(On Cable TV, December 2014) I like discovering small-scale movies lurking in the late-night schedules of specialized cable channels. You can often end up with competent fare such as Butter, a cynical comedy about Midwestern alienation, resentment and butter carving. It’s not exactly a hidden gem featuring unknown actors: Jennifer Garner stars as a driven housewife, while Olivia Wilde plays a vengeful stripper and Hugh Jackman shows up for a small but entirely ridiculous role. The story revolves around a woman taking up butter carving at a very competitive level after her husband’s retirement, only to be challenged by a young black girl with unusual natural talent for the craft. Butter comes up decently when it’s most focused on the silliness of its characters given the low stakes surrounding them. (Wilde’s character is preposterous, but despite her dodgy motivations the film simply feels funnier when she’s on-screen.) There’s a bit of heart alongside the cynicism (most notably when Rob Corddry opens up with his foster daughter), but enough gags here and there to justify the time. Butter does miss a number of its targets: There are obvious parallels here with the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination process, but they end up being more distracting than amusing. The film does take place in a slightly-altered comic reality when characters often behave in ways more outrageous than realistic, and it may have been interesting to see the script commit even more broadly to this kind of absurdity. Still, it’s tough to begrudge such a modest comedy, especially given the various pointed barbs it’s willing to feature.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Three decades after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, twenty years after the obvious tears of Philadelphia, we’re not talking about the disease the way we used to, even in historical retrospectives. Dallas Buyers Club may go back to 1986, but it does so with the knowledge that AIDS has, in some ways, become a treatable chronic disease. Rather than focus on the inevitable death sequence (although we do get that), it’s a film that dare to blend all-American entrepreneurial spirit, antiestablishment smuggling and expert-defying hunches into a fight-back story against AIDS. Anchoring the film is Matthew McConaughey’s astonishing physical transformation into a gaunt but indomitable figure, as his radical post-Lincoln Lawyer career renaissance had led him to a pivotal dramatic role (and modified audience expectations accordingly). Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner turn in serviceable supporting roles, but this is really McConaughey’s movie. Skillfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club offers a look at the early AIDS era that is both unflinching and more than occasionally entertaining as we see the protagonist defy the medical establishment’s glum predictions to provide a better life for other afflicted people. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that keeps the preaching to a minimum –as should be, considering how attitudes have changed.