“Dallas Buyers Club”– Not for Cowboys (or, A Lone Star in the Fight against AIDS)

Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club

 

Jared Leto as Rayon
Jared Leto as Rayon

The true-life story of Texas AIDS pioneer, Ron Woodroof,  set in 1985 Dallas, depicts his battle to fight for his life after being diagnosed as HIV-positive. His search for life-supporting  experimental drugs via Mexico to help fellow HIV-positive people is the heart of “Dallas Buyers Club“.

Part-time rodeo bull rider Ron Woodroof (the skeletal Matthew McConaughey in an Academy Award-nominated performance) is rudderless–smoking heavily, snorting cocaine, having a lot of sex with prostitutes. He is also grossly unsympathetic for his racism and homophobia. While in the hospital on a work-related injury, the doctors inform him that he is HIV+, and that he probably has only thirty days to live.

In denial, and assuming that AIDS is exclusively a disease for “faggots”, Woodroff refuses to give up hope and begins to do research on experimental treatments. Ron begins to smuggle drugs not approved by the FDA into the US. In an unexpected business partnership with a transvestite named Rayon (the striking Jared Leto), the two AIDS patients establish a “buyers club” which does not, theoretically, sell drugs but rather disperses them to its members. Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), one of Ron’s doctors, is caught between hospital policy and empathy for her patients but decides to help their cause.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is character-driven as well as plot-driven, focusing on the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon, polar opposites who need and want each other.  The performances are remarkable, perhaps as much  for the costumes and physical transformation as for the acting. McConaughey lost over forty pounds, rendering him virtually unrecognizable and painful to watch.  Leto, also nominated for an Academy Award, is wafer-thin, dressing up in over-the-top attire and makeup.  As Rayon, Leto delivers  a much more likable, even humorous, character and matches McConaughey’s intensity scene for scene.

Because of a tightly woven narrative and excellent performances by all members of the cast, this indie film presents the thematic threads of government corruption, big pharmaceutical profits, and homophobia without hyperbole and pandering.  An excellent choice for the Academy Awards!

 

“Mud”– Channeling “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Mud 4

With its meandering pace, Mud embodies a Southern culture known for doing things slowly, drifting along the bayou languorously like “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” John Nichols, the director and an Arkansas native, grounds his film in authenticity through superb casting (including local teenagers), location, and a script centered on a believable coming-of-age story.

From gravel to mud to the swampy river, this feature film reminded me not only of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” but also of the Mark Twain novels, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  And that is probably why I couldn’t really give it an unqualified rave review.  Despite Matthew McConaughey’s endearing performance as Mud, a rogue of undeniable charisma and talent, along with superb performances by all the other actors, the story devolved from a neatly meshed puzzle to a predictable, almost laughable ending even with the excellent acting talent of Sam Shepard as a key figure at the end of “Mud”.

McConaughey’s magnetic, enigmatic star turn  as a drifter who knows how to charm his way through almost any disaster, drives the film but is not enough to make it a winner in the current Southern and Ozark genre trending in indie films today.  Only “Winter’s Bone”, for me, has that kind of storytelling virtuosity to become a classic.  Nonetheless, “Mud” is worth seeing for the actors’ performances, particularly that of McConaughey, who owns any role involving an effortlessly charming  rogue with a hint of danger underneath.

 

“Bernie”– A Texas Tale

This indie film defies easy categorization because it is sometimes comedic, often sad particularly with regard to the old and lonely, and always quirky.

Based loosely on a true story, which took place in a Texas hamlet called Carthage, the small-community culture is faithfully and mercilessly presented. The writer-director, Richard Linklater (of “Dazed and Confused” fame) zeroes in on ordinary lives in Carthage, particularly of the old.  Filmed in  a quasi-documentary style of “interviews” with actors and local Texans, about the almost-too-good-to-be-true Bernie Tiede,  “Bernie” does lose its way in a slow-paced narrative. However, the odd combination of folksy small-town America with its constant gossip and acrid humor contributes to the story’s attraction. The script’s homespun, down-home dialogue is biting, sarcastic, and ruthless which makes the gossip even more authentic and juicy. The genial faces are not those we see in Hollywood films.

The movie opens with Bernie as a fastidious mortician,  lecturing on the intricacies of preparing the body for burial (reminding me of scenes from the phenomenal Japanese movie, “Departures” (Academy award-winner for 2010 best foreign film–see my February 15, 2011 review). Bernie has to find acceptance from this community, and he does.

Marjorie Nugent (the delightful Shirley MacLaine) plays the wealthy old bitch who sheds no tears at her husband’s death. Family members have sued her.  She communicates only with her stockbroker.  Then Bernie moves to town. Her character is pivotal to understanding Bernie and both actors play off each other brilliantly. Jack Black nails every scene he is in, losing his usual goofy man-child demeanor for that of a caring but essentially repressed man, indispensable to the town’s mortuary and to the church choir.  (Jack Black’s considerable singing ability is showcased here.) Yet Bernie is slightly “off” but the viewer doesn’t quite know why.  There is no backstory for Bernie before he moves to Carthage.

Slowly and reluctantly Majorie Nugent opens herself to a life of affection and enjoyment due to Bernie’s gentle ways, but soon reverts back to her viperous dismissiveness and narcissism, almost in spite of herself. A crime is committed and there is a trial.  Sleazy district attorney  Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey: see my April 5, 2011 review of “Lincoln Lawyer”) struts in his Stetson and cowboy boots, grandstanding in the courtroom for a justice the community of Carthage could care less about. The script, which Linklater wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, is masterful in presenting this ambivalence and confusion.

Bernie is vibrant, a showman, flamboyant and loved.  It would be so easy for Jack Black to overact.  He doesn’t, instead giving a soulful and restrained performance as someone who needs to be kind to everyone he meets. There is a sense of affection and respect for the people of Carthage in every facial expression and gesture and Black never stoops to caricature.   The outtakes show the actor talking with the real Bernie Tiede.  For Jack Black’s performance this movie is worth seeing!

 

“Lincoln Lawyer”–More Than an Ambulance Chase

We saw the movie “Lincoln Lawyer” a couple of days ago, and it was a highly engaging–not brilliant–courtroom thriller of a movie in the “Grisham” style. Think the best of the courtroom dramas of the recent past: “Fracture” meets “Presumed Innocent”, for example. This film noir, based on a book written by Michael Connelly, is pure entertainment–with a few twists to keep it original and not the same old courtroom drama we’ve seen done well and also done poorly. Michael “Mick” Haller (Matthew McConaughey in one of his very best performances since “North Star” and “A Time to Kill”) is a slick, charismatic Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who operates out of the back of his Lincoln Town Car sedan–hence, the name “Lincoln Lawyer”.

Having spent most of his career defending down-and-out street criminals, Mick unexpectedly is recommended for the lucrative assignment of representing Louis Roulet (played chillingly by Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled Beverly Hills playboy who is accused of attempted murder. Roulet has been accused of brutally beating a young prostitute he met in a bar. Mick senses there is something incredible about this windfall. If Roulet has unlimited funds and really is innocent, why is he hiring a guy like him, who works out of the back seat of a car? The lawyer has spent all his professional life afraid that he wouldn’t recognize innocence if it stood right in front of him, a caveat from his father. He wonders if he could be staring into the face of evil, not innocence, and is terrified that he doesn’t know the difference.

Fueled by McConaughey’s and Philippe’s bravura, career-reshaping performances, the supporting cast sustains the audience’s attention: Marisa Tomei as Mick’s ex-wife and fellow attorney, Frances Fisher as Roulet’s intimidating mother, and especially William H. Macy, as Mick’s friend and loyal but offbeat private investigator.

McConaughey has brilliantly played the hard-edged law officer before, either as a sheriff or a lawyer with Southern overtones. Returning to that type of role in “Lincoln Lawyer” may indicate that he is heading for a highly acclaimed “Paul Newman”-type of second act (as exemplified by Newman’s Academy Award-nominated performance as a marginal lawyer in “The Verdict”). He effortlessly maneuvers between charm and sleaze as Mick Haller, yet retains some basic human scruples, which will allow him to save his soul. This movie is a delicious two hours’ entertainment, not just another potboiler of ambulance chasers–you won’t be disappointed!