For the week of February 4th, Universal Studios Home Entertainment is bringing the recent Oscar nominee Dallas Buyers Club to Blu-ray. This gritty docudrama is the latest in what some critics have affectionately called the "McConaissance." Continuing an acting tear that's included The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, and HBO's True Detective, Matthew McConaughey stars here as Ron Woodroof, a part-time electrician and full-time hellraiser given a sober reality check when he learns he is HIV-positive; however, rather than just accept his fate, Woodroof gets sublimely pissed off, and he starts an illegal crusade to score himself – and eventually many others struggling with the disease – reams of FDA-unapproved drugs. We've come a long way since Philadelphia: if that 1993 message picture applied a Frank Capra-sheen to the AIDS epidemic, Dallas Buyers Club is far messier, turning an explicit, unsparing eye on the most destructive parts of the disease as Woodroof and his fellow HIV sufferers wither and bleed and die slowly and horribly.
Yet there's something very affirming about the film – it has a largeness of spirit, in part due to McConaughey's virtuoso, live-wire work. Ron Woodroof was a born outlaw, and McConaughey fuses that mentality into everything he does, from the way he scams foreign countries out of potentially life-saving drug treatments to his affable, sly handling of a local doctor (Jennifer Garner) he's simultaneously conning and seducing. You can love him or hate him, but McConaughey never lets you pity Woodroof. That toughness squeezes the melodrama from the picture and leaves only hard truths, most notably in Woodroof's unlikely partnership with flamboyantly gay transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto, who matches McConaughey beat for beat). If the movie were to traffic in any clichés, it would be in this subplot - the aggressively heterosexual Woodroof initially loathes Rayon, and true to form, that hate grows into mutual love and respect – but the film doesn't quite give us what we're expecting. Woodroof isn't the type who's prone to big speeches and what-I've-learned effusions. Instead, we watch his behavior change, just as we note Rayon's quietly amazed reactions to the more tolerant Woodroof.
Of McConaughey, Kenneth Brown wrote that "Shedding thirty-seven pounds of muscle and rock-jawed southern charm, [the actor] is a ball of fiery, rail-thin intensity, injecting a hint of comic pathos and whiskey-drenched swagger into a role that could have been mired in despair and self-loathing. His Ron Woodroof isn't just a fighter, he's a brash braggart, an inexplicably likable lout, a bigot entrenched in a war with his own bigotry, a calculating entrepreneur, a clever sonuvabitch, a barbed thorn in the side of the FDA, a man on a mission, a friend of the people and, above all, an ever-evolving, ever-growing human being. The 'Buyers Club' Woodroof establishes begins as a scheme - a quick way to make some cash, fund his Mexican excursions and live a juicier life - but soon surpasses its self-serving roots to become something far more selfless and noble. And Ron right along with it. The film suddenly isn't about a man struggling to cleanse his body, but rather a man struggling to cleanse his soul."
Also from Universal is About Time. The newest film from Love Actually and Black Adder mastermind Richard Curtis, this romantic fantasy finds Curtis rebounding after the disappointing Pirate Radio (or The Boat That Rocked, for any UK readers out there). Curtis focuses his attentions on Tim Lake, a young man who learns that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time. This power affords About Time some opportunities for Curtis to indulge in some reality-warping shenanigans, as Tim ends up messing with the space-time continuum in order to better his future or increase his success with women (Rachel McAdams plays Tim's most significant squeeze), but Curtis doesn't exploit the boundaries of the temporal realms to the same degree as Groundhog Day or Back to the Future (and considering how fuzzy the film's time-travel rules are, that restraint is probably a good thing). Instead, About Time adopts a more winsome, nostalgic tone; it sees Tim's gift as a metaphor for using time wisely, even if doing so means lingering on the moments that hurt. Nowhere is this clearer than in Tim's relationship with his father (the great Bill Nighy, who deserved an Oscar nomination for his work). Their genial bantering first comes off as simple comic asides, but Curtis turns these sequences into the heart of the film, a move that proves unexpectedly devastating. If About Time is Curtis' last film, as he has suggested, then it's a more-than fine one to go out on.
Warner Home Entertainment is distributing the underrated Iraqi war drama Stop-Loss this week. The film is the second from filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, who's worked all too infrequently since her acclaimed 1999 debut feature Boys Don't Cry (Peirce only just released her third feature, last year's dispiriting horror remake Carrie), and it finds her turning a humanistic, wise eye towards the soldiers fighting in the Middle East, specifically two best friends played by Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum. After the two men finish serving a particularly brutal tour of duty, they're looking forward to reconnecting with friends and family back in their small Texas hometown, but when the military implements a "stop-loss" order that extends their enlistment contracts, Phillippe's character goes on the run, desperate not to see active combat again. In many ways, this is a bitterly angry film. Peirce doesn't pull any punches in her criticism of the stop-loss policy, either in her savage, horrifying staging of the film's opening gunfight or her depiction of the soldiers who return home after experiencing such horrors and cannot reintegrate into civilian life; in particular, Victor Rasuk has a wrenching cameo as a multiple amputee that Phillippe visits during his travels, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all-but-walks away with Stop-Loss as a buddy of Phillippe and Tatum's whose PTSD drives him to violent extremes. But as critical as Peirce may be of the U.S. military, she has nothing but compassion for the troops themselves. She also makes a case for soldiers like Tatum's character who choose to support stop-lossing – Tatum sets out in pursuit of Phillippe because he doesn't trust anyone else enough to watch his back in wartime, and Peirce argues that his reason is not an insignificant one. Though little seen during its initial release, Stop-Loss has grown in stature: it is to the Iraq War what The Best Years of Our Lives was to World War II.
In his Blu-ray review, Michael Reuben noted that "Every war generates a cinema specific to its circumstances, but film is much better at expressing emotional experience than intellectual analysis. The plight of individual soldiers and the gap between the rush of patriotic fervor that inspires service and the day-to-day realities of fighting and its aftermath have been a consistent source of inspiration for filmmakers precisely because the experience is so personal. King Vidor's The Big Parade didn't attempt to examine the causes of World War I or assign responsibilities for the slaughter; Vidor was more interested in showing the war as it was experienced by three very different soldiers who became unlikely comrades. William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives didn't undertake an analysis of the rise of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or the dangers of post-war Europe; it only cared about what happened to three American soldiers who came home from the fighting. Stop-Loss falls squarely in this tradition, but the public didn't show for it, which is a shame. It's a powerful, moving film on an important subject."
Finally, Lionsgate and Summit are bringing the actioner Escape Plan to Blu-ray. Perhaps "actioner" is too strong a word. With the exception of some heavy pyrotechnics at the finale, this is more a prison-break thriller with a high-concept twist: Sylvester Stallone plays a security expert who is betrayed by an unknown adversary (and if you're at all paying attention, you should have no trouble figuring out the turncoat before the movie tips its hand) and thrown into…dun dun dun - the most secure maximum security prison known to man. Don't be expecting a taut drama in the vein of A Man Escaped or Escape from Alcatraz; this is more like the prison sequence in Face/Off stretched to fill a whole movie. As such, it's never anything other than preposterous, though enjoyably so. Stallone is his usual taciturn self, and Jim Caviezel is a hoot as the ultra-psychotic warden who will stop at nothing to keep Stallone incarcerated. Best of all is Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the wonderfully named "Emil Rottmayer," an unlikely ally of Stallone's whose true allegiances are always under suspicion. After a logy, underwhelming turn in the otherwise entertaining The Last Stand, Schwarzenegger gets to cut loose here in a way he hasn't since his heyday as the world's most popular action hero – he's the wild card to Stallone's straight man, conning everyone silly and faking insanity (in German, no less) and otherwise having the time of his life, and he's a joy to watch.
Jeffrey Kauffman wrote that "Escape Plan has a lot of fun elements, but it's repeatedly hobbled by what is either some really boneheaded screenwriting or (in what is my personal hunch) a kind of shoddy editing situation which leaves too much unexplained. There are several notable omissions here, including repeated allusions to a tragic backstory for [Stallone] which are never fully explored (actually, they're never even minimally explored). [Caitriona Balfe's] role in the story, including a late denouement, strains credulity to the breaking point (though one deleted scene sheds at least a little light on the proceedings). [Jim Caviezel's] Hobbes is a fascinating character, with some really troubling characteristics (not just limited to his butterfly collecting— watch how he strokes the head of one of the guards in a late scene in the film) which are also never really delved into. Sam Neill, who's on hand as the facility's doctor, is also wasted in a completely underwritten and even unnecessary role. I won't even spend much time mentioning great supporting actors like Amy Ryan, since the reasons for their characters being in the film seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. There's a late connection between one of Ray's cronies and Mannheim that hasn't the barest attempt at an explanation in the film. And again and again the film simply relies on Ray's repeated 'Plan B' machinations, without ever fully letting the audience in on how these alternatives were developed."
The Hungover Games should be released straight to the Walmart $5 bin. Nothing really catches my eye this week, but the Scream Factory releases are always good. Kudos to Shout! for releasing those horrors from my childhood.