Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

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Side Effects

And he guessed at the number of script rewrites as a child guesses at jellybeans in a jar

Rooney MaraBy the third act of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, you will feel lied to.  And appropriately: the film does what A Beautiful Mind did, but in the wrong way – making the audience think the story is about one thing, and then making it about something else.  Ron Howard’s film, based on a man’s true life experiences with auditory hallucinations, appeared at first (to the layman/non-trailer-watcher) to be about a math whiz inducted into the CIA due to his uncanny ability to make connections between important pieces of information, when in reality, he’s suffering from schizophrenia and inventing the entire thing.  Here, we have a story that at first purports to be about a “very sick girl” suffering from serious depression and being riddled with useless medications, and most refreshingly, seems to be one of the only honest movies about depression itself, but it isn’t that.  It turns out to be – and I don’t use this term lightly – ugh.

The linchpin by which this film remains what the casual viewer would call a “pretty good movie” and not a total wash is, of course, Rooney Mara, who plays the main character – named Emily Taylor – and who gleamed as Lisbeth Salander in 2011 (and was more worthy of the Best Actress Oscar than anyone else nominated that year).  The story begins when Emily picks up her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a four year prison sentence and attempts to reconnect.  There are no longer any sparks, however, and Emily is severely depressed, going through episodes that the couple’s friends and Martin himself simply cannot understand.  Finally, she goes to see psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a recently-married doctor who sees an opportunity for extra money by participating in a study of some new depression meds.  He prescribes them to Emily, who is desperate for any relief whatsoever, and they’re seemingly ineffective.  While sleepwalking one night, Emily stabs Martin to death and calmly goes back to bed, her bare feet soaked with blood.

Now we have a real dilemma: who is at fault?  Emily, who physically performed the killing and doesn’t remember a thing, or Banks, who prescribed the pills that turned her into a sleepwalking, knife-wielding zombie?  Banks, feeling sympathy for Emily and wanting to clear his name, as his entire life – including his practice (his partners do not want to be affiliated with someone who so recklessly caused a tragedy) and his wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw) – is threatened.  Wonderful, I said to myself.  Finally, a story in an accessible medium that sympathizes with people who have spent their lives suffering from depression (myself included), identifies with their interior plights, quietly observes their very real struggles, illustrates so vividly the fact that non-depressed people cannot understand what we go through, and even demonizes the opportunistic pharmaceutical industry for haphazardly tossing pills and miracle cures our way; there’s even a commentary on the misleading, cheery ads with supposed formerly-depressed people prancing along beaches with their laughably photogenic families.

Not quite.  Side Effects is that film insofar as Reservoir Dogs is a film about Madonna.  Soderbergh pulls the curtain away and reveals the fact that he really wanted to make a neo-noir movie about a Holmes-like detective trying to investigate his way out of a legal and marital nightmare.  After an extended bout of gumshoeing, Banks deduces that Emily faked the entire thing in an elaborate scheme that also involved her ex-therapist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as the two wished only to make exorbitant sums of money through stock market manipulation (there’s a fortune to be made if a popular drug kills a patient).  Through one thing and another, Banks puts into motion his own dastardly scheme for revenge and freedom, winning his life back in a painfully obvious post-test-audiences ending that left me with my palm glued to my forehead.

So if you watch the second half, you get the opposite of what I thought the film would be (and of some importance, what the film was marketed as).  I do not like the implication that depressed people are “faking” their symptoms or exploiting the sympathy of others.  Thinking about it makes my third eye hurt.  In fact, any attempt at critical analysis causes this film’s internal logic (or lack thereof) to collapse: How was it so easy for Emily to murder her actual husband of five years?  Why would Emily act drugged when being injected with saline solution if she knew it would tip her hand?  Why would Dierdre think John would take photos of a patient in her underwear and then send them to their shared home?  Why wouldn’t she recognize the handwriting on the envelope as someone else’s?  How would rigging the stock market by murdering someone and hoping for victory in a very specific type of lawsuit seem like a viable get-rich-quick scheme to any thinking person?  Martin (Emily’s husband) knew about her depressions, as if these episodes were something they’d been dealing with together ever since they’d met. If she wasn’t really depressed, we’re supposed to think she’s been maintaining this ruse for five years?  Why is Martin seen as a simple murder victim and tragic figure; why does the film forget that he is a real criminal?  Why do both of the film’s principle female characters turn out to be the evil schemers?  Other than the titillation it provides male viewers with, why did Emily need to initiate a romantic relationship with Siebert in order to make the scheme work (it paints gay people in an unnecessarily negative light)?  Why is Banks, the doctor who admitted to prescribing ineffectual meds to a desperate person (and thus taking advantage of a patient, whether or not she turned out to be scamming him) so easily exonerated by the narrative?  Why is it seen as “okay” for him to get revenge by sending Emily away and prescribing her with additional medication she doesn’t need, essentially turning her into a real zombie and severely abusing his oath as a doctor?  How is Emily legally sent back to the ward after being declared legally “not crazy” barely a day before (any basic scrutiny of the legal system, which I’d expect from filmmakers who spend a third of their movie in a court, would tell you that this can’t happen)?  The film’s non-logic sends one’s head into enough of a cyclone to make even my dumbest question – Why do Emily and Siebert basically bite each other’s lips instead of actually kissing? – seem full of critical merit.

Mara’s performance and the score by Thomas Newman keep the film afloat, and the latter will remind some of Hitchcock’s strategic use of tension-building music (though I am reluctant to compare every single thriller featuring atmospheric music to a Hitchcock movie; this film doesn’t hold any other resemblance).  Jude Law is convincing as usual, and despite its ludicrous pitfalls and dialed-in ending, the film manages to keep interest.  Hopefully, enough good films about mental illness are floating around as to render this film’s potentially-dangerous underlying message innocuous.

You have to admit one thing, though: killer or not, you still want to root for Emily when she’s sitting in front of an abusive male doctor who angrily dismisses her and prescribes harmful medications – both times.

Side Effects (2013); written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The burnt offering isn’t the film reel

Some time ago, I expressed apprehension about the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I insist on calling a remake, despite the new film also being based upon the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.  I was certain the rape scenes would be toned down, that there would be little to no smoking, and that Daniel Craig would beat someone up, but in this case, I’m glad to have been partly wrong.  Is David Fincher’s remake as good as the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009?  No.  Is it still a great movie?  Yes.

I talked about the plot last time, but for frame of reference, I’ll retread.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is in trouble, having lost a libel case against a wealthy businessman, and all he sees on television is the world shunning him.  His magazine is doomed.  Elsewhere in Sweden, young Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her guardian and is forced under the control of the abusive Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningan).  A phenomenal hacker working for a security firm, Lisbeth completes an extensive background check on Blomkvist for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), former CEO of Vanger Industries.  Henrik then contacts Blomkvist, offering him two jobs: writing the memoirs of Henrik and his dysfunctional family, and discovering the fate of his great-niece, Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by a family member who may still live on Hedeby Island.  The stories of Lisbeth and Blomkvist remain separate until the latter realizes he’s going to need an assistant to help solve the case.  Also joining the cast are Robin Wright, Princess Buttercup herself, as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s co-editor and lover; and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger, Henrik’s son and current CEO of the company.

Mara’s performance is an incredible breakthrough for her, and is every ounce as brave as Noomi Rapace’s performance as the same character.  Fincher’s version of Lisbeth, however, is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than Oplev’s, and we’ve only our culture to blame for that – American audiences want a vulnerable female.  Yes, she falls for Blomkvist in the novel, but you never get the sense that these two characters are destined to be a married couple, nor that Lisbeth would want that.  You can easily chalk it up to the fact that with her personal issues and emotional obsessions, Lisbeth can’t even stand the fact that Blomkvist associates with another woman, but I guess that’s my fundamental problem right there: it shouldn’t need “chalking up.”  The intention should be obvious.

Daniel Craig’s performance is surprisingly understated, and I respect the fact that Fincher had him playing the actual character instead of relying on Craig’s name (not to mention his roster of characters, which seem to be the same character over and over) to sell the role.  Christopher Plummer is, as always, the sweet, grandfatherly old man, and provides us with characters as sympathetic as they come.  Whenever he cries in a movie, I get choked up.   Skarsgård is charming and seems like a real person, and even when he employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, there’s a reason for it.  As I’ve said about this story before, it’s not your garden-variety, plot-driven crime thriller.  This is something special.

Besides the big budget and the undeniably “clean” look of the film (as opposed to the grungy, quiet darkness of the original) and the abrupt change in Lisbeth’s emotional state, the only other standout problem is, as I suspected, the choice of Trent Reznor as composer.  He’s not Hans Zimmer; he’s the guy from Nine Inch Nails.  After an incredibly overlong, overbudgeted, James-Bond-type opening credits sequence, Reznor’s music still proves intrusive, often playing more loudly than the film dialogue.  A half hour into the film, though, this stops being a problem.  Either the music shifted gears or my brain toned it out.

As it is such a close adaptation, I suppose I’d agree with Swedish director Oplev’s reaction to the remake: “Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”  I have this reaction about 99% of remakes, especially those done by Hollywood.  On the other hand, this story is so real, so gritty, so believable and refreshingly different from every two-bit formula thriller staining the celluloid week after week, that I will not only let it go, I’ll support it.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust Fincher with one of my books (not that he’s asked), but I trust him with Lisbeth, for now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011); written by Steven Zaillian, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s novel; directed by David Fincher; starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer.

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