Chuck Koplinski: Acting makes 'Dallas Buyers Club' among year's best
Very little was known about HIV or AIDS in 1985 when Ron Woodroof was diagnosed as having contracted the virus.
Research was underway to find out how the spread of this scourge could be arrested or cured, but the initial solutions that pharmaceutical companies came up with were desperate shots in the dark that did nothing but stoke the frustration of the afflicted — and sometimes worsened their condition.
The last thing those with the disease wanted was to be used as a guinea pig, and yet, that was the only hope many of them had.
Jean-Marc Valee's "Dallas Buyers Club," one of the most vital American films of 2013, tells Woodroof's story and is propelled by a palpable sense of anger aimed squarely at the Reagan administration's indifference to the crisis, the various pharmaceutical companies' pursuit of profit at the expense of others' health and the rampant fear and ignorance that prevented a wider public outcry about the injustice that occurred.
And from all of this came an unlikely hero in Woodroof, a bigoted, immature young man whose reckless lifestyle on the rodeo circuit — he was a drug user and not averse to casual sex — led him to his desperate situation and forced him to look at the world around him in a more liberal, proactive manner.
As portrayed in the movie, Woodroof, brought to life by Matthew McConaughey in the performance of his career, is a man on a mission. Given only 30 days to live after being diagnosed, he quickly educates himself about the disease and the treatment available, only to realize that his options are few and contradictory.
Told that the experimental drug AZT is his best hope, Woodroof procures it by scrounging in hospital garbage bins for cast-off samples — only to find out that this medicine does more harm than good.
A trip to Mexico brings him in contact with Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who starts him on a regimen of vitamins, minerals and herbs, which does wonders. Other supplements help as well, but as they are not FDA-approved, Woodroof cannot get them in the United States, so he does what any dying man would do and smuggles them across the border. To raise money for his continued treatment, he begins to sell this medicine to other victims, only to run into interference from shortsighted authorities.
So Woodroof and his lawyer come up with a plan to set up a buyer's club in which people pay monthly dues to belong and then are given these supplements as a perk of being a member.
The film does a good job of juggling the battles Woodroof fought with the FDA for the remainder of his life with his complex personal issues as well. His striving to have a relationship based on mutual respect with a woman — in this case, Dr. Eve Sacks (Jennifer Garner) — is interesting if not the most engaging aspect of the film, while his growing friendship with a transvestite named Rayon (a fantastic Jared Leto) proves to be the most poignant.
McConaughey and Leto are wondrous to behold. In a year filled with strong male performances, theirs might be the best because, quite simply, they're taking far more chances on screen than their counterparts.
In the past two years, McConaughey has consciously changed his big-screen persona, yet he ventures further still, playing an initially unsavory character who comes to accept his lot in life and responds heroically in the face of tragedy. Sure, the actor transforms himself physically, but the emotional depth he brings to Woodroof is what makes this a unique and special performance.
Leto might be even better. To be sure, as Rayon he gets the flashier role, but the humanity he brings to this lost soul — showing us how he fully embraced his otherness in a society that scorned him, humbling himself in front of his father when in need of help, putting on a brave face as death approaches — is heartbreaking. These two bring a nobility to these two men that society denied them, and their unflinching performances help make "Dallas Buyers Club" one of the year's best films.
'Dallas Buyers Club' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Kevin Rankin, Griffin Dunne and Jane McNeill.
Directed by Jean-Marc Valee; Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter; screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack.
A Focus Features release. 117 minutes. Rated R (pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity and drug use). At the Art Theater.
Also new in theaters
"Catching Fire" a welcome improvement in "Hunger Games" series. (3 stars) A vast improvement over Gary Ross' "The Hunger Games," part two in this series, "Catching Fire," comes to the screen with style and purpose, both of which were sorely lacking in the first, which looks more and more like a slipshod affair when held up to Francis Lawrence's work in the sequel.
There also seems to be more at stake here. There's a timeliness to this entry as its theme of a disconnected government lording over an ignored populace resonates more deeply as the fissure between the Obama presidency and the U.S. populace widens while overall dissatisfaction with government increases.
There are few spoils for Katniss (a fierce Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (a bland Josh Hutcherson), the first dual winners of Panem's annual sacrificial contest known as the Hunger Games. They've unwittingly become symbols of defiance, and a revolution is brewing as they've shown that the government can be undercut by bending the rules of the contest to their advantage.
The breadth of the unrest becomes evident when the two visit each of the 12 districts on a "Victory Tour" and see crowds openly support their rebellious nature despite the presence of heavily armed government troops.
Fearing control slipping away, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to put Katniss, Peeta and other newly empowered former winners in their place by conducting a special "Hunger Games" in which two former winners from each district must compete to the death.
What with all of the groundwork laid out in the first film, Lawrence is able to hit the ground running and quickly builds a sense of momentum that never falters. He also adopts a less-is-more philosophy in telling the story, never calling attention to his technique (no constantly moving, hand-held shots this time, thank you very much) and instead concentrates on delivering the decadence of Panem, the poverty of the 12 districts and the danger of the games in a direct manner that allows the viewer to become immersed in this world.
Having not read Suzanne Collins' novel on which this is based, I cannot speak to any changes that might have been made from page to screen. However, the story itself corrects some of the things that I objected to in the first episode. The other participants in this version of the "Hunger Games" are more fully drawn and intriguing, chief among them the fiery Johanna (a fun Jenna Malone), the too-smart-for-his-own-good Beetee (Jeffery Wright) and the dynamic Finnick (Sam Claflin — who was born to play Aquaman).
These are all worthy additions to the cast whom we come to be just as invested in as we have Katniss. And while the violence in these games is just as cruel as the first time out, it's a bit easier to witness now that none of the victims are children.
While Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth as Gale continue to compete for the title of "Blandest Boyfriend in Waiting," Lawrence impresses throughout. Her contribution to these films cannot be overstated as she's fully invested in the character and story, helping sell this premise even in its most ridiculous moments.
Tough yet vulnerable, fierce yet compassionate, the actress conveys Katniss' every mood with a degree of honesty that's fun to watch, as she almost single-handedly makes this obvious parable watchable with her very presence.
"Delivery Man" fails to deliver. (1-1/2 stars) I was sucked in by the advertisements for "Delivery Man." This comedy about a man who, through the negligence of a sperm bank, finds out that he's the biological father of more than 500 children, appeared to be a sweet, heartfelt comedy that would warm the cockles of my heart (I looked up "cockles" after writing this — It means "heart-shaped shell," but I digress ).
However, I am sad to report that my cockles remain cold as, much like its title character, this film continually let me down, despite the appearance that it would be an entertainment I could depend upon to lift my spirits. Alas, duped again.
Vince Vaughn is David, a man-child still firmly stuck in his teenage years, living alone in his ratty apartment that's cluttered with old toys, autographed baseballs, stacks of unpaid parking tickets and unrealized potential.
The only reason he has a job is that he works for the family business, and the only reason he has a girlfriend as beautiful and mature as Emma (a wasted Cobie Smulders) is that writer/director Ken Scott thinks his audience is dumb enough to believe that a woman like this would hang out with a loser like David.
Despite being advised by his equally daft lawyer and best friend Brett (Chris Pratt) not to contact any of his offspring, who are suing the sperm bank in order to discover the identity of their father, this wingnut decides to randomly choose one of the 142 profiles of his children who are involved in this class-action suit and track them down, being careful never to reveal his identity.
The first child he meets is a member of the New York Knicks. This fills him with displaced pride, so David chooses another profile and helps another son of his get an acting gig. And so it goes: He becomes a stalker of the daddy variety and affords himself the pleasure of swooping in like a guardian angel to help young men and women through trying times in their lives.
I don't have a problem with the premise — though I do question how David's sperm, though classified as "high-end," is able to produce so many kids — but I do have a problem with the main character. Our "hero" is nothing more than a deadbeat dad, the sort who is never around to change diapers, discipline the kids or help with mundane household chores, but shows up when his kids are getting an award, playing in a baseball game or doing a good deed so that he can bask in their glory and proclaim himself as the proud papa.
David has not invested in his children, so his feelings of pride are not earned, and his responses to their successes are self-centered as he is witnessing these events not to support these kids but for his own ego.
Bad enough that "Delivery Man's" plot is needlessly complicated, takes the easy way out again and again by offering simple solutions to complex problems, moves far too slowly and fails to develop important subplots. But asking us to sympathize with an immature loser is just too much to ask.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.