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Feature


Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive and unique entity in its own right. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet ‘Samantha,’ a bright, female voice (Scarlett Johansson) who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other. (From Warner Bros.’ original synopsis)

 Her
While many of his contemporaries and friends have blended themselves into the miasma of respectable, mainstream-friendly, and award-nominated movies, Spike Jonze quietly labored away on three of the most idiosyncratic motion pictures of the last decade. Directors like David Fincher, David O. Russell, and Michel Gondry haven’t necessarily lost their artistic voices over a series of creative ups and downs, but have all worked on outsider projects that fall under the banner of ‘commercial filmmaking.’ Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are are, from top to bottom, every inch Spike Jonze’s movies. Arguably, only Wes Anderson makes more explicitly personal movies in a studio system – and he has had an even more prolific career in terms of output. More incredible is the fact that Jonze’s films seem so creator-trademarked without sharing much in common in terms of subject matter or imagery. His ability to revisit a series of intimate, psychologically challenging themes and concepts from disparate, artistic angles never fails to impress and all but guarantees his legacy, even if he never made another film again. His latest (and only the fourth in 14 years), Her, fits his template in that it’s unmistakably ‘Jonzeian’ without being at all interchangeable with his previous output.
 
Some critics attributed Jonze’s early success to his collaboration with weirdo literary genius Charlie Kaufman. Indeed, both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation owe much of their success to Kaufman’s skewed worldview and high-concept mentality. Where the Wild Things Are was a more personalized film, but was still based on someone else’s initial ideas (in this case, Maurice Sendak’s). Her represents his first solo attempt at writing a screenplay from story concept to final draft, an achievement that won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I’m not sure if I agree that Her was the best original screenplay of 2013, but Jonze’s storytelling is certainly sophisticated. This is thanks in large part to the efforts of editors Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan, who help him shape his pseudo-stream of consciousness style, which moves in chronological order (mostly), but isn’t anchored to typical narrative choices. Having not read it, I would be surprised to learn that the written screenplay and the final film matched beyond basic dialogue and plot points. I only wish the editors would’ve helped Jonze condense the film down by about 15 or 20 minutes, because the middle section is flat, repetative, and unfocused. Oddly, the montage sequences, which are meant to move time more quickly, are among the most sluggish moments, along with the scenes involving Chris Pratt’s charming, but unnecessary character. This is a comparatively minor complaint, I suppose; because, even while overstaying its welcome, the film’s rhythm feels ‘right’ and the extended climax is nearly perfect.

 Her
Like the best sci-fi, Her manages to explore existential and romantic truths via technological speculation. Its successes are similar to Steven Spielberg’s successes with A.I., but on a more intimate scale, with fewer emotionally devastating moments (though there are implications of something much bigger occurring on the peripherals of the Her’s universe). There’s a sentimental familiarity to the emotions he is tapping into, but he isn’t simplifying them or backing away from the more challenging aspects,. Many of these challenging elements are, quite frankly, silly – especially when described to someone that hasn’t seen the film. If he didn’t embrace the silly stuff with a relatively straight face, the audience would probably feel walled off from the film’s flood of surreal empathy, but he’s also smart enough to not wear us out too early on.

Based on trailers and audience reactions, I feared that Her would be a debilitating trudge through melancholy. These fears were quickly allayed by a series of wonderfully bizarre, silly for silly’s sake moments that Jonze uses to usher the audience through what could’ve been an opaque virtual reality fairy tale. The human interactions are plenty funny, but it’s the immature humor of video games that elicit the biggest laughs, specifically the cursing, marshmallow-headed alien child (voiced by Jonze) that Theodore has to argue with to advance to another level. Further deviations into the intricacies of quirky future-tech would’ve been fun, but also would’ve brought too much of a Charlie Kaufman influence into what needed to be Jonze’s most personalized film.

 Her
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance perfectly encapsulates Jonze’s surrogate position and is weird without being overwhelming. He’s also a rarity in the director’s small canon in that he’s a kind person for most of the film’s runtime. His palpable chemistry with Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice provides more than enough context in terms of the development of their relationship. I’d say this was further proof that dialogue-free montages aren’t needed, if I wasn’t already marveling at Phoenix’s ability to convey a passionate, loving relationship with, effectively, an invisible woman without talking during these otherwise extraneous moments. The shift from the barely harnessed angst and rage he exhibited in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master to such perfectly guided gentleness is astonishing.

Video


Her was shot using a series of digital HD cameras, which I believe is a first for Jonze in a feature capacity (though he’s surely used the format before when he made music videos). He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema ( Let the Right One In) mix and match brands in order to create mood and differentiate between locations/time periods. There is a general softness to almost every image type as dictated by the ‘70s-meets-Apple chic. The sets are smooth, clean, and further softened by shallow focus. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer maintains the futurist-style clarity throughout the brightly-lit shots without any notable banding effects. These are contrasted with more finely-textured foreground elements, namely hair, skin, and clothing. The edges are sharp without edge haloes or aliasing effects and only minimal moiré artefacts. There is a haze of pollution that sort of washes out the exteriors in yellowish hues, but the pastels palette is supersaturated and vivid. Theodore’s flashbacks are brighter with blown-out, gently diffused highlights and a more chemically processed colour quality, sort of like an underdeveloped Polaroid. The edges here are more fragile, but still crisp enough to keep all the vital elements separated. The darker shots are muddier and grainier, occasionally problematically so, but I assume this is part of Jonze and Van Hoytema’s design and not a problem with Blu-ray compression.

 Her

Audio


Her’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is brimming with the super-soft, super-subtle ambience of Jonze’s near-future world, but the majority of the track is devoted to the interactions of different voice types. The sound designers do a good job keeping the human voices natural and warm, while Samantha and the other OS systems are more consistent in terms of clarity and volume. There aren’t really any standout bits of directional movement anywhere in the film – only a couple of examples of quieter immersive sounds twiddling throughout the stereo and surround speakers (i.e. seagulls and waves crashing on a beach, people murmuring as they wander the streets). Some scenes seem to take place from Samantha’s aural point-of-view, including a neat trick that compresses the outside noise and brings the immersive effects closer to the viewer. Arcade Fire’s music blends with the buzz of future machinery, developing into a second layer of ambience. At its best, the melodies integrate perfectly into the scene, nestling beneath the dialogue. It doesn’t work so well when Jonze falls into music video director mode and lets the melodies dictate a scene’s rhythms, instead of the other way around.

Extras


  • The Untitled Rick Howard Project (24:20, HD) – A typically subversive and arty look behind-the-scenes with Jonze, including fly-on-the-wall footage from the set and various production meetings. It includes various appearances from cast and crew, but no traditional interviews. It’s a little too cutesy for my taste, but lets the audience in on the director’s weird little process.
  • Her: Love in the Modern Age (15:10, HD) – Interviews with experts and Jonze’s celebrity friends about the definition of love and what the film meant to them.
  • How Do You Share Your Life with Somebody? (4:00, HD) – Random images from the locations, set to dialogue and music from the film.
  • Trailers for other Warner Brothers releases


 Her

Overall


Her gets my vote for Spike Jonze’s most complete achievement. It’s technically adept and more emotionally accessible than his last three, yet, I find that the feelings it stirred were fleeting and I doubt I’ll ever feel compelled to revisit it, which is the ultimate ‘problem’ I’ve had with all of Jonze’s movies. I heartily recommend Her despite my vague misgivings, but hope that the director’s next film has more of a lasting impact on me personally. Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray looks gorgeous, reproduces the fragile soundtrack beautifully, and features a small, quirky collection of extras that should please Jonze’s more loyal fans.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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