Oscar hopeful McConaughey, VOD docs, and John Hughes' best

During the fall Oscar-wannabe season, the movies that are “based on a true story” come out in full force. Many of them will no doubt play fast and loose with the facts, while others will adhere so closely to what happened that their cinematic versions will come off stilted and lifeless. “Dallas Buyers Club” is a good example of a film that finds a nice balance between truth and fiction and benefits greatly from an impassioned lead performance.

Matthew McConaughey is riveting as Ron Woodroof, a hard-partying, homophobic Texas electrician and rodeo enthusiast who contracted AIDS in 1985 and is given a month to live. Instead of rolling over, Woodroof stokes his own gambling urges and becomes energized by an outlaw capitalistic endeavor — smuggling experimental HIV drugs from Mexico and Japan and selling them to other patients looking to prolong their lives.

McConaughey is a wonder. The actor lost 50 pounds to play the tightly coiled antihero, and he gives Woodruff a determination that’s practically unhinged. There isn’t a lot of time for self-reflection, but a couple of key scenes in the movie are a window to the real man behind the hulking confidence. McConaughey’s nonstop energy and his character’s will to survive carries the film, even in its most conventional moments.

Woodruff is a hero in the same vein of Oskar Schindler — someone who ends up helping others by looking out for his own skin. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, “Dallas Buyers Club” has attitude to spare, pulling few punches in its portrayal of the foul-mouthed Woodroof and its indictment of the FDA as a corrupt organization beholden to corporate interests.


Although the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack becomes a bit aimless toward the end and suffers from some familiar sentimental trappings, the movie is also energized by solid supporting turns from Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. McConaughey and Leto (as his unlikely transgender business partner) have prickly comic rapport and an unspoken tenderness, while Garner’s doctor wrestles effectively with the ineffectiveness of the patient care she’s allowed to give and her knowledge of Woodroof’s illegal drug business.

This is just one story of many during the initial AIDS crisis, so it doesn’t try to represent anything else, but it does allude to a larger canvas. For a detailed account of the Reagan administration’s slow reaction and the gay community’s fierce crusade for a cure, rent the superb 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”


Speaking of true stories, with the lower cost of equipment and editing tools and the advent of digital distribution, there are more documentaries being produced right now than ever before. This year, a record 151 films have qualified for consideration in the 2013 Academy Awards. Like the others, both of the following Oscar hopefuls are making limited theatrical runs across the country now — and are also available to watch immediately through streaming VOD platforms.

“Cutie and the Boxer” — There’s something both stoic and whimsical about the 40-year relationship between Japanese expat artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. “Art is messy and dirty when it pours out of you,” says neo-Dadaist Ushio — whose boxing paintings have appeared in virtually every modern art museum of note — in a vintage interview from the film. “Cutie and the Boxer” proves that statement out, but extends it to the bohemian lifestyle of its subjects by presenting miraculous fly-on-the-wall vérité footage of the couple.

Director Zachary Heinzerling shot most of the footage himself, embedded with Ushio and Noriko as they straddle the difficult line between art and commerce, speaking frankly about things like paying the rent and Ushio’s battle with alcoholism.

Heinzerling combines this with old TV reports and animated drawings of Noriko’s characters Cutie and Bullie, which are based on the couple, to tell the story of their past. What emerges is a beautiful portrait of an atypical romance (she was 19, he was 41 when they met), filled with small, truthful moments that add up to a rich, bigger picture.

“Our Nixon” — When Richard Nixon’s presidency came crumbling down in the wake of the Watergate scandal, his aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, bit the bullet and did jail time for their boss. But during their time in the White house, they shot over 500 reels of home movies. “Our Nixon,” directed by Penny Lane, uses those films combined with secretly recorded White House phone tapes, to vividly recreate the early 1970s.

Only the 1970s most people remember — and the one most often seen in historical footage — is one of riots, demonstrations and cultural upheaval. There’s a real disconnect listening to Chapin wax nostalgic about how much fun Nixon’s White House was while watching Super 8 films of he and his aides smiling at various political events.

There’s no smoking gun here, and “Our Nixon” meanders along for most of its 84-minute running time, but as an insider’s view of a group of powerful men isolated by their own loyalty to their leader, it is fascinating stuff.

John Hughes was known for his ability to create comedies that resonated with young people — sympathizing with the hyper-real emotions of teenagers in films like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." But his most well-rounded creation was a road-trip film that mixed broad comedy with a dose of that special family feeling that creeps up every Thanksgiving.

Liberty Hall is showing the now-classic "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," which features John Candy's best performance and Steve Martin at his most exasperated, at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Pillows are optional.


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