Set in the not so distant future, ‘Her’ blends science fiction with romantic-comedy and holds a mirror up to the possibilities of mobile technology. Screwball director Spike Jonze explores themes of love, friendship and artificial intelligence in utopian Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a thirty-something divorcee who makes a living penning love letters for those with an inability to express their feelings, despite lacking confidence with women face-to-face himself. Lonely and raw from his separation from soul mate Catherine (Rooney Mara), he invests in an advanced operating system, who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) for companionship and to compartmentalise his working and social calendar. As the OS expands its capabilities, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha develops, asking questions of modern-day romance and its requirements, be it technical or otherwise.
Despite being full of ideas and imagination, I struggled to connect with the central character, and felt slightly patronised and preached upon by the heavy topics raised. The ‘looks or personality’ quandary comes into play in an unorthodox manner as although Samantha has no physical presence, essentially ‘living in a computer’ as she puts it, she does have a personality and later has the mood swings and emotions that come with the ups and downs of a relationship. Without giving too much away, there’s a section where Samantha does arrange for a body to take on her persona and this presents an oddly intriguing threesome dynamic. It reminded me a lot of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series which also predicted where technological enhancements would take us, but his effort was more effective and thought provoking due to its darker satirical approach.
I admired the ambition, and the film definitely looks the part, the idyllic location serving as a pleasant and interesting backdrop to Theodore’s story. However nice the aesthetics are, the problem lies in the unnatural conversations with Samantha which were cringe worthy at times, the attempts at humour, for me, missing the mark. This could be down to the fact that Johansson was brought into the project late on. Her voiceover was added in place of the unknown original which had been recorded in sync with Phoenix’s lines. In fairness, the recasting in some respects of Scarlett Johansson was a shrewd move. Because of her iconic good looks, her voice is easy to recognise and identify with, and this helps but I didn’t buy into the bond at all. It all still felt very naff and manufactured.
Joaquin Phoenix is no stranger to a complex lead role, so seemed an inspired choice to take on the introvert, Twombly. Unfortunately, he is outshone by his co-stars, even his computerised girlfriend. Rooney Mara is very impressive once again, in a similar role to her Social Network turn, but this time more assured. I could’ve done with seeing more of her character who represents the grounding reality in a world of dreamy ideals, though she steals the moments she appears in. The stand-out performance is Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend, Amy. They relate through their desire to express themselves creatively, Theodore through his writing and Amy through documentary filmmaking. They are there for each other through their troubles, and the natural friendship plays out very fluidly.
‘Her’ has no shortage of invention but the outcome has mixed results. The slick cinematography works well with the subject matter, as does the soundtrack but it is let down by its feeble cracks at rom-com humour and sentiment. This creates an incoherent narrative and the film doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be, though it has no doubt of its own intelligence. If it had focussed on being an investigative sci-fi flick, I think there’s room for a more in-depth study and more challenging material for the experienced cast to tackle, thus giving itself the opportunity to fulfil its potential.
Boxing has provided us with an abundance of great cinema, with stand outs such as Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, but there are perhaps none better than Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro and Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone at the centre of the squared circle. Surely putting the two together would work…maybe about twenty years ago. In steps director Peter Segal to present ‘Grudge Match’, pitting Jake LaMotta toe to toe with Balboa, albeit with new personas and back stories. Stallone is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro is Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, a couple of Pittsburgh bruisers who had a simmering rivalry thirty years in the past. With one win apiece all those years ago, a decider was imminent but an abrupt retirement from Sharp cut their trilogy short. When a pushy promoter gets in their faces waving wads of cash around, the dollar signs soon appear in the baggy eyes of the adversaries and a final fight is announced to end the bitter feud once and for all.
Like the characters they’re portraying, it’s difficult to imagine why these two admirable pensioners would put themselves through the turmoil at their age. The narrative is chockfull of jokes about Razor and The Kid being past it, over-the-hill, in it for the money but as the sparse material is stretched out, the lines fade between them and the actors. The opening scenes showing flashbacks to their glory days looks like a crudely rendered video game, and sections that require any strenuous activity are padded out with filler and montage, shamelessly harking back to the Rocky franchise. In fairness, the acting away from the ring isn’t too bad as Sly and Bob bounce off one another rather well despite a lacklustre script.
The family subplots are rather forced, with McDonnen’s father/son dynamic with Jon Bernthal’s BJ providing a few laughs, as does Razor’s friendship with his cantankerous trainer ‘Lightning’ Conlon, played comfortably by Alan Arkin who brings some much needed class to proceedings. These pleasant distractions give sparse entertainment and then Kevin Hart comes back to ruin it all again with his one-note overdone performance as Kevin Hart, and the Kim Basinger love triangle with the two brawlers fails to live up to much. Ultimately though, it could have been worse. The paint-by-numbers plot flows along as you would expect building to an inevitable end battle which is easy to cheer for if you’ve decided whose corner you’re in by that point. For me, it always has to be De Niro. It winds up similar to your favourite old pair of trainers. Comfortable, familiar and worn out. You’ll throw them on to try and remember the good times but they’ve definitely seen better days.
Of late we’ve witnessed a resurgence of beloved veterans going back to cinema, with Michael Douglas returning to work after a brush with death, action heroes such as Sly and Arnie reliving past glories with varying success, and Robert De Niro attaching himself to any film that will have him. The idea of throwing four old dogs together and sending them to Sin City seems easy and rather unoriginal, many labelling the project as the ‘OAP Hangover’ but what is truly amazing is that despite the career lengths of the stars, none of them have ever shared the screen together previously. Director John Turteltaub presents Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Kevin Kline as the Flatbush Four, a group of childhood pals who reunite for a bachelor party over fifty years past their prime. Have the gang of respected actors pulled their resources for the ‘legendary’ trip the poster tagline suggests, or will they wish they had stayed at home with the pipe and slippers?
Despite the plot following the expected path of booze, gambling and girls, each of the characters is given a sturdy back-story. The individual arcs lead them into the initial meeting at the airport and intertwine to find a sentimental conclusion. Sam (Kline) is in a marriage which has lost its spark, Archie (Freeman) wants to escape the overbearing care of his son after a mild stroke, Billy (Douglas) is the stag refusing to give in to old age, and Paddy (De Niro) is the most reluctant of the clan to go, still in mourning after the passing of his wife. These deeper, yet still typical, aspects of the story at least give the actors something to get their false teeth into amongst the x-rated ice sculptures and wet t-shirt contests.
The ‘getting old’ narrative offers consistent jokes and witty one liners in the first half of the film, and the mock mafia skit they rustle up is a highlight. Once the Scotch sets in midway, events often take a turn towards the ridiculous yet the experienced cast somehow manage to get away with it. Its clear that they’ve had a lot of fun making it and the chemistry between the friends work, and although none of them really stand out alone, they all manage to hold their own. I could have benefited from one or two more scenes with all four characters together because the camaraderie was so entertaining. Perhaps a lengthier section with them sitting around a casino table reminiscing over times gone by could have been nice? Instead the dialogue was kept rather lightweight and the party scenes were a little too heavy, more reminiscent of geriatric Spring Breakers than the aforementioned Hangover. A few frames tread the line of slightly uneasy viewing as the pensioners grow old disgracefully, ogling at the bikini clad youngsters.
‘Last Vegas’ is far from the disaster that many thought it would be, and surprisingly has more beneath the surface than the first glance would give it credit for. A tender observation of men reaching the autumn of their lives, offering up one or two touching moments as well as the cheap laughs. In the hands of lesser talent, the outcome could have been so much different but the all-star cast manage to add just enough class to see it through. A term that gets bandied around which I usually tend to avoid is popcorn movie, but here it feels very relevant, serving as a welcome injection of light relief during the weighty awards season.
The incredible true story of rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof’s battle with HIV and with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one that deserves to be told on the big screen. After a few false starts and years of effort and determination, director Jean Marc Vallée has brought the project to fruition. Matthew McConaughey stars as Woodroof, continuing his remarkable run of form, and gives an awe-inspiring performance. After an accident at work hospitalises Woodroof, he is told he is HIV-positive and given around thirty days to live, but he refuses to give in and accept his cruel fate. He has a thirst for life, as well as bourbon, and his survival instincts lead him to start the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, where he smuggles drugs into the country and distributes to fellow sufferers including Rayon (Jared Leto), with whom an unlikely friendship is formed.
Never has the term ‘actor’s film’ seemed more apt, as the underlying narrative structure is rather conventional, broken down with days after diagnosis title cards, allowing us an idea of the passing of time and offering a platform for Woodroof’s character arc. Initially homophobic and misogynistic, he is a nasty piece of work but as his condition develops, his narrow-minded outlook on life expands to show courage and compassion as he fights not only for his own life but the lives of all that sign up to his money-making membership club. He recruits Rayon as his right hand woman/man, a flamboyant opportunist with an ever- worsening cocaine addiction. Both turns are transformative, and at times very touching, and are receiving justifiable critical acclaim. Their gaunt frames tug at the heartstrings of the audience, inducing tears and laughter, uniting through adversity. The pharmaceutical discussions are enjoyable, as Ron swirls through legal loopholes to keep his entrepreneurial enterprise intact but aside from the superb acting, there isn’t an awful lot to shout about.
McConaughey himself said proudly that this quickly becomes much more than the ‘McConaughey gets skinny’ film, and I suppose he is right. His portrayal is full of energy and magnetism, pushing the weight loss out of the limelight, though he did shed an amazing 38 pounds for the role. It rounds off the much publicised ‘McConaissance’ which has seen him shrugging off his flimsy rom-com rep to impress in Killer Joe, Mud, Magic Mike, and now this. He will also be at the centre of Christopher Nolan’s next picture which is set to be one of the year’s biggest talking points. Proving himself, he shows great dedication and respect for Ron Woodroof in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, carrying the film to a very solid standard.