It’s a big weekend for 2013’s leftovers to reach flyover land, with no less than four Oscar hopefuls making their way into Twin Cities theaters. Here are brief reviews of all four, in descending order of merit. (Well, “brief” but for the one I just last week called the best movie of 2013, I mean.)

Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)

The prospect of reviewing a movie like Her, even in brief, is daunting.

I defer to words Pauline Kael wrote about Casualties of War many years ago: “Some movies can affect us in more direct, emotional ways than simple entertainment movies.  They have more imagination, more poetry, more intensity than the usual fare; they have large themes, and a vision.  They can leave us feeling simultaneously elated and wiped out. … This new film is the kind that makes you feel protective.  When you leave the theatre, you’ll probably find that you’re not ready to talk about it.  You may also find it hard to talk lightly about anything.” No movie I saw last year nuzzled up quite so intimately with me in the theater, insinuating its way into not just my thoughts but my emotions, which (as with any other self-respecting Norwegian) are far more difficult to access. The movie made me feel the sweet sting of a specific kind of embarrassment. Anything I feel I could write in its defense would leave the door open to counterpoints, and at least upon walking out of the theater the first time around, I decided I care about the movie too much to invoke that sort of criticism.

Which is of course ironic, since one of the movie’s primary concerns is to examine what it means to communicate and interact with total sensitivity and emotional nakedness when our fascination with our own devices seems to be drawing everyone into their four-inch screens. Joaquin Phoenix plays a sweet-natured writer of “personalized” letters for those who have neither the time nor the interest to do so themselves. His wife has left him, and he appears to be working out the anguish via the second-person communiques others order from his company. When he installs a new, hyper-sentient operating system on his computer (played by the distinctively dry voice of Scarlett Johansson), he quickly finds himself becoming infatuated with her.

The confusion that arises is handled by writer-director Spike Jonze with both disorienting naturalism and grounded flights of fancy, like a feature-length version of some of his most affecting videos: Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” Bjork’s “Triumph of a Heart,” and the Chemical Brothers’ “Elektrobank.” As I noted in my year-end top 10 list (which this movie topped), “Her manages the seemingly impossible task of gleaning genuine optimism from humankind’s interactions with technology. To Jonze, our devices of communication, which even the most plugged-in among us undoubtedly feel closed in by, have the power to actually refine and elevate our interpersonal potential if we only let them. All evolutionary steps come with their own set of disorienting complications, but the magic of Her is that even when it owns up to its scenario’s own pitfalls, it retains its belief in the viability of constant redefinition.” In other words, Her is my new boyfriend.

The Past (Dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, was one of the most sagacious and germane dissections of why people do what they do when they do it. The story wasn’t complicated, but many noted it felt like a Hitchcockian roller-coaster of plot revelations owing to the fullness Farhadi allowed each of his characters to have a specific viewpoint. The film won the Oscar for best foreign film (undoubtedly one of the worthiest titles to ever net the honor), and so expectations were high for his follow-up. I have to admit that, for a while, I was somewhat crestfallen that the movie seemed to be following the same blueprint as the earlier film so strenuously, showcasing the dissolution of a marriage at the center of a tensely knotted domestic drama that’s driven primarily by their secrets and lies, all of which are eventually laid bare one by one. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist‘s flapper ingénue) plays Marie, who is in the process of separating from her husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). He has been reluctant to sign the papers — no points for connecting the dots between this one and Her — and she summons him to Paris to do so directly. That also entails him bunking at her house, where her current beau and three children, all from separate marriages, all share space tenuously. Marie’s prospective future husband Samir (Tahar Rahim) is technically still married, though his wife has been in a coma for months. As you can probably tell by now, the chief difference between A Separation and The Past is that the latter is more openly a melodrama, with more openly demonstrative outbursts and conflicts, whereas the former was a model of repressed tension. Less doesn’t always have to be more, and The Past is still a more than solid adult drama.

August: Osage County (Dir: John Wells)

What was that about demonstrative outbursts, domestic conflicts, and the “less is more” maxim? Apparently playwright Tracy Letts wasn’t paying attention. I haven’t seen his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County, but if the filmed version is any indication, it stopped just short of snatching wigs from its audience members’ heads. And then masticating them with delight. And then spitting them back out. And then tearing each other’s heads off. Make no mistake. August may come frontloaded with Oscar-adorned talent and the sort of pedigree you couldn’t breed if you raised Tennessee Williams from the dead to knock boots with Edward Albee, but frankly, literary stature isn’t the first thing that pops into my head when the climactic showdown between the two principals is punctuated by the repeated barking ultimatum, “Eat the fish, b****!” And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was sort of thankful for that. At no point does August approach greatness, but it approaches “muchness” all too often, and for many people, that’s all that’s going to matter. It’s not camp, really, but instead some bizarre mutant strain of prestigious anti-camp, in the sense that camp is the amplification of genuine human emotions into a ludicrous, artificial display, whereas this movie seems like a panoply of fraudulent behaviors aiming for authenticity. In its own way, it’s illicit and incredibly nasty fun. You walk away from it ready to turn all petty annoyances into your own personal forum to tell the world to eat the fish.

Lone Survivor (Dir: Peter Berg)

A true-life story of heroism or endurance or both is turned into a grim, violent, macho, psychotic, xenophobic, bloodthirsty salute to itself. Like any decent person, I have much respect for soldiers who, for whatever reason, are put into harm’s way (often but not always for specious reasons), but I have serious reservations about the sort of psyche that would find this reprehensible passion play anything other than the ultimate in jingoistic masochism.


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