HER



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Ah, AI’s that become sentient.   If there is one very important lesson to learn from movies, it’s that this is never a very good idea.  The argument:
In Electric Dreams, that 1984 movie that gave us a fun disco tune (“it’s got a good rhythm, I can dance to it, I give it an 8”) and a computer, Edgar, that achieves full sentience after having champagne spilt on it, Edgar falls in love with his owner’s girlfriend (a pre-Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen) and tries to kill his rival (with Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort providing Edgar’s voice). 
In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a super computer links up with a Russian one in an early form of détente and takes over the world, threatening to launch some nuclear missiles if everyone doesn’t do what he says (voice artist Paul Frees is the voice this time ‘round).
And who can forget Demon Seed, in which a computer that controls every aspect of a state of the art futuristic house imprisons Julie Christie (in a “was she really that desperate for work that she needed to do this film” role) and forces her to have sex with him so he can reproduce (no, I am not kidding, and the voice work this time is the soothing toned Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn, and though it’s more than a bit campy, it’s actually not as bad as I make it sound and is better than it has any right to be). 
And I won’t even mention 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL.
In the new sci-fi, rom com Her from writer/director Spike Jonze, the AI here, Samantha, doesn’t do anything like that.  No, she does much worse.  She non-surgically removes the heart of our hero, Theodore, from his chest cavity; throws it on the ground, splat; and stomps on it until there’s nothing left.
The future world painted by Jonze in this movie is not a particularly optimistic one.  Perhaps the biggest dystopian aspect of it is that men are back to wearing high wasted, Humphrey Bogart style pants (for some reason, the Donna Karen’s of the future didn’t get the memo that pants that cover the belly button look best when worn with suit jackets of some sort); long sleeve shirts that have pockets that are screaming out for those plastic protectors our grandfather’s use to wear; ugly sweaters than could win every Christmas contest; and ironic mustaches worn unironically.
But just as bad are the women.  I mean, they are a pretty weird and awful group in Jonze’s view of things to come.  There’s Theodore’s soon to be ex-wife who has left him for some vague reason she claims is Theodore’s fault; a phone sex hook up with someone who has a really sick fetish you will not believe; an emotionally bonkers blind date who freaks out for no logical reason at all; and Samantha who, well, you know.   Even Amy, Theodore’s best friend, is a little odd, making a documentary about her mother that we’re suppose to laugh at. 
I found it all a little dispiriting myself.
But in the end, how you feel about Her will probably depend on how you feel about the growing relationship of Samantha and Theodore.  It never worked for me and there are several reasons for this.  Though I had no issue with Samantha’s exponential growth in knowledge and emotion, I felt that Theodore’s growing relationship with Samantha was too equally exponential.  He seemed to accept everything far too easily and go along with it all far too quickly to be believable.
What might have helped was if I had a better context for Theodore and his loneliness and life of quiet desperation (such as why his wife was divorcing him), as well as a better context for these OS’s and why he would purchase such a contraption.  Theodore just sees an ad for one and buys it.  No research, no investigation, no asking of friends.  It seemed so impulsive for someone who I would never describe as being remotely impulsive. 
In fact, one of the issues I had with the movie is that Theodore is the central character, but it seems to be Samantha’s story.  She’s the one who learns something, who grows, who goes on a journey—but her journey is all off screen and never really dramatized.  Instead, we follow Theodore who only seems to learn that women, whether of the real or artificial intelligence kind, will just stab you in the back and leave you bleeding to death.  But is that really the point Jonze is trying to make here?
And because I never bought this central relationship, my mind wandered and I began questioning other, less important aspects of the story, such as how someone who is basically a few steps up from someone who writes greeting cards could possibly afford a huge apartment with an incredible view of L.A.; how someone at his wage level could even afford an OS at all (he doesn’t even wait until the price comes down like people do today for computers, phones and TV’s, and I wonder what the monthly fee would be for something like this); and why, when Sam sends some of Theodore’s writings (he works for a business that composes letters for people) to a publisher, the first reaction Theodore has isn’t, “you can’t do that, I don’t own the rights to any of them”. 
I know.  I’m the Grinch here, I fully admit it.  I’m sure I missed the point and need to have my head examined.  But the whole thing just never came together for me.
The acting is quite strong, I admit.  Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead with a post nasal drip and “nerd” glasses (his character’s name is Theodore after all) and he again fully disappears into his role (has he somehow become our Daniel Day-Lewis without our even noticing it?).  Amy Adams as Amy has nothing to do and proceeds not to do it, but she’s always a welcome addition.  And there’s just something about Scarlet Johansson’s voice as Samantha that reminded me of Jane Fonda’s early kitten roles that’s a lot of fun. 
At the same time, I kinda felt the best and most fun performances were given in smaller roles like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s overly friendly, but ingratiating, boss, and Brian Cox as a somewhat pompous Gore Vidal like OS.  And did anyone know that there was a Cher impersonator in the movie?  It says so in IMDB, but I think I blinked and missed her.   It should also be noted that we now have an actor in Portia Doubleday who rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for most Dickensian name.
I also liked Jonze’s habit of suddenly cutting to a silent montage of scenes from Theodore’s past.  There was something moving about this in a way I never found the movie as a whole to be.  And whose ever idea it was to use Shanghai as the future L.A. deserves a bonus (though I did catch the exit sign in Chinese lettering at one point). 
But in the end, I pretty much knew how it was going to resolve itself and I found few surprises along the way.  It’s like watching your best friend dating someone you know is bad for him, but there’s nothing you can say or do, you just have to see it through.  So I did.

CALL OF THE WILDS: Reviews of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox


Where the Wild Things Are had to grow on me. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally figured out what it was about: a character study of a young boy with a classic case of serotonin deprived depression. Max Records plays Max (well, wasn’t that convenient), a young boy with wild mood swings of grandiose highs and debilitating lows, all out of proportion to the circumstances surrounding him, though those circumstances (he’s new to a neighborhood; no friend; child of divorce; a sister too much older than him to find him nothing but an annoyance; his mother has a new boyfriend) do add to his problematic situation. His mother, played excellently as usual by Catherine Keener, doesn’t really understand what’s going on nor has the time to figure it out. After a particularly egregious tantrum, Max runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island of gigantic and somewhat weird puppet/animal like creatures, strongly voiced by such actors as James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. The film began working for me when I realized that these creatures all had similar, though even deeper and more irrational, emotional problems than Max. For the first time, Max gets to see himself as other people see him. He returns home, but it’s unclear whether this adventure has really helped him. The creatures are wonderfully animated, especially the mouths, and the music and songs are heaps of fun. The main drawback may be Spike Jonze (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers) who directs the piece as if he were Paul Greenglass doing a Bourne film. I found myself at times trying to fill in the blanks because Jonze had a yen for using jump cuts. But by the time it was all over, I was moved.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is well…fabulous (bet you thought I was going to say “fantastic”, didn’t you; please, it would be so obvious to include that word in this review). It’s as clever and fun and quirky as Babe, which is saying quite a bit. There is one rather odd aspect to it. Fox and his friends are animals who can walk, talk, reason, etc., basically humans in animal bodies. But they feed on other animals, like chickens, geese, turkeys, etc. This is rather creepy and almost comes across as cannibalism; it’s actually borderline disturbing. Of course, if one realizes that the original story is by Roald Dahl, whose stories always did have a unique and somewhat creepy aspect to them, I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising that this isn’t your typical everyday children’s film. The suave and debonair Fox is played by the suave and debonair George Clooney. He’s actually a character I would have little to do with in real life since he’s so incredibly vain and egocentric, running roughshod over everybody else, doing whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it and if anybody else has a problem with that, too bad (he’s also pretty rotten to his son). However, that is one of the great things about art—one can spend quality time with someone one would never have anything to do with in real life from the safety of a movie seat. His longer suffering wife is played by Meryl Streep (that makes three films in one year for both of them–aren’t they the busy little bees) with an appropriately long suffering voice. The screenplay (by director Wes Anderson and the tres droll Noah—Squid and the Whale—Baumbach) is witty, energetic and never runs out of cleverness. The direction by Wes Anderson is ever so much the same; no scene is complete with some extra bit of visual manipulation that just gives it that something…well, extra, to make it memorable. The animation is remarkable, down to the moving hairs on the characters’ face. It’s what is called sophisticated and adult; the question then is whether it will sell in the multiplex. One can only hope.