Dallas Buyers Club

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

What distinguishes this from a run-of-the-mill disease-of-the-month tearjerker from Lifetime Movie Network? Easy, pilgrim: the answer is Mr. Matthew McConaughey. He's a force of movie nature when he wants to be.

Here, Mr. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff. It's the early 80's and Woodruff is a hard-charging redneck Texas non-homosexual, but unfortunately he's into a lot of other risky behavior, like drug use and unprotected sex. So he finds himself with AIDS, and the doctor gives him 30 days to live.

Woodruff also mixes cocaine with AZT, recipe for dying sooner than 30 days. He finds himself in a Mexican clinic, where an unlicensed doc makes him feel better with unapproved drugs. Which gets Ron's humanitarian/entrepreneurial juices flowing: why, if he takes this stuff up to Texas, he could make some serious money. Only problem being, it's probably only slightly less legally risky to sell FDA-unapproved medications than it is to deal in cocaine and heroin.

Of course, Ron "grows" out of his previous homophobia once he develops face-to-face relationships with his gay clientele. He also wins over Jennifer Garner, a doctor initially by-the-book, gradually becoming more humanitarian.

The movie is intensely libertarian, making a strident case against the lengthy and bureaucratic FDA process for declaring a drug "safe and effective". In the meantime people are dying. But another (unfortunate) theme strongly implies corruption between the FDA, Big Pharma, and the local doctors who stand to make a bundle off AZT.

It's a nice story, but there's a contrary take at the Washington Post that makes it difficult to buy the movie's medical basis.


[Amazon Link]

A small effort at Pun Salad multiculturalism, inspired by a plug earlier this year from certified Smart Fellow Tyler Cowen. Decoded is a 2002 novel by the celebrated Chinese novelist Mai Jia, and it was translated into English earlier this year. (When I say "celebrated", I mean: he's famous in China; this is the only book that's made it into English.)

Executive summary: it's interesting and charming at the beginning, but bogs down near the end. And at the end, I found myself saying: "OK, so what was that all about?" But I am not experienced in the reading of Serious Literature, so it could well be that much went over my head.

I was looking for either a tale of cryptography or international intrigue. Both, preferably. A Chinese Neal Stephenson! Wouldn't that be cool? But no.

It is the story of Rong Jinzhen, mathematical prodigy, who gets drafted into a Chinese intelligence unit dedicated to the making and breaking of military-level ciphers. The early (good) part of the book details his ancestry: colorful, mostly sad, tales of his relatives and acquaintances and how they came to guide his unlikely birth and upbringing.

Rong Jinzhen turns out to be a master codebreaker, solving the riddle of PURPLE, a cipher that (it turns out) was invented by his teacher and mentor, Liseiwicz, who got out of China and started working for Israel and "Country X". (Amusingly, most of his co-workers think that Rong Jinzhen is just goofing off until he delivers the broken code.) But after PURPLE, there is BLACK. And his anti-BLACK efforts threaten to send Rong Jinzhen over the edge of sanity.

As a devout despiser of Communism, I was unimpressed with the book's politics. Mai Jia is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He stays away from anything that might offend the regime. (There is a brief fictional example of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, which I guess is OK to do these days.)

Consumer note: this NYT review claims that Rong Jinzhen's mother was killed in childbirth by his "freakishly large head". That's incorrect; although Rong Jinzhen's mother does die in childbirth (page 24), the freakishly-large-head death is on page 14, and it's when Rong Jinzhen's grandmother gives birth to his father. So there, mainstream media.

The Lego Movie

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Another movie ostensibly for the kids, but with enough content and originality to make it more than acceptable for Mrs. Salad and I.

It's (mostly) set in a universe of Legos, where things are (mostly) orderly and peaceful, thanks to the grand designs of a godlike creature called (variously) "President Business" or "Lord Business". But Business is increasingly upset with the small amount of chaos introduced into the land by underlying forces of individuality and creativity. So he plans to "unleash the Kragle" which (small spoiler) is a scratched-up tube of Krazy Glue: he'll lock down the rebellious characters into poses they'll hold forevermore.

Opposing Business is a diverse array of characters: "Wyldstyle", a Lara Croft-style action figurine, "Vitruvius", a wise bearded wizard. They draft Emmet into their scheme, because they perceive him to be the "Special", bequeathed with special powers to allow him to defeat Business's evil plot.

Oh, and Batman. Who (of course) introduces himself with: "I'm Batman".

There are fantastic cameos, non-stop action, lots of sight gags (many of which I missed), and PG-safe humor. (Mostly jokes involving the word "butt", and associated concepts. My inner 10-year-old found this amusing.)

And (again, slight spoiler) one Jadon Sand plays the (human) Finn, who's revealed to be the driving force behind much of the action. He's a very talented young man, and no relation.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

True fact: I fell asleep trying to watch this at my first attempt. But I was wide awake for my second time, and it was perfectly fine, and very funny. As I type, IMDB has it at #151 of the top 250 movies of all time, and I guess I'm OK with that.

It's definitely the only movie I can recall with a triple flashback: starting in (presumably) the present day, a girl visits a memorial to "Author"; we then flash back (1) to 1985, where "Author" narrates his thoughts on the creative process to an unseen camera; which recalls (2) his 1968 visit to the deteriorating Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets the eccentric owner, Mr. Moustafa; who (3) describes his "lobby boy" employment with the hotel and his relationship with the eccentric concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), back in the 1930s.

What happens is a shaggy-dog tale of discreet carnal relationships between Gustave and the hotel's wealthy old-lady guests, murder most foul, and a subsequent frame-up of M. Gustave. Gustave and Moustafa must expose the true perpetrators while trying to stay out of jail.

Director/Writer Wes Anderson brings some of his trademarks to the movie: dazzling sets, slow horizontal pans, loopy and hilarious dialog delivered deadpan, an imaginatively complex and original plot. There are also a bunch of fine actors in smaller cameo roles.

If some of his earlier movies left you with a "who cares" reaction, me too. But his last few have worked much better for me, and if you've been avoiding him, give him another try.

Also: watch to the end of the credits for a small treat.

Last Modified 2014-07-28 10:09 PM EDT