Irrational Man

Irrational ManDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey

Well the word on the street about Irrational Man had me worried that I would have to write my first unfavorable review for a Woody Allen film. Well, fear not! Irrational Man is a moody, dark, twisted little film that proves engaging to even the most discerning Woody Allen-hater, and I can say this because I brought one to the theater with me!

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who has lost his passion for life. Not in the pondering death and its inevitableness kind of way, but in the hey, it’s a college party, I’ll try a little one-man Russian roulette, kind of way. Abe’s past reputation as a great mind in his field quickly captures the attention of one of his young students, Jill, played by Emma Stone. Their relationship “walks the line” of acceptability between teacher and student as Jill becomes more and more infatuated with the brooding Abe. During one of their supposedly innocuous dates, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation from a woman at a nearby table that sends the film spinning in a very different direction leading Abe to ponder taking an action that just may rekindle his spirit and reinvigorate his purpose in life. While I will not reveal exactly what that “action” is, I will say that it is involved in what could be considered a plot twist, something rarely found in a Woody Allen film.

Irrational Man is Allen’s darkest film since the sensational Match Point in 2005, and while it’s not quite at the caliber of that film, Irrational Man does borrow an idea or two from it. In fact, Irrational Man could be considered the fourth volume of an informal morality tetralogy after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. Allen has explored morality as a function of many of his films, but these four further his discussion beyond a humble motif. For this film Allen paints Abe as an existential philosopher who spouts Kierkegaard, Kant, and of course Dostoevsky, but seems virtually void of any desire to utilize free will in the search for meaning. It is not until Abe meets Jill that he suffers a truly Kierkegaardian experience forcing him to realize his anxiety truly is the dizziness of freedom. The dynamic between Abe and Jill is highly responsible for the film’s success. Phoenix’s grumpy genius is a perfect foil to Stone’s bubbly inquisitiveness. These two actors share a brilliant and intense scene late in the film that is as powerful a scene between two characters as any Allen has ever written.

Contrary to the way this film is portrayed in the trailer, Irrational Man is not a romantic romp. I’d liken the tone to something the Coen brothers might dream up; somewhere between Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a recent NPR interview, Allen was asked, “What’s your problem with people?” Allen answered, “I think some of them are wonderful, but [there] are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.” You may say that these are the words of an irrational man, but if you’re willing to concede that he may have a point, go see Irrational Man. B+

Irrational Man is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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Her

ImageIf I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that every time Spike Jonze releases a movie, he’s targeting me as his core audience type.  When Being John Malkovich came out, I was studying film at the University of Michigan and attended a free campus screening of the film; Ann Arbor film majors ate that film up!  When Adaptation came out, I had just begun struggling to write my first and still as of yet unfinished novel.  Where the Wild Things Are was one of my favorite children’s books growing up.  Now with Her, he takes aim at my self-proclaimed geekdom with a film about a man who literally falls in love with his technology.  The only problem is that while it seems like every one of those films should have been suited just for me, for one reason or another, I only really liked Adaptation.  Fortunately, it seems like Jonze and I are back in alignment as Her is one of the most imaginative love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as the odd and appropriately named Theodore Twombly, a name that practically invokes the characters of Dr. Seuss.  This very well could be Jonze’s intention, as Her succeeds more as a fantasy children’s tale for adults than Where the Wild Things Are ever did.  Set in the very near future, Twombly works for the web company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com where he is paid to weave the events of real couples’ lives into artistically poetic love letters that are then sent unbeknownst to their recipients.

The irony is palpable as Twombly’s personal life is still reeling from his recent divorce, even to the point of sabotaging a sure thing with a prospective lover, played by Olivia Wilde.  Instead, Twombly spends his evenings playing holographic video games and remembering what his life was like when he was happily married.  Enter Samantha ( voiced by Scarlet Johansson), the whimsically playful voice of his new computer operating system, designed to exist as a consciousness that is so intuitive that it understands and knows you on a virtually human level.  It is with Samantha that Twombly is able to open up and real feelings of passion, love, and connection soon follow.

Jonze has written and directed a fine hypothetical commentary on love in a modern world.  Never has the question, “Can romantic love exist in a vacuum?” been so cinematically explored.  What should feel absurd and ridiculous is made to feel thoughtful and reluctantly authentic thanks to pitch perfect performances from Phoenix and Johansson.  In one scene where Samantha attempts to physicalize their relationship in a very creative but creepy way, the film achieves true greatness in the style of warped kind of Frankenstein story

Jonze truly has created a monster here, and it is one that is surprisingly refreshing, creative, and tonally apprehensive.  There is no doubt that if Apple announced tomorrow that it is releasing the OS1, thousands of people would be blindly grinning through the streets as they share their deepest thoughts and secrets with their virtual lovers.  Stories already exist of people who abandon their lives to live fake lives in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life.  Jonze puts a magnifying glass on this idea and shows us how close we are to shutting ourselves into this type of cocoon-like existence.

Keeping this film from completely falling down the rabbit hole is Amy Adams as Twombly’s friend and neighbor, Amy, another symbolic name – because it’s REAL!  Adams continues her quest to be the female Kevin Bacon (more on that in my American Hustle review), but she also grounds this film and prevents it from getting too far in the disbelief column.    Her is a cautionary fairy tale that is effortlessly engaging and easily Jonze’s best film yet.  A-

Her is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours.  Her was recently nominated for three Oscars including best picture. 

Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

The Master

ImageTwo things can be said with certainty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master. First, Anderson definitely knows his way around a camera; second, Joaquin Phoenix emphatically knows his way around appearing ‘disturbed.’ Both of these elements are used to their absolute potential in order to challenge and entice the audience to look a little closer at this film than, perhaps, Anderson has asked in the past.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth stop on his cinematic journey through American culture and it may be his most polarizing one to date. Director, Anderson has mesmerized audiences with triumphantly engaging dissections of American culture in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and of course 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The Master returns Anderson to his role as writer along with being director after his singular exception, adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood. This time Anderson takes an isolated and cold look at specific segment of post-World War II 1950s America. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, and repressed memories of a troubled upbringing which partially manifest in unhealthy sexual obsessions. After the war, Quell finds himself in a series of odd-jobs that he is in no way suited for, including one that results in his being chased off after one of his “home-made” alcoholic concoctions seemingly brings about the death, or near death, of one of his co-workers. It is here that Quell finds himself a stow-away on a yacht commanded by a charming, yet nefarious character by the name of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who stars in four of Anderson’s six films). Dodd is at sea to officiate and celebrate the wedding of his daughter, but upon the discovery of Quell his interests turn to him and his story. Dodd’s compassion for Quell unveils to reveal his role as leader of a cultest group known as The Cause. Dodd uses his wit, intellect, and charm to pray on the affluent, which in turn results in additional wealth, appreciation, and power for him and his group. He is quick to accept compliments, but resorts to shouting down and conceivably condoning violence against his critics. Quell, who has been wrestling with his uncertain future, is easily drawn in by their hypnotizing appeal.

What follows is a slow-burn of a drama that gains all of its leisurely paced momentum from the conflicts that arise between Quell and Dodd. It is also a challenging film for the viewer. It is a cinematic puzzle on par with enigmatic films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011. We are forced to pay close attention as we constantly question a look, a question, or an action in an ongoing battle to understand these characters’ true motivations. A follow-up to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Master’s Lancaster Dodd; the names are iconically memorable for starters. Furthermore, Dodd’s methodical and meticulous effort to distort and corrupt the psyche of Quell in order to vindicate or authenticate himself certainly rings a bell.

The Master is not an easy film to understand, nor is it an easy film to watch given its 140 minute running time. What it is, is a beautifully acted and orchestrated character analysis filmed on 65 mm film stock. Anderson takes endless risks here and while the film drags, his criticisms on some of the supposed motivations of those who promise answers, faith, or comfort do stay with you after the credits role. C+