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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If no one kills themselves while watching Little Fockers this weekend it will be a Christmas miracle. Sure there have been some bad films so far this year but none will make you long for the merciful touch of the Grim Reaper upon your shoulder like the latest entrant in the Meet the Parents saga. And this is coming from someone who actually enjoys the original film (and reluctantly tolerates the second).
Looking on the sunny side of things however at least Little Fockers is the best alien invasion film of 2010. I mean that is the narrative here right? Pod people have taken over the lives of the Fockers and the Byrnes replacing their once moderately charming attempts at bumbling-based comedy with some kind of extra-terrestrial anti-comedy designed to test the patience of normal human beings. That's the only rational defense of the film I can think of. Surely no one who actually lives on planet Earth thinks that you can fashion a complete motion picture — particularly one starring Robert De Niro Ben Stiller Teri Polo Blythe Danner Owen Wilson Harvey Keitel Laura Dern and yes even Jessica Alba — out of nothing but a chain that interlinks the most face-palming no-one-acts-like-that misunderstandings possible with repeated fart barf and penis humor.
Grandpa Jack (De Niro) is getting to be an old man so he tells son-in-law Gaylord Focker that he needs to take over as the Godfocker. This piece of information is the alien code word that turns the previously-normal Gaylord into Pod Person Gaylord. He instantly begins to act out of character deciding for no clear reason that his twin five-year olds who have a fast-approaching birthday must now attend a prestigious private school that is way out of the family's budget. Pod Gaylord then decides to give in to pharmaceutical representative Jessica Alba's flirting and become a spokesperson for an erectile dysfunction drug.
Meanwhile Owen Wilson has re-entered the lives of the Fockers as Pod Kevin a world-travelling philosophically-confused twit whom everyone worships for no apparent reason. Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are back as well as Roz and Bernie Focker with the former now being the host of a talk show about sex toys and the latter suffering from a bout of "manopause" that finds him in Spain learning to be a World Class flamenco dancer. How does the re-integration of these three characters pay off exactly? Well Grandpa Jack wants to convince his daughter and happily married mother of his two grandchildren to divorce Pod Gaylord and marry Pod Kevin. Pod Roz's free-spirited theories about sex result in Pod Grandpa Jack getting an erection for five-and-a-half hours (and don't think for a second you'll be spared the image of an erect penis in Robert De Niro's pants). As for Bernie Focker ... well that one's tricky. As near as I can tell the only reason his character is conceived as being obsessed with the flamenco is so he can later inexplicably dance with a jiggly bra-clad Jessica Alba for approximately six seconds.
I'd apologize for that being a poor summary of the premise of Little Fockers but it's sadly an incredibly accurate one. There's no plot here. It's just a collection of scenes that ineptly fit together solely because they have the same people in them. And if this material is what passes for a feature film I cannot even fathom what the deleted scenes on the DVD will look like.
The crime here isn't even the bad (and often childish) jokes it's that all of the adults involved appear to have suddenly forgotten how to tell jokes at all. Words just tumble out of the actors' mouths never ever finding purchase with the audience. But that's okay because as soon as one gag arrives stillborn director Paul Weitz (who is taking over for previous series auteur Jay Roach) and screenwriters John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey will break their necks trying to turn their attention to the next bit of hilarity. And the most astounding thing — the clincher that will make you want to stick a gun in your mouth — is that despite running from scene-to-scene as fast as possible Little Fockers feels like it's never going to end. You may think that it'll be passable light entertainment at just 98 minutes but you dangerously forget that these are 98 minutes of alien anti-comedy which equate to over 9000 minutes of human failure.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Cliff and Cydney are happy newlyweds headed to Hawaii for a quiet honeymoon on a remote portion of the island of Kauai. Their marital bliss is abruptly interrupted however when they receive word that just a few days prior a pair of newlyweds not unlike themselves were murdered on Maui and that the killers believed to be a man and a woman were still at large.
Dismayed by the unsettling news Cliff and Cydney nonetheless resolve to move forward with their honeymoon but start to become anxious when they encounter not one but two exceedingly strange couples each of whom seemingly fit the profile of the killers. Miles away from civilization unable to get a decent cell phone signal and seemingly surrounded by possible murderers they begin to wonder if they might be the next victims.
WHO’S IN IT?
Playing the part of Cliff is Steve Zahn a prolific character actor best known for supporting roles in films like Rescue Dawn and Sunshine Cleaning. As a jittery Hollywood screenwriter who too often lets his overactive imagination get the best of him Zahn’s performance is the most credible aspect of the movie. In the role of his wife Cydney is Resident Evil series star Milla Jovovich demonstrating how truly unremarkable she can be when not cast opposite expressionless zombies.
Despite being saddled with most of the film’s worst lines Hitman star Timothy Olyphant proves convincing as Nick a wild-eyed survivalist who claims to have served as an army special forces operative in Iraq. Laying it on a little too thick with the fake Southern accent is Kiele Sanchez who plays Nick’s equally suspicious girlfriend.
Director David Twohy (Pitch Black The Chronicles of Riddick) makes an earnest attempt at crafting a modern-day murder mystery and for the most part he does a commendable job of messing with audience expectations setting the stage for a major second-act plot twist that proves every bit as surprising as advertised.
Twohy is one of the more likable Hollywood directors and it’s good to see him back from the dead after the Riddick disaster set fire to his career. Unfortunately he falls headlong into the M. Night Shyamalan trap with A Perfect Getaway focusing too much on pulling off the big twist and forsaking just about every other element of the movie. To be fair Twohy’s film isn’t nearly as dreadful as Shyamalan’s recent Razzie-amassing efforts like The Happening and Lady in the Water but its deficiencies are similarly multifaceted. Awkward dialogue mediocre performances by Jovovich and Sanchez and an excessively aimless pre-twist plotline are just a few of the problems that plague the movie.
But my biggest gripe with A Perfect Getaway is that Twohy fills the story with so many seemingly important plot devices which end up going nowhere that the film could very well be re-titled Red Herring: The Movie. At a certain point you throw up your hands and ask “Well then is any of this s--t real?” And the answer is: No probably not. But isn’t Kauai beautiful?
Admittedly the twist is pretty darn clever. Too bad we have to wait over an hour to see it.
The climax features an excruciating scene in which a key character’s cell phone previously assumed to be out of service receives a sales call from an Indian-accented telemarketer. Rather than simply hang up and dial 911 the character pleads with the befuddled phone company rep to alert the police with predictable lack of success. All this while a deranged killer stalks the vicinity. Characters that stupid deserve to die.