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When it comes to full length directorial efforts, Spike Jonze can do no wrong. With only three previous films under his belt over a career that has spanned over two decades, it might be easy for one to assume that he doesn’t have “it,” that elusive spirit and wherewithal to really go for it and do something different. But then you think back to those three movies, the meta films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” and the wonderfully imaginative, inventive and heartfelt “Where the Wild Things Are.” Like that 2009 marvel, his latest, the futuristic sci-fi romance, “Her,” is another film of unrivaled excellence, one that taps into ideas and themes in the way only the mind of Mr. Jonze can. It is hands down the best American movie of 2013.

“Her” follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), an increasingly lonely man whose wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), has left him. Still clinging onto a relationship that has clearly ended, he refuses to sign their divorce papers. One day, in a desperate attempt to alleviate his loneliness, he decides to purchase an operating system that he can install and speak to, whom he calls Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As the two speak, he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she’s nothing more than a computerized voice. She begins to reciprocate those feelings and finds in her a desire to be alive, which is obviously something she’ll never be able to obtain.

That’s a sad thought, to want something so bad, but know that it will never happen. But it’s a beautiful sadness, one that is contemplative and poignant, especially because being alive is all Theo wants too. “Her” understands that being alive isn’t simply in existing, but in the interactions with other people in our lives and the love that grows from those relationships. If we don’t have someone to care about or that cares for us, are we really alive?

In a broader sense, the movie explores this idea through Theo’s occupation as a letter writer, someone who manufactures sentiments for those who can’t take the time to do it themselves. In this future, it’s as if people can’t even feel for themselves and need others to feel for them and in our fast moving, technical world, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for something like this to happen. In a sense, it already has. For example, how often do people actually call their loved ones these days? Most send texts. Our conversations have not only devolved into online communication. They’re also being limited to 140 characters thanks to the likes of Twitter, one of the most popular social media sites around. “Her” imagines a world where human interaction has reached a near non-existent point, where even when it does happen, it’s mainly small talk. One early shot when Theo is riding the subway, everyone within the frame is talking, but not to each other. They’re all talking to their devices plugged into their ears. It’s a striking and haunting image.

But within all this thematic exploration is a human story about love and its messy existence. Even this so-called “perfect love,” the one that is programmed to say and be everything Theo could ever want and need, proves to be fleeting. What happens is something of profound sadness, though it nevertheless ends on a hopeful note, Theo having finally recaptured his humanity, even if it took a program to help him do it.

Rounding out a nearly flawless movie is the wonderful (occasionally diegetic) score. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film comes when Theo is standing on the beach talking to Sam through his earpiece. She asks him what it’s like to actually be there, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the sand beneath his toes, so he plays a piece of music for her in an attempt to capture it. Although great on its own serving as support for the events portrayed onscreen, scenes like this give the score so much more meaning to a movie already chock full of ideas and ruminations.

“Her” is the perfect follow-up to “Where the Wild Things Are,” another movie that expressed the kind of sadness and loneliness that a person can feel at a certain point in their life. Of course, that movie had its detractors, so I imagine this one will as well, but those people will be missing the entire point of it: to remind us that to love and to be loved is to be alive. Through the heartbreaks and the crippling sadness that love sometimes brings, it remains the sole reason to be alive in the first place. Sappy though it sounds, “Her” approaches it in a way that can only be described as divine. Nobody should miss this movie.

Her receives 5/5


The Master

I was speaking with one of my critic colleagues after our screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master. When I asked him what he thought of it, he responded, “I feel the same way about it as I did There Will Be Blood. I’m watching it and it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, then it ends and I’m like, ‘What the hell was the point of that?’” His sentiments, more or less, echo mine. Anderson is no doubt a gifted filmmaker, but he has a strange way of setting up themes that he never fully explores. It’s his frustrating modus operandi and it’s never been more apparent than in The Master. It is most certainly a good film, but its failure to meet ending expectations set by its opening events prevents it from being one of the best of the year.

Heavily criticized by the Church of Scientology as an attack on their beliefs, The Master takes place post-WWII and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a war veteran who is coasting aimlessly through this new peacetime, unsure of what the future holds for him. One night, during a drunken stupor, he stumbles onto a boat run by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and passes out. He wakes up in the middle of the ocean and begins to learn who Lancaster is, discovering that he’s the founder of a faith-based organization called “The Cause.” Despite Freddie’s violent outbursts, the two strike up a friendship and Freddie quickly becomes Lancaster’s right hand man.

Paul Thomas Anderson is masterful director. His movies are beautifully shot and he always gets the absolute best out of his performers. He even managed to turn Adam Sandler, who had been thought of as nothing more than a goof at the time, into an acting powerhouse in 2002’s blissful Punch-Drunk Love. He knows when he has something good going and often opts to shoot in one continuous take, letting his actors do what they’re supposed to and giving the film a gritty realism, one that is unparalleled by any other filmmaker working today. His eye for detail and accompanying techniques to capture them, which include what one could only call an anti-shot-reverse-shot, in that his camera stays on one actor rather than editing back and forth based on who’s talking, are masterful strokes from a brilliant filmmaker.

That reason right there is enough to see The Master. It’s practically guaranteed to be nominated for multiple Oscars in the upcoming awards season (including Joaquin Phoenix, who should be a shoo-in win), but mainly due to its technical expertise. Where it flounders is in its telling of its story. I hesitate to say Anderson isn’t a good storyteller because he definitely is—this film is captivating from its first frame of frothy ocean water to its last—but it never finds meaning, or at least not the one he sets up. Early in the movie, the mystery behind this so-called religion is the film’s driving force. The themes he sets up about science vs. religion are fascinating. At times, it’s an indictment of unfounded religious thinking, exploring the idea that people will believe any religious ideology if their mind has been shaped—some may say manipulated—into believing. This is a movie that knows full well that the idea of God is planted in the mind. It’s not an inherent trait. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, this is an important issue worth looking into given how much religion shapes so many world events.

But then the movie switches gears. It becomes less about religion and more about the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster, the latter refusing to shun the former, wanting only to help him through his meandering life. This story is no less interesting, mind you, and you’ll be so engrossed in what’s happening that it won’t be until late in the movie that you’ll realize the focus has changed. Nevertheless, this sudden shift from sharp religious commentary to broad character study is more than a little disappointing. That’s not to say that every movie needs to have some intellectual point to make on any given topic—most movies get by just fine without one—but setting one up and then suddenly dropping it comes off as unfocused. If this shift was indeed the intent, one can’t help but wonder why the none-too-subtle comparisons to the founding of Scientology, down to names, dates and locations were made to begin with.

In the end, The Master fails to fulfill its promise, though it would be unfair to say its intellectualism evaporates; it just moves it onto something else. Despite a lingering feeling of disappointment once the credits roll, there’s so much good here, so much talent on display, that it would be a crime to call it anything other than a great film. It stands right alongside the rest of this year’s other great films, though, really, that should be taken as both a compliment and a criticism. With the right focus, it could have stood above them.

The Master receives 4/5


I'm Still Here

Two years ago, award winning actor Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from the film industry. While no specific reason was given, he stated that he wanted to focus on creating a rap album, which would be produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs. It shocked many. The cinema world was losing a major talent. But in early 2009, videos of Phoenix rapping appeared online and his performances were being filmed by none other than his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. Speculation arose. Soon after his awkward appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the public really began to wonder whether or not his antics were real, especially after it was announced that a film of his exploits was being made.

I’m Still Here is the chronicle of those exploits, from his sudden realization that he was unhappy acting—even as himself, the media friendly Joaquin Phoenix—to his tragic (or not) downfall. Rumor has it that when searching for a distributor for the movie, potential buyers were unsure whether or not it was a true documentary or a fictional mockumentary. After having seen it, I share in their uncertainty.

If it is fake, it’s one of the most effective ruses ever put to film. Phoenix is believable as the newly retired actor going through a Britney Spears like collapse and given his proven talent, it’s difficult to judge the film’s authenticity. If forced to choose, I’d bet my chips on it being fake, as most movies of this type are, but it really doesn’t matter. The extent of its fiction does little to save what is one of the most self-indulgent movies I’ve seen in a long time.

My colleague, friend and co-host Kevin McCarthy made an interesting comment after the conclusion of I’m Still Here. He said it was the only movie he could recall that you could review in two ways: from the perspective of it being real and the perspective of it being phony. It’s a situation of, “If it’s real, then…” and “If it’s fake, then…” And he’s right, but no matter how you cut it, it's hedonistic. Throughout its runtime, Phoenix acts like a jerk no matter who accompanies him. An interviewer, close friends and even random folks in his general vicinity receive the brunt of his vile verbal ranting. He is so full of himself that he emotionally shuns even those who have stuck by him and love him. So if I’m Still Here is real, Phoenix himself is self-indulgent. If it’s fake, the movie as a whole is.

For two years now, Phoenix has hid behind a façade, plastering his face all over entertainment media with wild speculation about his supposed career change. His relationships have been damaged and his name tarnished. His role here, if the movie is indeed fake (and for the sake of this argument, it is), is of a man who merely wants to get away from the superficiality of Hollywood and do what he wants. He is essentially playing a fake version of himself who is tired of playing a fake version of himself. The very idea spins heads, but it also comes off as a snarky display of exhibitionism done just for the sake of doing so. It’s an artsy, more acceptable way for the whiny kid inside of him to scream, “Look what I can do!”

Frankly, if you took away all of my criticisms so far and looked at I’m Still Here on the basis of whether or not it works as a movie, it merely evokes a feeling of an overextended YouTube clip, which is fitting seeing as how a good chunk of its content is available on that popular video site. In fact, the best parts of the movie, like the hilarious David Letterman segment and the embarrassing hip hop performance that culminates in his falling off the stage, have been online since this whole escapade began. The unseen content involves Phoenix doing things normal people would avoid, like snorting coke, ordering up some hookers, receiving oral sex from aforementioned hookers and so on.

Again, whether or not he is actually partaking in these activities is up in the air, though I sense it wise to retain some skepticism. Besides, if Joaquin Phoenix really wanted to retire from acting, why make a documentary? Surely he must know, as any actor should, that documentaries never fully capture real life. It’s only natural to act out, even to the slightest degree, when a camera is shoved in your face, a fact that contradicts Phoenix’s supposed desire to retire. So perhaps he shouldn’t leave the film industry just yet. He apparently still has a lot to learn.

I’m Still Here receives 1.5/5