Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Filmdog Weekly - Matthew McConaughey Special

The Paperboy (Netflix) ***
Magic Mike (Netflix) **
Mud (Netflix US) ****
True Detective (Sky Atlantic) *****

'Alright, alright, alright...'

It's about time for a Matthew McConaughey retrospective in light of his brilliant role as Rust Cohle in Sky Atlantic's terrific series True Detective which reached it's climax on Saturday night.

He's been cropping up in a number of roles over the past few years in critically acclaimed films that you may or may not have seen, and his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club set tongues wagging about his recent 'comeback', but in truth he's not been anywhere. If he has, it's was a few years basking topless in mediocre rom-coms such as The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006) and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009). 

Since then, however, I can only conclude that he had a light bulb moment and realised that typecasting himself as the go-to handsome guy for romantic comedies wasn't doing his career any favours. Either that or it was a brilliant piece of strategic planning, churning out forgettable film after forgettable film, knowing full-well that his resurgence in a number of serious, edgy roles would only compound his amazing transformation.

Anyone who's seen A Time to Kill (1996) will know that he's always been a fine actor, but maybe it's taken this long for him to grow into his face. His good looks may have until now stood in the way of him getting the kinds of meaty roles that his talent deserves and now in his 40's, McConaughey has developed an oaky, wizened complexion to toughen up those previously-soft features. Having a few creases in his skin and losing the surfer-blonde look has opened him up to a variety of roles and so I've gone back to watch a few a few films that initially slipped under my radar and which are available to view on Sky or Netflix.

The Paperboy

In 2012's The Paperboy McConaughey plays Ward Jansen, a Miami journalist who arrives back in his hometown to investigate the murder case of a death-row inmate Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack). 

Along with his writing assistant Yardley (David Oyelowo), his younger brother Jack (Zac Effron) and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a woman obsessed with the condemned man after an ongoing correspondence relationship with him, the quartet look into van Wetter's case and find that he may not be guilty of the crime after all.

It's shot through a filter, giving it a dated, hazy look and I quite enjoyed the way it made everything look humid and sweaty, providing a real sense of location. However the story is a little befuddled and it doesn't really know what kind of film it is. It's less intrigued in the actual murder mystery and more focused on the dynamic between these very different characters. There's no real tension despite touching on racism, homosexuality and murder, resulting in a pretty unsatisfactory climax.

Magic Mike

On first appearance, it would be quite easy to dismiss Magic Mike as a chick flick given that much of the screen time is filled with muscular dudes dancing naked on stage, however appearances can be deceiving. 

Director Steven Soderbergh is an interesting filmmaker, if not always consistent and this is one to add to that list of films that don't quite work for me. While it's not bad, it isn't particularly interesting despite providing an insightful and (from what I can tell) fairly accurate portrayal of life in the male stripping business.

Channing Tatum plays beefcake-with-a-heart Mike, a savvy stripper as well as an entrepreneur and businessman who takes young and dumb Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing, introducing him to the world of male stripping and all the perks that come with it - women, money and good times. 

Matthew McConaughey is Dallas, head honcho and compere of the Tampa strip group. It's a brave choice, given the solo routine he has to perform halfway through but he throws himself into the role of the wily old-hand who's shrewd enough to realise he requires younger flesh than his own to display if he's going to fulfil his dream of taking his show to the big leagues in Miami. 

It's a dream come true for 19-year-old Alex who ends up living la vida loca just a little too ferociously and the film follows his journey from naive and shy pretty boy to debauched sex machine.

It's loosely based on Channing Tatum's real experience as a Tampa Bay stripper when he was 18 and there's real authenticity to the film, showing the professionalism and pride that these guys take in their work as well as the partying lifestyle that accompanies it. The problem is it's a little too life-like. Most of the action that happens away from the club, the beach barbecues, the house parties, the general everyday life stuff, is mundane. The dialogue is boringly realistic and by the end I found myself wanting these guys to shut their yaps and start dancing again as the stripping scenes are by far the most entertaining part of the film.

There are plans for a sequel to Magic Mike (Even Magic-er?) and with Steven Soderbergh no longer on the scene to direct (he's happily retired) perhaps we'll lose some of the mumblecore elements that turned Magic Mike to decidedly Average Joe.


Just when you thought this Matthew McConaughey special was turning into a bit of a damp squib, Mud happily comes along to give this review a well-timed boost as our star is once again given a leading role to get his crooked fake teeth into.

The film follows two 14-year-old boys named Ellis and Neckbone, who find a large boat stuck high up in a tree on an island in the middle of the Arkansas River. They claim it for themselves but soon find out that it's being lived in by a mysterious stranger called Mud (McConaghey), a charismatic loner who inspires a sense of adventure in the boys, gaining their trust and befriending them. It soon dawns on them that Mud is living on the island for a more pragmatic reason and they agree to help him fix up the boat so that he can sail off with his true love (Reece Witherspoon) and evade his pursuers.

Mud is a great little adventure film. It has the feel of a Mark Twain story and while the ending seems to switch genres entirely, turning from slow burning character tale into a shoot-em-up, it's an enjoyable romp with some great performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the mischievous teen duo and from McConaughey, who's great as the worldly-yet-naive Mud. 

Jump in with both feet.

True Detective

I came late to True Detective which was something of a blessing as it allowed me to watch the first 3 episodes all at once (my preferred method of watching a series).

It's remarkably good. Completely different from any other investigative police show on tv in terms of mood and the sheer brilliance of the writing.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey play detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. Marty is the senior officer. On the surface he's a regular family man, hardworking and very much a typical genre-cop. Rust is foisted upon him, transferred in from another state having worked for years undercover, and immediately his style of police work and psychological mutterings begin to test their relationship to the limit, only surviving because of Marty's admiration for his partner's abilities as a detective.

The pair are assigned the case of a murdered young girl, killed in ritualistic fashion, leading to their investigation into disappearance several people across a 20 year period, seemingly connected to something altogether more sinister.

Over 90 minutes this wouldn't work. Across 8 hour-long episodes however, the characters are given a chance to develop and the tension allowed to quietly simmer away. It's shot in such a way that the audience only picks up clues as they are being fed to us by Rust and Marty while being interrogated in the present day about events surrounding the original 1995 case. For the entire first half of the series we still don't know why they are being interrogated and it's a terrific plot device, revealing pieces of the puzzle in flashback, letting the audience play detective as we try to figure out what's going on. 

It's the best television series I've seen since Breaking Bad and although the ending is a little underwhelming (the final episode is unfortunately the weakest of them all) it's a thoroughly well-written, brilliantly-acted and engrossing drama, playing more like an 8-hour film than a typical tv series. Woody Harrelson is excellent as Marty but the series belongs to McConaughey's brooding, lone-wolf Rust.

True Detective completes McConaughey's return from critical obscurity (the McConaissance?), establishing him as the best actor on our screens at this moment in time.

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