Blog

The Current War: Director’s Cut

★★★★

“The Current War” had a long journey to make it to the big screen.

The screenplay was written in 2008 and made the “Black List,” in 2011, which is an industry survey of “most liked” screenplays not yet produced. Different directors were attached until finally Alfonso Gomez-Rejon joined the project to direct his follow-up to “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a critically loved feature that made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

“The Current War” premiered to audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 to awful reviews. People called it a bore and the Oscar buzz surrounding it had disappeared. Gomez-Rejon said the film was rushed for the festival and was not yet fully complete. He was ready for reshoots and additional edits, but then something happened.

Harvey Weinstein — who bought the film and owned the distribution rights — got caught in a giant scandal which brought his entire company to a halt and eventually landed him in prison. 

The movie company was sold, the production was shelved and it seemed like it would never see the light of day, which is a shame for a movie featuring powerhouse actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland and Nicolas Hoult (Doctor Strange, General Zod, Spider-Man and Beast, respectively, for comic movie nerds.)

Eventually Gomez-Rejon discovered that producer Martin Scorcese had negotiated a final edit clause in the movie’s deal and Gomez-Rejon began to raise money online to finish his movie. He raised $1 million and brought the cast back for reshoots and cut 10 minutes off the run time.

The movie made a brief appearance in theaters in October 2019 but was considered a flop. It made its rental debut on March 31.

So after all this work to make it to audiences, is “The Current War” any good?

Personally, I say it is. 

It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s a dry historical drama that deals with science, but I found the performances and the screenplay to be electrifying.

Cumberbatch brings Thomas Edison to life as he battles against Shannon’s George Westinghouse to see which company can bring electricity to homes across the country. Edison believes in direct current and Westinghouse thinks alternating current is better (I was disappointed there were no AC/DC musical references at the end credits).

They sabotage and attack one another in a ruthless battle to see who gets out on top. 

Nicolas Hoult plays Nicolai Tesla, the famed scientist and inventor who briefly worked for Edison before joining forces with Westinghouse. Holland plays Edison’s assistant.

This movie is really about the passion of two men who sought to cement their places in history. 

Edison — famous for inventing the light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera — often didn’t actually invent these things himself, but people who worked for him did.

Edison says in the movie: “Let me welcome you to the reality of how things come into existence. We all contribute. That’s what invention is. The salt, the grain, the heat, the heart. Only one man makes the bread rise. That’s the one that puts it all together. Makes it taste so damn good the people will go out there, and hand over their hard-won dollars to buy it.”

And Westinghouse didn’t care about getting rich, but about changing the world.

He says in the movie: “If you want to be remembered, it’s simple: shoot a president. But if you prefer to have what I call a legacy, you leave the world a better place than you found it.”

As they battle back and forth, Edison manipulates newspaper reporters into pushing his agenda. He lets it slip that Westinghouse’s alternating current electricity can kill a person. He even demonstrates it by electrocuting a horse. But that leads some to a new idea: the electric chair. Instead of execution by hanging, they now have a “safer” method. Westinghouse objects, saying that it’s cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eight Amendment, but his real goal is make sure his brand of electricity isn’t associated with killing people.

It’s a shame that Gomez-Rejon didn’t get to completely make the movie he envisioned. My guess is that the extra reshoots and editing got him closer to his goal — hence the Director’s Cut subtitle — but it feels like it’s not quite yet there with Oscar-worthy greatness.

Nonetheless, I found this movie to be hidden gem. There are so many excellent lines of dialogue in this smart screenplay and I found the acting performances to be high-wattage. There’s a simmer of tension throughout the proceedings with dark cinematography and suspenseful music. 

I hope the next movie that Gomez-Rejon directs goes much smoother because I see a ton of potential in him. I never saw his feature debut in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a Blumhouse horror flick, but the other two movies are really solid. Plus, he was an assistant director on Best Picture winner “Argo” and the Alejandro González Iñárritu classic “21 Grams.”

Gomez-Rejon has talent and for his sake I hope he doesn’t work with any more creepy producers like Harvey Weinstein.

Coffee & Kareem

★★★

Mileage may vary on “Coffee & Kareem” depending upon how well you like Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh, making his film debut), a foul-mouthed 12-year-old boy with aspirations of being a rapper and having his mother’s boyfriend, Detroit police officer James Coffee (Ed Helms), beaten to a pulp by established rapper Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee). My wife lasted 20 minutes and split. She didn’t care for the youngster’s attitude or language … she also thought he was a little girl due to his long dreadlocks and doughy body. She was all like, “Who is this Kareem person?” If you’ve read my reviews or met me in person you know I’m a bit of a foul-mouthed hooligan myself, but Kareem’s language was a lot for me too. Granted, much of it was funny, but hearing Kareem set up a scenario where Coffee would feed him a bunch of muscle relaxers to ease his asshole is a bridge too far.

Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse and Kareem’s Mom, and Coffee have been dating for some time. They’re having a mid-day meetup when Kareem happens upon them mid-coitus while skipping school. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and drives Kareem to seek the services of Orlando and his associates Rodney (Netflix stalwart Andrew Bachelor – seriously, the streaming service must really love this dude or he’s got something on them having appeared in “The Babysitter,” “When We First Met,” “Game Over, Man!,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Rim of the World”) and Dee (William ‘Big Sleeps’ Stewart) to incapacitate Coffee “so his dick don’t work.” When attempting to have a sit-down with the trio, Kareem witnesses Dee clip a crooked cop. Coffee is unfairly fingered for the crime and the titular duo go on the lam. Coffee reaches out to fellow officers Captain Hill (“In Living Color” veteran David Alan Grier sporting bald pate and a big, gray beard), Coffee’s surrogate father figure and mentor, and Detective Watts (Betty Gilpin late of “The Hunt”), a co-worker with whom Coffee butts heads, for assistance.

“Coffee & Kareem” is directed by Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse (“Goon,” “Stuber”) and written by first-time screenwriter Shane Mack. Dowse tends to make comedies that are excessively violent and a tad schizophrenic – his latest effort is no exception. Mack shares a first name and has a last name that rhymes with the surname of action-comedy maestro Shane Black. Mack doesn’t have Black’s chops, but bon mots are hurled like hand grenades and barbs buzz like bullets. References to the Nicolas Cage/Werner Herzog collaboration “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Ja Rule and Taylor Swift had me rolling. The cast is uniformly pretty solid. Helms can do this straight man business in his sleep. Henson is more than a damsel in distress. Gilpin is an entertainingly manic ball of energy. Grier murders a monologue. Little Gardenhigh shows promise, but is handicapped by a somewhat stereotypically-written role that uses crudity as a crutch. I dug needle drops that consisted almost exclusively of rap and Hall & Oates tunes. Hamilton County residents will get a kick out of a car chase that crescendos in a roundabout. At a brisk 88 minutes and available for free on Netflix with subscription, you could do a lot worse than “Coffee & Kareem” – just don’t expect much more than a decidedly R-rated reskinning of “Cop and a Half.”

Resistance

★★★

Marcel Marceau is the world’s most famous mime. I know that’s a weird thing to say since most people can’t really name another famous mime besides him, but it’s a big accomplishment. 

His invisble world captured the imaginations of people around the world and this French artist is responsible for American audiences being familiar with the artform at all.

But what most people don’t realize is that Marceau, born Marcel Mangel, made another contribution to world history. As a teenager, he joined the Jewish resistance in France, rescuing Jews from concentration camps and outwitting the Nazis. 

His first major performance he ever gave was to 3,000 troops after the liberation of Paris.

It’s an amazing story and one worthy of being turned into a film. 

Director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s attempt to translate Marceau’s story to the screen in, “Resistance,” which is available for rental, has mixed results. 

Actor Jesse Eisenberg embodies the role of Marceau with strength and passion. It might be one of his best performances and he’s an underrated actor who was excellent in “The Social Network,” “Adventureland,” “The Art of Self Defense,” “The Double,” “Cafe Society,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and more.

Interesting enough, Jakubowicz uses Marceau as an excuse to tell the broader story of the French resistance and the movie has suspenseful moments and plays more like a thriller than a historic bio-pic. It’s in the movie’s best interest to break from the typical biopic formula but the end result is a disjointed film that often loses track of its protagonist as it tells the story of other characters.

The directorial style and the cast performances are top notch. While this film might scream “Oscar bait” given its addition to the Holocaust film library, it’s not really in that league. It’s a well-crafted film for history buffs and fans of Eisenberg, but not much else. But does it need to be more? I believe any criticisms of this movie lie not in the fact of what it is, but what it could be. Taken on its own, it’s worth a rental. But I wouldn’t purchase it or add it to my best movies of the year. 

Uncorked

★★★1/2

“Uncorked” in the kind of movie that could appeal to two very different groups.

The new Netflix exclusive film centers around an African-American man in his mid-to-late twenties, played by Mamoudou Athie, who works at his father’s barbecue restaurant in Memphis. It was passed down from his grandfather to his father, played by Courtney B. Vance. It’s expected that he’ll take it over some day soon.

The movie goes into great detail about the type of wood they use to create the fires that give that just-right smokey flavor to the famous ribs.

You’re mouth is already salivating and you’re thinking of films like “Soul Food” and other films dealing the African American food experience.

But quickly in this movie we realize that the young man has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he has a passion for wine and dreams of passing his test and becoming a Master Sommelier, a feat accomplished by less than 300 people currently living worldwide.

So, now you’re thinking of movies like “Sideways” that glorify wine-drinking.

Really, “Uncorked” is a film that doesn’t fit into any neat category and people of different races and interests can enjoy this underdog story. If there’s a theme that unites everything: this is a person chasing their dreams and persevering even when faced with obstacles. It’s like “Rocky or “8 Mile.” I’d even compare it to another small indie film that Athie had a small supporting role in: “Patty Cake$”

All those movies are about chasing your dreams.

And, of course, the young man’s father discourages his passion for most of the film.

It’s somewhat ironic because the same passion and attention to detail that he puts into his BBQ is the same details that his son loves about wine. In fact, the opening credits contrast the winemaking process — growing grapes, fermenting them — with the BBQ process. Both are slow processes and labors of love.

You don’t have to be a wine drinker to enjoy “Uncorked” but you might find yourself wanting some ribs or wine after a few minutes of watching.

(Many of us will hear them describe wine in such intricate details and think, “Did they really taste all of that?” )

The movie get predictable so I can’t give it the highest grade possible, but I expected predictable when I sat down and it somewhat exceeded my expectations. Athie and Vance have nice chemistry and Niecy Nash (you know her from the TV show Reno 9-11) gives a great performance as his mother and she’s really the heart of the movie.

It’s a breezy 104 minutes with a few lines that you’ll chuckle at. Nothing really offensive in this film. There are a few F-bombs, some PG-13 level sex and some uncensored rap music playing in the background but there’s nothing vulgar about this movie.

“Uncorked” was supposed to premiere at the SXSW Film Festival but was moved to Netflix when the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis.

If I were to compare this movie to a wine, I’d say it’s a middle-shelf grocery store bottle. It’s not a high-priced bottle that I’d save for a special occasion. There’s nothing rare or unique about it. But it’s nice on a relaxing evening with your significant other. Very approachable and for the price —included free with your Netflix subscription — it really hits the spot. Uncork this one.

Daniel Isn’t Real

★1/2

“Daniel Isn’t Real” … but nepotism sure as shit appears to be. Miles Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver) star in this psychological horror thriller that’s a Shudder exclusive. (It dropped Thursday, March 26.) I’ll let the cat out of the bag right away and fess up that I didn’t much care for the film. It was my first foray into Shudder’s library during a 30-day free trial (code: SHUTIN), but am still stoked that a streaming service focusing entirely on horror exists.

Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) has an imaginary friend named Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). (Do all child actors have three names?!!!) Daniel is actually Luke’s only friend as he’s an awkward, shy and troubled kid. Daniel convinces Luke to blend an entire bottle of his mother’s antipsychotics into a smoothie under the false assumption that it would give her superpowers if imbibed. Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) almost dies. Claire can’t see Daniel, but knows of him. She prompts her young son to banish his imaginary friend by locking him in a dollhouse as a symbolic gesture.

Years later, Luke (Robbins) is a freshman in college grappling with schoolwork, social anxiety and keeping Claire under control. One night while sleeping over at his childhood home, Luke, in a fugue state, unleashes Daniel (Schwarzenegger) from the dollhouse. At first Daniel is a welcome presence – he helps Luke thwart one of Claire’s suicide attempts and gives him the confidence to romance not one but two young ladies (Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks). Soon thereafter Daniel’s true colors come to light as events spiral out of control landing Luke in worlds of trouble.

I’ve liked Robbins in the handful of things I’ve seen him in previously – “Blockers” and “Halloween” (2018) spring to mind. He looks like both of his folks, but also kinda resembles a prettier, younger version of Rosie O’Donnell with the haircut they have him sporting here. Acting-wise, he seems a bit out of his depth. I’m less familiar with Schwarzenegger. I suppose I remember him as Frat Boy in “Grown Ups 2” and as the bully character from “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.” He too looks like his folks. He ain’t built like a brick shithouse like his old man however and in profile kinda resembles evil quarterback Tom Brady. His performance is actually the better of the two leads. It was nice to see Masterson in something again having remembered her from “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Benny & Joon” and not having seen her in anything in sometime … I just wish they gave her more to play than a lady whose cheese is perpetually sliding of its cracker. Lane is an actress I tend to dislike in movies I actually enjoy (“Hearts Beat Loud” and “Hellboy” (2019) … yeah, I’m the one dude who dug it!). I haven’t seen her calling card performance in “American Honey,” which I understand is quite good. You know how people say Zoë Kravitz is like a Xerox of her mother, Lisa Bonet? Well, Lane feels like the Great Value version of Kravitz.

“Daniel Isn’t Real” plays like a hodgepodge of “Drop Dead Fred,” “Fight Club” and Robbins’ Dad’s own movie, “Jacob’s Ladder.” I hope and assume this exercise was therapeutic for co-writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer (“Some Kind of Hate”), but it ultimately seems sensationalistic, insensitive and misguided in its depiction of mental illness. It lacks the depth to delve into serious issues with any real clarity. These peoples’ problems are merely the springboard to a smorgasbord of grotesqueries … some of them are admittedly rendered vividly via squishily practical makeup effects however. (Then again, maybe I should check my privilege as I’m not currently grappling with any form of mental illness?)  “Daniel Isn’t Real” is yet another production of Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision shingle. Much like its forebears “Mandy” and “Color Out of Space” it too sports a synth score, trippy colors and moody lighting, but it all feels warmed over with nowhere to go and nothing to say.

Vivarium

★★★

“Vivarium,” which was released onto VOD Friday, March 27, is a sci-fi/horror/fantasy flick that plays like an extended, modernized episode of The Twilight Zone with a dash of David Lynch oddity thrown in for good measure.

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Bloomington, Ind. resident Jesse Eisenberg) are a young couple in the market for a home. She’s a school teacher. He’s a landscaper/handyman. They enlist the services of a strange real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris) who takes them to a development known as Yonder. Every house in the subdivision is seemingly identical. The clouds hanging over the neighborhood resemble the ones painted on Andy’s bedroom walls in “Toy Story.” It’s also eerily quiet in Yonder. Martin gives the couple a tour of unit #9 and subsequently disappears into thin air. Gemma and Tom attempt to depart the development, but every turn they make returns them to #9 and their car eventually runs out of gas. They’re stuck like a coupla Chucks. Strange shit continues to occur from there.

A few random thoughts on “Vivarium:” All the references to unit #9 got me thinking of the all-time worst Beatles song/“sound collage” “Revolution 9” … this isn’t a good thing. The movie itself almost feels as though it could’ve and should’ve been a play – its scope is small and much of its pow comes from the performances. I was amused that the film’s cinematographer is a mononymous individual named MacGregor. This was the name of my family’s West Highland white terrier when I was growing up. We called him Mac for short.

Vivarium is the second feature from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan (“Without Name”). It was filmed in Ireland and financed with money from the Irish with assistance from the Danes and the Belgians. Poots and Eisenberg also executive produced the film. It’s a good enough-looking movie. Poots and Eisenberg are solid in it as they dependably are. I was slightly taken aback that she was credited before him as he’s the bigger name, but this is ultimately her movie. She’s in the film more than he is and does more of the emotional lifting.

Ultimately, Vivarium is what I like to call “Cinema of Agitation.” What these creatives do, they do well … it’s just not my particular brand of vodka. The film made me appreciate not being a parent – especially in these times of quarantine. There’s a whole helluva lot of yelling and screeching in the picture. It’s almost as if the filmmakers asked those behind “The Babadook” to hold their beer.

The Jesus Rolls

★★

When “The Big Lebowski” came out in 1998, it was considered a disappointment at the time, both critically and commercially. It’s true.

It was the Coen Brothers next film after “Fargo” was nominated for Best Picture at the 1996 Oscars and the general consensus was that “The Big Lebowski” had a meandering and unnecessarily complicated plot that ended up being inconsequential in the end.

It didn’t take long for it to be considered a cult classic and the memorable characters and quotable lines outweighed any criticisms about the episodic plot.

One fan favorite character has been The Jesus, an ethnic hairnet-wearing, bowling-ball licking sex offender played by John Turturro. He curses and threatens competing bowlers, famously saying, “Nobody fucks with The Jesus.”

John Turturro as his famous character The Jesus in the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski”

His brief cameo in “The Big Lebowski” is memorable. But like a character on Saturday Night Live who is expanded into a full-length feature film, audiences will soon find out that less was more with Turturro’s character.

Turturro, a talented actor who often acts in the films of the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee and Adam Sandler, has decided to star and direct an unofficial spinoff to “The Big Lebowski” featuring his barely fleshed-out character Jesus Quintana. The movie, titled “The Jesus Rolls” was OK’ed by the Coen Brothers but they had absolutely no involvement with this small indie flick.

Here’s the weird part: Turturro is not just trying to make a spinoff film for this minor character, but he’s also remaking a 1974 French film called “Going Places,” that starred Gerard Depardieu. “Going Places” is a cult classic itself that received poor reviews upon its release, mainly because of its immoral, vulgar, misogynistic characters who travel around and have sex and commit crimes. It’s an odd film to choose to remake.

Turturro’s movie begins with The Jesus being released from prison. The warden, briefly played by Christopher Walken, immediately notes that Quintana’s only a sex offender because he accidentally showed a child his penis in men’s room, meant to retcon the character development in “The Big Lebowski” and immediately make this vulgar criminal not 100 percent hateable.

The Jesus then meets up with his friend played by Bobby Cannavale, another immensely talented actor, and they proceed to steal the car of a hairdresser played by Jon Hamm. Then they kidnap his girlfriend, played by French actress Audrey Tautou, best known for the 2001 film “Amelie,” and they begin to go on a road trip, committing crimes and treating people horribly.

John Turturro, Audrey Tautou and Bobby Cannavale star in “The Jesus Rolls” a spinoff/sequel to “The Big Lebowski” and a remake of the 1974 French film “Going Places”

“The Jesus Rolls” isn’t the worst film I’ve seen in 2020, but it might be one of the most unnecessary. It’s entirely marketing appeal is based on love for “The Big Lebowski” but this is such as different movie stylistically and thematically that there’s no reason to believe that lovers of “The Big Lebowski” will enjoy “The Jesus Rolls.” These are very different movies.

“The Jesus Rolls” is a darker film and while it’s supposed to be a comedy, it’s not very funny. The film has a twisted sense of morals, but it’s not shocking enough to grab my attention by any means. The characters are unlikeable but they’re not the kind of fascinating train wreck like everyone’s recent Netflix-series obsession “Tiger King.”

The story is choppy and it meanders like the wanderers in the film. But unlike “The Big Lebowski,” the loose plot can’t be overcome this time.

Even when Turturro says some of his famous lines from “The Big Lebowski” there are no cheers from the audience in “The Jesus Rolls.” It feels like the Church Lady saying, “Isn’t that special?” again and again.

The hedonism and sexual liberation doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as it might have felt in “Going Places” in 1974. It just feels trite and uncomfortable in this remake.

Tautou and Turturro in “The Jesus Rolls” available to rent or purchase on streaming sites

Turturro is an underrated character actor but as a director he’s just so-so. He brings an adequate eye for the camera to this film and he coaxes good performances out of each of his actors. But he does nothing to elevate the mediocre boring script. 

In the end, like many of his previous films, “The Jesus Rolls” is just slightly below average. And that’s one of the worst things I can say about a movie. It’s not “so bad that it’s good” like “Cats.” It’s instantly forgettable and I could see people turning it off before finishing.

It’s just disappointing and kind of dull. With a talented cast featuring names like Turturro, Cannavale, Tautou and even Susan Sarandon, you’d expect more. This gutter ball is worth skipping.

The Platform


★★★★★ 

The Platform, which dropped on Netflix Friday, March 20, was released at the absolute best and absolute worst time. It’s very much on the nose, highly indebted to Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 effort Snowpiercer, not for the squeamish, not for the socially conservative and subtitled. It’s also a fuckin’ masterpiece.

The Platform won The Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It also won a Goya Award (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars) for Best Special Effects and a Gaudí Award (the main film awards of Catalonia) for Best Visual Effects. At the Goyas it was nominated for Best New Director (Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia) and Best Original Screenplay (David Desola, Pedro Rivera). At the Gaudís it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Non-Catalan Language Film and Special Audience Award for Best Film. Even with all these accolades, it won’t prepare you for how masterful, prescient, timely and evocative The Platform truly is.

The Platform is a dystopic sci-fi/horror film that often delves into social critique and satire. Ivan Massagué stars as Goreng, a man who voluntarily enters a prison called The Hole in exchange for a collegiate degree that should improve his life on the outside. The Hole is a many hundreds of stories-tall institution in which two people share a cell/level. There’s a hole in the middle of the floor of each unit through which the titular object descends. On said platform is a literal smorgasbord. Those on the highest levels get first crack at the buffet and often gorge themselves. Those on the lowest levels get scraps if there’s any to be had – most often have to resort to more drastic measures to satiate themselves. No one can take food from the platform for later consumption lest they be blasted with extreme heat or extreme cold that’ll either burn or freeze ‘em to death. 

Prisoners switch levels and cellies once a month. Goreng has a handful of different bunkmates – there’s Trimagasi (Zorian Eguileor) an older man who shows Goreng the ropes, Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) a company woman who wants to see how the other half lives and Baharat (Emilio Buale) a large black man who has his sights set on escape. There’s also a wild card – her name’s Miharu (Alexandra Masangkay), who often rides the platform level-to-level looking for her child who may or may not exist and meting out justice/abuse should the situation dictate it. Prisoners are allowed to bring one item into the facility with them. Goreng brings a copy of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is apropos as he’s the sort to tilt at windmills. He’s also the first to bring a book into the big house. Others bring in a kitchen knife ordered off an infomercial, a wiener dog, a rope, a surfboard … all sorts of shit.

I wouldn’t recommend eating during The Platform as the food’s often absolutely revolting to look at and there are graphic depictions of cannibalism. That said, I would wholeheartedly advise adventurous cineastes give it a whirl. Sure, it’s subtitled and violent as all hell, but it’s only 94 minutes and also holds a message that’s important for all of us to heed … especially now. There was no place for greed, overconsumption and hoarding before these past few weeks and there’s certainly no place for it now. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. We need to lift one another up – metaphorically, not physically – please, stay the hell away from me. What’s good for one is good for all. Be good to yourselves. Be good to each other. Be the change. Be the message. These are the principles upon which The Platform is built. 

Movie of the Month: Her

Some movies are just so much better than their description suggests.

Back in 2013, Spike Jonze, director of great films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix, an amazing actor who had just returned to the spotlight the year prior when he snagged a Best Actor nomination for his performance in The Master. 

Phoenix was in a self-imposed acting exile for a few years after his Andy Kaufman-esque stunt where he grew a large beard, started a rap career and gave a weird interview on David Letterman. It was all concocted for a mediocre documentary he did with Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here.

Together, Jonze and Phoenix created Her, a film that would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s now available to stream on Netflix.

After I saw it in theaters, I loved this movie. But when I described what it was about, people looked at me weird.

“I saw this great movie.”

“What’s it about?”

“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer.”

“No, thanks! I’ll pass.”

Truthfully, it takes more than a few words to capture what this movie is about. The film features a futuristic sci-fi world where everyone wears slightly strange fashion (it’s as if hipsters toppled the government and now we are forced to wear buttonless jackets and high-waisted pants). Everyone carries around smartphones that are the size of a business card and the computer’s operating system reads you the news while you listen on a thumb-tack sized earbud. 

At the time this movie came out, Siri was a feature on iPhones but it rarely worked well. Alexa had not debuted yet.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a sensitive but lonely 37-year-old man who just experienced a painful divorce and now gets a new operating system for his computer/phone. The new voice that talks to him is powered by a mighty artificial intelligence. The AI, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, isn’t just super smart, but it has a personality of its own. It becomes more and more human as time goes on, taking on the name Samantha and eventually embarking on a voice-only romantic relationship with Phoenix.

Johansson’s husky haunting voice brings the invisible character to life. So much so that news articles asked the question: “Can you be nominated for an acting Oscar if you don’t physically appear in the movie?” She’s good enough that I think it wouldn’t have been crazy.

Interestingly enough, Johansson wasn’t even the original voice in the film. Actress Samantha Morton recorded the entire script but then was nixed in favor of Johansson. Morton performed her lines live in a sound booth and Phoenix would react, instead of relying on pre-recorded dialogue. Jonze made sure they never saw each other on the set to add to the idea of talking to someone you’ve never seen. 

There’s a ton of social commentary that can be derived from this film. Of course, people mention how technology has made us lonelier and disconnected us from others. People say it’s about how people are addicted/in love with their devices. Some say it’s about online dating.

But I think the film itself is about far more than just the technology aspect.

Jonze got the inspiration for the script from a framed print hanging in his apartment. It’s a photograph by Todd Hido, in which a woman with long brown hair turns away from the camera. All you can see in the back of her head set against the backdrop of an out-of-focus forest.

Jonze took a yellow sticky note and wrote three letters on it and then stuck it to the print: “her.”

He was struck by the mystery of this faceless woman and then he dreamed up the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system, a female voice he can never see in person.

There’s this sense of longing in the movie. It’s hard to put your finger on but much of it is describing the definition of love.

Cynics will say Joaquin Phoenix’s character can’t be in love with her because she isn’t real. She can’t love him back because she’s just zeros and ones. Real love goes both ways.

But does it?

Jonze explores the idea of love being a one-sided emotion and there’s no reciprocation needed for the emotion to exist in one’s heart. Maybe Samantha, the operating system, isn’t “real,” but she’s real to him. And the emotions he feel are real. So what’s the difference?

The way the super-realistic AI is portrayed in the film, you really do have to ask what the difference would be compared to falling in love with a real someone on an online dating site. Or having a long-distance relationship with someone you know but now can only talk to on the phone. What if Phoenix’s character didn’t know Samantha was a computer? Would that make his feelings any more real? I say it makes no difference.

Some of this parallels a scene of dialogue in another film that Jonze directed: Adaptation. 

In the scene, Nicolas Cage’s character Charlie is talking to his twin brother Donald (he plays both roles) and he asks his brother about a high school crush he had.

Charlie Kaufman: “There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.”

Donald Kaufman: “Oh, God. I was so in love with her.”

Charlie: “I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.”

Donald: “I remember that.”

Charlie: “Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.”

Donald: “I knew. I heard them.”

Charlie: “How come you looked so happy?”

Donald: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”

Charlie: “But she thought you were pathetic.”

Donald: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”

There’s something profound in the line: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” Nobody can take that love away from you. Very true.

Spoiler alert, but the film itself ends with all of the AIs leaving and going to another place beyond our physical world, one that we couldn’t understand. Phoenix’s character is sad but he’s grown from his experience and he writes a letter to his ex-wife to express gratitude and give his apology. He’s accepted what happened and he’s learned about himself and he’s ready to move on. In the final scene, he watches a sunrise with his friend. Something he could never do with a computer. 

In this era of social distancing, it’s probably intriguing to have a relationship with someone using only your voice.

Artificial intelligence is likely years away from creating anything like Samantha.

But when AI does reach that point. I’d much rather have the pleasant voice of Scarlett Johansson than the evil computer HAL 9000, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back when movie posters were art

In today’s world, excitement builds for a new film once the movie trailer is released.

Sometimes it’s shared virally on social media. Other times the trailer is first released during the commercials of a big TV event like the Super Bowl or Final Four. They even tease when the trailer will be released days ahead of time.

But movie trailers didn’t use to be the main way people knew about upcoming movies.

Trailers didn’t always air as TV commercials or even before other movies at the theater.

There was no Internet and therefore no movie news Web sites like this one.

How did people know about a new movie? Posters.

Besides the large marquees outside of grand movie theaters, the posters outside were some of the main advertising for movies decades ago.

And they were much better looking than the Photoshopped-to-death posters we see nowadays.

Movie posters were painted by artists and many looked awesome. They had to portray key scenes from the movie and give you a sense of what it’s about in a few images.

I collect framed versions of beautiful looking movie posters and I keep them in my movie room. I focus quite a bit on the look of the poster and some movies that are some of my all-time favorites are not hung on my walls since the posters are only so-so.

In fact, most of my framed movie posters are prints from the greatest movie poster designer of all time: Saul Bass.

Saul Bass was a graphic designer in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He designed the logos for such famous companies as AT&T, Quaker Oats, the United Way and United Airlines. He designed opening title sequences for movies too. He designed the animated paper cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, the credits racing up and down that become a high-angle shot of a skyscraper in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and the disjointed text that races together and apart in Psycho.

The posters he designed include The Shining, West Side Story, Vertigo, Schindler’s List, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Anatomy of a Murder, The Magnificent Seven, Exodus and many more.

Here are some examples:

His posters were special because they looked like works of art. He liked strong angles and line and bright primary colors like yellow and red. He didn’t use likenesses of the stars of use quotes from the movies. He didn’t put the actors’ names in insanely large type. He tried to thematically represent the movie in a thematic way.

For Vertigo, he uses a spiral that represents the man’s descent, both literally and mentally. It draws you in and disorients you.


For Anatomy of a Murder, he shows the body broken apart, lying on the floor dead. A play on words of sorts. It also captures the moral ambiguities of this film.


The Shining is one of his best posters and surprisingly enough Bass didn’t get along with director Stanley Kubrick. This is surprising since they’re too Jewish boys from The Bronx but Kubrick thought Bass emphasized the supernatural elements of the book in his design on the posters. Famously, Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s novel downplayed the supernatural elements of the source material. The compromise they landed on was a face peering out of the “t” in The Shining, a nod to the “Here’s Johnny” scene where Jack Nicholson puts an axe throw a door and then looks through with his face. Bass still makes the face on the poster look ghost-like to represent the supernatural aspect of the film/novel.

There are plenty of other graphic designers who have done some awesome work but personally I think Saul Bass is the best

In fact, check out some images from my basement.

The art of movie posters is dying. The biggest example? Marvel Studios — which has the highest grossing movies every year — has lousy posters. Just bad photoshop that have no connection to the movie itself. They know people will rush to see the movie. Why bother?

Here’s the perfect example.