Review – Her

It’s love Jim, but not as we know it in Spike Jonze’s prescient tale of one man’s unconventional relationship with his operating system.

Her treads a well worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you'll be glad you went down it

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it

Since his striking debut Being John Malkovich, Jonze has divided critical opinion between those who embrace his unique vision and those who deride his films as being painfully self-conscious.

It’s unlikely his new film will woo the naysayers, but anyone who writes off Her as a knowing exercise in hipsterism is blinding themselves to one of cinema’s most honest, painful and beautiful love stories since the 2007 Irish charmer Once.

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

Shanghai fills in for near future LA in Her

The premise of Her sounds like an offshoot of Charlie Brooker’s tech-led anthology TV series Black Mirror. Set in a near future LA, lost and lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage to childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) and can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers. The only really meaningful attachment he has is with Amy (Amy Adams), an old friend whom he once dated years back.

His life changes suddenly when he purchases a new highly advanced Operating System, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and is soon conversing with Theodore either through his computer or via his phone linked to an earpiece like she’s flesh and blood.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) bumps into good friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) in Her

Theodore finds himself increasingly drawn to Samantha, who represents everything he could wish for in a woman… except to exist in physical form.

This is Her‘s big question – can a relationship work when two people aren’t physically together? In spite of the film’s digital age outlook, its central conceit has been a staple of screen romances for decades, from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic The Shop Around The Corner, to its e-make You’ve Got Mail.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his more melancholic moments in Her

Technology, specifically our slavish devotion to it, plays a key role in the film. Whether he’s on the train, in a lift or walking along the street Theodore, like everyone else it seems, is glued to their mobile devices (much like today in fact) or listening to something through their earpiece. It’s little wonder he’s so lonely; he’s surrounded by people who are as lost in their own little world as he is. Although not presented as a dystopia, we’re left to decide for ourselves if this is the kind of future world we’d be happy living in.

In a sad irony, Theodore’s job is to compose handwritten letters of love and devotion for people unable to find the words themselves. In a way, this doesn’t make him too dissimilar to Samantha in that the service he provides is there to help improve a stranger’s life; in some cases over the course of many years as he explains at one point.

Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) in Her

In spite of a few slight eccentricities, Theodore is a character we warm to and come to care about. Phoenix’s eyes convey a sadness and fear that break the heart, while his shuffling gait suggests a guy who’s sleepwalking nowhere in particular. However, with the introduction of Samantha his posture changes, his eyes light up and he radiates a positivity you suspect he hasn’t felt for a long time. Phoenix proved he could really act in The Master and here gives another fascinating take on detachment.

We buy into his relationship with Samantha and this is largely down to Johansson’s (excuse the ironic pun) full-bodied performance. The path they take is, for the large part, a believable one, even when Samantha drafts in a sex surrogate in order for them to enjoy ‘physical’ intimacy.

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

And happier times. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) shares a joke with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) in Her

A big reason the film works is Jonze’s beautifully observed script. Many of us will identify with the melancholy Theodore feels at the passing of a cherished relationship, as well as the fear, happiness and scepticism he experiences when his once dormant heart reignites.

This being a Jonze joint, the film’s aesthetic is painterly. Shanghai steps in for near future LA (where the fashion appears to be for men to wear trousers almost up to their ribcage) and is a perfect fit for Theodore – gleaming surfaces paint a warm sheen over the sadness and remoteness that exists just beneath.

Her treads a well-worn path, but does so in such a wonderfully uncynical and sweet-natured way you’ll be glad you went down it.

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Debuts Blogathon: Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Debuts Blogathon

Another day, another great post in the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, this time courtesy of Ruth from FlixChatter. If it’s quality you’re  looking for, look no further than this great site. Each and every post is infused with great insights, as well as Ruth’s unique, conversational style. She brings that style to this analysis of Ben Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone. I thoroughly recommend that you visit Ruth’s site (if you haven’t already of course) and see what I’m talking about.

Ben Affleck

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When I first heard about this Blogathon, I was initially going to do The Usual Suspects as I thought it was Bryan Singer’s debut, but I ended up settling with Ben Affleck’s first film instead, which I think is still the top one out of the three excellent feature films he’s done. This is his directorial debut in a major motion picture, although he did direct two other movies that never made it to the big screen.

Gone Baby GoneI saw this crime drama/mystery quite a while ago, but I remember being quite affected by it. Set in Affleck’s hometown of Boston and starring his kid brother Casey, the story centres on an investigation into a little girl’s kidnapping, which turns out to become a professional and personal crisis for the two detectives involved. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (who also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island), this film has a strong cast that elevates the complex story and gripped me from start to finish.

Casey Affleck, who I think is the better actor of the Affleck brothers, plays private investigator Patrick Kenzie. He opens the story with a monologue as we get a glimpse of the neighborhood where he’s lived his whole life: “I’ve always believed it’s the thing you don’t choose that made you who you are…” It’s an effective opening montage that establishes Casey’s character and puts the grim kidnapping scenario into context.

Gone Baby GoneI’m not going to go into the plot as I feel that if you haven’t seen the film, the little you know about this film the better. What I can tell you is that, initially, you might think the film is about one thing, but slowly but surely, as details unfold it becomes even more devastating than what you think it is. Another missing person case in the second half of the film inexorably shines a light to a darker world of corruption within the force. It’s not something new that we see stories about police corruption; how those who’re sworn to protect us end up betraying that trust, but the way things play out here certainly makes you stop and pause. Despite some hints along the way, the ending managed to still hit me out of left field. It’s such a simple scene, but once you see it in context, Casey’s expression in that scene is just so gut-wrenching. In fact, as I re-watched it recently, it hit me how much of an emotional roller coaster this film was.

What makes this a worthy debut?

Gone Baby GoneIt’s quite a bold choice for Ben to tackle as his first film, considering how complex, twisty and morally-ambiguous Lehane’s novel is. This film stays with me for quite a long time after the end credits roll. It left me speechless as I pondered: ‘OMG! What would I have done? Would I have chosen to do the right thing? And what is really the right thing?’ What if the people you consider ‘righteous’ do unthinkable things because they believe they’re doing something for the greater good? Does that justify the act? Things aren’t always so black and white in our world and this film certainly made a good case for that.

The way he filmed the underbelly of Boston feels authentic and raw; it’s not the typical glamorous-but-impersonal shot of the city. It turns out that the people in the backgrounds in a lot of the scenes are real local Boston actors and members of the local town. Ben made a deliberate choice not to cast professional extras for authenticity and it certainly worked. It’s clearly a personal project for Ben all round, as Gone Baby Gone is also his favorite novel. Now, that doesn’t automatically translate into a good film, but Ben has quite a keen eye behind the camera and he certainly has a way of getting great performances out of his actors.

Gone Baby GoneI love how layered the characters are, beautifully realised by Casey and the stellar supporting cast, especially Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan and the oh-so-underrated Ed Harris. Ryan was Oscar-nominated, but I think Casey and Harris were both robbed that year.

What I admire about this film, and it’s become a signature of sort in Ben’s direction, is the lengthy dialogue. They can be as thrilling and tense as any action scenes, in this case, the well-written script is fully realised by the terrific performances of the cast. The conversation between Casey Affleck and Ed Harris in this clip is a great example, take a look:

Ben Affleck – the auteur?

Ok, so maybe he hasn’t earned that label yet, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with as a director. It’s interesting to note that Ben was at a low point in his career a few years before this, starring in forgettable-to-downright awful films likePaycheck, Jersey Girl, Gigli and Surviving Christmas. He did ok in Hollywoodland, but his career wasn’t exactly in the up and up. I think Ben made the right choice to not star in this film and just focus on his work behind the camera. He did work on the screenplay, which is his first screenwriting credit since his Oscar win with his BFF Matt Damon inGood Will Hunting.

Gone Baby GoneI’ve seen all three of his feature films and all of them are excellent. I think if I were to rate his films, I’d go Gone Baby Gone, Argo and The Town in that order. Yes, I know Argo won Best Film at the Oscars last year and I’m good with that, but in the degree of how a film affects me, I think his first film still tops it for me.

That said, Ben’s work has improved over time as he’s become more confident behind the camera, and I like that he still maintains a certain degree of intimacy in the way he shoots his films. They don’t become ‘Hollywood-ized’ for lack of a better term, as his films are always story and character-driven. I hope he continues that trend in the future. I like how he chose characters who are caught in situations out of their depth; they certainly make for an intriguing protagonists. Though the budgets he’s worked with have gone up steadily from the $19m he got for this film, his films are still relatively small. The Town was only $37m, while Argo had a $44m budget.

Gone Baby GoneIt’s interesting that after the film came out, “…[it] was perceived either as a fluke or too dark to make Affleck a candidate for bigger films”, according to an interview piece Affleck did with The Hollywood Reporter. Affleck states in the interview that only Warner Bros executive Jeff Robinov pursued him with absolute conviction despite the lack of financial success: “… Robinov brought me into his office and said: ‘I think you’re a hell of a filmmaker, actor. What do you want to do? Tell us, and we’ll do it.’ And I wasn’t having those meetings with every studio”. He settled on doing The Town, which ended up earning nearly three times its budget.

I’m looking forward to Ben’s next directorial effort. It’s listed that he’s doing another Lehane adaptation, Live By Night, where he’s going to direct and star. Not sure what’ll happen to that project now that he’s been contracted to play Batman/Bruce Wayne in multiple films. I do think he’ll always be a better director than actor, but really, that’s really not a bad place to be in.

So yeah, if you haven’t seen this film yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I think it stands as one of the best directorial debut by a young director. We’ll see if one day Ben Affleck would indeed earn his status as an auteur.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, it’s the turn of Nika from The Running Reel. Nika covers Sam Mendes’ multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow, I’m thrilled to welcome Tyson from Head in a Vice, who’ll be covering a biggie; it’s Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. You won’t want to miss it.

Review – Man Of Steel

The superhero’s superhero is back, but not as we’ve seen him before, in Zack Snyder’s earnest origin story that strives to put the king-daddy of comic books back on his throne.

There's enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let's hope there's more fun next time around

There’s enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let’s hope there’s more fun next time around

While his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding locomotive naturally lend themselves to incredible set pieces, Superman as a character has always been tricky to build a movie around. His intrinsic capacity for good is far less dramatic than the dark, brooding of Batman, for instance, or the cocksure machismo of Iron Man.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to sending his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Uninspiring action sequences, a lacklustre plot and an over-extended running time sank Supes’ last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, so the challenge was on to rediscover the magic of 1978’s Superman and make him relevant to a modern day audience.

The news that Man Of Steel would be ‘A Zack Snyder Film’ was hardly a great start. Since his highly watchable 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, the quality of Snyder’s output has diminished further with each new release, to the extent that his most recent film, 2011’s Sucker Punch was virtually unwatchable.

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel's best moments

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel’s best moments

Although the presence of Batman alumnus Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer as, respectively, producer and screenwriter can be felt, there’s no mistaking this is a Snyder movie, which means stylised violence delivered at an ear-bleeding volume.

Taking the character back to his roots, Man Of Steel begins at the moment of his birth on a dying Krypton. His father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) manage to launch the spacecraft carrying Kal-El before maniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannan) is able to get his hands on the child. Crash-landing on Earth, he’s raised by honest-to-goodness farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark. When Clark starts to develop super-human powers, his alien lineage is revealed to him by his father, who warns of the need to keep his abilities a secret for fear that a confused, frightened society would reject him. However, when Zod and his followers arrive years later demanding that Earth surrender Kal-El or suffer the consequences, Clark must finally embrace his Kryptonian ancestry and become the superman he was destined to be.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

While the dark and serious approach taken by Nolan for his Dark Knight trilogy works for a superhero who lives in the shadows, the similar direction Man Of Steel takes doesn’t make much sense. Tossing words around like “edgy” and “realistic” is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with god-like alien beings beating the hell out of each other and laying waste to half of Metropolis (and killing thousands of faceless people in the process, although this doesn’t seem important) on a scale not seen since the The Matrix Revolutions, “realistic” is stretching it somewhat.

Taken on their own merits, the childhood flashbacks Clark has during his Christ-like wandering phase in the film’s first act are the film’s finest moments. Handsomely filmed, these scenes are richly evocative and beautifully played by Costner and Lane. Indeed, the brief, wordless moment when a young Clark plays with the family dog and wears a makeshift red cape is Man Of Steel‘s high watermark.

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannan as General Zod in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel

However, they look like they belong in another film when Snyder switches into default mode and lets the CGI do the talking. While there was a palpable sense of jeopardy for Iron Man and co during Avengers Assembled‘s extended final battle in New York, here the only thing you feel is a sore backside.

In his big break, Henry Cavill does everything that’s asked of him, from brooding lonerism to conflicted turmoil and finally self-assurance that falls on the right side of smug. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then who is? Anyone aware of Shannon’s turns in the likes of Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may wonder like me how much CGI was actually required to show Zod’s heat vision, so intense are Shannon’s eyes anyway. It’s hardly a stretch, but it’s fun nonetheless to watch him deliver Zod’s semi-regular meltdowns.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Although she starts out well as feisty reporter Lois Lane, Amy Adams struggles with a script that runs out of things for her to do. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, dons his Morpheus hat for a spot of sermonising as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Crowe at least gets to run around more than Marlon Brando.

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Hans Zimmer’s score may indulge the Christ motif a little strongly at times (there’s only so many angels you need to hear), but is otherwise stirring and haunting in all the right places and doesn’t make you pine for Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic composition.

Snyder drops in a few nice touches to prepare the ground for the inevitable sequel (a Lexcorp lorry is overturned during the Superman vs Zod melee, suggesting Mr Luthor is being primed) and one can only hope it makes room for a bit more fun next time around.

It’s ironic that a film featuring a character gradually finding himself should lose its way as it goes on. There’s enough here to promise much for future adventures, but this man of steel still has a long way to fly if he hopes to reclaim his crown.

Review – The Master

There are two kinds of ‘tent pole’ movie; one is the derivative, big-budget blockbuster that bankrolls a studio, while the other is less frequent but far more challenging – succour to the film connoisseur.

Paul Thomas Anderson has established himself as one of only a handful of directors whose films are considered must-see events to any self-respecting lover of cinema.

The Master

The Master “will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics”

Since his confident debut Hard Eight, Anderson’s career has followed the kind of upward trajectory most film-makers can only dream of, from his brilliant porn industry drama Boogie Nights, through to the epic ensemble piece Magnolia, the marvellously off-kilter romantic comedy-drama Punch Drunk Love and most recently the profound There Will Be Blood.

Anderson treads a similarly bold path with The Master, only his second film in almost a decade. It centres on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two Navy veteran who gets dumped back into society with little or no prospects, a nervous condition and a serious penchant for his own brand of moonshine, made largely from paint thinner. He seems not to understand social boundaries and is obsessed with sex, an unhealthy mixture shown in an early scene set during the war when he starts dry humping a sand sculpture of a woman his fellow seamen have created on a beach.

Freddie is a powder keg who drawls through a clenched jaw and a sneered lip and resembles a coiled spring in the way he walks, all hunched over like a primate. Constantly escaping his own tortured psyche, he runs away from one unnecessary scrape after another until he takes refuge on a yacht that for all intents and purposes looks like it belongs in another world.

The boat is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself to Freddie as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man” and, fascinated with this new arrival, invites him to stay. It emerges that Dodd is the ‘master’ of ‘The Cause’, a Scientology-like movement that believes the Earth is trillions of years old and its inhabitants contain within them countless past lives.

The Master

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Dodd looks upon Freddie as a “silly animal” who has “wandered from the proper path” and decides to help him, akin to a dog and its master. Freddie is at first dubious, but soon embraces Dodd’s unconventional approach to self-improvement and becomes his right-hand man.

Part of this approach is ‘processing’, a psychological question and answer session that Dodd puts Freddie through in the film’s finest moment. Anderson suffocates the viewer, refusing to pull the camera away as we see Freddie’s tortured soul unburden. It’s bravura filmmaking (with mesmerising performance from both actors) and one of the scenes of the year.

A requirement of The Cause is to record everything that is said by Dodd, most revealingly during a scene when a group of young women are writing down a speech in which the Master espouses the pursuit of perfection by rejecting our animal instincts and controlling our emotions. Freddie finds one of the girls attractive and, ignoring Dodd’s words passes her a note saying: “Do you want to fu*k?”

The Master

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) joins The Cause in The Master

Dodd comes from the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ school of cult leaders, often allowing his emotions to get the better of him, whether it be envying Freddie’s child-like, unfiltered existence, moments of self-doubt or bouts of rage when his teachings are questioned (most revealingly during a riveting exchange with a skeptic). Although it doesn’t take a genius to see the Master is a fraud, it takes Dodd’s son to scrape off the veneer for Freddie when he tells him: “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”

Dodd’s wife Peggy (unnervingly played by Amy Adams) reveals herself as the real power behind the throne, tolerating her husband’s love-hate relationship with Freddie, but subtly steering him when the need arrives.

Johnny Greenwood’s mesmeric score amplifies the discordant world these characters exist in, while Anderson also interjects period music to masterful effect (the use of Irving Berlin’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ while an attractive, enigmatic woman walks through a shopping mall and eventually encounters Freddie is inspired).

The Master is, in essence, a yin and yang love story between two men from very different backgrounds desperate for what the other has. Whether Anderson intends this meaning or not, one could easily draw parallels to a post-war America at turns equally arrogant and deeply uncertain about its future.

The Master has been pilloried in some quarters for its lack of narrative progression, but these critics are forgetting There Will Be Blood was hardly plot-heavy. Both are studies of entrancing characters whose individual traits are so powerful and entrenched they are bound to them forever. Oil magnate Daniel Plainview is just as alone and consumed by his relentless quest for money and power at the end of There Will Be Blood. Freddie is a broken machine doomed to spend eternity stuck on that beach alongside that pliant, sand sculpture, while Dodd will continue to believe he and The Cause hold all the answers.

Just as There Will Be Blood was one of the great films of this century’s first decade, The Master will deservedly become regarded as one of this decade’s most enduring classics.