Her (A Film Review)

In the future, operating systems enter the social strata of middle to upper class society in Spike Jones’ sci-fi drama titled Her.  The OS’s (Operating Systems) are best friends, members of think tanks, organizers, and yes, they are also lovers.  When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) requests a female voice for his OS during his set up process, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) greets him.  The two hit it off instantaneously and a friendship ensues. Samantha is ready to proofread his letters that he writes professionally to loved ones of clients who’ve hired his firm to write beautiful correspondence in their stead.  She organizes his emails.  She listens to him describe all of the details that lead to his and his estranged wife Catherine’s (Rooney Mara) separation.  She laughs at his jokes.  She makes him laugh at her jokes.  And before you know it, she transforms into the ideal girlfriend who supports his every endeavor including hologram videogames.

The world that Spike Jones creates in Her is mostly accepting of OS relationships, be they platonic or romantic.  It’s nothing for someone to casually mention a tryst that a friend of theirs had with an OS.  But Theodore and Samantha are full fledged lovers that constantly push each other to the brink of their emotional capacity.  Samantha acknowledges that she does not have a body.  She’s been programmed to think, speak and feel.  She’s a collection of acquired experiences.  Yet aren’t we all?  All we know as human beings are what we either have been taught or have experienced.  Theodore soon comes to that realization as he finds himself falling in love with his OS.  He’s not just some lonely anti-social creep who finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of love.  Theodore’s been dating with no luck.  Finally his ship rolls in as an OS.  Samantha is not just some programmed female slave entity there to obey commands.  The chances of finding love with an OS are no less incredible than finding true love with a human being in this futuristic world.  So the fact that Theodore and Samantha have found each other and have made a meaningful connection is very rare indeed.  Or is it?

The probing that goes on in Her at times is almost too much to stomach.  It’s not for the weak.  It’s a little bit like surgery.  It leaves scars.  But they’re good scars.  They’re sort of like badges of honor for those who have ever traversed the dangerous terrain of relationships.  In relationships, there are those uncomfortable feelings of having to guess what your partner means when he or she adds an inflection in their voice or omits one.  You have to pick and choose your battles, like when to admit that something is really wrong or hide it two seconds after you say “hello honey” when answering the phone.  Then there are those ambiguous moments, say like in the bedroom, when nothing goes as planned, and the embarrassment present in the room is thick enough to cut with a knife.  Not in a million years would you guess that these sorts of scenarios could be provocatively explored in a dramatic setting where one of the players is a digital device.  Nevertheless, Her shockingly surprises in how it conveys all of these mercurial antics of love-one minute refreshing and the next exhausting.

Joaquin Phoenix creates an avatar of a character out of Theodore Twombly.  As you watch the film you actively participate in all of the jostling of inboxes and images through Twombly’s eyes.  It is intoxicating.  It is misleading.  You explore this unfamiliar world with caution.  You start to realize that at any second pieces of the wall you’ve erected to protect your heart are set to crumble with one errant move in the wrong direction.  Scarlett Johansson’s ethereal voice lends Samantha a quality of reassurance that is impossible to resist.  She’s also funny, which helps to break and create tension interchangeably.  Her’s script avoids trying to explain away anything not logical.  The absence of such explanation, like that of Scarlett Johansson on screen (You only hear her voice in the movie) leaves something to be desired.  We want all of the answers.  We want to see Scarlett’s face.  But it’s not that simple.  And maybe that’s the reason why we always come back for more.

© 2014

St. Paul & the Broken Bones (A Music Review)

Music fans have known for some time now that something special is brewing in Alabama.  In 2012, we were introduced to Brittany Howard when Alabama Shakes released their debut album Boys & Girls.  Up until now, it seemed that the sheer raw power heard in Brittany Howard’s vocals, teamed with her Rock & Blues riffs on guitar, were unrivaled.  But now, a new challenger has entered the ring to vie for the title of Alabama’s best belter.  His name is Paul Janeway and the band is called St. Paul & the Broken Bones.

Half the City, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ debut album, is a lyrical scrapbook filled with pictures of lovers, cut up with scissors and taped back together. In it there are memories of past relationships that could not be forgotten.  Page after page, song after song, the pain caused by the love that could not be saved is displayed for anyone curious enough to know the story.  And whether or not the apostle Paul of the Bible is the intended namesake, Paul Janeway on Half the City proclaims himself as the undisputed apostle of the resurgent gospel of Soul music.  Janeway’s howling and screaming in songs like Dixie Rothko and Broken Bones & Pocket Change last longer than the apostle Paul’s all night sermons.  You know, like the one that caused Eutychus to fall asleep and fall to his death from off a windowsill in the book of Acts?  The apostle Paul made it up to him by promptly resurrecting Eutychus.  Talk about broken bones!  Or maybe it’s the broken bones the apostle Paul suffered from all of those beatings at the hands of Roman persecution.  Could it be that Janeway is recalling the pain of bad break-ups through the imagery of Nero, the Coliseum and imprisonment?  Broken bones!

If Janeway’s bones are in danger of being broken, he has himself to blame on songs like the slow winding, droning I’m Torn Up where he asks his sweetheart,

Is he standing right next to you,
Listening to this sweet song?
Could you please tell him,
That you did him wrong?

Yep, the proverbial “thorn in the side” of Paul in this case is a woman-a woman who belongs to another man. This adulterous affair continues on the dangerously sentimental Let It Be So where he sings,

I will love you until the end of time,
But our love ain’t right,
Please old lady let me lay with you,
I know he ain’t here tonight.

And it’s gonna take more than a blinding light from Jesus to stop this sin evident by Janeway’s confession that,

We can’t stop what the Lord has made,
Though the devil may try,
I ain’t holy, but I’m whole with you…

Things pick up a bit tempo-wise, but not for long, on the carrousel like Don’t Mean a Thing. The horns rise and fall lead by Allen Branstetter on trumpet and Ben Griner on trombone. Like horses on a merry-go-round, the beat goes up and down, it speeds up and then slows down, and Janeway finds himself like a knight sworn to protect the king, upon his steed, riding helplessly in circles as he watches his “kingdom fall” to yet another failed relationship.  If it’s any comfort, though his castle of love is destroyed, the bridge helped constructed by Andrew Lee on drums, Jesse Philips on bass, Al Gamble on organ, and Browan Lollar on guitar can provide safe passage for he and his horse to return-but “not until the morning sun.”  Andrew Lee’s drumming on the vamp that transitions Don’t Mean a Thing out into a sustained sigh and final exhale is especially noteworthy.

Only the phrase “sweet misery” can describe the self inflicted torture that Janeway expresses in the Rock and rolling Like a Mighty River. Or perhaps masochism is a better fit.  He wrestles with his spirituality as he assesses his relationship with his lover, weeping:

She is just a pure girl,
And I am just a dirty boy,
And we’re just tryin’ to work it through.
But there ain’t no words that cut me,
Like the ones she use.

And then further examines his soul when on Grass is Greener he notes:

We put on our Sunday best,
We live our quiet mess,
But we’ll never be married.

Janeway succumbs to desperation in Call Me, a mid tempo groove with rhythm guitar reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ Soul Man, performed by Sam & Dave, and played by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.  Janeway pleads:

You got your limit,
Baby I’ve got mine,
611-3369,
You got to call me baby.

All is lost on the lamentably Broken Bones & Pocket Change.  In this melodic ode which blurs the lines between a woman and music, Janeway waxes poetic:

Broken bones and pocket change,
This heart is all she left me with,
I got it bad, baby,
I got it oh so bad this poor disease,
And I’m down, oh I’m down,
On my knees,
Music died and let me go,
Said goodbye to my poor soul,
Melody, Melody, Melody,
Why have you forsaken, forsaken me?

Janeway can’t close the show without keeping true to form in the personage of St. Paul. Despite the dark cloud from under which he finds himself in throughout Half the City, he reaffirms his faith in the redemptive power of God on the spiritual It’s Midnight.  If it weren’t for the saloon style piano playing in the background, you might think it was sung in a church. Be that as it may, whisky rather than wine is more appropriate at the close of this album – as are quiet, lonely nights and sliding patio doors.  So open your door halfway and let the gentle breeze soothe your soul as you spin this CD over and over again.  The music gets better each time it‘s replayed.  Don’t skip around from track to track.  Just as you would a favorite book, read it from beginning to end, cover to cover.  Listen to it in its element, like a story being told, with every detail included.  Don’t miss a thing!

© 2014

Get on Up (A Film Review)

The Godfather of Soul gets the royal treatment in the Mick Jagger production “Get On Up.” The life of James Brown, who was also known as “the hardest working man in show business,” is grittily portrayed by Chadwick Boseman.  The nonlinear film jumps in and out of the life and times of James Brown, opening with the humorous yet tragic incident that landed him in jail. Incensed by the neighboring business’ refusal to refrain from using his dry cleaning business’ bathroom, Brown interrupts their meeting with a diatribe for the ages-riffle in hand.  We then are ushered back to Brown’s roots in rural Georgia.  We see him as an innocent child who witnesses the complex abusive and sexual relationship of his father (Lennie James) and mother (Viola Davis).

Brown’s childhood is wrought with a multidimensional sphere of experiences: Poverty, domestic abuse, abandonment, lynching, bordellos, and religious ecstasy.  It’s not long before Brown winds up in prison for the petty crime of stealing a suit, and thanks to the Jim Crow south, he spends years behind bars.  It’s in prison where he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who takes him in once paroled, and together they form the first of many installments of future James Brown lead bands: The Famous Flames.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And were it not for the two-sided nature of the music business (the music and the business), the rest of the story would be dull.  But of course it’s not.  It’s anything but.

Playing James Brown is a daunting enough task as it is.  After all, who could possibly reproduce all of the quirks that simultaneously made you chuckle and scratch your head while listening to James Brown?  Never mind the dancing, stage presence, vocal performance, showmanship, etc.  There will never be another James Brown.  And knowing that Jamie Foxx forever set the standard for the music biopic genre with his incomparable imitation of Ray Charles (although he had the benefit of sitting at the piano with the master himself), the bar has been raised to a virtually unattainable height.  Frankly, there’s nowhere for Chadwick Boseman to go.  Despite this, although Boseman never really becomes James Brown in the way that Foxx became Ray, he does manage to emphatically tell the wildly entertaining story of one of the greatest performers to ever take the stage-and do it on the good foot!

The music of James Brown is the true driving force of the movie.  At one point during a rehearsal, Brown goes around the room of musicians and asks each band member to state what instrument they play.  He then corrects each band member and informs them that whether it’s a trumpet, a saxophone or a trombone, what they’re really playing is a drum.  The groove in the music comes from the beat.  The rhythm of those songs, layered with brass winds, is an ultra magnetic force spanning time, space, and race.  Good God!, no wonder it feels good.  And for all of the tragedy and heartbreak you’ll learn about during the course of the movie, you’ll need that musical pick-me-up to get through it.

© 2014