Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 February 2014
Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.
A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.
I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).
The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography is by the Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.
There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.
I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.
Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.
Posted in American Independents, Comedies | Tagged: Romance, science fiction | 7 Comments »
Posted by keith1942 on 15 February 2014
Apologies for the lateness of this tribute. I noted the attention given to the demise of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple and (to lesser degree) that fine actor Maximilian Schell. Then checking over obituaries I see that we have lost this fine Hungarian film director.
I was fortunate to see his great films – The Roundup (Svegénylegények, 1965, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) and Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1972) at Film Societies in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in that radical decade of political and unconventional films this output stood out as distinctive and enthrallingly critical. The early films featured long travelling shots that Vincente Minnelli would have died for. Even now I have only seen a small part of his output. There was a major retrospective in London earlier this century, but as I remember only one film co circulated in the provinces. The Leeds International festival of 2011 featured a two of his films: thought unfortunately one of them relied on DVD.
Janscó’s work remains among the most impressive and stimulating of European art cinema. Certainly his best work in political terms is as striking as that of Jean-Luc Godard whilst his command of film technique equals that of Michelangelo Antonioni. A proper testimonial to his unique contribution to European cinema would be a retrospective. The Berlin International Film Festival has announced plans for one. Let us hope that these will get a wider distribution
Posted in Directors, East European Cinema, Home | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 13 February 2014
Exploitation fare with a heart
Most ‘Swinging ’60s’ British cinema focuses on male experiences, usually chasing the ‘birds’. This is hardly surprising and Oedipal narratives are still the dominant form in mainstream cinema. I stumbled across The Pleasure Girls as part of the British Film Institute’s ‘Flipside’ series, releasing the ‘untold history of British film’. This is just the sort of project a publicly-funded should be involved in, offering a great opportunity to see beyond the ‘headline’ films. I saw this on a rental Blu-ray which meant, unfortunately, I couldn’t benefit from the excellent essays that accompany the series.
The film focuses on Sally’s (Francesca Annis) first weekend in London, staying with friends before trying to launch a career as a model. The opening credits firmly root Sally in the upper middle classes, she’s from East Grinstead, thus contrasting the film with the marvellous Smashing Time (1967) which follows two northern lasses in London. Sally soon meets the apparently louche Keith (Ian McShane), a would-be photographer. Despite their social standing the ‘girls’ are all likeable and an upper-class twit differentiates them from the old upper class order.
The film was independently-made, no doubt raising money on the promise of sexy subject matter; googling ‘pleasure girls’ brings not just the film but women designed to ‘pleasure’ men. Unlike ‘google’, the film does focus on female pleasures and veers between representing ‘loose women’ negatively, one of the girls is in ‘trouble’, and the progressive representation of the gay Paddy (homosexuality for men was still illegal at the time). It celebrates Sally’s reluctance to jump into bed with Keith and their burgeoning relationship is convincingly portrayed; McShane was polishing his roguish charm and it’s not quite clear whether he simply wants to ‘get into her knickers’.
There’s an obscure sub plot concerning Klaus Kinski as an exploitative landlord who’s being chased by . . . outraged tenants I think. The film doesn’t have a strong narrative drive but presents itself as a slice of ‘swinging’ young people’s lives at the time.
Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: Swinging London, Swinging Sixties | 2 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 12 February 2014
For the past couple of years I’ve been trying to distil some of the best ideas and analysis on The Case for Global Film into a form that I hope will be accessible and useful for students and teachers. The project has now reached fruition in the form of The Global Film Book published in January by Routledge in the UK and US. I’m very grateful to Routledge for their support in publishing a full colour textbook with a range of illustrations and I think it looks very good.
I have also committed to writing a support blog for the book and that too is now live at globalfilmstudies.com At the moment, nearly all the posts on the new blog are taken from the archives of The Case for Global Film, but they are organised in relation to the structure of the book and, over time, new material will appear as exclusive to the new blog (but I will also continue to contribute to this one).
The new book offers an argument about the global production of films (and includes a chapter on ‘global television’) and analyses the ways in which the international trade in film exports operates. It can’t cover every film-producing territory so I have selected certain film industries and film cultures in order to explore specific aspects of my general argument. After a brief outline of the development of the international trade in films since the early 20th century, the book offers an analysis of the influence of the ‘Hollywood model’ and then considers ideas about European ‘national cinemas’ in the UK, France, Spain and the Nordic countries.
I’ve included a chapter on the festival circuit, new waves and auteur cinema (with a case study on Claire Denis). Cuba and Sub-Saharan Africa feature in discussion of what was once known as Third Cinema, ‘Middle East Without Borders’ surveys a region whose cinematic identity often seems to be defined by those outside the region and which is sometimes characterised by the influence of diasporic and ‘exilic’ filmmaking. Japan and South Korea are the focus for a debate about the challenge to the idea of Hollywood as the ‘only’ classical cinema and Indian and Chinese cinemas get separate chapters in recognition of their importance for the future.
One chapter looks at four case studies of filmmaking from around the world and attempts to help students become engaged. I’m going to draw on this material in a free event to be hosted by the National Media Museum in Bradford on Saturday 15 March which will launch the book officially. Film and media teachers and students of all ages (including evening class students) are welcome to attend. Please check out the details here. After this event I will also be giving an illustrated talk to introduce the screening of the new Claire Denis film Bastards (France-Germany 2013).
If you can’t make the launch, the book is available from all good bookshops and the usual online stores – it’s also available as a Kindle book and an e-book from Taylor & Francis (Routledge’s parent company). You can get full details and ‘look inside’ on the Routledge website.
The Global Film Book follows on from The Media Student’s Book in not being tied to a specific syllabus or course. I hope it provides useful background and an introduction to study of films from around the world for any student from A Level to undergraduate and evening class – indeed anyone interested in global film.
Posted in Film education, Film industry, Global television | Tagged: The Global Film Book | 2 Comments »
Posted by keith1942 on 12 February 2014
This was the first seriously impressive film that I have seen in 2014. Unfortunately it seems to be suffering from a very limited release in the UK. It is definitely worth seeking out.
The film is adapted from a novella of the same name – translated from the French by Polly McLean (Vintage 2011). The author, Atiq Rahimi, has also directed this film version. The book is set in one room in a small dwelling in Kabul. On a mattress on the floor lies a wounded mujaheddin. His wound is in the back of the neck and he is in a seemingly permanent coma. He is tended by his younger wife who has to arrange the saline drip, or often a water and salt substitute. She talks to him constantly, however she talks about matters and experiences that she would presumably avoid if he was conscious. At times she reads briefly from a Koran, marking her place with a feather. The title of book and film refers to a precious object that the woman recalls that her father told her of: “You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces. …. Sang-e sabur!”
The book is sited almost wholly in the small, bare room where the woman tends her husband. We find out about what happens beyond these walls from the woman and from an unidentified narrative voice. A couple of times her two daughters venture into the room. Later she takes them to stay with her sister, who has both employment and a place to live. A battle ebbs and flows in the streets. A Mullah calls several times to pray for the man, but the wife manages to avoid letting him in. We hear her call to neighbours on occasions. And two sets of mujaheddin visit the room: once when she is absent once when she is present. The book struck me as having a fairly detached description and commentary upon the characters and events in the story.
Not surprisingly the film has a less detached sense, seeing and hearing the characters and their actions is a much more immediate experience. And the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as the woman is both powerful and involving for the audience. Moreover, the film, unlike the book, shows us the events beyond the room. We follow the woman and her children into a basement shelter where we also meet her neighbours. We see the Mullah a he makes his brief calls. We follow the woman through the streets of Kabul and to the rooms of her sister. And we see the visits of the mujaheddin and the consequent actions.
Even so the film follows the book’s plot and characterisations fairly faithfully. One difference that puzzled me was that in the Koran is taken away by the first group of Muhadenne, leaving only the feather behind. In the film it remains in the room.
This appears to be Rahini’s first film. He had the good sense to arrange for Jean-Claude Carriére to adapt the book into a screenplay. Carriére is, of course, well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. In his eighties he remains amazingly productive. The last seriously good film that I saw before The Patience Stone was The Artist and the Model, also scripted by Carriére. Whilst the film is faithful to the book it also contains themes and motifs familiar from Carriere’s other film work: a couple of moments reminded me also of Buñuel. Centrally we have the unconventional passive male in the presence of a woman. Then there is the exploration of sexuality linked to an oppressive obsession. And there is the contrast presented between a woman’s access to sexuality – through choice, marriage and prostitution.
Posted in Afghan film, Literary adaptations | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 February 2014
Llewyn (Oscar Isaacs) trudges through the snow in a framing reminiscent of the cover of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album (referenced several times in shots of Greenwich Village – but this is Chicago). photo by Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.
Posted in American Independents, Film music | Tagged: biopic, Coen Brothers, folk music | 4 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 February 2014
Amy Adams and Christian Bale. photo © Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures
American Hustle is a mess of a film. It purports to tell a tale about a scam in which an FBI agent hopes to trap politicians engaged in corruption in 1978. I think the script and the mise en scène are both problematic and the shifting tone of the scenes means that it often isn’t clear what kind of film we are watching. If this is one of the American films of the year – or at least one that the Academy is considering for major honours – then the US industry is itself in a mess.
I should confess that in a sense I went to see the film more or less out of desperation. I calculate that there hasn’t been a single foreign language film on general release for the last three months around here and I wanted to go to the pictures! But I have enjoyed the David O. Russell films that I’ve watched before and I expected to enjoy this one. To pick out the good things, the music soundtrack is very enjoyable and there is a great cast – but unfortunately they are dressed like cartoon characters and required to behave similarly. I’m happy to go with obnoxious characters as required by the plot, but Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent in this film becomes so annoying that I just hoped someone would despatch him to get him off the screen. But the main problem is that the mixing of genres/approaches just isn’t thought through. (There has been some discussion about how much Russell required his actors to improvise on set.) Of course I realise that the film is essentially about a ‘scam’, or a ‘sting’ and that it is probably meant to be ‘playful’ in its tonal shifts. Perhaps the extended dialogue scenes that don’t seem to go anywhere are part of this playfulness? The film is based on a real FBI operation in 1978 and the audience is warned at the beginning by the statement “Some of this actually happened”. We don’t know which bits.
I suppose the real question here is about what the attempt to marry a comedy and a reconstruction of a controversial entrapment project means in terms of politics, aesthetics and simple entertainment. Like most audiences I enjoy a fictional heist or sting movie whether it is played straight or as a comedy but this seems the worst of all worlds – it’s not that funny, or intriguing in its plot shifts and its politics seem very confused. My main concern throughout the film was that Amy Adams was going to catch pneumonia with her chest open to the elements wherever she went. She’s far too good an actor to be treated in this way. Now I’m going to try to find Louis Malle’s Atlantic City to remind me of what New Jersey might have been like in the 1970s.
Posted in Comedies, Hollywood | 2 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 February 2014
On the shoot for WAAR, lead actor Shaan Shahid is on the left and director Bilal Lashari on the right.
I was looking for a foreign language film and this Pakistani film looked like it would fit the bill. I was surprised to discover that half the dialogue is actually in English (impeccable English as taught in the best schools in the country) and half in Urdu – not subtitled. All the recent Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in UK multiplexes have been subtitled in English and Waar seemed like a throwback to an earlier era. In terms of the technical quality of the production however this is a very modern film.
I went into the screening knowing only that the film was an action thriller based on ‘actual events’ involving the fight against terrorism in Pakistan. It was only afterwards that I learned that it had the biggest budget of any Pakistani film so far and that it was a box office smash in its domestic market after an Eid release in October 2013. I also read about the controversy generated by its seeming propaganda message about terrorism coming out of India.
The narrative of Waar has a familiar structure found in action thrillers from most film cultures. A ‘super agent’ Major Mujtaba (Shaan Shahid) comes out of retirement to take on a job that may well be ‘patriotic’ – to stop an international terrorist whose mission appears to be to cause havoc in Pakistan – but is also in some way ‘personal’. Was the terrorist also responsible for an attack on Mujtaba’s family? The ex-army Mujtaba is asked to join two younger agents from a special police squad, a brother (Hamza Ali Abbasi) and sister (she’s the IT expert and is played by Ayesha Khan). The terrorist ‘Ramal’ is played by Shamoon Abbasi and his ‘fixer’ (named ‘Laxmi’) by Meesha Shafi. I can’t really comment on the script by Hassan Waqas Rana since I couldn’t follow the scenes in Urdu. I should explain that all the military and police operational dialogue is in English (as is the conversation between the terrorist and his fixer) but all other dialogue is in Urdu and not subtitled. I’m at a loss as to what went on between the ‘commissioner’ of the terrorists attacks (who is hinted to be Indian) and a group of Islamist fighters up on the North West Frontier. Since the Taliban and the Indian armed forces are Pakistan’s two main potential enemies the connection makes sense but it would be good to know how the liaison is supposed to work.
The credits announce that a digital intermediate was processed by Technicolor in Bangkok and reports suggest a high number of VFX. IMDB states that a Red ONE camera was used and that the ratio was 2.35:1 – I thought that the presentation in Bradford was more like 1.85:1 (though the trailer below is 2.35:1). There is a colossal amount of weaponry on show and this seems to have been provided by the Pakistani military – fuelling the claims that the film is a propaganda statement. The young director Bilal Lashari trained at a film school in San Francisco and before this feature had mainly worked on music videos. The direction is accomplished in a technical sense but for me was portentous in terms of low and high angles with fast cutting matched to a heavy rock soundtrack (which was not to my taste at all). Lashari has said that he rarely watches Bollywood and that he is much more influenced by Hollywood. I can see that in his direction and I did feel that James Bond/Jason Bourne etc. were major influences – the film’s climax takes place on the roof of the convention centre in Islamabad. However, I felt that several of the actors, especially Shamoon Abbasi, could easily have fitted into a similarly-themed Hindi action thriller. Ironically the cinema played the trailer for Jai Ho with Salman Khan in the intermission and there was a distinct resemblance to Abbasi. Waar also features a musical interlude in which Ramal and Laxmi dance together – to a track with an English vocal.
Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed the film but certain elements are distinctly impressive in terms of the choreography of the action (and the originality of the actions), including the sequence involving an audacious attack on a police academy (based on events at the Lahore Police Academy in 2009?). The central performances are good but I got bored with the explosions and almost fetishistic handling of weaponry. The lack of subtitles was annoying and I note that the director and producers have spoken about the decision to shoot half the film in English, suggesting that this was a mistake. I don’t really understand why the whole film isn’t in Urdu with just occasional English – a convention in many similar language cinemas – and English subtitles. A sequel has already been announced so perhaps a different policy will be adopted the second time around. Waar has been seen as reviving a Pakistani film industry in decline. A country of 180 million people with a rich cultural tradition needs a functioning film industry so that must be a good thing. I just hope that the industry will be able to make a variety of films in future.
Here’s the official trailer:
Posted in Pakistani Cinema | Tagged: action, terrorism, thriller | 4 Comments »