Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

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Shrink


The party's over...

The party’s over…

(2009) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Griffin Dunne, Robin Williams, Pell James, Robert Loggia, Keke Palmer, Gore Vidal, Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Jesse Plemmons, Laura Ramsey, Ashley Greene, Joel Gretsch, Mina Olivera. Directed by Jonas Pate

We look to our mental health professionals to help us see us through our problems, help us overcome our addictions and in general feel better about ourselves and our lives. Like any physician, they are also human beings, subject to issues and pain of their own.

Dr. Henry Carter (Spacey) is a bestselling author and psychiatrist to the stars. He has a gorgeous home in the hills, a clientele that reads like the “A” list and the respect of his peers. But that home is an empty one – his wife committed suicide in it. He can’t bring himself to go in his bedroom any more. He numbs himself out on alcohol and pot. In fact it can be said that Dr. Henry Carter is a stoner of epic proportions.

That’s not to say he isn’t functioning. He still manages to see patients and doles out advice that at least sounds good. His patients include a hard-charging talent manager (Roberts) who gives no quarter in business and has no regard for anyone, a fading comic actor (Williams) who is a raging alcoholic but refuses to acknowledge his problem – he attends his sessions to be treated for a sex addiction that he does acknowledge. There’s also an actress (Burrows) whose career is handled by the talent manager that is slowly spinning into oblivion as he believes her age is an obstacle. She is married to a philandering rock star (Gretsch).

Into this mix comes Jemma (Palmer), a teen whose mother recently committed suicide. She is seemingly losing interest in everything except the movies; Dr. Carter’s father (Loggia) – also a well-respected shrink – urged him to take her on as a pro bono case. At the same time, Dr. Carter’s “step-godbrother” Jeremy (Webber), a struggling screenwriter, becomes friendly with Jemma and realizes her story is the one he was born to tell.

Yes, this is one of those ensemble pieces where all the stories of all these different people are entwined. It’s just not done as well as those other movies like Babel or Crash. The writers rely far too much on coincidence. It’s lazy storytelling and it happens way often here.

Fortunately the movie has some strong performances to fall back on. Nobody in the business does cynical as well as Spacey does and he delivers once again here, despite material that really could have easily been rendered into a 2D caricature. To the actor’s credit, he gives the character nuances and layers that give him a fully realized personality that allows us to really get involved in his story.

He is well-supported, particularly by the manic Williams who has had problems with alcohol in his career and clearly channels those awful years in is performance; Palmer is sweet and cute and adorable and is a breath of fresh air in the movie and James who plays Roberts’ personal assistant who is the love interest for Jeremy.

The opening shot, a panoramic take of the City of Angels from behind the Hollywood sign, shows a great deal of promise but then it falls into cliché-ridden seen-it-all-before-ness that not only doesn’t add any real insight to addiction or life in L.A. but doesn’t really add anything to the genre either. The only thing it really has going for it is Spacey and you can certainly see him in plenty of much better films.

WHY RENT THIS: Spacey is always interesting. Supporting cast is first-rate.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit formulaic. Some lazy writing – too many coincidences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of alcohol and drug abuse in the film, and a whole lot of bad language. There’s some sexual content as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video for the Jackson Browne song “Here” from the film’s soundtrack.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $303,431 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Gangster Squad

The Grey


The Grey

Liam Neeson will know better than to fly economy next time.

(2012) Action Thriller (Open Road) Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw, Peter Girges, Jacob Blair, Lani Gelera, Larissa Stadnichuk. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

In the deep heart of the North, it is always cold, a block of unforgiving ice that will freeze all hope. Only the strong may roam freely there and even those know the harsh reality of life – that as strongas you are, there is always something stronger and more fierce.

John Ottway (Neeson) has that same cold place in his own heart. He is a contractor at an Alaskan oil pumping station, working with roughnecks in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization. He is on the security detail, making sure that the men are protected from grey wolves and other Arctic predators. However, there is a predator inside him, one that has eaten him alive. His wife (Openshaw) has left him to his loneliness and that burden is one he can no longer carry.

He intends to kill himself, takes his high-powered rifle and puts it in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads back to his barracks and waits for his contract to be up so he can go home with the other roughnecks who have worked their contract.

They board a small plane, ready to fly to Anchorage and from there to points beyond but the plane never makes it there. It crashes in the wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors. The weather is freezing, with a blizzard making visibility nearly zero. There are many dead and dying, like Lewenden (Dale) who is frightened but eased into the abyss by Ottway.

It becomes clear they aren’t alone in the wilderness when Ottway spots one of the stewardesses whimpering in the underbrush. He goes to rescue her and realizes that she was being eaten by a wolf. Ottway believes that they’ve had the unfortunate luck to crash in the midst of the territory of the wolves who take exception to the intrusion.

Things get worse when Hernandez (Bray) who’s on watch is killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Knowing that they are exposed in the wreck with little means of defending themselves, Ottway believes their best chance is to head south and hopefully exit the territory of the predators. He also knows that nobody will be looking for them terribly hard.

As the men make their way through the unforgiving wilderness, they come to terms with their impending mortality, the existence (or non) of God, and the significance of their lives. As they fall to the cold, the terrain and to the wolves, soon it becomes clear that the cold heart of the North is a grey wasteland of death and redemption.

Carnahan, whose body of work includes Smokin’ Aces, does some of the best work of his career. This is not your ordinary wilderness survival film; these are no cardboard cutout characters with heroes and villains vying for control in the elements. These are hard men, worn down by hard lives whose tough fronts begin to crumble when faced with horrible death. There is an awful lot of that, from wolf attacks to falls to freezing to death.

Neeson has made a career transformation from an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor to an action star. Pushing 60, the rugged Neeson has become king of the beginning of the year action flicks, with success in both Taken and Unknown coming in the first two months of their respective years. As with those films, he lends The Grey gravitas, bringing the inner turmoil of John Ottway to the surface but only in a subtle way, one that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or ever ring false 

Carnahan also cast his film with mostly character actors who are largely not well known to the general public, although some might recognize Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding – he is virtually unrecognizable here. Grillo and Roberts also deliver strong performances.

Part of the allure of The Grey is the cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi brings the snow-covered landscape of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) a kind of stark but majestic beauty. The cold is almost palpable through his fine work.

While there are some gruesome scenes of wolf attacks and of human remains, both from the plane crash and the attacks, the action here is almost more internal than external (not that the latter is lacking in any way shape or form). This is about the journey and not so much the destination. The movie is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the first draft of the script) and if the movie’s Nietzschean themes are any indication, it might be worth checking out.  

The movie has been getting a fair amount of critical acclaim with a lot of folks surprised at how good it is. For my part, Carnahan has done some good work and has exceeded expectations here. Nobody should be surprised that Neeson delivers such a fine performance – while not Oscar worthy perhaps, it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A raw, unadulterated survival film. Neeson again gives a strong performance.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a bit too Nietzsche for some.  

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images of the wolf attacks and their aftermath are awfully disturbing, and there’s plenty of bad language for all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carnahan, Neeson and producers Tony and Ridley Scott previously worked together on The A-Team.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

SNOW LOVERS: There is plenty of it on the ground and falling from the sky. This is as cold-looking a movie as you’re ever likely to see.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Garden