Sunday, January 19, 2014

December/January Mini Reviews: Her, 12 Years A Slave and Nebraska

Her (January 16) - The new film by Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) tells the story of the sad, lonely and silently hurting Theodor Twombly (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, a stellar follow-up to The Master) who falls in love with his new highly intelligent Operating System (voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson). Jonze has created an uncomfortably realistic depiction of a not-too-distant future, providing insightful commentary on social isolation and urban bewilderment, modern relationships, feigned connections, and the impact that technology has on how we express ourselves and suppress our emotions.

As we find ourselves implicated in this unlikely romance, it is concerning, yet feels completely authentic (and possible). The evolution of their bond is hilarious at times, but ultimately achingly sad. While the length, surprisingly, proved to be hurdle on the second look, it is technically marvelous - inventive production design, unique costumes, strikingly photographed Shanghai as a stand-in for Los Angeles by master DP Hoyte van Hoytema, and an exhilarating score by Arcade Fire. It is also wonderfully performed. Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde are individually superb but, in addition to Phoenix and Johansson, it is Amy Adams who impresses the most. ★★★★1/2

12 Years A Slave (January 30) - 12 Years a Slave is powerful, harrowing and vital cinema. An unflinchingly unpleasant endurance test, made up of clinically directed episodes of Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) extraordinary true story of hardship and survival. Extraordinary for all the very worst reasons.

This is a devastating and emotionally draining portrayal of how a free man - kidnapped, imprisoned and then subjected to (and forced to participate in) the worst atrocities of slavery, then a mechanized and deeply ingrained part of the culture of the South - maintained a glimmer of hope and transformed himself (having had his identity stripped) into whoever he needed to be to survive. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) has created a study of pure evil that never ignores the compassionate tightrope walked by Northup, as he dared to reach out, to help others, and seek a savior.

There are many elements to admire about McQueen's grandest and most-conventional film to date. Every frame of the film is stunning in a visual sense, courtesy of another great collaboration with DP Sean Bobbitt, while Hans Zimmer's score is one of his most restrained. The performances are outstanding - Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o were deservedly nominated for Academy Awards, but Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Garrett Dillahunt all have memorable sequences. McQueen's efforts to align a viewer with Northup's agonizing struggles results in some incredible unbroken takes.

A handful of scenes leave a deep impression - Fassbender confronting Ejiofor at knife and lantern point when he fears he is trying to communicate outside the plantation was the most affecting scene in a film that involves a near hanging and a horrifically violent whipping - while Northup's final climb to freedom was undeniably powerful. Perhaps it was the film's episodic structure and the unclear passing of time that made it a difficult film to fully immerse in. I did not leave the cinema as emotionally crippled as I expected.

Reflecting on it since, I can't place why I have been left cold by the film, but it has provoked a feeling of anxiety that I can only attribute to minor disappointment in the wake of such expectation. Don't get me wrong, this is a very well made film. I'd say it is essential viewing. Perhaps that fuller emotional response will come in time, and come it's release I intend to revisit Northup's story. ★★★★

Nebraska (Febuary 20) - The latest from Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) is a stunning and sincere little black and white film about one of the oddest family road trips you will ever see. 70-something Woody Grant (Cannes Best Actor winner Bruce Dern) is adamant that he has won a million dollars. Whether he believes he has actually won, or just wants to give his life a sense of purpose in his twilight years, we aren't ever sure, but he manages to coerce his estranged son (Will Forte, perfect) to drive him to Nebraska to claim the fortune. The journey there is both incredibly funny and touching in the most surprising of ways. The characters that populate this simple but subtly layered story, are the real deal. They are everyday Midwesterners who each want a share of Woody's new-found wealth. These are family who have disowned him and friends who ridicule him. He finds an unlikely ally in his son, dragged along begrudgingly but whose own life is in disarray.

Father and son bond for the first time in years, and we learn there is much more to Woody than his irregular speech, physical liabilities and tales of his alcoholism and irresponsibility. With veteran subtlety screenwriter Bob Nelson has infused this melancholic tale with pitch-perfect commentary on extended family and the universal desire to leave this earth with a sense of fulfillment. I have been obsessed with this film since I watched it last month. I loved the performances (I haven't mentioned June Squibb, but I'd personally award her the Oscar) and the score will be on regular rotation all year. Payne's BEST film after Sideways (which is one of my favourite films). ★★★★

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