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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Human Lives for Sale

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 22, 2013 – U.S. (wide)
Rating: R
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 117 minutes
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, 
Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, 
Michael O'Neill

Matthew McConaughey has such an innate ability to charm that you can't help but like him even as his character makes vile homophobic slurs and acts like a loud, boorish redneck. He's not relying on his movie star good looks either; they have been stripped away completely. Now dozens of pounds lighter with bad brown hair and a bushy mustache, his appearance is almost skeletal.

"Dallas Buyers Club" tells the true story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a good old boy from Texas who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Back then, HIV and AIDS were still considered "the gay cancer." But Woodroof is proudly, fiercely straight. The movie begins with him cracking jokes about Rock Hudson's homosexuality – the actor had just died from AIDS. With that mindset, Woodroof's own subsequent HIV+ diagnosis is a shock to his system. His friends certainly don't know how to handle it; they believe he must secretly be a "cocksucker." The only one who remains loyal to him is Tucker (the underrated Steve Zahn in a small role).

Experimental trials are beginning for a new HIV drug called AZT, but not everyone who needs it can get their hands on it; testing is strictly controlled. Given only 30 days to live, a desperate Woodroof approaches a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), and begs her to let him buy the drug. She understands his plight but cannot accept his money; her hands are tied by medical laws and the FDA.

Woodroof uses his street smarts to get AZT smuggled out of the hospital. Originally intending to use it only on himself, his plans change after he meets a savvy transgender patient, Rayon (Jared Leto). Despite Woodroof's discomfort around Rayon, they go into business together to supply other people with HIV who need meds right away.

At first, the Dallas Buyers Club is just a means to an end: a way to make money and stay alive. But it soon becomes much more than that, especially when the validity of AZT comes into question. With the help of a medical practitioner in Mexico (played by Griffin Dunne) who lost his license in the States, Woodroof begins researching alternative treatments. One such drug, Peptide T, is not approved by the FDA despite being non-toxic. Another, Interferon, can only be prescribed by Japanese doctors.

My doctor looks like him.
Should I be worried?
The Buyers Club's biggest obstacles are Dr. Sevard (Denis O'Hare) and the FDA themselves. Sevard is a strictly by-the-books doctor who is concerned with his own profit margins and won't take even one step out of regulation. The FDA, represented here by Richard Barkley (Michael O'Neill, who memorably portrayed hospital shooter Gary Clark on "Grey's Anatomy"), does everything in its power to make sure its guidelines are enforced – even at the cost of human lives. Both parties go out of their way to prevent the Dallas Buyers Club from securing and supplying crucial medication to people with HIV. Jennifer Garner's Dr. Saks is caught in the middle: beholden to her boss but beginning to see the benefit the buyers clubs are having in both Dallas and other parts of the country.

Woodroof's transformation from homophobic hick to international businessman and medical researcher is fascinating to watch. Matthew McConaughey once again delivers a mesmerizing performance – in a year filled with interesting roles from him. Along with "Mud," he is doing some of the best work of his career right now. The real revelation here, however, is Jared Leto. I've always been a fan of his work, but he takes it to another level entirely with his sweet, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of the transgendered Rayon. I cannot imagine a scenario where he doesn't get nominated for an Academy Award. McConaughey deserves one, too.

"Dallas Buyers Club" is a captivating portrait of another time and place – Dallas, Texas, in the mid-1980s – where AIDS was misunderstood and maligned, and help was all too rare for the people who so urgently needed it. Films like this remind us of how far we've come, and that bravery, progress, and change can originate from the unlikeliest of sources. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Parkland

50 Years After JFK's Assassination, The Story is Told From the Perspective of the Doctors and Nurses, FBI and Secret Service Agents, the Photographer, and the Oswald Family

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 4, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Peter Landesman
Writers: Peter Landesman, 
Vincent Bugliosi (book)
Cast: James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, 
Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston, 
Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, 
Paul Giamatti

It has been 50 years since U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Countless books, movies, documentaries, news reports, and conspiracy theories have emerged since that time. "Parkland" manages to tell the same story from a different perspective. It focuses on the peripheral people who were suddenly thrust into an unimaginable situation on November 22, 1963 and in the days that followed – the hospital staff that operated on Kennedy, the Secret Service agents sworn to protect the President, the FBI agents who had Lee Harvey Oswald in their grasp, the photographer who filmed the shooting, and the Oswald family themselves.

The movie remembers a time when there was almost universal respect and reverence for the President. Whether that was ever really the case or not, it certainly isn't now. Back then, a photographer could request that the still-frame of a kill-shot remain unpublished to preserve a man's dignity; that would never happen in today's open media and society where it's a constant race to the bottom to be first with a story. 
This is a very fast-paced, frantic, gritty look at the President's assassination and its aftermath. It wastes no time. Within the first five minutes of the film, JFK is shot and killed. From there, it switches to Parkland Hospital and then cycles back and forth between the various "people on the ground" who found themselves involved in what instantly became American history.

"Parkland" pulls no punches. In one scene, the President's wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, is seen crying into her hands with her husband's blood all over them. It's a shocking, jarring moment that clashes starkly with the pretty pink outfit she was wearing that day. Famous forever for her photogenic features and elegant style, here she is presented as a mere mortal – a wilted flower withering from the loss of the love of her life.

However, Mr. and Mrs. President are mostly in the background. This particular treatment of the JFK assassination shines the spotlight on photographer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), Dr. Charles "Jim" Carrico (Zac Efron, looking too young and scruffy), FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (a weathered Billy Bob Thornton), Lee Harvey Oswald's brother and mother (played by James Badge Dale and Jacki Weaver), and many others (Marcia Gay Harden, David Harbour, Tom Welling, Mark Duplass, Colin Hanks, and Jackie Earle Haley all pop up in smaller roles).

Despite all of the players involved, this is not a character-driven story. We never get to know much about any of these people beyond their direct or indirect involvement with Kennedy. That's okay though, because "Parkland" is simply meant to put us in the middle of the madness, similar to the way "United 93" depicted 9/11.

Two highlights: amusing archival footage of Kennedy deflecting a request to wear a cowboy hat, and Abe Zapruder's eyes growing wide with horror as he sees the moment of death replayed in the footage he shot.

(And for you folks who believe Lee Harvey Oswald didn't do it, the movie dangles a few half-bitten carrots in that direction without ever explicitly supporting or agreeing with those alternate theories: Oswald was caught rather quickly with an almost immediate rush to judgment, his mother insisted he was framed, and his previous dealings with the FBI had nothing to do with Kennedy.)

"Parkland" powerfully demonstrates what it must have been like for the doctors and nurses who operated on – and lost – Kennedy, the emotional impact it had on the photographer who filmed the President as he was being murdered, the agents who had interacted with Lee Harvey Oswald just weeks prior to the assassination, and the toll it took on Robert and Marguerite Oswald as they struggled to come to terms with what happened.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Not a Review: Captain Phillips

My Thoughts on the Movie and the Maersk Alabama Ship Hijacking

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 11, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography
Running Time: 134 minutes
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Billy Ray (screenplay), 
Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty (book)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, 
Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, 
Mahat M. Ali, Amr El-Bayoumi

I was extremely hesitant to see and write about "Captain Phillips" for a variety of reasons:

1. I don't usually enjoy this type of movie.

2. I am generally not a fan of its director, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne sequels with Matt Damon worked in spite of him, not because of him. (More on that later...)

3. And the big one: a relative of mine was on the boat, and he's suing the shipping company.

His name is Jimmy Sabga. He was quoted by ABC News: "Captain Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked and he was responsible."

Reports indicate that the captain was warned ahead of time about the possibility of pirates and was told to stay 600 miles away from Somalia; instead, his ship – the Maersk Alabama – was only about 250 miles away.

This is already more interesting than the movie itself!

Once again, Hollywood has fictionalized a true story. But it would be hypocritical of me to hold that against the film, when so many other "biopics" do the exact same thing. For example, "A Beautiful Mind" was roundly criticized because its subject – John Forbes Nash – has a few skeletons in his closet that were nowhere to be found on-screen. It's still a great movie.

Therefore, I'll judge Phillips the film solely by what I saw in the theater and withhold any judgment of Phillips the man.

I've obviously never met Richard Phillips, but I can't pretend that I know Jimmy Sabga either – I don't. (It's a big family, and I always meet new people at our reunions. I don't know them, but they all seem to know me.) Truthfully, I'm probably more familiar with Tom Hanks. Still, I'll openly admit it: I can't help but root for good ol' Uncle J.

Now, about that movie...

I've already expressed my distaste for the directorial style of Paul Greengrass. His camerawork is usually choppy to the point of dizzying nausea. That worked wonderfully in "United 93" about the 9/11 airplane hijacking because it created a necessary sense of chaos. However, it made the action sequences in "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" confusing and unbearable to watch. But I have to give credit where it's due: Greengrass has matured considerably as a director. Everything he does in "Captain Phillips" is subtle and serves the situation well. You can almost feel the ship swaying slightly, but he never goes too far with the effect. He doesn't show off. His camera motions are realistic and nuanced.

For a film that's being criticized for turning Phillips into a hero who can do no wrong, he's surprisingly portrayed as, well, quite an asshole.

In one scene, the crew members are chatting with each other and enjoying their coffee. Such camaraderie, I would think, would be encouraged by any half-decent captain. Not Phillips! He gruffly tells them to get back to work. The crew members as essentially depicted as lazy slackers who need the captain to get them in line. It's insulting and ridiculous.

(If this actually happened, Uncle Jimmy is obviously nicer than me, because I would have thrown the captain overboard. Hey, no one takes away my coffee time!)

Later on, the crew yells at Phillips, saying they "didn't sign up for this" – fighting pirates. They didn't. But the captain behaves like an arrogant tyrant and practically bullies them into staying on the ship. Of course, the movie never touches on what Phillips was later accused of in the lawsuit: that he placed them all in that predicament to begin with by ignoring warnings and disobeying orders.

What was hyped above all was Phillips' heroic act – leaving his own ship to go with the Somalians, thereby potentially sacrificing himself for the safety of his crew. I was under the impression beforehand that he willingly put himself in that situation, but the movie presents it as something he was forced to do. I'm not sure how it happened in real life, but the film seems to go out of its way to diminish his big moment of bravery. If the captain realized he screwed up and this was his way of making amends, he deserves credit for acting like a leader instead of following one mistake with many more like most people would. Whatever the case may be, I certainly cannot be critical of what was obviously a very difficult and dangerous situation in real life.

Perhaps they were counting on Hanks's ability to "convey a sense of old-fashioned American decency just by standing in the frame" – as The New York Times puts it – to carry things along. There is definitely no one better at being good than Hanks, but that only goes so far. As we saw in "The Da Vinci Code," even the warm and likeable star of "Forrest Gump" can't save a controversial project many people found offensive for religious reasons. I was offended by "Da Vinci" too. Bad movies offend me greatly!

Make no mistake, "Captain Phillips" isn't a bad movie; it just has issues.

I admire its efforts to present the Somali pirates fairly by examining their dire circumstances and putting a human face on their inhumane actions. But just as the film doesn't quite make Phillips as heroic as it aims to, it goes overboard in the other direction with the pirates. By the end, I found myself sympathizing more with his captors! I don't think that was quite what the filmmakers intended.

Hanks delivers a tremendous performance as the captain in peril, masterfully conveying multiple emotions – fear, anger, hatred, and even concern – sometimes all in the same scene. His four Somalian co-stars - Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali – are absolutely amazing in their own right, which is especially incredible because none of them have ever been in a movie before.

The acting and directing are both superb; any problems "Captain Phillips" has are script-related. In addition to the skewed hero-villain dynamic, the film rarely felt suspenseful to me – despite featuring many big, dramatic moments. Part of the problem, I think, is that it simply feels too long. Granted, I knew the general outcome ahead of time – but that was true of "Argo" too, and that movie kept me on the edge of my seat.

As for Uncle Jimmy, was he even in "Captain Phillips"? Yes! Well, maybe.

Amr El-Bayoumi
Several months ago, IMDB actually included the actual crew members' names for the various actors playing them. That changed somewhere along the way though – maybe because of the lawsuit? Now, they're all listed simply as "Maersk Alabama Crew." Like the idiotic coffee scene, this seems like yet another way to callously diminish their contributions and worth. If anything, the crew members were the bravest because their lives were in the hands of a captain who had already made a bad judgment call. I can't imagine a more helpless feeling.

Luckily, some sites – such as – still list the old cast information. Amr El-Bayoumi plays Jimmy "Sagba." (Yes, to add insult to injury, our damn name is misspelled. Thankfully, El-Bayoumi himself has enough respect for the person he's representing: his Spotlight page contains the correct spelling.) I only recall seeing him in a single scene – the one where the crew objected to combating pirates. He valiantly stood up to Phillips. I laughed, I cried, I clapped and cheered. It's a stunning performance that's a surefire lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. El-Bayoumi was so convincing as Uncle Jimmy that I felt I was at a family reunion instead of in the theater. Yes, I'm kidding. The actor is decades younger and looks nothing like the man he's portraying, but that's probably par for the course in Hollywood. I certainly won't object if they ever make a movie of my life and decide to have Channing Tatum, Brad Pitt (as long as he doesn't come onto the set with the stoner hairstyle he was sporting in "World War Z"), or George Clooney play me. One must make these sorts of sacrifices in the name of great art.

Overall, "Captain Phillips" is a bit of a mixed bag, but it does succeed in taking the viewer on a journey into the heart of a hijacked ship, its terrified captain and crew, and a group of desperate pirates with pressures of their own back home. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review: The Purge

Murder Mass-Marketed

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: June 7, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: James DeMonaco
Writer: James DeMonaco
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, 
Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, 
Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield
Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis   

For one night, all crime – including murder – is completely legal. That's the alluring premise behind "The Purge," a horror-thriller set in the near-future – 2022, to be exact. The Purge is a law created by America's "New Founding Fathers." Before The Purge, violence and poverty were sky high. Now, crime rates are down to 1%. According to James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), "The Purge saved our country."

Sandin is a security salesman, and his house is fully locked down – with his own equipment, naturally. He's ready for the big yearly Purge.

Most Americans view the "event" with a sort of reverence. Purge Fever is so rampant that entire neighborhoods celebrate by attending "Purge Parties." On TV, psychologists fawn over the health benefits of "purging" bad thoughts from your system. Any deaths incurred on that night are viewed as "sacrifices for your country." Even James and his wife, Mary, treat the idea of "purging" casually. When their innocent son, Charlie (Max Burkholder), asks them about it, they admit they've "never felt the need" to "purge," but their tone and cadence indicate that it would obviously be no big deal to commit legal murder. In their minds, he's too young to understand and remember what the United States used to be like.

Just as we're bombarded with suggestions/warnings to "support our troops," the U.S. citizens of 2022 have been conditioned to support The Purge.

While the film starts off as a wicked satire, there is a constant layer of tension and unease lurking as the audience waits with anticipation and dread for the 12-hour Purge to begin. Two problems present themselves soon after the clock strikes:

1.  On the monitor, young Charlie sees a homeless man (played by Edwin Hodge) outside the house running for his life and begging for shelter. The sweet, naïve boy can't just sit back and do nothing.

2. His teenage sister, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), is secretly dating an older boy/man, Henry (Tony Oller), and the idiot has locked himself inside their house during The Purge because he wants to confront and convince her father to allow them to date.

As the night unfolds, a group of purgers surround the Sandin fortress. They're led by a man in a mask (Rhys Wakefield), who makes his demands known in a very calm but chilling voice.

From there, "The Purge" turns into a full-fledged horror-thriller – as expected. At only 85 minutes, the pace is brisk; there's never a slow, dull moment – or a moment to breathe.

Ethan Hawke once again shows his tremendous acting range. In the "Before" series, he's loose and easygoing. Here, he's uptight and constrained – perhaps because he continually denies himself his yearly "release" allowed by The Purge? Whatever the case may be, his scowling jowl is very reminiscent of Harrison Ford.

The movie isn't perfect though. About midway through, Hawke's character makes the kind of illogical decision that could only happen in a script. In one fell swoop, he morphs from fearful family man to horror movie Rambo. Some of the masks and mannerisms also border on the ridiculous – as if they're creepy just for the sake of it. All of that silliness aside, the "purge" concept is effective and well-executed.

From a psychological standpoint, it is interesting to see the idea of murder so thoroughly examined. For this family, it goes from an abstract positive to a terrifying reality they'll have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Class and financial status are also explored cleverly, with Hawke's rich patriarch commenting off-handedly about their "safe" neighborhood and how lucky they are to be able to afford such top-flight security.

"The Purge" has a few minor issues, but it's the rare example of a horror movie that actually has something to say.