by Steve Habrat
After refreshing his career with his buzzed-about supporting role in Mud, Matthew McConaughey brought his career-high year to a close with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Based on an extraordinary true story, Dallas Buyers Club is an addicting drama that follows Ron Woodroof, a hard-living and homophobic electrician/bull rider who was unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s. Peppered with quirky characters and spilling confidence, Dallas Buyers Club has nudged its way up the list of the best films of 2013 with the absolutely mesmerizing performances from both McConaughey, who underwent a drastic physical transformation for his lead role, and actor/rock star Jared Leto, who is nearly unrecognizable as a transgender woman who becomes the cowboy’s unlikely ally. Considering that the film is tackling such grave subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club never even considers sending the audience away staring down at their shoes. Sure there are emotional blows that break your heart, but Vallée excels when the story is optimistic and uplifting, reassuring the audience that even when the odds are stacked against you, you are still capable of making a difference, especially when we set aside our differences and work together.
Dallas Buyers Club begins in 1985 and introduces us to Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), a booze-swilling, coke-snorting electrician/bull rider who relishes the company of lovely ladies. After a nasty accident at work, Ron is sent to the ER, where a simple blood test reveals that the reckless cowboy is HIV-positive and has only 30 days to live. Reluctant to believe that the test was accurate, he instantly gets back to his partying ways, but after remembering he had unprotected sex with an intravenous drug user, he slowly comes to terms with his current situation. After learning about the new drug ATZ, which is said to prolong the life of those who are HIV-positive, Ron enlists a hospital employee to sneak him bottles of the drug under the table. After taking ATZ for an extended period, Ron realizes that his health is getting worse rather than improving. Ron’s poor health soon lands him back in the hospital under the care of Dr. Eve Saks (played by Jennifer Garner), who reveals that the combination of cocaine and ATZ has been making his situation worse. While recovering in the hospital, the extremely homophobic Ron meets Rayon (played by Jared Leto), a transgender woman who is also HIV-positive. After taking a trip to Mexico to obtain medicine, Ron learns of the devastating side effects of ATZ. In place of ATZ, Ron is recommended several other drugs that are not approved by the FDA. With the new drugs improving Ron’s health, he forms an unlikely partnership with Rayon, and the two begin smuggling in the drugs to sell to other HIV-positive patients.
Initially, Dallas Buyers Club hits us with an array of emotions that rattle us in a number of different ways. We’re disoriented with shock as Ron learns of his serious condition, and his quick defense of denial is certainly understandable. He storms off in disbelief at the mere suggestion of him being HIV-positive, laughing off the diagnosis as something that only homosexuals can get. He then quickly drowns his sorrows in powder, liquor, and skin, drunkenly telling one of his close friends about the news. Ron’s denial and anger are quickly relieved by realization as he remembers having unprotected sex with a woman with some nasty looking needle marks on her foot. This realization shifts to explosive grief and anger as his friends grow increasingly hostile towards him, viciously mocking and humiliating him. They scoot their chairs away from him when he joins them at the bar, he’s chased out of work, and he’s booted from his trailer park home. The blows that Ron have been dealt finally soften when he stops taking the ATZ he’s been slipped under the table and makes major changes in his lifestyle. This is where the film gains confidence and southern swagger, emitting sugary charms, upbeat chuckles, and relentless determination.
At the heart of all this southern swagger and sugary charm is McConaughey, who gives the best performance of the year as Ron Woodroof. At first, Woodroof is sort of a tough character to root for. He’s wildly homophobic and sleazy, having sweaty threesomes, chugging bottle after bottle of liquor, snorting cocaine, and getting himself into gambling trouble. When he finally accepts his new disease and vows to live past the 30 days he’s been given, the magnetism is as powerful as ever and we find ourselves on team Woodroof. He becomes even more lovable when he reluctantly joins forces with Leto’s Rayon, a sweet and childlike soul who shatters Ron’s seething disgust for homosexuals. Like the scrawny and drawling McConaughey, Leto undergoes a shocking transformation that will absolutely blow you away. Watching him push all of Ron’s buttons is absolutely uproarious, and it’s certainly heartwarming to see Ron soften to his flamboyant partner in crime. Leto’s unforgettable performance hits its high note during a tearjerker meeting with his disapproving father, who sighs with exasperation right in his son’s face. It’s a sequence that leaves your frozen in place. Also on board is Jennifer Garner, who warms the heart as Dr. Saks, a close friend of the delicate Rayon and a growing supporter for Ron’s crusade.
While Dallas Buyers Club is certainly inspirational, there are still plenty of scenes that show the terrible symptoms of this dreaded disease. The symptoms are shown in a raw and horrifyingly realistic manner, from deep coughs, to crippling headaches, to dark splotches on the frail skin—one symptom more terrifying than the last. It’s through this glimpse of the symptoms that Vallée milks huge amounts of empathy from the audience. You’ll also find yourself struck by the bravery of these infected characters, willing to fight until their last tearful breath. Unsurprisingly, Dallas Buyers Club does take a stand against homophobia, and it certainly never misses a moment to remind us that we should all set aside our differences and live in harmony. The message side of the film is certainly expected, especially since gay rights have been a hot topic over the past few years, but Vallée keeps a firm grip on things and prevents the message from feeling redundant. Overall, while it dares to address dark subject matter, Dallas Buyers Club is a superbly directed story that instantly sucks you in. Its outlaw strut gives it a singular glow, and the performances from McConaughey and Leto rank as some of the most outstanding acting work I’ve seen in ages.
by Steve Habrat
Since its release in 2003, Marvel’s big screen adaptation of the lesser-known Daredevil has gained the reputation of being a downright stinker of a movie with a cringe-inducing Ben Affleck as the blind crime fighter. Daredevil isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. It is merely a decent movie that does have its fair share of flaws. Reeking of Matrix-esque fight sequences with a hints of Spider-Man and Batman thrown in, Daredevil is a clunky film set to awful wannabe grunge rock that was all the rage in 2003, but there are still a number of aspects to admire. Affleck molds the blind lawyer Matt Murdock into a captivating character who is more interesting during the day when he is fighting crime in the courtroom than when he is prowling the streets as the teeth-gnashing vigilante dressed up in red leather. Capitalizing on the popularity of 2002’s Spider-Man, director Mark Steven Johnson works hard to make something that is faithful to the comic lore (many shots are taken directly from the comics) but he trims his origin story down to a brief hour and forty minutes, too in a rush to get to the action and leaving several major characters and a romance underdeveloped.
Daredevil begins by flashing back to the troubled childhood of Matt Murdock (Played by Scott Terra), a nerdy kid from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Much like Spider-Man, Murdock is the target of neighborhood bullies who like to toss him around like a ragdoll. At home, his father is a washed-up boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Played by David Keith), who relives his glory days by guzzling countless bottles of beer and drunkenly rambling to Matt about fights he won and why it is important to get an education. Matt suspects his dad is working as an enforcer for a local mobster and his suspicions are confirmed when he bumps into his dad roughing up a local hood in an alley. Fleeing in horror, Matt stumbles into a construction yard and proceeds to be blinded by toxic waste in a freak accident. Matt’s father blames himself for the accident and the two make a silent promise to each other to never give up and better themselves. Shortly after the accident, Matt begins to discover that his other four senses are operating at superhuman strength and give him a radar-like sight, which he uses to stand up to neighborhood bullies. Matt’s father begins boxing again but he finds that he is unable to walk cleanly away from the mob. After Jack refuses to throw a fight, he is beaten to death in an alley by a towering enforcer who likes to leave roses on the bodies of his victims. The devastated Matt silently vows to find the people responsible for the death of his father and he assumes the identity of Daredevil, the man without fear.
Part Spider-Man and part Batman, Daredevil doesn’t really have any superpowers to speak of. He uses sound waves to create a radar sight to help him locate and knock out bad guys throwing punches his way. He leaps around the rooftops dressed in a goofy red getup that does have a slight DIY feel to it despite its silliness. Matt doesn’t stop fighting crime when the sun comes up. By day, he paces a courtroom as a lousy attorney who shouts, “Justice is blind!” When Affleck doesn’t have a mask pulled over his face, he is fascinating to watch as a blind man. We watch him perform daily rituals that help him get around the bustling New York City streets. He folds his money in different ways to help him figure out if he is reaching for a ten or a five and crams prescription painkillers into his mouth to help ease the pain of injuries that he suffers at night. You will genuinely like him as Matt Murdock and you will relish the moments he shares with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Played by Jon Favreau), his chatty partner who likes to get drunk with Matt and describe beautiful women they encounter on the street. Together they are the saviors of Daredevil with their chuckle-worthy conversations and pranks they pull on each other.
Naturally, Daredevil has a love interest by the name of Elektra Natchios (Played by Jennifer Garner), a stunning Greek beauty that can hold her own in a schoolyard brawl. Daredevil does hint at a substantial romance between Murdock and Elektra but it doesn’t hold together once Elektra’s father is slain by the Irish hitman Bullseye (Played by Colin Farrell). Bullseye is hired by the hulking mobster William Fisk/The Kingpin (Played by Michael Clarke Duncan), a ruthless gangster who oversees organized crime in New York City and may be responsible for Jack Murdock’s death. In a rage, Elektra almost instantly morphs into a superhero herself and then disappears from the film like she was never there to begin with. Bullseye is easily the coolest character in the film, a resourceful bad boy who likes Guinness, has a nasty brand on his forehead, and can turn anything he touches into a deadly weapon. Farrell’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious as he slinks around hissing at our horned hero. The Kingpin is supposed to be the main villain of Daredevil but we hear about him more than we actually see him. He is probably on the screen a total of twenty minutes, making him more of a gigantic disappointment.
At its core, Daredevil is a gritty tale that is loaded with untapped potential. The opening flashback of the film is thrown off by lame acting from the child actors, removing us from the moment entirely. I am also bothered by the wiry action sequences, where the actors go spinning effortlessly through the air with no explanation at all. It is painfully obvious they are dangling from wires and it is sloppily executed. Daredevil could have also used more of The Kingpin, a mildly frightening villain who could have been even more menacing had we gotten to know him a little bit better. We have to take into consideration that Daredevil was made in a time where the superhero genre was experiencing some growing pains, many filmmakers viewing them as mere escapist thrill rides that were heavy with wild action scenes and perfect CGI. To be fair, Daredevil attempts to put more emphasis into the characters when they don’t have their masks on and I will give it credit for that but we still have to like the costumed hero and I can honestly say Affleck lost it for me when he was wearing the horns. Overall, it was a step in the dark direction for superhero films and it does feature some fine performances, but the skimpy runtime prevents Daredevil from having the depth it is so convinced it has.