Talking Movies

November 4, 2015

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan’s shy emigrant makes a new life for herself in 1950s Brooklyn before being tempted by new opportunities suddenly presenting themselves in hometown Enniscorthy.

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Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a part-time shop-girl for snobbish Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). That’s the only job in town, so she emigrates; leaving behind beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins). On the boat to NYC she gets a crash-course in confidence from Americanised Georgina (Eva Birthistle). But her confidence doesn’t stand up to her demanding new boss Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare), homesickness, and the snide lodgers at the boarding-house of Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) – Patty (Emily Bett Rickards), Diana (Eve Macklin), and Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone). Fr Flood (Jim Broadbent) pays for Eilis to study accountancy at night-school, like Rose did, and soon a rejuvenated Eilis has fallen for Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). But a return to Enniscorthy presents her with a new suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and a plum job opportunity…

Brooklyn looks amazing. Dallas Buyers Club cinematographer Yves Belanger, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Francois Seguin combine to startling effect. It doesn’t surprise to see a sun-drenched 1950s Brooklyn, but to see endlessly maligned 1950s Ireland explode with sumptuous clothes in many vivid colours does. John Crowley directs at a measured pace, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay wrings great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s, the man-hungry new Cavan lodger Dolores (Jenn Murray), and Tony’s loudmouth younger brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo). But Brooklyn is a fundamentally dishonest film. This is a fantasy of emigration. Emory Cohen’s performance is halfway between young Marlon Brando and young Bruce Willis. Tony’s courtship of Eilis consistently rings psychologically untrue, and her return to Enniscorthy as (secretly) Mrs Fiorello makes her romance with Jim a trite rom-com set up and unbelievable.

A cousin of mine read Colm Toibin’s short novel on publication and dismissed it as only being praised because it was by Toibin. This film is so handsomely mounted it takes a while to realise how shallow and vacuous it is. Jim Farrell broke off an engagement because he thought his fiancé wasn’t serious about him. The subtext she was just serious about his money; Jim being one of the rugby set the poorer Eilis disdains. We are never offered the slightest insight into the moral gymnastics Eilis Fiorello, raised in mid-century Ireland, has in mind to allow her forget her consummated marriage so as to fall into Jim’s arms. And the contrived happy ending leaves one instead wondering about Jim. After being led on so cruelly by Mrs Fiorello what romantic future can he have? A grim, embittered bachelorhood?

We just lost 250,000 people in 4 years during the crash. That’s worse than Brooklyn’s mid-1950s, but it cheerleads emigration as being some sort of demented self-reliant individualist self-actualisation.

2.5/5

January 27, 2015

Top Performances of 2014

As the traditional complement to the Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2014. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as top of the class, the runners up being right behind them, with also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) Arquette’s character grows older but not wiser, instead we see her becomingly increasingly brittle as even she realises that she’s sensible about everything except her romantic choices.

Carrie Coon (Gone Girl) Forming a great double act with Ben Affleck, Coon broke out from theatre with a glorious turn as his twin sister– the foulmouthed and spiky voice of reason.

Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) Lawrence was perhaps too young for the part, but she played it with such comic panache that her sporadic appearances energised an overlong film.

Runners Up:

Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank) Gyllenhaal was pitch-perfect as scary obscurantist Clara, with wonderful nuance in the slow reveal of how such off-kilter music bonds her and Frank’s damaged and isolated psyches.

Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) Foy was bright, furious, and resentful, and blew Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of their character, the indomitable Murph.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) Paulson’s casual brutality towards slaves was deeply shocking, but her horror at being replaced sexually by a slave subtly underscored her menace.

Also Placed:

Amber Heard (3 Days to Kill) Parodying her hyper-sexualised persona (The Informers) Heard, in leathers and wigs, flirted with burlesque girls and sexualised both driving fast and injecting medicine.

Joey King (Wish I Was Here) Pitted against Zach Braff’s glibly sarcastic agnosticism the sincerity of King’s adherence to Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity blew him off the screen.

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Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) His character’s drugs spiral, even as his friendship with Ron becomes beautiful, was extremely moving, with his fierce commitment extending to deliberately ravaging his appearance.

Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) His vicious bible-thumping alcoholic was terrifying, but also complex; slaves are either sub-human or masters are guilty, and Epps is self-destructing from mercilessly exploiting his slaves.

Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) Hawke physically filled out in a career-best performance of serious comedy as deadbeat dad whose rebelliousness was an affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the world.

Runners Up:

Andrew Scott (The Stag, Locke) Scott was their sole highlight: his Locke vocal performance exuded excitability and exasperation, while Davin was a man fatally wounded by romantic rejection being tortured some more by his ex-girlfriend.

Killian Scott (Calvary, ’71) His Calvary misfit Milo was dementedly funny in rambling frustration, and he so transformed into ruthless IRA leader Quinn that he seemed not only older and tougher, but almost taller.

Zac Efron (Bad Neighbours) Efron’s previous subversions of his image were nothing next to this jackpot: his squeaky clean looks have never been put to such diabolical and hilarious use.

James Corden (Begin Again) Corden not only frequently gave the impression that he was ad-libbing great comedy moments, but also that he was improvising Knightley into unscripted corpsing bonhomie.

Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) Bautista took what could have been a tiresome running gag and instead by dedicated deadpan made utter literalness to the point of insanity infinitely unexpected and hysterical.

Also Placed:

Adam Driver (What If, Tracks) Sparring against Mackenzie Davis and Daniel Radcliffe in What If he was highly amusing and occasionally sagacious, and was both funny and adorably awkward in Tracks.

Gene Jones (The Sacrament) He was patently playing Jim Jones, and turned the charisma up to 11 for a TV interview that was so mesmerising it explained Father’s cult of personality.

Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here) Patinkin brought deep humanity and biting humour to his wise, religious father disappointed by his glib, agnostic son but delighted by his bright, devout granddaughter.

Tyler Perry (Gone Girl) The man can actually act! And as celebrity defence attorney Tanner Bolt he transformed the oily character from the novel by bringing palpable warmth to the part.

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Best Actress

Keira Knightley (Begin Again) Knightley sang rather well, but not only did she carry a tune she also carried the movie with a return of her old confidence. Maybe all that’s needed to restore the old swagger is James Corden ad-libbing her into improvising so she forgets her stage-fright.

Mackenzie Davis (We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, What If) Her What If wild child was oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, albeit interpolated with Daisy Buchanan, and was strikingly different from her reserved bookworm subtly using her wits to escape a noir nightmare in We Gotta.

Runners Up:

Rose Byrne (Bad Neighbours) It’s always a joy when Byrne gets to use her native Australian accent, and she swaggered with such foul-mouthed comedic assurance that at times Seth Rogen became her foil as the sensible one in their marriage.

Agyness Deyn (Electricity) Deyn was a commanding presence. She grabbed with both hands this defiant character, who wears short dresses and fluorescent jacket; drawing the eye to a body covered in cuts; and had no vanity in showing these effects of seizures.

Also Placed:

Juno Temple (Magic Magic) Temple reprised some elements of her naïf in Killer Joe, though thankfully she was less over-exposed here, and made her character’s steady descent into insomniac madness chillingly plausible.

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Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) McConaughey’s physical commitment to the role was jaw-dropping, initially rake-thin before then wasting away before your eyes to harrowing effect. Initially unsympathetic, he patiently revealed the hidden softer side which engaged Dr Eve, and beautifully developed an unlikely and most affecting friendship with Rayon.

Runners Up:

Daniel Radcliffe (What If) Radcliffe is sensational as the hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness this was a comic role of unexpected substance.

Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) It’s hard to imagine anyone else, save 1973 Elliot Gould, pulling off this role quite as well. The Ruffalo exudes immense shambolic charm, shuffling about in scruffy clothes, doing permit-free guerrilla location live music recording that would make Werner Herzog proud.

Dan Stevens (The Guest) The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for all concerned Stevens burns a hole in the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance – playing scenes tongue-in-cheek serious as the charismatic helpful stranger.

Also Placed:

Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) Affleck as an actor too often contentedly coasts, and (even when gifted zingers as in Argo) acts as a still centre. But, with Fincher pushing him with endless takes, he was fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws.

Pal Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, In Order of Disappearance) The imposing Norwegian perfectly captured old-fashioned grit, naive enthusiasm, and quiet heroism as Thor Heyerdahl, and then played crime-lord The Count as an epically self-pitying vegan equally stressed by divorced parenting with his ex-wife, and a nasty turf war with Serbian mobsters.

January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

October 2, 2014

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn streamlines her twisting novel for David Fincher who turns it into a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing that it simply flies by.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) owns a bar in Carthage, Missouri with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Except, he doesn’t really own it – it’s in his wife’s name. In fact pretty much everything is in the name of trust-fund Amy (Rosamund Pike). So when Amy goes missing on their 5th wedding anniversary, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) find it hard not to suspect Nick of murdering her. Nick maintains that NYC girl Amy had no friends in his hometown, seemingly unaware that shrill Noelle (Casey Wilson) was BFFs with Amy; and has photos to prove it. Nick seems distant with Amy’s peculiar writer parents Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes), and his affair with the much younger Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) only copper-fastens his guilt; as proclaimed by cable anchor Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle).

Gone Girl is like those Ira Levin novels Stephen King praised where there wasn’t a twist at the end, more a pivot in the middle, which made it hard to discuss without ruining. Flynn’s screenplay simplifies her novel without losing its punch, indeed her streamlining improves on its latter meandering. Fincher, particularly in staging parallel reactions to a crucial TV interview, brings out black comedy that isn’t as readily apparent in the book; making this a satire on trial by media. When Amy’s traditional anniversary treasure hunt leads to incriminating evidence Nick as much as confirms his guilt by hiring legendary defence counsel, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). And comedian Perry’s stunt casting pays off in spades as he brings a warmth to the part not present in the book. Meanwhile Neil Patrick Harris, as Amy’s obsessive ex Desi, leaves his comfort zone for a suggestion of true creepiness. Pike showcases iciness and intelligence, while Affleck is fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws. Fincher is the kind of director who, with his endless takes, wrings great performances from actors like Affleck too often content to coast; and this should quash sceptical mutterings about Affleck’s Batman.

Affleck is helped by being half of a great double act. Margo was always going to be a great part, and Coon breaks out from theatre with her glorious turn as the spiky voice of reason. Amazingly, this is the first Fincher movie I’ve ever reviewed, and it’s a prime cut. His regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth stages two fever dream scenes of arresting beauty, in a sugar storm and a snow storm, while a pull-out shot at a truck stop is made strangely gorgeous. Otherwise we’re in that under-lit threatening world of The Social Network and Fight Club’s abrasive social commentary. Fincher’s customary editor Kirk Baxter and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross all join him in whooping it up in a grand guignol scene that keeps fading out and returning, again and again, as the music screeches as much as the more squeamish members of the audience. The squeamish are also treated to two other scenes, including some business with a hammer, which are that peculiar Hitchcock-plus of Fincher dark comedy. Reznor and Atticus’s score is dominated by intrusive melancholy piano, and then the electronic clicks and screeches we’ve come to expect – and that perfectly fit Fincher’s unsettling universe.

David Fincher is one of the most distinctive directors working in cinema, and this knockout punch is, with Dallas Buyers Club and Boyhood, one of the movies of 2014.

5/5

February 7, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey’s acting renaissance continues as Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to Anglophone cinema with a far surer script than Julian Fellowes’ dire Young Victoria.

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Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is introduced in Hemingwayesque style as he gets busy with two prostitutes in a spare pen at the dangerous rodeo. An archetypal good ole boy he is soon punching his favourite cop (Steve Zahn) to ensure arrest before irate gamblers demand their money after his friend TJ (Kevin Rankin) ruins the book. Running some gambling, and spending the proceeds on drink and hookers is Woodroof’s contented life, with electrical maintenance at oil-fields providing a steady income, until he collapses and awakes in hospital to find himself being diagnosed with HIV by Drs Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner). Given 30 days to live, Woodroof goes into furious denial, before stealing AZT supplies, and eventually ending up in a squalid clinic in Mexico, where Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne) re-educates him about the FDA and supposed wonder-drug AZT…

McConaughey is initially rake-thin, as the HIV victim the doctors are amazed hasn’t died before this point, and he wastes away before your eyes over the course of 2 hours to harrowing effect. McConaughey also has no problem in being unsympathetic. He’s a perfect cliché of redneck hostility when he meets HIV+ gay transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) in hospital. But soon Woodroof himself is on the receiving end as TJ mocks his sexuality and Woodroof finds an invisible force-field around him at his favourite bar as everyone fears catching his disease. Soon Woodroof’s quest ceases to be to save his own life, but to outwit FDA regulations for the good of all his fellow AIDS sufferers, thru the Dallas Buyers Club; run in an unlikely partnership with Rayon, whose honour he chivalrously defends in a supermarket against TJ’s homophobic slurs.

Dallas Buyers Club has one major problem, given its ‘based on a true story’ status. Barkley of the FDA (the reliably oily Michael O’Neill) makes for a strong villain, but was AZT really as poisonous a treatment as Woodroof believed or is this film cleverly playing on our fears of Big Pharma’s ability to corrupt regulation for its own profits? But against that factual concern is the superb acting and affecting arc; even as Woodroof hustles Dr Eve she warms to his hidden softer side – on being evicted he breaks into his trailer to save a painting. Woodroof’s friendship with Rayon, which sees them bickering in a supermarket about processed food like a married couple, is beautifully developed, and Rayon’s drug spiral is extremely moving. Leto didn’t play a character called Angel Face in Fight Club for nothing, he looks prettier in a dress than many actresses, but his fierce commitment to the role includes deliberately ravaging his appearance as Rayon nears the inevitable end.

McConaughey’s renaissance continues to be as spectacular it was unexpected, while Jean-Marc Vallee finally achieves an Anglophone success to rank alongside his Quebecois triumphs C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore.

5/5

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