Her (2014)

★★★

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Director: Spike Jonze

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance; Science fiction

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

The last time Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams acted side-by-side they were components of an enigmatic collective, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an enigmatic film, The Master. Perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s most well-regarded stint in-front of camera was as part of Lost in Translation, and there are echoes here of that wayward soul in a hasty world mantra. Surprisingly then — given Phoenix, Adams and Johansson’s presence — Her somewhat ambles along uncertainly. Unlike The Master, it never reaches the pinnacle of engrossment, and it doesn’t quite have that admirable ambience of Lost in Translation. There is something delicate and charming though, admittedly often deriving from the performances of our fair trio. Yet aside from its lively textures, there’s a lacking sharpness, a missing clarity. Sometimes it’s all in the name, and the world in which Theodore Twombly exists is all a bit, well, wibbly-twombly.

It’s 2025 and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) splits his time between love letter composition for those unable to elaborate on their feelings, engaging in virtual gaming, and moping about his impending divorce. Given his own stuttering when it comes to expressing emotions, it’s miraculous that Theodore succeeds in his paraphrasing-mediation job. Inward and suitably unnoticeable among the masses of technology consumed beings, Theodore decides to invest in a brand new OS system, shortly thereafter named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). At first he’s unsure, but still awkwardly encapsulated; by the impossibly sophisticated technology, the presence of something new in his life, and more than anything, Samantha’s sultry voice.

A voice that absolutely entices. Scarlett Johansson delivers a pitch perfect audio performance that rings both affectionate and strong-willed, increasingly growing in knowledge and pseudo-humanity. As viewers, we know of Johansson’s actual beauty and picture her as the OS system exhales airwaves, therefore it is easier to grasp on to her allure and, ultimately, understand why Theodore is becoming more and more infatuated with those wispy tones. Essentially, we see what he hears. On the empirical side of things, Joaquin Phoenix amiably bumbles as the lead. In reality Phoenix has a tough job, considering many of his conversations take place without the presence of another human being, and there’s no central location for him to direct speech towards. In evading this obstacle, Phoenix creates a flailing uncertainty that, even in direct conversation with another body, would probably still have him glancing from ceiling to floor. Theodore’s fidgety, glasses-adjusting unsettled social existence works well, in turn ensuring another successful acting outing for Phoenix.

Aptly, women are the order of the day in Her and another three effectively contribute, only in smaller doses. Olivia Wilde manifests as Theodore’s date, spiky in exterior yet personifying that lack of assurance that runs throughout the film. Soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine is played by Rooney Mara, appearing in a few montages and even fewer real-time scenes. Mara is fine, but doesn’t really see enough light of day to develop character-wise. Amy Adams gets a lot more screen time as Theodore’s childhood friend Amy and, much like her mate, is adoringly awkward. Which raises the first issue – the pair are so alike, seemingly very close and totally get on, so why are they not together? When we meet Theodore he is recently removed from a committed relationship, and Amy’s collapsing love life isn’t far behind. The premise obviously demands that there be an absorbing connection between its characters and their technologies, but the narrative still seems far-fetched in that neither Theodore nor Amy ever raise the issue of a potential relationship between the pair, which considering all the evidence, would be a flourishing escapade. Perhaps Amy’s human-on-human romance exfoliating with negativity subsequently forces Theodore’s mechanical-driven desire.

The insistence, then, on contemplating and evoking a social commentary on how civilisation is becoming enslaved by technology, starts edging towards overbearing status. Constantly, the screen cuts from unfolding events to convey the number of humans seen aimlessly wandering with an electronic voice in one ear. Yet a number of these techno-captives — not all — still convey surprise when Theodore details his rapport with an OS system (“You’re dating your computer?”). The notion is weird for the viewer, of course, but in the context of a future world driven by the machine, Theodore’s budding romance doesn’t really seem all that peculiar. To get around this, writer-director Spike Jonze delves further into the land of philosophical thought, encountering Samantha as she raises her own moral dichotomy. “Are these feelings real, or are they just programming?” she wonders worriedly. Is she even a she? Instead of Her, would Thing be a more suitable title? For a while, this dilemma sort of works as it becomes more about the creation of a new, potentially dominant artificial intelligence, rather than a human-computer relationship. Inevitably though, it wears.

Once Jonze gets past the schmaltz and hit-or-miss musings (“The past is just a story we tell ourselves” — guess I don’t need to return that television I stole yesterday then) and focuses on purely simplicity, Her really hits its stride. When Theodore and Samantha are having banterous, funny conversations, that’s when the film oozes charm and good-natured infectiousness. Moments of energy reign supreme over soliloquies of sad reflection. The film is encased in vibrancy, a future world that somehow gleams with a retro feel, almost as if we’ve returned to the inception of computers rather than their sovereignty. Theodore’s moustache is as welcome as his bright orange shirt and the multicoloured glass windows his office. This glossy texture, coupled with a hypnotic soundtrack not dissimilar to that of Lost in Translation, aids in capturing a setting that you wouldn’t mind spending hours encapsulated in.

Strong performances provide Spike Jonze’s Her with a required dose of oomph, as often the director’s relentless societal ponderings become too much or increasingly repetitive. Having said that, the film is entirely watchable and probably just as rewatchable, given its wonderful cinematography and generous atmosphere. Despite a few significant misgivings, Her is actually pretty good fun.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

★★★★★

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Release Date: April 3rd, 1968 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

Where to begin?

The beginning of time, apparently. A group of apes, shepherded by an apparent leader, are growled at and hounded from their waterhole having already lost a member via the scissor-like teeth of a leopard. It appears; seemingly from nowhere, from nothing: a large and brooding object, known as the monolith. The beasts shriek, cower and then gain strength in its presence. Shortly thereafter, the now tactical, abrasive early hominids have reclaimed their waterhole. Clutching a bone, envisioning a tool, the leader tosses his symbol of construction, destruction and all else into air.

We’re floating in space.

It truly is a remarkable opening sequence, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of premature life dissolving into an achievement-driven existence, an existence embodied by the amazing feat of spatial prosperity. By squashing life’s inception all the way through to thriving humanity into only a few minutes, is Kubrick trivialising said time period? Is he playing down the importance of thousands of years in anticipation of what is to come next? Perhaps. Yet it is the black structure, the monolith that is most intriguing. So odd in its appearance, the edged object turns ominous; what of its instantly empowering effect on the apes? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential pieces of cinema, of art, to be born out of the last century, and in less than 10 minutes it pillages viewers with more questions than answers. Over a two hour and 40 minute run-time these questions double, treble, as Kubrick raises issue after issue including our reliance on machines, mechanical manipulation, the significance of alien existence, of shapes even. He does all of this whilst celebrating humankind and our limitless prerogative. It’s wonderful.

Zarathustra, speak. Cue the brass…

Across four far-reaching periods of time, each one linked existentially and thematically to the next, 2001: A Space Odyssey engages in a tale — the tale — of life. After encountering the early hominid creatures, we ascend over the horizon into space and join Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) are he prepares for a mission to Clavius Base in the midst of some abnormal goings-on. The narrative sprints ahead thereafter, to the Jupiter Mission, doctors Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and their increasingly claustrophobic relationship with ship computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Finally, Kubrick takes us on a peculiar and tantalising journey across, through and around the cosmos, blanketed in an array of magnificent cosmological phenomena.

This collection of chronological mini-movies, although odd at first glance, succeeds two-fold: in compounding the monumental story being told, and in detailing the development of mindful curiosity, technological prowess and emotional manipulation. The first strand — the only section to be located on land — portrays everything primitive. The ape, soon to become man. The waterhole, soon to become territory. The bone, soon to become a sword, and a sceptre, and a hammer. It’s smart, cunning almost, as the sequence sets your brain clogs in motion. And the viewer’s mind is certainly going to need to be switched on, as the black vacuum above plays host to everything that follows.

An iconic image: the bone thrown and subsequently plummeting through the air, snappily followed by a space shuttle harnessed by gravity. Perhaps an indication of humankind’s selfishly perceived stability all these years later. Selfish in their control over nature, and negligence of mechanical reliance. Machines that seemingly have a “dependence on people,” at least that’s the view of Heywood, and later both Frank and David. Kubrick switches his line of questioning, batting that now aged-old ‘man versus machine’ adage that was gaining prominence around the film’s release in 1968. The internal AI system, HAL, is essentially the ticking heart of Discovery One, Frank and David’s space liner — HAL’s physical appearance burns a bright reddish-orange, symbolising the sun. Yet the system is almost secondary to the humans on board, simply a part of their routine; machinery assists in cooking food (unlike the raw meat off the slain bone eaten by apes), in steering the ship, providing entertainment (HAL wins at a game of chess), and almost all else.

This notion of machine-driven consumption prevails throughout the film, climaxing in HAL’s eventual devilishness and therefore implying both that machine has absolute rule over man, and that it is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of life. Douglas Rain is deadpan as the system’s voice, verbalising in an incredibly unassuming-turned-condescending manner (“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult”). Coincidentally, this converging relationship between man and machine has once again reared its societal hand recently, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a story about a man who falls in love with his AI system. The topic is an intriguing one, and Stanley Kubrick tackles it as well as anybody has done (or will do).

There are also other subtexts rummaging around, including our intrinsic attraction to the search for alien existence, conveyed by how characters interact with the menacing monoliths scattered throughout. Another irregular data byte comes by way of shapes — the sphere: HAL, the ship’s centre, and planet Earth indicating a form of coming full circle; the rectangle: those brooding and dangerous monoliths, offering no leeway; and the picturesque octagon: part of Discovery One’s walkway, an uncommon shape signalling strange happenings.

Interspersed within this ocean of thought-provoking query is a soundtrack as wide-ranging as the eon covered, yet one that maintains a common brassy undertone. Celebratory and grandiose, Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” blares as a triumphant recognition of achievement. Conversely, scores of haunting, ghostly tones wail out like human souls in fear of extraterrestrials; it’s the ambience of the unknown. Geoffrey Unsworth has a whole universe to work with, and his cinematography is marvellous. The special effects, though obviously not up to present day standards, are admirable in their imagination — the influence of the camera work on show here can be seen propelling modern movies like Gravity. Performances from Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester are by no means the centrepiece of proceedings, but Dullea in particularly stands out depicting of the authority-battling and bearings-losing Dr. David Bowman.

Stanley Kubrick films are renowned for offering more questions than answers. This potentially problematic mantra shows no sign of miss-deployment here, instead thriving in tandem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that encompasses all of time and that debates the multitude of lives lived throughout.

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Oscars 2014 — Early Predictions

On March 2nd the film industry will pay tribute to the greatest cinematic achievements of the past year. The best of the best. The cream of the crop. For the most part, anyway. The Academy Awards always generate a hefty amount of hype – with Harvey Weinstein on the prowl there’s no surprise there! – and perhaps more so this year than in the recent past given the relatively open landscape in just about all the heavy-hitting categories.

The Academy announced their nominations for each category earlier today, so let’s go through some of them and pick out a few potential winners.

I haven’t seen all of the films listed yet, which means a portion of the following bout of foreshadowing will be partly down to instinct and partly taking into consideration where the main bouts of buzz are landing. Heck, we can come back and amend stuff nearer the time… once I’ve consumed all the films. Ahem.

 

The Nominations

Best Picture

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

– What should’ve been nominated: Blue is the Warmest Colour

 

Best Actor

Christian Bale

Bruce Dern

Leonardo DiCaprio

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Matthew McConaughey

– Who will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

– Who I want to win: Leonardo DiCaprio

– Who should’ve been nominated: Tom Hanks

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams

Cate Blanchett

Sandra Bullock

Judi Dench

Meryl Streep

– Who will win: Cate Blanchett

– Who I want to win: Cate Blanchett

– Who should’ve been nominated: Adèle Exarchopoulos

 

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi

Bradley Cooper

Michael Fassbender

Jonah Hill

Jared Leto

– Who will win: Jared Leto

– Who I want to win: Barkhad Abdi

 

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong’o

Julia Roberts

June Squibb

– Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence

– Who I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Director

David O. Russell

Alfonso Cuarón

Alexander Payne

Steve McQueen

Martin Scorsese

– Who will win: Alfonso Cuarón

– Who I want to win: David O. Russell

 

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle

Blue Jasmine

Dallas Buyers Club

Her

Nebraska

– What will win: American Hustle

– What I want to win: American Hustle

– What should’ve been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight

Captain Phillips

Philomena

12 Years a Slave

The Wolf of Wall Street

– What will win: 12 Years a Slave

– What I want to win: Undecided

 

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing

Cutie and the Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

– What will win: The Act of Killing

– What I want to win: The Act of Killing

– What should’ve been nominated: Blackfish

 

On an interesting side note, every year the Oscars devote a part of the ceremony to a certain theme. Last year for instance, a variety of musical numbers were unfurled on stage (remember Seth MacFarlane’s “Boob Song”?) paying tribute to film music.

This year the theme is ‘Movie Heroes’. That’s everyone from the normal person on the street, to the surgeon saving a life, to those larger-than-life superheroes we’ve come to know and love.

His film won Best Picture last year… I wonder if a certain newly appointed masked crusader will unveil his bat-wings this time around.