Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Her', 'The Lego Movie', and 'The Armstrong Lie': review round-up

'Her' - Dir. Spike Jonze (15)


You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future.

Anyone expecting something broadly critical of our perceived contemporary over-reliance on and obsession with smartphones and computers is in for disappointment. This isn't a piece about the perils of technology, going for trite and easy targets - such as the widespread idea that we don't pay each other enough attention anymore because we're more interested in our Facebook pages. Instead it's a sincere exploration of love as a concept that looks at how this "form of socially acceptable insanity", as Theodore's sympathetic friend Amy (Amy Adams) puts it, works and what it means. If anything, Samantha's status as a non-human - as a more advanced, faster-thinking intelligence - enables the exploration and interrogation of entrenched concepts about the nature of love and traditional relationships. For instance, Samantha's ability to seemingly love potential thousands of people and fellow AIs with equal strength simultaneously (and Theodore's jealousy and indignation at this development) calls into question the possessive and perhaps selfish nature of most human love.

That's not to say the film is completely uncritical of why a person like Theodore - who Phoenix embues with tenderness, warmth and a certain lovelorn, world-weary sadness - might choose to date an OS over a human being. Through interactions with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) we learn that he has difficulty expressing himself to others in person and finds people difficult, something also demonstrated by his career as a successful writer of other people's letters for the (I hope) fictional - with letters here almost de-romanticised as a method of communication that permits distance and perhaps even insincerity. That he's apparently a very good and well respected writer of other people's letters speaks to the fact that Theodore is not somebody who has trouble understanding emotions or feeling them, but that his difficulty lies with expressing himself openly. With the exception of a few isolated scenes (and one of those is an awkward date with Olivia Wilde's Amelia), Theodore is generally depicted alone among anonymous crowds or in his spacious apartment. But it's a sort of sun-soaked, almost triumphant isolation that seems extremely appealing, as he casually saunters around a very clean version of Los Angeles.

Perhaps dating an OS is giving him unhealthy permission to retreat further from public life, or perhaps it's the perfect relationship for somebody who's more comfortable keeping people at arms length. Do we all crave a relationship we can switch on and off? That we can put in our pocket and take on our travels? How you feel about that probably depends on your own feelings on technology and its rapid integration with every aspect of our lives, as much as it does your current mood regarding other human beings and the state of your love-life. Jonze certainly doesn't seem to be judging either way with this eerily prescient look at the future of love which, like all good science fiction, has just as much to say about the present day. 'Her' seems to show us a world we might soon inhabit, where complex relationships between humans and increasingly sophisticated synthetic life become the norm - and that's mostly OK.

'The Lego Movie' - Dir. Phil Miller and Chris Lord (U)

The worst thing I can say about Phil Miller and Chris Lord's hyperactive and characteristically gag-heavy 'The Lego Movie' is that the trailers were unquestionably front-loaded with all the best jokes. But that's not really the fault of the movie itself, which is still packed with funny moments, charming characters and surprising Lego character cameos (which I won't spoil here). It's also way more subversive and socially aware than you expect from a movie based on a toy license - with the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) using an army of robotic micro-managers to ensure optimum social conformity. In the same vein, it's a love of chart music and chain restaurants that tips off ass-kicking heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to the fact that generic, smiley Lego construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) might not in fact be "the special" - a prophesied "master builder" who will restore free-thought and fun to a land oppressed by the tyranny of the instruction manual.

The animation is superb, with Miller and Lord using an almost stop-frame aesthetic to bring the toy world to life, but through CGI doing things you might never be able to do with traditional animation methods. The world is filled with amazing details, like the ocean made to resemble a pattern of tessellating blue and white Lego studs, whilst supporting characters like Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day) and, yes, Batman (Will Arnett) are given life and personality that defies their limited Lego brick designs. Perhaps the best bit is that, without giving anything away, the writer-directors have managed to not only make a supremely enjoyable animated movie using the visual style and various licenses of the Lego brand, but also a film that is ultimately about Lego itself. Without being at all cheesy or seeming cynically motivated in the least, the film quickly becomes a celebration of imaginative play, creativity and childhood itself, with an enthusiasm that's infectious.

'The Armstrong Lie' - Alex Gibney (15)

Whilst not ostensibly as 'important' as his acclaimed and invariably powerful docs on corporate corruption, WikiLeaks or wars in the Middle East, Alex Gibney's look at the scandal that threw the career and reputation of cancer survivor, humanitarian and former multiple Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong into disrepute is still a compelling watch, whether you care about cycling or not. That's because, in true Gibney style, 'The Armstrong Lie' is more about our willingness (and the willingness of the news media) to be deceived by an appealing narrative than it is about sport and illegal doping practices. A cancer survivor who wasn't expected to make it comes back into the sport he never threatened to be the best at and, not only does he become a champion, but he completely dominates for the best part of a decade. It's a hopeful story about life after cancer and man's resilience in the face of adversity, so heartwarming and inspirational that everybody wanted to believe it.

That's the secret behind the Armstrong lie of the title: in spite of years of investigative journalists uncovering evidence of the athlete's use of performance enhancing drugs, in spite of testimony against him from former friends asserting that he used these drugs extensively throughout his seven Tour wins, and despite his public hiring of an Italian doctor known to be a specialist in developing ways to help cyclists cheat under the radar - he got away with it (to some extent, right up until the moment he confessed on Oprah in 2013) precisely because we all collectively willed it to be true. In his narration, Gibney admits that he was also in the thrall of Armstrong's public persona and larger-than-life success story - willing his subject to win, against the critics and fellow cyclists, during his ill-conceived 2009 comeback to professional cycling (which was originally supposed to be the focus of Gibney's documentary before the truth about Armstrong's use of drugs became public).

Armstrong is an interesting subject who, though he comes across thoroughly badly (in retrospect) in archive footage of interviews and press conferences - as he aggressively defends himself against allegations of drug use to the point where he frequently goes on the attack - is nonetheless an entertaining public speaker and frequently a charismatic presence on camera (for instance, when passionately explaining why kids love bikes). His is certainly a larger than life story worthy of telling, if in reality that's for vastly different reasons than we originally thought. What does seem clear is that the entire sport was rife with doping at the time in which he competed and your sympathy for Armstrong ultimately rests on how much you respect a professional competitor's "will to win" above all else and how much weight the "everybody else was doing it" defence carries.

Ultimately public anger at Armstrong, over and above his perhaps equally crooked fellow athletes, is perhaps completely justified and long overdue. Not only because he used drugs to build a reputation that made him a fabulously wealthy and powerful global celebrity (like no cyclist before or since), but because of what he actively tried to make himself represent and the damage his corruption does to whatever genuinely noble causes he was involved in. Gibney's doc gives him a forum to mount his case and it's one that is selfish, delusional and supremely arrogant. In retrospect the whole thing - the hero worship, the story, the celebrity, the sporting triumph - all seems so hard to believe. Gibney's film exceeds its bounds to become the story of our collective gullibility in the face of attractive mistruths.

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