(On Cable TV, December 2014) Has Joseph Gordon-Lewitt become the spokesman for an entire generation? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a guy’s shoulders, but in comparing Don Jon with (500) Days of Summer, it’s hard to avoid feeling that in-between those two characters, he’s tackling how modern young men feel about love. But whereas his (500) Days of Summer character was a hopeless romantic, his Don Jon is a cynical, stunted ladies’ man addicted to pornography, to a point where it’s cutting him off from the world. It takes an encounter with an equally-addicted romantic movie fan (Scarlett Johanssen, playing against type as an unlikable urban princess) for him to grow up a bit. That Gordon-Lewitt would take on such a role is impressive enough, but to find out that he both wrote and directed the film makes it even more impressive. Don Jon is at its best in its first two-thirds, as the story remains relatable and sharp-witted observational (the Swiffer scene is the one that remains in my mind weeks after seeing the film); the last third gets a bit preachy and far-fetched to its own detriment. I would have liked to see a bit more commentary on the toxic pull of romantic comedies and a little bit less of the ending’s easy sentimentalism. Still, as a directorial debut Don Jon is self-assured enough to be interesting, with good performances from good actors and a script that’s both funny and insightful. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long for Gordon-Lewitt’ next film as a writer/director.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) Ask me about the ideal qualities of a Science Fiction movie and I’m now more likely to focus on such qualities as ideas, verisimilitude and the impact of progress on people rather than the special effects, action sequences and big bold visions of the future that initially drew me to the genre. Her is practically a case study of those qualities: It’s a low-key but satisfying exploration of a basic SF idea: What if someone fell in love with an artificial intelligence? Writer/Director Spike Jones couches his romantic drama in grounded terms: “Artificial intelligence” is eschewed in favour of “Operating System”, his character inhabit a world not terribly different from ours (although the way his future Los Angeles is clean, built up with a fantastic public transit system may be more science-fictional than a fully-functional AI) and the technology is an invisible part of the background rather than a showy set-piece. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as the mopey loner protagonist, while Scarlett Johanssen brings a strong presence to an audio-only role. (From the moment her voice cracks, we’re onboard with her OS being a real character.) But the real richness of the film is in the ideas it tackles, and those that it alludes to: While the film focuses on a thorny disembodied love story, it’s also set (through a few efficient dialog fragments) against a background of an AI-led singularity event, one that ultimately has deep consequences for the world as much as the protagonist. This is a lovely use of SF Big Ideas, and Her‘s focus ultimately serves it well, both at populating the richness of the central story, but also at hinting at something much bigger going on elsewhere. There are unique scenes and sequences in this film that have never been seen elsewhere so far (including a pair of love scenes that feel genuinely new), in support of a film that’s as interesting a take on social commentary as any “issues” film. It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the film: trying to pick apart the themes alone is enough to keep anyone occupied for a while. (All the way to the hoary “what is love, but a reflection of ourselves?”) Her may be best appreciated in retrospect: the film itself is deceptively simple on a scene-to-scene basis, but it becomes more interesting once you’ve had the chance to think about it for a while. At last, a film that is unapologetically science-fictional, and should please both audiences that don’t like SF as well as jaded SF fans. For once, I’m frustrated by my one-paragraph “capsule” movie review style, because I feel there’s a lot more to be said about the Her than can fit comfortably here in the margins.