Irrational Man (D+). News flash! Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is an atheistic nihilist! So he continually reminds us in this unpleasant updating of Crime & Punishment. A beer-bellied Joaquin Phoenix (her) stars as a superstar philosophy professor (yeah, right) who gets a teaching gig at some snooty liberal-arts college. He’s a depressed, alcoholic, nihilistic atheist, so of course he’s catnip to female colleagues (Parker Posey, A Mighty Wind) and students (Emma Stone, Magic in the Moonlight) alike. Then he and Emma overhear a sob story told by a woman—a complete stranger—who’s getting tooled around in family court by a bad, if not actually crooked, judge. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, Joaquin muses to Emma, if this judge died? If Emma had ever seen Strangers on a Train, she might have taken this idle chatter as a big hint to RUN AWAY as fast as she could. But hey, if Joaquin’s flabbiness, boozing, depression, and general weirdness aren’t enough to scare her away, I guess a little philosophical small talk about murder isn’t gonna do the trick either. I have liked many of Woody Allen’s recent films (although I always sort of hate myself for going to watch them, since he’s so skeezy), but I did not like this one.
her (B). This is an interesting movie that sort of revisits issues raised in the 2001 flick A.I. Suppose we do manage to create true artificial intelligence. How will we relate to sentient mechanical beings? Will we be able to love them? Will they be able to love us back? Her is set in the near future, in a gleaming but rather sterile version of Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely sad sack of a guy who’s about to get divorced from Catherine (Rooney Mara, Side Effects). After hearing an advertisement he decides to get a copy of OS1, the world’s first intelligent computer operating system, and in two shakes he’s talking to and falling in love with “Samantha” (voice of Scarlett Johansson, We Bought a Zoo). And why not? Samantha is smart, lively (if that’s the right word), solicitous, sympathetic, and sounds like Scarlett Johansson. She seems much easier to deal with than real women, like the nameless blind date (Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies) Theodore meets early in the movie. On the other hand, as one might expect, there are certain downsides to “dating” an entity with no physical body and a godlike IQ. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) gets some laughs from the weird situations that inevitably arise, but he generally plays it as a straight drama. I enjoyed it. It didn’t hurt that Amy Adams (American Hustle) co-stars as Theodore’s friend and neighbor Amy.
Just in time for the holidays we have been graced with two exceptional movies for your consideration.
Pride & Prejudice (A). It is apparently very difficult to make a bad movie from a Jane Austen novel. I loved both the delightful Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma and the wonderful Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and I have greatly enjoyed updated versions of JA’s work such as Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary. (Okay, the version of Mansfield Park from a few years ago didn’t stay with me, and the recent Bollywood Bride & Prejudice was a bit of a misfire. But still, they weren’t bad.) This P&P may be the best of them all (although I’ll confess I’ve never seen the popular A&E version starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). Keira Knightley (Laggies) is charming as the intelligent but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew MacFadyen (Anna Karenina) adeptly handles the difficult chore of making Mr. Darcy simultaneously unlikable and sympathetic. Great supporting performances too, including Rosamund Pike as the lovely but shy oldest Bennet daughter Jane (hard to believe Pike was also the icy villainess in Die Another Day,that James Bond movie with Halle Berry), and Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) as Darcy’s monstrous snob of an aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourg. If you have the slightest fondness for costume dramas or romance, you must see this movie.
Walk the Line (B+). I simply don’t know how to write a review of the new Johnny Cash biopic without comparing it to Ray. Both are great movies featuring great performances, and the subjects’ lives had more than a little in common. Joaquin Phoenix (her) doesn’t really look much like Johnny Cash to me, but he still does a heck of a job, and I was blown away when I learned after seeing the movie that he did all of his own playing and singing. Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) is, if anything, even better as June Carter, the great love of Cash’s life. Her singing and playing are phenomenal as well. But if memory serves, I gave Ray an A-, while I just can’t elevate this one into the “A” category. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because Cash’s life just wasn’t as vividly eventful as Charles’s. Like Charles, Cash had big problems with drugs and family life, but unlike Charles he didn’t have crosses to bear like blindness and racism. I guess being madly in love with one woman when you’re married to another (with several children to boot) would be pretty bad, but Cash spends so much of the movie bottoming out on booze and pills that he lost a little of my sympathy and interest. (Although I recall reading that Ray gave the life of Charles a bit of a whitewash, so maybe a more honest movie would have lost a point or two in my book.) But if you’re even a casual fan of Johnny Cash’s music (and I’m the casualest), you’ll enjoy this movie. Plus you’ll probably get to check off several of next year’s Oscar nominees in one movie.