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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew McConaughey’

And now for another installment in our current series entitled Underperformance Anxiety, in which we consider the plight of a movie which has not lived up to box-office expectations in a fairly serious way. This time around it is Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, based on a (I’m tempted to say ‘interminable’) lengthy novel sequence by one of the greatest storytellers of our day, Stephen King. Many people have tried to bring The Dark Tower to the screen, for the sequence has gained legions of fans for its rich mythology, engaging characters, and imagination, apparently (I should point out that while I’m a big fan of King, I’ve always shied away from these particular books for no reason I can easily articulate). On the other hand, the two most famous of these were Ron Howard and JJ Abrams, neither of whom I would honestly describe as a visionary film-maker, so maybe that was for the best.

Or maybe not. What exactly, you may be well be wondering, is the Dark Tower, and why have they made a film about it? Well, fasten your seatbelts and I will have a go at explaining. The Dark Tower, you see, is the metaphysical bulwark which supports the structure of all the worlds of the multiverse, which stands at the centre of creation and holds back eternal, demon-infested darkness. Yes, apparently the Dark Tower holds back the darkness, which is a little counter-intuitive, but I shouldn’t worry too much about it. No-one in the movie actually visits the Dark Tower, it is just a sort of symbol or plot device – the movie could have been called The Pink Bus Stop or The Tartan-patterned Shed and it would be functionally exactly the same, just with a lower special-effects budget. (Although neither of those would have the same kind of archetypal mythic resonance. The whole movie is very big on symbolism and archetypes, which may be one of the reasons why it is as coherent as it is.)

Well, anyway, for reasons best known to himself, evil sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to knock the Dark Tower down and end the world, using the psychic powers of children whom his bestial minions have kidnapped from across the multiverse. This is causing mysterious earthquakes in the various worlds, and giving nightmares to Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled young lad living in New York City with his mum and stepfather. His various visions of the Tower, of Walter, and of an enigmatic gunfighter (Idris Elba) just lead everyone to conclude he’s one book short of a novel sequence, and when Walter’s minions turn up offering to take him to a Special Clinic for Troubled Children he finds it very hard to say no.

But say no Jake does, and he manages to find his way into one of the other worlds, looking for the gunfighter. His name turns out to be Roland, and he is in fact a Gunslinger (the capitalisation seems non-negotiable), the last of an ancient and noble order of warriors, carrying a pair of pistols forged from the metal of Excalibur. Or something. However, Roland is having a bit of a crisis and seems in danger of becoming terminally grumpy (as you can imagine, this element of the character really plays to Elba’s strengths as an actor). However, the chance to kill Walter (with whom he has an old beef) perks Roland up a bit and he and Jake set off to find Walter’s supervillain lair together…

Hollywood Marketing Dogma #1 these days is that, if you’re promoting a product with an established following, you have to keep the fans onside, or else your movie could end up capsized by the bad buzz before it even reaches theatres. The alarm and disquiet with which early news of The Dark Tower was greeted by fans of the books probably chilled the soul of the marketing department – for one thing, this is an adaptation of a 4,250 page novel sequence that clocks in at a far-from-expansive 95 minutes, and for another, it’s not really a straight adaptation of the novel sequence at all, but also to some extent a sequel (I get the impression things get metaphysically weird on a fairly regular basis in Dark Tower-land).

On the other hand, while not many people seem to be going to see The Dark Tower, the ones who do seem to be having a reasonably good time – critics excepted. And the fact is that it’s not a terrible movie by any means, and indeed has some interesting things going on in it. It very much reminded me of a bunch of other, thematically similar films, such as Forbidden Kingdom and The Last Action Hero, in which children from ‘the real world’ find their way into a fantastical realm, hook up with a paternal tough-guy, fight against evil, and so on. Nothing wrong with that – a sturdy narrative archetype, I would say. The distinctive and perhaps problematic thing about The Dark Tower is that its fantasy element is not drawn from something as resonant as Chinese mythology or cinema itself, but has been created almost out of whole cloth – you’ve got gunslingers, Dark Towers, parallel worlds, high-tech dimensional portals, demons, psychic powers, evil sorcerers, and monsters in stolen human skins, all crammed into the same movie. Being hit with all this stuff at the same time is admittedly rather bracing, but at the same time you feel perpetually on the verge of being flummoxed by it all.

I say this as someone who is more than passingly familiar with the Stephen King opus. I like King more than many people (my writing coach, for instance, is by no means a big fan), and ideally this film would tip people off to the fact he’s not just a big-selling horror author, but the creator of a complex and intricate fictional universe of his own – there are various references to other King stories threaded into this one, which you don’t even have to be that big a fan to spot (in addition to Jake’s psychic powers being nicknamed ‘shining’, there’s a spot of free publicity for the forthcoming It movie, while Walter is so transparently another incarnation of King’s recurring supervillain Randall Flagg you nearly expect the revelation of his true identity to be a plot point). On the other hand, if you’re not into Stephen King I suspect all of this will just add to your sense of bafflement.

Perhaps it’s the need to keep the wider audience on board that is responsible for the film’s structure feeling so very, very familiar. You can almost see the flags popping up as the various points in Classic Story Structure are reached and ticked off. For all its textural and thematic weirdness, the movie is on some level very routine, even predictable, and perhaps this is the single biggest problem with it. It’s almost like taking pieces of ancient, gnarled, mysterious wood, from trees at the edge of the world, and then using them to make flat-pack office furniture, in strict accordance with the assembly instructions. The film should really be bigger, richer, weirder, more sprawling, and definitely have more than three significant characters.

That said, all three of the leads are perfectly acceptable, with McConaughey in particular seeming to have fun with his role. The production values and direction are also never less than thoroughly competent, and occasionally you do get a glimpse of the remarkable film which could be made from this material – some of Tom Holkenborg’s rousing music, for instance, seems to have wandered in from a rather more effective fantasy adventure movie.

No doubt the producers would agree, defending this movie by saying it’s only intended as an introduction to the Dark Tower mythology, with various TV series and sequels in the works which will explore this universe further. Well, if so, that nearly reduces The Dark Tower to the status of the world’s longest and most expensive teaser trailer – and one which doesn’t really do its job, for at the end you don’t really feel a burning desire to spend any more time with these characters. The uninspired efficiency of the movie robs it of genuine power and magic. It seemed like everyone had forgotten about the famous hoodoo afflicting Stephen King, where for the longest time his most famous and accomplished novels would come a terrible cropper when they were adapted for the screen. It seems to be back in full effect as far as The Dark Tower is concerned. Still, not an actively bad film, just a rather odd and not particularly exciting one.

 

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It is one of those special, cherishable, all-too-rare times: yes, there is a new Christopher Nolan movie out, in the form of Interstellar. What can one say about the remarkable talents of this man and the teams he assembles around him? Together, they seem entirely incapable of making a film which is less than challenging, surprising, thoughtful and supremely accomplished.

 

The third film in what absolutely no-one is calling Nolan’s In- themed series opens in an unspecified future where the Earth has become a worn-out wasteland, its bankrupt nations reduced to scraping what little food they can from choking, starving farmland. Humanity has lowered its gaze and its expectations, and one of those chafing against the situation is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer reduced to trying to keep robot farming machines running.

Cooper’s gifted young daughter, Murphy, has been complaining of a strange presence in their home, which Cooper realises is some kind of gravitic anomaly – an anomaly which leads them to the world’s last launching facility. Here they encounter Brand (Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the world’s condition is terminal – humanity is on the verge of extinction, unless they can find a new home. Some unknown cosmic force has created a gravity wormhole within the solar system, through which a mission can be despatched in search of a new home for the human race.

Though it means leaving his family behind, Cooper agrees to pilot the mission, travelling through the wormhole to a distant galaxy, in the company of Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other astronauts, and two endearingly bizarre robots. But can he bring himself to make the decisions which could save the human race, when the consequence could be that he will never see his children again?

Well, you always know roughly what you’re going to get from a Nolan film – awe-inspiring technical virtuosity, a stunning, whirling artifice of plot and theme, casual mastery of genre tropes, and a certain lofty grandeur in every department (plus, more often than not, Michael Caine in a supporting role). All of these things are present and correct in Interstellar, which is, if anything, Nolan’s homage to the classic SF films of years gone by: first and foremost 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with man’s place in the universe and included a mind-blowing trip across space and time, but also the original Solaris, amongst others.

Interstellar pushes further than these, which were predominantly mythic undertakings – it attempts to portray travel to the furthest reaches of the universe in a relatively accurate way (no pun intended), and the realities of astrophysics form some of the lynchpins of the plot. This is a film in which wormholes, collapsed stars, time dilation and five-dimensional space are all central features, and there are times when it feels as though the vaulting leaps in space and time required by the narrative are too much for even Christopher Nolan to pull off.

That said, he pulls off some magnificent coups, and not the least of these is to keep the human characters centre-stage despite the bewildering ideas and stunning visuals also populating the film. All the performances are strong (Jessica Chastain also appears in a key role), but – with the possible exception of Michael Caine – none of them really manage to touch the emotions: the chill which touches the heart of every Nolan film, its lack of real intimacy, is as present here as in any of them.

Then again, this isn’t entirely inappropriate, as Interstellar is partly about the immense size of the universe and its hostility to humans, and the effects the knowledge of this can have on explorers. Coupled to the mood of resignation in the Earthbound scenes, the result is a film which frequently feels incredibly bleak and oppressive, with an atmosphere which is almost funereal. That Nolan manages to turn this mood around by the conclusion is also an achievement.

That said, the film’s focus on the father-daughter relationship means that the one between McConaughey and Hathaway never really quite gets the space to breathe, let alone convince. The final revelation of what’s been happening throughout the film with the strange gravity anomalies is also very eminently guessable by even the least clued-in and genre-savvy viewer (or so I would expect). And the fact remains that high-minded, big-budget, thoughtful SF movies are much more likely to be savaged for getting above their station than more typical popcorn fodder – just look at what happened to Prometheus or A.I..

Well, hopefully I will be proved wrong and Interstellar will reap the same kinds of rewards and acclamation as Gravity, another film it somewhat resembles in places. (Although Interstellar resembles genre SF much more, and the big awards ceremonies never like genre movies.) Watching Interstellar, it feels like a love letter to classic SF films, to space exploration itself, and to so many of the instincts and drives that make people human at all. Pretty much an unmissable experience if you are at all interested in SF, space science, or the future.

 

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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 September 12th 2002: 

It’s always interesting when an established actor makes his debut as a feature director, simply because their choice of project is often very illuminating. In Play Misty For Me, Clint Eastwood embarked upon the deconstruction of his screen persona he’s continued on-and-off ever since, and with That Thing You Do Tom Hanks confirmed that wholesome nostalgic Americana really does run through his veins like blood.

I’m a little unsure of what Bill Paxton’s Frailty tells us about him, though. Admittedly Paxton isn’t as big a star as Eastwood or Hanks but he’s headlined blockbusters in the past and, let us not forget, played a key role in the most successful film of all time (he was the marine archaeologist in Titanic).

The bulk of Frailty is set in 1979 and is the story of young Fenton Meeks (Matthew O’Leary), a boy living with his little brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their Dad (Paxton, maintaining the tradition of actor-directors casting themselves in key roles) in small-town Texas. Although their mother is dead the boys lead happy lives, but all this is about to change. One evening Dad announces that God has sent him a message: the world is infested with demons that look just like regular folks, and it’s up to the Meeks family to hunt them out and destroy them. Fenton’s initial vague unease becomes acute when Dad comes home with the ‘special weapons’ God has sent for them to use: a pair of gardening gloves, a length of lead pipe and what’s technically known as a great big axe.

Fenton realizes Dad has gone off the deep end, but what can he do about it? He can’t turn his own father over to the police, but neither can he persuade him to stop his dreadful crusade. Matters soon reach crunch point when Dad decides it’s time for Fenton to take his turn with the axe.

While the initial scene-setting stuff is a bit lacking in subtlety, once Dad starts having his visions Frailty turns into an extremely effective psychological horror movie, deeply rooted in the American Gothic tradition of the Deep South. In fact, it plays like a superior Stephen King adaptation, contrasting Fenton’s coming of age and loss of innocence with the family’s increasing skewed home life. The film succeeds in a big way in its depiction of the banality of Dad’s madness: for example, Dad and Adam treat their rides out to procure more victims to be hacked to death in the cellar the way other families would trips to the football or fishing.

The performances from the two boys are very good indeed, easily as good as Paxton’s own assured turn. Dad seems to have been shrewdly written to play to Bill Paxton’s own strengths as an actor: while he can do Regular Leading Man if required to (Twister) he’s equally good at a kind of sleazy and/or unstable good ol’ boy (Aliens, True Lies), shading off into berserk hillbilly psychosis when necessary (Near Dark). For the most part he keeps Dad quite low-key, which obviously makes the eye-rolling and axe-wielding more arresting when it comes.

Paxton seems to have adopted a similar approach in his direction: this isn’t a movie of overt gore or shock moments (though there are a little of both), it relies instead on a constant, broodingly intense and oppressive atmosphere. (Brian Tyler’s score helps enormously with this.) He doesn’t attempt any fancy whistles-and-bells stuff with the camera, either, but his deft touch with some of the scene transitions and the small number of visual effects the film uses suggests talent as a director. He also manages to keep the metaphorical elements of the story; this can be interpreted as a film about child abuse, and cycles of violence within families – subtle but unmistakable.

So it’s really a terrible, terrible shame that Brent Hanley’s script is wrecked by a framing story where one of the boys, now grown (and played by a dead-eyed Matthew McConaughey) recounts his childhood to an FBI agent (Powers Booth) investigating a serial killer known as God’s Hand. This leads into an unnecessarily convoluted twist ending, which isn’t nearly as clever or shocking as it thinks it is. It seems sometimes that, post-The Sixth Sense, everyone directing a horror film feels obliged to put a twist ending in, no matter how damaging it is to the fabric and tone of the movie. In this case, it turns what could been a simple but highly effective chiller into what feels like a mediocre episode of The X Files.

I can’t stress strongly enough how badly the ending disappointed me. But the rest of it is great and Paxton has nothing to be ashamed of either as lead actor or director. But the fact remains that while often highly impressive, Frailty is a deeply and unnecessarily flawed movie.

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From the Hootoo Archive. Originally published September 19th, 2002:

Regular partakers of this column may well feel a twinge of déjà vu as for the second week running we look at a film in which the aforementioned Texan thesp shows up as a nutter with a big axe [the previous week featured a review of Frailty – A]. This time it’s Rob Bowman’s Reign Of Fire, an odd but rather entertaining aspiring blockbuster…

Reign Of Fire kicks off in contemporary London as schoolboy Quinn Abercrombie (Ben Thornton) – yeah, like that’s a real name! – visits his mum (Her Cybernetic Majesty Alice Krige), a site engineer on the London Underground. The transport authority clearly don’t have a clue about proper health and safety procedures as not only is Quinn allowed to wander about without even a hard-hat, but they also have no idea what to do when they accidentally disturb one of your actual giant fire-breathing dragons from its hibernation. Obviously one of the irritable-when-roused type, the dragon toasts the place and flies off, leaving Quinn the only survivor.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the now-grown Quinn has turned into Christian Bale and developed a terrible Cock-Er-Knee accent. The dragon and its spawn have crushed civilization as we know it and Quinn is leading a small community of survivors, holed up in northern England. The people are starving (though Bale’s pecs look well-nourished enough), and the isolation and lack of contact with other groups is wearing at them: ‘we haven’t heard from Norwich in two years,‘ someone says, if nothing else proving that even the worst post-apocalypse is not without the odd silver lining.

But then who should appear to save the day than barmy US army dragonslayer Van Zan (McConaughey) and his army of followers (‘if there’s one thing worse than dragons, it’s Americans‘), who inevitably include beautiful pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco – a rare example of an ex-Bond girl getting to play the love interest in a big studio release). Van Zan’s in Britain because he has a plan to solve the dragon problem once and for all – and Quinn’s going to help, whether he likes it or not…

Reign Of Fire is kept from being a really first-class piece of hokum by its script, which is a bit perfunctory and poorly paced, and by its budget, which obviously isn’t as expansive as the writer and director had hoped for. A film can overcome one of these problems, but not both together. The most obvious example here is in the sequence linking the present day prologue with the main part of the film – we’re told, through voice-over, graphics, and stock-footage, that the dragons destroyed all the existing governments and systems of authority, despite the vast military arsenals which would surely have been employed against them. It’s asking a lot of the audience to make this a fundamental part of the film’s background, and what’s worse is that we don’t even get to see the dragons torching any major landmarks or otherwise actually doing it. I’d prefer sense to spectacle, but I would like at least one of the two to make an appearance. The end result is perhaps too much post- and not enough apocalypse.

There are other problems in Reign Of Fire, of course, but they all stem from one or other of the two flaws mentioned above. The CGI is a bit iffy, resulting in some rather manky-looking dragons, and the climax is a bit of a damp squib (the money appears to have been running out). But there’s still a huge amount to enjoy here, if you can suspend your disbelief: it’s engaging played, with solid performances from most of the cast (Bale and Krige’s accents excluded). Gerard Butler is pretty good as Quinn’s best mate, and sharp-eyed Trekkies will spot Alexander Siddig in the crowd from time to time. But McConaughey steals the acting honours with a marvellously looney turn as Van Zan.

It’s not all in the acting, either – post-apocalypse England is rather well put on (excepting some of the CGI, as mentioned above), and for all its weaknesses the script serves up some very nice moments – my favourite being a wonderful scene where Quinn and his mates entertain the community’s kids by re-enacting scenes from The Empire Strikes Back by candlelight. Bowman’s direction is solid enough, and the whole thing has a rather bleak and sombre mood, a refreshing change from most blockbusters. I enjoyed Reign Of Fire a lot – worth seeing, if you’re willing to cut it some slack.

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