Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
Set in Los Angeles in an indeterminate future, writer/director Spike Jonze's highly anticipated sci-fi fantasy compassionately explores themes of loneliness and alienation in the age of technology.
Depressed Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a frustrated former newspaperman who is paid to compose touching "handwritten letters" for users of the popular Internet Network.
Emotionally adrift since the breakup of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), he's intrigued with a new, advanced computer operating system, an artificial intelligence that promises to supply him with a uniquely intuitive companion. This sentient, Siri-like entity turns out to be Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who not only satisfies Theodore's every desire but also manages to get a collection of his letters published as a book. Soon a bizarre courtship develops, along with field trips and double dates, while Samantha expands the scope of her knowledge and develops her consciousness.
Working from what is, undoubtedly, the most original script in years, visionary Jonze ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," Where the Wild Things Are") has fashioned an ambitious, touching, distinctively relevant dilemma, involving cell phones, texting, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
Phoenix ("The Master") once again proves his versatility as sensitive, lovelorn Theodore struggles to reconcile his own self-identity with Samantha's essentially elusive nature. As Theodore's friends, Amy Adams and Chris Pratt score briefly with underwritten, secondary roles.
According to Jonze: "All my movies have this aspect of constant evolution and exploration, which really means: We don't know what we're doing!" Although she's never seen on-camera, Johansson delivers a seductive, spoken tour-de-force, igniting controversy about whether she should have been eligible as Best Supporting Actress. There's no precedent, even when Douglas Rain voiced HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" or James Earl Jones intoned Darth Vader. And it's ironic since, during filming, Samantha Morton articulated Samantha until, in post-production, Jonze decided to substitute Johansson's soothing, sultry contralto.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Her" is quirky, quixotic 9, a sadly surreal, screwball comedy/drama, subtly, yet sincerely exploring how we perceive and interact with those around us.
"JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT"
This is the fifth espionage thriller revolving around Tom Clancy's CIA operative Jack Ryan, an intrepid character previously played by Alec Baldwin ("The Hunt for Red October"), Harrison Ford ("Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger") and Ben Affleck ("The Sum of All Fears").
"Shadow Recruit" is not only a prequel, detailing how Ryan was recruited into the CIA, but also the first story not based directly on one of Tom Clancy's novels.
Fiercely patriotic, Ryan immediately joins the Marines, only to be blown out of the sky over Afghanistan. Recuperating at Walter Reed, he falls in love with Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), the med student in charge of his physical therapy. He's also spotted by Naval Cmdr. William Harper (Kevin Costner), who sends him back to get his economics degree and then places him as a systems analyst on Wall Street, covertly reporting to the CIA.
When Ryan suddenly becomes suspicious of his firm's financial dealings, he's dispatched to Russia for an audit, which infuriates manipulative oligarch Viktor Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh) and his government minister boss (uncredited Mikhail Baryshnikov), who have concocted an elaborate tech scheme to launch another terrorist attack and crash the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Cathy decides to surprise Jack by joining him at his Moscow hotel, unwittingly placing herself right in the middle of the dangerous action.
As director, Branagh handles the derring-do with finesse, but the cliched plot is so familiar and predictable that it seems to be on recycle mode with by-the-numbers filmmaking. Having established himself as youthful Capt. James T. Kirk in the "Star Trek" reboot, Pine gamely grapples with the pure physicality of Ryan, particularly when he's engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a huge Ugandan assassin.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is an efficient, escapist 6, a midwinter popcorn picture.
"THE LEGEND OF HERCULES"
Inauspiciously dumped in January, Renny Harlin's sword-and-sandals epic will be forgotten by the time Brett Rattner's eagerly anticipated "Hercules," starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, opens in July.
One of the best-known figures in Greek mythology, the demi-god Hercules, son of the Olympian ruler Zeus and mortal Queen Alcmene, has been portrayed previously by musclemen like Steve Reeves and Lou Ferrigno. Now it's Kellan Lutz, best known as Bella's shirtless werewolf suitor in the "Twilight" series.
In this adaptation, Zeus' seed, which will become Hercules, is planted in the womb of Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) as a gift from Zeus' wife Hera to defeat the tyrannical rule of Alcmene's cruel husband, Tirynthean King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins). Loathed by his stepfather and envied by his cowardly stepbrother, Prince Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), Prince Alcides/Hercules (Lutz) is eventually sent to war in Egypt, where he's ambushed and enslaved. That's so that Iphicles can inherit the kingdom and marry Crete's Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), who has publicly pledged her love to Alcides/Hercules. All of this is witnessed by the queen's elderly mentor, Chiron (Rade Serbedzija), and Alcides/Hercules' fellow soldier Sotiris (Liam McIntyre).
According to the classic legend, Hercules tackled 12 Great Labors, including fighting the nine-headed Hydra and the Cretan bull, along with capturing the Erymanthian Boar and stealing the Mares of Diomedes. Except for a brief and unimpressive skirmish with the fabled Nemean Lion, these tasks are inexplicably ignored by screenwriters Sean Hood and Daniel Giat, who have substituted, instead, a choppy, insipid, utterly predictable love story.
Director Harlin ("Driven," "Cutthroat Island") uses far too many slow-motion sequences and freeze frames in the countless fight scenes, along with Zack Snyder's "300" device of "speed ramping" (slowing down, then speeding up action). Even the computer-generated imagery is cheap and tacky. Except for McIntyre and Serbedzija, the acting is so ludicrous, it's laughable, particularly Lutz, who totally lacks charisma.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Legend of Hercules" is a tepid, tedious 2, mercifully running only 90 minutes.