Dallas Buyers Club: written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; directed by Jean-Marc Vallee; starring Matthew McConaughey (Ron Woodrof), Jennifer Garner (Eve), Jared Leto (Rayon), Steve Zahn (Tucker) and Denis O’Hare (Dr. Sevard) (2013): There’s something uneasy-making about an AIDS docudrama set in the 1980’s that doesn’t have any major gay characters. Jared Leto doesn’t count — he’s clearly established as a pre-operative transsexual, though the movie itself (and not the era depicted) seems to be a bit unclear as to whether or not this makes Leto gay.
The narrative instead focuses on Ron Woodrof, a heterosexual Dallas-area rodeo cowboy and electrician whose HIV diagnosis sets him off on a quest for better drugs to combat HIV and AIDS at a time when the U.S. medical establishment was fumbling in the dark.
McConaughey’s Oscar-winning performance is fine, in that creepy Machinist way that relies an awful lot on our body horror at an actor’s Methodistic emaciation. I’ll be damned if I know how Leto won an Oscar for Supporting Actor, though. Oh, right. He played a guy who wants to be a woman in a movie based on a true story. Though apparently of the three leads (sexy, button-down doctor Jennifer Garner being the third), only McConaughey is playing an actual person.
Really, the movie succeeds or fails on how much one enjoys McConaughey’s performance. And it is fine, though it’s very much in line with the history of his performances in all those terrible Romantic Comedies he’s inhabited like a plague for more than a decade. He’s a bad cad who learns better. And a homophobe who, through discrimination against himself, becomes a heroic pariah. And he will ride that bull again!
Is there something morally dubious here in making a heterosexual male (who in real life was purportedly bisexual) into the hero of a movie about the early days of the AIDS crisis? I’m not entirely sure. Per Oscar Wilde, if it were a better movie, I probably wouldn’t be asking these questions. There are no moral or immoral books. Except when there are. Lightly recommended.
All is Lost: written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Robert Redford (‘Our Man’) (2013): Perhaps a bit more grueling than is workable, All is Lost nonetheless is a worthwhile journey into apparent doom. The obvious model for this story of Robert Redford vs. The Ocean is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. However, Hemingway’s fisherman had a giant fish to get home. Redford’s unnamed character is just trying to survive after his one-man sailing trip across the Indian Ocean goes increasingly FUBAR.
Much of the cinematography is haunting as we alternate between a lot of very close camerawork on Redford and a series of establishing and re-establishing shots of the ocean, the sky, and the surface of the water shot from below. The contrast between claustrophobia and the Sublime works wonderfully at points. The soundscape of the movie also works marvelously, with a particularly effective scene set on a rapidly sinking sailboat that groans and moans like the walking dead.
As Redford almost never talks in the film (his character isn’t a self-talker, and he doesn’t have a volleyball or a parrot to hang out with), pretty much everything rests on his physical acting, his physical presence. Well, and one drawn-out ‘Fuck!’ that’s both funny and heart-breaking.
Does it all go on a little too long? Yeah. There’s at least one false climax too many. But Redford, 77 and apparently unafraid to look old, holds the screen throughout the ordeal. His character does pretty much everything right (or a lot more right than most audience members who aren’t experienced sailors would) while things go increasingly wrong. As Hemingway had one of his characters note in The Old Man and the Sea, it’s better to have luck than to have skill. Recommended.
Midnight Run: written by George Gallo; directed by Martin Brest; starring Robert De Niro (Jack Walsh), Charles Grodin (Jonathan Mardukas), Yaphet Kotto (Alonzo Mosley), John Ashton (Marvin), Dennis Farina (Jimmy Serrano), and Joe Pantoliano (Eddie) (1988): One of the five or ten great comedies of the 1980’s was a cult hit at the time that’s grown in stature over the years to also become one a handful of the great Odd Couple movies in the history of cinema.
Do I even have to give a plot synopsis? Bounty hunter De Niro must find and return accountant Grodin to Los Angeles by midnight Friday to collect a $100,000 fee from a bail bondsman who set bail for the subsequently-gled Grodin. The Mob, the FBI, and another bounty hunter are also after Grodin, who stole millions from mobster Dennis Farina and gave most of it to charity. He’s now the key material witness against the mobster.
Because the movie is two hours long, things obviously don’t go smoothly. There are lots of great scenes both action- and character-related. There’s fine supporting work from everyone involved, and a fun, piquant script from George Gallo. Martin Brest, who directed the first and best Beverly Hills Cop movie, does solid work. His characters have time to breathe, and if the police chases get a little Blues Brothers at times, they’re at least funny and not tiresome.
But everything really comes down to the chemistry between De Niro as the terse, eternally F-bombing bounty hunter and Grodin as the soft-spoken, sarcastic accountant. It’s a great comic bromance. Grodin, underplaying in his usual way, is great, and De Niro would never be (intentionally) funnier. Highly recommended.