Her

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Her stars Joaquin Phoenix with a tour-de-force performance in what is not only Spike Jonze’s most accomplished work since 2002’s Adaptation. but his greatest masterpiece yet. Set in the near-future (it looks like it would be sometime in the 2020s, although it is never fully established), Her tells the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who is battling his melancholia and trying to gain the strength to sign his divorce papers from the love of his life, Catherine (Rooney Mara). One day after work – he pens letters on behalf of other people – he walks past an advert for OS¹, the world’s first operating system with an artificial intelligence. Intrigued, Theodore buys it and soon finds himself confronted with the voice of a female AI, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who understands him like nobody has in a long time. He falls in love with her – and she with him.

Theodore is a reclusive romantic at heart (illustrated beautifully through his passion for his work), and spurred on by his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) pursues his feelings for the new woman in his life. The initial sadness here stems from the fact that the audience knows that Samantha is only a rebound, and that it can’t end well. The film’s merit lies in having you clueless all the way to the end about how their relationship will fall apart.

Make no mistake: Her isn’t a love story. Her isn’t even about how techology influences human life. Catherine is the only person in the film who doesn’t understand Theodore’s love for an AI – keeping in tune with her character as symbolising not only Theodore’s past but that of an outdated mindset (which, intriguingly, is the audience’s present). In fact, when talking to the receptionist at his workplace, Paul (Chris Pratt), Theodore’s mention that Samantha is an OS doesn’t even get as much as the bat of an eyelid by Paul or his girlfriend. You can’t help but feel that this acceptance is a succinct metaphor for society’s current battle to accept homosexuality and non-cisgender identities. In the future, we’ve overcome that pitiful state: love is love, period.

Visually whimsical and, thankfully, very held back on futuristic landscapes, Her lives off of the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha. Indeed, she never takes a physical form – strangely, as you might argue, since such a feat would be technologically trivial, and so surely a very conscious choice by Jonze. It’s a great choice at that, since you are forced to put yourself into their minds, this third space beyond the screen that only really exist between him and her. This feeling is not only reinforced by blacking out the screen completely when they first have sex with each other, but also through a rather creepy but powerful scene when Samantha has a girl act as her surrogate so that she and Theodore can be physically intimate.

Phoenix delivers a heart-crushing performance as he goes from depressed loner to crazily in love to lost soul. Jonze manages to constantly wrap you in a sense of melancholia even in the film’s happier moments, as the world continuously breaks down around and inside Theodore. Scarlett Johansson carries much of the film merely with her voice as she discovers her identity and grows with and eventually beyond Theodore. Chris Pratt is poignantly held back in his portrayal of Paul, while Amy Adams’ plays the understanding friend with the beautiful restraint that’s needed to leave the screen to Phoenix and Johansson.

Her might be set in the future and feature an AI, but it is ultimately a powerful, honest look at human relationships, particularly of love and the end of it. We fake things – like Samantha fakes sighing when talking to Theodore – and we let ourselves get carried away by the bubble we create around ourselves and fill with little truths. We laugh, we love, we cry – and in the end it doesn’t so much matter who caused those emotions, the important thing is that we felt them at all.

The Verdict

Her would have “only” received a rating of 4.5 stars, but as the movie fades out, Theodore breathes in and sighs – a minute and wonderful detail that elevates Jonze’s latest film to perfection. This is one not to miss, despite its depiction of a future in which horrible moustaches are en vogue.

Cuban Fury

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At first look, Cuban Fury appears like one of those guilty pleasures that doesn’t need much justification beyond the fact that it’ll make audiences laugh. But, in what isn’t entirely unsurprising for a comedy starring Nick Frost, there is a lot more to like.

The movie tells the story of Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost), a lathe designer who was a gifted salsa dancer as a child but gave up on his dream when he was beaten to a pulp by bullies on his way to the UK National Salsa Championship. Although he enjoys technical drawing, he is a man without confidence and joy, a lack of spirit that is only made worse by the constant bullying coming his way courtesy of work colleague and alpha male Drew (Chris O’Dowd). When new boss Julia (Rashida Jones) arrives from the US and reveals that she loves salsa, Bruce’s heart skips a beat. He decides to go back to his old dance teacher Ron Parfait (Ian McShane) to freshen up on his moves so he can win Julia over with his passion. Drew, ever the restrained gentleman, meanwhile proudly proclaims he will do everything in his power to sleep with her.

There isn’t much more of a plot to the film, and that is perfectly fine because it lives off of its silly slapstick humour and the cast’s willingness to make fools out of themselves. Cuban Fury certainly lacks some of the craziness of Frost’s work with Simon Pegg, but it has just as much charm. In case you are wondering (and of course you are): yes, Simon Pegg does have a cameo appearance, and it’ll make you laugh out loud because it makes an absurd moment even stranger.

One of the film’s best features is that Bruce Garrett isn’t simply the chubby loser who has to convince his love interest that he’s a better man than the misogynist liar she’s currently hanging out with; it is, in fact, clear from the onset that Julia has taken a liking to him (even if he, in his lack of confidence, can’t see it). Refreshingly, and contrary to stereotypical rom-coms, the supporting cast receives great treatment, too. While Olivia Colman does a good job of the sort-of-alcoholic sister Sam, the true star is Kayvan Novak as over-the-top flamboyant Bejan, a fellow salsa dancer who befriends Bruce. You could even go as far as claiming that Novak steals the scene each moment that he is on screen, whether he is talking about throwing a grenade into some “bitches” at the club, or casually mentioning that he has to leave for his ball-wax appointment.

Frost and O’Dowd play well off of each other, but it is in the climactic dance-off on the roof that they both come into their own and deliver the fight that may just be the reason for the film’s Cuban Fury title. “What happens at lunch stays at lunch” they proclaim before proceeding to show off their dance skills to each other in increasingly ridiculous moves all the way to backflips. If you want absurdly silly, this is it.

Frost and O’Dowd both impress, unsurprisingly, with their comedic timing, and it is always fun to see lovable nerd Roy (O’Dowd’s career-making role in the televisio sitcom The IT Crowd) playing a sleazy low-life. The film may stick closely to that of an underdog story, but it is nice to see that Cuban Fury isn’t simply a love story. In fact, it isn’t actually one at all: it’s really about a man finding the confidence to pursue his dreams and stand up to his bullies.

Frost’s first solo outing is a feel-good comedy and a true pleasure to watch. The cast shines and, although it starts off slow, the dialogue gets funnier as the movie progresses. Kayvan Novak’s Bejan needs a spin-off, and it wouldn’t be entirely disastrous if Nick Frost made more movies without Simon Pegg. Cuban Fury is an endearing British comedy – not the best one ever made, but certainly a solid attempt.

Swan Song

How did it end?
The sing—, ring—, clinging
to you with so much zest;
the liv—, lov—, leaning
on you with all my beating chest:
how did it end?

One night on a balcony,
one afternoon in a gallery,
one morning at a red light
(when I forgot to buy flowers)
maybe.

How did it end?
A thousand little kisses,
a million (in)significant days,
a hundred missed smiles,
a dozen burned bridges:
how did it end?

My heart will hold you forever,
remember you as my favourite sin:
how did it end, how did it begin?

12 Years a Slave

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Based on the eponymous memoir, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery to work on Southern plantation farms in antebellum America. Living happily with his wife and children in New York, Solomon is a gifted violin player, and gets tricked into following two men to Washington DC: they hire him as a musician for their circus, but after the shows are all done, get him drunk and sell him off to illegal slave traders. Solomon is shipped to New Orleans under horrific circumstances (one of the other slaves is killed by the captain when he tries to protect a slave woman from being raped), and meets his buyer (Paul Giamatti) who quickly organises an auction to make a profit off of his newest batch of slaves.

Solomon is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and taken to his farm where he almost immediately makes an enemy of overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) by showing off his engineering skills to Ford and gaining the latter’s approval. Although Ford is, as far as a slave owner goes, a decent man, he can’t protect Solomon from Tibeats and so sells him on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps prides himself on breaking people, and has severe anger management issues. Solomon eventually manages to earn some money with his violin playing, but when he gives it to fellow, white, slave Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), he uses it to buy his own freedom and disappears without ever fulfilling his promise to contact Solomon’s family so that they could send his papers proving he is a free man. And so it is only after twelve years when Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian profoundly and openly opposed to slavery, that he sees his chance to escape.

12 Years a Slave is a quintessentially American film about the country’s greatest sin. Using their god-given right to own their fellow men as property to do with as they please, the traders and plantation owners are the worst of humanity but also victims of their time. On the one hand, Ford treats his slaves with respect (he even gives Solomon a violin) and on the other hand, Epps tortures them emotionally and physically with a deeply sadistic pleasure. They both quote from the bible constantly, and yet one’s darkness is far greater than the other’s.

The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it is a quintessentially American film. It is hard to digest the truths of the film – well-known as they are – and care much for the slaves, because the feeling of guilt is missing. It isn’t entirely clear whether that’s due to the non-American viewpoint or because the script doesn’t actually make any efforts to have you empathise with Solomon. There is a whole lot of telling, and not much showing: about the only thing you do see is a good amount of violence, but that alone doesn’t really get you emotionally involved. Solomon never really seems all that bothered that he is a slave now, choosing rather to accept his fate. Although he states early on that he doesn’t just want to survive, he spends the decade doing just that – and even shouting at a woman who’s crying at the loss of her children. If he has chosen to suppress his emotions it is never made clear what drove him to that decision.

Intriguingly, Solomon himself isn’t entirely a good man: when told to punish a fellow slave woman because she ran away to get some soap, he takes the whip and doesn’t show much emotion while she’s screaming at the pole. Maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor’s flat performance is at fault here more than the script, or maybe it’s both; not much is done with his willingness to be evil himself in either case.

12 Years a Slave is filled with average performances, some disappointing ones and only really one outstanding tour-de-force. Benedict Cumberbatch disappoints (it’s mainly his horrific attempt at a Southern accent), Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Garret Dillahunt don’t get enough screentime to shine, Lupita Nyong’o does a decent job of a stereotypical character and Paul Dano isn’t given enough character depth to deliver a truly compelling performance. Michael Fassbender, however, excels in his portrayal of plantation owner Epps and portrays the emotional spectrum of god-fearing man to perverted sadist to self-obsessed lover with such bravura it feels like he is the true star of the film. It’s a testament to Fassbender’s skills, but it’s also proof that the script is very conflicted: surely we should emptathise with the slaves and not be intrigued by the anti-hero. Perhaps it would have been better if Solomon had been played by someone who could match Fassbender’s emotional range instead of Chiwetel Ejiofor.

When watching 12 Years a Slave, you can’t help but feel that many of the movie’s accolades are based entirely on the fact that it is an American film about an American subject made for American audiences. Cinema specific to a country’s history isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this particular case it is done badly because it fails to bridge the gap to foreign audiences. Is it a must-see? No. As hard as McQueen has tried to deliver a masterpiece, he has created a cinematographically stunning but badly written film – nevermind the fact that he fails entirely to convey the passage of time, and if it weren’t for the title the entire story might as well have taken place over the course of six months.

I, Frankenstein

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I, Frankenstein doesn’t necessarily look like a film you could particularly enjoy. The trailer is somewhat silly with its gargoyles and demons fighting each other, and Frankstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) bang in the middle of it. That is, perhaps unsurprisingly, roughly also the entire film’s story – which is perfectly okay.

Based on the eponymous graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, I, Frankenstein opens in 1795, as the monster is burying Victor Frankenstein and gets attacked by demons. Taken to the sacred ground of a cathedral in an unnamed city, he is informed by the gargoyle queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) that there is a war waging between good versus evil across the world. Their order is the side of light, while prince Naberius’ army is the darkness. Naberius wants to capture Adam, as the monster is now called, to figure out how to raise thousands of corpses from the dead and have them taken over by demons. Two hundred years later, in the present day, Naberius has hired a scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) to help him on his quest. She is, of course, completely unaware of what is really going on and thinks she is on her way to cure death and help humanity. She quickly joins Adam once she figures out the truth.

The film’s merit isn’t the plot, but if you manage to suspend any disbelief (gargoyles fighting demons is a strange concept to get to grips with at first) you are in for truly epic popcorn cinema. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are beautifully choreographed and a wonderful pleasure to watch. When demons get killed, they go up in flames – and there is a lot of beautifully animated fire in the film. In short, I, Frankenstein is visually stunning, and a good reason to watch it on the big screen instead of grabbing it on DVD or even BluRay. This is a movie clearly made for the cinema, not for a television.

Aaron Eckhart plays Frankenstein’s monster perfectly – the quiet anger, the self-hatred, the loneliness and the aversion to trust other beings. Miranda Otto, perhaps best known as Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, manages to swing so easily from emotion to cold-hearted warrior queen it is a delight to watch her. Yvonne Strahovski, who showed off her skills as the serial killer Hannah McKay on Dexter, sadly disappoints as the naive scientist, but also doesn’t get much from the script to use her full potential. The most praise however has to go to Bill Nighy, who is known more for his comedies than for playing villains. His dark prince Naberius is the epitomy of evil: he is ruthless, has no morality and is obsessed with ruling all of humanity. To watch Nighy jump from pretend-Mr-Nice-CEO to murdering demon alone gets this film an additional star.

If I, Frankenstein’s visual world looks familiar, it’s because it is very reminiscent of the Underworld franchise, which was also written by Kevin Grevioux. Whether such consistency across universes is a good or a bad thing might be a matter of personal taste, but the atmosphere created definitely works in both.

The film leaves enough of an open end to allow a sequel. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, if they kept the same cast and combat choreographers. At an hour and a half, the film is over too quickly and feels very short with its quick cuts and fast action scenes – but its short running time also stops it from dragging out a plot that’s barely existent. I, Frankenstein knows what it is and makes no effort to be a serious film. If you like the good-vs-evil fantasy genre with a bit of a silly twist, then you will love I, Frankenstein. Don’t miss it.

Nocturne

She glides so quietly through dreams,
spreads her colourful wings gracefully:
brush strokes for a work of art.
Children’s footsteps follow her with ease
as she circles these hibernal fields
carrying all their wishes in her heart
and all their sorrows in her song.
Infinite and endless is her mind,
her love as universal as it is kind,
forever forgiving for that is her truth:
bring her sadness and she will soothe.
Find her at night but leave her at dawn,
meet her at morn and she will move on.

Robocop

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Robocop, the remake of the eponymous 1987 cult film starring Peter Weller, is a mostly plotless, if visually almost decent, snoozefest. Set in the near future of 2028, it presents us with a dystopian world in which highly efficient robots, all built by the same multinational, Omnicorp, are keeping the streets outside America safe, but the Dreyfus Act stops the company from putting robots on US soil where crime is rampant.

Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), a right-wing TV anchor, narrates the story’s framework through his show The Novak Element – an obvious and cheap shot at The Bill O’Reilly Factor on FOX News so much so it doesn’t deserve to be called satire. Novak constantly and openly manipulates the truth to fit his narrative but keeps failing and eventually simply descends into swearing.

Omnicorp is desperate to enter the lucrative market of America and put more merchandise on the street, but needs a product to sway the public’s opinion. Enter Detective Alex Murphy, who gets blown to pieces by Detroit’s most dangerous druglord. The head of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and his PR manager (Jay Baruchel) talk wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) into letting them rebuild him as a robot with a human mind that the American people can rally behind.

Although Dr Norton (Gary Oldman) rewires Alex’s brain so the computer controls him and not the other way around, Alex – very predictably – almost immediately overrides the system and puts himself back in control. How he did it is a throwaway ‘I don’t have a clue’ line uttered by the doctor. Alex tracks down and kills his murderer within the space of five minutes (talk about “most dangerous druglord”) and then (in a twist so boring it’s hard not to fall asleep) realises that Sellars wasn’t the nice man he pretended to be.

That’s the entire film, right there, and it’s very hard to find any redeeming features. The plot is full of holes – Dr Norton and his assistant constantly talk about Alex’s heart rate, but when we see him without the suit it turns out he doesn’t actually have a heart anymore. The violence is bloodless and the effects look so much like a shoot-em-up computer game that you wish you had a controller to put some more action into those scenes.

It is actually sad to see Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson and Abbie Cornish waste their time trying to pull out something of a script that really has no depth. It’s not entirely clear why anyone thought Jay Baruchel was a good casting choice, but he also doesn’t get any decent lines or character depth to maybe show some potential. Michael Keaton does his best, but the moments when he could have shined as the villain are all compressed into his final scene and that’s a very short one. Joel Kinnaman’s flat performance as the titular Robocop is entirely forgettable, which is actually not even the script’s fault.

The problem with Robocop isn’t that it’s a remake. The problem with Robocop is that it is a really bad film. The prescience of the original is entirely lost, because it’s almost two decades later and neither writer David Self nor director José Padilha bothered to really update the themes to the current climate. You could easily blame this on the fact that the film was watered down to a PG13 / 12A. You shouldn’t, because a lack of blood isn’t the film’s problem. The lack of a villain and the lack of a plot are.

Robocop starts off slowly, and then doesn’t gain momentum for its entire two-hour run. Where the trailer promised quick cuts and action, the movie has neither. The CGI is mostly nice to look at (although you can clearly see in which shots they saved money) but making everything look shiny and new doesn’t qualify as good – remake or not. There is a hint of an interesting question early on when they show the effects of replacing Alex’s body with a robot: are we just the thoughts in our brain or is the perception of ourselves based on our bodies? Unfortunately, that question vanishes as quickly from the screen as does the will to live from Gary Oldman’s eyes.

Robocop could have been a poignant analysis of today’s technologies and its political and moral implications. It could have been a great psychological drama about human consciousness. It could have been a violent action film with a lot of bloodshed. Really, it could have been all those things at once, but it is none of them.

In short, Robocop is already the frontrunner for the most predictable, least original film of the decade. If it will be remembered at all, it’ll simply be for how abysmal it was. Save your money, save your time and go see Inside Llewyn Davis or The Wolf of Wall Street instead.