For the week on May 13th, Warner Home Entertainment is bringing Spike Jonze's Her to Blu-ray. What makes Her so extraordinary is how it transcends its deeply silly premise: lonely letter-writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, who's just as good – albeit much sweeter and less disturbed – as he was in The Master) falls in love with his computer's operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who makes disembodiment palpable). But if that setup reads like When Harry Met Siri, the finished film is a spookier, more delicate creation, a fusion of digital prognosticating and genuine romantic yearning that works because Jonze never condescends to the material. This might be the most personal film he's ever made. More so than in even Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are, you can feel Jonze laying himself bare; if you know where to look, you can see in Theodore's relationships with Samantha, his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), and his best friend (Phoenix's The Master co-star Amy Adams) strong remnants of Jonze's real-life connections to Michelle Williams, Sofia Coppola, and Miranda July.
Jonze is definitely working something out, yet the gently sci-fi ambience of Her keeps the film from turning into a solipsistic drag. Theodore's connection with Samantha yields all sorts of interesting questions about where romance exists – in the body or in the mind – and Samantha's ever-inquisitive, ever-evolving inner realm only complicates the matter. As Samantha's burgeoning emotional register allows her to use her programming to, in effect, experience life far more vividly than any human could, Jonze seems to be arguing that super-intelligent machines might be the next logical step in human evolution. This seems like it's entering Terminator territory, but Jonze has way too much sympathy for both digital and physical entities. The tragedy of Her is that as deeply committed as Theodore and Samantha are to one another, it isn't their respective forms that get in the way. It's their inability to grow at the same pace as the other, and really, isn't that true for many "normal" relationships?
Kenneth Brown gave the film his highest praise, writing "Where other filmmakers would roll credits, Jonze chooses to press on and test the limits of Theodore's newfound love. Conflict and complications mount as Samantha's needs grow beyond the bounds of human relationships, and Jonze's question - What does love look like in the modern world? - is rephrased and repurposed again and again. The answers he offers, though, offer insight rather than explanation. Theodore isn't able to predict or quantify love any more than Samantha is able to anticipate or encompass it. Even her love is a question mark. Does it spring from complex programming? A machine's delusion? Theodore's desires and needs brought to life by a series of algorithms? Or is it true sentience? Is Samantha a product of nature or nurture, or something else entirely? Is Theodore beholden to chemical impulses, personality pitfalls and circumstances beyond his comprehension? Is he falling in love with Samantha? Or does she merely represent a safety net he isn't guaranteed elsewhere? Is he in control of his own emotions? Or a victim of state of the art technology? Is anyone in control? Or are we all products of programming? These are the questions Jonze explores, and explores with such fascinating simplicity; confounding, unsolvable mysteries he doesn't attempt to address with anything other than truth, nebulous though it may be. And like all great cinema, Her rings profoundly true. Can a filmmaker, cast or Best Picture nominee be given any higher praise?"
The first season of Orange Is the New Black hits Blu-ray this week, courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan, the program emerged without the pomp and circumstance of Netflix's recent original programming slate. It doesn't have the David Fincher-production values and Kevin Spacey-factor of House of Cards nor the instant geek cred of Netflix's Arrested Development reboot. By comparison, Orange Is the New Black is just a comparatively low-key adaptation of author Piper Kerman's autobiographical memoir that detailed her brief prison stint for a years-old drug-trafficking charge. The surprise is that this comparatively unassuming show easily outpaces both House of Cards and Arrested Development in terms of overall intelligence and rewatchability. As the premise suggests, this is a hangout show, through and through, and though the narrative enters the prison system through the Piper surrogate (Taylor Schilling), it quickly branches out, offering equal screentime to Piper's fellow inmates and the jail's administrative staff. I can think of few shows that give as many complex and interesting parts to as physically and ethnically diverse a cast of women as Orange Is the New Black does – Piper is immediately winning, but so are the deft turns from Kate Mulgrew, Michelle Hurst, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Yael Stone, Constance Shulman, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, Laverne Cox, and Uzo Aduba, who walks away with Season One as Piper's "prison wife" Crazy Eyes (all that, and the show still makes time for its male cast, with Michael Harney and Pablo Schreiber standing out as, respectively, the prison's ineffectual supervisor and its most hateful guard).
Furthermore, even though Orange Is the New Black doesn't wallow in lurid details to the same degree that an Oz might, it's mighty clear-eyed about the realities of prison, particularly with regard to how they differ from Piper's far more sheltered existence outside. Orange Is the New Black isn't perfect – it takes an episode or two to get on its wavelength, and the love triangle between Piper, her fiancé (Jason Biggs), and her similarly incarcerated ex-lover (That '70s Show's Laura Prepon) falls flat, mainly because Biggs and Prepon are the weak links in the cast – but those are minor quibbles. Whether the series can sustain this level of excellence is up for debate; Weeds was pretty great for about three seasons until Kohan lost her way in a mire of hectic subplots and unpleasant characterizations. But so far, Orange Is the New Black isn't just the best Netflix original production: it's one of the best new television programs period.
Jeffrey Kauffman had a different opinion, writing that "the opening three or so episodes feel anecdotal rather than organic, though things perk up rather quickly once Alex shows up at the same prison (she's been there all along, simply waiting for the suitably chaotic moment in Piper's life to make her new entrance). The best part of the opening set of episodes is probably the introduction and development of Red (Kate Mulgrew), a seemingly hard hearted and ruthless bitch of a woman who is in charge of the kitchen. When Piper makes an ill advised complaint about the food in front of Red, lines are drawn and some unorthodox 'food' is served. Mulgrew is absolutely riveting in this completely de-glammed, kind of smarmy but resilient, characterization. Kohan and the writing team slowly but surely introduce the little groups that make up the strata of cultures in the prison, and critical mass is when we've finally gotten a handle on some of the intrigue surrounding Piper's cellmate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). While Kohan's kind of quasi-Lost ping ponging between "before and after" doesn't always work (and is in fact perhaps a dramatic miscalculation at least some of the time), in Claudette's story there's a clear connection between traumatic past events and present day behaviors."
Finally, HBO Home Entertainment is bringing Eastbound & Down: The Complete Fourth Season to Blu-ray. For so much of this season – purportedly the final one in the Eastbound & Down series – you wonder if series creators Jody Hill, Ben Best, and David Gordon Green have managed to give their lewd, uncomfortable comedy the photo finish it deserves. Each season of the show has managed to top the previous one, and Season 3's humdinger of a finale, which has abrasive pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) faking his own death in order to focus on domestic life with his childhood sweetheart April (Katy Mixon) and their son yields wonderful creative territory for Kenny to explore. As the new season begins, it seems like everyone is happy but Kenny; even with another child and his wife's booming success as a realtor, Kenny looks at himself and only sees wasted potential, and Hill, Best, and Green capture Kenny's discontent in with a creeping paranoia that recalls nothing less than pre-meltdown Jack Torrance in The Shining.
How Kenny finds himself back on top (or near it, anyways) is best left unspoiled, but suffice to say, it involves the help of his devoted sycophant Stevie (Steve Little, who steals every scene he's in), a racist, unpleasant sports commentator (the great Ken Marino), and a litany of bad behavior that's equal parts hilarious and horrifying. Hill, Best, and Green may find Kenny to be deeply deluded at times, but they also manage to take his feelings of self-loathing and ambition seriously, and that push-pull between funny and sad gives Eastbound & Down a curious weight. Ultimately, this season finds Kenny realizing definitively that he can be famous or he can be good, and his attempt to find out which version of himself he wants to be turns the show into the comedy version of Breaking Bad. What keeps Eastbound & Down from achieving similar heights is the last episode: all the great tension and humor take a backseat to a parade of stunt-casting and a final, absurdist resolution that pulls a couple of key punches. Still, for fans of the series, this is much-watch television.
Arriving from my preorders this week are: Her (one of my favorites from last year) and Overlord (a promising blind buy).
I'll wait a few more weeks to import the UK edition of Stranger by the Lake. It was another one of my favorites from last year, but the UK blu-ray sports a better package and lower price than the US one.