American Made (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Executed with great style and energy by director Doug Liman, “American Made” becomes all the more baffling with each passing second as it tells the story of an airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who is recruited by a CIA case officer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures of enemy camps over South America. A quirky premise, one loosely based on a true story, quickly evolves into an entertaining dramatic thriller with both real stakes and enough nuanced comedic touches designed to release our astonishment only to build up again as increasingly tricky situations present themselves. It is for the curious viewer for the material demands the viewer to pay attention and have fun, too.
Cruise fits the role like a glove, banking in on his dependable charm to make the portrayal appear effortless or easy. But imagine a different performer in the role and realize that waking in Seal’s shoes is to traverse a minefield of traps; one wrong note is certain to disrupt the suspense of disbelief that the ace screenplay by Gary Spinelli establishes right from the get-go. While some may cite the fact that Cruise has played similar roles in the past, I argue that it is necessary to have such experiences because the role requires specificity, without leaning on well-worn clichés, in order to come across as believable.
I enjoyed that there is minimal character development. In a way, the story being told does not require it since it is meant to show a risky lifestyle or occupation, one that is not solely motivated by money or luxury but rather excitement and danger. Notice Seal’s reactions when he is about to get caught by authorities. The fear is there—but it is marginal. The realization that it is over and the growing disappointment inch toward the forefront. It is these moments that we get to see Seal not as a smuggler, or a husband, or a father but as a person with an addiction for thrill. Cruise delivers an intelligent performance.
The weakness of the picture, as colorful as it is, both in tone and how it looks, is its lack of willingness to dig more deeply in its supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife who knows something is up, Jesse Plemons plays the observant sheriff in a small town in Arkansas, and Caleb Landry Jones plays Seal’s brother-in-law. As the picture goes on, it becomes apparent that any of these three could have done more with their potentially interesting characters. During dramatic moments, Wright appears to have the emotional range to go head-to-head against Cruise. Plemons can give half a suspicious look and it communicates paragraphs. And Jones is such a wildcard that a slight change in body language can turn into a threat. While the material is indeed Seal’s story, it could have been more intriguing had there been more detail regarding the people who surround him.
I found it fresh that at times the film dares to invoke the look and feeling of a music video—certain to alienate viewers who expect a more mainstream way to digest a biographical crime film. Instead, the filmmakers choose to embody the thrilling but dangerous lifestyle of the subject rather than forcing an elegant or restrained tone that is so common within the sub-genre. This gamble pays off because while the content is not especially memorable, its sense of style, its levity, has a good chance of lingering on the mind.
Family, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
The Manzoni family are now the Blake family as they fall under the witness protection program. Fred (Robert De Niro) has snitched against a fellow Mafia and so he and his family are no longer safe in the U.S. They are assigned to live in a small town in Normandy where not much happens. It should have been easy to assimilate but the ways of the Mafia are ingrained deep in the bones of the Blakes. Though precautions are made, their identities are discovered eventually and a Mafia boss (Stan Carp) sends his henchmen to clean up.
The film works as an action-thriller but it flounders as a comedy. Given that it is supposed to be a hybrid of both, it never reaches a healthy balance so the experience is a great frustration. Coming into the picture, I had no idea that Luc Besson directed—and co-wrote—the material. And yet at the same time I was not surprised. The last twenty-five minutes is the best part of the picture—and majority of it involves building up the tension until the inevitable violence. It shows the efficiency of the Mafia when it comes to achieving a goal, why they are notorious.
It must have occurred to Besson and Michael Caleo that their screenplay is lacking a special spark. It is not at all funny. While the characters are supposed to be bored with their new small-town life, the movie is not supposed to be boring. There is a way of showing the dullness of the every day without necessarily being dull. Each member of the family gets his or her own subplot but all of them have little heft. Their quiet desperation is not communicated in an effective manner.
Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) frequents a church to deal with her guilt. Belle (Dianna Agron) falls in love with her substitute math teacher. Warren (John D’Leo) deals with the politics in his school. Fred wants to write but he is not allowed to write what he knows—Robert (Tommy Lee Jones), a supervisor of the program, makes sure of that. A lot is going on but not one is particularly engaging or compelling. I never once believed that the characters are a real family. Things happen but I found myself not caring.
In fact, I found one of the subplots to be quite cheap. A minor having sexual relations with an adult and we are supposed to buy that at least some aspect of it is romantic? While the subject can be interesting in a different film with much more intelligent or insightful screenplay, it comes off desperate here. It feels like the writers had run out of ideas and so they came up with this schoolgirl crush thing that does not make any sense whatsoever.
Based on a novel by Tonino Benacquista, “The Family” is almost devoid of inspiration. A month from now, perhaps the only moment I will remember from the picture is DeNiro watching Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” because the joke, while obvious, is on point. I certainly wished I was sitting through that movie instead.
Curse of La Llorona, The (2019)
★ / ★★★★
For a supernatural entity specific to Mexican folklore, it is astounding that “The Curse of La Llorona,” written by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, is decidedly content in delivering vanilla jump scares that can be found in other equally generic and exhausting modern horror pictures. It is an excellent example of how difficult it is to pen a genuinely scary or creepy story; take away the sudden deafening noises, shrill screaming, and over utilized CGI, all there is left is desert-dry boredom in which characters run around without much purpose. It is insulting and a waste of time.
We are asked to relate with a family whose patriarch, a cop, had recently died in the line of duty. Clearly still mourning the loss of her partner, Anna (Linda Cardellini) holds the fort by ensuring that her children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), continue a life normalcy. This deep sadness in the family ought to have been the very element that connects us to the material emotionally, but it proves uninterested in establishing a convincing human drama first. It is interested only in providing jump scares—which would not have been a problem had there been a higher level of craft or effort put behind each one. Instead, it is formulaic. Each beat offers no surprise. When the camera pans around the corner, it is easy to guess whether the scene is setting up a false alarm or yet another assault to the eardrums.
The appearance of The Weeping Woman is neither memorable nor scary. She has black hair, dressed in a white gown, and is well-known for drowning her two children after she learns that her husband left her for a younger woman. Her face, so computerized that it is laughable more than menacing, is shown on glass and mirrors, at times drenched in shadows. Nearly each time she is shown, I caught myself flinching at how awful her face looks, quality-wise. Would it have been too much of a bother to create a scary appearance using only cosmetics? The irony is that although the ghost is supposed to be dead, putting some life or tactile quality about the face would have made this figure more terrifying. I found her look to be as lazy and uninspired as the screenplay.
Its numerous attempts at injecting humor most often lead to a deafening thud. There is a character introduced more than halfway through the film, a former priest (Raymond Cruz), who agrees to help free Anna and her children from La Llorona’s terror. The would-be jokes are so out of left field that they take away tension rather than amplifying them. Laughter should turn into gasps of horror, or vice-versa, but in this case, it is simply cringe-inducing. Once again, the writing is at fault. It does not bother to establish that Rafael has a playful personality. So when he cracks jokes involving eggs, for instance, it is simply awkward. At times we feel as though such scenarios do not belong in the film.
“The Curse of La Llorona” is directed by Michael Chaves, but I wondered if he did so while half-asleep. Filmmakers in control of their first feature usually exude a level of enthusiasm so effervescent, so over-the-top, their fervor floods the picture, for better or worse. Here, I felt as though he was not passionate or did not care at all about the project. There is not one unique shot, not even one genuinely terrifying scene that is worthy of being labeled horror.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is true that a film can be savagely historically inaccurate but still remain entertaining. A good example is “Mary Queen of Scots,” based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy and written for the screen by Beau Willimon, proud—as it should be—of its endless parade of beautiful imagery despite monarchs becoming increasingly miserable throughout its duration. Those seeking for a history lesson, or reminder, should opt to sit through a documentary instead because the picture wishes to present political intrigue first and facts second. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The work is propelled by strong performances: Saoirse Ronan as the titular character who returns to Scotland following her husbands death whose goal, she claims, is to bring peace to her home country. At the same time she hopes to reclaim the throne from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England and Ireland. The latter is played by Margot Robbie and it is quite fascinating that although she is on screen far less than her counterpart, she nails every scene with verve and bravado—as expected from consummate performer. On the other hand, Ronan’s face is nearly in every scene but her overall sense of being is so luminous that I could not get enough of it. She is so regal not just in the way she stands, or walks, or talks but also in the way she breathes and pauses, how she looks at another depending on the gravity of a scene.
The premise hints at a war between Mary and Elizabeth, but I enjoyed that the material is willing to go in surprising directions. Although it leans toward Mary’s camp—appropriate given that the story is about her beauty, youth, bravery, and fierce intelligence—Elizabeth is not painted as a monster. Instead, it makes a point that she, like Mary, is a tragic figure. She is called a queen but in many ways she is a prisoner of her kingdom, her people, and her own expectations. We see Mary and also Elizabeth but the latter is perceived through the scope of a broken mirror. It is amazing that the subjects appear on screen only once but a good amount of drama is excavated nonetheless.
I found it curious that not once did I feel sorry the two women—which I think may be one of the points that director Josie Rourke wishes to come across. Melodrama is kept at a minimum; when sad occurrences unfold, the score, for the most part, is not there to manipulate our emotions. There is an air of detachment, a matter-of-fact telling of what happened. I do think, however, that we are supposed to appreciate the cousins’ desperation, whether it be to prove themselves worthy of the power they are handed (or claimed) despite and because of their gender.
Notice the more uncomfortable moments when men of lower rank address their queen as if she were a common whore. These are moments when we are jolted into paying attention. At times the women’s restraint is admirable; we become convinced that they have had considerable experience in leading their nations prior to the timeline of this particular story.
“Mary Queen of Scots” requires patience and an open mind. Its pacing is deliberately slow but effective—until the final fifteen to twenty minutes when it rushes to finish line for no compelling reason other than to meet the two-hour mark. I would have preferred a work closer to two-and-a-half or perhaps even three hours as long as it is able to maintain its rhythm and momentum. When unhurried, I was most invested in its world of political chess.
Come Undone (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) has been living with her boyfriend, Alessio (Giuseppe Battiston), for quite some time. After Anna’s sister gave birth, Alessio tells Anna that he is ready to start a family with her. There is something about this confession that shakes her. The prospect of having a baby serves a wake-up call that maybe she does not want to stay in a relationship with him. Soon enough, Anna meets Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino), a married man with kids. He gives her his phone number, she invites him for coffee via text message. Every Wednesday, they meet up and act on their feelings for one another.
“Cosa voglio di più,” based on the screenplay by Silvio Soldini, Doriana Leondeff, and Angelo Carbone, seems like yet another relationship drama about two people who decide that it is worth cheating on their romantic counterparts, but this finely crafted film offers something different. Although its characters are almost unsympathetic because they are allowed to be selfish, they are relatable because the writing focuses on their fears–the fear of getting caught as well as the fear of making a choice and risk losing it all.
I liked that the cast is not composed of performers with typical Hollywood looks. For instance, Rohrwacher is rather plain-looking, Battiston happens to carry extra weight, and Favino looks really exhausted. Their willingness to throw vanity out the window and play these characters as real people that one can grab from the streets is most commendable. But this does not suggest that their characters are pedestrian. Each of them has a personality, a motivation, and a point of view. I wished that Miriam (Teresa Saponangelo), Domenico’s wife, had been given more to do other than to suspect that her husband is seeing another woman.
Appropriately, Anna is the most complex character. When the camera zooms in on her face, we recognize that she needs something sexually that her boyfriend does not or cannot provide her. But her needs are not limited to things that must be done in the bedroom. We can tell how bored she is not only in her job as an accountant at an insurance firm. She goes home and it is even more unexciting. About half of their so-called interactions, we see Anna and Alessio sitting on the couch and watching television. Having an affair breaks the ennui.
In its own way, the picture is erotic at times. The writers are smart to tease us. Anna and Domenico do not simply go to a cheap motel upon their first meeting. When they do eventually, it is almost like a big sigh of relief that they finally cross the line. Interestingly, it is only erotic during their first time. As the story goes on, the picture shows more instances of them in bed while sharing each other’s flesh but, like a lot of relationships, their spark diminishes a little bit. There is an implication that maybe the attraction, in the long run, will not subsist. Their initial fears then turn into shame, guilt, and weighing the possibility of sticking with the affair just in case their new concerns prove to be just another phase.
“Come Undone,” directed by Silvio Soldini, possesses a quiet danger brewing within its characters. Initially, some of us might feel annoyed by them or feel like they are unsympathetic for the sole reason that they are cheaters. Sometimes we get too caught up on the concept of monogamy being ssacred and we let an intelligent drama get away. The second half is strong because it is not just about the affair. It touches upon the ties that Anna and Domenico have with people that may get hurt because of it. That is one step further than most movies that are supposedly about real relationships.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
With such colorful roles under her belt, Elle Fanning has proven herself to be a performer whose career could span across decades—should she want it. In “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” she plays an alien named Zan currently in the body of a human in 1977 Croydon where punk rock is more than music, it is a way of life. She commands the role with such gusto, it is is near impossible not to look at her and stare at how she is in control of her entire being… even when the character, bizarre as she is, is apparently out of control. The story is strange and the plot quite obfuscated at times, but her star power anchors the material in such a way that it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on around her.
I wish I could say that the film were stronger because it contains many ideas worth exploring. Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, it touches upon why it is important that punk exists, what punk means to those who consider themselves to be a part of its community, and what punk might appear to be based on outsiders looking in. In addition, there are subplots that function as metaphors: being in control of one’s body, sexual awakening, becoming embittered by the passing of time, finding belongingness… All potentially fascinating but not easy to explore and weave together, especially in a comedy.
John Cameron Mitchell is no stranger when it comes to relying on sheer energy to entertain his audience. It works in the marvelous “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the uproarious “Shortbus,” but the approach is not as effective here. This is because, with the exception of Fanning, the performers are not memorable. For instance, even Nicole Kidman, portraying a manager of a local punk pub, gets lost in the shuffle. Observe closely and notice that, when next to Fanning, it feels as though Kidman is acting rather than embodying the role of a woman who is angry after the bands she helped to get discovered had failed to give her credit or, worse, forgotten her. This character ought to have been utilized more effectively in order to humanize some of the more outlandish elements of the picture.
It excels with the visuals. Aside from the psychedelic faux-intermissions that lean toward cheap instead of hypnotic, I enjoyed, for example, the cheesy clothing of the aliens because the performers who wear them commit. Notice how during pulsating dances, the music, the lighting, and the awkward camera movements aid the clothes to make a statement. An experience is created; it really feels as though we are in a gathering of teenagers who happen to be from another planet. Compare these images to the punk rock gatherings underground. At first glance, they may look worlds apart. But when one really thinks about it, these are parallel images, certainly conjoined ideas.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is endearing because it tries so hard to entertain. In particular, I enjoyed its willingness to touch upon obtuse humor instead of the usual double entendres. However, the material lacks substance—which it is obviously what it is going for during the final hour as it embraces more would-be heartfelt scenarios. I felt bored and annoyed by the melodrama. Perhaps it might have been a stronger work overall had it showed one party after another in which aliens, humans, and those in-between are simply having a blast.
White House Down (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Cale (Channing Tatum) snags an interview for a chance to become a part of the Secret Service but it does not go well. His record reflects that he has trouble committing to projects and seeing them through. It is also the day in which he and his daughter plan to take a tour of the White House. Emily (Joey King) is passionate about politics and it is exactly what they need to have the opportunity to bond especially since Cale missed her talent show performance. But something else is going on. Men disguised as blue collar workers surreptitiously gather inside the White House movie theater and await for a bomb to go off.
“White House Down,” directed by Roland Emmerich, is not an intellectual movie by any means but it is undeniably entertaining. Because the screenplay is willing to be goofy during the most unexpected moments as ludicrous events occur inside and around the White House, it is enthralling in its own way. More than once it proves that a well-placed attempt at a joke or a clever line is an effective distraction from the obvious clichés it embraces. Its goal is to deliver an escapist popcorn flick and it has the energy to match.
What I did not enjoy is the shallow earnestness of President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). One would think that since an ace performer like Foxx is at the helm, the character would have been written, or re-written, with more complexity from the moment we meet him. Is the president delivering syrupy speeches about America’s role in the war in the Middle East supposed to be a jab at liberals? If so, it is difficult to understand if it is supposed to be digested in that way because we do not know a thing about the character in order to make the necessary assumptions. Instead, he simply comes off silly—almost spineless—and I wondered how he got to be president in the first place. Sawyer is no Barack Obama.
The material picks up from the first explosion. The action sequences employ familiar quick cuts to evoke a sense of urgency but they are not done in such a way that it is difficult to tell what is going on exactly. There is a natural flow to the editing. Scenes that unfold in one scene offer various angles with accompanying cuts so we get a sense of place despite the flying bullets, pieces of wood, and broken glass. In addition, scenes that take place between two groups communicating via telephone are supported by dialogue that sounds urgent. The logic may not always connect but he flow to the editing is successful in creating the illusion that the thought processes are practical.
The villains actually work as a team for the most part. Though members of the group have different motivations, it is nice to see that the leader does not simply wait in a room and glare at his hostages while his henchmen do all the heavy lifting. Jason Clarke stands out as the lead underling named Stenz. Since we are given time to hate him for bit, the eventual hand-to-hand combat with the lead character is well-earned.
Though the two share a similar plot, “White House Down” exudes more joy than Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen.” The latter offers a few strong scenes but they are scattered among poorly-lit padding. With this picture, however, the energy is consistently positive. It invites us to have fun but at the same time it is not above having us poke fun at it.
★ / ★★★★
Nicolas Pesce’s bizarre dark comedy-thriller “Piercing” is a work that exists solely to test the patience. Its premise exhibits some promise: a man who wishes to murder his infant child books a hotel, goes on a business trip, and concocts a plan to kill a prostitute instead. However, both the writing and execution do not function on a high enough level and so what results is a project that barely passes as student film. And, yes, it is yet another one of those movies that demonizes S&M for the sake of shock value. I was nauseated by its desperation to provide twists rather than to tell a good story that just happens to have twists.
Christopher Abbott is one of the most underrated actors working today and there are moments when he elevates the subpar screenplay almost singlehandedly. He is a great communicator using only his eyes. Even a blink—when it is used and how long it lasts—is calculated. Observe closely as Reed looks at his baby and contemplates stabbing her. Instead of turning his eyes blank, as he would during some moments he shares with the prostitute he hires later (Mia Wasikowska), there is humanity present as the man—the father—wrestles against the monster that is consuming him slowly but surely. On occasion, Abbott makes a number of fresh choices under the weight of a limited screenplay; at times I wanted to scream at the movie for not committing hard enough—at the very least around the level of its lead.
Particularly annoying are the so-called teases. I found them to be unfunny and not the least bit entertaining. For instance, just when a character is about to get seriously hurt or maimed, the weapon is withdrawn and the person in power walks away as if to gloat. This trick is utilized so often that eventually we stop buying into the possibility that the situation would turn grim. As a thriller with some horror elements, particularly with a handful of its hallucinatory imagery, the diminishing returns proves deadly in terms of tension-building as well as providing a requisite catharsis. In the middle of it, I wondered how the director can expect for the audience to take his project seriously when he himself is not able to do the same.
Reed is shown to exhibit signs of a mental illness such as hearing voices that aren’t there and experiencing visual hallucinations. Coupled with these are quick flashbacks of an extremely traumatic childhood that likely contributed in sending his mental state over the edge. Neither the images nor the approach in tackling the subject of mental illness in relation to how such factors might impact behavior are particularly inspired. In fact, we are provided recycled clichés that executed much stronger and with more intent in other movies.
Skip “Piercing” and watch Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” instead. The latter picture expertly shows how laughter can be transformed into gasps of horror at a drop of a hat. We detest the Patrick Bateman character but we are enamored and fascinated by him, his mind, his lifestyle. He is such a curious subject that there comes a point where we do not wish for him to be captured by the authorities. We crave to explore the next layer of his deranged mind. By comparison, we wish for “Piercing” to be over far sooner than its relatively short running time of seventy-five minutes.
★★ / ★★★★
The fantasy-comedy “Little” begins with an exclamation point. As a smart and financially successful but extremely unpleasant—to say the least—leader of a tech company, Regina Hall nails the role of Jordan Sanders despite appearing on screen for less than fifteen minutes. We are immediately made to understand why her employees attempt to clear out the moment they hear her voice screeching from the parking lot. Although her ruthlessness is played for big laughs, it is apparent there is more to the character than a caricature who must learn a valuable lesson by the end of the story following her unexpected—if not karmic—magical physical transformation to her pre-teen years. But the screenplay by Tracy Oliver and Tina Gordon, the latter directing the picture, fails to construct a consistently razor-sharp comedy. There are significantly more laughs to be had at the workplace than at school.
As pre-teen Jordan, I enjoyed Marsai Martin’s enthusiasm for the role. She delivers her lines with effervescent personality, she isn’t afraid to trust the physical comedy, and she shines during a few of the more dramatic moments that the plot demands. Her role, however, is not supported by strong writing—which will be quickly apparent to those who felt or considered themselves to be outcasts in middle school. For those of us who belong in this group, this is a time of our lives that involves pain, insecurity, and humiliation. While the screenplay acknowledges this on the surface, it is seemingly afraid to dig deeply into specifics.
Being bullied is introduced: for not looking a certain way, for not wearing the right clothes, for not fitting in with the popular group. But there is more to it than that—within and outside the scope of the film. I argue that the more interesting avenue to have explored would have been being shamed or ostracized for being smart or intellectually curious. The movie, after all, opens at a talent show where Jordan attempts to communicate her love for science in the form of a physics demonstration. She hopes that showing them who she is, she would gain a modicum of social acceptance.
Thus, the work is guilty for delivering safe comedy, unapologetic, at times brazen, for traversing paths that have been traveled hundreds of times prior. Original or fresh ideas are few and far between; when we do come upon them, they are not delved into. An example involves Jordan’s assistant, April (Issa Rae—her luminous smile uplifting the room without fail), who has a great idea for a game app but her confidence is not as great as her idea. It would have been a more rewarding experience had the writing focused more on the parallels between pre-teen Jordan and April. Instead, we get forced humor like a visit from Social Services in which characters are forced to stutter and come up with lies. Similar scenes are not only unfunny, they are a waste of time.
There are also instances when the filmmakers forget their intended target audience. Obviously, children would wish to see the picture. About a third of the movie unfolds at school. And yet there are questionable scenarios like a striptease. There are one too many awkward humor like a child touching an adult body in a sexual way. Sexually suggestive dialogue is also present. Yes, an argument can be made that there is indeed a way to insert these things in a family film. But they must not always be front and center. They must be done in a subtle way so that adults recognize them and children remain none the wiser. Subtlety is not in the film’s toolkit.
Vox Lux (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those who take the film at face value would likely scratch their heads in confusion. Because, in a way, it is an exercise of extremes: the story opens with a terrifying school shooting in 1999, continues on as an intimate portrait of a fourteen-year-old who has no idea that she is about to become an international pop star, then it has the courage to jump seventeen years into the future and focus on a woman who is so broken, so commodified, we observe her concert performance and feel incredibly sad for her. We watch the main character first as a girl who could have gone on to become a respected—and respectable—artist, fully in control of her career and destiny, but instead she became a puppet in an industry that doesn’t really value her as a person or what she can offer. It values the money that she generates from her concerts, her album sales, her controversial image. In some ways, the picture is an unflinching look at modern celebrity. It made me thankful I am not under the scrutiny of the public eye. But “Vox Lux” is more than that.
Writer-director Brady Corbet creates a character study for the thoughtful viewer who appreciates irony. I enjoyed his approach of laying out pieces that may initially come across as too strange or awkward to be able to fit together (mass shootings, pop idols) and somehow, almost by sorcery, by the end of the tale these fragments make sense only when, or if, the audience manages to connect emotionally with each segment. Employing strong images, music—score and soundtrack—that demands attention, and pointed dialogue, it cannot be denied there is great confidence propelling the work. It is all the more impressive that it is only Corbet’s second feature; I very much look forward to what else he can offer. Even the presentation of the opening credits is inspired.
Natalie Portman plays the thirty-one-year-old Celeste. She is required to sing and dance, to be in control of ridiculous costumes, to wear heavy cosmetics and emote in every second of every frame. She must communicate that Celeste is a tragic figure and yet one who may not necessarily deserve our pity because, after all, she put herself in her current situation—drugs, booze, surrounding herself with toxic people but distancing herself from those who genuinely love and care for her—despite being a survivor of a school shooting. Without relying on obvious or tired tropes, I appreciated that the film is clear: One can be a victim of an event but the victim can choose not to feel victimized for the rest of her life.
At the same time, there is humor in the performance; Portman’s histrionics are best seen to be believed. As seasoned performers do, she milks every millisecond when the camera gets a glance of her face since each tiny opening is a chance to enrich the portrayal. I could tell she had put a lot of thought into the woman she is playing. Still, though, the melodrama fits the story being told and the character being explored. Celeste’s physical outer wounds may have healed, but in a way the real Celeste is suspended in time, in that particularly horrifying day. It is a wonderful performance, one Portman should be proud of, especially given the caliber or her already colorful filmography.
I admired the material’s willingness to take risks. First is in the casting of teen Celeste and Albertine, Celeste’s teenage daughter. Both are played by Raffey Cassidy which is genius because we get introduced to her version of Celeste first and then later as the protagonist’s daughter who is yearning for a true connection. By casting one actor for both roles, seeing the same face causes a ripple effect of implications, the sadness of the story all the more amplified. Second is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, particularly in how interiors of hotels, makeup stations, and backstages are captured so realistically. When it makes an uncommon pivot to images of landscapes, for example, it is like a slap in the face, a reminder of what’s important in truly being alive.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
An accident at work leads Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) to the hospital. After going through his blood work, the doctor tells Ron that he has AIDS and it is estimated that he has only about a month to live. Ron responds with outrage and insists the diagnosis is a mistake. He is, after all, not a homosexual and has never had homosexual encounters. Though he later decides to take treatments in the form of experimental and high dosages of AZT, he becomes convinced that AZT is not a good solution. It made him feel very sick. When Ron hears about alternative drugs in Mexico—drugs that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration—he goes there to obtain the medications.
Based on the screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, “Dallas Buyers Club” captures the confusion and desperation of people in the ‘80s who lived with AIDS. Forget a typical character arc in which the main character embraces valuable lessons along the way. Ron learns a thing or two but that is far from the point. We just so happen to see the story through his eyes. It could have been told from the perspective of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman and Ron’s eventual business partner, and the story would still be interesting.
The picture falls a bit short on providing sufficient specifics regarding Ron’s drug deals abroad. We see large paintbrushes of what he must do—contacting the necessary individuals, putting on a disguise, taking the plane, bribing—but there are not enough conversations that detail the business deals. Sometimes the material leans too much on images to convey an idea. While a good framework, it is not always the best way to amp up the drama in a subtler way.
McConaughey and Leto provide solid performances. The relationship of their characters snuck up on me because I thought I saw them only as partners in running the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that offers a person a variety of drugs, proteins, and vitamins—less deadly than AZT that hospitals use—for four hundred dollar per month membership. But then the second half comes around and we realize how they have learned to help each other not just from the financial side but also in sharing an experience of carrying a disease that will kill them eventually. We know they will die because there is no cure, only treatment that prolongs.
I wished it had shown more images of how AIDS wreck havoc on the body. We see a bit of McConaughey’s near emaciated frame and some blood being coughed out, but I got the impression that the film is not willing to go all the way and show the true ugliness and tragedy of the disease as in Friedman and Joslin’s “Silverlake Life: The View from Here.”
Regardless, “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is worth seeing mainly for the strong performances by McConaughey and Leto as well as successfully showing a time in which information that we know now about AIDS is not yet known.