Her (US, 2013)

Anomie in the 21st century

Anomie in the 21st century

How old do you have to be to be bothered by people walking through streets with eyes only for their mobile phones? There’s usually a moral panic about new technology so the idea that young people, who have grown up with social networking, don’t know how to relate to one another without a phone is a reactionary representation and not the reality. However, any time spent with people who can’t keep their eyes, or fingers, off their phones for more than a few minutes can be extremely annoying. Their ‘now’ is not your ‘now’ and their attention is not wholly with you. Youngsters may not be bothered by this but many oldsters are. To us, many  young people seem to be ‘in love’ with their devices and Spike Jonze has literalised this idea in Her.

‘What does it mean to be human?’ is the key question asked by hard science fiction (SF). The futuristic LA of Her (a convincing amalgam of LA and Shanghai) adds Artificial Intelligence to operating systems and shows loner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling for Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Incidentally Johansson’s giggly, breathy performance was, for me, the main weakness of the film; personal taste, of course, but I couldn’t fall that for.  However, it’s entirely believable that people could fall in love with a computer; Joseph Weizenbaum, in the 1960s, developed ELIZA, an extremely basic program that subjects would, nevertheless, share very personal thoughts.

Jonze convincingly stretches the concept, too thin for a two-hour film, and offers a suitably ambiguous ending. Phoenix is excellent in the lead and well supported by Amy Adams, as his friend whose real relationship is on the rocks. It was produced by Megan Ellison who has used her massive inheritance to support filmmakers she admires. I notice that her upcoming movies have Terminator in the title; does that mean she’s going mainstream?

Her has been touted, in this award season, as one of the best American movies of 2013. And it is but that really does suggest that American cinema is suffering a lull.

The Bridge (series 2) (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark, 2013)

Gripping characters and plotting

Gripping characters and plotting

The autistic Saga Norén, brilliantly played by Sofia Helin (how difficult must it be for an actor to keep her face immobile?), is as compelling a character, in detective fiction, that I know. She struggles to empathise with others, which she finds harder than solving even the most difficult cases, but she keeps on trying. Her humanity is to be seen in these struggles just as it is in her desire for justice. the Bridge is more than Saga and the writers quite brilliantly weave a tapestry of dead ends and dangling possibilities that allow the ten episodes of the series to speed on with the economy of an B movie. 

Detective fictions works best with compelling characters and Kim Bodnia’s tortured Martin is a brilliant sounding board for Saga’s attempts to relate to others. The Bridge managed to integrate the character interaction with the narrative drive of the crime, particularly well in series one. In this second series the ‘hangover’ from the first continues as an arc with Martin confronting series one’s antagonist in prison. The denouement of series two, brilliantly constructed over the two final episodes, is as devastating as Se7en, and by allowing the images to carry the characters’ thoughts – rather than dialogue – The Bridge confirms television as being the space where daring and fascinating texts are being produced. I’ve avoiding spoilers here, the advice is simple: see it.

Roy Stafford bemoans the dearth of foreign language films in our cinemas, yet BBC4’s 9pm Saturday night slot of foreign language TV crime, where the series was broadcast in the UK, has proved to be a, relative, hit. Why aren’t these viewers, many of whom it’s reasonable to assume are averse to subtitles, not translating their enthusiasm to foreign language cinema? When I show subtitled films to children their negative reaction, to finding the film they’re watching isn’t in English, usually subsides quickly when they realise that they don’t notice the words at the bottom of the screen after a few minutes. Yet very few of these will use that realisation to go on and watch more subtitled films. We live a world of the ‘blockbuster’ and texts that are seen are the ones that everyone else is seeing (something of a tautology I know). So even the BBC4 niche slot becomes, for the ‘chattering classes’, a ‘must watch’ for the ‘water cooler’ discussion at work.

How do we stop the narrowing of our cultural life that is threatened by the commercial difficulty of distributing foreign language films? The BBC, as a Public Service Broadcaster, must take the lead in this. The absence from television of programmes, other than one-off Culture Shows, that deal with ‘difficult’ films is a disgrace. One of the ways I was introduced to cinema was via a season of Jean Renoir films on BBC2, introduced by Gavin Millar, in the late 1970s. The BBC may argue these films are now widely available on DVD but how can audiences get to grips with the history of cinema without guidance? 

The Pleasure Girls (UK, 1965)

Young, free and female

Young, free and female

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 body 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 marvelous 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.


12 Years a Slave (US-UK, 2013)

A living hell

A living hell

It’s interesting to consider the different box office performance of this film in North America to the UK. At the time of writing it’s grossed $47 there and £15m in the UK. As a rule of thumb the UK equivalence of $47m would be £4.7m, which shows (even before we consider that the film was released much earlier in the US) that 12 Years a Slave is massively outperforming the US in the UK. One reason may be the fact the film’s holding up an uncomfortable mirror to Americans. We can watch 12 Years feeling superior due to the British national myth that focuses on our role in abolition rather than being slavers, neatly forgetting how we were as exploitative as any initially.

A second possibility is that British audiences, this year, seem particularly receptive to ‘awards films’ with Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle (which I thought was dreadful) also posting excellent box office. Last weekend Dallas Buyers Club debuted with, what Charles Gant calls, a ‘sensational’ £1.9m.

Thirdly there’s the high profile British talent in the film. Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder (Irish-German) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s TV series Sherlock has cemented him as a star in UK eyes at least, and director Steve McQueen. I doubt, though, that McQueen had much of an impact outside the ‘art house’ crowd. Whatever the reason it was heartening to see, in a multiplex, an early evening (Saturday) viewing nearly full with an audience aged 15-70 for a film that is anything but a Hollywood sugar rush.

Most (all?) of you will be aware of the critical acclaim the film as received and I’ll simply endorse that. The performances are fabulous; I’ll highlight Fassbinder, he’s shaping up to be a ‘great’. McQueen’s reigned in his use of the long take, compared to his previous films, although I loved the lingering on the protagonist, Solomon’s, burnt letter. The shot remained until the last glow of red had disappeared (along with his hopes). Some thought might, however, be given to CGI-ing the immaculate ‘whiter-than-white’ teeth most actors seem to sport. I’m sure the dental hygiene of slaves was not quite how it was portrayed in the film.

This is highly likely to be on my ‘best film’ lists but I must remember not to go to the Vue, in Halifax, as the moment the words, explaining what happened to Solomon subsequent to the film, faded the lights came up breaking the spell. The person in front of me grabbed their phone, obviously requiring a fix, and a Despicable Me minion looked at me from the screen. Back to reality.

World War Z (US-Malta, 2013)

The patriarch at work

The patriarch at work

Zombie movies have been resolutely B movies, emphasising the gore and, usually, unusually, failing to offer the ‘happy ever after’ ending. Zombies are getting bigger, The Walking Dead (2010-) TV series is the highest rated cable programme in USA, and this Brad Pitt vehicle grossed around $400m worldwide last year. It was critically mauled but audiences loved and I can see why. Of course, if you’re spending nearly $200m on a film then the small scale pleasures of the B movie are going to be marginalised.

One of the many producers of the film is Pitt’s Plan B and while he’s a fairly conventional action hero there are a couple of interesting variants in his character. First he’s a house-husband, we see him at the start looking at the breakfast dishes left for him; second, he’s brought out of retirement by the United Nations, an institution not regularly feted in America. Small things but progressive at least.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film as Marc Forster, and particularly editors Roger Barton and Matt Chesse (I’m not surprised there were two so frenetic is the film’s pace), produce a thrilling narrative. The first half hour, the descent into chaos, is exceptional and the set piece in Jerusalem is equally exciting. Part of the mauling the film received was to do with the plot holes; maybe I’m more sanguine than most regarding a ropey plot where zombies are concerned. It was apparently a troubled production but that didn’t show up on the screen as far as I could tell. How do you escape when zombies start rampaging on an aircraft that’s in flight? Watch the movie to find out.

Pitt’s a superb leading man. His charisma is ‘old school’ but he’s also one of the stars who are happy to work in more ‘arty’ fare, lending his name to projects to get finance. If I were to criticise the film it’s the ‘old school’ representation of gender, notwithstanding Pitt’s character’s domestic status. The only woman who gets much screen time, apart from his children’s mum, is an Israeli soldier and that’s strictly of the ‘helper’ variety.

Zombies belong in B movies but that’s not to say there’s not plenty of pleasure to be found in the A picture that takes the parochial, conventional zombie narrative, and blows it up (literally) to the world. Great Friday night watching.