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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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
Plenty of sitcoms change their course after the first season. 30 Rock tightened up its form and got rid of Rachel Dratch playing a whole host of characters, Family Matters enlisted Urkel to go from a family comedy to a giant excuse for him to drop his signature catch phrase, and even The New Girl relied less on Jess and more on her breakout roommates. Things change. That's cool. But nothing in modern memory has changed as much or as drastically as Up All Night. The first episode of the show's second season aired last night on NBC and we barely recognized it.
When the show debuted it was supposed to be about Reagan (Christina Appelgate), a working mother who was balancing the needs of her baby, her lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-dad husband Chris (Will Arnett), and her daytime diva boss Ava (Maya Rudolph). In season two, it is not about any of that at all. In fact, it's about the opposite.
As the episode kicks off, we learn that Ava's show has been cancelled, leaving both her and Reagan out of a job. Chris decides to go back to work as a lawyer so Reagan can stay home with the baby. But then he changes his mind. Instead, he quits his new/old job and decides to start a construction business with Reagan's newly-introduced younger brother Scott (Luka Jones). Yes, the show has gone from being about what happens when formerly hip people have a baby to being a crazy workplace drama about a working mother with pressures at home to being yet another show about how all women want to raise their babies while a father goes out and pursues his ludicrous dreams. This new show is not what I signed up for when I put the season pass into my DVR last September.
It took awhile for Up All Night to find its groove, but by the end of season one it was something really different an interesting, hence the season pass. It was a funny take on women having it all and the sacrifices men must make for that to happen. That is not like anything else that has ever been on TV. Also, everything involving Ava was hysterical. Rudolph's character is the funniest thing on the show (I would give her the Outstanding Funny Lady on a Comedy Show Emmy if I could) as was her dim bulb assistant Missy and her ongoing rivalry with a former protege turned fellow talk show host played with great bile by Megan Mullally. These were the things I loved most about the show, and now they are all gone.
I always said that the show would need more interesting characters if it wanted to survive for the long-term and yes, it needed a shift from Season 1, but I think this was the wrong direction. If I were running the show (and there is a reason I am writing about it and not actually running it) I would have bet everything on the Ava show, since that was usually the funniest and most rewarding part of the half hour. Instead it got the chop altogether. And Molly Shannon's wacky nanny and Will Forte as Chris' silly best friend don't seem to be around either, sadly. Where are all the great things about this show that I loved?
What's most troubling is this seems like the dramatic repositioning that a show goes through once it's in decline, when its best years are behind it, its big stars are leaving, and it needs a new hook (there's a reason you don't remember Laverne and Shirley moving to LA). The core cast of Up All Night, always its best asset, can do wonders with even the worst material (remember Arnett making it through the awful Running Wilde?) and they may have great new material to work with but where is the show we know and loved? If it was going to be overhauled so dramatically, why not just give it the axe and start over? What was great and refreshing was this was a female-centric show that looked at motherhood and family life in a totally revolutionary way. What we have now is a woman at home, a guy at work, and a standard sitcom formula. Let's hope these are just growing pains (not the Kirk Cameron show) and not a death knell.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: NBC]
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Who would have guessed that Bud Selig is a revolutionary thinker?
(Who would have guessed that Bud Selig of all people would give me fodder for an article?)
Baseball's commish has ratified the owners' vote to drop two Major League Baseball teams before the start of next season. (Never mind the myriad legal battles that stand in his way.)
Now that the nation's downsizing trend has made its way to baseball burgs, Hollywood.com has taken the "drop-two" concept to entertainment groupings that might need a trim.
And, unlike baseball, we're not afraid to name our two, either.
Group: Harry Potter characters
Which Two Get Canned: Professor Dumbledore and Hermione Granger
Why: Both are stuck-up, righteous, know-it-alls. Who needs 'em?
Group: ABC primetime shows
Which Two Get Canned: Dharma & Greg, America's Funniest Home Videos
Why: True, the whole lineup deserves to be canned, but these shows rotted on the vine a long time ago.
Group: 'N Sync
Which Two Get Canned: Lance and Joey
Why: For one, they can't sing. For two, they starred in that God-awful movie, On the Line.
Group: James Bond movies
Which Two Get Canned: The Living Daylights, License to Kill
Why: Even George Lazenby was a better Bond than the wooden Mr. Dalton.
Which Two Get Canned: Ross and Monica
Why: The other four--especially Chandler--are actually funny at times.
Group: Destiny's Child
Which Two Get Canned: The two who aren't Beyonce
Why: Because we don't even know the names of the two who aren't Beyonce.
Group: Jackson 5
Which Two Get Canned: Marlon, Randy
Why: As if we'd ever get rid of Tito...
Group: Star Trek
Which Two Get Canned: Sulu, Transporter Chief Kyle
Why: They're the first two to go when a recession finally hits the Federation.
Group: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Which Two Get Canned: Commander Riker, Wesley Crusher
Why: Extraneous. Captain Picard needs Riker like he needs a third leg, and the young Mr. Crusher is just a skinny snot rag.
Group: Led Zeppelin
Which Two Get Canned: John Bonham, John Paul Jones
Why: They aren't Robert Plant or Jimmy Paige. This was essentially a two-man band.
Group: The Brady Bunch
Which Two Get Canned: Jan, Sam
Why: Their names have three letters. And Jan is just a whiny little snot rag. Hmm, maybe she should date Wesley Crusher.
Group: Rocky Franchise
Which Two Get Canned: IV, V
Why: Five was way too many Rocky movies. Even Sugar Ray Leonard didn't un-retire this many times.
Group: Late night TV hosts
Which Two Get Canned: Conan O'Brien, Charles Grodin
Why: Can't get rid of Jay or David; they have too much money. And we like Craig Kilborn and Charlie Rose too much.
Group: Star Wars movies
Which Two Get Canned: Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace
Why: Jedi was the weak link of the first trio, and Attack of the Clones--despite the inane title--will be infinitely better than Phantom Menace.
Which Two Get Canned: Chloe, Luka
Why: Both of them have lost that lovin' feeling.
Which Two Get Canned: Ringo, George
Why: (See comment above, re: Led Zeppelin.)
Group: The Simpsons
Which Two Get Canned: Skinner's mom, Rod Flanders
Why: Agnes had sex with the Comic Book Guy, which is unforgivable. Rod, the elder Flanders son, has already left the straight-and-narrow path set by his dad: How boring.
And an honorable mention goes to The Sopranos, who don't need to be on this list. They do a good enough job of contraction all by themselves.