New This Week
Films about HIV-AIDS have been few and far between. The first film on the subject was the landmark 1985 TV production, An Early Frost starring Aidan Quinn, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Sylvia Sidney and D.B. Sweeney in a film that centered on the reactions of the family to a young lawyer’s coming out and revelation that he had the disease. It was followed in 1986 by the first theatrical release on the subject, the barely distributed independent film, Parting Glances about twenty-four hours in the life of several gay friends, one of whom, a punk rocker played by Steve Buscemi in his breakout role, has the disease.
It would be another four years before the screen tackled the disease in a meaningful way with Longtime Companion, the first widely distributed film on the subject, in which a group of gay men see their numbers dwindled by the disease. Campbell Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Patrick Cassidy and Oscar nominated Bruce Davison were among the strong cast.
September, 1993 gave us the mini-series And the Band Played On with Matthew Modine, Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda among others, about the in-fighting within the scientific community in the early days of the disease. It was followed three months later by the first major studio release dealing with the disease, Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar. With a stellar supporting cast including Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards and Joanne Woodward, the film seemed like a throwback to An Early Frost eight years earlier in which the protagonist, like Hanks’ character here, was a clean-cut all-American young lawyer. It was clearly calculated to win over mainstream audiences who equated the disease with promiscuous sexual behavior and drug use.
There were more diverse, albeit less successful films, later in the decade. 1995 gave us the comedy Jeffrey with Steven Weber and Michael T. Weiss and the heartbreaking The Cure with Brad Renfro and Joseph Mazzello, the latter playing a young boy who develops the disease from a blood transfusion. 1996 gave us both heartbreak and comedy in It’s My Party with an eclectic cast headed by Eric Roberts, Gregory Harrison and Olivia Newton-John.
2003 brought us the superb Emmy-winning mini-series Angels in America with a once-in-a-lifetime cast headed by Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson. 2009 gave us Gaborey Sidibe as Precious, the morbidly obese teenager who is diagnosed with HIV after being raped by her father.
Now we have Dallas Buyers Club, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture; Actor (Matthew McConaughey); Supporting Actor (Jared Leto); Original Screenplay; Film Editing; and Makeup and Hairstyling.
Dallas Buyers Club differs from previous films about HIV-AIDS in that its protagonist is not particularly likabled. Matthew McConaughey’s hard living real life Ron Woodruff is an electrician and sometimes rodeo bull rider. Afflicted with HIV, he is given thirty days to live by an insensitive doctor. Taking matters into his own hands he goes out of country to find drugs not approved by the Federal Drug Administration thus prolonging his life by seven years. He expands his personal use by setting up a club in which participants pay $400 per month for their drugs. Those with less than the $400 membership are turned away.
The homophobic Woodruff takes on as his business partner, the fictitious Rayon, a transvestite and pre-op transsexual, beautifully played by Jared Leto. Their growing friendship forms the nucleus of the film’s emotional core.
McConaughey, who gave memorable performances in 1996’s Lone Star and A Time to Kill, was pretty much written off as a serious actor after a steady stream of limp rom-coms in the first decade of the 21st Century. Since 2011, however, he has given an astonishing number of fine performances in such films as Bernie; Magic Mike; Killer Joe; The Paperboy and Mud. He tops them all with his swagger, resolve and ultimate fade-out as Woodruff.
Leto, a popular singer-songwriter, has spent more time in recent years on his music career than his acting. That could change with his bravura, seemingly out of nowhere portrayal of Rayon., an uncanny performance of great sensitivity and grace. It’s no wonder he has been winning the lion’s share of this year’s supporting actor awards. McConaughey may be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar but Leto is virtually guaranteed the win for Best Supporting Actor.
Dallas Buyers Club is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Richard Curtis is a prolific British writer whose credits include the screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral; Notting Hill and Love Actually, which he also directed ten years ago. Six years later he directed the whimsical Pirate Radio. Now he’s back with the bittersweet fantasy, About Time about a young man who is told by his father on his 21st birthday that he, like all the other males in the family, has the ability to time travel, but only backwards. At first, the young man, played by Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan Gleeson’s son) uses this ability to his advantage but eventually learns that messing with time is not a good thing. The cast also includes Bill Nighy, Rachel McAdams and rising star Margot Robbie. If you’re a fan of Curtis’ work, which I generally am, you may like it, but I thought it went on too long after making its obvious point.
About Time is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) was a British missionary in China from 1932-1948 and later Taiwan until her death. A book about her life called The Small Woman was made into the successful 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which has just been given a Blu-ray upgrade in light of its continuing popularity.
As films about missionaries in China go, it isn’t as engrossing as The Keys of the Kingdom, which was announced as a Region 2 Blu-ray release last year, but never materialized, but it is not without interest especially during Aylward’s trek across China, followed by more than 100 orphans singing “This Old Man”.
The short Cockney accented Aylward is played by the tall Swedish acting giant, Ingrid Bergman. Her Chinese Army Officer friend is portrayed as a Eurasian by German actor Curt Jurgens and the local Chinese Mandarin is played by British acting legend Robert Donat They’re all miscast, but do their noble best. Aylward was, nevertheless, aghast at the film, not only at the miscasting, but indignant as well at the implied romance between Bergman and Jurgens’ characters and mortified by the ending in which Bergman leaves the orphans to find and follow Jurgens wherever he may be. In real life, Aylward never left her orphans and as she was wont to say, had never been kissed. Still, as a film it works with Bergman playing a contemporary Joan of Arc and Donat exceptionally fine as always, especially in his final scene in which he tells Bergman “We shall not see each other again. I think.” Audiences would not see him again either. He died before the film’s release.
This week’s new releases include All Is Lost and Ender’s Game.