Her

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 August

 

Storm botnet maximum, 2007

Today marks the day when, in 2007, activity by the Storm Worm Trojan horse reached its maximum. Having been identified in January 2007, the worm spread via emails with catchy subject lines such as “230 dead as storm batters Europe”. Once the recipient had clicked on it, the Trojan horse would go to work, replicating itself and emailing itself out to others as spam. No one is really sure where the Trojan horse came from – some suggest the US, others Russia – but it was designed to work on Microsoft Windows systems, turning each infected one into a bot. The network of bots, once established, takes orders from servers whose domain names change frequently. These servers also frequently re-encode the worm, making detection difficult. This makes the botnet efficient at both attack and defence; it can “know” when it is being attacked by anti-virus investigators and can even deny them access to the internet, taking them out of the game. It is estimated that on 22 August 2007 this activity reached a maximum, with 57 million infected messages being sent out in a single day. The Storm botnet went into decline in late 2008, though it probably wasn’t as a result of Microsoft’s efforts to flush out the virus with security updates, more likely it was the result of tools like Stormfucker (a “white” or “ethical” worm), which effectively uses the Storm Worm’s own protocols to make it disinfect itself.

 

 

 

Her (2013, dir: Spike Jonze)

Having read an article about a web application called Cleverbot, which uses algorithms to have conversations with humans, Spike Jonze decided the idea would be ideal for a film. Her is that film, the story of a guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. And it with him, or so it seems. The guy is played by Joaquin Phoenix and the OS’s voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson. And it all starts so easily, Phoenix’s Theodore deciding to buy the “world’s first artificial intelligence operating system”, and at first being amazed as it/she starts sorting out his life, decluttering, adding entries to his diary, getting his life back on track. To make his life more efficient the OS starts asking questions about Theodore’s likes and dislikes, wishes and desires. The recently divorced single man (day job: writing emotional messages for other people’s significant “together” moments) and the OS start to get to know each other. Gradually, this turns into something more personal. In as much as he can, Jonze makes Her a traditional romance – the meet cute, the walks in the park, the mad sex, the first argument, the flaming row, the break-up. Some of this he has to finesse slightly and force into a box it doesn’t quite want to go into (it’s the walk in the walk in the park rather than the sex which sat ill with me) but you can’t deny that Jonze is doing it absolutely straight. This is no comedy, no freak show, but an exploration of a human relationship with a thing which isn’t human – though the extent to which it isn’t human (or is) is definitely territory that writer/director Jonze is all over.
What sort of a world would it be where such a relationship was possible? Jonze builds it convincingly – it looks hi-tech (much of it is Shanghai), the fashions are different (high waisted trousers seem to be in), realistic 3D video games are the sort of recreation a man comes home to after a day at the office. But for the most part it’s a world of recognisable humans and recognisable relationships – we have already seen Theodore having phone sex with someone called SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig, whose “choke me with a cat”, shouted in the throes of a well simulated orgasm, is worth a snort).
Talking of orgasms, the fact that Johansson replaced Samantha Morton as the voice of the OS – in post-production, Morton having done the whole film from inside a padded plywood box – might have something to do with ScarJo’s sexy rasp. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past Morton to be able to purr with the best of them – she can do most things – but Johansson is the perfect choice and the film marks out the beginning of her sudden moment as the go-to woman for sci-fi oddness – Under the Skin and Lucy were both just a moment away.
It’s a simple film, a romance, with a conceit that Jonze follows right through to the end, and there’s no point detailing all the plot – though there is even an attractive, real human girl next door (Amy Adams) who Theodore doesn’t take any notice of because he’s so infatuated with this unattainable woman/machine/thing. Watching Jonze play through these film clichés is actually the point of Her. Does an extended joke need to be two hours long? Absolutely not. There’s a better, punchier 90 minute film in here somewhere. But Jonze didn’t make that film, so let’s enjoy the one he did make.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another great everyman performance by Joaquin Phoenix
  • The peripheral casting (Kristen Wiig, Amy Adam, Olivia Wilde)
  • Scarlett Johansson’s note perfect performance
  • The cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Her – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

On the Road

Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 October

 

 

Jack Kerouac dies, 1969

On this day in 1969, the writer born Jean-Louis Kérouac died, from internal bleeding brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He was the child of French Canadians and his first language was French, though he picked up English later and was fluent in his teenage years. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, New York, but dropped out. There, in New York, he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, among others, the core of the Beat Generation writers, the latest iteration of 20th century romantics. Discharged from war service in the Merchant Marine due to a “schizoid personality”, he set about writing in a style highly influenced by jazz, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to make a name for himself, after the publication of The Town and the City. The work he is best remembered for these days, On the Road, started in French years before, followed. It was a semi-factual retelling of his travels with Neal Cassady and other Beats in the late 40s. Splurged out in semi-associative freeform recollection, the novel was typed out onto one continuous 120 foot (37 metre) long piece of paper, the better to catch the spontaneity that Kerouac craved (Truman Capote would later bitch, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”). On the Road struggled to get a publisher, because of its graphic drug scenes, sexual episodes, perceived amorality, and so on. Though Kerouac saw it as a book about Catholic guys looking for redemption. He wrote drafts of ten more novels while marrying and fleeing, travelling the USA, broke for the most part. In 1957 On the Road was published, Kerouac was proclaimed the voice of a generation, fame and fortune arrived, his previously unpublished works went into print, and Kerouac kept writing. And drinking. And writing. His post 1957 output includes Desolation Angels, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz. All of his books remain in print.

 

 

On the Road (2011, dir: Walter Salles)

Taking his cue from Jack Kerouac’s jazz-flavoured prose style, Walter Salles goes for a loose improvisational adaptation of the Beat era’s most famous novel. Not everyone went a bundle on the casting – but of Sam Riley (as Jack Kerouac and his alter ego Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassady aka Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (as LuAnne Henderson aka Marylou), it’s only really Hedlund who seems slightly wrong, aiming for hipster cool and coming across a bit like a TV host. Stewart, internet trolls might be sad to hear, is excellent as the girlfriend of one guy who might well switch horses midstream, and catches that dangerous air of a girl who’ll do just about anything, and that includes going for the home and a baby. The plot is as freeform as the music it draws inspiration from, a series of long road trips in a big old Buick, kids lighting out to wherever – Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico. All the while Kirsten makes eyes she shouldn’t at Sam and Tom Sturridge (playing Allen Ginsberg) makes eyes at Garrett, who is adept at suggesting that while Neal/Dean might not be gay enough to go there too willingly, he is at least open to persuasion. It’s a prototype hippie journey, the Ken Kesey Magic Bus across America an entire generation earlier, when the doomy poverty of The Grapes of Wrath era still hung heavy and it was even more obvious that the sort of romantic liberation on offer was even more a man-only affair. If reality offered the biggest kicks to the men, the film provides an opportunity for female acting talent. Alongside the excellent Stewart, there’s Kirsten Dunst reminding us of how good she can be, and Amy Adams and Alice Braga are also worth spending time with. If the film lacks the fireworks that some people wanted from it, that’s partly because, like the book, it takes these people at their own self-aggrandising estimation of themselves. Plus the fact that, just by showing us the “liberation” project at one of its key mythic moments, it becomes all the more clear that this project has now run its course. And you can’t blame Kristen Stewart for that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Lots of great performances – Kirsten Dunst is particularly fine
  • Kerouac – inspiration for people from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry
  • Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography
  • Livewire jazz, from Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard et al

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

On the Road – at Amazon