That Thing You Do! (1996)

Tom Hanks has been one of Hollywood’s most likeable and charismatic stars for years, and it turns out this touch transfers well to his first directorial effort (though he’s only directed one other film in the intervening 20 years). It helps that this 1960s period story, about a bunch of young American lads chasing the success of the British Invasion bands (specifically the Beatles), is fairly light-hearted and coasts through on the screen appeal of its young leads, including an early role for Steve Zahn. It follows a familiar arc of early beginnings, growing commercial success, band friction and dissolution, but it does so in a very easygoing way that never outstays its welcome (there’s a longer director’s cut, though I’ve not seen that). Cheerfully coloured era-specific set and fashion design enlivens the whole thing, making for a satisfying weekend matinee movie experience.

That Thing You Do! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tom Hanks; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 June 2015 (and years earlier as well).

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.

Out of Sight (1998)

I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.

The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.

Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.

Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.

It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.

CREDITS
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 25 August 2013).