Monday, February 17, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 4

The final two movies I will review are Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club.  These two movies, with very different stories and themes, share an examination of human relationships and how we interact with and care for each other.

Nebraska features Bruce Dern in a sterling performance as a curmudgeonly old man who receives one of those “you have won a million dollars” come-ons that we are all familiar with.  He either did not read the fine print, or did not comprehend it, because he is determined to go to Nebraska and collect his million dollars. When no one will take him, he sets out to walk there—from Montana where he lives.

Bruce Dern is Woody Grant—such a wonderfully evocative mid-West name. He and his wife, Kate—played with a big dose of spit and vinegar by June Squibb—have two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk).  Their lives are really very small.  The more successful son Ross is a television newsman who occasionally gets to substitute as anchor.  David is a small-time salesman selling electronic products, or at least trying to.  It is David who tries to rescue his father, going out to get him as he walks along the road—to Nebraska. 

Eventually, frustrated and unable to dissuade his father, he gives in and agrees to drive his father to Nebraska.  Kate, Woody’s wife, is outraged and annoyed—her solution: put Woody in a nursing home.  He is obviously too confused and too drunk to function independently.

Along the way, David persuades his father to visit Hawthorne, the town where his father grew up and where many of his relatives still live.  There are marvelous scenes between Woody and his brothers—they all sit in a crowded living room, watching television, making an occasional laconic remark.  The sons of his brother—David’s cousins—delight in teasing David at how long it took him to drive from Billings to Hawthorne (Hawthorne, by the way, is not a real place name).  They return several times to remark about how slowly David must drive.

As Woody and David go from place to place in the town, small pieces of Woody’s life are revealed.  When Kate travels by bus to meet them, and then joins them going around the town, her salty observations add a delightful risqué commentary on small town life.  The scene in the cemetery is a classic as she goes from one headstone to another providing a bon mot observation on each of the departed.

It might be tempting to think that the director Alexander Payne is mocking small town life and small town lives.  But the touches in the movie are truly gentle, loving and humorous.  It is not difficult to see that these people’s lives, small though they may be, matter.

When Woody is pressed as to why he wants to win a million dollars, his simple answer is so he can buy a new pick-up truck.  While his motivation is heartfelt and straightforward, all the town’s people with their avaricious reactions to his supposed sudden wealth provide an interesting observation on how people see another person’s good fortune.

There are several twists and turns in the plot, and the ending brings a definite sweetness to the dénouement of the plot.

Dallas Buyer Club, based on a true story, is also a movie about human relationships, but with a very different starting point.  The story revolves around Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is living a licentious and free-wheeling life. He is a rodeo cowboy, who earns a living as an electrician.  To play the part, McConaughey lost so much weight (47 pounds) that he looks skeletal.  We are introduced to Ron as a hard driving, alcoholic, drug-abusing, sexually active rodeo cowboy—and all of that in practically one scene.  He is living a life of abandon.

Early in the movie, when Ron Woodroof is feeling ill, he goes to a doctor and learns he has AIDS and only a short time to live.  His immediate reaction is an outburst of disbelief and homophobic invectives—he cannot and does not see himself as the kind of person who would get AIDS.

So begins his journey—which is the subject of the movie.  He learns from his doctor that there is a drug—AZT—which is in clinical trials.  Ron wants it, but the doctor won’t guarantee that he would get the drug if he enrolled in a double-blind clinical trial.  So, he persuades a hospital worker to supply him with AZT, much as a junkie would get illegal drugs.  However, he does not get better.  He spends some time in the hospital because he is so desperately ill—there he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a trans-gendered woman.

In a desperate bid to get better, Ron travels to Mexico to visit an American doctor who has lost his license because he does not practice traditionally accepted medicine.  He tells Ron that AZT is like a poison—killing not only the AIDS infected cells but also healthy cells.  Instead he prescribes for Ron various drugs that are not FDA approved in the U.S.  He also convinces Ron to clean up his health habits, and stop using illegal drugs. Amazingly, Ron—who had only 30 days to live when he was first diagnosed—begins to get healthy.  He knows it is the combination of drugs he gets in Mexico and the vitamin supplements he is taking that is restoring his health. 

He decides to share his good regimen with other HIV patients, but has trouble finding people who will take him up on the offer.  During this time, he re-encounters Rayon and she can help bring him customers.  Since the drugs are not FDA approved, and not wishing to run afoul of the law, Ron sets up the Dallas Buyers Club.  Members pay a monthly fee to belong to the club, and in return they receive packages of drugs for their use.  Predictably perhaps, the Buyers Club is a huge success—and also predictably, Ron runs afoul of the FDA.

Some of the energy in the movie derives from these interactions between the medical establishment and the FDA and patients like Ron who believe not enough is being done, and sometimes what is being done is the wrong thing.  It is difficult to remember what things were like in the earlier days of treating AIDS, but in this regard the movie rings very true.

Out of the Dallas Buyers Club grows an at first awkward and then supportive partnership between Ron and Rayon.  There are some very touching scenes with Rayon and her father that help underscore how too many people struggling with gender identity do not get the support they crave from parents.

Ron grows as an individual and eventually becomes a champion of the gay patients he has in his Buyers Club.  And, perhaps in the final irony, given his original 30 day predicted life span after initial diagnosis, Ron lived another 7 years.

I liked these two movies immensely.  After the seemingly empty stories of The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, it was rewarding to watch movies where people with all their problems cared about each other and grow in their humanity.

I have no predictions as to which of these movies will win Best Motion Picture award.  I would happily vote got 12 Years a Slave, or Dallas Buyer Club.  But, I have learned time and again that the best picture doesn’t always win.


Peruby said...

I watched both movies you mention here in your post this past week-end. I think I liked Nebraska better as Dallas was a bit too raw for me.

I liked the doctor in Mexico played by Griffin dunne. I felt that he was much more heroic than the self-seving Woodruff character.

I'd like to see a movie on him instead.

One thing did bother me about Nebraska was the annoying music they kept playing through-out the traveling scenes.

Anvilcloud said...

They both sounds interesting, especially Nebraska.

KGMom said...

Peruby--huh! I confess I didn't notice the music. If I watch it again, I will try to tune in.

AC--the one thing about Nebraska that I didn't mention is how it raises questions about how we age. That isn't the point of the movie, but there were quite a few painful, touching scenes that deal with how we diminish as we age and how people don't always tune in to the needs of elderly. I found Woody to be quite a touching character, even as he was annoying and cantankerous.

Ginnie said...

You bring them both I want to see them and I know my oldest son is especially interested in The Dallas Buyers Club.

Mauigirl said...

Hi, am finally catching up with the blog world and started writing in my own blog again after 8 months! This is great to have the summaries of all the Oscar movies - I don't think I've even seen one of them this year! Good to have your commentary!