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Blu-ray Review: 'Her'

Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"
Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"
Yahoo Images

The Film:

Director Spike Jonze has been known to take on some very strange projects, including the great films “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” films that truly delve into their characters (sometimes quite literally), giving you an emotionally touching experience that is something of a rarity in cinema today. While he may not have written the films he’s most known for (that was actually done by brilliant Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), it still took a great amount of genius to bring shape to the madness. However, for Jonze’s latest project, “Her,” he takes on both writing and directing duties to continue his examination of the human spirit, exploring themes involving our relationship with technology and going further with it than most would think possible.

Taking place a little ways into the future, the film centers on Theo (Joaquin Phoenix), a professional letter-writer who has recently gone through a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Portia Doubleday). He’s somewhat of a loner and only appears to have a couple of friends from work, Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). His day to day life is pretty much routine: going to and from work, checking his various messages along the way. One day however, he notices that a new artificial intelligence operating system has been released and decides to give it a try. After a quick set up, he meets Samantha (Voice of Scarlett Johansson), the voice of his new OS. The two quickly hit it off, beginning a complicated romance that will push the boundaries of human/technology relations.

“Her” is a sweet, simple film that deals with some deep, complex issues. In his portrait of this lonely man, Jonze has crafted something of a thesis on love in the technological age and how far some are willing to go to find the companionship that they can’t seem to find in real life. With Theo having recently come out of a break-up, he finds himself unsure of his dating prospects. His lonely nights are sometimes filled by going into chatrooms and randomly striking up a conversation with others who can’t sleep. The one time we witness Theo doing this is more than enough to show that it’s not exactly the kind of relationship he’s looking for.

When Samantha comes along, everything begins to change. He finds himself opening up more and having a good time as the two get to know each other. As you can expect, issues begin to crop up, primarily that he has started dating an OS, who has no body and no real emotions, but Theo hardly seems to care. That is, until his ex-wife points out that he’s unable to handle real emotions, which begins to make him think about what he’s doing. But are Samantha’s emotions merely simulated, or are they something real? Perhaps it only needs to be real enough for Theo to feel something.

These existential questions are one of the driving points behind Jonze’s film. Others may look at Theo’s relationship with Samantha as an oddity, but what does that matter if he feels true companionship with her? Some of the film’s strongest sections are some of its simplest, such as a brilliant scene in the first half that explores these questions even further. The scene merely has Theo in bed as he talks to Samantha about various topics, such as Theo’s previous relationship and Samantha’s emotions, but it’s scenes like this where the themes Jonze is working with truly begin to resonate.

On the flip side, there are times when the film doesn’t work as well as it could. For instance, take a section in the second half of the film that has Samantha hiring a surrogate body so that she and Theo can be intimate together. You can tell what Jonze was going for, especially given the big deal made out of Samantha not having a body to call her own, but you can too easily tell where the scene is going to lead to given the awkward notion of having Theo try to make out with a complete stranger.

There are also scenes in the second half that feel as though the film is just drifting lazily along. Make no mistake, “Her” is a great film, but I can’t shake the feeling that it could have been even better had it been a little tighter. With just a little cutting, the second half would have flowed much better rather than feeling like it was just a stretched-out montage of the relationship as it progressed. However, in the scope of what Jonze has accomplished with this film, it's a minor quibble that most will find forgivable.

No discussion of “Her” would be complete without giving credit where it is due. In this case, the performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson are to be strongly applauded. Phoenix pours his heart into the role, giving us his sweet, vulnerable side as he disappears into this lonely man who gets a new outlook on life with the most unlikely of relationships. Johannson likewise gives it her all, displaying a depth of emotion that is rarely heard of in voicework. It would be a little strange to say they have a great on-screen chemistry, but with the high level of performance, you’d swear the two were right there on the screen together.

Jonze has made a very compelling film here, putting forth many questions that there are no easy answers to. Theo and Samantha’s relationship doesn’t follow the standard rules of romance, but that’s because it can’t. Instead of the usual clichés, Jonze uses this opportunity to go deeper into the nature of emotion, using fully-formed characters that are brought to life with outstanding performances. In that respect, “Her” is unique, and while it’s not without a few hiccups, it remains very insightful. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself dwelling on it several days after seeing it, which in itself is a characteristic to be greatly admired.

Video/Audio:

"Her" comes to Blu-ray in a stunning 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer. For this release, you are treated to a perfect picture throughout, with every little detail appearing incredibly sharp and colors looking vivid and beautiful. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is one of the best tracks I've heard in a while. Not only is everything mixed and presented at perfect levels, but you also get everything from the smallest of sounds to the amazing soundtrack by Arcade Fire in crystal clear quality. This is one of those releases where you simply couldn't ask for better in either department.

Special Features:

A Short Film by Lance Bangs: The Untitled Rick Howard Project - Creating Her: Over 20 minutes of fascinating behind the scenes footage shot during the making of the film. This is a great look at how certain parts of the film came together and is definitely worth taking the time to watch.

Love in the Modern Age: Intimate Conversations about Love and Relationships in Our Time: This is exactly as the title describes: a discussion with several individuals regarding love, relationships, and how both are affected by the present. It's not a terrible featurette, but given that it doesn't really have much to do with the film itself, it's not one that I would say is particularly worth watching.

How Do You Share Your Life With Somebody?: A four-minute featurette that is a mixture of clips from the film and behind the scenes footage. This is another one that's not particularly worth watching given that most, if not all, of the behind the scenes footage is from the first featurette.

Conclusion:

"Her" is one of the most intelligently-written films of the last several years, delving into such fascinating topics as love, loneliness, and the extent to which someone will go to find companionship. Brought to life through Jonze's brilliant screenplay, his extraordinary direction, and a fantastic set of performances from the cast, it's a film that reaches deep, and in the process becomes unforgettable. While I would have loved to see a commentary from Jonze, at the very least we get one featurette that's very much worth watching, in addition to the film in pristine quality. This is a film that must not be missed, one that can easily be labeled a must-own.

Score: 4.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Veronica Mars, Mr. Jones, Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle, Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity

Now playing in theaters: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Draft Day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nymphomaniac: Volume Two, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, Bad Words

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

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