Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
In Malaysia, three young Americans with little else in common are united in a shared enthusiasm for beer, women, and righteous hashish. Eventually, “Sheriff” (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) head back to New York. Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), a spacey but good-hearted sort, stays on with the notion of helping save the orangutans. Two years later, a brassy lawyer (Anne Heche) shows up in Manhattan with the news that her client, Lewis, has spent the interim in Penang prison. Arrested for a prankish misdemeanor they all shared in, he’s taking the rap for something worse:the dope stash they left him holding was a fatal few grams over the limit. Unless his fellow Americans return voluntarily to (literally) share the weight, in eight days Lewis will be hanged as a drug trafficker.
Portland’s resident filmmaking genius, Gus Van Sant, can go either way. Sometimes he’s mainstream (lest we forget Good Will Hunting) and sometimes he’s experimental (in the remarkable Elephant and Gerry). For his latest film, he wears both hats.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Van Sant’s tribute to fellow Portland legend John Callahan. You may remember Callahan: the carrot-haired quadriplegic cartoonist whose squiggly-lined drawings repeatedly crossed the borderline of good taste. The title refers to the caption of one of his most famous panels, a picture of some cowboys pondering an abandoned wheelchair in the middle of the desert. Before his death in 2010, Callahan worked with Van Sant on developing this biopic.
In You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix continues his dogged campaign to be our crustiest actor. Nothing tops his disheveled turn as “Joaquin Phoenix” in the similarly titled pseudo-documentary I’m Not Here—ever the gold standard for an actor trashing his own good looks—but Phoenix looks remarkably awful in this new thriller, which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His hired killer is a pot-bellied, nest-haired wreck, raising the question: Is cultivating the “gutter-sleeping hobo” look really the best way for a hit man to slip in and out of dicey situations? Director Lynne Ramsay has suggested that her goal was to upend our expectations of the smooth, sleek professional assassin. If so, she and Phoenix have succeeded.
The Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)
If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.
Her (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD, On Demand), the first film from Spike Jonze since his underrated take on Where the Wild Things Are, returns to the territory of his debut film Being John Malkovich but without the satirical edge. Like his fellow filmmakers and former collaborators Michael Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Jonze is narratively playful and challenging, but his interest as a filmmaker is in the human experience: unresolved emotions, emotional pain, longing, disappointment, and the need for love and affirmation. Jonze wrote this original screenplay himself and won the Academy Award for it.
As you probably already know, Her is a love story between a man and his smartphone operating system, a science-fiction conceit that springboards off Siri and the plugged-in culture to create an artificially intelligent operating system that picks up on vocal cues and emotional states, responding empathetically to its user. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, an emotionally wounded man who armors himself from personal contact after a break-up and divorce, and the only person to break through that is not a person at all but this bodyless entity. It’s the logical step since he communicates with his computer and its voice-activated system more than he does with people, one-sided a relationship that prevents him from interacting with the world. When it becomes an interactive entity, a personality that responds to and bonds with him, it’s seductive. It’s also, unexpectedly, a way back to the rich pageant of human existence around.
Jonze creates an almost idealized vision of Los Angeles here, a clean, handsome urban cityscape of affluence in cool colors and an austerity we don’t expect to see in L.A. This is a city with litter, no gridlock, and no overcrowding, a beautiful but strangely lonely vision of city life that only becomes energized when Samantha, as the system is named, takes Theodore into the crowds of public spaces. Samantha grows exponentially, reaching out into the world to experience all she can, and she leads Theodore back into the world with her even as she evolves far past his limitations.
In the most literal sense, I suppose she is an operating system that goes by the name Samantha, a futuristic computerized program that takes an important place in the life of ordinary guy Theodore Twombly.
But Her might also refer to any woman who comes into Theodore’s life, because he clearly hasn’t figured out how to understand and relate to the opposite sex. He’s the main character of “Her,” the new film by Spike Jonze, and he’s played by Joaquin Phoenix in a technically tricky performance.
The setting is the near future, and things look different — in a wonderfully visualized way. Los Angeles is a city of elevated sidewalks and soulless towers (an effect created in part by shooting in Shanghai), men wear pants without belts, and the streets are full of people more engaged by their personal devices than by the world around them.