Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Her: Science Fiction or Depressing Reality?

Spike Jonze's Her disrupts the generic flow of romantic comedies that are recycled through our cinemas every year. It takes a refreshing look at the genre like other standouts such as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation and Richard Linklater's recent Before Midnight. Her lies in the same breath as the former, with it's portrayal of postmodern isolation, technological advances and visual style. Parallel to its smooth direction and striking set design is Joaquin Phoenix's performance, which really shows his range as an actor. What is intriguing about Her is its depiction of us as a society advancing faster and faster into an overwhelming technological future and how we are going to handle it's moral implications. 

Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly (sounds like a fat, waddling character from a British clay animation series), a soon to be divorced man, stuck in a rut. He wanders through the fantastic, futuristic Los Angeles landscape, jacked into his online world oblivious to his physical surroundings. Human contact seems futile in this handsfree society and this is why Theodore decides to download the OS voice operating system to help him organise his life. The system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) appears to have a mind of her own, with feelings and consciousness. They spark a nice kinship, but as Theodore comes out of his shell so does Samantha. As real as she may seem, the fact remains that she is still a computer program, hence her limitations and lack of physicality. He inspires jealousy in her when he dates a neurotic Olivia Wilde, which leads them to open up more to each other about their feelings. 

This results in the film's best scene as a honest conversation transcends to verbal intercourse between the two. Spike Jonze produces an extremely intense sex scene without even showing anything, just words and then a black screen, which forces Theodore, Samantha and the audience to use their imagination. The cut to the following scene of the morning after is terrific as we watch Theodore pacing back and forth awaiting the awkward conversation with his computer. 

The second half would play out like your regular romantic comedy scenario if it wasn't so bleak. Complications arise as Theodore and Samantha continue their relationship, primarily with the elephant in the room...she has no body. Samantha suggests a "sex surrogate" to allow their relationship a physical realm. When the surrogate girl comes over to Theodore's apartment and begins seducing him, it feels more like a zombie attack than foreplay. This scene is so unsettling it sort of feels like borderline rape and rightfully so Theodore doesn't go through with it. Theodore is perplexed as to what he actually wants. Nothing in the physical form makes him happy and the relationship with Samantha is too complex. Nothing appears to be real in his life. His job consists of writing affectionate letters for random couples, it appears he only has one real friend (Amy Adams) and he plays video games in his sterile apartment. Is he just a helpless artificial intelligence porn addict?

Although Theodore's plight is tough, attempting to move on from his marriage and find happiness, his predicament isn't really all too bad. He has a great job, which from beginning to end every character compliments him on, seems extremely comfortable financially and though his friends are few, they are genuine and supporting. He is, as his hilarious video game character labels him, a pussy. His wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) appears to be a cold bitch, who he should be thankful to get away from, he is hooked up with a hard body like Amelia (Olivia Wilde) and he is living in an incredibly futuristic Los Angeles that would make Rick Deckard bitter.

As it stands, Her is visually stunning, well written and exciting in regards to the possibilities of future technologies. It is a social commentary on the culture of modern human relationships and where it could lead to. We witness it today without having to go as far as artificial intelligence, via social networking and online dating sites. People are communicating less and less in person and more online, rather than a humane gesture we get an emoji, jokes aren't interpreted properly, our physical appearances are filtered as if we want to masquerade our true identity. Its simulacrum and its progressing at a rapid pace. However, these technological breakthroughs can also bring people closer together if applied properly, it is us who are the problem. There have been a good few movies that have touched on the same themes as Her, but in recent years it is the most believable and accessible film about the distant future to come out of Hollywood. It may not be a great movie, but its an interesting one with an original look to it. I enjoyed Jonze's visual aesthetic of the future and I applaud the unflinching style in which the sex scenes were shot. Alright, I'm off to fuck my I phone, while my Mac plays with herself.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

If your Valentines Day consists of gnashing away on chocolate hearts from your mom and having a quiet sob in the tub like mine does, take a deep breath and relax...Cine Mac has a remedy that will help speed up this dreaded holiday. Quit panting over Tinder for a minute and wipe the sweat from your brow. Let us remember what Valentines Day is really about; a bunch of randy American teenagers getting taken out one by one by a masked psychopath, with the obligatory tit shot of course. 

George Mihalka's My Bloody Valentine is a prime example of the slasher genre's golden age, a stylish gore fest with an iconic killer. Set in an isolated mining town with a sordid past, the locals decide to throw the Valentine's dance for the first time in twenty years. T.J. (Paul Kelman) has returned home and tension is in the air as his former girlfriend Sarah (Lori Hallier) is now going steady with Axel (Neil Affleck)...Shiiiiiiittttt! And so the slasher conventions unfold. After a grisly murder the dance is cancelled, but a murky murder or two doesn't stop these whacky kids from getting their kicks. Its Valentines and they need to get drunk and laid by any means necessary. They decide to ignore the mayor and sheriff's warnings and have a secret party in the mines. One by one these little fuckers get brutally murdered in the most outrageous and ingenious ways possible. 

MBV stands out as one of the better slasher flicks of the 1980s not only because it pushed the envelope with the gory SFX, but because its plot was tight and captivated viewers with its mystery. It follows the rules of the slasher genre with the utmost respect too; you have sex, you die. So if you're home alone this Valentines, wallowing in despair, flaccid as a minutes silence, just remember that you'll definitely be surviving this bloody Valentines.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: A Decadent Jungle

After witnessing Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, you'll need to pop a Valium to wind down from it's elevated portrayal of mass excess. A Scorsese picture can be recognised by many factors and one of these defining characteristics is energy. His filmmaking style exhibits an incredible sense of adrenaline, most notably in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, and with Wolf he has enhanced this spark to boiling point. With it's lightening speed dialogue and never ending source music audiences are taken on a dark, comedic roller coaster. Wolf pushes the envelope in the depiction of greed and decadence in American culture that would make ancient Rome blush.

There is no real plot, but more a landscape of anecdotes from the life of Jordan Belfort, a real-life, ruthless Wall Street broker played by Di Caprio. This is Di Caprio's strongest leading performance to date. Leo changed his course on his "Titanic" career via collaborations with Scorsese to become one of today's greatest leading male actors. However, because of his youthful appearance he was somewhat limited. He didn't possess the same tough demeanour as De Niro in his heyday. When Di Caprio raised his voice you could hear a boyish squeak. As Belfort, he commands a deep Queen's accent, which strengthens his aura as the megalomanic CEO of his firm, Stratton. He's ferocious. It would appear he has graduated from the boy wonder to a man. 

The theme of Wolf is very serious, but the manner in which it is expressed is extremely funny and extravagant. It's by far the funniest movie of the year, yet it's based on the most immoral individuals. Scorsese has made a career out of presenting audiences with a glimpse into the lives of mobsters, crooks, pimps, sociopaths and their violent lifestyles, yet this comedy conveys his most deplorable characters yet. They possess no redeeming qualities. They are anti-social, ruthless, misogynist, greedy bullies is what they are and its hilarious. This is due to the pace of Scorsese's filmmaking and the wit of Terrence Winter's screenplay.

There is a masterful sequence involving Di Caprio, Jonah Hill, a phone call, a car, Popeye and an old batch of Quaaludes that places Di Caprio's physical comedy up there with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. What is so remarkable about Scorsese's work is that although he is known for making some of Hollywood's darkest and grittiest films, he also is capable of stirring some great comedy within these nihilistic tales. 

Wolf also contains a great supporting cast, most notably Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's partner in crime. Taste clearly matters for Hill when it comes to directors as he has seemed to take the same stance as Warren Beatty did in the 60s/70s "I only wanna work with the good directors". He also seemed to be endowed with (no, that was a prosthetic) telekineses because as soon as he saw the Duchess of Bay Ridge, Naomi (Margot Robbie) he did what every man in the cinema wanted to do. Margot Robbie will be huge after this, not only is she an incredible hard body, but as the movie unfolds we can see that she is a fine actor, capable of both comedic and dramatic roles. Director Rob Reiner plays the hot tempered father of Jordan Belfort and also acts as his good conscience. Matthew McConaughey is Mark Hanna, Belfort's charming mentor, who gives him a great lecture about the benefits of "feeding the geese". Kyle Chandler plays the straight arrow Agent Patrick Denham on the hunt for Belfort and his company. In addition to these great roles there are a hundred secondary characters and extras with great faces that will stick in the viewers memory. 

There are also the other performances that play an intrinsic role in an underlying theme throughout the movie. The animals. We see lions, fish, monkeys and dogs among the chaos, supporting the theory that Wall Street is like a jungle or as Belfort describes it; a wolf pit. There is a surreal sequence in which a marching bad and stampede of hookers invade the Stratton offices in a celebration of money making. Carnage occurs in a dreamlike state when Belfort's employees attack each other and harass the hookers as if they were animals themselves. This is Scorsese's way of showing us the primitive nature of capitalism within American society, it's a survival of the fittest mentality that illustrates the ugliness of greed and human nature. There is a fetishism with money and power that not just upper class aspire to, but all classes. This is brilliantly demonstrated with the closing shot of the film as a crowd of onlookers at a Belfort seminar in New Zealand gaze upon him and catch his every word with infatuation, all wanting, all eager to learn his secret to becoming rich.

Scorsese could possibly be the best to ever do it. Wolf of Wall Street is no way as daring or as ambitious as Taxi Driver or as fascinating as Goodfellas, but it shows a director who is always in touch with audiences, old and young. He adapts to the contemporary pop culture and humour as he adapts great scripts or books, and truly makes it his own. Some filmmakers of his vintage have lost touch (De Palma, Lucas, Coppola), some have grown with him (Woody Allen, Spielberg), but none of them have stayed as sharp.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave: Lashings are so hot right now, lash me Hollywood!

Sorry to lighten the mood, but after a viewing of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, I think we all could to with a chuckle or a stiff drink. It is a brutal, powerful and unflinching portrayal of slavery during America's darkest period. Wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, without cutting scenes short in order to please censors or allow audiences take a breath. Viewers do no get off easily. 12 Years a Slave is so perfectly directed and true to the original book, but it doesn't provide us with anything else. Hope? Nah...maybe luck, and directly a year after the highly original Django Unchained was released, we are essentially flung back to the age old story of the powerless black slave. That isn't taking a pop at this movie, which is brilliant and based on a true story, hence can't stretch our imagination like Django Unchained did. It's a movie about human suffering and the evil men do, not a glimpse, but a long hard stare.

Based on a true story, we follow Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is deceived and abducted, thrown into the world of the slave trade down south where he is treated like an animal. He is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sympathetic plantation owner who was just born in the wrong century. Northup survives and keeps his sanity by doing the best he can in plantation activities such as carpentry, construction and other slave pass times such as whippings, taunts and listening to a ridiculous  sing along Run, Nigger, Run'. The tension between Northup and an ignorant overseer played by Paul Dano, who is actually threatening here (unlike There Will be Blood), eventually explodes into a great scene of catharsis. Northup, frustrated by this man's stupidity and abuse, fights back by lashing him with his own whip. However, the punishment for this outburst is severe and snaps the audience right back to the heinous reality. This punishment unfolds slowly in a great scene as Northup is lynched, but survives only by pushing himself up on the mud with his tippy toes. This scene plays out for what seems like eternity, from day till dusk we witness him struggle until he is cut down. 

This extension of scenes and refusal to cut away or even enhance it with music is the true achievement of McQueen's film. He lets his movie breath, allowing the fierce emotion and atrocities resonate with the spectator. After Northup is transferred to Master Edwin Epps' (Michael Fassbender) land, our young protagonist's health doesn't improve much. Like Di Caprio's Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, Epps looks for an excuse that allows him to continue this savagery. Epps' reasoning is religion rather than science and phrenology, but just as incorrect. His character is closer to Amon Goeth then Candie though. As he, like Ralph Fiennes terrifying character in Schindler's List (1993) is smitten by one of his victims. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is Epps' Kryptonite when it comes to his cruelty. This adds layers to his character and the class system among the slaves that was previously explored in Django Unchained. 

Another scene in which McQueen lets play out, and the movies most violent, is when Patsey takes a lashing, many lashings, so much so that you can feel the audience in the theatre getting angrier and angrier to the brink of fury. It's an extremely unsettling sequence. However, not all of these extended scenes are for the purpose to display violent acts. At some stage, the camera has a close up on Solomon as he stands alone in the muggy, swampy woods of Louisiana and takes in all the natural surroundings. We see exotic trees, hear birds and flies as if we were standing right there with him. Which brings me to the cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, who makes the antebellum south look like it could be a Butlin's family holiday package deal, if weren't home to all the horrendous evil shit. The camera glides through cotton and cane fields as if it were Huck Finn running amuck again. Sunsets, stars and moonlight are all captured beautifully looking over the racism below on Edwin Epps plantation.

The conclusion of 12 Years a Slave comes as no surprise as it is based on the memoirs written by Solomon Northup, who we know escaped this living hell in order to write the book. We are left with no  satisfying catharsis like the explosive shootout at the end of Django Unchained, but we let out a mere sigh of relief. Northup was one of the very, very lucky individuals who escaped. This is a hard study of humanity and human bondage. It would be completely idiotic to compare 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained as they are completely different forms of film genre so I'll do so, because even though I have no problem with either films, there seems be a lingering aura with audience and critical reactions. I'm beginning to gather that many believe 12 Years is a more powerful and artistic film, "a real film". I don't buy that shit. Of course, McQueen's vision and portrayal of Solomon Northup's tremendous and harrowing story is courageous in terms of showing the extent of violence and trauma unleashed during this period, but it leaves nothing to the imagination. Tarantino's approach was subtle, delivered through a genre piece with an original story, a modern day fairytale that gave the black man and black audiences a sense of power and freedom. Obviously it was sensationalised for entertainment purposes, but it gave hope and propelled our imagination. If slavery were to occur again, which movie would you use as a guideline? As great and emotionally stirring as 12 Years a Slave is, it is a film for the past. Django Unchained is one for the future.