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Animadversion: Talk to Her

February 23, 2014

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At times, if director Spike Jonze’s Her feels awkwardly familiar, its only because the make-believe it builds on is not a possibility — it is more of a probability.

Her opens with Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Pheonix) close-up. He is a professional letter writer, who, like everyone in the film’s future utopia doesn’t really “write”. He talks, and his operating system, with a very smooth talking voice, works: it writes for him, emails, schedules and maybe even does the laundry.

When Samantha (the voice of Scarlet Johansson), Theodore’s new artificially intelligent operating system with a woman’s personality, answers: “Hello, I am here”, Theodore’s expression asks the very question in our mind: “That has to be a woman; she certainly doesn’t sound like a software.”

Jonze’s film is very deep: it is a witty study of human isolation, an instinctual catharsis of broken relationships and a minimalists’ rendition of a very obvious romance between two people — no matter if she is software.

In fact, most of Her is a constant conversation between him and her, about how she handles his tasks, but gradually evolves into a very real woman.

It’s a tough-to-handle parable and Jonze — also the writer who previously directed Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Where The Wild Things Are — pulls it off like a virtuoso, centering on his characters very physical emotions and shooting them in close-quartered, out-of-focus backgrounds of flickering city lights, sunsets and soft melodies.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Johansson’s voice, sometimes girlish, sometimes huskily sensual, automatically brings her image to mind, filling the emotional gap we may feel about hearing something which, technically, isn’t real.

Filmed in unbelievably dirt-free, car-free metropolis (told to be Los Angeles, though partly filmed in Shanghai), Her is fascinatingly intricate and subtly brilliant, with an excellent, deftly balanced performance by Pheonix (often a master at playing isolated characters). He quite effortlessly sells both his Theodore’s and Samantha’s dilemma about a doomed romance that doesn’t have a deus ex machina ending to it.

Released by Warner Bros, Her also stars Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde, and is rated R.

Hustlin’ — American style

There is a disclaimer before American Hustle, the new keenly perceptive crime-drama by director David O. Russell. It reads: “Some of this actually happened” — and indeed it did. The screenplay, written by Eric Warren Singer and Russell, is loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s and early ’80s where two small-time con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale, Amy Adams) are forced by an overly zealous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to set up a honey-pot sting to nab corrupt politicians.

That the caper turns dastardly, or that it unimaginatively stars Robert De Niro in a small role as an enforcer-turned-Mafia boss isn’t the question — almost all caper movies turn 360-degrees at one time. The question here is: how distinct can this film be in a sea of movies made with the same idea! The short answer: American Hustle is different — and whoa is it distinct.

By its first looks, the screenplay feels a little too easy to write, with Irvin and Sydney (who later takes up a British identity to con people), getting close enough to “be each other’s lifeline”, and then getting nabbed by Richie DiMaso who like most of Russell’s characters comes with severe issues (played with nutty zest by Cooper, the actor’s last collaboration with the director in Silver Linings Playbook had him with bi-polar disorder).

Richie, clearly still a rookie in handling big operations, has no idea when to stop and pretty soon ends up escalating their predicament tenfold, entangling Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) of Camden, New Jersey in a plot that links up politicians, the mafia, a fake Arab sheikh (Michael Pena) from Abu Dhabi and puts $2 million of taxpayers money on the line.

One of the brief supporting key actors who almost steals the show is Jennifer Lawrence; she plays Rosalyn, Irving’s self-centered, clingy, neurotic wife who is perhaps as off her kilter as Richie. Amy Adams obviously acts well, playing a very torn woman with unsophisticated grace. However, American Hustle really belongs to Christian Bale and Cooper.

In the film, with a very real potbelly, a torturous comb-over and a clearly defined flawed human persona, Bale somehow rises a notch above his usual understated brilliance. He makes us care, and I guess come Oscar season, that’s what really counts.

Released by Columbia Pictures, American Hustle is rated R. The movie has Oscar written all over it.