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Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Her

Man Meets Machine. Man Loves Machine. Any Questions?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 10, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 126 minutes
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, 
Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Matt Letscher, 
Olivia Wilde

What do you picture when you hear a name like Theodore Twombly? Probably a lonely, socially awkward man with round glasses, just a mustache, and pants pulled up too high. Then again, in the near future, it appears that mustaches are fashionable again and so are trousers that go up to one's nipples.

Such a brave new world demands brave new technology. Windows and other operating systems have apparently fallen by the wayside – replaced by the elegantly-titled OS1. "It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness." Indeed, this operating system can name itself, form independent thoughts, develop feelings, and tailor itself intimately to each individual user. This version of the program sounds like a female and introduces itself as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is instantly smitten.

Things are a bit more complicated with the real women in his life. Flashbacks are shown of his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), who he constantly thinks about. And while he's very comfortable conversing with his friend and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), she's already married. He also attempts to go on a blind date (with a woman played by Olivia Wilde), but no one can understand him the way his computer companion can – the way Samantha does.

Joaquin Phoenix is tremendous as Theodore. It's a transcendental performance. He was unfairly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The futuristic world of "Her" really comes alive, thanks to the film's spectacular visual style. Great care has obviously gone into every aesthetic aspect of the production – from the sets to the costumes to the gadgets – right down to the little details.

It's a shame, then, that I found myself unable to truly believe the movie's central premise. I wanted to. I tried to. But I couldn't.

"I'm dating my OS!"

When Theodore gleefully shares that information with others, they barely react (with one exception).

Come on!

Case-in-point: If I declared that I was in love with Siri, the iPhone's voice feature, I'd be locked up for life! Even if my family and friends were as "understanding" as Theodore's, I suppose I'd get strange reactions anyway because I've set mine to sound like an Englishman. Don't judge! "He" has a pleasing lilt – very refined. Unfortunately, I have to speak like a Brit myself to get "him" to understand me.

The limits of technology!

Theodore and Samantha, however, have no such issues. The movie, on the other hand, has quite a few.

For one thing, it drags on and on. I felt every single second of "Her's" 126-minute running time. Then again, I'm not sure what could have possibly been cut out to tighten the flow – everything that was included seemed important to the story in some way.

Also, as good as Phoenix is here, his character can come across as a bit creepy at times. I suspect that's partly by design, though. After all, normal, well-adjusted people don't date their computers.

Regardless, that "relationship" is one of the major problems I have with the movie. It's not realistic. It rings false.

Yes, I realize "Her" is likely meant to be an allegory about our current over-reliance on technology. Parallels can certainly be made between events of this film and the way we interact with websites, virtual pen pals, and everything else the world wide web has to offer. Still, even the most outlandish fantasy has to work at least somewhat on a credible, real-world, literal level; the core "romance" between man and machine in this movie never quite does. I was unable to completely suspend my disbelief.

Even though the film didn't entirely work for me, I can still see myself revisiting it in the future. Writer and director Spike Jonze deserves credit for crafting a grand, bold vision. Instead of playing it safe, he took big chances and dared to be original and artistic.

I didn't love "Her," but I do admire it.  

Monday, February 3, 2014

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

An Amazing Actor

By Chris Sabga

Philip Seymour Hoffman's death on Sunday of an apparent heroin overdose left his colleagues and fans shocked and saddened. Unfortunately, there was also a quick rush to judgment – as is always the case with the internet. The fact that Hoffman was clean for 23 years before relapsing in 2012, according to TMZ, is nothing short of tragic. For those of you cynically wondering why a major Hollywood star would "need drugs," his previous usage pre-dates his first role: a Season 1 episode of "Law & Order" in 1991. It just goes to show that once addiction of any kind takes hold of a person, it never truly lets go.

Hoffman was described by CNN as an "actor's actor." No matter how big or small the role was, he always made it memorable. From "Scent of a Woman" to "Along Came Polly," everyone I talked to had an immediate opinion about their favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance.

Here are a few of mine:

25th Hour: In the hands of almost any other actor, this portrayal of a nerdy, na├»ve teacher who becomes almost unwillingly entangled with a female student would have come across as creepy and repulsive. But Hoffman is a rare breed. In a very difficult, tricky role, he was somehow able to infuse the degree of humanity necessary to generate sympathy for such a complicated, deeply-flawed character.

Charlie Wilson's War: The stark contrast between the timid Jacob Elinsky in "25th Hour" and the bombastic, ill-tempered, and foul-mouthed but highly entertaining Gust Avrakotos in "Charlie Wilson's War" is enough to demonstrate Hoffman's staggering level of talent. It was obvious that he was relishing every second on-screen.

Almost Famous: "You cannot make friends with the rock stars!" Hoffman (as real-life music journalist Lester Bangs) warned the young, impressionable, doe-eyed 15-year-old writer who came to him for advice. I'll keep that in mind when Clooney discovers this site. This is one of many examples of Hoffman making the most of very little screen-time.

Capote: He lost weight, altered his voice, and ultimately won the Oscar. It's easy to see why. As always, Hoffman completely transformed and immersed himself in the role of the controversial author and screenwriter who bragged about his 94-percent recall – his ability to memorize that much of every conversation.

The Ides of March: The uneven "Ides" features a dream cast, but it wasn't George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, or Marisa Tomei who drew me to the theater – I bought a ticket because of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Specifically, his incredible scenes about loyalty and choice: "There's only one thing I value in this world, and that's loyalty. Without it, you are nothing." and "It doesn't matter what you thought. It matters what you did. It matters what you didn't do." Simple dialogue, yes, but incredibly effective and powerful coming from Hoffman. He was always able to shine, even when the movie – like this one – wasn't as good as he was.

There are so many others I could name. Too many! Everyone has their own favorites.

One example: "I have to tell you about this weird movie I saw!" I've heard that sentence more than a few times from friends eager to recommend something they have discovered. They're excited, anxious to tell me, because no one else could have possibly seen this! At this point, I already know exactly what they're going to say. Always, inevitably, they're talking about "Happiness" – a bizarre, unsettling film starring Hoffman, written and directed by Todd Solondz (perhaps best known for "Welcome to the Dollhouse"). I still haven't watched it myself, but I will – one day.

I've also shared many a laugh with friends over the physical resemblance or similar attitude between a Hoffman character and someone we know personally. Whether it was "Along Came Polly," "Charlie Wilson's War," or – gulp! – "Happiness," such comparisons were possible because his acting was so natural, realistic, and truthful.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was only 46 years of age when he died. He left behind an incredible cinematic legacy – and a long line of future roles that will now never be.