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The Dark Tower

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A dark tower at the crux of dimensions. A mysterious and malevolent Man in Black. A noble ‘Gunslinger’, last survivor of a once noble lineage. A boy troubled by dreams of all the above. By a remarkable feat, the long-gestating adaptation of Stephen King’s epic series manages to utterly waste all this great potential. A wealth of material for the building of multiple worlds is hinted at without exploration, while relationships between characters occur without development, be they quasi-father/son of the Gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba) and the boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), or the possible history between Roland and Walter, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). To make matters worse, the action sequences are inert and the horror elements sterile, the filmmakers sanitizing suspense and tension out of the film by making it family friendly. Director Nikolaj Arcel previously helmed the superb A Royal Affair as well as writing The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but here he and co-writers Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinker and Anders Thomas Jensen have delivered a limp and lifeless mess. There are some smirks to be had at fish-out-of-water comedy when Roland encounters Jake’s (our) world, and the cast do their utmost, Elba wielding his usual charisma while McConaughey shows glimmers of the menace he brought to Killer Joe. But whatever strength these performers might have generated seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, the potentially handsome production design and clumsy nods to other King works (at least eight) are largely obscured by pedestrian direction and frequently poor lighting. Adaptations of beloved books face the double-edged sword of being unimaginative by sticking too close to the source material, or deviating too much and thus alienating a potential audience. This is the least of the problems with The Dark Tower, but on the plus side seeing it did make me want to read the book(s), so as to get a better idea of the potential that this stillborn turkey squanders so badly.

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Kubo and the Two Strings

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Earlier this year, I reported that it was very pleasing to see that most of the audience for Zootropolis were over twenty. I had a similar experience when viewing Kubo and the Two Strings – ostensibly  a film aimed at a young audience – in an auditorium with no small children in sight. They missed out, for Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the year’s delights. A fine cast including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey add lively and emotional voices to director Travis Knight’s stunning visuals, as Kubo and the Two Strings blends drama, humour, heartbreak and action in a seamlessly splendid world of the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) on the run from his malevolent grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes). Aided by a sentient monkey (Theron) and a samurai warrior trapped in the body of a giant beetle (McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a mystical quest aided by his magical shamisen that grants life to his origami creations. The visual invention of the film begins at the level of Kubo’s artistry and steadily escalates, with pratfalls that are very funny (mainly involving Beetle), thrilling action sequences involving Kubo’s aunts (Mara), and some moments that are genuinely scary. This is to the film’s credit, as while the scary moments may be strong for small children, they need not be prohibitive and ensure that the film does not lose its nerve. Perhaps the ending is a little soft, but it does provide a fitting ending to a sumptuous and enthralling tale of storytelling, magic and artistry.

To Infinity, and Beyond: Sci-Fi Countdown – Introduction

scifi-days-of-fear-and-wonder-compendium-cover-shadow As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…

Honourable Mentions

Star Wars (1977)

The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. star_wars_openerContact (1997)

Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Contact Solaris (2002)

Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. Solaris WALL-E (2008)

One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. wall-e-space-dance Interstellar (2014)

The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite. Interstellar

Top Ten Directors – Part Three

Nolan

Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.

Interstellar poster

Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.

This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.

Prestige_poster

Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?

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The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.

Memento-Poster

For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.

Memento (2000)

Interstellar

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Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

Cooper Murph

At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

INTERSTELLAR

That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

Spectacle

Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

Interstellar poster

THE WINNERS WILL BE…

Oscars

Just before the big event takes place, these are my final predictions for the 86th Annual Academy Awards. At this time some people like to say what “should” win, implying that they know better than the homogenous, easily swayed entity otherwise known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. This is a gross misconstruing of the Academy, that consists of literally hundreds of people who vote on the various nominated films, not one monumental committee that simply hands out awards to their friends. I find the “what should win” position uncomfortably arrogant, but accept that we are all allowed to disagree. So as well as offering my prediction, I also offer what would be my pick if I were a member of AMPAS, which is not to say I’m right, but what I happen to prefer.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

12 Years A Slave

American Hustle

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Gravity

Her

Nebraska

Philomena

The Wolf Of Wall Street

12 Years A Slave has won multiple Best Film awards, including the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, and there is no reason to expect that will not change. I have seen six of these films (Her, Nebraska, Philomena are the omissions), and 12 Years A Slave is the most impressive, prompting knuckle-chewing and tears from me. This non-member agrees with the Academy majority.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: 12 Years A Slave

12-years-poster Best Achievement in Directing

Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Steve McQueen – 12 Years A Slave

Alexander Payne – Nebraska

David O. Russell – American Hustle

Martin Scorsese – The Wolf Of Wall Street

This looks to be another year when Picture and Directing go to different films, a relatively rare occurrence but increasingly common this century (Gladiator/Traffic, Chicago/The Pianist, Crash/Brokeback Mountain, Argo/Life of Pi). I see it continuing this year, as Alfonso Cuarón has been awarded by multiple award-giving entities and that tends to lead to the Oscar. I have no problem with this because if there is a more directed film than Gravity in the last year, I don’t know what it is. It is an astounding technical achievement, and I would have no problem with it winning Best Picture as well, but it does lack the socio-historical-political dimension of 12 Years A Slave, so it will not win that. But from a technical perspective of film craft, also known as directing, Gravity has few equals.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

My vote: Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity 1

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale – American Hustle

Bruce Dern – Nebraska

Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years A Slave

Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey has the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild, Broadcast Film Critics Association Award and many more for Best Actor. He did not get the BAFTA, which went to Chiwetel Ejiofor, but then McConaughey was not nominated there either. His performance is everything the Academy members like – actual historical figure, suffering from an illness, requires physical transformation, so he will win. He would not be my pick, however, because I would vote for a full-on, jet-propelled performance that makes a thoroughly loathsome character endlessles compelling.

Prediction: Matthew McConaughey

My vote: Leonardo DiCaprio

Dallas Buyers ClubBest Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Amy Adams – American Hustle

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Sandra Bullock – Gravity

Judi Dench – Philomena

Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

Having picked up the other awards, there is no reason to expect that Cate Blanchett will not pick up the Oscar. I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine so cannot comment, as I found Sandra Bullock compelling and absorbing throughout her extra-terrestrial activities.

Prediction: Cate Blanchett

My vote: Sandra Bullock

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Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips

Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave

Jonah Hill – The Wolf Of Wall Street

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Once again, follow the pattern and Jared Leto will pick up the award. I have seen all of these and found all of them quite compelling, but Leto seemed a little slight. Were I in the Academy, I’d cast my vote for the BAFTA winner that we hadn’t heard of a year ago, who gives a sympathetic but frightening performance of ruthlessness and desperation. I hope we see more of him in the future.

Prediction: Jared Leto

My vote: Barkhad Abdi

Phillips Poster

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave

Julia Roberts – August: Osage County

June Squibb – Nebraska

This is a bit tricky, as it could go either way between Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence. They are the only two I have seen, and Lawrence is rather like DiCaprio in TWOWS in terms of being full-on and ferocious, while also very funny. But the Academy is more likely to reward drama than comedy, and because she moved me to tears, I would to.

Prediction: Lupita Nyong’o

My vote: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

American Hustle – Eric Singer, David O. Russell

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen

Her – Spike Jonze

Nebraska – Bob Nelson

Dallas Buyers Club – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

For all its nominations, I think this is the one award that American Hustle is most likely to pick up, and I have no problem with that. Dallas Buyers Club did not stand out for me, and the sheer creative excess of American Hustle makes it strong for me as well.

Prediction: American Hustle

My vote: American Hustle

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Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Before Midnight – Richard Linklater

Captain Phillips – Billy Ray

12 Years A Slave – John Ridley

The Wolf of Wall Street – Terence Winter

Philomena – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope

As an unlikely winner of Directing, I see Writing as a far more likely award for 12 Years A Slave. This is OK by me, as the writing of the film creates an understandable and relatable world despite its period detail and the retention of 19th century dialogue.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: 12 Years A Slave

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Book Thief – John Williams

Gravity – Steven Price

Her – William Butler and Owen Pallet

Philomena – Alexadre Desplat

Saving Mr. Banks – Thomas Newman

The music of Saving Mr. Banks was integral to the soulful aspect of the film, while music in Gravity was less noticeable. It’s hard to say, really, so a wild stab in the dark.

Prediction: Philomena

My vote: Saving Mr. Banks

Banks

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

“Alone Yet Not Alone” – Alone Yet Not Alone

“Happy” – Despicable Me 2

“Let It Go” – Frozen

“The Moon Song” – Her

“Ordinary Love” – Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom

Take it, Disney!

Prediction: “Let It Go”

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

All Is Lost

Captain Phillips

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Lone Survivor

In space, there is no sound, yet sound plays a major part in Gravity, the sudden collisions and silence in the surroundings adding to the heart-stopping drama.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Gravity

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Inside Llewyn Davis

Lone Survivor

The layering of sound to create the voice of Smaug really impressed me, so that’s my pick. But I think the sound love for Gravity might spread out a bit.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

SmaugProduction Design

American Hustle

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

Her

12 Years A Slave

A nice bunch of nominees here – three period pieces and two science fiction films. Sci-fi sometimes gets a bone like this, but with Gravity heading for more major awards this might go to something else with less chance of winning other awards. Hard to be sure.

Prediction: The Great Gatsby

My vote: Gravity

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Best Achievement in Cinematography

The Grandmaster – Philippe Le Sourd

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

Inside Llewyn Davis – Bruno Delbonnel

Nebraska – Phedon Papamichael

Prisoners – Roger Deakins

3D cinematography will continue its winning ways in this category. Simple as that. But Prisoners looked so good.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Prisoners

prisoners movie poster

Best Achievement in Makeup And Hair

Dallas Buyers Club

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

The Lone Ranger

Make healthy people look sick and a man look like a woman. No brainer.

Prediction: Dallas Buyers Club

My vote: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Achievement in Costume Design

American Hustle

The Grandmaster

The Great Gatsby

The Invisible Woman

12 Years A Slave

Period dramas, especially the Dickensian, have an edge here, and The Invisible Woman is literally Dickens, so pretty good chance. But the costumes in American Hustle for me were so garish and horrible that I think that deserves respect.

Prediction: The Invisible Woman

My vote: American Hustle

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Best Achievement in Film Editing

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Gravity

Captain Phillips

Dallas Buyers Club

Editing is the silver bullet for Best Picture, so it will go to the Best Picture winner. But I loved the assembly and fast cutting of Captain Phillips, so I’d go for that.

Prediction: 12 Years A Slave

My vote: Captain Phillips

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Gravity

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Iron Man 3

The Lone Ranger

Star Trek Into Darkness

So much of Gravity is visual effects that it would be terribly churlish not to reward them.

Prediction: Gravity

My vote: Gravity

In these categories, I have seen none of the nominees, so I simply expect the pattern to continue.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

The Croods

Despicable Me 2

Ernest & Celestine

Frozen

The Wind Rises

Prediction: Frozen

Frozen_1400_x_2100_USA_Apple

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

The Great Beauty (Italy)

The Hunt (Denmark)

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

Omar (Palestine)

Prediction: The Hunt

The_Hunt_(2012_film)

Best Documentary, Feature

The Act Of Killing

Cutie And The Boxer

Dirty Wars

The Square

20 Feet From Stardom

Prediction: The Act of Killing

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Best Documentary – Short Subject

Cavedigger

Facing Fear

Karama Has No Walls

The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Best Live Action Short Film

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)

Helium

Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?)

The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short Film

Feral

Get A Horse!

Mr. Hublot

Possessions

Room On The Broom

I know nothing about any of these, so have no opinion.

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club is a sharp and heartfelt film about personal struggle that engages with wider social issues. Jean-Marc Valleé’s account of the true story of Ron Woodroof creates an engaging, atmospheric picture of blue collar America, complete with prejudice, courage, friendship and a more expansive and angry tale of capitalist oppression. In the personal story, Matthew McConaughey shines as Ron develops from a sexist, homophobic bigot to a warm and sympathetic (though still brash and belligerent) humanitarian, humanised through his stark encounter with mortality and engagement with fellow sufferers. On a broader scale, the film works as a damning indictment of health care in America, as Ron progresses from entrepreneur to crusader against big business. An inspiring and bittersweet tale that packs serious political punch.