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.

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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.

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Set in the antebellum era of the Deep South and Old West, a freed slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

I’m just going to right into it…

The best performance by a mile is Christoph Waltz – he is the heart of the movie. Waltz’s Doctor King Schultz single-handedly balances the entire film, evening out the tone between moments of intense horror and humor and mediating the film’s internal battle between historical fact and its post-modern aesthetic. He is the Yang to the film’s Yin, filling out the missing part of the scenes and even providing a human perspective into what’s happening when the audience does not what to feel in certain situations. Whenever Christoph Waltz is not in the movie, it is heavily felt.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is a great villain and brings a scary presence. Scary is something we haven’t ever seen Dicaprio accomplish so it was quite fresh to see. He sings Tarantino’s dialogue, projecting a charming demeanor on the surface while carrying a constant petty evil underneath. It’s not Oscar worthy (if anything, he should have won for The Aviator) but a powerful performance nonetheless.

Jamie Foxx’s lead performance as Django seemed off to me. Particularly his voice threw me off because his inflections sound too modern. Everybody else seems to have an accent from the era, but he does not use a southern accent, or any accent. He just sounds like a black man from 2012. Django’s progression of intelligence was unconvincing to me as well. There were times where he seemed dim-witted and other times where he seemed sharp, and it felt unnatural. It is not a screenwriting issue, but in how the performance was delivered. It was as if Foxx focused on playing the “Man with No Name” western genre hero and did not know how to balance it with the historical context of black slaves in America. He just did not carry enough pain in his eyes.

I don’t have words for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, it’s quite the spectacle to behold. Watching it transported me into a weird nether place. Maybe I need to go leaf through a history book on slavery or something. I don’t know what to make of it. And on that awkward note…

However one may feel about Tarantino’s frequent use of the N word, he definitely has a strange obsession with it. As horrible as this sounds, I was surprised how other racial slurs from that era were not spoken in the film. (I am not going to name them here. I will defer you to watch that scene in Clerks 2.) There is a quality in Tarantino’s crass, in-your-face direction that suggests that he gets off rebelling against social taboos. That telling him that something is politically incorrect will push him to do it in order to disprove you. That’s my speculation anyways.

The film is way too long. Simply put, it’s ill-disciplined in the sense that Tarantino wants his cake and eat it too. He wants to tell his story and communicate a statement but also wants to amuse himself by inserting things that he enjoys and cannot reign himself in. There is a gag where a major comedy star shows up in a cameo which I found problematic. In fact, it was problematic in the exact same way I found Mike Meyer’s cameo was in Inglourious Basterds. In a film where it’s trying to balance historical fact and a post-modern aesthetic by mediating film genres, seeing a modern comedic actor show up for a cheap laugh is just one extra layer too many and it took me out. Did the gag make me laugh? No. Did it progress the story? No. Then why is the gag there? Tarantino wants it to be, that’s why.

A reason that I prefer Django Unchained over Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino doesn’t try to make every scene into a dialogue set piece. The opening set piece in Inglourious Basterds is the best thing Tarantino has written (he says so too), but every proceeding scene seemed like he was trying to recreate that for the rest of the movie and it got tiring. There is a point in the Django Unchained‘s final act where the story could have concluded but it proceeds for another half hour. I could have cut 20 minutes out of the film and it is that exact 20 minutes that holds the film from being something masterful. Yes, that includes Tarantino’s cameo. Tarantino shouldn’t act in his own films. Maybe he shouldn’t act at all in anything but he was the worst part of his own film.

All that said, I enjoyed it much more than Inglourious Basterds ( I am so relieved it didn’t end with a character uttering “Hm, maybe THIS is my masterpiece.”) Tarantino fans may love the extra fat, but I would have preferred a leaner steak with more discipline. It’s just that little difference, if only Tarantino reigned himself in.

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

“Wait, so it’s a horror movie about hitmen? How does that work?” That’s how I reacted the first time I heard about the premise of Kill List. What possibly can be scary about hit men?

The set-up? A British soldier Jay (played by Neil Maskell) returns home from Kiev. He is suffering from his disturbed past from a non-specific failed mission in Kiev. He’s strapped for cash and his wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring) urges him to take a job with his old friend Gal (played by Michael Smiley) as contract killers. His disturbed past surfaces as he spins out of control during jobs and ominous employers raise the stakes.

You may be thinking: what the heck is scary about that?

The way we take information has progressed and audiences have evolved. Subtext has now become supertext. Kill List is a film that understands this and chooses to plays all it’s beats beneath it’s surface.  It is not about what is being shown to the audience. It is everything that is not being shown: an off-kilter look, an obscure comment and a random action. There is something happening behind the curtains and all these random little things engage you to ask questions. “What the hell is going on?” “Why did she do that?” Kill List engages through creating distance with its audience.

One must remember the first rule of horror: it is never being literal. Horror stories are about ideas. Anything physical (i.e. a monster) is a mere physicalization of an idea.

The film ended and I was unnerved. I did not know what idea it was that I was rattled by. It’s a looming feeling that sits there in front of you. I felt like rewatching the film again to check if I missed anything. But I did not miss anything. I had no grasp on what it was and that’s quite unsettling.