Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

2016 #139
Jean-Marc Vallée | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay.



Dallas Buyers ClubEvery time I see a trailer for Dallas Buyers Club at the start of another Blu-ray I think, “that looks really good; I should watch it”. Then every time I get near watching it I think, “that sounds quite worthy and/or grim; maybe not right now”. So I guess kudos is due to Amazon UK for removing it from Prime Video* and finally forcing my hand, because it is very good.

The film tells the mostly-true (we’ll come to that) story of Ron Woodroof (an Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey), a Texan guy who loves drink, drugs, sex, gambling, the rodeo, and probably any other less-than-savoury pursuit you can name. After he electrocutes himself at work, it’s discovered he actually has HIV/AIDS — that new disease affecting those nasty homosexuals, because this is the ’80s and this is the American South. Ron is given 30 days to live. Desperate for meds to keep him alive, he ends up in Mexico, on a cocktail of drugs that are barred in the US. While a pharmaceutical company pushes a potential cure that actually causes as much damage as it does benefit, Ron begins importing the meds that worked for him. Unable to sell them, he’s inspired by a New York project he reads about in the paper: to sell memberships to a club that gives the drugs out for free. Hence the titular organisation. Naturally, this exploitation of loopholes leads to confrontations with the law.

That’s just some of what’s going on, anyway, because there’s also Ron’s growing acceptance of the community he finds himself a part of, especially after he’s ostracised from his former friends who assume he’s gay; there’s his business partner, trans woman Rayon (an also-Oscar-winning Jared Leto), who has drugs and familial problems of her own; and the doctor (Jennifer Garner) who battles her conscience over the drug trials and Ron’s less-than-scientific but effective methods. If this makes Dallas Buyers Club sound unfocused, it’s more that it’s got a lot of different aspects to examine. It’s not just about narrating what really happened, either, because Leto and Garner’s characters are fictional.

So, some would argue, is Ron Woodroof — this version, anyway. For one thing, reportedly the real Woodroof was widely believed to be bisexual by people who knew him, so depicting him as a raging homophobe (who contracted HIV from a druggie prostitute) is completely inaccurate. I suppose that just calls into question how far one can go when adapting reality into fiction while still claiming it’s a true story, because in some respects it’s more interesting to follow the film’s version of Ron, who has to come to terms with a whole new world. This has led to complaints about making a homophobe the hero of the story, but, again, I’d argue this is part of the point: Ron overcomes his homophobia, learns how prejudiced and wrong he’s been (without quite dragging the whole movie down to Moral Lesson Of The Week levels). Where’s the journey if he was a nice, understanding guy from the start?

McConaughey is very good as Ron, though I’d wager he won the Oscar as much for his extreme weight loss as his actual acting. He was up the same year as Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, which I’d argue is an even more nuanced, interesting, and affecting performance. Dallas Buyers Club is not short of emotional heft, mind, but much of it is shouldered by Leto. He may come across as a right tool in real life, especially with his Method Joker antics recently, but that methodology does at least mean he’s committed to his performance here. He’s done the weight loss thing too, but there’s more to it than that. To this layperson, he’s very convincing as a trans woman (again, there have been complaints that it’s too stereotypical); but even leaving that aside, it’s the universal humanity he brings to a person suffering with a death sentence, and rejection by their own family, that tugs the heartstrings.

Some reviews emphasise the film’s ultra-low budget, though as it cost $5 million I’m sure there are other filmmakers who would dispute the idea of that being cheap! It results in some weak CGI to depict Ron’s worldwide travels in search of new drug sources, but the point is conveyed nonetheless. Otherwise, I don’t hold with complaints that the movie looks amateurish. It’s not slick or glossy, but that level of realism, almost grittiness, fits the tale. Apparently the budget for makeup was just $250, and the film still won an Oscar for it, which goes to show… something. I mean, the other nominees were Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger, so it probably doesn’t show much (just which one of those three sounds most like an Oscar winner, really).

For all the heaviness of the topics it touches on, the film isn’t without the humour that made its trailer so attractive. That said, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen most of that material, and in a more condensed and highlighted form, too. It almost makes it look like a heist movie — how this clever chappy pulled the wool over the authorities’ eyes with his vicar costumes and amusing way of filling out forms — but that’s just a small part of the film; and, actually, those tricks often go wrong or flat out don’t work, which is not the heist movie way.

Dallas Buyers Club is very unpopular in some circles for their perception of its treatment of the issues and people involved, but while their voices may be loud (one such review is the second most-liked on Letterboxd) they’re also in the minority (it has 8.0 on IMDb, which is just outside the range of the Top 250, and the ratings graph on Letterboxd errs heavily to 4-out-of-5 territory too). Perhaps with time we’ll all come to think of it that way, and it will begin to look like a product of an era before the mainstream fully understood certain issues. For the time being, it’s a powerful yet still enjoyable drama.

4 out of 5

* It was scheduled to be removed next Thursday, hence why I was helpfully posting this review today, but it actually went yesterday. One of the worst things about Amazon Video is trying to find out when they’re going to remove stuff from Prime. ^

Daredevil (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #22

Take the dare

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes | 133 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13 (theatrical cut) | R (director’s cut)

Original Release: 14th February 2003 (USA, UK & others)
First Seen: cinema, February 2003

Stars
Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30, The Invention of Lying)
Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile, Sin City)
Colin Farrell (Minority Report, Alexander)

Director
Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider, When in Rome)

Screenwriter
Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men, Ghost Rider)

Based on
Daredevil, a Marvel Comics superhero created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett.

The Story
Blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock defends the innocent by day, and by night uses his special abilities to bring the guilty to justice as costumed vigilante Daredevil. When crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, hires Bullseye to take out a business associate, the assassin frames Daredevil for the crime, which brings him into conflict with the businessman’s combat-trained daughter, Elektra.

Our Hero
Blinded as a child, Matt Murdock found his other senses heightened. Following the murder of his father, he trained in the law. Now by day he’s a defender of the innocent, and by night hunts the guilty as superhero Daredevil. Even though the film mixes in his origin story, it doesn’t take a “Year One” approach to his crimefighting, which makes a change of pace even now. (In recent years a lot of the blame for the film’s failure has been laid at Ben Affleck’s door, because it’s popular to bash ’00s-era Affleck. Rotten Tomatoes’ short summary of contemporary reviews tells a different story, stating “Ben Affleck fits the role” as one of the film’s key qualities.)

Our Villains
Coming off the back of The Green Mile, Michael Clarke Duncan was the obvious chap to step into the giant shoes of Hell’s Kitchen’s crime lord, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. The real fun comes courtesy of Colin Farrell’s crazy, campy killer, Bullseye, who enlivens the film any time he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Jennifer Garner is terribly miscast as Elektra, really, but she makes a fair fist of it nonetheless, and the film doesn’t shy away from the outcome of that storyline.

Memorable Quote
“Hey, that light, at the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven… that’s the C train.” — Daredevil

Memorable Scene
Matt and Elektra spar in a children’s playground. It’s a scene some people despise, probably because of what it thinks passes for dialogue, but you can’t say it doesn’t stick in the mind.

Memorable Music
If you were of the right age and disposition back in the early ’00s, the Daredevil soundtrack was more influential than the film itself. It was partly responsible for launching gothy rock group Evanescence, who you may remember for Bring Me to Life, which was on the film’s soundtrack and was their biggest hit (it was #1 here for four weeks). I think they’re still going, despite numerous changes of line-up, though they release albums once in a blue moon.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
Originally greenlit as a relatively low-budget film, at roughly $50 million, during shooting Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released and became a huge hit (it was the first film to gross over $100 million in one weekend). Consequently, Fox upped Daredevil’s budget to $80 million, specifically to “enhance the film’s visuals”. I guess that’s where all the Spider-Man-esque CGI tumbling came from, then.

Previously on…
Although this is the first full-blown adaptation of Daredevil to actually make it to the screen, he’s turned up in other characters’ series down the years, including both live-acton (1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which starred John Rhys-Davies as Kingpin) and animation (episodes of the ’90s Spider-Man and Fantastic Four series).

Next time…
Although no sequel was forthcoming, Jennifer Garner starred in spin-off Elektra. Whatever you think of the 2003 Daredevil, Elektra is much, much worse. Numerous attempts at a reboot movie faltered, until the rights reverted to Marvel Studios, who used the property to kick off the Netflix arm of the MCU. As much as I like the movie, the TV series is much better. Season two is released this Friday, so if you’ve not seen any then you’ll soon have 26 episodes to catch up on, you lucky thing you.

Awards
1 Razzie (Worst Actor (Ben Affleck, also for Gigli and Paycheck))
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor of the Decade (Ben Affleck, also for everything else he did in the ’00s))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Best Female Butt Kicker)
2 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nominations (including Best Colin Farrell in a Movie (it lost to S.W.A.T.))

What the Critics Said
“This is the Unforgiven of superhero films. Conventions are turned on their head, twisted, questioned. […] In almost every superhero film, there’s another conventional scene where the villain has the hero cornered and helpless. Yet the villain never unmasks the hero. That scene drove me nuts in Spider-Man. […] In Daredevil, no one ever hesitates to unmask DD. That’s what I mean by this being a film grounded in reality. People act real, do real things. Even if they are wearing silly costumes.” — “Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr”, Ain’t It Cool News

Score: 44%

What the Public Say
“Colin Farrell is deliciously hammy and steals every scene he’s in, showing he’s having a total blast (and to be honest, the hamminess suits Bullseye). Michael Clarke Duncan is PERFECT casting for Kingpin, for his size, stature, overall menacing feel. And honestly, I like Ben Affleck in this, too. He makes me believe he’s blind. He makes me believe that he’s a broken, tortured character who tries to put on a brave face in front of his friends.” — Nick Piers

Verdict

The runt of the litter when it comes to the (first) modern explosion of superhero movies, Daredevil has, believe it or not, always had its fans. The darker tone than contemporary X-Men or Spider-Man films works in its favour in that respect, though I know not everyone feels that way. Ben Affleck actually does a solid job as the titular hero, while Michael Clarke Duncan was perfectly cast as hulking villain Kingpin. Most enjoyable, though, is Colin Farrell’s finely-judged camp craziness as henchman Bullseye. Okay, the Netflix series has now easily surpassed it, but the Daredevil movie is still a moderately underrated film for its era. (The Director’s Cut is apparently much better, too, though I’ve still not made the time for it.)

Season two of Marvel’s Daredevil is available on Netflix from Friday.

#20 will be next… with character actors planning genocide.

Juno (2007)

2010 #25
Jason Reitman | 92 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

This review contains minor spoilers.

Juno followed in the footsteps of films like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine to be the token Little Indie That Could among 2008’s Best Picture nominees. It was also the highest-grossing film on the list, no doubt thanks to America’s abundant Christians thinking it was all about an anti-abortion message. I’m sure these conflicting facts (the indie-ness and top-grosser, not the Christian thing) say more about the Oscars’ nominating form in the past decade than they do about Juno.

Fortunately, there’s enough to Juno to allow it stand up for itself. The most discussed aspect is Diablo Cody’s screenplay, with its idiosyncratic slang-laden dialogue and accusations that every character speaks the same. The first is true, the latter is rubbish, and one has to wonder if whoever thinks it watched beyond the first ten minutes. Most of the film’s teenage characters speak similarly… in that they use the same bits of slang, have similar speech patterns, employ a similar sense of humour — you know, like groups of teenagers tend to. Their related adults speak broadly similarly, but also differently; the higher-class couple Juno chooses to adopt her baby to speak differently again — but none are pathetically “I am trying to sound different”-different like you can find in weak writing. It’s just natural. I struggle to see how anyone can honestly say that all the characters “speak the same” in a way that isn’t true to life. Perhaps Cody has generously made Juno and her fellow teens wittier and quicker than the real-life majority, but this is a scripted drama and that’s what happens to your hero characters.

Cody’s dialogue, and what the cast do with it, are the film’s standout aspects. It’s quite a wordy screenplay, so it’s good that it’s a joy to listen to. The realistic overuse of slang by some characters occasionally greats, but the plentiful laugh-out-loud beats more than make up for it. The “I wish I’d say that” quality in some of Juno’s responses to familiar situations quickly make her an identifiable, memorable and loveable character, expertly played by Ellen Page — lead roles like this and Hard Candy show she’s one to watch, and add another mark against X-Men 3 for wasting her talents on such an insignificant (in the film) part.

Every supporting part is equally pitch-perfect: J.K. Simmons’ endlessly supportive father; Allison Janney’s stepmom, granted a gift of a rant at an ultrasound operator; Jennifer Garner’s earnest, desperate wannabe-mother; Olivia Thirlby’s teacher-loving best friend. Jason Bateman redeems himself in my eyes from his not-Marc-Warren turn in State of Play, while my pre-judgement of Michael Cera (Superbad? Year One? They sound dreadful) is half erased by being good as an appropriate-but-still-niggling character (Mr MacGuff and Leah summarise it best: “I didn’t think he had it in him.” “I know, right?”)

The film’s success in America is slightly baffling, which is why I merrily attribute it to Juno considering an abortion and then turning away. There’s underage sex, swearing, numerous displays of teen independence, divorce, love of rock music and horror films… All that’s missing from a Middle American Mom’s worst nightmare is drugs (there’s no violence either, but we know them there yankees love a bit of that). The whole thing worries the boundaries of its 12 certificate, I’m sure (being a recent film, the BBFC explain/justify), not that such things affect its quality as a film.

The backlash against Cody’s screenplay had me all prepared to find Juno a samey, wannabe-cool and lacking experience, but it isn’t. It’s consistently funny, occasionally moving, and only infrequently irritating (usually when it comes across as stereotypically indie). As the comedy-indie entry in the Academy’s 2008 choices, its worthy of its predecessors, and I consider that praise indeed.

4 out of 5