Movie Journal # 4: HER and Other Diversions


HER arrives at an age when computers play an increasingly prevalent role in our lives. Compared to even a decade ago, items like smartphones have transformed how large segments of our society appear and behave; this film looks further ahead to an unspecified but none-too-distant future where an OS (operating system) is more a companion than just a mere tool–it has an interactive personality, as if Siri or a GPS voice had a mind of its own.

While not an entirely new premise (see ELECTRIC DREAMS or hell, even DEMON SEED), it nonetheless feels new here. Writer/director Spike Jonze opens up this notion by using it as a catalyst to examine how and why personal relationships work or fail. His protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), has a job as a letter writer, living vicariously through the words he composes for other people, trying to fill a void in his own life left by a failed marriage. Soon, his computer’s new interactive OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) more swiftly and effectively fills that void.

Although Samantha’s not a human, she’s real enough for Theodore—the brilliance and beauty of HER is in how affecting and, well, convincing their relationship becomes. Rather than aiming for satire, Jonze is completely sincere in depicting how and why any two personalities can bond and fall in love (the film’s numerous montages centered on this process, such as when Theodore carries Samantha along with him to the beach are highlights). Fortunately, Jonze is also shrewd enough to know how inherently absurd and problematic it is for a man to fall in love with his computer; his resolution of this comes in an unexpected manner, poetic and mysterious but also a bit calculated, grasping for an explicable conclusion to a set-up that does not easily lend itself to one.

And yet, HER concludes in a good place as Theodore takes away something vital and enriching from the whole experience. This is Phoenix’s most surprising performance to date: his Theodore is soft-spoken and a little reticent (the owlish glasses and bushy moustache serve as shields) yet he’s altogether emphatic, yearning with desire to love and be loved. Amy Adams is also terrific as his platonic best friend with relationship issues of her own. Although an unknown actress might have proven less distracting voicing Samantha, Johansson exudes enough charisma that I haven’t admired her so much since LOST IN TRANSLATION. Jonze’s best film since BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, this very different work nearly matches it in ingenuity and exceeds it in heart. Grade: A

With layers of surface reveling in all matters of period taste (some good, the majority bad), it’s not difficult to find immediate pleasure in David O. Russell’s 1978-set account of a con artist ring known as ABSCAM—just one look at Bradley Cooper’s perm or Christian Bale’s epic combover instantly draws you in (if you’re into that sort of thing). Beyond those surfaces, as a director Russell makes like it’s 1973 more than ’78, and you sense his last two well-received films were just warm-ups to this picture, his funniest since FLIRTING WITH DISASTER and his smartest since THREE KINGS. Structured and paced like a labyrinthine thriller but tonally closer to Scorsese in comedic mode, it wraps an unexpectedly touching romance (between Bale and Amy Adams) within the con job stuff. Instead of softening the film, however, it sweetens it enough so that you care about characters whom would’ve come off as merely despicable in an archer, colder piece of work. A-

Not Almodovar’s most profound film by any means, and I can hardly imagine it becoming anyone’s favorite Almodovar—unless, perhaps, it’s their first (despite the in-joke cameos), for it plays like a compendium of all the director’s stylistic traits. Almodovar’s equivalent of AIRPLANE! is zippy, loopy, raunchy, impeccably designed, unquestionably absurd and packed with delirious (but knowing) melodrama and surprise narrative turns. Whereas some of his late-period work appears a little colorless in courting a sort of maturity, here he’s unapologetically camp (the film’s titular lip-synch extravaganza) and brash (a persistent, devil-may-care attitude towards drugs, drink and sex). As fluffy as the safety foam that cushions the final scene, you sense this was meant as nothing more than a trifle. Although Almodovar’s capable of far sturdier stuff, it’s reassuring to see him do something like this, if only purely for the fun of it. B+


30s-ish couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) go on a camping holiday in the British countryside, only something is slightly off with Chris. Tina’s cranky mum Carol (Eileen Davies) senses it immediately when introduced to him in the opening scene, but susceptible, naïve Tina doesn’t get it until two people die along the way. A bit like Mike Leigh’s NUTS IN MAY, only with murderous sociopaths in the leads, SIGHTSEERS is violent and acidic enough to be recognizable as the work of director Ben Wheatly (DOWN TERRACE); it’s also hilarious and disarmingly upbeat—the most cheerful film about serial killers since perhaps EATING RAOUL. Lowe is perfection as a seemingly simplistic innocent whom Chris influences in all the wrong ways, while Oram plays Chris as a murderous, passive-aggressive charmer/loser worthy of Ricky Gervais. After oodles of silliness and some inspired absurdity (don’t miss Tina’s trip to the Pencil Museum), SIGHTSEERS ends on an ironic note that cunningly takes the piss out of every other serial killer film ever made. A-

Well, I guess Scorsese could have at least acknowledged the financial ruin Belfort and his bros brought upon thousands of unwitting investors, but that’s the only serious flaw in this three-hour bacchanalia of white-collar crime excess. Belfort’s bad behavior seduces because he’s a seducer—it’s how he built his business from the bottom up. If utter repulsiveness cannot also simultaneously seem attractive, then everything from GOODFELLAS to THE GODFATHER is as hollow as this film’s detractors deem it to be. Granted, it’s no GOODFELLAS, but it’s more alive than THE AVIATOR or even THE DEPARTED. Despite the range he’s always had, DiCaprio was born to play a douchebag; with him in every scene, I’d even almost sit through a four-hour cut. B+

A massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt) develops a sudden aversion to touching human skin—that’s the intended hook here, but the parallel story, where her dentist brother (Josh Pais, wonderfully awkward and uptight) simultaneously and mysteriously gains the power to alleviate pain for his patients is far more immediate and makes for better cinema. Director Lynn Shelton cultivates a strong cast that also includes Ellen Page as Pais’ loyal but quietly frustrated daughter and Allison Janney as a Reiki therapist who encourages Pais to come out of his shell. Still, this is a little disappointing after Shelton’s superior YOUR SISTER’S SISTER—it carries a lot of interesting ideas and has a few nice isolated scenes, but a lack of focus prevents it from being anything more. B-

Serviceable—that’s the word I kept thinking of throughout this thriller in which an intelligence agency operative (Brit Marling) infiltrates herself within an eco-terrorist group that targets the agency’s corporate clients. I’m not saying this film, co-written by Marling with director Zal Batmanglij is bad or even a failure—as such films go, it’s simply unremarkable, barely indistinguishable from a network or basic cable TV drama. Instead of finding nuance or something entirely new to say about the material, the writers stick to a straight-and-narrow template. Despite a great cast including Alexander Skarsgard as the group leader and Ellen Page as one of its more passionate members, everyone plays their part and nothing more because there is little to these character types beyond what’s on the page. As I said, serviceable, and also forgettable. C+

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