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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


Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

Most know what they’re getting into when they sit down to watch something with the infamous “Jackass” logo plastered on it: over-the-top and increasingly dangerous back-to-back stunts that have no connection to one another other than the jackasses performing them. In this sense, the three movies that were previously released aren’t your typical story driven events. So it may surprise you to know that “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” actually is. Sure, the story is thin, cliché, poorly written, horribly executed and all around uninvolving, but it’s there. On that level, “Bad Grandpa” fails miserably, but it would be foolish to think those who venture to the theater to see it are going for the story. They’re going for the inanity, the ridiculous situations the make-up heavy Johnny Knoxville can get himself into and on that front, it delivers.

The story is simple (or, perhaps more fittingly, simplistic). Knoxville plays Irving Zisman, an 86 year old man whose wife has just died. He’s thrilled because now, for the first time in many years, he’s a single man and can hit the town and try to pick up women. However, during his wife’s funeral, his daughter shows up and drops his grandson off. It turns out she’s heading to jail, so he is now responsible for young Billy, played by Jackson Nicoll. He doesn’t want this burden, so he sets off on a road trip with Billy to drop him off at his father’s place in North Carolina.

And thus starts a road trip so outlandish it makes Thelma & Louise’s journey look relatively normal in comparison. Irving and the little headache accompanying him shove his dead wife in the trunk of his car, head out to a Bingo event where Irving hits on every woman who passes and even get into some shenanigans at a children’s beauty pageant where Irving convincingly dresses Billy up in a dress and passes him off as a girl. These moments are scripted similar to the way any hidden camera show or mockumentary film is scripted: the two actors are in on the joke while those around them are blissfully ignorant. While the movie itself is wildly uneven, some of these individual moments land so well that many viewers will struggle to find the time to breathe in between each enthusiastic guffaw they produce. Furthermore, due to the unpredictable nature of the people they encounter, the two are required to stay on their toes and adapt to the situation, ad-libbing lines of dialogue that only someone with no shame could possibly say. Indeed, “Bad Grandpa” has moments of absolute hilarity.

But those moments are, sadly, interspersed between stretches of crushingly dull and horribly unfunny nonsense. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Bad Grandpa” is at its best when Knoxville does what he does best: hurt himself. Although certainly tamer than the “Jackass” movies we’ve become familiar with, the film nevertheless contains enough physical jackass-ery to satiate the appetite of those who miss the group’s enthusiastic craziness. Knoxville’s ability to take physical punishment is again morbidly fascinating to watch, particularly in one scene involving an adjustable bed where his body is more or less folded in half.

What drags down “Bad Grandpa” the most isn’t its stretches of boredom, as even the best “Jackass” films have skits that don’t work, but rather its uninspired story. Irving Zisman has become such a well-known face to the “Jackass” faithful that a loose narrative isn’t necessary to string his antics along. Why not just go from skit to skit as is “Jackass” custom? It’s unfair to lob criticism at a movie that purposely has no structure like those films, but by forcing one in, it’s easy to pick apart that shoddy structure. By becoming more like a traditional film, “Bad Grandpa” loses some of its “Jackass” luster.

Further hurting “Bad Grandpa” are its dramatic shifts in visual quality—mostly due to the different types of hidden cameras that were needed to pull off these moments—and numerous breakings of the fourth wall. This isn’t a mockumentary like “Borat” where the person onscreen is aware he’s being filmed, so every time the characters look into the camera, it’s jarring, though to be fair, it doesn’t pull you out of the story like it would in another film because the story is so lousy anyway. But these problems don’t stop “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa” from doling out at least three or four riotous laughs, though most perceptions of the film will rely on the viewer’s patience. Are the long stretches of unfunny filler material too boring to make this enjoyable? Or do those aforementioned riotous moments make up for it? Answers will vary wildly. As for me, I’m of the latter opinion. In terms of consistent laughs, it’s one of the most uneven films I’ve ever seen, but what it lacks in consistency, it makes up for with some truly inspired immaturity.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa receives 3/5