Catching Up 2013: Crump's Mini-Review Extravaganza

DBC-Leto-McConaugheyIf you’ve ever talked to me about the weather, you probably know that I’m a big fan of cold and snow. Not to the point where I prefer the bitter months of the year to the fruitful days of summer; in point of fact, every season, be it warm or chilly, has its merits in my book, and one of the best parts of living in New England lies in getting the full spectrum of changing climates for every annual quarter. That means there’s always something to look forward to, unless you’re one of those who prefers to hibernate in the winter rather than strap yourself to a snowboard and hurl yourself down a mountain at forty miles an hour.

Anyways, I bring all of this up because dark days and frigid temperatures trumpet the arrival of end of year movie madness. There are few better ways to brace yourself for inclement weather than to hunker down in front of a TV (ideally with a cup of cocoa at your side (which is also ideally spiked with something a bit stronger)) and watch a bunch of flicks in a row, so as to forget about slushy streets and icy sidewalks. How fortunate, then, that the arrival of our beloved regional frostiness coincides with the onslaught of awards considerations, which means screeners, which means that I have way too many movies to watch.

Which also means that I can’t really dedicate my usually count of eight hundred to a thousand words to each of them. I just can’t! But I can give you my condensed thoughts on a few of the films I’m playing catch-up on, or which I never managed to get around to writing about in full here or elsewhere, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

You can expect everybody here at Go, See, Talk! to weigh in on their favorites of 2013, as well as some general wrap-up and hype-up for 2014, but in the meantime, permit me to bring myself to current on a handful of the pictures I’ve missed during the release year, and have only managed to log recently:

Dallas Buyers Club

If you’ve ever participated in any kind of argument about Oscar bait, then you can probably sense Dallas Buyers Club‘s intentions from a mile away. That said, Oscar bait comes in many makes and models; if all Oscar bait movies exist to win awards, then some prove to be exceptional pieces of storytelling regardless of that impure intention. Smartly made, well acted, and concerned foremost with issues of great topical importance, Dallas Buyers Club falls into that realm of quality blended with ambition – this film wants your vote, and it’s equipped with all the right tools to win you over, too.

A caveat: last year’s excellent documentary on the AIDS epidemic, David France’s How to Survive a Plague, is almost certainly required viewing before watching Dallas Buyers Club. (Or after, if that suits your fancy.) As anyone might expect in examining the schism between a work of fiction and a documentary, reality crystallizes far, far better in the former, and if your curiosity can’t be slaked by the slick gloss of Jean-Marc Vallée’s film, then leave it to France to fill in the blanks. Dallas Buyers Club is the sensationalized version of history, Hollywoodized for maximum dramatic impact.

None of the liberties Vallée takes, and none of the narrative flourishes he applies, blank the power of this story, mind, but as we learn about Ron Woodroof – a homophobic, womanizing, alcoholic rodeo cowboy – we start to wonder if Dallas Buyers Club could have been made with anything other than the traditional white heterosexual male protagonist. Woodroof happens to be real, and his story just as genuine, but could Vallée have made this film from the perspective of any of the men we meet in How to Survive a Plague? Woodroof, we learn quite quickly early on, has been nursing the HIV virus in his system for a long time; we see the moment of contraction in flashback, a series of bad decisions culminating in the ravaging of his immune system. His solution to his impending doom? Smuggle anti-viral meds from across the globe, both to preserve his own health and make a quick buck on the side. Welcome to the Dallas buyers club.

The biggest point of interest here is Matthew McConaughey, who in the role of Woodroof brings a vast array of emotions and character ticks that make this bigoted man feel all too real and shockingly alive, even as death edges ever closer to him. For McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club represents the peak of the wave he’s been riding for the last few years; for costar Jared Leto, it’s the possible beginning of his very own upsurge. Both actors go big with their performances, and while McConaughey plays the repentant Woodroof as larger than life, Leto’s quieter work at times threatens to upstage the leading man’s best efforts. They’re quite a pair indeed, more than enough to make Dallas Buyers Club worth recommending on the strength of their respective achievements.


Blue is the Warmest Color

Interestingly, Abdellatif Kechiche’s film isn’t remarkable as an entry in the niche of gay cinema; Blue is the Warmest Color, over the course of three hours, may be unable to avoid earning that distinction, but the real message here is that we love who we love. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) swears her heterosexuality in a schoolyard confrontation with a pair of her misguided, ignorant frenemies, and we come to a moment of pause – is she simply attempting to dodge labels as a defense against prejudice and hatred, or is she telling the truth, and therefore confused over what her attraction to college student Emma (Léa Seydoux) really means?

If any film in 2013 captures how raw emotions run during the formative years of teenhood better than Blue is the Warmest Color does, I haven’t seen it. Adèle, thanks in no small part to Ms. Exarchopoulos’ soulful eyes and the dignity with which she carries herself, immediately wins our sympathy as she navigates both the choppy waters of high school (okay, okay, secondary school), and the uncharted territory her burgeoning sexual awareness takes her to; she’s vulnerable and lost, and (to continue the boating metaphor) without a rudder to steer as she steps into a new world of personal identity. Naturally, Emma gets to step in and provide that stability, fill the gap that’s missing from Adèle’s life, but we know that theirs is a bond that’s bound to be tested at one point or another.

Blue is the Warmest Color seems daunting at a glance for several reasons, the least of which being its, shall we say, detailed depictions of physical love. At 179 minutes, this is one of the longest films you’re likely to see in a theater (or at home) this year; Kechiche, however, proves adept at making those three hours glide by blithely, carefully, deliberately, such that the passage of time never announces itself. Watching the movie unfold feels akin to reading a classic, stripped-down work of literature, perhaps appropriate given how often the text refers back to the novels of Marivaux and Laclos. Each frame passes by with the same pleasure as comes with the turning of a page.

For some, the sex scenes may indeed be the greater concern, particularly as they relate back to the male gaze, and indeed, there’s a degree of validity to any apprehensions of the sort. Yet these moments dare not be less gratuitous than anything else Kechiche includes in his film; Blue is the Warmest Color threatens to portray life realistically, in-depth, up-close, with no filter protecting us from the realities of Adèle’s and Emma’s romance. Of course the sex Kechiche shows us is graphic. The life he shows us is just as graphic, and made no less worth observing based on cultural revulsion toward (or fear of) portrayals of human sexual expression.


Short Term 12

Our own Jess Tomberlin swooned over Destin Cretton’s feature-length rendition of his short film of the same name, back when the movie released in theaters last September; let me now join my voice to hers by singing Short Term 12‘s praises as well. Cretton’s most important accomplishment here, though, is one of restraint; on paper, this could be the exact same kind of tear-jerking, accolades-oriented picture as Dallas Buyers Club, but Short Term 12 never even comes close to toeing that line, much less crossing it. Built on a foundation of realism, the film exists to simply tell complex, dark stories as genuinely as possible, all which are filtered through and bound together by the common elements of a foster care facility for at-risk teens and Brie Larson. 

You probably know Larson from her work on United States of Tara21 Jump Street, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but none of these really hint at the emotional heights she’s capable of reaching. Short Term 12 benefits from having a broad cast of very convincing performers, but without Larson, there would be a huge hole at its center; she holds the narrative up, providing the events Cretton shows us with a central soul. Larson plays Grace (an apt name, that), a supervisor at the aforementioned facility who’s as tough and steely as she is compassionate – we know within moments of meeting her and seeing her at work that she cares about her job, the kids she shepherds, and her co-worker/boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.). But we learn just as quickly that she’s sitting on a billowing cloud of personal anguish, and so Short Term 12 ends up being about how she reconciles her own pain through her efforts with the youths in her charge.

That’s a wide, motley collection of teens, but wisely Short Term 12 chooses to put heightened emphasis on a handful of them: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who edges nearer and nearer to his eighteenth birthday and thus his exit from the facility, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a newcomer whose shocking family matters touch Grace right at her core. To say more than that would be to give away far too much, but Short Term 12 comes to revolve around not how the authority figures change the lives of the teens, or even the reverse, but rather how this community of people unites to help each other.

Does that sound saccharine and contrived? Perhaps, but it never plays that way. Cretton has a great gift for balancing the unimaginable heartache his characters feel against anti-sentimentality; you may weep at the tale, but not because Cretton jams all of the sadness down our throat. He doesn’t need to. His work here is assured and absent of vanity, making him practically invisible in the proceedings, which by consequence get to play out organically and without being fussed over. The horrors that his characters independently endure speak for themselves; Cretton, Larson, Gallagher, and the rest of the players all understand this intrinsically. They don’t bring Short Term 12‘s world to life, they wholly inhabit it. It’s a level of realism most human interest films wish that they could attain, and Cretton has the common decency not to ever be smug about it. He, as well as his movie, are just too damn honest for that.


Before Midnight

Permit me, now, the chance to cash in a “get out of jail free” card: mea culpaMea maxima culpa. I saw this film back in June (you may remember that I wrote about it here!), and yet I never, ever got around to writing about it despite pegging it as the best film of 2013 at the halfway mark. That’s a bad on me. If my egregious lapse suggests that perhaps my feelings on Before Midnight aren’t quite so strong as I say, allow me to change your mind: six months later, Before Midnight remains one of 2013’s true essentials, and represents the rare third entry in a trilogy that surpasses its forebears.

Richard Linklater’s Before series may be the most unlikely trifecta in cinematic history: who knew that in 1995, we were only just witnessing the beginning of what ultimately became the great love story of our time? Due credit, of course, must be accorded to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – these films owe just as much to Linklater’s stars as to Linklater himself, not just for their work in front of the lens but behind it, too. To this trio, Jesse and Celine aren’t characters on the page, they’re real people, and indeed, any viewer who has ever been in a committed relationship will see at least a part of themselves in what these star-crossed lovers have gone through in a relationship that’s two decades old. Before Midnight simply uses the third act of their love as its framework.

And as one might expect, life has become slightly messier for Jesse and Celine since 2004’s Before Sunset; they’re married now, juggling two children of their own with Jesse’s bond with Hank, his son from his previous marriage, as well as their respective careers. Jesse has found continuous success in his novelist pursuits, and Celine’s career has come to a head as she considers taking a job for the French government. Carrying on with the use of Europe as a backdrop, Linklater airdrops them on the Peloponnese peninsula, where they’re vacationing with their children and their friends; Before Midnight, then, has the privilege of boasting the largest cast out of each of these movies, though before long we’re left alone with our leading duo and their discursive conversations about, well, everything.

There should be no need to articulate just how much heavier Before Midnight plays in comparison to its predecessors: Jesse and Celine have more on their plate now than ever, and as one might expect, that means things get kind of ugly here. That Linklater captures all of the splinters and cracks in their matrimony with his trademarked long, uninterrupted takes only emphasizes those imperfections, keeping the pair – and, by extension, the audience – teetering on the edge for huge chunks of time in the film’s third act. We’ve never seen them this vulnerable or this volatile, but there’s a great deal of beauty in the viciousness of their repartee – it’s a sign of how much they’re attached to each other, and an exclamation point on platitudes about hard marriage can be. But the endgame here is its own reward: an honest portrait of marriage’s many faces, and a tribute to the power of unconditional love.


Enough Said

If the loss of James Gandolfini feels like a gut punch, then rest easy knowing that he went out on a high note (excuse me for being so cavalier), and all while discarding his Tony Soprano persona in favor of playing, well, a cuddly teddy bear. Albert, the leading male figure in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, plays totally opposite to what we expect from Gandolfini thanks to a career spent playing mafiosos (well, one particular mafioso); he’s interesting, congenial, funny, and flat-out sweet, so much so that it’s difficult to imagine anyone not being taken by the warm glow of his company. Yet that’s precisely what the film’s plot hinges on, disbelief be damned.

That’s because Nicole Holofcener understands how to deftly highlight the better and worse attributes of her characters without casting any sort of judgment on them from the other side of the camera. Any other studio-backed romantic comedy would take the opportunity to make all of the people we meet here into grotesques, but everybody here feels whole, complete, natural; it’s as though Holofcener saw a few episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine and decided she could better honor Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ talents by telling a similar story with a similar protagonist, but layering it with challenging questions and ideas as well as fully-realized characters rather than cartoon cut-outs.

The results satisfy and then some. Romantic comedy tends to draw the short straw as a genre – more often than not, these films are treated as product, and are scarcely maximized as stories, much less as thought-provoking art. Holofcener here proves just how valid the rom-com is as an archetype, so long as the people involved bother to tell a compelling yarn; every single one of the film’s moving parts works beautifully in the telling of the attraction that buds between Eva (Louis-Dreyfus in top form) and the aforementioned Albert, two divorced middle-age people who share more in common than they expect on first meeting each other. With time, they grow close to each other, connecting over their fears of seeing their children off to college, but naturally there’s a monkey wrench thrown in the works when Eva discovers that Albert is the ex-husband of one of her massage clients, Marianna (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener).

Awkward. There’s humor to be found in the ensuing dramatics, but a great deal of heartbreak, too, not just for Eva but for her friends and family. Enough Said examines the depths of dissatisfaction that our personal relationships can reach and the emotional rifts that divide us, whether they’re with our spouses or with our parents; it’s also all about individual perspective, and how much listening to others can be harmful for us when we’re trying to nail down something good in our lives. Maybe, through all of this, Enough Said is most of all about the insecurities that become part of the package as we age and mature, and the erosion of confidence. The fact that someone could conceivably take any number of these ideas away from watching the film speaks highly to how much thought went into crafting the story, and how much passion went into bringing its characters to life.

This is just the beginning of Go, See, Talk’s! wrap-up for the year; we’ve a few weeks left before it’s time to fare 2013 well and welcome 2014, after all, so consider this a simple jumping-off point as we begin winding down and looking backwards at what the movies looked like these last twelve months. Stay tuned for more as we ready our best-of lists, as well as reviews of some of the season’s most anticipated releases!