Spike Jonze doesn't waste any time introducing us to the technology at the center of Her. "An operating system that can mimic human sentience?" a dangerously lonely Joaquin Phoenix wonders after catching glimpse of an ad in a transit station. "Don't mind if I do!" (He doesn't actually say that, don't worry.) But by the time we're meant to believe that such a world can seamlessly integrate characters like Scarlett Johansson's automated voice Samantha into the lives of living, breathing men and women like Phoenix's Theodore, we're already established residents of this arresting, icy, quivering world the filmmaker has built. We meet Theodore midway through his recitation of a "handwritten letter" he penned on behalf of a woman to her husband of many years. That's his job — tapping into his own unique sensititivies to play ghostwriter for people hoping to adorn their spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and children with personal notes of personal affection. Theodore is no independent contractor; he's part of a thriving company, and we almost get the feeling that the folks on the receiving end of these letters are in the know. Before we ever encounter Samantha, we're embedded in the central conceit of the movie: emotional surrogacy is an industry on the rise.
What makes Jonze's world so palatable is that, beneath its marvelously eerie aesthetic, this idea is barely science-fiction. Theodore, humbled and scarred by a recent divorce from lifelong love Catherine (Rooney Mara, who contrasts Johansson by giving a performance that, for a large sum of the movie, is all body and no voice), accesses the will to go on through interractions with video game characters and phone-sex hotlines. But the ante is upped with Samantha, the self-named operating system that Theodore purchases to stave off loneliness, deeming choice a far less contorting one than spending time with old pals like Amy (Amy Adams)... at first.
Samantha evolves rather quickly from an articulate Siri into a curious companion, who is fed and engaged by Theodore just as much as she feeds and engages him. Jonze paces his construction of what, exactly, Samantha is so carefully that we won't even catch the individual steps in her change — along with Theodore, we slowly grow more and more enamored and mystified by his computer/assistant/friend/lover before we can recognize that we're dealing with a different being altogether from the one we met at that inceptive self-aware "H-hello?" But Jonze lays tremendous groundwork to let us know this story is all for something: all the while, as the attractions build and the hearts beat faster for Samantha, we foster an unmistakable sense of doom. We can't help but dread the very same perils that instituted one infamous admission: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
But Jonze's sci-fi constructs are so cohesively intertwined with his love story that our dread doesn't exactly translate to an anticipation of HAL's hostile takeover. Her wedges us so tightly between Theodore and Samantha that our fears of the inevitable clash between man and machine apprehend a smaller, more intimate ruin. As Samantha's growth become more surprising and challenging to Theodore, to herself, and to us, the omens build for each.
And although all three parties know better, we cannot help but affix ourselves to the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha, and to the possibility that we're building toward something supreme. A good faction of this is due to the unbelievable performances of Phoenix — representing the cautious excitement that we all know so painfully well — and Johansson, who twists her disembodied voice so empathetically that we find ourselves, like Theodore, forgetting that we have yet to actually meet her. The one castigation that we can attach to the casting of Johansson is that such a recognizable face will, inevitably, work its way into our heads when we're listening to her performance. It almost feels like a cheat, although we can guarantee that a performance this good would render a figure just as vivid even if delivered by an unknown.
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In this way, Her is as effective a comment on the healthiest human relationships as it is on those that rope in third parties — be they of the living, automated, or greeting card variety. In fact, the movie has so many things to say that it occasionally steps on its own feet, opening up ideas so grand (and coloring them so brightly) that it sometimes has trouble capping them coherently. Admittedly, if Spike Jonze had an answer to some of the questions he's asking here, he'd probably be suspected of himself being a super-intelligent computer. But in telling the story of a man struggling to understand what it means to be in love, to an operating system or not, Jonze invites us to dissect all of the manic and trying and wonderful and terrifying and incomprehensible elements therein. Just like Samantha, Her doesn't always know what to do with all of its brilliance. But that might be part of why we're so crazy over the both of them.
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Now that the Oscars are behind us, we can get back to the things that really matter…like heightening our senses for films to keep on our radar for next year’s ballot. If Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has taught us anything, it’s that the Oscars love family dramas; family dramas like this week’s Being Flynn. Despite it’s title, Being Flynn has absolutely nothing to do with Tron. The Flynn in this case is Nick Flynn, a young man who works in a homeless shelter in Boston. While there, he is suddenly confronted with his estranged, conman father. Based on a true story, Being Flynn has all the makings of a powerfully jarring drama. While the film’s main stars are Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, there are a few young, up-and-coming actors to be found in the cast as well. One such performer is the beautiful and talented Olivia Thirlby.
Probably the role for which she’s most known, if you’re lucky enough to already know who she is, Olivia Thirlby appeared in the hit 2007 indie comedy hit Juno. The film centers on a high school girl, a social misfit named Juno, who accidentally manages to get pregnant by her longtime best friend. The film is a straightforward, yet charmingly quirky deconstruction of societal standards and traditional family values. Thirlby plays Juno’s best friend Leah who is an absolute riot. The things that come flying unrestrained from her mouth maybe the product of Diablo Cody’s wildly eccentric script, but Thirlby’s delivery is simply outstanding.
New York, I Love You
I really love anthology films. They allow multiple filmmakers to add their own perspective to one overall vision. And even if one individual story doesn’t work, you don’t have to suffer it long before an entirely new tale unfolds. In 2009, a conglomeration of directors got together to create a celluloid collage entitled New York, I Love You. The film is actually the follow-up to 2007’s Paris, Je t’aime, which featured several tales of love and human connections in the city of light. New York ,I Love You similarly explores love, but this time in the city that never sleeps. Thirlby turns in a rather meta performance as an actress in the segment directed by Brett Ratner.
Thirlby reveled as the feisty first love of a young and depressed drug dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), who also happens to be the chief supplier of her psychologist stepfather's (Ben Kingsley) regular intake of marijuana. Thirlby played the spirited love interest in a way we haven't seen before. Her character was inspiring, but not without her own pain and darkness weighting her down. Working in accordance with writer/director Jonathan Levine's fun and interesting script, Thirlby created an unforgettable and full character who, in the wrong hands, could have turned out to be just a vehicle for Peck's journey.
Bored to Death
Though short-lived, the HBO series Bored to Death made quite an impression with fans. The show follows a writer named Jonathan Ames, played by Jason Schwartzman, who spends his evenings working as a private detective. Co-starring Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson, Bored to Death is an off-the-wall satire of film noir and Raymond Chandler-type detective stories. Thirlby plays Suzanne, Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend who ends up providing a great deal of the character’s motivation and anguish throughout the first season. Considering how gorgeous as Thirlby is, I guess we can understand his unwillingness to accept that their relationship is kaput.
This entry may seem like a bit of a cheat, as it hasn’t been released yet, but Pete Travis’ Dredd represents one of the biggest reasons you’re going to want to become very familiar with Thirlby and soon. Dredd is the reboot of the comic book character Judge Dredd, whose escapades were already brought the screen once in the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone. Judge Dredd exists in a dystopian future in which criminality has become such a problem that a special police force is tasked with acting as judge, jury, and executioner right at the scene of the crime. As much as I thoroughly love the campy, cheesy goodness of Judge Dredd, I am very much looking forward to seeing Karl Urban’s take on the character and seeing Thirlby dish out justice right alongside the helmeted hero.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.