Tag: Rooney Mara

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

The Social Network (2010)

Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg bring the making of Facebook to life in Fincher’s modern American classic

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker), Armie Hammer (Cameron Winklevoss/Tyler Winklevoss), Max Minghella (Divya Narendra), Brenda Song (Christy Lee), Rashida Jones (Marilyn Delpy), Joseph Mazzello (Dustin Moskovitz), Rooney Mara (Erica Albright), John Getz (Sy), David Selby (Gage)

Nothing has changed our interaction with the world faster than the internet. And nothing on the internet has changed how we interact as much as social media. As it drives changes in the way we relate to other people, it’s a brave film that tries to capture this zeitgeist and turn it into an effective movie. The Social Network is a brave movie – and also a brilliant one, a defiantly modern and far-sighted movie that avoids being the sanctimonious message movie it could have become, by concentrating on personal relationships, drama and, above all, a strong and compelling story.

Its October 2003 and a 19-year old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). So, he responds like many people today would – but not in 2003 – by writing a series of rude and angry blogs about her. And at the same time, he does something you and I wouldn’t be able to do – he builds overnight a campus website called Facemash that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students. It’s a sensation – and a scandal.

Off the back of it, Zuckerberg is approached by the Winklevoss brothers (in a skilled double performance by Armie Hammer) to see if he’d be interested in building an elite social network, Harvard Connection, for them. Zuckerberg agrees – but did he independently already have the idea for Thefacebook, an elite social network for Ivy League students? Either way, with funds from friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) he builds the platform which is to become Facebook. Does it all end well? Since the story is framed around Zuckerberg in 2009, sitting in depositions while being sued by both the Winkelvoss brothers (“the Winklevi”) and Saverin, you can guess not.

Fincher’s film reflects its central character in many ways – cool, efficient, tightly wound, juggling intellectualism with simmering tension. It’s vibrant, fresh, razor-sharp, perfectly paced and superbly dramatic. It turns what could have been a terrifically dull story of very clever people typing lines of code into a whipper-sharp story of jealousies, rivalries and suspicions. It also brilliantly veers away from being a polemic. It could easily have made points – as many films have – about the “evils and dangers of that creepy thing the internet” or constantly reminded us how morally superior film-makers are to social media kingpins. It does nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a brilliantly insightful look at the birth of a phenomenon that also makes subtle, intelligent points about some of the behaviours that phenomenon led to. All while keeping us gloriously entertained.

A big part of the film’s success is in Sorkin’s superb script. The material is perfect for him. The character’s intellectualism fits with his pithy turn of phrase, while their perceptions of themselves as victims or on a moral crusade fits with his ability to write morality with empathy. It also helps that he is the master of crackling dialogue. The idea to structure the film around the depositions is also a master-stroke. Not just a reminder of what’s to come, it adds an air of artificiality to everything we see (perfect as well for Sorkin’s smarter-than-life dialogue) – after all, each scene is based on the filtered remembrances of people in the depositions. And all of them remember a subtly different story.

Sorkin and Fincher also manage to avoid having villains in play. It would be easy to make Zuckerberg a villain: many films would have done. But Zuckerberg here isn’t bad – it’s more that he’s tunnel-visioned, selfish and socially inept. Erica (a marvellous turn by Rooney Mara as the first victim of social media bullying) has a point when she says she dumping him not because he’s a geek but because he’s not really a nice person. But Zuckerberg’s actions – his betrayals as some read them – come not from vindictiveness but a shark-like moving forward that leaves people behind him. And he’s also, as the film is keen to show repeatedly, lonely. He has one friend – whom he sacrifices on the altar of his creation – and is ruthless at cutting people out of his life when they fail to meet the standards he has set them.

The film channels the skills of Eisenberg – whose range is not huge – perfectly here, in a role he was surely born to play. Eisenberg crafts his physicality in something hunched, oppressed and sullen while his flat voice is perfect for a man who expresses himself through his creation not his personality. He gives Zuckerberg both a ruthlessness, but also a strange lack of knowledge – constantly surprised that his actions have consequences that leave him alone. He makes him a true lonely god of the internet – the man who invented the biggest social networking centre in the world, but who doesn’t have a friend himself.

But it also makes clear that Zuckerberg lacks the usual flaws of his kind: he’s not interested, it seems, in money, riches, fame or drugs. To him, the prize is to do not to be seen to do. He makes a rich contrast with Sean Parker (a brilliantly charismatic Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, who briefly influences him but is primarily interested in the flash and bang that the retiring Zuckerberg isn’t. What he does have is the drive and ruthlessness that his friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderful performance from Andrew Garfield as a marvellously sweet, but clearly naïve and out-of-his-depth man completely lacking the vision a project like Facebook needs) doesn’t have – and which makes Saverin unsuitable for thinking in the global terms Zuckerberg is.

And the film has little time for the Winklevoss twins. Played with chutzpah in a double role by Armie Hammer (who skilfully distinguishes both of them), Zuckerberg is right when he describes them as rich kids who had everything they ever wanted in life – and seem outraged that they can’t be given the rights to Facebook as well. As he points out they intended to do nothing other than come up with a concept. These rowers – in a witty touch their boat is sponsored by that dinosaur Polaroid – also represent the old elite under siege from new media. The entitled rich, who can’t comprehend that the world is being handed to them on a plate.

The film also makes for an intriguing meta-commentary on the growth of social media. From the trolling of Erica, through the bitter feuds and arguments, the he-said-she-said fighting of the depositions, and the quick shifts between friendship and rivalry, it also manages to capture the world of social media in a nutshell. The atmosphere where actions can explode in people’s perception, where statements you made years ago come back to bite you, where judgement and criticism are constant and the ability to communicate more easily also makes fights easier to start, seem more and more prescient.

Fincher’s film does this marvellously, with a wit and sense of dramatic flair that reminds me of a more grounded Network. Sure the scene at Henley-on-Thames is hand-in-the-mouth agonising for any British person to watch (it is littered with major errors from turn-of-phrase to its understanding of life in Britain), but when every other scene in it is perfectly done it doesn’t matter. Like any victory, Facebook has many people claiming to be its father. You could say the film about this film: superbly directed, a brilliant script and perfectly cast, it’s a triumph.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix plays a complete prick in this unbearably pleased with itself satire Her

Director: Spike Jonze

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Twombly), Scarlett Johnasson (Samantha – voice), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine Klausen), Olivia Wilde (Blind Date), Chris Pratt (Paul), Matt Letscher (Charles), Lukas Jones (Mark Lewman), Kristen Wiig (Sexy Kitten – voice), Brian Cox (Alan Watts – voice), Spike Jonze (Alien child – voice)

Every so often you start off engaged with a film and then, the longer it goes on, the less and less you like it. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact moment where I started to really take against Her, but I certainly had by the end of it. As someone once famously sort of said about Kriss Akubusi: “hard to dislike but well worth the effort”.

Anyway, Her is set in the near future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, insular man who writes personal romantic letters for other people who aren’t articulate enough (or bothered) to do it themselves. Getting divorced from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore downloads a new Artificial Intelligence Operating System for his computer. The system is designed to create a personality that appeals to the customer – and that is certainly the case here with this system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore, finding it hard to connect with the real world, is drawn to Samantha and, as she grows and develops, they start a relationship. But can the relationship survive the divide between realities and Samantha’s growing self-awareness and personality?

Okay. I’m going to swing hard for this film, so let’s start with what’s good shall we. Spike Jonze directs very well. It looks beautiful. There is some lovely music. The future world it shows is close enough to our own to still feel connected. Amy Adams is rather good as Theodore’s old college friend, and Rooney Mara turns in a very good performance as Theodore’s wife, a woman who doesn’t let Theodore get away with his excuses. Scarlett Johansson is perfect casting as the alluring and engaging voice of Samantha (much as I was primed to be annoyed by her post-production replacement of Samantha Morton, who had been on set with Phoenix). There are some sweet and even romantic moments.

Okay that’s it. This is a film overwhelmingly, unbearably, unbelievably pleased with the cleverness of its own concept and trite ideas (a man loves his computer – take that our modern consumerist world!). It then goes on to tell us almost nothing, bar the most basic statements about our struggles to interact with, and relate to, each other in this technology-filled world. Apparently it’s hard to create bonds with real people where we are viewing everything through our phones. Bet that has never occurred to anyone before right?

But my main problem with this film is the lead character. Now I will say that Joaquin Phoenix does a good job with this role, and his skilful acting brilliantly holds the story together. He does extremely well with a part that is almost exclusively reacting to someone not actually there. But my problem is with this characterisation of Theodore. To put it bluntly, he’s a prick.

In fact, he’s the sort of quirky nerd beloved of this genre, but take a long look and he’s basically a complete creep. And all his relationships with women seem to be based on him not wanting to engage with the problems of the other person. He requires the focus to be on his wants and needs, as if he is the only person in the world who can be sensitive or sad – no wonder he falls in love with a computer programme designed to reflect the behaviours he finds appealing.

“You want a wife without the challenges of dealing with something real” his wife accuses, eagerly pointing out his inability to deal with or even want to engage with human emotions. The film wants to give him a pass, because he is such a sensitive soul, but it’s bullshit. Theodore is a deeply selfish person, despite what the film wants, who has that geeky, arrogant, self-satisfied sensitivity that blindly says “if I struggle in the world, then it’s the fault of the world not me”.

Theodore is a constant happy victim, a whining, softly-spoken, guilt-tripping prick who only sees himself as a victim and makes no effort to change or understand his behaviour to other people. The film wants us to think that the world is a puzzle to his poetic soul, but it’s actually a maze he doesn’t want to find a way out of. He doesn’t want to engage with it and only feels justified and reinforced in these feelings by everything he does.

He is like the perfect ambassador for passive aggressive guys: “Oh I don’t get the girls because they don’t want to open themselves up to my sensitivity blah blah blah”. Theodore goes on a blind date early in the film: it goes well, they make out, sex is on the cards and then she asks “Before we do anything, will you see me again?”. Theodore can’t even bring himself to make even the smallest offer, meekly babbling about having a busy weekend. When she reacts angrily and leaves, the film wants us to side with Theodore’s timidity, rather than say “yeah it is a bit shitty to let a girl put her hand down your pants and then not even show the slightest interest in seeing her again, and then call her unpleasant”. Fuck you Theodore.

Theodore is basically a controlling arsehole and it’s where the romance of the film drains out. He clearly has no idea why his marriage ended, but while the film wants us to think he’s too sensitive for the rough and tumble, it seems clear he had no interest in, or comprehension of, his wife’s life. She is constantly subtly blamed for not having patience with Theodore – the film ends with him writing her a cathartic e-mail saying he will always love his memory of her and thanking her for being part of his life, forgiving her from leaving (again, screw you film). Instead she, like other people, doesn’t deserve Theodore because she doesn’t have the patience to delve into his life.

Theodore, though, has no depths. He’s a bland, faux-poetic guy with a nervy disposition and a disinterest in other people’s emotions, focused only on his own gratification. He wants his relationships to adjust to what he needs them to be. As Samantha grows and develops into a more fully rounded personality, his first reaction is hostility and jealousy at the thought of her talking to other people and operating systems. It’s not sweet and endearing – or Theodore again being taken advantage of, as the film wants us to think – it’s creepy, and Theodore is the sort of passive aggressive gentle guy who ends up stalking and murdering the girl who rejected him.

How can you engage with the points of this film, when the central character through whom everything is filtered is so awful? Distance in relationships in this modern world – and the lack of genuine interaction – is a point that hardly needs hammering home as it does here. The trite points about love and relationships the film makes are all wrong. The film is so on the nose about distance between people and the artificial nature of our interactions, the hero even writes other people’s love letters for them. It’s subtle as a sledgehammer.

Computers and phones are everywhere and everyone uses them, but there is less insight and heart in this story than an average episode of Black Mirror (which would have done the same thing in half the time). The film does its best to build a romance between the two, but it never quite lands or has the impact it should, because it never feels like an equal relationship: first Theo has the control, then Samantha grows beyond anything Theo is capable of but is still trapped by her initial programming of devotion to him. What point is this meant to be making about romance and commitment? Theo lives in a dream-world and does so until the end of the film. 

Her is the sort of film lots of people are going to love. It uses the conventions of romantic films very well. It has darker moments, such as a sequence where Theo and Samantha try to use a surrogate for sex (a scene where to be fair I could understand why Theo is creeped out and disturbed), but none of these ever comes together into a coherent point. And Theo remains, at all times, a block on the enjoyment of the film, an unpleasant figure hiding in plain sight that stops you from falling for the film. In love with itself, in love with its idea, in love with its cleverness, this is a film that tells you everything about the smugness of the geek and nothing about the subjects it actually wants to get you thinking about.

Lion (2016)

Dev Patel searches for his past in Lion

Director: Garth Davies

Cast: Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo), Dev Patel (Saroo Brierley), Rooney Mara (Lucy), Nicole Kidman (Sue Brierley), David Wenham (John Brierley), Abishek Bharate (Guddu), Divina Ladwa (Mantosh Brierley), Priyanka Bose (Kamla Munshi), Seepti Naval (Saroj Sood)

In 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is accidentally separated from his brother Guddu (Abishek Bharate) and mother (Priyanka Bose) after being trapped on a train that travels 1,600km to Calcutta. Unable to find his way home, and dodging the dangers of Calcutta’s streets, he eventually ends up in an orphanage. He is adopted by an Australian couple, the Brierleys (fine and tender performances Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years later, a chance meeting with a group of Indian students brings Saroo’s (Dev Patel) memories flooding back– and dedicates himself to retracing his steps and finding his family in India.

Lion is an overlong expansion of a story that would really spark your interest when presented in a newspaper article. But Garth Davies’ film drains the dramatic life out of the story by ludicrously overextending the telling in order to try and eke as much emotion from the audience as possible. Lion is under two hours, but it really should be at most an hour and a half.

The problem is the central section in Australia, while our hero tries to locate his roots. It just isn’t quite interesting enough, despite sterling, committed and emotional work from Dev Patel. Put simply, even with an extraordinary story like this, the film can’t help but communicate Sarro’s obsessions through cinema’s clichés. So we get a madness board with pins and bits of string to link clues. We get Saroo increasingly dishevelled. We get him driving away family and girlfriend. We get moody, tearful glances into the middle distance. Even the final solution to the mystery occurs after a spark of inspiration during a rage fuelled “I’m going to wreck this board and give up” moment. This whole section just serves to reduce the story into movie-of-the-week territory.

The film just doesn’t quite connect with us as it should. Perhaps because of the amount of time given over to very slow Google Earth searches, or overblown camera tracking shots across train lines, or expansive slow, piano-scored moments of emotional torment from Saroo. It’s a shame because there are flashes of good material in there – Nicole Kidman’s has a stand out scene to explain why she chose not to have children – and Dev Patel is the best he’s been. But it doesn’t quite work. After Saroo’s emotional revelation at an Indian friend’s house and realisation that he is “lost” (and this quiet devastation from Patel is affecting), the story doesn’t really kick off. It just slows down.

It’s a shame as the opening third of the film with young Saroo lost in Calcutta is very well done, even if it seems virtually every male living on the streets is a paedophile. The early scenes with Saroo and his brother are very good, and establish the strength of their bond. Sunny Pawar does a marvellous job as the lost boy, and Garth Davies films Calcutta with an earthy realism, as well as having a wonderful sense of empathy for the vulnerability of children. It’s also striking to see how uncommented upon a child alone on the streets of Calcutta goes. The dangers Saroo dodges feel genuinely threatening, and helps us invest emotionally for the rest of the film.

The moments that flash back to this do get overplayed later. Much as I initially liked Saroo hallucinating his brother and mother appearing around him in the streets of Melbourne, it’s a card that quickly gets overused. Like many of the ideas in this film, it gets hammered home a little too much. It’s that whole middle section, with poor Rooney Mara saddled with the thankless part of supportive girlfriend. You could have cut it down by 20 minutes and had the same impact. Garth Davies’ direction simply gets carried away with the lyrical sadness, to try and tug our heartstrings.

The problem is the most moving part of the film is the final sequence where we see the real people meeting in the streets of Khandwha. Nothing else in the film really measures up to this genuine emotion. Particularly after we’ve watched a man searching Google and behaving moodily for well over forty minutes. It’s a film that loses its way because it’s moments of emotional reality like that which make these stories truly profound – and a dramatisation can never provide that. With the film also unable to find a way to make the search as dramatic and engaging as the getting lost and being found, it also flounders in the middle, taking way too long to get us to the destination. It’s got its moments, but it’sa well assembled film that outstays its welcome.

Carol (2015)

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in a moving dance of love and romance

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker), Carrie Brownstein (Genevieve Cantrell)

It’s the way of things that gay love-stories in Hollywood are invariably relegated to a sub plot – often one that has a certain tragical element to it. This is not the case here in Todd Haynes’ superlative romance, which places a lesbian love story at its centre, sensitively building the characters and romantic journey between them.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a lost department store worker, drifting through life. One Christmas, working on the toy stall, she recommends a toy for the daughter of socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). A spark of attraction between the two is immediately apparent, and Carol invites Therese first to dinner, then to spend an evening together and finally a Christmas road trip across America, during which their attraction grows and deepens into a flourishing love.

This wonderful love story, almost a twist on Brief Encounter, is a brilliantly done, extremely engrossing and moving romantic film, a film that manages the rare feat in Hollywood movies of not making a homosexual relationship something that requires narrative punishment. Haynes’ luscious 1950s filming style, stressing the aesthetics and manners of the era, combines brilliantly with a subtly murky photography style that darkens and lightens at different points to create an immersive fairy-tale quality. It’s a perfect tapestry for a deeply caring and sensitive story, anchored by a superb script and wonderful performances.

It has now got to the point where it is axiomatic to say Cate Blanchett gives a wonderful performance – she is, after all, one of the best actresses in the world right now. She is quite simply perfectly cast as Carol, her features having the flexibility to appear both cold and distant and soft and caring, a switch she is able to make with the slightest of gestures. Her patrician manner is deconstructed brilliantly. Her character is initially established as an almost predatory figure, a determined and manipulative woman; it’s only over the course of the film that this persona is slowly taken apart, revealing waves of emotion and pain from years of denial, loneliness and a sense of being trapped. Each scene slowly prompts us to reassess and reevaluate her character, and Blanchett handles this journey with astounding skill, revealing a hinterland of pained, self-doubting isolation and desperation to experience real love behind her cool and confident exterior. It’s a performance of phenomenal skill and emotional force.

It’s matched brilliantly by Rooney Mara as the object of Carol’s affections – and it must be said at the very least a co-lead of the film. Therese is a woman sleepwalking through life when we first see her, trotting through the motions of her interactions with others – a clear void in her, waiting for something to happen to her, but clearly with no idea of what that might be. Similar to Blanchett, Mara’s gentle and sensitive exterior deepens over the course of the film as she becomes more assertive to those around her, more of a determiner of what she wants from her own life. Mara’s soulful eyes and gentle face make her a perfect audience surrogate, creating a character whose feelings, doubts, anxieties and growing confidence we become immersed in. The film is in many ways her story, and Mara’s expressive gentleness is vital to our investment in the story.

The road trip at the heart of the movie’s plot is a charming, lyrical dance between two people juggling an unspoken attraction: one of them on the edge of all times of saying it, the other drawn towards an attraction she is still trying to understand and express. Haynes perfectly captures the small playful moments of first love that pepper these scenes, the camera intimately placed to make us part of this growing partnership of equal minds and hearts. Slowly they grow physically closer – both in their ease of body language, and through their slow progress towards sharing hotel rooms and finally (in an achingly romantic scene) a bed.

It’s a film about romantic longing between two people, the instant attraction. Therese’s first glance of Carol is across a crowded room, with the camera panning past Carol in a POV shot and then returning to her, before cutting back to Therese, now seemingly alive with an attraction she doesn’t quite understand. The Brief Encounter structure of the film is established with the film opening with Carol and Therese’s (possible) last meeting in a dinner. We see their interrupted conversation leading to Carol’s departure, leaving after touching a hand on Therese’s shoulder – the camera lingering on Therese’s back and her unseen reaction (and contrasting it with a meaningless similar touch from a male friend). When this scene is replayed later, we see it more from Carol’s perspective – and her pulsating emotion and longing.

The reason these scenes work so well is that the film continually shows Carol and Therese struggling to hide their growing attraction in plain sight, to maintain the balance between expressing their feeling and keeping a plausible deniability. This feeling grows because the film has the patience to take its time with building this relationship– and because we are aware of Therese’s feelings earlier than she is.

The film’s sensitivity extends to the sympathy it feels for all its characters. As useless as many of the men in the story are, they are confused, distressed or lonely rather than malicious or cruel. Carol’s husband Harge could have been a bullying monster, but he actually comes across as a frustrated and deeply hurt man, who understands on some level his wife’s sexual preferences, but is unable to fully comprehend the implications of this. On paper it’s a thankless part, but Kyle Chandler is superb, his Mad Men features perfectly suited to the role of floundering masculine figure. Many of Therese’s would-be suitors are similarly drawn reasonably sympathetically, however laddy, over-keen or dull they may be – Haynes’ film has an understanding that they are products of their time. In a lovely scene Therese talks about homosexuality with one of her male suitors, who can barely countenance its existence, as if she was talking about the man in the moon.

Haynes’s mastery of the aesthetics of the material is present throughout. Haynes increases the feelings of being trapped or surrounded by a number of shots through windows, using mirrors, from the other side of doors – divides that stress the characters’ sense of being trapped and enclosed in their lives. He also carries across just a small teasing touch of the melodrama of 1950s films – though I would argue this is no way a melodramatic film – with a gun making a deliberately misleading appearance, and a few beats that briefly suggest the film is heading in an entirely different direction.

Carol is a wonderful, soulful and entrancing film. It’s about two people showing each other hidden depths about themselves, uncovering truths and building each other’s capacity for love and ability to admit and understand their feelings. It makes this a tender and endearing film, with two characters whose fates we become completely involved with. It also avoids passing any form of judgement over any of the characters. Filled with subtle moments, open to interpretations (even their first meeting is full of code, from the recommendation of a non-gender-conforming train set to Carol’s gloves left invitingly on the counter) that constantly ask us to review how open we feel the characters are being with themselves and others. With brilliant performances by Mara and Blanchett (backed by Chandler and a very sensitive performance from Sarah Paulson as Carol’s former lover), this wonderful film is both profoundly moving and very uplifting.