Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

February 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Matthew McConaughey is still unbearably smug, but with the daring roles he’s been taking on lately even I have to admit that he’s growing on me.

Dallas Buyers Club was among the last of the Best Picture nominees I had yet to watch in preparation for the Oscars next week, and it’s also one of the ones I knew the least about. All I knew was that it starred McConaughey and Jared Leto, who lost a lot of weight and tried to look like a woman.

As it turned out, it’s another true story (making it 6 of the 9 nominees — the only non-true story ones are Gravity, Her and Nebraska), about a womanizing, drug-taking bigot rodeo by the name of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who discovers that he has AIDS and is told that he only a very short amount of time to live. At the time, the mid-1980s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease largely associated with homosexual behaviour, which of course does not go down well with the homophobic Woodroof and his macho friends.

The core of the movie begins from the diagnosis, as Woodroof goes from trying to find useful drugs to prolong his life to selling unapproved AIDS drugs through the titular Dallas Buyers Club he ran with Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman played by an eerily recognisable Jared Leto. It is more or less a condemnation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ridiculous snail pace it approves drugs to combat life threatening illnesses. What is the point of being told that new drugs could save your life in a few years when you only have months to live?

McConaughey and Leto have been nominated for their respective roles and rightfully so, as it is their performances that drive the film’s engine. Both actors look like they lost a ton of weight for their roles and genuinely look like AIDS patients, which is impressive in itself, though it’s their back-and-forth chemistry that elevate Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar contention territory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a buddy movie — it’s more about how imminent death sparks a bigoted, hedonistic man’s journey towards salvation — but the the dynamics of their contrasting personalities do provide the base for some entertaining interactions and conversations.

The supporting cast is solid too. Jennifer Garner, who rarely gets out these days from the prison of Ben Affleck, plays a doctor who sympathizes with their plight,  while Dennis O’Hare plays her antagonistic boss who believes he knows what is best for patients. Steve Zahn also has a minor role as a local cop torn between his duty to his job and to his friend Woodroof.

I found Dallas Buyers Club to be an unusual film. On the one hand I was impressed with the performances and how informative and insightful it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but on the other I didn’t really enjoy it as much as the other Best Picture nominees this year despite its powerful subject matter. Part of the reason is because I had trouble connecting with both McConaughey and Leto’s characters. Leto has this one great emotional scene where he confronts his father, but McConaughey’s character is mostly self-serving and doesn’t show a lot of redeemable qualities until nearly the very the end. And unlike say a comedic farce like The Wolf of Wall Street, this was the kind of film where you really need to feel something for the protagonist early on for the film to work.

That said, I liked the lack of sentimentality in the direction of Jean Marc-Vallee (The Young Victoria) and can understand why the film has rated so well with critics. It’s a solid film from all angles and carries an inspiring message, but ultimately I wasn’t as moved by it as I thought I would be.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Philomena (2013)

February 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I watched best picture nominee Philomena to prepare myself for the Oscars in a week or so, not knowing what the film was about other than it starred Judi Dench and thinking that it was probably going to be a long, boring drama I’d have to force myself to sit through. Instead, I laughed and I cried and was deeply moved by this true story about a mother’s lifelong search for the son she was forced to give up half a century ago. And it’s only 95 minutes long!

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Tamara Drewe), Philomena tells the true story of an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Dench) who seeks out a jaded former journalist who just lost his job as a government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to help her track down her long lost son. Philomena had the child out of wedlock as a teenager and was sent to a convent by her father in disgrace before being forced to give up the child, who was believed to have been sent to the United States for adoption.

Far from boring, Philomena is essentially an investigative road trip movie as we follow Philomena and Sixsmith track down clues and follow leads in their efforts to track down the missing son. Apart from the intrigue of the amazing true story, the strength of the film lies in the two wonderfully developed main characters and the chemistry between them. Philomena is a determined, talkative woman who isn’t afraid to express her beliefs, while Sixsmith is characterised by his wry sense of humour and opinionated views. Together they make an odd couple who provide the audience with plenty of witty and amusing conversations.

And if you don’t know what happens at the end of their search then I would recommend avoiding all spoilers until you see the movie. I was impressed with the unexpected twists and turns in the storytelling, which, given that they really happened in real life, are both stunning and remarkable. I was particularly fascinated by the change in Sixsmith’s attitude as the adventure progressed, going from a position where he had little concern for the outcome other than how it would affect his article to becoming completely engrossed in the search, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Judi Dench received a best actress nomination for next month’s Oscars for her performance as Philomena, and rightly so. I was surprised that Coogan didn’t get a nod for his performance as Sixsmith, which was tonally perfect and balanced out Dench nicely, though he did get a nomination for co-adapting the screenplay. In fact, I was probably even more impressed with Coogan because my memory of him had been largely based on that crappy Jackie Chan movie Around the World in 80 Days.

Philomena is also an important film because it uncovers more atrocious — absolutely appalling — conduct on the part of the Catholic Church. I can’t say more without divulging spoilers so I’d recommend you check out the film, or if you don’t intend on doing so, to read the article that inspired it. I find it curious that some critics have slammed the movie for being yet another “anti-Catholic” film, but it’s not like the writers made all this shit up — it actually happened!

My only real complaint about Philomena is that the musical score occasionally stands out so much that it becomes obvious it’s trying to manipulate audiences into a stronger emotional response. It’s unnecessary because the story itself already packs a poignant punch, especially if you are a parent, like I am. I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience would be like for the real victims of the story. In the end, I don’t think Philomena would have been a best picture nominee back when they only had five slots, but in the age of nine nominees I think it’s reasonable that it has squeezed in. It’s a film that could have easily spiralled into a sappy melodrama, but thanks to the strong script and solid direction it has turned out to be quite an effective, satisfying drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

September 16, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had no idea Pain & Gain was a Michael Bay film until the credits started rolling at the end. I was surprised, because the film was, for the most part, perfectly adequate. Even fun.

Supposedly based on a true story from the 90s, Pain & Gain follows three dimwitted body builders — Marky Mark Wahlberg, The Rock and Anthony Mackie — who kidnap their dickwad of a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub from Monk) and try to steal everything he owns. Naturally, being nitwits, their plan goes all kinds of wrong, especially as a private detective (Ed Harris) starts looking into the case. It’s a cautionary tale about how the American Dream can become the American Nightmare — if you are a moron.

It’s one of those “so crazy it’s gotta be true” stories. Being a rather violent kidnapping film, Bay could have tackled Pain & Gain as a really sharp dark comedy in the vein of say Fargo, though he decided to make a straight-up crime goofy comedy. The problem is that in taking this route, Bay had to make our protagonists likable — albeit immensely stupid — dudes, even though from their motivations and actions we can tell they are clearly some nasty people. Misguided and naive, perhaps, but still difficult to root for. Just because you find their stupidity amusing doesn’t mean you have to like them. Sure, their victim is a twat, but there’s only so much a director and good actors can do to make this trio affable. The rest is up to the audience’s disposition and tolerance.

Marky Mark, The Rock and Anthony Mackie are, under ordinary circumstances, a fun trio to be around. The Rock, in particular, stands out as a thick-headed and tick-bodied lost soul trying to balance his violent temper with his desire to please God. Marky Mark, on the other hand, shows a bit more of a mean streak as the ringleader, while Mackie kind of fades to the side a little more, getting overshadowed even by his own love interest, played by the always-brilliant Aussie gem Rebel Wilson. The other female role, a semi-retarded Russian bimbo (played by Bar Paly) is also a hoot, though neither female character does much to improve the perception of how Bay treats women in his movies. (Also gotta mention Ken Jeong, who does his best Ken Jeong impersonation in a small role as a motivation speaker.)

That said, for a Michael Bay film, Pain & Gain is actually pretty good. It’s fairly funny, especially in the first hour or so, and the satirical bite had a surprisingly strong edge to it. The mood was light despite the violence, though the further the film progressed the more serious — and less compelling — it got. At 129 minutes, it was also far too long, and my interest waned dramatically as the film stumbled to a predictable conclusion. However, on the whole, and by Michael Bay standards, I’d still call Pain & Gain a relative success.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Compliance (2012)

November 17, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

This movie has moved up my review list because I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Compliance is the kind of movie that’s so crazy and so against all common sense that you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s based on a true story. It is inspired by the infamous strip search prank calls that swept across the United States a few years ago, and more specifically, by the Mount Washington case in 2004 where things went further than anyone could have ever imagined.

The film takes place in a fictional fast food franchise called ChickWich (the real life one was a McDonald’s), which is run by a middle-aged store manager called Sandra. On this day she receives a call from a man identifying himself as police officer Daniels, who claims a girl whose description matches a store employee stole money from a customer. What happens from there is both bizarre and ridiculous, as the call escalates from one improbable incident to the next.

Compliance premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival and was met with mixed reactions and a number of walkouts. Some thought it was a masterpiece, a fascinating study of human obedience and submission to authority that works and feels like a horror movie. Others thought it was stupid, exploitative and simply too implausible to swallow.

While I didn’t quite think it was a masterpiece, I was captivated by this film from start to finish. Part of it was because I knew of the background and that it was very closely based on the true story. So every time I saw something that stretched my boundaries of incredulity I just told myself — this really happened. If I didn’t know that I probably would have felt the same way as those who walked out.

Part of the reason the film felt believable was because of the performance of Ann Dowd, who plays the manipulated Sandra. She came across as a typical unintelligent, gullible store manager, and the way she reacted to the caller, including to his praise and in her desire to please him, just seemed so real to me.

Less convincing was Dreama Walker (pretty sure I’ve seen her on Gossip Girl), who plays the teenager worked caught up in the mess. I’m not sure if it was her performance or the script (by writer and director Craig Zobel), but she didn’t seem naive or stupid enough to do some of the things she was told to do towards the very end. I haven’t seen the surveillance footage of the real life incident, but there appears to be a sizable gap between some of the tamer and more extreme things the psycho caller gets her to do.

My verdict on Compliance is that it’s definitely a worthwhile film to catch if you get the chance. It’s a surreal, provocative, frustrating and often bewildering 90-minute experience that will likely remain locked in your memory long after the credits finish rolling.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Precious (2009)

March 25, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Some have called Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire (I find this long title hugely annoying so I will just call the film Precious) the “dark” version of The Blind Side (a triumphant story about how a poor black kid overcomes impossible odds to become “somebody”).  Precious similarly tackles the demoralising aspect of African American life, but in a more confronting, uncompromising way — drenched in poverty, illiteracy, obesity, disease, domestic violence and sexual abuse — though unlike The Blind Side, there’s no rich white family to turn it into a fairytale.

It tells the story of Precious Jones, an  illiterate, obese, African American girl living in a dysfunctional household with her mother in Harlem.  At just 16 years of age, Precious is pregnant with her second child.  You can imagine what her life is like.  It’s incredibly bleak.  There’s not much hope for someone like her in this world, or so it would appear.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Precious.  On the one hand, you feel an incredible amount of pity for Precious.  She didn’t ask to be born into this life.  Her mother is an abomination.  It’s a damnation of American life and culture, in particular African American life and culture.

On the other hand, I didn’t get much out of it.  It’s not enjoyable, and for the most part, is an extremely depressing experience.  I was engaged by the story, but there wasn’t much to get excited about for the 110-minute running time.

I will say, though, that the performances were outstanding.  Now that I’ve seen it, I agree whole-heartedly that Mo’Nique deserved the Oscar as Precious’ mother.  She’s a hard, terrifying woman, who is so disillusioned with her own life that she does nothing to prevent her daughter from heading down the same hopeless path, or worse.

Gabourey Sidibe, in her debut role, is also very good as the titular character, but I don’t think she is as remarkable as she’s been hyped up to be.

The two music superstars deserve special mention.  Mariah “Glitter” Carey is actually pretty adequate as a frumpy, plain, welfare social worker, and Lenny Kravitz is almost unrecognisable as a friendly male nurse.

Lastly, I wonder whether the fact that Precious is NOT a true story had any impact on my impression of it.  One of the reasons why The Blind Side got away with a lot of the corny melodrama is because we know it’s ultimately based on true events.  I’m not sure whether it affected me or not, but knowing that Precious Jones is not a real person may have subconsciously brought out the cynic in me.  After all, author Sapphire appears to have crammed all the worst possible attributes and circumstances imaginable into a single character, and in doing so, puts the film and character at risk of being perceived as manipulation.

Look, it’s a good film, but I’m just sayin’.

3.5 stars out of 5

 
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