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.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, partners for twenty-two years, were diagnosed with AIDS, Tom decided to record their experiences on video, from the unending appointments at the doctor’s to the every day happenings at home. I don’t know anyone nor have I met someone with AIDS. I’ve read about AIDS and seen photos in books and on websites, so I can talk about the disease, in a scientific way, as one would recite a list groceries with detachment. I’ve seen AIDS patients in movies based on fiction and nonfiction. While they allowed me to feel empathy for the characters because of their plight, not one of them prepared me to experience what this film had to impart. I was surprised in the way that the documentary began with acknowledging the fates of Tom and Mark then swiftly moved to Tom’s final Christmas with his family. It was appropriate that the initial focus was not on the disease but on the person who carried it. I was fascinated not only because Tom had AIDS but because he had something profound to say about his past, that he had an entire life before being diagnosed. When we see people who are dying, I think that it’s too easy to forget that. For instance, we were shown clips of Tom’s other film which involved him mentioning that, when he was young, he accidentally found correspondences under a rock written by two male lovers. Aware of his own sexuality, he–although it scared him a little bit–immediately felt like one of them so he wrote them a note. In return, he received dirty magazines for gay men which opened up a world of possibilities for him. Although none of it was reenacted, the images behind the voiceover were so vivid, it felt like I watched his experience unfold and felt his realization that since there were more people like him, he wasn’t alone in his struggle of having to hide who he was from his old-fashioned parents. The picture eventually focused on the disease and how it affected Tom and Mark’s bodies, their minds, as well as their relationship. They talked about their varying levels of pain openly, touched each other’s skin while examining possible new KS (Kaposi’s sarcoma) lesions and, despite it all, showed that they valued and loved one another. One of the most romantic moments involved a good night kiss between the duo. There were so many loving kisses exchanged in a span of less than ten seconds, I lost track of the number. But there were also moments when they didn’t get along, when the stresses were just too much to compartmentalize, from unplanned stopovers when they were supposed to be heading home to the sheer neglect of taking one’s medicine. The film challenged us, too. The one scene that stood out to me involved shirtless Mark swimming in a public pool. I was alarmed; my instinct jolted me into thinking that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be in the water at all because he could infect others. Upon closer inspection, I realized that there was no one around. Secondly, I already knew that the virus couldn’t survive for long outside of the body especially with all the chemicals in the pool. Still, I caught myself responding in such a way. I appreciated that scene because it showed my ignorance and the things that I need to work on. “Silverlake Life: The View from Here,” directed by Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin, takes an illness that feels so far away and puts it in front of our faces. For instance, seeing Tom’s skeletal frame during the late stages of AIDS will not be easy for anyone. The least we can do for ourselves is to look closely.
Reality Bites (1994)
★★ / ★★★★
Four Generation X friends (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Jeneane Garofalo, Steve Zahn) who recently graduated from college quickly found out that the “real world” was not something they could easily overcome just because they had an education. During her spare time, Lelaina, played by Ryder, documented her life while living with friends, she hated her internship at a television station, and she was torn between her slacker but charming best friend, played by Hawke, and a sucessful music video network executive, played by Ben Stiller. Meanwhile, Hawke had to deal with his ailing father, Garofalo was concerned that she had contracted HIV, and Zahn struggled to keep a secret. It sounded like the movie had a lot going for it. However, I believe the movie was stuck in the romantic angle between Ryder, Hawke and Stiller to the point where it had sidelined what the movie should have been about: the dynamics of friendship outside of the collegiate atmosphere and how their friendship was constantly challenged because their expectations did not often match what is. While the romantic angle was interesting enough to keep the picture afloat, it did not take the project to the next level because the angles that the film explored within the courtship was nothing particularly insightful or new. I thought the film was at its best when Ryder was just with her friends doing stupid things like watching television while talking about things that they did in college and when Ryder was forced to crawl back to her parents for financial assistance. I found those scenes more relatable because the lead character was forced to look at the hand she’s been given and she had to reevaluate what was more important to her: her pride or living a life of relative comfort. After all, at this specific time of their lives, life is more about compromises and the pain of asking oneself, “Am I good enough?” than about choosing between two boys (or girls). However, I did not dislike the film because I sympathized with the characters and I rooted for them to succeed even though I did not always agree with their actions. They tried to navigate their lives the best they could despite the many distractions. Sometimes they succeeded but sometimes they failed. In that regard, I thought the movie was honest despite the majority of it ending up somewhat hollow. Written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, “Reality Bites” is a commercial project that thought it was something edgy or original. In its all-too-obvious attempt of digging up something insightful about modern romantic relationships, it achieved, well, hipster status.
Sex Positive (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Prior to this film, I didn’t know who Richard Berkowitz was. I decided to watch the documentary because I’m always interested in learning more about diseases and their impact in society. In “Sex Positive,” directed by Daryl Wein, the focus was on Berkowitz’ contribution in promoting safe sex in order to protect everyone, especially the members of the gay community, from transmitting different factors that could promote AIDS. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the credit he deserved. What I enjoyed about this movie was it was essentially about activists of the LGBT community disagreeing about elements of a certain issue–the mechanisms regarding how one can get the infection, prevention, and the relationship between promiscuity and the epidemic. Most of the documentaries I’ve seen about AIDS and homosexuality were from heterosexuals’ perspective so it was a nice to observe and listen to the issue from a different angle. The documentary felt personal and sometimes too revealing because we got to learn about Berkowitz’ sexual history. There were some outtakes in which he was reluctant to talk about his history with S&M because he wanted to focus on the issue of activism and promoting health. Those outtakes were important for me to see because it showed me that Berkowitz was more than hustler. He deeply cared about his community and he was willing to go great lengths in promoting safe sex, sex positivism, which was the middle-ground between two camps: anti-sex (celibacy) and pro-sex (sex without using protection at all). He also highlighted the roles of our choices and our personal responsibilities in terms of sex, that our lives are in our hands and we should always be aware of the consequences. However, I thought the documentary was a little too short and too quick with the facts. Specifically, I wanted to know more about progress (if any) of promoting safe sex in the late 80’s. I felt as though the movie only covered the early 80’s up and the early 90’s. I also wanted to know more about the papers Berkowitz published about sex and the LGBT community while he was in college although the movie did spotlight the fascinating pamphlet “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach.” Toward the end, Berkowitz providing insight by revealing certain statistics was simply icing on the cake. “Sex Positive” is a solid documentary with a very interesting subject and I highly recommend it. I just think it needed an extra thirty to forty minutes to develop some ideas so it wouldn’t have felt as rushed.
The Informers (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Set in the early 1980’s Los Angeles, “The Informers” based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, was about the emptiness of multiple characters who would rather try to escape their problems in hopes that they would eventually go away rather than tackling them head-on. Although there were five to six storylines, only about two or three worked for me. I wished that Gregor Jordan, the director, instead focused his energy on those three and really explored why the characters chose to make certain decisions. Kim Basinger, Billy Bob Thornton, Mickey Rourke and Winona Ryder are the big names who I thought would elevate this picture. However, their storylines were so uninteresting, they might as well not have appeared in it. What did work for me was Jon Foster as a rich twentysomething who seemingly had it all but he chose not to use his priviledges to his advantage. Instead, he decided to deal drugs and hang out with people who really did not care about him–people who only cared about drugs, sex and living the luxurious life. I was really engaged with his scenes because little by little he realized that he was just being used, especially how his girlfriend didn’t care about him as much as he cared for her. I also liked the dynamics between Foster and his sister and how they felt about their parents’ (Basinger and Thorton) decision to move in together after they’ve been separated. Unfortunately, that bit was very underdeveloped. Lastly, I thought the scenes in Hawaii with Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci–father and son, respectively–was pretty well-done. It was somewhat humorous to me because it was a classic desparate father-son bonding where everything pretty much went wrong. But it could also be seen through a dramatic lens because the son hid this true hatred toward his father since the father only cared about himself. I really believe that critical adjustments such as a different director, sharper and bolder writing, eliminating storylines and expanding others (like the rising unknown disease now known as AIDS), this movie could have become a totally worthwhile experience. After all, the material was based on the works of a writer a really enjoyed such as “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction.” “The Informers” could have provided insight on how it was like to live life without any sort of internal locus on control and how that manner of living could drive us to the ultimate levels of boredom, unsatisfaction, and madness.
★★★ / ★★★★
I was deeply touched by this biopic about a supermodel named Gia Carangi (Angelina Jolie) back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Throughout the picture, I felt that her story was very personal because we got to see her evolve from a rebellious kid who was abandoned by her mother to a stunning supermodel who everyone wanted to worked with. At the same time, we also got to see her cocaine addiction, failed relationships and connection with others, and the eventual decline of her health because of AIDS. I’m glad that this film did not particularly glamorize the fashion world. In fact, I got a feeling that it was almost against it–as if it was one of the main reasons to blame that finally drove Carangi over the edge. Gia was far from a perfect person and therefore not free from blame but she had crucial moments when she took responsibility because she really did want to change. I admired the scenes when Jolie was posing in front of the camera looking extraordinary but such scenes also had voice-overs of what the photographers, the crew, and the other models’ real thoughts about Gia. It shows that something beautiful on the outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s on the inside, which I thought culminated when one of the women confronted Gia with such anger during one of the drug addiction sessions concerning the lies–on how to look like, how to act, and how to live one’s life–presented by the glossy fashion magazines. I also enjoyed the fact that Gia’s relationships were highlighted throughout the film: the mother who uses her as an accessory, who’s always there when things are good but almost never there when things are bad (Mercedes Ruehl), the loyal friend she met right before she was discovered and was there with her until the end (Eric Michael Cole), the agent who she saw more as a mother-figure (Faye Dunaway), and her on-and-off girlfriend who always wanted Gia to be the best she could be (Elizabeth Mitchell). While most people I know chose to see this for the nudity by Jolie, I have to say that this film goes beyond issues of the flesh. There’s a very real story and powerful lessons to be learned here; in fact, to be honest, the “sex” scenes are not that shocking to me because I’ve seen all kinds of movies with all kinds of sexual acts. For me, the sole purpose of watching this picture for the nudity is a sign of disrespect for Jolie’s acting abilities and Gia’s memory. Directed by Michael Cristofer, “Gia” is a triumph on multiple levels (especially Jolie’s acting) and should be seen with an open mind and sensitivity.
Relax… It’s Just Sex (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie, written and directed by P.J. Castellaneta, about people with all sorts of sexual orientations is far from perfect but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I thought it was nice to see people just being people without having to be afraid of offending its audiences. The cast is led by Jennifer Tilly whose friends mostly consists of gays and lesbians. Tilly juggles three fronts: her need to constantly have sex because she wants to have a baby before her eggs “expire” (done in hilarious ways, I might add), trying to be supportive of lesbian friend (Cynda Williams) who recently broke up with her almost decade long lover (Serena Scott Thomas) because she fell for another man, and consoling her gay friend (Mitchell Anderson) because he’s depressed that he’s not (or been in) any stable relationship. Although there were very funny moments, especially in the first half, my favorite scene has got to be the dinner conversation on whether HIV really causes AIDS. That scene constantly evolved not just topic-wise but because it showed us the many personalities of each of the characters and how they dealt with the situation whenever they were confronted by others. It felt so real; I have many memories with friends who have varying opinions when we talk about certain issues and some of those times do get to the point where somebody has to yell, “Shut up!” before the discussion got out of hand. That scene made me feel like I was sitting at that dinner table so I thought it was very powerful. I think the title of this picture is very misleading because sex is not the central issue. It’s really more about relationships and how such relationships are defined by people who are directly involved with a particular issue and those who are in the periphery. The only thing I didn’t like about this movie was it’s all too gloomy second half. I was very impressed that it was a comedy and offered a plethora of insights but it became more typical with the serious dramatics in the second half. This is a small movie but the writing is very funny because it features a lot of colorful straight/gay/lesbian/bisexual people. For me, it wasn’t at all difficult to connect with it.
The Witnesses (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director André Téchiné’s “Les témoins” tells the story of how four French people (Johan Libéreau, Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Blanc) deal with a newly-discovered unknown virus back in 1984, currently known as AIDS. Libéreau moves to Paris to live with his sister (Julie Depardieu) but eventually becomes Blanc’s younger non-physical lover. Blanc then introduces Libéreau to a married couple Bouajila and Béart, a cop and children’s books writer, respectively. While the couple allow each other to sleep with whoever they want, the wife has no idea that her husband’s new lover is a man and a much younger guy. This could easily have been a stupid movie about homosexuals getting AIDS if it weren’t for Téchiné’s direction. The topic was dealt with such sensitivity to the point where it’s really about people, regardless of sexual orientation, who happen to get infected by the disease. The film also tackles the idea of that initial fear when the scientific community doesn’t have any idea why people are dying except for the fact that it is a virus and there’s no cure for it. I wasn’t yet alive in 1984 so I don’t really know how it was like when AIDS first became an epidemic. So to see news reels about people avoiding certain foods, certain people (homosexuals, drug addicts and Haitians) and even people who work in the morgue actively staying away from dead bodies were interesting to me. I could definitely relate with this picture, especially with the recent scare regarding swine flu. I was so paranoid about getting a cold because of this thought that I won’t be able to live for very long once I get it. There was a certain sensitivity and respect about the issue but it’s not too light or flowery; it’s just enough to tell a story from a specific point of view. Lastly, I liked the fact that the characters’ sexualities weren’t really a big deal. Unlike most American films that touch upon the subject of homosexuality/bisexuality, this picture did not have any I’m-gay-so-I’m-alienated-and-I’m-self-hating moment. I admired this movie’s focus because it never waivers from the message it wanted to get across even though it had to juggle four very different personalities.
Angels in America
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since this film runs for six hours, Netflix divided the movie into two discs. I will review the first half and then the second half because I saw the latter a couple of days after I saw the former. I admire the first part of this picture because it’s not afraid to fuse realistic and fantastic elements that share one common goal: to show how the AIDS epidemic, pretty much unknown at the time, impacts those people who have been infected and those they care about. But it actually rises above its main thesis: it also manages to tackle issues like denial of one’s homosexuality, what it means to be a lover and a friend, power struggle in the business world, relationships by means of convenience…
On top of all that, the performances are simply electric, especially Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson. We don’t see much of Streep and Thompson in the first half but whenever they’re on screen, they completely involve the audience because they know how to balance the obvious and the subtle so well. They have a certain elegance that no ordinary actor posesses. As for Pacino, he’s a master of reaching one extreme to the next without ever having to sacrifice his character’s believability. I can argue that he’s one of the most complex characters, out of many, that this film (which is based on a play) has to offer. As Pacino’s protégé, I think this is Wilson’s best performance that I’ve seen. As a closeted Mormon homosexual, he tries so hard to hide who he really is to the point where his emotional pain becomes physical. In most of his scenes, I could feel his sadness, anger, frustration, and (eventual) relief–all at the same time. He has such a poetic face that’s so expressive; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His relationship with his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is complicated, to say the least, because Wilson considers her as more like a friend but she considers him to be a husband. Other noteworthy actors include Justin Kirk as an AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover, played by Ben Shenkman. Jeffrey Wright is amazing because he speaks the truth without apologies. He plays multiple characters like Streep, Thompson, and Kirk but Wright is the one that I can relate with the most. The idea of escape is crucial ranging from experiencing hallucinations to doing or saying the opposite of what the person actually means to do or say.
As for the second half, the idea of interconnectedness is more prevalent. Since the characters are finally established, they are allowed to interact and play with each other a bit more. This means that strong acting is at the forefront. But what I found most frustrating was the fantastic elements overshadowing reality half of the time. Even though those fantasy scenes do contribute to the overall big picture, they are so cheesy and slow to the point where I found myself checking the time. I was more invested with the reality because the characters that we care about are dealing with things that have something to do with reality like disease and acceptance. Faith is merely the background and focusing on it too much is distracting at best. I thought the way the film ended was handled well; not everything is neatly tied up and the way the actors looked into the camera to convey their last messages was, strangely enough, effective.
This film has such a huge scope but it delivers on more than one level. I found it consistently interesting because it is character-driven and the characters behave like real people. In end, pretty much all the characters have changed in some way. Even though this was released back in 2003, I still consider it to be one of the most important films of the 2000’s.