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.

Oscars 2012 Best Picture Nominee: Les Miserables

Les Miserables

How many of you are familiar with the Broadway musical Les Miserables? Lots of you, I’m sure. Yes, Les Miserables was the one Broadway musical phenomenon from the 1980’s that could even have Andrew Lloyd Webber looking over his shoulder. When you heard that the musical finally would have a film adaptation, how many of you looked forward to seeing it? I’m sure a lot of you have including me, but does it deliver to movie crowds and especially to fans of the musical?

One thing I’ve learned about hit musicals being adapted to the big screen is that it’s a very tricky job. The whole filmmaking crew has the job of dealing with the fact the fans of the musicals want something that won’t disappoint them. The scriptwriter has the duty to make a script that includes the musical’s most popular songs mixed with the emotions of the characters in each scene. The director has the duty of making the songs, the emotions, the setting and the theme fit into a 2 1/2 hour long movie. The actors have the duty of delivering a performance that’s both believable and entertaining in both their acting and their singing, especially when a camera is filming them up close and it will be seen by all.

For the record, I saw the stage musical when it came to Canada in 1995. Most of the numbers possessed the same energy, spirit and emotion that was present in the stage musical. The only number I thought was lacking the same spirit was “Master Of The House”. That was the one number that had the least spirit and flavor that was present in the musical. Also Gavroche didn’t make that grand of an introduction. I know he does so in the stage musical but he just didn’t seem to grab you attention at the beginning the way he does on stage.

One thing I have to say about the film version is that it gave me a better understanding of what the musical is all about. Back when I first saw it on stage, I didn’t fully understand it. Now that I’m older and my attention span is better, I can understand it’s about redemption and the triumph and trials of justice in a world devoid of morals and justice. It was entertaining to watch on stage but it was through seeing it on film that it’s like a story from a Dickens novel where a man makes a promise to a dying woman and keeps his promise despite his trials and rivals until the end.

We should remember that there are many loyalists of the musical Les Miserables who hold the stage production dearly to themselves. The musical version of the Victor Hugo novel began in Paris in 1980 by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boulbil and became a musical on Broadway in 1985 thanks to the translations of Herbert Kretzmer. If you remember Broadway back in 1985 there were two types of musicals: those of Andrew Lloyd Webber that go on to charm the word and every other musical. Ever since it’s been released it’s become a huge Broadway phenomenon that could even rival some of Webber’s most legendary musicals. Every city it touched, it drew huge crowds. So you can imagine that when the film version of the musical came out, there would be a lot of pressure placed by fans of the musicals. It’s like that with any musical where loyal fans expect it done excellently if not perfect. There have been many musical adaptations that have been hits and misses in terms of comparing it with the stage play. Chicago and Hairspray are two examples where the film version hit. Rent and Nine are two examples of the film version missing. I myself have seen the stage production. I personally was impressed by it and I don’t see anything that would let anyone loyal to the stage musical down. I feel Tom Hooper and the producers did a very good job with it. I talked earlier about the energy of most of the songs still there. That had to be the best quality in terms of keeping it true.

There has been some flack from Tweeters and some fans of the musical about the use of actors in the movie. You’ve heard the disses: “Actors trying to sing.” I do give them partial credit because many actors had to learn singing for the sake of getting acting jobs in musicals. In fact John Travolta even made it clear after Saturday Night Fever that if you wanted to get acting work in New York, you had to sing, dance and act. Don’t forget that if there were singers in the film, there would be disses like: ‘singers trying to act.’

Anyways getting to the nitty gritty, one can notice those that are able to sing their roles gracefully from the actors just trying to sing. Russell Crowe gave his best effort as Javert but often came across as too forced and sometimes uncomfortable at what he was doing. Eddie Redmayne also didn’t look too comfortable performing as Marius. That’s the risk when you take when you insist on singing your parts instead of ADR. Hugh Jackman did an excellent job not just in singing and acting as Jean Valjean but also for being consistent in having the biggest role in the musical. Anne Hathaway as Fantine was however the best at combining both singing and acting in their role and coming across the most gracefully. In fact it was her performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” that stood out above all others. It’s no surprise to me if she wins the Oscar. The lead actors were not the only ones who impressed. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen did a good job in their supporting roles. Daniel Huttlestone was a good scene stealer as Gavroche is supposed to be. If there’s any fresh face that could rival the veterans, it’s Samantha Barks that was excellent in her supporting performance as Eponine.

Tom Hooper was given the difficult task of taking the musical and putting it on screen and he succeeded very well in doing it. William Nicholson also had the challenge of turning the script and songs of the musical and turning it into something for the big screen. He did a very good job of it retaining the spirit of the musical and of the songs. Also noticeable is that there are some scenes of dialogue. The stage musical doesn’t have that. Good to see he added those small parts of dialogue without dulling or upsetting the musical. As I said before, the music was great with Schonberg, Boulbil and Kretzmer even composing a new song ‘Suddenly’. The technical aspects like the sets, costuming, cinematography and sound mixing were also top notch.

Les Miserables finally has its chance to hit the big screen and faced a huge whack of pressures expected on any adaptation of a legendary Broadway musical before opening. The end result is an accomplishment, if not a triumph.