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. ^

Bernie (2011)

2015 #53
Richard Linklater | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

BernieI seem to vaguely remember dismissing Bernie as just ‘Another Jack Black Comedy’ back whenever it came out (in the UK, that wasn’t until April 2013), and essentially forgot about it until earlier this month when it came up on the A.V. Club’s 100 best films of the decade (so far), at #38, which made it sound a very worthwhile watch for multiple reasons. Having seen it, however, I don’t think I’d rank it as one of the (half-)decade’s best. That’s putting an unfair burden on it, though: it’s a movie I’m glad I’ve seen, and certainly one with a good many points in its favour.

Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, whose dedication to his job and friendly disposition, both far above and beyond the call of duty, soon find him at the centre of the community and beloved by its people. When the town’s renowned miser dies, Bernie forms a bond with his even-miserlier bitch of a wife (Shirley MacLaine), becoming about the only person she gets on with. They go on expensive holidays, dine at fine restaurants, and soon Bernie is managing her affairs. But she becomes increasingly controlling, making demands on his time that he struggles to meet, and treating him as wickedly as she does everyone else. One day, Bernie shoots her dead. When his crime is discovered, the people of his small town initially refuse to believe he did it; when it’s proven he did, they clamour for him to be released anyway.

By-the-by, this is a completely true story.

Bernie brings gifts(If you’re observing similarities to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, you’re not the first: the magazine article that inspired Bernie, published around the same time as that book’s film adaptation, is called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”.)

Co-writer/director Richard Linklater — who, as we know, often likes to mix up real-life and fiction in the way he produces his movies (cf. Boyhood; the Before trilogy) — tells this story in a docu-drama style, mixing talking head interviews with dramatic recreations. Many (most) of the interviewees are real-life Carthage residents, presumably giving their real recollections and opinions. It fits this narrative to a T, lending veracity to the unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true story. They’re also amusing — not in a “laugh at the small town folks” kinda way (though there’s an inherent element of that for us as outside observers, let’s be honest), but in an honest-to-goodness “this is what real life’s like” fashion. This irreverence is how many people really react to and discuss momentous events, and in this case that gels with the tone of what happened.

No doubt spurred on by the fact he’s portraying a real person, Black gives a strong performance. It’s a comedy one, undoubtedly, but far more restrained than he normally offers. It doesn’t suggest a Robin Williams-esque versatility — I don’t imagine Black’s suddenly going to be popping up in serious parts all the time — but it is worthy of note. MacLaine does a lot with a little, her character’s vicious nature conveyed at least as much through glances, sneers, and a particular way of chewing food as it is through words and actions.

McConaissanceThe local attorney seeking Bernie’s prosecution is played by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know when we’re meant to deem the start of his “McConaissance”, but I’m not sure this really qualifies as part of it. Not that he’s bad, but it feels like the kind of played-straight comedy Southerner I’ve seen him do a few times now; indeed, it’s how he comes across in real life, from what I’ve seen. It fits the role like a glove, but doesn’t make for a remarkable performance.

Bernie is one of those stories that you’d never buy if it weren’t true, which makes it perfect fodder for the movies. Native Texan Linklater clearly understands the mindset of those involved and is the right kind of quirky-but-mainstream filmmaker to bring it to the screen. One might argue it doesn’t show suitable reverence to the fact a woman is dead, but the involvement of so many real townspeople suggests it’s got the level and tone bang on. It’s no true-crime mystery, nor the funniest comedy, but it is a tale so engrossingly bizarre that it begs to be heard in full. The real-life post-film ending — Bernie was released from prison last year on the condition he lives above Linklater’s garage — only adds to that fascination.

4 out of 5

Texas Across the River (1966)

2008 #58
Michael Gordon | 101 mins | DVD | PG

Texas Across the RiverTexas Across the River hardly seems to be a well-remembered film — the only DVD edition available (as far as I can tell) is a legally-produced DVD-R, clearly in the wrong aspect ratio. I only come to see it because a friend happened to have a VHS as a child, enjoyed it back then, and we managed to track down that DVD. [It was later released on UK DVD in 2012. (Amazon claim 2007, which is clearly BS.)]

And actually, it’s a fairly entertaining film. Little more than a comedic Western runaround, it sees Alain Delon — as a Spanish nobleman — trying to get to Texas to escape the Cavalry (led by Jim Phelps himself, Peter Graves) and marry his betrothed. On the way he enlists the help of Dean Martin and his Indian sidekick. Hilarity ensues!

OK, so it’s probably funnier if you watch it before your age hits double figures, but it still has enough entertaining moments and decent gags that its complete expungement from almost anyone’s consciousness seems unwarranted.

I don’t expect it’ll ever undergo some miraculous revival (it’s not that good), and perhaps is of primary interest as a curio for fans of Dean Martin, Alain Delon or Mission: Impossible, but it made me laugh — and, as I believe I’ve said before, that’s all I really ask of a comedy.

4 out of 5