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Posts Tagged ‘Jared Leto’

When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told ‘Maybe you should see a doctor!’ and responds ‘I am one,’ any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who’s been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew ‘Jared’ in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an ‘in association with’ Marvel movie), Morbius’s plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it’s not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum too, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the ‘official’, and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man’s appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony’s plans, but also that they’re quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It’s not like Morbius doesn’t have its own problems, not least that he isn’t an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops a lot, and frankly it’s been done before, a lot. He gets the line ‘Don’t make me hungry, you won’t like me when I’m hungry,’ which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film’s script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith’s character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank’s reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it’s nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can’t do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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The post-production periods of films can vary widely, even in normal times, which means that occasionally busy actors can go through periods where it feels like they have a lot of films out in quick succession: Michael Fassbender had ten films out between 2015 and 2017, while Colin Farrell was in five releases in 2003 alone. Nevertheless, we can thank the current unique situation for the fact that cinemas are currently showing the second Ridley Scott-Adam Driver collaboration in the space of three months.

The new one couldn’t be much more different to the last one, The Last Duel (which I thought deserved more success than it got). At least the new one, House of Gucci, seems to be doing rather better than anyone expected, presumably due to a combination of a well-liked star in the main role and simple brand recognition (though I have to admit that for a long time I thought ‘Gucci’ was most notable as the name of the computer technician in Quantum Leap). I speak not of Driver, though he has developed into a versatile and charismatic actor; front and centre on this occasion is Lady Gaga, who as usual is played by Stefani Germanotta.

The movie sees Scott return to the cartoon-awful 1970s Italy milieu he previously visited in All the Money in the World – everyone in Italy is constantly smoking, drinking coffee, riding around on scooters, fiddling their taxes, etc – although (despite the fact this is supposed to be a true story) events and dates have been jumbled around a bit. Germanotta plays Patrizia Reggiani, ambitious young daughter of a man with a large haulage company, who has a moderately cute-meet at a party with a spoddy, angular young trainee lawyer with very good hair (this is, of course, Driver). The film states this happened in 1978, quite a few years after the actual events; the rationale for the change is not obvious.

It turns out that the young lawyer-to-be is Maurizio Gucci, the disinterested scion of the extremely wealthy family behind the famous Gucci luxury goods empire. Not long after Patrizia discovers this, the young couple embark on a whirlwind romance (although it looks suspiciously like she is the one doing most of the whirling). When Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) learns of the affair, he quickly concludes that Patrizia is nothing but a gold-digger and disowns his son.

Still, their romance seems sincere and they build a seemingly happy life for themselves, until Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-owner with Rodolfo of the Gucci company, reaches out to them. Aldo’s own son Paolo (Jared Leto) has proved something of a disappointment, mainly because (the film suggests) he is a moron with no taste or imagination, and Aldo is beginning to think about the future of the company.

Needless to say Maurizio finds himself propelled back into the bosom of the family almost before he can draw breath, such is Patrizia’s desire to get better acquainted with her insanely rich in-laws and their highly-profitable business. Soon a somewhat ruthless changing of the guard is in progress at Gucci, but is Maurizio aware of just how ruthlessly ambitious his wife is…?

The closing credits of House of Gucci are accompanied by one of those pop-opera cover versions, in this instance Pavarotti giving us his take on Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby Can I Hold You Tonight’. I’m never really convinced that these things work, as the material and its treatment don’t really go together. On the other hand, in this case it may be deliberate, as there’s a similar weird kind of cognitive dissonance going on with the whole of House of Gucci.

On paper this is a rather bleak and tragic story, a true-life combination of Macbeth and The Godfather, with perhaps a twist of I, Claudius added to the mixture: how it came to be that the Gucci empire went from being a family business to nothing more than a brand name in only a couple of decades. Scott’s approach is to present it as a grotesque, overblown farce – the performances and soundtrack invite us to treat everything as nothing but a delightful lark.

There are some big turns on display on display here, most notably Jared Leto’s extraordinary performance as Paolo Gucci (the mauve corduroy suit Leto wears in several scenes is probably worthy of note in and of itself). That said, I should say that Germanotta gives a terrific and wholly credible performance with no musical content whatsoever: that acting career of hers could have real legs to it. On the other hand, it does seem rather like the ghost of Chico Marx is exerting some extraordinary influence over all the leading cast, vocally at least, and there are some delightfully unexpected bits of dialogue as well (someone shouts ‘You big-a sack of potatoes!’ at a relative during one family row). This is before we even get to the eye-opening sex scene between Patrizia and Maurizio. I would have bet pretty good money that the bout of marital grappling between Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette, during which they burst into song, was bound to be the weirdest sex scene of the year, but I may well be wrong: the thrashing around and grunting on display here is… well, as you can perhaps imagine, taste and restraint aren’t necessarily House of Gucci’s thing.

All in all, it is not terribly surprising that the surviving members of the Gucci family are far from delighted about the depiction of their relatives in this movie, complaining that they are being portrayed as hideous, overblown caricatures bearing little resemblance to the actual people they are supposed to represent. (Patrizia Reggiani, on the other hand, is apparently most peeved that Lady Gaga never got in touch with her to discuss her performance.) It is true the various Guccis all come across as freaks to some degree, not entirely unlike a sort of Mediterranean version of the Addams family: Jeremy Irons is a walking cadaver, Adam Driver is a geeky and gullible putz (at least to begin with), Jared Leto is a man with no brain, and so on. (Al Pacino is relatively restrained, compared to the rest of them, but it’s still an opera performance.) Does it make any difference that it’s not just Reggiani and the Guccis who are lampooned this way? (Salma Hayek is also off-the-leash as Reggiani’s bonkers astrologer and underworld fixer.)

I don’t see the Gucci family’s reputation being especially damaged by the film, largely because it is almost impossible to take seriously for more than a few seconds at a time (and this is before we even consider just how one can honestly sully the reputation of people who already have such an interesting record of fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and conspiracy to murder).

More importantly, this is a very entertaining film, provided you like a certain flavour of black comedy – I have zero interest in fashion, as anyone who’s ever met me will confirm, but I still enjoyed it a lot. The substantial running time floated by and I did come out actually feeling like I’d learned something. Not something particularly useful, but the statement still stands. Scott’s usual deft direction and a committed set of performances come together with a good script, and the result is a very different film from The Last Duel, but just as accomplished and entertaining. House of Gucci is an overblown melodrama, but very intentionally so. Ridley Scott’s success rate in his eighties is putting many much younger directors to shame.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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I’m hearing a lot of talk about ‘superhero fatigue’ at the moment – the notion that somehow people are going to get sick of seeing a new comic-book movie come out, on average, about once every two months. Hmmm, well – having lived through many years when there were no decent superhero movies to speak of, once every two months strikes me as being just about right. You’ll notice I said ‘decent’, because the likes of Steel, Catwoman, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace have always been with us. Provided the standard stays high I see no reason why people will stop watching.

That’s a big assumption, though. Quite what dark art Marvel Studios have employed to produce so many movies in a row without a significant misstep I don’t know, but – and I’m aware this assertion is going to be met with bared teeth by some people – if you want to see how this sort of thing probably shouldn’t be done, you can always take a look at DC’s recent movie output, for they haven’t released an entirely unproblematic film since The Dark Knight Rises, four years ago. Still, you can’t fault their determination, for they’re at it again with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

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It sounds like a winning premise: with Superman indisposed (i.e., and spoiler alert, dead) following the end of Batman Vs Superman, and Batman and Wonder Woman off the scene, the US government is concerned about who’s going to pick up the slack if another giant alien monster goes on a rampage. The solution comes from ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – get a bunch of the villains previously defeated by Batman and other superheroes, fit them with remote controlled explosives to ensure compliance, and deploy them as a deniable task force of superpowered operatives.

The collection of nutters thus assembled is led by top soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and includes ace marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), human flamethrower El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), atavistic cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), immortal sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and the Australian villain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whose main superpower is being a ridiculous national stereotype.

Others in the US government are uneasy with the idea of entrusting national security to ‘witches, gangbangers and crocodiles’ (they forget to mention ridiculous national stereotypes and people whose only apparent superpower appears to be acting like a homicidal pole dancer), but soon enough a crisis erupts with a giant supernatural entity on the loose in Midway City (Hawkman has clearly been clearly slacking off) and the Squad are rushed into action. But there is inevitably a wrinkle – the Joker (Jared Leto, giving us a very Frank Miller-esque take on the character) wants his girlfriend back, and is drawing up plans to get involved himself…

Is it overstating things to say that DC’s movie division seems to wobble from one crisis to another in a perpetual state of omni-shambles, with virtually every news story about them featuring the words ‘urgent talks are in progress’? Well, maybe. But there were apparently heated discussions after the relative underperformance of Batman Vs Superman, and even before that suggestions that this film was being reshot and reedited to give it more of chance of hooking the audience that made Deadpool such an unexpectedly big hit.

It certainly has the whiff about it of a film that has gone through extensive surgery in the editing suite: key plot beats are critically underdeveloped, and the structure of the film is odd and lumpy, often at the expense of the storytelling. Most of the Squad are given fairly detailed introductions, especially if they’re played by an A-list star, but then just as they’re about to go off on the mission, a brand new member turns up with no introduction at all (and a frankly rubbish superpower) and you just think ‘This guy is clearly just here as cannon fodder who will die in the next ten minutes’ – and he does! Not that the film couldn’t do with losing a few characters – super-obscure superhero Katana turns up, played by Karen Fukuhara, and does pretty much nothing at all. (Fukuhara says she wants to ‘explore the character’s back-story’ in the sequel, and it’s easy to see why: she has virtually no back-story here and is essentially just another national stereotype.) You could even argue that the film would be significantly improved with the Joker completely excised, for he has nothing to do with the main plot and just capers about bafflingly on the fringes of the film.

No chance of that, of course, for DC are clearly fit to bust, such is their desire to get their universe up on the screen in the mighty Marvel manner. I have to say I think there’s something deeply weird about this movie being made at all, at least now. This version of the DC universe hasn’t done a standalone Batman or Flash movie so far, and yet they seem convinced there is an audience dying to see a film about second- and third-string Batman and Flash villains in which the heroes themselves barely appear. I suspect the Joker is probably the only major character in this movie which a mainstream cinema-goer will even have heard of, which is probably why he’s in it.

Then again, there probably is an audience dying to see this kind of film, it’s just a very small audience of comics fanatics. One of the key moments in the development of the modern comic book movie was the failure of Batman and Robin in 1997, which the studio apparently decided was not because it was simply a bad movie (to be fair, I still think it’s better than Batman Forever), but because it managed to alienate the core comic book fan audience. This audience is lovingly courted at great length these days, and you could argue that with Suicide Squad we see a movie made solely to gratify it, and which has started to forget that the mainstream audience is the one which actually turns a film into a genuine blockbuster hit.

Still, given an arguably less-promising premise than that of Batman Vs Superman, David Ayer does an impressive job of keeping the film accessible and entertaining, even if it feels more like a handful of really good moments scattered through a rather generic and predictably murky superhero film. Will Smith earns his top billing, bringing all his star power to bear as Deadshot (the film predictably favours Smith over some of the others), while no doubt Margot Robbie’s game performance will win her many fans. Too many of the other squad members are one-dimensional – I would have liked to see rather more of Captain Boomerang in particular, but they seem to have realised such a wacky character is a terrible fit for a film striving desperately to be dark and edgy, and he barely throws a boomerang or gets referred to by his codename throughout.

In the end, Suicide Squad is a bit of a mess on virtually every level: it’s arguably a bad idea to do this movie at all at this point in time, and its structure and storytelling are both rather suspect, to say nothing of its oddly inconsistent tone (most of the time it plays like black comedy, but some of its most effective moments are when it takes its characters seriously). As an ensemble piece, it doesn’t really work either, being too strongly skewed in favour of certain characters. That said, it’s not an un-entertaining mess, with some amusing and effective moments along the way. I didn’t come out of it wanting to hunt down and exact vengeance on the director, which was the case after Batman Vs Superman. This wouldn’t really qualify as a ringing endorsement under normal circumstances, but these are not normal circumstances: we are in the odd world of DC’s movie output, and they do things differently here.

 

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Regular readers may recall the malaise visited upon your correspondent by the succession of predominantly worthy, ostentatiously noble based-on-a-true-story films which recently filled cinemas. To be perfectly honest, I would have expected Dallas Buyers Club to have produced exactly the same response – it’s the moderately true story of a maverick AIDS sufferer who sets out to challenge counter-productive drugs legislation and thus improve the lot not only of himself, but also a large group of fellow sufferers.

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Yet this is not the case. The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (wasn’t he Batman for a bit a couple of decades ago?), does a good impression of being rather more honest than your typical piece of Oscar fodder – honest to the point of disreputability, in places – and also of not being solely motivated by a desire to win gongs and critical acclaim. Certainly films about AIDS are less of a sure thing in the awards season than race relations or less recent history, but if nothing else, the lead performances of this film demand serious consideration.

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician, gambler, rodeo fan and general bon vivant (sometimes he enjoys several of these pursuits almost simultaneously, as we see in the opening sequence where he energetically disports himself in a pen next to the rodeo ring with a couple of young ladies, prior to placing a few bets). He is, as you might surmise, very unreconstructedly hetero-normative, and does not respond well to being informed, after an accident at work, that he is in fact in the advanced stages of HIV infection. This is 1985, when HIV and AIDS were generally considered to be exclusively homosexual conditions. Woodroof is contemptuous of the doctors’ prognosis that he has only a month to live, and goes on about his business.

Soon enough, however, the gravity of his situation sinks in on Ron and he sets about beating the prognosis with a ferocious zeal. Initially he sets about securing a supply of AZT, a retroviral drug undergoing its initial human trials, but an encounter with a disbarred medic (Griffin Dunne) in an unlicensed Mexican clinic opens his eyes to other possibilities for treatment.

The problem is that most of these other options involve medications not licensed by the American FDA and thus not available for sale in the USA. This is not something to deter a man like Ron Woodroof, of course. Following the example of a group of fellow-sufferers in New York, and with the assistance of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transvestite he encounters during one of his hospital stays, Ron hits upon a wheeze where he doesn’t actually sell drugs to HIV patients, just charges them for membership of a club which provides retroviral treatment as a subscription benefit. Thus the Dallas Buyers Club is born – and if Ron ends up making a little money from the enterprise, what of it?

Dallas Buyers Club is a film about a number of things, but it is neatly-enough assembled for none of them to predominate, and as it a result it doesn’t come across as either preachy, didactic, or pretentious. The film is on one level an historical document about the attitudes of the medical establishment during the early years of the response to the HIV crisis – there is a sympathetic doctor on display, played by Jennifer Garner (who has mousied herself down for the part), but most of the doctors in the movie come across as hidebound, arrogant, and in thrall to the power of the FDA – which in turn is in the pocket of Big Pharma. The film doesn’t hide the fact that its sympathies are unreservedly with Woodroof and other people in his situation, cogently arguing that at this point FDA regulations were protecting corporate profits rather than the lives of patients.

Most of the above, however, really takes place in the background of the film, which is more about the story of Ron Woodroof himself. I suppose one is obliged to comment on the fact that, as usual, Woodroof’s life story has been selectively edited to suit the narrative of the story – in reality, Woodroof was apparently bisexual and had a daughter, neither of which facts are apparent on screen – but I suppose we would be foolish to expect anything else in a modern film. In any case, this should not distract from McConaughey’s astonishing, incendiary performance. The actor is physically almost unrecognisable, and one shudders to contemplate the dieting regimen he must have employed to give himself the distinctively ravaged physique of an AIDS sufferer, as he has here. But this is just the foundation on which McConaughey builds his characterisation – he never shies away from making Woodroof an outlandish, paradoxical figure, a homophobe who becomes a pillar of the gay community, a hustling outlaw who also becomes a formidable authority on pharmaceuticals and the law surrounding them. He is magnetic, and this forms something of a culmination to a couple of years which have seen the actor reinvent himself as a serious performer: for this reason, coupled to the strength of his performance, an Oscar win for McConaughey is by no means out of the question.

Nor is one for Leto, who also delivers a credible, three-dimensional portrait – perhaps there is an element of stereotype in his feisty drag-queen, but not to an excessive degree. Garner is also effective. The relationships between the characters are convincingly presented, with genuine warmth and a surprising level of humour. This is a serious film about an important topic – though any criticisms it may have of the US health care system as it currently exists are deeply implicit – but is by no means a dry or heavy one. Not that it is necessarily for everyone, of course: there is some sexual content, not to mention an F-bomb count probably reaching a three-figure total.

I’m still not sure this is a film one would genuine go to see solely for enjoyment, though the story is interesting and well-told and the performances mostly excellent. But at least one does not emerge from it in a black morass of despair or feeling manipulated like a puppet on a string. Perhaps I am letting my own prejudices show, but of the ‘issue’ films currently pitching for Oscars attention, this one was rather more to my taste than most, quite simply because it seemed to be putting the story first. A fine and intelligent movie, with a brilliant lead performance: I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

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