Review – Her

It’s love Jim, but not as we know it in Spike Jonze’s prescient tale of one man’s unconventional relationship with his operating system.

Her treads a well worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you'll be glad you went down it

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it

Since his striking debut Being John Malkovich, Jonze has divided critical opinion between those who embrace his unique vision and those who deride his films as being painfully self-conscious.

It’s unlikely his new film will woo the naysayers, but anyone who writes off Her as a knowing exercise in hipsterism is blinding themselves to one of cinema’s most honest, painful and beautiful love stories since the 2007 Irish charmer Once.

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

The premise of Her sounds like an offshoot of Charlie Brooker’s tech-led anthology TV series Black Mirror. Set in a near future LA, lost and lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) and can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers. The only really meaningful attachment he has is with Amy (Amy Adams), an old friend whom he once dated years back.

His life changes suddenly when he purchases a new highly advanced Operating System, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and is soon conversing with Theodore either through his computer or via his phone linked to an earpiece like she’s flesh and blood.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore finds himself increasingly drawn to Samantha, who represents everything he could wish for in a woman… except to exist in physical form.

This is Her‘s big question – can a relationship work when two people aren’t physically together? In spite of the film’s digital age outlook, its central conceit has been a staple of screen romances for decades, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner, to its e-make You’ve Got Mail.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Technology, specifically our slavish devotion to it, plays a key role in the film. Whether he’s on the train, in a lift or walking along the street Theodore, like everyone else it seems, is glued to their mobile devices (much like today in fact) or listening to something through their earpiece. It’s little wonder he’s so lonely; he’s surrounded by people who are as lost in their own little world as he is. Although not presented as a dystopia, we’re left to decide for ourselves if this is the kind of future world we’d be happy living in.

In a sad irony, Theodore’s job is to compose handwritten letters of love and devotion for people unable to find the words themselves. In a way, this doesn’t make him too dissimilar to Samantha in that the service he provides is there to help improve a stranger’s life; in some cases over the course of many years as he explains at one point.

Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

In spite of a few slight eccentricities, Theodore is a character we warm to and come to care about. Phoenix’s eyes convey a sadness and fear that break the heart, while his shuffling gait suggests a guy who’s sleepwalking nowhere in particular. However, with the introduction of Samantha his posture changes, his eyes light up and he radiates a positivity you suspect he hasn’t felt for a long time. Phoenix proved he could really act in The Master and here gives another fascinating take on detachment.

We buy into his relationship with Samantha and this is largely down to Johansson’s (excuse the ironic pun) full-bodied performance. The path they take is, for the large part, a believable one, even when Samantha drafts in a sex surrogate in order for them to enjoy ‘physical’ intimacy.

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

A big reason the film works is Jonze’s beautifully observed script. Many of us will identify with the melancholy Theodore feels at the passing of a cherished relationship, as well as the fear, happiness and scepticism he experiences when his once dormant heart reignites.

This being a Jonze joint, the film’s aesthetic is painterly. Shanghai steps in for near future LA (where the fashion appears to be for men to wear trousers almost up to their ribcage) and is a perfect fit for Theodore – gleaming surfaces paint a warm sheen over the sadness and remoteness that exists just beneath.

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it.

Review – The Master

There are two kinds of ‘tent pole’ movie; one is the derivative, big-budget blockbuster that bankrolls a studio, while the other is less frequent but far more challenging – succour to the film connoisseur.

Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of only a handful of directors whose films are considered must-see events to any self-respecting lover of cinema.

The Master

The Master “will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics”

Since his confident debut Hard Eight, Anderson’s career has followed the kind of upward trajectory most film-makers can only dream of, from his brilliant porn industry drama Boogie Nights, through to the epic ensemble piece Magnolia, the marvellously off-kilter romantic comedy-drama Punch Drunk Love and most recently the profound There Will Be Blood.

Anderson treads a similarly bold path with The Master, only his second film in almost a decade. It centres on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two Navy veteran who gets dumped back into society with little or no prospects, a nervous condition and a serious penchant for his own brand of moonshine, made largely from paint thinner. He seems not to understand social boundaries and is obsessed with sex, an unhealthy mixture shown in an early scene set during the war when he starts dry humping a sand sculpture of a woman his fellow seamen have created on a beach.

Freddie is a powder keg who drawls through a clenched jaw and a sneered lip and resembles a coiled spring in the way he walks, all hunched over like a primate. Constantly escaping his own tortured psyche, he runs away from one unnecessary scrape after another until he takes refuge on a yacht that for all intents and purposes looks like it belongs in another world.

The boat is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself to Freddie as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man” and, fascinated with this new arrival, invites him to stay. It emerges that Dodd is the ‘master’ of ‘The Cause’, a Scientology-like movement that believes the Earth is trillions of years old and its inhabitants contain within them countless past lives.

The Master

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Dodd looks upon Freddie as a “silly animal” who has “wandered from the proper path” and decides to help him, akin to a dog and its master. Freddie is at first dubious, but soon embraces Dodd’s unconventional approach to self-improvement and becomes his right-hand man.

Part of this approach is ‘processing’, a psychological question and answer session that Dodd puts Freddie through in the film’s finest moment. Anderson suffocates the viewer, refusing to pull the camera away as we see Freddie’s tortured soul unburden. It’s bravura filmmaking (with mesmerising performance from both actors) and one of the scenes of the year.

A requirement of The Cause is to record everything that is said by Dodd, most revealingly during a scene when a group of young women are writing down a speech in which the Master espouses the pursuit of perfection by rejecting our animal instincts and controlling our emotions. Freddie finds one of the girls attractive and, ignoring Dodd’s words passes her a note saying: “Do you want to fu*k?”

The Master

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) joins The Cause in The Master

Dodd comes from the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ school of cult leaders, often allowing his emotions to get the better of him, whether it be envying Freddie’s child-like, unfiltered existence, moments of self-doubt or bouts of rage when his teachings are questioned (most revealingly during a riveting exchange with a skeptic). Although it doesn’t take a genius to see the Master is a fraud, it takes Dodd’s son to scrape off the veneer for Freddie when he tells him: “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”

Dodd’s wife Peggy (unnervingly played by Amy Adams) reveals herself as the real power behind the throne, tolerating her husband’s love-hate relationship with Freddie, but subtly steering him when the need arrives.

Johnny Greenwood’s mesmeric score amplifies the discordant world these characters exist in, while Anderson also interjects period music to masterful effect (the use of Irving Berlin’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ while an attractive, enigmatic woman walks through a shopping mall and eventually encounters Freddie is inspired).

The Master is, in essence, a yin and yang love story between two men from very different backgrounds desperate for what the other has. Whether Anderson intends this meaning or not, one could easily draw parallels to a post-war America at turns equally arrogant and deeply uncertain about its future.

The Master has been pilloried in some quarters for its lack of narrative progression, but these critics are forgetting There Will Be Blood was hardly plot-heavy. Both are studies of entrancing characters whose individual traits are so powerful and entrenched they are bound to them forever. Oil magnate Daniel Plainview is just as alone and consumed by his relentless quest for money and power at the end of There Will Be Blood. Freddie is a broken machine doomed to spend eternity stuck on that beach alongside that pliant, sand sculpture, while Dodd will continue to believe he and The Cause hold all the answers.

Just as There Will Be Blood was one of the great films of this century’s first decade, The Master will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics.