‘About Time’: Get started now

October 31, 2013

about time

I heard a lot of critics sniff at the inclusion of Richard Curtis’ “About Time” in this year’s New York Film Festival. The same cadre, no doubt, uses Curtis’ “Love, Actually” as an example of what’s wrong with romantic comedy.

I’d like to demur. I happen to think that Curtis is one of the few movie-comedy practitioners working today who can infuse his work with deep feeling, to contemplate the larger questions from a micro level, finding humor in humanity, as well as pathos. (More…)


‘Dallas Buyers Club’: Heal thyself

October 30, 2013

dallas buyers

Having squandered most of this century’s first decade being a movie star, Matthew McConaughey has approached its second stanza as an actor. The results have been salutary.

In a year in which he’s already turned in stellar work in “Mud,” after last year’s “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe,” here he comes, aiming squarely for a best-actor Oscar in “Dallas Buyers Club.” And we haven’t even seen what he’ll do in Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.”

If ever there was a year that called for the presentation of an Oscar for a body of work, McConaughey is having it. The vagaries of distribution aside, it’s no coincidence that he’s given a string of deep and deeply nervy performances. “Dallas Buyers Club” is the cherry on top of the sundae.

Set in 1985, “Dallas Buyers Club” is the true story of Ron Woodroof, a part-time Dallas rodeo rider and full-time party animal. An avowed heterosexual (with a wide streak of macho homophobia, as befits the times and the region), he’s getting by on a mix of oil-field work, rodeo side-bets and whatever else gets him through the night – at least until the day he wakes up in a hospital and gets the bad news: He has tested positive for the HIV virus and doctors give him roughly 30 days to live.

Ron gets past his initial shock (of the “I ain’t no dang queer” variety) to the crux of the moment: He needs help and no one is going to help him. So he starts doing his homework, then does what he does best: bribes an orderly to get him AZT, the first drug being tested to fight AIDS and HIV.

But AZT is exceptionally harsh on the body – and Ron finally finds himself in the hands of an alternative-therapy doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne), who tips him off to more experimental treatments involving vitamins, amino acids and other compounds that the FDA either isn’t looking into or is banning outright.

Woodroof figures out that, like him, there must be a lot of people in Dallas who can’t get AZT (still in experimental trials) and are looking for help. So he teams up with a well-connected local drag queen, Rayon (Jared Leto), to create his own network to sell unapproved drugs he’s smuggled in – and, inadvertently, help raise the pressure on the heel-dragging Reagan administration to take AIDS treatment seriously.

Consciousness-raising is never easy to dramatize. The “a-Ha!’ moment is tough to make feel real without seeming contrived, even when it’s based on actual events. Yet director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack simply move the story along, letting the audience figure out just how canny and ingenious (in what is initially a larcenous impulse) Ron is, once he sinks his teeth into the real issue here.

He is an unlikely rabble-rouser, the kind of guy who has always been on the lookout for the main chance and otherwise just got by. Focused on a goal as extreme as saving his own life, Woodroof finds the hero inside, simply by projecting how his own situation is manifesting on a larger scale. It’s not just self-preservation; it’s the empathy to understand that everyone else in the same position wants to live just as much you do. And then caring about it.

McConaughey, who lost significant body mass for the role of this dying man, has a wiry gauntness that threatens to turn brittle at any moment. But it’s not just his look; it’s his performance, as the kind of guy who always thought he was tougher than any virus – and has been proved drastically wrong. Now he applies that diamond-hard will to doing something bigger than himself.

Leto is a revelation, a pleasant actor afloat in a career that seemed relatively undefined because he was more involved in music than movies. But this performance is a stunner, perhaps igniting an acting career that has been looking for exactly this kind of role. The rest of the cast is up to McConaughey’s fierce focus, including Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare, as the doctors who help, then battle, then split over Woodroof’s approach.

But “Dallas Buyers Club” is Matthew McConaughey’s movie and 2013 is his year. It’s yet another reminder of how we mishandled the AIDS crisis initially, until compassion finally entered the equation.

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‘Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa’: Why is this man laughing?

October 29, 2013


Back in the days when he was still funny, Jay Leno used to have a routine about why an appreciation for the Three Stooges was a uniquely male phenomenon. It was dead-on.

To that list of gender-specific entertainment geared to men, I’d add the willingness to watch and laugh at movies from the crew of “Jackass.”

I plead guilty to an abashed fondness for the “Jackass” movies, which revealed new depth to the kind of childishness hinted at by the “Jackass” TV show. Part bro sado-bravado, part “Candid Camera,” part daredevil, often scatological, the “Jackass” films were grab-bags of outlandish jokes, each more elaborate, painful-looking or stomach-turning than the last.

I went – and I laughed. I laughed until I choked, as I like to say. I’m not proud of myself, but there it is.

No matter how far I think I’m evolving as a human being, that male chromosome is a resilient character-definer. And so I went to see “Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa” at a multiplex this past weekend, since the studio incorrectly assumed I’m too highbrow to go to a “Jackass” screening.

And I laughed. A lot. (More…)


‘Aftermath’: Past ain’t past

October 28, 2013


You could think of “Aftermath” as a Polish version of “12 Years a Slave”: a film that exhumes a shameful chapter in its nation’s history which some people would just as soon leave buried, rather than confront.

Instead of slavery, however, “Aftermath” deals with Polish anti-semitism, as it was manifested during World War II. Specifically, filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski focuses on the spate of mass murders of Jews carried out in small Polish towns by the residents of those towns, with no instruction or even sanction by the Nazis, as revealed in, among other books, Jan Gross’ 2002 “Neighbors,” about the small village of Jedwabne, Poland. (More…)


‘The Counselor’: Out of order

October 24, 2013


Ridley Scott is one of those overrated directors who, every once in a while, puts together a hard-edged, lean little film that skips his identifying visual trademarks and choices of style over substance and just delivers the goods.

“The Counselor,” unfortunately, isn’t one of those efforts. For a change, however, the film’s problems are less the result of Scott’s choices than those of his writer. (More…)


Who’s telling this story?

October 23, 2013


We are in the midst of a bumper crop of bio-docs: documentaries focused on single figures who have wound up on the wrong side of history and who seemingly want the chance to get their side of the story on the record.

Obviously, there will be those who disagree with my assessment of the subjects of “The World According to Dick Cheney,” R.J. Cutler’s portrait of the former vice president which played at Sundance at the beginning of the year before it aired on Showtime.

The same folks will no doubt question my inclusion of Donald Rumsfeld on that list (he’s the subject of Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known,” which screened at the Toronto Film Festival in September and which will be released in December). (More…)


‘The Fifth Estate’: Truth beats fiction

October 22, 2013

fifth estate

Pity the poor filmmaker who has to follow Alex Gibney in tackling any subject.

Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian, has made a string of tough, incisive nonfiction films examining such topics as Enron, the Iraq war and beyond. His 2010 documentary about crooked Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” was a comprehensive look at the influence-peddling scandal that should have sunk George W. Bush (and did cost Tom DeLay and several others their Congressional seats).

It was followed the next year by the late George Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack,” with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff. A nice enough movie, but redundant and reductive compared to Gibney’s film.

Now we have “The Fifth Estate,” a competent but unremarkable film by Bill Condon – made that much more unnecessary by Gibney’s doc from earlier this year, “The Wikileaks Story: We Steal Secrets.” (More…)


‘Enzo Avitabile Music Life’: The whole world

October 17, 2013


Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme has built a whole side business making films that most other filmmakers would be happy to have as a career: documentaries about music and musicians.

Boswell to Neil Young through three films, Demme has also made a film about Robyn Hitchcock – and now Italy’s cult figure of world music, Enzo Avitabile.

“Enzo Avitabile Music Life” is an engaging portrait of an artist that blends performance and verite footage. (More…)


‘12 Years a Slave’: Tortured history

October 16, 2013


Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is the year’s most powerful film, an arthouse masterpiece which demands to be seen – and which will punch mainstream audiences in the gut.

McQueen may be the most distinctive filmmaker to emerge since Quentin Tarantino. But while this film deals with similar subject matter as “Django Unchained,” you couldn’t find a movie more opposite to Tarantino’s Oscar-winning tornado of a film or a filmmaker with a sensibility more in contrast to Tarantino’s. (More…)


‘All Is Lost’: Nature, the conqueror

October 15, 2013

all is lost

Like bookends – or perhaps a double-feature for adrenaline junkies – “All Is Lost” comes on the heels of “Gravity” with the distaff and earthbound version of a similar story.

But where Sandra Bullock barely stopped talking during “Gravity,” Robert Redford barely says a word in the course of “All Is Lost.” The eloquence of his silence is powerful. (More…)