Friday, 28 February 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 5

  • Best Picture
  • Best Original Screenplay (Spike Jonze)
  • Best Original Score (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
  • Best Original Song ('The Moon Song')
  • Best Production Design (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)

Theodore Twombly is a lonely, introverted man going through a divorce. Luckily, it's 2025, and operating systems now have artificial intelligence which can fill the voids in everyone's lives. So, when Theodore buys OS1, he immediately strikes up a friendship with the OS which begins to call itself 'Samantha'. As he gets closer to Samantha, his work writing personalised love letters for people who can't be bothered improves, as do his friendships in the real world as he becomes more extrovert. However, after a meeting with his soon-to-be ex-wife, he doubts the reality of a relationship with a piece of software, especially when it hires someone to act as a human surrogate...

15 years ago, Spike Jonze made one of my favourite films of all time. Being John Malkovich is a wonderfully weird and surreal film from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, so to be able to translate Kaufman's eccentricity onto screen and do it successfully exemplifies why Jonze was given so much praise. The crazy thing is, after Being John Malkovich, he teamed up with Kaufman again for Adaptation, which is equally as weird, if not even weirder. Another one of my favourite films, Adaptation showed that Jonze had some creative eccentricity in him himself; it wasn't just Kaufman's script that made Adapatation and Malkovich wonderfully quirky and enjoyable. After his collaborations with Kaufman, it took him 7 years to come back with Where the Wild Things Are, based on the children's book. Here, he didn't just direct but also co-wrote the screenplay, and showed he had other talents too. Now, he's back with Her, his first solo screenplay about a man who falls in love with his OS. I wonder where he got his inspiration from...

Her is one of those films that comes with stigmas attached to it. It's written and directed by Spike Jonze, it stars Joaquin Phoenix. Translation: It's going to be one of those quirky, indy films that's over pretentious. Well, it's not. Considering the subject matter, it stays pretty well grounded, it never goes over the top at any time which only goes to make this entire film feel creepily realistic. This could happen in 10 years time. The entire film is extremely poetic, the screenplay is littered with winding monologues and love letters and poetic speeches, but it fits the tone of the film so it never feels pretentious. The direction is top notch, and perfectly shows Jonze's aptitude as a director; there's almost certainly a big project coming his way soon. The film looks great too, as if the film had been shot through an Instagram filter. The cinematography and the editing work together to create a feel for the film that's almost dream-like, like this entire film is a giant fantasy whilst staying firmly rooted in reality. Where Jonze chooses not to accentuate the ludicrosity of the plot in the action on screen or the performance or the dialogue, it's certainly accentuated in its visual style.

The entire film is pulled together by a good central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is good, but the problem is he's playing one of those characters who you can't really relate to. Theodore Twombly is introverted and a bit creepy, there's evidence of underlying psychological problems caused by his impending divorce, and he falls in love with some software. The moustache alone is enough to put you off. What works in Phoenix's performance, though, is his relationship with a disembodied voice from Scarlett Johansson. He's able to make a single performance with an inanimate object feel like something real, so definitely deserves credit for that. Amy Adams makes a lovely few appearances as Theodore's friend Amy, a character who mirrors Theodore and is destined to be the 'perfect match' for Theodore; it's just as shame she's not on screen more than she is.

One of the best things about Her, though, is its soundtrack. A quirky film has been given a wonderfully quirky soundtrack by Arcade Fire, it's a perfect match between band and film/director. The soundtrack moves between diagetic and non-diagetic states constantly throughout the film, and it really fits in well with what's happening on screen, you can tell a lot of hard work was put into getting the tone of the music correct. Another of the good things is the emotion the piece evokes. One of the few, but fiercest, criticisms of the film is that it keeps the audience at an emotional distance because of the main character and the nature of the relationship portrayed in the film. I would wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. Although Theodore is hard to pinpoint emotionally, the best scenes in the film are when he shares a moment with Samantha, whether it's positive or negative. The structure and content of the screenplay have made sure that an emotional bond is established and reinforced between man and technology, to the point where the last 20 minutes are actually truly heartbreaking, even I was amazed by the strength of the screenplay.

Overall, Her is a wonderfully quirky and melancholic and melodramatic and unique and heartbreaking and entertaining and joyful film to watch and enjoy. That's a lot of adjectives all at once, but there's no way to really narrow down what exactly this film is. It's a Spike Jonze film, that's about as best as I can do. It's got Jonze written all over it, both in its writing and its direction. Joaquin Phoenix is confident yet unsettling in the main role, and Scarlett Johansson is surprisingly good as a disembodied voice. As much as this film could be seen as a warning about where humanity is headed with its relationship with technology, it never veers off its light-hearted romance path. Some people have called this a science fiction. These people are wrong. It's a romance about a blossoming relationship, it just so happens that one half of the relationship is an operating system called Samantha.

Rating: ****

Her was released on 14th February 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Original Screenplay (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack)
  • Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto)
  • Best Editing (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa)
  • Best Make-Up and Hairstyling (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)

Ron Woodroof leads a bachelors lifestyle in the late 80s with strippers, cocaine and booze... Until he gets HIV. Then, he becomes a pariah, and is told he only has 30 days to live, but he refuses to give up so easily. The latest drug to fight HIV hasn't yet been approved, but he's eager to get his hands on it, so he ends up stealing it from the hospital, but when the supply run dry, he goes to Mexico. When he gets there, however, he finds a former doctor who's leading the fight against HIV symptoms in his own run down 'clinic' with drugs and remedies which are unavailable and unapproved in America. Ron sees an opportunity, and sets up the Dallas Buyers Club: A club where you pay for a monthly membership to receive as many drugs as you need. It's only when he teams up with transgender woman Rayon that business really begins to pick up...

What in the world happened to Matthew McConaughey's career? Here are the highlights of his mainstream career from 1999-2009: EdTV, U-571, The Wedding Planner, Tiptoes, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The jokes were rife: He couldn't appear in a film without being contractually obligated to take his shirt off. He was a laughing stock of sorts. Then, all of a sudden, a renaissance began: The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 gave us a different side of McConaughey, one that could act. Then followed Bernie. Then Killer Joe. Then The Paperboy. Then Mud, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and now... Dallas Buyers Club. He's made his Hollywood money, now he's taking on smaller passion projects that allow him to flex his acting muscles, and boy is he ever, because Dallas Buyers Club centers on a phenomenal McConaughey performance.

McConaughey is the glue that holds this film together; it's focused on his character and he's in every single scene, acting his heart out, though at times, you wonder if it wasn't actually a performance as an HIV victim in constant agony; given his dramatic weight loss for the role, his pain may well have been real. Regardless, his sacrifice only adds to the majestic performance. It's hard to imagine a film like this, with a plot as weighty as this, working with anyone else trying to carry the Woodroof character. There's two sides to the character, there's the headstrong homophobe from before the illness and the compassionate, ailing, strongwilled fighter who accepts his fate but fights against it, and McConaughey is able to carry both sides extremely well. There's some cross over with the characters, certainly, but it takes two different performances for the two sides of the film as the same character, something which I've seen actors try and fail to do previously, so McConaughey is worthy of acknowledgement for the hard work he puts into this. That's not to say he isn't ably supported by a strong cast.

Indeed, Jared Leto is the second man grabbing headlines from this film and rightfully so, his performance as Rayon, the transgender woman who helps Woodroof establish and run the Dallas Buyers Club is fantastic, acting as a juxtaposition to Woodroof. It's an extreme departure from what Leto's ever had to do before; the closest he ever got to a role like this before, playing someone so emotionally raw, would be Requiem for a Dream, which was a whole 14 years ago at this point. It's also nice to see Jennifer Garner giving a performance with a hint of emotion and realism for the first time in 10 years. In recent years, in films like Juno and The Invention of Lying, she's always been wooden and emotionless, as if she'd lost her edge, but she seems reinvigorated here and delivers a good performance in support of McConaughey. Other than that though, it's hard to pick anybody else out of the cast as a highlight; that's not to say they're bad, they're merely functional in their job. It just seems everybody else is a bystander to the top three cast members, which isn't hard to see why: It's still hard to talk about HIV/AIDS on film.

HIV/AIDS is still a taboo subject in cinema, even with films like Philadelphia, Precious and Rent becoming mainstream films that deal with the issue. It's easy to show the number of sufferers as Dallas Buyers Club, it's easy to show a queue of people which grows throughout the film in order to give more impact to the seriousness of the situation the developed world found itself in with the virus in the 1980s. It's a lot harder to show the individual, unique impact it has on the sufferers' lives. Even showing two main characters suffering from the virus is an advance for mainstream American cinema, especially as their suffering is shown in two very different ways. It's never glorified, this isn't pornographic in any way regarding the virus, but it shows the harsh reality of everyday life with HIV/AIDS from two unique angles. The editing is superb, and the direction is subtle and understated yet powerful and deliberate. Make sense? Probably not. It's good, it fits well with the themes of the story, which is the overriding story to take away from this film.

Ultimately, everything just fits together so nicely here. The film has been technically well made, the script is powerful yet never explicit or exploitative of its subject matter, and the performances on display are extremely well crafted and have the power to shock, awe and sympathise. It's a tough film to watch, as are most films regarding the subject of HIV/AIDS, but it's got a heart in the middle of it, a story of survival against an indeterminate amount of struggle and it's captivating. But the headline here is undoubtedly McConaughey. Where was he hiding performances like this one 10 years ago, even 3 years ago? He's rebuilt his career to a point where he may well be seen as one of the most respected actors in the industry today. It's an incredibly powerful film to watch, and it only develops in your thoughts as time passes. Ron Woodroof is a bastard, but Matthew McConaughey is an excellent actor.

Rating: ****1/2

Dallas Buyers Club was released on 7th February 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Captain Phillips

Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Billy Ray)
  • Best Film Editing (Christopher Rouse)
  • Best Sound Editing (Oliver Tarney)
  • Best Sound Mixing (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munrod)

Captain Richard Phillips is in charge of taking an unarmed container ship from Oman to Mombasa, around the Horn of Africa directly through Somali pirate-infested waters. Low and behold, two skiffs begin making their way toward the ship. They're able to withhold the initial charge, but when they return on the second day, they can't hold them off and the pirates take over the ship. Abduwali Muse and his three friends hold the ship and the crew for ransom, but Phillips is determined to fight back: He has his crew hide in the engine room, stop the ship, and cut the power. As determined as the American crew are, the Somalis are driven by the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom money and are well armed. It can't end well, especially once the US Navy get involved in the rescue mission...

Tom Hanks has, really strangely, become the quiet man of Hollywood. After a few quiet years, he's only recently returned to the limelight in films such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cloud Atlas. He had time to write and direct his directorial debut, Larry Crowne, as well. It just seems as if Hanks has reached the point where, quite frankly, he doesn't need to take any project that comes his way; he's being extremely selective about which projects he takes on board. It was lucky, then, he chose to come on board this film based on its screenplay without a director even attached. Luckily, Paul Greengrass was offered the chance to bring his Bourne trilogy magic to this highly tense drama about a hostage situation. Initially, Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass seems like an odd combination on the surface, and you'd be right to think so, but don't worry, even with Hanks on board, this is unmistakable Greengrass. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is a good thing.

Here's the thing that grabbed me most of all about this film: The trailer is maybe the most mis-leading of the year. Here's why: 1. The trailer doesn't give away the fact that half the film doesn't even take place on the massive container ship you see for 90% of the trailer, and 2. The trailer in no way gives away how much involvement the US Navy has in the proceedings. The story of one man facing adversity is what everyone came to see, but as the film progresses, the Navy becomes a larger and larger part of the story to the point where Captain Phillips is almost forgotten by the conclusion, becoming a secondary to the overriding message that "America saves the day again." The focus is most definitely on Captain Phillips and the pirates, but as the movie creeps on, the Navy becomes more and more of a factor. It's a shame, because as soon as they become involved, you know how this is going to end and the film becomes a drag while you wait for how it plays out while the inevitable conclusion finally arrives.

This is, however, not really about that. This is a film that focuses on characters and the relationships that are formed between them. Therefore, it's down to Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi to carry this film, and they're both excellent. Tom Hanks is extremely sympathetic as Captain Phillips, he really carries this film without ever going over the top. At the end, there's certainly scope for Hanks to go OTT but he keeps himself in check and keeps his reactions and performances rooted in reality, which is most certainly an impressive feat. However, it is Barkhad Abdi who steals the show as Abduwali Muse, leader of the band of pirates who take over Phillips' ship and take Phillips hostage for a ransom. He's smart and evil and calm and collected and he's a real joy to see; a proper movie villain who, again, doesn't go OTT. He is the equal opposite to Hanks' Phillips in that they're both strong, confident leaders with wits and intelligence, but they're working on opposite sides of the spectrum. Aside from these two, though, the supporting cast is surprisingly underwhelming, with no-one really given a chance to shine or any real purpose in the film.

It is, then, that the film has an over-reliance on its core relationship between good and evil, and everyone else is mere cannon fodder. But then Paul Greengrass has never been one to develop characters, his films centre on action and fit nicely within his trademark quasi-documentary style. It's guns and explosions stuff that anyone could do, but the guns and explosions are hidden behind a shaky camera. Sure, there's certainly tension in this and all of his other films, but there's nothing spectacular or particularly memorable about Captain Phillips. It's argued that Greengrass' involvement with the Bourne franchise made the producers of the James Bond films rethink their franchise, and yes, you can see where Greengrass' directorial touches have been incorporated into every action film since The Bourne Supremacy, but is it really much different? Guns are still fired, things are still blown up, people still die, and America still rules.

Overall, it's nice to see Paul Greengrass attempt a proper drama instead of an all-out action film for once, but he just can't help himself, and he's turned a tense hostage drama into a head-dizzying action film. Captain Phillips got punched in the gut! CUE FRANTIC CAMERA MOVEMENT! It's the same but different from Greengrass; it's got Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi putting in some good work and it has some brief moments of tension, but it's unspectacular and surprisingly similar to what we've seen before. People love the Bourne films, but I didn't, and the same thing has happened here. Maybe I'm missing something? It's the same! Show me what's new and different and noteworthy and I'll happily write a retraction. Until then, Captain Phillips was good, but it could have been great.

Rating: ***

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Academy Award Nominations: 5

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter)
  • Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill)

Jordan Belfort is a young stockbroker with dreams of Wall Street. When his firm fails barely into his first job, he takes a job in a boiler room selling penny stocks which come with a much higher rate of commission. Using the skills he learned on Wall Street, he manages to make more sales than anyone had previously seen selling penny stocks, so much so that he sets up his own business with a few close friends, mainly weed and drug dealers. He gives them a script, a few telephones and a new company name, and soon the money starts rolling in, and with it comes the drugs, the hookers, and the life that Belfort always wanted, but the FBI ar keeping an eye on the 'Wolf of Wall Street'...

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have a magnificent working relationship. Their previous films together (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island) have garnered mass critical acclaim and awards a-plenty, with The Departed even winning Best Picture in 2007 (and becoming one of my favourite films) so their desire to work together again is unquestioned. Jonah Hill was so desperate to work with Scorsese on this, he took home a paycheck just over a tenth of the size of DiCaprio's. The film was greenlit and financed by an independent studio looking to make a name for itself, allowing Scorsese complete creative control over the content. Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire co-creator Terence Winter had written the script. The film contains a laundry list of cameos and famous faces. The pins were set up perfectly, it seemed like this would be a strike on all counts. Then why does this end up feeling like a gutterball?

In my mind, there is a long list of faults with this film, but here's my chief concern: In a film with a cast list as long as my arm, there is only ONE character in the entire piece who an audience can identify and sympathise with. Every single character apart from Jordan's first wife is deplorable, the worst kind of human being imaginable. Call me a traditionalist, but I like to be able to recognise a story with likeable characters within a film that's going to keep me in a cinema for 3 hours. 3 HOURS. This film is excessively fatty, the entire second hour is completely unnecessary and bears no meaning to the story, other than to show the excesses of Belfort's lifestyle. I understand the argument that the film is overly-excessive in order to mirror the excessiveness of Belfort's lifestyle, but they can make that perfectly clear without giving us a second hour made up entirely of naked women, drugs, partying, boats, cars and money. I realise saying this makes me sound like a prude, and I can't believe I'm writing it as a few short years ago, I'm almost certain I would have loved this film. Alas, here I am, an outspoken defender of Only God Forgives and now an outspoken critic of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance, as he always does. He always gives 110% and commits to his characters. The problem is he's given a character who is supposed to be sub-human scum, and as much as he commits to this, his character is drowned in a script which negates any kind of performance and forces the focus be pulled away from performance and onto the visuals. The same happens with Jonah Hill, who's even better in this than he was in Moneyball, and I thought he was great in Moneyball. His character is perfectly slimy, and Hill does well with it, but again he's lost in a seas of drugs and excess. The supporting cast is eclectic and all their performances match the action well; Jean Dujardin is incredibly loathsome, Rob Reiner is meant to be the voice of reason but is relegated to being a pointless character with no real arc or development, Margot Robbie looks great but offers no real depth of emotion which is exactly what her character calls for, and even Kyle Chandler, the FBI agent who's meant to be the good guy is a) made out to be the bad guy because he wants to stop a million dollar fraud/drug ring and b) actually comes off as thoroughly unlikeable because of how he acts around Belfort and gloats when he finally gets his man.

What surprised me most above everything else is how technically bad this film is; it's shocking. I was amazed to see that Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's usual editing collaborator of choice, did indeed work on this film. Her work is usually of the highest standard, and although there are some clever edits which elaborate on the work of the script, some of the editing choices are unpardonable for a film of this calibre. Let's not forget the script as well, wow. Terence Winter has created one of the best dramas on TV in Boardwalk Empire, which does a fantastic job of driving a narrative through drama, tension and character. He clearly attempts to do the same here, but there's no drama to be found at all as everything is character led, as deplorable as they all are. The direction is fine, but there was just no way he was going to be able to reign in the utter chaos that occurs on screen and his usual finesse is lost.

Above all else, I just didn't like this film. At all. It's a film of excess; the length, the script, the characters, the plot. There isn't one redeeming feature in this entire... Feature. All characters except one are deplorable and caricatures of real human beings. The film is far too long and does nothing but promote the virtues of crime, before realising it at the end and giving Belfort a light slap on the wrists, which is probably the most deplorable thing in the film considering you see the actions he takes for the first two hours. Actually, you know what the worst thing is? This is probably scarily accurate. It's sex, drugs and brokering stocks and it's thoroughly, completely disgusting. But what do I know? I'm just an online hack writing a quasi-hatchet job. Everyone else likes it, and a few years ago I probably would have done too. Do what you want.

Rating: *1/2

The Wolf of Wall Street was released on 17th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.