Tuesday, December 31, 2013

McConaughey Solidifies His Resurgence as a Great Actor in "Dallas Buyers Club"

Dallas Buyers Club

Movies like Dallas Buyers Club can easily become preachy, weepy messes.  A true story about the early days of the AIDS crisis.  Amazingly, the film ended up being informative, touching, and entertaining.  Everything about the film combined made it one of the best of the year, but the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto truly set it apart.

Leto has received the bulk of the praise thus far for playing the transgender Rayon, and he deserves it, but it's McConaughey who gives the most impressive performance.  As Ron Woodroof, the rodeo hustler turned AIDS medication activist, McConaughey gives the best performance of his career.  It's easy to point to the physical transformation he went through as evidence of his commitment, but it's much more than simple weight loss that makes this performance.  Looking the part is only part of it.  McConaughey is believable both as a homophobic cowboy and as a sympathetic, caring activist.  You're sickened by him early on, but you come to love this character.  A bit of that is writing and the true story of it, but a lot of it is in the performance.  

The true story of it all is a major selling point, too.  Ron Woodroof's partying, promiscuous life left him infected with AIDS at a time when a lot of the world thought only homosexuals were susceptible to the disease.  That misconception has, of course, been laid to rest.  Something from the early days of the AIDS scare that might not be apparent (at least it wasn't to me, maybe because I was a toddler during the time period of the film) is that the early treatment for the disease could potentially be more deadly than the disease itself.  Woodroof found this out through his own experience and also figured out a way to turn a profit from it.  The film covers his fight with the FDA as people sought medication in Dallas.  

Dallas Buyers Club was certainly informative for me, but, more importantly, it was entertaining.  Perhaps it's because I expected a true story involving AIDS would be more somber, but I was very surprised how fun this movie is.  Maybe "fun" isn't the right word.  The point is that Dallas Buyers Club could have been some preachy/sobbing downer of a movie, but instead it kept things realistic.

The film has a realistic look to match the tone.  There are no grand shots.  A shot of McConaughey suddenly in Japan is presented in the same way as a shot of him in a parking lot in Texas.  It's how life is.  Just as there are no perfect set scenes in life or dramatic speeches, there are none to be found in Dallas Buyers Club, and the film is all the better for it.  The amazing performances may be getting all the attention, but there's so much more to this great film.

This film gets a: 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Review Roundup - "Prisoners," "The Wolverine," "Captain Phillips," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Machete Kills," "In a World...," and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

I've been severely lazy when it comes to movies lately, so it's time for me to do a quick rundown of some recent (and not so recent) films I've seen as I get closer to making my year end list.  So in no particular order, here are my thoughts on a few movies.

Prisoners was probably the most pleasant surprise I had at the movies this year.  The previews made the film look like misery porn with grieving parents sobbing and screaming about their lost, possibly dead, children.  Who wants to see that?  Thankfully, the marketing was deceptive.  Prisoners does have multiple scenes of distraught parents, but it is not some Oscar bait movie in which actors see who can fake cry the most.  It is actually an engrossing mystery of a film that kept me extremely interested throughout.  It's also one of those movies that just needs to be watched rather than read about.  So if you skipped it because it looked depressing, consider giving it a chance.  

The Wolverine
I really wanted to love this movie, but I ended up just kind of liking it.  I realized that the film had failed for me when I started to write a review months ago, and couldn't get past the first paragraph.  There's nothing truly wrong with the film, and it is better than the first standalone Wolverine film, but it was also a bit boring.  I have never been a fan of characters who want to be rid of their powers, and this film has Wolverine hiding out in the woods being reluctant and whatnot, and I don't want to see that.  Then Wolverine starts to lose his powers and he's basically a regular human for the bulk of the film.  I don't want to see Wolverine get nursed back to health for an hour.  Yes, there are some action scenes, a few of which are decent, but overall this film just left me bored.

Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass is a director known for details, so he is a great choice to film the true story of a commercial freighter captain and his ordeal with Somali pirates.  The film has a documentary feel to it, and it features some truly suspenseful events.  Tom Hanks is great as the titular captain, but it is Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the Somali pirates who steals the show.  He humanizes what could have been a very one-note character. You don't hate the pirates; you feel sorry for them.  It's a hard line to walk.  How do you create sympathy for what would traditionally be the villainous role without inadvertently turning them into the hero?  Thanks to the writing and the performance this tough task was accomplished.

The Place Beyond the Pines
I watched this film a few months back when it came out on video and really enjoyed it.  Normally, I would just not write anything about it, but this one might crack my Top Ten this year, so I felt the need to address it. I was not a fan of writer/director Derek Cianfrance's previous film, Blue Valentine.  It was a well-made film that juggled non-linear storytelling nicely, and it featured great performances, but the subject matter just depressed me.  I know it was meant to be depressing; it just wasn't for me.  That's why I was glad to see his second feature, while very character-driven, involved a bit more action.  

This sprawling film is unique as it shifts from one character to another.  It defied my expectations, and that is something I always like to see.  This is one of those movies in which I couldn't accurately predict what was going to happen from one moment to the next.  Add the elements of Blue Valentine to a story like this and you have one of the best films of the year.

Machete Kills

I guess this was a one-note joke for most people as this ridiculous sequel received both poor reviews and box office returns.  I liked it for all its insanity.  The cast is great, and it's very dumb fun.  The first one was more enjoyable because the joke was fresh, but this film is just as entertaining.  Not much else to say for this one.  Check it out if you liked the first one and feel like seeing some crazy crap.

In a World...

First off, I'm not sure if the poster is meant to be an homage to The Lives of Others, but it reminded me of that amazing film, so I'll be watching that again soon.  So there's that.  In a World...is the feature writing/directing debut of Lake Bell (Adult Swim's Children's Hospital) about voice over artists.  In particular, it's about the lack of female voices in that world.  There's a lot going on in this film, perhaps too much, but it was an interesting and funny movie at times.  Everything about it is okay, but nothing stood out to me.  I expected a few more in-jokes about the industry and the ridiculousness of movie trailers.  Instead, it was a lot more about personal relationships.  The drama with all of that was decent; it just wasn't what I was expecting.

Here are the two posters so you know what I meant with that first sentence:

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
This movie never really found much of a release, and it's easy to see why.  That is not a knock against this film, as it already has a bit of a following.  It's just one of those movies that is never going to be very popular.  Many will refer to it as a hidden gem.  I am not one of those people.  Although I loved the cast, I found this to be too much like a Terence Malick film.  I like Malick, but I only want to see movies like his if they are actually made by him.  But truthfully, there's nothing really wrong with the film.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The 2013 Indiana Film Journalists Awards

The critics' group I belong to has released our annual year-end awards.  I've included the release in its entirety below, but I wanted to weigh in on some of the selections up here first.

12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, and I am completely okay with that selection.  I thought 12 Years was one of the most effective films of the year (I gave it a Vader), and it was #2 on my ballot.  My #1 was Mud, a film I consider a new American classic.  I was glad to see Mud made it on the top ten list.  My #3 was Dallas Buyers Club, a film that did not make the top ten, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I have yet to write a review for that film (I'll get to it soon), but trust me, it'll be a glowing one. 

As far as the rest of the top ten, I don't have any issues.  There are some on there that I didn't like as much as the rest of the group, but there is not a single film on that list that I think is a "bad" movie.  And I was very happy to see that I'm not the only one who enjoyed Prisoners.  That's a film that I feel is getting less and less attention as the year ends, though it deserves more and more.

Chiwetel Ejiofor won Best Actor, and that's another choice I can easily support.  Once again, Ejiofor was my #2 selection, with Matthew McConaughey as my #1 choice (he was runner-up).  So many good performances this year, and I think we got the top two right.

As for Best Actress, we went with Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue Is the Warmest Color.  This, along with our Supporting Actor award, will turn the most heads.  I have to be honest, I abstained from this and the Best Foreign Film category because I did not get around to seeing Blue, but I am proud of our group for making a unique selection.  And I look forward to watching the film so I can latch onto the group and take credit for making the selection as well.

The Best Supporting Actor award is another one I am proud of (and I had a slight hand in this one!).  Barkhad Abdi, the first-time actor who portrayed a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips, won top honors for a performance that could have easily been one note, but ended up being the most compelling actor in the film.  (No offense to Tom Hanks, who was also very good in the film.)  Abdi was actually my third choice (I did say a "slight" hand in the decision), with Michael Fassbender at #1 and Jared Leto at #2.  I doubt that Fassbender gets much recognition in this crowded category this year, but his performance really put 12 Years a Slave over the top for me.  As for Leto, I think we'll be seeing his name more than Abdi's as more awards roll out.  I'm fine with that, as his performance was great.  

The Best Supporting Actress category went to Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  I was more interested in the the runner up, June Squibb in Nebraska.  She had some great moments that stole the show in the second half of that sad, but funny film.  And that's saying something as Bruce Dern and Will Forte did a fine job in that movie.

That's about all I have to say about the awards this year.  Once again, hats off to the IFJA for making some good, interesting choices.  I'm just glad to be a part of it, hopefully doing more harm than good to each category.  Anyway, here is the write-up and full list of the 2013 Indiana Film Journalists Association Awards.

"12 Years a Slave" wins top honors from Indiana film critics
The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of writers dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is proud to announce its annual film awards for 2013.
"12 Years a Slave" won top honors, taking the prize for Best Film and earning a total of four awards. Chiwetel Ejiofor won for Best Actor, Steve McQueen won in the Best Director category and Hans Zimmer took the prize for Best Musical Score.
"Her," which was the runner-up for Best Film, made a strong showing with Spike Jonze earning the award for Best Original Screenplay. It also won the Original Vision Award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking. Eight other movies were named Finalists for Best Film.
Adele Exarchopoulos took Best Actress honors for "Blue is the Warmest Color," which also was awarded the prize for Best Foreign Language Film. Jennifer Lawrence earned the Best Supporting Actress award for "American Hustle," while Best Supporting Actor went to Barkhad Abdi for his work in "Captain Phillips."
"Frozen" won Best Animated Feature, and "The Act of Killing" took Best Documentary. In their third cinematic go-round together, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize for "Before Midnight."
The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with roots in Indiana, or a film that depicts Hoosier State locales and stories, went to "Medora," a documentary film directed by Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart.
IFJA members issued this statement with regard to the Hoosier Award: "In chronicling the plight of a hapless high school basketball team from a tiny, economically depressed Indiana town, Cohn and Rothbart managed to tap into the way Hoosiers are transfixed by their hoops obsession, as well as explore the harsh choices Indiana teenagers often face. In many ways, the film stands as stark counterpoint to the seminal "Hoop Dreams." These players aren't vying for a spot in the NBA, but to win a single game and lay claim to their dignity, both on and off the court. It is a quintessentially Hoosier story told with craftsmanship, unique insight and uncommon grace."
The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film
Winner: "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: "Her"
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically):
"All Is Lost"
"Before Midnight"
"Captain Phillips"
"Frances Ha"
"Spring Breakers"
"The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Animated Feature
Winner: "Frozen"
Runner-Up: "The Wind Rises"
Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Runner-Up: "The Grandmaster"
Best Documentary
Winner: "The Act of Killing"
Runner-Up: "Stories We Tell"
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Spike Jonze, "Her"
Runner-Up: Peter Morgan, "Rush"
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, "Before Midnight"
Runner-Up: John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Director
Winner: Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Spike Jonze, "Her"
Best Actress
Winner: Adele Exarchopoulos, "Blue is the Warmest Color"
Runner-Up: Brie Larson, "Short Term 12"
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Runner-Up: June Squibb, "Nebraska"
Best Actor
Winner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"
Runner-Up: Jeremy Renner, "American Hustle"
Best Musical Score
Winner: Hans Zimmer, "12 Years a Slave"
Runner-Up: Hans Zimmer, "Rush"
Original Vision Award
Winner: "Her"
Runner-Up: "Gravity"
The Hoosier Award
"Medora," Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart, directors
(As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)
About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.