Friday, February 28, 2014

2013: My Winners

With the 86th Annual Academy Awards a mere two days away, I have decided to present my own winners.  In an earlier post I had named my nominees, but now, after time of deliberation and voting, I have made my final choices. 

Sadly, some very good performances and films were not seen by the time I submitted my choices, which is both bad and good.  Bad because that means worthy names were left out.  Good because I would have hated to have cut back even more than I did. 

I think that some of my choices should have been nominated, but one can't have everything, can one?

Therefore, without further ado, I present MY choices for the Best of 2013.


Ender's Game
The Spectacular Now
Warm Bodies


American Hustle
In A World...
Saving Mr. Banks


American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
Oz the Great and Powerful
Romeo & Juliet

American Hustle
Ender's Game
The Great Gatsby
Oz the Great and Powerful


Ender's Game
The Great Gatsby
Pacific Rim
The Spectacular Now

Saving Mr. Banks
Ender's Game
Oz the Great and Powerful
Pacific Rim
Star Trek Into Darkness
American Hustle
Saving Mr. Banks
The Spectacular Now


David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (Frozen)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lake Bell (In A World...)
James Ponsodt (The Spectacular Now)
Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby)
Naomie Harris (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Leslie Manville (Romeo & Juliet)
Sharon Stone (Lovelace)
Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby)
Harrison Ford (42)
Josh Gad (Jobs)
Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Lake Bell (In A World...)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now)
Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Chadwick Boseman (42)
Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)

American Hustle
In A World...
The Spectacular Now

On March 2, I will have my Oscar predictions, though sadly this year the Best Live-Action and Animated Short Films did not screen in El Paso, much to my disappointment. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Legend of Hercules: A Review (Review #618)


A Legend Is Bored...

Last year, there were two competing 'White House under siege" movies: Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down.  This year, we have two competing Hercules movies.  The Legend of Hercules is the first one out, beating Hercules: The Thracian Wars by around five months.  Whether Thracian Wars will be any good is still a mystery, but despite what you may have heard The Legend of Hercules is not this horrendous disaster.

It just isn't very good.

King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins) has just conquered Argos.  His wife, Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) prays to Hera for a deliverer against her tyrant husband.  The Queen of Olympus hears her prayer, and tells her that her husband Zeus would come and impregnate her.  He does come to her invisibly, and she produces a strong, healthy son.  While the world knows him as Alcides, in truth he is Hercules (Kellan Lutz).   He is in love with Princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), and while she feels the same she is betrothed to his older brother, Iphicles (Liam Garrigan). 

From there, I think the story becomes a bit murky if not a bit odd to give an accurate description.  For reasons known only to the Olympians Hercules allows Iphicles to take credit for killing a lion.  For reasons known only to the Olympians Amphitryon and Imphicles want Hercules out of the way, and his and Hebe's attempted escape so they could be together allows the father/son duo that opportunity. Sent to certain death on a dangerous mission, only Hercules and his loyal second-in-command Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) survive.  They are taken prisoner and sold to serve as gladiators by Tarak (Johnathon Schaech), who I think had been assigned to kill them all.  However, Hercules (who at this point has taken this name against being known as Alcides) and Sotiris now have to fight their way from Sicily back to Greece before three moons time, before Iphicles and Hebe are married.

My breasts are bigger
than yours...

They do fight their way back to Greece, where Hercules begins an uprising against Amphitryon.  The King and Prince have no idea that Hercules and Alcides are one and the same, only that Spartacus...I mean, Hercules, is leading a rebellion that must be crushed.  Amphitryon has already killed the Queen after she tells him of her second son's true origin, and by killing Sotiris' wife and holding his son hostage, gain Hercules' capture.  They soon whip and chain him, but Samson...I mean, Hercules, now calling upon his real father and saying that he believes, breaks free from the bonds, and begins a final confrontation with his erstwhile sibling and father.

Now, I confess that what was suppose to be a climatic battle between Hercules and Amphitryon, I nodded off.  Part of it may be because the film is filmed in almost endless amounts of greys and blacks as to make so much obscure.  Part of it may also be that we rush through so much that we have no time to build any characters.  We hear talk of Sotiris' family but we really have no chance to know who he is, or who any of the characters are.  Story, plot, characters, are speed by that we are never grounded in anything.

Even if the story worked (which it doesn't), the performances are almost all so dull that we wouldn't be able to care.  Dear, dear Kellan Lutz.  He was a vampire in the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA), so that should be explanation of his acting abilities.  Lutz has a great physique which the film goes through great length to showcase at every opportunity, but there is no emotion in his line readings.  Fortunately, Weiss is his equal in the blank reading department, conveying as much emotion as Lutz, which is none.

In the bad performances department, the real winner is Schaech, who not only has the unfortunate look of cornrows to deal with, but also adopts this bizarre Transylvanian accent that just sounds odd, even if almost all the other cast come from Eastern Europe.  Curiously, I spent a great deal of time wondering who Sotiris was, and it wasn't until I read the credits and found that it was Liam McIntyre, whom I finally recognized as Spartacus from the eponymous television series. 

Oddly, I thought The Legend of Hercules would have been better with McIntyre in the lead.  Granted, he isn't as beefy as Lutz, but at least he gave Sean Hood and Daniel Giat's screenplay a stab at making it all believable.  He also has a leg-up in that he understands the genre and the requirements to perform it (a bit broad and slightly over-the-top).  I also thought well of the other Liam (Garrigan), who similarly took a stab at giving Iphicles a reason for his anger at his parents and brothers.  I think both Liams did well and tried to make the story work.

Even if the lousy performances could be forgiven or forgotten, director Renny Harlin's decision to simultaneously speed up and slow down the action scenes is the final nail on the head of The Legend of Hercules.  Take what could have been a great moment: when Hercules, all alone, faces off against six Greek fighting legends (exactly why I wasn't too sure and disinterested to care).  Instead of making this a fierce battle, it flows so quickly that the whole 'epic' battle is over within a matter of I would say two to three minutes...and that's counting the slow-motion. 

The film could be a guilty pleasure, and perhaps even enjoyable if one doesn't think through it.  On the whole The Legend of Hercules (which I expect will not draw a sequel) is dumb, forgettable, and if there is nothing else on basic cable worth its mercifully brief running time. 

Did I think it was the worst film I have ever seen?  No.  Was it even the worst film of 2014?  No.

Then again, I have seen only one film in 2014 so far, so I have nothing to compare it to. 


Elementary: Corpse De Ballet Review


Keeping Sherlock on His Tiptoes...

In this Elementary case, I was slightly disappointed.  First, I found the secondary mystery to be better than the primary one.  Second, I wondered whether Sherlock Holmes had lost some sense of logic when he literally and deliberately 'slept with the enemy'.  Corpse de Ballet I think was a bit of a lost opportunity, but one that doesn't kill the episode completely.

Nell Solange, a ballet dancer, has been murdered in a particularly gruesome way: her severed body is discovered just as a dress rehearsal for a new ballet is about to begin.  The prima ballerina, Iris Lanzer (Aleksa Palladino) is not just a diva, but a prima suspect as well, as the actual cause of death (a stabbing) was done with a dagger from her personal collection.  She of course denies this, and Holmes, for once, believes the most likely suspect.

The fact that he admires Iris' dancing doesn't influence his view. 

Now, who killed the ballerina and why?  Was it her ex-boyfriend, former ballet dancer Nicholas (David A. Gregory), or bitter paparazzo Jake Picardo (Bill Sage), who was ruined by Iris' lawsuit and who may have wanted to frame the diva?  Well, in what can be described as a strange turn Holmes figuratively pumps Iris for information, but Iris is not to nonplussed on the matter, as we discover that Iris had had an affair with Nell.  She had done this often to control rivals, but this time it was different.  Nell's death has actually affected Iris.  The diva's lawyer, Nolan (Scott Cohen) will do anything to protect his client, but how far would he go?

In the subplot, Joan agrees to help Maurice Gilroy (Curtis McClarin), a homeless man who insists that his friend Frebo was kidnapped.  No one believes that there is such a person as Frebo, but a little investigating Watson does turn up a Zeke Frebo, who was last seen by his sister, Rachel Brown (Laura Jennifer Thompson). 

Watson knows this by the odor of cigarette the non-smoking Rachel has in her home.  Holmes is at first dismissive of her "Hobo Hunt 2014", but as the episode progresses we learn why finding this homeless man is important to her.

Joan Watson's father is schizophrenic and homeless.  She reveals that her actual father succumbed to his disease shortly after her birth, and that her mother remarried.  Watson's stepfather, an author who lives in Scottsdale, provided well for his wife and her children, who took his name (hence, Joan Watson).  Joan hasn't had contact with her father, but perhaps she can find him this way.

As cases turn out, the crazy homeless guy, who has returned to his meds, provides a clue that Watson seizes on to go back to the Brown home.  With a methodology similar to Sherlock's, she brings the police and makes a shocking discovery: three homeless men, including Zeke Frebo, were being held hostage in the Brown home, where their veterans' benefits were being stolen by the Browns.

The killer is revealed in the man plot, and Iris is set free.

As I think on Corpse de Ballet, Liz Friedman's screenplay does borrow elements from Black Swan, doesn't it?  Not just that, but frankly I was more excited about the secondary crime involving the "crazy" homeless man than I was of the primary murder case.  Somehow, I could never shake the idea that I would have preferred watching this investigation, and in particular Joan using her mentor's methods, to solve this case. 

There is a certain snobbery to Holmes' casework.  I know he depends on the NYPD to give him cases on which to consult, but can it be that we could get through a case every so often that didn't involve murder?  Somehow, the secondary investigation had all the elements of what could have made a great story: a dubious witness, a missing person who may not exist, and a few more twists and turns that would be truly surprising. 

There are some good things in Corpse de Ballet.  First, it is good to see Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell return to solving crimes with Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Holmes/Watson.  Having the 'Core Four' to coin a phrase just feels right.  We also have a great moment with Liu, where she reveals a vital part of her past.  In this quiet moment we see her own evolution as a character, and it works so well.

Oddly, this time it's Miller who is left a bit out of things.  In what was a strange and distracting element Miller's voice was particularly hoarse, sounding growly throughout.  No real explanation was provided, and while not his fault it all was a little peculiar.  Further, while Holmes sees sex as a mere physical exercise, his sleeping with Iris is a strange turn as well.

I wasn't overwhelmed with Corpse de Ballet.  If somehow the two crimes were tied together, or we just went with the actual search for Zeke, we could have had a real breakthrough.  Hopefully, Elementary will take more chances, think of this episode as a blip, to find that with a little more daring, we will gladly take a spin with Holmes.

Audience Appreciation


Next Episode: The One-Percent Solution

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Elementary: Dead Clade Walking Review


Dino Holmes...

Dead Clade Walking is a strong Elementary story in terms of the crime, full of twists and turns that work.  It does have the flaw of not knowing what to do with one of the great actresses of our day (sorry Lucy, I'm not talking about you), but it does have moments of humor and some character development that I found on the whole pleasing. 

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is going through the trunk of cold cases that Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) has from when he was in the grips of intense heroin addiction.  One of those cases catches Joan's eye: the unsolved murder of Doug Newberg.  With the aid of Gay (Ashlie Atkinson) a geologist, Watson notices something odd in the garden: some rocks that don't seem to fit.  Her deductions are correct, and there Gay and Joan find a rock that contains a complete dinosaur skeleton.

It is found to be a nano tyrannous, an infant which is not native to New York.  It comes from Mongolia, so Newberg was somehow caught up in international smuggling.  Newberg himself was not involved, but Watson and Holmes find that his best friend, Diego Salcedo (James Martinez), is still a smuggler (the ice cream trucks 'selling' in the dead of winter being the clue).  Salcedo, however, did not kill his friend.  Making things more complicated, the nano tyrannous has been swiped from under the precinct's nose by two fake ICE agents.

In order to find who might be involved in smuggling, Holmes turns to his mysterious 'prurient correspondent', whom he exchanges a form of erotica with.  The mysterious C. (Jane Alexander) is also an auction house director, and she tells him that there is a smuggler who would deal in the offbeat antiquities, one who calls himself The Magpie.

In order to draw The Magpie out, Holmes creates a fake copy of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, but when they call on him once they make contact, for once the door really is open, and The Magpie is dead.  Even worse, the nano tyrannous has been totally destroyed.  The mystery is why would someone deliberately destroy something worth millions, especially since it could prove the theory known as Dead Clade Walking: that dinosaurs survived the extinction brought when a meteor crashed onto Earth.

That precisely is the reason the rock was destroyed: there is a lot of controversy over Dead Clade Walking, and some have built their reputations on this being false.  If it turned out to be true, then their life's work and reputation (and expertise) would be finished.  Motive enough for a collection of experts who might stoop to murder to stop the nanotyrannous from being discovered. 

With a little help from The Magpie's records, Holmes and Watson track down the killer, one who tried to frame another expert.

In the subplot, Randy (Stephen Tyrone Williams), Holmes' sponsee, is struggling to remain sober when his ex shows up.  Holmes stumbles in trying to be a good sponsor, but in the end Randy does fall off the wagon, but recovers quickly enough to have Holmes help out. 

Odd that for a series that is building itself on going into Sherlock Holmes' private life, Dead Clade Walking could have come off without having anything to do with Randy's story.  This may be why Joan Watson took a more central role in the investigation.  She was the one who came up with the vital clue about where the nano tyrannous was, and she was the one who noticed that there was something odd about ice cream trucks going around in the middle of winter.  Perhaps I am reading too much into things, but I think Sherlock Holmes was smiling when she put this curious bit of information into a criminal context.  Either that, or he was too distracted by his cereal to really notice what she was saying. 

Even more odd was that what we did learn of Holmes was a little bit more curious.  His writing of erotica to a mysterious woman...well, it wasn't the weirdest thing he's been involved with, but I wasn't too convinced of it either.  However, it does give Joan a great chance for a quip.  "What are we suppose to be looking for here?", she asks Holmes, who has never actually met C.  "Someone carrying The Story of O?"

One of Dead Clade Walking's biggest flaw is in the subplot of Holmes' erotica writings.   Not only does it have little payoff (unless they plan to use it again, but given Elementary's track record, probably not), but it also reduces Jane Alexander's role to that of being almost a cameo.   Alexander has always been both a great and underused actress, and I hope against hope that she will return. 

As a digression, that is what is most frustrating to me about Elementary, how guest stars and guest characters are introduced, given great possibilities, and then not seen again.  Last season, we had Ms. Hudson pop in, and she has yet to return.  Alonso's returns as Holmes' sponsor have been fleeting, and now you all but squander a great actress like Jane Alexander in a bit role.   There's something to be said about how the only real returning guest star has been Sherlock's pet turtle Clyde (though he is always a welcome appearance). 

However, I thought Dead Clade Walking had great moments of humor in Jeffrey Paul King's script, starting from Holmes' startled reaction to finding Gay in his living room and their exchange ("I'm Gay."  "I'm not."  "That's my name".) and when Holmes comes up with his own 95 Theses, which he insists don't have to be too closely examined to appear real: he not only writes it in English rather than German, but throws in some lines good old Marty wouldn't have thought of.  The 42nd Thesis is "Thaddeus is the best apostle, and those who disagree shall be vigorously tickled." 

As a former Lutheran, I can't help chuckling at that one.     

I also thought highly of Watson's deductive skills, showing she is capable of solving crimes, though still a bit behind Sherlock Holmes. 

On the whole Dead Clade Walking held sense for me.  Minus the fact that the subplot, though interesting, seemed a bit tacked on I enjoyed this episode, if nothing more than for a bit of humor and a chance to go back into a cold case that suddenly became very hot. 

I have but one request of Elementary creator Robert Doherty...

Bring Back C.


Next Episode: Corpse de Ballet

The Americans: Gregory Review


Soviets In The Hood...

The private lives of our KBG agents come under close scrutiny in Gregory, where agents alive and dead discover that the human heart is the most inscrutable part of life.

Robert, the KGB agent who had been stabbed in the Pilot, died from his injuries.  The FBI discovers Robert's true identity and something else: he had a wife and child that no one knew about. 

Among those who didn't know this part of Robert's life are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who worked with him in the field of espionage.  The news comes to them in a most shocking manner: a coded message sent by 'Robert' from beyond the grave is really from his widow, Joyce Ramirez (Audrey Esparza).  Joyce, completely unaware of Robert's real identity, though he might have been a drug-dealer and that his disappearance was related to his criminal activity.

Now the Jennings and the FBI are in a race to get at Joyce, who is still oblivious to the truth.  In order to aid the Russians, Elizabeth goes to an actual American collaborator, Gregory (Derek Luke), to use his network and find Joyce.  Now, Gregory and Elizabeth have been having an actual romantic relationship in all these years, of which Philip I think knows of but which is now starting to really bother him.  Moreover, for the first time in her life Elizabeth too is starting to see this as an actual extramarital affair, not a separate relationship from her cover.  Gregory doesn't see it that way, but Elizabeth is starting to pull away.

FBI agents Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) put her under surveillance over their objection.  While they want to pick up her immediately, their superior Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) thinks she might lead them to more agents.  The FBI, however, didn't count on Grannie.

The new minder may appear all sweet and sugar, but Claudia (Margo Martindale) is as cold and ruthless as they come.  She now is going to head up the Jennings' operations, giving orders about what to do with Joyce.  Gregory and his crew manage to take her from right under the noses of the FBI, and now the interplay between Gregory, Elizabeth, and Philip start endangering the mission about what to do with Joyce and her child, Oscar.

Stan, meanwhile, is coming close to putting things together about how black men are apparently in league with the Soviets, but he doesn't have all the pieces.  The Jennings don't want to kill Joyce (let alone Oscar), so a solution is cooked up: spirit Joyce and her son to Cuba (where the Puerto Rican Joyce won't have difficulty with the language), and perhaps soon her family could join her. 

The Jennings are relieved, and now their domestic situation begins to clear up.  Philip is angry at Elizabeth for opening up to Gregory (in more ways than one) while remaining closed to him, but now Elizabeth does open up: about her past, about how she and Gregory came to be, and how perhaps she now has started feeling that what she and Philip have may be more than a front.

Unknown to them, but under Grannie's orders, Joyce and the baby do not go to Cuba.  Instead, Oscar is taken to Robert's parents in Mother Russia, while Joyce is found dead of an apparent heroin overdose.

Gregory is a great combination of both spy caper and domestic drama.  We learn about Elizabeth as a person, and the complex, even contradictory feelings within her.  She at first gives herself to Gregory (whom she met at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and recruited there...proving that the SCLC was a Communist front) because he too was a True Believer.  This was what attracted her to Gregory, versus her assigned husband.  However, as she has grown as a mother and wife, things are starting to get confused.  Russell has hit her stride in this portrait of a woman loyal to the State but also wondering whether she now has to give up her children and what she has for those pleasures of the flesh.

We also learn about Philip.  Yes, he can still take down people quickly, but he also is a deeply wounded man who yearns for that connection Elizabeth has with Gregory.  Whether he has fallen in love with Elizabeth or has grown so accustomed to her face I cannot say for sure.  However, Rhys has this seemingly effortless mixture of tough strength and intense sensitivity.  We see this when we first see Philip with his daughter Paige at a diner, where she is reading Girl's World Magazine with Nancy McKeon (Jo from The Facts of Life) on the cover.  The tips about boys on the cover so horrify him that he freaks out at the idea that his girl could become a woman.  He is not just a spy, but a father.

Rhys and Luke have a great scene where they confront each other about Elizabeth.  In many ways, it is the classic struggle between the husband and the lover, who both claim a woman but who now may not know whom she truly loves. 

Gregory is the debut story for Martindale, and she is sensational as Claudia (I prefer Grannie myself).  She is tough and direct, masking her evil with a veneer of kindness.  As Joyce is being taken from the Jennings into Grannie's charge, I said to myself, "I don't trust her."  My fears were justified, and Martindale uses that mix of outward kindness with interior ruthlessness brilliantly.  The end of Gregory is perhaps not surprising, but still so terribly, terribly sad.

The Americans continues to build up and up, and this episode is so well-acted, written, and Gregory does well both story-wise and with character-building that I think I can say I am a real fan of this show and hope it keeps going as well as it has been.

I tested as "Elizabeth". 
Would have preferred Philip...


Next Episode: In Control

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Elementary: All in the Family Review


Holmes Rings A Bell...

We got in All in the Family an Elementary Mafia-centered story, but also one where Sherlock Holmes' actual investigation of the case (of which he has very little interest in, thinking the Mob is more American fixation than actual criminal activity) is not as important (or important at all) to a greater investigation: that of his connections to other people.  All in the Family gives us a great interplay between Holmes and Detective Bell, but apart from that I found it a bit stereotypical and even silly.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) have just come from a museum ball where they are interrogating a security guard named Reilly (Jed Orlemann).  Holmes tells Reilly, "Give me your leg," where his prosthetic leg reveals a secret compartment where he has been stealing art treasures.  While the case is solved, Holmes and Watson are frustrated by having worked with Detective Nash, the latest in a long line of precinct detectives who have proved less than stellar.  Holmes in particular misses the one detective on the precinct he not only COULD work with but whom he found someone worth his time: Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).  However, Bell is a.) in the Demographics Department monitoring anti-terrorism activities, and b.) still bitter against Holmes for nearly costing him his life and frustrating his career due to Holmes' actions.

Bell is gaining confidence at Demographics, with his new partner Wozniak (Wendy Hoopes), who now are sent to investigate a potential threat in an oil recycling plant where a suspicious figure was spotted.  Here, Bell's cop instincts (which do echo Holmes' methods) take over, and he makes a shocking discovery: a headless body inside a barrel.

The body is identified as Handsome Bobby Pardillo, last seen 21 years ago and one with connections to the Mob.  Holmes is amused to find that Watson has a strong knowledge of Mob history, and thus enters the picture Handsome Bobby's father, Robert, Sr. (Paul Sorvino).  Given that it has been decades since Handsome Bobby has done anything Mob-related, and that only father and son knew where Jr. was, how Junior came to bee beheaded is both a mystery and a concern that a Mob war could break out.

It looks like one already is, since Dante Scalice (Fulvio Cecere), the main suspect in Bobby's killing, was blown up after speaking with Holmes and Watson.  Again, the mystery is getting murkier when Holmes deduces that the National Security Agency helped track down Handsome Bobby.  Far from being a mob hit, Jr.'s killing was related to Deputy Commissioner Frank DaSilva (Peter Gerety). 

Bell not only refuses to believe the Deputy Commissioner (who is the head of Demographics) is on the take by mobsters, but is also angered by Holmes' involvement in the department.  At long last, they have it out where Holmes makes a shocking revelation: he has been doing his best not only to attempt to make amends to Bell, but also to shake Bell out of his own complacency.  Holmes knows that Bell is not just a good detective, but a good person whom he can count on to keep up with Holmes' methods. 

Eventually, we learn that DiBlasio had investigated Sr. for decades and had evidence against him which he held as protection.  With unions cleaning up their act we find that an honest union head would be causing trouble for the mob, and Bobby's killing would both be a message to Senior and a way to cause a mob war and thus weaken the Pardillo family to where he could retire in peace.  Bell's instincts tell him DiBlasio is corrupt (and his own investigation confirm it).  Bell manages to trick DiBlasio to exposing himself and Pardillo, and now back in Homicide, Bell and Holmes have reached a rapport and Bell finds his way back home. 

It is the interplay between Hill's Bell and Miller's Watson that is the highlight of All in the Family.  In truth, there are quite a few highlights in Jason Tracey's screenplay.  It is nice to see Watson show a slightly kooky side in her love for Mafia lore.  She explains that growing up in Queens the Mafia was like a soap opera, but it is amusing to see that as a child she had a love of crime.  The opening scene where the security guard was brought in is also a light touch (though I wish we would have seen THAT case more than the mob story). 

However, what gives this story its driving power is when Bell and Holmes have their big fight.  We see just how difficult the situation is for both sides.  The big revelation for me was with bit of dialogue where Sherlock Holmes goes after Detective Marcus Bell:

Be my friend.  Don't be my friend.  Whatever!  But don't be so foolish as to confuse punishing me with punishing yourself.

This may be the first time Sherlock Holmes has a.) admitted he needs friends, b.) admitted he considers Detective Bell a friend, and c.) had Holmes see Bell not only as a friend whom he would like to make up with, but also someone who has abilities that he respects if not admires.  I don't think in any incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations has the Great Detective no nakedly stated his own sense of guilt over his actions, or his admiration for someone other than Watson, or especially that vital human need for friendship.

I was taken aback at Holmes' declaration that he either thinks of Bell as a friend or his hope that they would be friends.  This is what Elementary has been this season: the exploration of the human side of Sherlock Holmes.  He is not the cold, rational thinking machine from the Canon, but a man who can be wounded emotionally (see Moriarty, Jamie; Holmes, Mycroft) and who needs that support group he now relies on not just for investigations but for living (see Watson, Joan; Gregson, Tobias/Thomas, Alfonso his sponsor, and Bell, Marcus).  For his turn, we see how Bell in his way figured that Holmes' methods made things easy for him to solve crimes, showing a bit of envy in the detective.  When Holmes tells him that he knows he's a drug addict who made it only thanks to the people around him, we see that Sherlock Holmes indeed does understand how hard it is to come back from something debilitating, and that he sees Marcus Bell has been hiding, using Holmes as an excuse but that it is time he emerge to be what he should be: a Detective.

An Elegant Elementary

We do see that Marcus Bell has indeed become a sharper detective.  When looking at the barrels at the refinery, it is clear that Bell is using Holmes' methods of deducing from what he observes to make the discovery.  Bell reasons out that the color of one of the barrels is a bit off, as if it were out of place here.  Most would not have thought about that, but Bell did.  This to me indicates that the Holmes/Bell relationship has been symbiotic and that it has been beneficial on both sides.

In terms of the Mafia story I can't say I was wowed by it all.  It is good to see Sorvino again, though perhaps his talents will always be underused in Mafia-connected roles (Goodfellas, The Rocketeer).   With a Mob Boss stuck in a trailer park, it does have a bit of Goodfellas in it.   One can say that All in the Family does play to Italian stereotypes of Mafia, right down to Deputy Commissioner DiBlasio (no relation to the Mayor I trust).  I did think well of the twist of the NSA being duped to track down Jr., but on the whole I wasn't wild about the actual crime.

However, in this case (no pun intended), while the actual crime was not the greatest, the strides to turn Elementary less into a CBS procedural with the Holmes name attached to it and more a character piece where the inscrutable Great Detective emerges into a complex figure who finds the mystery of himself the greatest case of all goes on stronger than ever.  Elementary is becoming a favorite of mine, not so much for the crimes (though some are good) but for seeing The Great Detective become something we haven't seen: a flawed, complicated human being, who finds other people are just as important as his work. 

A leg up on the competition. 
Anyone up for a fanfic on
The Case of the Guard's Leg?


Next Episode: Dead Clyde Walking

The Americans: The Clock Review


Time Gives No Quarter To The Enemies of Socialism...

The Clock starts to slowly build on what we've seen in The Americans to create a tense Cold War thriller where the human costs of spying for the Soviet Union starts interfering more and more with the spies domestic lives.  We get to see the lengths our KGB family will go to for their mission (and poisoned umbrellas, which I always thought were works of fiction), and see that the FBI is also both so close and so far from finding that the enemy is literally just across the street.

With the election of that 'crazy man' Ronald Reagan to the Presidency, the Soviet Union is in a panic over what he wants to do: destroy 'the evil empire'.  Obviously, loyal Soviet spies Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her slightly wavering husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) can't let that happen.  Over their unraised objections they are given the task of bugging Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger's home.  Both know that such an operation is both dangerous and rushed, but they can't go and complain to anyone, so they do the best they can with the extremely short time they are given for their mission. 

To get into Weinberger's home, they poison Grayson Johnson (Grantham Coleman) the college student son of the Weinbergers' maid Violet (Tonye Patano).  They tells Violet that all she has to do is steal a clock from Secretary Weinberger's office, give it to them, and then return it to his office.  In return, they will give Grayson the antidote that will save him.  She at first cannot do it, convinced her faith will see her through, but after a violent confrontation between Philip and her brother, she realizes she will lose her son and thus, does as told. 

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has a mole of his own in the Soviet Embassy.  She is Nina (Annette Mahendru), whom they discover has been stealing caviar from the embassy in exchange for stereo equipment, which she in turn sends back home (I figure to sell for hard currency).  Nina can either be exposed or cooperate with the U.S., and she figures go for the lesser of two evils.

The bug is placed and while Grayson is saved, dealing with a civilian's mother makes Elizabeth question whether her own children will be safe should something happen to them.  Both of them are disgusted with the rushed nature of the job, but it does yield results.  The Soviets overhear a conversation between the British and Americans, where they learn for the first time about a missile defense shield the Americans are cooking up, what would eventually be the Strategic Defense Initiative but which would be called "Star Wars".

In truth, The Clock has a very simple premise, but it is expertly handled thanks to great writing by The Americans creator Joseph Weisberg and by some solid acting.  Of particular note is Rhys, who continues to excel in his multilayered performance.  Rhys doesn't just play Philip, but he also has to disguise himself as "Scott", a Swedish Intelligence Officer who seduces a member of Weinberger's staff to photograph the Secretary's office.  He also has to disguise his appearance whenever he interacts with Violet, so if one thinks on it Rhys has to play a variety of roles within the episode (and the series itself).  Not once does Rhys falter in any of his performances, making each character believable.

Russell is equally strong as Elizabeth, who is devoted to the cause but also sees that her superiors ask for too much from them in a short period of time.  She shows compassion of sorts to Grayson, which in turn have her think of her children.  Elizabeth has not been one for mothering (Philip is the more compassionate of the Jennings'), but now we see a small crack in her strong veneer.  At the end of The Clock, we see that Elizabeth is starting to try to bond with her daughter, and that Elizabeth is like Violet, a worried parent who wants to get close to her child and fears for their lives. 

We see this also reflected in how she sees Violet, who is caught up in intrigue not of her own making.  Patano is great as Violet, not going too overboard with the fierceness of her faith but also a woman who knows that working for these two is morally wrong.  The concern she has for her only child is terrifying and heartbreaking, so when we find that he will live we do get an emotional release, but also know she has gone through a terrible ordeal.  Personally, I hope she returns for another go-round. 

The Clock is also building up future stories with Nina getting tripped up by her actions, and with the Soviets stunned at the SDI they have learned about. 

The Americans and The Clock are both good, solid episodes, and promise great things which hopefully the series will deliver on.   In this case, it looks like these are spies worthy of investigating.


Next Episode: Gregory

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Americans: Pilot Review


Spies, Lies And Family Ties...

The pilot for The Americans gives us both the plausible (the Soviet agents working deep within the heart of the U.S.'s capital) and the implausible (whatever ARE the odds that a counter-intelligence FBI agent would move across the street from these KGB operatives?).  Still, with some solid acting and incredible action, we are plunged into two seedy and dangerous worlds: international espionage and suburbia.

Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) run a travel agency, or so it seems.  Within minutes we find out that they take on numerous identities, with the truth emerging quickly: they are KGB agents whose latest mission is to abduct a defecting general and return him to Mother Russia.  Unfortunately, complications involving another agent, Robert (Chase Coleman), who got stabbed, has them literally miss the boat.  Now with their captive Timoshev (David Vadim), they must decide what to do with him.

All this while keeping their tangled lives secret from their friends and especially their children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).  Meanwhile, two FBI agents, Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) are now on the hunt for Timoshev, whom in flashbacks we discover was Elizabeth's mentor. 

The Jennings' home lives are also getting them into trouble.  Paige attracts the unwanted attention of an older man at a shopping mall, displeasing Phillip (while his own fascination with cowboy boots and doing a bit of line dancing at the store embarrassing his daughter).  Philip is more at home with the kids and with America in general, while Elizabeth, even after fifteen years of undercover work, still struggles with both motherhood and the American way.  As it turns out, Stan happens to move across the streets from the Jenningses, and while Stan's wife Sandra (Susan Misner) and son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) are taken in by the neighbors, Stan's suspicions are raised when the Jennings' car fits the exact same description of the one which took Timoshev. 

In the end, Philip is the one who will do everything to protect his family (taking delight in using his skills to take care of the guy making advances on his thirteen year old daughter), but is spared from killing Beeman when after Stan breaks in he finds nothing.

The Americans has an incredible mix of action and domestic dilemma. The opening throws you into this dangerous world the Jennings live in, and we get flashbacks that flesh out how Philip and Elizabeth became the way they are (and answers those questions as to how these Russians will always speak flawless American English).

The performances give us so much to work with.  I hold Rhys especially high up for praise: he has to maintain sounding like a typical American and speak in other voices when he plays other people (like a faux-FBI agent who has tricked an FBI office worker to be his mole).  That in itself is remarkable, but when you consider Rhys is Welsh, it is a sign of how good an actor he is that he can keep all these voices separate without jumbling things together.

Rhys also shows Philip to be close to his children.  He laughs with them and takes interest in what they do (when he is singing The Star-Spangled Banner at a school event with his unsuspecting son giving the scene an added layer of irony).  Philip is also someone who is wavering in his loyalties.  He doesn't want to defect for his own selfish reasons, but does consider it because he likes America (the good plumbing and cowboy boots) and thinks his children would be better off here.  There is a great mix of gentleness and ruthlessness in Rhys' performance: he can have big action scenes and then shift to father-daughter bonding smoothly.

Russell is his equal, playing various roles (seductress, mother, spy) and the only thing she is sure of is her devotion to The State.  Still, the rage she has against her former mentor who hurt her gets the better of her.  However, when Philip kills Timoshev, it shows how their relationship has evolved into something curious: not love but not deception either.

Granted, there are things that do seem far-fetched.  Having Stan move across the street is not only too similar to a Breaking Bad scenario (the DEA agent being Walt's brother-in-law) seems almost preposterous, and in what only be considered either uncharacteristic or plain idiotic inviting Stan to get car cables when Philip does not know whether or not Timoshev is still in the trunk of the car appears bizarre at best, downright stupid at worst.

Still, The Americans I think can build on this and create a good show where in a family, arguments between husbands and wives involve how to get rid of a defector and make it all look so rational. 

New Meaning to "Red Menace"


Next Episode: The Clock

Elementary: The Diabolical Kind Review


A Child in Moriarty Danger...

Fair Warning: those who haven't seen Elementary Season One will get a great many spoilers in the review for The Diabolical Kind.  If you haven't seen all of Season One, you will be getting a great deal of information you may not want to know now. 

For those who know the story of Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes Canon who has gone on to become a Holmes Icon, what became of her in Elementary has been the most divisive decision involving The Woman. 

SPOILER ALERT: having Irene Adler, the one woman who vexed and could outwit Sherlock Holmes, also be Moriarty, Holmes' greatest enemy, has split the Canon faithful.  Some have expressed to me that it is a work of genius, a genuinely shocking twist no one expected.  Some have expressed apoplectic rage at the mixing of these two figures into one.  I fall mostly in the former category, for Adler's revelation was one of the few times I was genuinely taken by surprise.  I can see the anti-Adler/Moriarty League's view, but on the whole I think Elementary did make it work.  END OF SPOILER.

The Diabolical Kind brings back Adler/Moriarty for another go-round with her favorite rival/boy-toy.  We get some twists and turns, some predictable, some not, and we also get another astonishing performance by Natalie Dormer, who is proving to be one of the best actresses working today.

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) are brought in to consult on a kidnapping and murder case.  Kayden Fuller (Delphina Bell) has been abducted and her father murdered.  To Holmes' surprise, the voice of the kidnapper is the same one used by Moriarty to disguise her identity.  Holmes, Watson, and Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) suspect that Moriarty is involved in this affair, so they go and see her.

Unbeknown to Watson, Holmes has been keeping a correspondence with Adler.  Still, when this is revealed, that does not disturb her as much as the giant portrait of Joan that Adler has made of her in the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Moriarty is a 'guest' of the U.S. government.  Moriarty's guard, Agent Matoo (Faran Tahir) is a rare man who is immune to Moriarty's charms.  Despite his conflicted feelings for Irene, Holmes is not pleased to see her. 

We soon learn that Devon Gaspar (Andrew Howard), one of Moriarty's minions, is the abductor.  Moriarty is willing to help, but in exchange for some favors.  The big favor is that she join the investigation.  Gregson and Watson are both thoroughly opposed to this, but Holmes is ambivalent: he does not believe she is directly involved.  Still, it is a strange coincidence that her henchmen are involved in all this.  Sketches of her foot-soldiers are sent to all police, but Gaspar is on to them, killing two officers to get at them. 

It's here that Moriarty finally gets her way, and the kidnappers leave a cryptic message for Mrs. Fuller: give them what they want or the child dies.  At least, everyone thinks it's for Mrs. Fuller.  However, we should pay attention: the message is for Kayden's mother.

We then get the somewhat shocking twist: Kayden is Moriarty's daughter, and her henchmen want clues to a fortune she knows the whereabouts of.  As Holmes puts it together, Moriarty makes a bold and daring escape.  In saving her daughter Moriarty loses a lot of blood, and is barely saved by Sherlock who has tracked down Kayden's location.  Moriarty is rescued and recaptured, but not before making some cryptic statements of her own.  She tells Holmes that her mentor kept a dossier of interesting facts, and that this dossier has come in handy.  Moriarty is taken away, Kayden is safe and unaware of the truth, and now we get a nice little teaser for future reference.

Oh, how this little tidbit in Craig Sweeney and Elementary creator Robert Doherty's screenplay just dropped so naturally, so deliciously.  Who could Moriarty's mentor have been?  Is he/she still around?  What and where is this dossier?  We already have one teaser for future stories with Mycroft's cryptic message that he couldn't bring Sherlock back to London and would have to find another way to get him back in Blood is Thicker.  Now, Adler/Moriarty drops something else on us.  For whatever flaws Elementary has, it certainly loves teasing the Elementarians with potentially shocking twists.

Yes, Elementarians: fans of Elementary, echoing Sherlockians, those obsessed with Sherlock.  Once both seasons are over I will tackle this war between Sherlockians and Elementarians, but for now, let us return to The Diabolical Kind.

I was not entirely surprised that the child turned out to be Moriarty's. What did surprise me was her escape.  It was handled beautifully in so many ways.  First and foremost is Dormer's performance.  Of all the guest stars, I think Dormer has been consistently excellent, far above any other interpretation of these complicated characters.  She is in turns vulnerable and fierce, shrewd, manipulative, but also conflicted.  The old Moriarty would have killed law enforcement officials without a thought, but now she leaves them within an inch of their lives.

Dormer's scene where she and Watson discuss their own relationship is a master class of two actors devouring the screenplay to bring something wonderful to see.  Liu more than holds as someone who is something Adler will never be: his friend.  Adler, similarly, will be something Watson will never be: his lover (and I hope they never 'go there'). 

Miller is still doing his best work as Sherlock, who brings vulnerability to his own conflicted emotions regarding Moriarty.  He handles the serious parts and investigation well, but also has strong moments of comedy (such as when he calls the voice on the other line 'Faux-riarty').  He also is left pretty speechless when Watson confronts him on why he felt it was necessary to write Moriarty about Watson's dating life.  It's both strong character development and humorous, when in voice-over Sherlock refers to Watson's "curated mating rituals" when she goes on yet another date courtesy of True Romantix website.

Still, it is good to see she is still working to have a life outside of work, which Holmes hasn't, perhaps due to his inability to let his idea of Irene Adler go when it is Jamie Moriarty who is real. 

Miller has great lines to help him too.  "You look a bit tired," Moriarty tells him when they finally set eyes on each other.  "You look a bit evil," he retorts.  Only Sherlock Holmes could get away with lines like that, and Miller delivers it excellently.

Larry Teng's direction also does a great job in handling voice-overs (something I'm not fond of) and of montages (we see early on how Watson, Gregson, and Bell are still working through their lives). 

I was highly impressed by The Diabolical Kind in terms of story, of performances (especially Dormer, who I hope will be able to sneak in a few more guest turns as her schedule grows), and of character development.  This I think is the first brilliant episode in Elementary's sophomore season. It's a sad but true fact that people are drawn to evil, and in this case, it is thoroughly justified to fall for The Diabolical Kind.


Next Episode: All in the Family

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor Review


If at least one thing can be said for Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (or to give it a more titillating title, Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor) it is that it has the most delightful title, at least to me, since 2 Fast, 2 Furious.  In almost every other way, Temptation is more ammunition for those who detest everything about a Tyler Perry film: a story in turns lousy and preachy, bad acting, clumsy and unimaginative directing, and predictable 'twists' that are so obvious you just keep waiting for the characters to catch up to you.

Using the framing device of a counseling session between a couple that is facing a potential infidelity by one of the spouses (the female), the unnamed marriage counselor tells the story of her sister, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).  Judith was a good churchgoing girl (or rather, was compelled to be a good churchgoing girl by her extremely religious mother), Sarah (Ella Joyce).  Still, she had fallen madly in love with Brice (Lance Gross).  They get married and now we go to ten years later with no children.

Judith is a statistician at a matchmaking agency headed up by Madame Janice (Vanessa Williams), who speaks with a very pronounced French accent.  Her job is to produce and conduct personality tests to see about who is best match, and now Judith is confronted with Harley (Robbie Jones), a successful entrepreneur still having difficulty finding a woman.  Brice is now working as a pharmacist, hoping to open a shop of his own.  Into the shop Brice and the pharmacy manager Chapman (Renee Taylor) meet Melinda (Brandy Norwood) who wishes to work there and is running from a terrible secret.

Judith is at first repelled by Harley: his arrogance, his openly flirtatious nature, his womanizing, but truth be told Brice does himself no favors by ignoring Judith and not standing up for her.  Harley is shocked that Judith has had no other lovers, believing sex should be random, like the animals.  This offends her both clinically and spiritually, but soon Judith starts to waver.  He won't go for that kinky stuff, preferring vanilla sex.  Temptation grows, and eventually, Judith succumbs.

She does her best to hide her affair, especially from Sarah, who is a respected (I would say, slightly bonkers) preacher.  Melinda, meanwhile, has her own confessions: she's running away from a violent ex who has done terrible things to her.

One guess as to who that ex is...

Eventually though, something had to give.  Judith starts finding new life and new clothes, thanks to her vapid co-worker Eva (Kim Kardashian).  She goes from respected to trashy, quitting her job and turning into one of Harley's hos.  Brice, still in love with her, tries to get her out of Harley's gutter ball (where all sorts of sex: straight and otherwise, along with boozing and drugging) are going on, but Judith is too far gone into the road of damnation to care.  He finds some sort of temptation with Melinda, but we learn her own truth: that Harley was not only the violent ex, but that she has HIV, and guess who have it to her...and who has HIV now.

As we wrap up our sad story, we discover that the marriage counselor and Judith were the same woman.  She goes to the pharmacy, where Melinda still works with Brice now running it, and with a new family of his own, including a son.  Judith is there to pick up her AIDS medication.

Temptation simply tries too hard, where all its earnestness about the virtue of fidelity comes across less like a weird Afterschool Special and more like an unintended comedy.  Everything about Perry's film (which he adapted from his own stage play) is so forced and unnatural.  The entire affair between Harley and Judith never flowed naturally, but was very forced, almost as if Perry said 'they're going to become lovers because I say they are, not because they show any interest in each other'.

Even when she falls into sin, Perry makes some odd choices.  First, their first encounter a.) borders on near-rape, and b.) appears to be almost a fantasy sequence where the audience is not quite sure whether it was all in Judith's mind.  When we do get a more 'realistic' tryst, the steam from the bath quite literally obscures everything.  I can only hope Perry was going for some visual suggestions of the 'steam of passion', otherwise it was such a bungled affair (no pun intended). 

Everything is very forced, trying too hard to make its case, right down to Aaron Zigman's score.  The screenplay itself is a mess: either heavy-handed (only in a Tyler Perry film would a woman go from almost virginal to wretched crack-ho in a matter of weeks or months, the idea of self-restraint or control foreign to his characters) and predictable (whoever didn't see Melinda's connection to the story is simply an was too obvious). 

Oddly, Temptation brought to mind The Mortal Instruments in this respect.  Here again we have a case where the female lead goes for the supposedly 'hot' male when he really is less attractive than the guy she rejects.  Just like I thought the 'other man' in the love triangle in The Mortal Instruments was more attractive than the male lead, I thought Gross was better-looking than Jones and kept puzzling why Judith would go for the uglier one. 

It also doesn't help that Gross is about the only one who gives a performance that is far better than the script he has to work with (though in fairness, Brady did a good job with subpar material).  Smollett-Bell looked almost uninterested in anything going on and for what is suppose to be a wild, passionate sexual relationship between her and Jones they have a glaring lack of chemistry onscreen.  Their scenes together, especially when he attempts to seduce her, look unnatural and again, forced, as if neither either wants to be there or truly believe they are in there.

Taylor, whom I finally remembered as Fran Drescher's mother in The Nanny, was a strange character in the film in that one was never sure whether she was there for comic relief or almost just wandered onto the set and Perry humored her by putting her in the film.  Her character didn't add anything and made things more puzzling.  However, nothing was as bizarre as Williams, whose French accent was dreadful.  Granted there was a reason for it (she was trying to pass herself off as French when she really was from Georgia), and when this was revealed...near the end of the gave Williams the only intentional laugh I got in the movie; when Judith quits and confronts her about her fake accent, Madame drops it and tells Judith, "Bitch, you better get your ass outta my office."

Why am I going to rake Kardashian over the coals?  I know she can't act (and has no discernible talents apart from having people videotape her having sex, which in my neck of the woods is called 'making porn'), we know she can't act, and even Kardashian knows she can't act.  Therefore, at least she didn't even bother trying, though it is hard to figure out how even someone like Kim Kardashian couldn't read words on a page and make them sound like they came out of an actual human being. 

I know Perry has been heavily criticized for having AIDS as some form of punishment for adultery, and I'm going to put that as again another attempt to be moralistic, not bigoted.  It all could have been handled so much better.

Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor is badly acted, written, directed, and while there was a story somewhere in there it never emerged, never came together.  If his message was 'stay faithful or else you'll get AIDS', that would make it all so foolish.

Finally, I will add this curious note:  one of the credits reads "Mr. Perry's Chef: John Fravel".  Putting aside the curious element of giving a screen credit to your chef, it does signal to me that Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor might have done better if more focus was paid to what went on the screen than what went on the dinner plate. 


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dallas Buyer's Club: A Review


What happened to Matthew McConaughey? 

I'm not referring to his physical transformation for Dallas Buyers Club (though seeing the man best known for baring his pecs at the sight of sunlight turn into a gaunt skeleton certainly is something to surprise those who know him best as the himbo du jour in bad romantic comedies).  I mean what happened to Matthew McConaughey, the guy who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, the spiritual father to Channing Tatum?  I once put him among my Worst Actors List, someone who just flashed his body and smirked his way through any movie, where his distinct East Texan drawl made him sound dimwitted. 
Now the 44-year-old is turning into an actual actor, one with some range where his body is not the selling point.  There was Mud, there was his small but memorable turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, and now Dallas Buyers Club.  What next: Matthew McConaughey as Shylock or Professor Henry Higgins?  Dallas Buyers Club certainly is his best performance and best role since he played what I have always thought was a variation of himself in Dazed and Confused, but while I would argue this isn't some shocking revelation of his artistic prowess (he IS playing a Texas redneck, not what I would call a stretch for the Austin native) McConaughey does show he is capable of more than just naked bongo playing.

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) lives fast: screwing women left, right, center, heavy into drugs like cocaine and gambling, not ashamed of his immoral behavior and getting away with it.  He cares for nothing and no one but his own satisfaction, but he hasn't been looking very good.  He has a persistent cough and is rather thin.  One night, he collapses at home, and another time, the electric shock he receives sends him to the hospital.  Here, Drs. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) and Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) give Woodroof the most shocking diagnosis: he has HIV.  Woodroof is infuriated: he ain't no homo, and in 1985 we all know that only 'fags' have HIV, which leads to AIDS.  Even worse for Woodroof, he is told that he has at the most 30 days.  Neither the diagnosis or the time frame does Woodroof accept.

On Day One, he decides the best thing to do is be with hookers and use coke.  On Day Seven, while reading on HIV, he finally and angrily accepts that indeed he does have HIV.  However, he also hears of new clinical trials for the AZT drug which shows some success.  He tries to bribe Saks but nothing doing.  However, Woodroof does have a few tricks up his sleeve: at a strip club he sees an orderly who was at the hospital and bribes him to bring him AZT.  His attempts at self-medication (with a generous helping of booze and cocaine) play havoc with his health.  Dr. Savard wants to know where he got the AZT, but Woodroof isn't talking.  However, here on Day 28 he meets Rayon (Jared Leto) a transgender individual who is going through the trials.  Woodroof wants nothing to do with this 'queer', but given that Rayon can outplay him at cards earns him Ron's grudging respect.

Once he gets out of the hospital, Ron learns of alternative treatments that he comes to realize are better than both AZT and the dosage the Food and Drug Administration has.  He wants those treatments and drugs, but they are not FDA approved.  "Screw the FDA.  I'm going to be DOA," he says.  After going to Mexico for drugs and treatment, he hits on a brilliant idea that came to him via news reports: he will import the non-approved but not illegal drugs and start a 'buyers club'.  In theory, members will pay nothing for the drugs, merely $400 a month for membership in this club.  He has few takers for his club at first, until he finds Rayon, who will serve as his entry into the gay world he so despises.  Rayon wants a cut of the profits, making them partners.  Woodroof isn't happy about this development, but he has no choice. 

Now Woodroof, who has improved and outlived his initial diagnosis, begins a war with the FDA.  He has grown to despise AZT more than he has those 'fruits' he deals with, and despite himself Woodroof does slowly come to find that Rayon is not this degenerate, going so far as to make a former friend of his who disowned him after his diagnosis shake that 'queer's' hand through physical intimidation.  The FDA and Dr. Savard do their best to force the Dallas Buyers Club out of business, but Woodroof fights back.  When things are at their darkness, Rayon goes to his father, dressed as a man and answering to his birth name of Raymond, to get the money Woodroof needs.  Rayon, however, does succumb to AIDS while Woodroof is on a business trip to Japan to import other non-approved drugs.  A visibly hurt and pained Ron insists that Savard all but murdered Rayon with the AZT he gave Rayon.

Despite all his work, Ron Woodroof loses his case against the FDA, but thanks to him and his stealth and determination to save his own life, he saved others.  He lost the battle, but not the war.  On Day 2557 after he first learns of his diagnosis, we are told that Ronald Woodruff died of AIDS on September 12, 1992, seven years after he was diagnosed with HIV.

Dallas Buyers Club does not shy away from making Woodroof into a thoroughly unlikable person.  I thought he was scum in how he at one point stole Dr. Saks' medical prescription pad to bring in more drugs.  He also has little compassion or interest in being a charity: when someone comes to him with a mere $50, he coldly tells him he can come back once he has the other $350, then walks out of his makeshift office in a hotel and tells all those waiting that he will accept nothing less.  When he finds a rare woman among the clientele, one who has full-blown AIDS, Woodroof doesn't hesitate to take advantage to finally have sex with a woman without worry about infection. 

However, I have to give McConaughey credit in that we do the evolution of Ron Woodroof from hick bigot to hick who accepts that this scheme isn't just about making money or finding a way to save himself (yes, he's not only the President of the Dallas Buyers Club, but he's also a client, to quote an old tagline).  It's also about fighting the system (a typical Texan reaction to obnoxious government overreach) and saving lives.  When he finds that Rayon has not only gone to his father but has sold his own life insurance policy to bring in cash to allow Woodroof to buy more medication, Woodroof embraces Rayon, slowly, perhaps hesitantly, but compassionately and sincerely.  When later he learns of Rayon's death, there is a mixture of fury and pain in Ron that, given how homophobic he was, is astounding.

Yes, McConaughey gives an excellent performance, where for once his Austin drawl and swagger come to good use, but where he also gives us a steely determination and even an odd moment of vulnerability to go with it.  I also think Leto was excellent as Rayon (a fictional character who was a composite of people Woodroof worked with).  Again, I'm not a Leto fan (I wouldn't go to a Thirty Seconds to Mars concert of my own accord) but seeing his performance in DBC I saw a 'woman' who was him/herself highly troubled (he, unlike Woodroof, wouldn't go for clean living) but who also humanizes Woodroof and could get him to do things he didn't want to (for example, go inside the gay bars rather than just stay outside for fear of being around them).  The relationship between Leto's Rayon and McConaughey's Woodroof builds to one of actual respect, and both are excellent in their roles.

I also have to compliment Garner, who truly has never been better as she was in this film.  It's been a while since Garner showed she could act (Daredevil AND Elektra, anyone?) but her mixture of compassion for her friend Rayon and steely determination to do what is best for the patients and not the FDA were a remarkable thing to watch.

Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's screenplay kept the story flowing quickly and I don't think it made the FDA or Dr. Savard intentionally evil.  The story does at least give Savard a justification in adopting Woodroof's cowboy behavior: a fear that without controlled studies there would be no way of knowing what worked and didn't.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee also has some beautiful moments in terms of both acting (the three leads) and visually.  In one scene, Woodroof with soft candlelight flickering in front of him asks God for a sign.  When he gets his sign, we know that those candles are not in front of an altar (I had already suspected as much).  He is 'praying' at the altar of a strip club, with the candles at the table having lit his pleas for divine intervention.

Dallas Buyers Club is a strong film that sometimes was a little heavy-handed with the rodeo symbolism (Woodroof falls similarly to how rodeo riders did in the opening), and I never understood what relationship Steve Zahn's cop had with Woodroof (were they related? friends?), and then there is the fact that Steve Zahn is in the movie.  If there was a suggestion of romance between Woodroof and Saks it fell flat.  However, minus those aspects Dallas Buyers Club is evidence that on occasion, Matthew McConaughey can act.  That in itself is a miracle of filmmaking.