Tag: matthew mcconaughey

The Gentlemen


The Gentlemen (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

“If you wish to be the king of the jungle, it’s not enough to act like a king. You must be the king. There can be no doubt. Because doubt causes chaos and one’s own demise.”

Guy Ritchie—to date—has never been synonymous with subtle. Those signing up for “The Gentlemen” will know precisely what to expect: a relatively simple premise surrounding backstabbing criminals jutting off in many directions before the fifteen-minute mark; characters fond of talking, looking tough, sounding tough, pulling out guns, and making vulgar jokes; the casual use of the C-word; money, drugs, power play, and fighting over territories; the occasional self-awareness and fast editing… all of it propelled with energy to spare. Ritchie is no Tarantino, but sometimes a fake Prada bag does the job.

This is not a knock on Ritchie but an observation. I like his approach because he is comfortable with it. (So comfortable that at times I catch myself thinking he is capable of doing much more.) I would even go as far to say he is proud of it. And why shouldn’t he? His name, like Tarantino, is a brand. It’s not a luxury brand but one that serves as a good gateway for more fully realized works of the crime sub-genre. I found this picture to be immensely watchable due to its confidence, populated with character actors who play caricatures but have good fun along the way. And sometimes that’s enough.

A private investigator named Fletcher (Hugh Grant) visits the home of Ray (Charlie Hunnam), the right-hand man of self-made cannabis businessman Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), for a game of extortion. 20 million pounds in exchange for his silence in regards to everything he has discovered about the specifics of Mickey’s business, his personal plans for the near-future, what his rivals are up to, corpses, plans of double-crosses, possibly triple-crosses, and everything else under the sun. Grant plays the swindler with such joie de vivre that in the middle of his cooky performance, I was considered that it is perhaps his most colorful role in years—certainly one that’s most alive. He shares terrific chemistry with Hunnam even though the latter’s approach to his role is more controlled. Fletcher and Ray are fun to watch and listen to because both of them are calculating in their own way.

In a movie like this, it is not at all difficult to answer the central question: Who is the main person responsible for compromising one of Fletcher’s twelve secret underground cannabis laboratories? Focus on this question with unadulterated logic and everything else serves as mere decoration. And yet—this does not mean that the trimmings are unworthy of our interest. On the contrary, for instance, I found Fletcher to be curious, especially in how he wishes to retire from the business he built from the ground up. He is provided no compelling reason to walk away so… why do so? Another: the highly ambitious Dry Eye (Henry Golding) who works for a Chinese gangster. He is one of the two who wishes to buy Fletcher’s business. (The other is an American billionaire played by Jeremy Strong.) Dry Eye does not seem to be interested in the money or the business. This is a man who craves power for power’s sake. And that makes him dangerous.

Is it offensive at times in its depiction of people of color and women? For some, it might be. But it did not offend me considering that the material, I think, is able to establish its own universe whereby its characters talk, act, and behave like people in real life. Not once did I think, a subject is acting a certain way because one is Jewish, or Asian, or gay, or a woman. In other words, I did not feel as though certain character traits stem from a place of malice.

“The Gentleman” zips through one humorous scenario to the next without sacrificing an ounce of vigor. There is enjoyment to be had in watching a swimming pool filled with predators who try to outsmart one another for money, reputation, power, or unique reasons of their own. Who will come out on top? The answer is not always clear. But, in a way, it does not matter because the journey there is littered with fun and wicked surprises.

White Boy Rick


White Boy Rick (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

One might expect that telling the story of Richard “Rick” Wershe Jr., the youngest FBI informant in history at fourteen years of age who later became a drug dealer, would be compelling, but the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller chooses to traverse the standard tracks of a biographical drama. What results is a marginally interesting story—precisely because of the subject’s age and as a caucasian in a mostly black neighborhood—but with such generic rhythm and beat, it becomes apparent a third of the way through that the same story could have been told better, smarter, and more forcefully by writers who dare to turn the genre’s format inside out and upside down. Like the subject himself, the film is a waste of potential.

The central performances is the film’s greatest asset. Richie Merritt has a bright future ahead of him should he choose to continue playing roles that have meat on them as he does here. As White Boy Rick, he is convincing as a desperate young man who is so sick of being poor that he convinces himself that the only way to get out of it is to sell drugs—make money fast and all problems would flitter away. Supporting Merrit is Matthew McConaughey who plays Rick’s blue-collar father, under the magnifying glass of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane) for selling illegal firearms, who dreams of opening a video store someday.

When Merritt and McConaughey are front and center together, they prove to share great chemistry; they are convincing as father and son who are drowning and desperate to get out of the water. At the same time, they recognize that they are not the only ones in mortal danger. There is the cocaine-addicted sister and daughter (Bel Powley) who refuses to come home. I wished that the screenplay had honed in on the father-son relationship because there are a few scenes in the second hour that are so powerful, the viewer is likely to ponder about his or her relationship with his or her parents, regardless of one’s current standing. In a way, the writers have two tasks—one obvious and the other more subtle: to tell Rick’s story, specifically as an informant and a dealer, and to communicate the universality of parent-child relationships.

Less intriguing is the telling of Rick’s ascent toward the inner circle of a local drug dealer (YG). Although it appears that Rick has forged friendships within the group, it holds no importance for the audience when he refers to them as people with whom he cares about. The reason is because not one is developed, particularly Boo, not even on a skeletal level. It is strange because Boo is supposed be the subject’s best friend. The friend is portrayed by RJ Cyler who is no stranger when it comes to creating characters who are easy to care for or be curious about. The screenplay, too, relies too often on black stereotypes; would it have been too much to present some exceptions?

In the middle of “White Boy Rick,” directed by Yann Demange, is supposed to be a story of an injustice—a juvenile (although not in Michigan, one of only four states in the United States where seventeen-year-olds are tried as adults for criminal offenses) with whom the FBI took advantage of. Yet, curiously, the film invokes minimal outrage. Although vintage cars, poverty mixed with ennui, and the hopelessness of mid-1980s Detroit are alive, the drama is undercooked.

Dallas Buyers Club


Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

An accident at work leads Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to the hospital. After going through his blood work, the doctor tells Ron that he has AIDS and it is estimated that he has only about a month to live. Ron responds with outrage and insists the diagnosis is a mistake. He is, after all, not a homosexual and has never had homosexual encounters. Though he later decides to take treatments in the form of experimental and high dosages of AZT, he becomes convinced that AZT is not a good solution. It made him feel very sick. When Ron hears about alternative drugs in Mexico—drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration—he goes there to obtain the medications.

Based on the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” captures the confusion and desperation of people in the ‘80s who lived with AIDS. Forget a typical character arc in which the main character embraces valuable lessons along the way. Ron learns a thing or two but that is far from the point. We just so happen to see the story through his eyes. It could have been told from the perspective of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and Ron’s eventual business partner, and the story would still be interesting.

The picture falls a bit short on providing sufficient specifics regarding Ron’s drug deals abroad. We see large paintbrushes of what he must do—contacting the necessary individuals, putting on a disguise, taking the plane, bribing—but there are not enough conversations that detail the business deals. Sometimes the material leans too much on images to convey an idea. While a good framework, it is not always the best way to amp up the drama in a subtler way.

McConaughey and Leto provide solid performances. The relationship of their characters snuck up on me because I thought I saw them only as partners in running the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that offers a person a variety of drugs, proteins, and vitamins—less deadly than AZT that hospitals use—for four hundred dollar per month membership. But then the second half comes around and we realize how they have learned to help each other not just from the financial side but also in sharing an experience of carrying a disease that will kill them eventually. We know they will die because there is no cure, only treatment that prolongs.

I wished it had shown more images of how AIDS wreck havoc on the body. We see a bit of McConaughey’s near emaciated frame and some blood being coughed out, but I got the impression that the film is not willing to go all the way and show the true ugliness and tragedy of the disease as in Friedman and Joslin’s “Silverlake Life: The View from Here.”

Regardless, “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is worth seeing mainly for the strong performances by McConaughey and Leto as well as successfully showing a time in which information that we know now about AIDS is not yet known.

Serenity


Serenity (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Points for “Serenity,” written and directed by Steven Knight, for trying to rise above a standard thriller involving a boat, an abused wife, and a murder plot. There is a massive but elusive fish, a mysterious businessman who sticks out like a sore thumb, a combat veteran who is estranged from his son, a lone bar on an island where everyone appears to get information, and acknowledgements of rules being changed suddenly. There are psychic connections and a bird that follows the boat around. At one point, even our protagonist declares that there are strange goings-on. It is all very aware and ambitious, but these disparate elements never come together in a way that makes us feel as though it is worth the time and effort we invest in attempting to put the pieces together.

The problem lies in the screenplay. It relies on one big twist that is revealed about halfway through and smaller twists dispersed throughout the remainder of the story. After the game-changing revelation, it forges on telling the story it initially presented, but this is an incorrect decision, you see, because the more interesting angle is the one not being explored. Once we know what is really going on, the initial story, and whatever happens in it, feels so inconsequential. If I sound like I am being vague on purpose, that is because I am. Pulling out the rug from under us is quite neat, and to spoil it would reduce the film into pointlessness.

This leads us to the second major problem. Brilliant twists do not make a movie, not even in superior films like “The Sixth Sense,” “The Crying Game,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Se7en,” and even “Sleepaway Camp.” In these aforementioned movies, take away the respective reveals and the picture is still able to stand strong on its own. In Knight’s work, however, the pieces are not only amorphous and nonsensical, there is no convincing emotional arc. The main character, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a father who chases a fish so obsessively because he has not seen his son in years, undergoes numerous suffering—psychological, financial, physical—but we are not compelled to learn more about him, his lifestyle, and those around him.

The film is beautifully photographed, especially shots of the fishing boat leaving the harbor and when the camera looks into the deep water before fish is pulled out of it. There is also some excitement when there is silence and suddenly the clicking of the fishing reel builds up to a heart-racing staccato. This should have been a segue for the viewer to understand Baker Dill’s all-consuming quest of reeling in Justice, a large tuna. But these postcard-worthy shots are disconnected from the neo-noir thriller with moments of paranoia. It made me wish that I was at the beach instead of sitting inside the movie theater hoping for all the ideas to come together.

The performances are fine, nothing special. I must note, however, that those hoping to see McConaughey in various states of nakedness are likely to have a ball. For instance, we watch him jump off a cliff and swim in the ocean with nothing on. Perhaps, to some, that is a selling point. For me, though, Anne Hathaway who portrays an abused wife is the most watchable because she, as usual, milks every moment. As I walked out of the theater, it struck me that I don’t remember her character’s words, but I do remember how Karen holds her eyes when she is desperate, the way she moves her body when she is humiliated, the manner in which her lips quivers just so when freedom is at arm’s reach. Like the audience, the actors deserve stronger material.

The Lincoln Lawyer


The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is known for defending scums of Los Angeles and has made many connections and resources that one way or another help him to win cases. When thirty-two-year-old Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is taken to jail for allegedly assaulting a woman in her own home, Haller jumps at the opportunity to represent him because the family is rich and therefore profitable. However, the case is not as smooth sailing as Haller expected it to be when he learns that his client may have committed a similar crime prior.

“The Lincoln Lawyer,” based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly, reminded me of movies in the ’70s where men of certain professions who think they have it good, sometimes at the expense of others, are suddenly thrown into an emotional and psychological blender. And since the pressure is too much, they begin to wonder the value of their services and seriously consider if it is worth it to keep walking on the same path.

The film will appeal to those with interest in character studies. Right from the opening scene we are shown that Haller is slick, a smooth talker, and is highly intelligent—someone who you would want to be represented by if you got into serious trouble. He may not be the most sensitive guy in room but he knows how to get the job done and make it look effortless. McConaughey is so believable as an ace defense lawyer, I forgot that I was watching him until the inevitable bedroom scene in which he is required to take his shirt off.

The courtroom scenes command a silent intensity. There is no score that is meant to highlight game-changing revelations. Meaningful silences are kept at a minimum. The sense of humor is subtle and graceful. We wonder which direction the case is going to go.

A weakness of the picture is the push-and-pull between the former spouses. While Marisa Tomei can carry the clothes and the attitude of a lawyer, Maggie McPherson is not written as a whole person, someone who is formidable or daring enough to have married Haller in the first place. There is this phony conflict about McPherson feeling frustrated that her ex-husband works to keep bad guys from jail and she wanting to put them inside. It is ludicrous because she should have known that that comes with Haller’s job prior to marrying him in the first place. If she did not have a problem with in the past, why make a fuss about it now? The conflict feels superficial and contrived.

Nonetheless, “The Lincoln Lawyer,” based on the screenplay by John Romano and directed by Brad Furman, is well-acted and engaging. The supporting actors, particularly William H. Macy and Josh Lucas, fit their roles so well. Best of all, though it is a drama in its core with surrounding thriller elements, it entertains because it urges one to think about some of the rules behind attorney-client confidentiality and how it can be perverted to one’s advantage.

The Dark Tower


The Dark Tower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

For a source material filled with incredible imagination by Stephen King, drawing inspiration from old-school fantasy to spaghetti western, “The Dark Tower,” directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a crushing disappointment. Instead of taking risks and really going for the violence and the bizarre, it is diluted and made safe for the sake of mainstream consumption. What results is a marginally interesting story about a boy with the Shine, or psychic powers (an allusion to King’s “The Shining”), named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovering another world through his dreams, but the execution lacks energy and long-term intrigue. The protagonists strive to save the universe from annihilation and yet we do not care whether they would make it to the next scene. The screenplay requires major revisions.

Stories of epic scales are defined by the antagonist. Here, it is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wielding powers so astounding that he is able to take someone’s life simply by willing it. And yet for a villain who possesses such ability, Walter is a bore. He walks around in his black clothes barely showing any emotion, but there is no air of mystery about him. We learn nothing about his past or background or anything he might value. We learn of his goal about wishing to destroy the titular tower and why, but this is not enough to create a compelling character worth looking into.

The same critique can be applied to one of the main protagonists, a Gunslinger, the last of his kind, named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Like McConaughey, Elba is a charming performer who can usually communicate paragraphs simply by looking or controlling his body language a certain way. We learn that Roland is great with guns and cares about the boy from Earth, but what else is there to him? Both antagonist and protagonist are given superficial characteristics, but they are hollow inside. Discerning viewers will note that the performances are wooden; the actors look bored in their roles.

Special and visual effects are occasionally impressive—but only when it is willing to show the griminess of Mid-World, how unforgiving it can become at a moment’s notice. This is why the attack in the village and the scene in the woods stand out. For a couple of minutes, we feel on our tiptoes the wonder and foreboding nature of the alternate universe. Literally, it is the stuff out of one’s dreams. By comparison, the battle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in the end is laughable, looking more like a video game in the early-2000s by the second. There is a lack of urgency to this would-be climactic sequence.

If there is going to be an unlikely sequel, and I do want one, the writers need to make a decision that is right for the material. Perhaps most importantly, the content on screen needs to match the level of imagination and the willingness to take risks emanating from King’s “Dark Tower” series. Establishing and building lore is just as important as constructing thrilling action sequences, if not more. Because in order for us to care about what is unfolding, we must understand the worlds, their rules, and the beings who reside in them. Only then could we get a glimpse of their motivations. I did, however, enjoy the casting of Taylor because he seems capable of delivering more than what is on paper.

Kubo and the Two Strings


Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A horrifying number of animated movies these days are not for smart children. Rather, they exist to sell products, to be cute, to be loud, to entertain and then to be forgotten the moment the story ends—sometimes even before since such endings must be happy and frothy. Cue the annoying dance sequence as the credits roll. “Kubo and the Two Strings,” directed Travis Knight, offers an alternative: although the medium is animation and, historically, animated pictures are usually aimed at children, it has the ambition to appeal to viewers across ages, genders, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds because of what it is really about—elements that define our humanity.

Here is an animated film that is unafraid of silence. In fact, it embraces the lack of sound like a warm embrace, highly reminiscent of the more thoughtful, sensitive, and captivating moments of legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”—and appropriate given the influence of Japanese culture in this particular story. Others can and will reduce the plot like this: a one-eyed boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) goes on a journey to acquire items that would help him defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), Kubo’s very own grandfather who wish to collect his remaining eye. But Kubo’s journey and such items function as symbols for our protagonist’s true journey is an internal one.

Laika is a production company that continues to establish itself as Pixar’s counterpart for its willingness to embrace the bleak, the bizarre, and the difficult—while delivering an absorbing story—through the lens of gorgeous stop-motion animation. One that impressed me particularly involves a scene where Kubo, a determined snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and an insomniac beetle (Matthew McConaughey) must battle a giant skeleton in order to acquire a so-called Sword Unbreakable. I sat in my chair awe-struck as seemingly thousands of elements are juggled at once to create a most exciting and creative battle sequence that is also brimming with surprises. Astonished, I wondered how long the filmmakers took to film such an ambitious sequence.

And yet while it seems as though large strokes appear perfect on the canvas, the closer I looked, I noticed flaws that are intended to be there. An obvious imperfection is Kubo having only one eye. Another one is a rather large scar on the face of our young hero’s mother. Even the monkey has a mark on her face. Later, having been engaged in several violent confrontations, a bruise can be found on Kubo’s face. Our characters tend to move a bit slower as the journey goes on, only to be revved up again when life-or-death scenario arises.

These are interesting choices—fresh choices—because it makes the story and the journey that much more life-like. Here, our characters get tired. They get wounded. They consider their mortality. In return, we genuinely fear for their safety. We feel there is an excellent probability that not all of them would make it to the end. We even get a serious glimpse into their dreams. These elements are largely absent in animated movies which is exactly why “Kubo and the Two Strings,” based on the screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, is head and shoulders above their counterparts.

Magic Mike


Magic Mike (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a nineteen-year-old who lost his football scholarship, lands a construction job and meets Mike (Channing Tatum) at the site, a male stripper who hopes to start his own business someday. Recognizing a bit of himself in Adam, Mike introduces the college dropout to his team, the Cock-Rocking Kings of Tampa (Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez), led by a former stripper named Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam quickly learns the requirements of the job, but his hard-partying ways soon catch up to him while Mike considers stepping out.

“Magic Mike,” written by Reid Carolin and directed by Steven Soderbergh, offers outrageous and funny stripteases, but it barely works as a dramatic piece. This makes the picture halfway tolerable—really shining when sinewy men are performing on stage but deadly dull when the screenplay forcefully injects sensitive moments between Mike making an effort to change his station in life and Mike regaling Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).

Scenes that take place in the strip club are at times executed with effervescent energy, one wonders why these guys are in Tampa and not Las Vegas. Bomer, Manganiello, and Rodriguez are not given much character to play, but they do make the best of their few lines. Because their characters remain a mystery for the most part, we are barely able to understand the group dynamics of the team. Mike, Adam, and Dallas get plenty of screen time, but that is only half of the so-called family. The film’s dramatic elements might have commanded more resonance if we knew, at the very least, every member almost equally.

Mike’s ambition to change himself into something more than a male stripper does not make a big enough impact. There is a scene that takes place in a bank. It is a well-executed piece because it shows two things. First, despite Mike’s compelling charm, the kind that women swoon over, it can only take him so far. Second, one can deduce that Mike, even though he is articulate, probably has a limited education and is insecure about it. He reverts to acting defensive when he is given reasons why he must be turned down, as if the person in front of him could read him like a book.

The material needs more scenes like this because it tells us about a character without being too obvious. It requires us to participate by weighing what someone might be thinking based on our real experiences with others. Instead, the picture has the tendency to show stripping every five to ten minutes—even though about half of them are not that memorable or entertaining. One might argue that these are used as crutches.

There is a sweetness in Mike and Brooke’s budding relationship. I enjoyed that Brooke is tough and uptight on paper but Horn plays her with a certain level of openness. Thus, even though at first she feels like sandpaper, over time we experience that there is a softness to her. I liked that Mike is the more overtly sensitive of the pair. I could not find fault with Tatum in the role whether his character is on- or off-stage. If only the picture followed his example.

Killer Joe


Killer Joe (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes six thousand dollars to a local gangster and if he does not pay his loan within a couple of days, goons will be sent to kill him. Chris’ mother has just kicked him out of her house and, out of anger, he tells his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), that her life insurance policy is worth fifty thousand dollars. To get that money into their pockets, all they have to do is find a way to kill her. Rex, the boyfriend of Chris’ mother, tells Chris that he knows a man willing to do the job. For twenty-five thousand dollars, Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a detective, will perform the service. The only problem is that he requires to be paid in advance.

Make no mistake that although its premise has elements of a crime-thriller, “Killer Joe,” based on the play and screenplay by Tracy Letts, is a comedy so grim (but deliciously lurid), each chuckle is almost always accompanied with a feeling of guilt. All of the characters we have the pleasure to observe trade their morals for the possibility of getting a couple thousand bucks richer without a moment’s thought.

The performances are grating during the first twenty minutes. Hirsch as a desperate loser sounds as though he is reading from the script as he attempts to get his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), to unlock the front door of their father’s trailer home so he can get inside. There is a lack of verve to his performance in the opening scenes and I began to question if he was fit to play the role. Hirsch and everyone else’s performances, however, is elevated once McConaughey’s cold and calculating Joe dives into the mix. When Joe speaks and tells a story from his past, the actor that has starred in a handful of flat and uninspired romantic comedies disappears completely. Since McConaughey takes a risk by not holding a level of intensity but actually playing with it, we almost feel his co-stars being challenged and wanting to feed off the unpredictability in front of them.

Although the picture does not shy away from putting the violence front and center, it excels in creating intimate scenes, most often between two people, under the guidance of director William Friedkin. It feels wrong to watch Joe and Dottie, who we can assume to be underaged, first converse about mundane topics, work up to flirtation over a meal, and eventually get intimate physically, but it is impossible not to want their scenes to continue because the script and the acting have formed a synergistic magnetism. Joe’s need to take the girl’s virginity and the girl’s unsure sexuality is such an interesting combination that it undermines the circumstances involving the possible murder.

And that, ultimately, is the main problem. The central crime in “Killer Joe” neither has the strength nor the off-kilter palate to complement the good, sometimes great, performances. If the individual scenes between Dottie and Joe; Joe and Sharla (Gina Gershon), Ansel’s new wife and Chris’ stepmother; and Chris and Dottie were taken out, what remains fit the description of a hundred bland crime pictures.

The Paperboy


The Paperboy (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

The summer of ’69 is a turning point in the life of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) because it is the season he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-year-old woman who has fallen in love with a man on death row. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged for killing a cop but there might be something more to the story. Ward (Matthew McConaughey), Jack’s brother, and Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward’s co-worker in the Miami Times, pay a visit to Moat County, Florida to investigate and possibly expose a potential crack in the justice system.

Based on the novel and screenplay by Peter Dexter, “The Paperboy” is to be admired on one level because it does tell a straight story. Yes, it is about two investigative reporters—one driven by idealism and the other by ambition—but it is not just about the truth. Perhaps more importantly, it is about characters so blinded by what they wish to attain that they fail to acknowledge the dangers or evils that are staring directly at them.

It is compelling to sit through at times. Two characters stand out. First is Ward, a man who loves his brother but is hiding a private shame. As the story unfolds, it becomes more difficult to keep it covered. In one of the most memorable scenes, in execution and content, we are tested how much we care about him. One might flinch at the scene or one may feel compelled to look away, but it is near impossible to not ask any questions.

The sudden burst of violence is not put on the screen for mere shock value. It builds and stirs until something must give out. McConaughey exhibits great control. The camera has a penchant for close-ups—for better or worse—and so just about every time it focuses on his face, we are left wondering where his character is looking, how he is looking at something or someone, and what he is thinking exactly. However, many of the other performers cannot communicate with just the eyes and so the close-ups end up distracting at times.

The second standout is Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s housekeeper. She gives the picture a layer of humor and heart. Anita’s interactions with Jack are meaningful—much warmer than Jack’s interactions with his father and the woman he is dating. Given that Jack’s mother had abandoned him, Anita recognizes the pain and suffering in the boy—not always outwardly present but there nonetheless—and so she treats him like a friend. Sometimes Jack takes this for granted. But Anita understands.

The picture is driven by an important subplot that is often swept under the rug—a critical miscalculation. Although there are many scenes where Ward and Yardley talk about the case and a few where the convict is interviewed, there are not enough details as to how the investigators manage to connect the dots. In a way, the screenplay must function as a procedural so that the case makes perfect sense. Thus, when the disorder that unfolds during the final quarter is presented, our expectations are swept away.

Instead, we get scenes involving Jack being sexually attracted Charlotte. Although Efron and Kidman are game for the ridiculous things their characters say and do, it all feels like a performance. In other words, when they are on screen together, most of the time I felt taken out of the sweltering heat of that small town. I was too aware that I was watching actors rather than complex characters who happen to be caught up in something they do not completely understand. Less scenes of Jack and Charlotte and more scenes of Ward and his partner might have produced a better movie.

Directed by Lee Daniels, “The Paperboy” is not as trashy as many people build it up to be. These are likely to be the very same people who have not had much experience with foreign or independent movies. It is trashy to an extent but there is a story here worth telling. The level of focus in terms of which story is best explored is where it falls short.

Interstellar


Interstellar (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days, when a Christopher Nolan film comes out, it is an event. The reason is largely because he is willing to set the bar quite high for himself as a filmmaker and storyteller that sheer ambition and verve usually tend to inspire or impress many. But those willing to inspect closely will notice a chink in the armor: Like his weaker pictures, “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar” is beautifully shot and photographed, even exciting superficially, but it is overlong and overblown.

Most problematic is the so-called revelation during the final quarter which delves into a perceived supernatural presence acknowledged early on. It is entirely predictable. At that point, I felt my body sinking into my seat, almost embarrassed but certainly in disbelief that Nolan, despite his admirable quality of constantly striving for boldness or originality, has actually utilized one of the oldest tricks in the book. Worse, it is employed for the sake of sentimentality. I did not buy it and neither should any intelligent viewer. It is important that we know we deserve more.

What should have been done instead is to leave a bit of mystery for audience. Clearly, the film is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s challenging “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is disappointing that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan has chosen to traverse a more accessible path, easily digestible, some might argue spoon-fed, providing all the answers by the time the screen fades to black. The final thirty minutes comes across messy, amateurish, and not fully realized.

The basic premise is this: Earth’s atmosphere is now largely composed of nitrogen, rather than oxygen, and so the planet is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. As a result, a shortage of food spans the globe. It is without a doubt that mankind is facing extinction. When ten-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) begins to receive strange messages in her room, she and her father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are led to a hidden facility where scientists (led by a character played by Michael Caine) have come up with a plan to save the species. Cooper, currently a farmer but formerly a test pilot and engineer for NASA, is asked to participate on a mission which involves visiting potentially habitable planets outside of our known solar system.

Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence takes place on a bizarre planet where it appears to be composed of only water. The sequence demands attention because of two factors: we do not know what to expect from the seemingly calm environment and we are not yet aware if Cooper and the team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) will be able to work together effectively. On top of these, spending time on this particular planet carries a special risk. Cooper has promised to return to his daughter.

One of the picture’s limitations is its tendency to jump back and forth between the intergalactic mission and the happenings at home. While it is important we are consistently reminded that time is of the essence, both on a personal and a global level, we need not observe the drama between Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck) because it all seems so insignificant compared to the decisions their father must face. Video transmissions aboard the ship would have sufficed. Sometimes showing less communicates great sophistication while more is just overindulgent.

“Interstellar” is well-acted by the performers across the board; they deliver what is expected of the roles they must play. A few images are a marvel, particularly those of icy mountains that seem to go on for miles and a spacecraft set against the darkness of space—with no sound. But the picture fails to drill completely into Cooper’s roles as a father and a potential savior of the human species. It goes to show that although a filmmaker is provided a sizable budget to employ talent that will grace the screen and hire technicians to make images look just right, when the screenplay is not sculpted to near perfection, an otherwise ambitious project that can potentially set a standard may end up just satisfying rather than transcending.

Dazed and Confused


Dazed and Confused (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is Lee High School’s last day before summer of ’76 officially begins and students from various cliques are eager to celebrate. Summer means no getting up early for class, no teachers, just friends, late nights, and freedom. Word is going around that Pickford (Shawn Andrews) is going to throw a party since his parents are away for the weekend. For many, it is the place to be to commemorate the arrival of summer.

We are all familiar with that strange feeling in our gut and the shroud-like calm that seems to touch every little thing when we are about to let go and be reckless for a change, perfectly captured by writer-director Richard Linklater in “Dazed and Confused.” It is a very accessible picture because it dares to capture and remain true to that universal feeling.

Though it certainly helps, the film is smart not to rely on the hair styles, the clothes, and the cars to tell its story. It focuses on being young, living in the moment, and acknowledging that the future can be a scary and exciting thing. Filled with very different and memorable characters, the easiest to root for is Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the football team’s star quarterback who is able to fluidly hang out with one clique to another.

Because of this character, I noticed that the screenplay is honest in portraying high school students. Contrary to popular media’s portrayal of jocks being one-dimensional steroid-hungry bulldogs who scare people into hiding in their lockers, in my experience, athletes like Pink do not just remain in their circle. Some of them are able to have friends outside of their spheres even if they do not necessarily share the same interests. Likable athletes tend to be popular not simply because they can throw the ball really far. They have a charming aspect to them that encourages us to let our guard down even for just a little bit.

Pink is going to be a senior in the fall, but he is not sure if continuing to play football is still right for him. His feelings and thoughts are handled without sentimentality that might potentially make the picture feel drab. After all, when reduced to the lowest common denominator, the film is about a night of freedom.

And yet the screenplay surprises the viewers by striving to become more than just a night of drinking and partying. As the night unfolds, it is able to focus on its characters: young people with real thoughts and concerns with adulthood—or their ideas of adulthood—looming near. For example, Pink represents the present while Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) represent the future and past, respectively. Pink is happy to be where he is but he consistently crosses paths with his coach who wants him to sign a piece of paper which states that he will not do drugs and get in trouble with the law during the summer. Although signing may sound practical because he has a responsibility toward his team, the community, and his future, we are made to understand that for him a signature means signing away a part of himself and the gnawing desires of living in the now.

I admired that although the film showed stereotypically “bad” things like drinking beer, smoking weed, and committing a bit of vandalism, the script maintains a surprising level of insight. There is a conversation in the car between Mike (Adam Goldberg), Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), and Tony (Anthony Rapp), so-called geeks, about how they feel the youth is being programmed into preparing for the future but it is, in the end, all for nothing. They argue that once that future is reached, we do not or may not necessarily find ourselves being truly happy and living. We tend to worry about the next future and how to achieve it.

“Dazed and Confused,” accompanied by an excellent soundtrack, has a surprising level of clarity. Notice certain scenes when one person comes along to greet a group of friends already immersed in a conversation and the dynamic completely changes. Small details like that goes a long way. I wish more movies were like this.

The Wolf of Wall Street


The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Black Monday sends Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) spinning back to square one. Having been hired in a Wall Street firm, he thought he had it made. And just like that—it appears as though his dream of making it rich has been squashed. But Jordan does not give up easily. He accepts a job working with penny stocks and it ends up being a success. Though his occupation involves taking money away of the investors, mostly people who do not have a lot of experience when it comes to stocks, an addiction needs to be fed and money is a great motivator. Soon, Jordan has his own company and he earns more than enough money than he knows what to do with.

Confession: I know next to nothing about stocks, investments, and Wall Street. Going into the film, I was not even aware that Jordan Belfort was a real person. Based on the subject’s memoir and adapted to the screen by Terence Winter, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining dark comedy that benefits most from high energy direction by Martin Scorsese and a powerhouse performance by DiCaprio. Still, it is about an hour too long.

The picture is at its strongest when it traces Belfort’s humble beginnings. Seeing him without the drugs, the mansion, the yacht, and the prostitutes reminds us that although he will turn into a most unprincipled scam artist eventually, there is a recognizable person there. Here is a young man who is tired of being poor and who has dared to dream big. He is only an arm’s length away from what he has always wanted and nothing—not even the basic idea of right and wrong—can stop him.

The FBI subplot, the investigation led by Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), takes too long to get into full gear. About an hour in, we see a glimpse of the FBI agent and then he is never seen again for what it feels like another hour. As a result, suspense does not build. In the meantime, repetitive images of excess parade the screen. While I admired the nice watches and jewelry, beautiful interiors of the house, the Ferrari, and the like, I began to wonder when the film was finally going to move forward. This is a strange Scorsese picture in that it is highly energetic but it is not efficient. There is a difference between providing specifics and being mired in them.

I found the supporting performances to be quite bland. With the exception of Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man and McConaughey as Belfort’s short-lived boss, everyone else either relies on a quirk to stand out or does not bother to be memorable at all. The members of the latter group appear, say some lines and are forgotten until they are once again required to speak. Is a statement being made? Are the exciting characters exciting only because they are up to their eyeballs on drugs? Or is it that the performances are not carefully modulated?

There are certainly some elements to be enjoyed in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—mainly a few scenes depicting excess and debauchery, seeing DiCaprio having a ball with his character—but the film lacks dramatic depth. It feels too much like a music video at times. With a running time of three hours, rising just a bit above mediocrity is inexcusable.

Mud


Mud (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two boys make their way downriver to check out a motorboat in a tree and claim it as their own. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) believe it is abandoned but their excitement comes to halt when they find a stack of Penthouse magazines, a loaf of bread, and some canned goods. When they get to shore, a man is there, fishing. A deal is made: if the boys bring him some food, they can have the boat. No-nonsense Neckbone asks why he does not get food himself. The stranger’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and he says he cannot leave the island because he has arranged to meet with someone. What the boys are not aware of is that the man before them is on the run from the law for murder.

“Mud” is appropriately titled for three reasons and each one is communicated beautifully. First, from the moment Mud enters Ellis’ life, something awakens inside the fourteen-year-old. Though Ellis does not know much about Mud, he is naturally drawn to the stranger and eventually looks up to him. Every time Mud talks about the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), we feel Ellis taking mental notes. He has a lot of love to give but does not quite know how to communicate it all the time–not to his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) who are on the verge of divorce, not to the high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) he crushes on, and not even to Neckbone, always by his side even when a course of action seems foolish. Through this mysterious man, Mud, Ellis gets a chance to think as a mature adult from time to time. And that is exciting to him.

Second, it embraces the idea that loving someone is very much like going through a field while leg-deep in mud. It is hard work, confusing, sometimes frustrating, and a couple may be unaware of what the other needs because he or she is too busy trying not to fall headfirst into the hurdles of circumstances. This is best shown through the marital struggles in Ellis’ home. We are not given all the facts of the crumbling marriage so it is wise to refrain from judging. His mother and father love Ellis very much, but they are no longer in love with each other. What matters is the fallout and their only child is caught in the middle, afraid of losing either of his parents, being uprooted from where he lives, and veering away from a lifestyle he has grown to love. The very core of his identity is at stake.

Lastly, stepping in mud or rolling around in it tends to get a person dirty. Ellis always being so willing to involve himself in Mud’s personal affairs takes a toll eventually. Writer-director Jeff Nichols helms a classic coming-of-age film in the sense that it is about the main character’s loss of innocence. Before meeting and getting to know Mud, Ellis has a very clear idea of what love is: staying together no matter what. Observe very closely how he handles the news of his parents’ highly likely separation. Compare that to a scene late in the picture which involves a conversation between a father and his son. Sometimes love is letting go.

The adults surrounding Ellis have interior lives. It is critical that we are aware of this because they serve as the young man’s guideposts when he himself is lost. Like him, they have thoughts and motivations. They are capable of change. I found “Mud” to be a respectful and honest film, driven by strong performances, especially by Sheridan, McConaughey, and Lofland, and guided by a smart writing and sensitive direction.

Best of all, it consistently gives more instead of resting on what already works. For instance, instead of relying on picturesque images of trees leaning on one side and the island’s cracked soil to establish authenticity to its Arkansan delta setting, there are subtle but relevant decisions like showing a hole on one’s clothing and the sorts of business establishments resting on the background of a frame. We appreciate the environment while getting a sense of the characters’ lifestyles.