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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Not all Young Adult Fiction adaptations are created equal.
Riding the Twilight wave has its advantages and disadvantages, the keystone of the Young Adult fiction genre working as a hook for enthusiastic readers, and a warning sign for those who caught the early exploits of Bella and Edward. Beautiful Creatures owes its cinematic existence to the uber-successful series, but the connective tissue ends there. Based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the movie is ripe with energy, drawing from its preserved, Southern gothic setting of South Carolina, two vivacious young romantics, and an ensemble of seasoned vets who chew up their scenes with twang. Beautiful Creatures doesn't wallow in relationships, it sparks them with frank sexuality and a dash of biting commentary. So long, Twilight.
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Alden Ehrenreich (Tetro) stars as Ethan, an ambitious resident of Gatlin, SC who dreams big and has a particular penchant for plowing through the town's banned book list (yes, even in modern times, there are people who don't see To Kill a Mockingbird as reading fit for teenagers). Waking him up from the doldrums of suburban life is new student Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert of Ginger & Rosa), niece of the towns' notorious Ravenwood family, who becomes the target of public shaming. Beautiful Creatures does not skirt around the strong Christian influence of Southern culture and, as someone the kids believe is a Devil worshipper, Lena is an instant outcast under violent, verbal attack. Quite literally, kids pray in the class room to protect themselves from Lena's bad vibes. If Ethan didn't find the girl attractive in her own right, her position at the bottom of the social ladder fuels his infatuation.
Because today's young romances demand a supernatural element, Lena eventually reveals to her courter that she's a "caster," the nice word for witch in the world of Beautiful Creatures. When Lena turns 16, she'll be subject to "The Claiming," a decision (made by the moon?) that will force her to either the light, nice and peachy side, or the dark, wicked and bloodthirsty side of casting. It's a countdown for Ethan, who realizes he has little time to connect with and possibly save his newfound love. Believing she has the ability to choose her fate, patriarch Macon Ravenwood guides Lena in the ways of the light — while disapproving of her relationship with Ethan.
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The magic logic is as ridiculous and overly complex as it sounds, but Beautiful Creatures writer/director Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S I Love You) never loses track of his characters and their interesting quirks. Jeremy Irons is a master spinster of exposition — if his Macon is laying down a mythology-building speech or rattling off the "rules of the Ravenwood family curse," it all sounds like Shakespeare. Emma Thompson does double duty in this department, playing the disturbingly conservative Mrs. Lincoln with recognizable, motherly terror, and her alter ego, a version of Lincoln possessed by a banished witch looking for revenge on Lena. Thompson spars with Macon and cackles in all her thick Southern accent glory, jumping between personas without a misstep. It's glorious.
LaGravenese makes two inspired discoveries with Ehrenreich and Englert, who set the bar for performances in the genre. Ehrenreich is charming and warm, acting like an actual human being in the midst of a fantasy. He makes adorably awful small talk to woo Lena, he worries about her when she destroys the windows of a classroom with her mind, he becomes vicious when the Ravenwoods attempts to interfere with their relationship — all natural. Englert is like a young Kathleen Turner, her husky voice and sharp wit turning Alice into an unusually strong female lead. The young caster is vulnerable as her relationship blossoms, but fully capable of turning a family dinner into a merry-go-round from hell. The two are electric on screen, even at their campiest moments. Yes, they're destined lovers, descendants of a couple murdered during the Civil War, but even without the back story, Alice and Alden have a sweet, scary, and fiery romance.
At nearly two hours, Beautiful Creatures could stand to lose a few plot threads — Emmy Rossum arrives halfway through as Lena's Siren cousin, a painful attempt by the actress to steal the spotlight with exaggeration — but stands as proof that tween source material can be done right. As it does with the cast, the film is enhanced by its moody visuals and engaging soundtrack by alternative rock band Thenewno2, all setting the tone for Alden and Alice's fateful entanglement. The movie shows no fear depicting teens in love or the ramifications of America's belief system — touchy subjects that feel daring in a Hollywood production. That's the movie's real magic.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures]
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