Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Three Quick Movie Reviews

As part of vacationing recently, my wife and I watched three movies (great way to spend a flight): The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, and The Iceman.

Quick reviews/thoughts after the break for each movie, with possible spoilers so beware!

Her - I was most skeptical about this movie (my wife and I both thought it might be a little too awkward to try and sit through,) but it ended up being the one I liked the most out of the three.

It's a pretty simple love story that follows a familiar path: a couple that came together in their youth gets divorced after growing apart, and the man rediscovers himself through the eyes of a younger woman (and her fresh take on the world.) The new wrinkle in this telling is that the "younger woman" is a computer operating system with an artificial intelligence that ends up creating a personality that the main character falls in love with.

That seems like the set up for a pretty sad story - "man falls in love with computer program/Real Doll/etc" is a story I've seen a few times, and it's almost always used to paint the picture of a deeply damaged individual - and it would be if not for two factors:

1) The movie is set in a parallel world/near future where human-computer interaction is much more organic than it currently is. The main character (Theodore) is a professional letter writer that never uses a keyboard. All of his interaction with his computer is through voice commands, all his video gaming is done via gestures. It's the endpoint of where current devices are trying so hard to steer us (and unfortunately coming up short.)

With that framing, Theodore's relationship with his AI operating system (that takes the name Samantha) makes a lot more sense. In our reality, interaction with computer programs is clunky, artificial, difficult. No matter how well designed an AI might be nowadays, you're much less likely to feel a real connection with something you have to interact with via mouse and keyboard, or though gestures and voice commands that have a 60% success rate.

When the interaction becomes as easy as it would be with another person, and the computer is able to perfectly simulate a person you'd be interesting in spending time with, having a relationship with a computer program becomes more believable.

2) Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson sell the hell out of it. Both actors give very strong performances that allow you to believe the interactions are genuine, and I can't decide who had a harder time doing it: Joaquin Phoenix had to actually emote and act with someone that wasn't actually there (though I'm sure he had something to cue off of on set,) or Scarlett Johansson whose role is essentially all voice work (which years of video games have demonstrated is very easy to get wrong.)

Both actors do a fantastic job with the material, and against all odds you really do get a sense that they're connecting to one another as the movie goes on. Even when the movie dips into some absurd moments (that make sense in context, but are ridiculous in a vacuum,) the performances keep the movie on track; any mis-step during those moments would have highlighted just how silly/odd the situation was and killed what the movie was going for.

To put it another way: although the movie has other characters, Theodore and Samantha are the core of the movie. Their relationship is the driving force of the plot and their interactions form probably 80-90% of what happens in the movie. If at any point the chemistry flatlines, the movie goes with it. Phoenix and Johansson were apparently up to the task.

Overall, Her was a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit. The twist on a classic story archetype does a good job of spicing up something that I've seen before, the performances were absolutely top notch, and the cinematography was pretty excellent throughout as well. Definitely a movie I'd recommend anyone interested check out, doubly so if you're a fan of either of the principle actors. I'm interested in re-watching it at some point to see if I notice anything else a second time through, and if my impressions hold up.

The Wolf of Wall Street - I remember this movie making a splash when it came out, and I can understand why. It's basically Goodfellas on Wall Street, for all the good and ill that comes with that. Quick category points:

The awesome: Matthew McConaughey is in the movie for all of 15 minutes, and he still managed to make one helluva impact. I enjoyed his brief time on screen way more than I probably should have. Margot Robbie did a fantastic job of playing a strong opposing force to Leonardo DiCaprio's whirlwind of debauchery and excess. It would have been very easy for her character to be window-dressing or a shrew, but I identified a lot with her character by the end of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job portraying a man that lived the most absolutely insane life possible.

The good: The character interactions are fun and punchy. Without the weight of mob business the movie is relatively lighthearted, even openly comedic in a number of places. If you like naked ladies, you will get your fill in this movie, and some of them are very attractive. There are a lot of moments that are amusing with how absurd they are, and parts of the movie have almost a "tall tale" quality (I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, but it's definitely there.)

The not-great: The movie hits a lot of the same beats over and over. Approximately 95% of the movie is drug use, swearing, shady dealings, or banging hookers. One might even call that the narrative fabric of the movie. That would be less of an issue if the movie was shorter, but at nearly 3 hours long I was kind of exhausted/desensitized by the end of it. The preposterous amounts of drug use and debauchery were pretty remarkable at the start of the movie, but at a certain point it feels like the movie is trying to invent new ways to shock you with how over the top this guy's life was.

The ill: For all that happens in the movie, it feels kind of...pointless? It's fun to watch (at least for the first two hours or so,) and if even a third of that stuff actually happened in real life that's amazing, but when the end credits rolled I didn't really feel like the movie did much other than give me a window into an insane life story. The movie feels like it wants to have the same impact as Goodfellas and it traces a very similar arc, but without any of the impact or lasting meaning. As a result, it feels like a retelling of a story that was already told very well before, and in a way that can't help but make me remember the version I enjoyed more.

The Wolf of Wall Street was entertaining, and I enjoyed watching it, but I just can't shake the Goodfellas comparison. I feel like there's a really excellent movie in there (in what is already a pretty good movie,) but there's so much extra padding that the whole experience ends up dulled (ironic for a movie with so much cocaine use.) I'm interested in coming back to this movie as well, but more for the sense that I feel like I missed something my first time through, especially based on some of the critical reviews I've read after viewing it.

The Iceman - This was one of my picks. Years ago, when I used to watch HBO constantly, they ran a series of documentaries consisting of a psychologist interviewing one Richard Kuklinski (aka "The Iceman".) Kuklinski was a confessed contract killer who claimed to have killed over 100 people (some for pay, others for free.)

The documentaries were very interesting. It's hard to tell how much Kuklinski's claims are exaggerated but the core of his story - that he killed people, sometimes for money and sometimes at the behest of the mafia, and did so for many years while keeping his family totally in the dark about it - seems hard to refute and is the most remarkable thing about him.

So when I saw that there was a movie coming out telling Kuklinski's story I was interested. When I found out that Michael Shannon would be playing Kuklinski, I was extremely interested (I became a fan of him after watching his insane character arc on Boardwalk Empire.)

My final impression of the movie is...mixed.

On one hand, I think they did a pretty good job with what they had to work with. Kuklinski is a horrible protagonist for a story - he's an unrepentant killer prone to fits of rage/frustration that often end in violence. At best you have a Walter White way to humanize him; one of the few things "good" things Kuklinski had in his life was his family (more so his kids,) so by highlighting that you can give him at least one facet that's sympathetic.

On the other hand, there's really no way to humanize Kuklinski that doesn't feel wrong. He was a very violent, very unstable man that did terrible things to people for fun and profit, and that doubtless spilled over into every other aspect of this life (imagine a man with that capability as your husband, your father.) No sane person would want anything to do with him. The movie doesn't try to make him sympathetic (or rather, I don't think it was the goal,) but it does try to give his story an air of sadness or tragedy, and I think that undercuts the magnitude and horror of what he did. Yes, in the end he lost everything (once is family found out the truth about him they never spoke to him again,) but in this case that's exactly what should have happened.

I think that conflict - how to tell Kuklinski's story without trying to be sympathetic to him - was a big issue when it came time to figure out how to tell the story, and it feels like they didn't come up with a satisfactory answer. The movie kind of bounces between the two sides - "monster" and "deeply disturbed but still dedicated to his family" - and I can't tell if that's a result of script issues, production issues, bad direction, or all of the above.

As with all of the movies we watched, The Iceman had some excellent performances. Shannon does a fantastic job portraying Kuklinski - he does a spot on impersonation of him in the film's closing monologue from Kuklinski, I think taken from one of the documentary interviews. Kuklinski wasn't a particularly remarkable individual when you looked at him, or even when you first heard him. However, as you listen to him and watch him more, you start to get a sense of everything that is boiling under the surface. That capacity for violence (and the menace it exudes) is what defined Kuklinski. Shannon does a great job wearing that same mask of normalcy, of carrying himself with the same visible effort of restraining all the hate in his heart.

Chris Evans manages to sneak in and give a very entertaining performance, even if they did rework the person he was playing a fair bit (double props for being unrecognizable for most of the movie.) Winona Ryder does a solid job of playing Mrs. Kuklinski, though once again there's a name change from her real life counterpart (in this case it may have been more necessary than with Evans' character.) Ray Liotta plays....Ray Liotta. He's supposed to be playing another person in Kuklinski's story, but it seems like they got him because it's a movie with a mafia vibe, so why not get Ray Liotta to play a key character? Everyone remembers Goodfellas, right?

Overall, The Iceman wasn't that great. It suffers from tonal issues (either actual or perceived based on my prior knowledge of Kuklinski,) odd scene choices (I still don't know what the whole point of the car chase scene was other than to re-re-re-emphasize how "crazy angry" Kuklinski gets,) and it has a very difficult time building up any momentum in it's stunningly short length (this movie is half as long as The Wolf of Wall Street, despite having 20+ years of potential content to draw on.)

Anyone interested in hearing Richard Kuklinski's story would be better off tracking down the original HBO interviews (you can find both in one video here.) The Iceman is, at best, a really mediocre mafia movie with some talented actors in it.

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