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.
by Steve Habrat
In 1976, little Opie Taylor himself Ron Howard starred in the Roger Corman car chase movie called Eat My Dust, agreeing to be in the film if B-movie king Corman would let him direct his own picture down the line. A year later, Corman made good on his promise and he let Howard direct Grand Theft Auto, his own car chase comedy tailored for the drive-in crowd. Several years and A-list movies later, it seems that the speed demon that lurks within Howard still hasn’t been tamed. Racing into theaters just in time for awards season is Rush, a stylish and sexy Formula One action-drama that also happens to be based on the real-life rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda. From the time the green light flashes and those Formula One racecars roar to life, it’s clear that Rush is trying to blast itself straight into Oscar gold. While the melodramatic pauses that break up the tightly edited and sleekly framed action sequences might prevent Academy members from voting it into the Best Picture category, the film is a technical wonder, featuring screen-shredding crashes and sound work that kicks up the loose popcorn and Sour Patch Kids that are stuck to the theater floor. There are also the central performances, especially from newcomer Daniel Bruhl, who speeds off with nearly every single scene he struts steps into.
Picking up in 1970, Rush introduces us to lowly Formula Three racers James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl), who quickly develop a fierce rivalry on the track of the Crystal Palace circuit in England. From 1970 to 1976, the British party boy Hunt and the all-business Austrian Lauda battle to enter the ranks of the Formula One drivers. In 1976, their rivalry was pushed to the breaking point as they went head-to-head in the Formula One races, risking their lives one race at a time to become the world champion. Meanwhile, their rivalry begins to spill over into their personal lives as Hunt struggles to hold on to his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde), and first-place holder Lauda grapples with the fact that Hunt is breathing down his neck for the number one. The relationship between Hunt and Lauda takes a curious turn when Lauda is involved in a horrific car wreck that leaves him with third-degree burns covering his most of his face and badly damaged lungs. While fighting for his life, Lauda watches as Hunt closes in on the number one spot, which causes Lauda to make a speedy recovery and get back in the tournament.
Like most car films, Rush explores those who truly feel alive when they are defying death at over 100 miles per hour. Being a sports movie, the film never veers into existential terrain like such efforts as the recent art house thriller Drive or the high-octane cult-classic Vanishing Point. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan are more intrigued by the blistering rivalry between these two drastically different personalities and how, in the end, they actually needed each other. They balance the rat-faced geek vs. handsome jock act quite well, slipping it into tightly edited race sequences that make you feel like you’re squeezed into the driver’s seat with Hemsworth and Bruhl. Most thrilling are the races set against torrential downpours, placing us behind the helmets of Hunt and Lauda as they frantically search for a way to outdo the other. With visibility a blur and the engines rupturing our ear drums, you can’t help but admire these men as they put their lives on the line for a chance to stand above a cheering crowd and spray champagne into the air. What truly astonishes is the calm demeanor and nonchalant boldness of these men as the hop behind these mechanical beasts. They seem invincible, but Howard reminds us that they are flesh and blood through compound fractures and the fiery crash that almost takes Lauda’s life.
Bringing these two fearless daredevils to life are the brilliant Bruhl and Hemsworth, both of which settle quite nicely into the skin of their characters. Hemsworth sharpens his acting abilities as the playboy Hunt, who stumbles around the racetrack with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a chugging a bottle of booze like he may never be allowed another drink. He’s irresistible to women, who get weak in the knees over the self-assured smile he flashes their way, and everyone seems to genuinely enjoy his presence when he steps into the party. The only time he ever shows any sort vulnerability is when he vomits before a race or when he is faced with the possibility that he may not get sponsored. At the other end of the spectrum is Bruhl’s Lauda, a squeaky clean stickler for the rules who is early to bed and early to rise. He rises to fame through money and by barking orders at the bewildered mechanics wondering just who the hell the guy thinks he is. He’s cold, calculating, and absolutely relentless in trying to keep Hunt down, spending every single solitary second tinkering with his car. Of the two men, Bruhl is the one who comes out on top, giving a top-notch performance that you just can’t take your eyes off. Don’t be surprised if you see his name among the Best Actors list when the nominees are announced.
With so much focus on the complicated relationship between Hunt and Lauda, Howard seems to be largely uninterested in adding a spark to each man’s personal life. Sure, we catch glimpses of Hunt’s crumbling marriage but it only gets maybe five minutes of screen time, and Lauda’s devotion to Alexandra Maria Lara’s Marlene Knaus is seen only through the silent glances that they continuously share. Wilde and Lara try to rise above their underdeveloped roles by hovering around television screens and holding their breath for their warring speed junkies, but none of the behind-closed-doors melodrama comes close to matching the breathless exhilaration of the races. Further muting the drama are the raw violin musical cues from composer Hans Zimmer, who contributes a beautiful but oddly mathematical score to deepen the impact of the emotional heart-to-hearts. Overall, as a study of ego and rivalry, Rush is a crackling triumph one could enjoy again and again. It finds Howard delivering on all the pedal-to-the-metal action that you’d expect from a film called Rush, and you simply won’t be able to pry your eyes off all that handsome cinematography. As an A-list crowd pleaser, this one should rocket right to the top of your must-see list.
In Time (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan got together and decided they were going to make a futuristic version of Robin Hood set against a Clockwork Orange-esque wasteland. The new techno thriller In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol, has a lot on its mind and plenty to say. Unfortunately, it’s reduced to rambling, off on a tangent and showing no signs of stopping. To be fair, In Time has an interesting premise; a few original bursts here and there that save it from being disposable filler at the local theater. The film exhaustively tells us that time is precious, blah, blah, blah. Well my time is precious too and this film was given way too much time to peer down at me from it’s soap box and preach. That is what In Time was built for—to preach. Lucky enough, the film had the good fortune to be made and released during the Occupy Wall Street protests, which is another element that works in it’s favor. For as ambitious as this film is, it never obtains the epic, morose scope that Nolan produces or the multilayered psychology Kubrick gave us.
In Time shows us a world where humans stop aging at twenty-five. Once they hit the said age, a digital clock on their forearm begins ticking and humans have to earn more time to survive. Rather than money, your job pays you in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc. Time is also used as the currency, where the more time you have, the longer you live. The world is also divided up into time zones, where a sinister police force called the “Timkeepers” can monitor how much time is in the specific zone. These time zones also separate the wealthy from the poor. Will Salas (Played by Justin Timberlake) comes from the slum Dayton, where one evening while visiting a seedy bar, stumbles across a wealthy man Henry Hamilton (Played by Matt Bomer) with a hundred years on his clock buying drinks for the crowd. A group of local gangsters called “Minutemen” set their eyes on him and threaten his life. Will narrowly saves Henry and hides him in a local warehouse where Henry explains to Will that he is one hundred and five years old and no longer feels the desire to live. While Will sleeps, Henry transfers all of his time to Will, making Will wealthy over night. Henry commits suicide and Will is captured on surveillance for suspicious behavior in the wake of the suicide. That evening, Will’s mother Rachel (Played by Olivia Wilde) does not have enough time on her for a bus ride and is forced to walk home. While desperately trying to reach Will for more time, her clock runs out and she dies in front of Will. Will sets out to drain the wealthy of as much time as he can, along the way meeting wealthy timelender Phillipe Weis and his beautiful daughter Sylvia (Played by Amanda Seyfried). Will is also being pursued by a relentless timekeeper named Raymond Leon (Played by Cillian Murphy).
Not an easy film to sum up, In Time does have a webbed storyline, but that’s not its problem. The film is often condescending, always assuming the viewer lacks the intelligence to follow what is going on. It’s under the impression that we can’t put together its unconcealed political message. It then drives its point home with such force, you almost want to shout “ENOUGH!” The film empties its narrative quickly, leaving the well dry for the last forty minutes of the movie. It’s just run, check in to hotel, steal more time, chase, repeat. There are characters that are not fleshed out enough, cramming them in at the beginning and then tossing them out the second Will meets Phillipe and Sylvia. I’m all for an intelligent thriller/blockbuster, but In Time thinks it’s a bit too smart. It also seems to demand that we take it seriously, but it’s difficult when the film is burdened with hammy acting.
After the film ended, one of my friends that accompanied me to our showing said he doesn’t think Justin Timberlake is capable of carrying an entire movie. He’s not a seasoned pro yet. I couldn’t agree more with this statement. He’s still an amateur in the acting game and trying to carry a film like this couldn’t have been the easiest task for him. When his mother bites the dust, Timberlake drops to his knees, wailing, and looks slightly like he is smack in the middle of a violent bowel movement. I didn’t buy his anguish and it’s unintentionally funny. This is not to say he doesn’t wield any talent, but he needs to stick to supporting roles until he really sharpens his acting a bit. He sometimes slips into overdramatics, attempting to embody the ominous hero but coming up short. He has yet to shake his pretty boy image.
The rest of the cast of In Time does an ample job with what they have to work with. Wilde does a reputable job for the little she is given as Will’s mother. I sometimes think she is capable of more than she produces, sometimes being reduced to just a pretty face and nothing more. You can’t help but bat an eye at some of the films she chooses to star in. Seyfried does fine work, working with something far more substantial than Twilight wannabe turds like Red Riding Hood. The vet here in all the sci-fi techno babble is Cillian Murphy as Raymond Leon. Murphy is a truly gifted actor that is always just below the radar. I wish he would get another major leading man role, as he always knocks it out of the park when he is in front of the camera (Seriously, just look at 28 Days Later, Red Eye, Batman Begins, and Inception!). Murphy does a good majority of the heavy lifting, even if he does look like he raided the wardrobe of The Matrix.
At the end of the day, In Time is an average thought provoking attack on capitalism and class rank. It also slips in some existential hooey but it’s fairly elementary and you will be just waving it off. Reluctant to embrace what it truly is, which is simply a futuristic Robin Hood thriller with some minor ideas and dressed in all black, it’s a decent little ride. You won’t be taking any of it home with you, replaying any major action sequences in your head, or raving about any performance outside of Murphy’s. You will be left wondering how Timberlake’s Salas magically morphs from desperate kid in the ghetto to ass-kicking superhero. Don’t concern yourself with it too much, you’ll never be told. In Time is uneven and bumpy, making me wish that I didn’t invest forty minutes of my time in the final act. If you’re in the market for a film in which all the actors and actresses look pretty, look no further than In Time.