Posts Tagged ‘Scarlett Johansson’

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 12.50.06Kicking off the 2016 edition of Glasgow Film Festival last night was The Coen Brother’s new romp Hail, Caesar! their ode to the Studio System era of 50s Hollywood. As to be expected with the Coens, they deal with their subject with an equal amount of love and cynicism, looking at the “Golden Era” of their craft with a healthy dose of post-modern irony.

As is now customary with the Coens, the brothers direct a star-studded ensemble cast in their lighthearted love-letter to a bygone era, excellently re-creating the studio lots of Capitol Pictures. Binding the multiple simultaneous projects together is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) the studio’s fixer who solves the various problems of the studio’s cast and crew, as well as batting away questions from scoop-hungry twin sister journalists, both played by Tilda Swinton.

Nearing the climax of the studio’s production of their “premier picture Hail, Caesar!” however, central star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears on an assumed “1 or 2-day bender”; though the party line is that he has a “high-ankle sprain”. In actual fact, Whitlock has been kidnapped, in a scheme actualised by a couple of extras on the set of the film, and taken to a strange place where nothing is quite as it seems.

Although they set the film up a potential road-caper, The Coens don’t, in fact, focus merely on Whitlock’s disappearance, but also the studio’s “the show must go on” attitude, in spite of adversity due to a tight schedule and budget. While Mannix is aware of the problem and its severe nature, it doesn’t suddenly jump to the top of his priorities list in his daily roles, as he must keep various other stars and directors happy with their own problems, while also considering a highly lucrative and much more comfortable job offer of his own.

This is when the film is at its best, showing the rather manic Studio System as it churns out its latest epic, western, drama and musical, all the while needing a cool pair of hands at the centre of it all (Mannix) who – while clearly respected within the studio – has no elevated status, which is reserved for the “key talent”. While Mannix doesn’t seem to mind this, he does battle his own personal demons and Catholic guilt, with a secret smoking habit and a tempting job offer. Despite this he is a seemingly decent man who genuinely loves and respects his family.

Brolin plays the, on the face of it, controlled Mannix with aplomb, and is excellent as lynchpin for the entire picture. While Clooney and other star cameo turns (Johannsson, Tatum, McDormand, Swinton) are all highly enjoyable, the film simply wouldn’t have a leg to stand on without Brolin.

The trouble is that the film as a whole fails to really capitalise on the wealth of talent on offer. While it is highly entertaining, there is nothing here that really sticks with you for much longer than the screen-time. There is plenty of humour and enjoyment to be found in the Coen’s faithful recreating of 1950s Hollywood, including an exaggerated nod to the blacklist and “Communist threat” of the era – playing at times like a twisted version of the recent biopic Trumbo – yet the film doesn’t dig much further than that.

While this isn’t necessarily a problem given the Coens have largely made a career out of films where nothing really happens, or works, it equally is that expectation which befalls Hail, Caesar!. Any fans of the brothers’ work can find various re-treadings of ideas they’ve done before and much more successfully.

For instance, the setting and ideas on display here are also in the masterful Barton Fink, the comedic road movie caper in The Big Lebowski, the kidnapping trope in Fargo, the theological considerations of A Serious Man. These films explored their central ideas very successfully and while Hail, Caesar! is clearly more light-hearted fare, one can’t help but feel that we’ve been here before and in more entertaining circumstances.

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The battle between image and narrative has pestered cinema since its inception. The greatest films have seamlessly intertwined these two elements by telling a great story through stunning visuals, yet for the most part we see films that are driven by plot, the visuals a sad afterthought. Music video directors who segue into feature film makers often represent this clash well; what use are pretty, inventive visuals if the characters are emotionally uninvolving? But on the other hand, cinema is essentially a visual medium, why waste it through humdrum mise en scene?

Which leads us to Jonathan Glazer, who began his career as a lauded music video and ad director. With notable work with Radiohead and Massive Attack under his belt, Glazer went to make the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. While those two films were fairly straightforward narrative pieces,  it is his latest film Under the Skin that truly belies his music video beginnings. Loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel, it follows Laura, a beguiling, glamorous young vixen who roams the desolate areas around Glasgow looking for young male prey.

One of the key elements of the film is its ambiguity and mystery. We don’t know where Laura is from, what her motivations are or why she has that peculiarly plummy English accent. Soon the audience begins to realise that Laura is not quite what she seems, yet Glazer and writer Walter Campbell keep their cards close to their chest. The film is a triumph of suggestion and innuendo, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. In many ways it is similar to some of Kubrick’s work, in that any chance of sentimentality is replaced with cold sterility.

Scarlett Johansson plays the enigmatic lead, which she is utterly perfect for. I don’t believe Johansson has great range as an actress, but playing an otherworldly, seductive chanteuse is her bread and butter. The contrast between the sallow, desperate young men she picks up (who amazingly were non-actors oblivious to the set up) and her porcelain doll is delicious. Cruising around in her white van looking for her next victim, Laura becomes a genuinely strange new cinematic icon. The audience revels in these surreal images of a Hollywood starlet asking where the nearest Asda is in obscure Scottish locales.

The trailer for the film was genuinely exciting; we were privy to what seemed like new images to stimulate the senses, and hints of the esoteric score by Mica Levi. The film IS visually striking. There is a mysterious opening sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s infamous psychedelic section; we seem to be watching this strange entity being birthed straight from the cosmos. Elsewhere there are some startling images inside Laura’s lair, where her victims are submerged into an oily abyss. Combined with Mica Levi’s ominous, primal orchestration, these moments are truly unnerving.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the film as a whole. Although the documentary style footage of Laura stalking the bleak streets of Glasgow is creepy and surreal, it often deadens the drive of the film with its repetition. It’s beguiling, no doubt, but the meandering, barely there plot feels intriguing rather than profound. Again we go back to this division between visuals versus plot, and in this case I feel that the film is lacking that narrative drive to really make it a transcendent piece of cinema. As a mood piece it is really rather wonderful, but you get the feeling that this will come to be known as a cult film in the vein of Nicholas Roeg rather than a bonafide classic.

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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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In the past decade there has been a spate of film and TV projects chronicling iconic show business figures and landmarks. It seems as if modern audiences are basking in a warm nostalgic glow, and alongside the endless remakes, sequels and prequels, the biopic has provided that irresistible glimpse into the past. In the past couple of months alone, there have been two, that’s right, two Hitchcock biopics. The Girl, a BBC project starring Toby Jones, pecked at the torrid shoot of The Birds, but this new film documents the precursor, the infamous Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins stars as the rotund, devilish auteur Alfred Hitchcock, heavily made up in prosthetics of course. Sacha Gervasi’s film details the origins of Psycho and how the shoot came to affect his relationship with longtime partner/collaborator Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren. In early 60’s LA, Hitchcock’s magic was beginning to fade with Hollywood producers; they wanted a sleek, commercial hit in the vein of North by Northwest, while a jaded Hitch was keen to spread his wings with a more dangerous project. When the Psycho novel falls into his paunch, he revels in its gruesome depiction of murder and incest.

The studios however, are less impressed, and even Alma has her reservations. Forced to fund it himself, Hitch and Alma put their livelihoods on the line in order to ignite the project. Meanwhile, Alma’s attentions are drawn to the seductive screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), as the two work on his new screenplay. Hitch’s eyes are also straying again to his perennial vice; the buxom blonde lead actress, this time Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). As the shoot goes on, the couple find themselves edging apart from one another.

Hopkins and Mirren are both excellent; Hopkins showing the same pained restraint as he did so memorably in The Remains of the Day, while injecting the film with a bout of much needed humour. Mirren plays Alma as both headstrong and whipsmart, but also someone quietly affected by Hitch’s weakness for his dream woman. The film as a whole though has something of an identity crisis. It starts off as a fairly gentle, witty domestic charade, then descends into worthy relationship drama, mingling misguided fantasy elements along the way. Ed Gein (the serial killer inspiration for Psycho) appears in a series of hallucinations to Hitch, advising him throughout the film. These intermissions feel unnecessary and only muddy the overall tone.

Hitchcock is an enjoyable romp, but has serious issues with drama and conflict. The film never really delves into why the Psycho shoot was so torturous and the obstacles (MPAA, his infatuation with Leigh, studio execs) are dealt with ease. His relationship with Alma doesn’t manage to ignite the audiences fire either, and it started to remind me of another biopic, Control. Was Ian Curtis’ relationship with his wife the really interesting aspect of the Joy Divison story, or was it simply a convenient thread for the film makers to cling onto? I have similar reservations here, in that Psycho speaks for itself as a striking piece of work. We don’t really need to know the story behind it, and here the film makers never convince us otherwise.

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