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Jan 11, 2014

Review: HER (2013)

           Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher, Sam Jaeger, Luka Jones, Portia Doubleday, Kristen Wiig (voice), Spike Jonze (voice), Bill Hader (voice), Soko (voice) and Brian Cox (voice).

                   Spike Jonze


"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity."

                Spike Jonze is one of the most extraordinary, fresh and masterful filmmakers of the current century. His films have an almost natural way of delving into their particular subjects, he loves the process of creating art and that is reflected in his work. His movies have mostly troubled characters, calm yet their inner desperation and struggles slowly reveals itself. His visual aesthetics are amazing and quite different as well. In short, I love him as a filmmaker and his work resonates with me on so many levels. The idea of this film, Her, never sounded crazy to me when I first got to know about it. It was written/directed by Spike Jonze and starred Joaquin Phoenix... so crazy meant normal! For such a bizarre concept, I expected Jonze to do something really interesting with it. That is one of the reasons why Jonze is where he is because everything he makes, comes from a special place inside him. Her is a film that revolves around the character of Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), who is a lonely man. He is mostly sad and unhappy because of the impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Mara). She is somebody whom he loved a lot and still does. He simply cannot let go of her since they were both in love probably from the very beginning. The flashbacks that are for once, brilliantly timed and used, offer a beautiful look at how both these people were together when they were married. And how slowly, they started falling apart. Theodore one day, buys a new Operating System which is artificially intelligent and is designed to grow and evolve like a human being does. Theodore answers a few questions, chooses the voice to be of a female and then... "Hi", we hear the voice of Samantha (Johansson). That is a name she gives to herself. They begin interacting, Theodore is obviously amazed with the ability of the OS and how smart Samantha is.

                The film begins in a really wonderful way, showing the place where Theodore works. He writes deeply personal love letters for people who might not really know how to express their feelings to their loved ones. Theodore has been doing this job for many years. The camera shows closeup of Theodore's face as he is working on a letter. Then the camera slowly pans out, revealing other workers there doing the same thing. It is a beautiful shot that introduces us subtly to what this film is about. We also get the first glimpse of this unique world. The production design initially sticks out. It is one of the most genius works of art direction in a contemporary feature film that I have seen in a long time. You see that place of work, beautiful wide and colorful apartments and the outdoors. At once different and futuristic in some aspects but at the same time, they have this melancholic feel of the more classic-era. There is something in those colors, the placing of things and the design that never feels outrageously and deliberately designed to tell you "Hey, look at this futuristic stuff". It more over speaks of how human beings function there or might do here. It is hard for us to let go of things. Nostalgia isn't about good mushy feelings but it is that painfully bittersweet feel that one gets recalling the things that once were and how they were. The art direction here shows us how these people in the film, despite having talking OSes and really developed technologies, still finds ways to incorporate the good ol' things from way back into their daily lives. They are always going to come right back at that once point. Just like in relationships, in the presence of another human being in our life, it is hard for us to let go of them completely. You want to hold on to something. Be it something you love or things you loved doing together. The timeless memories that you created together. Memories are what we are left with of the people, of the time and of the place. I was just really taken away by that side of this film enough to really want to express my thoughts. It was one of those things that from the very first instance, grew on me.

                Spike Jonze's direction is marvellous here of course. He had an idea and it was quite wonderful. But more than that, he was able to perfectly execute it in such a clear and deeply profound manner that it is almost shocking how it worked so effortlessly. This is Jonze's solo screenwriting debut and one can see that in the film how confident he is. Without making a mess of sorts, he pulls it off wonderfully. The way he works is that he incorporates his immediate thoughts and feelings on whatever it is that he is writing about. That gives such a naturalistic edge to the film. I don't think there is a better original screenplay from last year. Jonze is simply put, a poet in this film. His ramblings about love, life, relationships, technology, past-present, human connection and the world itself... be it serious or comical is simply poetic. There is tenderness that creeps through the entire film, not before some challenging provocation pops out from somewhere. There is lyrical and meditative way he explores things here. Her is a romance of the highest order, it is a dramedy and of course, takes good use of sci-fi with some clever comic-o-serial wisdom and gives us a fascinating film. It is surprising that he has made his fourth feature film now and how much he have already established. Her is definitely his best film so far. A mature as well as equally beguiling film that is as much engaging as it is, cerebral. The world that Jonze creates is strangely, not an alien one. It is something that is pretty much imaginable in the context of our current times. This is the film for this generation, a perfect 21st century romance, a psychological/philosophical meditation. Jonze never portrays technology as deadly as much as he ends up talking about the kind of reliance we have on such things these days. It is a scary thought to think that there might be a time when we would be interacting verbally with our phones and computers in such a way that would leave nothing for us to really connect with actual people. I was somehow expecting this film to be equally a love story and in the end, sort of a cautionary take on how technology is taking over our lives. This film turned out to be much more than that. But the world that we see in this film makes us think about that aspect, it doesn't preach or anything.

                When Theodore leaves his office in the beginning of the film, he is busy checking his emails and news etc via his computer that he is connected with via headphone. People around him in the streets and in the subways are doing the same thing, they are all busy talking to their devices. The computers are just reading out loud the things that people would otherwise from a touch away, find out about themselves. Is this where we are heading? But technology in this film is just another source of communication. It is just another plane here. People still talk and have lives but everyone is slowly losing the 'touch'. We meet Theodore's neighbor/friend/ex-girlfriend Amy (Adams). The quote in the beginning of my review is what she says once in one of the several beautiful conversations she has with her friend. Amy is the hopeful future, she is exactly what one will need. A literal embodiment of what makes us human. It is really amazing how cleverly Jonze uses that character. By the sound of it, Amy might give an impression of that hip, know-it-all, sweet friend for Theodore. But she is not. Amy has her own sets of problems. She is in a slowly deteriorating relationship with a man who looks at things in a different way, who never cares for the feelings of his wife. We don't really need to think so much about everything we do or feel like doing in our life to the very minute detail of it. Over thinking and cautiousness just takes away from everything. In life, love is considered something that exists only in films and literature. As in, it is larger than life, unexplainable and poetic phenomenon. In this film, Jonze is trying to tell us that it is alright to be touchy-feely, to be a child, to be sweet, to jump around. He wants us to love and as freely, openly and unconventionally as one can. Amy is played really beautifully by Amy Adams. The character seems like a female version of Theodore. Adams really uses her usual charm and innocence to play a character that is mature but embodies those things. She knows what she is doing or what she wants. She isn't childish but a grown up person, longing for being... herself around people she loves. There is another character played by Olivia Wilde who, is a girl Theodore goes out on a date with. It is a really nice little role of a woman who is cheerful and all about being able to live her life on her terms. Yet she fears for the unknown future, what might happen to her? She is cautious and calculating, too much for her to truly let herself go and be loved and desired. Wilde does a nice job in that limited time, her appearance is very nice and she really leaves a mark.

                I should now come back to 'Her' you know. I haven't talked much about Samantha. Theodore slowly develops feelings for Samantha while at the same time, due to the obvious reasons, isn't sure of his different relationship with her. Is it sane? Samantha, who is voiced so wonderfully by Johansson, becomes an important character in the film as it goes on. It doesn't even take a while for us viewers to consider her, just another character. Samantha is not a typical operating system, she has the ability to evolve and learn. She does that through Theodore. She experiences things and sees the world through him. Samantha is highly intelligent and fast of course. She can do thousands of things in the absolute part of a second. So why would she 'desire' to evolve when she can find out things herself? That is because Samantha, like other millions of OSes, are designed to be an important part in the lives of their users. It is an interesting contrast of how an AI is designed to behave more humanly than human beings themselves. Like our companions, the OSes are designed for their users to desire and be the kind of companion they would want them to be. Samantha learns about love in general through the little things she does with Theodore who himself needs that very thing in his life during that phase. To be free and happy. Which is also what he wanted in his relationship with his wife, or eventually ended up wanting those things. Before getting into a relationship, we have certain expectations. Expectations we have about everything in our lives actually. But those desires and mindsets is what in the long-term, ends up slowly breaking us apart. Can one really change for another person? Or do we want to be accepted the way we are? Marriage or any other relationship is two-sided. We cannot really let go of things we want from the other person. You eventually develop such feelings. That is beautifully portrayed in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha. It is best to let go. To free ourselves from the burden that holds us down. It is perhaps difficult to find that one person who thinks and feels exactly the way you do. But well, if you can't live with each other because it is getting too hard to 'live' then there is no other way around. We can either accept, evolve or break apart.

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves."

                That and many other beautiful thoughts in this film, the deep conversations that characters has with each other are something that rings so true. There were times when I found myself responding to the characters in words like "yeah... exactly... so true!". The character of Theodore Twombly is played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix who adds yet another praise-worthy performance in his already superb career. His character is one of the most wonderfully agreeable creations by a writer. He is somebody whom I immediately connected with. His problems and his questions became mine and his journey made me discover and have a different perspective on all the things that matter. In a way, Jonze puts us in the same trance-like feeling as he does with Samantha. I found myself feeling like Samantha with Jonze giving me a new outlook on love and life. One of the main reasons why the character of Theodore works as I said is because of Phoenix. His performance is quite gentle and simply moving. The same way, Johansson gives my most favorite voice-performance in a non-animation film. There are so many feelings in her voice, she is so real. You don't feel the need to see that person as much as to feel her emotions that way. There are two sequences that involve sex, particular kind of sex. You are going to be blown away by the way they work in the context of the situations. Specially the first one where the screen goes completely black and we are left with the voices of both the characters and it is just, like the film itself, transcending. The famous band Arcade Fire, provided the score for this film. And it is as evocative, stirring, tender and amazing as the film itself. The music works really well. One of the highlight moments of the film has the use of a song by singer Karen O and it is called "The Moon song". The beautiful and sweet lyrics of the song matched to the montage of that beautiful location works so well in that moment. Two people having created an understanding, have found a place. A very beautiful place together, away from everything and they are happy there.

                Her is one of the most beautiful looking films from last year. It has the sun-soaked and excellent work of cinematography. It is one of those handful of films where not a single thing seems out of place, not a single false note. Just perfection. It moved me in so many ways. It made me laugh and happy, it made me sad and experience love in its most simply awe-inspiring form. Character study or a statement, love story or a metaphysical meditation, this film works so well. It took me to places and made me experience things in ways I never thought they were possible. Her is why I love Cinema. It is the best film of 2013 and one of the best films ever made. A modern masterpiece.

Grade: A