Skip to main content

Screw the FDA, I’m gonna be DOA!

Dallas Buyers Club
(2013)

(SPOILERS) Dallas Buyers Club is almost, very nearly but not quite, your classic Oscar bait fare. Based on a true story (although loosely appears to be the more than operative word), it depicts a lone crusader struggling against an oppressive establishment. Even better, said crusader is required to suffer a debilitating illness (actor transformation=Oscar nomination) and a bona fide arc all the way from bigotry to compassion. What more could the Academy wish for? Maybe a little less masturbation (never a vote winner)? Otherwise, compelling as the telling of Dallas Buyers Club is, it bears all the hallmarks of precision engineering in its emotional and narrative beats, which belies the low-budget indie vibe of the picture itself.


Such shameless manipulation of material didn’t attract the greater cinema-going public, however. Now there are up to 10 Best Picture nominees, there’s more potential for films to slip through the gaps, with Nebraska and Her having brought up the rear this year, closely followed by Dallas; one would generally expect a “fight the good fight” tale to catch on to greater effect. It was the only one in the line-up (12 Years a Slave is more about suffering than reacting), so I can only figure audience wariness about an AIDS drama that didn’t feature the friendly face of Tom Hanks put them off. That, and Matthew McConaughey really does look awful, dangerously emaciated. Nevertheless, his shambolic, skeletal, unkempt features must have been as much of a sure thing with voters as Hanks looking a bit pasty. Still, Tom was still a cuddly AIDS victim; McConaughey’s appearance as Ron Woodroof approximates the rat with an unspecified venereal disease in Meet the Feebles.


McConaughey is superb, of course, but it’s undeniably a showboat turn. Every bit as much as DiCaprio’s in The Wolf of Wall Street (Ejiofor probably had the most difficult job getting votes, internalised as much of his performance is), but with the added bonus that Woodroof goes from racist, homophobic, self-centred, duplicitous arsehole to impassioned spokesman for effective AIDS treatment eviscerating the inveterately corrupt Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the process. His wily deadbeat charm is given a positive outlet, and as he attempts to smuggle prescription drugs across the Mexico border, fully able to argue his case against the officials who would bar him (claiming a car load of pills is a 90 day supply), he’s an easy win for a sympathetic turnaround. That and, of course, his initially bilious but eventually affectionate business partnership with Jared Leto’s trans woman Rayon.


Leto’s casting incited some criticism from the transgender community, which may or may not be merited, but it’s the first role where I can actually recall liking the actor so superficially that’s reason enough to give him the Best Supporting Actor gong. I suspect it will be one of those Oscars that has little or no effect on his career prospects (I hadn’t realised he’d been off the screen for four years, probably because I didn’t miss him). Like much of the screenplay from Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack (which Borten had doing the rounds since 1996), invention in the interests of narrative trajectory is the name of the game; there was no Rayon in the life of the real Woodroof, but without her there’s no touching emotional progress for Ron.


The level of fabrication has received complaints too and, while I generally have little sympathy for those who expect a dramatisation to stick to the facts, the level of calculation here is at times overpowering. After all, if the purportedly-in-real-life bisexual Ron with no homophobic views – as cited by some who knew him – were portrayed, there would be a whole opportunity missed for a learning curve (and for him to feel what it’s like when his own friends reject him). There’s a vague sense that such attempts to up the ante dotted throughout (a T Cell count of 9, with 30 days to live; he’s like a superman, living for seven more years!)


Jennifer Garner’s friendly doctor Eve, the polar force to Denis O’Hare’s malignant Dr Sevard, is a considerably less effective invention than Rayon. Rayon’s a classically larger-than-life supporting character and an effective contrast to Ron, but Eve is merely there as the sympathetic smiling platonic straight woman to Woodroof’s antics. Likewise, as good as O’Hare and Michael O’Neill (as an FDA official) are, they pretty much one-dimensional villains once the lines of opposition are drawn. At times there’s a The People vs Larry Flynt sense of beckoning outrage in the character of Woodward and his interactions with the powers that be, and its fairly irresistible. Griffin Dunne has his most likeable turn in years as a disgraced doctor hiding out in Mexico, who puts Ron onto the good stuff.


The most engrossing aspect of the picture may not be the performances that got all the press. Rather, it’s the battle against an unjust system, and it’s the one area where the makers pull few punches, for which they are to be congratulated. AZT is presented as a poison from the first, a highly toxic substance most AIDS patients can’t tolerate (the end credits note Woodroof’s achievement as fostering lower doses of AZT, which might be a slight climb down as up until then it has been roundly denounced in any quantity). As Ron says, “The only people AZT helps are the people who sell it”; “That’s the shit that rots your insides. What a surprise; FDA approved”.


Ron’s metamorphosis from abuser of his temple to evangeliser about avoiding anything that damage his immune system further, right the way down to processed foods, is an inspiring one. And the venom with which the medical establishment turn on him for not falling in line, and effectively taking away their business, is instructive (one thing about Woodroof is that he isn’t suddenly Mother Teresa; he’s not running a charity, he’s running his own business – albeit one where he gets around the illegality of selling drugs by running a club membership service that covers costs). Before long the IRS are down on him (as he notes, that’s how they got Capone), and Ron is unequivocal that the game is rigged; “The pharmaceutical companies pay the FDA to push their product”. This is, after all, an organisation that attempts to label natural supplementsas drugs in order to ban them.


Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s use of handheld camera rarely feels distracting or intrusive; it’s a testament to the strength of the story and performances that the choices only become noticeable when it is germane; the ringing that elevates on the soundtrack preceding one of Woodroof’s blackouts. Occasionally he lacks subtlety (the magazine cover featuring Rock Hudson - nigh-on the first shot - is easily the clumsiest moment) but the picture as a whole is both immersive and immediate; real locations and natural lighting may be  a consequence of budgetary limitations, but they scream authenticity (the soundtrack is almost entirely forgettable, however).


It’s always fun too, when a character turns out to be an unlikely master of disguise.  Especially when this involves dressing up as a priest. It worked for Peter Sellers. It worked for Norman Wisdom. It works for Matt (“And a blessed day to you, sir”). No one could accuse Dallas Buyers Club of being a slavishly literal biopic, although it’s as guilty as any of wiring itself for maximum contrivance. But like the best of those in its genre espousing even a whisper of social conscience, there is fire in it’s belly; a cause to be rallied behind. The film will be remembered mainly for McConaughey’s crash diet, but the meat of the picture is Woodroof’s David and Goliath struggle.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …