Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: Her (Adam Riske's Take)

by Adam Riske
Her is a very good movie and absolutely worth seeing. It is also a movie that made me feel worn out and unhappy. While possibly being one of the best movies of the year, I wouldn’t say it was one of my favorites.

I’ve seen Her twice and personally think it is Spike Jonze’s best movie. I liked Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but I respond to those movies with my head and not my heart. As for Where the Wild Things Are, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s a tantrum more than a movie. Her is different.

I love movies about relationships and Her is certainly a good one, but for some reason I find myself rejecting it as much as embracing it. It's similar to how I felt about Before Midnight. I’ve thought about Her a great deal post-viewing and I think what it comes down to is that this movie feels like real romance and not movie romance. Real romance, at times, is not fun and that aspect is so well-represented in movies like Before Midnight and Her that the predominant sentiment the movie leaves me with is depression. It’s not the fault of the movie, but it would be pointless to write a review and not be honest about how it made me feel. Nevertheless, I give major credit to Her for being so affecting.

I wonder if married people or people in long-term relationships see Her in a different and more positive way than I do. I am part of the dating pool and I recognize lots of shit from my real life in the movie -- especially in that blind date scene with Olivia Wilde, which will haunt me forever. I’m not kidding. That scene actually upsets me, because that’s how it sort of is right now to date people. But they never look like Olivia Wilde, you’re always supposed to sleep with them (because, whatever) and then you have a crazy on your hands for a month. I know the drill. It’s not the end of the world. It’s June 2012.
Her made me feel (as a single person) that all of us who are just out there trying to meet that special someone are completely screwed because technology has heightened our neuroses so much that it’s impossible to get out of our shells and simply accept someone as they are and not what we expect them to be. If you clear that hurdle, someone has the audacity to get up in your grill about drinking a fruit smoothie (that scene bothers me so much because Joaquin seems so happy with his fruit smoothie and some douchebag has to figuratively shit on it). Ugh. See what I mean? This might be a great movie, but it’s poison to someone in my situation. It’s better to just shake something like this off, but I can’t get this movie out of my head.

But enough of my angst (you’re probably thinking "This isn’t called Him!"), let’s talk about all of the good things that are in the movie. First the performances, led by Joaquin Phoenix, are all truly strong. I was a little worried that we were going to go deep into twee-ville when I saw the trailers where Theodore has the last name Twombley and is made up to look like a combination of Super Mario and Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. Those concerns were quickly pushed aside because there are not many actors as good as Phoenix at playing vulnerability, and he does it in a way that draws you in while not feeling mopey. He’s a tremendous actor with incredible range, and there were times in Her where I stopped and took a second to admire the fact that he was acting out a seemingly real relationship with a) an operating system and b) by himself, without any other actors physically in front of him. It’s an excellent performance.

Amy Adams has the most screenwriter-y role: she’s the girl next door and somewhat of a plot convenience, but it never feels that way because Adams (once again) imbues the character with history, warmth and depth of emotion. Is Amy Adams my favorite actor/actress working today? I think maybe. Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde have brief roles and are effective. As for Scarlett Johansson, I have nothing to object to -- she has a fantastic voice, but I’m not seeing (er, hearing) a GREAT performance there. It’s a challenging role and she does what she can with it, but that part didn’t click for me. In fact, the parts of the movie where I found myself less interested where all of the ones between Phoenix and Johansson, whereas I was super invested when Phoenix was playing off his flesh and blood counterparts. Maybe that’s supporting one of the themes of the movie? I.E. That it’s more edifying to have analog, real relationships than digital recreations of ones.
Also worth noting is the movie has exquisite cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter, Let the Right One In) and production design by K.K. Barrett (Lost in Translation, Being John Malkovich). This is the type of movie they should show in IMAX. The bright skyscrapers and cityscapes are wonderful to soak in. I liked all of the innovations and tech that Spike Jonze imagined. It’s cool, but in a way that never seems far-fetched. He clearly gave that part of the movie a good deal of thought and it paid dividends. I also enjoyed the score and supplemental music by Arcade Fire and Karen O. There’s a delicate and lovely song called “The Moon Song” sung by Karen O. that is so good I want to hug it. I like the Arcade Fire music until they start singing. Then I check out. But the electronic background music is the bomb. Music, like comedy, is all subjective, so your mileage may vary. BTW…why is this soundtrack not available on Amazon???

A slight issue I have with Her, which I’ll say up-front is maybe not the movie’s fault, is it has too many ideas to explore over a two hour movie. Jonze goes all the way with the core idea of not forgetting how important human interaction is in an ever-evolving digital world, but there’s a whole heap of other interesting ones raised that have to be dropped. For example, what is life like for a woman like Olivia Wilde’s character? I want to see that movie. What would a relationship with an artificial intelligence look like if it lasted beyond the confines that the movie allows? I want to see that movie. Expanding upon the sex surrogate scene, what if the A.I. resulted in relationship-bots, would it signal the end of humanity? Would the human race die out? I want to see that movie. The movie has a surplus of worthwhile things to say. I definitely want to give Her credit for presenting them and inspiring so much conversation and thought afterwards.

All in all, I admire Her quite a bit. It shook me up more than most movies have, but it’s a sad experience and one I’m not sure I’d want to revisit much in the future.
Note: As I left the theater, a stranger made a point to tell me that he thought Her was “one of the worst movies ever.” At the urinal. People can be so stupid. I am sending out a request for the void. Can we not immediately hail things as masterpieces or the worst ever right away after seeing a movie? I’m so tired of hyperbole in either direction. I feel like movie conversation is way too often an all-or-nothing position. And don’t talk at the urinal.

24 comments:

  1. This movie resonated with me significantly, and I was very intrigued by the themes it was exploring. I can agree with you that, much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it might not be a movie I return to a lot because of sad subject matter that hits a bit too close to home for me, but it was absolutely a fantastic story, and still one of my favorites of the year, even if it's one I don't return to a lot in the future. Joaquin Pheonix performance is so impressive to me, given what he had to do and play against in this movie.

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    1. SPOILERS for Her


      Despite also being sad, I ended up finding Eternal Sunshine to be a more hopeful movie. I didn't love the ending for Her because I felt like Phoenix and Adams only got together (if that's indeed what we should infer) because Samantha left. I would have liked the movie more if Phoenix realized that he didn't need Samantha anymore or that Samantha was a bridge relationship allowing him to be able to connect with Amy Adams better. Having Samantha leave and that being the impetus for change makes the movie, for me, a lot less optimistic.

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    2. Hmm, interesting. I think I would have to watch Eternal Sunshine again to truly comment on the differences of the endings, but they did strike me as affecting me, personally, in similar ways. I see what you're saying about Her's ending, though. What you described might have, in fact, been a better way to handle the story's conclusion.

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    3. More SPOILERS for Her


      I thought that's what the movie was saying -- or, at least, some of both. Like you, I'm not positive that we're supposed to assume he and Amy Adams are getting together at the end (it may just be that they're both in a better place for human connection, even if it's just friendship), but that it's made possible not because Samantha left but because they had been in love at all. All failed relationships just get us to a place where we are ready for the right one. We just have to be able to recognize a) that it was not the right relationship and b) our own part in why it was wrong. That's how I read the ending.

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    4. I'm almost there with your interpretation (which I like more than mine). I'm trying really hard :-) I think we can agree one one thing though: Anything in life worth doing is overdoing. Moderation is for cowards. I'm a lover, I'm a fighter, I'm a UDT Navy...oh wait, wrong movie.

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  2. Great piece Adam. I have not seen this film yet though I have been meaning to, it sounds really interesting and well done.

    In your review wrote something that really resonated with me; "...because technology has heightened our neuroses so much that it’s impossible to get out of our shells and simply accept someone as they are and not what we expect them to be. If you clear that hurdle, someone has the audacity to get up in your grill about drinking a fruit smoothie...". Those lines so encapsulate much of our lives these days. I feel like they embody your last paragraph as well as all the hate directed at films or any art form in recent years. Especially, the words and comments from "fanboy" audiences. People set expectations and ideas in their own head such that they can not except the creation of another. (ego-centrism, narcissism, entitlement, and instant gratification, are by-products of our technology) I don't mean to be so maudlin, your article just got me thinking.
    Ether way, great review.

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    1. Thanks Tom! Let us know what you think when you see the movie.

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  3. Nice review, sir. I'm kind of dreading this now. These days I can't handle things that make me feel uncomfortable, which is why Drinking Buddies didn't make my favorites last year. This sounds far more upsetting, so...shit, man.

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    1. You should still see it because I watched the Drew Struzan doc. Even Stevens.

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    2. Heath, you need to see this movie. Do not dread the experience!

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    3. Fine! I wanted to see it, then this made me stop hard. I've had a string of major struggles in the last several years (divorce at 30, a year-long court battle and thus mountains of debt) so I'm kind of looking for beauty in the world, not something that's going to remind me how much things can suck. But I trust you guys, so I'll watch it.

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    4. It might deeply affect you based on what you just described, but as Adam wrote, it's definitely still well worth seeing. Don't let this theater opportunity pass you by! It's a really interesting movie.

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    5. Doug - what is that surrogate woman showed up and looked like your avatar?

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  4. Great review Adam - I especially like that you put forth some personal/subjective reasons as to why you reacted one way and why someone else might react another. That should be an important part of film criticism but it's not something you see a whole lot of. Like maybe Ebert didn't like Kick Ass because he found a pube in his smoked meat sandwich that afternoon - we'll never know...

    I'm definitely interested in seeing Her - as a long-term relationship guy for the past 10 years, I sometimes romanticize the notion of being single (little stuff like being able to be completely selfish or pee in the sink), so if anything my spirits can be lifted by movies that show the shitty side of that life, rather than the films that depict it as all, lots of casual sex this and unlimited blowjobs that.

    Yours is the only review of Her I've read and I'm still intrigued but feel like I have a good idea of what I'm in for - thanks!

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    1. Thanks Sol O.! Hope you like the movie :-)

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  5. I still haven't seen the movie myself either Adam but its on my list (gotta see American Hustle tonight first, December overloaded me) I did realize that your point about if relationship-bots were created would it take out humanity and I realized it was extremely similar to an episode of Futurama which involved Fry dating a Lucy Liu bot (cause in the year 3000 you can date robot celebrities). According to the propaganda film against robosexuality it would eliminate humankind but I like to think it would be a nice kinky side thing in a real open relationship between two people. I think it would perhaps slow down population but I think it would be like Diet Pepsi, its close but everyone wants the real thing.

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    1. The problem with having sex with a robot would be they are hard all the time. #BecauseThey'reMetal

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    2. What no Gigolo Joe references yet?

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  6. Nice job, Adam. I ended up liking it, but not loving, although it's definitely the kind of movie I am going to revisit. I had a weird expectation of wanting it to be a little more emotionally poignant, either more sad or more cathartic. It ended up in the middle, which is more real to life.

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    1. It's funny you should mention that because I felt more emotional (from the standpoint of the Theodore/Samantha relationship) in the trailer than I did in the movie.

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  7. Ooooh, a movie and post like this is catnip to my contrarian side. First up, no, I haven't seen it, and doubt I'll rent it, either. (I'm one of those lonely few who thought that Eternal Sunshine was preposterous rubbish, and this looks like that on steroids - also, from the stills I've seen, I'm highly tempted to simply refer to this as Instagram: The Movie.) My opinions and prejudices may be totally off-base, and they may reveal me to be a fop and a nitwit, but they're honest. Enough preamble.

    For all the critical adulation that's being lavished on this movie, I gotta say the premise really rubs me the wrong way. So in the near future, we've got an adrift guy making a decent living writing gift-card notes. Isn't this the starting point as JGL in the awful (500) Days of Summer? And, of course, countless hundreds of thousands of young people (to say nothing of older people) in this country alone would love such a creative and easy gig. Heck, I would love to have that gig.

    But first, hold up: never mind the technological ease of outsourcing this job to other parts of the country, never mind India or the rest of the world; I really wanna know why humans will still be employed to write greeting cards when sophisticated, creative AIs are a common thing available to anyone. Of course, I'm also the guy who wanted to know how anyone in the world of Eternal Sunshine could possibly expect to erase years' worth of memories and not 1) instantly figure out that years' worth of memories had suddenly gone msising, and 2) expect that all their friends and family would gamely play along. Some premises simply don't work for me. Does that make me a bad cinephile? Kindly consider the case of Failure to Launch before replying.

    Anyway, of course, our well-off white male hero (I'm assuming, based on his skyscraper apartment) needs help appreciating the magic of everyday life. Hey, isn't this Sweet November? Or Garden State? Or (500) Days of Summer? again? So, he finds his ideal match in a manic pixie dream girl with no life of her own. Halfway through (500) Days of Summer, remember, the Girl quit her shared job with JGL, and the movie was so disinterested in her character as an independent person it didn't even take five or ten seconds to tell us what she moved on to do. Well, Her does that one better, and makes the Girl less than human as a starting premise. My interest is not being piqued here, friends.

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    1. (cont'd)

      And can we talk story? When a guy falls in love with his phone AI, there's only two places for the movie to go: he lives happily ever after with his condition, or he learns that the authenticity of life is worth the hassle of engaging with it. (Okay, maybe there's a third option, in which he kidnaps a comatose, brain-dead woman from the nearby hospital and attempts to download his digital girlfriend's AI into this other woman's human body, but I'm pretty sure this movie ain't going there.) Adam, you write that a theme of the movie is "it’s more edifying to have analog, real relationships than digital recreations of ones." Isn't that extraordinarily obvious? Why is it okay for critics to pile on a movie like Crash for pointing out the self-evident truth that racism is bad, then heap praise on this movie? Again, I haven't seen Her, so I know I'm not bringing any credibility to this discussion. But between the name "Theodore Twombley", the Instagram look, that horrendous mustache, the personalized greeting-cards job, the wealthy/privileged status and the ukelele playing, Lord help me, this movie could hardly come across more as Crash for Hipsters if it tried. (I know, I'm the bad guy here. But I can't help it!)

      Yes, the Bechdel Test is of limited usefulness, but I can't help but feeling a two-hour movie about relationships really ought to pass it, and apparently this movie doesn't, and that troubles me. (True, many great films barely have any women in them. Master and Commander. Milk. The 6th Day.)

      I could probably go on, but I'll cut myself short. Have I got any legs to stand on? Am I a less intellectually open moviegoer if the prospect of some well-off white male sad sack "romancing" a glorified bot sounds like a waste of time? Can't I just watch the wonderful and underrated Celeste and Jesse Forever again? Peace out,

      Da Gaithmeister :)

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  8. There was a three-page strip by Howard Cruze titled "Cabbage Patch Clone" that covered much the same ground: What happens when your fantasy starts having his/her own fantasy?

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  9. Spike Jonze and Joaquin was a strong selling point, but this clinched the deal.
    Thanks for this Adam.

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