Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlin Carver
Sporting villains don’t come much greater than Tonya Harding. In the lead up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was injured in an attack found to have been orchestrated by Harding’s husband. It was one of the most outrageous sporting scandals in history and brought Harding an infamy far exceeding the profile of her sport. For the many who have only ever known Tonya Harding in relation to “the incident,” Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya serves as interesting background to one of sports most notorious figures. With an entirely different energy to your traditional biopic, I, Tonya is Goodfellas if it were set in the world of competitive figure skating and populated entirely by morons. Continue reading
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelson, Ronald Pickup
Sometimes the movies offer up strange coincidences where multiple people have the same idea at the same time. There were two blockbusters about meteorites headed to earth in 1998 (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and two animated movies about insects (A Bug’s Life and Antz). 2013 gave us two action thrillers about attacks on the White House (White House Down and Olympus has Fallen). What is true of blockbusters can also be true of dramas, and we currently find ourselves in the midst of a moment of fascination with the figure of Winston Churchill. In the last twelve months the legendary British Prime Minister has been portrayed by Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, by John Lithgow in the Netflix series The Crown, and now by Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Focusing on the difficult first weeks of Churchill’s prime ministership, Darkest Hour also serves as a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, presenting a different angle on the Miracle at Dunkirk. Continue reading
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Edgar Ramirez, Dianne Ladd, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper
As stated in its opening titles, Joy, is “based on true stories of daring women.” It explores the way a tenacious woman manages to survive and eventually thrive in a world determined to put her in her place. This semi-fictionalised account of the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop makes a point of never actually using the phrase “Miracle Mop,” or even the stating the surname Mangano. Rather than presenting a traditional biopic, director David O. Russell has opted for a comically exaggerated fable celebrating the American Dream and tenacious, can-do spirit.
Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) was a creative young girl from whom a lot was expected but for whom things haven’t quite panned out. Seventeen years after being named high school valedictorian she is stuck in a hole, providing for her chaotic family Continue reading
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, R. Marcos Taylor, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Knight Jr.
It is said that history is written by the victors and to an extent that is what you get with Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s biopic of trailblazing West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). Among the film’s producers are two of the group’s founding members, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Dr Dre is now CEO of Aftermath Records and Beats Electronics and ranked the richest figure in American hip hop by Forbes magazine. Ice Cube is a successful rapper, producer and movie star. They are the victors and the film they present is a mythologising of their origin story which takes us back to when these establishment figures were dangerous outsiders.
In 1986 we meet our three principals: charismatic drug dealer Eric “Eazy E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), aspiring DJ Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and teenage rapper O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O’Shea Jackson Jr). Not content with his regular gig which has no interest in rap music, Dr Dre approaches Eazy for capital to record an album. With Dre’s beats, Cube’s rhymes and Eazy’s business acumen, they found N.W.A. Continue reading
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn
The AIDS virus is a truly terrifying disease. In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America, that terror was compounded by a lack of knowledge and understanding of the disease. To be told you were HIV positive was tantamount to being given a death sentence. It is from this desperate context that Jean-Marc Vallée’s powerful independent film Dallas Buyers Club brings us the true story of the most unlikely of crusaders.
After a workplace accident lands him in hospital, electrician and part-time rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof is informed that his blood tests have revealed him to be HIV positive. With the hospital participating in a trial of a new wonder drug, AZT, Ron bribes a hospital employee to sneak him the medication. When the AZT doesn’t appear to be doing the trick, he ventures across the border into Mexico where he is able to get his hands on a number of alternative treatments which have not been approved for use in the USA. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, Ron starts smuggling the unapproved medications into the country and, with the help of his transgender business partner Rayon, founds the Dallas Buyers Club, where a monthly fee gets you all the medication you need. The beauty of the Club is it keeps his hands clean. He isn’t selling drugs. He’s selling memberships. Ron quickly becomes the last hope for Dallas’s many AIDS sufferers and starts to face strong opposition from the authorities.
What differentiates Dallas Buyers Club from the standard AIDS narrative is its protagonist. Woodroof is anything but a sympathetic character. He is a whoring, drug-taking, brawling, cheating bigot. The first words we hear from him are a homophobic slander of Rock Hudson, shortly after the actor’s death from AIDS. Upon being diagnosed, Woodroof seems angrier with the doctor’s implication that he might have engaged in homosexual activity than he is about the fact that he is HIV positive. Ron is just as prejudiced against other AIDS sufferers as other people are against him. He founds the Club not out of any sense of charity or desire to help others, but out of simple opportunism. The Club presents him with the opportunity to get his medication and make some money on the side. The film’s drama comes from watching the way this degenerate is transformed by his circumstances and the people around him to the point that he can become an activist and voice for this marginalised community. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s excellent screenplay makes that transition subtle while still apparent, and most importantly believable.
Sympathetic he may not be, but Ron Woodroof is engrossing and much of the credit for that has to go to the performance of Matthew McConaughey. Over the last couple of years McConaughey has gone from being a run-of-the-mill movie star hunk to one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood and his performance here is undoubtedly the best of his career. Having lost approximately 20kgs in preparation for the role, his emaciated appearance is confronting, but Woodroof retains some of that McConaughey charisma, incorporating it into this unattractive package and keeping us hooked on him. But McConaughey doesn’t carry the film alone. His achievement is matched and maybe even exceeded by that of his co-star, Jared Leto. In his first feature film in five years, Leto is brilliant as Ron’s transgender business partner and, eventually, friend Rayon. Leto gives Rayon a real grace and sensitivity, successfully grounding a character that could so easily have been a caricature.
Dallas Buyers Club is a special film that manages to be uplifting without being sentimental and insightful without being preachy.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick, Hank Azaria, Adam Brody, Juno Temple, James Franco
One of the great peculiarities of film history occurred in 1972. In the same year that The Godfather was released and took the place of Gone With the Wind as the highest grossing film of all time, the second highest grossing film of the year was a hard-core pornographic film called Deep Throat. Deep Throat was a sensation, crossing over to become a mainstream hit. It was reviewed in the mainstream media and discussed on television by the likes of Johnny Carson and Bob Hope. It is estimated that this film which cost a mere $24,000 to shoot has had a lifetime gross of $600m, making it surely the most profitable film of all time – though it has been suggested that its gross figures were slightly inflated by the mafia, who used their porno theatres to launder money. At the centre of the film’s success was a seemingly ordinary woman, Linda Boreman, who thanks to a very particular talent would become the world’s first pornography superstar, Linda Lovelace. Forty years later, her story has been brought to the screen in the biopic Lovelace.
Lovelace is the first feature film from the documentary team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. In its early passages the film seems to tell the story of a self-conscious young woman, raised in a conservative Catholic household, who falls in love with a shady man and despite her shyness agrees to perform in low-budget pornographic film to help him get out of debt, all with the hope that it might lead to a career as a legitimate actress. However, at the halfway mark the story skips ahead six years to the film’s pivotal moment. When Linda Boreman went to write her autobiography, Ordeal, the material contained in it was so libellous the publishing company insisted that she take a lie detector test to verify her claims before they would publish it. This polygraph test provides the basis for the second half of the film to go back to the beginning and retell many of the events we have just witnessed from a different perspective. As a result, the Lovelace’s first and second half give us the contrast between the public perception of Linda’s rise to celebrity and the private, disturbing reality of it.
Lovelace is a biopic, its primary focus is on the person of Linda Boreman. As such, it is not really concerned with exploring some of the other interesting areas around the Deep Throat phenomenon, like answering questions of how Deep Throat became such an unlikely hit and what were the contributing factors to this strange moment of porno chic. If those are the areas that interest you, you would be better served seeking out Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat.
Lovelace features a strong ensemble cast including the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Noth, Bobby Canavale, Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick and James Franco, led by Amanda Seyfried in the title role. Over the last decade Seyfried has appeared in a number of high profile films – Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, Mean Girls – but it is fair to say that until now she has never been called upon to carry a film. In Lovelace it is all on her, the success or failure of the film was largely going to come down to her ability to connect us to this character and she gives really comes to the fore delivering the strongest performance of her career. But while Seyfried makes us feel for Linda, eliciting a great deal of empathy for this woman trapped in an abusive relationship with no one to turn to, we don’t necessarily come to understand her a great deal more. I don’t know that Lovelace’s screenplay gives us any more insight into the character of Linda Lovelace and the events that took place than was already common knowledge.
Most films about the world of pornography tend to take a pro or anti-porn stance, and the real life Linda Lovelace did become a strong anti-porn activist, but viewers looking for such a stance will find it difficult to identify in Lovelace. The film doesn’t seek to make broad statements about the porn industry because when it comes down to it Lovelace isn’t a film about pornography. It is a film about an abusive relationship. Likewise, anyone buying a ticket to Lovelace expecting to be titillated will be sorely disappointed. This is not that kind of movie. There is nothing sexy about it. It is a heartbreaking story about a woman, victim to an abuse with extremely public consequences.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds
With Hollywood determined to play it safe and stick to generic cliché and recycling trusted ideas, subscription television networks like AMC and HBO have become the home of innovative and interesting filmmaking. So it is fitting that one of the most interesting films of the year should be a television movie. Based on Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, Steven Soderbergh’s film is a behind-closed-doors biopic of one of the world’s most flamboyant and conflicted entertainers.
Behind the Candelabra explores the final decade of Liberace’s life through the lens of his relationship with his young companion, friend and lover Scott. As time goes on, their relationship becomes more complicated with Scott’s identity disappearing into the world of Liberace as the entertainer seeks to adopt him and even buy him facial reconstruction surgery so they can look more alike, all in the name of being family.
Having been in gestation since 2008, the project was turned down by practically every Hollywood studio on the grounds that it was, as Soderbergh puts it, “too gay.” So it fell to HBO, who have made their name by taking chances that commercial networks wouldn’t dare, to make the picture. As a result, Behind the Candelabra was released on television in the US, but it has been given a cinematic release in Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom.
Today, it seems astounding to think that people would be unaware that Liberace was gay. But his fame predated the rise to prominence of gay culture and sensibility in America, and the film gives insight into how closely guarded and managed, not to mention litigated, his secret was. A scene in which Scott reads a passage from Liberace’s autobiography emphasises the extent to which the entertainer has been forced to live and perpetuate a lie.
The screenplay also touches on Liberace’s Catholicism, which he maintained despite that church’s stance on homosexuality, but doesn’t choose to make it a major issue.
With Michael Douglas attached to play Liberace, the production was delayed for a couple of years as he battled throat cancer, but it was worth the wait as Douglas’ performance is tremendous, some of the best work of his long career. In a role in which it would have been very easy to resort to caricature, Douglas gives Liberace incredible depth and complexity, showing him to be at once lonely, insecure, jealous, predatory, possessive and controlling. We also get some impressive scenes of Liberace working his magic on the ivories thanks to seamless digital work, compositing Douglas’ head onto a piano-playing double.
In the role of Scott Thorson, Matt Damon serves as the audiences entry point into the extravagant and glittery world of Liberace. He is as confronted as we are when he first arrives in Liberace’s home, but as he settles into his surrounding so do we. Casting the 42 year old Damon in the role of Scott, despite the fact that Scott was still a teenager when he met Liberace in real life, allows the film to focus on the authenticity of their relationship without having to deal with the awkwardness of the immense age difference.
The strong headline performances are backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast including Dan Aykroyd, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds and a heavily made up Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz, who is himself nipped, tucked and botoxed within an inch of his life.
Unsurprisingly in a film about the most flamboyant showman ever, the costume, set and production design takes centre stage with some fabulous recreations of Liberace’s signature costumes and his “palatial kitsch” home.
Despite being at times quite funny, overall it is a terribly sad, melancholy film, about an immensely talented, successful but conflicted man who is crippled by his need to please people, and who chooses to keep such a central part of who he is secret from the world so as not to be dismissed as a “silly old queen.”
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean