A lonely man falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
In my reviews for our previous two AI movies, Blade Runner 2049 and Ex Machina, I’ve described both as technically impressive but emotionally cold. I largely fail the altered Turing test in Ex Machina, where Oscar Isaac’s Nathan wants his human test subject to develop strong feelings for an android. I never cared about any of the characters in 2049 even as I was wowed by the imagery and the vision. This is often the case with sci-fi, a genre where writers and directors automatically translate a distance onto human-machine interactions, or settle for the marvel and skimp on the resonance. The best of the genre, of which I would include Her, start with the raw question (Dan Harmon has described sci-fi as simply asking What If), apply it to recognizable human behavior, and follow it to a natural conclusion. Her keeps this formula as simple as it can, asking a minimal amount of buy-in from the viewer, building an unostentatious world, and daring them to fall into the central relationship between a man and his operating system while still doubting the wisdom of doing so. Her does it all and more, as plausible a vision of the future as it is a romance and a treatise on isolation.
The title of Alex Garland's sci-fi film is notable for what it leaves out. Ex Machina is missing the Deus that typically leads that phrase, meaning God of the Machine. A Deus Ex Machina is a dramatic device in which a powerful solution is presented to a difficult problem. Ex Machina doesn't resort to this often-cheap device, but by cutting God out of the title, it does invite the question of who in the film might fill that role. Is it the inventor, the vastly-powerful invented, or the mediator between the two that drives the action? As the writer of top-notch sci-fi films like Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, Garland has long interrogated the relationship between creator and created, as well as the distance between cold rationality and empathetic feeling. In his directorial debut, Ex Machina is of a kind with his previous work, as artificial intelligence is subbed in for contagion, cloning, or space travel while the themes remain the same.
Jimmy Carter's Crisis of Confidence speech holds a major piece of real estate in Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical film 20th Century Women. Derided at the time but seen as somewhat prescient decades later, Carter diagnosed the country's problems in a perilous economic time and recommended a series of solutions at the macro and micro level. He refused to coddle the country, saying that we all had a part to play in bringing things to their current state but that we also had the power, individually and communally, to improve things. One year later, Carter would be replaced by Ronald Reagan, a man who told the country flattering lies about itself and created a culture that would only exacerbate the problems Carter talked about, pulling the country further into selfishness and consumerism. In 20th Century Women, Reagan's so-called 'Morning in America' has not yet dawned, and the characters are all in various states of malaise. Like Carter, they prefer honesty and hard truths to hand-waving and pleasant lies. 20th Century Women isn't going for the big moment or the grand turning point, but does the hard work of small steps. It prefers low-key tragedies to grand victories, and defines aging as the world getting regretfully smaller but richer and deeper at the same time.
Bong Joon-ho vacillates between the recognizable (Memories of Murder, Mother) and the bonkers (Snowpiercer, Okja), and he excels at both. No matter the tone, he always leaves viewers pondering the events of his film and the broader implications. His latest, Okja, might on its surface be about a girl and her super-pig, but like Snowpiercer, it has big existential ideas on its mind. Shane, Blair, and I talked for a very long time about it in a podcast review. While I appreciate any film that prompts me to talk excitedly for more than an hour, Okja is still tonally all over the place. It also teases an airtight plot in its bravura first hour before jettisoning characters that ultimately have no impact on the final scenes. This isn't Bong's best movie, and is probably his worst. However, when a director's worst movie is at a B, he's doing a lot of things right.
A film that persists in the culture due to its upset win at the Oscars over presumptive favorite Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love is one of those works that Oscar voters love. Featuring a romance between one of history's great playwrights and a co-lead who'll put her life and position to risk if only to get on the stage, John Madden's film flatters the work of producing and staging theater, something plenty of Oscar voters are going to be far more familiar with than fighting in heavy combat. Combined with the aggressive marketing and lobbying of Harvey Weinstein, the big win becomes less surprising. If it makes sense that Shakespeare in Love could win Best Picture almost twenty years ago, that leaves whether or not it's one of those winners that is largely forgotten as soon as the envelope's opened (The Artist, Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind, Driving Miss Daisy) or a film that holds up and lives on long after its release date (Unforgiven, Titanic, The Silence of the Lambs, Amadeus). The latter is a much smaller group, and alas, Shakespeare in Love isn't making it any bigger. Madden and company are able to depict the creation and production of a primal work of art, but the greatness of Romeo and Juliet only serves to remind the viewer how mediocre the film surrounding it is.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.