Friday, January 17, 2014

Her

Upon hearing the premise of the film Her, it's easy to get a misconception of what this movie is about. You may have gotten the impression it's about a pathetic loser who is so hopeless at interacting with people that he develops a relationship with the operating system on his phone. Yes, the film is about a man who falls in love with his phone, but he's not some sort of loser with social issues. Rather, Her is a movie about how our relationship with technology is changing, and the strange consequences that result from us trying to make technology easier to interact with. It's a story about falling in love with an artificial intelligence that's advanced enough to have a self aware consciousness.

The film is set in a near future where technology has changed how we interact with people. It doesn't really cast judgement on whether those changes are good or bad. Bluetooth earpieces make a comeback. People actually talk in chat rooms with their voices instead of typing. They send handwritten letters to each other, but they outsource them to a website called Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com. The main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), is a man going through a divorce. He upgrades the operating system on his phone and computer to a new one that uses artificial intelligence. After it personalizes itself to him, it takes on a female persona that names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

The film does an excellent job of making this seemingly absurd concept feel plausible. When Samantha and Theo first start talking, she comes off as just an easy to interact with operating system. She offers to help sort organize his emails and calendar. Then Theo finds himself talking to her about things that have nothing to do with organizing his life, and soon they find themselves attracted to each other.

Their relationship undergoes similar highs and lows as any human/human relationship would, except at its low points, Theo and other characters in the film do call attention to the fact that it is a relationship with a computer. It's because of moments like that, where the characters question the emotions they're feeling from technology (and the technology itself questions the emotions it feels from humans) the movie has a sort of prophetic feel to it. Her joins the ranks of other sci-fi classics such as Gattaca and Minority Report that are in many ways so on the nose with their premises that it feels like less of a question of "Could this happen?" and more of a question of "What do we do when this happens?"

Lets face it. We are actively working on making computers easier to interact with, and we're working on making artificial intelligence convincing enough to pass a turing test. I wouldn't be surprised if the first time most of us interacted with a true artificial intelligence it would be in the form of an operating system. Think of how big a deal Apple made about Siri on its iPhone. Imagine what a selling point it would be if a company came out with a computer you could actually converse with. The easier computers are to talk to, it's not too hard to imagine people feeling a bond of friendship with them, especially if computers are capable of showing friendship back.

Her is actually a much tamer film than you'd expect from writer/director Spike Jonze. Jonze's previous films have been unabashedly strange and surrealistic, such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, (both of which were written by the unquestionably strange Charlie Kaufman.) He's also known for music videos such as Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" and "Weapon of Choice." And of course there's his work in advertising, making ads such as the "Tainted Love" ad for Levi's and the greatest Gap commercial ever.

Considering how strange Jonze's filmography is, Her feels surprisingly down to earth. Yes, the film does have moments of quirkiness, such as having characters play unusual video games, and having high waisted pants be the go-to fashion trend, but it's light on the weirdness, so as not to distract from the characters.

Jonze made a brilliant choice in not giving Samantha a face. She's represented through abstract imagery on computers, but most of the time her only visual presence is as the phone or an earpiece. I think this is what sells the story the most. It shoots past the uncanny valley by not giving her some sort of faux human digital representation. Instead Samantha sounds like a woman Theo is having a conversation with on the phone. There were actually moments in the movie where I forgot that she wasn't somebody Theo was having a long distance relationship with over the phone, but rather the phone itself.

Of course since we never see Samantha, this means most of the dialogue between her and Theo involve long shots of Joaquin Phoenix staring off into space as he holds his end of the conversation. It does take some getting used to at first, but it also helps immerse you in his character.

The film also takes the high road in not representing the future as bleak, or our first encounter with a conscious AI as being apocalyptic. Considering that "future dystopia" and "robot uprising" are two of the most common tropes in science fiction, not using either one in a film set in the future, about computers, seems downright revolutionary. Her felt so grounded in a plausible reality, that when I saw the trailer for the upcoming film Transcendence, a thriller where a man's consciousness is uploaded into a computer and then turns evil, that premise felt hilariously absurd.

Her is an unexpectedly heavy and emotional film. You wouldn't think a movie about a man talking to a phone for two hours could emotionally resonate with you in the way a movie about a more conventional romance would, but Joaquin Phoenix's performance, and Jonze's writing and directing really drive it home. The relationship between Theo and Samantha feels real enough that as the logistical problems of a human and a program being in love present themselves, the tragic aspect of the story slowly creeps forth. Although the aesthetics of the movie may seem dated in a few years, I believe that the core story of Her will definitely age well.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The World's End


When I first saw Shaun of the Dead, I realized it an incredibly unique movie made by an extremely talented cast and crew. It manage to spoof zombie movies in a way that paid homage to them as well, and went far above the usual fare we see in parody movies today of just re-enacting famous scenes, but with jokes. It showed off writer/director Edgar Wright's ability to shift from horror to romance to drama to comedy, all without missing a beat. And of course, it introduced Americans to the onscreen duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

The three would reunite a few years later to make Hot Fuzz, a movie about a London cop sent to a peaceful village in the country, that starts out as a fish-out-of-water story, shifts into a film about a small town with a secret, throws in a few elements of slasher movies before exploding into a parody of Michael Bay action, all while being a buddy movie.

Somewhere along the line, the films became referred to as the first two parts in what is semi-officially known as the Cornetto Trilogy, called so because of how the films share themes of friendship, maturity, alcohol, violence, towns overrun by a menacing force, people trying to jump over fences, and a random appearance by a Cornetto ice cream cone. At long last, we've been given the third part of the trilogy with The World's End.

Like the other two films with Wright, Pegg and Frost, The World's End hops its way about film genres. It opens with Gary King (played by Simon Pegg) describing what he considers the best night of his life: attempting an epic pub crawl, known as The Golden Mile, with his high school best friends, back in their home town. However, they never managed to complete the crawl, so years later Gary becomes determined to round them all up, and finish what they started, making it through all twelve pubs to The World's End.

Then they realize their hometown has be conquered by alien robots.



Frost and Pegg switch out of their archetypal roles for this film. While the other Cornetto films had Pegg as the straight man, and Frost as his bumbling sidekick, in this film, Frost is the straight man, with Pegg acting like a full on maniac. I dare say that Pegg's portrayal of Gary King goes right up there with Shaun on the list of iconic sci-fi/comedy characters.

It's actually rather impressive how the film manages to stick to its core premise of friends reuniting for a pub crawl while all around them they're being threatened by increasingly hostile robots. It's largely due to Pegg's character being absolutely fixated on finishing the crawl, against all reason, forcing his friends to come along, if only to try and save him. Then again, that's what I love about movies written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. They manage to take a premise that should be a movie in itself, and make it the backdrop for a character driven story with characters you'd want to see in a movie even without the sci-fi shenanigans happening around them.

Another thing I was surprised by this movie was how it depicted a rather balanced view of drinking. Most movies I can think of that are about friends drinking tend to celebrate partying from top to bottom, with no real consequences. World's End is actually just as much about the fun of drinking as it is about the consequences. Nick Frost's character starts out the film as a teetotaler, telling his alcohol obsessed friend Gary, "You remember the Friday nights. I remember the Monday mornings."He talks about how it takes real balls to go into a pub, full of drunken rugby players, and just ask for a water. I just found it so refreshing to see a character in a movie about drinking, who abstains from drinking, and yet isn't depicted as some kind of square. Granted, Nick Frost's character does start drinking as the movie progresses, but then again wouldn't you if you found yourself surrounded by hostile alien robots?

While there are a few bits of dramatic moments throughout the film, World's End is at it's heart a very solid British comedy. I am a huge fan of how Wright's writing and directing style leads to fantastic moments of comedic timing, whether it's in the form of wordplay or visual gags. There are moments of witty dialogue exchanges followed by lowbrow slapstick humor, or highbrow visual gags mixed with bad puns and obscenities. It doesn't get too lowbrow though. The crudest joke in this film still manages to stay far, far, far classier than anything in this summer's other apocalyptic comedy, This Is The End.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is an "intellectual" comedy. However, it is a film that's so jam packed with subtle jokes and ingenious moments of foreshadowing that it warrants multiple viewings just to catch everything you might have missed the first time around. It's also funny as hell, which is of course the other reason to watch it multiple times.

The fight scenes in this movie are pretty damn impressive as well. Edgar Wright worked a good amount of action sequences into Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but where he really started to cut loose with filming fight scenes was in that non-Cornetto Trilogy movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. That film was loaded with over-the top fights, and Wright incorporates some of that into World's End. The bar fight scenes have ordinary Joes taking on a waves of martial arts savvy robots. It's crazy to watch, but the result is a depiction of what every imagine's he'd be like if he had to get his friends' backs in a bar fight. In other words, its some of the most epic fist fighting you'll ever see in a bar.

Even though The World's End is called the third part of the Cornetto Trilogy, here's hoping that it isn't the last film that Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost make as a trio. They just work too well as a trio to not give us more movies. Maybe they'll take a line from Douglas Adams, and give us more movies in The Increasingly Inaccurately Named Cornetto Trilogy. Although The World's End might not be on the same level as Shaun of the Dead, (That's a pretty hard one to top for anybody.) but it is certainly one of the best films to come out in 2013.

And it is best enjoyed with friends, and beer.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Shillito's Abandoned

A few weekends ago, (right before Halloween, in fact,) I had the opportunity to see the abandoned remains of the Shillito's Department Store building in Downtown Cincinnati. Shillito's had the distinction of being Cincinnati's first department store, opening for business all the way back in 1832. The department store chain was bought out by Lazarus, which in turn was bought out by Macy's. By the time Lazarus had taken over, the downtown store had been moved to a smaller location on Fountain Square, but the building that once housed Shillito's old downtown location is still standing. It has now been converted into the Lofts at Shillito Place as well as being the location for the Cincinnati office of Landor Associates. However, as I learned a few weekends ago, an absurdly large amount of the building remains unused, and unconverted from its department store days.

A one night only tour, called Shillito's Abandoned, gave Cincinnatians a rare glimpse to see the abandoned remains of the Shillito's Department store. The tour was put on by a team from Landor as part a fundraising event to help out Mike Amann, a member of Cincinnati's marketing and advertising community, who was battling cancer. Unfortunately, Mike passed away a few weeks after the event, though the fact his colleagues took the effort to put on such a unique event for him certainly speaks volumes of what he meant to his community.

I had been inside the apartment section of the Shillito's before. The building occupies half of a city block. The apartments are all located along the perimeter of part of the building, resulting in a rather spacious atrium. This section of the building alone looks like it would be more than enough room to house a major department store, so the fact that only about half of the building had been converted into into apartments showed just how prominent a role a downtown department store used to play in the days before shopping malls.

The portion of Shillito's that has been converted into apartments. 

Drywall separating the apartments from the abandoned side. 
Everybody in our group was handed a small LED flashlight, then taken up to the sixth floor in a freight elevator. At least, I think it was the sixth. Becoming slightly disoriented on the tour was not an uncommon occurrence.



On a side note, I just want to point out that for some reason my flashlight was blue, hence the blue hue in some of my photos. Also, I only had my iPhone on hand as a camera, and not my SLR, so the pictures didn't turn out as well as I would have liked, but you've got to work with the tools you have available.




The state of the space was extremely strange. On the one hand, it had all of the trappings of an abandoned building. Peeling wallpaper. Fixtures that had been ripped out in a haphazard manner. Broken glass. (As another side note, I do not remember signing a waiver to go on the tour. If anybody who put on the tour reads this, you might want to have those handy should you put another one of these tours on.)

On the other hand, parts of the building still showed signs of recent use. There were boxes for iMacs and Adobe Photoshop in random rooms. Some rooms were stocked with filing cabinets. There were beer bottles, graffiti and even evidence that a paintball game had taken place at some point.




I don't know why, but there's something just inherently creepy about a toilet in an abandoned building.



As best I can tell, the Landor team left the space mostly untouched for the tour, aside from adding a bit of ambient background noise in a few areas, and some signage to show which way to go to stay on the tour. The signage came very much in handy. Even though we had a guide on the tour, just about everybody on the tour (including myself) would find something interesting, go off to explore it, and have to run to catch up with the group. I felt a bit sorry for our guide, as keeping us moving through the building at a proper pace must have been like herding cattle.

I'd also like to point out that I missed getting shots of some parts of the tour, because of the brisk pace at which we moved. An iPhone camera is not ideal for taking low light photos in a hurry.





However, there was one place that they put a noticeable bit of effort into fixing up for the tour, and that was Santa Land.

I had initially thought that Santa Land was on the sixth floor of the building, and had been long ago converted into apartments. This is because a sign in the elevators for the apartments lists Santa Land as being on the sixth floor. I now realize that those signs are there just as an homage to the building's department store roots.

I suspect many 6th floor residents use "How about I take you to Santa Land?" as a pickup line.
No, Santa Land was on one of the lower levels of the building. I can't say with confidence what level that was because we were led through so many winding passages and stairwells that by the time we reached Santa Land, I had no real bearing for where we were in the building.

At the entrance to Santa Land they had set up a small bar in a room with a giant nutcracker, where Christmas music played, slowed down and remixed to sound sinister. On the walls were photos of what Santa Land looked like in its heyday. I can't say I envied the woman who was picked to act as bartender, as she probably had to wait all alone in the belly of the building with nothing but the creepy music to keep her company in the time between groups. In fact, once she realized that ours was the second to last group, sure she left enough drinks out for the final group, then packed up and got out of there.




Its a bit hard to tell from the photos, but Santa Land consisted of a walkway between various displays and stations that had performers and puppets. At least, that's what I assume it was like. I'm really just going by the old photographs that were posted on the wall. The space as it is today is really just a walkway set at weird angles with random alcoves off to the side.

Oh, and of course there was a giant display case at the end, which our guide informed us used to be filled with the very toys that were in Santa Land, so that kids could immediately show their parents which ones they wanted.



Exactly how much of the building was actually a shopping space and how much of it was offices for the Shillito's store, I can't say for sure. Our guide gave me the impression that at least some of the upper floors, where we started out our tour, was used for offices. However, as we moved through the lower floors, you could really tell how diverse the different departments in this department store used to be. It was essentially a shopping mall, before there were shopping malls. As you'll see in the photos below, there were quite a few departments you won't see in your average department store these days.

For example, there was the sporting goods department, which you could identify from the astroturf carpeting.



A wine department.


And a bank. It had teller windows and even a safe so large they just left it there, rather than trying to get it out of the building.


It's a bit hard to get a sense of scale in this picture, but this was a countertop revolving door.


There was even, what I think was once a Pizza Hut Express. I thought I saw a sign indicating that somewhere in the area.


The tour also led us through the back rooms of the building, such as the old boiler room and a few maintenance areas. It was hard to tell what parts of the building were still in use, and which were just relics. In one room there'd be modern cleaning supplies, and in another room there'd be a 1970's issue of Penthouse lying on the floor... which somebody in our group picked up

... I made a point to not shake that guy's hands from there on.






Even though it wasn't billed as a haunted building tour, our guide couldn't help but share a rumor about two homeless people who supposedly broke into the building and froze to death during a blizzard in the 80's. Also, some of the graffiti and signage did enough to instill a horror movie vibe without any help from our guide.


At this point it started to feel like we were in BioShock...

...Or one of the Fallout games.



Sometimes an Instagram filter is the only appropriate means for capturing a moment.


The Shillito's building represents such an oddity as far as downtown buildings go because it isn't exactly clear what can be done with the abandoned space. With so few windows in that section of the building, it can't really be turned into more apartments or office space, unless they can carve out windows in the walls (assuming they aren't load bearing.) I suppose there's always the option of restoring it as a downtown shopping destination, but with Tower Place closed (Cincinnati's former downtown mall) and with stores like Brooks Brothers and Saks Fifth Avenue relocating to Kenwood, mall-style shopping doesn't appear to be in downtown Cincinnati's near future.


So for now, it sits there abandoned, although I would like to thank the team from Landor, and everybody else involved in putting this tour together, for letting us Cincinnatians take a peek back there.

Now, if only I had some way of checking out the nearby abandoned Terrace Plaza Hotel...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Pogue's Garage

Adjacent to Tower Place is Pogue's Garage. As I've mentioned before, there are plans in place for both to be demolished, to be replaced by an apartment complex, grocery store, and a new parking garage. I decided to shoot photos of both locations, because I know that inevitably once Tower Place and the Garage are gone, people will wonder what used to be in those locations before.

Its surprisingly easy to forget what used to be in old locations once new properties have been built over them. For example, aside from The Old Spaghetti Factory and Riverfront Stadium, I can't really remember what (if anything) used to be on the riverfront before those buildings were demolished to make room for new stadiums. I'm also sure that many people have already forgotten the hodgepodge of restaurants between Calhoun and McMillain up near UC that were demolished to make room for the new apartments and shopping center. (The fact that there was about 7 years between when they were demolished and when the new buildings went up probably didn't help much either.)

That being said, I wanted to have some photographic evidence of what Tower Place and the Pogue's Garage looked like, at the very least to remind myself what they looked like. In a previous entry, I took photos of the now abandoned Tower Place. This entry will focus on Pogue's Garage.

Click on any photo to enlarge.


I'm presuming Pogue's Garage takes its name from the H&S Pogue department store that once stood where Tower Place is now. What I don't know is if it wound up being called Pogue's Garage because it was built to serve the department store, or just because of its vicinity to the site. The garage is fairly run down by now, although there are still some good aspects of it that will be missed once its gone.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the garage, as well as its most obvious flaw, is its relationship to the street. Unlike most garages which are accessed by turning off the street, into the garage, the main entrance ramp to Pogue's Garage is actually built out into a lane of traffic. This means anybody driving down 4th Street has to shift lanes just to avoid going into the garage.


On top of that, it isn't immediately apparent that there is a sidewalk path that goes around the entrance ramp. The way the sidewalk corridor is designed reminds me of that passageway by the caterpillar near the start of the movie Labyrinth. At first glance, it looks like the sidewalk dead ends into a concrete wall, and it's only when you walk towards it that you realize there's a passageway. Not that you'd want to use it anyways. It looks bleak and foreboding by day, and I can't imagine anybody wanting to use it by night.



However, there is one exceptionally good feature of the garage and that is the view you get of the city. In truth, almost any urban garage with a rooftop deck will give you a good view of the city its in, but the view from the top of Pogue's Garage is outstanding. Nestled between the Carew and PNC towers, its a great panoramic view that puts you at the middle level of the urban cityscape. You're well above street level, but you can still appreciate the soaring skyscrapers. The proposed new garage, which will be built in the site of Tower Place will probably offer a similar view, but this particular view will someday only be limited to those with rooftop access of the new apartment building.








This particular view will also chance once the Dunhumby building is completed, next to the Millenium Hotel
The buildings across the street from the garage are apparently filled to the brim with junk in their upper floors.


The other feature I love about the garage is the spiral exit ramp. From a functionality standpoint, it's probably less effective than having the exit and entrance routes be the same thing, and the tight spiral probably results in more than a few scuffed bumpers. I'm sure that for these reasons, you don't see this design in newer garages. The thing is, I find them to be fantastic from a visual standpoint, and kind of fun to drive down too.





Those two features aside, it's rather evident that the garage needs to come down. Just look at the ceiling of almost any level in the garage and you can see that the concrete has crumbled away enough to expose the rebar at several points. I'm not sure if it's the result of shoddy building materials or improper maintenance, but walking through the garage and seeing all of those cracks does not give one faith in its structural integrity.





Yes, that is a hand painted sign in the garage.