Archive for February, 2014

Imagine you were engaged in a conversation with a human being of a bygone era, perhaps the 40’s or 50’s. The conversation inevitably turns to technological advances and they ask you what new wonders have the human race created in the years between. “Well, there’s Twitter, Facebook, iphones, 4Chan, Wikipedia….” Their eyes start to glaze over, bewitched and frightened by these alien words full of possibilities. “But”, you pause, leaning in, ” this all stems from the internet, of course.”

“The internet?”, they whisper. “That’s right, the internet”, you reply.

This is loosely the subject of Spike Jonze’s latest film Her. A woozy, sci-fi romance, it tells the story of Theodore, a lonely 30-something living in a near future LA. Struggling to deal with a recent divorce, he spends his waking hours at work dictating love letters to clients for a corporate company, then retiring home to play computer games or chat to babes online. His world is a Steve Jobs wet dream, an aesthetically perfect, technology driven existence. His office is decorated in giant slabs of gaudy colour, while the LA landscape is a curvaceous, neon-lit utopia.

Theodore is desperately seeking some kind of affection but is unable to find it in the ‘real’ world, despite the encouragement of his coupled up friends Amy and Charles. He finds solace in a new OS (Operating System), a computer generated being (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that is supposed to take charge of his life and takes on an almost human level of understanding. Theodore gradually responds to the warmth and care that ‘Samantha’, his particular OS supplies, and finds himself falling in love. The questions begins to arise for Theodore and the audience; is this love real? Does it matter or not if it isn’t?

Joaquin Phoenix is heartbreaking as the melancholic Theodore. Often swayed to heavier, angst ridden roles, here Phoenix is given space to demonstrate a lighter, more comedic touch. There is an inherent vulnerability to his performances, from the restless vagrant in The Master to the insecure emperor in Gladiator.  Wearing a 70’s style moustache and snazzy slacks, it would be easy to dismiss him as stereotypical nerd. Yet there is something very relatable, particularly in today’s screen led world, in his struggle to find meaning and connection.

Her has a very ambient feel to it, much akin to his former partner Sofia Coppola’s films. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s gauzy, soft cinematography perfectly captures the sleepy, hypnagogic vistas of this future world, while Arcade Fire rein in their bombast for a more muted, contemplative electronic score. If there was to be a small critique in this, it is perhaps that Jonze relies on the ambience of the scenes to carry him through rather than the story, yet these are rare occasions. 

Although Jonze has stepped away from his regular collaborator Charlie Kaufman, you can still feel a strong influence from the writer in Her. On the surface it is quite a gimmicky idea for a film, yet there is an underlying rawness of emotion that ties in to Kaufman’s work. Her works on two levels, which both intertwine; on the one hand, it is an incisive exploration of the emergence of technology and the potentially troubling effect it has on our lives. On the other hand, Her is an earnest, bittersweet portrait of loneliness and isolation, a man unwilling to let go of the past and trying to find love in all the wrong places.

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREETWell, someone’s got their mojo back. After a series of solid if unspectacular films, the diminutive Italian-American has recaptured the verve and energy of his 90’s output. The Wolf of Wall Street can be placed alongside Scorsese’s epic crime sagas Goodfellas and Casino, both in ambition and, more importantly, execution. What’s more, his long frustrating collaboration with heartthrob Di Caprio finally bears some fruit. So often looking like an ill conceived relationship of mutual flattery, we finally see the duo working to both their strengths.

The much discussed story is based on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a self starting stock broker in 80’s New York. Arriving into the city as a starry eyed innocent, Belfort is soon inducted into the hedonistic ways of his charismatic superior (a show stealing Matthew McConaughey). When the company falls prey to the stock market crash, Belfort starts his own company selling dodgy deals to unassuming halfwits up and down the country. Soon the company begins to flourish and the money, drugs and, ahem, female companionship, start to flow.

Ably abetted by his trusted sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort juggles his burgeoning business with a troubled home life with his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and a persistent FBI agent on his trail (Kyle Chandler). The film is structured a lot like Casino and Goodfellas. We have the auspicious beginnings, the ascent into success and hedonism and immorality, then the inglorious fall. A cynic might label it formulaic, but it works. I think as viewers we find a strange pleasure in seeing something constructed, even if what is being constructed is deeply troubling. Belfort’s ascent, with the wild parties, drugs and booze is utterly irresistible.

Keeping in mind the somewhat unfavourable view the public has of the banking system right now, this should go down like a sack of lead. Yet Scorsese’s film making prowess makes the journey outrageously entertaining. All the Scorsese tricks are here; the slow Caravaggio-esque pans across crowds and the raucous rock music on the soundtrack. Yet there is something even more psychedelic about this particular film. To really recreate the hazy comedown of Belfort’s drug years, Scorsese makes use of disjointed editing and gauzy visuals to authenticate the experience. There is a particularly joyous sequence in which Belfort consumes a melee of quaaludes, only to find he has to escape the FBI in his car.

Leonardo Di Caprio turns in one of his greatest performances yet as Belfort. Often he has looked misplaced in Scorsese’s films, a pretty boy trying to act like the tough guy. This role is much more in his domain; Belfort is charismatic, cocky and ultimately, wild. Belfort is much like Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, someone riding their luck and unable to see the end game. Di Caprio manages to instil a charm and pathos in him that makes him hard to dislike. Jonah Hill is also superb as the eager assistant, loyal to the bone and with his own wild streak. He is a perfect comic foil.

There are a few slight niggles. As with many of these macho gangster rise and fall films, the female characters get completely waylaid. You can predict every beat of their relationship with from the off; the seduction, the kids, the descent and the divorce. Although it is loosely based on true events it feels completely cliched- does anyone really care about this sub pot? Probably not. The film ends with a beautifully cheeky moment as Belfort addresses a seminar of people wanting to learn how to become the next ‘Jordan Belfort’. It perfectly conveys the paradoxical nature of the film: one part of us condemns these shysters, and the other part revels in their degeneracy.

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There has been much hype and expectation surrounding Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary about the now hugely popular indie-rock band The National, as we find out from the film itself, it took an incredible amount of work to complete. Mistaken for Strangers is a wonderful, post-modern film, which by definition is a music documentary, but due to its director, lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother Tom, it is much, much more than that.

Mistaken for Strangers takes place during The National’s world tour of 2010/11, shortly after the release of the hugely successful High Violet. Matt asks his amateur film-making enthusiast brother to accompany them on tour as roadie (and maybe shoot a little footage too) as he is unemployed. What follows is a fairly remarkable story of two very different brothers rather than a great indie-rock band.

Where Matt is a popular and focused rock star (of sorts) his brother is a nobody; a failure even. Coming off as a real-life Jack Black persona, Tom Berninger likes heavy metal music, making cheap horror films and lacks direction. Tom awkwardly interviews his own parents about his and Matt’s upbringing in some of the most delightful scenes in the film. As children, we see that Matt really was “carried in the arms of cheerleaders”; a talented baseball player and hugely popular school kid. His brother on the other hand is less attractive and a self-confessed weirdo, but they still love each other, if slightly envious of each other and it is this central relationship that anchors the film.

Tom is extremely funny in a very dorky way, and completely at odds with the band. We see his film-making process, which takes far more precedent than his actual job as roadie for a professional rock band with a demanding tour manager, as an unfocused mess. Tom is unprepared and lacking in asking the band relevant questions that their fans may want to hear, because he isn’t a fan of the band, they are merely his brother and his friends. As a result some viewers have questioned if the band really existed and whether this was a mockumentary in the Spinal Tap tradition.

At times we see Matt getting incredibly frustrated with his brother for his lack of focus, and this tension is the driving force of much of the “action”. It is an excellent watch, with just enough of the band to keep fans interested, but more because Tom is such a charming and endearing loser who is the real star of the film and a total joy to watch. Throughout we often share Matt’s frustration with his roadie-come-director, but it is easy to see Tom’s intentions are soundly based. The sheer amount of footage Tom ends up having to edit with becomes the 3rd act and thus a film-within-a-film, as Tom becomes self-doubting and unsure as to whether he can ever really complete the project.

Once Tom finally completes the film, there is a great sense of relief and genuine pleasure as it clearly becomes an all-encompassing project for him. When he finishes it, with the encouragement of his brother, it is a brilliant and clearly very important personal moment for the director, being the first thing he’s ever finished of which he can be truly proud. In this sense, watching this amateur director’s achievement (i.e the film you were watching up until this point), is a hugely life-affirming moment, celebrated by the band, friends and family alike.

Mistaken for Strangers is a real achievement then largely because you don’t need to be a fan of the band to appreciate it since the director isn’t one either. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with The National’s consistently excellent music and features lots of behind-the-scenes and early footage of a young band from Cincinnati trying to make a name in New York City later to become darlings of Brooklyn. But one does not really learn anything particularly insightful about the band because Tom is a hilariously under-prepared director, almost accidentally striking upon his own directorial voice and style, even if it is a heavily imposing one. Whether or not Tom Berninger will be able to achieve anything like this again remains to be seen, but for now, he has made a real achievement here, and the film’s biggest charm is that it’s audience will surely share in that sense of pride.

Review by Adam Turner-Heffer

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