As a member of the Classic Film Community, I often wonder what springs to people’s minds when a celebrity’s name is mentioned. For example, mention Marilyn Monroe, and you are likely to get responses ranging from “bombshell” to Some Like It Hot to President John F. Kennedy. Mention Charlton Heston, you’ll go from Moses to Planet of the Apes to the NRA. Mention Rock Hudson and chances are you’ll get Doris Day … or HIV and AIDS.
In 1985, Rock Hudson, the handsome leading man of 1950s-1960s Hollywood, who made hearts swoon and panties drop, became the first celebrity face of HIV and AIDS. The actor lived for 16 months between diagnosis and his passing, and only three months passed between his public announcement and his death. The protagonist in Dallas Buyers Club, which is set in 1985, has even less time than that.
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a professional electrician, an amateur rodeo cowboy, and full-time hustler from Texas who, for all of the things he does, instead does nothing when he shows signs of some illness. When he is injured on the job and taken to the hospital, routine blood tests show that he has contracted AIDS. His doctors give him 30 days to live.
After spending a week in denial, Woodroof begins research on AIDS treatments and finds that prospects are dim while the FDA performs lengthy tests. Motivated by survival, Woodroof looks to Mexico for drug alternatives. There, Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), whose license was stripped in the US, exposes to Woodroof the harms of the experimental drug AZT, and introduces the victim to alternatives. Now surviving and motivated by money, Woodroof makes the doctor a lucrative offer and returns stateside where he attempts to sell the alternative meds to the gay community that is being ravaged by the disease.
Meeting limited success, Woodroof strikes a partnership with Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay/transvestite AIDS victim who can give him inroads to, and bona fides with, the gay community. The plan works, but selling drugs is a dicey legal proposition. To skirt the law, Woodroof launches the Dallas Buyers Club, where no one actually buys drugs but instead joins the club for a monthly fee and receives drugs as part of the membership. The FDA is unhappy with Woodroof’s enterprise, but his doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), while questioning his methods, has bigger questions about the FDA itself and the safety and viability of AZT.
Dallas Buyers Club is a study in character and a tale of social injustice, with the finished product riding heavily on the performances of McConaughey and Leto, lest the film devolve into a big screen movie-of-the-week. A combination of errors by the filmmakers would have guaranteed this fate had it not been for those two performances (more on those later).
The design of Woodroof the character, by director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, is so heavy-handed and overt that it reaches the point of becoming an insult to the viewer. The film opens with Woodroof in a dark recess of an arena where bull-riding is taking place in his field of vision. His attention, though, is on the standing two-girl three-way that he is vigorously taking part in. Once he’s finished – and you know he’s finished – he’s behind the scenes at the rodeo, smoking and drinking and illegally gambling, all the while discussing the fate of celebrity AIDS victim Rock Hudson and using every homophobic epithet he can think of in the process. He is 110% Texas Man, right down to his oversized belt buckle.
It’s all too much. It establishes Woodroof as the prototypical ’80s straight male the way turning the volume up to 10 establishes that your stereo system works – both are technically accurate, but both blow out your senses in the process.
A great example of how this hurts the film is the scene that sends Woodroof to the hospital. He is summoned to help an injured coworker, and that coworker happens to be an illegal immigrant. The site boss is reluctant to call an ambulance because of the possible legal repercussions, but Woodroof insists. This is key in understanding the complexity of the Woodroof character – he’s not just a knuckle-dragger, he cares for people too – yet the exchange is almost blink-and-you-miss-it. The filmmakers instead spend more time on things like two-girl three-ways and nudie pictures on walls to remind you, “Hey. This is a STRAIGHT GUY we’re dealing with.”
The social injustice aspect of the film is two-fold and is a mixed bag. The poorly handled fold involves The System in general, as illustrated by FDA representative Richard Barkley and hospital representative Dr. Sevard (the excellent pair of character actors Michael O’Neill and Denis O’Hare, respectively). The System is underdeveloped, portrayed as sort-of inept and sort-of greedy, but neither convincingly enough. This makes The System nothing more than Donkey Kong, a two-dimensional nemesis throwing barrels in the path of Woodroff’s Mario for the sake of fulfilling the conflict requirement of the story. I’m not defending The System, but the repetitive “Stop what you’re doing this time, Mr. Woodroof, because we’re right and you’re not,” grows old quickly.
Also, the Garner character is completely unnecessary. She is supposed to be this bridge between Woodroof’s world and The System, slowly moving away from the latter and towards the former, but all of her scenes feel forced. It’s as if someone said, “Hey, we can’t vilify The System with so broad a brush, so let’s throw in a good guy in the bad System. And make it a female character because we need one of those.” They chose Garner, who is completely unconvincing regardless of her proximity to either side of the struggle.
The other social injustice fold is at the human level, and how Woodroof’s friends treat him once word gets out he has AIDS. It’s shocking and saddening and for as hard as it hits you in the face, it was probably 10x worse in real life. Not only do they slander him with verbal jabs and awful graffiti on his home, they treat him like a pariah in ways that defy sense. His so-called friends, those with whom he had shared work and booze and women only weeks prior, literally avoid him like the plague, ensuring that he is always feet away from them physically, as if sharing close enough airspace with him was a death sentence. This is odd to say, but as storytelling goes, this horror is a bright spot.
With overall weak storytelling, thank goodness for the performances. Matthew McConaughey turns in the best work of his career to date, surpassing another great performance in this year’s Mud. Despite the filmmakers’ clumsiness, the actor understands the depth of his character, particularly how Woodroof must somehow embrace those whom he once disdained because, at least in the eye of the public, he has become one of them. He uses that compassion that flashed earlier in the film, parlays it with the moneymaker in him, and presents Woodroof as the Hustler with the Heart of Gold, but one without a tidy happy ending in his future.
But Jared Leto does the unthinkable and steals scenes from the mighty McConaughey. Not only is Leto physically transformed into a meticulously primped and pretty, but eventually physically deteriorated, gay transvestite, he never overplays the character. Not once does he turn in even a hint of camp, and there is always the sense that for all of the good he is doing to help his brothers in AIDS, he is suffering inside – physically and emotionally. There are two specific scenes that spring to mind: a tender moment with Garner (despite Garner) and a scene near the end of the film, where he asks his estranged father for help. The former is touching, the latter is simply devastating, and the two are worth the price of admission.
Dallas Buyers Club is one of those films that is “inspired by true events,” a tag that allows filmmakers the greatest possible storytelling latitude. They can pick and choose the most interesting parts of the story that actually happened, while at the same time embellish, or even invent, other aspects to make the story a better one told. The bad news is that the filmmakers fumbled their end of the deal. The good news is McConaughey and Leto more than make up for those errors, leaving on the screen a pair of performances that will stay with you for a very long time.
Wow. Between family, work, Treadmill Theater (see my Facebook page for examples), Thanksgiving prep, theatrical screenings, DVD screenings, and all of the writing that comes along with the movies, I forgot another two weeks had passed. Let’s waste no more time.
The last two weeks saw another great mix of 2013 US releases, including documentaries, indie films, and franchise blockbusters. None of the films cracked the Top 10, and only two squeaked into the Top 20. Eight of the nine new films hail from the US, with one entry from Germany.
With my running total now at 115 titles released in the US in 2013, here are the latest entries and their rankings:
- (18) Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (Coming Soon to DVD Verdict)
- (20) Hannah Arendt (DVD Verdict)
- (42) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (ScribeHard On Film)
- (45) Bridegroom (DVD Verdict)
- (54) What Maisie Knew
- (80) White House Down
- (82) 2 Guns (DVD Verdict)
- (88) Delivery Man
- (107) The Lifeguard
Here is full list of the ScribeHard on Film ranking of US releases for 2013. All reviewed films have links.
1) Blue Is the Warmest Color (ScribeHard On Film)
2) All Is Lost (ScribeHard on Film)
3) The Way Way Back (ScribeHard on Film)
4) 20 Feet From Stardom (ScribeHard on Film)
5) The Place Beyond the Pines (ScribeHard on Film)
6) Mud (ScribeHard on Film)
7) Blue Jasmine (ScribeHard on Film)
8) 12 Years a Slave (ScribeHard On Film)
9) Gravity (ScribeHard On Film)
10) Frances Ha (ScribeHard on Film)
- Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Cinema Sentries)
- Stoker (ScribeHard on Film)
- Fill the Void (DVD Verdict)
- Captain Phillips (ScribeHard On Film)
- Prisoners (ScribeHard On Film)
- Iron Man 3 (ScribeHard on Film)
- The Conjuring (ScribeHard on Film)
- Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (Coming Soon to DVD Verdict)
- Margarita (DVD Verdict)
20) Hannah Arendt (DVD Verdict)
- War Witch (DVD Verdict)
- Upstream Color
- The Wolverine (ScribeHard on Film)
- Starbuck (DVD Verdict)
- World War Z (ScribeHard on Film)
- The Last Tycoon (DVD Verdict)
- Trance (ScribeHard on Film)
30) New World (DVD Verdict)
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (DVD Verdict)
- The World Before Her (DVD Verdict)
- About Time (ScribeHard On Film)
- The Heat
- Three Worlds (DVD Verdict)
- Resolution (DVD Verdict)
- The Kings of Summer (DVD Verdict)
- Shadow Dancer (Cinema Sentries)
- Sound City
40) Behind the Candelabra
- The Purge
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (ScribeHard On Film)
- Thor: The Dark World
- This Is the End
- Bridegroom (DVD Verdict)
- Lee Daniels’ The Butler (ScribeHard on Film)
- Parkland (DVD Verdict)
- Don Jon
- Olympus Has Fallen
- The Iceman (DVD Verdict)
- The Great Gatsby
- The Bling Ring (ScribeHard on Film)
- What Maisie Knew
- 42 (ScribeHard on Film)
- Warm Bodies
- Stuck In Love (DVD Verdict)
- Red 2
60) CBGB (ScribeHard on Film)
- Ip Man: The Final Fight (DVD Verdict)
- The Internship
- Now You See Me (DVD Verdict)
- The Gangster (DVD Verdict)
- Rush (ScribeHard On Film)
- Horror Stories (DVD Verdict)
- A Company Man (DVD Verdict)
- Spring Breakers
70) Shepard & Dark (Coming Soon to DVD Verdict)
- Stories We Tell
- The Sapphires
- The Company You Keep (DVD Verdict)
- Beautiful Creatures
- Struck by Lightning (DVD Verdict)
- The Lone Ranger (ScribeHard on Film)
- Star Trek Into Darkness (ScribeHard on Film)
- Man of Steel (ScribeHard on Film)
80) White House Down
- 2 Guns (DVD Verdict)
- Killing Lincoln (Cinema Sentries)
- Side Effects
- Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (Cinema Sentries)
- The Call (DVD Verdict)
- Dead Man Down
- Delivery Man
- Gangster Squad
90) One Direction: This Is Us
- The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
- Just Like a Woman (DVD Verdict)
- Only God Forgives
- Bullet to the Head
- Pain and Gain
- Phantom (Cinema Sentries)
- Dark Skies
- Jack the Giant Slayer (ScribeHard on Film)
100) The Counselor (ScribeHard On Film)
- jOBS (ScribeHard on Film)
- Oz the Great and Powerful (ScribeHard on Film)
- Lucky Express (DVD Verdict)
- Identity Thief
- The Last Stand
- Safe Haven
- The Lifeguard
- Highland Park
- Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
110) Escape From Tomorrow (ScribeHard On Film)
111) The Castle Project (DVD Verdict)
112) generation Um (Cinema Sentries)
113) Movie 43 (Cinema Sentries)
114) Face 2 Face (DVD Verdict)
115) Aleksandr’s Price (DVD Verdict)
If a film is based on a book, I never read the book before I see the film because to me, the work needs to be a film first. If a film is great but doesn’t “stay true” to the source material, I don’t care because the film is great. If a film satisfies the fans of the source material for its faithfulness, but leaves me cold as a viewer, I’m just as disappointed as I would be if the screenplay were original (and I won’t seek out the book to try to compensate for the bad film experience, either). While I respect those that look for and/or need a correlation between the two works, I don’t need it to get the full moviegoing experience out of it.
Sadly, though, not knowing the source material means that I cannot properly offer praise to the original author when a work is done well. Conversely, and sadder still, I cannot properly assign blame to the original author – in this case Suzanne Collins‘ – when the film struggles … as I would like to do here.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy (both literary and cinematic, although the third book, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, will be made into two films, the first slated for release in 2014 and the second in 2015). If you don’t know the story by now, in the first installment, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian future where the rich and mighty oppress the poor and feeble, and once a year those poor and feeble must fight to the death in an annual contest called “The Hunger Games,” and do so for the entertainment of the rich and mighty. Not everyone fights, of course. Only two people – two children, actually – are chosen to represent each of the 12 Districts (like states, basically). Katniss not only wins the games, she outsmarts President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which keeps her District 12 mate – and possible love interest? – Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive and co-champion.
In this second installment, Katniss is now an inspiration to a beleaguered nation – a symbol of hope. As she and Peeta – whose romance is trumped up for TV, much to the concern of Katniss’ actual man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – embark on their Victor’s Tour, President Snow has growing concerns that the people might actually rebel against the government. Taking the advice of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), President Snow announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be contested by past winners from all 12 Districts – an all-star edition, if you will. This puts Katniss and Peeta (who were to be married to keep the people happy), back on the field of battle. They are assisted by those who helped them in the first go-round – former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District Escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), and Stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
If I knew nothing about this franchise and had been shown the first film (without its title revealed to me) and then shown this film (again without its title revealed to me), I would be convinced that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is nothing more than a glossier remake of The Hunger Games, but with the same cast. There are so many similarities between the two that they become a distraction, which does a disservice to the greater theme of the film. That’s a shame, because there was real potential here.
Both films run more like two-act plays than three-act movies, with each “second half” starting when the games begin. After an interesting open involving what is expected of Katniss and Peeta’s “romance” in terms of public presentation, the first half is quickly weighed down by procedural repetition. There is a reaping (contestant selection) again. Katniss is emotionally torn from her sister again. There is a train ride to The Capitol again. Haymitch preaches alliances and currying favor to earn sponsors again. The duo rides into the arena and their clothes spectacularly burn again. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) interviews the star-crossed lovers again. Katniss twirls so her dress burns again (albeit with a cooler result … but still). There is a training sequence with an assessment of the competition again.
Is it done better than in the original? Yes. However, I’ll remind you that this is a sequel, not a remake. What the filmmakers miss is an opportunity to delve deeper into the machinations of puppet master President Snow. He has a very complex relationship with Katniss but that is never explored, which is a shame. Also unexplored is how the oppressed folk across the Districts are inspired to uprise. The notion that Katniss’ victory-by-exploitation of the system can be taken at face value at the end of the first film, but this film needs to flesh out how her victory translates to that, and it doesn’t. There is also a too-quick moment about the surviving family members of those that died in the previous Games. Some type of look into not just the loss, but the senselessness of the Games and that they caused the loss, would have been emotionally appealing. Alas. Thus endeth the first half.
The second half here is also like an improved second half of the first film. The action is more intense (I like the fog, I could do without the monkeys, I like the birds), and the supporting allies are more interesting, particularly Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). But ultimately it’s an exercise in outdoing the second half of the first film. The stunts are bigger, the perils are bigger, the traps are more clever, but in the end it’s still people killing people until one remains (or two, of course). I’m not bothered by the lethal aspect of it, I’m bothered by the been there/done that/got the Happy Meal toy feeling I get from watching it … again.
It’s all very much remake-y, not sequel-y … until the last scene. THAT scene is spectacular. Having not read the books, I didn’t see it coming, and it sets up wonderfully for what could be … could be … an epic two-part conclusion.
Of course the film is full of excellent performances, led by Hoffman (who isn’t in it enough), Lawrence, and Harrelson, although Woody was better in the first film only because he had more screen time in the first film.
My hope for the conclusion of this cinematic franchise is that it becomes a little more cerebral and touches on the sociological ramifications of the events in the film beyond “people are uprising, send more troopers and increase the floggings.” I think that will give us a nice, full feeling at the end of this movie meal.