by Steve Habrat
Ever since his surreal 2009 children’s fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, indie director Spike Jonze has remained relatively low-key. In the years following that wildly popular screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale, Jonze has filled his time with a few acting gigs, a skateboarding video or two, a handful of music videos, and some writing/producing duties. After four long years, Jonze finally returns as director for Her, the celebrated futuristic love story that has been gaining quite a bit of momentum this awards season. Also written by Jonze, Her is a film that is alive with vision and originality, a resonant love-story for a world that has developed an alarming addiction to the glow of their smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. While certainly a beautiful film with a truly fascinating premise, Her, like Jonze’s last feature film, begins to drone on the viewer. The initial “wow” factor only carries it so far before it begins to grow repetitious, never really knowing where it should cut itself off. Luckily, your growing loss of electronic enchantment will be rescued by star Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an outstanding performance as the heartbroken writer who falls head over heels for his brand new operating system.
Her picks up in futuristic Los Angeles and introduces us to Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man nursing a broken heart over the recent separation from his wife, Catherine (played by Rooney Mara). By day, Theodore works as a writer for a company that composes personal letters for those who don’t quite know what to say, and by night, he sulks home to play video games or fidget around restlessly in his bed. One day, Theodore decides to purchase a new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is capable of interacting just like a regular human being. Impressed by the operating system’s abilities, Theodore strikes up a casual friendship with the new AI, sharing tidbits of information regarding his messy separation from Catherine. After a botched blind date with a beautiful woman (played by Olivia Wilde), Theodore finds himself romantically drawn to the operating system, which also appears to have developed romantic feelings for him. With his newfound love and the help of his close friend Amy (played by Amy Adams), Theodore begins pulling himself out of his slump, but the challenges of dating an operating system arise and put the relationship to the test.
If you’ve ever imagined what it might be like if Apple started making live action movies, Her gives you a pretty good indication of what the computer company’s type of movie might be like. Jonze fills the screen with soft pastel colors and sleek views of a futuristic Los Angeles—a squeaky clean metropolis where everyone shuffles about with tiny white earpieces stuffed in their ears and the glow of a smartphone screen reflecting off their down pointing faces. The overhead shots of the city are so crisp and clear that they would be perfect as the screensaver on your MacBook Pro with retina display. It’s all absolutely gorgeous to take in, even if it is glaringly obvious at times that this futuristic American city is actually just a shimmering Shanghai. On its own, the visual lyricism of Her consistently keeps your eyes wide—it’s a digital dream world that would have made Steve Jobs drool and storm off to his Apple boardroom to demand that his staff get to work on updating Siri. While Jonze keeps a firm grip here, his story, which I should reiterate is extremely original and inspired, is so thorough in the way it explores a relationship that it nearly ceases to fill us with wonder and instead begins to mildly drone on the viewer. It’s perfectly fine that he wanted to tell this digital romance in a convincing and personal manner, but the ups and downs of Theo and Samantha’s relationship begin to grow repetitive and exhausting, numbing us slightly to the couple’s conclusion.
Though you may drift out a bit, star Joaquin Phoenix gives Her a strong emotional pull that yanks you back into the picture. Phoenix is a raw nerve as Theo, our sensitive and aching hero who is adrift in this digital world. He sulks from the office with his frown hidden under a mustache, seeking escape from his pain in an encompassing video game he obsesses over. When Samantha asks if he wants a pair of emails regarding his divorce read to him, he gives a quivery objection and fights back tears. When Samantha begins to pull him out of his hole of sadness, you’ll smile over his newfound delight as he dances through a bustling fair. Phoenix gives Theo such tenderness and vulnerability that you can’t help but root for this unusual romance to really make it, even if there are points where it makes you squirm from its awkwardness. Guiding Theo out of this rut is Johansson’s husky voice, which she lends so wonderfully to Samantha, the operating system that has won Theo’s heart. While we never see her, Johansson is able to convey so much emotion that you’d swear she was ready to manifest right next to our hero. As far as the supporting cast goes, Amy Adams gives another spectacular performance as Amy, Theo’s understanding best friend who is also facing heartbreak. Rooney Mara is prickly as Catherine, Theo’s childhood sweetheart who has shattered his heart into a million little pieces. Olivia Wilde rounds out the cast in a brief role as a sexy blind date who quickly sours to the sadsack Theo.
While the stunning cinematography and the candid performances are truly special, the real beauty of Her lies within the plausibility of its script. With the way that technology has been rapidly advancing over the past several years, it isn’t that far-fetched to think that operating systems could be this advanced ten to twenty years down the line. The smartphones now come equipped with personal assistants that can look up internet trivia, tell jokes, send text messages, bring up emails, and make phone calls all at your request. This story also speaks to the creativity that lies within Jonze, who wrote the script and just nabbed a Golden Globe for his work. It truly is remarkable that Hollywood gave the script a chance considering that most romantic dramas have evolved only to the point of having unhappy endings where boy doesn’t necessarily end up with girl. Overall, while the imagination, vision, and performances are all magnificent, Her could have done with a software update to clear out a few bugs. I understand that Jonze wanted to really sink his teeth into this peculiar romance and envision it from every angle possible, but there are stretches of dead space that allow the magic to seep out.
The Master (2012)
by Craig Thomas
Let’s be clear. This is not a film about Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix does not play a troubled Second World War veteran who starts a long relationship with Scientology after a chance encounter with L. Ron Hubbard. And Philip Seymour Hoffman does not play L. Ron Hubbard. With that out of the way let me explain a bit about this film.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled Second World War veteran (Freddie Quell) who, after a chance encounter with author and leader of the burgeoning religious cult The Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has all sorts of beliefs about past lives and trapped souls and curing leukemia through “anti-hypnosis” (which, as is pointed out, seems an awful lot like hypnosis). He is also a terrible writer, with an uncanny ability to “discover” truths about the very essence of existence.
And that makes it sound far more exciting than it actually is.
Almost nothing of note happens in the entire film. No-one changes, no-one grows or learns anything. It’s the story of two troubled men who are just as troubled at the end as at the beginning, which is not surprising as nothing really happens to either of them. One is protected from the world by moonshine, the other by a fawning, downtrodden following. But perhaps that is the point. If so, I struggle to understand why it took nearly two and a half hours to say so. Indeed, it takes a good half hour or so before Dodd even appears, all of which is spent watching Freddie Quell running around being troubled.
At this point I should point out that I am not Armond White. I do not believe that the collected works of Paul W. S. Anderson (including the entire Resident Evil series and two AvP films) have more to offer to the medium of film than Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, I find the work of the former to be trash and found There Will Be Blood to be a fine film, in the best sense. I was looking forward to this.
So it brings me no pleasure to write such a scathing review. I went with two friends, both of whom also hated it. In fact, I was the most forgiving, which I suspect, was due to having been the only one of us to suffer through The Tree of Life in its entirety. So if you liked that, then you will probably love this.
Let’s try to find some positives.
First of all, it is well put together, with some nice sequences and tracking shots. It had a nice gloss and looked authentically like the 1950s (or at least, what I imagine the 1950s to have looked like). It has a couple of beautiful shots of the sea and there is a lovely setup in a prison sequence.
Then there was the acting. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great physical performance playing a troubled veteran with a number of war wounds, both physical and psychological. However, for a significant portion of the film I could not see the character as much more than Phoenix acting (what is commonly known in the industry as Ben Affleck Syndrome), even if it was good acting. As the film progressed I became less conscious of this, which may have been little more than indifference caused by increasing levels of boredom watching him walk back and fore across a room for 15 minutes, touching the wall, then touching the window.
Stealing every scene he was in and by far the best thing about this film was the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as cult leader, Dodd. He was outstanding in every scene and certainly deserves an Oscar nomination, at least. Personally, I would put him in the Best Actor category, as opposed to Best Supporting Actor, though there might be some debate about that. I’d even go so far as to say a second statuette for the hugely talented actor would be well deserved. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix got a nomination as well, though I am not entirely convinced by his performance.
Another person who should definitely get a nod (this time in the Best Supporting Actress category), and who was by far the biggest (pleasant) surprise of the film was Amy Adams playing Dodd’s long-struggling, yet ideologically committed and articulate wife, Peggy. Having seen her in little more than films for children (Enchanted) and those with large amounts of black humour (Sunshine Cleaning) I was surprised to see her take on such a heavy role and even more so when she delivered a pitch-perfect performance. Though she has very much on the periphery, she has a number of key scenes in which she has an oppertunity to do something and in each she matches Hoffman. A win for her would not be undeserved.
Well, that’s quite enough of that.
There has been a lot of good things said about this film (as opposed specifically for the actors) and for the life of me I can’t see why. I attribute part of this to the cult that surrounds Paul Thomas Anderson, as it does with most famous and highly talented film-makers. People want to like it so talk it up. Another reason might be the similarities with Scientology (which it is definitely not about), but if anything this simply detracts from the film itself and adds to the mundane nature of the thing. If it’s anything else, I can’t see it. But perhaps that is the point, perhaps I just don’t “get it”. But I think I did, just as I’m pretty sure I “got” The Tree of Life.
I just didn’t like it.
I never walk out of films, and I didn’t walk out of this one, but the thought seriously crossed my mind, which was one of the first moments I realized I really didn’t like it, despite my best efforts to do so. I also found myself wishing that it was a documentary on Scientology, which would have been far more interesting.
In the end, this films fails to satisfy. It is not a exposé of Scientology (for legal reasons as much as anything else), nor is a particularly good film, though it was clearly made by a good film-maker. By the end I didn’t learn anything about anything, nor did I feel anything other than relief it was all over.
Yet technically, it was well made and some of the performances (particularly Hoffman and Adams) were terrific. I can only imagine how powerful their performances would have been, had this been a better (or even a good) film. As it is, I would struggle to recommend watching it for their performances alone because everything else is just so dull.
This is a hard film to rate, but in the end I think everything balances itself out, just about.
We Own the Night (2007)
by Steve Habrat
The crime drama is a tough genre for a director and screenwriter to take a crack at. The genre is hopelessly enamored by loyalty, honor, and betrayal, all which have been done to death by this point. The last truly refreshing take on the genre was Martin Scorsese’s 2006 gangster epic The Departed, which was a beast of a picture that snagged Best Picture at the Oscars. The following year, director James Gray released We Own the Night, a period crime drama that tried to ride the wave of The Departed. Sadly, We Own the Night doesn’t make a tiny chip in The Departed but that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have aspects that one can admire. Slower and tighter, We Own the Night never really becomes a white knuckler due to some clichés that are just unforgivable but this grimy tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law will actually manage to disturb you ever so slightly. The film also boasts a knockout performance from Joaquin Phoenix as nightclub manager Bobby Green, a shaky tough guy who wears the mask of cool like a professional. It is a haunted performance that isn’t easily shaken once you have walked away from We Own the Night and it single handedly makes the film worth your while. If you are not interested in Phoenix, see the film for its kick-in-the-head violence that actually manages to wipe away some of the glamour that Hollywood has attached to onscreen nastiness.
We Own the Night begins in November 1988, on the mean streets of New York City, where crime runs rampant. The law is nearly powerless as the criminals snicker at the police’s futile attempts to clean up the streets. It is in the thick of the crime that we meet Bobby Green (Played by Phoenix), a nightclub manager who enjoys doing blow in the company of his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Played by Eva Mendes). Life is good for Bobby and the future promises to be even better but soon, his father, police Deputy Chief Bert Grusinsky (Played by Robert Duvall) and his brother, Captain Joseph Grusinsky (Played by Mark Wahlberg), warn Bobby that the owner of Bobby’s club, Marat Buzhayev (Played by Moni Moshonov), may be involved in smuggling drugs into the United States. After someone close to Bobby is gunned down by a Russian hitman, Bobby decides to become an informant for the police even though he has worked hard to keep his family’s ties to the law a secret. This leads to the capture of Vadim Nezhinski (Played by Alex Veadov), the nephew of Buzhayev. Just when Bobby thinks everything is back to normal, Nezhinski escapes from jail and vows to find Bobby and kill him.
Much heavier on the drama than the thrills, We Own the Night may not please those who are hoping for tons of shoot-em-up action. Sure, there are a few action scenes to speak of, all of which are tense and in your face. A raid on a drug house has some of the most stomach churning violence you are ever likely to see in a mainstream Hollywood film. It is pretty vicious to say the least and I actually liked this aspect of the film. All I will say is that the raid features some truly nasty scenes of people getting shot in the head. Another scene finds Bobby and Amada caught in a terrifying car chase in a heavy downpour. I never thought that a Hollywood car chase would make the hair on my arm stand up but We Own the Night has changed that. It helps that there is absolutely no music to tell us how to feel. It is just gunshots, shattering glass, and screaming, all which fry your nerves relentlessly. It ended up being my favorite sequence in the entire film. The rest of the film is a slow burner, one that hits you with thorny family relations. It is about Bobby trying to mend his relationship with his firm father and his brother who thinks the world of their father. It is these scenes that resonated the most with me, even if I was reminded about other, better crime dramas that dealt with complicated family relations and tensions (I’m looking at your, Godfather).
While aspects of the script may not stand out, the performances cover up some of the familiarity within We Own the Night. Phoenix is the one who really brings his A-game and knocks it out of the park. You are drawn to him from the get go and he refuses to let you pull away. He is almost always silky smooth, even when he is higher than a kite while his father lectures him about his lifestyle. When he explodes into rage, take cover. While he isn’t a cold-blooded gangster, he sure as hell isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Wahlberg plays largely the same role that he did in The Departed but here he is a bit watered down. He is more family man than hothead with a mouth that would make a sailor blush. Duvall is his usual tip-top self, another veteran of the organized crime genre. Here he plays the determined good guy who is a little past his prime. I sometimes think he saw the clumsiness in the script but he rolls with punches gracefully. Mendes is the one without real purpose as she just acts as the sex appeal while the boys all flex the masculine muscle. Then there are the two Russian bad guys who are your typical gangsters who make lots of threats. They won’t make much of an impression on you.
We Own the Night also has some gritty set design and wardrobe detail to really yank you out of the present. We Own the Night does find a nippy chill of unease slowly circling the edges of the action but it never engulfs the film fully. When this film is good, it is really, really good but when it is average, it is really, really average. The film is never flat out bad, but it just stinks of a paint-by-numbers approach. This causes the two-hour runtime to really drag its feet at points, which had me checking my watch one or two times. Still, I was mesmerized by how much dedication Phoenix pours into this project and I applaud him for it. He comes out on top and leaves even the veteran Duvall chewing on his dust. It leaves you wanting so much more from this guy! I really have a hard time understanding why every single crime drama that comes out wants to touch the sky. Only a small handful of them truly do while the rest come close but end up falling hard. With We Own the Night, Gray really tried to run with the big dogs but these mean streets belong to Scorsese and Coppola, two men who really know how to construct a crime drama. Gray is left just re-evaluating his approach to the genre and thinking of more ways to impress the ones who rule this genre with an iron fist.
We Own the Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.