Contact (1997)

2017 #79
Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Contact

Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

'90s beats

Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

“One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

Pod person

Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

5 out of 5

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

2016 #139
Jean-Marc Vallée | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay.



Dallas Buyers ClubEvery time I see a trailer for Dallas Buyers Club at the start of another Blu-ray I think, “that looks really good; I should watch it”. Then every time I get near watching it I think, “that sounds quite worthy and/or grim; maybe not right now”. So I guess kudos is due to Amazon UK for removing it from Prime Video* and finally forcing my hand, because it is very good.

The film tells the mostly-true (we’ll come to that) story of Ron Woodroof (an Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey), a Texan guy who loves drink, drugs, sex, gambling, the rodeo, and probably any other less-than-savoury pursuit you can name. After he electrocutes himself at work, it’s discovered he actually has HIV/AIDS — that new disease affecting those nasty homosexuals, because this is the ’80s and this is the American South. Ron is given 30 days to live. Desperate for meds to keep him alive, he ends up in Mexico, on a cocktail of drugs that are barred in the US. While a pharmaceutical company pushes a potential cure that actually causes as much damage as it does benefit, Ron begins importing the meds that worked for him. Unable to sell them, he’s inspired by a New York project he reads about in the paper: to sell memberships to a club that gives the drugs out for free. Hence the titular organisation. Naturally, this exploitation of loopholes leads to confrontations with the law.

That’s just some of what’s going on, anyway, because there’s also Ron’s growing acceptance of the community he finds himself a part of, especially after he’s ostracised from his former friends who assume he’s gay; there’s his business partner, trans woman Rayon (an also-Oscar-winning Jared Leto), who has drugs and familial problems of her own; and the doctor (Jennifer Garner) who battles her conscience over the drug trials and Ron’s less-than-scientific but effective methods. If this makes Dallas Buyers Club sound unfocused, it’s more that it’s got a lot of different aspects to examine. It’s not just about narrating what really happened, either, because Leto and Garner’s characters are fictional.

So, some would argue, is Ron Woodroof — this version, anyway. For one thing, reportedly the real Woodroof was widely believed to be bisexual by people who knew him, so depicting him as a raging homophobe (who contracted HIV from a druggie prostitute) is completely inaccurate. I suppose that just calls into question how far one can go when adapting reality into fiction while still claiming it’s a true story, because in some respects it’s more interesting to follow the film’s version of Ron, who has to come to terms with a whole new world. This has led to complaints about making a homophobe the hero of the story, but, again, I’d argue this is part of the point: Ron overcomes his homophobia, learns how prejudiced and wrong he’s been (without quite dragging the whole movie down to Moral Lesson Of The Week levels). Where’s the journey if he was a nice, understanding guy from the start?

McConaughey is very good as Ron, though I’d wager he won the Oscar as much for his extreme weight loss as his actual acting. He was up the same year as Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, which I’d argue is an even more nuanced, interesting, and affecting performance. Dallas Buyers Club is not short of emotional heft, mind, but much of it is shouldered by Leto. He may come across as a right tool in real life, especially with his Method Joker antics recently, but that methodology does at least mean he’s committed to his performance here. He’s done the weight loss thing too, but there’s more to it than that. To this layperson, he’s very convincing as a trans woman (again, there have been complaints that it’s too stereotypical); but even leaving that aside, it’s the universal humanity he brings to a person suffering with a death sentence, and rejection by their own family, that tugs the heartstrings.

Some reviews emphasise the film’s ultra-low budget, though as it cost $5 million I’m sure there are other filmmakers who would dispute the idea of that being cheap! It results in some weak CGI to depict Ron’s worldwide travels in search of new drug sources, but the point is conveyed nonetheless. Otherwise, I don’t hold with complaints that the movie looks amateurish. It’s not slick or glossy, but that level of realism, almost grittiness, fits the tale. Apparently the budget for makeup was just $250, and the film still won an Oscar for it, which goes to show… something. I mean, the other nominees were Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, so it probably doesn’t show much (just which one of those three sounds most like an Oscar winner, really).

For all the heaviness of the topics it touches on, the film isn’t without the humour that made its trailer so attractive. That said, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen most of that material, and in a more condensed and highlighted form, too. It almost makes it look like a heist movie — how this clever chappy pulled the wool over the authorities’ eyes with his vicar costumes and amusing way of filling out forms — but that’s just a small part of the film; and, actually, those tricks often go wrong or flat out don’t work, which is not the heist movie way.

Dallas Buyers Club is very unpopular in some circles for their perception of its treatment of the issues and people involved, but while their voices may be loud (one such review is the second most-liked on Letterboxd) they’re also in the minority (it has 8.0 on IMDb, which is just outside the range of the Top 250, and the ratings graph on Letterboxd errs heavily to 4-out-of-5 territory too). Perhaps with time we’ll all come to think of it that way, and it will begin to look like a product of an era before the mainstream fully understood certain issues. For the time being, it’s a powerful yet still enjoyable drama.

4 out of 5

* It was scheduled to be removed next Thursday, hence why I was helpfully posting this review today, but it actually went yesterday. One of the worst things about Amazon Video is trying to find out when they’re going to remove stuff from Prime. ^

Amistad (1997)

2016 #16
Steven Spielberg | 155 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English, Mende & Spanish | 15 / R

Feeling in need of more intellectual fare after helming The Lost World, Spielberg turned to a project already in development at Dreamworks: an adaptation of a non-fiction book about the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad, and the ensuing legal battle. Although not poorly received by critics, there’s a sense that the consensus view dubbed it “black Schindler’s List”, the implication being that by aping the earlier film it was inevitably inferior. I don’t think that’s a watertight chain of logic, but, nonetheless, Amistad is clearly a ‘minor Spielberg’.

Despite being “a slavery drama”, most of the film functions as a legal drama: though it begins with the slave uprising, and later has an extended flashback showing their kidnap and transportation, the thrust of the film lies in the courtroom arguments about who owns the ship’s ‘cargo’ and consequently what should be done with them. This is a period when capturing Africans into slavery, and by extension their subsequent transportation, was illegal by international agreement, but actually owning slaves was not yet banned (at least in the US). It’s before the American Civil War too, so there’s a political dimension: if these ‘slaves’ are freed, what tension might that spark between the north and south?

Though Spielberg is certainly not immune to the Africans’ plight — the depiction of life on a slave ship is appropriately harrowing — it’s clear from early on which side he expects us to identify with, in terms of cultural background if not shared morality: as survivors of the mutiny talk the next day, the slavers’ Spanish dialogue is subtitled but the slaves’ African dialect is not. It’s a simple but effective technique to align us with one side — as I say, not morally (in no regard is Spielberg trying to apologise for the slavers), but socially. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable: later, when we need to understand the Africans to follow a scene’s point, their dialogue is suddenly subtitled, and from then it’s sporadically translated as needed. I can see why that choice was made, but it makes the unsubtitled bits feel like a cheat.

In most other regards, it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In a few ways that works: it’s got classical cinematography, both the use of film (obviously, this being well before mainstream adoption of digital) and the framing, the pace, the editing. In other respects… well, it feels very late ’90s now, the overall style of the screenplay and the treatment of the story reminding you that it’s not actually a moderately-recent film (which I guess I’d personally filed it away as, being the most recent of Spielberg’s pre-2010s films that I’d not seen), but is now nearly 20 years old. And, though I may be damned for criticising him twice in as many weeks, John Williams’ score is a little heavy-handed.

This can be said of Spielberg’s approach to the drama, too. Some of the courtroom stuff is suitably mired in legal technicalities and argument, but by film’s end it gets a little bit too… what’s the word? Not “preachy”. Not “sentimental”, exactly, though it’s born of that old criticism of Spielberg. “Melodramatic” may be on the money, though. It doesn’t help that everything reaches a climax — not only narratively, but also in the way it’s written, shot, acted, and scored — only for it to be revealed that it’s just the end of act two. Okay, that’s the truth of what happened (or near enough, for the purposes of this dramatisation), and by adapting it in that way it emulates the emotions the characters experienced; but from the audience’s perspective, you feel like you’ve reached the end… only to be served up another half-hour of movie. And it’s a long film too, so you feel that. It gets by because it’s fundamentally a good film, with strong performances and technical merits, but it’s a little bumpy for a bit.

There also seem to be a startling array of factual inaccuracies to level at the film. As ever with fictional adaptations of real life, it’s a difficult line. No fact-based fiction is 100% like reality, especially when you factor in unavoidable variances in people’s memories and opinions. However, the more serious or famous the events being depicted, or the more they’re being used to indicate some wider point about their setting, the greater the responsibility to present something that is at least passably accurate. I think some would contend that Amistad is not that. I’m no expert, but this section on Wikipedia, which is bolstered by multiple citations to suggest its accuracy, indicates the extent of the issue.

It’s easy to criticise Amistad, because Spielberg makes the production of very good movies look effortless, so the missteps stand out all the more. The story of La Amistad and its ‘cargo’ is a powerful one, and Spielberg has — naturally — turned it into a good film; but by remixing history to over-egg the message, it loses a little something. A valiant effort, but a film like 12 Years a Slave makes many of the same points in a less grandiose manner.

4 out of 5

Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

2015 #24
Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

4 out of 5

* I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

Bernie (2011)

2015 #53
Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

BernieI seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.

Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.

By-the-by, this is a completely true story.

Bernie brings gifts(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)

Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.

No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.

McConaissanceThe local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.

Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.

4 out of 5

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

2014 #99
Martin Scorsese | 180 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.




The Wolf of Wall StreetWhen someone says “100-million-dollar epic”, you probably don’t imagine a film about a swindling stockbroker; but, with a three-hour running time and a nine-figure budget, that’s exactly what Martin Scorsese’s black comedy biopic is.

Based on a true story, the film sees Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) start out as a stockbroker on Wall Street just before 1987’s Black Monday, which sees the firm he works for close down. Desperate for a job, he finds employment shilling cheap, crap shares to unsuspecting normal folk. Bringing his big-money skills into a grimy little environment, he revolutionises the way business is done, and soon finds himself back on Wall Street, where drug- and drink-fuelled parties, expensive houses, cars and yachts, and dodgy (well, flat-out illegal) business practices are the name of the day.

Some critics and viewers reckon the film is condoning or even glamourising that lifestyle. To which the only sensible response is, really?! How much must those people need their morality spelt out clearly and handed to them on a plate? Scorsese doesn’t out-and-out condemn the behaviour depicted, but nor does he present it as a jolly good time brought low by the cruel machinations of The Man. He’s more of an observer: this is what happened, both what they got away with and what they didn’t; both what was fun and exciting and what went wrong. There’s everything from moments where our own independent morality/irony is clearly meant to be brought to bear on these characters (such as the scene where they’re discussing dwarves) to sequences that outright depict the downside of their behaviour (such as the sequence where Jordan and Donnie take ‘Lemmon’, or indeed a good deal of the movie after that point). The film does not judge these people, but invites us to — Worse for wearand the closing shot clearly shows how many people have already judged them to represent something desirable, regardless of what position the film might take. Some people want this lifestyle, in spite of all the problems it wrought, and even if the film had clearly condemned it that wouldn’t change. In the end, to say Scorsese approves of it purely because he doesn’t lambast it is too simplistic a reading.

Despite the real-life nature of its tale, and the fact the illegal actions surely brought misery to many, the film nonetheless works best as a comedy, which is fortunately its default tone. In the rare moments it shoots for drama, it doesn’t function quite so well — whatever the results of their action, these lives and situations are so outlandish that it’s hard to find an empathetic foothold. The characters may be based on real people, but they don’t live in a world of “real people”; but that’s OK, because I don’t imagine the actual people involved would come over as much more than “characters” if you encountered them in real life.

In this regard, every cast member is excellent. You may most easily identify that quality among the top-billed names (Leo, Jonah Hill, break-out star Margot Robbie), or the masses of recognisable faces in cameo-sized roles (Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin…), Ensembledbut almost every supporting character gets a memorable line or scene, a moment where they shine brighter than everyone else; and even when the smaller roles aren’t dominating a scene, they’re part of a first-rate ensemble that functions like a well-oiled machine. My personal favourite was P.J. Byrne’s ‘Rugrat’, but yours may well be someone else.

One criticism I will hold with is that it’s too long. There’s fun packed throughout, but every now and then the pace flags or I found myself checking the clock. I can well imagine that on a re-watch the less-engrossing bits will be thumb-twiddlingly irritating while waiting for the quality memorable material to roll around. A tighter focus, probably at the writing stage but maybe it was salvageable in the edit, might’ve helped this.

And if you’re wondering how it cost $100 million, it’s packed to the rafters with CGI. Some of it is obvious (specifically, when they attempt to sail a yacht through a storm, with disastrous consequences), but there are also tonnes of more subtle digital set/location extensions and changes — check out this video if you want them revealed. Plus they used visual effects to obscure a gay orgy and avoid an NC-17. So that’s nice.

Toast of AmericaAs one of two period comedies about real-life financial crime that contended at the 2014 awards (and neither of which won a single Oscar, as it turned out), The Wolf of Wall Street is the more entertaining victor, for me. However, despite many high-points, some scattered niggles throughout its excessive running time hold back unequivocal praise.

4 out of 5

The Wolf of Wall Street debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm, and is already available on demand.