Criterion Sunday 336: Dazed and Confused (1993)

I avoided this when it was first released in cinemas, though I was about the same age as the characters in the film, because it was marketed as a stupid high school movie and it didn’t appeal to me at the time. It also had the sense of being a very indulgent nostalgic look back at the 70s, and that’s a criticism that’s more difficult to avoid because in a sense it is, in addition to which indulging his characters is very much a Linklater trademark. Watching it again many years on, though, that feels like the thing that’s aged best — this sense that almost all the characters have some redeeming quality even if they are sleazy creeps (like McConaughey’s older Wooderson, cruising the high school to pick up girlfriends) or big dumb jocks (like Sasha Jenson’s Don). There’s even a glimmer of humanity in Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion, but not much because he’s the real bad guy here, a grinning sadist who has to retake his final year at school. However, there’s no manufactured hostility between the jocks and the geeks here; sure there’s a bit of back and forth in the conversations, but nobody avoids anyone else and friendship groups seem to cut across these distinctions, plus there’s a sense of generational camaraderie even in the sadistic hazing rituals.

However, like much of Linklater’s oeuvre, it’s a hang-out film where nothing really happens. People just cruise around and ping off each other — not as literally as the tangential sidetracking of Slacker (1990) — but still with no clear sense that they’re all working towards anything except the next beer or the next party. But that sense of aimlessness going towards college and the future, which is encapsulated in the final shot on the road, that’s something that Linklater’s been doing for decades in many of his films, capturing a mood or an era, a sense of uncertainty in his characters, and it’s perfectly done here, with lots of people who would go on to have acting careers (or not), but who just seem right for the roles.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of extras, but the main one is Making Dazed (2005, dir. Kahane Corn), a pretty straight-down-the-line documentary about the making of a film, albeit one that had been in production for over a decade it seems. The director has extensive interviews with the cast both at the time of filming and a decade later, as several of them gather for an anniversary screening. Of course many of the faces are now familiar to us (or at least a bit more familiar) and they all clearly have fond memories of the film that was the first experience of filmmaking for a lot of them. It’s good to hear the stories, and see some of the making-of footage, and it’s good to think about how far some have come from these horny Texan teenagers, but it evokes a warmth of feeling at the very least.
  • A lot of the footage from the making-of documentary is also available as extras, including the full clips of most cast members in the first week of filming explaining their characters, as well as interviews conducted on set and behind-the-scenes footage of the filming. Amongst these are also a few more recent interviews — including one with Linklater, his casting director and McConaughey speaking about how the latter got involved (some of which is also in the finished documentary) — and some brief footage from the anniversary cast reunion.
  • Most of the audition tapes of the various cast members are also included as extras, which can be interesting to watch, although the quality is obviously rather poorer, being shot on video.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Sasha Jenson, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Adam Goldberg, Ben Affleck; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 11 July 2020 (and earlier on TV at home, London, Saturday 19 April 2014).

Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my film reviews by year page.)

Continue reading “Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (all 2014)”

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has been turning in some excellent acting performances of late, but once again with this film (as with the similarly critically-feted Mud last year), I find myself unable to quite understand what all the fuss is about. The performance, yes, is very good, but the film it’s in service to seems to be made up of well-worn familiars of the genre, and held together by an unflashy style that occasionally shows sparks of editing flair, but is mostly fairly workaday. It’s hardly a disease-of-the-week teleplay, but the style is not a million miles from a TV movie. Or perhaps I am just reacting to grumpily to that very first appearance of the title cards in Times New Roman. It doesn’t take much sometimes.

Certainly the character of rodeo-loving electrician Ron Woodroof, played by a gaunt and desiccated McConaughey, is an interesting one, even if his contradictions are rather forcefully set up. It’s 1985 and it’s immediately clear that he’s a devil-may-care womaniser (having sex in a bull pen while the rodeo goes on) not to mention a homophobic jock hanging out drinking with a bunch of like-minded buddies. It’s at this point that he’s diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, and the film kicks off. Or rather, one keeps expecting it to. He goes through a desperate phase of taking all the drugs (a corporate-backed AIDS drug as well as plenty of others rather more illicit) before really starting to research the options, in the course of which he travels down to Mexico to find drugs which are ostensibly fairly safe, but yet unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And so he decides to import them into the States and sell them to desperate victims of the disease, through a subscription-based club which gives the film its title.

The FDA, represented by their local agent (and a doctor at Ron’s hospital whom they have in their grasp) come through very clearly as the real villains of the piece, and the way that the system is massively biased towards huge powerful corporations is probably the film’s most effectively-made point. But the movement of Ron towards greater understanding of the disease and its treatments as well as his outspokenness against the corruption of the system is never really particularly clear. His initial doctor at the hospital, the fictionalised character of Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), has an even more telegraphed change of heart, charmed by Ron and eventually siding with him against the hospital’s authorities. And then there’s the character of Rayon, played by an equally ravaged-looking Jared Leto, who seems to exist in order to show up Ron’s increased sensitivity after the virulent homophobia of his first half-hour.

It’s all very self-contained and worthy in the way that you imagine would be well-rewarded by the Academy Awards and seems tailored to their faintly conservative backwards-looking overcoming-disease-and-disability awards-giving mentality. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s in taking a straight white male character as the viewer surrogate and charting his movement towards empathy and understanding via the help of some carefully chosen and none-too-offensive (and largely fictional) supporting characters. Every victim of AIDS may deserve a film biopic, but in the end, I never really got a sense of what makes this story particularly special.

Dallas Buyers Club film posterCREDITS
Director Jean-Marc Vallée; Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Thursday 20 February 2014.

Magic Mike (2012)

Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.

The story is set in Tampa, Florida, amongst a group of male strippers, led by impresario Dallas (played by an impressively toned Matthew McConaughey). The main stage talent is Mike (Channing Tatum), who, to make ends meet and pursue his career goals, works a number of other jobs during the day. On one of them he meets a young man Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whose potential talent he spots, and whom he drags along to the club. These are the bones of the plot, onto which is grafted a number of familiar themes, such as the corrosive effects of drugs and partying, the desire to hit the big time, and the compromises required to achieve one’s dreams.

My main point of comparison is with similar stories in a female setting, specifically Showgirls (1995). The differences in location between Vegas and Tampa seem mostly a matter of scale — there’s a similar dissipated vibe in hypersaturated colours under the burning sun (one in the desert, the other by the beach), though in the Floridian context, Tampa is second city to Miami, which may place it closer as a setting to Reno than Las Vegas. But where Showgirls essays a bleak, bitter tone, Magic Mike is lighter by far. This doesn’t mean the film avoids darkness — Adam in particular succumbs to the usual crutches of success — it’s just that the focus on Mike means that the stripping remains a colourful background to self-betterment, and not the kind of consuming abyss of artistic expression that it plays in Verhoeven’s film.

However, Mike’s story is a fascinating one, that leans heavily on issues of class mobility and the dark side of capitalism in America. He is introduced via his work in a construction company, but the film quickly relocates to his rather more glamorous night-time sideline of stripping at the Xquisite club on the Tampa beachfront. However, it is made clear that Mike’s real dream is to design bespoke furniture, for which he is saving diligently yet cannot make headway with due to his bad credit rating with the bank (all of his income is largely in cash). Mike is clearly attractive and just as obviously successful at what he does, yet he can’t pursue his dreams for petty bureaucratic reasons that draw a clear link between his blue-collar work and his status.

Stylistically, Soderbergh (also acting as cinematographer under an assumed name) heavily uses filters to give a grungy bleached-out look to the beach and outdoor scenes; it’s only when inside at the strip club that the colours become saturated, more akin to one’s expectations of a movie, which only emphasises its constructed unrealness. Alongside this there’s a heavy emphasis on naturalistic dialogue scenes, suffused with pauses, temporising, mumbling, digressions and frustrated attempts at verbal expression — in other words, these aren’t polished movie characters when they’re not onstage.

Strangely for strippers, then, it’s the stage performances where the characters gain the power they lack outside. Though they objectify themselves through displaying their bodies, they still retain control over the means of that expression, largely acting upon the female audience rather than being submissive to them. In either case, it’s clearly an illusory power, and for Adam in particular a dangerously tempting one — when the characters attempt to extend this power beyond the club, they notaby fail (for example, when a sorority party gets out of control, or when Adam’s involvement in drugs threatens to derail his life).

As another in the canon of films about the underside of the American Dream, Magic Mike is a strong entry. Channing Tatum puts in a persuasive performance, which is high praise for me, as I’ve never been a huge fan of him as an actor. It’s also a finely-crafted film by Soderbergh, and I can certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

Magic Mike film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 22 July 2013.

Mud (2012)

There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.

I wanted to get that positive in there early, because it’s not really fair to lead a review with the stuff that bothered me. If Mud can be praised for anything, it’s a really sure sense of place, probably because the director and many of the actors are familiar with this part of the world (the American South of Arkansas, specifically). And there is wonder in those trips up river that the young kids take, a wonder at the spectacular vista of nature in the opening shot that is undimmed in the adults as the film ends. Of course, the river as a metaphor for the onward progress of life with all its twists and tributaries is a very old and powerful one, but the specifics of this location are everything. There is the floating riverside home of the film’s central character Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the island inhabited by Matthew McConaughey’s modern castaway Mud, and the pearl fishing undertaken in a dramatic diving helmet (almost steampunk in its stylised antiquity) by Michael Shannon, playing the uncle of Ellis’ best friend Neckbone.

There’s also nothing shabby about the acting. McConaughey is introduced with cigarette clenched between his teeth, drawling a few enigmatic pseudo-profundities to the kids on the sandy beachfront of the island, but he moves well beyond a one-note caricature of the man with a shadowy past, and over the course of the film has rounded out enough as a character that the violent dénouement (I shall say no more about what happens or the reasons for it, for the usual spoilery reasons) comes as a bit of a surprise, puncturing the atmosphere the film has hitherto created. The young Tye Sheridan, as the actual heart of the film, carries off his role without too much recourse to wistful blankness at what’s happening around him. I liked Jacob Lofley too as Neckbone, in particular his constant compulsive recourse to gauche profanity as if it made him feel more like a knowing grown-up, not to mention his gruff direct questioning of the adults.

Reese Witherspoon too does what she can with Juniper, Mud’s love interest who appears to be waiting for him in a nearby town. The problem is that the female characters are very much at the mercy of the men in the story — certainly not subservient by any means, but, as characters, largely defined by the way the men talk about them. For this, above all else, is a film about (admittedly misguided) patriarchal attitudes as passed down from fathers to sons. All the adult male characters talk about women, share their bad experiences with love, and create an environment wherein Ellis’s central journey (that coming of age story) is to move past these preconceptions with the help of McConaughey’s societal misfit. And if that all seems a little bit too neatly orchestrated, then there’s also the way the script introduces characters (Sam Shepard’s grizzled old veteran Tom, in particular) with skillsets all too convenient for the way the film resolves itself.

Ultimately, the film tries too hard to draw out profundity from the murky depths of these characters and sets itself up for a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. Ellis’s character arc is so predicated on his emotional coming of age that the life-threatening situations he is put in barely seem to register. It’s instead the final shot, refocusing again on the spectacular Arkansas landscape, which provides the key to where the strengths of the film really lie.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.

Bernie (2011)

I am, it must be said, really quite excitedly looking forward to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013), given how much I loved its predecessor Before Sunset (2004). So the appearance of this film of his made some years ago and only now getting a belated release in the UK — a film the existence of which I was hitherto entirely unaware of — seemed to hold out the prospect of some minor distraction in the wait. I was therefore slightly taken aback by just how good Bernie has turned out to be.

The real life event that the film is drawing upon is the murder of an elderly woman (played by Shirley MacLaine) by the eponymous Mr Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director in the town of Carthage, Texas, and his subsequent trial by the county’s District Attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey). However, the bulk of the film presents a character study of Bernie from his arrival in the community, with talking head interviews with locals (variously played by both real natives of the town, and actors). It all unfolds at a steady pace, with a bright clean palate of colours framing but not sentimentalising these folksy conversations that punctuate the story.

Perhaps the reason for the relative critical silence on this film is just how unassuming it is, being a small town story which takes every care to minimise the dramatic emphasis on the crime at the centre of its plot (no mention is even made of it for much of the film’s running length), and gently avoids any of the more salacious insinuations. Certainly this could easily have been a shrill and judgmental true life murder film, but instead it offers a portrait of a small closely-knit community, and is made very clearly with genuine affection for the area and all the people involved. I know nothing about Texas, for example, but one of the most entertaining sequences is a short introduction to the state’s geography that comes near the start (with a great comedic pause after the Panhandle is mentioned). And though there are moments of comedy such as this one, they are always gentle, and the film itself is probably best thought of as a comedy only in the broadest sense: it’s a film about the qualities that bring people together, rather than those that divide them.

Of course, given the ultimate outcome, this may seem more than a little perverse, but even MacLaine’s character, the bitter widow who befriends Bernie, isn’t portrayed as a complete monster, and the film mostly focuses on her increasing effect on Bernie’s disposition through brief glimpses of his exasperated face. All the performances are uniformly excellent, with Black toning down his usual broad comic tics. Instead it’s McConaughey’s character as the prosecuting DA who gets some of the most outrightly humorous treatment, though wisely he never plays the character as a fool.

Too many films set in this part of the world want to lay bare the infected heart of the American dream (or some such notion), often while laying in a few kicks at ‘red necks’ and ‘trailer trash’. Far too few really celebrate what’s positive and welcoming about community spirit, at least within that community (there are, it must be said, some sly digs at relationships between fellow small communities). It’s especially rare, moreover, for filmmakers to include religious worship as a healthy part of that world without some judgement (not that this is a film about religion, just that it’s an element). In fact, being non-judgemental about human behaviour is the film’s real achievement, and it does so in a deceptively simple but quite satisfying way.


CREDITS
Director Richard Linklater; Writers Skip Hollandsworth and Linklater (based on Hollandsworth’s article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”); Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 27 April 2013.

The Paperboy (2012)

The review below was written before I introduced half-marks to my rating scale, so mentions of ‘two-stars’ should be taken to mean ‘two-and-a-half stars’ (i.e. exactly 50%).


There’s a certain kind of film which dominates the film schedules around the start of each year, being the type of film which is up for awards contention. These films can be good, but they also have a certain belaboured worthiness. Once that period has passed, you get lots of really interesting films that never stood a chance with awards judges, and this can often be the most exhilarating time for filmgoing, at least for mainstream audiences (the dynamic, if that’s the right word, is quite different for the arthouse). Even when these films don’t quite hit a quality threshold they can often be rather interesting. They’re what I would call ‘two-star films’, which are often unfairly overlooked when people are reassessing film history in hindsight.

Now, I feel in two minds about assigning star-ratings to films. They can be a distraction to more nuanced commentary. And though I don’t put them front and centre at the top of a review, I do assign ratings in the categories of my posts (as those reading my reviews will have seen), to help me remember how I felt about a film. With up to five stars to award, three stars indicates a film which is enjoyable and above average in quality, and which I can confidently recommend. Two stars should not then be seen as a massive decline in standards: it does not mean I recommend avoiding a film, but it does indicate I have some serious reservations. It suggests a film about which I would not be surprised if people hated it, but one with definite merits. One which may be enjoyable in a pulpy way.

The Paperboy is one such film. It is made with some style, confidently mimicking a late-60s aesthetic, all degraded colour stock and graininess to the image, to fit with the costumes, hairstyles and set designs. It’s all very artfully done.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) returning to his roots in the American South to lead a misguided defence of a reprehensible murder suspect (John Cusack) which has consequences rather heavy-handedly foreshadowed right at the start by an interview with the journalist’s family’s housekeeper (Macy Gray). This interview, incidentally, continues as a sporadic voiceover throughout the film and frames the main body of the narrative. Additionally, the murderer, whilst incarcerated, has attracted devoted admiration from a middle-aged woman (Nicole Kidman), herself the object of affections from the journalist’s younger brother (Zac Efron), the “paperboy” of the title.

There’s a lot of plot, even more than I’ve relayed here (which omits several characters), but it doesn’t seem like that is what the film is really about, so much as atmosphere and style. That atmosphere is an overheated slow-burn melodrama. Dialogue is drawled and mumbled, there are awkward silent pauses, and many constrictive close-ups of heads and shoulders, inducing a claustrophobic feeling to the early part of the movie where you’re trying to figure out the relationships between these characters. It’s a little bit alienating at times.

But what in the end you get is a film of frissons, of little challenges to the viewer, self-regarding shocks to our bourgeois complacency perhaps. Violent sexual peccadilloes, an odd and onanistic jailhouse interview scene, alligator innards, and a jellyfish sting eased by micturition; there are a lot of fluids in this film, commingled with the omnipresent sweat pouring off all the characters in this hot and humid Floridian climate.

Alongside this, there’s also a sort of voyeurism to the film, which is uneasy because it feels at times exploitative. Every review you’ll see of this film will mention the word “trash” or “trashy”, partly because of those frissons, but partly because the milieu it depicts is what is commonly known as “poor white trash”. I can only assume this term represents a kissing-cousin to the hateful British term “chav”, a way of demonising the suburban poor. It feels like there’s a fair bit of demonisation here, whether of the swamp-dwelling inbred family of Cusack’s murderer and his brother and wife (wives?), or of Kidman’s insinuating sexuality, as the prime examples. The only character who comes off well is Zac Efron’s infatuated 20-year-old, who, sure, spends a lot of time topless or in his underwear, but actually brings a fair bit of actorly chops to the part, and conveys more pathos than the former teen heartthrob really gets credit for in his earlier roles.

Despite everything, I can’t say it really adds up to a whole lot, but it’s an interesting ride.


CREDITS
Director Lee Daniels; Writers Daniels and Pete Dexter (based on Dexter’s novel); Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 20 March 2013.