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.

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

 

Captain Phillips tells the real life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 led by Abduwali Muse.

The most noteworthy aspect of Paul Greengrass’ canon is his ability to create immediacy, which is the key ingredient in Captain Phillips. The surface explanation behind Greengrass’s crackling visual style is simply that he shoots handheld. The truth is much more complicated than that. What’s behind Greengrass’ method is not merely the shaky cam, but his ability to create reality and punctuate immediate tension in his dramatic filmmaking. He understands that people receive information in fragments all the time and has found a way to incorporate that human reflex into a cinematic experience. So even with the fast cuts and shaky photography, the audience is able to follow what’s going on. It is emotionally connective.

The set pieces in the first half of the film are visceral and tense. They feel like they’re happening right before us and we are immersed into the crew’s helpless dilemma. There’s a significant genre shift in the second act, as the film becomes a rescue mission procedural. It goes on a bit long by the end. The first half is definitely more fun than the second half, if only because the crew members become less active in the latter portions.

Tom Hanks plunges into the title role in a way I haven’t seen in years. The trademark Tom Hanks movie star charm is removed and what remains is Hank’s everyman quality. Captain Richard Phillips comparatively is a relatively colder character compared to Hank’s past roles, which frees him up to embody the role. The last few moments of Hanks’ Captain Phillips in shock dealing with the aftermath is breathtaking. It’s a great human moment, though overall the entire performance is probably not Oscar worthy.

The Somali pirates are well casted. It’s baffling how the filmmakers found these actors in a cating session in North Carolina. They rise above their skinny appearances and rough-hewn looks and each individually play dimensional characters. Greengrass builds an interesting group dynamic between them and gives them a backstory that suggests that they are not intentionally evil people.

Something noteworthy is how Greengrass depicts the military in a cold neutral fashion that doesn’t take political sides. They aren’t glorified like they are in Michael Bay films. The military here is functional and follows procedures to get the job done. There’s a lot of room for audiences to bring in their own views about the response time of the coast guard, the military’s handling of the rescue or the harsh circumstances of the Somali pirates. Although interested in world issues in a journalistic fashion, Greengrass isn’t overbearingly preachy in any sense. His focus is the drama and fully delivers on that.

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

Related Reviews
Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight chronicles the later life of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.

The most interesting aspect between Herman Yau-Anthony Wong collaborations is that their partnership had its roots in Hong Kong Category III horror. Ebola Syndrome is still one of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen and been guiltily entertained by. Forget Outbreak or Contagion, Ebola Syndrome was a far more disturbing movie about a viral outbreak. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Wong truly played a disturbing sociopath in that movie. The point is: they’re not afraid to delve into the gritty, the ugly and the disgusting.

Set against the big commercial movie cog machine and the Ip Man franchise, the majority of Yau-Wong penchant for grittiness is diluted and only some of it remains in Ip Man: The Final Fight. It is that essence of the grittier and the uglier sides of Ip Man that makes out for the more interesting parts in Ip Man: The Final Fight, but it’s also the film’s major weakness because it never treads far enough from familiar territory.

What the film ends up being more like tonally is a combination of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen Ip Man films and Bruce Lee My Brother, where it is loosely glossing over the details of the grandmaster’s life and dramatically punching up the action so it can allow for fight scenes, but also providing a retro-gaze of Hong Kong accompanied with a celebrity guest-list cameos.

For example, it’s been said that Ip Man sported an opium habit. The concept is telegraphed but never truly explored. Another example is Hong Kong actor Liu Kai Chi gives a cameo as Ip Man’s friend who is suffering from poverty. They start what might be a potentially interesting storyline but it never finishes itself. Much of the film is like that.

There are about several subplots running through the story and they all end up as separate vignettes that do not rise above the sum of it’s parts. For a biopic drama, that’s a problem because it does not provide an unified narrative goal. This is not an editing issue. The story was based on Ip Chun’s stories of his father and it is as if seemed like the screenwriter noted them down as told and the director literally shot them that way. So I attribute this issue to lazy writing. The retroactive voice-over device ends up killing a lot of the drama. The scene will be happening and the voice-over will cut in summing up the rest of the scene in past tense. It keeps glossing over by stating what happened instead of letting the audience experience what’s happening in the now.

Anthony Wong is very natural as Ip Man. He looks most like the real-life version of Ip Man and actually adopts a Foshan accent. He breathes many colors into the role and the scenes with Ip Man and his students is the heart of the film. Anthony Wong is pretty much the best thing about this movie and his performance alone is the price of admission.

Eric Tsang has a great supporting role as a Crane style master who befriends Ip Man. There is a self-referential joke where Tsang says being a ‘clan master’ (獎門人) is difficult, a reference to his famous television gameshow, that was self-serving and unnecessary. Tsang and Wong share an awesome fight together. Not a lot of people remember that Eric Tsang started out as a stuntman; the fight looks very authentic. They were really smashing their forearms together. Eric Tsang is a badass.

Something I noticed about the cinematography was there were way too many crane shots in this film. There’s a scene that ends on a connective moment between two characters and then it cuts to a crane shot backing away presenting a view of the entire rooftop set. I have a theory about this. In Hong Kong, booking a crane from a production house is a planned expense and usually you would require more crew members or more time to set up a crane shot. Production houses in the Mainland will give crews an entire film equipment package in their deals, which includes cranes and jibs. With the cheap labor and higher amount of crew members, a crane shot can be set up much faster in the Mainland. As a recent occurrence, a lot of Chinese productions lead by Hong Kong directors have recently been very crane shot-heavy. Hong Kong directors, this needs to stop. You have to remember to pull back every once and a while.

Just as a small footnote, I really hated the Bruce Lee cameo. Playing Bruce Lee in a film is by no means an easy feat but the actor they chose was abysmally awful. He made Bruce Lee look like a rich asshole sellout. It was not fun, nor did it work as a pop culture reference.

Overall, I enjoyed this film, but I do not think it works completely as a standalone piece. It seems to fit as the final piece to this whole line of Ip Man films. In a way, I can’t help it because they’ve made so many movies about Ip Man in such a short time.

With every film, I see a little more of who this man was, what his legacy was and it had me thinking about even what being a good teacher means. I still think The Grandmaster is the best Ip Man film. They really don’t need to make any more Ip Man movies. And if they do (and I think they are because I saw a poster for an Ip Man 3 with Donnie Yen), please do the story with Bruce Lee and get him right.

Related Reviews
The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

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.

The Iron Lady by Phyllida Lloyd

Honestly, Meryl Streep can play a cockroach and win a Best Actress

Like I’ve said before in my entry for My Week with Marilyn, it is not possible to make a biopic about Marilyn Monroe without talking how beautiful she is and what a problem that was for her. Nor is it possible to make a Bruce Lee biopic without having any fighting in it. In that mentality, it is not possible to make a Margaret Thatcher biopic without it being about politics. This film attempts to defy that logic.

The story is structured from the mental state of the old Margaret Thatcher, who’s dealing with dementia over the lost of her late husband Denis. As things happen in the present, we flashback to the younger Margaret Thatcher, chronicling her journey from a young girl to being Prime Minister.

I do not understand what this framing device accomplishes. Is this about how Margaret Thatcher remembers her own life? No, she’s dealing with dementia. Is it her being senile the deal she had to do with the devil? No. She’s the first female British Prime Minister. Why is that not interesting enough in itself?

The parts with how she battled the work unions and the Falkland Island wars were really engaging me but there were only shown as excerpts in the film. Now I will have to revert to Wikipedia to learn more about that part of history.

Is there anything to say about Meryl Streep’s performance that has not been said? It’s a total physical transformation and she deserved the Best Actress award. That’s really all I have to say about it. Is the film worth watching solely for her performance alone? Only if you want to be part of the social discussion.

At it’s heart, The Iron Lady is a film about grief, loneliness and the loss of a loved one. I was moved by the relationship between Margaret and Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent). She found someone that truly loved her for who she was (he tells her this as he proposes, one of my favorite scenes in the movie) and it was heartbreaking to see her senile and alone without him. I felt sad for her when the film ended.

On that level, the film accomplished its goal. But why did that story about grief have to be Margaret Thatcher’s story? I still find there are many other more interesting goals to do with her life story. Personally, I would have liked to see the chronicle of her political career as the central story instead.