Friday, December 27, 2013

Double Review: 12 Years a Slave / Dallas Buyers Club

Because nothing rings of “the holiday season” quite like racial strife and AIDS!


Christmastime means many things: eggnog and going into credit card debt and having to pretend that you don’t hate everybody in your family at an incredibly awkward dinner gathering, among them. Christmastime also means something else, though: it means Oscar Bait season at the local Cineplex is in full swing, so for the first (and only, really) time during the calendar year, you can waltz into a NORMAL theater and see something that’s not remarkably stupid for a change.

Me being me, when it came time to churn through this year’s Academy Award hopefuls, I elected to pursue the most horrifically depressing material I could find. Yeah, movies about outer space and French lesbians and the startling high number of “Goodfellas” wannabes out there piqued my curiosity, but at the end of the day, did you really expect me to turn down movies about HIV positive cowboys and violent involuntary servitude? Of course, you knew I wouldn’t. You knew I wouldn’t…

12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen


If there’s one thing 2013 taught me, it’s that with the popularity of films like this and “The Butler,” American audiences sure do seem to love them some African-American misery. In that, “12 Years a Slave” is this weird reverse-racist pornography, the kind of on-the-nose anti-bigotry Oscar bait you’d expect it to be, but at the same time, an almost obsessive tribute to historical black suffering. Say what you will, but at the end of the day, “12 Years a Slave” is ultimately a lot more “Hostel” than it is “Sounder.”

For the uninitiated, “12 Years” is based upon the nonfiction work of the same name, not penned by Solomon Northup -- whose actual life pre-slavery seemed to be just a tad different than what the film conjectures, but what the hell ever, right?

So one day, Solomon -- played by Chiwetel Eijofor, in a performance that’s probably going to garner at least an Oscar nomination -- is hanging out in the park, when some carnival folks invite him for a night out. He ends up drinking some drugged mead, and he wakes up inside a D.C. prison, the unwilling victim of some convoluted Shanghai job that’s never really explored in-depth by the film’s narrative. And so, the classically trained violinist finds himself ported down South, where everybody has mutton chops and says racist things. Thankfully for Northup -- well, I guess thankfully, anyway -- his first “master” (played by Smaug himself) is a semi-humanitarian plantation owner that treats most of his slaves respectfully. However, Solomon’s waterway engineering feats earns him the scorn of Paul Dano, who plays the kind of one-dimensional, homicidally violent racist cracker that no quasi-historically accurate film about U.S. life between the years 1800 to 1970 would be complete without. Eventually, Northup and Dano’s character have a bout of the fisticuffs, and Dano responds by almost hanging him to death. Northup’s master, fearing that it’s only a matter of time until Dano finishes the job, decides to send Northup to another plantation -- this one under the eye of Michael Fassbender, who plays a bipolar, slave-raping paedo whose jungle fever for an almost assuredly under-the-age field worker (played by Lupita Nyong’o) really, really pisses off his wife.

As bad as Solomon’s treatment in the film is, it’s really the punishment absorbed by Nyong’o’s character Patsey that’s probably the hardest element of the film to witness. In one scene, she’s drilled in the face by a wine bottle, and another, Fassbender has his evil Southern-by-way-of-Germany way with her on a woodpile. The centerpiece of the film, however, is when Patsey pays for retrieving soap from a nearby plantation owner’s wife (who, peculiarly, happened to be black herself), by receiving one of the most gruesome beatings in the annals of cinema. Next to our lord and savior in “The Passion of the Christ” or that one girl in “MASD-004,” I don’t think ANYBODY has received such heinous per capita abuse in a single film as she does in “12 Years a Slave.”

Eventually, Northup meets up with Brad Pitt, a Canadian carpenter abolitionist who just sort of shows up one day, and he mails a letter that gets Northup’s business associate up north to hitch his wagons southward and free him for good. Of course, by doing so, Northup leaves behind all of the unfreed field workers -- among them, the slave girl that once asked him to drown her in a river -- but bullocks to that; we conclude with your expectedly saccharine ending, in which Northup is reunited with his family, who have all grown up and had kids of their own and whatnot. Too bad Northup’s actual fate post-freedom was nowhere near as cherry as the film leads you to believe, though.

As a feature film, “12 Years” is pretty damn great, though. Steve McQueen is a tremendous director with a keen eye for details, and the ensemble cast here is just fantastic. Eijofor and Fassbender are both Academy Awards bound for sure, but if you ask me, it was Nyong’o that put in the film’s strongest overall performance; whether or not she gets a best supporting actress nod -- especially in such a crowded field  of probable contenders -- however, is something we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rolling Stone recently called this film the best movie ever made about slavery. Well, I’m not so sure about that claim, but there’s no denying that this is an excellent cinematic foray, and where it flails in historical accuracy, it more than makes up for with sheer cinematic flair and gusto. It may not be the finest film on the subject, but it remains an outstanding film, nonetheless. Also, my screening of the film contained what is unquestionably the greatest movie going experience of my life, when during a whipping scene, some dude in the front row screamed “Get Django, motherfucker!

Score: 

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four

Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean Marc Vallee


So way back in the eighth grade, I took a health education course. One week was dedicated to sexually transmitted diseases, culminating with a Friday lecture about AIDS. For whatever reason, that in-class discussion about HIV and shared needles and infection via sexual fluids positively traumatized me, to the point where I almost threw up on my desk. I actually had to run to the bathroom, because I felt like I was going to pass out if I heard anything more about thrush and Kaposi's sarcoma.

So, yeah, that’s one of those things that I’ve kinda’ forgotten about over the last fifteen years. And then, I sit down and start watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” and suddenly, all of that profound pre-teen horror comes roaring back.

I think it was the part where Matthew McConnaughey gets into a fistfight and HIV blood starts splashing around all over the place that I first got a little queasy. The scene after he’s first diagnosed -- in which he willingly infects a couple of ultra-trashy prostitutes in his trailer park home -- almost, ALMOST, lead me to exiting the theater. However, I was able to weather the storm, and I’m glad I did, because this is a really great movie, anchored around yet another almost-certain-to-be-Oscar-bound performance.

So, Matt M. plays a Rodeo cowboy electrician that sort of looks like Richard Petty, and he bribes this one dude at the hospital to score him some AZT. The only problem is, AZT don’t do a whole lot, so he starts doing research on international HIV treatments. Eventually, he winds up in Mexico, where he scores a whole stash of non FDA-approved vitamins and supplements from a disbarred doctor. Over time, Matt M. hooks up with Jared Leto -- who plays a transgender AIDS patient (chalk up another best supporting actor nod there) -- and the two decide to open up a “buyers club” in a scummy hotel, for HIV patients that want some non-regulated medications and stuff.

Before long, Matt is traveling the world over, shooting himself up with experimental Japanese drugs and nearly dying in airport bathrooms, all the while getting hassled by the DEA and FDA for all of that non-sanctioned (and later, flat out illegal) drug trafficking. He soon hooks up with a caring pharmacy rep (played by Elektra), and Matt moves out of the hotel and sets up a new business in the home of two of his top patients.

Well, this being a movie about AIDS and all, I guess you can predict that we ain’t having a happy ending with this one. The big finale involves Matt traveling to San Francisco and losing a big FDA suit, only to return home to Dallas and get a huge ovation from all of his purchasers. And then he dies, and the credits roll, and all you can really think about is, “you know, something honey? Fuck the Federal Drug Administration, and hard."

So yeah, this is a very well-directed film, and the ensemble cast is just terrific. I’m not sure if Matt or Jared are going to win any awards for this one, but they’ll definitely get nominated. As an overall film, I really can’t quibble with too much; it appears to be more historically accurate than most modern-day biopics, and I really liked the fact that they didn’t try to paint Matthew’s character as some sort of saint-like figure. At the beginning of the film, he’s a homophobic, womanizing prick, and at the end of the film, he’s still a homophobic, womanizing prick, albeit one that’s a little bit more empathetic. It’s a very, very strong film, powered by a trifecta of very strong performances; an all-time masterpiece, it may not be, but it’s definitely a satisfying -- if not surprisingly apolitical -- experience.

Score:


Three and Half Tofu Dogs out of Four


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