Dallas Buyers Club

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Matthew McConaughey is favourite to win the best actor Oscar tonight for his role as Ron Woodroof, the homophobic rodeo rider who discovers he’s got HIV and only 30 days to live. Some friends and I were chatting about how the actor famously lost a dramatic amount of weight to play the role, and whether or not this kind of physical transformation hasn’t become a shorthand for acting prowess and a shortcut to award nominations. Not that McConaughey isn’t great in this role – he is and when he’s on screen he’s all you’re watching, but, are we being distracted? So impressed with an actor’s commitment to their craft that we take their stellar acting performance as a given? Take Charlize Theron in Monster; she was superb but probably more attention and applause was paid to her gaining weight and daring to look *ugly* on screen than to her acting. Conversely David Bowie played The Elephant Man on stage in the 1980s with no prosthetics or special effects to assist him – the physicality of his performance effected the transformation.

But, that aside, Dallas Buyers Club is a great film. It’s another of the recent flurry of ‘based on a true story’ movies released in time for awards season (although just how true it is, is up for debate.) Ron Woodroof is a man’s man. A swaggering, hard-living, good-time boy working as a part-time electrician and bull riding in his spare time (as you do, or at least you do in Texas). After getting injured and collapsing at work he discovers that he has HIV and a short time to live. He refuses to passively accept this prognosis, not least because he sees it as a gay disease and he is very definitely anti-gay, and he sets out to educate himself about the virus and its treatment. He sources new drugs not yet approved by the FDA, smuggling them in from Mexico and further afield and eventually establishes the Dallas Buyers Club where the $400 membership fee buys you all the (illegal) meds you need.

It’s eminently watchable with a great cast. Jared Leto (no stranger to ‘the method’ himself) is a revelation as Rayon, a transgender woman and fellow HIV sufferer who befriends a reluctant Ron and becomes his business partner. Jared Leto has always been too pretty to be a boy and makes a frighteningly convincing woman. Their relationship provides much of the film’s humour and ultimately softens Ron’s anti-gay attitude. Jennifer Garner is strong as the sweet and kind-hearted Dr Eve Saks who treats Ron after his initial diagnosis and gradually warms to the man underneath, becoming his friend.

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It’s a stark and uncomfortable watch in places. An ugly scene in a bar, where Ron is violently rejected by his rodeo pals, vividly conjures up this frightening time in the 1980s when no one really understood HIV or AIDS. Anyone diagnosed became social pariahs living under a death sentence, their blood and saliva perceived as toxic to the uninfected. The early scenes of Ron’s seedy trailer park life of casual promiscuity and drug-taking (it’s suggested in a brief flashback that he contracted the disease from unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user) also make pretty grim viewing.

In its portrayal of a less than lovely character, at times seemingly unable to halt his own destruction, it reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s  The Wrestler. And it doesn’t apologise for the lifestyle or the attitudes of those it depicts. But in the same way that Philadelphia broke ground while still retaining a Hollywood gloss, Dallas Buyers Club is in the same vein. In finessing the facts (Rayon and Dr Saks are fictional, representations of multiple characters in Ron’s real life; the real Ron Woodroof was reportedly bisexual and not particularly homophobic) it’s made things appear less ambiguous, more black and white, arguably reducing the emotional punch of the narrative. It must be a tough balance, staying true to the facts while keeping a story entertaining. Real-life is messy and inconsistent and does it really matter if some characters have been invented or exaggerated, if events have been simplified or prettied up a little? If the line between art and reality gets blurred does it detract from a movie’s value?

In this case I say no. Dallas Buyers Club is still a compelling film with a heart and a message and there’s nothing so very bad about that.

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True Detective Episode 1 – First Thoughts

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Warning: Contains some spoilers

A bizarre ritual murder in a small Louisiana town. Characters exchange meaningful looks or stare off into the middle distance. There’s dust, trailer parks and a score by T-Bone Burnett. And nobody smiles.

It’s clear from the outset that HBO’s new drama True Detective is going to be dark, edgy and serious. People swallow their drinks very loudly and say improbable things like ‘this town looks like a memory of a town that’s fading’ or ‘I don’t sleep I just dream’ as freight trains wail in the background. Only characters in serious edgy dramas talk this way.

Episode 1 unfolds partially in flashback as two detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), are interviewed separately about events that took place 17 years before. Back then they had only been partners for 3 months; Marty the solid experienced cop who loves his family and who you’d want to have a beer with, Rust his intense yet controlled, younger corduroy-wearing partner.

They are called to the scene of a murder – a young prostitute killed and posed in a way that suggests a ritual killing and, potentially, a serial killer. As they begin their investigation it becomes clear that McConaughey’s Rust is a man on the edge just waiting to unravel – the signs of his self-destructive inner turmoil (has there ever been a serious TV detective who isn’t afflicted with self-destructive inner turmoil?) are littered throughout this first episode – he had a daughter who died, he has a drinking problem, he takes Quaaludes, he’s disliked by his colleagues, he knows an awful lot about ritual murder.
Marty appears to be the stable one – or is he? In one brief scene there’s the suggestion of an affair and his marriage to wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) is perhaps not as solid as it seems.

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As the narrative switches between present day and the past, the mystery of what happened between Marty and Rust becomes more compelling than the murder, which feels almost secondary. What caused the apparent bad blood between them, according to Harrelson’s character they haven’t spoken for 10 years? What pushed Rust Cohle over the edge and turned him into the crazy-haired derelict sucking on every cigarette as if his life depended on it and drinking Lone Star beer? I need to know.

With its stylized cinematic look, off-kilter feel and flashes of dark humour it reminded me of Twin Peaks and also of Paris, Texas with the empty washed-out landscapes and long silences.

It’s beautifully shot and the sense of place and atmosphere it evokes is palpable. It has a stellar cast, McConaughey in particular is mesmerising, and the dynamic between the two leads compelled me to keep watching. It’s moody, creepy and packed to its Southern Gothic gills with clichés but I loved it.

I can’t wait for Episode 2.

Catch Episode 1 on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday 26 February 10 pm

American Hustle

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American Hustle is one of those slick, watchable, con-within-a-con movies that Hollywood does so well. It’s very loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. Con-artists Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are caught in a scam and forced to cut a deal with ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Together they orchestrate an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt local politicians, including New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The wheels quickly come off thanks to DiMaso’s recklessness and Rosenfeld’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

American Hustle pays meticulous attention to period details – the hairstyles, the facial hair, the soft furnishings, the soundtrack – its more 70s than the 70s. But that’s what movies do – they make real life, even the miserable and unpleasant bits, look shinier and more appealing than the real thing. Arguably less attention gets paid to faithfully following the true sorry it purports to tell. Whether or not that matters is up for debate – they’re movies after all not documentaries – and this one starts by telling us that ‘some of this actually happened’.

Given the calibre of the cast the acting is flawless. Bale, ever the method actor and here complete with genuine paunch and (not genuine) elaborate comb-over is utterly convincing as Rosenfeld, desperately juggling his lover, his crazy wife, his son and his livelihood and truly conflicted about double-crossing Carmine. Amy Adams does a great job at balancing vulnerability and ruthlessness (and staying just this side of decent in all those plunging necklines) as his partner Sydney Prosser. Bradley Cooper totally embraces his character’s toddler-like naivety and eagerness, becoming more and more manic as the situation slips out of his control. Jeremy Renner is likeable and rather sweet as well-meaning Mayor Polito, so desperate to get his neighbourhood back on its feet that he takes a backhander and then watches all his good intentions and his life unravel. But Jennifer Lawrence stole it for me as Rosenfelds wife Rosalyn, with the towering improbable hair-dos and the car crash personality – needy, self-absorbed, spiteful and insecure this role must have been a joy to play.

The plot is overly complicated, with so many twists and turns it’s hard to keep track but it’s so well-played and so much fun that it didn’t seem to matter. And there are some fabulous scenes: Jennifer Lawrence singing along to ‘Live and Let Die’ at top volume while aggressively dusting in yellow Marigolds, relishing the mess she’s created for her husband; the tense meeting with local mobsters where the visiting Mafia boss (a certain uncredited cameo appearance) addresses DiMaso’s fake Sheik in real Arabic, and the whole plot looks on the point of unravelling, is genuinely menacing. And I will personally never forget the happy sight of Bradley Cooper in tiny perm rollers arguing with his mum, with whom he apparently still lives despite being a grown up and working for the FBI.

American Hustle is a great film and the director (David O. Russell) and the cast clearly had a lot of fun with it. It reminded me at times of a less gritty Boogie Nights. And while it’s undoubtedly clever, funny, well-acted and looks fabulous, unlike Boogie Nights, there’s not much at its centre. It’s a bit like all those exciting 70s sweets I had growing up – all bright colours, garish wrappers and fizz but not much substance, gone in a moment.
But, on balance (and like the candy), it’s still worth having for that big hit of flavour.

Gravity

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It’s hard to satisfy such high expectations when watching a film after hearing all the hype. I only recently saw Gravity when it returned to the cinema following its many award nominations so I’d already read the glowing 5* reviews and heard it raved about by pretty much everyone everywhere. Perhaps because of this I admit I was a tiny bit disappointed. Controversial but there it is.

If (like me until recently) you’re one of the few people in the world who hasn’t seen it yet (maybe you’ve actually been in space) it’s the survival story of Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission aboard the Shuttle Explorer. Whilst making repairs to the Hubble telescope, Stone and her colleague, experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are hit by a debris cloud after the Russians mistakenly detonate one of their own defunct satellites.

Firstly, I totally agree with the consensus that the special effects are truly stunning – you believe that the actors are really in space, in fact I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t real footage.  From the unbelievably realistic space walks, to the interiors of the shuttle and the space stations, to the astronaut’s view looking down at the Earth it felt like watching a documentary not a movie. It’s real and therefore convincing in a way that, say, Avatar or LOTR are less so because, impressive though they undoubtedly are, what’s on the screen is clearly fantasy.

I saw Gravity in 3D, a format I usually find overrated, but here it really comes into its own. There are some very beautiful moments: a fire on board one of the spacecraft that appears as little floating globes of vivid orange flame or Sandra Bullock’s tears coalescing and floating weightless around her. I guess if any film is made for 3D then Gravity is it.

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s use of sound is also very clever. One moment a frightening barrage of noise as the space station is bombarded by debris then sudden silence as a capsule door is opened onto the vacuum of space; a stream of disconnected chatter coming over the astronaut’s radio from Mission Control then nothing but the sound of Sandra Bullock’s panicked breathing inside her helmet (that elicited a sympathetic rising panic in me) as her tether breaks loose and she somersaults out into space. It totally captured the strangely simultaneous emptiness and claustrophobia that both frightens and awes me when I imagine what it must be like to be in space.

What let it down, ever so slightly, was the emotional, human element of the story that felt predictable and a bit clunky in places, particularly in the second half of the film. Sandra Bullock is great but I think that any number of actresses could’ve played that role. And that’s not a criticism of Sandra Bullock it’s because the special effects are the real star. They are ground-breaking, breathtaking. The scenes of flaming debris plummeting to earth alongside Ryan Stone’s tiny capsule or the sunrise moving across the Earth looking down from the blackness of space were so beautiful and so moving that the characters and the storyline couldn’t help but feel secondary.

The real essence and genius of this film lies in its scale. I don’t think it will pack the same punch when it’s seen on DVD, or worse, on an iPad or a Smartphone. Not that that necessarily diminishes a film’s value but it does mean you should go and see it now while it’s still at the cinema. Marvel at the CGI and revel in the surround sound because the big screen is where Gravity belongs.

12 Years a Slave

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If 12 Years a Slave weren’t based on a true story I would find it hard to believe that the events depicted had not been exaggerated for the sake of melodrama. I found it so brutal, so shocking and so uncomfortable that it would have been preferable to believe that it had been embellished. But this is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he endures for 12 years before finally managing to secure his release.

This is pre-Civil War, pre-abolition America and director Steve McQueen’s portrait of slavery is a million miles away from the romantic Gone with the Wind depiction of avuncular plantation owners, kind mistresses and contented slaves. It’s relentless in its portrayal of the casual cruelty and violence experienced by Solomon and his fellow slaves – I’ve heard it criticized for being gratuitous and unnecessary but apparently the book on which it’s based contains far worse atrocities.
While there’s little let-up in the misery there are unexpected moments of kindness and beauty. The cinematography is sublime washing the landscapes with a peachy glow – sunrise over a Southern swamp, glassy water, flowing Spanish moss and overhanging trees – I found these scenes so evocative that they completely drew me into Solomon’s world. McQueen is not afraid to let the camera linger and often leaves the horror on the screen to be absorbed in total silence (I’m thinking of one scene in particular, part-way through the movie that’s almost impossible to watch for that reason, like trying not to look at a car crash). And because the score (by Hans Zimmer) is so sparing, the space only enhances the power of what is being witnessed.

The cast is uniformly superb but the following performances stood out for me: Lupita Nyong’o as the young slave-girl Patsey who steadily has her spirit broken through relentless abuse; Paul Dano (condemned I fear to a career playing greasy and spineless losers) as racist overseer’s mate John Tibeats; Michael Fassbender chillingly disturbing as the monstrous and sadistic plantation owner Epps and Sarah Paulson as his vicious, jealous wife (hard to decide who’s more repellant). And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerizing as Solomon – his face so expressive that there’s often no need for him to speak. The only vaguely weak link was Brad Pitt,  his character is arguably the most pivotal but I found him the least convincing.

At the risk of joining the hyperbolic chorus I found watching this movie a profound experience – I truly don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it. It’s an exquisitely made film; beautifully shot, brilliantly acted, horrifying and compelling in equal measure.

Dracula (TV series 2013) – thoughts so far

CONTAINS SPOILERS

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I approached this with some scepticism: it’s on Sky Living, it stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers and it’s yet another reworking of Dracula. These seemed to me good reasons to watch this show with fairly low expectations.
Well, 4 episodes in and I’m impressed.

It’s stylish, atmospheric, engaging, sexy without being trashy, and much more subtle and restrained than I expected. It looks gorgeous with eastern European-inspired interiors that reference Dracula’s Transylvanian origins, clever use of light and shade and sudden splashes of colour that have a pleasing gaudiness, enhancing the undercurrent of menace. The relatively measured pace of the show creates a darkly brooding atmosphere and a sense of foreboding that’s genuinely unsettling. The violence has, so far, been sparing and so is all the more effective when it comes.
It’s set in the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper (who is nicely referenced in Ep 1 as a cover story concocted to explain vampire attacks) and clichés abound (fog, horse-drawn carriages, dirty cobbled back-streets, seedy opium dens) but it’s all so entertaining that it doesn’t matter.

In this version creator Cole Haddon has provided an interesting twist on Bram Stoker’s original tale: most notably Renfield (Nonso Anozie) is not a crazy bug-eating disciple but Dracula’s loyal right hand man and Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) is a surprising ally as they work together to fight a common enemy, the ancient Order of the Dragon (like the Masons but really, really evil). Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), as in the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film to which this version owes much (minus the hysterically bad acting), is the supposed reincarnation of Dracula’s beloved dead wife but is also plucky, independent and a star medical student under the tutelage of Van Helsing. Her fiancé Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), less stiff-upper-lippy than in previous adaptations, is a journalist employed by Dracula to help provide inside information on the Order. Mina’s best friend Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath), is wealthy and slightly spoiled and devoid of her traditional trio of male suitors and in their place is a whiff of romantic interest in Mina. There’s also an interesting female vampire hunter, Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit), taking the traditional Van Helsing role although I find her a bit too comedy dominatrix to take her seriously (also she’s still not worked out who Dracula is even though she’s sleeping with him which makes her the crappest vampire hunter ever).

Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) himself is a self-styled wealthy American entrepreneur, Alexander Grayson, supposedly in London to advance his scientific inventions (a light-bulb that glows but seems to take an army of minions and several deaths to power – I don’t think it’ll catch on). Of course his real plan is to bring about the destruction of his enemies (the aforementioned Order) because they murdered his wife (and Van Helsing’s family) and are an unpleasantly smug bunch of male aristocrats who frankly deserve a bit of throat-ripping. Rhys Meyers is excellent giving an understated performance that I found surprising after his role as everyone’s favourite maniacal monarch in The Tudors. He lurks effectively in shadowy corners with very well-groomed facial hair and fixes all around him with a chillingly piercing stare.

So far, so intense and I’m intrigued to see how it develops.

Episode 5 is on Sky Living, Thursday 28 November, 9pm

Rush

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My Dad got me into watching Formula 1 when I was a kid. It was when the Ayrton Senna/ Alain Prost rivalry dominated the sport and while I enjoyed watching the races, got a buzz from the speed and the power of the cars, it was their personalities and their on-off track sparring that really got me hooked (and made me and my Dad shout at the TV on Sunday afternoons.)

Rush dramatises another true-life racing rivalry between flamboyant Brit driver James Hunt and buttoned-down Austrian Niki Lauda as it reaches it’s peak during the dramatic 1976 Grand Prix season.

The tools used to tell the story were what you’d expect from a biopic: backstories relayed in a combination of flashback, voiceover and montage (but then, who doesn’t love a good montage?). Both drivers came from wealthy families, both rebelled; both had big ambitions and struggled to rise up the ranks of motor racing to achieve them. What really elevated the film was the fascinating contrast between the two characters and how well the actors portrayed them, and, of course, the racing sequences.

Chris Hemsworth arguably had a simpler role to play with James Hunt – a swaggering, larger than life, likeable playboy – all blond hair, bare feet and charm.  But he did it extremely well. For me Daniel Bruhl was exceptional as the self-contained, driven, frequently blunt and difficult-to-like Lauda. Despite his unlikeability (if that’s even a word) he moved me and in many ways, by the end of the film, he was the driver I was rooting for.

The supporting cast is good (I was very impressed by Olivia Wilde’s English accent as James Hunt’s first wife, Suzy Miller) but they are pretty much that: support for the 2 leads. Both Hunt and Lauda display different kinds of strength and courage as the drama escalates and it’s their polar opposite natures that drive the film and give it real substance and emotional punch.

For a film about Grand Prix motor racing clearly the racing sequences had to be good and they were as exhilarating as I’d hoped they’d be. Inventive and unexpected camera angles (inside drivers’ helmets, following wheel nuts onto tyres during pit changes), screaming engines and a top soundtrack (Hans Zimmer – the man’s a genius) totally captured the adrenaline rush of motor racing.  You’ll either come out desperate to drive a McLaren at top speed or convinced that anyone who does is a nutter with a deathwish.

Lauda’s horrific near-fatal accident during the 1976 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in which he was severely burnt and inhaled toxic gases, was brilliantly done and uncomfortable to watch. Possibly even more disturbing were the scenes of his recovery as he was subjected to brutal medical procedures to vacuum his lungs – all while watching Hunt winning races and points in the driver’s championship. His return to racing just 6 weeks later is inspiring and moving. Powerful stuff.

Watching this film was an intense and genuinely emotional experience. More than anything it conjured up a strong nostalgia for the 1970s. For me that decade was chiefly a time of alarming knitwear and even more alarming facial hair on the adults around me but Ron Howard made it feel like a time of possibility, spontaneity and innocence: a time to jump in with both feet and see what happened.  That feeling stayed with me a long time after I left the cinema.

Rush provided plenty of action but with enough substance to make this film much more than the sum of its parts.