Saturday, January 25, 2014


Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara

Plot: A lonely man falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system designed to interact and run his daily activities.

Review: I'm not really a fan of love stories, and probably never will be. But for my money, Her would be the most unique love story I've seen in a while.

Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed the film, presents a love story between a man and an operating system. The setting is obviously somewhere in the near future, where a lot of things are automated, and computers respond to users the same way a human would. In this story, Theodore Twombly is a lonely guy going through a lengthy divorce. He writes personalized letters for clients for special occasions, and seems to be fine for the most part, except not having someone important in his life. Then he purchases a new operating system that is programmed to meet his needs, organise his day to day affairs and even become his friend.

However, the operating system, who names herself Samantha, isn't just a computer that talks. She is capable of thinking and feeling, and responding to Theodore the same way a close friend would. Eventually Theodore and Samantha fall for each other, but she continues to evolve in ways neither of them anticipated, which leads to certain complications.

Sure, a love story like this might seem like a stretch on the surface, but Jonze is a terrific screenwriter. Because of that, every line of dialogue spoken in the film feels brilliant and real. A lot of times you'd feel like they're saying what you're feeling as you watch the story unfold. Add to that the excellent production and costume design (mostly pastel or light colours), cinematography and music score, and what you get is a really comfy yet moving story about love and life.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Theodore. He's so good I can't picture anyone else in the role. He is the kind of guy we can easily relate to, a regular guy who thought he understood everything going on around him, but learns a lot more as the story moves along, discovering things about people he never truly realised, like his wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. Mara is good as well, though she only has one memorable scene here. Amy Adams lends solid support as Theodore's best friend, and like Theodore, I can relate to her easily as well. Scarlett Johansson provides the voice of Samantha, and I gotta say, she's the right choice indeed. Originally Samantha Morton was the voice (hence the name Samantha), but Jonze had Johansson re-record the lines and it was a good decision. The interaction between Theodore and Samantha is the film's key strength, and Johansson's low and sexy voice matches Phoenix's voice like a glove.

If there's anything I didn't like here, it would be the intimate moments between Theodore and Samantha. For me, it was rather awkward having a computer system feeling and imagining itself having a sexual encounter with a human. Later Samantha even attempts to take it a step further, though I won't spoil it for you. In hindsight, I can understand Jonze's reasons for including this element, but at the time I saw it, it felt quite strange.

Overall, I'd recommend Her to anyone who enjoys love stories. On another note, I'd really want one of those operating systems. Sounds really cool. (4/5)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lone Survivor

Year: 2014
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emil Hirsch, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana

Plot: Based on the true story of the failed Operation Red Wings, where four Navy SEALS are trapped in Afghanistan, left to fend for themselves after their presence is discovered by the Taliban.

Review: Like many American war films before it, Lone Survivor pays tribute to their fallen heroes in the line of duty. For me, this film reminds me of Black Hawk Down, one of my all time favorites, due to the many similarities between them.

Director Peter Berg has gone to great lengths to ensure this story is told as accurately as possible, though there are a few minor deviations. He based his film on Marcus Luttrell's book of the same name, Luttrell being the titular lone survivor. While the book gives a far more detailed account of life as a Navy SEAL, Berg focuses on this particular failed mission. I have no idea where Berg filmed this, but the location seems quite authentic. The rocky mountains used to represent Afghanistan look accurate enough, with great camerawork by Tobias Schliessler to capture the scenery as well as the intense firefights that take place.

The story is as follows: four Navy SEALS, Luttrell, Murphy, Dietz and Axelson, are sent to Afghanistan on a recon mission to find Ahmad Shah, who is responsible for killing 10 SEALS. They successfully obtain his location, only for them to be subsequently discovered by three goatherds. After deliberating it, they decide to release the goatherds out of mercy, thereby risking their lives when the Taliban surround them and they have to fight to survive.

Like Black Hawk Down, the four men's experience is brutal and unflinching. You will see lots of blood, wounds and broken limbs as the men are shot at by the Taliban, then taking more injury as they tumble down the rocky side of the mountain. If you're squeamish, this is definitely not the film for you. It is to Berg's credit, as well as the make up guys for pulling off this feat. Speaking of which, the action sequences were well shot, the intensity of the moment very well documented by Berg and his team. Every bullet, explosion and fall is shown in gory detail.

The acting is solid all around of course. Mark Wahlberg deserves most of the applause for a job well done, but Ben Foster, Emil Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch deserve just as much credit for their excellent work. The relationship between the four men are akin to brotherhood, and it shows on screen. Special mention goes to Ali Suliman, who was in Berg's The Kingdom, as Gulab, a kind Afghan who protects Luttrell from the Taliban in the film's third act. Despite barely able to speak English, he comes across as an honorable man, and a key player in Luttrell's story.

The main drawback here is the lack of characterization as Berg focuses more on the mission itself. We do get a few things like Murphy thinking of buying a horse for his wife, Dietz contemplating the color his wife wants to paint their house etc, but it's few and far between. Still, it doesn't take away the sense of unity between the four men, and their harrowing journey during that mission is overall well presented.

It's a solid and realistic war film that's based on real events, and should be watched on the big screen for best results. Recommended. (4/5)    

Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Year: 2013
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn

Plot: Walter Mitty, the negative asset manager for Life magazine, is missing the negative for a picture that will be used for the magazine's final issue cover. In an effort to locate the photographer who took the picture, Walter embarks on an adventure around the world and discovers a thing or two about living his dreams.

Review: If you're the kind of person who's had that dream about doing something, but never got around to doing it, then this film is something you can definitely relate to. Let's face it, we're all dreamers to a certain degree, no matter how much of a realist some of us are. I dare say that there's a bit of Walter Mitty in each of us.

Ben Stiller lets go of his usual brand of comedy to bring us a very heartwarming tale that's based on an old short story by James Thurber. He plays the titular character, who leads a mostly uneventful life, the type of guy who would only dream of taking risks. Heck, sending a wink to a girl he likes on a dating site took him some effort. But on the flipside, Walter is good at what he does, which is managing picture negatives for Life magazine, which is downsizing in its move to go online entirely. The magazine's star photographer, Sean O'Connell, was supposed to leave Walter a negative to be used for the magazine's final cover, but he can't find it. So Walter has to do what he usually wouldn't do: embark on a global adventure to find Sean and get the negative.

What makes Walter's quest entertaining is the stuff that happens in between, such as his fantasies (which are hilarious by the way), his phone conversations with Todd, a guy who is trying to build Walter's dating profile, and his interactions with Cheryl, a co-worker that he has a crush on. All this makes Walter's daily life not only fascinating, but also something most of us would understand totally and maybe even envy, especially once his traveling begins.

Stiller, who also directs, puts in an honest performance as Walter. Now, let's be clear, he isn't that much different from the guys he usually plays in his previous films, except he considerably tones down the clumsy loser aspect of himself here. As Walter, he is someone I can truly relate to, comprehend and root for throughout the film. Kristen Wiig shares good chemistry with him as Cheryl, and I'm glad this isn't a film where she gets the chance to be funny, this ought to be Stiller's film anyway. Adam Scott does well as Ted, the jerk of a new boss at the magazine, who seems to have an intentionally paste-on beard meant to make him look ridiculous. Sean Penn has a short appearance as Sean O'Connell, but makes every second of it count. He really looked like a photographer, scruffy appearance and all. Shirley MacLaine is also great as Walter's mum, playing the kind of parent we all wished we had. Patton Oswalt, despite only showing up in the final third of the film, is pretty good in his phone conversations with Walter as Todd.

The film could use a bit of editing here and there as it feels too long at times, but it's a minor complaint. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, even the technical aspects were spot on, from music to cinematography (I'm still wondering if Stiller filmed on location in Greenland and Iceland). 

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is the feel good film of the year. If it doesn't do that for you, it'll at least make you want to travel more. Recommended. (4/5)


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