Wednesday, October 30, 2013


In 1985, freewheeling electrician Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) was diagnosed as HIV-positive at a time when AIDS was a still unfamiliar virus, untreatable and associated with queers and lowlifes. Also a drug-using sex fiend, the diagnosis should've came as no surprise to the rodeo-loving Dallas cowboy. He goes from denying his condemnation of only 30 days left to live, claiming there's no way he has the same disease as "faggots," to eventual panic, and then newfound resilience to stay alive and outlast his expiration date. "Dallas Buyers Club" encapsulates the true spirit of independent film and taking a grim subject matter head on is perhaps even more fun than one would imagine.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee ("Young Victoria") and his screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack have taken a complicated true life story and have finessed it into a supremely entertaining film, infusing humor without ever undermining key moments of drama. It moves along briskly and intelligently, educating while never condescending as we learn of the blockades and loopholes of pharmaceutical companies and the FDA. Woodruff, against all odds, pioneers this uphill battle against them after well-meaning doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner), tells him about AZT, the only drug case study restrictively available to the public.

After landing himself in a Mexican hospital where drugs combating AIDS are the norm, Woodruff gets the business idea to smuggle the drugs north and start selling to those in need. What starts off as a selfish idea for his own gain turns into a completely selfless act as Woodruff grows his Dallas Buyers Club business, offering $400 for a monthly membership which supplies unlimited access to alternative medications. The transformation from ignorant bigot to a man who experienced the frustration of being ostracized and honestly wanted to do something right is handled with such nuance and comes as no small feat from Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey shed not only more than 40 pounds for the performance, but he also shed his past persona of rom-com go-to guy, quickly becoming the new indie master with last year's "Bernie" and "Magic Mike" and this year's "Mud" and now this. He disappears in the role behind a physicality that is shocking. Likewise, 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto lost 28 pounds for his first screen performance in four years (since 2009's little-seen "Mr. Nobody"), and he's a powerhouse. As the slinky transvestite Rayon who becomes Woodruff's partner in crime, Leto steals the show.

"Dallas Buyers Club" peters off by the end of its nearly two-hour running time instead of going out with a dramatic wallop. But the entire film is buoyed by completely transformative performances from McConaughey and Leto that entertain, enlighten and will be rightfully recognized come awards time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Be careful, you are not in Wonderland.
I've heard the strange madness long growing in your soul.
But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation.
You, who have suffered find where love hides, give, share, lose,
Lest we die unbloomed.

Played by the versatile Daniel Radcliffe, who has officially escaped the bounds of his Harry Potter history, a young Allen Ginsberg recites this poem aboard a stolen boat with fellow ignitors of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). As much as the film is about these radicals, also including William Burroughs (Ben Foster), it's also a film about the secrets and desires that fuel the need to break away from the typical, to escape rhyme and meter, the status quo. For Ginsberg, that was as much about coming into his writing as it was coming into his sexuality.

The story is as much about Ginsberg as it is about the mysterious, seductive and alluring Lucien Carr who Ginsberg becomes fixated on. Lucien would eventually break from the group and demand his name be removed from "Howl and Other Poems" to whom Ginsberg dedicated it. The plot pivots around a scandalous murder, of Lucien's mentor and predator, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) who becomes frighteningly obsessed with Lucien throughout their arrangement of schoolwork in exchange for sex. Lucien was struggling with his sexuality, teasing Ginsberg, but accustomed to men like him having to lurk in the shadows, denying their true selves. This interplay between expression, sexuality and creating a movement is where John Krokidas' debut feature is most interesting.

The editing matches the trippy, freewheeling style of the Beats but also brings the film into misshapen tonal confusion. But again, the film's saving grace is the sordid romantic entanglement between Radcliffe's Ginsberg and DeHaan's Lucien. The former's yearning for the latter is expertly conceived, and it's how "Kill Your Darlings" transcends its subject material, capturing the fledgling state of any budding creative, a freshman at a prolific college where only the world stands before him.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man living in 1841 Saratoga, New York before getting kidnapped and sold into slavery, leaving behind his wife and children. He was well-educated, played the fiddle and was respected in his community before getting tricked into a two-week music gig in Washington D.C., which led him chained up against his will in the Deep South en-route to the slave trade and stripped of all freedom he ever knew. The eloquent director Steve McQueen documents this unsentimental, unflinching journey to hell and back, and it's certainly not easy viewing. But that doesn't make it any less essential viewing, a testament to film as art. "12 Years a Slave" is a perfect movie, an instant American classic.

Solomon is given the name Platt and sold to the mild-mannered Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) by a slave trader played by a brief but dastardly appearance from Paul Giamatti. Thrust into this cruel new world, the suffocation of helplessness experienced by Solomon is palpable. Ford turns out to be the most tame of slave owners Solomon encounters; the wild, hot-tempered Tibeats (Paul Dano) is the real threat on this particular plantation, tormenting the slave until he lashes out. Solomon gets strung up on a noose forced to wait for Ford's return. He sputters, trying to keep from choking while he hangs, his feet toeing at the slippery mud beneath him, the hot unrelenting sun beating down. Plantation life continues on behind him in real time as we watch him struggle.

It's a stunning singular long shot that encapsulates the director's style, drawing bleak beauty from the ugliness of humanity. McQueen is very much an auteur. It's bold and brilliant filmmaking, aided greatly by an equal parts blistering and moving score from Hans Zimmer and cinematography from Sean Bobbitt who doesn't let audiences off the hook, creating images they soon won't shake. The film lingers on moments much longer than other directors might, including both scenes of quiet reflection and grueling torment.

Solomon's next slave owner is the incarnation of evil, Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose soul has corroded away as he justifies the abuse of his slaves through scripture. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is no better, whose violent jealousy toward slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) leads to her prolonged mistreatment. A borderline unwatchable scene has Epps lashing Patsey until her back is shredded, even making Solomon partake in the cruel act against one of his own. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is forced to carry the burden of the film's atrocities as Solomon Northup in a flat-out Oscar-worthy performance. The supporting cast all astounds, too, especially Lupita Nyong'o embodying Patsey's howling pain. And there are no words for Michael Fassbender who digs deep into himself to create a man controlled by his society's unrighteous ways.

Solomon Northup's memoir was published in 1853 and has been adapted here by John Ridley. In the simplicity of the storytelling, the screenplay commits poetry to the screen. There's a happy ending of the once free and then enslaved man returning to his wife and children after a chance encounter with Canadian abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt). But it's not the happy ending Hollywood would have; it's somber and permanently stained with the thought of those men and women Solomon leaves behind to the torment of their captors, the ones who will never know freedom to begin with. It's a chilling parable, capturing the darkest hour in our nation's history. This is the best film of the year.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


"Captain Phillips" is very much a Paul Greengrass movie, and it's very much a Tom Hanks movie. This  makes it a certified awards movie. But is it a great movie? Not so fast.

It's hard to imagine anyone else at the helm of this film, the true life story of Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship in 2009, the first act of its kind in two hundred years. It is real world recreation and documentation of a tragic event as was Greengrass' "United 93" in 2006. It also bears resemblance to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," a moment in American history that defined a world in flux and one person's turmoil at the center of it.

As Captain Richard Phillips prepares to embark on the MV Maersk Alabama to travel around the potentially dangerous horn of Africa, he talks with his wife (Catherine Keener) about a changing world, a landscape his son has to grow up in. Cut to a team of Somalians whose own world is in economic ruin as they set off to plunder millions from the cargo ship. Instead of plumbing any real world complexities, Greengrass sticks to the facts taking a very businesslike approach. It's a perfectly calculated dramatization of a real life incident with clear depiction of the "what" without the intrigue of the "why." Even with all that shaky cam to get a rise out of viewers, it still strangely feels once-removed.

Making preparations on the ship, Captain Phillips is calm and regimented, careful and professional. And when an ominous, fast-approaching blip appears on his ship's radar, he keeps his cool and gently affirms to his crew they might be entering a troubling situation. And when any bemoaning arises, he knows exactly when to firm up. Watching Tom Hanks melt into the role is absorbing in the film's early stages and affirms his movie-star presence, anchoring the proceedings. When the Somali pirates make their way aboard the ship, led by the determined Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Phillips maintains his levelheadedness, reasoning and negotiating with the attackers while keeping as much understanding as he can muster.

It's when Phillips gets taken hostage into the ship's lifeboat that the film pigeon-holes itself into a pressure cooker of tension and impending violence. The camera holed up inside this cramped space creates intense claustrophobia and startling immediacy. Refusing to surrender when the Navy descends on him and his team, Barkhad Abdi gives a commanding first-time performance as Muse. Waiting for the inevitable outcome, however, goes on for nearly too long, and it becomes apparent there simply isn't enough content to justify the 134-minute running time.

It all comes back to Tom Hanks whose performance should be recognized by the academy. The last ten minutes of "Captain Phillips" is what people will leave talking about, a moment of wrenching emotional clarity. Phillips, the ordinary man who came out the other end of a tragic event as a hero is still completely human and can finally break down, evacuating all of his bottled up fear and vulnerability. It feels more than earned; it's just too bad we had to wait so long to receive such greatness.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


What more is there to say about "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuaron's diamond of a film? It is a masterpiece, boldly announcing the future of cinema and literally like nothing else we've seen before in the history of the medium. It rewrites the rules right before our eyes, managing to show us something that makes the power of filmgoing awe-inspiring all over again. It thrills us, challenges us and is hands-down one of the most visceral and stressful 90 minutes you'll ever experience.

In an age where we consume media everywhere but inside a movie theater, Cuaron's harrowing space journey demands audiences back. One of the film's greatest features is simply existing as a film that must be viewed in a large-screen format in a dark room with a full audience. The power in the filmmaking, especially the stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (of Cuaron's "Children of Men" and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"), is that it literally transports audiences into space with the characters. For once, 3D feels necessary for a film. Even better than the milestone-setting "Avatar" and then "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Life of Pi" to follow, it's undeniably suitable to the zero-gravity setting where traditional horizontal and vertical planes are rendered irrelevant creating a free-standing inky black landscape.

Speaking of "Avatar," that is the easiest comparison in terms of groundbreaking visual landmark. James Cameron was a large supporter of Cuaron during the early stages of this film, a whole seven years ago back when the technology used to make his project wasn't even invented yet. "Gravity" is also a movie about impossibility. A bleak phrase appears on the screen before the first shot begins: "Life in space is impossible." Years ago, this film was impossible. And going back further decades ago, space travel was impossible. Cuaron dares us to see what impossible can achieve.

It all starts with a gorgeous 17-minute shot that establishes medic Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in the vast expanse of space inside their suits on assignment to repair Hubble. "You can't beat the view," Kowalski says, gazing down at the blue earth. He's not kidding. That is until a storm of catastrophic debris destroys their spacecraft and sends them adrift with no easily feasible way of getting back home. Terror sets in for both them and us.

Though epic in scope, Cuaron's film is simple at its core. It's about high-powered technology going wrong, like a shipwreck movie in space. (Which is curious because Robert Redford's literal shipwreck movie "All Is Lost" comes out later this year.) Apart from the visual wonderment, the sound design in "Gravity" is equally astonishing: the contrast created from loud, overwhelming bass crescendoing into absolute, pure silence. And even the sound from the perspective of the characters where voices come through over radio and the muted thumping of all other sounds, it's like we're right inside the suit with them.

The dialogue is one thing of note. Why is Kowalski so jokey and chipper? Why is Ryan egging herself forward with motivational cliches? Because if not for their own voices, there is only stark silence. It's that terrifying thought of loss of self and affirming one own's tiny existence in the universe that establishes Cuaron's humanism. For any step into sentimentality, however, there's a constant undertone of existential dread. There's really only so much that can be said about "Gravity" because here's a film that says it all for itself. Never have the words "you have to see it to believe it" meant more. Go see it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

DON JON Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon" is not a romantic comedy, and it's not even a movie about porn addiction. And saying such is a testament to Gordon-Levitt as an emerging writer/director who has delivered a debut that is weird, funny, confident, intelligent and, most impressive, blasts onto the scene with something to say. What it is: a movie about finding human connection in a world where media has skewered our view of relationships and how we find meaning in each other. 

Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the epitome of the modern day Don Juan. He's a beefed up New Jersey guy dedicated to what's most important in his life: his boys, his girls, his family, his church, his body, his ride and his pad. And then his porn. Even though he has no trouble landing a girl every time he goes out, his real sexual thrill is still at the click of a mouse. The way Jon dishes out why is a riot: the blow jobs, the positions, the money shot. It's graphic but never gratuitous, and the frenetic way porn clips are edited together shows absolute control over a highly slick and stylized production.

From the music to the camerawork, every directorial decision is apparent in Gordon-Levitt's vision, and that's without even mentioning Gordon-Levitt the actor. He's great. The film follows Jon as he goes about his days, very set in his routine. The repetition is blatant -- down to the detail of shots showing him walking to the gym and bounding up the church steps are exactly the same every time -- and a stylistic choice but also acts as a hindrance to the film's narrative which itself becomes repetitive. Even when Jon meets the bombshell Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) who he swears will change his life, he keeps up his routine, which includes rampant porn consumption.

His parents (Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) are thrilled that his boy is finally growing up, but silent sister Monica (Brie Larson) isn't convinced. Don't miss Larson in the fabulous "Short Term 12" because here she's only given the job of one line, but it's one ripe with truth and insight and drives home Jon's ultimate self-revelation. There's also an older night school classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), breaking him out of his mold. At first she annoys him, but they gradually begin to bond. Their scenes are the movie's most naturalistic and moving and for good reason. Moore is outstanding as always but also feels slightly miscast. As "Don Jon" plugs along in its cyclical scenes of gym, church, porn, repeat, it's hard to decipher how Esther and his relationship fall into place. Just as you reach the brink of wondering what's the point, it hits you like a ton of bricks.