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





23 June 2014-06-23

Yaroslav Zhalnin as Yuri Gagarin in Gagarin: First in Space

Out in the UK This Week




Her (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The film about the guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Yes, that one, with Joaquin Phoenix as the guy, Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the OS. Spike Jonze takes this premise and has quite a lot of fun with it, working through logically how a man might fall in love with a machine: because he’s lonely, because phone sex with a computer is like phone sex with a human, because computers, like, rule our lives. And he also brilliantly details a world where this sort of event might not instantly book you a place at the funny farm. Best of all he constructs the film just like a rom-com – boy meets operating system, boy loses operating system etc. But alongside this story he runs a shadow plot, another familiar romantic trope from Hollywood, of the guy who can’t see that the girl right under his nose (Amy Adams, as the girl next door) might be the one for him. Much has been made of Scarlett Johansson as the voice, and she is as husky and sexy as Scar-Jo might be nuzzled up next to you. Irresistible, in other words. Less has been made of the fact that the whole film was made with Samantha Morton as the OS, the entire thing being revoiced in post production. No idea why. Either way the film is 40 minutes too long.

Her – Watch it at Amazon




Exhibition (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Joanna Hogg’s third film is working in the same territory as the last two, Archipelago and Unrelated. In other words not much happens but it feels like something is about to kick off at any moment. It’s a remarkable dramatic trick to be able to pull off, and interesting how good female directors are at it (see Claire Denis or, in different territory, Kathryn Bigelow). Here we’re following a rich boho couple – he’s something like an architect, she’s an artist of some sort, they live in one of those modernist London houses everyone covets, they have no children, and a yellow Smart car. They have few friends but life is on the whole peachy. Except they’re just about to put the house on the market and we suspect that she (Viv Albertine, formerly of the Slits) isn’t quite as happy about it as he (Liam Gillick) is. And that’s it, for plot. Would you feel sorry for them? Most likely not. But using plenty of long static shots, and ambient sound from outside in “happening London” – scaffolders, sirens, car doors slamming – Hogg manages to suggest a world behind the world we’re watching, where every small encounter we see has enormous weight. Not one for exposition junkies.

Exhibition – Watch it at Amazon




The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer was a strange fever-dream homage to Italian horror of the early 1970s. This is another “neo giallo”, a bravura display of stylisation and astonishing technique  – split screens, extreme close-up, symmetrical composition, expressionist angles, zooms, rotates, lurid filtration, deep and shallow focus, negative images, stop-frame animation, and on it goes. This makes for a film that is really amazing to watch but almost impossible to get involved in. And considering that we’re following a man who has lost his wife in a big old Art Deco house and doesn’t know where to find her, that’s either the entire point of the piece (and it does feel like an artwork more than a movie) or its big failing. All the music is from films of the period, so there’s Ennio Morricone in there alongside Riz Ortolani and Bruno Nicolai. If you know who those last two are, you’ll go a bundle on this film. If you enjoy films where a doll’s head, a woman’s nipple and a pair of gloved arms holding a dagger could flash up on the screen at seemingly any moment, you’ll enjoy it even more.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears – Watch it at Amazon




Gagarin: First in Space (E One, cert 12, DVD)

A couple of years ago we had Christopher Riley’s almost arthouse First Orbit, which was a real-time recreation of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space. This Russian film gives us the full biopic of this brave man, though crucially seems more interested in the society he came from than the actual and frankly rather amazing space flight – made only a scant few years after the end of the Second World War. It’s a fatal mistake, and suggests that the film has been conceived as some Putin-ordained hymn to Russia’s Soviet glory years. Selfless cosmonauts, brave collective effort, looming industrial structures, a solid and avuncular leader in the shape of space-maestro Sergey Korolev (excellent Mikhail Filippov), heroic landscapes, massed choirs, the simple yet clean and pure life of the peasantry (sorry, collective farm workers), it’s all here. Leaving the details of the flight itself to fight for room. What a terrible shame, because whenever we are in the tiny capsule with Yuri (the facially similar and entirely well cast Yaroslav Zhalnin), the film abandons its propaganda and throws its script – seemingly written by the Politburo – out the window and goes into warp drive. If only it did it more often.

Gagarin: First in Space – Watch it at Amazon




Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Second Sight, cert 18, Blu-ray)

Like a lot of films from the 1970s, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is now staking a claim to some kind of classic status. No chance. There’s a lot of good things about it – iconic Clint Eastwood and still-young Jeff Bridges as knockabout heisters planning a big job. Writer/director Michael Cimino’s use of wide widescreen to its full advantage. The brilliant support playing by an unusually nasty George Kennedy and a very funny Geoffrey Lewis film as our guys’ second bananas. The way the film wallows in Americana – landscapes, cars, diners, good ol’ boys  – entirely without any self-consciousness (surely 1974 was the end of this era). Also, the tiny touches of absurdity which seem to have been lifted from Jodorowsky’s El Topo, such as Eastwood and Bridges hitching a lift with a guy whose trunk is full of white rabbits. All very flavoursome. But the jokey tone of the comedy undermines what is meant to be a thrilling heist, which in any case simply moves far too slowly. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is often held up as the film that Cimino got right. But in the glacial pace of the heist (hey, who needs something as mundane as a plotline when you’ve got majestic sweep?) we can see in embryo everything that was wrong with Heaven’s Gate.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – Watch it at Amazon




As I Lay Dying (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness novel set inside the heads of a family of hick mourners taking their matriarch to her final rest. The book has been called unfilmable, most likely because it is an exercise in novel form. But Franco has a go anyway, possibly because he wants to be taken seriously, having unimpeachable cheekbones not being enough for some people. He also stars as one of the family, though it’s Tim Blake Nelson who makes the most impact, as a patriarch so dumb that there must be generations of inbreeding in there. And are those plywood teeth? Egads. The stylistics Franco uses, including relentless split screen and frequent addresses to camera by various members of the family, none of these work. But the cast give it their best shot, with Ahna O’Reilly particularly good as the secretly pregnant daughter, and Tim O’Keefe’s vibey country-twangy soundtrack helping reinforce Franco’s easy-going directorial pace. A for effort.

As I Lay Dying – Watch it at Amazon




The Sea (Independent, cert 12, DVD)

Another example of a book being able to do things that films can’t, The Sea is an adaptation of John Banville’s novel about a widower (Ciarán Hinds) going back to the Irish seaside town where, decades earlier, as a child, “something happened”. What it is isn’t revealed till the end of the film. And until that point we’ve been entertained by Hinds’s memories of a summer of enchantment with a bohemian family (headed by Rufus Sewell and Natascha McElhone) and by his current-day reality, testing the patience of the owner (Charlotte Rampling) of the guest house where he’s staying of and her only other guest, a mysterious retired military man (the slyly excellent Karl Johnson). Hold on to those performances, because the film simply does not connect to the inner turmoil of its central character. Result: nothing, nothing at all.

The Sea – Watch it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2014