Saturday, 8 February 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: The Magnificent Mr McGarnickle

Matthew McGarnickle looks set to win the Oscar for his portrayal of Ron Woodroof in this tale of aids, sexuality, capitalist medicine and muted redemption.

Ron is a drinking, drugging, humping, gambling electrician in the 80s, who finds himself diagnosed with this crazy new gay disease much to his homophobic dismay. 

He proceeds to do everything he can to grasp his last shreds of life, from stealing experimental drugs to smuggling illegal ones over the Mexican border. 

Many of the plot beats will seem familiar (Ron is ostracised by his redneck peers, homophobic graffiti sprayed on his house, Ron overcomes his own gay-bashing ways through his grudging relationship with fabulous transgender Rayon), but rarely will you see them attacked with such raw vigour as McGarnickle and director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e exhibit here. 

McGarnickle is astonishing. Attention-grabbing weight loss aside, he plays a reckless, selfish opportunist who confronts his mortality head on and refuses to be beaten down. It is a natural, un-showy turn that puts panto wigaramas like Christian Bale in American Hustle to shame. Does he deserve the Oscar? Well, I'm a DiCaprio loyalist and a Ejiofor lauder, so I couldn't possibly comment. And I haven't seen Nebraska. 

Jared Leto offers sterling support in a textbook straight-guy-plays-gay role, but this ain't The Birdcage, and Leto brings an all-important humanity to a character which could have tipped into shrill, camp parody in less sure hands. 

These visceral performances and an earthy, documentarian style couple to create a sense of authenticity often lacking in "worthy" drama, and the film strives for subtlety over sensation wherever possible. Questions may be raised regarding the message of a film about a homophobic straight man becoming "saviour of the gays", and there is a potential debate about how hard it might have been to cast a genuine transgender individual in Leto's role, but questions such as these are beyond the scope of the film itself.

Disregarding potential political connotations, what remains is a solid, earthy, convinving movie-of-the-week with an uncommonly superlative central performance. McConaughey is so good that I finally just googled how to actually spell his name, out of respect. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

American Hustle: Fancy Dress Party

American Hustle is the latest from the reputedly difficult-to-work-for David O. Russell. A reputation that can't be all that, since the cast is almost entirely made up of people who've been worked with him before. Maybe they're all masochists.

It's the story of a couple of small-time con artists who get busted by the FBI and forced into working an elaborate con for their captors. It's very loosely based on the Abscam operation, but is so upfront with it's inventive interpretation of reality that it opens with the legend "SOME OF THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED", making any cries of historical inaccuracy entirely redundant. The script was originally called "American Bullshit", after all.

Unfortunately, the film is as slight and insubstantial as the flimsy outfits draped over leading ladies Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. An entertaining, sometimes amusing, but overlong and uninspired grind through a standard con story with a few diversions and some astonishing fashions.

Christian Bale is up for a best actor Oscar for his turn as con artist Irving Rosenfeld, but it's difficult to see why. It's basically a pantomime performance. LOOK HE'S GOT A FAT BELLY HAHA AND A COMBOVER HAHA AND HE'S DOING A ROBERT DENIRO IMPRESSION HAHA and that's it. He never goes far from the ridiculous, even as Irving starts to develop a conscience and actual emotions.

Bradley Cooper fares a little better, tapping something frightening and pathetic in his driven Fed, but you'll still spend the whole time going HAHA HE HAS A PERM HAHA HE HAS ROLLERS IN HIS HAIR HAHA

The ladies are the real stars of the show, with Adams playing a seductress treading the thin line between skilled hustler and sufferer of multiple personality disorder, and Lawrence giving fantastic deluded foolishness as Irving's trophy wife/ward. These two are busy building actual characters while the boys are playing dress up. And they also look a lot better in the ludicrous '70s fashions, but that might be my male gaze talking.

There is solid support from Jeremy Renner (also burdened with HILARIOUS hair) and living legend Louis CK, who gets the best running joke of the film and apparently has a timeless look, because he's the only male on screen not wearing a stupid wig so we know it's the '70s.

Russell continues his unintrusive visuals from Silver Linings Playbook, allowing the lavish costumes and sets to bring the glamour and style to the screen. The actors undoubtedly had a whale of a time too, with everybody going slightly larger than life and a good deal of improvisation. It just doesn't quite click the way SLP or The Fighter did.

As a comedy, it's not that funny (wacky costumes, references to the "science oven" and Louis CK's unfinished story not withstanding), as a thriller it's not that exciting and as a drama, it doesn't really do much you wouldn't expect. It's entertaining enough, and features a wonderful period soundtrack, but a shorter runtime and a snappier pace would've made a world of difference.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Lord of the Wrongs

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the latest squirt of milk to be squeezed from the Tolkien teat by Peter Jackson and his clan of creative kiwis. Unfortunately, the milk has long since curdled, leaving us with nearly three hours of tepid cheese.

The first instalment of the unfathomably expanded Hobbit trilogy was a bloated trudge through the once-wonderful Middle Earth, with occasional bright spots (Gollum, Martin Freeman, er...), but this sequel arrived in cinemas amidst claims of improvement on its disappointing predecessor.

Could this be a return to form for Jackson after the mis-steps of King Kong, The Lovely Bones and Hobbit 1?

It could've been, but it's not.

TH:TDOS (catchy acronym) is just as plodding and padded as the first instalment, the choice to inflate Tolkien's slender tome beyond its compact narrative backfiring spectacularly by making about half of the film irrelevant and uninvolving.

Remember the scenes in the LOTR trilogy when it cut back to the elves swanning around in their soft-focus nighties talking in slow-motion about immortality and stuff? To a lot of people, those scenes were toilet breaks, an opportunity to nip to the bog and know that you weren't going to miss anything vital.

At least half of the scenes in this film are like that.

Attempts to characterise the various faceless dwarves, feeble pseudo-romantic subplots and a tenuous attempt to tie events in to LOTR all just feel like distractions from what should be the main event: Bilbo. Having an adventure. Unfortunately there is a distinct lack of Hobbit in this Hobbit film.

But hey, Legolas is back, right? Everyone wanted that, right? If there was one thing I was unsatisfied about at the end of LOTR, it was that I didn't know enough about Legolas' Daddy issues and girl trouble.

Don't get me wrong, Evangeline Lilly is a lot of fun as Tauriel, and there is a certain amount of pleasure to be gleaned from watching an older, slower Orlando Bloom try to recapture his flaxen-locked youth, but it all just feels like pandering filler that any sensible editor wouldn't let past the splicer.

This is to say nothing of the typical inconsistencies brought about by prequelitis (Gandalf sees the eye of Sauron in this film, so why doesn't he recognise it immediately in Bag End in FOTR? Legolas never says "Oh, I met your Dad once." to Gimli? And don't tell me he forgot, he's a fucking Elf. And that bit with Gloin's locket-picture might be the only time I've shouted "OH FUCK OFF" at a Tolkien movie. OH LOOK LEGOLAS THINKS GIMLI IS UGLY BUT WE KNOW THEY BECOME FRIENDS IN THE FUTURE AREN'T WE A CLEVER AUDIENCE HAHAHAHAHA go fuck yourself

Anyway. The headline act for this film is surely Smaug the Massive Dragon Bastard, voiced and mocapped by Sherlock's Humperdink Bandersnatch, but Jackson fumbles this epic final showdown as well. Smaug is a vaguely impressive special effect bolstered by Bandersnatch's rumbling tones, but the final act is a repetitive run around in a murky cavern with some silly business with a giant golden dwarf.

This tonal peculiarity is fairly constant throughout the film, with Jackson struggling to combine the lighter adventure of The Hobbit source material with the gritty historical-fantasy epic scale he reached in the LOTR trilogy. Take, for instance, the much-lauded barrel escape sequence; Jackson bounces off from events in the novel into an action set-piece with all the physical logic of a Looney Tunes cartoon, then peppers it with decapitations and impalements. And if I want to see some terrible graphics bouncing down some river rapids, I'll go and play Toobin'.

The peculiar over-reliance on CGI also leaves a sour taste in the mouth. After the almost tangible Middle Earth introduced to us in the LOTR trilogy through practical effects, make up, locations, miniatures and CG, the world of The Hobbit seems somehow painted on. Barely a shot goes by without the spectral presence of digital imagery clouding the realism.

On the DVD extras of ROTK, Peter Jackson can be seen demanding Weta Digital re-animate a shot of a falling Hefalump because he feels the shot wouldn't be possible in reality. Where is that Peter Jackson now? The Hobbit is riddled with jarring, impossible shots that smash you in the face with the fact you're watching a film. I can't be the only one who thinks Peter Jackson has been killed and replaced, Paul McCartney style? Seriously, would the same film-maker who had the good sense to cut Tom Bombadil because he was silly and didn't serve the story feel that this movie simply couldn't do without an irrelevant opening visit to Beorn the Wacky Bearbloke's house?

The whole exercise smells of desperation, on the part of the studio and the artists involved. The Hobbit was never supposed to be a trilogy of three hour movies. It's possible that, when all three movies are released, someone will be able to cut a fairly decent two hour film from the best bits, but as of now we are two-thirds of the way through a thankless quest.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Lone Survivor: Will it be the Actor with his Name Above the Title?

Lone Survivor tells the story of a US Navy SEAL unit on a mission into Afghanistan that goes catastrophically tits-up. I'd tell you how many of them make it out alive, but I don't want to spoil it.

Presumably, the spoileriffic title is due to the fact that the film is "BASED ON A TRUE STORY", the details of which are probably out there in easily Googlable (coined it) locations, or in the written account of the mission laid down in book form by the guy who made it out alive.

The doomed SEAL team are ably portrayed by the bearded quartet of Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Marky Mark Wahlberg, all grizzled, buffed up and no doubt boot camped into authenticity in pre-production. They're all perfectly fine, though Wahlberg's Texan accent drifts in and out of the film like a leaf on the wind.


It could be suggested that this is Writer/Director Peter Berg's apology for  Battleship, both to audiences and the US Navy. His loveletter to the noble servicemen opens with actual footage of SEAL training drills and closes with a montage of photos and footage of the soldiers who didn't return set to Peter Gabriel singing Bowie's "Heroes". What happens in between is unfortunately little more subtle and little less sentimental.

The film could have been a compelling grunt's eye view of the complications of modern warfare - overbearing rules of engagement, reliance on technology, the intrusion and influence of the 24 hour news cycle - but Berg steams past these discussions in favour of creating a modern-day 300, where the SEALs fight to the last man in a flurry of slo-mo self-sacrifice and Greg Nicotero's Walking Dead squib-splats.

It becomes less a compelling film and more an extended commercial for the Navy, fully buying into the self-mythologising attitude of this elite group of soldiers; an attitude best illustrated by the bizarre initiation ceremony for a new recruit involving the dance routine from Napoleon Dynamite and a recitation of some inane pseudo poetry about how awesome "frog men" are. It's like a cross between a college fraternity and a rugby team, but with less fun and more guns.

Berg's style is unsure and unsteady, static dialogue scenes are frantically edited while battle fluctuates jarringly between the aforementioned sentimental slo-mo and Call of Duty run-and-gun POV. He lacks the courage of his convictions with regard to choices such as leaving the Afghan characters unsubtitled - keeping us as in the dark as to what's being said as the SEALs - only to subtitle ONE SCENE for no reason other than mistrust in his audience's ability to comprehend what's going on.

It's not all bad, though. The performances are solid (particularly the ever-reliable Foster), the locations are suitably rocky and foresty and only occasionally marred by shoddy CGI, some surprisingly sympathetic Afghan characters show up towards the end and the whole thing at least feels earnest in its celebration of its subjects. And there's a bit with a duck that made me laugh out loud.

In a culture so concerned about the glamourising of violence, what can be said about a movie which exists solely to lionise those that kill for a living? This film will probably satisfy war-fetishists and make servicemen and women proud, but it ultimately feels like Michael Bay directing a mid-budget Armed Forces advert.