Tagged: films

Her

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.

Advertisements

Dallas Buyers Club

Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: Matthew MConaughey and Jared Leto can have all the awards – it’s their performances that lift Dallas Buyers Club out of soap opera territory into something special. The story is based on the life of Ron Woodroof, a macho Texan who was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 80s and given 30 days to live. It’s fair to point out that there’s a lot of hoo-hah about how loosely based the story actually is – some artistic licence has been taken with major elements of Ron’s story. Does that matter? Not really, although the real truth is slightly more interesting (google it) and might have made for an even better film. Either way, McConaughey does him justice here in a role that he inhabits like some sort of glorious moustachioed python.

The AIDS epidemic terrified people in these early days – it’s easy to forget that it was in essence a death sentence, treatment was sporadic and ineffective, and the focus was more on prevention than cure. For those diagnosed in these early years there really was no hope. But Woodroof looks his last 30 days in the eye and decides that won’t do for him so after one last binge, spends most of those days researching drugs that might help him live a bit longer. And he finds them, care of an exiled doctor in Mexico whose advice and medication literally give Ron a new lease of life. (Full disclosure, for a minute or two I thought the doctor was Colin Farrell and was amazed at the improvement in his acting skills. It’s Griffin Dunne of course.)

Once he realises the treatment is having an effect – and Woodroof lives for seven more years –  he becomes outraged at the fact that the FDA had refused to licence most of the drugs that were helping him and starts to import them in some quantity, selling them on to other HIV patients, mainly gay men. And to help him gain their confidence, who better than Rayon – a striking transgender woman he meets in hospital (Jared Leto). The two forge a Hollywood cliche style unlikely alliance (Ron is portrayed as a rampant homophobe as well as a bit of an arse) and after a few brushes with the law, set up a buyers club which members pay a subscription to join then get their drugs for free.

The queues are round the block, much to the fury of his medical team. Only one doctor, the supremely drippy Dr Saks (Jennifer Garner) takes any notice at all of the fact that the drugs are actually working, but she doesn’t do much about it. It’s this role that for me gave a little insight into what a turgid do-gooding bore this film might have been without McConaughey and Leto – there’s no real point to it, other than to say oh by the way not all doctors are bad. So as I said, let them have all the awards, in a great big bag with a pink bow on it and a quart of bourbon in the bottom.

PS anyone who knows me will know that the dropped apostrophe in the title PAINS ME

The Wolf of Wall Street

As the credits rolled on Scorsese’s latest, I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before in the cinema. I winked at the screen. Winked. It was a completely involuntary reaction to what is essentially three hours of splendidly naughty fun. I bloody loved it.

Leonardo DiCaprio is in his element here – giving one of his best performances as Wall Street bigwig Jordan Belfort whose life Scorsese has captured in all its excessive, sexist and utterly grotesque glory. He’s a bit like a cartoon baddie, blasting his way through the film with his tail on fire, leaving a trail of dirty doings behind him, entirely unrepentant. He’s a bad man, surrounded by other bad men and some quite bad women too. They’re all having a ball, especially Belfort’s closest ally Donnie Azoff, (an also superb Jonah Hill) a man who can’t believe the way his life has turned out and fully intends to make the most of it while it lasts. Both actors deserve all the plaudits they’ve been receiving – they go all out here, but stay just the right side of caricature. Which is no mean feat, given that much of the film is out and out comedy.

DiCaprio and Hill steal the film, but there’s also a blistering Matthew McConaughey cameo, the divine Jean Dujardin pops up as a smarmy Swiss banker and there’s a slightly bizarre appearance from Joanna Lumley in a London straight off a 60s postcard. There are other women here too of course, who look nice but are somewhere on the outskirts of the story. Nothing here to match Lorraine Bracco or Sharon Stone’s gutsy roles, the women really are just eye candy. But that’s Belfort’s world, am not sure it is unavoidable – and this is based on his autobiography of course, so you know, it’s all about him and his idealised memories of the high life.

Belfort made his fortune by selling penny shares to people who couldn’t really afford them, his morals left in the box he cleared his Wall Street desk with on Black Monday. As his wealth and business grow, so did his ego – so much so that he failed to cover his back until it’s too late. But even when he’s down he’s not entirely out –  there’s no crime doesn’t pay moral here, it clearly does sometimes.

But don’t misjudge Scorsese, he knows a thing or two about giving his audience a kick in the guts, and it comes here too right at the end in a scene on the subway with the FBI agent that finally nailed Belfort (a beautifully calm performance from Kyle Chandler). Of everything I saw over the three hours, this was the scene that stayed with me and prompted a sudden prick of tears. It’s that moment of truth that makes this such a great film – a jolting reminder of the people who paid for whatever Belfort stuck up his nose (or up a hooker’s bottom… imagine the casting call for that role).

So yes, I winked at the end. And a great big salacious wink it was too, this is a balls out, wave your willy about joy.

Saving Mr Banks

Have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this apple-pie shaped slice of sentimental tosh – it’s not exactly warts and all, but it’s classily done and extremely watchable. If you don’t come out singing along with Mr Banks, there’s no hope for you.

The story of how Disney took 20 years to get the rights to put Mary Poppins on film is a strange one. Author PL Travers, a stereotypical uptight British woman with a tongue as sharp as her tweed suits, resisted the lure of the mouse until financial circumstances – and writers’ block – meant she had to give in. But she didn’t hand Poppins over without a fight, and this is the story of the two weeks Travers spent in LA working with the producers and writers who were trying their best to put the world’s most famous nanny on screen.

It says a lot for Walt Disney’s faith in the story that he put in so much effort, 20 years is a long time to fight for something. But even when she arrives in LA turning her nose up at all those terribly gauche American ways, it’s no easy ride: Travers is always on the verge of packing up her carpet bag and flying home. Of course we know she didn’t, so there’s no surprise ending, but watching her try to take control of the Disney juggernaut is amusing stuff. Travers is your archetypal stiff upper lipped Brit, on the loose in 60s LA and loathing every minute of it. Thompson is perfectly cast and looks like she’s really enjoying herself – and Hanks makes a sparkling Disney, using all the charm in the book to get his way. Which of course he does, in the end. There’s always a happy ending, right?

The one disappointment for me, and I’m sorry to say it.. but well it’s Colin Farrell. Throughout the film there are flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her idolised but drunken loser of a father (Farrell). There are a lot of flashbacks, mostly entirely unnecessary and all incredibly tedious. Every time the story dips back in time to those twinkly old days of yore, all you want is to get back to the magic kingdom and find out what’s going on with the penguins. You do get to see Rachel Griffith being the fabulous inspiration for Mary Poppins of course, but I’d have preferred more of that and less drunken old daddy if we really had to go back there.

Actually, what I would have really liked is to see Travers’ reaction to Dick van Dyke’s accent… I can’t believe she didn’t have anything to say about that.

Despite the tedious flashbacks, there’s no way to dull the lustre of what is essentially a gloriously joyful movie – and one that will send you straight out to watch Mary Poppins so you can sing along to all those amazing songs again. If the Oscars are too scared to go down the slavery route this year, Saving Mr Banks could do very well.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

I’m not sure that I needed to see Alan Partridge’s bottom. In fact, I’m absolutely sure I didn’t need to. But when I did see it, I laughed like a drain. I laughed until the tears ran down my face and my eyeliner puddled on my cheeks.

Alpha Papa is funny, there’s no way around it. I guffawed all the way through, and that’s as much as you can ask of an Alan Partridge film I think – in fact, that’s all you can ask of any comedy. One of my all-time favourite things to turn to if I’m in need of a giggle is still Dumb and Dumber. And I like to think of myself as an intellectual. But sometimes, if you can laugh for a couple of hours, or in this case, for an hour and a half, in a darkened room with a lot of other people all laughing as much as you, then that will make even the worst of days seem ok.

A lot of us have grown up with Alan – he used to seem like a middle-aged man, now he just looks like someone I might have gone to school with. Partly this is because they’ve stopped covering him in that hideous flaky makeup, but also because Steve Coogan has almost caught up with Alan in the same way that we all have. Alan, of course, has never grown up. And this is his triumph – he’s still at that emotional stage of needing to be liked, wanting to be one of the cool boys and desperate to be a success so that the cool boys (and girls) will like him. And so that he can have a boat fastened to his car.

Even now, as he quips his way through a small mid-morning radio show on a small local digital channel, he can’t quite let the dream go of the days when he was almost but not quite Terry Wogan. But because he’s Alan, that level of fame is always going to be just out of reach. And when the opportunity suddenly lands in his lap – well, it would be rude not to grab it with both hands. So here he is, becoming an accidental hostage negotiator and potential national hero when a disgruntled DJ (Colm Meaney is great) holds the employees of North Norfolk Digital at gunpoint. I think we all know how well this is likely to turn out.

In my heart of hearts I have to admit this isn’t as perfect as it might have been. But it would be churlish to pick fault really. So my advice is – for 90 minutes of LOLs (or whatever the youngsters call them these days), go see Alan. Though it’s fair to warn you, I can still see his front bottom now in my mind’s eye. I think it will always be there.

Blackfish

 

Gabriella Cowperthwaite was inspired to make Blackfish following the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 – the latest in what appears to be a shockingly long list of trainers who have been attacked by captive whales. Her killer was Tilikum, an enormous, beautiful orca who is the star of SeaWorld Orlando’s Shamu show. Dawn wasn’t his first victim, she was his third. 

Cowperthwaite tells her story as if Tilikum was a human serial killer, damaged and dangerous.  Taken from his mother as a child and kept in a small dark tank in Sealand, Canada, it’s no surprise he grew up angry. Whales, we learn, have much more developed emotions than we do – so you can only imagine how they react to captivity. Tilikum certainly didn’t handle it well – when Sealand closed (after Tilikum killed his first trainer) SeaWorld stepped in, planning to use him purely as a stud. He’s now the proud father of most of SeaWorld’s orcas. SeaWorld kept quiet about his past, even to their vulnerable trainers – young people who had dreamed of working with the whales and didn’t like to ask too many questions. 

The footage of Tilikum on the attack is shocking, but nothing that hasn’t been seen before on news coverage. What’s new is the testimony from the Shamu show trainers, disillusioned by the way they were encouraged to treat the animals and furious that SeaWorld never revealed the extent of Tilikum’s past history. SeaWorld are currently fighting America’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration who think it’s a bit mad to continue to let trainers swim with killer whales, but SeaWorld doesn’t seem to think three deaths are enough. Set against the profits from their parks, the lives of the people who work for them seem to represent small change. SeaWorld chose not to take part in the film so it’s hard to get a handle on what they were thinking. 

What’s also new – and quite unexpected given SeaWorld’s repeated boasts about its conservation achievements – are the stories about how the orca are treated. Nobody ever really thought they did those tricks for fun, but we now know they do them because if one of them doesn’t, none of them eat. Then they turn on the one who lost them their dinner. One of the scenes where I lost it most was seeing a calf taken away from its mother after learning how close their family bonds are in the wild. Utterly heartbreaking.

This is without doubt an important and solidly made documentary, and one which could well have an impact in the same way that The Cove did – indeed, SeaWorld have given up hoping it will pass unnoticed and gone into damage limitation mode. It’s done particularly well in Florida, pleasingly – actually I think they should show it on all flights into Orlando. Let’s see how many people can put their consciences aside and cheer on the Shamu show after they’ve seen this.

I hear SeaWorld when they talk about saving manatees – I don’t deny they’ve done great work here. But whales are not meant to be in captivity – this isn’t conservation, it’s cruelty pure and simple. Cowperthwaite has raised an issue that we’ve all been turning a blind eye to, it’s time to change that. 

Like Someone in Love

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film is beautifully shot, utterly mesmerising and has one of the most annoying endings ever.

Akiko is working as a prostitute to pay her way through college in Tokyo. She has an extremely jealous boyfriend and a pimp who won’t take no for an answer, and seems to have become estranged from her family. Her grandmother has come to the city to find her, and the saddest scene in the film (and possibly in all films ever apart from you know what in Bambi) is when we see granny waiting patiently outside the station, hoping her granddaughter will show up, while Akiko drives tearfully past her on the way to the client she’s being forced to visit (a noted professor). It’s a quietly devastating moment. This is a film filled with them – the loneliness of grief, the longing of a family to reconnect, the possessive jealousy of a lover – all quietly reflected in the jewel-like neon colours of a city. Even the professor’s neighbour is nursing a lifelong unrequited passion for him. But it’s also a film about how easily we become what other people want us to be, and how much damage that can do.

I won’t go into detail on the ending – suffice to say it’s quite annoying, even more so when you reflect on how much emotion you’ve been asked to invest in the two lead characters. But Like Someone in Love has a simple beauty that resonates, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll hum the song all the way home and have an irresistible urge to hug an old Japanese man.

Behind the Candelabra

I once visited the Liberace museum in Las Vegas – it was an extraordinary place, full of his costumes, ornate pianos and super-blinged up cars, and run by very old ladies. I suspect the building also housed 90% of the world’s rhinestones. It’s closed now, which is a real shame – though I think there are plans for a new one, and hopefully Behind the Candelabra will give this a bit of momentum, because there are glorious things in that museum that clamour to be let loose on the world, not locked away in boxes.

Soderbergh’s hugely enjoyable film was made for tv by HBO as the US thought it was too gay to finance as a feature, but happily it’s had a theatrical release in the UK so we get to enjoy the glitz, the glamour and the plastic surgery in full big screen glory. For a while it runs as a camp lookysee at Liberace’s exuberant lifestyle, which is worth the ticket price on its own. But it develops into the very touching tale of a likeable man who had everything except love.

It’s adapted from Scott Thorson’s book about his secret life as Liberace’s lover. Together for five years (from when Thorson was 17 and Liberace 57) there was undoubtedly much affection between the two, but raging insecurity and jealousy on both sides meant that Thorson’s time in the spotlight was always going to be limited, and his drug addiction didn’t help.

Liberace never seems to have been sure whether he wanted a son or a lover and his attempt to have Thorson remodelled into a younger version of himself was the ultimate vanity, though choosing a plastic surgeon who looked like he’d been stuck in a windtunnel for 20 years might not have been the wisest move (Rob Lowe has to be seen to be believed – and in a film full of fabulous performances he stole every scene he was in). Both men craved the love of a family: Thorson spent his childhood in care and Liberace was driven to succeed by a supremely pushy mother (Debbie Reynolds is superb too although completely unrecognisable) so neither of them had any reference points for a happy family life, and neither knew quite what to do when the opportunity presented itself. Liberace’s solution was to try to adopt his lover which raises all sorts of Operation Yewtree type questions these days.

Michael Douglas plays Liberace as if they were separated at birth, clearly relishing every minute and staying on the right side of parody. As his young lover, Matt Damon does young, dumb and full of you know what perfectly, giving Thorson just the right amount of naivety to let you sympathise with him when things go wrong, without feeling that he was entirely hard done to by a man who was endlessly chasing perfection. And probably put up with the drug taking and thieving much longer than he had to.

With costumes (and make-up) to die for and driven by a cast clearly having the time of their lives, this is not to be missed.

The Master

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.

Seven Psychopaths

This should have been a live one. Martin McDonagh’s follow up to In Bruges, full of names that you can salivate over – Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody  Harrelsen – Harry Dean Stanton for god’s sake. Alas no. Seven Psychopaths is a mess. And not a hot one. It’s a film that puts its foot down so hard on the crazy pedal that it runs out of gas before it’s even left the garage.

It irritated me from the very beginning – two sub-Tarantino hit men chit chatting (Quentin has a lot to answer for)  then, oh joy, here’s  Colin Farrell doing the ‘I’m a bit baffled’ look he does in every film he’s in (see my review of Total Recall… sorry Colin. It’s not personal, really). This time he plays Marty, who is a bit baffled about screenwriting, likes a drink and has a one-dimensional girlfriend (Abby  Cornish) who is so wasted as a character Marty probably wrote her himself.

It’s not long before we’re plunged headlong into a rambling tale of various psychopaths that doesn’t make much sense, has a few laughs and a lot of quite unpleasant violence. It all comes over a bit Adaptation gone baaaad. And not bad in a good way.

I’m sure they all had a ball making it, but it’s hard to find anything to like here – some amazing actors wading aimlessly through a plot that could have been written by the two dim mobsters at the beginning. I’m sure plenty of people at this screening would disagree, and have it down as an oh so hilarious take on the movie business. But frankly, if I’d been on the end of a row I’d have gone home and caught Coronation Street instead. Or the flu. Catching the flu would be an improvement. Cute dog though.

Argo

You know, this isn’t a bad film. It’s gripping, smartly directed by Ben Affleck (his third directorial outing) and studded with great performances from some of the best character actors in the business. It thrilled the crowd at LFF (who at once point burst into spontaneous applause) and is being spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for Oscar favourites. Yet I find myself not really wanting to give it a rave review.

Argo is based on the true story of six US citizens taken hostage in Tehran in 1979. They are holed up in the Canadian embassy but the Islamic militants are closing in and the American government need to find a way to get them out quickly. The CIA’s Tony Mendez (played by a miscast Affleck) has a plan – to sneak them out of the country by pretending to be a Canadian movie crew scouting locations for Argo, a sci-fi production. It’s a bit of a bonkers one, as plans go, but without any other realistic options, he gets the go ahead and with the support of his CIA boss Jack O’Donnell (the wonderful Bryan Cranston) and the help of Hollywood make-up genius John Chambers and producer Lester Seigel (John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both great as always), the plan comes together.

Affleck builds the tension expertly and not without some clever touches of humour, and by the climactic scene at the end, you genuinely will find yourself on the edge of your seat. It’s all a little bit formulaic for me though, there are too many of those annoying ‘just in time’ moments and some unneccessary cheese (cute Mendez jnr playing with his space toys? No thanks). But I think the biggest bum note is Affleck who never feels quite right as Mendez –  he just isn’t grizzled enough to make his hard working, hard drinking CIA man believable. A shame, when the rest of the cast is so strong.

So enjoyable, yes. A slick thriller, yes. But a great film? Not really. It feels like there is a much stronger story in here somewhere that hasn’t been allowed to blossom. Affleck clearly has the potential to do much better (maybe when he isn’t trying so hard to get an Oscar).