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Knight at the Movies: Her; DVD notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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With Her, director Spike Jonze—making his solo screenwriting debut after several offbeat collaborations with Charlie Kaufman ( Being John Malkovich, etc. )—takes the standard movie-romance conventions and adds an intriguing element that tosses them on their heads.

The movie, set in the "slight future"—a place immediately recognizable with its muted colors, glossy surfaces and distracted crowds of people all interacting with their electronic devices instead of each other ( kinda like an Apple store )—focuses on the introverted, melancholy Theodore ( a note perfect Joaquin Phoenix ) who falls hopelessly in love with the enchanting Samantha ( an equally impressive Scarlett Johansson ). The twist in their romantic story—and it's a really thought-provoking, uneasy one—is that Samantha is the disembodied voice of a computer program that Theodore has purchased to stave off loneliness in light of an impending divorce.

The mixed emotions and the creep factor are always right there as we watch Theodore dancing down the street to the delight of Samantha, sharing a picnic on a "double date" with one of Theodore's co-workers, and revealing his innermost feelings with her at night in his darkened high-rise apartment. The main problem, of course, with Samantha—who watches him via the iPhone-like device he clutches in his hand or perches nearby and speaks to him through an ear piece—is that there is no body to go with her scintillating voice.

Samantha—a computer program referred to as an OS ( or operating system ), and is designed so that her emotions become more complex the more she interacts with Theodore—has an answer for the couple's problem: a surrogate who is a young blonde who attempts to seduce him with his awkward consent. But when confronted with the physical reality of this physical stand-in, Theodore hesitates. Confused and upset, Samantha briefly withdraws and, in the ensuing weeks, the duo begins to encounter a series of other roadblocks that are both familiar ( jealousy, spite and a reality check provided by Theodore's soon to be ex-wife, Catherine, who is appalled to discover the relationship ) as well as downright confounding ( like Samantha's confession that she's concurrently having a relationship with 8,316 other people but is only "in love" with 641 of them ).

Although the film is hampered by a soft ending that eludes rather than resolves many of the truly thought-provoking questions it raises, Her is nonetheless a lyrical, deeply felt movie with a surprisingly gentle spirit. ( In that respect, it's akin to Lars and the Real Girl. ) As The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane has so aptly pointed out, the thing that makes Her so unsettling is that the movie does to us what Samantha does to Theodore.

DVD notes

Here are three recent releases that my fellow show tune queens are going to want to add to their collection:

—I had the pleasure of seeing Barbra Streisand's concert at the United Center last year as part of her "Back to Brooklyn" tour. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the concert was how artfully the singer utilized the remaining strengths of her 71-year-old voice. She gave new life to several of her familiar chestnuts and to several songs from deep within her catalogue ( I was particularly glad to hear her unearth "Didn't We" and "Lost Inside of You" ). And adding guest performers to the mix—jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, the acapella group Il Volo and her son, vocalist Jason Gould—livened the night and rounded out the concert. The result is a 24-track CD and DVD titled, naturally enough, Barbra: Back to Brooklyn. It is now available and, for Streisand fans young and old, this is a must-have.

—Another lovely aspect of the Streisand concert was her moving musical tribute to her longtime collaborator Marvin Hamlisch, who composed "The Way We Were," one of her biggest hits. Hamlisch, the wunderkind, multiple award-winning composer of legendary songs ( "Through the Eyes of Love," "Nobody Does It Better" ); movie soundtracks ( The Sting, The Way We Were, The Informant, The Swimmer ); and Broadway scores ( the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line, They're Playing Our Song, Sweet Smell of Success ), was recently given an additional tribute as part of PBS's American Masters program.

The 90-minute documentary Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did will be released Tuesday, Jan. 14, on DVD and provides a warm portrait of this tremendously gifted composer who died too young. Several of Hamlisch's collaborators ( including Streisand as well as lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman ) and vintage footage help illustrate his fantastic career and the personal consequences that came along with that.

—Finally, Disney—as a nice tie-in with current theatrical release Saving Mr. Banks—has, at long last, released a Blu-ray edition of its 1964 classic about the magical nanny. Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition gives us the Julie Andrews-Dick Van Dyke musical delight on both Blu-ray and DVD, and includes a digital copy. It carries over the majority of the special features from the 45th-anniversary edition and adds a couple of new ones ( a karaoke option and a small featurette about Saving Mr. Banks ). In addition, the film—which has been carefully restored—has never looked this sensational and is truly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

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