Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Beating the Odds

Dallas Buyers Club is a resolute film about a crisis in one particular individual's life and how that man fought to save not only his health, but also his dignity. It's a bit uneven (especially in the latter stages of the film), but overall it's a vital work that's uncompromising in its look at the sadness and uneasiness of his immediate world.

The film takes us back to 1985 when the AIDS crisis first caught everyone's attention around the world, especially with the news that Rock Hudson was dying from the disease in a Paris hospital. In the midst of that, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) a heterosexual man in his 30s, is afflicted with the HIV virus, due in large part to his frequent sexual activities as well as the large amounts of alcohol and drugs that weaken his immune system. When Woodroof learns of his condition from his doctors, he vehemently rails agains them, stating that this is a disease that only affects homosexuals; in his mind, his doctors have mixed up the blood results as he can't possibly have this condition.

He's told that he has thirty days to live, but he's too strong and too stubborn to believe that, so he fights. Woodruff has been battling with others as a routine part of his life - he's not a model human being - so he's not about to back down when confronted with the biggest challenge of his life. He bribes a hospital employee for samples of the test drug AZT, but when that supply dries up, he drives to Mexico to acquire other drugs. He can afford it and soon sets up a buyers club for other AIDS patients, who are also trying to purchase medication.

Soon, Woodroof meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite also afflicted with AIDS. He needs medication and is willing to pay Ron whatever amount of cash for the drugs. Woodroof takes his money, but at the same time, makes fun of him and his cross-dressing ways. Yet he soon realizes that Rayon can help his business, as he can attract clients who are in desperate need for any sort of medical help. The relationship these two share is the core of this film and it's no wonder that the scenes these two actors appear in together are the most convincing and moving of this work.

Along the way, Woodroof learns that AZT may not be the wonder drug that the medical and pharmaceutical industries claim it to be, so he is able to find other medications that can at least provide a longer life for AIDS patients. During this part of the story, the FDA comes into play, as agents do their best to shut his business down for various reasons. This section of the film, though expository and somewhat necessary if only to learn of the struggles that Woodroof goes through in order to survive, is not as well directed as the first half. Here is where the film loses some of its steam, as we're witnessing another "man against the system" story. It's entirely watchable, but it's just not as fascinating - especially in cinematic terms - as the initial personal battles we see Woodroof endure early on.

Jean-Marc Vallée directed the film and he does so with an obvious empathy for the two main characters and their personal conflicts. There are some nice visual touches here, as when Woodroof is shown alone in the stands at a rodeo. He sees a rodeo clown appear out of a barrel and then, an instant later, Woodroof sees nothing- is this a dream or reality? This depiction of what is real and what isn't in Ron's life early on is fascinating to watch. It's a pity then that the film becomes more routine as the plot devices come to fruition. The film is just a few minutes under two hours and it clearly feels a bit long - trimming 10-15 minutes would have helped - but overall, the film is very good and is often excellent and I applaud the filmmakers' decision to make this an honest film, even though what we're experiencing may not be so pretty.

It's the performances of McConaughey and Leto that truly make this film shine. In the hands of another actor, the role of Rayon could have been high camp or an easy call for sympathy. Leto has to underplay his part here and walk a bit of a tightrope, as this is a character that could easily be viewed as a stereotype, with all the obvious baggage that comes along with the portrayal of such a character. We do feel for Rayon, especially as we learn more of his story, but these emotions are earned. Leto's performance is a gem.

As for McConaughey, this role is the latest in his recent decision to do more than merely get by on his good looks. He gave a charming, almost effortless performance in the underrated The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 and later that year gave a remarkable, chilling turn in Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin. It was while I was watching this film that I finally saw the potential McConaughey had promised early on and realized what a strong actor he really is. He has to be an S.O.B. for much of this film and he's totally convincing at that, but he's also marvelous when he has to tone his hate down and see the humanity of others. It's easily his best performance, one that's sure to earn him an Oscar nomination. If you told me three or four years ago that I'd be writing that McConaughey would be in the running for an Academy Award, I'd have told you that you were a bit crazy, so how nice that that actor has proven many of us critics wrong.

While Dallas Buyers Club in the final analysis is not as solid a film as I would have liked, it is a memorable one, an important one and an honest one. I'm happy with that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Rich Man

"All I ever wanted was a new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern)

Woody Grant lives in his modest home in Billings, Montana with his cantankerous wife June, yet you'd hardly call his time spent there a life - existence is more like it. He seems as though he has nothing to live for, but one day, he receives a document in the mail stating that he has been selected as the winner of one million dollars. This is one of those phony gimmicks by a clearing house to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody doesn't see that; all he knows is that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize and he'll get there, come hell or high water.

That's the plot device that sets Nebraska - a moving, endearing, whimsical and introspective film - in motion. Grant, in his mid-70s, knows he has to make this journey before his time runs out. It's just that his wife as well as his two sons David and Ross do everything they can to persuade him not to make the trip, as they know that there is no prize money for Woody. But given his stubbornness, he won't or can't see the truth, so Will finally agrees to drive him to Lincoln, if only to get him out of the house and stop driving his wife crazy.

As directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and written by Bob Nelson along with the unforgettable visuals provided by director of photography Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska is a look at the heartland of our country, as well as the meaning of love among family members as well as lifelong friends. The one million dollars that is supposedly out there is the MacGuffin that makes people do some strange things. When David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, he makes plans to stop along the way in Hawthorne, Nebraska, a small town where Woody grew up. This section of the film represents the meat and bones of the story, as we get to know the more about father and son as well as the townspeople and how they react to Woody, as they learn of his supposed good fortune.

During this adventure, Woody sees a tavern and decides to sit down and have a beer; David sits with him, but orders a soda, telling his father he doesn't much care for alcohol. "Come on, have a beer with your old man," says Woody. "Be somebody." David does and it's during this scene that we start to learn of the true relationship of father and son. Is the father proud of the son? Is the son embarrassed by the father? In a film filled with many moments of lovely observations about human flaws, this scene is one the most revealing.

As Woody, Bruce Dern is mesmerizing; it's been a long time since he's been given such a meaty role (Coming Home, 1978) and he handles it with a great understanding of who this character is. With a head full of unruly hair going every which way and a frazzled white beard combined with his deliberate, slightly off kilt walk, he just looks and feels old. We wonder about the sanity of such a trip and at times, it seems this quest may just about kill him. But for Woody, it's about making things right, whether that means arriving in Lincoln to claim his prize or settling the score with an old crony, Ed Pegram (beautifully played by Stacy Keach). Dern is pitch perfect here; how nice to see this veteran actor finally get a chance to shine like never before.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) is a memorable character, one who is going a bit awry trying to deal with Woody's unpredictable behavior. She makes no bones about what she'd like to see happen and is as direct in her feelings about her husband's condition as she is about her former lovers (there is a hilarious scene in a cemetery where she talks to the deceased in very frank terms about her body). Squibb, who had a small role in Payne's About Schmidt, has the time of her life with this role, yet she never overplays her hand; her performance lends a nice mix of bitterness and warmth to this film.

As mentioned previously, Papamichael's photography is a major strength of this film. At time beautiful (landscape images of cattle grazing in vast fields, cars moving along on interstates) and at times bleak (the scene where Woody and Will search for Woody's teeth along some railroad tracks is particularly arresting, as are the visuals of the near-empty streets of Hawthorne), the black and white images are ideal for the wistful mood of Nebraska. I think it's great that Payne had the courage to make a black and white film; his trust in Papamichael to deliver the proper visual emotions have been greatly rewarded.

I've admired Alexander Payne's films for many years now, especially the way his stories have such a nice mix of sweet and sour (often more the latter than the former). Nebraska to me is his finest work, both visually and organically. His world view - in this case a few small towns and their unique inhabitants and their dreams - has never been so fully realized and I've never been quite as delighted with the final product as I was when Nebraska came to its lovely conclusion.

For all of us who realize that becoming rich is more than just having enough money in the bank, Nebraska is a must see.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Masterful Look at Deception - A Sad Portrait of a Cheater

As I walked out of the theater where I saw The Armstrong Lie, I stopped to ask a gentleman who had also viewed the film if he could believe the story he had just seen. I didn't know this person, but I had to talk to someone right away about this experience; that's how strong a film this is. This gentleman, by the way, merely shook his head, confirming what I thought. 

The Armstrong Lie is the latest work of documentarian Alex Gibney, whose previous films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007); this last work was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary. Gibney is fascinated by famous individuals who lie; the common theme in these films is that power can - in the minds of these people - become such an overwhelming drive in their behavior, that they can't even recognize they are lying, or if they can, don't see their mistruths as harmful.

The story of Lance Armstrong - overcoming testicular cancer and then winning the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race seven years in a row - is well known by now. Of course, anyone who's familiar with this tale also knows that Armstrong was accused of cheating via doping and other means almost from Day One after his first victory in France. Armstrong was eventually stripped of his seven titles and himself admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfey that he did take illegal substances during these races.

It's a story that has dominated headlines almost around the world for the past decade and given the sensational nature of the details, I would think that any filmmaker with average talent could make a watchable documentary about Armstrong and his adventures. Thankfully, Gibney is far more than an average craftsman, as he has certainly become one of the most important documentarians in America, but also arguably one of the three finest (along with Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris). One of his strengths is taking a complex story, compiling all its elements and turning it into a very watchable film. That talent was certainly on display in Enron an it's a major strength of this multi-layered tale as well.

Gibney goes even deeper here, as he had access to Armstrong while all this was going on. The documentarian originally set out to make a film about Armstrong's comeback at the Tour de France in 2009; after having won the race every year from 1999-2005, he walked away. Yet his competitive nature drew him back a few years later; that and a desire to clear his name, as he told Gibney he was going to ride "clean," so no one could ever accuse him again of doping, especially if he won in 2009. However when the accusations became truths, Gibney had to abandon his film, at least as far as being about the comeback. Now his new film, after the rider admitted his transgressions in 2012, would be about the big picture - why did Armstrong cheat?

The centerpiece of the film is a brief interview Gibney filmed with Armstong five months after his appearance with Winfrey. The athlete admits, quite often, he believed in what he did was right "at the time" (he uses that phrase several times) and clearly seems at least a bit embarrassed by his previous actions. Yet he still maintains that he did not cheat, his reasoning being that if every cyclist in the Tour did things illegally (doping as well as blood transfusions), he fit right in - he wasn't violating any set of rules, at least in his mind.

The fact that Gibney trusted Armstrong - as did millions of people - puts a clever spin on the filmmaker's work, as he feels betrayed. So it becomes more than an objective piece of work - though in reality, what documentary can be 100% objective? - and is realized as a masterful telling not only of Armstrong's cheating, but also his despicable actions against his former teammates.

There is so much to admire in this film, not only in the way Gibney arranges this work to help the viewer understand all the components at work here (such as explaining how blood transfusions help a cyclist achieve a higher performance level), but also visually. There are images, both of the Tour de France as well as the Giro d'Italia - a race that takes place a few months earlier each year - that are simply beautiful. There is one shot taken with a long focal length lens of a man sitting with his family  in a field watching the riders race along; he waves a small flag and we are transfixed on that flag as the cyclists travel by in a blur. It's also neat to see his camera closeup during the actual race, as we see how close the public, lining the roads, get to the athletes; it must be a bit claustrophobic for the riders. We come away with a great feel for what it's like to watch as well as ride in this race. Yes, there are simple images of documents as well as straightforward interviews, but when Gibney fixes his cameras on the athletes, the film becomes beautiful; his compositions in this work are among his very best.

Gibney does balance out the film, documenting many things in Armstrong's life, from dramatic photos of him after his cancer surgery to scenes of him visiting cancer-ridden children in hospitals - the athlete seems genuine in his concern for the ill youngsters - so this is not a one-sided view of this story. But the filmmaker clearly feels for the many victims in this saga, especially one of Armstrong's former teammates, Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, who were treated as though they were lower than dirt after accusing the rider of injecting himself with a banned substance. Andreu's tale is a somber one and it shows how despicable Armstrong's actions were, as well as giving us insight into the power he once had; if Armstrong said that their accusations were worthless, we (at least most of us) believed Armstrong. It was the power he branded over others that may have been the worst part of this tale, Gibney seems to be arguing throughout much of the film.

This is an important documentary that goes far beyond telling this story; it's an examination of hero worship in America and around the world and it leads us to think about how we can be so easily deceived. Perhaps we need heroes so badly that we can't see clearly when they turn out to be flawed creatures. 

Alex Gibney has made an exceptional film, one that challenges the viewer far beyond the details of this saga. Terrific work, Alex!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Man and the Sea

All is Lost, the second film from J.C. Chandor, has a storyline as basic as time - survival at sea. We've seen stories of this nature before, but as far as I can recall, we really haven't seen this particular story before or at least not one told as well as it is in this remarkable film.

Robert Redford, still a physical presence at 77, is the sole character in this film; referred to as "Our Man" in the closing titles, he is maneuvering his small craft in the Indian Ocean on what we presume to be his attempt to sail around the world. He wakens one morning to see his boat has taken on water due to a collision with a shipping container that left a hole in the side of his craft; he repairs this as well as possible, but soon, the fierce nature of the sea is too much for the small boat and Our Man has to go it alone in a life raft.

That's the plot and yet much more happens, though I don't want to spoil it. What's marvelous about this film is how we watch this character adapt to a life and death situation; here is a man without a tiger (or other CGI creatures) for company, as in last year's Life of Pi. No, it's just Our Man against the sea. He could complain about his fate, but for the most part he doesn't, save for one well-chosen four-letter word.

That utterance, along with a short message he desperately tries to leave on a short-wave radio, are the only words Our Man speaks in the entire film (there is also a brief narrative speech that opens the film - we are led to believe that he is speaking the words he wrote in a note to his family/loved ones near the end of the film).

So while some have commented that this resembles a silent film, we do have the advantage of sound, which is beautifully handled, especially when it comes to the noise of the waves crashing against the boat and of Our Man battling his way underwater during a few critical moments. There is also a nice minimal score by Alex Ebert, who thankfully knew that a soundtrack can be quite effective when there is not music underlining the on-screen action (compare this score to the almost wall-to wall effort of Henry Jackman for Captain Phillips). These sounds - and silences - are crucial to the primal nature of the film and to our emotions watching this work. A big thumbs up to sound designer Steve Boeddeker and his team for their first-rate craftsmanship.

The work of the two cinematographers on this film - Frank DeMarco above water and Peter Zuccarini underwater - also add to the awe and wonder of this film. The success of their work is vitally important, as the action is limited to a very small space; technically, the photography is excellent - it's a beautiful looking film - and on an artistic level, the blues of the sky and the sea have a shimmering, yet haunting look to them.

Of course this film would not have worked had it not been for two other individuals; Redford and Chandor. The actor is perfect for this role, as he is a pillar of strength amidst potential disaster. Redford works beautifully with his hands - really his entire body here - giving us the certainly that he can handle this perilous situation; you just believe in him from the first frame he appears on screen. He is a model of self-confidence - he will do just enough to survive and if it means shaping a device to filter sea water to make it drinkable or learning how to use a sextant to read the stars, that's what he'll do.

Chandor directs the film with great fluidity, avoiding clichés and obvious moments. This is such a basic story in its nature and the director knows he doesn't need to trick things up. Watching this adventure is something of how-to manual of how to survive at sea and Chandor along with Redford's work help give this film its tone and shape. Interesting that Chandor's first film, Margin Call, was filled with dialogue, while this has less than 10 words spoken in the body of the film. While both films deal with an individual (or individuals) dealing with a crisis - Margin Call was about a specific problem at a brokerage house during the 2008 Wall Street mess - one could hardly imagine two more different films, visually and aurally from the same creator.

I also want to point out one particular image of great beauty and sadness, as we watch a flare that Our Man has lit as a signal to a passing commercial ship at night; the crew aboard this large vessel cannot see such a small figure up close, so as the flare falls to its descent on the left side of the screen, we see the ship sail away on the far right of the screen. Visually, Chandor has presented us with a beautiful composition, while emotionally, this is a shattering moment, both for Our Man and for the audience.

At times, existential in nature and at times religious, All is Lost succeeds on many levels, especially when it comes to putting the viewer into the midst of danger. This is one of the year's most singular - and finest - films.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Finding Pleasure among the Pain

Emile Hirsch (l) and Stephen Dorff 

The Motel Life - great title - is, at its heart, a film that honors the human spirit, especially when that spirit has been battered and bruised and more often than not, disappointed. Directed by Alan and Gabe Polsky with a script by Micah-Fitzerman Blue and Noah Harpster based on the eponymous 2006 novel by Willy Vlautin, this is an honest, poignant film that is among the year's finest.

The story deals with Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan (played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, respectively), two brothers in their 30s that live in a motel in Reno, Nevada. For most of their lives, they have learned to deal with the fact that their existence will not be paved with gold. Their mother died when they were teenagers and their father Earl (nicely played by Kris Kristofferson in a small role), has little time for them, as he manages a used car lot not far away. Jerry Lee had one of his legs amputated below the knee after an accident with a train when his brother and he were running away from home; Frank, sensing the helplessness of Jerry Lee, has traded in many of his dreams for a life of caring for his brother. 

Without giving away too many plot details, I can tell you that Jerry Lee is involved with a fatal accident; he tells Frank about it, but their decision is to not admit to anything. Jerry Lee becomes more worried and despondent, while Frank decides to drink even more than he usually does, if only to ease the moral pain of his choice.

The model of two brothers (or male friends) caring for each other has been the basis of several novels and films, from East of Eden to Midnight Cowboy. In fact, there are times when the harsh realities forced upon the two brothers remind us of Ratso and Joe in the latter film. Yet, this is a more subdued, more introspective story, realizing many more quiet moments of reflection. At one point, Jerry Lee asks Frank "what woman is going to make love to a man with one leg?" It's moments like this one that are among the film's most perceptive.

The primary emotional release for the two brothers is a marvelous device - Frank tells Jerry Lee wild stories from his imagination, dealing with slightly crazed dreams about gorgeous women who will do anything to please them as well heroic tales of them as fighter pilots and even one far-out tale about a cross-dressing captain on a pirate ship. As Frank tells his brother the details of these stories, the screen comes alive with animation of the incidents; the stark gray and black and white drawings (by Mike Smith) draw us into the psyche of the brothers. Clearly the dreams - or are they nightmares? - are escapes from their everyday troubles. 

I love the fact that the stories are so absurd in their nature with such vivid imagination of guilty pleasures, as these two have such a troubled existence. The more despair the brothers feel, the film seems to be saying, the more extreme the release exemplified by the dreams must be. It's a nice understanding of how these characters survive their seemingly drab existence.

I say "seemingly drab" as actually the two brothers are rich in terms of their shared humanity. This is in part a love story between the brothers with absolutely no homosexual overtones. They merely love each other as brothers do, devoted to seeing that the other is rewarded with some sort of pleasure in his life, no matter how small. There's a beautifully realized scene in a motel where Frank has to help Jerry Lee take a shower, and Jerry Lee, slightly embarrassed says to Frank, "I'm naked in front of you." "It's alright," replies Frank. Simple and honest emotions - these are what The Motel Life is all about.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give this film is that never sinks to a level of pathos. It might have been easier to make this film a tear jerker, complete with a soundtrack with weeping strings (thankfully, David Holmes' score is subdued and minimal in its nature). The intelligent screenplay along with the straightforward, uncomplicated direction by the Polskys assures the humanity of this film. The writers and directors never once ask the audience for their sympathy; we're not asked to feel sorry for the brothers, merely we are asked to become involved in their lives and hope for some sort of small exit from their troubles. Perhaps in this age of pop psychology, the filmmakers could attract a larger audience by taking the easy way out, so I give them high marks for making an honest film that rewards an audience that wants to watch an intelligent human drama that can affect viewers without underlining the emotions on the screen.

One final note about this film; the performance of Stephen Dorff as Jerry Lee is nothing short of amazing. There's a weariness and confusion about his character that is seen in his face and heard in his voice, yet there's also a nice sense of joy that emerges, whether it's simply drinking a can of beer or petting his dog. This is a young man who understands that his days are numbered, one who at times feels sorry for himself, yet he loves life. It's a beautifully written character and Dorff presents us with a fully realized portrait of this individual. 

This is so far removed from the super-hero, comic book explosions that have hit the screens in recent years. How nice that The Motel Life gives us a particular slice of a few lives that draw us in to a world that many of us can understand - after all, most of us have disappointments that we have to deal with from time to time. I'm betting that enough people will make this film a success, not with huge box office figures to match Hollywood's megaproductions, but a success on a level the filmmakers are looking for, which is, "did we move people when they watched this film?" The answer for me is a resounding yes.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Life on the Border

"We lost our very first language that connected us all. We tore it apart into a thousand pieces. And in the madness that followed, we discovered violence, hate and finally, separation." - Narration from Purgatorio

Purgatorio, directed by Rodrigo Reyes, is a look into life on the US/Mexico border. At first, this may seem like another discussion of the immigration debate, but the film takes us much deeper into the lives of these people as well as into our souls as human beings, giving this film a depth far beyond mere politics.

This is the second documentary for Reyes, a native of Mexico, who lived in both his home land and in California as a youth, as his family shuttled back and forth. That experience, along with his studies in political science as well as his work as an interpreter - first at a hospital and now in the courtroom - has given him a unique viewpoint for making this film. You realize this is a labor of love and his message is how we are all human beings that need hope in our lives. The evidence in this film is that many along the border realize that a better life for them is only a dream, not reality.

Reyes deliberately takes this film beyond facts in an argument about whether or not the border should be open. He talks to poor Mexicans as well as one government official as well as a number of Americans that deal with this situation, one patrolling the border, another working on identifying Mexicans that try to cross illegally - or have died trying.

At no point does Reyes ever give the identity of any of these people; this is clearly not a public news approach to the problem. Reyes here wants to give us a snapshot of the times, yet does not want the film bogged down in details. I would imagine this approach will frustrate some looking for answers, but to me, this was a fresh and proper manner in which to get his message across.

A major strength of this film is the striking cinematography of Justin Chin, who gives us a broad palette of images ranging from a lovely seaside setting with the crash of gentle waves to the dirt and grime of a dump lined with the twisted metal of abandoned automobiles, many of which are ridden with bullet holes. The bright, sunny visuals are in stark contrast to the despair of many poor Mexicans that populate this environment; one man speaks of how his life is the same every day and how he believes he is already dead.

At one point of the narration (written and spoken by Reyes), he states that while it takes courage to leave your home, sometimes it takes more courage to stay. I would have liked to have seen Reyes go into more detail regarding this point. It's a valid one, but he skims over this. It's a criticism, but about the only one I have of this film.

As did John Steinbeck back in the 1930 and '40s, Reyes links animals with people; this conjunction is especially apt with the poor. Both Steinbeck in many of his works as well as Reyes in this film seem to be saying that some view the lives of the poor in the same way as a dog wandering the streets. Reyes takes things further here, as one of the sequences deals in depth with the mechanics of canine euthanasia, as we listen to a man who puts dogs to sleep (we see the machine that is the tool of death, but thankfully, any grisly details have been omitted). At first glance, this sequence seems unnecessary, yet upon reflection, it makes perfect sense here, as life and death are mere moments in one's existence - be it a man or an animal; our souls seem to have been beaten down by the system.

Purgatorio does not take the easy way out and for that Rodrigo Reyes is to be congratulated. It's a challenging and at times, a puzzling documentary that has scenes that don't necessarily flow smoothly from one transition to the next. Yet, thank goodness that the filmmaker has opted to challenge us. The immigration problem is one thing, but our existence with our fellow man is another far more diverse and troubling topic; Reyes wants us to never forget that.