Her (2014)

★★★

Advertisements

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.

Ray (2004)

★★★

Director: Taylor Hackford

Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Music

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren

Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.

We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.

Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.

Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”

That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.

On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.

Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.

By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.

The Master (2012)

★★★★

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Release Date: September 21st, 2012 (US); November 16th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

From the inquisitive mind of Paul Thomas Anderson comes The Master, a beautifully shot depiction of the relationship between two external polar opposites — a worn-out, angry war veteran and an intellectual, charismatic cult leader — along with the gradual realisation that both men are internally very similar. Paul Thomas Anderson truly has a gift for filmmaking, for creating worlds that engulf audiences and for establishing characters who seem increasingly real and infuriatingly flawed-yet-admirable — even at the occasional expense of sense and structure. In The Master, Anderson has just that again as, although confused at times, the film is encapsulating and driven by three uniquely masterful performances.

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell, a former Navy officer and current alcoholic and sex addict, who is unable to find his place in the post-war society. After struggling through a number of jobs, none of which he is able to adjust and settle in to, Quell wakes up one morning on a boat guided by Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic individual who is the leader of a philosophical entity known as “The Cause”. Enticed by the opportunity and awe-struck by Dodd’s uncanny allure and knowledge, Quell embarks on a journey of rediscovery and recovery, all the while Dodd’s beckoning light begins to flicker.

At one point, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd says, “For without [scepticism] we’d be positives and no negatives, therefore zero charge.” Fittingly, this is not only the case for Dodd and his cleansing techniques, but it is also true in terms of The Master as a whole. There are moments of doubt in regard to where Anderson is attempting to direct proceedings and the film does take its time to get itself together, but without these uncertainties the likes of Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams would have a lot less to sink their teeth into. The film is a look into acceptance and readjustment; a commentary on belief and the power of cult-dynamic; a take on the societal and personal issues of consumerism and sex appeal which have existed in different forms for decades. Somehow all of these elements must find a way to jostle into position at the forefront of what is going on, and there are occasions where goings-on become slightly over-run and confused as a result. However, these aforementioned issues are necessary as they each act as a vehicle for the various characters to develop alongside.

The Master kicks-off in a somewhat obscure manner as Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is in the process of acclimatising to life after the war. The pace of the film is very slow in these opening minutes and it is not until Quell meets Dodd that the film really gets into its stride. The first ‘processing’ scene — where Dodd subjects a restless Quell to uncomfortable and hard-hitting personal questions — is utterly scintillating. The unassuming poise Hoffman portrays against Phoenix’s eagerness is encapsulating and sets the tone for much of what is come between the pair. This scene is just about the first time the two have appeared opposite each other on screen, and it has a hint of a De Niro-Pacino Heat-esque feel to it. As the film progresses, an edgy atmosphere develops and events always seem to be on the cusp: either of violence, or laughter, or anger. This atmosphere is aided by an extrinsic stillness projected from the camera, and lingering shots that, if left a second or two longer, would probably see things kick-off — this is certainly the case on one occasion.

The Master, if nothing else, boasts performances worthy of its title. Paul Thomas Anderson always seems to grind out the absolute best from his actors and this is once again the case here. Joaquin Phoenix is uncomfortable to watch for much of the film, which is exactly how his addiction-fuelled, uncompromising war veteran should be seen. From the outset, almost everything about Freddie Quell is undesirable, such as his excessive consumption of alcohol or his noticeably hunched-back, which is in dire need of straightening (much like his head). The genius in Phoenix’s portrayal is that he deceitfully and gradually positions Quell as man who draws much sympathy from the audience, even whilst retaining these unwanted traits.

Of course, in Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, Phoenix has two wonderfully gifted actors to interact with. Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd seemingly has the answer to all of Quell’s problems and comes across as a hypnotic saviour. The two share a father-son dynamic as Phoenix’s character spends most of his time spellbound by the unmistakable intellect emitted by Hoffman’s Dodd, whose genuineness is always in question. Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, and her nonchalant, suppressed attitude is both endearing and eerie — particularly in comparison to her husband’s grandiose demeanour. The supporting cast made up of Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek and Jesse Plemons amongst others are all equally accommodating, but it is the three mentioned in detail who shine. It is no surprise that Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams were each nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles — the only surprise is The Master left the 2013 ceremony empty handed.

A challenging enactment of a broken man trying to readjust to post-war surroundings, The Master is another Paul Thomas Anderson success story. Nourished by extensively well-written characters performed emphatically and accompanied by mesmerising cinematography, The Master is just one additional degree of clarity away from masterful.

Credit: Huffington Post
Credit: Huffington Post