a better Tree of Life. Instead of looking backwards, this looks forward. Looking to a world where artificial intelligence becomes a reality, but before the dystopic outcome of The Matrix or the Terminator movies. It was certainly different to see a romantic comedy through this lens.



Life of Pi



Why are you scaring him? I lost my family! I lost everything! I surrender! What more do you want?

Young Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and "Richard Parker", © 2012 Fox 2000.

Young Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and “Richard Parker”, © 2012 Fox 2000.

Spoiler warnings are lame. Only some films can be spoiled, and this one is so good that I do not think that it can be.  Ang Lee’s movie tells the story of the survival of Pi Patel as told by Pi Patel, so if you did not know that young Pi lived to become adult Pi, then everything must be spoiled for you. More importantly, without reading this review, a potential viewer might never watch it. Better to learn one thing that gets you to watch it, than save the surprise forever.

Some people hate films that fail to explicitly lay out what happened. Films that lay out what could have happened and leave the choice up to the viewer. Films like The Usual SuspectsShaneBrazil, No Country For Old Men, Fight Club, Lolita, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Hero, and Rashomon make the viewer do more work by making him/her/it decide what it has seen and what it believes. Here are my takes, hopefully without revealing the surprises.

1. The Usual Suspects—presently, I believe that portions of the film are fabricated and that some of the names/faces may have been different. However, this interpretation has changed over my 13 or so viewings.

2. Shane—he lives.

3. Brazil—no idea, but I was so disappointed that Michael Palin was a bad guy. Right? He was actually a bad guy?

4. No Country For Old Men—he spares her.

5. Fight Club—that this movie was all style and its attempt at substance collapsed under its own gravity. Meaning, who cares?

6. Lolita—Lolita was not actually a cunning seductress. This is not a revelation of anything you see in the film, for the record.

7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—I believe the same about this as I do Shutter Island.

8. Hero and Rashomon—same for both, the last versions are the most true, but that none of the versions are bereft of truth.

The greatest strength of this film, beyond even its visual oceanic cornucopia, is also its most challenging aspect—not knowing what happened. What do you believe? What do you want to believe? Do you believe your eyes? Your heart? Your reason? And what if after all of that, you cannot decide. Pi lives. I believe that. But can he be trusted?

Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi Patel, © 2012 Ang Lee.

Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi Patel, © 2012 Ang Lee. I would listen to this man read a menu. Or a phone book. Kids, google “phone book” and you’ll see what that is/was.

Here are the relevant considerations, from Pi’s mouth. There was a boat. He had a family. Now he has children, named Richard and Parker. Pi survived and no-one else did. No-one else has seen the tiger. No-one else has seen the carnivorous island. The other version of his survival involves three people dying and Pi having killed one of them. That Pi is the tiger. That terrible version makes more sense, at first. He suffered in the sun for weeks before he got some shade, but if he were the tiger he would have had the shade from the start. Now, Pi tearfully says he regrets not saying goodbye to Richard Parker. Who regrets not saying goodbye to his own savagery? Who names his children after that survival instinct? Based on that, the animal version of the story must be true. I know that is not true, I know that fits into Pi’s point that people choose what they want to believe when it comes to his story. If the bone chilling four people on a boat version is true, and if Pi did regret not saying goodbye to his ferocity, his inhuman side, and then he named his children after that killer side, then what does that say about him? That he wants his children to survive regardless, since he survived in a way that no-one ever had before?

Joey Starlett (Brandon De Wilde) watching Shane (Alan Ladd) ride away. © 1953 Paramount Pics.

Joey Starlett (Brandon De Wilde) watching Shane (Alan Ladd) ride away. Shane © 1953 Paramount Pics.

With The Usual Suspects a second viewing creates a new impression, with details having greater meaning. The same is true for Fight Club. I suspect that it would be very true for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But not this film. This gorgeous film is basically Shane. Shane gets shot. Shane gets on a horse and leaves the annoying kid saying, “Shane! Come back Shane!” about ten times. Shane rides off, slumped on the horse. Is he dead? Is he resting? Here Pi is not dead. He is not resting, but in the end he provides no more information than a wide shot of a gut shot cowboy riding away for good.

* Bonus nerd comment: The tiger’s name is Richard Parker. Irrfhan Khan played Rajit Ratha in The Amazing Spider-man. Ratha works for Oscorp as someone who demands the research of two scientist’s Dr. Curt Connors and the late RICHARD PARKER! Ah ha! Now don’t you see what really happened? The tiger was really Spider-man’s dad. Pi is Spider-man!


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Winter’s a good time to sit close and cuddle
But put me in summer and I’ll be a… happy snowman!

Olaf frolicking in his imagined "summer", © Disney 2013.

Olaf frolicking in his imagined “summer”, © Disney 2013.

Josh Gad was so funny in this that I assumed that I would recognize him from his prior performances…but no, I only recognized him from the awful ads for the thankfully brief NBC comedy “1600 Penn.” Credit for his performance must be split between his voice acting, the amusing writing of Jennifer Lee, the directing choices of Ms. Lee and her co-director Chris Buck, and the phenomenal animators. According to Betsey Sharkey’s review of the film, Lee co-wrote Wreck-It Ralph and that she is the first woman to direct a Disney animated film. It stands to reason that a story that focuses on two princesses could benefit from having an actual woman write for them as well as take control of their actions. Chris Buck co-directed two prior Disney animated films, Tarzan and Surf’s Up. At least Tarzan made money.

The Duke talking with Princess Anna and Queen Elsa at the Coronation Ball, © Disney 2013.

The Duke talking with Princess Anna and Queen Elsa at the Coronation Ball, © Disney 2013.

The two stars, the princesses are Elsa and Anna. Idina Menzel–Rent–voices Elsa, the older sister with almost uncontrollable ice powers, and Kristen Bell—Sarah Marshall from Forgetting Sarah Marshall—voices Anna, the younger sister whose memory gets altered by rock trolls who heal her when Elsa accidentally shoots her in the head with her ice powers. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it not only works, it sets the scene for the level of disbelief and Disney-ness that this film needs to succeed. The best films take our preconceptions and use them to set up their audiences. This film fits into that rubric and manages to create a Disney movie that was not sexist, except when it came to their waists. Certainly Disney has tried before, but most of the time their female characters behave like superior men to show their equality, which is still sexism, just a more well-meaning, condescending form of it.

Speaking of behaving like men, the men are great in the movie too. Of the four main men two are famous (Alan Tudyk and Ciaran Hinds) and two not so famous (Jonathon Groff and Santino Fontana). While Tudyk was unrecognizable as the Duke, Ciaran Hinds was clearly recognizable as Grandpa Rock Troll. I love that sentence. And I loved this film.