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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American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese

The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese

 

Martin Scorsese’s latest is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker and founder of Stratton Oakmont, a company which engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street during the nineties. 


First off, the performances are top-notch. Leonardo DiCaprio has managed to find new depths by playing a character that is even debatably worse than the racist plantation owner in Django Unchained. DiCaprio has done more than enough to win his Oscar, and winning for The Wolf of Wall Street is as good any of his other roles. My favorite DiCaprio performance is still Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Though my vote goes to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club this year. Speaking of which, McConaughey has a great cameo as Jordan’s mentor, who gives Belfort the inspirational push. However, Jonah Hill is the standout as Belfort’s psychotic sidekick Donnie Azoff, delivering an even more impressive performance than in Moneyball.

At a 3-hour running time, the film is too long and it easily could have been shorter with less party scenes and throwing midgets into giant dartboards at the office. As a rise-and-fall story, it has too much ‘rise’ and not enough ‘fall’. I wanted the story to move on and inform us about the financial damage this all caused and all the lives it hurt in the process, but Scorsese does not seem interested in the forensics. Overall there are some very good party set pieces and funny scenes, but after a while, I was just numb.

The story is essentially told from the villain’s point of view. Extending this idea to the classic children’s storybook The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which is told from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective. The Wolf retells the Three Little Pigs story and asks the reader to consider his side of the story. The Wolf was simply trying to bake a cake for his grandmother’s birthday while nursing a bad cold, and things got out of hand. Therein lies my criticism: there is nothing redeemable from the Jordan Belfort character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Or at the very least, the filmmakers do not seem interested in showing anything beyond the surface. 

The breaking-the-4th-wall story device of having the villain narrate his story to the audience is raunchy and creative, but Scorsese totally forgets that it is supposed to be ironical. The premise of the black comedy is that we’re supposed to laugh at how vile and putrid these people are. But by the nth orgy scene, the characters are matted into two dimensions and we never get beneath the surface. The morality play tips over to the other side and it mistakenly justifies itself. Just because this a tale about self-indulgent shallow people doesn’t mean we have to tell their story in a self-indulgent shallow fashion.

The bad taste left in my mouth at the end is not the film’s self-indulgence, but out of worry that The Wolf of Wall Street is so unclear about its cautionary message, that there are certain viewers that will admire this lifestyle and become inspired to become a stock broker. For the rest of that find the Belfort character repugnant will feel empty wondering what justified the three-hour running time.

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Tom Yum Goong 2 by Prachya Pinkaew

Tom Yum Goong by Prachya Pinkaew

 

Tom Yum Goong 2 marks Tony Jaa’s return since his announced retirement after the failed Ong Bak 3 and living life as a Buddhist monk. The sequel to 2005’s Tom Yum Goong has Kham’s elephant Khon is kidnapped once again by an evil organization that plans to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana to kickstart a coup. As flimsy as that plot sounds, it is the least of its problems.

By incorporating special effects and stereoscopic 3D into the film’s action scenes, Pinkaew forgets its major visual effect, namely Tony Jaa himself. The action is haphazardly cut with an embarrassingly huge amount of spatial jumps and tight close-ups that do not match, as if there was not enough usable footage. Many times the viewer enters the action after the first hit has been made. Apparently there were five editors on the project, what happened?

Tony Jaa is at not in his peak physical form, and the film seems to be hiding it from the audience. He is not as fast or hard-hitting as he once was. Jaa’s choreography is restrained, for most of the group fights he just seems to be dispatching people aside as quickly as possible. And the whole time, I was waiting for Jaa to show off. Everytime Ja whips out the elephant boxing style, a style that he and fight choreographer Panna invented for the previous film, are some of the film’s most exciting moments. Sadly, there is very little of it.

Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate is unfortunately sidelined, she occasionally shows up to help Tony Jaa and vice versa, but otherwise there is little interaction between them. Clumsy cop comic sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao gets some nice lines in but as seen in the first Ong Bak his strengths seem to lie in physical comedy, which he does not get to do here. The stunning Rhatha Phongam from Only God Forgives also makes a decent femme fatale, but the overabundance of supporting characters and a political assassination plot weighs everything down as the film takes on more than it can handle. Why does it have to be so complicated? Man loses elephant. Man goes and retrieves it, end of story!

RZA, together with his film The Man with the Iron Fist and self-proclaimed love of martial arts films, is forging a reputation to being a kung fu film staple. His casting as the villain is cashing in on that particular geek sheik. Atrocious acting aside, watching RZA sharing an onscreen fight with Tony Jaa had me rolling my eyes. RZA movie fights just fine, but does anyone buy him gaining the upper hand on Ja?

Speaking of which, Marresse Crump, who plays the lead henchman, is a great onscreen fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Jaa. The first fight between Crump and Jaa had me pumped, and their last fight on a train track was the type of creative set piece I was expecting to see. Both fighters are capable of more complicated choreography but the choreographers held back with their fight. The fights always seem to be over before the audience can properly enjoy them. The first Tom Yum Goong had a video game boss level-like approach with its action sequences that kept topping each other in terms of scale and insanity, which was made it entertaining and hilarious. There is nothing to that equivalent here.

The best Prachya Pinkaew film is still Chocolate, as it had a neat creative angle and managed to incorporate its action in telling an emotional story coherently. Tom Yum Goong 2 just seems oddly distracted and unconfident about what it wants to be. 

Police Story 2013 by Ding Sheng

Police Story 2013 by Ding Sheng

 

Mainland Chinese police Captain Zhong Wen tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Miao Miao in a bar, which is interrupted by a group of criminals taking over the bar, turning it into a hostage situation.

It must be said that the anticipation for a Jackie Chan film has changed over the years. Chan himself had announced in last year’s Chinese Zodiac 12 to be his last film with major action in it. We cannot go in expecting to be wowed by death-defying stunts or exhilarating fight choreography anymore. Instead of fights, he has chosen to switch into the dramatic.

Police Story 2013 is not a continuation of the original Police Story series, the title is in name only. Chan’s character Zhong Wen is not Chan Ka-Kui, Jackie Chan’s Supercop character from the original Police Story series. Zhong Wen is not hotheaded, not prone to solving conflicts with violence or even a great hand-to-hand fighter. The only similarity both characters share is their whole-hearted belief of the law and their obligation to do the right thing. Otherwise, Zhong Wen is a dramatic character exploring themes of old age and dealing with the consequences of being a poor father, and therefore it is a role that the older Jackie Chan naturally fits into. In comparison to Chan’s dramatic turns in The Karate Kid remake and The Shinjuku Incident, this performance is the most honest.

The fights, which are not choreographed by the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, are shot close and choppily edited. And sadly, there are not that many of them. For Jackie Chan fans that are hungry to watch a good fight or a stunt will be disappointed. Originally there were not going to be any fights in the film.

Director Ding Sheng, who previously worked with Chan on Little Big Soldier, constructs some tense moments and keeps the audience guessing with red herrings. Liu Ye plays the villain in true scenery chewing fashion, the cat-and-mouse game between Liu and Chan is the price of admission. Jing Tian, having been played the most annoying female police officer in Donnie Yen’s Special ID earlier this year, fares much better in a more fleshed-out role. I’m curious to see what part she will play in the upcoming Chow Yun Fat-Wong Jing God of Gamblers rehash From Vegas to Macau.

As for the hostage situation itself, the bickering hostages are very annoying and it begs to question how they would be able to yak on the way they do without risking execution. The final reveal in the mystery plot is pedestrian, as one would expect a more epic conflict. Immense effort has been made to shift things to a ground level and while it succeeds at creating a gritty realism, it works against the film in terms of payoff. With a back catalogue full of dangerous stunts and action scenes, who could imagine a Jackie Chan movie made so humbly and low-volume?

Police Story 2013 ultimately is an incidental addition to the Jackie Chan canon and does not hold a close candle to the original Police Story series -though much better than the awful New Police Story-, but I did not expect it to be either. It was entertaining for its running time, but I won’t watch it again. The 3D is a shameless cash grab as minimal design has been put in and it is counter-productively dulling down its colorful cinematography. Overall the average Jackie Chan fan might be happier to see it as a rental. Nothing here is worth being angry or disappointed over.

You might be thinking, why am I being so forgiving? Why am I giving Police Story 2013 a pass? The answer: I am not ready to live in a world without Jackie Chan movies in it.

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Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners by Denis Villeneuve

When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads. But just how far will he go to protect his family?

Prisoners has the strongest ensemble cast of 2013 and everybody brings their A game. Keller Dover is Hugh Jackman’s most raw and complex role yet, as Jackman plays Dover’s wavering belief of the justice system and descending morality to a realistic precision. Things get murky as Dover takes matters in his own hands on an unconfirmed suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) and traps himself between being desperate, angry and helpless.

Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a neck tattoo and facial tics, creates the realistically compelling Detective Loki. The character is a fascinating inward look to how police detectives conduct their investigations, interrogate suspects and how the job centers on being emotionally removed from the crime itself. Loki is even darkly funny at times because he is so distanced from the crime and committed to procedures that normal things seem outlandish to him.

Roger Deakins’s cinematography brings layers of shades into the perpetually cloudy and otherwise flat-looking suburbia. The moody atmosphere embodies a sinister undertone; whether the location is a forest, a kitchen or a washroom, it feels like someone is lurking behind the corner. Mirroring its main characters, the cinematography impressively supports the story with a growing sense of insecurity.

Denis Villeneuve directs ambitiously, as Prisoners juggles between being a character study of two families dealing with a kidnapping, a crime mystery plot and the theme of the institution versus the individual. Retrospectively, in total Alfred Hitchcock-coined  “refrigerator logic” terms, the film does not entirely deliver on all three. Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard’s characters do get sidetracked. The story thematically switches between whatever is the most interesting in the given moment, which in the moment is powerfully engaging.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller

 

Walter Mitty is a daydreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. But when his job is threatened, he takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.

I am typically not a fan of Ben Stiller’s comedy – whenever he dons a wig and plays a crazy character, it is one-note and awkward. Stiller fares best when he is a normal person reacting to an awkward situation, instead of being the source of awkwardness and the nebbish Walter Mitty character certainly plays to those strengths. Stiller’s other brand of ‘costume play’ comedy in the fantasy sequences is fortunately reduced to a minimal. Here he is at his most naturally charming and while Zoolander fans may disagree, but this is now officially my favorite thing Ben Stiller has directed and acted in.

Kristin Wiig is also naturally charming as Mitty’s love interest and gets to shine in a musical sequence where she does a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Sean Penn has a funny supporting role as artsy photographer Sean O’Connell, a role that smartly sources Penn’s trademark intensity for laughs.

The production design is impressive, with its visual compositions practically lifted from hardcover graphic design books and nifty editing transitions accompanied by cool looking fonts, which to some extent owes itself to Stranger Than Fiction. Stuart Dryburgh’s photography delivers a true sense of awe for New York’s urban cityscape and Greenland’s natural landscapes. The story reason is to make Walter Mitty look like an ant in a big world, but that overwhelming sense of the environment towering over man seeps over onto the audience.

The reality of the film’s own world is suspect, like the logistics of how an employee is able to leave work and fly off to a foreign country, or how big of a jerk the new corporate supervisor played by Adam Scott is being. None of this matters because the story is a fable after all. The viewer may feel in moments that they need to give the story the benefit of the doubt, and if that moment should occur, go along with it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is imaginative and humorously made, and even in its weaker illogical moments is ultimately compensated by its charm. The lesson of someone who realizes he is missing out on life by daydreaming is just darn compelling, and it is emotionally cathartic watching Mitty wake up.

Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

“Personal Tailor” is an unique business which specializes in allowing their customers to escape their day-t0-day life and live their dreams by staging specific scenarios that are tailored to meet their requests , no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, every client is able to “live the dream”.

It is a phenomenon how Feng Xiaogang has established himself as the voice of the people in terms of Mainland Chinese cinema. Nobody else that makes films as didactic and on-the-nose as he does and still be so loved and supported. His latest comedy Personal Tailor is a series of vignettes about its four employees taking on different clients and making their dreams come true. The clients include a chaffeur who wants to be an important authority figure, a schlock B-movie director who wants to learn the essence of good taste and a working class cleaning lady who gets to be rich for one day. The vignettes vary from farce, satire, the absurd and even sometimes the fantastical. Reality is out of the window but it is the fable-like quality that holds the piece together.

Longtime Feng Xiaogang leading man Ge You plays his classic comedy archetype, the swindler with the heart of gold. That character will never get old. Bai Baihe from last year’s hit Love is Not Blind and Li Xiao Lu from Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl are both charming and funny. Jackie Chan and Huang Bao Qiang also make small cameos to ease the investors, however neither should be a reason to see the film.

The star of the film is Feng Xiaogang himself, who in each vignette gives us his thoughts and commentary on topics like social class, materialism, rich vs. poor and reality vs. dreams. It is fun watching the four leads run around in costumes and trying to drive their client’s ambitions down so their business turns out a profit, but their characterizations are not developed. They are merely puppets to a Feng Xiaogang puppet show and only exist to deliver the director’s multiple messages. The heavy messaging has long been a trope of Feng’s films and it must be said that Personal Tailor is the most thinly veiled of all his works. If you haven’t seen any of Feng Xiaogang’s urban comedies, Personal Tailor may not be the place to start.

Lastly, the movie is too long. The segment where the team ventures out in the wild to apologize for man’s appalling crimes against nature is too far fetched and ‘tree huggy’ for my taste. Personal Tailor is by no means Feng Xiaogang’s best work and it probably wouldn’t have a very long shelf life after its Lunar Year theatrical release. For English speaking audiences, the film actually has good subtitles but its humor probably will be lost in translation. Even for Feng Xiaogang fans, this isn’t a movie to own in your Blu-ray collection. To them I say, go see it in theaters while it’s current and  get your laughs from the latest Feng Xiaogang social commentary. It is a sincere hopeful message, but for me, it’s still too didactic.