Monthly Archives: February 2014

Film Review: Her

Letter writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) hasn’t been particularly lucky in love since his wife left him. However, after meeting and hitting it off with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), it seems things are looking up. The only thing is Samantha is a computer operating system.

The genius of Spike Jonze’s Her is that it takes a concept that should feel completely alien and beyond any realm of possibility and makes it feel totally normal. We don’t know when it’s set or even where it’s set, and yet we buy into it immediately as if their world is our own.

Jonze has superbly melded a science fiction future with the ubiquitous social and political trappings of the present, which succeeds in giving us a doorway into Theodore’s world, his hopes & dreams and, significantly, his failings.

As Theodore gets the train to work, he and his fellow commuters are absorbed in their technology, be it a mobile phone or their very own OS. This might be a vision of the future, but is that really any different from where we’re at today? There’s little to no communication between human beings; Theodore’s job involves writing letters on behalf of people who can’t express themselves and there are very few genuine and happy human relationships in the film.

This laces the film with a sense of melancholia and loneliness, mirroring Theodore’s own feelings. That is until Samantha turns up. Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied Samantha may not be a real person, but to Theodore she’s perfect. The two share intimate conversations and you get a genuine sense of their relationship growing, regardless of Samantha not having a physical presence. Even when the two are ‘intimate’ with each other, it feels more like a triumph than anything seedy or sordid.

Some are accepting of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, whilst some are less so. This immediately brings to mind the idea of forbidden love, mixed-race relationships and other similar themes. Is their relationship wrong or weird? Does it really matter?

Her

What’s clear is that they seemingly make each other happy, and that comes across wonderfully in the performances of the two leads. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perfectly awkward and understated, and he manages to encapsulate the excitement and nervousness of a new relationship, the insecurities that come with it and the feelings when it’s perhaps not going so well. His performance is further enhanced by Jonze’s direction. The abundance of long takes and close-ups allow the minutiae of his personality to seep out and build a more believable character.

Scarlett Johansson has the peculiar task of playing a disembodied voice, yet brings so much life to the character that you never doubt she’s any less real than the other characters in the film. Johansson and Phoenix are totally believable as a couple, and considering only one of them has physical form, that’s quite an achievement.

The only real misstep the film takes, for me, is in its ending. It feels slightly curtailed and abrupt, which one could argue is a metaphor in itself, but it also stretches the realms of possibility and believability that little too far. It did little to hamper enjoyment of the film, but it did feel like the filmmakers were unsure of how to bring it to an end.

Her is the kind of film that doesn’t come around all that often. It’s genuinely heartfelt, looks stunning, and is an intriguing examination into human interaction and our evolving relationship with technology. Above all, it feels fresh and original, and that’s always something that should be celebrated.

Pros

  • Genuinely heartfelt and believable
  • Great performance from Joaquin Phoenix
  • Amazing voice work from Scarlett Johansson
  • Stunning cinematography

Cons

  • Ending stretches the realms of possibility slightly too far

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Quickie: The Monuments Men

monuments-men-posterWith the Nazis stealing all the paintings and sculptures they can lay their hands on, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) enlists a crack team to help the Allies reclaim the stolen art.

Trying to find new and interesting stories to tell about World War II may seem like a bit of a stretch, but with The Monuments Men, George Clooney has done just that. So just how he’s managed to turn it into such a mediocre film is somewhat of a mystery.

Clooney has assembled quite the cast, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, but many of them feel underutilised and underdeveloped. We’re led to believe they have some kind of history together but this is never explored, and as such we never really care about what happens to them.

The plot also feels somewhat disjointed and lacks cohesion. It flits back and forth between different plot threads, none of which ever really grab your attention and struggles to find a balance between a lighthearted and serious tone. It even descends into some good ol’ fashioned American flag waving by the end.

There is some fun to be had, however, and there are some nice interchanges between some of the characters, with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban probably the standouts. The period detail is also excellent and helps create a really believable setting.

The Monuments Men recalls classic war movies but ultimately fails to have similar dramatic or emotional impact. Great concept, poor execution. Sorry George.

2 and a half pigeons2.5/5 pigeons

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Film review: Dallas Buyers Club

Rodeo cowboy Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) has his world turned on its head when he’s told he has AIDS and only a month to live. Discovering that adequate medication isn’t available in America, he and a fellow AIDS sufferer, the transgendered Rayon (Jared Leto), seek other methods of obtaining the drugs in order to help themselves and hundreds of other AIDS victims.

Lately it seems that every time Matthew McConaughey graces a cinema screen, he shocks people at just how good an actor he is. He may have produced an awful lot of dross in the past, but his roles in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, amongst others, have surely exonerated him for his past indiscretions.

And surprise, surprise – McConaughey delivers once more as he tells the real life tale of AIDS victim Ron Woodruff, an immensely unlikeable character who draws us in with his passion to make a difference.

Woodruff is white trash, a homophobic rodeo cowboy who lives for himself and no-one else. However, the revelation that he has contracted HIV makes him question everything and re-evaluate how he sees the world. Sounds a little cliched? To be honest, that’s because it is.

Most of Dallas Buyers Club progresses exactly as you think it will, with certain markers in the sand to help it along. We have the bigot who changes his views, the little man against the big bad pharmaceutical company, the rebel within the company who sides with the little man; it’s nothing that hasn’t been said and done many times before. But that’s not to say it isn’t done well, because it is. It’s narratively sound, which may sound like damning with faint praise, but this ensures more peaks than troughs.

Whilst the story may be somewhat formulaic, the performances are anything but, and it’s our man Matthew McConaughey in the driving seat. McConaughey is imperious as the bigoted Ron Woodruff, switching effortlessly between anger, compassion, helplessness, and pretty much every other emotion in the book. McConaughey’s acting prowess comes as little surprise to anyone anymore and this role still falls close to his comfort zone at times, but it can’t be argued that he handles the performance wonderfully.

It’s easy to see why McConaughey has garnered such praise for his performance, but it’s Jared Leto who shines brightest as transgendered Rayon. The character of Rayon was created specifically for the film, but it’s undoubtedly a better piece of drama for her inclusion, and it’s just as much her film as anyone else’s. It would have been easy to keep Rayon as a camp parody, but Leto adds so many more layers to the character; a scene in which Rayon holds back the tears as she asks her father for money is handled with the perfect amount of subtlety.

Dallas Buyers Club is a lesson in how to play to the widest possible audience, hitting all the right notes in all the right places. It may long for an offbeat here and there, but its stellar central performances ensure a compelling and genuinely affecting experience.

Pros

  • Another superb performance from Matthew McConaughey
  • Heartbreaking performance from Jared Leto
  • Brings an important topic to a wide audience

Cons

  • Somewhat formulaic in its story and message

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Can an Actor Go Too Far When Preparing For a Role?

Once upon a time, all actors did to prepare for a role was to don a suit or slip into a dress and step in front of the camera ready to go. Look at Jimmy Stewart, for example; it was pretty rare to see him look anything other than absolute perfection with nary a hair out of place. Sure, actors used to wear elaborate costumes or cake themselves in make-up for a role, but all that is just window dressing; the person underneath is still the same.

However, gradually over the years there’s been a growing trend for actors to go the extra mile for a role, whether that be physically or mentally. There’s no doubting the commitment, but is there a danger that those actors who do push themselves to their limits are going too far? Or should the fact that they get paid absurd amounts of money dictate that they should do whatever necessary for the role?

Brando was one of the first to bring Method acting to mainstream films

Brando was one of the first to bring Method acting to mainstream films

It’s difficult to pinpoint when this trend began, but Marlon Brando could be partly responsible. Brando was one of the first to bring method acting to popular cinema after studying under Stella Adler at her Studio of Acting in New York City. This form of acting required an actor to completely immerse themselves in the role, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. This Stanislavskian approach was considered to be a much more realistic form of acting and has since been adopted by some of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Brando never really changed his appearance all that much during these years but the attitudes towards what was required for a role had definitely changed.

One of the first high profile instances of an actor physically transforming himself into a characters was a certain Robert De Niro, a staunch proponent of the Method style, when he gained 31lbs to play an overweight Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in 1980. Filming was shut down for around four months whilst De Niro ate his way around Italy and France to gain the weight. He also trained as a boxer, winning two out of three fights in which he entered.

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Film Review: The Lego Movie

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is just an average construction worker with no standout qualities. However, when he meets the mysterious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), he learns of a plot by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) to unleash a terrible weapon upon the Lego world and freeze them in place forever. He may be ordinary but Emmet could be the only one who can stop Lord Business.

There have been numerous straight-to-DVD Lego films, but by some unearthly miracle this is the first time the Danish foot-cripplers have made it to the big screen. And it was well worth the wait.

Anyone who has ever been a child will have come across Lego at some point, and The Lego Movie brilliantly taps into the toy’s nostalgia which ensure it does what every good kids need to do – appeal to adults as well.

Kids will go nuts for the bright colours and whizz-bangery of the action, whilst adults will beam from ear to ear as they reminisce about building castles, mazes, pirate ships or whatever else popped into their heads. Most of the types of Lego are present and correct, from the Wild West to Medieval sets, and will cause memories to come gleefully flooding back.

There are also plenty of pop culture references and nods to other, more adult-oriented films. For instance, much of the film’s story and characters owe a debt to, believe it or not, The Matrix.

A big barrel of the film’s fun comes from the sheer number of different characters that turn up in the film, even just for the odd line. There have been several Lego video games based on films, and there are characters present from most of them, including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Batman, the latter of which is particularly brilliant. Voiced by Will Arnett, Batman plays a surprisingly big role and his riffing on the character and its lore is bound to raise a few smirks with Bat fans.

As you’d expect with a film like this, the attention to detail is just staggering. Literally everything is made out of Lego – water, smoke, explosions, the lot; it’s all made from different Lego bricks (not Legos; never, ever Legos) and studs, and it only goes to enhance the film’s appeal. It’s part stop-motion and part CGI and simply a joy to look at throughout.

In terms of story, there’s not a massive amount here that hasn’t been done before. You’ll recognise story elements from numerous action and adventure films (and The Matrix, as mentioned earlier) but that actually adds to some of its charm, and the way it’s presented really sets it apart.

There’s an interesting final act that melds the Lego and the real world that is ridiculously clever, even if it does end up turning into into somewhat of an advert for Lego. It also gets a little schmaltzy and saccharine at times, hammering home the ‘you can do anything with your imagination’ mantra, although it never becomes too problematic.

There’s really not much to dislike about The Lego Movie. It’s got a sharp script, charming visuals and will have children and adults alike grinning like fools long after they leave the cinema.

Everything is indeed awesome.

Pros

  • Amazing visuals and attention to detail
  • Laugh-out-loud funny
  • Tonnes of fun characters and references

Cons

  • A little too schmaltzy
  • Threatens to become an advert for Lego

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davies

Llewyn Davies (Oscar Isaac) was one half of a popular folk duo on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn must then rely on friends, family and strangers as he struggles to make it on his own, but doesn’t make life easy for himself.

There are few filmmakers who successfully span as many genres as the Coen brothers. Pretty much every film they make is a departure from the last, and yet you still know what to expect, such is their style. Inside Llewyn Davies may not be their most accessible film but is still another intriguing string to their already impressive bow.

Llewyn is a decent enough artist but has struggled to catch a break. He’s stuck in a rut, making no money and having to crash on the sofas of anyone who’ll have him. He’s also not a particularly nice person, leading to a rather uneasy, morose tone for the film. Llewyn tries to make his way in the world but we never really get the feeling it’ll ever work for him.

Looming over Llewyn and the whole film in general is the death of his friend and musical partner. From the first song we see Llewyn sing, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, to the nightmarish road trip he takes with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), death seems a ubiquitous presence throughout.

All this does make the film a little cold and not always engaging. Llewyn is his own worst enemy and generally a bit of a dick, which succeeds in keeping you just at arm’s length throughout. However, Llewyn is the source of a dry vein of humour that runs throughout, which is necessary to keep it from getting too depressing, and Oscar Issac must take a lot of credit for his performance. Isaac is note perfect as the downtrodden Llewyn, carrying an air of entitlement whilst trying to repress the fact he knows he’s not quite good enough.

As you’d expect, the music and in particular the folk songs (which were recorded live) are superb, and rather than just get snippets of the tracks, we’re treated to full length versions, which actually makes the film seem more akin to a traditional musical. Complementing the music is Bruno Delbonnel stunning cinematography which definitely has a touch of the Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick about it.

Inside Llewyn Davies also has an elliptically structured narrative which, whilst interesting, may frustrate some in not offering a clear conclusion to the story. But this is the Coens, so the chances of it wrapping up nicely were always pretty slim. It lets us draw our own conclusions, and few films recently have had me coming up with my own theories for so long afterwards.

In fact, there’s quite a lot to ponder upon and analyse should you feel the need. Everything from a ginger cat that Llewyn looks after to the songs he sings can take on alternative interpretations if you want to find them. It’s more than possible to enjoy the film at face value, but one could argue it’s a richer experience if you dig a little deeper.

Those expecting a by-the-numbers biopic are likely to be a little taken aback by Inside Llewyn Davies’s slow-burning, almost uneventful story, but the Coens have done what they do best in creating a film that rewards those who allow themselves to succumb to its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. In short, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

Pros

  • Fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac
  • Great soundtrack
  • Stunning cinematography
  • Can leave you thinking about it for days

Cons

  • Some may find it slightly cold and unfulfilling

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Grave of the Fireflies

Japan towards the end of WW2. Seita is but a young man but is forced to fend for himself and his little sister Setsuko after their mother is killed during a bombing raid.

Studio Ghibli are arguably best known for creating magical universes populated by wonderfully weird creatures, but if you go into Grave of the Fireflies expecting more of the same then you’re in for a shock.

The art style is familiar and is similar to that of My Neighbour Totoro, which is understandable as the two films were made alongside each other; tonally, however, the two films are about as different as they could get. Within minutes we know that this isn’t going to be an easy ride as we see Seita and Setsuko’s mother burned and bandaged following a bombing raid. Following that, as we see the pair struggle to survive and fend for themselves, the film continues to get bleaker.

But amongst the bleakness, there are moments of hope and joy. Seeing the relationship between the pair is delightful, particularly as Setsuko continues to play, unaware of their true peril. Seita doing whatever he can to provide for his sister is genuinely moving and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Grave of the Fireflies is not the whimsical tale many have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, but despite the overtly sombre outlook it is still an expert lesson in the horrors of war, the importance of family and the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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