Mini-Reviews: Dallas Buyers Club, Ender’s Game, About Time
Dallas Buyers Club:
Dallas Buyers Club is a classic example of great performances happening to a good movie. Outside of the inspiring story itself and the main three performances, there’s not a great deal to praise, as Jean-Marc Vallee’s film suffers from a number of shortcomings often found in biopics. When we meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), he’s a boozehound, sexhound– every type of hound. He discovers from his doctor (Jennifer Garner), that he has AIDS and is given thirty days to live. Woodroof views it as “that homo disease” and doesn’t believe it.. until he remembers having unprotected sex with a heroin user. Upon realizing the current medicines approved by the FDA will not fix him, he travels to Mexico and stashes a ton of unapproved drugs that help extend his life. With the help of a transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), they attempt to give these legal drugs to those who need them… but the FDA interferes. It goes without saying the story itself is remarkable, but the film spends too much time focusing on the events and not enough on the characters. The few character-focused scenes we get are deeply moving, largely because McConaughey and Leto are remarkable. When they’re allowed to engage in actual conversation, the film soars, but too often the script reduces them to odd-couple banter. It’s a must-see for the caliber of acting work being done– it’s just a shame that Dallas Buyers Club teases you with the brilliant character-building scenes and gives you so relatively few of them.
As someone who has never read Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game, I can’t vouch for the the faithfulness of Gavin Hood’s film adaptation. I can vouch that, while the movie feels very watered-down and “studio-ized,” it made me want to pick up the book. The story is the real star of Ender’s Game, which contains plenty of cliched sci-fi genre proclamation dialogue (“The fate of the world rests in your hands!” etc.) and sleepwalking veteran adult actors, yet it never really sinks. Credit Asa Butterfield for being a likable main presence in the film, as Ender, the smart young lad and born leader in the coming conflict against an alien race who attacked Earth and plans to return shortly. His training ground, a kind of intergalactic paintball arena with floating geometric shapes, is compellingly realized, and the other child soldiers around him (including Academy Award nominee Hailee Steinfeld) are all charming if simple supporting characters. The story itself is heady, full of interesting moral quandaries and ethical dilemmas about soldiers, war, and self-preservation. It may be delivered in the safest and most palatable genre package possible, but it’s overall a surprisingly diverting experience. I’m unlikely to remember much, but I remember enjoying it– and when the writer/director’s last project was the abominable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, “forgettable yet enjoyable” is a better compliment than I was expecting to give.
There are two Richard Curtis camps: there’s the camp that finds his brand of gooey sentimentality and foppish British wit utterly charming, and there’s the camp that finds it to be abhorrent manipulative junk. Put me in the former camp, as a proud owner of Love Actually on DVD, so I was excited for About Time, his newest venture with romcom-staple (and my personal celebrity crush) Rachel McAdams. We follow a young man (Dohmnall Gleeson) who discovers from his father (Bill Nighy, ever wonderful) that he has the ability to travel back in time. He can’t travel to the future, just backward– to relive days, or perhaps to correct small errors without causing too much of a butterfly effect. As one would expect in a Curtis film, he uses it for love, finding a way to win the heart of the girl of his dreams (Rachel McAdams) and make every moment of his life count. It’s all very life-affirming and charming and British, though I was rather surprised how plotless and sprawling it is. It’s Curtis’ messiest film, full of non-stop voiceover narration and very little sense of overarching forward narrative momentum. Do Gleeson and McAdams have chemistry? Of course. Are there plenty of one-liners to make you chuckle and plenty of achingly earnest sentimental moments to make you cry? Naturally. Will Curtis’ target audience (my girlfriend included) absolutely adore every frame of this? Undeniably. I was less taken by this than by previous Curtis entries, and obviously those who hate this brand of romcom would find this film akin to having root canals on all of your teeth simultaneously, but I can’t deny that it gets the genre work done, warts and all.