Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Dallas Buyers Club" Review

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician from Dallas, Texas who discovers he's contracted HIV. Doctors give him 30 days to live. What ensues is Woodroof's seven-year struggle against, not only his disease, but the malpractice of doctors and the FDA (In the film, the drugs required for proper HIV/AIDS treatment were not legally sanctioned by the United States government.) To fight back, Woodroof smuggles the necessary drugs across international borders and opens a "buyers club" - afflicted members could gain access to as much treatment as they needed, without a prescription, as long as they paid their $400 membership fee.

That's chump change when it comes to saving your own life.

DBC has been heralded as one of the top films of 2013, and I think that's a reasonable judgement. This is a stellar film with an intriguing story that's bolstered by knockout performances from Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, co-manager of Woodroof's operation and fellow AIDS patient.

Continuing a strong 2013 track record that includes memorable performances in Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street, McConaughey gives the finest outing of his career in Dallas Buyers Club. His role as Woodroof required that he lose 45 pounds, which means that the once beefy beach bum with a special place in the hearts of women around the world is nowhere to be found in this film. But it's a perfect role for McConaughey because the character matches the actor's nuances perfectly. By night, Woodroof is a rodeo cowboy, so McConaughey still maintains a bit of that gruff, wild-west swagger he's always been known for.

In his role as Rayon, Leto reminds us that he can do more than just sing. The 30 Seconds to Mars front man hasn't made a feature film in at least four years, and this rivals his turn in Requiem for a Dream as his best role. It's no easy task showing up to work in drag every day, but Leto pulls it off with a feisty, nuanced, emotionally arresting performance. He has been earning recognition for his performance from the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with SAG and Golden Globe awards, respectively, for Best Supporting Actor. Leto also has an Oscar nomination for his role as Rayon.

I liken Dallas Buyers Club to fellow Oscar nominee 12 Years a Slave based on the fact that both are sturdy, well-acted stories that submit their characters to some of the most trying circumstances that any human being should ever have to face. Both are such emotionally taxing films that I can't see myself rushing back to watch either one again anytime soon. You won't see me rushing out to the store on the first day to pick up these Blu-Rays. They're both amazing films; they're just difficult to watch. You won't find the entertainment value of, say, a Gravity or Captain Phillips here.

It's hard not to root for characters like Ron Woodroof in DBC or Solomon Northup in 12 Years because they're normal folks who find their lives changed for the worse in an instant. If these normal folks can't triumph over abnormal circumstances, who can we look up to? Everyone needs a hero, but oftentimes the most intriguing aren't the ones wearing a cape.


Friday, January 10, 2014

"Her" Review

If any filmmaker could make an audience buy into a story about a man who falls in love with his computer operating system, it's Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich). With his new sci-fi romantic drama-comedy Her, Jonze manages to do just that. He makes the most bizarre premise of the year work in a way that's profoundly original, yet feels like a place that anyone who's ever been in a serious relationship is familiar with. The conversations that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) has with his OS girlfriend Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) feel like talks I've had, or could have, with my own girlfriend. This is how Her earned my emotional investment and kept me entertained for two hours.

Aside from that, it's just a wonderfully written story from Jonze. At times, it's laugh-out-loud hysterical, especially when Theo plays a video game involving a vulgar alien companion. At others, the movie plucks ever so gently on your heart strings. Phoenix turns in another bravura performance, but what I liked more about his character in Her than his recent turns in movies like The Master or Walk the Line is that Theodore isn't an asshole. He writes handwritten letters for people to send to loved ones for a living. He's still a sad, melancholy man at times, but there's a sense of joy in his life that I found refreshing after watching Phoenix, for years, shout at his family and play several "lone wolf" characters.

Johansson, oddly enough, deserves an Oscar nomination even though she's never present in physical form. Her voice work as Samantha is astounding, and nearly makes the audience fall in love with her just as Theodore does. Together, the unlikely couple are a joy to watch and somehow manage to be relatable. I think that's why the story works so well. 

I was irked only on one or two occasions involving Theo & Samantha's sex life. I can't spoil anything, but I will say that if the idea behind the film wasn't odd enough, it gets uncomfortably weird in a couple brief scenes. Nothing that ruins the overall experience though. 

Her is a stellar picture that's poignant for our time as we search for what it means to connect with real people in an ever-changing world dominated by technology. This isn't just the finest romance of 2013; it's a perfect romance for the current state of the human condition.


"Inside Llewyn Davis" Review


This weekend marks the nationwide release of several big awards contenders that have previously been limited to small releases in other territories. Audiences everywhere can now see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, and Lone Survivor at their local theaters.

First on the list, for me, is Inside Llewyn Davis - the Coen Brothers' latest foray into black comedy and a movie I've been waiting months to see. It tells the story of a young folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), as he navigates the folk music scene of early 1960s New York.
Davis is one of the Coen's best, thanks to Isaac's star-making performance, a script riddled with the brothers' classic black humor, and another killer soundtrack from T-Bone Burnett.

This is the first I've seen of Isaac since 2011's Drive, which is another one of my favorites. As Llewyn Davis, Isaac reminds us of the tempestuous nature of the world and how different circumstances & experiences contribute to one's character. Oddly enough, he doesn't give us much to root for because, frankly, he's a bit of an asshole. Llewyn's story is told in such raw, simplistic, melancholy terms that it's hard to predict where exactly his life will take him, but that's all part of the appeal. It's not your classic "rags to riches" story.

Along the way, he meets a colorful cast of supporting characters, including an ex-flame (Carey Mulligan), her husband (Justin Timberlake), a crippled jazz musician (John Goodman), his mysterious, grizzled valet (Garrett Hedlund), and a hard-pleasing club owner (F. Murray Abraham).

The cast itself is remarkable, in particular, Isaac for the complex emotional range he displays in the lead role. I just had fun watching him exist onscreen because he always has something to say or do. Inside Llewyn Davis is as entertaining as any movie I've seen in the past year.

As for the soundtrack, frequent Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers) assembles another stellar roster of folk songs that, altogether, sound iconic. Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford & Sons, also boasts an associate music producer credit on Inside Llewyn Davis. These two need to work together more often.  

If you make it out to see Davis, and you really should, be on the lookout for some key plot devices. It may take a couple viewings, but I'm interested in determining the significance of the cat as well as the seemingly circular narrative. I think the cat, which Llewyn loses before the animal finds its way home, represents the title character as he struggles to find his identity  as a solo folk act before returning to play one more gig at home - the Gaslight Cafe. But the seemingly circular narrative might suggest a repeating routine in Llewyn's daily life. It's possible that he stays on the same couches in the homes of the same friends and plays shows at the same locations all the time, which is hinted at when Llewyn says "Au revoir" to a man in an alley. As suggested on the film's IMDb message boards, "Au revior" means "until we meet again," which indicates that he might've been beaten up before.

Inside Llewyn Davis is fraught with melancholy, but it's a beautifully-made treat that finds the Coen Brothers in their finest form in years.