Saturday, November 23, 2013

NEBRASKA 11/23/13

This is the year for actors (among them septuagenarians) who have been on the back-burner for years, or been cast as one-dimensional movie “idols”, finally getting the opportunity to forego the razzle-dazzle of stardom, and actually “strut their stuff.” Bruce Dern who stars in NEBRASKA directed by Alexander Payne is formidable as Woody Grant, a man clearly in the early stages of dementia, consumed with the belief that he has won a million dollars in one of those unscrupulous Sweepstake scams that target “senior citizens.” The official looking papers that come in the mail announcing the “award” are designed with such a flourish that unwitting recipients are blinded by the gilt-bordered inscriptions, oblivious to the realities secreted in the fine print, and clutch their “prize” notifications as if it were an antidote to the pain of past aberrations and disappointments.

NEBRASKA is an eccentric movie, in that it is both comedic and tragic, filmed entirely in black and white referencing the stark, bleak landscape populated by mostly elderly folk who are living out their last years sitting around watching “the cars pass by”. The lack of color suggests the wrenching nostalgia of time gone by, and befits the mood of Bruce Dern’s depiction of an elderly man who is dreaming of the future, but in his attempt to reach that dream, steps back into his past.

There is a fierce urgency about Woody who refuses to be hindered from leaving his home in Billings Montana (the local police have found him on the road and deposited him back to his family numerous times) in an attempt to reach Lincoln Nebraska to collect his winnings. Woody’s whole being is concentrated on reaching that goal - both psychologically and physically - white wisps of electrified hair creating a halo of wild disorder framing his head, and a look in his eyes that is both determined and vacant. He moves slowly with a staggering, faltering gait that belies the strong conviction that he is finally a “winner.”

We meet Woody’s family, frustrated in their ability to control his obsession, aware that he is slowly “disappearing” as evident by the often emptiness of his fixed gaze. His son David, sensitively played by Will Forte, has compassion for his father’s situation, eventually accompanying Woody on his quixotic quest with the hope of finally garnering the emotional connection that he had never received. A spirited June Squibb is wonderful as the sturdy, clear-minded, foul-mouthed, and fiery wife Kate, who has had it with her husband, exhausted from watching over him, but the tensile bonds of time, despite the impediments of drinking and womanizing, cannot be expunged. She is the person we all want on our side when the sharks are circling. 

There are many wonderful characters in NEBRASKA, although at first I feared that they were too stereotypical, but as the movie unfurled getting better and better – the director’s affection for his colorful, laconic characters became apparent. Stacy Keach, plays the perfect rogue as the former business partner of Woody Grant, initially basking in the reflected glow of a friend’s jackpot - as do the rest of the community and extended family - excited by being in the presence of the idea of so much money, but shortly we see the emergence of self-interest and avariciousness exposed. 

NEBRASKA deals mainly with sentiment and rarely gets sentimental, giving the audience both an entertaining and penetrating portrait of a man who is evaporating into his own body, and the persistence in which he pursues what we all know is a barren mission. The will to accomplish this pursuit and how it affects those around him makes this movie a gem.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Matthew McConaughey having lost about 40 pounds is almost unrecognizable – not the “hunk” that we are familiar with from his other movies - but a scrawny, unlikable character in his greatest role to-date, in a film he anchors with his presence and performance. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a bio-docudrama directed by Jean-Marc Vallée depicting the true story of Ron Woodroof, a drug addicted, homophobic, sexist, racist, womanizer who will f-ck any ”pussy” he can lay hands on in the free-wheeling rodeo cowboy arena he inhabits, who discovers to his utter stupefaction that he has AIDS and is given a 30 day prognosis to live. This movie addresses how HIV was contracted by diverse groups in the population besides the LGBT community – through IV transfusions, heterosexual liaisons with other infected persons, drug addicts using contaminated needles, etc. But the focus of this film is the botched Federal response to this disease when the urgency of time was critical.  The Government’s deliberativeness in approving experimental treatments hastened the decimation of the lives of people who were dying prematurely. Kaposi's sarcoma erupting on the flesh of the affected like stigmata run wild - outward symbols of what was once seen by Ron Woodroof as the  contamination of “sexual deviants.”

The time is 1985 – the AIDS epidemic is beginning to surface and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as well as doctors and other bureaucratic officials do not know how to deal with what is slamming society with the mystery and uncontrollable ferocity of a plague. The search for a cure involves the tried and true scientific method of recruiting patients for experimental, blind studies using AZT vs. placeboes. Woodroof, illegally obtains AZT and instead of getting better his condition deteriorates. He is then determined to survive by whatever means necessary, and begins to investigate other medical alternatives outside of the USA,

How Ron Woodroof becomes business partners with a transvestite named Rayon (touchingly as well as convincingly portrayed by Jared Leto) in a scheme to create “Buyers Clubs” with memberships for those in desperate straits so they can purchase non-approved medications imported from Mexico circumventing FDA laws, is at the “heart” of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. And of course speaking of “heart” we witness Woodroof’s own transformation from his once rigidly held bigoted perceptions to a reluctant acceptance of the “other.” What makes this movie better than a feel-good “personal is the political,” morality tale is the amazing performance of Matthew McConaughey. Here is an actor who knows how to use bodily movement, underscoring the dialogue - resulting in a depiction of a fully developed, compelling character. He struts, writhes, stumbles, almost becomes acrobatic in tandem with his foul-mouthed, abject, and occasionally even charming self.

Today, there are more than 35 antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat HIV infection. These treatments do not cure people of HIV or AIDS. Rather, they suppress the virus, even to undetectable levels, and life expectancy rates have risen dramatically. Watching the movie I felt a deep melancholia, reminiscing on the “accident” of time wishing that these ARV drugs had been available when a dear beloved friend of mine hiccupped his way to an untimely silence. In the 1980”s and mid-1990”s there was a feeling of hopelessness – a death sentence from which there was little reprieve; this film gives us an inkling of that futile and wretched era, and the determination of courageous men and women to “hang on” despite harrowing, mostly fruitless attempts to find remedies for this execrable disease.

Monday, November 11, 2013

ALL IS LOST 11/11/13

Survival, when one is totally left to one’s own initiative in this age of technology, is at the heart of this almost wordless parable. Like GRAVITY which depicted Sandra Bullock as a scientist unleashed from her space ship drifting alone in the universe, the director of ALL IS LOST, J.C. Chandor gives us a view of the mechanics of perseverance, and the struggle of man to abide, but this time in the infinite trackless breadth of the sea. These lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 poem, The Rime of The Ancient Mariner can describe what one must endure:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

ALL IS LOST opens up with a smattering of the few words uttered by Robert Redford in a grueling, almost silent, singular performance as Our Man (what the character is called in the closing credits,) apprising us of his hapless situation, and his fierce determination to stay alive. What Redford briefly vocalizes in a clear unwavering voice is an apology for attempting to pursue a moral, good life and his shortcomings in reaching that objective - poignantly articulating the frailties of being human. Those few words cried out in despair - a fleeting moment of self-revelation are the only clues we have to this man’s background. We get to see the character through his actions and the accouterments/provisions housed in the thirty-nine foot yacht that has been his “home” on the sea. We also know from the onset that this is the 8th day of his ordeal and the consciousness of time hovers over each and every confrontation he has with the vagaries of Nature. ALL IS LOST then steps back in time, filling us in with the details.

The movie continues with the camera focusing on a weathered Robert Redford being jolted out of a comfortable sleep by a loud thud, the result of an idly drifting container vessel (ironically composed of children’s shoes) colliding with his ship, water rushing in, and totally disabling the boat, radio, and navigation tools as well as his life which is tumultuously up-ended. A child’s lone shoe is seen bobbing on the driving waters breaching his cabin - perhaps a reference to this famous line in William Wordsworth’s poem (My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold) “The Child is father of the man.”  

From that moment, I became fascinated with the tools, ingenuity and methods Redford applied in literally keeping afloat. Nothing is explained; we are only shown the process. Redford’s facial expressions indicate the varying subconscious strategies forming in his mind, in his decisive battle to exist. The silence of Our Man is now overtaken by the grating, grinding, moaning sounds of a craft in distress, falling apart - accompanied by the slapping of the waves which can be both benign and harrowing depending on the weather’s temperament. The resonance and beauty of the accompanying music was inherently necessary to a film without dialogue, as was both the breathtaking and occasionally “conventional” cinematography. Yet shots taken from under the life-raft; schools of fish lyrically darting back and forth among the menacing activity of sharks, moonlight creating the only semblance of light in the inexhaustible darkness actualized the ordeal.

Robert Redford going solo against the backdrop of Dame Nature at the age of 77, unquestionably relinquishing glamour, gives the performance of his career as Our Man – a person who is indefatigable, tapping into his interior resilience in order to fight the capricious heartlessness of chance.

Monday, November 4, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE 11/4/13

Saw Steve McQueen’s film 12 YEARS A SLAVE and was disappointed in his depiction of a damning period in American history, that I thought might beome a classic. The true story based on an autobiography written by Solomon Northrup in 1853 is a horrific indictment of slavery, and despite my reservations to the way the story was filmed, I firmly believe this movie should be seen to make audiences aware of how black people became chattel - property rights with total disregard for their humanity. I keep mulling over and over in my head what it was about the way the narrative was presented that just did not make it into the transformative experience that I had hoped for. By writing this review I attempt to make sense of it.

 12 YEARS A SLAVE is faithful to the original book; the brutality – vivid and visceral - is omnipresent to the point of predictability like a horror film. So much so that we become inured – as Hannah Arendt said with such clarity - to the “banality of evil.”  Every frame is filled with the hatred of those in power towards their economic “stock,” ironically often in tandem with the Masters’ righteous readings from the bible. The cinematography of place (Louisiana), the cotton fields, the plantations, the dark secret niches of evil, are brilliant, but when the camera tilts upward towards the heavens, we view the ever familiar light (hope?) dappling through the trees; we might be dazzled, but also we are being manipulated.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup – a free black musician who lives a middle-class life with his family in Saratoga, NY. One day he is tricked into going to Washington D.C. where he is kidnapped into the slave trade, and sent to work on a plantation in Louisiana. He is now a person who has lost his identity, his name, and the freedom to live the life he had chosen for himself.  A slave is denied access to any internal growth, be it cultural or educational – a slave is only considered a work animal - and 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes that chillingly clear. The life of a slave is one of savage beatings that are administered daily throughout the film.  From being regarded with dignity and compassion, Solomon is now part of America’s execrable relationship with its black population, and is treated like a beast of burden. At the same time, we are made privy to Solomon’s  “exceptional-ism” which is evident throughout the film. He can read and write, has engineering skills, and is a fine musician, but his true persona must be hidden to be able to survive.

Sadly, I felt that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance, his facial expressions, the slump of his body missed a beat, and did not succeed in conveying the breadth of intrinsic wrestling that a man whose life had been stolen from him must be undergoing; this detachment left me emotionally confused and unmoved.

Many films have been made chronicling heinous chapters in the history of humanity, but for a film to be distinguished from all the others, the images and content must be transmuted in such a way that we, the viewers, leave the theater unsettled, our minds and hearts having been pierced, and our certainties put into question.  That is what makes a good movie powerful; one that does not give in to the calculable, sentimental or the gratuitousness of violence. Like any art form - a major film moves us and does not numb us. We gain fresh insights and this adaptation might have skirted excellence but did not attain it.

 A footnote: I could not help comparing 12 YEARS A SLAVE with DJANGO UNCHAINED – a movie which gave us an un-expurgated barbarous vision of overweening racism, the slaves and the plantation slave owners as well as a look into the hierarchy of slave society and their roles vis-a-vis their Masters. Employing the bitterly ironic humor, theatrical violence and over-the-top Tarantino style, the dialogue is often humorous and campy but deadly serious. I felt and still do that DJANGO was the most incisive denunciation of slavery I had ever seen in a movie. I have not changed my mind.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


The winner of the 2013 Palm D’Or in Cannes for director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is about Adèle, a young 15 year old girl’s sexual awakening, confusion, and psychological wrestling with the realization that she is “different” from her friends in the choice of her sexual preferences. This is also a view of the torrid love affair which ensues with an older art student (a terrific performance by Léa Seydoux  as Emma – with blue hair) spanning a period of almost 8 years. This movie has the most erotic and extended love scene between two women that I have ever seen on the screen. Beautifully choreographed with stunning close-ups that clearly present what is going on… and on… and on... Both of the actresses’ faces reveal the astonishment of such a passionate engagement – eroticism that fuses the tenderness of combat with surrender.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR begins with a high school teacher discussing a book about love and desire with his young adults – a preamble for the rest of the film. Adèle a student in the class, a lover of romantic literature, has the soft baby flesh of a child emerging into adulthood, and at the same time the sensual full-lipped budding of a burgeoning woman – reminding me of the carnality of Elvis Presley. Her every orifice is lovingly caressed by the camera, insistently moving its lens, shooting her from every angle, fondling her face and slowly sliding down to her painted toes. Adèle is seen repeatedly smoothing and tossing her hair around as if she is uncertain as to what she looks like; the act of fingering her wild tresses gives this sometime awkward young woman an aching reassurance.  Food also plays a large part in this movie as Adèle has a voracious appetite – an obvious metaphor, but the director uses the sound and visual effects of slurping pasta and the sucking down of viscous oysters, to underscore the craving and hunger of the two women’s intimacy.

As with any relationship, time and life imposes its tribute. We no longer view the “other” as just the “object’ of our desires, and the boiling heat we once felt with such urgency, erupts more gradually; conflicts emerge. Emma is on her way to becoming an exhibiting artist with questions of creative compromise cropping up.  As Adèle matures and eventually becomes a teacher of young toddlers, her own gifts surface, and we see how wonderfully she relate to her charges – who are charmingly angelic. At the same time the veneer of innocence slowly fades from our lovely heroine. The fear of being “outted” is still not resolved and Adèle will pay a price for her equivocation.

Adèle Exarchopoulos gives a delicate performance as a woman who is in the throes of finding love and sexual abandonment; every ecstatic high and agonizing low are noted on her wavering face. Some might find BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR at 3 hours too long to sit through, but I embraced time passing and the languid unfolding of an intense relationship, containing trespasses that some might find unforgivable, with the knowledge that the consequences of our frailties linger, but our humanity and compassion remain intact.