Her (2013) – Movie Review

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Talk about hitting the ball out of the park. I am in awe.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, features Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly who, in the not-so-distant future, is depressed as he goes about his life post a break-up with his wife. He is your typical lonely guy, living alone in a spacious apartment, working from his cubicle until he clocks in his required hours then going home to play his 3D video game. On the surface, Theodore doesn’t look like someone who minds where he was: in limbo between the memory of the relationship he had with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and trying to move on with his life. He then finds himself purchasing a new operating system, meant to be the world’s first artificial intelligence OS, after seeing its ad while on his way to work. His OS is named Samantha and voiced by the amazing Scarlett Johansson.

Soon enough, Theodore finds his entire life and existence being organized by Samantha, not just his schedule and email. Through an earpiece and a phone, Theodore shows Samantha his world while she exposes him to different facets of the things he thought he knew. He’d close his eyes and let her guide him around a carnival. She’d ask him how he’d touch her. He’d feel comfortable with her. She’d help him break out of the break-up that was breaking him. But would a soothing voice be enough for him?

Her may be science fiction but it also feels like a cross examination of a culture that is becoming very dependent on technology. It’s not far-fetched to imagine the events of this movie happening in the not-distant future. The idea is perhaps not new but it has probably never been handled this way and while the premise of a love affair with an OS may be off-putting for some, Spike Jonze handles it brilliantly, giving a movie in which you get absorbed, sinking in every single second of screen time you watch.

There are characters which spring on screen here and there, such as Amy Adams – a friend of Theodore’s, but Her is Joaquin Phoenix leading a one man show. He commands the many extended scenes in which he is almost always alone. His interaction with Samantha, who is never physically present, gives way to one of the most heart-warming relationships you’ll see in a movie this year. The biggest drawback of Theodore Twombly, however, is that his character feels to be stuck in some emotional development limbo post his break-up. Joaquin Phoenix works through that, anyway. It’s the work of an acting master, one who has been going unappreciated for way too long.

Scarlett Johansson’s voice as Samantha is so vital to what Her is. She is getting an entire movie to ride on her vocal appeal, who is building an entire relationship with her sighs, nuances, sultriness and, occasionally, songs. She is so good at what she does that you eventually stop noticing that Theodore is not actually having a relationship with a living person but with a voice that talks to him through an earpiece. It’s slightly unnerving but also excellently well-done.

Her is a delight to the ears as ear as well with its backdrop being an exquisite score by Arcade Fire. The music is excellent. It feels futuristic while still managing to be current, perfectly embodying the movie it serves.

Her is magic on screen. It’s science fiction without the blitz. It’s unlike most of the movie’s you’ve seen recently. It asks questions that as a culture we may be heading to without coming off as greeting-card cheesy or preachy. And it’s easy, I guess, to think of it as gimmicky or as another been-there-done-that movie. But it’s not. I may have found its premise odd at first and dismissed it way too easily. But I’m so glad I gave this movie a chance because it has turned out to be one the year’s absolute best. I really hope it wins some golden statuettes. It deserves every single one of them. Go watch it. Now.

4.5/5

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Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” Is A Masterpiece

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Beirut’s Film Festival is peaking early this year, on its opening night to be precise, when Gravity lands onto its screens.

Going with high expectations into a movie is almost always a recipe for disaster. More often than not, movies fail to satisfy that craving you had thought they would, leaving you feeling cheated. I had high expectations for Gravity, it blew them all out of the park with its opening scene alone.

Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space trip with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). A seemingly simple mission immediately goes awry, as is expected, when Russians destroy a satellite that was orbiting Earth, sending debris flying at bullet-speed towards the astronauts. As their space shuttle is destroyed, Stone and Kowalsky are left to drift in space as they try to find a way to go back home.

Gravity may seem like a typical science fiction movie at first sight but it’s nowhere near that. It’s a gut-wrenching tale of fear, despair, loneliness, friendship and survival. Gravity is spell-binding. Every minute of its 90 minute running time is irrevocably captivating. Everything its characters do is believable, adding to the overall effect of the movie. We had gotten so used to Hollywood blockbusters overwhelming us with special effects in order to turn their movie into a hit that I thought I reached a point where no movie could impress me from a technical viewpoint: hadn’t we seen them all?

What we hadn’t seen was Gravity. The use of special effects and 3D in this movie is not gimmicky, it helps to tell a story. The techniques employed to film the movie are masterful. There are shots there which are so brilliant I have no idea how they were filmed.There’s a reason why James Cameron said this was the best space movie ever made. There’ s also plenty of good reasons why Darren Aronofsky said this is the type of show movie-makers will learn from for years to come. They were both not lying.

Alfonso Cuaron is a visionary. After Gravity, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be on every movie fan’s favorite directors list. His movie makes you feel like you are one with the astronauts as they drift afloat, at the mercy of the gravity-less space they are in. His camera runs ever so smoothly, fluidly, giving the impression that the entire movie is one unbroken shot. His command over his work is so evident that the effect is near-hallucinatory: it draws you in, makes you believe you are one with Bullock as she strives to stay alive, as she fights for every breath she could take.

Bullock is terrific. This could very well be her best acting performance to date. I can definitely see a best actress nomination for her at this year’s Academy Awards, effectively telling her naysayers that her win for The Blind Side a few years ago was not a fluke. Bolstered by great work from Clooney and, at the beginning of the movie, Ed Harris’ voice guiding them all the way from Houston, Bullock takes in every fiber of her character and gives it back to the audience tenfolds. You can see every emotion on her face as it unravels. You can see her tears as they drift off her face (literally). You can feel her elation at times. You can feel her despair at other times. She helps the movie be as great as it is.

If there’s ever a movie that requires you to check in your movie genre stereotypes at the door, it’s this. I am blown away. Gravity is astonishing. It may pull on your heartstrings sometimes, but it’s never sappy. It’s a towering achievement in technique while also being a cinematic experience that is sure to trouble your senses, especially with its epic musical score. If the Oscar race is off to this start, other movies are at a terrible disadvantage. I am in awe.

5/5

We’re The Millers (2013) – Movie Review

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I’ve finally found a funny movie this year! While this isn’t absolute movie brilliance as I’m sure no one really expects it to be, it has enough hearty laughs and fun scenes to be worth a trip to a theatre near you if you want to watch something along such lines.

David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) is a drug dealer working in Denver who finds himself in trouble as his stash and money are stolen by a local gang. He is then coerced by his local drug lord Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms) to pick up a “little” marijuana from Mexico under the name of a Mexican drug lord for which he’ll get paid $100,000. In order to get past border control easily, David devises a plan that involves hiring a stripper named Sarah (Jennifer Aniston) and two local kids, a runaway teenage girl (Emma Roberts) and a virgin teenage boy (Will Poulter) to play a fake family called the “Millers.”

The movie’s greatest asset is the ease with which its cast work together. All four main actors play off each other with ease and charm. The movie may be a tinge too long but it’s carried by the cast and there are enough funny moments and memorable scenes here to keep you going. Make sure you stick through the credits for one of the movie’s best scenes though, especially for fans of the TV show Friends.

Of course, the way the plot unravels is predictable. Don’t get your hopes up for an out-of-the-box resolution. We’re The Millers may not be the risky comedy type that is expected out of comedies these days, but at least it’s funny – it is a typical Hollywood comedy but in a year that has not seen any decent comedies, it’s somewhat refreshing for the Millers to finally show up.

3.5/5 

The Wolverine (2013) – Movie Review

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In a summer of superhero movies overload, it is a shame that none of them has managed to really cause a dent or become relevant enough to stay in the collective conscience of moviegoers, Iron Man 3 was disappointing.
Man of Steel was all kinds of meh. Add The Wolverine to the growing list.

You might need mutant powers to follow-up with the timeline of all these X-men movies. The Wolverine happens after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. It has very few elements that relate it to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And quite frankly, I just don’t get the infatuation with this X-man, out of them all, to give him movie after movie. Yet again, the only reason The Wolverine was made is apparently to draw in some serious cash. The good thing is that unlike other superhero movies, Wolverine has been played by only one actor – Hugh Jackman – who has gotten his character down to a science.

The script, which I bet was written in less time than it has taken me to write this review, starts with Logan flashing back to surviving the Nagazaki atomic bomb and saving a young Japanese man in the process. Flash forward to present time and Logan is trotting it in some woods, trying to stay away from civilization until he is sought out by a Japanese woman who wants to take him back to the man he saved those many years ago, now the head of Japan’s leading corporation and dying of cancer. That man, Yashida, offers Logan something he had been seeking for a long time: a way to die.

The cast, most of which is Japanese, does a good job. But that’s not saying much because the material they’re given is dismal at best. There are too many villains. None of them is memorable enough. Even the big bad villain reveal, aimed to be shocking, comes off on the cooler side of tepid, predictable, boring, uneventful. None of the characters are engrossing. They are all there to advance a movie that’s seemingly going nowhere interesting.

Despite some strong scenes interspersed here and there, The Wolverine comes off on the weaker side in the X-men series. For a casual viewer, the movie might prove entertaining and different enough (it takes place in Japan, not New York) to watch. But for those who had high hopes that this would be their movie of the summer or at least keep up the momentum that X-Men: Origins started, be ready for one big fest of claws coming out, the big bad guys panicking and you yawning.

2/5

Pacific Rim (2013) – Movie Review

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As shocking as it may be, this summer has finally found a movie worthy of being deemed the “it” blockbuster of the year in the form of Pacific Rim.

First things first, I feel I must commend the movie’s distributors for taking a risk and releasing it simultaneously with international markets despite the date coinciding with the Muslim month of Ramadan. This isn’t a movie you’d want to wait to see.

It is the near future and Earth is being attacked by huge monsters called Kaiju which are emanating from an abyss in the Pacific Ocean. Humankind realizes their current weapons are insufficient to combat the Kaijus so they devise a new defense system in the form of the Jaegers, which are driven by two human pilots who share brain function in order to do so. But there’s a twist. Soon enough, the Kaijus start learning the fighting ways of the Jaegers and humankind starts losing its only hope in defense as the threat of an apocalypse draws nearer.

Bolstered by a thrilling opening scene that might as well be the climax of other movies, Pacific Rim sets a breakneck pace from the get-go. This isn’t a movie that is only about breaking metal and firearms. While the action scenes are numerous and sufficiently exhilarating, they also happen to the backdrop of a plot that is interesting and not a complete rehash of other similar movies. Sure, Hollywood has overdone apocalypses. But it was rarely as entertaining as what Pacific Rim presents.

Directed and written by Guillermo Del Toro, the movie carries the touches of a director you’d never think would do such a movie. And it shows. In fact, Guillermo Del Toro just showed that movies about robots and monsters can, in fact, be something more than what we’ve all associated them with.

Pacific Rim isn’t a Michael Bay movie, both literally and figuratively. For many, that is enough reason to give it a shot. But I found Pacific Rim to be one of the movies that have entertained me the most this past year, something that was very pleasantly surprising given I wasn’t expecting it. I guess that’s what happens when the only aspect of similar movies have all been brainless. Underneath the facade of crunching steel and atomic bombs, Pacific Rim has charm and brains. Go watch it.

4/5

The Attack (2013) – Movie Review

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Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack might as well be considered as the most controversial “Lebanese” movie of recent times. But that’s not saying much. The hype surrounding the politics of the movie has been resounding. But does The Attack deliver on all the promises the director and the people who like him gave?

Amin (Ali Suliman) is an Arab-Israeli surgeon living and practicing medicine in Tel Aviv. While receiving some humanitarian award from the Israelis, Amin receives a call from his wife who sounds distressed. He doesn’t give it much attention, the focus is all on him. Soon enough, while having lunch at the rooftop of their Israeli hospital, the surgeons hear an explosion. 17 casualties ensue, 11 of which are children… And it’s Amin’s wife Siham (Raymond Amsalem) who committed the attack. Between the barrage of the Israelis who suddenly turn on the man they believe they sheltered into becoming one of them and the guard of the Arabs who believe Siham did a noble thing and are disgusted by the “bastard” who left his heritage and home to integrate in a place that is not his, Amin seeks out to find why his wife became a radical person who managed to get convinced to blow herself up for the Palestinian cause.

Sounds good, right? Well, in theory it does.

The Attack is divided into two parts. The first one is what can be called the Hebrew segment in which Tel Aviv is shown as a bustling cosmopolitan city whose people are as disassociated with the conflict raging outside their city’s confines while the other half is the Arab part, situated in Nablos, whose people struggle in their everyday life and revel in the idea of martyrdom, turning Siham into a local heroin. In a way, each part serves to pitch each side’s case.

I found the take on the issue, which the movie tries to do, shallow and borderline grating at times, even in its tackling of Siham’s radicalization which The Attack finds even more astonishing due to the fact she’s Christian. The Attack doesn’t go as deep as it should. it remains up there, flapping around the stereotypical stories of both sides – the action/reaction scenario that never ends. It never asks the tough questions: are the reactions warranted? Are they the best way to tackle the actions that led to them?

And I, for one, am glad and fully supportive of not choosing The Attack as Lebanon’s Oscar submission last year because there’s nothing Lebanese about the movie at all. In fact, the Lebanese elements of the movie are a mention of Hassan Nasrallah and Beirut – separately.

As a movie, The Attack works. It’s a decent thriller. There isn’t a dull moment, constantly keeping up the pace it sets from the get-go. The camera work, cinematography and locations are all well-done. But don’t expect it to blow you away. The acting, however, is superb. Both lead actors do a great job in their roles. Amsalem’s portrayal of Siham is gut-wrenching at times as is the life Ali Suliman gives her husband.

What The Attack manages to do, which might be the most important thing, is create a discussion. I watched the movie with 4 other Lebanese while on a stay in Paris – the movie will not be released in Lebanon – and we spent almost 40 minutes huddled outside the cinema center discussing what we had just seen. As a nation, though, Lebanon is possibly nowhere near ready for such a movie to be screened although the current state of Israel is eye-opening to what we, as a country, are so desperately lacking.

3/5

The Hangover 3 (2013) – Movie Review

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Milking it. That’s what The Hangover 3 is in a nutshell. After a comedy tour de force with the first part and a decent-enough black comedy with the second, comes a PG-13 level and hopefully final iteration in the series of middle-aged debaucheries. Except part 3 has no such things. Not even a little.

The same guys are back in an attempt to get Allen (Zack Galifianakis) to some form of rehabilitation center. On their way there, their car is ambushed by Marshall (John Goodman) who takes one of them hostage in order for them to get Mr. Chow.
There’s no drunkedness here. There are no prostitutes to serve up some seriously awkward moments. Even Melissa McCarthy borders on the irrelevant as a possible love interest for Allen. The talents of Bradley Cooper, recently discovered in Silver Linings Playbook, are wasted. John Goodman is simply turned silly as the thug of the show.

The same people that brought us the first two movies are back here. Director Todd Philips’ work in The Hangover is put to absolute shame with this sequel. The plot is silly at best. The laughs don’t even exist. The shock factors don’t come naturally. The characters are so thin that it’s impossible to do anything with them anymore.

At one point a third into the movie, as Bradley Cooper’s character watches Mr. Chow sing a karaoke song (Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”), he proclaims: “what the fuck am I watching?”
I was feeling the same at that point. But I hoped the movie would pull itself together. It didn’t happen. The Hangover 3 is, similarly to the other 2 parts in the trilogy, a big mess. Except it’s not the good type this time. It’s the type of messes you want to keep behind you and never look at again. Kill it, kill it with fire.

1/5