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Artificial Love: Seven Films to Watch This Week

Joaquin Phoenix is a lonely tech-saavy writer in Spike Jonze's outstanding new film Her.

What does it say about the condition of modern love (and cinema) that the most authentic love story to come out this year, Spike Jonze's Her, isn't one between a man and a woman, but one between a computer and a user?

Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix in a way that befits the quotidian sweetness of the name), the protagonist of Spike Jonze's new film Her, could be anyone. Sometime in the near future--signified mostly by a Windows 8-style color scheme and an excess of clean lines and open plazas-- he pours his loneliness into his computer, inserting pieces of himself into other people's romantic correspondence at a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters dot com. That they're not actually hand-written (nor do future computers have keyboards) is an on-the-nose critique of just how removed people have become from each other. 

On his way home from work, Theodore purchases OS 1, an artificially intelligent operating system bearing the tagline: “It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness.” After a briefly hilarious install routine, it speaks its own name for the first time: Samantha. Theodore almost immediately falls in love. After a brief period of reticence, they become a couple and their relationship blossoms over a series of "solo" dates; walkabouts Theodore with phone in pocket and earpiece in ear. She's the ultimate long-distance girlfriend. Despite the possibilities for cheap laughs, Jonze plays it as a boilerplate romance, warts and all. This isn't to say it's not a funny film. Whenever conversation gets too serious, the camera pans back to someone's ill-fitting high-waisted pants, clearly a future wardrobe staple.

Buoyed by the voice of Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the romance between the OS and Theodore reads as a lock instead of a stretch. Who wouldn't fall in love with the smartest woman in the world, if she had that voice? Early reports that Samantha's character would be voiced by British actress Samantha Morton pointed to a different film all together. Theodore's only other real friend is played by Amy Adams at her dowdiest, another dreamer trapped. Elsewhere the action almost entirely relies on Phoenix, successfully dampening his recent egomaniacal streak and landing wisely somewhere between a loser and a charmer. 

Comedienne Kristin Wiig also pops up as a voice on the line during a casual-encounter style phone sex session and naughty avant guard computer animator David O'Reilly, who was honored last at last year's SFIFF, makes a typically hilarious contribution in the form of a video game featuring a particularly foul-mouthed homunculus--an obvious analogue for the perils of raising a teenager. Her is Jonze at his best as well, treading similar ground to his own Being John Malkovitch and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spottless Mind with less effort and more finesse. Meshing locations in Los Angeles and Singapore into one metropolitan futureopolis, Jonze effectively brings the isolation of our ever-connected world into full focus. 

It's a testament to his vision that the film supports such a range of interpretations, from the impressively paranoid to the numbingly saccharine, but his intended message is probably best encapsulated in the philosophy of Bay Area-based Zen godfather Alan Watts, who pops up briefly in the flick as a "hyper-intelligent AI." In his last writings, Watts was preoccupied with the isolation caused by technology and the failure of human connection in an ever-hastening world:

"The miracles of technology cause us to live in a hectic, clockwork world… Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements--inferences, guesses, deductions--it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead."

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Bay Areas Theaters.

ALSO PLAYING:

The Wolf of Wall Street - Conspicuous consumption has been a big theme in film this year. No director does criminal opulence better than Scorsese, and what better poster boy is there for the 1% than Leonardo DiCaprio? This magnificently tacky chronicle of New York stock market success (and excess) has critics howling. Rotten Tomatoes: 77%. Bay Area Theaters.

Blue Jasmine - As Oscar consideration looms large, Castro gives SF movie buffs a huge-screen opportunity to re-evaluate Woody Allen's downer upper-crust comedy. Some characters will make natives cringe, but Cate Blanchett's basket case socialite Jasmine is something to behold. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Jan 2 only at Castro, plays daily at Opera Plaza.

Philomena - Entirely more engrossing than its setup (an Irish-Catholic woman teams up with a BBC reporter to find her the son she once gave up for adoption) suggests, Stephen Frears (The Queen) Philomena makes the best of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, crafting a buddy flick with real emotion and impeccable restraint. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. Embarcadero.

I Am Divine - What says Christmas better than a fat man in a furry red suit? No, silly, it's not Santa Claus, it's Divine! Harris Glenn Milstead's taboo-smashing drag terrorist is best known for her work with filmmaker John Waters, as the saying goes, there's plenty more where that came from. More than plenty, in fact. The title of this one says it all. Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Roxie.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - Much like Forrest Gump before it, Walter Mitty is a Big-style popcorn flick built on whimsy, spectacle and a number of eye-popping special effects sequences. Stiller lends an air of wiry intelligence to the bumbling dreamer, but like it's predecessors, the film is lighter than air--blow too hard and it might all fall down. Rotten Tomatoes: 47%. Bay Area Theaters.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - Assailed by many critics as undercooked and over-glossed, this timely bio has "Hollywood" stamped all over it, despite the mostly black cast and the charismatic presence of Idris Elba (who's yet to find the appropriate showcase for his talent) as the leader. It's entertaining and punchy, but those seeking accuracy are looking in the wrong place. Rotten Tomatoes: 55%. Bay Area Theaters.