Monthly Archives: February 2014

TRAILER THURSDAY!

It’s a freaks and monsters kind of day! Here is the trailer for the 1974 monster mash The Mutations, directed by Jack Cardiff.

The Mutations Poster

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Mini Review: Philomena (2013)

Judi Dence and Steve Coogan in Philomena

by Steve Habrat

When assessing this year’s long list of Academy Award nominees, a good majority of the films that have landed nominations are mainstream pictures. Perhaps the most obscure (I use “obscure” rather loosely here) nominee would have to be Philomena, the newest dramadey from director Stephen Frears, the man who also gave us High Fidelity and The Queen. Based upon the extraordinary true story of Philomena Lee and her 50-year quest to find her son, Philomena finds Frears crafting a charming odd couple story that never forgets to press all the weepy emotional buttons that Academy members just can’t resist. With the script, penned by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, swinging smoothly between comedic and poignant, Frears can let his stars, funnyman Coogan and Judi Dench, really make the sparks fly. The drastic differences in their personalities comprise most of the chuckles, and watching a naïve woman of God butt heads with an atheist political journalist makes the hour and a half runtime fly by at the speed of light, leaving you wonder where the time just went. It’s chemistry at its very finest.

Philomena introduces us to Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench), an aging Irish nurse who has been desperately searching for her missing son for fifty long years. It turns out that in 1951, Philomena got pregnant at a fair, and as punishment was sent to Sean Ross Abby, an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. While working at the convent, Philomena is allowed to see her son, Anthony, for only an hour a day. One day, Philomena is horrified to learn that a wealthy American couple has adopted Anthony and moved the boy to the U.S. Over the years, Philomena’s grief over her loss has gotten worse. Meanwhile, Martin Sixsmith has just been fired from his job as a political advisor for the Labour Party. Distraught over his recent termination, Martin contemplates writing a book on Russian history, but his plans change after he meets Philomena’s daughter and he hears her mother’s amazing story. Reluctantly to write a human interest story, Martin is slowly won over after meeting with Philomena and traveling to the convent for answers. With very little information made available to them in Ireland, Martin and Philomena decide to travel to the U.S., where they learn of Anthony’s extraordinary life.

Philomena #2

Early into their journey, Martin and Philomena learn a devastating twist in Anthony’s life, a twist that leaves the viewer wondering just where Frears and his screenwriters will take the story next. It’s here that a wealth of discovery gushes forth and picks up the film’s tempo to the point where it feels like the story was told in the blink of an eye. The secrets of Anthony’s life are certainly absorbing, this the viewer cannot deny, but his background takes second place to the exploration of faith versus atheism. It’s truly incredible to watch Philomena hold on to her faith, even when her faith had turned on her and ripped her life apart. On the flipside there is Martin, an atheist who is constantly biting his lip and looking for an opportunity to attack those who have wronged the poor, sweet Philomena. While a majority of this plays to the sensitive side of the film, there is also plenty of humor to be milked from it. It’s hard not find Philomena’s naïve wonder to be funny, especially when she is in awe over things like chocolates on her pillow in her hotel room and her fascination with a foreign chef cooking up her breakfast. Naturally, this all gets on Martin’s last nerve, tempting him mutter veiled sarcastic remarks to the beaming Philomena. Despite his efforts to keep a bit of distance between himself and Philomena, Martin isn’t immune to this woman’s misty-eyed grief or twinkling charms, and it is increasingly heartwarming to watch him stand up for her.

When discussing the central performances of Philomena, funnyman Steve Coogan expertly adapts his comedic wit to fit with the more dramatic tone of the picture and it truly does show off his wealth of talent. The earlier scenes of the film find Coogan sneaking in his dry sense of humor, but when the drama rises, Coogan displays impressive confidence, leaving you hoping that he explores more dramatic turns in the near future. And then there is Judi Dench, who really earns her Oscar nomination as the impossibly sweet Philomena Lee.  You instantly fall for this little old lady who clutches to breezy romance novels and an eagerness to forgive even when she is being ridiculed by a handful of glowering nuns. Overall, Philomena is a film that seems to have come from the hearts of the filmmakers and headlining stars. It’s moving, comical, smart, and down-to-earth, completely lacking the sensationalized touches that Hollywood usually insists on for these true-story crowd-pleasers. This is a must-see buddy movie that you won’t be able to pull away from.

Grade: A-

TRAILER THURSDAY!

If you want wild and crazy, then this is the trailer for you! Behold the trailer for 1987’s Thunder Cops, directed by Jeffrey Lau.

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TRAILER TUESDAY!

It’s time for another dose of spaghetti western mayhem! Check out the trailer for the ultra-grim, ultra-gruesome classic The Great Silence, directed Sergio Corbucci.

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Pieces (1982)

Pieces #1

by Steve Habrat

In the 1980s, the horror genre was besieged by an array of drive-in and grindhouse slasher movies.  Among the numbers were hockey-mask clad madmen, scarred dream-world psychopaths, and slumber party massacres, but the bad boy of them all had to be 1982’s Spanish bloodbath Pieces. Directed by Juan Piquer Simón, Pieces is one of the most savage and downright hilarious slasher movies from the movement—one made all the more likable through its flaws in logic and it’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Boasting the gruesome taglines, “It’s exactly what you think it is” and “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre,” Pieces goes for the jugular vein with its violence, never cutting away from the skin-shredding brutality and chainsaw carnage that fills the screen. It’s a treat for those who absolutely adore their exploitation films with geysers of gore and an abundance of topless babes sprinting around as a chainsaw growls just inches behind them. While it may not be nearly as terrifying as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pieces is a extravagant effort that continues to win over cult horror buffs with its ominous synthesizer score, fluid attack sequences, cheese-filled dubbing, and shriek-inducing climax that leaves your jaw cemented to the floor.

Pieces picks up in 1942, with a young boy named Timmy assembling a puzzle of a nude pin-up girl. As he quietly and harmlessly snaps the pieces together, his mother walks in and erupts in anger at the boy, threatening to burn the filth Timmy is playing with. In retaliation, Timmy grabs an axe and proceeds to gruesomely hack his fuming mommy up into bloody bits. The police and a concerned neighbor soon show up on the scene and find the seemingly terrified and innocent Timmy hiding in the closet. Many years later, a bloodthirsty madman is running loose on a college campus in Boston. As the body count rises and the campus shudders in fear, a hardboiled police lieutenant, Bracken (played by Christopher George), partners with an enthusiastic college student, Kendall James (played by Ian Sera), and a beautiful undercover agent, Mary Riggs (played by Lynda Day), who is on campus posing as a tennis star, to identify the murderer before more bodies turn up. As the group investigates the horrific crime scenes, they discover that the shadowy killer is claiming various severed limbs from his victims and assembling a macabre work of art.

As unintentionally hilarious as Pieces may be, much of the film’s appeal is drawn from the rivers off blood and gore that flow forth from the screen. About as exploitative as you can get, Pieces contains unflinching violence that is off the charts—opening with a hair-raising attack with an axe, and following it up with a nasty beheading, a very messy pool encounter, a simultaneously goofy and savage attack in an elevator, a waterbed stabbathon that splashes blood all over the audience, and a topless chase that culminates with a chainsaw tearing a poor girl in two right after she wets herself out of fear (According to some members of the cast and crew, the poor actress actually did urinate due to a real chainsaw being shoved into her face. Simon must have loved the hell out of reaction, as he left the girl’s accident in the film). To give the film an extra gross-out edge, Simón instructed his crew to use pig carcasses for specific scenes, adding a blunt-force realism to the up-close-and-personal shot of a buzzing chainsaw separating a girl’s lower half from her top half. While much of this carnage is stomach churning, overblown, and about as gratuitous as you can get, the real shock comes in the final moments of the film, when Simón effectively reveals what our silhouetted antagonist has been up to with those body parts he has been claiming. The surprise won’t be revealed here, but it’s a stitched-up science project/warped work of art that acts as the cherry on top of this strawberry sundae. And just when your heart slows to a normal rate, Simón springs one more surprise that is gloriously out of left field, vaguely channeling the final supernatural minutes of 1980’s Friday the 13th.

Pieces #2

And then we have the performances, all of which are extremely over the top, made even more ridiculous through the ham-fisted dubbing that Simón applied in post-production. Ian Sera is fine enough as our curly-haired hero, Kendall, who gets involved with the case after one of his gal pals bites the dust. He develops a fast friendship with Lt. Bracken, who practically makes him an honorary police officer in seconds, and a far-fetched relationship with Lynda Day’s Mary, the gorgeous undercover agent who struts around campus as a tennis pro. Much of Day’s performance relies on her good looks, but her unforgettable “bastard!” moment is pure cheese you can’t help but chuckle at. Together, they dash from crime scene to crime scene, as squeamish cops recoil is disgust and vomit all over their shoes. Christopher George ultimately blends in with the woodwork as Lt. Bracker, the veteran cop that is always one step behind the killer. Hulking actor Paul L. Smith stops by as Willard, the suspicious groundskeeper who pummels a room full of cops and grins maniacally to himself as he cleans the chain of his chainsaw. Another shady cast member is Edmund Purdom, who is present as the campus dean, an oily suspect in the morbid case.

While Pieces aims at being a nauseating slice of terror, this little exploitation gem works much better as a sleazy little laugh riot. The synthesizer score sets the spooky stage nicely in the opening credits, but that gritty sense of unease is quickly sacked by a skateboarding chick smashing into a mirror, a leering glimpse at a aerobics/dance class set to a pure 80s robotic tune, the killer attempting to “conceal” his chainsaw on a cramped elevator, and Day’s nighttime encounter with a wandering kung-fu instructor who ate some “bad chop suey.” And then there is the bottomless pit of female nudity, which is certain to keep male eyeballs ogling at the screen. Any chance that Simón gets, he’s coaxing his female victims to shed their tops as they run for their lives from the figure pursuing them. Overall, the horror may be scarce, portions of it may not make a lick of sense, and the performances are borderline embarrassing, but cult fanatics and exploitation aficionados are guaranteed to adore Pieces simply because it is a 90-minute orgy of excess. This is one of the sickest and most fun grindhouse movies around.

Grade: B+

Pieces is available on DVD.

TRAILER THURSDAY!

Today’s trailer brings more zombie mayhem! Check out the gross-out reel for the 1980 Italian zombie flick City of the Living Dead, directed by Lucio Fulci.

city of the living dead

TRAILER TUESDAY!

“Can ya dig it, baby?” It’s the trailer for the 1971 blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, directed by Melvin Van Peebles.

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The Best and Worst of 2013

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by Steve Habrat

What a spectacular year 2013 was at the movies! The early months were slow—something that was to be expected—but when we finally hit the summer movie season, things took off with a bang. There were out-of-this-world science fiction thrillers, city-shredding superhero epics, and plenty of blood curdling horror to give you a chill during those sweltering months. As the summer days faded and we entered awards season, things really got good. There were wolves from Wall Street, moody folk singers, HIV-positive outlaws, cranky old sweepstakes winners, and 70s conmen all ready to keep our minds off the snowy weather outside. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s picks for the best and worst films of 2013.

10.) The Wolf of Wall Street

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Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s newest cinematic outing is a three-hour trek through a land dominated by sex, drugs, and sleaze. Our tour guide through this non-stop party is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of the most daring performances of his acting career as Jordan Belfort, a slimy stockbroker who had more money than he knew what to do with. Wickedly hilarious and about as raunchy as R-rated movies can get, Scorsese gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the underbelly of wealth and greed, presenting it all as a runaway train destined to horribly crash and burn. While it’s been accused of being overly excessive and revolting, that’s the whole point—we’re meant to recoil in disbelief at what we are seeing. It just so happens that Scorsese injects each and every second with irresistible charisma, even as it lobs dwarves at the audience, throws champagne in our face, and leaves the audiences coughing up a cocaine cloud.

9.) Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s latest film about a wealthy New York City socialite who lost her riches when her husband gets caught up in a nasty financial scandal finds the neurotic filmmaker embracing a punishing reality that leaves a sting that just doesn’t seem to fade. Early on, Blue Jasmine is laced with Allen’s dry wit, but the lightweight appeal is soon engulfed by dark storm clouds of swirling madness. They close in on the brilliant Cate Blanchett, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Jasmine, our bitter heroine who flat-out refuses to accept her crippling fall from the designer-brand arms of grace. Complimenting Blanchett’s outstanding performance is the equally wonderful Sally Hawkins, who is here as Ginger, Jasmine’s modest and impossibly sweet sister who allows the scoffing Jasmine to shack up in her tiny little California apartment. With it’s polished story in place, and a number of charming performances from a colorful cast consistently impressing, Allen perfectly positions us for the lightning bolt climax that will leave you paralyzed in your seat. Bravo, Mr. Allen!

8.) Prisoners

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Last year, I saw several hair-raising horror films at the local Regal Cinemas, but none left me as shaken up as director Denis Villeneuve’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Prisoners. Like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Death Wish, Prisoners tells the terrifying story of two little girls who suddenly go missing on a rainy Thanksgiving Day and their father’s who grimly set out to track them down by any means necessary. With stomach-churning torture sequences, a dreary Seven-like atmosphere, and emotionally draining performances from an A-list cast (good luck getting Hugh Jackman’s seething determination out of your head), Prisoners is a white-knuckle masterpiece that is given even more power due to the recent news of Areil Castro and the three girls who were missing in Cleveland, Ohio. Believe me when I tell you there is no way to leave Prisoners unaffected. It will disturb you on levels you never thought possible.

7.) Captain Phillips

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Bringing the unflinching realism that he brought to the Bourne series and United 93, director Paul Greengrass returns with Captain Phillips, which tells the breathtaking true story of the 2009 pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama. Told in a chilling, fly-on-the-wall style, Captain Phillips is an exercise in pure tension and raw authenticity. It also finds star Tom Hanks at his absolutely best as Captain Richard Phillips, the man who was taken hostage by four terrifying Somali pirates in a confined lifeboat. While Hanks furiously reminds us of his seasoned acting abilities, Captain Phillips ultimately belongs to breakout actor Barkhad Abdi, who gives a menacing performance as Abduwali Muse, the lead pirate who refused to give up. Bursting at the seams with heart-pounding suspense, Greengrass finds momentum in the confines of the lifeboat, where Phillips pleads with the pirates to give themselves up and avoid a devastating showdown. It’s in these moments where Greengrass humanizes the monsters, and makes a piercing comment on the lengths some men will go to make a living.

6.) Gravity

gravity

If you were one of the five people out there that didn’t see Gravity in 3D on the big screen, you really missed out on an extraordinary experience. While it may not have the most robust storyline, Gravity was pure, how-did-they-do-that?! entertainment that left audiences with the weightless sensation that they truly were drifting around among the stars with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. While director Alfonso Cuarón handles the stunning visuals with overwhelming confidence, it’s Bullock, who gives a show-stopping performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, a grieving astronaut floating through a shattered existence, who cradles Gravity’s shimmering heart and soul. With performances and special effects working in perfect harmony, Gravity weaves a poetic tale of rebirth that culminates in an emotional blast that allows the film to rocket near the top of the best science fiction films ever made. A starry-eyed crowd pleaser of the highest order.

5.) American Hustle

american hustle

In mid-December, director David O. Russell’s 70s-set caper about a handful of quirky con men and FBI agents took the box office by storm. Featuring the best ensemble cast of the year (Christian Bale! Amy Adams! Bradley Cooper! Jennifer Lawrence! Jeremy Renner!), American Hustle is a cartoonish deconstruction of the American dream and what it takes to make a name for yourself in the good old U.S.A. With plenty of leisure-suit style to burn and a sexy strut that is impossible to resist, American Hustle is a dryly hilarious and entrancing slice of gold-platted entertainment that is carried off into classic territory by Christian Bale, who has never been better as Irving Rosenfeld, the pudgy con artist with the loudest comb over to ever hit the big screen. With its popularity growing by the day, Russell’s work is quickly becoming a new American classic, one that will surely be revisited for it’s layered script, retro swagger, impeccable costume work and set design, and laid-back sense of humor. This is one cool movie!

4.) Nebraska

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After diving into some weighty territory with 2011’s Hawaii-set dramedy The Descendants, director Alexander Payne trades the palm trees for a John Deere tractor with Nebraska. Set against the barren landscape and the small, boarded-up Americana towns of the Midwest, Nebraska is a sweet and soft-spoken little road movie carefully navigated by legendary thespian Bruce Dern and former SNL funnyman Will Forte. Following a senile old man on a quest to claim one million dollars that he believes he won and his patient son that accompanies him on his journey, Payne’s newest effort is a touching trip down memory lane, one that visits rundown farmhouses, old watering holes, and shady backstreets of year’s past. It’s all marvelously atmospheric and nostalgic, given a razor-sharp comedic edge through Dern’s cranky performance as the frizzy-haired sweepstakes winner Woody Grant. When Dern isn’t busy hogging the frame, actress June Squibb keeps you doubled over in laughter as Woody’s unfiltered wife, Kate. Though it may be in black and white, Nebraska is given plenty of color through its unforgettable cast of characters and it’s genuine warmth that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.

3.) Dallas Buyers Club

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Who knew that Matthew McConaughey had this performance in him?! After proving himself to be a talent to be reckoned with in Mud, the drawling actor best known for his work in romantic comedies took critics and audiences by surprise with his turn as HIV-positive cowboy Ron Woodroof in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Boasting the strongest performances of the year from a lead actor and a supporting actor, Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on an extraordinary true story, is a powerful look at the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the lengths that one man went to bring proper treatment to both himself and countless others suffering from the disease. Serving up unflinching looks at the terrible symptoms of AIDS, Vallée’s film never spends too much time remaining downbeat. It’s got an optimistic mindset and hope shining brightly in its eyes. And then there’s McConaughey, who undergoes a shocking physical transformation as a hard-living, homophobic outlaw who reluctantly joins forces with a breathy transgender woman. His performance is a revelation, complimented by a delicate turn from Jared Leto as the transgender Rayon. The Academy may as well hand them their Oscars now.

2.) Inside Llewyn Davis

inside llewyn davis

After shooting their way across the Wild West with their 2011 remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen return to movie screens with Inside Llewyn Davis, a Polaroid glimpse of the rise of folk music in Greenwich Village. Set in 1961, this character-driven period piece about a homeless folk singer with a bad attitude found the Coen’s relishing their return to the realm of dark comedy. Blustery and frigid, Inside Llewyn Davis is made even chillier through star Oscar Isaac’s breakout turn as Llewyn, a grieving and starving artist who shacks up on the couches of friends and family members, reluctantly takes care of an orange tabby cat, and only bears his soul through the gorgeous acoustic songs he strums out for packed night clubs. While its open-ended climax may leave some viewers fuming, Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegant character study, one that examines those who risk it all to make it big. As an added bonus, the film features a number of toe-tapping folk numbers that range from swelling and emotional to inescapably cute and catchy. Good luck getting “Please Mr. Kennedy” out of your head!

1.) 12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave

Towering over all the other releases this awards season was director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave. Daring to shine a light into the darkest corners of American history, McQueen’s powerhouse film pummels the viewer with the horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and tossed into the brutal jaws of the American slave trade. Unblinking with its sequences of abuse and torture, 12 Years a Slave is a film that is overwhelming and crucial, one we desperately want to recoil away from, but one that demands to be seen, heard, and felt for the remainder of our days. Though it is deeply disturbing, 12 Years a Slave ranks as the most handsomely filmed and detailed period piece of the year, and the work from stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o has to be seen to be believed. A film that was long overdue, 12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that dares to confront and challenge with a realism that most American films shy away from, and in the process, it becomes an instant cinematic classic that will stand as a constant reminder of our blemished past.

And now, the best of the rest:

–       The Conjuring and You’re Next both brought the horror genre back with a deafening “BOO!”

–       Pacific Rim was a candy-colored blockbuster sugar rush, and Elysium was the smartest sci-fi epic of the summer.

–       Spring Breakers was a demented, day-glo fantasy about living the fast life in a constant paradise.

–        Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was a poetic tribute to Terrance Malick’s classic Badlands.

–       Out of the Furnace was a formulaic but unnerving and rusted out backwoods revenge thriller

–       This Is the End was a raunchily rambunctious and gut-busting apocalyptic comedy from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

–       Saving Mr. Banks was a feisty, family friendly look at Walt Disney’s rocky quest to make Mary Poppins.

And now, the worst of 2013:

3.) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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This dreadful follow-up to the severely overrated 2004 original recycles the same jokes that were used the first time around and the results are absolutely disastrous. The glaring lack of effort from Will Ferrell and company leaves you feeling like you were robbed blind.

2.) Insidious: Chapter 2

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After delivering two impressive back-to-back scarefests, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell found it necessary to further the events of the first Insidious with this confused follow-up that tasted like moldy, month-old leftovers. Pray that these demonic forces have been banished for good.

1.)  The Hangover Part III

the hangover iii

The Wolfpack returns for a third and final time in this bizarre climax that never even once tries to be funny. The gross-outs and shocks are all there, but director Todd Phillips and his crew are clearly disinterested and in it strictly for the paycheck. This was the biggest turd of the summer and the most excruciating cinematic experience I had all year.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

Today’s trailer is for the recently rediscovered 1977 true-horror film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Charles B. Pierce.

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Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Dallas Buyers Club #1

by Steve Habrat

After refreshing his career with his buzzed-about supporting role in Mud, Matthew McConaughey brought his career-high year to a close with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on an extraordinary true story, Dallas Buyers Club is an addicting drama that follows Ron Woodroof, a hard-living and homophobic electrician/bull rider who was unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. Peppered with quirky characters and spilling confidence, Dallas Buyers Club has nudged its way up the list of the best films of 2013 with the absolutely mesmerizing performances from both McConaughey, who underwent a drastic physical transformation for his lead role, and actor/rock star Jared Leto, who is nearly unrecognizable as a transgender woman who becomes the cowboy’s unlikely ally. Considering that the film is tackling such grave subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club never even considers sending the audience away staring down at their shoes. Sure there are emotional blows that break your heart, but Vallée excels when the story is optimistic and uplifting, reassuring the audience that even when the odds are stacked against you, you are still capable of making a difference, especially when we set aside our differences and work together.

Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 and introduces us to Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a booze-swilling, coke-snorting electrician/bull rider who relishes the company of lovely ladies. After a nasty accident at work, Ron is sent to the ER, where a simple blood test reveals that the reckless cowboy is HIV-positive and has only 30 days to live. Reluctant to believe that the test was accurate, he instantly gets back to his partying ways, but after remembering he had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user, he slowly comes to terms with his current situation. After learning about the new drug ATZ, which is said to prolong the life of those who are HIV-positive, Ron enlists a hospital employee to sneak him bottles of the drug under the table. After taking ATZ for an extended period, Ron realizes that his health is getting worse rather than improving. Ron’s poor health soon lands him back in the hospital under the care of Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), who reveals that the combination of cocaine and ATZ has been making his situation worse. While recovering in the hospital, the extremely homophobic Ron meets Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a transgender woman who is also HIV-positive. After taking a trip to Mexico to obtain medicine, Ron learns of the devastating side effects of ATZ. In place of ATZ, Ron is recommended several other drugs that are not approved by the FDA. With the new drugs improving Ron’s health, he forms an unlikely partnership with Rayon, and the two begin smuggling in the drugs to sell to other HIV-positive patients.

Initially, Dallas Buyers Club hits us with an array of emotions that rattle us in a number of different ways. We’re disoriented with shock as Ron learns of his serious condition, and his quick defense of denial is certainly understandable. He storms off in disbelief at the mere suggestion of him being HIV-positive, laughing off the diagnosis as something that only homosexuals can get. He then quickly drowns his sorrows in powder, liquor, and skin, drunkenly telling one of his close friends about the news. Ron’s denial and anger are quickly relieved by realization as he remembers having unprotected sex with a woman with some nasty looking needle marks on her foot. This realization shifts to explosive grief and anger as his friends grow increasingly hostile towards him, viciously mocking and humiliating him. They scoot their chairs away from him when he joins them at the bar, he’s chased out of work, and he’s booted from his trailer park home. The blows that Ron have been dealt finally soften when he stops taking the ATZ he’s been slipped under the table and makes major changes in his lifestyle. This is where the film gains confidence and southern swagger, emitting sugary charms, upbeat chuckles, and relentless determination.

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At the heart of all this southern swagger and sugary charm is McConaughey, who gives the best performance of the year as Ron Woodroof. At first, Woodroof is sort of a tough character to root for. He’s wildly homophobic and sleazy, having sweaty threesomes, chugging bottle after bottle of liquor, snorting cocaine, and getting himself into gambling trouble. When he finally accepts his new disease and vows to live past the 30 days he’s been given, the magnetism is as powerful as ever and we find ourselves on team Woodroof. He becomes even more lovable when he reluctantly joins forces with Leto’s Rayon, a sweet and childlike soul who shatters Ron’s seething disgust for homosexuals. Like the scrawny and drawling McConaughey, Leto undergoes a shocking transformation that will absolutely blow you away. Watching him push all of Ron’s buttons is absolutely uproarious, and it’s certainly heartwarming to see Ron soften to his flamboyant partner in crime. Leto’s unforgettable performance hits its high note during a tearjerker meeting with his disapproving father, who sighs with exasperation right in his son’s face. It’s a sequence that leaves your frozen in place. Also on board is Jennifer Garner, who warms the heart as Dr. Saks, a close friend of the delicate Rayon and a growing supporter for Ron’s crusade.

While Dallas Buyers Club is certainly inspirational, there are still plenty of scenes that show the terrible symptoms of this dreaded disease. The symptoms are shown in a raw and horrifyingly realistic manner, from deep coughs, to crippling headaches, to dark splotches on the frail skin—one symptom more terrifying than the last. It’s through this glimpse of the symptoms that Vallée milks huge amounts of empathy from the audience. You’ll also find yourself struck by the bravery of these infected characters, willing to fight until their last tearful breath. Unsurprisingly, Dallas Buyers Club does take a stand against homophobia, and it certainly never misses a moment to remind us that we should all set aside our differences and live in harmony. The message side of the film is certainly expected, especially since gay rights have been a hot topic over the past few years, but Vallée keeps a firm grip on things and prevents the message from feeling redundant. Overall, while it dares to address dark subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club is a superbly directed story that instantly sucks you in. Its outlaw strut gives it a singular glow, and the performances from McConaughey and Leto rank as some of the most outstanding acting work I’ve seen in ages.

Grade: A