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A Remarkable Week at the Tower Theatre

I was playing a little catch up today with one of the films I had missed recently and it seemed like a good opportunity to write about a couple of others films I didn’t have a chance to review when they opened, along with another new film. What’s odd is that they’re all excellent and they’re all playing at the Tower Theatre, concurrently, although a couple can also be found elsewhere locally.

It’s typically the case that the films most highly regarded and thought most likely to win high profile awards open very late in the year – often as late as the last week of December (which still allows them to play for a whole week in the calendar year and to qualify for the Academy Awards). This year, several films have come along early enough to make award season seem crowded before we’ve even reached Thanksgiving – including films reviewed previously, such as “Captain Phillips” and “Gravity.” All four films at the Tower are legitimate Oscar hopefuls, and all could easily generate acting nominees, as well as excelling in other areas.

The newest of the bunch, having opened this weekend, is “Dallas Buyers Club” – a film that has been talked about for months, even by those who haven’t seen it, in regard to the extreme weight loss by lead and supporting actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. McConaughey, in particular, borders on the unrecognizable in the role of Ron Woodruff, a fast living Texan electrician who contracted AIDS at a time when it was still poorly understood and associated in the public eye with homosexuality and intravenous drug use. Woodruff was a substance abuser (of many substances but primarily of the snortable and drinkable kinds) and highly active sexually, with multiple, unprotected, heterosexual partners.

His diagnosis also came at the point in time that drug trials were about to start for AZT – although those trials were highly problematic and he wasn’t a likely candidate. So he immersed himself in the research and discovered more successful drugs that were available in other countries and proceeded to find ways to “import” them for himself and a growing clientele of other sick individuals for whom the medical establishment had little to offer.

Among those others was Rayon, played by Jared Leto, a transgendered woman for whom sickness was only a part of her daily struggle with society’s expectations. Leto has talked at length in multiple interviews about maintaining character as Rayon throughout the filming period, including away from the filming locations. And the level of immersion in the character is phenomenal – he has said that he didn’t want to have to imagine how people would treat Rayon and that by remaining in that role on a full-time basis he was able to see those reactions. The result is quite amazing and both of the primary actors deliver their best work in this project. The film is also an interesting look at the politics and the life-affecting policies of the FDA in the process of recognizing, testing and approving new drugs – including policies that changed as a result of these events.

One of the most talked about films of the last few weeks has been “Gravity” – a film that I found to be visually spectacular but somewhat disappointing on a narrative level because it spoils its own storyline during dialog between two characters. That’s not a problem in “All is Lost,” a film with only one character and no dialog. In it, Robert Redford plays an unnamed long distance, solo yachtsman whose boat has an ill-fated encounter with a discarded or lost shipping container in the open ocean. That’s not the only misfortune and he has to cope with multiple problems.

In many respects, it’s very similar to “Gravity” in that it pits one character against the elements in an environment not suited to an ill-equipped human presence. While exposure in the vacuum of space might end a life more quickly, a horizonless stretch of ocean will do so just as effectively without essential tools and skills. “All is Lost” worked better for me than “Gravity,” largely because it maintains its suspense more successfully  – and it’s a testament to the veteran actor that he can deliver a performance in which we come to know and sympathize with a character simply by watching him cope with his circumstances.

The initial encounter that changes the nature of his voyage is also a timely reminder of the state of our oceans, at a time when we’re told that an enormous patch of floating debris is making its way across the Pacific Ocean. It’s attributed to the Japanese tsunami but it’s certainly not the first account of oceans in which it can be easier to find trash than fish.

Another strong contender in the race for best lead actor recognition is “12 Years a Slave,” in which Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, in a true story based on Northup own memoir. Northup, of African descent, had been born free in pre-civil war America, and at the time of the events being told had been living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York – where he had a reputation as a talented musician. He was lured away from home for a short-term performance contract and, while in Washington, was kidnapped and then sold into slavery in the South.

While clearly not the first tale of slavery, whether true or fictionalized, it’s an account that is compelling and perhaps more accessible to many viewers than other works. Although slavery is a key aspect of many people’s personal family histories and still, sadly, rampant on a worldwide scale, it’s also a topic that has a remote, history book aspect to it for many. Most accounts of slavery involve individuals either captured in other dissimilar cultures or born into captivity. Neither of which minimize the loss of freedom and agency, but they can both distance the nature of the experience.

In “12 Years a Slave,” we have instead a first-person account of slavery written by a man who had lived his whole life, free, within the same broader culture. It was written and published soon after the events and was widely read in the North. The story also undermines some assertions regarding relatively “good” and “bad” slave owners by demonstrating the commonality of the slave owning phenomenon – that people were bought and sold as property and treated accordingly. Even an owner who didn’t rape and maim his or her slaves was still inclined to view them as an investment – a highly priced piece of farm equipment – not as people and especially not as people with rights.

“12 Years a Slave” is an extraordinary film and not an easy film to watch – but nor should it be an easy film to watch. The brutality on display is extreme but it also draws you into the experience by bringing home the enormity of the injustice, both individually and as an overall phenomenon of human nature – one that has been repeated, and continues to be repeated, throughout human history. In that sense it also manages to remind us that for all of the “monster movies” and horror films, and entire genres of film that are designed to scare and thrill viewers, we never manage to come up with monsters that exhibit worse behavior than we humans are capable of exhibiting. And that even while exhibiting such behaviors, we (the collective we) still manage to find ways to justify our actions according to some conveniently interpreted moral code.

The fourth of the four films, and the one I watched today, is “Blue is the Warmest Color” – a film that broke tradition at the Cannes Film Festival, where the highest prize was presented not just to the director but was also specifically named for the two primary acting performances.

Adèle Exarchopoulos plays her namesake Adèle, a high school student trying to find herself and her place in the world. She has dated boys but finds herself drawn to a blue-haired woman she passes in the street one day – enough to experience an unexpected but profound sexual dream related to her. Léa Seydoux plays the older, but not generationally removed, Emma – an art student who has identified as a lesbian since she was younger than Adèle.

The film has attracted much conversation regarding the intensity and the length of the sex scenes between the two women and much has been said elsewhere about the difficulty of filming those scenes. But those thoughts and concerns detract from the balance of the film which is far more profound and intense than anything that occurs when the two women are naked. In fact, in a film that’s very nearly three hours long, I reached a point where I hoped for another sex scene just so that I might visit the bathroom without missing a more important scene.

It’s also a film that has more to do with people, personalities, and interests than it has to do with sex or sexuality. In films with heterosexual couples, much is often made of the perceived “gender gap” – despite stories that often depict greater differences within genders than between them. In “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the fact that the story is about two lesbians is only partially material to events and outcomes, as the relationship is between two individuals who are coping with multiple issues in their lives, only one of which is how they themselves or others might view their sexuality.

The prior comment about the relative importance of the scenes is itself important because, for all of the attention being given to the nudity and sex, those scenes seem to be there in all of their visual intensity as if to demonstrate that the true emotional intensity in the relationship is in the quieter, more clothed moments. The true moments of ecstasy and heartbreak are seen on the superbly expressive face of Exarchopoulos, as Adèle experiences so many things in life for the first time – certainly not just sex.

It’s also excellent and raw in the manner in which it displays other scenes – an early street protest by students and a scene in which high school students turn from blunt questions to a physical altercation have an incredible level of authenticity to them. In some of these moments the film feels more like a reality-based documentary. And the running length adds to this and is put to good use as we spend enough time with Adèle at the start of the film to really understand where she’s coming from. In a shorter film, we would get a rushed backstory in a race towards the first sex scene – where this is a film that spends considerable time on quiet conversations that do more to establish character than to advance the plot.

Collectively, the four films are a remarkable group to be playing concurrently – and, come awards time, it will be interesting to see how many Oscar, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominated performances were all on screen in one week, in one location. Not a bad way to celebrate 75 years in the business for the Tower Theatre.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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