Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club: An Actors' Showcase.

Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Reviewed: 26 April 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

It is 1985, and electrician-rodeo rider Ron Woodson finds himself with the AIDS virus and given a short time to live. Angry and confused, Woodson fights back, circumvents the normal health care system, and his work leads to his unexpected survival. He works with sympathetic doctor Eve (Jennifer Garnder) and makes an unlikely alliance with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto) who also has AIDS to sell drugs that work to the people that need them the most. A homophobe himself, Ron struggles with his place in the world as his friends abandon him and he turns activist, traveling to Mexico for experimental drugs, studying the law and figuring out ways to work around it. Ron's quick thinking saved lives and gave hope to a population reeling from the virus and governmental inertia. Rayon's struggle, though not as front and center, proves even more compelling, struggling with family rejection and working with Ron, which is not always the easiest.

I guess I felt underwhelmed because there is not much interiority to Ron Woodson. He reads about the idea of a buyers club to share pharmaceuticals in the New York Times and makes some pretty adroit choices that save countless lives. Besides his traveling to different countries to meet with distributors and funny outfits to fool Customs, he seems very alone. There are some obvious, easy to hate villains here, one complete with Patch Adams nose, and another from the FDA who could not be more unlikable if he tried. But the weaknesses of the film do not undermine its overall power; the two performances by McConaughey and Leto are strong and deserving of accolades. I just do not know if the script gives either enough to do. Having not seen Leto act in many years, his work as Rayon is a revelation. McConaughey has Ron's swagger and physicality down as he out-thinks those around him. I'm all for a movie where the lead character out-thinks his opponents instead of using a gun. It is appalling to think about the intersection of profit and potentially life-saving drugs, but Dallas Buyers Club works best when it focuses on its people.

Wolfishly Devilish: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese

Reviewed: 26 April 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

An aerial shot from a camera that must be mounted on a helicopter swoops over the ocean about ninety minutes into the film flying towards a glorious yacht with about one hundred people dancing and swaying in unison like a choreographed musical number. The camera zooms in closer, and we see Leonardo DiCaprio as our protagonist, leading this improbable circus parade of mayhem over the strains of "Insane in the Membrane."  It is one of several breathtaking moments that occurs when Martin Scorsese returns to form, tying back the world of Goodfellas, Casino, and even The Departed as he chronicles the rise and fall of stock broker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, an ambitious and dazzling film that features top acting, incredible editing, and a relevance to modern day headlines.  Jordan at one point helpfully tells us that what occurs at his firm is nothing comparatively. I reference Goodfellas and Casino because Scorsese focuses on the underbelly of the American Dream by examining outsiders who want in, people willing to gain money and power through the most outrageous of ways: the Lufthansa heist; building a golden city out of the desert; and manipulating stock prices to gain huge dividends. Those films along with Wolf feature the rise and fall of an American empire, a family of criminals devoted to each other until . . . well . . . things fall apart.

However, The Departed, a more recent Scorsese film, came to mind even more strongly as I watched this film. Jack Nicholson's famous monologue from the opening of the film comes to mind: "They told us we could be cops or we could be criminals.  But when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And besides being a post-9-11 treatise on betrayal, The Departed examines a pairing of men (one a criminal, one a cop; both posing as the other) and how remarkably similar they are. What truly does separate good from evil? Scorsese poses this question again in The Wolf of Wall Street after stock broker-messianic leader Jordan Belfort, a man who when spit out by Wall Street returns with a vengeance by building his own firm of miscreants and ne'er-do-wells pushing penny stocks on the unsuspecting, and gullible, realizes that his wedding video has been subpoenaed by the F.B.I. Realizing that he is under investigation, Belfort invites his adversary Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) to his yacht docked in Manhattan. What happens next is perhaps the quietest and finest scene in a movie filled with look-at-me moments. Decked out in regal clothing, sipping champagne on the deck, Belfort lets Denham know that he could be of use to him both professionally and personally. He lets Denham know that he knows of his past desires to be stock broker. He tempts Denham. And the work between Chandler and DiCaprio is topnotch in the scene, as each actor plays the reversal and revelation quite well, and it does not hurt that there is a physical resemblance between them. Denham could be Belfort. The description of his sweaty Subway ride home could not be farther removed from Belfort's yacht or helicopter or private limo. The scene ends wonderfully, a harbinger of things to come, with fun coupons and thrown lobster. Things fall apart.

Rounding out this weird and depraved jungle of wild-eyed capitalists are great performances from Matthew McConaughey as an early mentor, a schlubby Spike Jonze as the Long Island broker who plants a seed in Jordan's mind, and Jonah Hill as an intensely loyal underboss with a love for excess and a connection to Steve Madden shoes. Jonah Hill is impossible to take your eyes off here as Donnie Azoff with his shiny teeth, thick glasses, and hilarious line readings. I think it might be Hill's best performance, an equal achievement to his work in Moneyball. And DiCaprio is at his finest here: physically committing to the ridiculousness of the role, pounding his chest and hitting his forehead with a microphone, bullying customers over the phone, and showing the depths of Belfort's corruption by the end. Is there any actor who could play Calvin Candie, Jay Gatsby, and Jordan Belfort all in about 18 months? Leo remains one of the most exciting actors of our time, making choices that are always interesting, even if it is trying to open a car door with his foot.

I loved the supporting cast with many familiar faces all delivering strong work. At times, the film seems to look at us and marvel at itself: See how shocking I am trying to be? But much of it works quite well, and the film may be the funniest of the year as well. At nearly three hours, the film flies by, and though simultaneously sickening and exhilarating, Scorsese's film points the camera at the audience by the end, making us implicit in our enjoyment of Jordan's excess while also very aware that getting rich quick is always on our minds. In The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio's character quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne with "Families are always rising or falling in America," and Belfort proves adroit at both actions as well as the art of survival. And a closing shot of bedraggled Agent Denham on the subway set to a Lemonheads cover version of "Mrs. Robinson" has us looking victory in the face, in all of its shabbiness with a version of a great song that isn't nearly as good as the original: "Every way you look at it you lose."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hang It Up: The Hangover Part III

Movie Review: The Hangover Part III

Director: Todd Phillips

Reviewed: 5 April 2014

jamesintexas rating-- Zero Stars

Sequels can have diminishing returns and in the case of The Hangover Part III, it completely destroys any fondness for these characters and their anarchic energy. Although not as intellectually sloppy as its predecessor which merely copied the first film's premise in Bangkok, The Hangover Part III is worse than the sequel because it commits the worst sin a comedy can commit.  It is simply not funny.

Everyone is back from Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Ken Jeong to Heather Graham and Baby Carlos, but the film feels inert and stagnant. The plot involves an attempt to take Alan to rehab after an unfortunate incident with a giraffe and a highway overpass, but then it detours to connect us with John Goodman's scheming criminal enemy of Chow who recruits the Wolf Pack to do his biding. No one shines here, and the set pieces are not memorable. Every laugh rings hollow, and even the great Melissa McCarthy, a national treasure, delivers a flat performance.

I'm sure this film made quite a bit of money, and I'm sure that it was fun to make, but it just seems loveless and stale. The first film rang with laughs and absurdity, perhaps never improving upon the moment they all wake up in the hotel room after the debauched night. This film is not worthy to share its name.

Cop Land: Star Cast with Nonsensical Plotting

Movie Review: Cop Land

Director: James Mangold

Reviewed: 4 April 2014

jamesintexas rating-- **

An achievement in casting, James Mangold's Cop Land assembles a marvelous assemblage of actors, places them in the impossibly brilliant scenery overlooking Manhattan from across the river in New Jersey, and then saddles them to a moribund plot that results in sloppiness. In the film, Cop Land refers to a New Jersey town bought by NYC police officers through a special dispensation, and it serves as a sort of haven for them away from the job. The city sheriff is Freddy (Sylvester Stallone), a lovable loser type who is walked all over by everyone and is half-deaf as a result of a heroic act in his youth. When a police incident on the bridge separating New York from Cop Land results in headline-grabbing attention, Freddy begins to slowly wake up from his slumber, investigating suspicious activity, and conference with Internal Affairs officer (Robert DeNiro).

The film uses Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick, and a cast of recognizable faces in the execution of an unwieldy story with too many strands and a terrible ending. I thought the last fifteen minutes defied so much logic that it was stunning. The idea of Cop Land is a good one; the reality is that it is a film that is really a mess.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Swagger and Bombast: Winding Refn's Bronson

Movie Review: Bronson

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Reviewed: 4 April 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***

Thomas Hardy is an unqualified star, and as Great Britain's most notorious prisoner, the eponymous self-titled Bronson, he shines in muscular glory, sheer bravado, and complete fearlessness. For whatever faults the film may have as a whole, the lead performance cannot be faulted: Hardy stalks the screen like a tiger, ferocious and anarchic. With obvious debts to A Clockwork Orange, Winding Refn structures the film unusually with its lead character as circus ringleader, complete with strongman mustache too impeccable to be believed, addressing the audience directly as well as an imagined theater full of tuxedoed personages. I found myself swept up in its kinetic storytelling early on, and its spell did not break until Bronson finds himself trapped in a mental institution about 45 minutes into the film. Bronson's stints in prison, the result of a minor offence, result in a sort of institutional madness and pugnaciousness that result in a frothing, naked, bloody Bronson taking on all of his captors battle royale style as much as possible (resulting in eventual and excessive solitary confinement).

I enjoyed the disjointed structure of the film, the color palette used by Winding Refn, and the sneering lead performance. Where I found myself wanting more insight into the lead character's psychology as well as a greater social context. Without it, the film seems incomplete and demands further study of this real-life character. There is enough here to recommend it, but I think its ambition and losing of its way prevent it from greatness.