January 20, 2014


Writer/director Spike Jonez' "Her," is a rather extraordinary film. It's really a science fiction/love story about A.I. (artificial intelligence). Set in what looks like the near future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix doing his best work to date and visually carrying the entire film) works for a company called "Beautiful Handwritten Letters" that composes letters for people. Not business letters or formal letters: love letters and letters between family members. Why can't people write their own? Who knows? But this futuristic world is scarily bland, literal and unnuanced. Everyone and everything feels incredibly dumbed down into simplistic niceness. It seems that advanced technology and the seamless omni-insertion of technology into people's lives has turned humans into androids, while the androids are more “alive” than humans, and want to become more human.

Humans walk around (something like today, but much worse) talking to themselves, communicating only with their multifunctional earbuds.

"Samantha" is a Siri-like voice performed by Scarlett Johansson with such craft that there was a question whether her voice acting could be nominated for an Oscar (it couldn't). Theodore, lonely and undergoing a divorce, begins to fall in love with her, and Siri begins to evolve rapidly (having "experiences" and learning about the world through Theodore). Samantha is always there for him and seemingly deeply understands him (she reads all his email), and even fights with him like a real girlfriend would. Dating one's OS (operating system) becomes an accepted "thing" in Theodore's society.

But all shall not be well. I won't spoil the ending--one of the gentlest, tenderest, humanest sci-fi endings since "Blade Runner"--but it gives rise to the question whether humans and A.I. could ever truly interact on a purely and fully human level. Can Samantha ever truly “be” human and understand humans? Especially when it comes to love? Humans, it seems, are unlimited by their limits, and A.I. are crippled by their boundlessness. Haven’t we ultimately created them as their own inorganic “species” to do their own thing, which may even be outside of our control?

Now. A word about the PORN ELEMENTS. Yes. There are fleeting, quite perverse and quite unnecessary porn images in the beginning of the film (involving a very naked and very pregnant supermodel), followed by three different scenes of full-blown phone sex (mostly verbal). As I tried to "not watch" (very difficult when it flashes on unexpectedly), I wondered what Jonze was thinking. I wondered if he's a porn kinda guy himself. I wondered if he thought (like millions, and like the heartily-laughing audience in my cinema) that porn is "no big deal" today. It's "mainstream." Get over it. Ah, well, Mr. Jonze, here's a letter for you.

Dear Mr. Jonze,

Porn IS a big deal, and I will NOT get over it, but what we can both agree on is that it is MAINSTREAM. Not just on our 5-year-old's Nintendo 3DS and our 8-year-old's iPod and our 12-year-old's Xbox One or PS4, but in our one extant unifying storytelling carrier: "The Movies."

"Boogie Nights" was ABOUT the porn industry, "Magic Mike" was ABOUT male strippers, and "Don Jon" was ABOUT internet porn addiction, but "Her" was about A.I. There are plenty of porn references on primetime TV, but you, Mr. Jonze, SHOWED us some porn on the big, big screen. I know you're not alone, and I know we're just going to see more and more of this, but you know what? It's NOT okay. You are RESPONSIBLE for your art. And if you are not aware of the scientific facts about the effects of the scourge of porn on children, teens, families, WOMEN, husbands, wives, workers, um, everyone? You need to get yourself educated. Fast. The rest of your movie is beyond fabulous and creative. You ruined it. I will not jump on the "Emperor's New Clothes" bandwagon and "praise you" for this film because the Emperor HAS no clothes. We do not treat the human body this way. We do not treat the human person this way.

The shocking, prolonged, full-frontal, hazy FEMALE nudity crotch shots at the beginning of "Flight" (a most disappointing plane wreck of a story and film) was sad. But it was just a naked woman walking around. You showed porn QUA porn ("qua" is Latin for "as"). And we were supposed to laugh. Sex can be funny. Porn is never funny.

I so wished I could like this film.

It doesn't matter how many awards you get for this. You blew it.

So sorry for your loss,

Sr. Helena

So, am I recommending you see this film? I usually don't give my opinion on this either way, but given the above circumstances: www.commonsensemedia.com rates this film "iffy" for 15+. I rate it "iffy" for 50+ unless those scenes are excised. Perhaps www.clearplay.com will make it available. ("Clear Play" sanitizes films with the blessing of the studios. I'm normally not in agreement with such measures--except for family viewing--but it's getting bad, folks.)


--Struggling with porn use/addiction or know someone who is? www.ReclaimSexualHealth.com

--I'm beginning to wonder if putting jarring, out-of-place nudity and porn in the BEGINNING of films is a new cheap trick to keep people titillated THROUGHOUT a movie. If/when your body gets revved up, it's going to make the whole movie experience more memorable or something? (Lookin' at you, "Flight": my full review of "Flight" http://hellburns.blogspot.ca/2012/11/movies-flight.html#.UyKA0vldWOA )

--The dumbed-down world of "Her" (with colorful prime and rainbow colors everywhere similar to Google Chrome, Google Play, the Mac spinning pinwheel) is scary because I see our society going this way. A book publisher wants to publish Theodore’s letters because he finds them so profound and touching while in reality they are one step above perfunctory. I’m one of those people who believe that if we lose words, we lose the ability to express ourselves and communicate with others in a very necessary, significant and irreplaceable way that makes us human. There are even studies where the ability to express oneself in words also works in reverse to help us actually think and feel and experience and know what we’re thinking and feeling and experiencing.

--The music is pretty amazing and often atmospheric. Who did the music? ARCADE FIRE. Okay, I agree they are a very Important Band.

--The Coming Attractions sported a film with Kate Winslet getting tied up by a criminal on the lam. And she liked it. WOMEN: WAKE UP! WHERE ARE THE FEMINISTS OF THE 70’S????

--Jonez created a clever, tight, cohesive, believable futuristic world with lots of details and food for thought. The one thing he forgot is that if the porn addiction epidemic continues as is, the world will NOT look like that in the future. The world will be debilitated by it. He was showing us 2014 porn. Come to think of it, there are LOTS of adolescent boy sex jokes in this film. It didn’t even quite match with the “Leave It To Beaver” kind of simplicity of everyone. Unless all the characters (including women) are actually adolescent boys at heart.

--A lot Theology of the Body fodder here. (Samantha initially being envious and wanting a body—kinda like Satan, ha ha.) Samantha talks to Theodore’s little goddaughter and tells her “I don’t have* a body. I live in a computer.” (Transhumanism, anyone?)

“She’s not a computer, she’s her own person.” (Theodore about Samantha)

“You can’t handle a real woman.” (Theodore’s ex)

“You’re beautiful.” (Theodore to Samantha, which could ONLY be “inner beauty”!!!!)

“I like not having a body. I’m not limited by time or space. I can be everywhere, and I’ll never die.” (Samantha)

Samantha wants to move beyond the material world.

--Transhumanist overtones, but I don’t think that’s the point of the movie or that it’s being promoted. BUT I COULD BE WRONG ABOUT THAT. (The head engineer at Google, Ray Kurzweil, is a transhumanist.)

--Once in a while the visuals are on the screen too long and need to be changed. Just a little pacing glitch (kind of like “Where the Wild Things Are” which flirted on the edge of boring us).


*Neither do humans. We ARE bodies.

January 5, 2014


“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is, of course, Part Two in a three-part cinematic extravaganza of Tolkien’s beloved book: “The Hobbit.” How did Peter Jackson and Co. get three movies out of it? By drawing on “The Silmarillion” and other background information. Perhaps some Tolkien purists are not happy with this amalgam, but for the rest of us Tolkien schleppers, we’re just happy to get more, more, more!

“The Desolation of Smaug is a bit different from the first filmic Hobbit installment. It is not as cohesive, “talkie,” and some of the editing/cuts are just horribly jerky and unprofessional. I saw it in 3-D, and as scenes move between indoor (very dark, dreary and colorless) and outdoor (not much better), the resolution is so extreme and raw that it often looks like some strange telenovela. ALL the actors are exquisite as in Part One, but the whole texture of the thing (and poor editing) often makes them look ridiculous (e.g., holding grim, melodramatic stares for far too long).

It’s obvious that the bulk of the time, work and attention in the film was given to the lengthy, often comical “Bilbo and the Dwarves Ride the Rapids in Barrels While Pursued by The Ugliest Orcs in Middle Earth History,” to much good effect. This action-packed, eye-popping caper alone is well worth the price of a movie ticket. Lithe Elves get into the act and show that brute strength (and fearsome ugliness) and massive Iron Age weapons aren’t everything.


How is the estrogen count in Part Two? Galadriel puts in a fleeting cameo as she telepaths with Gandalf. Turiel (a general in the royal Elvish guard, played quite marvelously by a glowing Evangeline Lilly) has a large role defending the Elvish kingdom/territories. Not only that, she is sweet on a particular dwarf (and therefore sets out to save his life), as well as risks everything to fight against evil rather than passively remain safe and do nothing, as her liege lord commands her to do.


The dialogue is minimal and stilted—even though there were two women and two men screenwriters! (Did you know that screenwriters in the 20’s and 30’s were primarily women because we’re so good at dialogue? Yup.) Smaug has all the best lines. (Remember to pronounce it like the British--with at least ten syllables: S-S-M-A-A-O-O-W-W-U-U-U-A-U-G-H-G. The “H” is silent.)

Speaking of Smaug: bringing to screenlife that despicable reptile is another feat of today’s Visual Effects wizardry. Hope the Academy is paying attention. Too bad his scales were so dull. Even the coins and gems piled up inside his mountain lair were drab. Sigh. Digital. And what a chatty dragon! I thought that—like the other animals in “The Hobbit”--he would be, well, silent (but remember, in Tolkien’s world, mountains and trees might burst into life at any moment).


But who MAKES the film (as usual)? The great Gandalf the Grey (a masterful Ian McKellan that no amount of bad editing and/or lighting could ever vex, harry or perturb). Can’t we just have a “Gandalf” film? All Gandalf all the time? The elderly wizard is the one who seems to see the biggest picture, have the broadest vision, is most aware of what is coming and what is truly going beneath the surface. And yet—and this seems to me to be the whole message of Tolkien’s tales—he, too, is weak in the face of tremendous, vociferous evil. But it is the weak who win the day. The Elves even find the greatest grandeur not in the Sun or lightning (or fireball-breathing-dragons) but in fragile starlight.

It’s a paradox that those who live by no other code than “might makes right” and “the triumph of the will”; who are not held back by any mercy or ethical considerations, are actually the weakest. The wicked may flourish for a time, but the kind of persistent gentle Goodness that caused Herod to fear a baby and murder babies is what endures.

While the other denizens of Middle Earth go about their more or less important chores and quests, Gandalf is busy weighing how evil operates and organizes itself in order to sweep over the land and cause woe to untold numbers (the influence of World War I on Tolkien, no doubt).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the quite stellar addition of Luke Evans as Bard.

This film is more gory and violent than the first one: gratuitous and “humorous” violence (e.g., the way Orcs’ heads get chopped off, etc.) doesn’t make ME laugh.

“The Hobbit” is also a study in greed and what can drive men to utter blindness and destruction of friends, loved ones, the future and everything around them (the Ring, the Arkenstone). Smaug portrays the larger, supernatural (spiritual warfare), demonic greed at work in the world.

This film is definitely about the nature of evil. And the nature of what conquers evil.


--Did I mention how frightfully ugly the Orcs are? Frightfully. They're like great white sharks. On land.

--May I say a word about Turiel and her ilk? I’m getting a LITTLE tired of hunter-warrior chicks. Women were the farmer-gatherers. ONE of the many reasons the Neanderthals didn't make it is because there was no division of labor. Very pregnant women went on the hunt, as well as those with newborns. Think about it.

--Awesome use of the adjective “fell,” meaning evil, malevolent, baneful. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fell

--I love how Smaug keeps calling Bilbo “barrel rider” and “thief in the shadows.”

--Do not see this film if you have arachnophobia. I repeat. Do NOT see this film.

--Orlando Bloom has filled out a bit. Looks older, better.

--“In our blindness, the enemy has returned.”

--"When did WE LET evil get stronger than us?" --Turiel

--Evil hides.

--Everyone talking like “BatDad” makes me wanna giggle after a while. J

--New Zealand has amazing terrain.

--Fun fact: the oh-so-Britishly-handsome Richard Crispin Armitage (named after King Richard III by his parents) who plays dwarf-heir-to-the-throne Thorin Oakenshield is actually 6’2”.

--The Elves and their starlight made me think of my main men Magi.

--THE Stephen Colbert has a bit part as a Lake-town spy! Ha! (I didn’t notice, but check out the full cast at www.imdb.com )

--I have been told that Fulton Sheen’s book: “Virtue and Vice” is about how the 7 Last Words of Christ overcome the 7 Capital Sins! Sweeeeeeeeet! Do all 7 Capital Sins operate in Satan? Or is it just “envy”? “It was through the envy of the devil that death entered the world” (Wisdom 2:24). Guess which words of Christ overcome “lust”? “Behold your mother, woman behold your son!” Sweeeeeet!

--"Love is the weapon of the future." --Yehuda Berg