Archive for November 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

November 24, 2013

Dallas-buyers-clubYou don’t have to be anti-science to question science in the hands of men who care more for profit. We are told by the corporate-owned press that anodynes found in nature are bad and those concocted in a lab are good — why? There’s no money in nature. In Dallas Buyers Club, a very unlikely radical and hero, ne’er-do-well Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), takes on the FDA and the medical establishment itself. It’s 1985, and Woodroof, a drug user, frequenter of prostitutes, and general scoundrel, is diagnosed with HIV. Woodroof, a reflexive homophobe, balks at this: Back then, HIV and AIDS were considered “the gay plague.” Woodroof is not, at first glance, a conventional hero — and indeed he continues to be crude and abrasive. Dying doesn’t really change him; it just makes him angrier, more passionate to suck any little juice out of life. The great thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it proves someone can be kind of an asshole and also a great man.

At the hospital, Woodroof is given AZT, the only drug for HIV/AIDS therapy approved by the FDA. It doesn’t help him; it makes him sicker. So he looks outside the box, outside America, and hooks up with a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) who tells him about various, much less toxic treatments developed in France and other countries. They work, but alas lack the imprimatur of the FDA. Woodroof comes home with a trunk full of vitamins and protein-based serums, and sets up a “buyers club” wherein a $400 membership buys you all the drugs you want. Along the way, everyone tries to shut him down; he’s audited, his inventory is confiscated. But he’ll be damned if he’ll give in. The movie suggests that only an asshole like Woodroof — a single-minded good ol’ boy who drinks and whores around — has the Texas-sized stones to take on the big guns, all while holding off the biggest gun of all (initially given thirty days to live, Woodroof hung on seven more years, until 1992).

Dallas Buyers Club is only tangentially about AIDS; it’s really more for anyone who’s ever laughed bitterly at drug commercials that rattle off long lists of appalling side effects. At times, Americans seem to want to treat their bodies like a garden that they neglect to water and nourish; then, when the garden starts to fail, they dump kerosene all over it and hope that’ll fix it. In this movie, the medical establishment is hawking kerosene, because there’s money in kerosene. Woodroof isn’t a scientist, but he has some common sense and his will to live drives him into the library. Such patients are troublesome to doctors, who may want to be helpful (like the doctor played here by Jennifer Garner who has doubts about AZT) but whose hands are tied. The film says that this is what happens when health care becomes corporatized. Its reach becomes wider but clumsier and often mangles the Hippocratic Code. When all you’re allowed to use is a hammer, every disease becomes a nail.

Fair warning to epileptics and others sensitive to high-pitched noise: at several points in the movie, when Woodroof’s health falters, an intense whine dominates the soundtrack. Otherwise, the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) is unobtrusive and delicate, treating the sometimes clichéd narrative beats with a matter-of-factness that helps put them over. A scene of hostility between one of Woodroof’s homophobic former buddies and Woodroof’s transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) is good for a cleansing laugh, and perhaps not coincidentally this is the first time I’ve been able to tolerate Jared Leto in a movie. Woodroof puts up with Rayon and her Marc Bolan obsession, and words like “faggot” slowly drop out of his conversation, if for no other reason than that gays are now his customer base. To its credit, the movie doesn’t really give Woodroof a big moment of reform; he’s in the buyers club primarily to live and to make a living. He doesn’t want to be a firebrand taking on the Man, but he has to be.

Those who enjoyed Matthew McConaughey in his earlier roles, before he walked in the wilderness of inane romantic comedies for about a decade, have been heartened by his resurgence in meatier roles in Magic Mike, Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and probably the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. It’s been a textbook comeback — the former sexiest-man-alive prince returns, possibly with the makings of a king — and his performance here is likely the jewel in the crown. McConaughey understands men like Woodroof and spends zero time detaching himself from Woodroof’s less savory inclinations or beliefs. Woodroof can be gallant and even whitebread when it suits him, but he never stops being the guy with dirt under his fingernails who bets on the rodeo and likes a lap dance. It’s great character-actor work with the scale of a major star turn, the sort of transformation we saw with regularity in the ’70s but have, by and large, learned to live without. McConaughey’s recent arc to greatness parallels that of the man he’s playing: If someone formerly so disreputable, so unworthy of serious consideration, can do work on this level, what else is possible?

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12 Years a Slave

November 17, 2013

12_Years_a_Slave_Fassbender_Ejiofor.jpg.CROP.article568-large12 Years a Slave is a serious movie. It manipulates, but not cheaply. It tells a story of survival and horrendous endurance, and does not find anything remotely ennobling or inspirational in it. A man spends a dozen years in hell for no sane reason. That he began life and spent much of his adulthood as a free man only heightens his anguish. The movie is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and scripter John Ridley offer the audience no comforting way to get our heads around the situation, its outcome (the men who kidnapped Northup ultimately got away with it), or the fact that millions of other human beings in slavery had never known freedom and never would.

McQueen, until now best known for his art-house studies Hunger (about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands) and Shame (about a sex addict), lends 12 Years a Slave some dabs of dreamlike imagery — red sunlight peeking through the gnarled tree branches of New Orleans; a steamboat’s paddle wheel gnashing away at the river. But for the most part he approaches the narrative straight on and sober, with long, long takes bearing the weight of cruelty. At one point, Northup hangs from a tree by his neck, his feet just barely touching the muddy ground, while the other slaves go about their business elsewhere in the frame. We stare at Northup hanging there for what feels like hours, but is probably just a couple of minutes of screen time.

The film’s only real concession to conventional heart-tugging is Hans Zimmer’s score, at times a bit too insistent or ominous. 12 Years a Slave has its share of brutality, but I never felt a sadistic impulse behind it on the filmmakers’ part, the way I sometimes feel it from Schindler’s List. The violence here is just sad and repulsive, and even when Northup loses his even keel and lashes out at a contemptible overseer (Paul Dano), the sequence isn’t rhythmed to achieve a “yeah, go get him!” effect — we are, again, saddened, this time because the intelligent and gentle Northup has been provoked to act against his nature.

I’m not sure acting will get any finer this season than the scenes between rancid plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s suffering avatar in his previous films) and despairing slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps is sexually obsessed with Patsey, who picks more cotton than anyone on the plantation; her reward is rape, and assorted abuse not only from Epps but from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Fassbender, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, goes beyond boilerplate evil into a deeply twisted humanity, while Nyong’o — in her feature-film debut — offers a devastating portrait of exhausted horror and misery. Patsey’s story violently refutes any easy sustenance we could derive from Northup’s. He was born in freedom and will eventually return to it; she wasn’t, and won’t.

As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is the major leading role he has deserved for some time, and he more than earns it, shivering in silent, profound disgust at Northup’s situation and surroundings, a man reduced to machinery. What impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave is its unstressed subtext dealing with the financial apparatus of slavery. Paul Giamatti (“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin”) shows up as a slave trader who displays his human wares as nonchalantly as a car salesman taking a buyer on a tour of his dealership floor. Both slaveowners we meet in the movie — the first is the largely less sadistic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — have their money problems, suggesting that the god that the slaves desperately pray and sing to is having his little joke on mortals who set themselves up as God. Caterpillars munching on cotton in Epps’ field are described as a “plague,” which, coming from a man like Epps who professes to know his Bible, is an ironic metaphor. Near the end, Brad Pitt turns up as an itinerant carpenter who implies that slavery runs against the very order of the universe, echoing the earlier words of a favored house mistress (Alfre Woodard). Eventually the apparatus will — must — come crashing down. Or will it? According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide today. The United States accounts for nearly 60,000 of those.

Thor: The Dark World

November 10, 2013

thor_new_still_official1Tiresome as the Thor movies can be, they occasionally yield oddball beauty on a level that you can only see in a movie that cost one hundred and seventy million American dollars. In Thor: The Dark World, for instance, there’s a gorgeously rendered Viking funeral (never mind for whom), and an evil red substance called The Aether that gooshes around in mid-air, and a “Dark Elf” named Malekith (Christopher Huddleston) who looks like a cross between Legolas and Count Orlok and who wants the Aether, but can’t have it because it flows in the veins of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). There’s also a bit when Thor (Chris Hemsworth), our hammer-wielding hero, gazes out at the stars, and there’s just a hint of Kirby Krackle to them — one of the visual trademarks of legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby, who helped create Thor and so much else of the Marvel universe, and whose heirs will get the following percentage of this film’s mighty profits: zero. Just a reminder.

So Jane’s been Aetherized, and Thor must protect her from Malekith while making sure that the Convergence of the Nine Realms goes off without a hitch. Got it? Heroine has something, bad guy wants it, good guy fends off bad guy. Got it. You need that simple thread to hold onto, because Thor: The Dark World, like so many other superhero sagas, clots its arteries with a great deal of plot cholesterol. The plot, indeed, relies on endless plotting to keep itself going — people are always scheming, and not just Thor’s trickster-god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). For some reason, Thor has to go behind the back of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to save the day, and this involves brawling with a good many Asgardian soldiers who are just doing their jobs, trying to get through the workday without having to chase some idiot in a spaceship. It also involves putting a large amount of trust in Loki, who, as wryly played by Hiddleston, is much the best reason to see the movie.

These Marvel movies may be full of pomp and circumstance — one legacy left by bombastic, alliteration-smitten Marvel co-creator Stan Lee — but thank Odin they have some humor, unlike the mopey, overlong DC epics we’ve been getting. Kat Dennings helps bring the proceedings down to earth as Jane’s BFF and assistant Darcy; her snark is just what’s needed in this fantasy-sci-fi behemoth that straddles worlds. Other women in the film, from Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaime Alexander) to Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), get to kick some ass, and Jane’s physics aptitude helps save the universe. It takes a while for this big machine to creak into motion, but once it’s headed for the finish line it involves everybody on every conceivable level — nobody sits on the sidelines, except maybe Odin, though Hopkins is still in full impressive roar, bellowing at Loki, “Your birthright” — the final “t” spat out like a dagger into his bad son’s heart — “was to die!”

If I don’t sound overly enthusiastic about most of the new Marvel movies, it’s partly because they blur past, leaving scraps of ghost memory. Nothing much is, or can be, at stake because we know Thor can’t die — not when Chris Hemsworth is under contract for another Thor film and two more Avengers films. (Not that superheroes ever die for long in the comic books, either.) Good must always defeat evil resoundingly, though not enough so that the villains can’t return for a sequel or two. And what’s Thor’s weakness? That he’s in love with a mortal woman, and so his loyalty is torn between two realms — that’s about it. He’s a bit impetuous, and does stuff against Daddy’s orders, but things turn out okay, so hubris is not his fatal flaw — if anything, it’s having a father who thinks he’s always right but isn’t. But again, Thor puts a thoroughly visually-imagined fantasy world on the screen, and doesn’t lumber around in it like Peter Jackson dawdling in Middle-earth for three more movies. It brings some awe and brawny excitement into comic-book cinema. I just wish these Marvel-verse movies weren’t so nerdishly interconnected that we feel as though we’re not getting the whole story until all 674 films have come out. It’d be nice to be able to skip one, once in a while, but by this point we’re too deep into it; we have to see it through until Iron Man 12 or Avengers 9 or whatever.

Dario Argento’s Dracula

November 3, 2013

3.-ASIA-ARGENTO-AS-THE-UNDEAD-LUCY-IN-ARGENTOS-DRACULA-3DMost of the people shaking their heads sadly over Dario Argento’s Dracula don’t seem to know what he’s up to. Anyone who’s seen Euro-horror of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly by Jean Rollin or Jesús Franco, or Blood for Dracula or Flesh for Frankenstein or even some of the classic Hammer films, will go into this affectionate homage with a receptive state of mind. Argento’s Dracula does reflect some of the foibles of the above movies — it has its cheesy parts, its dull stretches, its incomprehensible moments. But then that’s Argento, too. The world-renowned maestro of such works as Suspiria and Profondo Rosso pretty much always left logic bleeding in the dust. He cares more about mood, music, the crescendo of violence, the rich sanguinary history of art. He’s going to make Dracula and amuse himself doing it and he doesn’t give a damn whether you think it’s the 2013 definition of cool.

Shot whenever possible in and around crumbling Italian castles and villages, Dracula has a distinct European whiff that can’t be faked or built, especially not on the $7 million budget Argento had. The relatively tiny piggy bank also shows in the never-convincing computer effects — Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) turns into a wolf, an owl, a swarm of flies, and, in the movie’s height of nuttiness, a man-sized praying mantis. But no gritty verisimilitude is established here in the first place — it’s not as though any sane viewer is going to say “Man, I was totally convinced by this movie’s stark realism until the praying mantis showed up” — and if sketchy special effects send you packing, you’re going to miss out on half a thousand fun films from every era of horror cinema. The effects here (partially handled by longtime Argento collaborator Sergio Stivaletti, joining an old-school crew including cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and composer Claudio Simonetti) are pretty obviously consciously, winkingly artificial.

Argento and his three co-screenwriters more or less glance at Bram Stoker’s novel, toss it aside and make shit up. Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) is now a librarian, summoned to catalog the tomes lining the walls of Castle Dracula. Lucy Westenra is now Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), the mayor’s daughter and best friend of Harker’s beloved, Mina (Marta Gastini). There’s also Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), a fair-haired local maiden who becomes a bride of Dracula and gets her kit off whenever feasible; Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni) is now in blood thrall to Tania. Since this Renfield is too weird to do Dracula’s bidding effectively, Dracula also has a bald, beefy bruiser named Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console), who resembles Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison and lumbers around ax-murdering those who threaten to expose the Master.

And then Dr. Van Helsing shows up; this character has traditionally been an occasion for juicy overacting from the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, so perverse Argento has Rutger Hauer play Van Helsing as if awakened from a deep nap before each take. Hauer’s compelling anyway, though, making bullets out of garlic and silver, or dispatching an enemy with laughable abruptness (the victim’s eye pops out in gnarly 3D, for those lucky enough to see Dracula in the format). I can’t really judge most of the acting, which has that charming dubbed quality familiar from many afternoons wasted in front of tax-shelter horror. I can say that Thomas Kretschmann (currently playing Van Helsing, ironically, on NBC’s Dracula) brings a certain old-world delicacy to his seduction scenes and a persuasive brutality to his violent scenes, and that Asia Argento seems finally fulfilled as a hissing vampire with her head on fire.

I’d say you need to have seen enough clunky horror movies to enjoy Argento’s goofing around here. It’s Dracula; he’s going to take it deadly seriously? (That’s the pitfall of the NBC series so far, methinks.) It’s colorful and tacky and eccentric, with elements smuggled in from Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” And there’s the damn praying mantis, which I think is the firm dividing line here. If you can’t cackle and appreciate that, this Dracula does not have your name written all over it. I just sat back and said “Why the hell not.” And that’s not only a useful approach to Argento’s party, it’s possibly also the film’s artistic credo. A seemingly pointless shot of Dracula pacing around his castle and growling, looking like an outtake of the actor trying to get into character? Why the hell not. A long-distance shot of a tiny Dracula scaling the wall of his castle and hissing at the camera? Why the hell not. Argento hasn’t been this playful in years, and neither has Dracula.