MOVIE REVIEWS | "Her," "Lone Survivor," and "The Truth About Emanuel"

“You’re dating your computer?”

Yes, that is a snippet of spoken dialogue in writer/director Spike Jonze’ fourth feature Her, opening in Twin Cities theaters on Friday, January 10. The film does take place in Los Angeles in the near future, but how far into the future? I would probably say probably closer to 2024, but it could very well be 2015 too. Regardless of the year it takes place, we are becoming more and more attached to our own operating systems each and every day. How long can we go without checking our phone awaiting that text message? Or when was the last time you hit “refresh” on your gmail account to see if you have received that email about plans for the weekend? How often are you updating your Facebook status? And do not forget to tweet that message out at the dinner table, because we all know it is the most important news we need to know about immediately and not minutes or days later.

So back to dating your computer: In a way, we all kind of are and are connected with technology these days, but what is so immediate about Jonze’s film is that I do not think we are too far away from his dazzling and irresistible premise in what was my favorite film of 2013.           

After a recent divorce, a heartbroken writer Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) purchases a new phone operating system (OS1) that comes with a soothing voice named Samantha (voiced by silky smooth Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is supposed to help Theodore out with his life, like sorting through old emails and helping him get back on track, that is until the moment we see Theodore has fallen for “her” ... and we can understand why. There is not nearly as much energy and maintenance that needs to be put into a relationship with a computer system as an actual human woman or man. Samantha already knows more about Theodore than any other person has including his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), his documentary filmmaker friend (Amy Adams) and co-worker (Chris Pratt). As the relationship moves further along, trouble begins to brew between Theodore and Samantha and while it does not take long to figure out what will happen, it still surprises them as how they can move forward.

Phoenix and Johansson are both outstanding in their roles, even if they never appear on screen together. The romance between the two may feel a bit static at first since we have to imagine Johansson in the scenes with Phoenix and in this case, but the imagination of her being in the room with him is more believable than the real thing. Kudos to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's scope of a near-future L.A and presentation, which could be what we live in one day. The mystery and originality in Her starts from a voice and with love it takes different forms. “You’re dating your OS? What’s that like?” Adams’ character makes a strong case for embracing new ideas, not only in films, books, music, or any art we create: it should have be a complicated answer. As it turns out, it is not. Her breaks a romantic storytelling mold of not trying to be something new, but something we can remember in bringing us together. 

Also opening this Friday in local theaters are two other films that could have probably used better operating systems to solve some issues: writer/director (and Macalester College alumni) Peter Berg’s war drama Lone Survivor and director Francesca Gregorini’s dramatic thriller The Truth about Emanuel.

Berg adapted Marcus Lutrell’s 2007 book of the same name about a US Navy Seal Team’s failed mission to locate and kill a Taliban leader with a close connection to Osama bin Laden during the Afghanistan war in 2005. It is one half brilliant and one half a complete bore. Mark Wahlberg stars as Lutrell’s SO2 (Special Warfare Operator, Second Class) along with Taylor Kitsch, Emilie Hirsch and Ben Foster as four soldiers, dropped into the mountains as part of a surveillance team leading the charge and awaiting orders on the whereabouts of their target. When a few wandering goat herders discover the team, the soldiers fear that they will be discovered and captured and/or killed. Without any reliable phone service or ways of proper communication to their commanders, the soldiers are on their own and decide to kill their way out of the mountains in hopes of surviving and making it back to base.

Lone Survivor nearly lost me in its first half, taking its time in preparing us for the major turning point which came in almost at the halfway point of the two hour film. The first half was filled with the same old clichéd speeches about “loving your brother,” and how “this unit is my only family,” making jokes toward the new recruits, turning the film into somewhat of a laborious holding pattern wtih poorly developed characters and providing little reason to care about these or any of the soldiers. Once the four men arrive at the mountain the film becomes a completely different animal. What follows when the first shots are fired is an all-out action (or horror) film  that shows no mercy in its damage, wreckage and unrelenting carnage of dead bodies. This is not new territory in American-made war films (in recent memory, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, Berg’s own 2005 The Kingdom). But Berg’s direction of casting us into thining of the truly horrifying proves to be an eye-opening experience, one that even brings to mind the opening of Saving Private Ryan with the soldiers sailing onto Omaha Beach. The violence at times is almost too much to handle. Even scenes of the soldiers jumping/rolling down the mountain to escape all the gun fire is incredibly dangerous, even more so than bullets coming out of their weapons, as their bodies become human ragdolls knocking themselves into boulders, branches, loose rocks.

The camera work alone by Tobias Schliessler and the sound designing team of close to twenty people is a miraculous achievement in the craft of filmmaking. Every bullet that whizzes by, broken bones snapping, and carefully planted foot steps creates an unbearable tension in every moment, leaving us breathless throughout its full-ramming speed of the second hour. Lone Survivor is not an easy or enjoyable viewing experience but does command our attention in bringing this violent, if flawed film (and the true account of an American’s heroics of survival), back to reality in its closing moments.

The communication tactics in The Truth About Emanuel are far from perfect and resembles more of an O. Henry short story than a fully realized feature length film. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is having a hard time in her adolescence, most notably never knowing her mother who died during childbirth, giving her father’s (Alfred Molina) new wife a chance to become part of the family. Emanuel meets Linda (Jessica Biel), a new neighbor, who strikes a resemblance of Emanuel’s mother. Linda is a single mom with a newborn named Chloe amd Emanuel offers to help babysit for Linda. When the babysitting duties go over well, even to the point where we do not even see young Chloe, the two women become friends and continue hanging out.

It is not until a revelation happens about thirty minutes in that could fracture their friendship apart, but most likely will make you want to throw up your hands in a full-on sour response of “are you kidding me?” Had the film ended there, I would have found it much more compelling, however, there is an entire hour left of the film with not much interest or focus on what is next for these women harboring a conceit that rings false. The revelation becomes a “make it or break it” moment in the film of playing along or giving up on an absurd and irresponsible act of commitment for every character involved.

The two female leads, Biel and Scodelario are both given enough material to work with believable performances especially Biel who gives an odd and, surprisingly, a somewhat memorable performance. It's Gregorini’s script that leaves us hanging on to the notion of what is next for these characters, but should we even care? The fact the story is supposed to be taken seriously leaves a perplexing question of how everyone deals or interprets loss (in the loosest terms), but my idea would be to have someone speak up, provide Emanuel and Linda with some sufficient help and more importantly, speak the truth.

POINT(114.177987 22.321702)
  • I really enjoyed the movie, the movie made me think, I think it was very well done - by Galit Myers on Mon, 03/03/2014 - 1:55am

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Jim Brunzell III's picture
Jim Brunzell III

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins [at] yahoo [dot] com) was born in the 70's, went to school in the 80's, played sports in the 90's, and has been writing on film for the Daily Planet since 2007.  He is also the Festival Director and programmer for the Sound Unseen Music/Film/Art festival in the Twin Cities, lead programmer for the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin and Stockholm WI, the creator of "The Defenders" series at the Trylon microcinema and has been working on a novel since finishing college.  You can follow Jim on Twitter at (@JimBrunzell_3).