Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Dallas Buyers Club"

 4 / 5 

Dallas Buyers Club begins with man who isn't simply unlikable, he's completely without merit as a human being, and manages the impressive feat of making him into someone heroic.  Along the way, the movie becomes more than a showcase for Matthew McConaughey, it also gives us an astonishing, committed performance by Jared Leto.  McConaughey will deservingly get the spotlight, but Leto is equally remarkable.

The film is "inspired by" the life of Ron Woodroof, who in 1985 discovered he was HIV positive and given 30 days to live.  Facing the same sort of fear and rejection by his friends and co-workers that AIDS patients received by the public at large, Woodroof refuses to accept the prognosis, and almost by accident discovers that drugs banned by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, but available in other countries, might help combat the disease.

Woodroof becomes incensed at the staunch refusal of doctors to help him explore possible alternative treatments, and learns on his own that the initial tests of AZT are not only backed by the deep pockets of pharmaceutical companies, but may be lethal to patients.

He uses a legal loophole to bring unapproved drugs into the U.S. and to create a "buyers club," a group that provides the drugs for free to those who can afford a steep membership fee.  The movie makes no apologies for the capitalist way Woodroof establishes his practice, but it's clear that it's no get-rich-quick scheme -- he may profit a bit (buying a Cadillac and some nicer clothes in the process), but Woodroof uses the funds to secure drugs from all parts of the world, and members of the Dallas Buyers Club begin living longer than anyone expected.

Woodroof gains two primary partners in his enterprise: The first is a conflicted doctor (Jennifer Garner), who recognizes the benefit of what Woodroof is doing -- and sees the ultimate goal of the medical community as financial gain -- but has hesitations about helping him too much.  The second is a transsexual named Rayon (Leto), who latches on to Woodroof more for the companionship than the business opportunity.

The relationship between Woodroof and Rayon is Dallas Buyers Club's greatest strength.  Woodroof is initially repulsed by Rayon, but understands he has no one else to lean on for support.  Rayon, in turn, gets a chance to assert himself and his individuality (the movie never uses the female pronoun), and sees in Woodroof a rare chance to be accepted on his own terms.

Shot in a low-key, straightforward way that borders dangerously on cable-TV-movie territory, Dallas Buyers Club is visually unremarkable, and its script glosses over a few key moments to its detriment.  Especially missing is a key moment of realization that the Buyers Club concept allows for some good to be done -- or, perhaps, that it's purely a money-making venture.  In that, Woodroof's motives are never quite clear.  But the impact the Dallas Buyers Club has most certainly is, as is Woodroof's slow acceptance of the people he is helping.

There are no maudlin moments of sentimental self-realization in the movie; it's clear-eyed when exploring Woodroof's revulsion of gay culture, and equally sure-footed as it depicts his ability to work within a community that was long a source of disgust to him.  If Woodroof seems, by today's standards, to be especially despicable, the film reminds us rather pointedly that his attitude wasn't exactly unusual in the mid-1980s.

Without calling attention to itself, Dallas Buyers Club evokes the time and place with precision; it looks exactly as it should, down to Woodroof's embarrassing hair style.

Neither does McConaughey try to be flashy or showy.  There are few moments of flashiness in his performance, and he's astonishingly committed to the role -- not simply in the weight he lost to play the part, but in a perfect balance of compassion and pragmatism.  The man wants to save his own life; that he manages to save the lives of others is merely coincidental at the start.

Leto has the more visually striking role, beginning as a gentle, delicate beauty filled with easy wit and charm, never ashamed to be vulnerable.  As Rayon, he bypasses almost all of the typical behavior associated with transgender roles in film, and while he embraces Rayon's femininity, there's also a deeply moving scene that ditches the dresses and gets to the heart of who this person is underneath it all.  Neither campy nor archly tragic, Rayon is a complex, fascinating character (not based on real life, but created for the film).  Leto's performance is an indelible one.

Filled with memorable appearances by exceptional character actors (Griffin Dunne is particularly good as a doctor exiled to Mexico), Dallas Buyers Club may not be the most polished film of the year, but it's one of the most compelling.  You may know the ultimate outcome of the main character from the start, but how he gets to the end, and what happens along the way, is fresh and unexpected.

Dallas Buyers Club tells a great story well.  That it happens to be true, and that it happens to be the only major studio film in twenty years to even acknowledge AIDS exists, just makes it all the better.

Viewed Nov. 16, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, November 11, 2013

"Thor: The Dark World"

 2 / 5 

I swear I paid attention.

During the opening moments of Thor: The Dark World, I was taking mental notes, listening to Anthony Hopkins intone about a … well, see, that's the problem.  Thinking back on it, I am still unsure what happened during Thor: The Dark World.

More than any other film series in the past several decades, the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" is less a number of standalone films that are all united by a theme as much as they are an old-fashioned movie serial.   Every Marvel film looks the same -- which is far from a criticism.  It's been a long time since a single film studio or "brand" had such a distinctive look.  The Marvel films are obsessed with commenting on each other, and if viewed as a whole, this tendency to self-reflexivity delights the crowd that follows the films regularly.

(As an aside, I grew up reading comics for hours and hours on end, but my tastes always ran toward Archie, Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse and Dennis the Menace, which I guess aren't really considered reputable comics anymore by most definitions.)

In Thor: The Dark World, for example, such trivial formalities of the cinematic convention like exposition and character introductions are thrown out the window.  If you walk into Thor: The Dark World not having just seen The Avengers, Thor and even Captain America within the past week, good luck to you.

Consider the movie that conventional wisdom holds was the beginning of the blockbuster era: Star Wars.  Yes, audiences are thrust into the action, but through dialogue and careful pacing, they quickly learn who Princess Leia is, what she's doing out in the middle of nowhere, why Darth Vader wants her and, eventually, who Luke Skywalker is and why he wants to get off of his desert planet.  I use Star Wars as a comparison because Disney now owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm, and it's informative to compare the way a "fast-paced" movie unfolded 40 years ago versus the plotting and pacing of today.

In Thor: The Dark World, we're never quite clear exactly why the central villain wants to take over the universe other than because he's a bad guy who can. (For about 90 minutes, I mistook his name as "Malachi," which I thought was an interesting Biblical reference that made me want to look up the connection, only to discover it's Malakeith, making me curious whether it was the poor elocution of actors or the bombastic sound mix that left me mistaken.)  There's some kind of intergalactic convergence that makes Natalie Portman mysteriously vanish into a sinister realm and get infected with some really awful liquid stuff, not because it makes sense to the story to have her go there, but because if she doesn't, there's no movie.

Somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, Thor learns that she's been possessed by this liquid-like stuff, and manages to get to Earth to rescue her.  Their scenes together on Earth are funny and clever and call to mind, for just a moment, the grandaddy of super hero films, Richard Donner's Superman, in their depiction of a heroic figure walking among us.

There are a lot of references to "New York," which I took to mean self-conscious nods directly to the destruction-filled climax of The Avengers, which if the Marvel Cinematic Universe were really being true to itself, would have led to the left hundreds of thousands of people dead, a major world city destroyed in ways that made 9/11 look like kids' stuff, and plunged the world into an economic catastrophe and global depression of unprecedented proportions that would last decades and decades.

Instead, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, physicists still look like super-models and enjoy lunch atop London skyscrapers, and everyone seems pretty happy, even when a newscaster reminds viewers of the "alien attack in New York."  You'd think the world might be a slightly different place knowing the planet is under attack from alien forces descending upon us from throughout the universe, and that a gang of super heroes is fending off the attacks, and a shadowy governmental organization is overseeing this small but elite team.

That could make for an interesting backdrop for a movie about super heroes.  But the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't want to play with us in ways that are particularly intriguing, it just wants an excuse to throw a Captain America reference into a movie about Thor and have the audience laugh along.

Once it focuses on the plot, the whole thing gets awfully convoluted; I imagine even some Marvel fans would be a little perplexed if asked to describe the plot of Thor: The Dark World in any detail.  There are a lot of CGI effects, a city that looks like a cross between Caprica of Battlestar Galactica and the Star Wars planet of Coruscant, and some cameos by actors like Renee Russo and Anthony Hopkins.

There are battle scenes on all sorts of different planets with names like Vanaheim (not, I've discovered, a veiled reference to Anaheim, home of Disneyland, which now has a Thor: The Dark World exhibit, but a variation on a name from Norse mythology) and Svartalfheim and Asgard, and all these planets pretty much look alike thanks to modern CGI effects.

The whole movie is one long action scene, punctuated by some surprisingly effective moments of down-to-Earth levity, like the scene in which Thor overhears Jane Foster talking to another man and gets more than a little jealous, which doesn't really befit a demi-god.

I still don't know what happened in Thor: The Dark World, as a whole, but I suppose to a certain degree the plot is irrelevant, as long as there is a post-credit scene setting up another franchise, and several references to other Marvel movies.  That's why the thing was made.  The movie serials used to be the same way; they were likely indecipherable to someone who didn't watch every single episode of Tom Mix or Flash Gordon.

In other words, Thor: The Dark World isn't made for the casual moviegoer, or someone who just wants to go to the movies to enjoy a story told well.  It's made for a particular audience, and as such it will likely be just as satisfying to them as it needs to be, no better or worse, and will make a lot of money while fans wait for the next episode to come along.

Viewed Nov. 11, 2013 -- Laemmle North Hollywood


Monday, November 4, 2013

"Escape from Tomorrow"

 2.5 / 5 

Neither as good as it aspires to be nor as awful as you might imagine, Escape from Tomorrow is already mildly notorious for being the film that got the best of lawyers at The Walt Disney Company, but it's a film that, rather surprisingly, deserves to be seen and considered on its own terms.  There are many times when it's cheap, amateurish and clumsy, but there are also times when Escape from Tomorrow is thoughtful, considered and even quite good.

The movie's director, Randy Moore, sets the entirety of his film at Walt Disney World in Florida (with Disneyland substituting in a number of shots), opening with a whopper of a premise: As he stands shirtless on the balcony of his hotel overlooking Disney's happy theme park, a family man (Roy Abrahamson) is fired from his job -- and then needs to finish up his happier-than-happy vacation without letting his family in on the secret.

What follows is a surreal, angst-ridden, increasingly nightmarish descent into mental chaos as our hero becomes unhinged during the course of the day.  Surrounded by his blond, perky family, he becomes distracted by two pre-pubescent French girls and starts to follow them through the theme parks.

Then, things go really wacko, and Escape from Tomorrow mostly squanders the goodwill it has built up when it branches off into simplistic, hokey science-fiction territory.  Moore may be trying to evoke the black-and-white, surreal worlds of David Lynch and even Alfred Hitchcock, but in that sense he overreaches.  The two halves of this film simply don't mesh, and the cardboard sets and laptop digital effects of the last 40 minutes don't work at all.

That said, there's something about Escape from Tomorrow that merits serious attention, there's an element that is undeniably effective.

Far from a "Disney-bashing" film, Escape from Tomorrow takes very seriously the idea that tens of millions of people a year consume Disney's manufactured happiness, and that real people with real problems walk through the turnstiles of these theme parks.

In its first half, Escape from Tomorrow benefits from the way it was shot: chaotically, without benefit of rehearsal and planning.  With its flat, monochrome design and its washed-out, hand-held visuals, Escape from Tomorrow invites comparisons to the ground-breaking French New Wave work of directors like Francois Truffaut and, more especially, Jean-Luc Godard, who were captivated by the idea of showing real people in real settings, forcing the idea of plot into the background.

Moore, his actors and his film technicians have done some pretty remarkable things, creating an atmosphere of unease and discomfort amid the incessant happiness.  The inappropriate sexual obsession of the father, his need to distract himself from his unpleasant reality, and his increasingly unbalanced mindset are impressively and memorably drawn.  The closed location of Disney World is certainly fair game for a psychological drama -- and while it's obvious why Disney wouldn't want to set a serious drama in its theme parks, it's rather a wonder more serious artists haven't been compelled to use a Disney theme park as a serious backdrop.

In that regard, Escape from Tomorrow works surprisingly well about half the time.  Then, like a malfunctioning roller coaster, it goes off the rails in a disastrous way.  Some intriguing plot points that are set up early in the movie are resolved in ways that are over the top, unbelievable and ultimately so disjointed with what has come before that it's hard to know if even the filmmakers took themselves seriously.  Maybe they were just so thrilled by their surreptitious accomplishment of filming their story amid the crowds that they thought no one else would notice that their script descended into foolishness.

Escape from Tomorrow ultimately feels a bit like one of the Disney theme park rides on which it's set: It begins intriguingly, sets up a clear story, then something goes terribly wrong.  On a ride, that sets the audience up for a fun thrill.  In a movie, it sets the audience up for immense disappointment.

For Disney fans and serious film buffs, Escape from Tomorrow is worth a look, and is not without its merits, though a climactic scene involving explosive diarrhea, profuse bleeding and the coughing up of unpleasant foreign objects isn't among them.

Viewed Nov. 3, 2013 -- Video on Demand