INTERSTELLAR** Never Lifts Off


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THE FIRST FEW chapters of Christopher Noland’s bloated, humourless, self-important ‘epic’, “Interstellar” are quite ravishing. We are introduced to an American heartland blasted by drought, its once green pastures now brown and cracked. Dust films every surface. It is everywhere, scuffing the sidewalks or blowing in dark tempests across the cities. And it is in this blighted, food-drained, sand-coloured world that we meet Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ex-NASA flight pilot turned corn farmer and neighbourhood engineer. He’s a single father living with his two children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and, as an adult, Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Casey Affleck) as well as an ageing father (John Lithgow).

They seem like an average enough family, with the usual occasional sibling bickering and domestic chatter. The problem is that Murphy has begun to feel the presence of a (friendly) ghost. Books are pushed off shelves and she feels a presence in the room. Of course no one believes her until Cooper notices what are quite clearly signs in a pattern of sand that’s blown through her window (you’d have to be ex-NASA to notice this). The signs are map coordinates that lead them (it was a slow day) way out through the blowing corn into a spot in the middle of nowhere. These signs, this ghost are clever Shyamalan-esque touches.

Turns out this spot is the site of a now bunkered and secret NASA research centre (NASA having been roundly discredited for excessive expenditures and falsifying the moon landings as a means of stirring up the Russians and bankrupting them).

Well, one thing leads to another and (supposedly) responsible and loving dad finds it best to leave his entire family for oh, five or ten years in order to head off to space in search of an alternative planet for mankind.

Noland’s PR machine has made it quite clear that all the science in the movie is real. Apparently Kip Thorne, a respected theoretical physicist was hired as “scientific consultant”. So that you can rest assured what you’re seeing is not some flim flam sci fi mumbo jumbo. THIS IS REAL SCIENCE DAMN YOU. So the movie must be good. It would have benefitted the movie more if Noland had also hired a consultant psychologist or for that matter, anyone with any hint of experience of how people function not as humanoids inserted into a science project, but as real people.

The crew of the ship, Endurance, make small talk, evince some sort of human-like interaction from time to time, but mainly lapse into ‘rocket ship speak’ about thrusters, heat shields and the like. We even meet out there beyond the rainbow, a floating dead space-craft with a hibernating Matt Damon. But even a slightly deranged Matt, along with the stellar cast of a somewhat out of her depth Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine playing Michael Caine, can’t inject blood into this corpse. Maybe they’re all just… spaced out. Jessica Chastain, the perennially pissed off daughter is the only one who actually comes across as a real person. We are grateful for her efforts.

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Sadly, what began as an interesting take on man’s self-destructiveness (with some fluffy talk about love reaching across the universe) swiftly turns into a loud science lesson the moment we have lift-off. Not that it’s a boring science lesson. Noland, who is turning into Terrence Malick without the meaningful symbolism, is a brilliant visualizer of the impossible. The images of the Endurance rattling through a wormhole (which of course you know is the tunnel that sidesteps the time space continuum) or slipping into a black hole to re-emerge into a kind of fifth dimension, are stunning.

I bet the science channel are kicking themselves that they hadn’t executed their versions of black holes as well.

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DALLSA BUYERS CLUB: Masterly McConaughey


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HANDS DOWN, THIS is Matthew McConaughey’s movie and a stunning, mesmerizing piece of acting. In the last few years, McConaughey has evolved from “Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past” (a dreadful movie, but one in which he clearly forged a great connection with Jennifer Garner, to, presumably, act in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” for next to nothing) to “The Lincoln Lawyer”, “The Paperboy” “Mud”, “Magic Mike”, and now his crowning glory: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Apparently, several other big names, such as Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper had shown interest in this un-bankable script. No-one wanted to back a movie about Aids, and transvestism, where the good guys is a bum and dies in the end. Just as well. It’s a movie that McConaughey owns so thoroughly that you can’t possibly imagine any other actor in the role. Ron Woodroof, McConaughey’s –real life – character, is an unlikable homophobic, loose-living, drug taking, alcoholic ladies’ man. A gaunt, skeletal McConaughey manages to invest this disreputable reprobate into someone the audience can root for, as, driven to extremes, he cons his way into becoming an unlikely champion of dying, mainly gay HIV sufferers, desperate for life-prolonging drugs.

The story follows the battle for survival of said Woodroof, who is given one month to live after he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Set in Dallas in 1985, when AIDS was very much seen as the gay man’s disease, Woodroof’s search for a cure leads him initially to illegally purchased AZT, then being touted as a potential cure. AZT simply strips away much of his immune system, which is slowly re-built by the care of a renegade doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dune). It’s here in Mexico that Woodroof has the revelation that the non-FDA approved drugs available there, which are working for him, can be a potential life-line to many back in the USA. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA approved drugs in the USA, he starts up his Dallas Buyer’s Club: a membership only club, where members are given the drugs.

Woodroof’s search for the cocktail of drugs that leads him to Japan, Amsterdam and Israel, also becomes his journey of redemption. Slowly we see emerge, flashes of genuine empathy, decency and a kind of rebellious heroism. Woodroof’s virulent homophobia flakes away to reveal a man of conscience, flavoured with old fashioned, seductive Southern charm. McConaughey’s brilliance is that he keeps his characterization richly textured. Woodroof doesn’t change from sinner to saint; he simply manages to channel his outlaw attitudes away from self-destructive drugs and drink toward something far more productive: programs that help others via the evasion of FDA laws.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) never allows the story to slip into mawkishness. Woodroof’s battle to find drugs that work isn’t some sort of act of selfless heroism. As the title suggests, this is about business. Woodroof is running a business, and like any savvy businessman, he has to journey the world in search of reputable suppliers. He just happens to be dealing in illegal drugs that deliver healing, not highs.

Along the journey, Woodroof forges two deep friendships – a practical, business-driven friendship with Rayo, a cross dressing drug addict (Jared Leno in the role of his career) and Eve Saks, a doctor torn between her duty to her patients and her loyalty to what she realizes is a morally compromised hospital administration (a vapid Jennifer Garner oozing sympathy and entirely outclassed by the McConaughey/Leno double act).

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The barnstorming performances of McConaughey and Leno are so all-absorbing that it’s easy to be distracted by the bigger issue “Dallas Buyers Club” hints on: Big Pharma’s corrupt practices and its too cosy relationship with the FDA. The story notes that the initial drug trials and emphasis on AZT was prolonged despite early – published -warnings of the potential dangers of the drug. It was people like Woodroof (the movie only skirts on the work of groups such as ACT UP and others such as the Florida Buyers’ Club) whose search for alternative treatments – and not the FDA – that helped de-stigmatize the disease and drive for safer drug ‘cocktails’.

But the story only notes this.

The story also suggests, quite sententiously, that sex is cheap, dirty and a sure route to death (the beginning scenes that juxtapose a copulating Woodroof with a bull-rider being gored to death is tellingly symbolic)

What’s lacking in the movie is a stronger sense of a governing idea.

It’s primarily and almost exclusively about Woodroof and Leno. The contrast between their illegal business practices and Big Pharma’s immoral ones are stated but never really explored. Woodroof must battle not only the law, but a legal system sponsored by Big Pharma. It’s good stuff that’s inserted from time to time, but never quite explored. Of course it would be unfair to criticize a work of art for not doing something you’d expect it to.

My problem with “Dallas Buyers Club” is that, though it’s a deliciously, enjoyably well made film (shot in 25 days and costing all of $5M), at its core it feels hollow. It’s a glittering display of brilliant acting, but the protagonist’s rebelliousness heroism is not matched by any rebellious heroism on the part of the film. It’s pays liberal lip service to the fundamental corruption at the heart of drug testing, but nothing much more.

Mud: A Clear Winner


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In “Mud”, director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us the magnificent, and I suspect, under-viewed “Take Shelter”) has created an engaging, nuanced coming of age story set in the other-worldly environs of the Mississippi.

Told mainly through the eyes of the principal character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), it’s the story of two boys who discover a boat wedged in the top of a tree on a deserted island somewhere in the middle of the fast flowing river. They claim the boat as theirs, only to discover that there’s someone living in it. That someone turns out to be a disheveled, chipped-toothed Matthew McConaughey (the eponymous Mud) in one of his finest roles since “Lone Star”. He spins the boys a story about waiting for his lover, a story that Ellis, with his fine sense of chivalry and innocent idealization of true love, swallows hook line and sinker. What Mud hasn’t told them is that he’s really on the run, having killed a man in a jealous rage. True love and true jealously are twins that we see unfold.

The main storyline concerns the actions of the boys as they try to rescue Mud – from the island, the law and, eventually, from his less than faithful lover (a sexy, white trash Reese Witherspoon).

The influences of Mark Twain’s Mississippi books are evident – the boys, Ellis and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) are Huck and Tom; Mud is their version of the fleeing Nigger Jim. Like “Huckleberry Finn”, the movie’s bi-focal vision looks at the small domestic drama of one boy’s rite of passage into the flowering of (a priapic) maturity, as he learns to see things as they are, and not the romanticized fantasy of how they should be… about finding the kernel of truth hidden within its husks of lies.

It is also, like the book, about the nature of flight and freedom. At its most obvious, Mud is fleeing the law and a posse of ruthless vigilante bounty hunters, lead by the wonderful, jowly Joe Don Baker as the God fearing father of Mud’s victim, bent on revenge. He (Mud) also has to free himself from his own fantasized version of Juniper (Reese’s character) whose on and off love is destroying him. She herself, trapped, doomed, trying to escape to a better life has a tattoo of a bird in flight, the ultimate symbol of freedom. Ellis’ mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) has to escape a failed marriage and free herself from the isolation of the river (one of the characters early in the film describes the river as the place where you either found a living, like Neckbone’s uncle -the compelling Michael Shannon – or isolation). Mud’s father (or father-figure), Tom (Sam Shepard) has himself escaped a shady past to the freedom offered by the isolation and invisibility of the river.

There are two recurrent images and symbols – of snakes and of birds in flight. Mud has a large curling snake (tattoo) wrapped around his torso; he’s been bitten in the past by one and nearly dies (as happens to Ellis); at various points, people are disparagingly cursed as “nasty snakes”. The snake seems to be the hard and harsh reality that you need to be aware of and avoid. It’s the danger lurking at your feet. The graceful flocks of birds that arc across the sky from time to time are the obvious image of the unfettered life, the kind of life the boys seem to have as they whizz about in their small boat and motorbike; the kind of life that’ll end soon enough as maturity and jobs hem them in.

Jeff Nichols paces the movie nicely, slowly building the narrative and drawing us in to Mud’s every changing stories about himself, his lover and his father, even as the darker forces of retribution arm themselves and quicken the story to its final explosive shoot-out.

 

 

it’s a noir: The Paperboy


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“THE PAPERBOY”, LEE Daniels’ latest work (he also gave us “Precious”), tells the story of two reporters – Matthew McConaughey as a slimy Ward Jansen and David Oyelowo (“Complicit”, “Lincoln”) as a faux Englishman, Yardley Acheman – who journey down to a hot, sweaty Southern swampland in search of an award-winning story and the truth: what they believe to be the wrongful imprisonment of one Hillary Van Wetter – a deranged, drooling John Cusak. Van Wetter is supposed to have disemboweled the local sheriff and is in death row.

They enlist the aid of Charlotte Bess, a highly sexed, bleached-blonde beauty (Nicole Kidman, steaming up the screen) who –for reasons that are never explained – has taken to corresponding with Van Wetter and has fallen in love with him. She becomes the central object of lust and desire, by the incarcerated Van Wetter and the Jansen’s young brother Jack (Zac Efron as an Oedipal stud, forever strutting up and down in his underpants, all hormones all the time).

The whole story is narrated through the memory of the Jansen’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray), a stoic figure who has managed to shoulder off racist abuse and simply carry on.

The search for the truth – set amidst the town’s close-lipped, prejudiced conspiracy of silence – is the movie’s central theme. Daniels introduces us to a world where the villains are as unattractive and unsympathetic as the protagonists and where, he suggests, the truth, never obvious, remains ever elusive and ambiguous.

All this in an atmosphere of sweaty (literally – as everyone sweats in the movie) lust and sex. In one, you could say climatic, scene Nicole Kidman reprises the “Basic Instinct” crotch shot as she titillates a shackled Cusak. The sex grows more and more debased as the movie heads toward its dark denouement, revealing as it goes, the grimy truths of Daniels’ characters.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that he chose Jimmy Stewart as often as he did in his movies because Stewart bought him ten minutes. By this he meant that Stewart’s persona was so well known and loved by the movie-going public that he came with huge positive affection…so as a writer, Hitchcock didn’t have to spend ten minutes creating a likeable film persona; Stewart bought him that. He could simply get on with his tale.

We saw this in “Arbitrage”, (even though this was just a passably average film) where Richard Gere is such a seductive personality that, even though we may disapprove of his character’s conniving, manipulative ways, he still manages to seduce the audience into rooting for him to ‘get away’ despite ourselves.

One of the problems with “The Paperboy” is that there is no Jimmy Stewart persona. The nature of the story demands this kind of obfuscation between truth and lies, good and evil. But Daniels so relishes showing us – exclusively – the nasty, seedy side of his characters (and we’re happy that McConaughey has finally moved away from gormless romcoms to playing seedy, which is his real métier) that he never allows us to empathize with anyone.

The result is a ‘caring deficit’. Basically, as an audience, we don’t give a shit about any of the people we’re spending this ninety minutes with; so that the emotional drama of the tale becomes seriously compromised.

Indeed, because he’s so intent on making his point about the hazy ground where truth and lies merge, the narrative truth of the story falls off the tracks. For as the story unfolds, there are multiple revelations and twists that take place. These make good intellectual/thematic sense – but they lack dramatic relevance. From a story-telling perspective, they become irritations and irrelevances; they contribute little to the plot.

Net, net, “The Paperboy” is a reasonably well-acted, seriously flawed, thematically overburdened movie.

It’s one, to be genre appropriate, I say “noir” to