Her

How many movies have given us artificial intelligence entities (computers, robots, machines) taking on human characteristics, including emotions? Way too many to mention.

Such a fantasy may have been fueled in the past couple of decades by voices that give GPS directions, function as Apple’s Siri and check us out at the grocer’s. (I prefer checking out in Spanish because el hombre sounds friendlier than the woman who guides us in English.)

In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze, most famous for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, takes the fantasy even further. Set in the near future, hopeless romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who is never seen in the movie). “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he says.

Phoenix shows his acting range by following up his powerfully crazed performance in The Master by playing this nerdy writer of love letters. That’s his job: low-tech work in a high-tech world—he writes letters for people who have outsourced this personal task. (By the way, the URL of his fictional company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, appears to be non-functional in our real world if you want to claim it.)

Theodore is heartbroken when he meets (or installs) Samantha because he is in the midst of a divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He has a platonic female friend Amy (Amy Adams, looking pale, wearing minimal makeup) with whom he shares some of his woes.

His relationship with Samantha goes through many of the stages and episodes that real life relationships have: sharing of personal details, sex (virtual), the honeymoon period, trips to the beach, double dates, jealousy and disappointment.

Because several scenes in the film consist of conversations between Theodore and Samantha, the film is often visually tedious. On the other hand, the vision of Los Angeles created by Jonze is amazing to see: clean and modern with shiny high rise buildings and a dazzling public rail system that takes Theodore everywhere, even to the beach. (Some exterior scenes were shot in Shanghai.) Also, for some reason, the film’s costume designer has put all the men in pants with no belts.

Her is not for everyone. Its weirdness, coupled with its slow pace, may turn some moviegoers off. But adventurous movie lovers should give it a shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worth seeing and Scarlet Johansson’s is worth hearing. You might like the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire.

Her is clever and creative and will receive more nominations and awards. It is certainly not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy/drama.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

The look, the sound, the mood, the time and the place of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints are classic. The cast is brilliant. The story, though somewhat predictable, has enough layers to keep moviegoers entranced from start to finish.

Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) are young lovers in a small Texas town. They steal. They are chased. In a shootout, Ruth shoots a deputy in the shoulder but Bob takes the fall and goes to jail. The scene where Ruth and Bob are being led away from the shootout is one of the year’s best as they hold hands, whisper to one another, then are pulled apart.

Four years later, after Ruth has given birth to their child, Bob escapes. Deputy Wheeler (Ben Foster) breaks the news to Ruth and we see that he has feelings for her. (The deputy does not know that Ruth was the shooter who took him down.) Foster embellishes his performance with a distinctive cop swagger.

Keith Carradine plays a local shopkeeper whose son was an accomplice to the robbery and was killed in the shootout. While he befriends Ruth, he maintains a grudge against Bob. Escapee Bob visits his store and he tells Bob to stay away from Ruth and the girl. Fat chance.

Nate Parker is a local bar owner who provides a place for his old friend Bob to crash while he is on the lam. When deputy Wheeler comes looking for Bob, Parker’s character diverts attention while Bob jumps out a window.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is set sometime in mid-twentieth century. The gas guzzler sheriff’s cars appear to be mid-60’s vintage. The film recalls the 1973 movie Badlands with a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as violent heartland killers. But Ruth and Bob are not so heartless.

Director David Lowery (who also wrote the script) has crafted a film with muted colors, frequent use of sepia tones and many almost monochromatic shots. The toned-down color, combined with some of the wardrobes, gives Ain’t Them Bodies Saints the feel of a Western movie in many of its scenes.

Though set in Texas (and filmed in Louisiana), ATBS looks like it could be anywhere in flyover country. Despite its chases and gunplay, much of the film has a relaxed pace. With its classic feel and strong acting performances, expect Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to show up on a few Top Ten lists at year’s end. Festival prizes already scored may be echoed in a few months by other awards groups.

Top cast members are Rooney Mara as the seemingly weak young woman who manages to gain strength and raise her daughter and Ben Porter as the deputy who finally gets the courage to express his feelings for Ruth. Casey Affleck’s mumbling may play against his chances for awards noms. Keith Carradine’s performance as a man with many motivations could also earn some awards love.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It has a good story told well and good characters acted well.

Side Effects

Looking for a great movie for grownups? Side Effects satisfies! It has a suspenseful story, well told, and compelling characters, well portrayed.

Rooney Mara is Emily Taylor, a twenty-something in NYC who meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) after she drives her car into a brick wall. He’s a shrink who begins treating her for depression. Channing Tatum plays her sympathetic husband who’s just been released from prison where he served time for insider trading.

One of the medications Dr. Banks prescribes for Emily appears to help but has a significant side effect: it causes sleepwalking. When Emily commits a crime, her meds and Dr. Banks are called into question. The situation is complicated by the fact that Dr. Banks is taking money from a drug company for consulting on medications.

Side Effects steps into many timely and topical areas, including mental illness and its treatments. Also within the film’s sights is the pharmaceutical industry, as well as doctors who are in cahoots with those companies. After Emily’s crime, the blame and the repercussions remain unresolved.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Dr. Victoria Siebert, a Connecticut psychologist who treated Emily for depression before Dr. Banks. As the story unfolds, her involvement with the drug companies becomes a key plot point.

While there is no doubt that psychotropic drugs have helped many people with mental illnesses function normally, we know that drug companies have marketed products with dangerous (sometimes lethal) side effects. It’s easy to throw stones at large organizations that have questionable practices, but not always so easy to determine which individuals should suffer the consequences.

That’s the case in Side Effects. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And who’s in that gray area in the middle? See the movie and find out.

Side Effects is directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose movies are always interesting, even when they’re not as good as Side Effects. And, as with all his movies, the soundtrack is excellent. Thomas Newman is the music composer.

For Jude Law, this is his best performance in years. His stubble, worn in many scenes, gives him a more mature look. Rooney Mara was excellent in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that was more of a caricature. In this role, she hits it out of the park as a real woman with real problems. Bravo!

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”—(A Piercing Performance)

It’s not necessary to have read the book to appreciate this movie and this compelling character, Lisbeth Salander.

The acting, the story and the story telling are good. But it is the title character that dominates this film. Her look, her attitude, her intelligence, her sexuality all combine to demand your attention when she is on screen. When she is not on screen, you wonder what her next scene will reveal.

Sure, most of the credit for the character goes to the novelist, but let’s stand up and applaud actress Rooney Mara for bringing life to Lisbeth. This character is a woman who has serious emotional baggage. She takes computer hacking to a new level. She has multiple piercings. She has a stoic, almost blank, disposition. She rides a fast motorcycle. She is a complex individual.

Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist in Sweden who is hired to solve a decades-old family mystery. Mikael himself has been the subject of a background check by Lisbeth. He is impressed that she knows “more about me than my best friends” and brings her aboard to help figure out what happened on that day in 1966 when 16-year-old Harriet vanished.

Christopher Plummer is the family patriarch who gives Mikael the job. Native Swede Stellan Skarsgard plays Harriet’s brother, a key figure in the story. As the pieces of the puzzle are put together, Mikael and Lisbeth learn about other family members and their sometimes peculiar back stories.

The movie has a grit and meanness that can be unnerving. Sex is one thing; violence is another. When the two are combined here, the brutality is disturbing. Be warned: a couple of the scenes are intense.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a trilogy. Thanks to director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian for not leaving a cliffhanger to set up the second film. It’s not necessary, because the character of Lisbeth and the incredible performance by Rooney Mara that will bring you (and me) back for more in 2013.

St. Louis Film Critics 2011 Award Winners

Here are the winners and runners-up of the 2011 St. Louis Film Critics’ Awards.

Best Film
The Artist
runner-up: The Descendants

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Best Actor
George Clooney (The Descendants)
runner-up: Ryan Gosling (Drive)

Best Actress
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
runners-up – tied: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Best Supporting Actor
Albert Brooks (Drive)
runner-up: Alan Rickman (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
runners-up – tied: Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Best Original Screenplay
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Will Reiser (50/50)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel) for The Descendants
runner-up: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin and Michael Lewis (book) for Moneyball

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree Of Life)
runners-up – tied: Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
and Janusz Kaminski (War Horse)

Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2
runner-up: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Best Music
The Artist
runner-up: Drive

Best Foreign-Language Film
13 Assassins (Japan)
runner-up: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)

Best Documentary
Being Elmo
runner-up: Tabloid

Best Comedy
Bridesmaids
runner-up: Midnight In Paris

Best Animated Film
The Adventures of Tintin
runner-up: Rango

Best Art-House or Festival Film
(for artistic excellence in quality art-house cinema, limited to films that played at film festivals or film series here or those that had a limited-release here, playing one or two cinemas.)
We Need To Talk About Kevin
runner-up: Win Win

Best Scene
(favorite movie scene or sequence)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: the opening titles sequence
runner-up: The Artist: the dance scene finale