With her candidly quotable, cutely gif-able kookiness, on screen and off, there may be no actress who seems more of right now than Jennifer Lawrence — she's been declared the queen of Tumblr after all. So it is of note when in the new "American Hustle" she declares, apropos of almost nothing, "I don't like change."
It's as if Lawrence is speaking for our moment now. Across movie after movie this year there have been expressions of anxiety and uncertainty as to where we are heading and what comes next. The future is now, as the saying goes, but that doesn't mean we all have to feel good about it.
It's a wide range of films, from micro-budget indies to large-scale studio pictures, that show traces of these anxieties and also bear a range of responses, from anger and hostility to resignation, acceptance and even triumph. The wellspring of unsettled feelings that runs throughout many of these films presumably runs across many other industries as well. (Media and publishing, being perhaps the most obvious example.) The intertwining rumble of technological, economic and industrial change is bearing down on everyone across the social spectrum.
Early in "Captain Phillips," a man (Tom Hanks) is driving with his wife (Catherine Keener) in the car on the way to work. After she bemoans that the world seems to be moving faster and faster, he tells her that at his job younger guys are working harder and harder to get ahead. The scene seems at first a bit obvious, until it is revealed that the man won't find himself up against some whipper-snapper MBA grad at the office. Rather, he will soon come face to face with the Somali pirate (Barkhad Abdi) who overtakes the shipping vessel the man captains. He sees the future — and it has a gun in his face.
Ridley Scott's "The Counselor," from a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, also grapples with the sense of a world in transition faster than the people swept along by it can keep up.
The film's most notoriously remarked-upon scene, and the one which creates a disturbing pivot point from a glossy world of sensual possibility to a sour machine of predetermination, is where a sleazy hustler (Javier Bardem) explains to the sleaze-adjacent attorney of the title (Michael Fassbender) how his girlfriend (Cameron Diaz) performed on the windshield of a car as he sat inside. It was a show that was more disorienting than erotic, for as he explains, "you see a thing like that, it changes you."
It is difficult to know just how much emphasis to place on the fact that "The Counselor" is the first film by Ridley Scott since the suicide of his brother, Tony Scott. The film was then already in production, yet it is hard not to feel something deeply personal in the movie's profound sense of confusion, anger, loss and disillusioned deconstruction of glamour. Late in the film the actor Ruben Blades — "The Counselor" is nothing if not brilliantly cast — delivers a terrifying speech as the voice not of reason but of the end of the line.
Blades' character delivers an emotional hammer blow to Fassbender's shady lawyer when he explains that "at some point you must acknowledge that this new world is at last the world itself. ... The world in which you seek to undo your mistakes is not the world in which they were made." At some point you have to live with it.
Engaging with uncertainty in a wholly different way, Spike Jonze's "Her" might well be called "Modern Romance" were the title not already taken by Albert Brooks' masterful 1981 film. Setting his tale in a slight-future Los Angeles — many leave the film envious of its design and imagined technologies — Jonze creates a bittersweet celebration of what makes humans human.
With a disarming earnest quality, there is simply something refreshing and exciting in the way "Her" strives to make sense of what is happening right now with an eye to where we are all going.
A lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) purchases a new operating system for his computer, an artificially intelligent program (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that its advertisement touts as "a consciousness," and soon finds they are emotionally entangled. The film then finds its emotional center not in some future biotech interface of man and machine but rather with human connection and genuine interaction, person to person, heart to heart.
Also exploring the intersection of science and romance is "Upstream Color," in which the shared feelings, that sense of close togetherness, felt by a couple may be the result of more than just love. Masterfully edited by Shane Carruth and David Lowery, the film's slipstream storytelling technique, intuitive and abstracted, is a vital part of the experience, making this a film you feel as much as understand. Carruth is also the film's (deep breath) writer, director, cinematographer, producer, composer, male lead and distributor, making "Upstream Color" itself a kind of monument to artistic ambition.
Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" plays out as a party that never stops, exciting, dangerous and exhausting. At one point a young woman played by Selena Gomez wistfully wonders why a blissfully idyllic moment can't go on, why she can't "just click it and freeze it" stretching a moment to last forever. The film's looping, trance-like structure also mirrors this impulse to self-documentation that has become a crucial part of this era of Instagram, et al.
If "Spring Breakers" ultimately finds something positive in this ambition to become whoever you want to be, Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" in a way finds nothing at all. The film, based on real events, seems scared stiff, recoiling in horror as it depicts a group of L.A. young people obsessed by fame, status and material goods. More than once, images click by as characters arrange their lives, seemingly their very beings, via their Facebook pages.
"The Bling Ring" creates a sensation of withered, hollowed-out blankness. And lest anyone accuse Coppola of being merely another symptom of the problem she depicts, she signals her self-awareness straight-away with her title card near the beginning of the film. As the camera glides over gaudy costume jewelry, her credit is bisected by one extra-tacky piece, so that the image on screen reads "written and directed by [rich bitch] Sofia Coppola." She gets it.
The most positive of these films on technology and transformation may be Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess," which is set at an early '80s convention/competition of computer programmers. There would be none of the advances in "Her" without the seemingly obtuse endeavors of the unrepentant nerds depicted here.
Shot on modified vintage black-and-white video equipment, the film looks back in time to contemplate the future, directly confronting, as does "Her," the notion of artificial intelligence and at what point do humans and machines diverge.
"Computer Chess" becomes a celebration of dreamers and weirdos following their passions with a spiritual fervor. When a programmer's machine seems to begin making decisions on its own, he notes with a hint of quizzical pride, "OK, that's kind of new."
These stories circle around a sense of transition and transformation, anxiety over how we interact and live our modern lives, and what comes next.
Yet in "Her," "Spring Breakers," "Upstream Color" and "Computer Chess," that fear does not by definition lead to a negative result. Instead many filmmakers are finding possibility and freedom, not a soulless dead end but an infinite future.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun