Spike Jonze’s melancholy, futuristic rom-com Her is a beautiful and soulful look at human relationships. The intensity of the performances and the precision of the direction draws you into the centre of a romantic relationship which forces you to question what it means to be human and what it is that we really need from our relationships.
Our hero, Theodore Twombly [Joaquin Phoenix] works as a writer at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, where he constructs intimate and personal love letters for his clients to send to their loved ones. It’s a sign of the times. At some point in the not-too-distant future, people seem to have forgotten how to communicate with each other and our increasingly dependent on machines. In scenes not too different to what you would observe today, we see throngs of people walking the streets, engaging with their personal inner-ear computer systems – utterly oblivious to one another. The logical next step is that people would begin to form relationships with these machines as they advance to mimic human development and behaviour.
The concept is decidedly creepy. Falling in love with a disembodied voice, the odd ‘phone sex’ that Theodore and his OS system girlfriend Samantha [Scarlett Johansson] engage in, the complete detachment from human interaction – but the overwhelming feeling of this film is warmth. Despite the lack of physical contact between Theodore and Samantha, their relationship makes you feel warm. You delight in Theodore’s adorable excitement and romantic tendencies and in Samantha’s tentative admissions as the pair grow closer. You really are rooting for them. In comparison to the real human relationships in the film, Amy Adams and her anal, self-righteous partner, Theodore and Samantha are the enviable couple – the closest, the ones who are doing it right. This speaks volumes about our preconceptions about romantic relationships – and the fact that warmth and love isn’t wrapped up in the aesthetic, or even the tangible.
It isn’t just the pairing of Phoenix and Johansson that radiates warmth in this film. The colour scheme created by Jonze is just delicious to look at. With hazy, muted pastels everywhere you turn from the costumes to the washed-out orange skyline, the look of the film envelops you in a romantic haze that puts an entirely original spin on the representations of the future that we’re used to seeing. Rather than the cold, metallic image of the future that’s synonymous with so much sci-fi, Jonze has created a future that is, although melancholy, quietly hopeful and sweetly peaceful at it’s core. Far from being a warning against the rise of the machines, Jonze is presenting a world in which there is a viable alternative to human relationships – and there is really a lack of judgement as to whether this is a positive or negative thing.
It was too long. The dreamy, endless shots of landscapes and a thoughtful Theodore that captivated me initially became slightly tired towards the end. I had to fight slightly to keep my engagement towards the end – which was a shame. It didn’t need to be that long, and would have benefitted by cutting 30 minutes to allow you to stay in the state of hazy, romantic bliss that the film initially creates.
OUT OF TEN: SEVEN POINT FIVE
Jean-Marc Vallee’s moving real-life drama Dallas Buyers Club, about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is undisputedly a very good film. With sharp dialogue, gorgeous use of realism in the choice of shots, interesting use of sound and unparalleled performances, it’s hard to fault. And yet it is at fault – I called it a ‘moving’ drama, because this is what Vallee was going for, but despite the sensitive subject matter I was left oddly unmoved. The film is incredibly watchable, important and creative – but there was a slight emotional disconnect between the screen and the audience. Vallee may have wanted to avoid playing on the audience’s heartstrings, but potentially by going too truthful and too real, Vallee may have slightly missed a trick – it’s still a film after all.
The king of the career revamp strikes again, as Matthew McConaughey continues to prove that he has truly shed his rom-com roots and is a fully fledged Oscar contender. He is incredible as the homophobic rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof who, after being diagnosed with HIV, goes on to transform AIDS treatments in the USA. Putting his astonishing physical changes aside – the role goes much deeper than the aesthetic. McConaughey manages to take an intrinsically ugly soul and take him on a believable arc of redemption without ever resorting to the clichéd or moralistic. You have to admire McConaughey’s courage in this role – he goes all out for the entire film and you are left with a gaping insight into Woodroof’s underlying vulnerability. Mixed with an intelligent use of comedy and pizzazz, McConaughey constructs a genuinely unique anti-hero who gives you something to root for.
No less impressive was Jared Leto as transsexual HIV sufferer Rayon. As with McConaughey, many critics have placed too high a significance on Leto’s physical transformation, as if his uncanny ability to look like, at times, a disturbingly pretty woman is award-worthy in its own right. But Leto’s performance is much weightier than this. Not only does he deftly play with nuances of gender, but he does so without veering into the stereotypical. It would have been so easy for Leto to play Rayon as a hammed-up, camp transsexual who is the obvious antithesis of everything Woodroof believes in – but thank god he doesn’t. One of the most powerful scenes is when Rayon confronts his father, stripped of makeup and in men’s clothing. This scene proves that the tenderness and power in Leto’s performance transcends his hair and make-up. The relationship between Rayon and Woodroof is the main reason to watch this film.
Jennifer Garner was a casting mistake as the painfully obvious doctor who develops sympathy for Woodroof and his plight. Garner’s boring performance smacks of laziness on the part of the screenwriters. She had no backstory, we know barely anything about her – and as such, everything she does is of little consequence to the narrative as a whole. She is merely serving a logistical function, and it’s distractingly dull. A relationship between her and Woodroof, that could have been complex and touching with a hint of romance, was left flat and cold.
Vallee was clearly going for realism. Although reading other critical opinions makes it clear that the history is more than a little shaky. In terms of the aesthetic anyway, Vallee is going for realism. The colouring and sound all resemble real life for the most part and moments that might have been overplayed (a sexual encounter that is carefree because both parties already have AIDS, a peacefully impressionistic moment in a room full of butterflies) were seamlessly worked into the narrative through Vallee’s unfussy direction. It may have been this dedication to the truth that allowed the film to fall a little flat emotionally. Just as you don’t often cry when reading the news, DBC may have been slightly too real to elicit the emotional response that’s usually created through artistic license. Whether an emotional response is crucial to a truly great film is debatable – but I believe that this is what Dallas Buyers Club was lacking.
OUT OF TEN: SEVEN
I’m really quite torn by Scott Cooper’s middle-America thriller Out Of The Furnace. On the one hand the performances were astounding – this has to be a career’s best from Christian Bale, with solid performances from Casey Affleck, Willem DeFoe and Woody Harrelson firmly backing him up. But on the other hand the narrative seemed hopelessly flimsy in places. The story was lacking something intrinsic, but almost intangible – the correct linear elements were there but it was lacking the elusive sense of purpose that could have transformed this film into The Deer Hunter homage that some critics are claiming it to be. I wanted to care what Bale was doing, because his acting was breaking my heart – but the weak narrative didn’t allow it.
The set-up is endearing. Russell (Bale) leads a tough, unremarkable life in a small, run down town, working in a mill that is about to be shut down, caring for his father who is at death’s door and trying to protect his wayward little brother who is back from Iraq and clearly suffering from PTSD. Things go from bad to worse for Russell as he ends up in prison, loses his father and lover and is forced to avenge the death of his little brother Rodney (Affleck). The themes are great. Disillusionment, dissembling of the ‘American dream’, family responsibility, political culpability – all meaty, watchable stuff – but they seemed to fall flat as the narrative wore on.
As I mentioned – Bale makes the film worth watching. He manages to convey a real, human power behind an entirely unassuming persona, which makes him incredibly relatable. You can’t help but be drawn into his enigmatic simplicity that convincingly mirrors real-life characterisation. The moment where he confronts his lover (Saldana) who left him while he spent a brief stint in jail is unexpectedly heart-breaking and Bale catches you off guard with a raw empathy.
As the film’s villain, Harlan (Harrelson) is savagely horrifying. The opening scene sees him choke a woman with a hot dog before beating an onlooker half to death. The vicious pointlessness of this unprovoked attack sets up Harrelson’s character as a wildly unpredictable villain who inflicts pain and terror indiscriminately and is able to drive away from the consequences, as the shot lingers on the aftermath of his violence as onlookers scream for help. It’s possible that this portrayal of indiscriminate violence and the shrugging-off of responsibility is a microcosm of America’s treatment of the blue-collar classes following the war in Iraq, and Russell’s ultimate murder of Harlan is the pay off for his dissatisfaction. But the conclusion ultimately felt hollow. It was as though Cooper had too many messages to fit in to the film and tried to shoehorn too much meaning into the climax – ultimately leaving it rather empty.
There is a rather sickening emphasis on male power throughout the film – most of which is wrapped up in the physical. The bare-knuckle fights that Rodney takes part in sums up this macho, male-orientated world where strength is everything. While there is certainly merit in exploring male relationships and the effect of trauma on the male psyche – it is another thing entirely to completely sideline any female input. To give the film credit, Cooper does include a speaking part for a woman… but Lena (Saldana) is embarrassingly cast as a gentle school teacher who jumps ship at the first sign of trouble and abandons her man due to her all-consuming desperation for a baby. Not cool Cooper.
I left the cinema feeling unmoved, which is quite a feat given the stellar performances from a cast who outstripped their script by miles.
OUT OF TEN: FIVE
It feels like I had been waiting for Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street for years, since those brash, yellow trailers sampling Kanye West first appeared, and I was worried the hype would leave me with a film that fell flat of expectations. Instead, Wolf was a deliciously illicit journey through erotic, hedonistic debauchery that had me gasping for breath with laughter. This is a comedy that is refreshingly and truthfully black, and makes it very clear that the only purpose here is pleasure. This is definitely in contention for my favourite Leonardo DiCaprio film, which is an enormous shout. I haven’t had this much fun in the cinema for a long time.
The sheer levels of comedy in this film were really surprising. Most comedies that are coming out of Hollywood at the moment are teen-based, cliché-ridden farces that will create the odd gentle laugh – it’s been a long time since I have seen a new American comedy with any real force behind it, and it was entirely refreshing. The comedy was tapered with genuine questions of human greed and superficiality and a dissection of the real meaning of the American Dream – but these ‘messages’ didn’t drag the lightness down, rather, the weight behind the gags served to give them real punch. The audience were laughing at not only the events on screen but at the state of humanity in the wider context and our preoccupation with the frivolous.
This was one of Leo’s best performances. I feel like he’s finally stepped out of his comfort zone and really brought this character to life. After a rather lacklustre performance as Gatsby last year, I had felt my dedication to Leo waver somewhat – but with his obnoxious, drug-addicted, money-obsessed Jordon Belfort he brings a vibrancy and energy to screen that’s truly infectious and wonderfully entertaining to watch.
Jonah Hill equalled Leo’s performance with impeccable comic timing, and his signature dryness in his delivery. I got the feeling that many of his scenes were adlibbed, and Scorsese mercifully treated the audience to the entirety of these scenes, allowing Hill to really flex his comedic muscles and create some lengthy scenes of comedy gold. This probably explains why the film is three hours – which given the subject matter I thought must make the film dragging, or display an annoying self-indulgence on Scorsese’s part. But by the end of the film you didn’t realise three hours had gone by. The pacing and linear separations were deftly constructed to keep the tempo of the film cranked to full-notch, whirling the audience along on Jordon’s drug-addled escapades, where neither money nor time is of any consequence.
The film reduces the human experience to nothing more than the basest of desires for feral pleasures – at the very heart of which is sex. Almost every scene contains some sort of sexual act – you become desensitised to it within the first ten minutes and it’s accepted as the norm. It almost feels gratuitous, but the extreme volume of sex here is necessary. An almost hyperbolic representation of what is at the heart of human needs, and the frivolousness of these desires.
This film jubilantly celebrates villainy. From the opening scene, Jordon commands the voice-over, tells us what to think – he sells himself to us. And we are on his side from the very outset. Despite the dark centre at his core and his obscene and almost callous wastefulness – we never want him to be caught. We are swept up in the dream that greatness can be achieved, just as the FBI detective is almost tempted by the offer to join this lavish life of corruption, so are we. The final scene, when the real Jordon Belfort introduces Leo to the stage of his self-help seminars, feeling very much like an ad for Jordon’s latest venture – you can’t help but think that this film is yet another cog in the real Jordon’s grand design to come out on top. He’s still winning… which is what we all want.
OUT OF TEN: NINE
Jeff Nichols’ crime drama Mud was one of the crucial turning points in Matthew McConaughey’s career. Transforming him from pretty boy to acting powerhouse, proving that Killer Joe wasn’t a fluke, and making me ludicrously excited to see Dallas Buyer’s Club. Somehow, when no one was looking, McConaughey has managed to transform himself into an actor with real presence and a searching honesty. But this film isn’t just about McConaughey. The two young boys Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are astounding and truly capture the spirit of loss and change that characterises their adolescence and pervades the sense of the film as a whole.
Having been desperate to see Mud since Sundance 2013, I wasn’t disappointed. Mud is the place where the earth meets the water. The result is far from aesthetically pleasing, but it is true to the essence of the earth and what it means to exist – and the film captures this sense of the basest elements of human existence perfectly. Alongside the Mississippi River, two young boys discover a boat lodged in a tree, which they want to claim. Their plan is complicated when they discover a fugitive, the haunted, lovelorn Mud, is living in the boat, and they are whisked into his dangerous life as they try to help him escape and reunite him with his true love Juniper.
At its core, the film is a classic rites-of-passage tale as Ellis (Sheridan) must come to terms with his imminent manhood and navigate the various struggles of adolescence and the marital problems of his parents. And there are some truly beautiful messages about love and loss and the realisation that the world is not how it first appeared. Like the film’s title, there is nothing pure or glossy about Ellis’ journey and he is brought face to face with the harsh realities of adult life and the elusive and often self-delusional nature of love. The beauty of this film comes in Ellis’ unalterable optimism. Despite heavy evidence to the contrary, Ellis perseveres in his belief that love will conquer all and his innocent belief in the intrinsic goodness at the core of humanity. Despite everything, a surprisingly uplifting ending shows that Ellis still wants to believe, and it is this hopefulness that grants the film an irrepressibly uplifting quality.
This is a story of searching for belonging, and most of this is based on the male perspective of life and growing up to become a man. Much is gleaned from the father/son relationships throughout the film. Ellis’ dad has his sense of masculinity stripped from him as his wife’s financial security ultimately forces him to move from his natural habitat along the river. This emasculation is epitomised in a scene where his wife (Sarah Paulson) interrupts him mid-tirade to knock his hat from his head. An act, so intensely powerful in its very simplicity and frivolousness, signals that the power relationship has shifted. Ellis’ father apologises to him for not having his affairs in order, but unlike his father, Ellis doesn’t equate manliness with wealth and possession. For Ellis, being a man means creating and sustaining genuine relationships and having a truthful, unapologetic approach to love. Sheridan’s incredible breakdown when he discovers Mud may not have been genuine perfectly portrays Ellis’ desperation to believe in a love that can conquer all.
It is the relationship between the two young boys that make this film really special. We see the world through their wide, unjaded eyes and are forced to look for good in an intrinsically dark, grimy world. Nichols’ only downfall was the three, definite endings that play in succession – it may have been more powerful to leave some questions unanswered. But you can forgive this slight lapse in tone for the brilliance of the cast and the nostalgic familiarity of Sheridan’s performance.
OUT OF TEN: EIGHT POINT FIVE