(On Cable TV, October 2018) I you want to hear me at my cantankerous best, just get me started on the hyperbolization of language and (in parallel) the tendency of ironic catchphrases to get normalized to clichés. Never mind my person crusade to teach everyone the deadly origins of the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: one of my current bugaboos is how perfectly good middle-ground descriptive words have been perverted into value judgments. “Mediocre” means “ordinary,” but most people now take it to mean “bad.” “Exemplary” means that something is a perfect example of something, and not necessarily among the best. So when I say that Failure to Launch is an exemplary mid-2000s romantic comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey (not as small a sample size as you’d think), then I’m just saying that it’s representative, not a superior example of the form. The plot is the kind of high-concept contrived nonsense that was a staple at the time, this time about a relationship specialist (Sarah Jessica Parker) who can be hired to boost the self-esteem of young men staying at their parent’s house long after they’ve overstayed their welcome. It’s not prostitution, insists Failure to Launch in the rare moments when it actually cares about the implications of its premise, except that parents do hire her to send their boys away from home. The plot built upon that premise is executed by-the-numbers, but as with many examples of the genre the charm of the film lies in the execution, the subplots and the supporting characters. The charm of the leads is considerable (there’s a reason why McConaughey found a niche in romantic comedies for so long—he nearly overpowers the material), and there is a lot of fun to find in the more interesting romantic B-story featuring Zooey Deschanel and the film’s obsession about animal bites. Bradley Cooper and a pre-hair implant Steve Carrell show up in minor roles. There’s a funny subplot about a mockingbird. Despite its familiarity, Failure to Launch is not a difficult film to watch: it’s not exceptional, but it’s well-made enough to be entertaining.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m not that familiar with Stephen King’s series (even though I’ve got most of it on my shelves, waiting for a sustained reading marathon) but you don’t need to be a fan to be disappointed by the low energy of this big screen The Dark Tower. Some of the film is worth defending: Idris Elba has never been less than interesting even in misfires such as this one. Matthew McConaughey can play evil very well. Some of the initial world building of the film is intriguing. There’s a great action sequence at the end. But beyond those things, The Dark Tower feels like a blend of several very familiar urban fantasy tropes remixed without much wit nor conviction. It does a poor job hinting at the grandeur of King’s series, and far too often goes back to familiarity when we’re here for the new and unexpected. I often complain about the Hollywood process that uniformizes whatever quirky source of inspiration comes its way, and that’s seldom as apparent as in here. Whatever may have been worthwhile in King’s source material is compressed in an extremely familiar three-act structure and plot moments that feel stolen from the past five years of YA urban fantasy. What’s left cannot be satisfying to audiences unfamiliar with King’s work nor his fans. The Dark Tower feels like a mess, and watches like one. Looking at the poor critical and commercial returns for the film, it’s fair to say that there will never be a sequel in that continuity and I’m not devastated by that idea.
(Video on-Demand, May 2017) The good news are that while Gold is based on a true story, it’s certainly not beholden to it, and so the Canadian Bre-X scandal becomes an American one and the hero is allowed to walk away with what amounts to a happy ending of sorts. The film is at its best when it offers a look behind the scenes of a mining company, from exploring prospective mining sites to meeting investors on Wall Street. Matthew McConaughey de-glams himself in the lead role, taking on a balding haircut, unflattering teeth and an overweight physique to give us a character unlike any in his filmography. It’s not a great performance on the order of what he’s been regularly presenting in the past half-decade, but it’s decent enough and he surrounds himself with capable character actors such as Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard and Corey Stoll. The film itself is rather duller than you’d expect from the high-flying subject matter—writer/director Stephen Gaghan has done much better in the past, and Gold can’t quite get out of a safe comfort zone. On the other hand, it’s a relatively entertaining watch, and it ends with a somewhat happier note than you’d expect. Gold may not be much more than a standard evening’s entertainment, but the inner look at mining operations can be enough to tip the scale for some viewers.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) It’s sad when capable actors are stuck with dull material, and The Wedding Planner is a case study in how that happens. Here, the always-appealing Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey (in the early rom-com phase of his career) do their best with a script that combines dumb situations with uninspiring dialogue. Their natural charm (plus good contributions from the always-interesting Judy Greer and Justin Chambers) is just about the only thing that keep the film together as it moves through the usual story beats of the romantic comedy formula. The first half-hour is quite a bit better (as in; interesting, less predictable, quirkier, looser, hotter) than anything that follows—it eventually becomes a romantic comedy so cynical that it practically forgets about the romance, so preoccupied it is with ritually moving its plot pieces through the expected episodes leading to the climax. The Wedding Planner is not much of a comedy and it’s not much of a romance either—at best, it does the strict minimum, lets its stars carry the film and calls it a day. Too bad.
(Video on Demand, November 2016) As much as it’s not advisable to trust Hollywood for anything approximating a history lesson, Free State of Jones offers a quick dramatic primer on the incredible story of Jones County, a small area of the Confederate South that managed to rebel against the southern government and remain independent throughout much of the American Civil War. Matthew McConaughey stars in another substantial role as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who defiantly returns home with his dead cousin and rebels against the local authorities, drawing more and more support along the way. This takes us through the Civil War, well into reconstruction and the difficulties encountered after the moment most war movies end. It ends up being an uplifting story about inclusiveness, rebellion against injustice and the power that small communities can have in shaping their destinies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell have good supporting roles as wives who reach a curious understanding. Free State of Jones is not quite as successful as it could be: it feels long at more than two hours and a quarter, resorts to title cards to explain what it can’t dramatize, isn’t always able to make the most out of its scenes, loses its way in flashforwards and occasionally feels like it’s repeating the same thing. Still, it’s an interesting historical thriller, and it has a few weighty themes on its mind. It could have been better, but it easily could have been worse.
(On TV, July 2015) For all the flack that 2000-2010 Matthew McConaughey has received for his lengthy string of undemanding roles in romantic comedies, it’s easy enough to forget that he was really, really good at it. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is as good a showcase for him in that mode as any of the other films in that sub-genre. Here, A Christmas Carol crashes into rom-com conventions as McConaughey plays an unrepentant womanizer taught the error of his ways via three helpful ghosts on the eve of a wedding. As with many films trying to mix familiar genre premises with high-concept premises, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past works best as its wildest (the scene where the protagonist meets his past girlfriends “in bulk” is the highlight), and worst when it’s saddled with obligatory emotional beats, or realise it actually has to deliver a romantic payoff beyond the jokes. So it is that the film is an inventive delight when McConaughey acts as a bad-boy or when the ghosts take him through a tour of his romantic life. It’s not so enjoyable when it has to go through the motions of the typical foreordained romance, or the dramatic scaffolding required to get to the triumphant ending. But the film does make an impression: Emma Stone is nothing short of hilarious in a pre-stardom role, while Michael Douglas is slick-smooth as the kind of mentor every mother warns her son about. Noureen DeWulf, Anne Archer, Lacey Chabert and Robert Forster also make good impressions in smaller roles. Still, the script is a bit hit-and-miss as its better moments are saddled with more obvious ones. In other words, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been a bit better with the elements at its disposal, and occasional signs that it’s capable of much better. But even as it is, it’s an impressive showcase for the kind of persona that Matthew McConaughey enjoyed in his rom-com heyday.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) Some movies are more difficult to approach in a capsule review than others, and while Interstellar is certainly one of them, the fact that I saw it with a raging fever doesn’t help matters at all. My expectations about it were running high: Christopher Nolan is an ambitious director, and daring to present an original hard-SF space exploration spectacle at a time where superhero franchises are the rage would be ironic even if The Dark Knight Returns hasn’t directly financed Interstellar. The film certainly delivers on its promises: With a two-and-a-half hours running time, it tackles new frontiers of science (thanks to physicist Kip Thorne’s collaboration), time-travel (in a way), an extinction-level crisis, weighty family matters and humanity’s future in one big wide-screen package. Matthew McConaughey stars as an intrepid engineer bucking against a subsistence-mode Earth, selected to lead a mission that may offer a way out of a decaying environment. The rest of the film is an interlocking puzzle of big ideas brought home through very personal stories, exploiting the dramatic possibilities of physics in a way often realized in prose Science Fiction but rarely attempted on-screen. The result is like a good solid hard-SF novella brought to life, with careful direction and mind-expanding sequences. I liked it a lot, but surprisingly enough didn’t quite love it like I loved Inception. The length of the film is an issue, and so are some of the shakier elements of the world-building in which the story takes place. I couldn’t sufficiently suspend my disbelief when it came to Earth-side matters, although some of the dreary details were all-too-vivid. Still, I enjoyed toying with the film’s ideas and theme, and think that this is a major Science Fiction film in the way it successfully manages to feel like a mid-seventies hard-SF novel, combining a decent amount of science with a decent amount of fiction. I’m half-tempted to blame my fever for not being bowled over by the result, but it may also be that Interstellar is designed to be admired more than to be loved… which, in itself, is a very hard-SF intention.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Truth is often stranger than fiction, so it’s no surprise to see Bernie work extra-hard at blurring the line between the two in telling us an unusual story of crime and punishment in small-town East Texas. Blending interviews with real people with fictional re-creation of the events, Bernie is the story of a likable man who ends up shooting a disliked widow. The public reaction in the community is such that in planning the trial, the District Attorney ends up requesting another venue in order to ensure that his client won’t be pre-emptively acquitted by the jury. Of course, the fun of the story is in the details, and the way writer/director Richard Linklater ends up presenting this true story through a blend of testimonials and scripted scenes. Jack Black has a good role as the titular Bernie, earning himself a spot outside the annoyance zone in which his last few roles have landed. Bernie also features two smaller but showy roles for Shirley McClaine (as the hated widow) and Matthew McConaughey (as the ambitious District Attorney, and another link in the rebirth of his career) While Bernie isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, it’s an often-affectionate look at a small Texan community and the weirdness of true life crime.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) Presenting the grandiose life story of a criminal isn’t new grounds for veteran director Martin Scorsese, and that may explain why he has chosen to pile so much excess in a film that could (but probably shouldn’t) have been told far more economically. Centered around Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort’s short-lived (but lucrative) career in the waning days of the twentieth century, The Wolf of Wall Street does make an attempt at the usual tragic structure of such films: The introduction to a life of crime, the excessive fun and games of the high-flying protagonist, the enemy forces closing in, and the final disgrace as the protagonist loses everything. But the proportions are different of the norm: The introduction is frantic, the downfall takes less than two minutes and the rest of the film is pure excess piled upon pure excess: Drugs, sex, nudity, profanity all jostle for screen-time in this three-hour paean to the utter corruption made possible by a multi-million-dollars annual salary and an enabling environment without restraints. Leonardo DiCarpio is simply magnificent as the protagonist: Smart, driven, charismatic, absolutely corrupt and unable to stop himself. He directly addresses the audience as the revelry is unleashed around him, reassuring us that this is all illegal and that we wouldn’t understand all of the details. Not that we need to: At a time where Wall Street excesses are well-known and even celebrated, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t need to waste its time giving us a moral lesson: It would rather give us a full-throttle ride through decadence without false reassurances that sociopathic behavior always gets what it’s due. It makes for a lousy Sunday-school example, but an absolute marvel of a film: The Wolf of Wall Street is rarely less than hypnotically compelling, the work of a director working at his best. Many actors get their chance to shine here besides DiCaprio: Jonah Hill gets a ton of laughs (especially during a Qualuude-fueled scene with DiCaprio that already ranks as a classic bit of physical humor), Matthew McConaughey continues his white-hot acting streak in a pair of film-stealing scenes, while Margot Robbie gets a plum role that requires as much sex-appeal as honest acting talent. It amounts to a terrific thrill-ride of a film, slick in all the right ways and unusually respectful of its adult audience. Frankly, I’d rather see this film a second time than have a first look at many other films in my playlist.
(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.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) A coming-of-age drama blended with a crime thriller may not strike anyone as particularly promising movie experience, but thanks to writer/director Jeff Nichols’ savvy, Mud quickly becomes compelling viewing. After two teenage boys discover a fugitive living alone on an abandoned Mississippi island, they get drawn into a dangerous game between his girlfriend, bounty hunters and the adults in their lives. Matthew McConaughey scores another solid post-Lincoln Lawyer role as the titular Mud, a fugitive who ends up fascinating audiences as much as he mesmerizes his two teenage helpers. From a deceptively slow-paced first act, Mud gets wilder and more urgent as it goes on, culminating in a strong shoot-out that settles things for most characters. The sense of place in rural Arkansas is well-presented, and the banter between the two teenage leads is just as well-crafted: At times, the images were powerful enough to strongly remind me of my own teenage antics in rural Quebec. There’s a good heart in this picture, but enough hard edges to avoid it turning into a mawkish collection of clichés. While it may not sound like much of a high-concept on paper, Mud is quite a bit better than expected.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Matthew McConaughey’s recent career renewal has been a beautiful thing to watch ever since The Lincoln Lawyer and it reaches an apogee of sorts here within this pitch-black Texan crime thriller. Though sometimes billed as a comedy, Killer Joe is more lurid than funny, as it features a deeply dysfunctional family plotting to kill for purely monetary gains. Complications more than ensue when an implacable hit-man (McConaughey, deliciously evil) is brought in to execute the plan, and when the money goes missing. Twisted, sordid, at times asphyxiating, Killer Joe is not pure entertainment as much as it’s watching a train-wreck in motion. Sometimes in very slow motion, as the theatrical roots of Tracy Letts’ script show up most visibly in a series of lengthy dialogue-heavy scenes. (You may hear about the fried-chicken scene and you may think you’re ready to see it as just one more thing in your jaded filmgoer’s experience, but you’re not.) While Killer Joe ends a bit too early to earn a satisfying pay-off, there’s no denying the skill with which veteran director William Friedkin puts together the film, or the talent of the actors having fun with their slummy characters. Emile Hirsch is particularly credible as a dim-witted wannabe hustler who gets outplayed by everyone, while Gina Gershon gets the least-glamorous role as the fried-chicken-gobbler. (And now I feel dirty for having written this, and I haven’t even mentioned the twisted sex-slavery plot device.) Unpleasant yet fascinating, crafty and exploitative at once, Killer Joe may best be considered as showing how far McConaughey has gone from his beach-bum rom-com persona… and how good he is at playing dark.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) This could have been a disposable film in so many ways. There isn’t much, on paper, to distinguish Magic Mike from countless other similar cookie-cutter films: This may be about a young man’s initiation to the quasi-criminal world of dance (er: male stripping), but we’ve seen variations on that tale so many times that the film could have chosen the tried-and-true dance-or-crime-movie formula. But it doesn’t and it’s not entirely because of director Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast refusal to play by the usual rules. Never mind the long takes, over-filtered cinematography, pseudo-realist camera work or extended dance/strip numbers: Magic Mike is perhaps more interesting in the choices it makes as a script. While this is partly about an initiation into male stripping, the lead character is the one trying to get out. While this may be a romance, it’s one that barely begins by the time the credits roll and all the other subplots remain unfulfilled. While the characters are recognizably archetypes, they defy cliché and transcend their narrative functions by becoming fully-featured creations. Then there’s the drawn-out stripping numbers, which are far more about dance and musical choreography than about bare male flesh. (Ironically for a film about male stripping, the most noteworthy nudity is a topless Olivia Munn. Well, that and a prominent pump thankfully off-focus.) Fortunately, Magic Mike can count upon a few exceptional performances to, ahem, flesh out the characters. Matthew McConaughey extends his range a bit farther by playing a slimy stripper/manager, his usual bare chest covering a darker character than usual. But it’s Channing Tatum, in the wake of the surprisingly-good 21 Jump Street, who impresses the most as a “stripper/entrepreneur” conflicted between easy money and self-respect. Alex Pettyfer also turns in his least annoying performance yet in what is assuredly his best movie so far. Magic Mike certainly isn’t perfect (Soderbergh’s directorial choices easily cross over from “clever” to “showy”, leading one to wonder if he’s even capable of being mainstream) and the inconclusive finale seems a bit too focused to satisfy, but it all amounts to a surprisingly better film than any plot summary may suggest.
(On DVD, January 2012) I suppose that you have to be in the right kind of mood to appreciate this tropical treasure-hunting romantic comedy. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson practically sleepwalk through familiar roles as the bickering lead couple, but the real worth of Fool’s Gold is in its carefree sunny atmosphere. Colorful cinematography, distinctive supporting characters and a fairly unassuming plot all add up to the kind of film designed to cheer up anyone stuck in gloomy winter. Too bad, then, that the film couldn’t go beyond the obvious and deliver something that could be appreciated by broader audiences. A few annoying characters, dull dialogue, unnecessary violence (three deaths, including a fairly graphic one that crams an unnecessary “ewww” in the middle of a lighthearted film), talky exposition sequences and a general sense that no one is trying harder than the strict minimum (except the cinematographer) all conspire to make the film less interesting than it could have been. Too bad, because for a few moments, some sequences of Fool’s Gold point the way to a lighthearted Caribbean adventure. At least it has the decency to wrap up well. It’s just a bit inert, and no amount of gorgeous blue tropical water photography can make up for a less-than-stellar effort. The DVD doesn’t help matters with a too-short making-of featurette and a forgettable gag reel.