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Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Garner’

Regular readers may recall the malaise visited upon your correspondent by the succession of predominantly worthy, ostentatiously noble based-on-a-true-story films which recently filled cinemas. To be perfectly honest, I would have expected Dallas Buyers Club to have produced exactly the same response – it’s the moderately true story of a maverick AIDS sufferer who sets out to challenge counter-productive drugs legislation and thus improve the lot not only of himself, but also a large group of fellow sufferers.

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Yet this is not the case. The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (wasn’t he Batman for a bit a couple of decades ago?), does a good impression of being rather more honest than your typical piece of Oscar fodder – honest to the point of disreputability, in places – and also of not being solely motivated by a desire to win gongs and critical acclaim. Certainly films about AIDS are less of a sure thing in the awards season than race relations or less recent history, but if nothing else, the lead performances of this film demand serious consideration.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, gambler, rodeo fan and general bon vivant (sometimes he enjoys several of these pursuits almost simultaneously, as we see in the opening sequence where he energetically disports himself in a pen next to the rodeo ring with a couple of young ladies, prior to placing a few bets). He is, as you might surmise, very unreconstructedly hetero-normative, and does not respond well to being informed, after an accident at work, that he is in fact in the advanced stages of HIV infection. This is 1985, when HIV and AIDS were generally considered to be exclusively homosexual conditions. Woodroof is contemptuous of the doctors’ prognosis that he has only a month to live, and goes on about his business.

Soon enough, however, the gravity of his situation sinks in on Ron and he sets about beating the prognosis with a ferocious zeal. Initially he sets about securing a supply of AZT, a retroviral drug undergoing its initial human trials, but an encounter with a disbarred medic (Griffin Dunne) in an unlicensed Mexican clinic opens his eyes to other possibilities for treatment.

The problem is that most of these other options involve medications not licensed by the American FDA and thus not available for sale in the USA. This is not something to deter a man like Ron Woodroof, of course. Following the example of a group of fellow-sufferers in New York, and with the assistance of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite he encounters during one of his hospital stays, Ron hits upon a wheeze where he doesn’t actually sell drugs to HIV patients, just charges them for membership of a club which provides retroviral treatment as a subscription benefit. Thus the Dallas Buyers Club is born – and if Ron ends up making a little money from the enterprise, what of it?

Dallas Buyers Club is a film about a number of things, but it is neatly-enough assembled for none of them to predominate, and as it a result it doesn’t come across as either preachy, didactic, or pretentious. The film is on one level an historical document about the attitudes of the medical establishment during the early years of the response to the HIV crisis – there is a sympathetic doctor on display, played by Jennifer Garner (who has mousied herself down for the part), but most of the doctors in the movie come across as hidebound, arrogant, and in thrall to the power of the FDA – which in turn is in the pocket of Big Pharma. The film doesn’t hide the fact that its sympathies are unreservedly with Woodroof and other people in his situation, cogently arguing that at this point FDA regulations were protecting corporate profits rather than the lives of patients.

Most of the above, however, really takes place in the background of the film, which is more about the story of Ron Woodroof himself. I suppose one is obliged to comment on the fact that, as usual, Woodroof’s life story has been selectively edited to suit the narrative of the story – in reality, Woodroof was apparently bisexual and had a daughter, neither of which facts are apparent on screen – but I suppose we would be foolish to expect anything else in a modern film. In any case, this should not distract from McConaughey’s astonishing, incendiary performance. The actor is physically almost unrecognisable, and one shudders to contemplate the dieting regimen he must have employed to give himself the distinctively ravaged physique of an AIDS sufferer, as he has here. But this is just the foundation on which McConaughey builds his characterisation – he never shies away from making Woodroof an outlandish, paradoxical figure, a homophobe who becomes a pillar of the gay community, a hustling outlaw who also becomes a formidable authority on pharmaceuticals and the law surrounding them. He is magnetic, and this forms something of a culmination to a couple of years which have seen the actor reinvent himself as a serious performer: for this reason, coupled to the strength of his performance, an Oscar win for McConaughey is by no means out of the question.

Nor is one for Leto, who also delivers a credible, three-dimensional portrait – perhaps there is an element of stereotype in his feisty drag-queen, but not to an excessive degree. Garner is also effective. The relationships between the characters are convincingly presented, with genuine warmth and a surprising level of humour. This is a serious film about an important topic – though any criticisms it may have of the US health care system as it currently exists are deeply implicit – but is by no means a dry or heavy one. Not that it is necessarily for everyone, of course: there is some sexual content, not to mention an F-bomb count probably reaching a three-figure total.

I’m still not sure this is a film one would genuine go to see solely for enjoyment, though the story is interesting and well-told and the performances mostly excellent. But at least one does not emerge from it in a black morass of despair or feeling manipulated like a puppet on a string. Perhaps I am letting my own prejudices show, but of the ‘issue’ films currently pitching for Oscars attention, this one was rather more to my taste than most, quite simply because it seemed to be putting the story first. A fine and intelligent movie, with a brilliant lead performance: I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 19th 2009:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the movie review that’s not afraid to be wrong. Well now, first off this week we look at the latest offering from Ricky Gervais, who’s risen from near-obscurity to international acclaim and bona fide movie stardom in only the time it takes a rather lazy and feckless person to write 170 editions of an intermittently popular internet film review column. Currently he’s on screen in The Invention of Lying, which as usual he co-wrote and directed, on this occasion with Matthew Robinson (fans of the Og-monster can take heart: Gervais’ regular collaborator Stephen Merchant gets a tiny cameo).

Gervais has described this film as an attempt at ‘the funniest Twilight Zone episode ever’ , which isn’t at all misleading, although I don’t recall Rod Serling ever launching a Zone story with an extended comic riff about masturbation, as happens here. Anyway, it’s the story of Mark Bellison (Gervais), an unsuccessful staff writer at a film company. His mum is in a care home and his most recent date with the lovely Anna (Jennifer Garner) was hardly a great success. But his life changes forever when Mark discovers he has the unique, near-supernatural ability to say things that aren’t literally true!

For Mark lives in a world superficially almost identical to our own, but where everyone is completely, literally and brutally honest all the time. All their movies are documentary lectures on historical fact. Their advertising is unrecognisable. People openly admit to the shallowness of their love lives. In this world Mark’s new faculty gives him immense power, as everyone takes every word he says at face value, but it brings unexpected responsibilities with it, too. More importantly, though, is he ever going to get anywhere with Anna in the romance department?

Well, you’re going to find this movie deeply irritating unless you cut it some serious slack right from the start, because the premise is so high-concept it’s practically piercing the ozone layer. Do people in this world have dreams? Don’t they ever use conditional sentences? Isn’t the use of the imagination crucial to our existence as human beings? Forget all these questions and many more, as the film ignores them, and while you’re at it do your best not to notice that a lot of the humour derives not from simple honesty but people apparently lacking any kind of interior monologue and being compelled to say every thought that crosses their minds, which surely isn’t quite the same thing.

This is really a one-joke comedy, but Gervais is tremendously inventive when it comes to continually putting new spins on it. Most striking is a long section in the middle where the film suggests that not only is fiction essentially a kind of lying, but so is religion – there are shades of Life of Brian in how this is articulated. The laughs never stop coming – quite the opposite – but the movie is quite serious in exploring the ramifications of its central idea. At first glance the movie appears rather thought-provoking, but in the end it seems content to simply nose around big and complex ideas rather than do anything with them or come to any kind of conclusion about its main theme – is it okay to lie to people if it makes them happier?

Probably quite sensibly, it doesn’t try too hard to be naturalistic, but Ricky Gervais gives a typically classy deadpan performance in the middle of everything – and hints at having considerable potential as a straight actor, one sequence where he attempts to comfort his sick mother being startlingly moving. Garner is her usual perky self, and it’s presumably a credit to Gervais’ growing international clout that he’s secured cameos from actors of the calibre of Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry off EastEnders. The direction is nothing to be ashamed of, but for me the reliance on using classic pop songs to set the atmosphere got wearing – Charlie Kaufman was mercilessly lampooning this six or seven years ago.

It won’t split your sides, and I suspect a lot of people will be left distinctly unimpressed, but I found The Invention of Lying consistently amusing and rather likeable – even if it’s a bit less clever and profound than it probably aspires to be.

Moving on, one fictional milieu which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years is the good old Zombie Apocalypse, which is so ubiquitous nowadays you wonder if the media know something we don’t. Forty years after its arguable invention, it’s even gone multimedia – in addition to movies like the Resident Evils, the 28… Laters, the fruits of George A Romero’s sudden increase in work-rate, and various others, there are now high-profile Zombie Apocalypse comics (The Walking Dead), TV series (Dead Set), and novels (the utterly brilliant World War Z). It’s getting so it’s difficult for any new project featuring hungry cadavers and the collapse of society to stand out from the (probably quite smelly and slow-moving) crowd.

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland solves this problem by playing the whole thing for laughs. In this movie Jesse Eisenberg plays Columbus, a fairly useless twitchy geek making his tentative way across the corpse-ridden US after – we’re told – mad cow disease mutates into a zombie-causing strain. Hmm. (Taxonomists of the undead will note that this movie features another sighting of the recently evolved ‘running zombie’, which seems to be competing well with the traditional strain, particularly in relatively low-budget projects which can’t afford vast mobs of extras.) Anyway, he soon hooks up with zombie-hating, cake-loving badass Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man crazed with a lust for revenge since zombies ate his puppy, and the duo in turn encounter Wichita and Little Rock (the agreeably comely Emma Stone and surprisingly tolerable child-actress Abigail Breslin), sisters who are heading for a supposedly zombie-free enclave outside Los Angeles. (The thing with the weird names is just one of a few slightly laboured elements of a script which in places tries a little too hard to be quirky). Will this odd quartet survive the manky hordes roaming the land of the free?

Hang on, you may be saying: didn’t the peerless Shaun of the Dead do the whole comedy Zombie Apocalypse routine over five years ago, and set the bar extremely high to boot? True, Shaun was my point of reference going into this movie, and to start with Zombieland falls a long way of its standards – the opening sequence just isn’t particularly funny, with the script somehow missing the right beats and the tone distinctly uncertain. But things improve considerably as soon as Harrelson comes on screen, as he gives a barnstorming and endearingly absurd performance which is exactly the thing the film needs. It improves enormously as it goes on and stops trying to be funny and horrific at the same time. In the end it’s not a true comedy-horror fusion, or a parody of zombie movies, but simply a broad and very offbeat comedy (a bit too offbeat to be really credible in places), which adeptly includes effective moments of romance, emotion, and action. Not to mention splatter and pus, of course.

I found myself enjoying it hugely as it went on, but am reluctant to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling the fun. The small cast give likeable performances, the post-apocalyptic landscape is convincingly rendered (well, the electricity’s still on everywhere, but…) and Fleischer’s direction is mostly neat and effective. There are a few whistles and bells with the graphic design (captions whizzing around the screen) which I wasn’t mad about, and the thrashing heavy metal soundtrack didn’t do a lot for me, either, but by the end I was laughing out loud longer and more frequently during Zombieland than The Invention of Lying. My sources (okay, the inter web) tell me it’s done rather well at the box office – and this is one instance in which, if they can keep the quality up, a sequel would be very welcome. It’s definitely a comedy more than anything else, but Zombieland is also a quality piece of work.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th February 2003:

‘You don’t like my costume? Have you seen Daredevil’s costume? He looks like a complete tool and nobody blames nuclear sabotage on him.’ Peter Parker,Ultimate Spider-Man #18

Younger readers may find this a little difficult to believe, but we are currently in the middle of what will one day be remembered as a Golden Age of Superhero Movies. Admittedly not every comic-inspired project is of the same high standard as, for example, Blade 2 or Spider-Man, but given that only a few years ago the average superhero picture was an aberration like Captain America or Steel, I think you’ll agree that the genre has taken a quantum leap forward of late.

The main beneficiary of this advance has been Marvel, who throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s were the world’s bestselling comics publishers but were unable to translate this into big-screen success, whilst their Distinguished Competition bestrode the world with the Superman and Batman franchises. But now it seems that every Marvel book from Ghost Rider to Brother Voodoo is in development for the big screen, and every major star in the world has got in touch with their inner fanboy and set about playing their childhood hero.

So stand up Ben Affleck, who’s doing exactly that in Mark Steven Johnson’s new movie Daredevil, based on a comic with a cult following but little mainstream name recognition. Affleck plays the troubled hero, who by day is blind lawyer Matt Murdock, and by night is blind vigilante Daredevil. (Being hit in the face by toxic waste as a child destroyed Murdock’s eyesight but boosted all his other senses to superhuman levels of acuity, also giving him a bat-like sonar sense.) Trouble comes our hero’s way when he falls for beautiful heiress-turned-ninja chick Elektra (Jennifer Garner), who is the latest target for a crimelord known as the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his deranged executioner Bullseye (Colin Farrell).

I really, really wanted this film to continue Marvel’s run of success. I’m not enormously familiar with the book, but I know it well enough to appreciate its quality, and the difficulty of adapting it successfully for the screen. (A previous attempt, in the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, notable only for the Kingpin being played by Lord of the Rings‘ John Rhys Davies.) But I have to say that Daredevil is a deeply flawed movie – but for a rather strange reason: the director is too big a fan of the original comic.

Why do I say this? Well, for one thing this is a movie trying to do too much. Into a relatively brief 105 minutes it attempts to squeeze Daredevil’s origin, some day-in-the-life-of-Matt-Murdock material, plus his romance with Elektra and his various bouts with her, Bullseye and Kingpin. This results in some extremely choppy pacing and a disjointed, episodic feel. And it shortchanges the characters – instead of an assassin plagued by an uncontrollable dark side, Elektra becomes a simple avenger motivated by a case of mistaken identity. Kingpin, too, loses much of his depth (along with height, girth and weight, but let’s not quibble).

The crowded marketplace as far as these kinds of films are concerned is another problem the film has to contend with: on the surface of it, the Daredevil comic looks like an amalgam of Spider-Man and Batman, but it’s distinguished by some intense, mature themes and imagery. The film attempts to do the same, but with limited success, lacking the dark poetry the comic often achieves. The result is a film that too often resembles Batman or Blade. It’s not really helped by Johnson’s lack of skill when it comes to the action sequences where this kind of film should really come to life – they’re either confusingly choreographed, often in that tedious, sub-Matrix style we’ve surely all got a bit sick of, or they’re flatly directed with little energy or flair.

It’s by no means totally lacking in merit. Affleck is actually perfectly competent in the lead role, but then again for some reason he’s always at least okay in any project where he works with Kevin Smith, and Smith has a cameo here as a morgue attendant (this is due to Smith writing the comic for a while – Stan Lee, who created the character, and Frank Miller, who made him famous, also have cameos, and there are a huge number of not-so-subtle comic fan in-jokes in the script). Colin Farrell is clearly having a whale of a time as Bullseye, a demented, snarling psychopath (he almost makes you forget that this is a supervillain whose sole power is that he’s, uh, really good at throwing things. Probably for copyright reasons, his adamantium skeleton hasn’t made it into the movie.) There are some quite good jokes along the way. And the film’s depiction of the grim, scarred realities of life as an all-too-vulnerable vigilante is striking, going much further even than the Tim Burton Batman movies. (Although ‘grim superheroics’ always seems to me to be like arranging punk rock for a string quartet to play – it seems to overlook the fundamental charm of the form – in the case of superheroes, their lack of grounding in the real world.)

It’s interesting to compare Daredevil with last summer’s Spider-Man. They’re both based on Stan Lee characters, they share the same executive producer, the same costume designer (no, not Ann Summers, though it’s an understandable misapprehension), the title sequences are strikingly similar and in both cases the director is an avowed fan of the hero in question. But where Spider-Man was irresistible, crowd-pleasing fun, smart and self-mocking, Daredevil takes itself too seriously and never really establishes an identity of its own. It’s too faithful to the darker elements of the comic to really win over a mainstream crowd, but too slick and glitzy to satisfy most hard-core fans of the book. This may have been a labour of love for Johnson and Affleck, but sometimes love is not enough.

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