Screen Queen: 2014's Oscar-Celebrated Films
By Chris Azzopardi
Originally printed 5/1/2014 (Issue 2218 - Between The Lines News)
Starring "the one and only" Adele Dazeem, better known to anyone who's not John Travolta as Idina Menzel, "Frozen" is a flamboyant rush of grandiosity harking back to the old-school, princess-starring musical spectacles Disney once produced. Like a gift to the gays, the record-breaking, Oscar-winning behemoth has Menzel, a Broadway icon, and the kind of catchy sing-along soundtrack you can belt out in secret. But its story of a girl with a power so alarming she's told to "conceal it, don't feel it" abounds with gayness. Queer undertones are especially apparent when Elsa lets down her hair for "Let It Go," an anthem of defiance and self-acceptance (it's here when she's pretty much made over into a fabulous drag queen). Speaking to a new generation of outsiders, "Frozen" isn't just Disney's most subliminally gay film ever - it's a new Disney classic. One like "Snow White," one like "Beauty and the Beast." One we'll be talking about in 50 years. For a Disney release, the extras are shockingly light: a making-of, four deleted scenes and, because you can't get enough, "Let It Go" in four different languages.
Though it preaches love and compassion, the Catholic Church is a bad, bad place. That's not universally upheld, of course, but it's basically the stand that "Philomena" takes. Based on Martin Sixsmith's book, this discerning tale - a true one - tells the story of a child taken from his mother by cruel nuns after a single indiscretion. Director Stephen Frears' film knocks the church, obviously, but, through the eyes of Philomena, it also finds forgiveness when forgiving doesn't seem possible. Now a half century later, Philomena is restless and ready to find her child. A chance encounter with Martin (Steve Coogan), a disgruntled sourpuss getting back to his journalistic roots, leads them on an uproarious, engaging and bittersweet search full of redemption and revelations (one such discovery is her son's partner). The final act pours sugar on top of religious hooey, but it doesn't diminish the caliber of Dench's dignified and powerfully acted matriarch. The dame herself talks about the role during the special features, which also includes "The Real Philomena Lee" and a Coogan/director commentary.
Aesthetically speaking, it's a stunner, but the space effects in "Gravity" are almost inconsequential to Alfonso Cuaron's spellbinding meditation on the indomitable human spirit. In an emotionally charged role where fear and perseverance meet, Sandra Bullock, as Dr. Ryan Stone, is the crux of Cuaron's life-affirming odyssey, realizing every nuance of Stone and the mission she's really on: the one that won't just save her life, but her soul. Because beyond the cosmic surface - with its game-changing CGI and its impressive opening shot lasting 17 continuous minutes - is a poetic journey rich with ambiguities that give way to personal catharsis, spiritual tropes and the enveloping theme of rebirth. Winner of seven Oscars including Best Director, "Gravity" is, without question, the best film of 2013. It gets into your heart; it gets into your mind. It changes you. Four hours of in-depth coverage of the film, from shoot complications to the script's subtleties (and Sandy's "box"), supplement the 3D Blu-ray release. The clever companion short "Aningaaq" is also included.
Dallas Buyers Club
Despite taking on the AZT controversy of the '80s, "Dallas Buyers Club" - "the AIDS movie," as it became known - isn't just about HIV. Portraying the real-life Ron Woodruff as a staunch homophobe, the drama has more to do with the virus's influence on a man who became an unlikely hero after contracting it. Up until his positive diagnosis, Ron coasts on by as a Texan bigot who drinks, drugs, scams and has his way with the ladies. Then he discovers he's HIV-positive. Fighting to hang on, and stubbornly resisting the 30-day death sentence doctors warn of, Ron goes cross-country seeking the meds to keep him - and, in a surprisingly selfless move, other positive people - alive. The bond that develops between he and Rayon, a tough transgendered woman (Jared Leto), as they both try to defy death is an inspiring transformation of character in a film that's boldly acted (both Leto and McConaughey won acting Oscars for their roles) and beautifully told. A doc on the real Ron Woodruff and a commentary would make illuminating additions, but the only extras are leftover scenes and a brief behind-the-scenes feature.
12 Years a Slave
What does it say when something is so horrifically scarring you can't bear to experience it again? It says that it's done what it intended to. Shattering your everything with the raw, in-your-face brutality of one of the worst times in American history, filmmaker Steve McQueen doesn't subdue the suffering, injustice and heartlessness when he tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who's abducted and sold into slavery. Winner of Best Picture, McQueen's overwhelming feat tears at the spirit like only a film this tragically real can. Featured among the extras is actor Chiwetel Ejiofor reading from Northup's original book.
20 Feet from Stardom
Singing and shimmying on the sidelines of the star, background singers are always, you know, in the background. But not anymore. Not with Best Doc winner "20 Feet from Stardom," director Morgan Neville's wonderfully inspiring documentary spotlighting the unsung heroes of song. Through archival footage and new interviews with Darlene Love, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger, Neville finds heart in the history of the film's starring ladies. Their poignant sisterhood will move you; their shattered dreams will break you. Extras include the girl-bonding feature "The Buddy System" and a New York Times-moderated Q&A.
Dementia's no laughing matter ... except in "Nebraska," a deadpan comedy about a man, Woody Grant, convinced he's won a million dollars via a sweepstakes mailing. Not even his own wife, Kate (June Squibb), a sassy spitfire, can convince him otherwise. When Woody guilts his son into going to his hometown of Lincoln, Neb. to claim his prize, the real father-son story starts to unfold: "Nebraska" is one man standing firm on his beliefs and finding strength in adversity, all to see his dream through. "Nebraska" necessitates repeat viewings, so it's of little consequence that just a 30-minute doc on the film's making is the only supplement.
August: Osage County
Seeing Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep smash their dinner plates and f-bomb each other over fish is probably an experience you should have at least once in your life. That type of so-uncomfortable-you-cry-laughing family dysfunction is rife in playwright Tracy Letts' dirty stage-to-screen drama "August: Osage County," starring Streep as a grievous cancer-stricken wife corralling her children after her husband commits suicide. The woman is a monster, the family is a mess - and you won't forget that fish fight. Extras include a director commentary, interviews with the cast and a look at Letts' writing.
Tom Hanks gives a career-best performance in a wrenchingly powerful role as the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, who, while at sea in the Indian Ocean in 2009, was held hostage by Somali pirates. Director Paul Greengrass (who unnerved you during "Flight 93") keeps the tension high-strung as Phillips fights to defend himself and his crew, leading to a harrowing standoff and a poignant resolution that Hanks gracefully conveys. A Greengrass commentary and a three-part feature provide context to the film and the real-life events behind it.Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at http://www.chris-azzopardi.com.
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