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.
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.
by Steve Habrat
Over the years, actor Matthew McConaughey became known as the guy who starred in all those fuzzy romantic comedies that your mother and girlfriend loved. Every so often, he’d jump into a disposable action movie like Reign of Fire or Sahara, or surprise you with his dark turn in the underrated horror movie Frailty, but you couldn’t help but peg him as that romantic comedy dude who was always chasing around Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Recently, McConaughey has broken from his usual roles and started accepting beefier parts that really showcase his talents as an actor. One of these roles would be the title character in director Jeff Nichols’s critically acclaimed drama Mud, which debuted a Cannes in 2012 and then enjoyed a quiet limited release in 2013. Hailed as one of the standouts of 2013, Mud is a surprisingly candid coming-of-age drama that features strong emotional turns from McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, an actress that has kept a relatively low profile since her Academy Award winning role in Walk the Line. While Mud is certainly a down-to-earth Southern tale about love found and love lost, the film feels a bit too familiar in places, something that ultimately holds it back from tru greatness..
Mud introduces us to Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preteens battling boredom in De Witt, Arkansas. One day, Neckbone takes Ellis out to an island on the Mississippi River where he has discovered a rickety boat stuck high up in a tree. Ellis and Neckbone intend to make their discovery a new hangout location, but they are shocked when they discover that there happens to be a man living in the boat. The man introduces himself as Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy drifter who claims to be hiding out on the island and in desperate need of some food. Mud tells the boys that if they’ll bring him so food, he’ll allow the boys to have the boat when he leaves the island. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help the mystery man out, but they soon learn from police department that Mud is, in fact, a fugitive on the run from the law. When the boys return to the island, they learn that Mud killed a man for severely injuring his girlfriend, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Mud explains that he is waiting to be reunited with Juniper and that he is on the island to avoid a slew of bounty hunters that are looking for him. Fascinated by Mud’s story, the boys decide to help Mud in his quest to be reunited for Juniper, but soon, the bounty hunters arrive looking to make Mud pay for what he has done.
While the tale of the shaggy-haired outlaw waiting for his ladylove is the surface story of Mud, the film’s true story belongs to the kids. A good majority of the film follows Ellis as he experiences his first love and watches his home life fall apart. We catch glimpses of his parents duking it out with each other at the kitchen table as Ellis sneaks away to meet up with Neckbone. He spies on them for only a moment before fleeing off to that island to hide from the world inside that tree boat. In town, he crushes on an older girl, May Pearl (played by Bonnie Sturdivant), who may not be taking their developing relationship as seriously as Ellis takes it. Nichols, who also wrote the film, isn’t shy about telling Ellis’s story in a realistic manner, addressing the fears of change and the sting of heartbreak in a serious tone. Despite not mincing words, this side of Mud is extremely gentle. It’s never cold-hearted or cynical, even when things seem to be at their lowest for poor Ellis and Mud. The darker side of the story manifests in Mud’s looming confrontation with the bounty hunters. They beat Juniper in the hopes of learning Mud’s whereabouts and they strike in a swarm to guarantee that our outlaw hero has absolutely no chance of escape. This certainly ups the sense of dread and it does make us fear for Mud’s safety as the final confrontation nears.
The main attraction of Mud is the undoubtedly performances, especially the ones from McConaughey and Witherspoon. McConaughey is absolutely fantastic as the lovesick outlaw with a heart of gold. The relationship he develops with Ellis is incredibly sweet, sparking hope in the young boys eyes and igniting a sense of adventure that allows him to escape his rocky home life. Witherspoon’s Juniper is a flirty free spirit who questions her affection for the marooned Mud. Sheridan is the film’s heart and soul as Ellis, a seemingly tough teen with a soft center. Lofland plays it even rougher and tougher as Neckbone, a foul-mouthed teen who means well enough. Also present are Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’s mysterious neighbor who has ties to Mud and ends up being an essential ally in his fight to stay alive. Nichols regular Michael Shannon gives a small but sweet performance as Galen, Neckbone’s scuba-diving uncle. Overall, while it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it does end up feeling quite a bit like several other rundown dramas of recent memory, Mud is still a sensitive and ultimately optimistic drama bustling with performances that are alive with everyday emotion.
Mud is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Just a few short weeks ago, director David O. Russell brought us American Hustle, a sexy, cool, and confident look at a bunch of leisure-suited misfits trying to obtain the good life in the amber glow of the late 1970s. Fast-forward the clocks to the late 1980s and enter legendary director Martin Scorsese with his equally sexy, cool, and confident The Wolf of Wall Street, another comical tale about a money-hungry American who will do whatever it takes to live in the lap of luxury, even if that means breaking the law to do it. At an epic three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slap of energetic entertainment that finds Scorsese at his absolute raunchiest, using the true story of Jordan Belfort as his road map through sex, drugs, and, well, even more sex and drugs. The ringleader at the center of this sleazy circus is Leonardo DiCaprio, who sinks his teeth into the role of Belfort with ravenous comedic fury and an Oscar statute burning in his twinkling eyes. DiCaprio has never seemed hungrier for the award, which makes the word “Wolf” in the title very fitting. While this may be DiCaprio’s show, coming up hot on his heels is Jonah Hill, who delivers another surprising performance as Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff.
The Wolf of Wall Street picks up in 1987 and introduces us to young Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has just been hired in as an intern at a firm run by Mark Hana (played by Matthew McConaughey). Hana takes an immediate liking to the up-and-coming Belfort, so he decides to take him under his wing and recommend that Belfort embrace a lifestyle of sex and drugs to get him through the workday. Things seem to be going smoothly under Hana, but Belfort ends up on the street after the firm closes in the wake of Black Monday. Determined to find another job, Belfort, with the help of his young wife, Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti), finds a job at Investor Center, a hole-in-the-wall business that specializes in pink slip stocks. Belfort quickly excels with this new company, making a small fortune that allows him to buy a flashy sports car and live comfortably. One day, Belfort is approached by Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), an owl-eyed salesman who is curious about what Belfort does for a living. The two strike up a fast friendship and together, they decide to open their own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which rakes in millions by using Belfort’s aggressive business tactics. The employees of Stratton Oakmont begin to embrace Belfort’s wild lifestyle, which is dominated with sex, drugs, and wild office parties, all of which catch the attention of Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent convinced that Belfort is up to no good. Belfort is able to keep the FBI off his back for a while, but when he starts laundering money from the company to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Denham closes in and threatens to bring down Belfort and his merry inner circle.
The Wolf of Wall Street’s main focus is Belfort’s insatiable hunger for wealth and luxury, two things he obtains very quickly. Yet Scorsese explores Belfort’s excessive lifestyle in a comical light, making it seem almost cartoonish as marching bands parade through his office, hookers sprint topless through the cubicles, businessmen snort up cocaine like vacuum cleaners, and sex parties suddenly erupt in the bathroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Belfort starts his career on an honest note, refusing to sip martinis and do cocaine with Hana while the two dine on a four-star lunch that overlooks New York City. Yet you can see that Belfort is intrigued by all the flesh and powder dangled in front of him. He resists it at first, acknowledging it with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, but after sticking a crack pipe in his mouth, he is sent into overdrive and the endless shower of money makes it impossible for him to control his debauchery. When the parties get bigger, the drugs gets stronger, the women get prettier, and the behavior gets even more reckless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes absolutely revolting and hilarious in equal measures. One of the more shocking moments comes when the employees of Stratton Oakmont gather at a beachfront mansion for a gonzo party that culminates with a drugged and drooling Azoff coming up with the idea to approach up-and-coming show designer Steve Madden about allowing the company to sell shares of his company’s stock, Belfort meeting the beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie), and the belligerent Azoff pleasuring himself to the gorgeous Naomi in front of the entire party. It’s unruly and downright hilarious in its extremity, showing off just how monstrous money and power can make people.
As Belfort, DiCaprio becomes a party animal that would make Jay Gatsby blush. Once he snorts that little white line, pops the Quaalude, and downs a glass of wine, he becomes a wrecking ball that just can’t be stopped. Naturally, he develops a drinking and drug problem, at one point proclaiming that he refuses to die sober while aboard a smashing and crashing yacht. He’s wildly materialistic, chuckling at the suggestion that some of the dishes aboard his overdone yacht may get smashed in a particularly bump journey. When he isn’t busy destroying his Lamborghini, he is preoccupied with flying his helicopter home from a hookers-and-cocaine binge that results in him almost crashing the chopper into his home. When the FBI begins breathing down his neck, he contemplates bowing out of his company to avoid prison time, but in the heat of the moment, he just can’t say no to making even more money, something that he already has more than enough of. His destructive and disgusting behavior is egged on by his employees, who look at him like a pin-stripped god that has taken them all to millionaire heaven. Yet through it all, you can’t help but sort of like Belfort, even if he is a brash show-off who won’t listen to anyone. DiCaprio makes him a beam of charisma, even when he is dry humping a stewardess, laughing in the face of the law, or slithering his way out of the local country club in a daze.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, Hill never shies away from the ad-libbed humor that he has become known for. He lobs zingers as the equally excessive Azoff, a foul-mouthed salesman who is married to his cousin and who likes to party just as much as Belfort. McConaughey continues his hot streak as Hana, a fast-talking broker who demands martinis brought to him in rapid succession and who recommends that Belfort embrace a destructive lifestyle of sex and drugs to survive Wall Street. Robbie fogs up the screen as the beautiful Naomi, a goddess who loves money and nose candy just as much as Belfort does. Chandler is bullish and straightforward as Denham, the FBI agent who is convinced that Belfort may not be as squeaky clean as he likes to pretend to be. The secondary players consist of P.J. Byrne as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, another close friend of Belfort who proudly wears an atrocious headpiece. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal stops by as Brad Bodnick, a juiced-up drug dealer who helps Belfort sneak cash into a Swiss bank account. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up as Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker who flashes false grins at the desperate Belfort. Rob Reiner gives a snappy performance as Max Belfort, Jordan’s father who tries to keep the boys of Stratton Oakmont in check. In smaller roles, Jon Favreau stops by as Manny Riskin, a seedy lawyer hired to keep Jordan out of prison, and even filmmaker Spike Jonez pokes in as Dwayne, the geeky Investor Center manager who hires Belfort.
In true Scorsese form, The Wolf of Wall Street is a snazzy piece of filmmaking that tickles your peepers with hilarious slow-motion shots, characters talking directly to the audience, and wicked narration from Mr. DiCaprio. Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, you’d assume that there may be one or two places where the picture is dragging its feet, but the endless scenes of wild parties never loose their bite, humor, or their entertainment value. You just can’t wait to see what grandiose act Belfort commits next. Scorsese also keeps each and every scene as stylized as possible, making the entire experience go by in a flash. Overall, while it may not be quite as sharp as American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a raunchy examination of a man who had everything but still demanded more, more, more. You’ll find yourself buzzed by the racy script from Terence Winter, elated performances from DiCaprio and Hill, and a stinging sense of black humor that keeps you in stitches even when it threatens to cross the line into the inappropriate. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, shiny Christmas gift from one of the greatest American directors alive.
by Steve Habrat
For those of you out there who were convinced that Judd Apatow was nothing but a sexist who made movies simply for immature males and about male tribulations have an argument no longer. Mr. Apatow and director Paul Feig have officially made a movie for females that tackle arduous female relationships with each other and themselves. To all the men out there who are writing Bridesmaids off as a “chick flick” need to suck it up and take the trip to pick up the Blu-ray because I guarantee you are going to laugh your ass off. Bridesmaids leaves the recent string of “bromance” films in its comedic dust and can proudly call itself one of the funniest movies since The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Much of its success lies on the slim shoulders of the comedienne in the center of all the pandemonium and that little lady is SNL alum Kristen Wiig. Wiig co-wrote the script with her pal Annie Mumolo and it is drenched in wicked shrewdness along with many other bodily fluids. Wiig also happens to prove to the suits out there that she can indeed carry a film and does not have to settle for the occasional cameo or background character. Her performance here is strikingly similar to what we saw from Steve Carell in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
If one were to quickly glance at the title of this film and have no clue what the film is about, many would assume that it’s some new Kate Hudson bomb that follows her shallow quest to pull Matthew McConaughey for the fifth time. A disposable romantic comedy that presumes Hudson breaking a heel and falling down is comedic brilliance. The type of film that will last for about a month at the theater and then quickly make it’s way to DVD. It’s refreshing to see Wiig, who up until this film had not snagged herself a starring vehicle, a woman with pitch-perfect comedic timing step up to the plate to play Annie, a woman who has seemingly hit rock bottom. She is a victim of the recession as her bakery she started has been reduced to a boarded up graffiti wall. We also learn that her boyfriend picked up and ditched her after her bakery closed down. She spends her nights with a wealthy playboy (Played by a never better John Hamm) and spends her days paling around with her best friend Lillian (Played by another SNL alum and real life BFF Maya Rudolph). Annie complains to Lillian about her problems and figures she will always have a shoulder to lean on with her. That is until Lillian drops the bomb on Annie and proclaims that she is getting married. At the engagement party, Annie is introduced to the wildly colorful bridal party. She meets innocent Becca (Played by The Office’s Ellie Kemper), bored-housewife-with-a dark-side Rita (Played by Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey), the uber-confidant Megan (Played by scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy), and the wealthy and malicious Helen (played by Insidious star Rose Byrne). Annie finds herself pitted against Helen in the quest for maid of honor and hilariously self-destructs from the battle.
Wiig manages to play Annie not as a desperate-for-love caricature but as a wounded and vulnerable heroine. We root for her to, yes, find love but also to hold on to her best friend even as Annie and Lillian grow further and further apart. The universe has come crashing down on this poor soul and she is more desperate than ever to find a friend she can actually trust and does not come equipped with ulterior motives. Wiig also does the seemingly impossible task of making a horrific breakdown uproariously hilarious. There are scenes in this movie that will leave you howling with laughter and scenes that will have you wishing Annie was a real flesh-and-blood human you could give a big sympathetic hug and reassure her that everything will be okay.
It is an absolute thrill to watch Wiig and Mumolo lob a rowdily unpredictable comedic sequence that begins subtle and erupts into full on chaos at the audience. A bridal gown fitting that ends with food poisoning will bring you to your knees with laughter and shrieking “Oh, my God!” and a prescription drugs and scotch fueled meltdown on a plane to Vegas tops anything that was found in the incredibly overrated Hangover in terms of shock comedy. Wiig’s physical comedy comes to a head as she suffers a nervous breakdown during a shower in Helen’s mansion and battles Helen’s excessive wealth and her ability to purchase friends by throwing down with a giant cookie. Wait until you see it. It should join the ranks as one of the funniest scenes in the history of comedy.
When you’re not recovering from the countless belly laughs (trust me, there are PLENTY!), there is a scene of hushed, sincere emotion that will leave you speechless. Ones that left the entire packed theater silent in the particular showing I attended way back in May. You could actually feel the heartbreak hovering in the room and it became almost painful to sit and watch. One scene finds Annie confronted by the chunky Megan that is the definition of powerful and uplifting. Or a scene that shows Annie telling her mother that things have gone from bad to worse that will tug your heartstrings until they snap. It will warm your heart when Annie begins to find love with a sensitive Irish cop Rhodes, played by the charismatic Chris O’Dowd. The film is a testament to what great script writing and great direction can do for a film.
The ladies of Bridesmaids manage to prove that they can party just as hard as the boys and leave the Wolfpack looking like a bunch of cubs. They are real, honest, and hugely likeable even when they are reduced to hot messes. The performances here are what make the film seem effortless and strangely protracted. Like all Apatow films, it drags on about twenty minutes too long, but you’ll be willing to overlook it mostly because it blindsides you with overwhelming emotion. From the male perspective, it was nice to sit on the sidelines this time around and let the film just wash over me. It’s going to dispatch women from the theater to debate about the mechanics of their relationships just as Apatow’s “bromance” films struck chords with men. Already a strong contender for the best comedy of the year, Bridesmaids needs to party it’s way to the top of your must-see list. Grade: B+
Bridesmaids is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.