Oscars Adventure 2014

March 7, 2014 in Best Of, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Reviews

The pre-planned surprise selfie

The pre-planned surprise selfie

It’s been a while since I posted and I’m still kinda tired (with you know, stuff), but it’s time to recap my Oscars adventures for 2014.

Like last year, I served as a consultant to one of the subtitling teams for the TV stations in Taiwan, which is a long day but always tons of fun. The Oscars screen in Taiwan during the day and are broadcast live, but only with live commentators doing their best to interpret whatever they can. The subtitling team (which does loads of preparation in advance) will frantically start translating the dialogue starting from the red carpet show so that the subtitles can be applied and ready for the prime time rerun later that evening.

It sounds relatively simple but is actually a lot of work because translations of names of films and nominees need to be uniform and consistent, and there are always plenty of things that don’t go according to script. People can talk really fast and mumble, acceptance speeches can be long and rambling (not to mention include a whole bunch of names that need to be verified), there might be short clips (or even long clips) they play throughout the evening which will have to be translated, and the jokes are always difficult especially if they use puns or touch on obscure cultural references. And of course, everything needs to be cross-checked and double-checked before the subtitles are placed onto the screen and synced to match the dialogue.

It’s quite incredible watching the team, which is packed with the country’s best (and trust me, they are, because I’ve seen some of its worst), power through like a well-oiled machine. On top of that everyone is incredibly nice, professional, and simply a lot of fun. I enjoyed the camaraderie we had, one fostered by a collegiate environment where everyone was working towards a common goal, and that’s to deliver the best product possible for the audience. Most viewers wouldn’t even have picked up on the little things that the team fretted over, but we challenged ourselves to get everything right, and if not, as close as we could.

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This was about as far as Ellen would go

This year’s production was much easier to subtitle than last year’s thanks to Ellen, who was a fairly “no frills” host in comparison to Seth MacFarlane, who filled his show with glitzy extravaganzas galore. Ellen’s opening monologue did not contain any prepared video footage, there were no singing and dancing numbers in the opening monologue or subsequently from the host, and even the majority of presenters stuck largely to the scripts we received in advance. Even the red carpet, which usually presents plenty of headaches, was relatively straightforward, with few mentions of those difficult-to-pronounce designer names. So apart from a couple of rambling, semi-incoherent acceptance speeches (Steve McQueen in particular for Best Picture), the night was a subtitler’s dream.

I haven’t really read up much on what people thought of the ceremony, though the sentiment among some of the people I spoke to was that it was a fairly boring night. Not that there was anything wrong with Ellen’s hosting, it was just that there were no spectacular set pieces and, more importantly, there were zero surprises. Apparently, according to the experts I spoke to, every single category was captured by the favourite.

I had a look at the predictions I put together a couple of days out before the ceremony and it turns out I didn’t do too badly. Considering I guessed the short/foreign film and documentary categories and went for a few upsets when I should have just stuck with the favourites, a total of 14/24 is I suppose passable.

As for the night itself, I actually really enjoyed it despite its supposed predictability and notable lack of flair. The red carpet was, as usual, filled with bad hosts (Tyson Beckford in particular) and painfully awkward and uncomfortable moments, though this year’s felt slightly better than last year’s for some reason. Maybe it was Jennifer Lawrence falling over again.

Ellen was her usual wry, funny self, but still maintained an air of formality and delivered a classy performance that Hollywood’s night of nights deserved. Sure, there was probably too much product placement (Samsung) and the pizza thing, while funny at first, went on for far too long, but I’d give Ellen a solid B+ for what is widely considered to be the toughest hosting gig there is.

I've let it go. Have you?

I’ve let it go. Have you?

I loved the music performances, in particular Pink’s surprising rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Karen O’s The Moon Song, though Adele Dazeem’s (sorry, I mean Idina Menzel’s) Let It Go had to be let go after she struggled from the very first note. The moving In Memoriam section was particular painful this year with the likes of Paul Walker, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman all unexpectedly making the list, and Bette Midler’s ensuing Wind Beneath My Wings was arguably the most powerful moment of the evening.

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The presenters were largely forgettable, with only Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx really standing out at all for me. Actually, Harrison Ford stood out as well, but for the wrong reasons. I was telling one of my colleagues during the day that it’s rather amazing, given how many ridiculously talented writers there are in Hollywood, that the dialogue they come up with for Oscars presenters is almost always lame. My clever colleague speculated, probably correctly, that the writers felt they couldn’t be too clever or witty because they were pitching to such a wide audience, meaning they were likely targeting the pedestrian middle crowd. On top of that, there’s always the fear of being controversial or politically incorrect, so in the end we’re left with dialogue that’s effectively benign but also uninteresting.

And if you think about it, who can really blame them? Every idiot with a Twitter account has got an opinion these days. I mean, seriously, criticizing Jared Leto’s win because he’s not a real transsexual and for not thanking the transgender community in his speech, or labelling Ellen as “transphobic” for her Liza Minnelli impersonator joke? Come on.

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As for the acceptance speeches, the highlight has to be the elegant and moving speech from Lupita Nyong’o, with the lowlight of course coming from the insufferable Matthew McConaughey, whose victory will surely take his Texan smugness to a whole new level. That said, I have to give credit where it’s due — Mr “Alright Alright Alright” is having a killer of a time as of late with a slate of great performances in solid-to-great films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and of course, Dallas Buyers Club.

I predicted correctly that 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture, but let’s face it, Gravity should have won, especially after Alfonso Cuaron rightfully took home the Best Director gong. What is it about sci-fi flicks that scares off voters? And one other thing — Spike Jones, won for Best Original Screenplay, really should have gotten a nomination for directing as well for his phenomenal work in Her. But unfortunately, he was squeezed out because the decision to nominate 9 films for Best Picture instead of 5 means 4 very deserving directors will miss out every year. And that’s just wrong.

In all, one of the better Oscar nights in the last few years, and a great, albeit exhausting, day for me as well. I hope to do it again next year.

2014 Oscar Predictions: Who Should Win and Who Will

February 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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With just a handful of days before the 86th Academy Awards, and having just completed my sweep of the Best Picture nominees, it’s time for my annual Oscar predictions!

This has been a fantastic year in cinema — much better than the lackluster year before — with some very deserving nominees that could have crushed last year’s field. Again, true stories have paved the way, with six of the nine Best Picture nominees all supposedly based on or inspired by real events. And to make things more exciting, it’s quite an open field this year, with several intriguing possibilities in all the major categories.

So, without further ado, these are my picks.

Best Picture: (click on the film for my review)

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wold of Wall Street

Comments: An impressive field this year where I awarded at least 4.5 stars to six of the nine films and at least four stars to all but one. There is no clear cut favourite, with early frontrunner  American Hustle seemingly falling behind Golden Globe winner 12 Years a Slave. The critically acclaimed Gravity also lurks, though at the moment it appears the Best Picture award is down to a two-horse race. I love a bit of suspense.

Prediction: 12 Years a Slave — ticks the right boxes for a Best Picture winner and it appears there’s too much momentum to slow it down now.
Dark horse: American Hustle — the early favourite could have grabbed enough votes before voting closed.
Should win: Gravity – a transcendent movie experience that will become the most memorable film of the lot years down the track.

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Best Actor

Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: A real open race this year, with the buzz surrounding Chiwetel Ejiofor’s amazing performance in 12 Years a Slave pushing him slightly ahead at this stage. But losing weight for a role is always a winner’s signpost, and Matthew McConaughey sure lost a lot of weight for Dallas Buyers Club, so he could certainly also take home the award. Bruce Dern, as the oldie, is the sentimental favourite as the insufferable father in Nebraska, while Leo and Batman (no, not Ben Affleck) are also still in it with a chance. Anyone could win this one.

Prediction: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Dark horse: Matthew McConaughey
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor — in a year of sensational performances, I simply have to go with the one I believe is the best of the lot, by a hair or two. I do think Leo’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street would have been deserving in almost any other year, and I was genuinely moved and impressed by Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I’d be happy if any of those three won it.

chiewtel

Best Actress:

Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Comments: What a crazy field this year, with all former winners except for Amy Adams, who is no slouch with five career nominations. The only one I haven’t seen out of the five is Meryl in August: Osage County (I intend to see it soon), but we pretty much know by now what we’re going to get with her every time. Another open race, with the award reportedly being “Cate Blanchett’s to lose” until the resurfacing of the Woody Allen scandal took the shine off her recent wins at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs. Right now I’d say it’s a two-horse race between Blanchett and Adams; a three-horse race if you consider the fact that you can never count out Meryl.

Prediction: Amy Adams — I’m going for the upset! Seriously, it’s a toss up between Adams and Blanchett, but I think the Woody Allen thing plus Amy being the only winless nominee could finally get her over the line this time. If we’re talking about the best performance it’ll probably be Meryl every time, but these awards are so political that it’s hard to predict what will happen.
Dark horse: Cate Blanchett — really the favourite as opposed to the dark horse.
Should win: Cate Blanchett

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Best Supporting Actor:

Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Comments: The hardest to pick of the lot, in my opinion, and I’ve seen all of the films! Newcomer Barkhad Abdi has the surprise element going for him but it’s hard to imagine voters picking him over his more famous counterparts. The only guy I can’t see winning is Jonah Hill, because let’s face it, the world as we know it would end if Jonah Hill becomes an Oscar winner. On the other hand, Cooper and Fassbender’s statuses as sex symbols could also cost them with voters, so I’m inclined to go with…

Prediction: Jared Leto — historically speaking, people who undergo dramatic physical transformations have a good chance of winning. Nicole Kidman (nose) in The Hours, Halle Berry (plain) in Monster’s Ball, Charlize Theron (fat and uglified) in Monster are just some examples, but they were all Best Actress winners. I’m pretty much picking Leto, who plays a transsexual AIDS sufferer, by default, however, as I can find potential reasons for not choosing the other guys.
Dark horse: Barkhad Abdi — he’s pretty much the Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) this year, a feel good story about a guy with no acting experience. If voters can’t decide among the other nominees he could come out ahead.
Should win: Michael Fassbender — tough choice but I thought he was incredible in such a difficult role in 12 Years a Slave.

jared leto

Best Supporting Actress:

Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Comments: Another relatively open field with the tortured Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave regarded as the slight favourite ahead of Jennifer Lawrence. But I think Sally Hawkins was fantastic in Blue Jasmine and I fell in love with June Squibb after seeing Nebraska, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a foregone conclusion that it’s a two-horse race.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o — I’d say Jennifer Lawrence would have won it had she not already picked up Best Actress last year for Silver Linings Playbook.
Dark horse: Jennifer Lawrence — but everyone loves her so much that she might just win it anyway.
Should win: June Squibb — she stole every scene she was in in Nebraska and delivered the biggest laughs in one of the funniest films of the year.

lupita-12-years-a-slave

Best Director:

David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (Steve McQueen)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Comments: A toss up between Steve McQueen, who could become the first ever black director to win the award, and Alfonso Cuarón, whose incredible vision gave us the masterpiece Gravity.

Prediction: Steve McQueen — remember the year when Denzel didn’t deserve it but won for Training Day anyway because it was all about the first black winner for Best Actor? I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself, except McQueen actually deserves it.
Dark horse: Alfonso Cuarón — it’s hard to imagine a film as great as Gravity not getting anything other than the technical awards.
Should win: Alfonso Cuarón — I know I said McQueen deserves to win, but in my opinion Cuarón deserves it more for sticking to his guns despite pressure from producers and delivering one of the most amazing movie experiences of the last decade. Those trademark long, seemingly uncut sequences throughout the film were magical.

Best Original Screenplay:

American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Nebraska (Bob Nelson)

Comments: A no-brainer that the winner should be the incredible Her, which would have probably been a piece of crap but for the script by Spike Jonze. Don’t get me wrong, all the original screenplays are great, but Her is just on another level.

Prediction: Spike Jonze (Her) – it’s his to lose.
Dark horse: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) — maybe some people out there still like Woody.
Should win: Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke)
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray)
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope)
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter)

Comments: Another difficult choice to make, but it’s hard to see voters passing on the wonderful adaptation of the book of the same name by John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave. Usually the screenplay and Best Picture go hand in hand, so it’s hard to see this one going to anyone else.

Prediction: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Dark horse: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — everyone loves these guys.
Should win: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight) — after three brilliant films, I think some recognition should go to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke. After all, the trilogy is mainly all talking, and yet after nearly 300 minutes of it we still can’t get enough of these brutally honest and lovable characters.

OK, so that takes care of the major categories. As for the rest of the nominees, I will just list them and highlight the predicted winner in bold, then add my thoughts on the category.

Visual EffectsGravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness
Comments: As impressive as the effects were in all the nominees, this one is a no brainer and a near lock.

Animated FeatureThe Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest and Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises
Comments: I’ve only seen Frozen and Despicable Me 2 out of this list, but it seems to me like a pretty weak field this year.

Animated ShortFeral, Get a Horse, Mr Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom
Comments: No idea, so I went with the best title.

Documentary FeatureThe Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet From Stardom
Comments: I intend to see some of these eventually, but for now I’m going with the one that’s getting a lot of hype.

Documentary ShortCaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number Six: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Comments: No idea, but the ones with the really long names annoy me.

Foreign Language FilmThe Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Omar
Comments: Haven’t seen any of these yet, but The Huntwith the awesome Mads Mikkelsen, is apparently extremely good.

Live Action ShortAquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me), Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), Helium, Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), The Voorman Problem
Comments: Why do short films have to have such bloody long names?

CinematographyThe Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners
Comments: I expect Gravity to sweep most of the minor awards it’s nominated for, though the cinematography in both The Grandmaster and Nebraska were excellent.

Costume DesignAmerican Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: The Great Gatsby was considered a relative disappointment overall, but its glitzy costumes should get some consolation.

Makeup and HairstylingDallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger
Comments: Considering the other nominees, I’d say this one’s a lock.

Original ScoreThe Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr Banks
Comments: I’d like to say Gravity or Her, but considering how important the music was in Saving Mr Banks (which I watched last night), I think it’ll take home the gong.

Original SongHappy (Despicable Me 2), Let It Go (Frozen), The Moon Song (Her), Ordinary Love (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Comments: I think Let It Go is the best song of the lot, but the U2 factor and the Mandela factor will make Ordinary Love hard to beat.

Production DesignAmerican Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: A bit of a stab in the dark here, but as American Hustle isn’t getting a whole lotta love I think it has to take home something, though having said that, the production design was pretty good.

EditingAmerican Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave
Comments: Hard one to pick, but let’s face it, the editing in Gravity was amazing. Captain Phillips could be a dark horse.

Sound Editing: All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor
Comments: Again I’m going with the brilliant Gravity with Captain Phillips being the dark horse.

Sound MixingCaptain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor
Comments: Ditto as per above.

I’ll be checking back to see how many I get right on Oscar night!

Movie Review: Nebraska (2013)

February 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Of all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year, Nebraska was the one that interested me the least. Shot in black and white, it looked like a boring movie for oldies about a confused geriatric who is convinced that he’s won a million dollars after receiving one of those sweepstakes letters and is determined to travel nearly 1,400km to collect his prize in person (can’t trust the mail, you see).

Well, Nebraska turned out to be an awesome film, arguably my “surprise hit” of 2013. It’s not for everyone, but at the very least audiences will get a great laugh out of it because it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. And looking past the laughs, it’s actually also a poignant and nuanced road trip drama about family, relationships, and the sad reality of middle America.

The insufferable geriatric described above is Woody, played by Bruce Dern, who is a very outside chance to grab the Best Actor gong this year. He’s stubborn as an ox, can’t hear very well and appears to be in the early stages of dementia. When he refuses to listen to his family that the sweepstakes letter is a scam, his youngest son, David (Will Forte), decides to take Woody on a road trip from Montana to the issuing marketing office in Nebraska just to shut him up.

The trip then takes a detour back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he reacquaints himself with his family and old friends. He is joined there by his wife, played by June Squibb, and his eldest son, played by Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul!”), who have both taken the trip down from Montana to join him for a rare gathering. And what began as a farce would turn into an unanticipated family bonding session.

Nebraska is one of those films that slowly grew on me. I never doubted the quality of the filmmaking in the first place, but I didn’t expect a family drama shot in black and white to be very entertaining to watch. However, the wonderfully developed characters and their hilarious conversations eventually won me over. In particular, June Squibb, who is up for Best Supporting Actress (a dark horse among favourites Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave), is simply magnificent as the snarky wife who is never short of a razor-sharp comment. I laughed at almost everything she said and really hope she wins.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte

Bruce Dern and Will Forte

Will Forte, a Saturday Night Live veteran, is also excellent as the forgiving son. His father is an alcoholic who never gave a shit about him, and yet he can’t help but look after him with a tenderness and patience that I found really moving.

The film says a lot about the dynamics of family relationships, from father and son to husband and wife, but also distant relatives you haven’t seen in years – who suddenly swarm in because they think you’ve struck it rich. I was impressed with all the characters, even the minor ones, each of whom left their own stamp on the film. It paints a cynical portrait of middle America, where the men of small towns have little to do except drink, while the stagnant economy leaves them with few options in life. But all of this is done with a gentle subtlety and the requisite humour so that none of it feels in-your-face or manipulative.

By the time the credits rolled, I realised I had fallen in love with Nebraska. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet film powered by wonderful characters and performances, a great script full of laughs, and a genuinely poignant story full of life’s uncomfortable truths. I think it’s director Alexander Payne’s best film yet.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

February 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Matthew McConaughey is still unbearably smug, but with the daring roles he’s been taking on lately even I have to admit that he’s growing on me.

Dallas Buyers Club was among the last of the Best Picture nominees I had yet to watch in preparation for the Oscars next week, and it’s also one of the ones I knew the least about. All I knew was that it starred McConaughey and Jared Leto, who lost a lot of weight and tried to look like a woman.

As it turned out, it’s another true story (making it 6 of the 9 nominees — the only non-true story ones are Gravity, Her and Nebraska), about a womanizing, drug-taking bigot rodeo by the name of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who discovers that he has AIDS and is told that he only a very short amount of time to live. At the time, the mid-1980s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease largely associated with homosexual behaviour, which of course does not go down well with the homophobic Woodroof and his macho friends.

The core of the movie begins from the diagnosis, as Woodroof goes from trying to find useful drugs to prolong his life to selling unapproved AIDS drugs through the titular Dallas Buyers Club he ran with Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman played by an eerily recognisable Jared Leto. It is more or less a condemnation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ridiculous snail pace it approves drugs to combat life threatening illnesses. What is the point of being told that new drugs could save your life in a few years when you only have months to live?

McConaughey and Leto have been nominated for their respective roles and rightfully so, as it is their performances that drive the film’s engine. Both actors look like they lost a ton of weight for their roles and genuinely look like AIDS patients, which is impressive in itself, though it’s their back-and-forth chemistry that elevate Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar contention territory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a buddy movie — it’s more about how imminent death sparks a bigoted, hedonistic man’s journey towards salvation — but the the dynamics of their contrasting personalities do provide the base for some entertaining interactions and conversations.

The supporting cast is solid too. Jennifer Garner, who rarely gets out these days from the prison of Ben Affleck, plays a doctor who sympathizes with their plight,  while Dennis O’Hare plays her antagonistic boss who believes he knows what is best for patients. Steve Zahn also has a minor role as a local cop torn between his duty to his job and to his friend Woodroof.

I found Dallas Buyers Club to be an unusual film. On the one hand I was impressed with the performances and how informative and insightful it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but on the other I didn’t really enjoy it as much as the other Best Picture nominees this year despite its powerful subject matter. Part of the reason is because I had trouble connecting with both McConaughey and Leto’s characters. Leto has this one great emotional scene where he confronts his father, but McConaughey’s character is mostly self-serving and doesn’t show a lot of redeemable qualities until nearly the very the end. And unlike say a comedic farce like The Wolf of Wall Street, this was the kind of film where you really need to feel something for the protagonist early on for the film to work.

That said, I liked the lack of sentimentality in the direction of Jean Marc-Vallee (The Young Victoria) and can understand why the film has rated so well with critics. It’s a solid film from all angles and carries an inspiring message, but ultimately I wasn’t as moved by it as I thought I would be.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Her (2013)

February 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers around, so I was really looking forward to his latest, Her. And no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not an Arrested Development spin-off film about…

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Nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Original Song), Her is a riveting, poignant and strangely poetic sci-fi drama about a divorced man (Joaquin Phoenix) who dates his artificially intelligence-powered computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I was sceptical initially and thought it might be gimmicky, or worse, silly, but I really should have had more faith in the genius of Jonze (writer and director) and the brilliance of Phoenix, who proves again that he’s one of the most talented actors of his generation.

Like the best sci-fi stories, Her doesn’t require an introductory slab of exposition to explain to us the world the film is set in. It’s presented, as-a-matter-of-factly, from the very first scene about Joaquin’s wonderful and highly unusual job, with other features of this futuristic/alternate reality gradually leaked to us, piece by piece, throughout the rest of the 126-minute running time. Such is the mastery of the storytelling that you don’t question the logic of its universe — you just accept it, and soon, you believe it.

The world Jonze paints in Her is not apocalytpic or dystopian, nor is it really more alarming than most of what we already see today. People’s lives or interconnected with their mobile devices, which are linked to (what I assume are Bluetooth) earpieces and microphones, and spend all day conversing with their operating systems, which they can order to do effectively everything we do on our smartphones right now, and more. When we see Joaquin on the subway or walking down the street, there is very little human interaction as everyone is immersed in their down little digital world. The message is clear but subtle.

I found this world incredibly sad, but at the same time I envied how convenient life had become. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great to have an operating system you can talk to, who is tailored to your needs can sort through your hard drive on your behalf, can give you recommendations on what to see or do, write and send emails as you dictate, laugh at your jokes, or even just be there for you when you feel like you need someone to talk to? Eat your heart out, Siri, you piece of crap.

In many ways, the opening of Her reminds me of one of those awesome episodes of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits I used to enjoy so much as a kid, with shades of that wonderful Charlie Booker British series Black Mirror. It takes a simple idea from our present world — in this case our increasing reliance, dependence and even obsession with computers and computerized gadgets — and applies a clever and satirical twist to it. But as the film progresses, Her shuns the cliches and exceeds those types of stories (which often have some sort of chilling ending) by becoming a genuinely touching story about a man’s — and reflectively, our own — desire to connect with other people in this increasingly hi-tech age.

It feels strange to say this about a relationship between a person and a computer, but Her is surprisingly romantic. I would go as far as to say that there are times when the film comes across as eerie, but the core of the romance itself never feels creepy. Credit has to go to Joaquin Phoenix for a skilfully restrained performance that makes us believe, first of all, that a person can have feelings towards a computer, and more importantly, in the mixed emotions that come from it. The voice performance of Scarlett Johansson is also incredible. As recognizable as her voice is, it didn’t feel like I was listening to Scarlett Johansson the actress, but rather, the computer operating system known as Samantha. But more than that, I cared about her as a person, which helped me understand why Joaquin’s character did too.

I also had no idea that the film features so many other big names such as Amy Adams, who plays Joaquin’s longtime friend, Chris Pratt, a work funny work colleague, Rooney Mara, as Joaquin’s ex, and Olivia Wilde, a blind date. All of them have their purpose and are memorable in their own way but don’t take steal the limelight from the central romance.

The film is a little too long, with the third act losing steam as Jonze winds down the storyline to find a suitable ending for his protagonists. But on the whole, Her is a sci-fi near-masterpiece that’s sweet, wise, smart, and filled with really creative and cool — albeit disturbing — ideas about the future that aren’t too far-fetched for us to believe that it could soon become a reality. Strictly speaking, I’d say I was probably impressed with Her more than I enjoyed it, but it’s without a doubt one of the finest motion pictures of the year, a film anyone who has ever experienced social loneliness or smartphone addiction can relate to.

4.5 stars out of 5

 
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