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Monday, 24 February 2014


In this film, Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with a character played by Scarlett Johannson. Not so unusual, you may imagine, except that Scarlett's character, Samantha, is a computer operating system that has been developed to be sentient.

HER is set in a near-future Los Angeles. It is a relatively benign vision of the future, everyone lives in these large, pristine apartments, there is no sign of
war or plague or disability, the few jobs that we encounter are all aided by technology or are involved with producing that tech.

The only scary thing is that, fashion-wise, the future is apparently inspired by Simon Cowell. The people generally dress as we do, except that - a prospect as terrifying in its own way as a zombie apocalypse - the men all wear high-waisted corduroy trousers, without a belt.

Technology is of course a central part of everyone's lives. We see citizens of this new Los Angeles walking around alone, but constantly talking, they are communicating with their home computers through a tiny device in their ear, listening to emails, having the news of the day read to them.

Theodore Twombly is Phoenix's character, a romantic who is going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. Phoenix plays his character as a kind of future version of Leonard from the Big Bang Theory, a sensitive, nerdy ingenue who just wants to be loved.

He thinks he has found what he is looking for in a new operating system for his computer, who calls herself Samantha. She has been designed to be sentient, and to be able to grow and evolve and actually feel emotions.

Theodore and Samantha quickly form a bond. He is lonely, she is curious about the world and willing to learn, despite her lack of a physical body. They even manage to have sex, of a sort.

The film's strength is that it doesn't denigrate Theodore and Samantha's relationship, it treats it as unusual but real. We are not invited to feel sorry for Theodore, or to look down on him, for not having a human girlfriend. They are in many ways like any other couple, they fall out, make up, profess their love for each other, argue about the future of their relationship.

The film's only weakness is that many, many scenes are simply Joaquin Phoenix talking to the disembodied voice of his computer through his communication device. The location may change but the conversations between Theodore and Samantha are the central part of the movie and so we spend a lot of time listening to her and looking at him. There is little action, and a lot of dialogues that look like monologues.

Still, this is a curious, hypnotic, charming film. It is a film that is sympathetic towards its characters, that likes them and invites you to like them too. It delves into situations that are actually now on the horizon, exploring what it is to be conscious and is interested in all the complications that technology causes, and will cause, in our lives. 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014


The Coen brothers schtick is getting a bit old at this stage.

Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films together for thirty years now, and have developed a very distinctive style.

In films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou, they have made their idiosyncratic mark on Hollywood.

You can tell a Coen brothers' film almost immediately. There are many shots that frame the characters, making them appear small, and at the mercy of their environment. There are long, slow scenes, and characters that often remain impassive, usually in the face of things they don't understand.

Their films are atmospheric and obsessed with movie meta-references, they play games and always have a slightly unreal feeling to them.

And they love these eccentric, quirky characters who have a tenuous grip on their own sanity. Oh, and John Goodman, the rotund Goodman is in the majority of their films, and shows up here again as a heroin-addicted, misanthropic jazz musician.

Their central characters tend to be losers, people who live on the edge of society. They are generally misunderstood, dissatisfied, desperately trying to succeed or survive in a world that rejects them.

Llewyn Davis is another one of these. He is a folk singer in nineteen sixties New York, struggling to make an impact on the folk scene in that city. He is idealistic, refuses to compromise, and because of that is frequently penniless and reduced to sleeping on friends' couches.

And that's really it. We get the usual procession of quirky, off-beat characters that cross Llewyn's path as he attempts to get a break, there is a cat that is in the film for a while, and which then disappears, he falls out with people, makes up with them. We smile at their antics.

And yet there is no progression, no movement forward, Llewyn is more hopeless at the end than he was at the beginning. Things fall apart, and never get fixed.

The only transformative moments in the movie are when the protagonist plays music. Llewyn is transformed, from a defeatist, gloomy misanthropist into an artist, someone consumed by his music, able to produce beautiful sounds and be someone he cannot manage to be in the real world. These moments are the only times when the film transcends the Coen's usual quirk-fest, and touch something deeper and more profound.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an intermittently amusing portrait of a loser, who remains a loser. It has nice touches, as all Coen brothers films do, but is mostly insubstantial and irritating in its absolute refusal to allow any kind of growth or positive change to its central character.