Archive for February, 2014

Oscars 2014 – Her

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


Some spoilers – be warned.

As previously noted, I thought this was a dreadful idea for a movie. Electric Dreams seemed facile and absurd in 1984, but computers being so much more commonplace in 2014, we know so much more about their strengths and limitations now which makes a movie like this very, very tricky to pull off. Anyone who has talked to Siri for any length of time will no doubt have been delighted by the wit of some of the reponses and will also have been frustrated by the system’s inability to parse what would seem like very simple instructions to another human.

And yet, from this thinnest and seemingly most unproductive of premises, Spike Jonze as writer and director has created something rather magical. This sweet, sad, odd, funny, charming, moving film is by no means perfect but it is one of the most purely original and beguiling films of the year, and I think earns its place come Oscar time, albeit in the “also-ran” category.

The pitch is as follows – sometime in the near future, when trousers are worn extremely high and writing sappy letters on behalf of other people is a full-time job, a new operating system will be developed which has full artificial intelligence and which is expressly designed to interact with you. Theodore Twombly, whose personal life is a disaster, purchases and installs this software, creating a virtual companion for himself, named Samantha, whom he proceeds to fall in love with.

There are numerous pitfalls here for an unwary director. The first is to make the software convincing. By beginning the story in a future world, where video games take up half the living room and where natural language interaction is the usual way of issuing instructions to personal computers, Jonze creates a very useful credibility stepping-stone from the limitations of today’s devices to the unlimited processing powers of Samantha. The second is to avoid it being creepy. If we feel like Samantha is a made-to-order psychological prostitute, we will lose sympathy for the lead character very quickly. Jonze carefully lays the groundwork, confronting Twombly with a genuine creep in the form of a very funny voice-only cameo from Kristen Wiig as one “SexyKitten” whom Twombly meets in an online sex chat room. But he is also helped enormously by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which is suitably off-kilter – a straight-arrow leading man actor like Matt Damon or Tom Cruise kills the movie dead – but also achingly vulnerable and uncertain.

It’s also clear that – as far as Jonze is concerned – this isn’t really a science fiction movie. The world-building is all relegated to the background, we have no idea what breakthroughs have made this technology possible, and the details of how “Samantha” works are glossed over (the interview which the installer conducts is over with almost before it’s begun – this isn’t a made-to-order perfect woman unless the company has been spying on Twombly for months). And there’s no broadening of the scope of the story to show, for example, the company which created this software getting wiped out on the stock exchange when all the sentient OSes suddenly decide to “leave”. Sometimes, this refusal to remove the narrative blinkers is a weakness. When Samantha goes off-line, leaving Twombly to panic and rush his hand-set to the IT emergency room, she blithely replies on her return that she had sent him an email informing him of her forthcoming absence. Fine, but how is he expected to read an email without an operating system?

However, when the ramifications of this “magic bean” intersect with the human drama which is unfolding, then the follow-through is admirably thorough. Human/OS romantic relationships are, if not taken for granted, certainly expected and talked about. Of course! Of course Theodore wouldn’t be the only one to become intimate with his gracefully personal personal assistant. An OS has more in common with another OSes than with a human master. Of course! And of course they would be able to communicate effortlessly with each other in this connected world.

The limited scope of the movie puts a lot of weight on a relatively small cast. As well as Phoenix, Jonze casts Rooney Mara as Twombly’s ex-wife, Chris Pratt as his work buddy, Olivia Wilde as his blind date, Amy Adams as his best gal-pal and – apparently – a 25-year-old David Hyde Pierce as her husband. All do excellent work, especially Wilde who makes the most of a two-scene cameo. Amy Adams is on fine form too, far less glamorous then in American Hustle but equally compelling.

As Twombly blunders through misunderstanding after crass remark, he is permitted some moments of happiness, even joy, in Samantha’s company and Scarlett Johansson also does lovely work as the voice of the software. It’s these scenes which give us hope for the future. Twombly’s relationship with his computer may have been a horribly misguided, fucked-up, dead end (nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the extraordinary scene where Samantha procures a sexual surrogate to consummate her and Theodore’s love) but it helped heal some wounds, and Theodore ends the film if not having been made whole then at least having learned to feel again, to laugh again, to share again.

With a lovely and very distinctive soundtrack from Canadian band Arcade Fire, Her is a very carefully controlled piece of work – delicate, intimate and precisely focused. By avoiding really exploring the wider consequences of the creation of an army of Samanthas, Jonze is able to tell a deeply personal story about one man’s struggle against loneliness. But it’s still occasionally frustrating to get only tiny glimpses of another, broader, more technological but no less interesting, story happening outside the frame. Whether it would have been possible to set such a fragile love story in this wider context is unanswerable. What’s clear is that Spike Jonze achieved exactly what he set out to, and the result is rather lovely.

At The Movies – Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Inside Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac with that elusive cat.

I was surprised that this didn’t sneak into the Best Picture nominees. Ever since 1996’s Fargo, the Academy has tended to appreciate the Coen Brothers’ efforts, nominating True Grit in 2010, A Serious Man in 2009 and No Country for Old Men which won in 2007. I was even more surprised given the near-universal critical acclaim it received, and since I’ve enjoyed almost everything the Coens have produced, I fully expected to love this one. Having seen it, I’m no longer surprised that it wasn’t nominated and even more startled at the unstinting praise it seems to have garnered.

It starts promisingly, with Oscar Isaac brilliantly portraying Llewyn Davis as a bitter, misanthropic, parasitical, drifter, permanently couch-surfing as he struggles to scratch together a few hundred bucks here and there playing folk music. On leaving the apartment of his bewilderingly benevolent uptown friends the Gorfeins, he mistakenly lets their cat out and ends up almost adopting the poor thing. From here, he ends up at Carey Mulligan’s Greenwich Village apartment and manages to make a little bit of cash playing guitar on a novelty song written by her boyfriend played by Justin Timberlake.

So far, so good. We are offered a bracingly unlikeable hero, struggling for meaning and identity in a heartless universe – see also Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik and to some extent, even Fargo’s Jerry  Lundegaard. But this is a movie trying to find a centre, a narrative thread that will pull us through. We have various plots set in motion – Llewyn’s opportunity to return to the navy, the Gorfein’s cat, his ex-girlfriend who may have secretly raised his child in Akron, the abortion which he has to procur for Mulligan, the song he has recorded with Timberlake, but they have not yet begun to satisfyingly mesh.

And suddenly, they are all, repeat all, underline all, abandoned for an entirely self-contained thirty minute stretch in the middle of the movie, wherein Llewyn shares a car with an absurdly over-the-top John Goodman, laboriously makes his way to Chicago, gets an amazing offer from record magnate F Murray Abraham, turns it down and equally laboriously makes his way back to Chicago to rejoin the movie I thought I was watching. By now, even if the Coens had been interested in joining up the plot-threads, there isn’t time, so it’s left to a clumsy revisiting of an earlier flash-forward to try and give this narrative porridge some sense of structure. It’s worth noticing that this is the third rather episodic film I’ve seen in a row to use this device and here it’s done particularly pointlessly. The sequence we have to watch twice is hardly any more interesting or significant than those around it, and it’s far from clear when we first see it that it is a flash-forward which briefly threatens to turn the whole film into Groundhog Day when suddenly it starts happening again.

I can certainly see what other critics liked about this – Llewyn is a fascinating character, brilliantly realised by Oscar Isaac and by music supervisors T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. The supporting cast are all fine, and some (Abraham, Mulligan) are exceptional. Some of the episodes are diverting in themselves, others are just a bit “so-what”, but the whole is so wilfully disorganised and uninterested in cause-and-effect that it just starts to become tedious. If you can’t be bothered to arrange the episodes in your story to create some semblance of relevance, I’m not sure I can be bothered to watch.

We get to see Llewyn at his most vulnerable when his doctor friend reveals that he might have a child in Akron. It’s possibly the most powerful scene in the film. Later as he is driving back from Chicago, he passes the turning for Akron – but declines to take it. In a movie which generally has been well-structured and where the plot is strong, this would be a fascinating character beat. In a movie which is characterised by hopeful juxtaposition of unrelated cameos, it’s the last straw.

I return briefly to some points I made about 12 Years a Slave, while noting that Llewyn Davis is by far the lesser film. It is certainly arguable that the events depicting in the Coens’ film are much more like real-life. But it’s also worth pointing out that real life is frequently very boring. The job of an entertainer in a narrative medium is to cut out the dull bits and give the rest relevance and power by properly constructing the architecture of the story. It is also no doubt true that the point of the film is largely that Llewyn is fundamentally incapable of change, growth or development, but it nevertheless seems to me that the story of a character who cannot change can be much more powerfully told if placed in a context where familiar screen archetypes would change. Instead, Llewyn’s “fuck this” attitude seems to have infected the entire screenplay, resulting in a series of unrelated events which wouldn’t really have the power to change anybody.

I don’t know if this kind of what-the-hell plotting is intended to give the movie greater poignancy, significance, insight or profundity. I do know that simply typing up a handful of unrelated incidents and stopping on page 120 is a hell of lot easier than constructing a satisfying narrative, with set-ups and payoffs and cause-and-effect throughout. A major disappointment from one of my favourite movie-makers and I can’t for the life of me understand why everyone else seems to love it so much.

It occurs to me that I am pretty much a Coen completest, so for context, here’s a quick rundown of my take on their other movies.

Blood Simple
Powerful, brooding, brilliantly plotted and properly nasty. The low budget shows from time to time, but with a script and performances this good, who cares?

Raising Arizona
Their breakthrough, a sort of live-action cartoon, radically different from their debut, with brilliantly demented lead performances from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. I don’t love it the way some people do, but I like it a lot.

Miller’s Crossing
Amazingly complicated film noir with classic scene after classic scene. Just great.

Barton Fink
Just possibly my favourite – a film only the Coens could make. A satire on Hollywood capitalism and East Coast narcissism equally which suddenly turns into a ferocious grand-guinol nightmare in the final reel.

The Hudsucker Proxy
Maybe their most charming film, although a big flop at the box office, especially compared to its more than usually lavish budget. I like it a great deal, possibly because of how unpopular it is amongst Coen fans.

A masterpiece of atmosphere, characterisation, plotting and cinematography. Earns all the praise the gets lavished upon it.

The Big Lebowski
Sprawls where Fargo marches relentlessly, bloated where Fink is lean and focused, but by combining the life-and-death stakes of Fargo’s kidnapping plot, with Hudsucker’s charmingly naive characters, the Coens fashioned another classic which won them armies of new fans.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
A disappointment after the brilliant run of form they experienced up till now. The cheerful stupidity of the characters pulls in the opposite direction from the Homeric template they’ve given themselves and so the film lurches about a bit and goes past several possible endings. The lead performances however are great and the film contains many stand-out sequences.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Powerful stuff to begin with, but the plot runs out of steam and eventually turns into the same pointless slurry as Llewyn Davis only without the songs. My least favourite of their films by quite a distance.

Intolerable Cruelty
The reviews of this were so bad, I had to stay away. It’s not a true Coen Brothers movie in any case, as Joel and Ethan were drafted in to doctor an ailing script and somehow ended up directing it.

The Ladykillers
Just horrible. If you have the urge to watch this film, just put on the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick version instead. Watch it all the way to the end. Then watch it again. Then destroy any copy of the Coens film in your possession. The only reason I like this more than The Man Who Wasn’t There is Tom Hanks as The Professor. He is electrifying throughout.

No Country for Old Men
Frustrating, because again any semblance of plotting is abandoned in the final third, but the shift in emphasis seems somewhat more purposeful here, and all the sequences are excellent, even if it feels a little bit like reels from two different, but related, movies have been accidentally spliced together.

Burn After Reading
Somewhat trivial, but bouncy and fun. Very happily passes the time.

A Serious Man
A very similar theme to Llewyn Davis but Larry Gopnik is basically a decent guy who makes good decisions, which makes the tiny calamities which unravel his life so much more meaningful. Larry Gopnik’s life doesn’t make much sense to him, but he notices this and complains about it, and seems to live in a narrative world where choices matter. Llewyn Davis lives in a narrative world where it doesn’t much matter what he or anybody else does, because no idea carries over from one scene to the next.

True Grit
A far more faithful version of the novel than the earlier version starring John Wayne, with better supporting performances and with better-staged action. After the intensely personal A Serious Man though, this felt a bit workmanlike.

Next up, Spike Jonze’s Her

Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).


Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.


The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.