Joaquin Phoenix really is an amazing actor, he was at his best in The Master, but here in a much less showy performance, he really shines. It’s hard to think of anyone else bringing such careful emotion to a role that could be (and has been) written off as sad male fantasy. But as his face fills the screen for much of the film, it falls to him to take it beyond that – and he does. Theodore Twombly has a funny name and some sex-repelling high-waisted trousers, and he doesn’t show much in the way of an emotional connection with anything, yet Phoenix fills him with a vulnerability and warmth that takes him beyond mere geek.
Theodore is mid-divorce and spending a lot of time alone, preferring the company of his amazing looking video games to actual human contact. His job suits this remoteness perfectly, writing heartfelt letters for people who either don’t have the time, or have forgotten how to. He’s a nice chap, with friends who clearly like him and a boss who thinks he’s great. But the marriage break-up has driven Theodore away from too much socialising and he seems to be settling in for a solitary future. And while outside the world Spike Jonze creates doesn’t seem too different from 2014, a bit sleeker and sunnier maybe, being alone indoors has never been easier. When Theodore installs a new Operating System to his home computer, he is first surprised then intrigued by its intelligence. It’s basically a fruity version of Siri, but called Samantha and breathily voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who not only answers all his questions but asks a few of her own. She’s been programmed almost too well, and starts behaving almost like – well, almost like a human.
Developing a consciousness means Samantha also develops feelings, and it’s not long before the jaunty chit chat between man and machine becomes something a bit more and before you know it, Theodore is in love. And why not? She proves to be the ideal companion: one who is always there when you call, laughs at your jokes and makes a few of their own – who knows everything about you, but doesn’t judge. And who looks just like you imagine them to look. I mean, isn’t that what everyone wants? And isn’t that what we’ve all started to look for in some way online – you’re never alone when you’ve got 1000 followers laughing at your jokes on Twitter and someone has just liked your cat video on YouTube.
Her is set far enough into the future for Theodore’s relationship not to seem entirely bonkers to his friends, and Jonze shows us just enough of the tenderness between him and Samantha to make their attachment believable. But he also shows us that there’s something more here, a man desperate for some human affection but not quite ready to reach for it. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is a by-the-book love story – with all its ecstasies and pitfalls – it’s a relationship we’re all familiar with. And in Theodore’s failed marriage, bad dates and longstanding best-friendship (with Amy Adams, never anything less than perfect) it’s easy to understand how he sees opting out of the real thing as such an attractive option.
So don’t write Her off as a man’s wank fantasy, that’s just lazy. take a deeper look at what Jonze is saying here about all of us – open your heart to Theodore Twombly and feel a little afraid of our future.
It’s not quite the classic thinks it is, but David O Russell’s American Hustle is great fun with a cast on top form and clearly having the time of their lives.
Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, almost unrecognisable and with a comb over to die for) is a small time conman running scams with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) and ignoring wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) who is getting her kicks from sniffing nail polish. When they’re trapped by Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie, he sees a chance to make a name for himself by using them to run a much bigger hustle which would bring down some of New Jersey’s key political figures. Trouble is he’s not quite bright enough to understand the political machinations he’s getting himself involved in, and too ambitious to care.
If nothing else American Hustle looks fabulous – Amy Adams has an envious selection of wrap around dresses that her bosoms seem determined to escape from (there should be an award for the tit tape assistant) – and Lawrence is just the right side of blowsy. Both give their characters real depth, and Adams puts up a brave fight up against Lawrence’s effortless ability to steal every scene she’s in. Bale is superb, revealing enough charm to explain why two gorgeous women are fighting over him despite being physically quite repulsive, and Cooper puts in an excellent performance, doing annoying jerk really well while carrying off a merciless poodle perm. I particularly liked Jeremy Renner as New Jersey’s mayor, a man whose greed comes from a good place and who proves the unwitting lynchpin for the team’s elaborate hustle.
This is a highly enjoyable film, and as it gallops towards the end, and you start to lose track of who is conning who, it all comes together really well. For me there was also the added bonus of lovely Jack Huston (Richard Harrow from Boardwalk Empire) as a bit of love interest for poor old Rosalyn and there’s another neat surprise cameo which I won’t spoil here but which prompted the annoying people behind me to shout his name out loud in case nobody else had realised. Louis CK is good too, as Richie’s exasperated boss who can never quite get to the end of an anecdote.
Russell is clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve – treading heavily in Goodfellas territory with a little bit of Boogie Nights thrown in and a shimmer of Casino. That’s not entirely a bad thing (though the voiceover is a bit grating) but it does mean that yet again Russell isn’t quite giving his own voice the chance to shine – a bit like in Silver Linings Playbook which veered a bit too much into traditional romcom territory when it promised to be so much more. I always want there to be a bit more edge in his films, which is why they generally leave me a bit disappointed.
Not too much disappointment here though, American Hustle is a great romp and despite a slow start and a soundtrack that doesn’t quite hit the mark, once it gets going – and once Jennifer Lawrence gets a bit more screen time – it fairly zips along. And the hair is fabulous.
Easily my most anticipated film of the year, The Master does not disappoint. Paul Thomas Anderson has created another masterpiece, incredibly beautiful to look at and with performances from his two leads that should be hard to beat come awards time (though the subject matter might well work against them).
Joaquin Phoenix, thankfully back from his bonkers years, is astounding here as Freddie Quell, an ex-US navy sailor damaged by war and by the hooch he brews up from paint thinner. We first meet him on a beach at the end of WWII, drunk and showing off to his fellow sailors, his scrawny frame twisted, his eyes full of loss. As we watch him curl up alone, arms around the anatomically correct sand sculpture of a woman he was dry humping for laughs a few moments ago, it’s clear there is much vulnerability underneath the bravado. He’s a little boy lost, damaged by the things he’s seen, driven over the edge by drink and a fear that he’s lost everything that meant something to him. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one of the few times you feel some sympathy for this broken, unlikable man.
Back in the US, and unable to hold down a job, Freddie takes a drunken stroll on the docks one night that leads him into the company of a charismatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd – Philip Seymour Hoffman, as powerful and magnetic in this role as I’ve seen him for a long time. The two strike up what seems at first an unlikely friendship. Their relationship is central to the film, Dodd needs an acolyte and finds someone he can control in Quell, a man with the same craving to be needed and who is more than willing to submit to Dodd’s ‘processing’. Quell at last has the stability he needs and the father figure he’s never had. Crucially both men share a furious rage hidden not far under the surface – Phoenix gives Freddie startling physical characteristics to imply this, and the rage when it comes, is fierce and violent. Seymour Hoffman keeps Dodd’s rage hidden under a cloak of geniality – we only see the fury bubble up once or twice, but when we do it’s all the more startling. Their strange bromance is at the heart of the film, which follows Dodd’s championing of The Cause, his idealistic plan to solve all the world’s problems by regressing everyone into past lives. Yes, it does sound familiar.
You’ll need to let yourself wallow in The Master, it’s fair to say the storyline is meandering and it certainly won’t please everyone (Scientologists, for example, might not entirely take it to their hearts). It’s slow, and the ending rather oblique – there are scenes that don’t seem to add much, and the plot is almost non-existent. In other hands this wouldn’t work, but Anderson (potentially one of the greatest directors working today) creates a driving momentum between Quell and Dodd that fuels the film. Both lead performances are incredible (with another impressive turn from Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife – the real master?), and visually it’s utterly beautiful – wow, if you can see it in 70mm I would urge you to, the colours have a depth you will never get on digital film, the blue of the sea and the sparkling emerald of Phoenix’s eyes could not be more arresting. The colours, the soundtrack, the depth of emotions on display – it’s all quite hypnotic.
Anderson is one of the few directors working in mainstream Hollywood who has the balls to make the films he wants to make, and thank god he does. This is one I intend to see again – and one I think needs a second viewing to get the most out of it. Superb.