“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” — Amy

“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” — Samantha

Her (2013) is a Spike Jonze love story starring Joaquin Phoenix. Set in Los Angeles in the future, Her is a story about lonely Theodore (Phoenix) who spends his time at his letter writing job, playing video games at home, and using his futuristic smart phone. The new OS1 is released, boasting that it is the first artificial intelligent operating system. Theodore purchases it, decides to give his OS a female identity, and begins to interact and bond with his OS: Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is an entity of great intelligence, but Theodore is surprised by her sensitivity and her capacity for emotion. They create a very intimate bond with each other and eventually fall in love. While he and Samantha are “dating”, Theodore is finalizing his divorce with Catherine (Roony Mara), his childhood sweetheart, and he finds solace and comfort with his friend Amy (Amy Adams). He is both excited and doubtful about his relationship with Samantha. He’s never felt so close to someone, but is Samantha actually “someone”?

While Her is a love story, the film is also a masked science-fiction commentary. Her is cautionary tale about smart phones and the problematic over-reliance and over-consumption of technology in general. As Theodore commutes home from work, he has his earphone device continuously in his ear, listening to e-mails read aloud to him, checking up on constantly updated news, etc. The other commuters around him also are constantly engaged in their smart devices that you never see people interacting with each other. It’s hard to think that technology could actually become more ingrained into daily life than it already is, but Her offers up a possibility for what may happen if mankind continues down the road it is currently on. I, myself, felt the impact of its message when the film ended: I attended a Oscar Movie Showcase in Chicago but went by myself; when the film ended, I immediately reached for my phone so I could talk about the film with a friend, but I felt awkward going straight for my phone.

Her is a beautifully artistic film. It’s so refreshing to see a film that steps outside the usual reservations. Her is a colorful film, saturated in bright warm colors, primary colors, oranges, reds, cyan. Theodore almost always wears an orange shirt. It seemed that the city and all its settings were sleek and patterned, a reflection of the modernity of technology and this advanced operating system. I love the idea of a future world improving itself just as technology improves itself. Los Angeles in Her is much bigger, but it is also much cleaner and more glistening than it is today. The wardrobe also played an interesting part in the film’s aesthetic. While set in the future, the style was vintage, evident by all the high-waisted pants. It’s a strange juxtaposition: cutting-edge, forward-thinking technology with classic and reinvented style. I think it contributes to the romanticism of the story — adorning the unconventional love story with color and patterns and paradoxes.

Joaquin Phoenix performs beautifully in Her. I say he was robbed of an Academy Award nomination, because he truly embodied the sweet and sensitive Theodore. Theodore has many flaws, but he is a sincere and earnest man, who found love and doesn’t want to give it up. He wants to believe in love and wants to lose himself in the comfort of partnership. Phoenix expresses these qualities so tenderly. When doubtful, he speaks with a hesitant honesty, and when he is happy, he laughs an unrestrained and liberated laugh. I connected very much to Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore; I connected with him because he was a real person, a man whose goals and ambitions I understood.

Her is a gorgeous film, challenging us to redefine what love is. Among a backdrop of beautiful and bright colors, sleek patterns, and Arcade Fire’s fantastic score, Joaquin Phoenix shows us what it’s like to fall in love — an honest look: with both the good and the bad. Love with an operating system can very well be a metaphor for any unconventional relationship (i.e. a gay relationship, polyamory, etc), something real and beautiful but difficult to embrace among social pressures — but Amy’s above quote is the answer to any doubt or restraint: “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”

American Hustle

Quote of the film: “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.” — Sydney

American Hustle (2013) is an American character film loosely based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), the film focuses more on character relationships between an all-star cast.

Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a businessman and conman, who makes money by feeding off desperate lowlives who need loans and by selling stolen and forged art. He is quick-witted, charismatic, and quick-tempered. He’s an aggressive businessman, loving father, indifferent husband, and tender lover — and Bale shifts between each side of Rosenfeld with ease. Bale even gained 40 pounds for this role, literally embodying his character.

Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, lover and business partner to Irving. She’s a seductive and alluring woman, struggling to turn her life around — managing to turn from stripper to con-woman. Her con is as Lady Edith Greensley, an English woman with bank connections in London. She’s a sharp and intuitive woman, who puts up a strong exterior to hide her desire to be loved. Adams, who tends to play a wholesome character, knocks it out of the park with this sexy role. She’s uninhibited, showing off her body in slinky dresses, and owning every space she enters.

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent Richie DiMaso. He’s innately a good man, truly wanting to do a good job for the FBI and bring justice to “corrupt” politicians, but his good nature is carried out through a hot head, aggression, and impulse. Cooper does a great job mixing innocence and naivety with instability and drive.

Jennifer Lawrence dazzles as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn. Written specifically for Lawrence, this role is parody of the typical misinformed and mistreated housewife. She is accident-proned, fearless, and unintentionally hilarious. She’s selfish, more concerned about her needs than those of her husband or son, looking to fall in love. Lawrence nails a Jersey accent, and she portrays an unstable housewife with finesse. And, as always, every time Lawrence cries on screen, hearts break.

Jeremy Renner plays Carmine Polito, mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an honest-to-goodness politician. He works earnestly for the people in his city, doing his best to restore Atlantic City and create jobs for his citizens. Targeted by DiMaso, he’s brought down in the end by the FBI for bribery and corruption, with the utmost honest intentions at heart. Renner plays an incredibly charismatic and compassionate family man and the most respectful politician. The incredible switch that Renner delivers from optimistic hero to devastated and betrayed friend is powerful.

As David O. Russell has said: “I hate plots. I am all about characters, that’s it.” This film truly embodies that sentiment. The plot is engaging and interesting, but it’s nothing to the play between the characters. At almost 2.5 hours, the film feels a touch slow towards the end, but it’s worth the character dynamics that Russell takes the time to develop. The acting between this all-star cast is incredible. The most striking moments are scenes with pairs of actors: Irving and Sydney, Rosalyn and Irving, Sydney and Richie, Carmine and Irving. These moments delve into the cores of the characters, perpetuating the emotional gravitas of the plot. The way Irving is touched by Carmine’s friendship leads to heartbreaking shots of guilt on Irving’s face. The way Rosalyn is disgusted by Irving’s “whore” leads to a shocking kiss and maniacal laughter. These moments are the meat of the film, what make it worth the watch.

The film starts with a bang as the words “Some of this actually happened” display on the screen. Loosely based on actual events, Russell is able to play around with his extraordinary characters and incredible actors. The film is suspenseful, engaging, and funny all in one. The masterful acting in this film is inspiring and powerful, sure to be acknowledged and rewarded this award season.

Man of Steel

Man of Steel (2013) is the latest reboot of the Superman franchise, directed by Zack Snyder. The Superman film prior to Man of Steel was Superman Returns (2006) directed by Bryan Singer.

The film takes a different approach to a familiar and often-told story. The origin story of Planet Krypton is told in greater detail, illustrating an Avatar-like world that combines advanced technology and weaponry with savage structures and flying beasts. In the final moments before the planet explodes, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his babe son into space, heading for Earth in order to preserve the race, against General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) wishes, who aims to preserve the race himself.

The film, after that point, takes a thoughtful approach to Superman’s upbringing. The next hour of the film has no linear plot. The film progresses through various flashbacks to Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill) childhood, which allow the viewer to understand Clark’s present-day morality. They present the trials and tribulations that a young Clark faced, which molded his nomadic adulthood. Cavill’s portrayal of Superman is sensitive, expressing subtle changes in his voice and eyes. He fully utilizes his rugged features to exhibit Clark Kent’s wholesome, small-town America vibe.

The flashbacks continue as Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins chasing down leads to write a story about Clark Kent. She delivers a strong portrayal of Lois Lane without risking vulnerability and compassion. Adams creates a driven female journalist with a hint of her signature sweetness.

Man of Steel expresses some religious imagery throughout the film, almost as if Superman is the ‘Man of God’. The way Superman is shown floating in the air is almost Christ-like, which comes as no surprise since his father describes him as a savior of mankind. These depictions are stunning yet curious — is he one of the human race or is he akin to a god? On a similar note, the scenes that showed Superman overcoming a considerable challenge were inspiring. The look on his face, the determination, the struggle, it all drew in focus and inspired. Superman becomes a stirring figure, comparable to a deity.

The film thrives on a thoughtful pace of meaningful memories, mirrored by calm and reflective music by Hans Zimmer, but the film unfortunately takes a turn from that introspective tone. In fact, the film makes such a stark change that it feels like Michael Bay came in and directed the second half of the film. As a concrete plot line is established, the tone and the story feel aggressive and somewhat false. This film tried to capitalize from previous superhero movies, particularly Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, that presented superheroes and villains in an authentic way. That worked incredibly well for Nolan’s Batman films, because his villains were human, albeit crazed and extremely flawed. They worked in a real-world scenario because real life has shown eccentric and despicable beings. It did not work in this film for two reasons: 1) Superman’s world involves aliens and 2) the movie becomes action-centric. Aliens are always challenging to make realistic, and the entire encounter and communication with the human race is not believable.

The movie tries to be exciting and action-packed, like J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is, but it overshoots the mark. The amount of destruction is laughable. There is a point in all the action when the viewer shuts down and waits for it all to stop. And when that stop finally arrives, the action just picks right back up and bombards the viewer with more. The writing, the one-liners, and the story all took a blow in the second half — where it feels like an entirely different film.

The reboot has tremendous potential, and if the movie gets a sequel, one can only hope that Snyder focuses on the thoughtful and unique storytelling from the first half. That is where the film shined.