Film: All’s Fair in (Virtual) Love and War

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Before we get to the barren no-man’s-land that is January at the multiplex – Happy New Year, by the way – it’s imperative to deal with two of those eleventh-hour 2013 titles the studios have deemed suitable to withhold from South Florida moviegoers until now.

Did I say now? I meant a couple of decades from now, the time period vividly brought to life by quirky iconoclast Spike Jonze in Her. The film chronicles the love affair between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, rocking nerdy glasses and a mustache that makes him resemble Ned Flanders), an emotionally constipated loner, and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Sounds twee and precious in a Karen O-ready way, no? Here’s the wrinkle: Samantha, who’s flirty and vivacious and bossy in a charming, not-quite-overbearing way, isn’t a flesh-and-blood human. She’s Teddy’s operating system, aka the voice coming from the computing devices that make our lives more manageable (and for some friends of mine, have actually taken over in Orwellian fashion).

Theodore works for the near-future’s version of a greeting card company, penning thoughtful love letters, birthday greetings and condolence notices so his repeat customers don’t have to. After experiencing a brief unpleasant flashback to the hapless romantic Hallmark drone Joseph Gordon-Levitt played in (500) Days of Summer, I settled into into Jonze’s lived-in yet heightened near-Tomorrowland, a skyscraper-filled Los Angeles in this case. His depiction of the not-so-distant future works because he’s not ramming technological lifestyle advances down your throat, instead opting to follow his lovelorn characters’ daily routine the way he would if they were living in the present.

Divorce proceedings with soon-to-be-ex Catherine (Rooney Mara) have left a Grand Canyon-sized void in Theodore’s life, which he fills by hanging out with longtime friend Amy (a frumpy Amy Adams) and playing immersive video games featuring a foul-mouthed critter who shouts obscenities at him. Theodore’s cushy bachelor pad is chock-full of Jonze-ian tchotchkes, a triumph of production design for K.K. Barrett (Lost in Translation). The filmmakers prevent future shock from overwhelming the film, and they imbue the budding courtship that blossoms between his protagonist and his virtual aide with a understated sense of discovery. (Jonze also wrote the film’s screenplay, which nabbed a Golden Globe Award Sunday night.)

Her is an insular film to a degree rarely seen in a studio release. It’s also somewhat limited by a male-centric point of view that somewhat shortchanges the (nevertheless well delineated) women in the story, real and otherwise. The movie feels as if it had been conceived inside Theodore’s subconscious – sensitive, mopey and more self-absorbed than it thinks it is – and that’s only magnified as the narrative progresses. The movie becomes bogged down in relationship ennui, a problem that also plagued the latter half of Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Exorcise those demons away, Spike, but why dwell on Ted’s baggage to an extent that saps the film of its sprightly sense of wonder?

Johansson keeps us engaged in a way weirdly reminiscent of the cult romantic comedy Electric Dreams (1984). My only quibble: Samantha is trying so hard to act human that there isn’t enough of her digital side on display, which is ultimately revealed in fascinating form later in the film, though it’s too little, too late. Phoenix is in rare form here as well, pulling off a bracing 180-degree turn from the haunted Navy veteran he played in The Master. I only wish Her, an otherwise wise and touching glimpse at the ineffable quandaries of the heart, had been less of a futuristic breakup therapy session. Siriously.

Audiences favored a real battlefield over Jonze’s emotional minefield this past weekend when they made Peter Berg’s fact-based combat thriller Lone Survivor a runaway hit at the box office. Smart move, folks. What could have been a cringe-inducing piece of rah-rah, support-Uncle-Sam propaganda is actually, under Berg’s skilled tutelage, a visceral portrait of the ethics of war.

An adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s nonfiction account of Operation Redwing, the film begins with Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and fellow Navy SEAL Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) enjoying some downtime with their fellow brothers-in-arms stationed in Afghanistan. In a disarmingly goofy scene, a newbie goes through the time-honored hazing process by showing off his dancing “skills.” It initially feels like fluff, but Berg, capably bouncing back from his Battlefield debacle, knows what he’s doing. He’s in no hurry to cut to the carnage that awaits Luttrell and the rest of the members of Seal Team 10 as they embark on a mission to take out a leading Taliban member with alleged ties to Osama bin Laden.

It’s June of 2005, and 9/11 still hangs heavily on these soldiers, a notion that could have been shamelessly exploited, but Berg shrewdly chooses not to underline. Once the team reaches the jagged mountainous terrain, the SEALs wait. And wait. And wait some more. This, Berg is telling you, is the reality of these men in uniform. The periods of tedium, the too-quiet silences, a time the filmmaker spends familiarizing viewers with the rocky territory, so that when the ferocious gunplay erupts, you know exactly where the characters are in relation to their enemy and each other. (Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch round out the rest of the team.)

And then the soldiers are spotted, not by the Taliban, but by an elderly shepherd and a young boy who are quickly captured and tied up by the American soldiers. What to do about these witnesses? Will they compromise the mission if they are set loose? Would killing them constitute an acceptable, collateral-damage rule of engagement? Luttrell has reportedly admitted the intense ethical dilemma the SEALs face in Lone Survivor unfolded differently in real life, but Berg’s moral exploration evokes other massacres U.S. soldiers have allegedly inflicted on innocent people in the Middle East, so the creative license taken here is understandable and, for this reviewer, quite gripping.

And then, as expected, all hell breaks loose, and few other films have captured the way the human body can be shot, broken and mangled with such raw immediacy. If you thought Black Hawk Down, which this films often recalls, was unusually graphic in its depiction of carnage, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Lone Survivor stumbles in its cartoonish depiction of the Taliban leaders – really, can they twirl that mustache more nefariously? – but Berg’s present-tense depiction of the logistical challenges Luttrell and the rest of the men and women serving overseas face on a daily basis makes this a mission worth undertaking.

Lone Survivor and Her are now showing at area theaters.

About Ruben Rosario

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