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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Primer by Shane Carruth

Primer by Shane Carruth

Primer by Shane Carruth

Two friends, who perform scientific experiments as a hobby, accidentally discover a means of time travel.

If anybody has read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, you will know the workings of the Time Traveller’s time machine is never properly technically explained. The Time Traveller loosely explains his theory about time being a 4th dimension, pulls a lever on his time machine and is able to time travel forwards and backwards. That’s as scientific as the story gets. From a storytelling approach, like the exposition of the Frog DNA being the key to cloning dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, it’s important to give enough story information so the audience can suspend their disbelief but not too much or risk the logic collapsing itself.

Primer challenges this idea. Shane Carruth’s storytelling approach, much like his two main characters, is equally experimental. The realistic way he’s chosen to present the science is noteworthy. Is it more realistic than The Time Traveller pulling a lever to travel back in time? No. Because the science again is never explained in full detail. It’s the feeling of realism and science that’s put onto the story that makes it feel realistic. Many scientific discoveries in the past have been accidental and Primer puts the audience inside that drama through its two scientists Aaron and Abe. The technical jargon-heavy dialogue is probably as close to not having any exposition in a film ever. The effect is jarring because we don’t know what they’re talking about exactly. However, it refocuses on Aaron and Abe’s emotional reactions and that’s where Primer grabbed me. I believed that they were scientists and experienced their excitement and awe of their accidental discovery. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what will happen next.

I’m glad I didn’t see Primer in theaters, as the last 20 minutes of the film really test your brain power as an audience member. The story shifts into 4th gear and crescendoes into a finale. I had to rewind the last 20 minutes and rewatch it a few times to understand what was going on. For that Primer loses some points in my book because the film assumes that it’s okay for the audience to be lost in Primer, it accomplishes that for the first two thirds. Whether an audience member follows along the last third of the film will ultimately justifies Carruth’s story experiment. For me, it proves that as non-cinematic as it is filling your story with exposition, it is still a critical component to storytelling.

That said, I applaud Carruth’s experimental exposition-less approach to storytelling. I believe the completed film is 100% what Shane Carruth set out to make and the fact that he achieved his vision for 7000 U.S. dollars is impressive to me.

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!