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.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 3

The next two movies feature the scam at its zenith.  Having declared this year’s nominees for Best Motion Pictures as being “The year of the scam” American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street show the fine art of scamming in two outrageous examples.

Each of these stories is drawn from “real life.”  American Hustle presents a reworking of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  While I recalled having read about the Abscam scandal when it happened, I was a bit fuzzy on details.  So I refreshed my recollection by doing some background reading.  Had I not done that, the plot of American Hustle would have been laughably preposterous and I might have dismissed it as Hollywood hyperbole.  The real Abscam was an FBI conceived sting operation designed to ensnare American politicians taking bribes. 

The movie plot first introduces us to a small time hustler named Irving Rosenfeld, played brilliantly by Christian Bale. I promise you that you have never before seen Christian Bale appearing the way he does in the movie.  Ordinarily, the roles he plays are sleek, masculine, perhaps menacing, high-powered.  In American Hustle, he is a two-bit con man who hatches various schemes to get rich.  He is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has a stepson whom he adores.

He meets his alter ego female in Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, who masquerades as an English aristocrat calling herself Lady Edith Greensley.  Lady Edith is not above running her own cons.  Irving and Sydney are well-matched and begin their own company to run scams on a larger scale.  Into this mix  enters FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  He is hungry for recognition and advancement within the FBI.  When he catches Irving and Sydney in one of their scams, he believes he has found a way to make the kind of impact he wishes. He offers them an exchange of sorts—if they can help him make four other arrests, he will let them off on the charges he could bring against them.

The hustle is on.  American Hustle.  The Abscam part?  The politicians getting mixed up?  Well, you will just have to see the movie.  It’s a deception, compounded by a deception, wrapped in a deception.  Along the way, you will see some delicious scenes between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, like two cats fighting over a mouse.  Or Robert deNiro in a bit appearance as a mob boss. 

The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour tour de force movie directed by Martin Scorsese.  As a director, Scorsese has directed a number of movies which lay bare an aspect of humanity that is  not always pretty.  Among these movies are Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed.  The most recent movie that Scorsese directed was Hugo—made at the request of his wife who wanted him to direct something that their grandchildren could see.

And now he directed The Wolf of Wall Street.  The pace of the movie is an odd mix—it is a frenetic movie from start to finish, and yet it seems as though the complications will never end.

Like American HustleThe Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who begins his working life as a money hungry success driven stock broker.  In an opening scene his boss (Matthew McConaughey) gives him a primer on how to succeed as a stock broker—indulge in copious consumption of alcohol and cocaine and sex.  Just as his stock broker life begins, the bottom drops out of the stock market on Black Friday.  Unemployed and unable to find a job as a stock broker, Jordan takes his wife’s advice and gets a job selling penny stock.  His high powered sales pitch combined with his drive to succeed make him successful in this marginal world of stock trading.  He attracts the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they come up with a plan to make their small operation a big player.

As his success grows Jordan’s life style becomes more and more flamboyant. He dumps his first wife, marries a gorgeous woman who appears to be the fulfillment of his fantasies.  His wealth is displayed in his splashy wedding to the trophy wife, in the newly acquired country estate house, and in a sea-going yacht with every possible amenity.

There is a sense in which The Wolf of Wall Street is a morality tale.  There is the FBI agent who sets his sights on Jordan and determines to bring him down.  There is the predictable crumbling of his marriage.  There is the ever-increasing over-use and dangerous abuse of illegal drugs, which still involves cocaine, but has now expanded to include Quaaludes.  His life is so out of control.

Enough plot summarizing—I’ll let you continue Jordan’s story.  I must point out that Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is stunning--he is in virtually every scene, dominating them. He is a charmer, a scoundrel, a drug addict, a narcissistic larger than life hero/anti-hero all in one.

After seeing each of these movies, I pondered what the message is. American Hustle seems to mete out a kind of justice—and does so with a touch of humor which helps keep the tone of the movie a bit lighter and more bearable.  The Wolf of Wall Street certainly demonstrates that crime doesn’t pay—but the wreckage is disproportionate.  Just as Bernie Madoff is now in jail for his financial shenanigans, yet thousands of people’s lives were disrupted and diminished by his actions—and they can never regain what they lost despite Madoff’s going to jail—so too does The Wolf of Wall Street seem unbalanced.  Whatever punishment Jordan suffered does not seem to be fit for the wrongs he committed against so many people.  And, I have a very strong sense that he is unrepentant.

The scam most certainly was in its zenith in these two movies.  Let me know what you think.

Monday, February 03, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 2

Having determined that the common theme was “the year of the scam” I confess that that’s about it for exploring connections or linkages in  these movies.
So, I’ll just take them in twos—and share my observations.

Gravity and Captain Phillips

Gravity is the whiz-bang special effects movie nominee.  We saw the movie in 3-D, definitely the way to see it.  Of course, we were impressed with the technical know-how and the verisimilitude of the space voyage.

Gravity presents a space shuttle mission with Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) who is on her first space shuttle mission AND she is performing a spacewalk to fix the Hubble Telescope.

Now, right there, I should have been suspicious.  A rookie astronaut. OK.  A medical doctor.  OK.  Performing a spacewalk on her first space shuttle mission.  Wait just a minute.

She is accompanied by a veteran astronaut, good-old-boy Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney).  This is his last mission, and his primary goal is to break the record for space walks.  He is buzzing around in rocket propelled free form, untethered from the space shuttle.  Ryan is, of course, tethered.

When they get a message from Mission Control that a defunct satellite is disintegrating, and the debris is out of control and likely to hit the space shuttle, the astronauts try to complete their repairs.  Not soon enough—of course.  The marvelous effects of the movie very convincingly show the space debris pelting the space shuttle, which is destroyed. 
And so the adventure of the whole movie begins.  Kowalski persuades Ryan to unhitch her tether, and when she tumbles and somersaults through space, you tumble with her.

I will let the remainder of the adventure for you to see.  There is little character development in this movie, and the plot is the real engine of the story.  What will happen next? As viewer, you watch anxiously with each unfolding challenge.  My feet were sweating through major parts of this movie.  (I would consider myself “gravity” challenged.  As my family knows, I am not fond of heights—e.g. Ferris wheels high off the ground.) You know little about the characters, and learn almost nothing about them.  As a result, your only identification with them is our common shared human condition.

While Bullock’s acting is first-rate and very convincing, I have two complaints about the movie. First, why the ambiguous ending.  I don’t want to give it away—but, really, is she saved? Or not?  Second, just this—Gravity has no gravitas.

Captain Phillips is another voyage movie.  Unlike Gravity, the events depicted in Captain Phillips “really happened.”  The story is well-known.  Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips, who is the captain of a container ship Maersk Alabama, which is transporting cargo in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.

After a brief introduction to Captain Phillips in a family setting, and a drive to the airport with his wife, the remainder of the movie is set at sea.  We see him as captain, sense his wariness in the waters he is sailing.  His insistence on safety drills seems intelligent, and obviously foreshadowing of the challenges to come.

We also see the Somali pirates and their desperate circumstances as they squabble among themselves.  We learn that they are controlled by an almost anonymous leader of the mother ship.  As the pirate boat chases the container ship, you experience real excitement in the chase. 

When the pirates successfully commandeer the ship, we meet the lead pirate Muse, played by the remarkable newcomer actor Barkhad Abdi.  Thus begins the duel between Muse and Phillips for control of the ship.  When the pirates succeed, and the pirates flee with Phillips as hostage aboard the small lifeboat, the tension mounts.

As I said, we know the story.  We know that the U.S. mounts a rescue effort with the Navy Seal Team Six.  The account was well-covered in national news at the time.
What works so well in the movie is that even knowing the story, we still feel the tension.  We know how things will turn out, and yet we still grip our seats.

The surprise for me in watching this movie is that I experienced some sympathy for the pirates.  Not for their methods, of course, or their means of redressing the inequality of their lives, but for their desperate circumstances that would drive them to such a high stakes dangerous way of securing any kind of living.

So, whichever of these two movies you see—bon voyage.