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Brooke Morriswood's Journal
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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Brooke Morriswood's LiveJournal:

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Thursday, March 3rd, 2016
8:13 pm
Pastures new
OK, it's official - this blog is in indefinite hiatus.

I have recently started a new, science-based, blog called Total Internal Reflection - it can be found here: TIR
Friday, May 1st, 2015
10:23 pm
Public service announcement/a search for direction
I joined Livejournal in 2005. The first film review came out in November of that year (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Occasional reviews followed, alongside some whimsical entries on a variety of topics.

In July 2006, I entered a review for every film I watched at the Cambridge Film Festival and one of them (Harsh Times) won the audience prize. This was the first outside validation that what I was writing had any kind of objective value.

Since July 2006, I have posted a review for literally every single film that I've seen in the cinema. There have continued to be occasional pieces on other topics (rugby, boxing, miscellania), but the blog's focus has overwhelmingly been cinematic. This was undoubtedly due to the presence of several excellent English-language movie theatres in Vienna. Of course, I've also seen plenty of other films on DVD, but somehow reviewing them didn't seem right when they were being watched on a little laptop or TV screen.

I recently relocated to Würzburg, where the opportunities for watching English-language cinema are much less. As such, I will need to re-evaluate what the main purpose of this blog actually is. This may result in a broader range of topics (restaurant reviews, polemics, fragments) or a much reduced output.

Just so's you all know… ;-)

(And thanks to everyone who's been reading over the years)
9:56 pm
Film Review: The Theory of Everything

It's a biopic about a genius who enjoys early professional success before becoming crippled by disability, but who, partly thanks to the love of a good woman, pulls through to ensure a redemptive and wholesome conclusion.

Of course, what "it" is in this case doesn't necessarily have to be The Theory of Everything, Jim Marsh's tale of the life of British physicist Stephen Hawking. "It" could apply equally well to Shine, Ray, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and many more films based on real-life figures that have become a tiresome fixture on the Oscar nomination lists.

And there's another, more pejorative way to succinctly describe the film: it's formulaic. In fact, it has to be one of the most dully formulaic movies I think I've ever seen. No risks are taken, and the film trades entirely on Hawking's name recognition for its impact - had the same story been told about a fictional character, I doubt very much whether its reception would have been as warm.

Based on "Travelling to Infinity", the memoir written by Hawking's first wife, the film follows Stephen from his time as a promising undergraduate, to his diagnosis of motor neurone disease, professional acclaim, and ultimate celebrity status.

There's a kind of morbid pleasure to be taken in the early scenes, when you're wondering exactly at what point Stephen's symptoms will manifest, but that's all the tension that's offered. Once disease and diagnosis tramp in, the suspense goes and all that's offered is a saccharine account of his and his wife's activities.

His work as a physicist is barely touched on, and you'd be hard-pressed to tell exactly what he ever works on apart from black holes. Rather, the film expends its energy charting his rise to popular celebrity as the author of "A Brief History of Time". The title could hardly be more of a misnomer.

Of course, one reason for this - given that it's based on her memoir, after all - is that this is supposed to be his wife's account. And in that respect the film is truly enhanced by a wonderful performance from Felicity Jones, who provides the real heart of the piece. Warm-hearted, tender, and entirely without the insincerity that could have torpedoed the role, she provides an emotional fulcrum and convincingly grapples with the problem that presumably afflicts all partners married to disabled spouses - is it ever right to quit?

And it's here too that the film makes its biggest mistake, and exhibits its greatest failure of nerve. It simply can't bring itself to make her the main character. A biopic about the partner of a disabled genius would have been something wholly original and intrinsically dramatic, but clearly any film featuring Stephen Hawking must apparently be about Stephen Hawking - so we end up with an out-of-focus piece that feels almost completely sterile.

As Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne dutifully gurns through his lines and observes all the requisite physical tics. (Incidentally, I found that it's charmingly simple to replicate his delivery and most of his expressions by sticking a slice of cucumber under your top lip - try it!) Scene after scene is set up for a twinkly-eyed gurn as its punchline, hinting yawningly at how his emotional core is intact within the ruins of his body. It did, of course, win him the Oscar* but I wonder whether it may turn out to be an albatross - Redmayne is an undoubtedly talented young actor but this role is so cynically pitched at the Academy voters that I suspect he may end up wishing he'd won it later in life. Instead, like Adrien Brody, he's going to spend a long time now fighting to justify it (and Brody, for my money, has not managed to do so).

In all then, probably the nicest thing you can say about The Theory of Everything is that it's a masterpiece of sheen over content. The title, the "real-life" angle, Hawking, God, the meaning of life - everything in it cues you to believe that you're watching a big and important movie, but most of this material receives only lip service at best. Peer behind the veil and there's precious little of substance there. Only Jones' struggle with her feelings for a hunky but sensitive Christian choirmaster (Charlie Cox) grabs the attention. If you want to see the same film done much, much, better, go and watch A Beautiful Mind.

(* Michael Keaton, the only Best Actor nominee this year to NOT be playing a real-life person, has every right to feel robbed.)
Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
12:53 pm
Film Review: Nightcrawler

It runs in the family*. Tony Gilroy has carved out an enviable critical reputation as a writer and latterly director of lean, noirish thrillers (Michael Clayton, State of Play, the Bourne series) and now younger brother Dan steps up with a work that's hewn from the same material. Firmly set in the "dark LA" genre of which David Ayer (Training Day, Harsh Times, End of Watch) has been the outstanding exponent in recent years, Nightcrawler - propelled by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal - could well become a classic.

Cinema has given us many memorable sociopaths over the years, a list probably still headed by Norman Bates (Psycho) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), but to that we can now add Lou Bloom, a smalltime crook who turns freelance news videographer.

It's easy to pinpoint what makes Lou so disturbing, although that's a disservice to a wonderfully controlled and layered turn from Gyllenhaal. There's a terrifying emotional blankness to him, a sense not of a person but of some strange composite that's been concocted in order to try and blend in with the rest of society. He talks in self-improvement cliches that sound parroted from textbooks. He laughs mirthlessly, and only with his mouth. He's polite and courteous to a fault, never losing his temper, but the manners are delivered with a smoothness that gives the lie to their sincerity. And above all, he's calm. Eerily so.

It's this chilling sense of utter self-possession that makes you recoil. His confidence is brazen, and his willingness to manipulate and employ emotional blackmail seems almost unethical given how little such tactics would be able to influence him. The asymmetry of his interactions with other people, in which he's always - frequently in defiance of the logic of the situation itself - in complete control repeatedly makes you squirm. Because normal people shouldn't behave like that. Normal people don't behave like that.

The film's brilliant and implied indictment is that the system is actually selecting for this type of person. Lou is a vicious thief on the bottom end of the food chain at the film's onset, a lowlife bum going nowhere, but once within the world of 24-hour news broadcasting his character traits become an undeniable, though morally questionable, asset.

Sounds implausible? Hear me out. It's a messy car crash that changes Lou's direction, but one in which he's only a bystander. The arrival of a freelance news team alerts him to the possibility of selling video footage to TV stations, and before long he's listening in to police broadcasts and racing to be the first with the gory shots of the scene. Car crashes, shootings, home invasions, this is all grist for the mill - the bloodier, the better. And as well as having a natural talent for framing (the result of a lifetime spent viewing society from the outside, perhaps?), Lou suffers none of the moral scruples that would stand in the way of a more principled operator.

It's the progressive expression of that lack of compunction, and the extension all the way to its logical extreme, that takes Lou, and the film, into ever darker territory. To begin with, it's simply being insensitive enough to jam a videocamera into the face of someone having a messy and public demise ("I like to say that if you meet me, you're having the worst day of your life!" he cheerfully later exclaims); later, it's a willingness to alter the scene to maximise the dramatic payoff. And finally... Well, suffice to say the climax doesn't disappoint. His audacity, his relentless lack of remorse in the pursuit of his own ends, take him into the realm of the damned.

But judgement never comes. Lou survives, and prospers, because his footage is applauded. It's bought. Ultimately - and this is where the finger of accusation swivels to point at the viewer - it's consumed. Lou may be utterly unscrupulous, but he never morally compromises himself because he apparently has no morals. Rather, it's the staff at the TV stations (and again, lest we forget, the audiences) who repeatedly overlook their better natures to purchase Lou's wares and pander to his increasingly grandiose demands that are the ones really open to censure.

The support cast are few, but distinguished. Rene Russo, back to her best, is excellent as news editor Nina Romina. It's her who encourages Lou early on, and ends up unable to control the monster she's created. She's also - more than anyone else - responsible for serving Lou's nightmare recordings up to the public and does so to boost her own career. Bill Paxton is the competing freelancer who unwittingly tutors Lou in the trade and similarly fails to understand what kind of person he's dealing with. A number of real-life LA news anchors appear as themselves, in what I hope is a kind of protest against the direction their profession is heading in. They're certainly disconcertingly good at narrating over the footage. And Riz Ahmed is the hapless, and homeless, young man who gets taken on as Lou's first assistant and somewhat incredulous apprentice. He, too, fails to take the high ground when it's offered. Only Kevin Rahm, as the Harvard-educated editor Frank Kruse, sees the complicity in broadcasting the clips, but his protests are ignored.

A blistering critique on the voyeurism of contemporary news broadcasting, Nightcrawler is one of those rare films that forces you to take a long, hard look at your own behaviour. Whether it's rubbernecking on the motorway, or lingering just longer than you know is decent when footage of this kind is broadcast on the TV or available on the internet, we've all been confronted by the moral dilemma that the proliferation of digital cameras and recorders poses. Nightcrawler's genius is to show us what type of person that behaviour supports, and produces. The timing, when Islamic State's gruesome atrocities are being disingenuously propagated even by large broadcasters (stand up and be counted, Fox News - you showed a man being burned alive) could not be more appropriate.

* In fact, Nightcrawler's Gilroy imprint runs even deeper than that - the third Gilroy sibling, John, is the editor and Dan is married to Rene Russo!
9:54 am
Film Review: Mr Turner

Appropriately for a film about a painter, Mike Leigh's Mr Turner is not so much a story as a portrait. Depicting the final 25 years in the life of the great British landscape artist JMW Turner (Timothy Spall, given leading man status at last), the film presents a series of only loosely connected scenes in chronological order, offering in sum a window onto the cantankerous man's life.

Given this relative absence of a narrative arc, much then depends on Spall's portrayal of its eponymous subject, and in this respect the film largely succeeds. The forcefulness with which he inhabits the skin of this obtuse, opaque man, and the way in which for all his behavioural shortcomings he radiates an uncompromising integrity, undoubtedly coheres the film together into a whole.

But perhaps he doesn't give enough away? Spall's Turner is all grunts and snorts, to an extent that he sometimes begins to resemble one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations. The reserve, the self-control, is so absolute that one searches in vain for clues to the man's inner state. Only occasionally the mask breaks, most dramatically when he's sketching a young prostitute shortly after the death of his father, but these moments are insufficiently informative to give a full sense of the man. He remains an enigma at the heart of his own film.

Equally, the film makes little attempt to portray Turner through the lens of others' opinions, usually the tactic employed when dealing with an uncommunicative central character. Rather, the professional art world of the mid-19th century is depicted in an almost satirical light that Turner seems justified in disdaining. The critic John Ruskin is a lisping buffoon, Turner's great rival John Constable a querulous flapper, and all the other members of the Academy fluttering around like a crowd of insensate butterflies.

Instead, the heart of the film belongs to its women. The ageing family servant Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), taken for granted and sexually exploited by Turner, radiates a stoic and long-suffering attachment. The seaside widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), with whom Turner forms an autumnal relationship below the social radar, is Katherine Parr to his Henry VIII. Emotional charge comes too from the dazzling cinematography, with some scenes looking almost like the subject's own paintings.

In Mr Turner, fans of Timothy Spall will find much to enjoy. Fans of Mike Leigh will find much to enjoy. And fans of the painter, his works, and the period will find much to enjoy. But it is unlikely to draw in people who don't already fall into one of those three - relatively specialised - categories. A fine piece of work, but one targeted at a select market.
Friday, January 9th, 2015
3:49 pm
Why I'm stepping back from Facebook

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why (though here goes!), but in the last six months I seem to have lost all interest in Facebook.

I can vividly remember its early appeal, although I did take time to be persuaded. Hilariously, there's even an early post on this blog (HERE) when I was complaining about people nagging me to join, and wondering what all the fuss is about. Back in those pre-smartphone, pre-social media days, my response to invites was invariably: "Why? I've got everyone's number in my phone."

The catalyst, for me, was moving abroad. Leaving the UK at the end of 2006 had dramatic implications for the ease of maintaining contact with people, and it was here that Facebook - for me, at least - came into its own. It was never about close friends - those, you can still e-mail or speak to directly. Rather, it was about the other friends, the larger circle of acquaintances, the people that you probably wouldn't directly contact on a regular basis but that you'd still be upset to lose contact with completely. For keeping them on-radar, it was brilliant.

And that was pretty much the pattern for the next 5-6 years. Photo albums to show where I'd been, paragraphs to let people know what I was thinking about, cross-postings from here to let people know what films I'd seen. I suppose I was always a "send" rather than a "receive" kind of user, but besides letting me inform others of what I was up to, I could also keep abreast of friends when they were doing something interesting.

In a broader context, I guess this is what made social media so enthralling in its early days - it represented the true democratisation of celebrity. In the late 90s we'd had fly-on-the-wall docusoaps (Airport, The Cruise) which followed normal people going about their work. Normal people became celebrities, simply for doing their jobs. But if you weren't working in a job chosen for the docusoap treatment, your luck was out. Then came full-blown reality TV in the 00s (Big Brother, Survivor), which, to put it unkindly, followed abnormal people (exhibitionists, extroverts, and assorted freaks) in contrived, often claustrophobic, situations. Now anyone could become a celebrity, and for simply doing anything in an attention-grabbing manner. But many of the celebrities created from this route were, to put it mildly, hard to relate to. Social media, however, allowed literally anybody to broadcast their life - and if it was interesting, then it might find an audience.

Things feel a lot different now, though it's hard to say what precipitated the change. Smartphones? The quality of cameras on smartphones? Or simply social media's ubiquity? But sometime around 2-3 years ago, it felt like a lot of the fun went out of social media. It started to feel as though any relevant signals were getting drowned out in a lot of noise. It started to feel as though everyone was shouting.

So what do we get now? Single pictures instead of albums. Tweets instead of thoughts. And, more often than not, borrowed content - a shared picture or tweet with the admission of the moment, "This says it better than I ever could".

Maybe it's not the case that the signals got lost, maybe they simply got chopped up into bitesize bits? But accessing Facebook nowadays is a bit like sitting next to a hyperactive kid wielding a TV zapper - a welter of images, single sentences, hashtags, video clips, but nothing that lasts longer than about 7 seconds. And don't forget the reams and reams of adverts customised to "your" preferences.

The nature of the content has changed too. We've lost our innocence. At some point the penny dropped that you don't have to be honest about your postings. If everyone else is apparently having a great time, then why not pretend you are too? (There's a very funny but naturally quite depressing video on this topic here.) Humble-bragging ("I've never been so tired in my life, but it was worth it to see the looks on those kids' faces!") and self-aggrandising promotion are the orders of the day.

Perhaps, though, we're finally arriving at the natural end-point. In books and films dealing with cyberspace before the internet came along, the online world was always depicted as being radically different from reality (think Neuromancer, The Lawnmower Man). Some kind of digitally-created landscape was the substrate in which people interacted - much as is still the case for online role-playing games like World of Warcraft.

But it turns out that cyberspace actually looks a lot like the real world. So much alike, so similar to a mirror (or a camera?) held up to a person's day-to-day existence, that we can easily kid ourselves that the two things are one and the same. But they're not. We shouldn't forget that our Facebook profiles are, in a sense, no more real than an avatar in Warcraft, but a lot easier to confuse.

This could be an admission of age, as much as anything. I've heard that young people, the generation who have or are growing up with touch screens and social media, are already savvy enough to differentiate their online profiles and personas from their public, "real" ones. Maybe that's what I should do. But for now, I've lost interest. I'm stepping back.
Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
8:32 pm
Film Review: Interstellar

Any "serious" film about space has Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey to measure up against, and as any film aficionado will know, there are few more "serious" filmmakers out there right now than Christopher Nolan. From Memento to The Prestige and Inception, not to mention his phenomenally successful Batman franchise, this is one writer/director/producer that has the artistic chops to look a colossus like Kubrick straight in the eye, metaphorically speaking.

Or is he? I'm really starting to wonder whether Nolan flatters to deceive. It's not hard to see why the studios love him - he's a purveyor of supposedly highbrow cinema that's nonetheless been extremely lucrative at the box office (since Memento in 2000, every single one of his films has grossed over $100 million at the box office, and the last three - two of which are in his Batman trilogy - have taken almost $3 billion). But how highbrow are they really? His films always give the impression of being supremely finely-crafted, and invariably deal with weighty topics like Guilt, Revenge, Redemption, and so on, but do they really explore the issues they pretend to? Or do they really just pay sufficient lip service to the concept to make the average punter feel that he or she has been invited into rarefied company? Are they as profound as they pretend to be, or merely meretricious?

And so, when Nolan tackled Space itself, as you'd expect he didn't do things by halves. There were well-publicised visits to NASA and SpaceX, theoretical physicists on board to ensure scientific accuracy, and Oscar-winning cast members Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway studying relativity to get to grips with the material. All very impressive, to be sure.

The truth is, though, that they may have hired a physicist but this is definitely not a film for thinking about. And be warned, for all its claims, plausibility is most certainly not an issue in Interstellar. What's served up, ultimately, is something that's big on atmospherics but worryingly short on details.

There are fragments of genuine worth dotted here and there. It's a strong cast (in addition to the two leads, Jessica Chastain makes another eye-catching turn) and the performances are generally good. But they're let down by a somnambulant contribution from Michael Caine at his laziest, and an unwarranted cameo from Matt Damon that's almost as surprising and unwelcome as an appearance from William Shatner. Nolan's vision of an underpowered, resource-poor Dust Bowl near future is well realised - one sequence with McConaughey and his kids dismembering a landed drone like shipwreck survivors butchering a beached whale is a sublime bit of cinema - but the hard establishing work is underplayed later on and forgotten by the end. And boy, does the end take some time in coming. Tarantino's Django Unchained was a bladder-burster of 165 minutes, but Nolan won't be outfaced and clocks in a full 169 minutes here. It feels like there's enough time for the audience to make a journey to Mars, never mind to the toilets and back. Finally, the sound quality is poor - the cast all sound as though their microphones were switched off, and Mconaughey in particular mumbles at least half his lines (curiously, I was rewatching The Dark Knight last week and noticed a similar problem with audibility).

I'm sure Nolan would defend himself by saying that it's more about mood than plot, but the simple truth is that other films, and directors, have achieved the same effects with greater economy - either in terms of time, budget, or execution. Gravity made space look even more hostile and dangerous an environment. Alien better conveyed man's first clumsy attempts into the great void. The Road captured a greater sense of desperation in a survivor population. And perhaps most pertinently, Gattaca above all crystallised that incredible sense of yearning which characterises the best science fiction.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Nolan here. But for all his no doubt well-intentioned trademark thoroughness, there's a sense of complacency here that's hard to shift. Whether it's indulging Michael Caine in a role that could be better done by others, or asking viewers to swallow a deus ex machina climax that would rival Spielberg's A.I., one feels that Nolan has got so confident of flattering his audience that he's actually taking their approval for granted. And that is directorial hubris of the worst kind.

It's often said, rightly, that the measure of a real director is not what they do with a mega-budget, but what they do when they're working with next to nothing. Joss Whedon showed his real worth (to any that might still have doubted it) not with The Avengers, but with Much Ado About Nothing. I'd like to see Nolan have a go at doing the same.
6:35 pm
Viennale Film Reviews #5: Listen Up Philip

It's fitting, and more than a little ironic, that a film about a writer should be full of appealing words and phrases but somewhat lacking in terms of dramatic content. Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, a movie about a young novelist gearing up for his sophomore publication, features a strong ensemble and committed performances, but somehow never quite manages to gain traction.

Indie darling Jason Schwartzman is well-cast as the eponymous Philip, a young man possessed of towering arrogance and weaponised empathy, the latter usually deployed on his supportive but long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, best known from Mad Men). Philip's debut novel apparently created something of a buzz but he's struggling to get going on the follow-up, and help unexpectedly arrives when it transpires that his own idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) is a fan. Ike offers Philip the opportunity to write in his country retreat, and Philip promptly decamps for the sticks, very much leaving Ashley in the lurch.

There's not an awful lot more to it than that though, and while the script is well-stocked with good lines, the situations in which they're delivered frequently leave something to be desired in terms of dramatic promise. There's a bit of an attempt to draw comparisons between the younger and older writer, and the sacrifices and/or character flaws that they share, but the film is a little too absorbed with Philip - and Philip with himself - to go beyond a mere presentation of the parallels.

There's also something slightly disjointed about the whole narrative, and the use of a voiceover (normally the most intrusive form of scene-setting) here acts as about the only glue keeping the story together. Despite the cracking performances from the three leads, who make an intriguing and complementary triad, the movie just doesn't quite hold together.
5:53 pm
Viennale Film Reviews #4: Birdman (or, the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

Anyone who has struggled will empathise with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the hapless hero depicted in Alejandro González Iñárritu's effervescent Birdman. Famous for playing the titular superhero decades earlier, and still with a dedicated though singleminded following ("Will there be a Birdman IV?"), he's striving desperately to reinvigorate his flagging career. To this end, he's the writer-director-star of a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story ("What we talk about when we talk about love"), currently in rehearsal and not exactly taking flight.

It's a fertile proposition, and one that allows Iñárritu to lightly explore a number of different issues - the difficulties inherent in bringing a show to the stage, celebrity culture and casting, method acting, artistic integrity, egotism, delusion, and vanity. Through it all, Keaton bops and bounces like one possessed - a man close to breaking point but determined to come good on his last chance at critical recognition.

What lifts the film into altogether zanier and more original territory is the way that Riggan is tormented by the voice, and later even the figure, of Birdman. The Birdman derides Riggan's attempts to forget a new career direction, and seems to be not so much an hallucination as a manifestation of a well-established alter ego. Riggan repeatedly demonstrates supernatural powers, and one of the film's nicest touches is that it's left unclear whether he is truly some kind of frustrated higher power or - more likely - simply deranged on a cocktail of stress and self-regard.

While Keaton doesn't do anything that hasn't been previously glimpsed in Beetlejuice or Batman, he's an immensely watchable performer when given free rein and acquits himself handsomely here. The film also boasts an outstanding supporting cast, notably Naomi Watts as a callow actress hoping for her big break, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan's put-upon friend and producer, and Edward Norton as a charismatic method-acting leading man. It's the latest in a series of good supporting turns from Norton (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), whose career finally seems to be getting back on track after spending at least twelve years in the doldrums.

The film's quirky tone is well complemented by a skittish jazz soundtrack, and Iñárritu's heavy usage of handheld camerawork. It focuses rather more tightly on Keaton in the final third, with the support cast receding into the background, and this somewhat saps the energy from the piece. It also isn't quite as clever as it proposes to be, and certainly doesn't come anywhere near a full exploration of the themes it sets out to cover, but as an entertaining portrait of a man on the edge it has plenty to offer.
3:28 pm
Viennale Film Reviews #3: Calvary

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Ernest Hemingway, "A Farewell to Arms"

Seldom has a film been propelled by such a sense of rage as John Michael McDonagh's outstanding Calvary. And seldom has that rage been channelled in as cathartic, tragic, and moving fashion. Make no mistake, this is one of those works that transcends film and deserves not just every accolade that comes its way, but acclaiming as a pre-eminent work of human culture. It's that good. Seriously.

Father James (Brendan Gleeson, in the role of a lifetime) is the priest of a rural parish. At the film's outset, he is surprised in the confessional by an anonymous parishioner who details an horrific history of childhood sexual abuse ("I first tasted semen when I was seven years old"). That abuse was at the hands of a priest, just one of the many instances of abuse covered up by the Catholic church of the time. The parishioner goes on to explain that the priest died without being brought to justice for his crimes, and as he continues to be tortured by memories of the abuse he has decided to kill a priest in revenge: "[But] what would be
the point of killing [a bad priest]? That would be no news. There's no point in killing a bad priest. Killing a good one? That would be a shock." The good priest he has decided to kill is, of course, Father James.

Given a week to put his affairs in order, Father James first relates the threat to his detached and otherworldly Bishop as the latter minces disinterestedly through his rose garden. James reveals that he knows who the parishioner is, but is unsure whether the man will go through with his threat - thus turning the film not into an Agatha Christie-style Whodunnit, but rather a who-will-do-it. That foreknowledge helps sustain tension as James goes about his duties within the parish, striving to maintain a normal front even as he interacts with the would-be killer, still unknown to the audience.

And what a bunch of parishioners they are! I don't think there has been a shiftier set of locals since Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. In this respect the tale tends strongly towards the allegorical, with almost each individual villager representing one attitude or archetype - there's the doctor brutalised into callous atheism (Aidan Gillen), the stockbroker sensing emptiness in his pursuit of wordily wealth (Dylan Moran), the butcher careless of his failed marriage (Chris O'Dowd), a policeman, a writer, a rent-boy, an immigrant, a lost soul, and several more. All are united in their contempt, or at best disdain, for what Father James represents.

Stagey it may be, but it permits an existential journey of a kind (akin to that in Odd Man Out, which also followed a doomed man) as Father James goes about his business. He's relentlessly needled by the villagers, each gleefully reminding him to his face of the Church's failings - both down the ages and in the twentieth century. And Father James is worldly enough (it emerges that he joined the Church late in life and has a daughter from a previous marriage) to see the folly of many of the Church's acts himself, and the validity of some of the complaints and points being made. This folly is caustically represented not only by the Bishop, but also by the naive, avaricious and pragmatic younger Father Leary (David Wilmot), a man seeking with his best intentions to advance the Church's agenda, but blind to the spiritual and moral compromises he heedlessly commits.

It's sad and sobering stuff, though shot through with a generous helping of the black humour characteristic of Irish drama. The sadness is more general than specific though - you see clearly how the Church has become so tainted by its past actions that it has undermined its own authority, even when there are manifestly good men such as Father James still seeking to uphold the teachings of Christ amidst the corruption of organised religion. One scene when he comforts a car crash victim - a moment which restores his own wavering conviction - is of such transcendental beauty that it takes the breath away. And James' belated reconciliation with his brittle, reedlike daughter (Kelly Reilly) similarly offers some hope for those with belief in a functioning moral compass. He may not be literally carrying a cross on the way to his own Calvary, but the weight of responsibility is tangible, and the way the film acts as conduit for a welter of emotions - anger, frustration, sorrow, despair - really remarkable. Sublime stuff.
Monday, January 5th, 2015
5:11 pm
Viennale Film Reviews #2: Love is Strange

Love is Strange is one of those premise movies where the set-up is more important than anything that actually happens. It stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a New York couple in a long-term relationship, who belatedly decide to tie the knot. Getting married, however, results in Molina being fired from his job as a music teacher at a staunchly Catholic school and the pair are unable to afford the upkeep of their shared flat. Forced to throw themselves on the charity of their extended family and friends, the two end up rooming separately in quite different locales - Alfred with two hard-partying policemen neighbours, and John with his nephew (Darren Burrows). One is unhappy, the other unwelcome.

The scenario is so well-evoked that the film doesn't seem to want, or even know how, to end it. So many moments are such exquisite pieces of social observation that it's not hard to believe you could make an entire TV series from the situation, and with a cast this good it'd probably be an award-winner. Molina is a magnificently warm presence, his large round eyes brimming with anguish and frustration, while Lithgow makes a good, fussy foil. Marisa Tomei provides a note-perfect turn as the exasperated writer wife of Lithgow's nephew, her home routine now utterly disrupted by Lithgow's buzzing presence. There's good and evocative use of music throughout.

It's also another one of those films that feels like a love-letter to Bohemian New York. Lithgow is a painter, Molina a musician, Tomei a writer and their whole extended social circle boasting a vibrant and colourful assortment of characters.

There's no fireworks, just the unglamorous business of getting on with a bad situation. The film deserves praise too for the way it presents the relationship - this is not a gay film, just one that happens to have a homosexual couple at its centre. A gem.
4:12 pm
Viennale Film Reviews #1: Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria is one of those films that sounds great on paper but doesn't quite meet the same level on celluloid. It's a story of an older actress (Juliette Binoche, well cast and always watchable) being courted for a part in the play that first made her famous around twenty years earlier. Enlisting her faithful assistant (Kristen Stewart) as a rehearsal partner, she begins working through the play's scenes but the line between reality and fiction begins to blur over time, leading to friction between the two. A meeting with the brash young starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) assigned to the role she first played further adds to the actress' unease.

It's obviously a great cast, and the three actresses all commit and acquit themselves commendably. Those familiar with Stewart only from the Twilight series will probably find themselves agreeably surprised at how readily she holds her own against the other two more heralded performers, but one shouldn't forget that she demonstrated serious acting chops in Into the Wild, Adventureland, and Welcome to the Rileys prior to having mainstream mania foisted upon her. The real star though is arguably the magnificent Swiss countryside and mountains, which are lovingly photographed.

The problem, however, is that for all the latent drama in its premise there simply isn't anywhere near enough tension. With nothing really driving the plot except Binoche's existential musings on whether or not the role of the older woman is right for her, it feels increasingly rudderless and aimless. At 124 minutes it's also too long for the flimsiness of its story and the lack of action. Later, one of the characters literally disappears.

As committed as the actresses are, there's simply no way they can sustain the material they're given to work with. The blame lies with writer-director Olivier Assayas, who appears to be trying to be too clever by half. One for arthouse chin-strokers only.
3:27 pm
Film Review: Maps to the Stars

Well, whaddya know? In searching to rediscover his own mojo, David Cronenberg has ended up making the best David Lynch film in years - and probably the best "Lynchian" (oh, how I hate that adjective) film ever.

Cronenberg has long been one of cinema's most distinctive voices, but A History of Violence in 2005 marked a serious turning point in his work. Prior to that, he'd made his name in low-budget bio-horror (Rapid, The Brood), and then graduated to a distinctively organic form of psychosexual drama (Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider), of which Dead Ringers remains his artistic apex. Few directors could boast such an instantly-recognisable filmmaking style, which made it all the odder that he chose to retreat from it. A History of Violence was a classy piece of work that could have been the work of any number of directors, with the same criticism also applying to Eastern Promises.

There were hints in A Dangerous Method that he was inching back to the territory he'd staked as his own, but the film still felt like an uncomfortable compromise between warring impulses. Cosmopolis, a box-office disaster, was the first film he'd scripted since 1999's eXistenZ, and already felt a bit closer to home. But it's with Maps to the Stars (ironically not scripted by him) that Cronenberg really breaks out of the artistic straitjacket that's been holding him and reclaims the lost ground. It's a mesmerising triumph.

Firmly in the "soulless Los Angeles" tradition of Less Than Zero and Mulholland Drive, it's a dreamlike piece whose scenes feel like fragments of a larger dissociated nightmare. A starstruck girl (Mia Wasikowska, brilliantly cast against type) with horrific burn scars arrives in the city looking for work; a child star (Evan Bird) with drug addictions is tormented by hallucinations of a dying girl he visited in hospital; a fading actress (Julianne Moore) clings to dreams of stardom and a release from memories of her abusive mother; a TV psychologist (John Cusack, in his best performance for years) promotes serenity even as his domestic life disappears further into madness. There's a viscous sense of revulsion that drenches the onscreen interchanges, with the film capturing something of the strange inertia of a sleepless night.

That witching hour sense is what ties the film to Lynch's work, with strong parallels not just to Mulholland Drive, but also Eraserhead and Lost Highway. It would fail utterly if the mood were not sustained throughout, but this is achieved with real verve in both the editing and an atmospheric soundtrack. Rather than become disjointed, it instead achieves a quality akin to poetry or a permutating mantra. It's here, and not A Dangerous Method, that Cronenberg achieves something like a real theatre of the mind, and the voices rising out of his darkness are full of a creeping horror. The maestro's back.
Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
10:10 pm
Film Review: A Most Wanted Man

There are some movies that just ooze quality, and A Most Wanted Man is one such. A slick adaptation of a John Le Carre espionage thriller, it features the late, great, Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final starring role at the head of an international cast.

Throughout, it evokes the atmosphere of Le Carre's novels - murky, shadowy, clandestine, and with more than a whiff of the unethical. As such, the port city of Hamburg makes an ideal setting, and there's smart use made of the opening credits to remind viewers that the Hamburg cell of jihadists were instrumental in realising the September 11th attacks in 2001. That foreshadowing, and the implicit fear that similar lapses cannot be repeated, produces a backdrop of tension that the film ably exploits all the way to its conclusion.

It's in this post-9/11, pre-IS world that the story takes place. It's not a noir per se, but it's certainly noirish in its cynicism about security forces, intelligence services, and the powers behind them.

Into the centre of the frame shambles Hoffman, all baggy-eyed and sagging belly, and sporting a decent German accent. Another one of Le Carre's loners, he seems occasionally beaten down by the nastiness of the world he's inhabiting but sustains himself on a steady diet of cigarettes and whisky in his bedsit flat. World-weary he may be, but he's galvanised by his work.

That work is leadership of a low-profile counter-terrorism unit that gets drawn into the hunt for an illegal immigrant who may or may not be a terrorist. Andrew Bovell's superior script deftly dovetails two independent plot strands, and by shooting scenes from both sides of the drama the viewer is left in no doubt that matters are considerably more complicated and nuanced than the police and their allies choose to believe.

It's this strong human element that really lifts the film into the upper echelons. It'd be so easy to rig the whole thing as an heroic bust, but time and again the audience is confronted with character traits that confound glib interpretation. This investment in characterisation converts many staples of the genre - the lawyer, the banker, the refugee, the spook, the informer, the lieutenants - into rounded personalities that feel as though they've stepped off the street and onto the screen. Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe go native as Hamburg residents who get out of their depth, while Robin Wright is a shimmering and catlike presence as the CIA's representative in town. Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruehl head up the native German-speaking contingent, while Herbet Groenemeyer not only acts but also provides a haunting and highly complementary musical score.

That attention to detail pays dividends. So little happens in terms of actual action, yet you're riveted throughout. The climax of the film is a signature on a piece of paper. A classy, classy piece of work. And a must-see for anyone who enjoyed Michael Clayton or State of Play.
Sunday, October 5th, 2014
1:35 pm
Film Review: Sin City : A Dame to Kill For
It's an unwritten rule in the music business that you can't make an album full of anthems. It'd be like having a play where characters simply shout at each other at full volume for 90 minutes. What starts off exciting becomes tiring, and ultimately tedious. You need those little variations in mood and volume in order to properly appreciate the full expanse of the piece.

It's a lesson that writer/director Frank Miller has not learned. A Dame to Kill For, the long-awaited sequel to 2005's Sin City, delivers for better or worse everything you'd expect - gorgeous visual style, ultraviolence, borderline sexism - but is monochrome in tone as well as colour.

It's still entertaining, in patches, and may well go down as one of those movies that's easy to slate, but also easy to forgive. It's not trying to be anything it's not, so in some ways it's a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offering, but the same also applied to the original.

Consider the language. Initially, Miller's potboiler dialogue is kind of cute - a schoolboy homage to Bogart-era film noir where tough guys talk the talk and walk the walk. But it gets wearing when there's no respite from it. Every single character, even the women, speak in the same gravelly drawl and after a while it makes your throat start to itch. In its eagerness to parade its film noir pedigree, it runs perilously close to being a pastiche of the genre it reveres.

It also falls into the common sequel trap of trying too hard to please the audience. The standout character in the first movie was Mickey Rourke's Marv, and he here is promoted to title character in all but name. In some way it's appropriate, as Marv's physique and physiognomy are so cartoonishly overdone that it emphasises the essential silliness of the whole concept - whereas the more naturalistic appearances of the other cast members makes their behaviour more ridiculous. If more characters were presented in a visually exaggerated way (think of Al Pacino in Dick Tracy), the average critic might be more forgiving. There's no equivalent to the Yellow Bastard character in the first film here.

So what's left is a kind of noir-kitsch pantomime. A fantasy for teenage boys. Which, of course, is exactly what the graphic novels are on which the film is based. The difference is that whereas books and graphic novels are consumed in private and thereby make suspension of disbelief very easy, films - even when watched at home - are playing very publicly on a large screen which often has the effect of throwing their flaws into sharp relief.

Nowhere is this better exhibited than in Miller's treatment of his female characters. They're all prostitutes, gold-diggers, dykes, call girls, and strippers. And empowering a woman does not simply mean letting her a wave a gun around, especially when she's dressed like something off the cover of a Conan The Barbarian novel.
Thursday, September 18th, 2014
9:12 pm
Could theatre save cinema?
It seems a paradoxical question, especially so in the light of the oft-repeated line that "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing for the movies", but see what you think.

It's no secret that cinemas have had a problem ever since the arrival of digital entertainment. The double whammy of flatscreen TVs (which have eventually evolved into Home Entertainment Systems) and DVDs (which themselves are being superseded by mp4 files) meant that people no longer had to leave home to get a cinematic experience. You could slob around in your own gaff without paying inflated prices for refreshments with only a minimal concession in terms of screen size and audio quality, if any. Studios lost money through piracy; cinemas lost money through absenteeism. Not good for the movie business.

How to bring the punters in and part with their hard-earned cash? 3D seemed like the solution, and it's no wonder that studios and cinema owners have fallen over themselves in their eagerness to foist this product on the paying public. Not only did it benefit from screen size, but you could inflate the ticket price twice over. A winner! Even without increasing attendance, you've doubled your profits. And that, cynics would argue, is how Avatar ended up taking more money than Titanic.

The problem, as anyone who's been to a cinema recently will tell you, is that 3D is generally pretty crap. Most "3D" films haven't been intended as such, and are crudely converted into the format in post-production (see The Green Hornet for an egregious example). Only a tiny tiny handful (Gravity, for instance) have actually looked as though they benefitted from it, and they're almost always movies that involve moving in three dimensions somehow - flying, swimming, floating. Then there's the problem that if you're not in the middle of the movie theatre the 3D doesn't work as well, and the glasses make everything darker.

So we're back where we started. Panicky cinemas and disgruntled punters. Home entertainment (and there are 3D TVs available now, so even that advantage has gone) chalks up another round.

And this is where theatre comes in. Live screening of theatre performances. The National Theatre live set-up (http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk) has probably provided the blueprint to keep multiplexes ticking over well into the future. Why? Because it's a win-win, for cinemas, theatres and audiences.

For audiences, live screening of theatre gives them the opportunity to experience a live performance even if they're hundreds or thousands of miles from the theatre itself. There's the thrill of not knowing if someone will make a mistake or if something unexpected will happen (just like watching a sports game in the pub!), and a sensation akin to actually being in the theatre itself. Gone are the days when filming a theatre performance was just a case of sticking a camera in the front row - nowadays, there are cuts, pans, different angles, close-ups. Enough, in fact, to sometimes give the viewer an advantage over someone in the cheap seats at the back of the theatre!

For theatres, it lets them project their brand, increase their revenues, and give stage actors some richly-deserved screen time alongside their more commonly seen but frequently less talented movie actor colleagues.

For cinemas, it's even better. They get to charge about four times the price of a normal cinema ticket (in other words, double the price of a 3D ticket) - and the audience feels it's getting a bargain! Plus, the interval means that they can increase their sales of refreshments.

So expect much more to come. Theatre, opera, ballet, concerts, the works. Because part of the reason why these art forms have endured even in the face of television and home entertainment is that the social aspect - the sensation of a shared experience with those around you - is integral and part of the pleasure. The sports industry has known it for years and very cannily exploited it. It's time for cinemas to catch on. See you at the ticket counter!
Sunday, August 17th, 2014
7:57 pm
Film Review: 22 Jump Street

Sequels are tricky beasts. The number of sequels that are equal to or better than their originals can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand (Aliens? The Empire Strikes Back? Star Trek 2?), and that's almost certainly because the logic behind most sequels is primarily financial rather than artistic. The first film made money, so the punters will return in droves for the sequel (and they usually do, which is why so much modern cinema is based around sequels and their bastard kin, remakes/reboots).

But that financial success invariably comes at a terrible artistic cost. Often the producers will play safe and basically offer up a repeat of the first film (applies to about 90% of sequels), which might be superficially entertaining but ultimately dilutes the feel good factor around the product. At worst, a substandard sequel will end up tarnishing the original, making the viewer question whether their fine opinion of it in the first place was merited (The Matrix films being the standout examples).

The other main trap that sequels can fall into, and it's the one that's most relevant here, is what might be termed the "American Pie pitfall". The first American Pie is a bone fide teen classic, a movie that single-handedly revived the gross-out comedy genre (spawning a decade-long stream of inferior imitators) but succeeded primarily because it had heart too. For all of the bodily fluid gags, there was a ton of empathetic observation that had (particularly male) viewers cringing in sympathy and recognition, and the film handled its characters in an affectionate and supportive manner.

All that changed in the sequels. It was as if the producers had gone around asking people what were the funniest moments and characters in the first film, and from then on all viewers got was amplification - more Stifler, more Jim's dad, more yucky jokes. What was lost, completely, was the heart - which is why none of the sequels have the emotional resonance of the original.

And it's this problem that afflicts 22 Jump Street, sequel to what was arguably the surprise hit of 2012. The first movie, a big-screen treatment of the 80s TV show that made Johnny Depp famous, worked precisely because the struggles of the two characters elicited sympathy. Neither had achieved what they'd hoped to at high school, and their return as undercover cops was the unlikely premise for a scholastic and social redemption of sorts.

This time around, it's just feeding the audience what they want. Nowhere is the film's lack of confidence more evident in its relentless acknowledgement of its sequel status. It might be honest to state flat-out that you're repeating the formula of the original, but it becomes cowardly when reiterating that fact is the basis of your entire script. All the film offers besides this increasingly wearing mantra are a handful of one-note scenes and a tiresomely extended relationship joke that's been done to death elsewhere. There's no heart.

Channing Tatum and man-of-the-moment Jonah Hill clearly have great onscreen chemistry, so it's sad to see it squandered in this way. College offers an enormous canvas on which to paint, but by focusing purely on frat parties and the "girls gone wild" aspects the movie leaves itself with very little in the way of scope. Perhaps they should have followed the example of two other superior bromance films of the last ten years, Wedding Crashers and Starsky and Hutch, and leave the original untouched. But modern movie-making logic never allows a film to exist in isolation if lucrative future instalments are possible...
Sunday, June 15th, 2014
12:40 pm
Film Review: Godzilla

Not enough people have seen Monsters (2010), Gareth Edwards' captivating directorial debut. Shot for a mere 500,000 pound budget and featuring some startling special effects made entirely with over-the-counter software, it's a real low-budget gem and a reminder that good films don't require bloated funding. The story, a thinly-veiled allegory of illegal immigration, involved a young pair's attempts to re-enter the USA after they're trapped on the wrong side of the border during an encroaching alien advance. The aliens themselves, gigantic jellyfish-like floating entities with no visible sentience, managed to be both unnerving and fascinating.

However, rather a lot of people have seen Cloverfield (2008), Matt Reeves' brilliant sci-fi horror piece featuring a gigantic alien destroying New York. It was a Godzilla film in all but name - a mysterious, colossal creature as big as buildings, stomping around like a lost baby elephant and causing havoc in its wake. Part of the film's genius was that by utilising the "found footage" technique, it kept the creature deliberately mysterious and allowed the action to focus on a small band of civilians, rather than getting bogged down by the deliberations of the executive branch of society.

And now comes Godzilla, a reboot of the classic Japanese kaiju franchise that was last seen on (English-language) screens in Roland Emmerich's 1998 debacle of the same name. Gareth Edwards helms the $160 million project, an enormous step up for a director making only his second feature film, and although there are obvious thematic similarities with Monsters it still represents a quantum leap in terms of scale - and possibly a premature one.

In fairness, it's a project that would tax any director. Kaijus have been getting a lot of screen time recently, with Cloverfield being followed last summer by Pacific Rim and Peter Jackson's King Kong preceding both in 2005. Expect more to come. With the debate on global warming and climate change effectively over, kaijus make a conveniently anthropomorphic metaphor for a world thrown out of balance - an organic and environmental nemesis come to wreak destruction on man, and in a way that's less impersonal than tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. As such, the novelty value has definitely worn off and Godzilla suffers the additional problem of being constrained in its depiction of the titular beast.

You sense some of the creative tension that presumably rippled underneath the project. The script bears all the hallmarks of rewrites and indecision - story arcs that are abruptly terminated, characters that come and go without explanation, odd rationalisations for behaviour (especially that of Godzilla), and mounting implausibilities as the story ties itself in knots. Basically, it's all very silly. Eventually the film drops its artistic pretences and goes for an all-guns-blazing final third in which San Francisco gets levelled by three gigantic beasts (Godzilla and two antagonists that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Cloverfield creature) amidst flames, flooding, and explosions.

The casting also bears out the schizophrenic feel. It boasts a surprisingly A-grade assembly of dramatic talent for what is at heart a blockbuster disaster movie - Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are the photogenic and studio-friendly leads, but Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Brian Cranston and David Strathairn are not names one usually associates with brainless popcorn entertainment. Tellingly, their appearances become increasingly sporadic as the film's narrative lumbers inexorably towards its grandstand finish. Ken Watanabe pops up occasionally and in mountingly irritating fashion as a Morgan Freeman clone (but without the freckles!) to alternately explain things and prophesy doom. His pronouncements become more bonkers by the minute, and by the end he's invoking Godzilla as a Gaia-esque entity tasked with maintaining the balance of nature. Block your ears.

Surprisingly, it's Olsen who makes the best impression. None of the parts are especially well-written from a dramatic perspective, and on paper she has little to do other than wring her hands and fret, but I found her curiously affecting. Taylor-Johnson, fantastic in Kick-Ass and impressive in Anna Karenina, doesn't achieve the transition to action-movie hero (for all his newly-acquired bulk) and looks a bit lost. The others get too little screen time to impose themselves on generic parts. It's a bit of a waste.

For all its manifold faults though, Godzilla manages not to be a complete disaster. There's just enough mystery generated around the three enormous beasts to sustain interest, and the finale doesn't disappoint in terms of scale or mayhem, so you just about get your money's-worth. But it's a close thing.
Sunday, June 1st, 2014
2:44 pm
Film Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane's teeth are too white.

It's the first thing you notice that's very wrong with A Million Ways to die in the West, the movie he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. In Ted, his previous foray into cinema after many wildly successful years with Family Guy, he was a voice presence only but here he puts himself front and centre for the whole film.

It's not a question of verite, as after all the entirety of the cast (or at least everyone not playing an extra) can boast superbly well-maintained American gnashers. But MacFarlane - maybe because he's the director, writer, and star? - has the whitest of the lot. They gleam out of his face like polished rectangles of ivory, and it jars. It jars because he's supposed to be playing a loser everyman but what you sense immediately from the body language, the facial expressions, and particularly those snow-coloured enamels, is that this is a guy who's incredibly pleased with himself.

Of course, he has every right to be. He's been the toast of TV for years, and has had the kind of career most writers can only dream of. And that's exactly why I - as a huge fan of Family Guy - was so nervous when Ted came out. Cinema is littered with the bones of films derived from short TV sketches, or made by writers unfamiliar with the medium and its varying demands compared to the small screen. But unbelievably, Ted was a fantastic piece it work - it had strong, sympathetic characters, it was funny, it was filthy, and it featured a narrative arc that carried through the whole piece.

A Million Ways…, unfortunately, is everything I feared Ted might be. In terms of MacFarlane's film career, it's impossible to see it as anything other than a regression. It's a charmless, crass, piece of doggerel that looks as though it was thrown together over a weekend. The humour is primarily composed of fart jokes, urination, and graphic depictions of incontinence, and the verbal comedy is composed entirely of gags. Fans of Jimmy Carr will undoubtedly think it hilarious to begin with, but after two hours you'd require the attention span of a goldfish to keep finding it funny.

But the humourlessness is far from the only flaw. There's no structure. It's a lazy patchwork of scenes with little to no continuity stringing them together. The supporting cast are one-note characters who randomly drift in and out of the narrative. But the chief flaw is how unsympathetic MacFarlane manages to be.

He's fine being a jerk, as he demonstrated in Ted, but to make this kind of movie work (which would be a Herculean challenge in any case) you have to have a lead that you can get behind. And MacFarlane, teeth and all, simply doesn't manage it. There's too great a sense of self-preservation, a refusal to annihilate himself by presenting a real down-on-his-luck guy, an unwillingness to share the best lines, and it ends up creating an empathetic vacuum at the film's heart.

Elsewhere, Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi are entertaining as MacFarlane's friends but mysteriously disappear for the final third of the film. Liam Neeson keeps out of trouble by playing it straight, and Charlize Theron provides the most game onscreen love interest since Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary. Sean Patrick Harris is unluckily saddled with the crudest and least funny material, and will probably be keeping this one off his CV. The film is also enlivened by some incongruously beautiful cinematography from Michael Barrett.

In all though, A Million Ways… is probably Exhibit A in what differs between animation in live action. It shows exactly why Family Guy, Archer, and The Simpsons work as cartoons - if they were live-action, the characters would be unattractive, unpleasant, and deeply unsympathetic. If A Million Ways… had been an animated feature (as it feels like in many ways) it would probably sustain interest longer, but by bringing in real actors instead of voice actors MacFarlane ends up providing an unfortunate example of the essential differences between the two forms of entertainment. Stick to Ted and Family Guy and avoid this.
Wednesday, May 21st, 2014
9:26 pm
Film Review: Her

Two literary figures loom large over Her, Spike Jonze's whimsical take on futuristic love and longing. The first is William Gibson, whose entire oeuvre has been based around exploring technology, cyberspace, humans, and the relationships between them. "Idoru", in particular, pre-empts a number of the themes here. The second is the late Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels envisaged a utopian civilisation peopled equally with humans and sentient machines.

Banks' Minds are sentient AIs whose powers border on the godlike, but in Her we get to see something approximating their birth. Jonze shows us a near-future America, where technology has become a little bit more sophisticated, and a little bit more embedded than today.

Jonze's protagonist is Theodore Twombly, a reluctant divorcee (his papers are not even signed) dealing with the humdrum routine of composing letters - for other people. He works for "BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com", a company producing paper messages by proxy. He's quiet, unassuming, good at what he does, and very alone. His evenings are spent playing immersive computer games, and occasionally cruising for online sex chat when insomnia strikes. You sense that this pattern could go on for years, a slow spiral into abject loneliness and isolation.

The change comes when, on an impulse, he purchases a new Operating System for his home and computer. This OS (which chooses the name Samantha) is however a leap the beyond the average AI - rather than a being a slaved program it's an emergent consciousness, whose cheerful engagement with Twombly and the world he inhabits becomes a catalyst for both of them to develop. And in ways neither of them could have foreseen.

Jonze's near-future world is well evoked, especially in terms of its fashions and interior design. Things have moved on, and tastes have changed (look for the high waistlines on the trousers!), but not by much. It's familiar yet different, a neat setting for a movie purporting to present issues that may get more pressing in a few years' time.

The script too is good (maybe not an all-time Oscar winner, but definitely the pick of the nominees from this year). The transitions in the blossoming relationship between Twombly and his OS are well handled, and Samantha's accelerating evolution becomes a neat driver of the plot.

The strong cast all acquit themselves well. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent casting as Twombly, the latest in his series of loners and outcasts yet an original incarnation nonetheless. The fearlessness with which he embraces the part, and engages with it, makes a role that could easily have come across as a creepy misfit become a kind of lovelorn everyman. Amy Adams is terrific as his neighbour, another fragile but resilient and all-too-human figure. Scarlett Johansson continues her rich run of form voicing the exuberant Samantha.

Though the narrative moves along smoothly, the film however does neglect to explore many of the issues it raises. We're presented with a vision of a world where technology is hindering rather than enabling interaction, with people continually on their phones (more like a portable computer terminal; the next stage on from our already far-too-distracting smartphones), but the idea is left unmined. Twombly's job effectively makes him an emotional surrogate for others, yet he doesn't see the contradiction when Samantha's interest in people begins to encompass others as well as himself. And the film undoubtedly flags a bit - twenty minutes could easily have been shed from the story as shown with no ill effects.

In all though, it's remarkable how accessible a piece of esoterica it is. It's a bold, imaginative work that shows Jonze no longer needs Charlie Kaufman in order to germinate an original idea. His best film since Being John Malkovich? Quite probably.
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