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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Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
For all the controversy and hype surrounding "Eyes Wide Shut," the film will most likely be remembered as director Stanley Kubrick's last opus -- finished just days before he died in his sleep March 7.
The 70-year-old eccentric filmmaker's career was founded on spectacle, from the shocking "A Clockwork Orange" to the profound "2001: A Space Odyssey." It somehow seemed fitting that "Eyes Wide Shut," despite the star talent of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, would make its mark by bearing the director's ghost.
The year that was marked the passing of other legends, as well -- from George C. Scott (Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" star) to singer Mel Tormé to movie critic Gene Siskel.
Some, like Sylvia Sidney and DeForest Kelley, died after long, rich careers; others, such as Dana Plato and David Strickland, succumbed in relative youth to their inner demons.
From marquee names to behind the sceners, Hollywood will mourn:
Kirk Alyn, 88, died March 14. In 1948, the first actor to play Superman on the big screen.
Hoyt Axton, 61, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Singer-actor who wrote hits such as Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World"; appeared in "Gremlins" and "The Black Stallion."
Ian Bannen, 71, died Nov. 3, car accident. Theater veteran who starred in "Waking Ned Devine," appeared in "Braveheart" and was nominated for an Oscar in 1965 for "Flight of the Phoenix."
Mary Kay Bergman, 38, died Nov. 11, suicide. Actress who voiced numerous "South Park" characters in the TV series and film.
Dirk Bogarde, 78, died May 8, heart attack. British veteran of more than 70 films, including "Death in Venice."
Rory Calhoun, 76, died April 28, emphysema and diabetes. Western film actor in the 1940s and '50s and star of CBS' "The Texan" series.
Allan Carr, 62, died June 29, cancer. Producer of the hit 1978 musical "Grease" and Tony Award winner for "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway.
Iron Eyes Cody, about 90, died Jan 4, natural causes. American American actor best known as the "Crying Indian" in 1970s anti-litter public-service announcements.
Ellen Corby, 87, died April 14. Oscar nominee for the 1948 film "I Remember Mama"; Emmy winner for her grandmother role on TV's "The Waltons."
Harry Crane, 85, died Sept. 14, cancer. Co-created the TV sitcom "The Honeymooners''; wrote for entertainers such as the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Bing Crosby.
Charles Crichton, 89, died Sept. 14. Acclaimed British director of film comedies, including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "A Fish Called Wanda."
Frank De Vol, 88, died Oct. 27, congestive heart failure. Film composer who received Oscar nominations for "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "Pillow Talk" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'' Wrote the theme music for TV's "The Brady Bunch."
Edward Dmytryk, 90, died July 1, heart and kidney failure. Directed films such as "The Caine Mutiny"; one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1940s Red Scare.
Allen Funt, 84, died Sept. 5, complications from stroke. Hosted and created prankster TV show "Candid Camera."
Betty Lou Gerson, 84, died Jan. 12, stroke. Provided the voice for villainess Cruella De Vil in Disney's 1961 animated "One Hundred and One Dalmatians."
Ernest Gold, 77, died March 17, complications from stroke. Composer for films such as "It's a Man, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; won an Academy Award for "Exodus."
Sandra Gould, 73, died July 20, stroke. Played nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on TV's "Bewitched."
Huntz Hall, 78, died Jan. 30, heart failure. Starred in more than 100 "Dead End Kids" and "Bowery Boys" films in the 1930s through the '50s.
Brion James, 54, died Aug. 7, heart attack. Played the murderous droid Leon in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner."
Madeline Kahn Madeline Kahn, 57, died Dec. 3, ovarian cancer. Oscar-nominated actress-comedian who starred in "Blazing Saddles" and "Paper Moon."
Garson Kanin, 86, died March 13, heart failure. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Adam's Rib," "Pat and Mike"); penned hit play "Born Yesterday." DeForest Kelley
DeForest Kelley, 79, died June 11, long illness. Starred as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on TV's original "Star Trek" series and in several of the franchise's big-screen movies.
Richard Kiley, 76, died March 5, bone marrow disease. Actor/singer best known for introducing audiences to original power ballad, "The Impossible Dream," via Broadway's "Man of La Mancha."
Stanley Kubrick, 70, died March 7 in his sleep. Acclaimed director of films such as "Dr. Strangelove," "Spartacus," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining."
Desmond Llewelyn, 85, died Dec. 19, car accident. British actor who played James Bond's gadget-guru Q through "From Russia With Love" (1963) to "The World Is Not Enough" (1999).
Victor Mature, 86, died Aug. 4, cancer. Hunky star of the 1940s and 50s, with leading roles in "Samson and Delilah" and "My Darling Clementine."
Jay Moloney, 35, died Nov. 16, suicide. Talent agent known as the "boy wonder," who once represented Hollywood heavies such as Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Clayton Moore, 85, died Dec. 28, heart attack. Longtime star of TV's "The Lone Ranger."
Dana Plato, 34, died May 8, apparent accidental drug overdose. Former child star of the 1970s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."
Abraham Polonsky, 88, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Body and Soul"); one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
Mario Puzo, 78, died July 2, heart failure. Novelist/screenwriter ("The Godfather") who two Oscars for his screenplays for "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974).
Irving Rapper, 101, died Dec. 20. Golden-era director best known for collaborating with Bette Davis on four films, including "Now, Voyager" (1942).
Oliver Reed, 61, died May 2, apparent heart attack. British actor best known for starring in "Oliver!" and "Women in Love."
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, 94, died April 21, natural causes. Starred in 1927's "Wings," the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar; widower of silent-star Mary Pickford.
George C. Scott George C. Scott, 71, died Sept. 22, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Gruff-voiced leading man who starred in "Dr. Strangelove" and "Anatomy of a Murder." Won (and refused) the Oscar for 1970's "Patton"; won Emmy and Golden Globe for 1997's Showtime film "12 Angry Men."
Sylvia Sidney, 88, died July 1, throat cancer. Veteran actress whose career spanned the 1930s through the 1990s. Nominated for an Oscar for 1973's "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams." Gene Siskel
Gene Siskel, 53, died Feb. 20, brain tumor. With Roger Ebert, the nation's most influential movie critic and purveyor of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" rating system on their syndicated TV series. Writer for Chicago Tribune.
Susan Strasberg, 60, died Jan. 21, breast cancer. Theater/TV/film actress ("The Diary of Anne Frank"); daughter of famed acting guru Lee Strasberg; cohort of Marilyn Monroe.
David Strickland, 29, died March 23, suicide. Co-star of the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan"; played a lovelorn ex-boyfriend in "Forces of Nature" (1999).
Mel Torme, 73, died June 5, complications from stroke. Velvety crooner of jazz and pop, who co-wrote "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."
Norman Wexler, 73, died Aug. 23, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Joe" and "Serpico." Also wrote "Saturday Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive."
John Woolf, 86, died June 28, heart failure. British producer of "Oliver!" and "The African Queen."