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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || 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 || My Rating likeable
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Skip Hollandsworth and Richard 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 || My Rating a must-see
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 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%).
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Lee Daniels | Writers Lee Daniels and Pete Dexter (based on the novel by Pete Dexter) | Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer | Starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack | Length 101 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 20 March 2013 || My Rating likeable
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.