Dallas Buyers Club


Dallas Buyers Club (2013) is a biographical drama taking place during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The film centers around Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a straight victim of HIV who begins to smuggle medications into the United States to more effectively treat symptoms of HIV and AIDS.

The film is incredible, both a cunning character story with an incredible transformation and an educational tool for shining insight on the AIDS epidemic. Woodruff, brilliantly portrayed by McConaughey, becomes an inspirational activist for the very population he used to detest. Woodruff gets his HIV diagnosis soon after the film begins and is told he will only live 30 more days. The film keeps track of time, by inserting time stamps in between scenes — “Day 1, “Day 2”, etc. In the earlier days, Woodroof goes through stages of grief, drowning himself in liquor, considering suicide, but ultimately coming to terms with his diagnosis. As the days tick by, he makes a change and pursues survival, and as more and more days pass by, the emotional attachment to Woodruff grows, and before long, Day 30 has come and gone followed by several months.

McConaughey gives an incredible performance as Ron Woodroof. He lost 47 lbs to portray the AIDS victim. His appearance was striking, especially knowing the buff man that he is, but his performance was even more poignant. He starts off as a macho, homophobic Dallas man, who snorts cocaine and fucks women constantly. He reacts aggressively after being diagnosed with HIV, feeling a threat to his masculinity. Once he researches the disease, he begins to understand that there’s more to HIV than the “gay unknown”. McConaughey is impeccable as the harsh, macho Southern man, which makes his transformation throughout the film the more spectacular. He goes from one end of the spectrum, disgusted by the thought of a homosexual talking or touching him, to embracing not just a business partner but a friend with sincere understanding and affection. McConaughey gives a performance that I honestly never expected from him, after his string of romantic comedies, but I was incredibly moved by his performance. He goes after every detail, every nuance, to give a stunningly whole performance, much deserving of the Golden Globe and much deserving of an Oscar.

Jared Leto, as the transgender woman Rayon, also gives an incredible performance. Leto is an insanely talented man, who goes long stretches in between acting gigs yet nails it every time. His portrayal of Rayon is sensitive yet raw, exuding an air of confidence and frail sexiness. He also lost weight for this film, over 30 lbs, which provided for a frightening scene towards the end of the film. His character is one of disappointment and freedom. A moving scene occurs when Rayon dresses up in men’s clothes, as Raymond, to speak with her father. Up to that point, Rayon always seemed free and independent, unmoved by what anyone else thought about her — but then she meets her father, confronts her mortality and disappointment, and we realize that we all have our own baggage. Leto’s portrayal of Rayon was engaging and universally identifiable — a feat in itself. Whether you’re gay, straight, transgender, etc, everyone can understand what it’s like to fall short of expectations. What Rayon does is what everybody wishes they could do in x-circumstance: rise above it and embrace yourself. Leto completely embodies Rayon, artfully weaving together a character that’s both triumphant and flawed, strong enough to live life and scared to let it go. McConaughey and Leto both very well could walk away with Oscars this weekend for their incredible work.

Dallas Buyers Club is over twenty years in the making. Screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed the real Woodroof before he died in 1992. Over twenty years later, all the elements finally came together to create this incredible film. Not the typical hero, Woodroof is an inspiration for how people actually can change. From aggressive homophobe to activist, Woodroof fights all odds in a city not particularly itching to help out. This character study will encourage individuals to look inside and confront our own personal battles.

Philomena


Philomena (2013) is a comedy-drama based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. It portrays the events of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly Irish woman who has been searching for the son that was taken from her 50 years prior. With the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), she unravels the mystery behind her son’s life.

The film is a masterpiece: a perfect cocktail of humor, drama, smart writing, incredible acting, and powerful storytelling. The humor comes from the juxtaposition of simple and pious Philomena with witty and disbelieving Martin. Much of the time, humor comes at the expense of dear Philomena, who doesn’t understand many cultural references or educated cues, and sometimes it comes from the banter between the two, particularly when conversing about religion. They are unlikely friends, but Martin finds her honesty and selflessness endearing and she truly respects and appreciates his kindness and help in her endeavor. The two leads share a unique yet fervent chemistry. The smart writing seamlessly shifts from any of these humorous interactions into a nostalgic flashback or into a serious moment without any bumps or whiplash. The film itself is an artful breeze that changes direction or shifts in intensity as easily as the wind blows around you.

Sin and the Catholic faith are a major theme in Philomena. Flashbacks show a young Philomena having a night of passion which gets her pregnant. The nuns at Sean Ross Abbey chastise her sin, leave her to birth her breached baby without any painkillers as a penance to pay, and make her work 4 years to pay off her stay at the abbey. Throughout the movie, it’s evident that this particular abbey was cruel: selling fostered babies to Americans for profit. For many “educated” individuals, like Martin, experiences and stories like that have erased all faith from their lives and replaced that with logic and reason. Surprisingly, this experience hasn’t shattered Philomena’s faith a bit; if anything, her faith is even stronger. She attends mass, goes to confession, and prays regularly, believing that her faith was not at fault for her past. In the third act occurs a critical scene where Philomena goes to confession but walks out of the church upset and questioning the comments Martin had just said in the car. She works through her momentary weakness and ultimately masters her faith when she forgives brutal Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) for all her injustices.

Judi Dench is spectacular as Philomena. Dench is such a unique actor, with her characteristic voice and ability to portray hard women. As Philomena, she expresses a sweet and innocent side with subtlety and tenderness. Much of the movie closes up on her face, showing the deep creases in her skin, a metaphor for the deep wrinkles in her psyche that have developed for her tremendous loss in her life. Dench delivers nuanced expressions, from nostalgic desolation to hopeful uncertainty. She absolutely embodies the sweet and bubbly Philomena, whose personality is a rare mix of innocent frailty and weathered experience. Dench’s performance is breathtaking, heartwarming, and moving all at the same time. Her performance is entirely deserving of her Oscar nomination and equally deserving of a win. 

Philomena is a refreshing gem, inspiring and heartwarming. Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Score by Alexander Desplat, its artistry excels in both conception and execution. While it may not have the bravado of other films that may win “Best Picture” awards, this film is one of my favorites from 2013.

August: Osage County


Quote of the film: “Thank God we can’t tell the future, we could never get out of bed.” — Barbara

Based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County (2013) is a family drama, taking place around the time of a family death. The film focuses on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), and her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis).

When her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing, Violet calls on her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and daughters for support. Ivy is the only daughter that lives locally, while Barbara arrives with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) from Colorado and Karen arrives with her new boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Addicted to pills, Violet is a harsh and mean woman, attacking — at times savagely — her daughters on various faults and weaknesses. After her husband is found dead, the family prepares a funeral. The film peaks at the post-funeral dinner, where Violet copes with the death of her husband by berating the entire family (aka “truth-telling”), which Barbara — the daughter who can rival her mother’s ferocity — cannot take and physically attacks her mother and disposes of all of her pills. As the plot develops, various scenes focusing on specific families shine light on the faults in everybody’s relationships.

Meryl Streep gives an incredible performance as emotionally dismissive Violet. Her southern accent is impeccable, and she seamlessly switches from cruel mother to high drug-addict.  Her character is mostly bombastic, spewing insults left and right, but a few scenes are retrospective, giving insight to Violet’s childhood with her wicked mother.

The real star is Julia Roberts as Barbara. I was quite surprised at Roberts’ performance. Not once did I doubt her anger, nor did I disbelieve her frustration. For after all, Barbara’s frustration is never-ending: her husband is seeing a younger woman because she’s not a pain in the ass, her daughter is a spoiled brat thanks to her husband’s leniency, her mother blames her for her unhappiness and loneliness for moving away from Oklahoma, and she fears that she will become a wretched and lonely old woman like her mother. There is subtlety to her performance, there’s underlining personal disappointment to her overt disapproval of her mother. Julia Roberts puts on an incredible performance, one deserving of not only the Oscar nomination but the win.

A tremendous amount of drama occurs in the span of two hours, leaving no one unaffected or innocent. While the film is generally a family drama about Violet and her daughters, the film truly is about Barbara and how she ultimately breaks away from the shackles of her mother to pursue her own life — as the final scene in the film shows her driving away to Colorado.

Blue Jasmine


Quote of the film: “But that’s all history boys, I met someone, I’m a new person.” — Jasmine

If you know me at all, you’ll know that Cate Blanchett is one of my all-time favorite actors. She is both elegant and raw, beautiful yet cold. When I heard about this film, I was incredibly eager to watch it. Many months past and I’ve finally made it to a Redbox dispenser on a thundersnowy Chicago day. 

Once again, I wasn’t completely sure what exactly I was in for. Redbox labeled Blue Jasmine as a comedy, but I was skeptical. An hour and a half later, I can confirm that genre labels truly have no meaning. While it is a Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine (2013) hardly ever dips into the comedic side of the spectrum, if at all. It’s a story about Jasmine (Blanchett) and her fall from grace. Jasmine is a woman who has the fortune of meeting the successful, rich businessman who spoils her with wealth, class, and sophistication. She entertains with lavish parties in New York, enjoys the high-life, all while ignoring all the imperfections in her life: her husband’s infidelity, her sister’s disappointment of a life, her husband’s unlawful business affairs — and her increasingly debilitating anxiety.

The film alternates between present-day scenes in San Francisco and flashbacks  of Jasmine’s old life in New York. Towards the beginning, Jasmine comes across as a condescending albeit naive wife of a shady businessman, but as the flashbacks progress, we realize that all her current strife — losing all her wealth and possessions, moving out of her beautiful homes, relocating to San Francisco with her merely ordinary sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) — was caused by her actions. Because of that revelation, the various scenes where Jasmine is talking to herself with a blank stare or talking the ears off innocent bystanders can be seen as a way for her to complain about herself or attempt to find closure with herself. She has a horrible time in San Francisco — trying to remake herself by finding a job, going to school, looking for love — and everything is plagued by her guilt. She ruined her life, her sister’s life, her family’s life, and she has to realize that she can’t fix any of it.

Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of troubled Jasmine is incredible. Her American accent is flawless, and her characteristic voice is a cocktail of deep and robust tones. She makes it so easy to dislike her, with her pretentious speech and body language. What is particularly remarkable about Blanchett’s performance is how quickly she can go from looking beautiful and polished to looking haggard and ugly. She has such a command with her body that she creates many dimensions for Jasmine’s decaying wellbeing.

Jasmine’s delusional revival is summed up by the above quote. She’s met someone, therefore she is a new person. That may have been true when she was a young woman in college, and her future husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) swept her off her feet and transformed her into the elite and ostentatious woman she is today. However, to say that she’s met someone, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a rich and ambitious man, and declare that she’s a new person is irrational. She’s a carbon copy of herself, falling for a man who can sweep her off her feet and give her all the things she loves. Perhaps her downfall is that she is now a woman who loves things and not people.