Drama

Nebraska

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In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.

This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.

As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.

Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.

The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.

If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray

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The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.

Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.

It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of  clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.

Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.

Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.

Remember the “May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley

Inside Llewyn Davis

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I like movies whose plots meander. I like movies whose plots are non-existent, films that are more experimental in their narrative approach. But what’s most frustrating is when a movie loses sight of its thematic purpose, one that floats along, teasing the audience with suggestions of a bigger picture without delivering anything as bold and definitive. Inside Llewyn Davis is that kind of movie.

That sense of floating defines the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961. He was once part of a folk duo, but his partner committed suicide some time in the past and Davis is still bitter and aggrieved over it. He scrapes by on his share of the door on nights when he plays gigs at local coffee shops. Otherwise, he slums along on the kindness of others, crashing on their couches night after night.

One such friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s got sad eyes, a perma-frown and who upturns Llewyn’s world when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. Much of the time, Jean berates and belittles Llewyn, says he’s a loser, a good-for-nothing. She says she wants an abortion. So it’s up to Llewyn to scrape together the money for it. Underneath her critical nature, though, we sense that Jean really cares for him, but his lack of gusto and direction frustrates her, breaks her heart; her insults and passive-aggressive interactions with him are Jean’s ways of denying her deeper feelings.

When Jean’s current boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), a chipper, go-getting folk musician on the brink of big success, enlists Llewyn in a song session, the latter finds the way to raise the money that Jean needs. This session is the film’s bright spot, a change from the doldrums that characterize the rest of the story, as Jim leads Llewen and backup singer Al (Stark Sands, who’s brilliant) in a rendition of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an inspired and hilarious riff on the Kennedy-inspired folk songs from that era. This is the Coens, collaborating with their brilliant music producer T. Bone Burnett, working in peak absurdist form.

It’s following this session, when Illewyn takes the cash he earned to a doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion that Llewyn Davis registers one of its more emotionally resonant heartbreaks: The doctor tells him that Jean’s abortion will be free because a previous girlfriend, also pregnant by Llewyn, decided to keep her child and, unbeknownst to Illewyn, moved back to Akron. The emptiness and worthlessness Illewn feels at this moment haunts the rest of the film as he strikes out for Chicago to seek out a talent manager (F. Murray Abraham) and land himself a shot at success.

That trip to Chicago is the film’s centerpiece as Llewyn hits the road alongside the laconic, slightly menacing Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) behind the wheel and, slumped in the back seat, Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted jazz musician. When he’s not in a drugged stupor, Roland will chew your ear off with his rambling stories of his jazz exploits as Goodman goes on to steal the movie with his towering, grotesque portrayal. Hedlund, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Peter Stormare’s mute killer in Fargo (which I prefer to this rehash).

Indeed, much of this sequence seems lifted from earlier, more successful Coens brothers efforts. The oppressive gloom that hangs over the rest-stop diner evokes the interiors of that decrepit hotel in Barton Fink. Goodman’s over-the-top presence is itself a sight gag–one he completes with the use of canes for both his hands–in the vein of the offbeat fringe characters in the Coens’ best-known comedies. The Coens also trundle out the POV shots of the passing highway, illuminated by headlights, seen to more pressing narrative effect in Fargo. With the deep, menacing thuds on the soundtrack, the road itself becomes a sinister character here. But to what end?

We ask that question because we never get a clear enough picture of what Llewyn Davis is trying to say. The film has a frustrating, neither-here-nor-there quality. A portrait of an artist on the brink of realizing his own failure, a talent born ahead of this time and thus unappreciated, a man whose bottomed-out sense of self-worth (owing perhaps to a miserable relationship with this father) renders him incapable of success whether in his career or his relationships: Llewyn Davis seems to grasp at all of these ideas. What we know for sure is that Llewyn has dwindling faith in himself and his abilities, he’s principled to a fault, and, if things don’t turn around for him, he’s doomed to waste his life away. But that’s only the set-up to a story that the Coens decide not to see through.

Instead, we get beautiful images of a grey and unforgiving America and an ensemble of topnotch performances–Isaac, in particular, is completely convincing as a talented but discouraged man (his musical performances feel natural and lived-in) trying his best not to gamble away his ideals to the commercial machine.

There is also the matter of a recurring character of an orange tabby cat throughout the film, a pet belonging to Llewyn’s uptown friends, whom he accidentally lets out and must take care of. I haven’t spoken of it because I believe it’s part of the grand Coens tradition of red (orange, in this case) herrings. Its purpose is beyond me.

We scramble for meanings when a given film can’t decide what it wants to say. The Coens’ largely brilliant filmography (including their recent masterpiece A Serious Man) have earned them considerable mileage with fans, so, to some extent, Llewyn Davis coasts along on our good will. But as admirable and well-acted as Llewyn Davis is, it’s simply too airy and insubstantial a treatment of personal failure to make a lasting impression.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Robin Bartlett, Jeanine Serralles

American Hustle

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The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

Her

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It’s tempting to dismiss this mopey techno-romance as just another spin through the solipsistic post-hipster universe of Spike Jonze, but Her is just too prescient about how humanity’s dependence on technology will escalate to include our total emotional well-being, too well-acted and, finally, too wise and gentle in its prescription for the survival of human interrelationships for any trash talk. While its limited characters can make Her a long slog, Jonze’s observations about the sad, misguided intersection of humanity and technology won me over.

In near-future Los Angeles–gorgeously rendered by designer K.K. Barrett and art director Austin Gorg–the superb Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and soulful Theodore Twombly, one year removed from a painful split from his emotionally fragile ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara, who’s become a specialist in playing disturbed and/or volatile women). He’s kind of a proxy letter-writer working for an Internet company specializing in crafting customized letters commissioned by its clients to any variety of recipients (relatives, friends, the parents of fallen soldiers, etc.).

In his ability to exude empathy through these letters, Twombly is not unlike another lost urban soul–Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card writer in (500) Days of Summer (another self-consciously quirky romance set in L.A.!). Whereas Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the moon-eyed Zooey Deschanel, Twombly meets his ideal woman in Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system played by Scarlett Johannson. She’s a Manic Pixie Virtual Girl.

In fact, the whole world is awash in these revolutionary operating systems; people buy them up and, before long, there’s an entirely new economy and sub-culture created from millions of these newly formed hybrid relationships. After the iPhone and Siri, the advent of a sentient OS companion seems like the logical end point in our desire to synchronize consumer technology with our every human whim and need. And in a culture of dysfunctional relationships, serial self-absorption and a spiraling increase in our collective narcissism, it’s only natural humans would turn to the relatively nonjudgmental safety of a “personal” relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, Her’s Los Angeles is an unending forest of skyscrapers and sleek surfaces–the fusion of Hong Kong and present-day L.A.–everything bespeaking a cool nonchalance. The city isn’t foreboding or unwelcoming–it’s simply disinterested.  As social satire, this is wickedly on-point and a much-needed commentary on where we are today.

The society that Jonze depicts isn’t so much bleak or alienating as it is fraught with the terror of failure and abandonment; disconnection and loneliness, therefore, are our default emotional settings. Still, it’s not Orwellian: Theodore enjoys a close friendship with his college friend/neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who’s married to Charles (Matt Letscher), an absolute drip and control freak. And, at work, the cheery receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is a reliably sunny presence in Theodore’s life.

There’s misery here, for sure, but you look around, and you don’t see much to stand on: The characters we meet are all white, middle class, well-to-do, educated first-world citizens who’ve never–from what we know–suffered much or sacrificed. They’re over-the-hill hipsters who presumably moved out of their Silverlake bungalows and into gorgeous, ultra-modern downtown lofts when they hit their 30s and are still crying about how they can’t have a relationship. You want to scream, “Get the fuck over it!” But then we wouldn’t have this film and the rewarding ruminations that follow.

Those ruminations begin after Samantha enters Theodore’s life, and, quickly, he falls in love with her. Hyper intelligent and programmed to “evolve,” Samantha falls in love right back. Soon, Theodore is in the midst of a relationship more fulfilling than any he’s ever had with a human. This is when Her gets interesting as Jonze takes the tropes of the star-crossed romance and posits them into his novel framework. The results are fascinating as Samantha learns to feel everything from sexual ecstasy to embarrassment and shame, especially when the matter of her not having a body comes up. When Theodore, smarting from Catherine’s demeaning his relationship with an OS, lashes out passive-aggressively at Samantha, you can’t help but feel her pain, the sting of her wounded self-esteem. Then, you realize, you’re feeling deep sympathy for a computer. One moment stands out: When a little girl, speaking into the iPhone-like device where Samantha’s “lives,” asks why she lives inside a computer, she answers sweetly, “I have no choice.” I have no choice: An existentialist’s worst nightmare. And that is when, to me, she became tragic and beautiful, and when I fell in love with her myself. Moments like that are the film’s miracle.

But even after the two make up, Jonze isn’t finished as he enters the territory of distrust, jealousy and heartbreak that marks the full maturation of a relationship that’s taken its bruises … and the writer-director keeps on going, beyond considerations of mere romance and into the meaning of life and death itself. This is American filmmaking venturing out to its very edge, and Jonze manages to balance himself beautifully. He does it the way of all great storytellers: By journeying from the anxiety of the ego–which occupies everyone in this film from the first scene–to deep into the soul where Theodore finds self-realization in moments captured with lyrical beauty and emotional honesty. Her does American cinema proud.  

Grade: B+

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

Dallas Buyers Club

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Since Matthew McConaughey jumped the mainstream track and took on challenging roles in unconventional fare starting with Killer Joe and Bernie in 2011 followed by Mud and Magic Mike in 2012, the actor’s skills and ambition have been building toward his playing AIDS patient/activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s a career-defining performance and, if he doesn’t get his Oscar nomination for it, he never will. The rest of Dallas Buyers Club, though, is a more pedestrian run-through of honorable themes in material that feels like its been over-workshopped in screenwriting labs.

A regular at local rodeos, Woodroof is also known for his womanizing, gambling and all-around partying ways when he isn’t working his day job as an electrician and trash-talking fags. Then, after being taken to a hospital following an on-the-job accident, Woodroof finds out he’s got AIDS, and, by all measures, he should be dead. This is all happening in the midst of the ’80s AIDS scare, when it was still deemed a gay disease. Woodroof hits the local library and reads a whole bunch of articles and reflects on all the risky sex he’s had. That all throws on the lightbulb in his head. We can see him face palming himself in our minds.

Meanwhile, there are two doctors in the movie: One good and one bad. The good one is Dr. Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner who lulls us with her on-par adorability, who becomes mother hen to dying patients taking part in the hospital’s AZT trials and eventually Woodroof’s confidante and cheerleader. The bad one is Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), the tool for the pharmaceuticals eager to push AZT onto the AIDS-stricken. These characters are painted in such broad, black-and-white strokes that labeling their purpose in the story pretty much sums up their breadth and depth. Every character in Dallas Buyers Club can be thus condensed: Tucker, Woodroof’s cop friend, is the hard-ass cop with a heart of gold; T.j., Woodroof’s drinking buddy and wing man; and so on. Then you’ve got Jared Leto putting on dress and make-up and doing his damnedest for his own Oscar nomination as troubled transvestite Rayon, who forms an unlikely business partnership with Woodroof. Of all the movie’s performances, his is the weakest, the most egregious plea for awards attention.

Speaking of business, it’s what the movie boils down to: Woodroof’s scammy attempt to start up a club in which he can supply members with alternative meds and vitamins, stuff that the FDA either hasn’t approved or can’t profit from. So, the movie is also a critique of the profit motive of the pharmaceutical business, personified in the cliche of the hard-ass drug enforcement agent Richard Barkley (Michael O’Neill). Yes, it’s as tiresome as that. And how Woodroof goes about running this underground operation evokes elements of Catch Me if You Can as he jet-sets and cons whoever he has to to get the drugs he needs–for no reason other than to make him an appealingly gonzo character.

There’s nothing terribly bad about Dallas Buyers Club. It is exactly what the ads tell you it is. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s for upscale moviegoers who’re after something substantial and “important,” but then realize that what they sat through was a lumbering, shallow TV Movie of the Week. And this is as good a time as any to mention that I’ve never been a fan of McConaughey. He’s obvious, heavy-handed and seems to revel in his obnoxious Texan twang (put so far to its only good use in the actor’s first role in Dazed and Confused) with its irritatingly enunciated “S’s”. Every smile, glance and audible exhalation is telegraphed as if to communicate to us that he’s an actor up on the screen playing a role, in case you were wondering. He’s well-meaning, sure, but he’s not a persuasive actor in anything in which I’ve seen him.

The best thing I can say for McConaughey as Woodroof is that he most successfully disappears into the role. He evokes emotional shades and employs silences, a sense of humility in the character that I’d till now not seen. The sheer awfulness of everything else in the film can be blamed on Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s paint-by-numbers script, which really wants to create a noble picture of its subject but lacks the subtlety and imagination to do so, and on Jean-Marc Vallée’s infuriatingly bland direction, which has all the inquisitive power of a children’s board book.

When I first saw Dallas Buyers Club, I thought, “OK, that was relatively interesting and harmless.” But the more I’ve reflected on it, the more its crimes became nakedly obvious. Using the controversial and difficult nature of its subject matter as a facade for what is just half-baked product, it is everything cheap, shallow and pandering about American independent cinema.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne

12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.

The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.

Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza  from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.

Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.

It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.

No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty.  There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.

Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.

There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.

Grade: A

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt