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Review: ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Rests Entirely On Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in 'Dallas Buyers Club' (Focus Features)
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (Focus Features)
Given 30 days to live, Matthew McConaughey continues to sniff cocaine, drink hard liquor, and entertain sexually-unrestrained women in his wreck of a mobile home in Dallas, Texas, USA.

McConaughey, an outsized personality with a magnetic smile, here plays a man named Ron Woodroof, an outsized personality with a sickly smile who was given a fatal prognosis in 1985. As Woodroof, McConaughey resembles a drumstick after the meat has been chewed off, his head and bushy moustache wider than his emaciated body. Yet he is living “the good life,” as he would probably define it, doing whatever he wants whenever he wants, and with whomever he wants.

He enjoys sex with women, but does not remember their names. He enjoys drinking and gambling with his buddies, but has no intention of paying off his losses. He is friends with a police officer, but does not hesitate to punch him in the face to save his own hide.

When he is informed at a hospital that he is HIV-positive, he is more offended by the idea that someone might think he is gay than by the prospect of death knocking on his door, storms out in anger, and resumes his risky behavior. But he is not stupid. Within days, he has done enough personal research to learn that drug users and people who engage in unprotected sex are also at risk, and realizes that his lifestyle has left him vulnerable.

He returns to the hospital in search of a drug that he has read might save his life. When a kind doctor (Jennifer Garner) informs him that the drug is not approved by the FDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he replies with justifiable exasperation, “Screw the FDA, I’m gonna be D.O.A.!”

The balance of the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y.) from a screenplay credited to Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, follows Ron in his desperate, determined efforts to secure whatever drugs he can to treat the illness. First, he is only concerned about himself, then, after he seizes on the profit possibilities, he becomes committed to obtaining treatment for whoever can pay his going price.

Ron has a fierce instinct for survival, but he is not necessarily an admirable human being. He is brusque in his manner, and given to outbursts of anger. He is a raging homophobe. He has no interest in cultivating close relationships, and no patience for the shortcomings of others. Still, he is the protagonist. At some point, he will yield and mellow, at least to a degree; of this we have no doubt.

Jennifer Garner in 'Dallas Buyers Club' (Focus Features)
Jennifer Garner in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (Focus Features)
And so it is up to McConaughey and Vallee and the screenwriters to chart a path that is convincing, that will honor the memory of the man, and also impart some idea of the times in which he lived. What emerges is a simplistic demarcation between good (those who have HIV or AIDS) and evil (the FDA and the medical professionals who adhere to its regulations).

Once drawn, the line remains steadfast, and the only middle ground is granted to Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner with steely resolve and a sweet disposition. She is sympathetic to Ron’s plight, though she refuses to compromise her personal integrity. Beyond her physical appearance, it’s not made apparent why she remained on Ron’s good side. Perhaps a little sympathy went a long way with him.

The film wages its own battle against accepted medical wisdom and the government, with Ron as its flinty leader, repeating bromides and repainting the line between good and evil. Jared Leto is enlisted as Rayon, a transsexual and fellow AIDS patient whose brains for business and positive attitude eventually soften Ron’s knee-jerk hatred for gay people. Within somewhat limited parameters, Leto and Garner are on target in their emotional graduations.

Matthew McConaughey once again commands deep respect and full attention for his embodiment of a man whose basic resolve and views on life and death never change. Ron Woodroof remains determined to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and with whomever he wants. Inch by inch, though, without even realizing it, he makes room for the possibility that other people have something to offer him beyond drugs, sex, and alcohol: friendship.

Dallas Buyers Club opens at Angelika Dallas on Friday, November 8.

Review: ‘All is Lost,’ Adrift on an Unforgiving Sea

Robert Redford in 'All is Lost'
Robert Redford in ‘All is Lost’

It’s very, very tempting to refer to Robert Redford’s new film as The Old Man and the Sea. But that would be neither accurate nor fair, because All is Lost features an actor who is graceful and empathetic and intelligent and cunning and determined to survive, come what may, in complete ignorance of the number of years he has been breathing air on this planet.

In his heyday, Redford carried around a reputation that he was more of a pretty boy than a real actor, someone who coasted to stardom on his good looks and surface charm, never clawing beneath the surface of the characters he played, and stayed at the top because of his winning smile and unwillingness to take risks. To date, he has received only one Academy Award nomination for his acting (1973’s con man caper flick The Sting, opposite Paul Newman), and it was only when he stepped behind the camera that the Hollywood community recognized his abilities, granting him an Oscar for Best Director for 1980’s Ordinary People.

In the promotional material for All is Lost, Redford’s character is called “Our Man,” but he could just as well be called “Any Man” or “Lonely Soul” or “The Drifter.” He is sailing alone, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, when the story begins. A container, filled with athletic shoes, rips into the hull of his boat, opening a small hole that looks like a giant chasm when the ocean water begins to flow inside. The sailor patches the hole as best he can, thinking through the best way to handle the situation; he does not panic or mutter to himself or jot his thoughts down in a journal.

In short, he is well-suited to sail alone on a long ocean voyage, adrift on an unforgiving sea.

To read the rest of this review, please visit Twitch.

All is Lost opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, November 1.

Review: ‘Riddick’ Cheerfully Accepts Its Self-Imposed Limitations

Vin Diesel in 'Riddick' (Universal)
Vin Diesel in ‘Riddick’ (Universal)

A goofy programmer that morphs from a science-fiction version of Jeremiah Johnson into a back-alley riff on Aliens, David Twohy’s Riddick barely holds together as a movie, but its joie de vivre cannot be denied.

As the titular character, a fearsome warrior left for dead on a planet uninhabited by humans, Vin Diesel brings his personal charisma and physical agility to the role, which is left largely undefined beyond the aforementioned qualities. Lip service is paid to the idea that Riddick has been abandoned because he has lost his ‘animal spirit,’ perhaps a reference to the first two films that featured the character, 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, both directed by Twohy, who has written or co-written all three installments.

Twohy has a strong understanding of genre dynamics, as evidenced by his track record (as a writer/director, his credits include Below and A Perfect Getaway), so the screen is kept filled, showing off a motley collection of CGI beasts that are constantly trying to eat Riddick. Roughly the first third of the action is devoted to a solo survival tale, accompanied only by Diesel’s gravel-voiced narration. Unlike Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, however, Riddick’s life is continually in peril; he barely has time to take a breath from one animal attack before another dangerously fanged, sharp-toothed, seemingly invincible animal is trying to take a bite out of him.

Finally he decides that his only hope for survival is to set off a beacon that will alert bounty hunters to his location, which is also a signal for the movie to shift into Aliens mode. Very, very quickly, a mangy team led by the oily Santana (Jordi Molla) arrives to pick up their target; Santana thinks Riddick will be easy pickings, but his #2 man Diaz (Dave Bautista) isn’t so sure. Shortly thereafter, a second, more disciplined team lands on the planet, this group headed by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and featuring his #2, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, looking even more lethal than she did in Battlestar Galactica).

The combined manpower and firepower of both teams are no match for the mighty Riddick, of course, who starts to lay waste to them. And then an approaching storm forces everyone into an easy truce that will prove to be no less deadly for the humans than the all-out war that preceded it.

Despite the accumuluation of dismembered corpses, no serious tension is ever generated — it’s really, really hard to make computer pixels look threatening — and the action sequences are the usual junkpile of quick cuts and odd angles and bodily fluids. Yet the film rolls along at a snappy pace and Twohy provides the requisite macho wisecracks and rejoinders, spit out by the game cast with the appropriate level of disrespect and disdain.

Diesel is sufficiently convincing as a bad-ass, while Molla and Nable are solid leaders, and Bautista and Woodbine, as well as Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Nolan Gerard Funk and the rest of the cast, including Karl Urban, are appropriately buff, gruff, and tough. Kate Sackhoff acquits herself best of all, her self-confident swagger a treat to watch.

Unaccountably, Sackhoff’s character is sometimes left behind while the men head out to do battle, but she’s a loyal soldier and never questions the authority that has left her on the sidelines. In that respect, she’s a good stand-in for the movie as a whole: Riddick is loyal and never questions the creative authority that has determined it should be nothing more than an extremely straightforward search-and-destroy mission.

The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, September 6.

Review: ‘The Lone Ranger’ Tells Two Stories At The Same Time, Baffling Everyone

Johnny Depp as Tonto in 'The Lone Ranger' (Disney)
Johnny Depp as Tonto in ‘The Lone Ranger’ (Disney)

Et tu, Tonto?

Disney’s new live-action version of The Lone Ranger wants to be a lighthearted action-adventure and a sober-minded reflection upon the atrocities committed against Native Americans. But it doesn’t have the artistry — or the juggling skills — to accomplish both at the same time, and so it ends up being neither, a baffling war of tones in which no clear victor emerges.

It’s as though Steven Spielberg wanted to make Saving Private Ryan, and the studio insisted that he make it a World War II-era romantic comedy, with battle scenes intact but trimmed to achieve a PG-13 rating. It just doesn’t make sense to smash together two such extremely disparate perspectives, and smacks of a desperate attempt to avoid offending anyone.

Johnny Depp reeks of sincerity as Tonto, a character who has been upgraded from demeaning sidekick to full-fledged hero, albeit a vengeance-minded soul who must be shown The Civilized Way by The White Man. Armie Hammer is stuck with the thankless titular role, a peaceful, naive lawyer from The East named John Reid who is in for a rough ride Out West. He travels by train to the small town where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) serves as Sheriff. To form a fateful romantic triangle, John harbors unrequited love from younger days for his brother’s wife Rebecca (Ruth Wilson), but doesn’t seem terribly comfortable with Dan and Rebecca’s young son Danny (Bryant Prince).

Under orders from powerful railroad executive Cole (Tom Wilkinson), Dan is charged with tracking down notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner); the transcontinental railroad is about to be completed, and Cole wants to establish the town as a safe haven. Dan and his deputies, including John are ambushed; John survives with the reluctant assistance of Tonto.

Tonto, with a dead bird on his head and a ready supply of birdseed on hand to trade for goods with corpses, has his own reasons for seeking Cavendish. Depp’s Tonto is a solemn fellow, but he has a ready wit that is manifested in eye-rolls and tossed-off quips. (Far be it for this Tonto, however, to display sexual interest in anyone other than prostitutes.) At a certain point, the story stops so that Tonto’s personal history can be detailed and his motivations revealed; this then opens the door to ponderous, sometimes fairly explicit (for its PG-13 rating) depictions of horrifying butchery, followed promptly by a wisecrack or two to lighten the mood.

The dramatic portions of the movie are handled in a respectful, straightforward manner that is then undermined by an apparent fear that anyone might take it seriously. The net effect is that an innocent, if completely insensitive and ignorant, childhood game of “cowboys and Indians” has been rudely interrupted by adults who insist on sitting the boys down and teaching them a history lesson.

Gore Verbinski is too inelegant a director to do anything interesting with the two conflicting narratives; he is content to allow them to exist in alternating, irregular patterns, interrupted by action sequences that erupt based on the clock rather than the plot. He and Depp made a much more entertaining proto-Western with the animated Rango, which also had the grace to suck up less than half the time that The Lone Ranger spends lumbering along in its haphazard way.

On the positive side, Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” which is trotted out no less than three times, remains a spirited, uplifting piece of music, evidence that not everything needs to be modernized in order to retain its appeal for modern audiences. If only The Lone Ranger had learned that lesson.

The Lone Ranger opens wide across the Metroplex on Wednesday, July 3.

Review: ‘Pieta’ Begs to be Different

Kim Ki-duk's 'Pieta' (Drafthouse Films)
Kim Ki-duk’s ‘Pieta’ (Drafthouse Films)

The opening credits proudly announce that Pieta is the 18th film by Kim Ki-duk, immediately suggesting that it should be viewed within the context of his career.

Therefore, I feel obliged to disclose that I’ve only seen four of Kim’s films previous to this one, and none since 2006’s Time. (As long as we’re getting things on the record, the others are 2001’s Bad Guy, 2002’s The Coast Guard, and 2003’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.) From that small sampling of the Korean filmmaker’s career, I carried away the impression that his work was distinctive, memorable, and extremely brutal, presenting an unflinchingly bleak view of humanity, especially relationships between men and women.

Pieta would appear to fit that description as well. Street thug Gang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin) collects overdue loans in a particularly brutal fashion, physically disabling those who are past due on their payments and then forcing them to submit insurance claims that will cover their debts. When the wife of one hapless debtor wails bitterly, Gang-Do turns righteous and shouts: ‘People who borrow money and don’t repay it are the real criminals,’ or words to that effect.

Gang-Do himself lives in a tiny, squalid flat, and is presented as a solitary soul consumed by anger. Then a middle-aged woman appears at his doorstep and, oddly enough, rushes inside … to begin cleaning up his apartment. Her actions are explained when she introduces herself as Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo), Gang-Do’s long-lost mother. She apologizes for abandoning him as a child, and sings a lullaby to prove her parentage.

Wanting nothing to do with her, Gang-Do throws her out, but she begins stalking him. To get rid of her, he cuts off a piece of his flesh with a huge pocket knife and tells her to eat it to prove her motherhood. She does. And then he rapes her …

Somewhere within that sequence, I disengaged completely from the movie.

As dramatic “reality,” even of the fictional kind, even having in mind Kim’s established record of cruelly extreme behavior, I didn’t believe it for a second. Maybe it’s just me and my own blinkered perception of mankind, but I cannot accept that someone would cut off a piece of his flesh with a huge pocket knife and make his “mother” eat it And then rape her. Sorry, no, my mind shut down, as far as dealing with Pieta as drama. Taken at face value, it’s exploitative garbage.

As a risible and weirdly perverse parable, however, I found it to be wryly amusing. Without the obligation to take any of it seriously, the overblown melodrama having long since collapsed upon itself, the black comic elements of the film stand out in greater relief. Viewed as a parable, the relationship between mother and son can be interpreted as a bitter commentary on the political / military / industrial complex and its view of consumers. Or, it could be considered as a brutal depiction of the class war, with the rich creating the poor, abandoning them, trying to make up for its neglect with material goods, and then suffering angry backlash.

Any reading such as those two is infinitely preferable to the idea that Pieta represents what would happen if a mother attempted to reconnect with the son she left behind. And it makes it much easier to swallow the manner in which the story is resolved.

Frankly, I doubt that Kim intended his 18th film to be a black comedy, and question whether he meant to impart commentary in the form of a parable, but for me it plays much better to think that he did.

Pieta is now playing in a limited engagemet, exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.

Review: ‘Fast & Furious 6’ Flies Confidently and Absurdly Into Superhero Territory

'Fast & Furious 6' (Universal Pictures)
‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Universal Pictures)
Dispensing with the boundaries of time and space — and breaking loose from the shackles of gravity and logic — allows the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise to bound confidently, if absurdly, into superhero territory.

Consider: superheroes can fly through the air; ordinary mortals cannot. Superheroes can return from the dead; ordinary mortals, even ones driving wicked fast motor vehicles, cannot.

Fast & Furious 6 is based on the absurd proposition that Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), who died several sequels ago, has returned from the dead and is now a member of a gang of thieves who drive very, very quickly and are quite angry to boot. She has amnesia, of course, and no longer recognizes Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the former love of her life, who has moved on reluctantly and learned to love again, or at least allowed Brazilian model / some kind of armed agent Elana (Elsa Pataky) to warm his bed.

Dominic and his driving / thieving pals Brian (Paul Walker), Han (Sung Kang), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) are living in retirement, reaping the reward of the millions of dollars they stole / earned by liberating a steel safe, tearing up the streets and businesses of Rio de Janeiro and pretty much ensuring that the Brazilian government would be happy to lock them up forever. The fugitives consider each other to be family, though, and they all come running when Dom whistles at the possibility that Letty is really, actually alive; after all, ‘you don’t leave family behind,’ which is a very popular sentiment among moviegoers and driving / thieving / rich people alike.

The gang has been reconvened at the behest of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a lone guerilla in camouflage pants who represents the government in some behalf, somehow still gainfully employed after the disaster that was the previous episode of the series. Well, not quite “lone” this time, because he’s joined by his newly faithful sidekick Riley (Gina Carano), and I do mean sidekick; she can punch and shoot guns as well as anybody in camouflage pants, but her distinguishing skill is her capacity to kick people into submission.

The rival gang of villains mirrors the heroes in appearance, as one of the good guys helpful points out, and is led by the shady Shaw (Luke Evans), who wants to steal a computer chip worth billions from the government and/or quasi-governmental entity. The chip’s theft would be devastating to the nations of the world and upset the balance of power and/or would put Apple and Microsoft out of business; the explanation is tossed off quickly and is really not germane to this discussion, because mainly what the movie wants and needs are excuses for people to fight and wisecrack and drive stylish cars very quickly and blow things up and smash vehicles and destroy property and make some more jokes and maybe flirt a little and kill people without dwelling too long on the dead bodies and maybe quite possibly and casually kill innocent civilians but not acknowledge anything more than — wow! Doesn’t that look cool! And, hey! Isn’t that funny? And, oh no, he didn’t! Snap!

As popcorn entertainment, Fat and Furious Sex — or whatever it’s called, the main titles reduce it to Furious 6 — is a lot of hot air, recyles far too many shopworn cliches, and is faithful only to the modern action insistence on cutting in harmony with the chaos method, which prevents easy comprehension of geography and danger. On the other hand, that’s all it wants to be; despite the repeated references to family and the yearning to return home expressed in the script by franchise stalwart Chris Morgan, this is a movie that is built around the action sequences, and director Justin Lin fully exploits the budget that has been accorded to him.

It’s a knowingly absurd film that always keeps a straight face. Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t need to wink at its audience; it’s not a secret that action junkies crave bigger and more boundless experiences, and so much the better if they’re delivered with a friendly sense of humor and a reckless disregard for reality.

Fast & Furious 6 opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, May 24.