Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I didn't expect to enjoy Spike Jonze’s latest film as much as I did. And I assure you that all the recent hype surrounding it had nothing to do with swaying my opinion (I actually have quite a few problems with Her that we'll get in to momentarily). I've avoided most major movie reviews in 2013 (especially reviews of Her) as I've come to the realization that a lot of movie critics are now clearly only writing with the hope of having a quote lifted from their review so it can be used in a trailer or on a DVD cover. Can people just talk normally about movies? No one uses words like "stunning" to describe something in real life anymore. I wanted to go in to this knowing as little as possible so I wouldn't set my hopes too high. I did that with Where The Wild Things Are (Jonze’s last film) and ended up being quite disappointed (was that movie supposed to be for children of today, or older people, like myself, who grew up on that story). I've kinda grown out of that quirky convoluted Charles Kaufman style found in Spike Jonze's previous work (Being John Malkovich & Adaptation) so I had my doubts about Her. That's not to say Malkovich & Adaptation are bad. They just don't excite me anymore.
On one hand, Her just felt like a feature length film about someone having a deep emotional connection with a highly advanced iPhone app. Kinda hard to take that premise completely serious which is clearly what Spike Jonze wants us to do. I'm also slightly worried that this film is giving off the wrong message. It goes without saying that as a society we're becoming more & more detached from one another due to iPhones, tablets & other various screen gadgets. I'm sure if you've been following the hype surrounding Her, you already knew that's what this was partially going to be about. But this film surprisingly says it's ok to have an emotional attachment with a gadget/operating system (that's how I saw it). We definitely need to have time by ourselves but at some point we need human contact, especially when it comes to a romantic relationship. Early on in the film there's a scene where our main character (played by Joaquin Phoneix) goes on a date with a woman (played by Olivia Wilde) and it didn't sit right with me. In the scene she's clearly in to him but he backs out and chooses to go home and eventually have cyber sex with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) instead. At no point in the film does Spike Jonze imply how very very sad that is.
But maybe that's the point. Maybe Her is a lot more sad than what it appears to be. Perhaps it's a film that shows the incredibly dark side of loneliness, only it's disguised in a quirky adult dramedy.
Even though Her is Spike Jonze's first original script, it still has the remnants of Charles Kaufman (the screenwriter for Jonze's first two films) & Michel Gondry (a filmmaker Jonze was constantly compared too back in the day) only there's no wormholes or convolutedness and the idea of a surrogate (a common theme in Jonze's work) is kept at a minimum this time around. 

Not only was this Spike Jonze’s first original script, but this was also his first time working without his regular cinematographer; Lance Accord. Instead he used Hoyte Van Hoytema who shot recent films like Let The Right One In & Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (according to IMDB , Hoyte will be shooting Christopher Nolan's next film which I'm sure will be more convoluted than a remake of Inception directed by Charlie Kaufman). No matter what issues I have with this film there's no denying its incredibly beautiful to look at. Actually, I wonder if Her's visual beauty is what has a lot of critics & film boards fooled as to how great it really is.
Her also feels like it was made by and for aging hipsters - the music was done by Pitchfork media favorites; Arcade Fire, there's a loose connection to the "hip" cinema of Sofia Coppola in that it co-stars Scarlett Johansson who appeared in Lost In Translation which is a movie that features a character that was based on Spike Jonze, and the clothing worn by the actors in Her looks like what people in Williamsburg will be wearing in the year 3000. There’s just an all around nerdy coolness to this movie that may rub some people the wrong way while others may find it great.
This story is ripe with clichés (the lonely writer, the ugly/attractive woman that the main male character can’t see has feelings for him until the very end, detachment from the world due to futuristic technology, etc). But there are parts of this movie that just made me feel really good. We all need one or two of these movies in our lives from time to time. We can't spend an entire year watching experimental documentaries with no dialogue (Leviathan) or depressing films about mental illness (Camille Claudel, 1915). Like I already said, there's a sadness to Her that the trailer doesn’t really give off but it'll will probably make you laugh a few times (there's a virtual video game character in the film that deserves it's own spin-off short film and a phone sex scene that takes an unexpected freaky turn). This film also leaves us with a sense of hope...

In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays "Theodore Twombly" (what an appropriately quirky Spike Jonze movie name) - a lonely writer who has a hard time connecting with people after separating from his wife; "Catherine" (Rooney Mara). As a side note, I'm not sure if this story is supposed to be set in the future or in an area of modern Japan with a high population of Americans. In an effort to connect with someone/something Theodore purchases a new form of technology that's reminiscent of HAL 9000 (although this time it's called "Samantha" and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Basically, imagine a highly advanced version of the Siri Iphone app that you can take with you anywhere in a little ear piece. "Samantha" comes with unique features calibrated according to Theodore's personal preferences and essentially acts as a virtual companion. Even though "Samantha" is just a voice inside of a tiny tablet device connected to an ear piece, her presence feels more & more real as the film progresses and Theodore eventually makes a deep connection with her. They joke with each other, argue, have a form of sex and eventually refer to each other as boyfriend & girlfriend. As some of you may be wondering from this review so far, yes, Her does feel like a slightly upgraded version of Lars & The Real Girl, right down to the awkward lonely main character that's reminiscent of Ryan Gosling (mustache and all).

I give Spike Jonze credit for casting an actress like Scarlett Johansson in a voice only role. This is the kind of film that's geared towards lonely sensitive guys who would clearly want to see Johansson in the physical form so they can briefly imagine her as their girlfriend while watching a film they can relate too. Had any other filmmaker been given the same material, Johansson would have probably been a scantily clad virtual girlfriend in the vein of Simone or the hundred other sexy fake robot women we've seen in cinema over the years. I'm pretty sure Jonze intentionally cast one of the most attractive mainstream actresses in a voice only role as a way to purposely not give the (male) audience what they wanted and I kinda like that. The Samantha character also strangely helps in showing a more complex female character in mainstream cinema, which is something we don't see a whole lot of. Instead of the physical, we only get the emotional with the female lead. Johansson still even manages to come off attractive even though we never actually see her. And there's still plenty of flattering screen time for the other supporting actresses in the film played by Olivia Wilde & Rooney Mara. Amy Adams also does a good job but I think I’ve seen enough of her for at least a year. Like Jessica Chastain's overbearing presence between 2011 through 2012, I just need a break from Adams as well.

The biggest issue I had with Her is that it took forever to end. The nice imagery started to wear a little thin after a while and the story just drags on for the last 20 minutes. I mean seriously, just end already. 
I’m also willing to bet some people who've seen Fight Club one too many times will stupidly question whether or not Samantha was real (which she was) or just a figment of Theodore's imagination (which she wasn’t). Joaquin Phoenix is really good in this but there's really no other standout supporting performance like Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich or Chris Cooper in Adaptation (unless you want to count Scarlett Johansson's voice). Instead, the actors, music, atmosphere, story, etc. all act as one entity that provides for an overall enjoyable/“cute” movie watching experience. There are subtle differences in Her from everything else that Spike Jonze has done but at the end of the day it’s still a Spike Jonze film. If you're familiar with his work from the music videos to the feature films then I'm pretty sure you all know what to expect (notice how many times I used the word "quirky" in this review).

It makes sense that this is the final review of 2013 given that I've had my face buried in the blogger app & notes app on my iPhone & Kindle fire in order to write all my reviews in 2013 (my laptop situation has been iffy this year). I admit that I can definitely get detached at times due my various gadgets but at the end of the day I appreciate human contact over anything else...


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