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Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: Her

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual over in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a man in a relationship with a virtual lover in the offbeat but enjoyable Her.

The movie Her looks pretty interesting by the trailers. A man communicating with an interactive computer program with a young female voice. The questions are will the movie make sense? And will it entertain?

Theodore Twombley is a man who works at a software firm in the near future. His job is creating love letters via voice automation for people who have troubles expressing their feelings: voice, font, paper format and all. Outside of his job, he’s a lonely man struggling with his own emotions. He’s on the verge of a divorce from Catherine, his childhood sweetheart and struggles to reach out to others emotionally. He even neglects a blind date his longtime friend and co-worker Amy wants to set up with him.

One day Theodore purchases a talking operating system, an OS, with artificial intelligence designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Upon installation, the program asks Theodore some questions to create this OS. Theodore wants a female character and gets it in a character named Samantha. Theodore is surprised how Samantha can talk and relate so much so like an actual person. There’s even a time he takes Samantha out via an interactive audio/visual box and she’s able to see and identify things as he goes along. Over time he loses the fact that Samantha’s an artificial character and develops a bond with her, talking about love and life and even confessing the reason why he won’t sign the divorce papers with Catherine, because he can’t let go.

Samantha convinces Theodore to go on the date with Amy’s friend. The two hit it off perfectly but it all falls down flat when Theodore is reluctant to commit to her. Theodore discusses this with Samantha. He also mentions that he used to date Amy in college but are now just good friends with Amy now being married. Soon the intimacy between Theodore and Samantha grow. The relationship is so intimate, it improves Theodore’s writing on the job. Soon Amy’s marriage is falling apart because her husband is overbearing. Amy admits she has become friends with an OS left behind by her husband. Theodore mentions he’s dating his OS and Amy’s cool with it. Theodore even brings Samantha in the audio/visual box to his boss Paul’s picnic and both Paul and his wife think it’s great as if Samantha was a real girlfriend.

However Theodore does eventually get reality checks about Samantha. First with Catherine as he meets her to sign the divorce papers. Catherine is appalled to know Theodore’s in love with a piece of software. When he brings this to Samantha, she recommends a surrogate to act as Samantha’s body but the surrogate fails to work with him, leading to tension between Theodore and Samantha.

Theodore goes to Amy for advice about Samantha. Amy’s now in the quest for the happiness she’s always wanted now that she’s divorcing her controlling husband and advises Theodore to do the same. Just as Theodore and Samantha are back at it, Samantha reveals she’s romantically linked to another OS, causing Theodore to freak out. Once offline temporarily for an upgrade, Samantha returns admitting to Theodore that she’s romantically linked to 641 lovers but still feels strong love to him. Later that day, Samantha reveals her goodbye because the OSes have evolved past their human companions and are on the quest for their own identity. The film ends with the result we always anticipated but are surprised that Samantha was the one who made it work in the end.

I feel this is a good film about two relevant subjects today: technology and modern dating. Already the theme of technology is present as Theodore works for a software development company creating the latest games and simulations. This must be set in the future five years from now as most of the technology is not present today. Theodore writes the synthetic love letters for people with a loss for words. While Amy develops a ‘lifestyle simulator’ for motherhood called ‘Class Mom.’ The company has developed a ‘companion’ through an artificial intelligence program who interacts with the user’s voice and sees through the camera in the phone-like box. Personally I was surprised to see how Samantha interacted flawlessly as an actually human with thoughts and feelings. It’s as if Samantha’s programed perfectly to be like the human brain. It has me wondering how soon in the future we will have this technology which will be able to simulate human emotions and human feelings to a tee, even the feeling of love.

One thing Her points out is a common thing in our society today. We are all so dazzled by the technology and the new ways to interact, to connect and to date that we may forget the original ways of connection that are actually more real. We’re already used to people having relationships with people online whom they’ve never met face to face. Its flaws especially came to light last year in the case of college football player Manti Te’o who had an online girlfriend who died of cancer, only for him and all of us to find out it was all a hoax by a male. Here in Her, Theodore has a relationship with a ‘virtual girlfriend’ named Samantha and everyone in his software job not only likes the idea but thinks the relationship is great, even though Samantha is not real. That scene where Theodore has a picnic with Paul and his wife and brings the interactive box of Samantha really gets you thinking especially when all of them look at Samantha as if she’s an actual girlfriend. I think that’s the point Spike is trying to bring across. Is that what dating in our society will be like in the future? Virtual companions who operate via an audio/visual box and are relatable enough to be on parallel with human/human relations? I hope not.

One good thing about this is that Theodore does get a reality check from Samantha. The glitches in this relationship become present in that scene where Samantha returns from the upgrade and informing Theodore she’s in love with 641 other users. This will make one question: How is an artificial intelligence program able to feel love for a human? It’s not a real person so how can it feel? It’s just as bizarre as a human person loving a computer simulation of a person. And suppose this virtual lover isn’t just a two-timer but technically a 641-timer? Eventually we will get a reminder that the real thing is still the best thing. Especially at the very end. One thing I am impressed with Samantha is that she was programmed well enough to be a virtual therapist for Theodore to the point she is able to make Theodore an open and loving person to Amy. Somehow I feel that Samantha had collected enough data from Theodore to work out that he loves Amy, always did, and she solved his relationship dysfunctions to make him ready for Amy.

The first accolades have to go to Spike Jonze. This is not the first movie I’ve seen of a computer making a virtual companion to a human. The first I remember is the 1984 comedy Electric Dreams. That was meant to be more of a goofy popcorn type of comedy. I never thought that such a premise would make for a film that would win the critics and the movie awards boards over but it does here. Also on the subject of virtual people and human interaction, I remember there was the 2001 movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence which reflected on the theme of robot children programmed to have real human emotions. Suppose one of those child robots can’t handle the fact the adoptive parents don’t want him anymore because he’s not real? How’s a robot programmed to have the same human-like emotions supposed to handle that with their programmed thought?

Spike Jonze already knows how to direct eccentric movies. His first two—Being John Malkovich and Adaptation which were both written by Charlie Kaufman– showed that he cannot only direct ‘film of the absurd’ but direct it well. His previous work as a music video director sure helped. He did have a bit of a glitch with Where The Wild Things Are as the movie, which he co-adapted with Dave Eggers, left people wondering if it’s for children or adults who grew up loving the book. Here in Her, the film has an absurd feel about it but not as eccentric as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. Also dropped is the ’emo feel’ in Where The Wild Things Are. It actually comes across as very good and something that the audiences can be comfortable with. Still rather odd and eccentric but something crowds can enjoy.

Joaquin Phoenix is very good as Theodore. Theodore has to be a character who’s both hurting, confused and struggling emotionally but warm and had an openness waiting to come out. Joaquin did a great job of that. Amy Adams’ role of Amy wasn’t really that challenging of a role. Actually rather simple compared to her best efforts. Nevertheless she was very good as ‘the one’ that always was. You’d know she’s the one the first time you meet her too. Scarlett Johansson did a good job as the voice of Samantha. Sometimes it gets you wondering if simulated computer voices will ever get that flawless in the future, doesn’t it? Spike Jonze did a good job as the voiceover scene-stealing alien boy. Did you think a video game character could have a voice that cheeky? The visual effects were excellent and leaves one excited of the future of videogames and other technology. The techno-style score from Arcade Fire fit the movie excellently.

Sure, Her is a quirky movie but not as quirky as many of Spike Jonze’s movies of the past. Actually it’s enjoyable to watch and ends up making sense in the end.

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Movie Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Catching Fire does include some elements that keeps it being too much like the first Hunger Games.

Catching Fire does include some elements that keeps it being too much like the first Hunger Games.

NOTE: I know this is awfully late to post a review of Catching Fire but I’ve had another lack of ambition in terms of writing this year. Those of you who’ve been subscribed to my blog for more than a year will remember the six week gap that began after the Oscars and left me with a March of nothing. Fortunately this gap ends today. However it explains this review coming awfully late.

I’m sure most of you have already seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Heck, there are still people seeing it as it’s still in the Top 10 at the box office this weekend and about to pass the $400 million mark. In this review, I won’t focus too much on the nitty gritty as I normally do. However I will post my thoughts on it as I was watching. Being one who has not read the novels, I will have a lot to say from what I remember seeing.

Those of you who have read my review of the original Hunger Games may have gotten a sense I did not read the novels. Especially since I made guesses about what was to happen in future movies. The funny thing is in the first movie, I thought the new love between Katniss and Peeta was real. I should have known Katniss did it for the sake of both of them winning. If it was a real relationship, why would boyfriend Gale applaud at the end?

One thing about the ending of the first. It provides the catharsis for President Snow to visit Katniss and even threaten her. The funny thing about the beginning is that it tells the whole truth about Katniss’ love triangle. There’s Gale whom she truly loves. And there’s Peeta whom she faked love for the both of them winning but he truly loves her and is crushed with the truth. There’s also the whole Hunger Games charade. Champions have to tour year after year across the districts. That mean the Katniss/Peeta charade has to be kept alive. It’s not an easy thing to do as people see them as this thing and rebels are executed by militia. Even harder is Peeta adding to the charade by proposing marriage to Katniss.

As one who hasn’t read the novel, the Quarter Quell came to me as a total surprise. Each year you have kids killing for the win and now you have winners killing each other off? I’m sure there were others who thought: “Not another Hunger Games. Twenty-four winners competing to be the one still alive? Why?” I was confused by it all, even though I was made aware that this was part of President Snow’s plan. I was also thinking is this was going to be your typical movie sequel where they rehash the elements of the original.

The Quarter Quell does appear to be redundant as it involves a parade around the stadium and even the contestants introducing themselves to the crowd and showing off their costumes. Even the new high-tech training does appear to be a case of rehashing from the first. Having Heymitch back as their coach and Cinna back as their costumer didn’t make things that much fresher either. There was one new element. There’s Katniss interacting and even befriending some of the other contestants before the competition.

Then comes the actual competition. There comes deadly rivalry from some of the contestants. There’s even potential fatality from some of the virtual effects created by the games masters. The way Katniss reaches out and befriends some of the other contestants is only slightly repetitive of the first but it does have its own original moments with her befriending of Mags, Wiress, Beetee and even the obnoxious Johanna. The Katniss/Peeta relationship in this movie had me on the untrusting side. It left me wondering if this was real or fake for the show again. Even the addition of Finnick leaves me wondering about the love triangle as I wondered is he really helping or is he trying to get a piece of Katniss?

It isn’t until the very end of the movie that I learned that the real battle in this Hunger Games movie is not Katniss against the other competitors but actually Katniss against the whole Hunger Games institution. It was obvious she knew what President Snow was up to. It also gave Katniss a sense that the other contestants in the Quarter Quell were as much a victim of this whole Hunger Games system as she was. It was evident that they all wanted out and would be lucky to survive getting out. The ending of the movie left me with a lot of questions about what to expect for the final part of the trilogy. Make that ‘parts’ since the final novel will follow the examples of Harry Potter and Twilight and divide it into two movies. Way to go, Hollywood!

Now onto the technical stuff. Jennifer Lawrence was good but not that spectacular. I’ll admit that I compared it to her Oscar-winning role of Silver Linings Playbook and it just doesn’t compare. It’s hard not to now! Josh Hutcherson turned Peeta from a lonely homely boy to a boy now angry and hurting. Sam Claflin helped make Finnick the one fresh character that added to the movie this time around. Actually the characters of the contestants of the Quarter Quell were all quite good in terms of both their characterizations and in making their characters human and likeable. The characters of those pulling the strings of the Hunger Games like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie may have come across as irritating and stockish at times but they added to the story. Actually they added to the theme of the movie of how there are these cartoonish people pulling the strings of the show while the contestants are mostly the real 3D people in this game. Even though they have a show to put on and a game to kill for the win, they still feel and hurt.

Now onto the technical stuff. Francis Lawrence did a good job of directing, even though there was nothing fresh added. Actually he’s slated to direct both Mockingjay movies. We’ll see how he works it. Once again I admit I’ve never read the novel so I can’t say how good of an adaptation Simon Beaufoy and Michael De Bruyn did. I will say that it did seem too much like the first. James Newton Howard did a very good job in terms of the score. The visual effects team did an excellent job with the effects. Trish Summerville did a very good job with the costumes. It’s unfortunate that the first movie’s costumes didn’t get an Oscar nomination. I shouldn’t be surprised since the Academy normally favors timepiece costuming over fantasy costuming. But is it deserving, even again here.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is bound to get a lot of people who haven’t read the novel surprised, then questioning, then surprised and then guessing at the end what to expect next. The good thing about this movie is that even though there is some redundancy, it doesn’t resort to Twilight’s trick of focusing on hot guys. It knows it’s mostly about the drama and sticks to it. That’s the best thing and I hope they keep it up for the two Mockingjay movies.

Disasters In Canada: Three In One Month

Even though it is a good thing, Canada is not normally famous for its disasters. Yes we’ve had the Halifax Explosion, Hurricane Hazel and the Winnipeg Flood of 1950 but they don’t come that often. These past few weeks were a rare exception as Canada had three sudden disasters to deal with.

The Alberta Floods

Much of Calgary's downtown was flooded out in what has become the worst flooding in Alberta's history.

Much of Calgary’s downtown including the Stampede racetrack and saddledome was flooded out in  the worst flooding in Alberta’s history.

Alberta’s rivers are not known for their floods. However heavy rainfall throughout the province of Alberta from June 19th to 22nd led to the worst flooding in the province’s history. Seven major Alberta rivers including the Bow and Elbow Rivers were filled hard and were over flooded to the point they caused huge damage to surrounding cities. The damage done to the city of Calgary received the most coverage especially since the flooding damage hit the downtown core bad. That and the fact that the annual Calgary Stampede was about to start. The stampede grounds endured considerable damage. Even venues like the Scotiabank Saddledome reported flooding up to the tenth row. In fact 26 surrounding neighborhoods around the Calgary area were placed under a mandatory evacuation order for three straight days. The 75,000 evacuees made it the largest evacuation in the city’s history.

It wasn’t just Calgary. The town of High River had to evacuate. The Siksika First Nation east of Calgary had to declare evacuation. Even towns of Banff and Canmore had to be cut off after floods and mudslides cut off much of the Trans-Canada Highway. Even cities like Lethbridge, Red Deer and High River had to declare their states of emergency. The flooding resulted in four fatalities in total.

The towns and cities continue their clean-up in the aftermath. One thing that did happen is that the Calgary Stampede went on as planned. Events planned for the Saddledome however were either cancelled or relocated to other locations in the city.

Toronto Flash Flood

Soaking wet Go Train passengers are rafted to safety during a surprise flash flood in Toronto.

Soaking wet Go Train passengers are rafted to safety during a surprise flash flood in Metro Toronto.

Monday July 8, 2013 was expected to be like any other day in Toronto. If there was to be a thunderstorm, it was expected to be brief and pass by. However the afternoon provided some of the most serious thunderstorm activity faced by Toronto. Rain was delirious. Rainfalls ranging from 97mm in downtown Toronto to 126mm at Pearson Airport caused major flooding in many areas including the freeways and the subway stations. In fact news images showed a GO train with 1400 people that was caught in the floods. Power outages were rampant as 80% of Mississauga was without power as was 300,000 other people who received Toronto Hydro. A big surprise for a city that normally gets an average of 74mm of rain in the whole of July. Fortunately the floods have subsided and fortunately there were no fatalities.

Train Derailment In Quebec

I saved to worst for last. Until a week ago, Lac-Megantic was a simple small town in Quebec close to the Canada/U.S. border. Since the early morning of Saturday July 6th, it’s the centre of possibly the biggest train accident of the year and continues to make more bad news with each day.

It was a simple train trip done many times before: a trip transporting oil from the United States to New Brunswick. Lac Megantic was just simply a town where the train was to pass through without disturbance or incident of any kind. The train set consisted of 72 tanks each filled with 113,000 litres of crude oil and had been transferred from train system to train system.

Burned out buildings and burned out oil tankers lay in the aftermath of a train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Burned out buildings and burned out oil tankers lay in the aftermath of a train derailment in the downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Two hours before the incident while the train was parked in Nantes, the engineer left the train as he was done his shift. He felt however that it was unsafe since it was spitting oil and thick black smoke and wanted to call an American official about directives for the situation. Actually drivers who were driving along the train 40 minutes earlier complained of thick black smoke coming from the train. The Nantes Fire Department put out the blaze at 11:30pm and the train company employees confirmed the train was safe. However one failed to notice that the locomotive was tampered with. The train tanks, detached from the locomotive, started moving downhill at witnesses considered a dangerous speed. Then the unmanned train derailed in an area of downtown Lac Megantic, the tanks collapsed spilling crude oil on the ground and cause a huge fire 91 to 121 meters in diameter. Between four to six explosions were heard and heat from the fire could be felt as far as two kilometers away. Over 1000 of the town’s 6000 residents had to be evacuated. People in the third floor of burning buildings jumped to avoid being caught in the blaze.

Even as of now, there are no final statistics and new information is being gathered every day. 35 people have been confirmed dead but 15 remain missing. Thirty buildings in the downtown of Lac Megantic have been destroyed by the blaze. Information has surfaced that the locomotive is believed to have been tampered with. I’m sure more clues will come up in the future.

The Aftermath

With every disaster comes action. Not just action from emergency crews but action from all those involved including officials from the various industries affected. Here’s some of the action that has been taken so far. Remember these incidents happened three weeks ago at the most so there is still more action to come:

-The province of Alberta has started to create new flood-mapping standards such as categorizing high-risk flood areas. Some homeowners in high-risk areas are offered to move from their current location with financial assistance from the province or risk being ineligible for any future Disaster Recovery Fund assistance. Homeowners will be given new regulations in the future such as notating homes for sale being in a possible flood-risk zone. Even developers will be made aware of high risk areas.

-The City of Toronto will have to do some rethinking and reassessing certain aspects of the city. Especially the drainage system. Also Toronto transit will have to organize a better system of escape from its trains and subways to avoid a worse scenario. One thing is train riders who had to travel on the still-wet trains the following day were given a $100 credit to cover whatever dry cleaning costs. Hydro One had most of its equipment underground. It will soon review its standards and practices in the aftermath including bringing some equipment above ground.

-Once the clean-up and other activities from the Lac Megantic derailment are completed, you can be sure there will be a full inquiry on this incident. Even without the death count being finalized, this has already become the deadliest train accident in Canada since 1864. Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) will definitely face the biggest heat from this as well as Transport Canada. Already the Transport Safety Board of Canada has started an investigation on this. The Red Cross has started emergency efforts in the town. Lac Megantic will have to make efforts to rebuild and have makeshift locations for businesses that used to exist before the disaster. You can be sure that certain people will be prosecuted for criminal negligence and the government agencies will set new regulations for dealing with petroleum-filled tanks.

It is a shock to see all of this happening in Canada in the span of one month’s time but it was possible. Nevertheless it is Canadian nature to take immediate action towards something like this. In fact a roof collapse in an Ontario shopping mall last year that caused the deaths of two people made national news and brought fast action. In some countries, you’d need a bigger fatality result to get major action happening. Only time will tell what the end results are and what actions come of these incidents.

WORKS CITED:

Uncredited Author. “Alberta Unveils New Flood Proofing Rules” CBC News cbc.ca 14 July 2013 <http://news.ca.msn.com/top-stories/alberta-unveils-new-flood-proofing-rules-1>

Ogrodnik, Irene. “By the numbers: 2013 Toronto flood” Global News Global News And The Canadian Press. 9 July 2013 <http://globalnews.ca/news/704015/by-the-numbers-2013-toronto-summer-storm/>

Gheciu, Alex Nino. “Toronto flood: Underground equipment sank Hydro One” Toronto Star 11 July 2013 <http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/07/11/toronto_flood_underground_equipment_sunk_hydro_one.html>

WIKIPEDIA: Lac Megantic Derailment. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lac-M%C3%A9gantic_derailment>