“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”
Although Her is ostensibly science fiction — one of its central characters is a sentient artificially intelligent operating system — Spike Jonze approaches this ambitious film as a traditional love story in which one of the participants simply lacks corporeal form. Theodore and Samantha’s chemistry rests as much on Scarlett Johanssen’s charm and curiosity through just a disembodied voice (no doubt recorded with a great deal of direction when she replaced Samantha Morton who originally voiced the role during filming) as it does on Joaquin Phoenix’s presence onscreen. Jonze uses the premise of this unusual relationship to deconstruct the loneliness of modern life as we regard one another from an increasing distance and — one decade and a global pandemic later — his vision of how our computer-dominated society is evolving feels eerily accurate. Theodore, sympathetically underplayed by Phoenix, is a kind and creative man struggling with divorce and, although he has friends and colleagues who like him, only his OS seems to understand how to support him. Whatever one’s view of the relationship, its effects on Theodore are tangible, and that is where Her, with its non-judgmental perspective, truly fascinates.
“Here at Capitol Pictures, as you know, an army of technicians, actors, and top notch artistic people are working hard to bring to the screen the story of the Christ. It’s a swell story.”
Even when the humour is broad, the sensibilities of Coen brothers movies tend to appeal to a niche audience. Hail, Caesar! is predominantly an excuse for the brothers to use 1950s Hollywood as a playground, producing their own homages to the era’s musicals, Westerns and epics, evoking humour less through parody than authenticity. With their frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins, creating Hail, Caesar! must have been a rewarding exploration of bygone filmmaking technique, and the film is most enjoyable when viewed as a series of loosely connected vignettes, like Channing Tatum tap dancing through a Gene Kelly number or George Clooney channeling Charlton Heston. There is little weight to the story woven through them, as studio head Eddie Mannix fixes problems that vary from the realistic (an studio star pregnant out of wedlock) to the absurd (an actor kidnapped by Communist writers), all while deciding whether he even wants to stay in the industry. Hail, Caesar! may not be particularly memorable but for those with at least a passing familiarity with 1950s cinema, there is much to appreciate, particularly if you also enjoy the Coens’ verbose and offbeat humour and their stellar ensemble casts they attract.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives… but I’m done running from my past.”
The first two thirds of Black Widow is a taut globetrotting espionage action movie that explores the character’s secretive past and her childhood family as part of a Russian sleeper cell. Highlights include a tense escape sequence through city traffic with her sister, a Siberian jailbreak, and an incredibly awkward family reunion. Unfortunately the final act falls into formulaic Marvel action territory with a weak villain that all swiftly becomes tedious and leaves an underwhelming overall impression. Black Widow also suffers from being released many years too late. In 2019, I said it was a shame for Captain Marvel only to arrive once fatigue with the Marvel formula was setting in. In 2021, not only has Black Widow already been killed off in the mainline franchise, but — with key actors bowing out after Endgame — we don’t even see Scarlett Johansson’s easygoing chemistry with her Avengers co-stars, just repeated name dropping. Johansson is still the film’s greatest asset, deftly switching between strength and suppressed vulnerability. She is ably supported by the two new character introductions — Florence Pugh as Natasha’s assassin sister and David Harbour as the bombastic Red Guardian — but this attempt to flesh out Black Widow’s backstory now is too little and too late for a character that the MCU has never treated as well as she deserves.
“You’re growing up too fast. Ten-year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics. You should be climbing trees and then falling out of those trees.”
It’s disappointing to have to call a satire of Nazism timely two decades into the twenty-first century, but such is the present state of the world. Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is frequently funny in skewering inane propaganda-driven views of Jews and the Allied armies, though its satire is content to show up these ideas as ridiculous rather than delving much deeper. It is heartbreaking to see a child manipulated into such baseless hatred and the film’s dramatic side is far darker. These tonal shifts are often jarring, leaving the film a somewhat disjointed experience rather than feeling like a cohesive whole. The script often feels like one of Wes Anderson’s weaker projects but Waititi’s direction and his caricature of Hitler (as the the titular Jojo’s imaginary best friend) keep things energetic throughout. Ultimately, however, despite at least one dramatic punch, a weak resolution takes the sting out of the satire, leaving little to take away from the experience. Except that Nazism is ignorant and stupid. So that’s good.
“Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body.”
In The Meyerowitz Stories, I praised Noah Baumbach’s ear for conversational dialogue, which he deploys here to greater effect in a script that prizes raw emotion above the indie intellectualism of his recent output. This is a nuanced, even-handed exploration of the personal toll of fractious divorce, worsened by legal tactical considerations (I cannot think of a starker reminder of why I considered family law for only a moment), strongly reminiscent of Kramer v Kramer. Similarly, the film rests upon two powerhouse central performance, both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson delivering award-worthy turns. They allow us to sympathise with privileged characters whose circumstances are far from universal even if their personal problems are more familiar. Of note is an intense single-take argument at the centre of the film, in which we see two people who know exactly how to hurt one another even when they have no intention of doing so. It feels slightly more scripted than the sublimely natural extended argument in Before Midnight, but it highlights perfectly the tragedy and loss of control inherent in the expiry of any loving relationship.
It’s impossible to discuss the final instalment of Marvel’s 12-year project without spoilers but then this is a movie that no one requires a review to decide whether or not they will see. Its overarching time travel plot holds together surprisingly well, offering an opportunity to revisit characters lost in the previous films despite a fairly tight focus on the original six Avengers (with a few additions). For all the build-up, the overpowered Captain Marvel is largely absent elsewhere in the universe, serving predominantly as a deus ex machina when needed. After Infinity War, I knew that my overall view would depend largely on Doctor Strange’s seemingly inexplicable refusal to use the Time Stone, instead willingly handing it over to Thanos. Although Endgame offers half an answer, it is never adequately explained. Despite my issues with the journey, Endgame provides a satisfying conclusion that ties up the character arcs for a host of original characters, including a weighty, well-earned death near the end. It’s also particularly nice to see Jon Favreau given a few scenes, having helmed the film that started it all.
“You are more than just a weapon. You have a soul — a ghost. When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then will we find peace.”
Ghost in the Shell is a cultural phenomenon that has been adapted from the original manga into animated films and TV series, but its first live action feature comes from the USA rather than Japan. The result is undeniably visually stunning with extensive CGI bringing its future tech to life and illuminating it with colourful hues. Yet the franchise’s central question proves an apt analogy for the film: beneath the flawless exterior of this glossy shell there is no soul, no emotional weight. Accusations of Hollywood whitewashing are not resolved by the mere fact that Major’s mind is revealed to have come from an ethnically Japanese woman. If the film’s tacit suggestion is that the Western ideal of a “perfect” designer body would invariably look white, it fails to engage with this at all. The film’s most inspired casting is the legendary “Beat” Takeshi Kitano as Major’s boss, Aramaki.
“Shift your hunting ground for a few years and everyone forgets how the law works. Well, let me remind you. A man-cub becomes man, and man is forbidden!”
Although commonly labelled live-action, that is not entirely accurate since Neel Sethi is the only actor who appears onscreen, with CGI filling the space around him. A wobbly opening scene concerned me but generally the CGI is excellent, with breathtaking vibrant jungle vistas when the camera pulls back to capture characters in silhouette. The A-list voice talent can be a little distracting, although Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo. Similarly, retaining just a few of the Disney songs is a stranger choice than excising them entirely. Sethi’s Mowgli is believably curious, isolated and angry, Favreau drawing out an impressive performance against empty green screens. It is not a classic, but the original was not Disney at its height either and this stands comfortably alongside it.
“This universe is finite, its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.
director: Terry Zwigoff starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi running time: 111 mins certificate: 15
I think only stupid people have good relationships.
“I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict. She gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’s Little Miss Perfect and everyone loves her.” Ghost World is full of insightfully cynical observations from the persepective of two alienated teens, trapped and ostracized by the power of a group perception that rejects them. Sarcasm and wit are their weapons against the superficiality with which they are surrounded.
Rebecca [Scarlett Johansson] and Enid [Thora Birch] are two high school graduates who have banded together through never fitting in with the rest of the crowd. Hollywood is rife with films about such misunderstood teenagers, but Ghost World is refreshingly original in its lack of the patronising suggestion that these outcasts must be transformed into beautiful popular prom queens in order to succeed. Neither does the film celebrate stupidity or an obsession with sex, being “cool” or appearances. Indeed, these two girls have long ago given up pursuit of “coolness”, and instead embrace all things dysfunctional and weird in a form of rebellion. They begin to realise, however, that this attitude is a predefined cliché itself.
Rebecca seems to grasp their situation much faster, and is motivated by the desire to settle down in an apartment of her own, leading to a more flexible outlook as she swiftly finds a job to gain her independence in search of that end goal. Enid refuses to compromise however, dying her hair green rather than appear respectable when they look for apartments. The film gains further depth with the introduction of Seymour [Steve Buscemi], a fanatical collector of 78 rpm blues records. Naturally Rebecca finds him a complete loser, but Enid is drawn to him because of his obsessiveness. Unable to relate to boys of her own generation, she is subconsciously enthralled be Seymour because at least he has a passion for something, although his own view of himself is very different, “You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? You can’t connect with other people so you fill you life with stuff.” She attempts to set him up with a girlfriend with disastrous consequences when she is finally successful, but Seymour provides the only adult figure whom she is able to look up to in any way. Her dazed father is a flake, dating an old girlfriend whom Enid hates, while her art teacher is an elitist fake. This isn’t so much about Enid’s world, as her road to discovery which has abruptly hit a dead end, a refreshing change from the romanticized Hollywood teen flick.
The main performances are brilliant, with Birch and Johansson allowing us to instantly understand their characters, despite their surreal quirkiness. We never need to question their intelligence, yet throughout they seem detatched and awkwardly out of place from everything around them, although Rebecca slowly adapts and we see the two friends drift apart, highlighted starkly in a simple piece of dialogue discussing a customer at the coffee shop in which Rebecca works, Enid excitedly voicing, “He is so cool!” to which Rebecca flatly responds, “No. He’s not.” Buscemi is perfectly cast as the obsessive Seymour, especially when complaining about the rest of the world (does anyone bitch quite so well as he?). The only problem with Buscemi’s portrayal is that it may sometimes hit a little too close to home, especially for a film or music buff who may find themselves unwillingly glancing over at their own collection as Seymour introduces Enid to his.
Ghost World was originally an underground comic, which made it prime material for director Zwigoff, who’s previous film was about underground cartoonist R. Crumb. The most interesting thing about the filming style is the bold palette of primary colours, which creates a very comic book feel. Indeed, with the short snippets of sharp dialogue, one can almost imagine the speech appearing in bubbles.
The most startling image of this film, however, is the old man sitting on the bench of an old bus route, forever waiting for a bus which will never come. And yet it is this relentless figure who in the end provides the catalyst that forces Enid to get on with her own life.