REVIEW: Her

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Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

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And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

There was a man sitting in front of me during The Wolf of Wall Street who was in such anguish during the entire three hours that he asked his girlfriend multiple times if they could leave “this foolishness.” She sat almost entirely in silence, whispering something along the lines of “If you wanna leave, leave,” a couple of different times.

Loud bursts of hysterical laughter also popped up throughout the theater during the movie as well, as a bunch of white collar Wall Street crooks in the ’80s and ’90s made a debauched spectacle of their privileged lives in ways that nearly transcend vulgarity.  Several people walked out, though the agonized boyfriend/husband sat it out until the end.

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Our Favorite Performances of 2013

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1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street- A career-best performance for DiCaprio in his thrilling latest collaboration with Martin Scorsese.  He gives off machine-gun bursts of energy as Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort and shows an amazing knack for both physical and verbal comedy that his often-serious portrayals don’t let him bring out.  It’s both loud and rambunctious and deeply nuanced.  (Added Dec. 30) 

Frances Ha

2. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha- This fantastic turn is the stunning result of Greta Gerwig’s New Wave collaboration with director Noah Baumbach.  While also serving as co-writer of the movie, Gerwig captures a rocky period of this 27-year-old dancer wannabe’s life with a contagious charm.  The movie is very much built around her unpredictability, and she captures the pain and anxiety of post-college youth without overplaying her hand.  She is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dreams are her own.

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3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s latest simply wouldn’t have been as good without this thunderous performance from Cate Blanchett.  She manages the difficult task of creating a loathsome woman that also elicits pity.  After a long string of privileged existence, Jasmine is finally forced to confront the depths of her mental instability when her Madoff-esque husband is caught.  Blanchett gazes unflinchingly into the abyss of depression with raw feeling and crucial sympathy.

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