Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

Dallas Buyers Club by Jean-Marc Vallée

 

In 1985, Ron Woodroff (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician and avid rodeo enthusiast with homophobic views, contracts the HIV virus and is given 30 days to live. His doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), tells him about the testing of an anti-viral drug named AZT – a drug thought to prolong the life of AIDS patients. Discovering that AZT is actually harmful, he switches to other non-FDA approved drugs ddC and peptide T and partners with Rayon, a transgender woman (Jared Leto), and creates the Dallas Buyers Club, providing drugs to patients for a membership fee.

Making his resurgence this year with a return to dramatic roles, Matthew McConaughey dives into the Ron Woodroff character with an incomparable passion and commitment in years. The monologue McConaughey delivered in the finale of A Time to Kill sent chills down my spine years ago, and since then I have been waiting for years for him to quit doing romantic comedies and now the wait is finally over. Looking dangerously emaciated and painfully frail, McConaughey brings a complex humanity beneath the swindling, trashy, rude exterior in Ron Woodroff. Never in any circumstance would you ever want to hang out with Woodroff, but you feel sympathy for his plight and cheer him on as he rids of his homophobia and starts helping other people. This is McConaughey’s career best.

From the sparse arthouse way he chooses his parts and dividing time with his music career, Jared Leto has gone unnoticed under the radar, most people still only remember him from My So-Called Life. Rayon is the single most compelling onscreen character I have seen this year. Leto tackles the role with such love and human warmth, breathing charm and a sense of humor into Rayon, the role transcends from being a flamboyant woman trapped inside a man’s body but a human being who desires to be truly loved. As Rayon tells her estranged father in a scene, “It’s not a choice.” I would never presume to know the life experience of transgender people, but after seeing Leto’s deeply moving performance I feel much closer. Campaign or awards politics aside, both actors should win the Oscars, period.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée adopts a handheld cinéma vérité style that brings rawness and immediacy, taking its heavy subject matter head-on and naturally lets the characters tell the story. Even with the latter introduction of the FDA subplot, the story never becomes a political debate about whether the law truly meets human needs. Dallas Buyers Club is a fascinating, powerfully moving story and told passionately by its makers. It is one of the year’s best films.

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.

The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.

Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…

There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.

The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.

A Simple Life by Ann Hui

A Simple Life

A Simple Life by Ann Hui

Life for a parent is a shitty deal. You raise someone for 20 years and then are abandoned by them to face death for the next 40 years. Strangely, it’s the only selfless thing we do as human beings. But it seems so unfair, someone takes care of you, you should take care of them as well right?

That is the central idea of A Simple Life. The story is about Toh Jie, transliterated as “Sister Peach”  (played by Deannie Yip), is a household maid who has worked for the Leung family for 60 years. She still currently takes care of the young master, Roger (played by Andy Lau). Her health deters and now she in need of Roger to take care of her.

Deannie Yip owns this role. She reminded me of my grandmother at times, who is currently in an old folk’s home. She has the physicality of an old person down, the little tics and the way you lean to take off weight when you walk. She deserved that Venice Film Festival award. Heck, give her more!

Andy Lau has come a long way since his younger days of “playing-a-heartthrob-who-dies-at-the-end-of-the-movie-to-his own-pop-soundtrack” thing. He has learned how to use the subtlety of his face and knows when to chew up a moment. There’s one noteworthy scene where Roger is hanging out with his childhood friends and they all decide to give Sister Peach a call and reminisce about the great food dishes she used to make for them. This aches Roger as he realizes this is basically how people will remember her. And I urge people to watch Andy Lau in that moment.

There is a little detail with the layout of the old folk’s home I wanted to address: it had an open door at the entrance. Many times the old people just opened and closed the door and exited freely. My mother and I debated the reality of this, usually these old folk’s home have a exit button that unlocks the door for safety purposes. There are scenes where Sister Peach and other elderly people are opening and closing this door without supervision. What’s worse is the old folk’s home is right across from a mechanic’s shop! Thinking more about this, it dawned on me: this is an aesthetic choice. It is probably unrealistic but what that aesthetic choice lead me to consider how dangerous the situation was for the elderly people.

As I realized this, there was many aesthetic choices in the story that were designed to raise a discussion about how we should treat and handle elderly people. I admired its subtlety. For example, there’s a scene where Roger and his sister discuss how Sister Peach’s expenses should be handled and it gets pretty dark as it starts to sound like a business transaction.

There are a lot of funny moments in the movie and thank goodness for it. It is very grim to watch old people suffering and deteriorating in an old folk’s home. The film knows that and shows that there is indeed laughter in their lives, and Sister Peach does not have it too bad. The story is not about how the whole world is against her. We never linger on her suffering. Things are never dialed up to eleven. It retains a lot of realism (a lot of the old people in the old folk’s home seem to belong there) and still manages to find drama within it. Good work, Ann Hui!

That’s one major thing I appreciated about this movie: it does not set out to make you cry. It could have easily done so using melodramatic sensibilities and it does not set that as it’s goal.

I did not cry at the end, but I felt the touching cleanse of a cry. I left the theater thinking about how I should treat my grandparents, my parents someday and even the elderly in general. Sometimes they need help walking down from a bus, someone to talk to or simply they just need to feel needed. The film’s heart is in the right place and  I ultimately agree with it’s sentiments: nobody that raised and took care of you deserves to die alone.

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.