Thursday, 20 February 2014

Filmdog Weekly #7 (Dallas Buyers Club, Her)

Awards season is finally reaching it's climax, culminating in the Oscars in just over a week's time, so with that in mind I took the chance to check out Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, favourites to land Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, as they team up for Dallas Buyers Club. Following that we'll nip into the near future for robo-relationship drama Her...

Dallas Buyers Club (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Full blown enjoyment'

Dallas, Texas 1985. Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texan electrician, cowboy and serial shagger (of ladies, of course).

Going into the film I wasn't sure whether Ron was gay or straight, based on the subject matter, but that gets dutifully cleared up within the opening 20 minutes as we spend some time hanging out with Ron. He gambles with money that isn't his, bangs a couple of cowgirls at the Rodeo, drinks beer with his buddies and generally lives the life of a budget rock star. His luck is about to run out however, and he discovers the terrible (and mostly uninformed) consequences of his many years of promiscuity and drug abuse. 

After an accident at work, a regulation hospital check-up becomes anything but when Ron is diagnosed as HIV positive and given 30 days to take care of his affairs. A brief period of denial and despair lead Ron into doing some research of the disease and he pleads with the hospital doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner), to be placed into a clinical trial of a new wonder-drug called AZT.

Failing to gain access to the trial, and therefore the treatment that could potentially save his life, Ron heads to Mexico to find another supplier. It's on this trip that Ron, near death, discovers that AZT is actually doing his body more harm than good, and that the real life-savers come in the form of the legal-but-medically-unapproved cocktail of vitamins prescribed to him by Dr Vass, a US doctor struck-off in his homeland. 

The two men set out to make some serious money by smuggling these drugs across the border and selling them to AIDS sufferers. To gain access to the majority of his potential customers in the gay and lesbian community, Ron, an outcast amongst his old friends after being declared a 'faggot', must tackle his own overt homophobia by partnering up with Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, who provides him with customers for his 'Dallas Buyers Club'.

Ron's character develops from mercenary to man of mercy, as he struggles against the might of the Federal Drugs Agency and their increasingly personal attempts to shut down his operation, in order to save as many lives as he can.

I really liked this film. McConaughey and Jared Leto are sublime as the odd couple thrown together through misfortune and both are rightly tipped to win at the Academy Awards on Sunday 2nd March. McConaughey especially gives one of the best performances I've seen in the past 12 months, right up there alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. It's full of Southern charm and charisma, hitting all the right notes as his character goes through nearly every possible emotion. 

The headlines have been, and will be, about the weight loss that both men endured for their parts, but it was essential in the telling of this story and making it believable. The film is not quite as good as the acting in it, and like real life, the ending doesn't have a Karate Kid Crane-Kick happy ending, but it's very enjoyable and the chemistry between McConaughey and Leto make it an engaging ride, albeit with a one-way ticket.

* * * * 

Her (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Digital Love'

Her is a rather touching and sentimental film about the romance between a man and his computer. But just like real life, this relationship is not without it's complications.

Set in the near future, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a quiet and lonely man in the final stages of divorce proceedings with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Still conflicted by the issues surrounding his marriage breakdown, he spends his days working as a professional writer at Beautifully Handwritten Letters, and his evenings playing computer games. 

One day, on a whim, he buys an Operating System, a kind of digital Personal Assistant. He's surprised to find that his OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) has the ability to learn and develop her personality. She names herself Samantha, and the two of them hit it off immediately.

Using an earpiece and mobile phone-style device, Theodore talks with Samantha and begins to share the experiences of being human with her, taking her on walks to the beach, nights out at the fair, and even the pleasures of sex. It's a cathartic process as Theodore breaks free of his melancholy and finds new invigoration in his work and social life. 

Their relationship grows into a fully fledged romance and soon Theodore is introducing his 'girlfriend' to some of his more liberal friends (Human-OS relationships are common in the future but still considered something of a taboo), including his neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) who is going through some martial difficulties of her own.

Once the honeymoon period is over however, things start to become more complex. A botched attempt at sex surrogacy creates an awkward tension between the two of them, as she pines to increase her capacity for more human interaction. Samantha also starts to become jealous, as Theodore drifts in and out of his thoughts for Catherine, with several flashback sequences showing the married couple in happier times.

The jealousy is not all one way however. As Samantha starts to make friends with other members of the OS community, she begins to understand that her appetite for new experiences are not limited by human restrictions, such as a physical body or a life-span. In the digital world, there are no such boundaries.

Her is a beautifully constructed world. Spike Jonze has done an excellent job on visualising a future that doesn't seem too far from the realms of possibility. Even the film's futuristic fashion of high-waisted trousers has inspired a recent trend among young hipsters. The technology, including a hilarious adventure video game and personalised Operating Systems feels realistic, and just maybe this film will inspire the next generation of scientists much in the way the original Star Trek series did. 

Her definitely hints at satire, focusing on our growing dependance upon gadgets and how far we might take that obsession in the next few decades, but it does it playfully, celebrating our diversity and multiculturalism, as several characters warmly embrace Theodore and Samantha's unorthodox relationship, just like they would a regular couple.

Just like Theodore, Her is full of heart and very gentle, sometimes getting a little too caught up in it's own sentimentality, but it's terrifically acted, especially Scarlett who manages to flesh out a whole character just with her voice. I can see it becoming a cult Valentine's Day classic in the future, much in the same way as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with which this film shares the same tone, if not quite the same originality and visual magic. They would make a great double bill, but beware, you might be thoroughly down in the dumps by the end.

* * *

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