Cinema Review: Her

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DIR/WRI: Spike Jonze  PRO: Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze, Vincent Landay   DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema ED: Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen   MUS: Owen Pallett   DES: K.K. Barrett   CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara

Theodore (Phoenix) decides to alleviate the perpetual loneliness he’s felt since his wife (Mara) left him by purchasing one of the new-fangled, fully sentient operating systems that exist in The Future. Each operating system is personalised to your needs so Theodore’s manifests as Samantha (Johansson); a funny, brash but sensitive female companion who quickly becomes a valuable presence in his life. As their relationship develops, Theodore begins to question the boundaries of just what we currently understand a relationship to be. Meanwhile Samantha begins to evolve too and what looks like a very typically-structured love-story about relationships morphs into a quirky drama about life, love and the existential quandaries of creating a constantly evolving, sentient artificial intelligence that has to deal with the tangled mess of human emotion that comes with love.

Her is a fascinating film to experience, partially for the contrast it constantly confronts you with. On the one hand it is a very conventionally told love story but the actual characters involved in the story are what make it stand out. You’ll constantly catch yourself having to be reminded that you’re just watching Joaquin Phoenix talking to a disembodied voice, so convincing is the situation the film presents. The key to that success is two-fold. Firstly, the word-building is seamless. This is unquestionably one of the most eerily believable depictions of the near-future we’ve seen in recent years. There are no flying cars, just neater smartphones with more impressive screens and the ubiquitous presence of a Bluetooth-style headset.

The film also trusts its audience in terms of how this world is presented. It never patronises the viewer with some bland audience-surrogate character that has to have everything explained to them. Rather the film simply presents its world as is and trusts you’ll pick it up as you go. It helps that the dialogue and writing in general are very natural; it never feels exposition-y. There’s also far more humour than you might expect, this is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film. Be it the film’s surprisingly well observed commentary on videogames, the humour that innately arises from the nature of the leads’ relationship or just good old fashioned, well-timed swearing; Her never takes itself too seriously which helps add weight to the more grounded and sombre moments.

As important as the world-building is, Jonze’s direction is the real triumph. The poster for this film is far more indicative of the viewing experience than you might think. It’s a simple close-up of Phoenix’s face and that is in essence most of the film. A lesser director might have featured some kind of animated woman or hologram (or a blinking red light if they were feeling particularly ‘clever’) to visualise Samantha but Jonze just elects not to ‘show’ her. Since a shot-reverse-shot is out of the question, the camera simply stays on Phoenix’s face throughout the couple’s conversations and it works far better than it should. You may feel by the end of the film that you’ve seen Joaquin Phoenix’s face from every possible angle but it really is to Jonze’s credit that he can shoot that in such a way that it’s constantly interesting to watch. It’s also a fiendishly clever work-around to compensate for the inability to show Samantha’s reactions. An actor of Phoenix’s talent and ability to disappear into a role is an ideal choice to carry an entire film such as this with his face alone.

It’s quite difficult to find much wrong with Her. To an extent the story loses momentum toward the conclusion and slightly contrives an endpoint to Samantha’s arc in a manner that feels like it was done out of a sense of requirement to the genre more than anything else. Throughout even this portion of the film though, the dynamic between the leads remains engaging and Phoenix gets to show off even further. Similarly the various facets of this vision of the future continue to be interesting to see and learn more about.

In any other year (read: any year where 12 Years a Slave wasn’t a contender), this would be a worthy film to win ‘Best Picture’ and it’s a film that definitely embraces the true spirit of sci-fi. It never comments on the society it’s created, it merely details and explores it and lets the audience come to its own conclusions. The world is believable, the characters are well-rounded and the performances (especially Phoenix and Adams) are effortless and compelling to watch. Her is much more than a simple love story yet it’s also, at its core, a thorough exploration of a relationship that just happens to be a little unconventional.

Whether your interest is comedy, drama or sci-fi, this film caters impressively well to all. Besides, Arcade Fire provides most of the music, what more could you want in a film?


Richard Drumm

15A (See IFCO for details)
125  mins

Her is released on 14th February 2014

Her – Official Website

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Where The Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

DIR: Spike Jonze • WRI: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers • PRO: John B. Carls, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Vincent Landay, Maurice Sendak • DOP: Lance Acord • ED: James Haygood, Eric Zumbrunnen • DES: K.K. Barrett • CAST: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose

This is quite a dark, brooding little tale, made all the more affective by its simplicity. A young boy, Max (Max Records), disobeys his mother (Catherine Keener) and seeks refuge in a land of monsters who adopt him as their king. The film is directed by Spike Jonze and has been adapted from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story. But whereas Sendak’s 1963 book, which was less than 350 words long, was a fable for children, Jonze’s film is more a melancholic reflection on childhood for adults.

In the world populated by Jim Henson’s overgrown, and wonderfully realized, mondo muppet monsters, Max learns valuable lessons about who he is and what he has. This is not a world populated by the usual collection of the cartoonish opposites of the good loveable creatures versus the bad evil pantomime ones. Here we have a mixed bunch of hulking hirsute creatures that you will neither cheer for nor boo. But you will listen to and be moved by them.

Not everyone will be enamoured with what happens in this other world. Most of what occurs on the island with its dense forests, rolling sand dunes, and swooping cliffs, is random and inconclusive. The creatures, mostly somber and somewhat neurotic are simply living their lives. In between nothing really happening, Max engages in some contemplable dialogue with the monsters (who all represents facets of himself) and gets the chance to play out his problems with aggression and fears of isolation.

Having said all that, Max is actually quite an irritating spoilt little blackguard at the best of times and there can be little sympathy for him as he rallies against his home life; after all it is quite a normal life and he has a cushy number there pushing the viewer to annoyance at what he has to rage against, and that really he should be disciplined by having his Wii taken off him and no cookies for a week. But he’s a kid – and kids don’t know if they have things easy or not, for their inexperienced egocentricity means that if something bad is happening to them, it’s the worst thing in the whole wide world. And yes, it is a simple message he learns. And let’s not even start on the ending (cringe factor 9).

Yet despite this, the world that exists over Max’s rainbow is a sumptuous one to behold and the film is beautifully shot (in Australia) masterfully capturing both scenes of vast open spaces and claustrophobic tight spaces. Jonze treats it all with a low-key approach and uses a natural palette to bring this world to life.

Jonze has made Sendak’s book his own fleshing out its cerebral musings and opening it up to rich reinterpretation. Where the Wild Things Are is not what you might expect; as is often the case with Jonze. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see such a film that doesn’t feel the need to play for laughs or pander to cutesiness. A kid’s film you don’t have to bring kids to.

Steven Galvin

Rated PG (see IFCO website for details)
Where the Wild Things Are
is released 11th Dec 2009

Where the Wild Things Are – Official Website

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Synecdoche, New York

synecdochenewyork

DIR/ WRI: Charlie Kaufman • PRO: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Sidney Kimmel, Anthony Bregman • DOP: Frederick Elmes • ED: Robert Frazen • DES: Mark Friedberg • CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Hope Davis

Just as in his previous logic-defying staples Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman once again bends the viewer’s perception of reality in his latest offering, Synecdoche, New York.

We follow the life of Caden Cotard (Seymour Hoffman), a successful but neurotic theatre-director whose pessimism and hypochondria are driving away his wife, Adele (Keener). We are brought, not always comfortably, along on his journey as he becomes increasingly obsessed with art, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death.

When he receives news that he has won the prestigious MacArthur grant following his latest theatre hit, Caden determines to create something significant and important; something profoundly truthful. The result is a philosophical crusade that sprawls across many years, seeking out and invading the life of every person that it can touch. Kaufman delicately layers the stories, ideas and desires of each character to the point where their lives blend together inseparably, making it is impossible to discriminate between what is real, what is fantasy and what is delusion.

Caden’s ‘masterpiece’ is contained in an enormous warehouse in downtown Schenectady: a living model city, built to scale and populated by an ever-expanding cast and crew, striving to mirror life in all its beauty and bleakness. We see the development of Caden’s changing relationships with Adele, Hazel and Claire, and in turn their changing relationships with everyone else, played out inside the reconstructed city within the warehouse. As the city grows, the borders of reality crumble: life on the inside and outside the warehouse imitate each the other in escalating circles until we begin to wonder if Caden, or anyone, could ever make sense of either.

Synecdoche, New York is leaps and bounds apart from the standard Hollywood flick, as is only to be expected from Kaufman. While some critics have blasted it as self-indulgent or pretentious, it remains a film with ambitions as large as those of its protagonist – which is really saying something. The casting is faultless, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as brilliant as ever, and memorable performances by Michelle Williams (Claire), Samantha Morton (Hazel) and Emily Watson (Tammy). This may not be the first choice for those seeking romantic escapism, but it is nonetheless witty, honest and arresting. The visuals are stunning and unnerving in equal measure, the dialogue balances sharp wit with surreally detached reflection; it is overwhelming, tender, funny and, at times, horribly sad.

Jennifer Wade
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Synecdoche, New York
is released on 15th May 2009

Synecdoche, New York – Official Website

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[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIizh6nYnTU[/youtube]

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