Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner

Award winning Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée directs this biopic about Ron Woodroof, a con man who defied the odds, and the law, to get the medicine he needed to survive; and in the process brought hope and peace to many others.  It is a well scripted, if linear, film that unfolds as McConaughey’s Woodroof learns about himself and the world around him at the height of the HIV scare in America.

What I liked:  It’s no wonder the Hollywood machine has been buzzing around the performances of the two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.  Quite simply, the heart and soul of the movie is in the acting.  Both McConaughey and Leto utterly, and literally, morph into their characters – a scheming rodeo bigot and suffering transvestite.  It is rare that such prominent Hollywood personalities would be unrecognizable but such is the case thanks to Vallée’s brilliant directing and seamless performances from actors who didn’t just lose weight but altered their mannerisms, their features, their voices and even something as simple as a smile. There is a moment at the end of the film where Woodroof, exhausted and achingly thin walks into a room of familiar faces and smiles.   That smile expresses all of the film’s tension, emotion and beauty because it is so clearly Woodroof’s smile, not McConaughey’s.

What I didn’t like:  My only complaint about the film is that there’s nothing new in the telling.  After a mind-blowing experience watching Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club felt a little flat.  I recognize that the two movies are not comparable but I still wanted perhaps more artistic license and vision from a  director who has proven capable of both.

Last thoughts: As usual, Hollywood is placing more emphasis on the physical transformation of the actors than on the performance itself.  Granted, McConaughey is so physically transformed that at times it’s tough to look at his sickly frame but I would hope that if either of them win the Oscar it’s for their performances and not because they know how to diet for a role.

My rating: Between this and Mud, McConaughey has two of my favourite performances of the year.

My IMDb Rating: 8/10     tomato:  94%

Don Jon (2013)

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Directed by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Written by: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlet Johansson, Julianne Moore, Brie Larson, Tony Danza and Glenne Headly.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is an interesting one.  To its credit it is new, interesting and entertaining.  Gordon-Levitt clearly has a message as he plays the eponymous Jon who escapes into his obsession with porn rather than connect with another person or learn about himself.  I give credit to Gordon-Levitt for making me think during a film that could have been reduced to a romantic comedy with a twist.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a self-indulgent project or a meditation on isolation and the misrepresentation of relationships in a sex obsessed culture.  Where Gordon-Levitt falters is in his character portrayal but, overall, I was impressed with his writing, direction and wit.

What I liked: Gordon-Levitt’s use of repetition works.  His narrative framework is based around a series of mundane events – home, porn, sex, clubbing, the gym, cleaning, church and family dinner – that convey his character’s disconnectedness and masked despair.  Gordon-Levitt also conveys his ideas with an artistic flare that is thought-provoking, witty and fearlessly uncomfortable.

What I didn’t like:  His characters, while at times endearing and relate-able, are no more than caricatures, which is probably why he is being taken to task for what the Italian American One Voice Coalition believes are “racist stereotypes” rather than developed characters.   I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off his Jersey Shore-type character with flare, because it is so outside our perception of him as an actor that beneath his empty façade we recognize the scrawny do-gooder of 50/50, (500) Days of Summer or even Batman.  The rest of the characters offer no such recognizable depth other than Julianne Moore who escapes the stereotype and offers the real soul of the film.  To be fair, Scarlett Johansson has fun with her role and is both convincing and comical as the romance obsessed love interest.  While I imagine creating such extreme characters was the point, I still can’t quite figure out why since many of us ‘real folk’ often feel the same way or limit ourselves to routine so I can see how the message was lost.

My rating:  An admirable first effort and worth watching, because it is new.

My IMDb rating:  7/10      tomato: 83%

Drinking Buddies (2013)

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Directed by:  Joe Swanberg
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston and Jason Sudeikis (uncredited?)

This is one of those movies that we all complain is missing from Hollywood, because it is heartfelt, truthful and real, but when it comes down to it we want the payoff.   Joe Swanberg creates a true-to-life romance about two good friends who sense but try to ignore the tension between them.  It is a quiet film that unfolds as you imagine life to unfold, but is missing any quirkiness that could have elevated it into something greater.

What I liked: Swanberg does a fine job bringing out the most honest performances from each of his actors.  Olivia Wilde is effortless as a working woman trying to understand herself.  Jake Johnson, with the help of a little facial hair and fine acting, sheds all traces of New Girl’s Nick Miller, while maintaining a comedic streak that endears us to both characters.  Together Wilde and Johnson have such chemistry that we can enjoy the journey, if not the ending.

What I didn’t like:  I appreciate Swanberg’s effort to bring real-life to the screen without the cliched meet-cutes or gimmicks that can be spotted a mile away; and yet the movie is so real that when all is said and done we discover there were no stakes and no consequences.  Drinking Buddies is a film that, even though we sense a change in character at the end, feels too linear, like a reality show without forced drama.

My rating:  Take the tension but leave the rest.

IMDb: 6.0        tomato: 69%

Release Date:  July 25, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

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Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Written by: Derek Connolly
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Karan Soni and Jake Johnson

One review I read compared Safety Not Guaranteed to The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  How they made that leap is beyond me.  Colin Trevorrow’s indie dramedy, about three journalists who decide to chase down and write a story about the author of a personal ad who is seeking a partner with whom to time travel, is quirky but has nothing close to the depth of Eternal Sunshine.  The comparison, however, basically summed up what I didn’t like about it: I just didn’t feel the “sweet, oddball sadness” that permeated the latter.   Here, I liked the characters and I understood their pain and dissatisfaction but it didn’t reach me.  There was something uncomfortable about it which might have been the point but it didn’t help to make this movie memorable despite its unique, and true (the movie is based on a real personal ad) premise.  That said, there is something enjoyable about the movie where the dialogue, story and editing move it forward with charm and grace.  It is not overambitious and without comparisons stands well enough on its own.

What I liked:  The eccentricity of each character feels natural and never forced.  The relationships are rushed but sincere and the rugged style merely enhances the finale.  There is something true about these characters and their lives.  The casting is flawless, especially Mark Duplass as the time traveller dealing with his loneliness better than the rest.

What I didn’t like: I really can’t pinpoint it.  The movie, in its way, is beautiful but I felt Trevorrow kept his characters at a distance from his audience, as if the movie ends just as we were beginning to understand these individuals.

My rating: I’d have these characters over for dinner.

IMDB: 7.1

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%