Captain America: Civil War (2016)

★★★★★

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Captain America Civil War PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (UK); May 6th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie

Cards on the table: I’m a massive Captain America fan. Film series and character, but especially character. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is puny. A frail, ailing body with great aspirations and an admirable mantra. So he becomes a super solider and fights for his country against the Nazis. It’s great. By the time The Winter Soldier rolls around, Rogers is doing laps of the Capitol building in the year 2013. From the confident patriot, he’s now the unsettled defender of American freedom in a truly globalist world. It turns out Hydra has infected SHIELD; Rogers’ reliance on authority takes a hit. He still fights for freedom, but against whom?

Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War. His corporate distrust has never been more palpable — Rogers, once a willing propaganda figure for the USA, is now thoroughly anti-government. Which poses something of a problem given a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (he funds the projects of MIT students as it “helps ease his conscience”) has aligned himself with a legal arrangement drawn up by the United Nations to help govern superhero affairs. It’s why this incarnation of Stark, completely different from the incarnation relayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie, is so interesting. Just like Rogers, Stark has flipped, but in the opposite direction: no longer the rebel, now a willing integrator. And we sympathise with that penchant for integration as much as we do Rogers’ disassociation.

The aforementioned Sokovia Accords are developed in harmony by a conglomerate of nations following the Avengers’ role in the destruction of various cities across the globe. Spearheaded by the UN, the Accords split the protagonists evenly down the middle with Rogers heading up the ‘out’ gang and Stark the ‘in’. From the moment sides are established, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely serve up viable sparring justifications: Rogers fears the new world and its new politics, and believes each superhero should be accountable for his or her own actions. Stark regrets the path his actions have paved, that in shaping a team of valiant world-defenders he has also bred deadly foes like Ultron.

Markus and McFeely have been with Captain America from the beginning and they’ve done the character justice on the page, though kudos also ought to go to those who have helped shape Iron Man. You really feel the weight of history behind each persona and both actors use that pre-established weight with considered aplomb — the first glance between Rogers and Stark in Civil War is momentary, fleeting, and yet the definitive visual symbol for what is to come (spoiler: a disagreement or two). It occurs during a crisis meeting where the film tests our moral mettle via a slideshow showing Avengers-induced decimation, a meeting notable not only because it sets the fragmentation touchpaper alight, but also because it represents the bureaucracy in Stark’s argument.

We see more of that bureaucracy later: when the returning General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) cuts a mission deadline from 72 to 36 hours, for instance, and also during a key UN conference. “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” states Wakandan leader T’Chaka (John Kani) at said meeting. These are significant words in any circumstance, but coming off the back of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky — its premise based on powerful people juggling a young girl’s life before a potentially deadly terrorist strike — they resonate with significantly more gravitas. They place Rogers in a predicament that is ethically unusual for a blockbuster hero, especially one built upon a foundation of untainted righteousness: in arguing for free will, Rogers is by proxy defending the notion that some may die on the road to ultimate freedom.

There are grey tendencies in both camps that serve to ripen the narrative core. The ultimatum posed to the Avengers that they must sign the Accords or retire comes across as too heavy-handed, autocratic almost, while Rogers’ stubbornness suggests an insurmountable ideological purity that is perhaps blinding him from the harsh realities of modern geopolitics. The density of the fractured dynamic between those involved, especially between the lead duo, is endlessly compelling and fairly new to the genre I think, at least to the extent depicted here — you could argue X-Men: First Class tackled something similar, though even then Magneto’s presence shepherded a noticeable cloud of villainy.

Previous Marvel movies have been chastised for their lack of proper stakes, for their inability to suspend our disbelief when it comes to decisive matters such as estrangement or death. The nature of announcing franchise instalments years in advance has undoubtedly tainted the element of surprise (chances are Thor will make it past the end credits of Film Two when he’s on the call sheet for Film Three). Which makes Civil War all the more impressive. There are stakes this time, genuine gut-punchers centred on the solidity of relationships between various characters with whom we’ve spent the better part of a decade. If you don’t get that sense of clout from seeing such personal combustion, the frequent use of bold text to outline numerous city names ought to induce a big-time aura.

And despite all the bickering, there remains a wonderfully light touch; a vitality, a hilarity. At times the action is brutish — an apartment ambush involving Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) borrows tepidly from the more crunching style seen in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It’s also fantastical: a monumental airport duel between the two teams almost certainly trounces all that has come before in terms of Marvel silver screen choreography. It’s at this point Ant-Man comes to the fore, Paul Rudd stealing scene after scene atop a wave of witty quips. We have seen him before but this is Ant-Man’s introduction to large scale superheroism and it is perfectly handled. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is another positive, a bit immature, a bit overawed, a total do-gooder.

Though it may become ground zero for those looking to pull off their own future balancing act when it comes to handling personnel in an action environment, the airport clash only amounts to around one-fifth of Civil War’s runtime. The filmmakers manage to carve out meaningful narrative space for all their recruits throughout the piece in a way that does not indicate last minute hot-shotting. Black Panther gets a solid run-out, played with brooding authority by Chadwick Boseman who affords the newbie an air of instant importance. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow returns in a role that requires as much emotional interaction as it does ass-kicking.

Having landed the daunting task of sorting out so many moving parts — different enemies, different friends, different allegiances — the Russo brothers succeed by matching those variables to the many moving moralities on display. I haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Nor have I brought up Daniel Brühl’s scheming villain Helmut Zemo, who might be a tad underserved but then it isn’t really about the baddie on this occasion. This is a formidable cast all in good form. Even Marisa Tomei sneaks in a playful jab clarifying aunts come in all shapes and sizes (take that internet).

Anyone who has any inkling of how blockbuster cinema works will likely recognise what they perceive to be a predictable arc unfolding. But the directing duo and their filmmaking collaborators work hard to induce genuine unpredictability, be it through character decision-making or surprising story reveals. Again the Russo brothers mix hard-boiled geopolitics with a palooza of popcorn-crunching proportions, and again they succeed. In trilogy terms, the Captain America series is by far the best the genre has cooked up to date (Nolan’s Dark Knight films are as much superhero movies as they are love stories) and Civil War is an ideal way to Cap it all off.

Captain America: Civil War - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

★★★★

Captain America: The Winter Solider PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: March 26th, 2014 (UK); April 4th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s aerial hero Sam Wilson clarifies his role in combat: “I’m more of a soldier than a spy.” It’s a statement that undoubtedly applies to the all guns blazing Falcon, but not one that echoes alongside Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In a bolder move than perhaps initially perceived, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo decide to direct this latest Marvel instalment down a noticeably unrecognisable runway, one without the usual witty pizazz or golden godly attire. Instead, we find ourselves immersed in a more familiar world where threats come from secretive suits and moral ambiguity challenges heat of the moment decision-making. An ever-increasing commonality on the annual cinematic calendar, superhero jaunts must beware genericism. Captain America: The Winter Soldier heeds this notion by placing storytelling on a pedestal, and the result is the genre’s best outing since The Avengers.

Having traded barbershop quartets for iPhones, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling to comprehend modern society. Shield in hand and other hand in the enemy’s face, as Captain America, Rogers is unwavering — if there’s a mission to be done, it’s his job to carry out the orders without fail. However, when the star-spangled armour is removed and his protection against life and its cynicisms subsequently foiled, Rogers finds himself at odds with not only those close to him, but also at his own inherent ideals too. With the walls of surveillance closing in and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) warning to trust nobody a prominent klaxon bellowing around his mind, the bastion of righteousness must suddenly contend with another menace: the aptly named Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Unlike most other Marvel epics, The Winter Soldier adheres to a distinctly retro vibe; in execution, in tone and in narrative. Of course the same could be said of The First Avenger but, unlike the film set amidst World War II, Captain America’s second sole venture onto the big screen sees him fiddle around in a 2014 that is rife with wisps of the past. Phrases such as “nuclear war” are tossed around and it’s not long before the technical beat of Bourne sounds off. Rather than bombastic CGI gorging, the film shuttles forth through subtle tension. It has the basis of a spy thriller, an espionage tale pitting foes against each other in a semiotic battle where the meaning behind a threat holds as much reverence as its actual implementation.

The filmmakers astutely conjure up an air of uncertainty that sees hostile clouds slowly gather as a plethora of characters interact with each other. We know only to trust Cap, who is suffering the same principle-related dichotomy that any of us would succumb to if thrown in a similar situation. At heart he’s still the same scrawny chap from 1942, and is entirely relatable in that sense (his normality rather than his age). This amalgamation of Cold-War-esque strain is emphasised at no better moment than during a lift scene where, as more gun-wielding combatants enter and the number of suspects grows, one single trickle of sweat represents a hazy downpour from those aforementioned clouds of hostility. The overriding tonal shift works because it is different from what we normally see at the reels of Marvel (and normally enjoy too). In actual fact, The Winter Soldier is of similar mould to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as gritty realism effectively grounds and familiarises proceedings.

In an interesting twist, though the Cold War vibe presents an encapsulating avenue into the film for viewers, said time period absolutely remains a modern one for Captain America. The unethical derivative of modernity combined with fears over infiltration acts as an almost tumultuous double whammy for Steve Rogers, who is experiencing the worst of two eras. A lot of emphasis is placed on character development which means the audience is able to develop a sincere connection towards Rogers who, in the previous film, was a bit of a one-trick pony. This time around, Captain America is the perfect foil for the narrative in question, one hoisted aloft by defection and deception. He’s the symbol of freedom and justice, but how can one be fair in a morally jarring modern society? Rogers walks through a museum, showing signs of still living in the past much like his seemingly outdated moral attitude (“It’s just not the same”). One recognisable element though, is conflict, and The Winter Soldier himself reflects the soulless nature of contemporary life. As a villain he’s solid, if not a tad uninspired, though Sebastian Stan does occasionally stimulate an aura of peril.

The mind-strewn superhero himself, Chris Evans emits an authentic sense of noble disenfranchisement, but refrains from thrusting his character too far in the wrong direction. Unlike S.H.I.E.L.D., his stance is never compromised. Evans is a very watchable presence, much akin to Scarlett Johansson whose skilled spy Black Widow is a peculiarly compliant foil to Captain America. Johansson’s poise suits her ruthless agent, and here she is given a wider emotional spectrum to hit. Though originally introduced as part of the Iron Man thread, Black Widow is better suited to Captain America. Robert Redford shows up as S.H.I.E.L.D. seniority, a tangible throwback to those 1970s political war outings from which the film finds inspiration. His role not quite as physically tormenting as in All Is Lost, Redford appears to be enjoying the healthier hands-in-pockets approach here. Other noteworthy faces include Anthony Mackie, who injects humour and energy as Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson whose Nick Fury sees more action than ever before.

One or two issues do arise as the film trundles on, notably a moment of universal conformity against a particular someone displayed throughout the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., an instant acceptance that feels slightly inharmonious when considered in context with the cohesive events of previous Marvel films. Though The Winter Soldier upholds a down-to-earth narrative for most of its overly long runtime, the last 30 minutes do usher in a quintessentially grandiose superhero battle. Perhaps a more nuanced final act might have rocketed the film within touching distance of The Dark Knight territory in terms of quality, but the concluding action is exciting and does not overstay its welcome regardless. The anxiety-driven tone contributes to the film’s wholly apparent lack of humour, which is a slightly disappointing but likely unavoidable cost.

“I thought the punishment was supposed to come after the crime,” rebuffs Captain America upon hearing about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new anti-criminality methods. Buoyed by connotations of yesteryear, Captain America: The Winter Soldier presents a pertinent rhetoric on modern society by placing its titular hero in a moral joust of ethics that are tainted at best. Admirable, different, and admirably different.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Her (2014)

★★★

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.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.