Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Her', 'The Lego Movie', and 'The Armstrong Lie': review round-up

'Her' - Dir. Spike Jonze (15)


You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future.

Anyone expecting something broadly critical of our perceived contemporary over-reliance on and obsession with smartphones and computers is in for disappointment. This isn't a piece about the perils of technology, going for trite and easy targets - such as the widespread idea that we don't pay each other enough attention anymore because we're more interested in our Facebook pages. Instead it's a sincere exploration of love as a concept that looks at how this "form of socially acceptable insanity", as Theodore's sympathetic friend Amy (Amy Adams) puts it, works and what it means. If anything, Samantha's status as a non-human - as a more advanced, faster-thinking intelligence - enables the exploration and interrogation of entrenched concepts about the nature of love and traditional relationships. For instance, Samantha's ability to seemingly love potential thousands of people and fellow AIs with equal strength simultaneously (and Theodore's jealousy and indignation at this development) calls into question the possessive and perhaps selfish nature of most human love.

That's not to say the film is completely uncritical of why a person like Theodore - who Phoenix embues with tenderness, warmth and a certain lovelorn, world-weary sadness - might choose to date an OS over a human being. Through interactions with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) we learn that he has difficulty expressing himself to others in person and finds people difficult, something also demonstrated by his career as a successful writer of other people's letters for the (I hope) fictional - with letters here almost de-romanticised as a method of communication that permits distance and perhaps even insincerity. That he's apparently a very good and well respected writer of other people's letters speaks to the fact that Theodore is not somebody who has trouble understanding emotions or feeling them, but that his difficulty lies with expressing himself openly. With the exception of a few isolated scenes (and one of those is an awkward date with Olivia Wilde's Amelia), Theodore is generally depicted alone among anonymous crowds or in his spacious apartment. But it's a sort of sun-soaked, almost triumphant isolation that seems extremely appealing, as he casually saunters around a very clean version of Los Angeles.

Perhaps dating an OS is giving him unhealthy permission to retreat further from public life, or perhaps it's the perfect relationship for somebody who's more comfortable keeping people at arms length. Do we all crave a relationship we can switch on and off? That we can put in our pocket and take on our travels? How you feel about that probably depends on your own feelings on technology and its rapid integration with every aspect of our lives, as much as it does your current mood regarding other human beings and the state of your love-life. Jonze certainly doesn't seem to be judging either way with this eerily prescient look at the future of love which, like all good science fiction, has just as much to say about the present day. 'Her' seems to show us a world we might soon inhabit, where complex relationships between humans and increasingly sophisticated synthetic life become the norm - and that's mostly OK.

'The Lego Movie' - Dir. Phil Miller and Chris Lord (U)

The worst thing I can say about Phil Miller and Chris Lord's hyperactive and characteristically gag-heavy 'The Lego Movie' is that the trailers were unquestionably front-loaded with all the best jokes. But that's not really the fault of the movie itself, which is still packed with funny moments, charming characters and surprising Lego character cameos (which I won't spoil here). It's also way more subversive and socially aware than you expect from a movie based on a toy license - with the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) using an army of robotic micro-managers to ensure optimum social conformity. In the same vein, it's a love of chart music and chain restaurants that tips off ass-kicking heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to the fact that generic, smiley Lego construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) might not in fact be "the special" - a prophesied "master builder" who will restore free-thought and fun to a land oppressed by the tyranny of the instruction manual.

The animation is superb, with Miller and Lord using an almost stop-frame aesthetic to bring the toy world to life, but through CGI doing things you might never be able to do with traditional animation methods. The world is filled with amazing details, like the ocean made to resemble a pattern of tessellating blue and white Lego studs, whilst supporting characters like Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day) and, yes, Batman (Will Arnett) are given life and personality that defies their limited Lego brick designs. Perhaps the best bit is that, without giving anything away, the writer-directors have managed to not only make a supremely enjoyable animated movie using the visual style and various licenses of the Lego brand, but also a film that is ultimately about Lego itself. Without being at all cheesy or seeming cynically motivated in the least, the film quickly becomes a celebration of imaginative play, creativity and childhood itself, with an enthusiasm that's infectious.

'The Armstrong Lie' - Alex Gibney (15)

Whilst not ostensibly as 'important' as his acclaimed and invariably powerful docs on corporate corruption, WikiLeaks or wars in the Middle East, Alex Gibney's look at the scandal that threw the career and reputation of cancer survivor, humanitarian and former multiple Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong into disrepute is still a compelling watch, whether you care about cycling or not. That's because, in true Gibney style, 'The Armstrong Lie' is more about our willingness (and the willingness of the news media) to be deceived by an appealing narrative than it is about sport and illegal doping practices. A cancer survivor who wasn't expected to make it comes back into the sport he never threatened to be the best at and, not only does he become a champion, but he completely dominates for the best part of a decade. It's a hopeful story about life after cancer and man's resilience in the face of adversity, so heartwarming and inspirational that everybody wanted to believe it.

That's the secret behind the Armstrong lie of the title: in spite of years of investigative journalists uncovering evidence of the athlete's use of performance enhancing drugs, in spite of testimony against him from former friends asserting that he used these drugs extensively throughout his seven Tour wins, and despite his public hiring of an Italian doctor known to be a specialist in developing ways to help cyclists cheat under the radar - he got away with it (to some extent, right up until the moment he confessed on Oprah in 2013) precisely because we all collectively willed it to be true. In his narration, Gibney admits that he was also in the thrall of Armstrong's public persona and larger-than-life success story - willing his subject to win, against the critics and fellow cyclists, during his ill-conceived 2009 comeback to professional cycling (which was originally supposed to be the focus of Gibney's documentary before the truth about Armstrong's use of drugs became public).

Armstrong is an interesting subject who, though he comes across thoroughly badly (in retrospect) in archive footage of interviews and press conferences - as he aggressively defends himself against allegations of drug use to the point where he frequently goes on the attack - is nonetheless an entertaining public speaker and frequently a charismatic presence on camera (for instance, when passionately explaining why kids love bikes). His is certainly a larger than life story worthy of telling, if in reality that's for vastly different reasons than we originally thought. What does seem clear is that the entire sport was rife with doping at the time in which he competed and your sympathy for Armstrong ultimately rests on how much you respect a professional competitor's "will to win" above all else and how much weight the "everybody else was doing it" defence carries.

Ultimately public anger at Armstrong, over and above his perhaps equally crooked fellow athletes, is perhaps completely justified and long overdue. Not only because he used drugs to build a reputation that made him a fabulously wealthy and powerful global celebrity (like no cyclist before or since), but because of what he actively tried to make himself represent and the damage his corruption does to whatever genuinely noble causes he was involved in. Gibney's doc gives him a forum to mount his case and it's one that is selfish, delusional and supremely arrogant. In retrospect the whole thing - the hero worship, the story, the celebrity, the sporting triumph - all seems so hard to believe. Gibney's film exceeds its bounds to become the story of our collective gullibility in the face of attractive mistruths.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

'The Wolf of Wall Street', 'Inside Llewyn Davis', and 'August: Osage County': review round-up + A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

'The Wolf of Wall Street' - Dir. Martin Scorsese (18)

Funnier than most straight comedies, Martin Scorsese's biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is consistently entertaining over its daunting three hour running length. In many ways it's very similar to 'Goodfellas', albeit following a different (less physically violent) type of criminal, but the beats are the same and the same questions remain, namely "why would somebody choose to live this life?" - with the suggestion made that we will all envy the Belfort even as we come to despise him as a human being. And despicable he is. For all the moral panic about the film failing to condemn its protagonist, Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio paint a picture of a charismatic but morally bankrupt figure, ultimately without any real friends or meaningful human connections. He's an out of control, drug-addicted monster by the film's final third, punching his wife (Margot Robbie) and driving his young daughter into a wall. If you think the film doesn't make his life seem unappealing enough, or that it doesn't show the dark and sinister side of his character, then I don't know what version of the film you saw.

The performances are great across the board, with DiCaprio getting to demonstrate a deft comic timing and lightness of touch we haven't seen in years, whilst physically he's also required to do some incredible and very odd things. Yet the star performer is Jonah Hill as his business partner and supposed best friend Donnie Azoff, who owns the best moments and generates the biggest laughs in a film full of them. Matthew McConaughey is typically brilliant in what amounts to an extended cameo at the start and Kyle Chandler is similarly memorable as the straight-laced, incorruptible FBI agent seen in just a few key scenes. I also have to mention how enjoyable and inspired the casting of Rob Reiner is as Jordan's hot-tempered father - a force of nature who blusters into several key scenes to great comedic effect.

It's typically slick and punchy from beginning to end, carried briskly along by DiCaprio's playful narration and it never really stops for air. That Scorsese continues to make such dynamic, exciting and contemporary films in his 70s (long-serving editor Themla Schoonmaker is showing the likes of 'Spring Breakers' how it's done at 74) is quite something and possibly part of what makes his a unique and enduring voice.

'Inside Llewyn Davis' - Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (15)

A slight and deceptively simple entry into the Coen canon, in the mould of the criminally underrated 'A Serious Man', Oscar Isaac stars here as the title character - a struggling folk singer, moving from couch to couch in the Greenwich Village of 1961. As he bumbles from sometime lover to casual acquaintance we're introduced to a number of strange and variously pathetic and/or unlikable characters, given life by a half-dozen impactful cameos from the likes of John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. In the Coen tradition all of them seen to have some measure of private sadness, whether it's a hidden box of unsold records, a crippling drug problem or a decision to sell-out artistically and settle down in the suburbs. Llewyn is vaguely contemptuous of nearly all of them and yet he is simultaneously beholden to them as he endlessly rotates through his New York contacts for places to stay or people to hitch a ride with.

Llewyn is an interesting character. Superior, aloof and prideful - refusing to sell out his artistic sensibilities, living hand to mouth and playing 'real' folk music with thankless results and no commercial future. A user and a man without responsibility or attachments. Yet he is on occasion, paradoxically, upstanding and decent in his quiet way. Both humble and egotistical. Emotionally detached and yet harbouring his own grief and inner turmoil. A complex and nuanced character perfectly suited to Isaac's intelligent and introspective demeanor. He's not a hero in any sense; he's infuriating and maybe a little pretentious - but he's entirely human. The Coen's get criticised often for not liking their characters enough, but this kind of nuanced depiction of people - with all their faults and idiosyncrasy - to my mind comes from a place of empathy and understanding. I think they understand people very well, but they aren't afraid to admit that we're all basically a bit rubbish.

'August: Osage County' - Dir. John Wells (15)

I imagine a slight variation on this short conversation accounts for every single factor behind the making, distribution and ultimate viewership of 'August: Osage County': it goes "hey, Chris Cooper! We got a great part for you." "Yeah?" he replies "What's the movie about?" "Well, I'm glad you asked, Chrissy boy. It's an adaptation of a stage play about a dysfunctional mid-Western family dominated by a cruel matriarch and rocked by incest, substance abuse and general misery." "Oh, I dunno" replies Mr. Cooper "that sounds kinda interesting but I think I'll pass." "That's a shame, pal, because Meryl was personally extremely interested in you coming aboard with us." "Excuse me? Meryl?" "Yeah, didn't I mention Meryl Streep is taking the lead part?" "Oh my lord! Meryl Streep!? Where do I sign! This is going to be amazing!"

I think that's an accurate transcript of how this film came to be and the sum total explanation of why audiences are going to see it, in spite of the fact that it's a hoary old bag of cliches adding up to a glorified episode of 'Eastenders'. Though it's easy to see why Meryl Streep took the role: she's this out of control, bitchy, shouty monster of a mother, parading around in a bad wig with a drink in one hand and a fag in the other - falling over, maniacally cackling and not so much chewing the scenery as violently chomping it to within an inch of its warranty. It's a role and performance preconfigured to make audiences say "oh, how brave!" And as Meryl Streep sprints over the top, all of the other actors race to join her - most notably Julia Roberts, whose "eat the mother-fucking fish, bitch" rant rivals that bit in 'The Paperboy' (where Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo watch Nicole Kidman masturbate) for shear "oh my god, what am I watching and is it really happening?"-ness.

There's one very nice father and son sequence between Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the closest the movie comes to feeling genuine and intimate. Then there's the film's real stand-out performance, delivered by Julianne Nicholson who plays Streep's meek and downtrodden youngest daughter with tenderness, vulnerability and genuine heart. But the rest is all histrionics and 'dark heart of the rural American family' tropes that we've all seen a thousand times before in better movies. Maybe Tracy Letts' play works better on the stage, where hammy excess is often part and parcel of the experience - but this big screen adaptation borders on ridiculous as it goes from one melodramatic family revelation to the next in all its plate-smashing pomp.


Finally, I've been saddened by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman - a man who could legitimately have claimed to have been the actor of his generation. He was certainly one of my all-time favourites and I'm upset that we won't be seeing whatever he might have gone on to do as an actor and director. As an actor he was always believable and could be relied upon to be the best thing in the rare bad movie that he appeared in. He was one of those talents that elevated bad material and made great material really sing. There is no such thing as a bad Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, at least not that I've seen.

In tribute, below are some clips of my favourite of his roles.

A good scene (and great performance) from a less than great movie...


And one from the best film ever made...

I'm genuinely going to miss this guy.