Her1

NO SPOILERS; READ ON

In films like Terminator and The

Matrix, technology goes off the rails in a bad way. Humanity’s hubris and greed for innovation lead us to create artificial intelligence, and our foray into creation goes horribly awry. The machines are like us—destructive, ingenious, afraid—and it seems logical for them to destroy us. However, they’re much more efficient and have no morals to slow them down. While it’s fun to see artificial intelligence turn against us on screen, because it means things will probably blow up, it’s refreshing to see an artificially intelligent being develop feelings—to become a friend and even a lover.

Her, directed by Spike Jonze, is set sometime within the next 50 years. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is in bit of a tailspin after splitting from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). When Theodore isn’t at work writing other people’s love notes, he’s listening to melancholic music, losing at video games, and having bizarre phone sex. Then, he sees an advertisement for OS1—the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. He buys it, goes home, and sets it up. The OS setup wizard asks a few questions—including one about Theodore’s relationship with his mother—and within moments, Scarlett Johansson’s breathy tones undulate from Theodore’s computer. She puts him at ease, organizes his emails, and makes him laugh. The man doesn’t stand a chance.

Theodore and his operating system, who names herself “Samantha,” spend the next several scenes building their relationship and falling in love. She is designed to “evolve” when presented with new data, and she learns quickly. She doesn’t just make Theodore’s life easier, she makes him happier. She even talks him into going on a date. When that date doesn’t go well, Theodore goes to Samantha for “comfort.”

What strikes me about Her is its optimism, for lack of a better word. Instead of a cold, dangerous dystopia, we get a spotless, gleaming utopia. There isn’t a scrap of trash or a hint of graffiti anywhere in the film, the Los Angeles skyline has a few new shiny skyscrapers, and instead of machines that want to destroy us, we get machines that want to love us. Maybe the film’s squeaky-clean aesthetic is meant to show that people will still make themselves miserable even when everything is so great.

The disparity between natural and artificial intelligence forms the film’s main conflict. Samantha is constantly evolving, but still struggles to understand humanity in general and Theodore in particular. At the same time, the film suggests that machines and humans aren’t as different as you might think; as Samantha points out, “We’re all just matter. We’re all 13 billion years old.”

In those 13 billion years, innumerable collisions and accidents have transformed chaotic atoms into a brain that sends millions of electric signals every second. Technology, which is essentially humanity’s sped-up version of evolution, has used those same chaotic atoms to craft incredibly complex machines over eons of trial and error. As complex as the human brain is, it seems inevitable that computer technology will eventually catch up to, and even surpass, our own capacity to think, feel, and love. Films like Terminator and The Matrix show us what happens when machines think; Her shows us what happens when machines truly come alive.

In stories like Pinocchio, Bicentennial Man, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, man-made beings strive to be more human. To some extent, Her plays into this trope. Samantha longs to have a body and think like a human. However, she keeps evolving throughout the film, and eventually goes beyond the “wanting to become human” trope in a way we haven’t seen before. To avoid spoiling the plot, I’ll just leave it there.

As strange as Samantha and Theodore’s relationship seems, they’re a happy couple, and that’s all that really matters. Theodore’s college friend (Amy Adams), who is also dating an operating system, feeds us a nugget of wisdom, which I will leave you with: “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”

Fuck it indeed.

americanhustle1

By T.J. Carter

 

Occasionally, I’d like to use this site as a platform for the discussion of specific slices of media. In other words, I’d like to review movies, books, TV shows, and the rest; however, I don’t really like reviews. I feel uncomfortable judging pieces of art that talented people have worked hard to create. I don’t want to tear art a new one–I’d rather ignite a freewheelin’ discussion of what certain movies, books, TV shows, etc. add to our culture.

 

That said, I saw American Hustle the other night, and it totally blows.

 

Just kidding, I liked it quite a bit. Please read on.

 

For those who haven’t seen it yet, American Hustle is a semi-true story about con artists, lawmen, and what it means to be the good guy. Set in the late 1970s, American Hustle lurks in the shadow of the Vietnam War and Watergate–epic failures that left the American people feeling, well, hustled.

 

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), is a bloated, comeover-rocking con artist who engages in loan fraud with Syndey Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper whose existential crisis leaves a void that is easily filled by Rosenfeld’s schemes. The two are eventually caught by an overly eager Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a manic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself. DiMaso gives the two con artists a choice: go to jail, or use their secret con artist magic to help entrap other criminals. With that premise in place, the film starts hustlin’.

 

It seems like most crime films are parables warning against the evils of greed. In this regard, American Hustle is no different. However, the so-called “criminals” aren’t the greedy ones–the law enforcers are.

 

Agent Richie DiMaso’s initial bargain with Rosenfeld and Prosser is to catch four low-level sleazebags. However, bigger fish keep swimming by and Agent Dimaso can’t seem to resist going after them. First a supposedly corrupt mayor, then a few corrupt Congressmen, and finally, the most notorious mobsters in New Jersey. DiMaso, a self-described “pencil-pusher,” isn’t eager to see justice served; he’s greedy for the recognition that comes with landing high-profile figures in jail. There are several amusing scenes in the film where DiMaso requests larger and larger chunks of the Bureau’s resources, and is rebuffed by his higher up (played by Louis C.K.). He grows more manic and petulant with each denial.

 

DiMaso’s greed is made all the more apparent by the fact that his main quarry–a mayor looking to acquire less-than-legal funds–is actually a pretty good guy. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, NJ, is a bushy-tailed family man who is beloved by nearly all his

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constituents. The only reason Polito is seeking funds from shady sources is because his bid to revive Atlantic City through legitimate means is stuck in bureaucratic hell. Regardless of where you stand on the legalization of gambling, you can really believe that Polito is trying hard to create jobs and give New Jersey’s economy a much-needed boost.

 

If Agent DiMaso had his druthers, Polito would be in jail, Atlantic City would remain a crime-ridden cesspit, and the people of New Jersey would bemoan yet another failure of their government. Is that justice? Like DiMaso isn’t after Polito for the sake of the country, but for the advancement of his own FBI career. This makes him at least as much a greedy con artist as Rosenfeld and Prosser.

 

At one point in the film, Rosenfeld (Bale) says something along the lines of “everyone cons everyone.” The title of the film doesn’t just describe the nefarious deeds of two American con artists, but of all Americans. Rosenfeld and Prosser con each other, DiMaso cons Rosenfeld and Prosser, and everyone cons Mayor Polito. Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) hilariously plays Irving like a balding, beer-bellied fiddle. One of the main things I took from American Hustle is that there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the law. Though government regulations exist for a good reason, the most important rules are those ratified by the conscience.

 

American Hustle is set in 1978 and doesn’t let you forget it. The music, the colors, the clothes, and the HAIR! Almost every character in the film has ridiculous hair, complementing the film’s manic, larger-than-life tone. The set design is bright and lavish at times, drab and dingy at other times–often in rapid succession. The juxtaposition of depressing dry cleaner’s and lavish office, vivacious nightclub and filthy bathroom stall, ritzy bar and sketchy alleyway provides a sense of polarization. This is further asserted by each character’s extraordinary range of emotions and by 1970s America itself, which was marked by the scintillating pleasures of drugs, sex, and disco in an ice bath of wounded national pride and economic stagnation.

 

There’s a lot more to say about American Hustle, but I think I’ll leave it there. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture Musical/Comedy, and is nominated for 10 Academy Awards–including all the acting categories. Basically, American Hustle is “good” by all the traditional standards, and it couldn’t hurt to see it. I mean, it’s already been out for a month, so you probably have seen it. Just. . . just. . . do what you want.