Dallas Buyers Club and Ender’s Game

Matthew McConaughey scores again, and a sci-fi classic sags on the screen.

Matthew McConaughey’s string of terrific mid-career performances (most recently in Mud and Magic Mike) reaches a new peak in Dallas Buyers Club. Even better, McConaughey is matched here by Jared Leto, returning to the screen after five years away and attaining a career high of his own as a doomed drag queen.

The movie begins in 1985, just a few years into the AIDS plague. Working from a tight script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée recounts the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician whose raging heterosexual lifestyle of booze, drugs and unprotected sex suddenly put him in the hospital, where he was told he had contracted HIV and had 30 days to live. McConaughey, who lost more than 30 pounds to play Woodroof at this very low point, is brilliant in balancing his character’s conflicted response to his predicament. Ron is totally straight, so how could he catch a famously gay disease? A hospital doctor (Jennifer Garner) tells him there’s no cure for what he has, and that experimental AZT drug trials would last longer than what’s left of his life. When she says that his only recourse is to join an AIDS support group, Ron explodes: “I’m dying and you tell me to go get a hug from a bunch of faggots?”

But then, back in the hospital after attempting to self-medicate with illicitly obtained AZT pills (he gulps them by the handful and washes them down with beer), Ron finds himself in a room with another HIV victim, a transvestite called Rayon (Leto). He immediately recoils from this flamboyant character, resplendent in lipstick and eye shadow, but Rayon slowly wins him over. Soon they’ve gone into business together, selling illegally acquired AIDS meds at gay bars and making pretty good money at it.

Then Ron gets a tip to drive to Mexico to see a doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne, wonderful in a deceptively small role), an American whose medical license has been revoked for reasons he’d rather not discuss. But Vass is still a conscientious physician, and keeps current with the latest AIDS research. He tells Ron that while the FDA is being scandalously slow in allowing the testing of promising new drugs, some of these are available overseas. Before long, Ron is flying off to Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Okayama and smuggling back large quantities of meds. The FDA is soon on his case, seeing him as a simple drug dealer, and to evade the agency’s harassment, Ron and Rayon start a “buyers club” for desperate AIDS victims—membership is $400, medications are “free.”

Vallée keeps the story moving along with great spirit, and McConaughey and Leto are a wonder to behold. Ron is an abrasive character, seeking no sympathy for his deadly affliction and, as a lifelong hustler, looking upon it as just another chance to make some money. McConaughey shows us his slow transformation from intolerance into understanding with painstaking subtlety, and without a touch of sentimental overreach. Leto, for his part, plays Rayon, not as a simple victim, but as a man who can’t help being cuttingly funny even as his life dwindles away. The movie’s most striking achievement is that it’s not just another AIDS film designed to break our heart. It’s full of life and energy. And in the end, it breaks our heart anyway.

Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game fulfills every expectation instilled by its terrible trailer. The movie is cold and overwrought; and despite all of its beautifully rendered pop-pop-pow video-game imagery, it’s surprisingly dull. The conclusion is a brazen cheat, and the presumptuous sequel setup at the end is the scariest thing in the film.

The story was distilled by writer-director Gavin Hood from Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel. It’s set in a militaristic human future, 50 years after an invasion by insectoid aliens called Formics, who killed millions and were only barely repelled. Although the Formics haven’t been heard from since, earthling authorities still anticipate another assault, and are cooking up a preemptive attack to prevent it. A new combat force is being trained, composed entirely of teenagers (because kids, with their video-game skills, are better at “integrating complex data”).

Among these recruits is a boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, star of Scorsese’s Hugo). Ender is irritatingly aloof, and his fellow draftees at the orbital training station don’t like him much at first. But a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) takes an instant shine to him, and top dog Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he has heroic possibilities. “My father trained horses,” Graff says. “I know a winner when I see one.”

The movie’s action is composed almost entirely of training simulations, with the conscripts tumbling around in zero-g, practicing battle formations and honing their space-pistol skills. These sequences are executed with impressive digital artistry—they’re inventively constructed and shot with a razor-edge clarity. But as the movie slogs on, and they keep recurring, the wall-to-wall CGI creates a feeling of airless claustrophobia. We want to see some real Formics blown away, and we keep waiting—and waiting—for the big war to begin.

The movie is also weakened by a structural oddity. Hood keeps cutting away from the kids to cramped scenes with Graff and his subordinate, Major Anderson (Viola Davis), endlessly nattering about Ender’s mental state and strategic capabilities. The picture slumps woefully every time this happens, and the director’s penchant for TV-style closeups grows oppressive. (Ford’s performance, which is heavy on snarling and seething, would have benefitted from a little distance.)

The story’s themes are both worthy (the use of an outside threat to justify increasing social militarization) and familiar (a young man’s journey from underdog to world savior). But they’re overshadowed by the blockbuster imperative for big noisy action, and the digital tumult leaves the actors little room to move. Nonso Anozie gives the film’s most likable performance, channeling R. Lee Ermey to play a bellowing drill sergeant named Dap; and Abigail Breslin contributes welcome moments of warmth as Ender’s sister, Valentine (with whom he shares an unfortunate inclination toward empathy). But Butterfield has been directed to express little more than resentment and grim determination; and I wasn’t sure what to make of Ben Kingsley, who pops up toward the end as a legendary warrior with a head full of tattoos (a tribute to his Maori forebears!).

This is a good-looking movie, but it’s hard to imagine who might feel a need for more of it. At one point, Ender says of the Formics, “What if they could talk to us?” Does anyone really want to know?

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  • ||

    it’s surprisingly dull

    Surprising why, exactly? You expected different? It's a one-trick novel that really didn't need to be made into a movie.

  • Shirley Knott||

    It was far far better as a short story. The novelization was already a rather dreadful piece of excess.
    When it turned into a series of books, it jumped so many sharks it could have opened a nationwide chain of theme parks. And then gone international.

  • Brandybuck||

    The actual sequals were good. It's the "shadow" spinoffs that were horrible.

  • Mickey Rat||

    It is a prequel, "Speaker for the Dead" was intended to be the main book of the series.

  • Killazontherun||

    Exactly. There were a lot of interesting things going on in science fiction during the 80s and Ender's Game was not one of them.

  • RightNut||

    The review of Ender's Game sounds a lot like a review I would write of the book. I still don't get why it is considered a sci-fi classic.

  • John||

    Movies or novels with "prodegy 11 year old" protagonists are nearly always dull and kind of stupid. It is one thing to have the cocky young adult stepping up and fulfilling his destiny. That story usually works. protagonist like Dune or the original Star Wars. But the pretteen save the universe like this or the first Star Ward prequal are nearly always bad.

  • robc||

    Agreed. I liked it okay, but didnt get why its always near the top of SF rankings.

    Top 100? Sure. Top 5? No fucking way. Top 1? Fuck off.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    It wouldn't make my top 5, but it might sneak into the top 10.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    It simultaneously tells a superficially thrilling tale (lots of action) while punching all the politically correct "The Military is the Devil's Workshop" buttons.

    Pity they won't make a serious attempt to adapt, say, Honor Harrington.

  • Kid Xenocles||

    See, I didn't get that from it. As far as I can tell the military is portrayed as an institution doing what it - and frankly, humanity - has judged as necessary for the survival of the species. The ending with Ender finding the queen basically turns it into a tragedy where decent people acting on incomplete information do something with terrible results. Then we get to watch as their perspective is inadvertantly completely whitewashed out of history by the person who pulled the trigger.

    De gustibus here, but I like Card's writing because he doesn't have too many mustache-twirlers. You can read his villains and say "Yeah, that guy needs to die" for some of them, but you can usually understand them. That empathy, and the overall themes of love I see in his work, make the contrast with his apparent political personality so jarring.

  • Killazontherun||

    Card writes paint by numbers moral complexity like he is checking off bullet points from a John Gardner lecture. The artifice and lack of passion in his writing dullards every page.

  • RightNut||

    I'm really surprised you guys even think its top 100 material. Ender is written like he's a preprogrammed robot designed to easily overcome every challenge he's faced with. He never really suffers, until maybe the very last few pages of the book. And he doesn't really overcome any adversity from page one its pretty much a given what is going to happen, and nothing between that and the end of the book gives you any reason to doubt it. I felt the supporting characters were much more interesting, but they are only appear briefly and then are taken away. It may have been Card's intention to make the reader feel as isolated as Ender, but it is also boring and imho bad writing.

  • Paul.||

    tragedy where decent people acting on incomplete information do something with terrible results

    This sounds like an allegory for the 2008 presidential election.

  • Mickey Rat||

    The wars are presented as a series of colossal presumptions on both sides. The humans think they understand the Formics after their invasions and the Formics started the wars because they completely misunderstood the nature of humanity, with the result of both being tragic.

  • wwhorton||

    I liked it, and I thought there were some interesting issues raised in the plot (as in the rest of the series), but I might be adding complexity in memory. As much as he might be a rat bastard of a human being, Card's entertaining. The Alvin Maker series is pretty good, too, although it sort of beats you over the head with Mormonism. It's not even in the same league as Dune or Foundation, though.

    That said, the trailers for the movie totally don't match up with how I pictured the novel, especially the training sessions. In my head it looked a lot more like a high school gym than Tron.

  • Bill||

    I read it as an adult and liked it. I was surprised by the twist that it had been more than just training.

    It's an interesting book, not a great one. I also liked that it was a good starter sci-fi book for my son.

    I read the two sequels which also had some interesting ideas or twists. But also a bit slow in places.

    The interesting thing is that in Books 2 and 3 of that series, he shows an understanding of interspecies cultural differences between humans and aliens but then is apparently less understanding when it comes to other humans.

  • anon||

    I still don't get why it is considered a sci-fi classic.

    It's cool to read when you're 12; if you still think it's cool at 21 you probably still have the mental capacity of a 12 year old.

    Fun concept the first time I read it, but the novel was dreadful to read. I definitely wouldn't suffer through it again.

  • Alan||

    Same here. It's a good book, but not a great one.

    Still - the movie sounds even worse. If there's no 6 year old killing a 6 year old bully (or whatever age they were in the book which I read over 20 years ago - but definitely pre-teen), the movie has already betrayed the book.

    I'm presuming Loder would have mentioned that scene if it was in there. It's sort of integral to understanding Ender.

  • ||

    I liked Ender's Game a lot.

    The thing is that it has a very strong emotional appeal to any kid who is bullied or isolated or from a broken home.

    It's all about the emotional pain he has to go through from being yanked out of his parents house and thrown into a place where he has no emotional support network. He has to find his own way in an environment where he has no friends or family backing him up. All he has is occasional contact with his sister and bullying older brother.

    You might not identify with it much if you had a good social network as a child, but if (say) your parents died or you were abused and put in foster care, it probably resonates a LOT.

  • plusafdotcom||

    Big amen on that, HazelMeade... for the folks that didn't find any connection with the book, let alone the movie, the first question that crossed my mind was "well, how old were YOU" when you read it, and were YOU ever bullied or an outcast.

    I was, for most of my youth, and resonated with the Ender of the book tremendously, right up to the "oh, fuck it," ending.

    and the "Formics" PC-ization of the original "Buggers" leaves me cold, too. In war, the enemy gets called nasty names, and that war was portrayed as a species-versus-species fight to the death.

    I'm planning to see the movie, but I'm not expecting anyone in the movie to call Ender a "Third," either...

    I think that if you didn't like the movie, that's the producer's and director's faults, but I found the book to be good when I read it some decades ago, and I was NOT a teener when I read it.

  • CE||

    I never read the book, but it was the best movie I've seen all year.

  • ||

    I think Walton Goggins broke the mold for transvestites in film. Everyone else will now be secondary.

  • l0b0t||

    Meh... I'll always be partial to Glenn Milstead/Divine.

  • TANSTaaFL||

    WG is an awesome actor. Few actors can earn (reluctant) audience sympathy when playing a red-neck, white supremacist, ex-military, wife-beating thug turned southern baptist, oxy-mob criminal mastermind.

    Also a plays a pretty good crooked cop.

  • Elizabeth Ely||

    There must be educational films from the '50s that are less obviously propaganda pieces than "Dallas Buyers Club." Because, after killing off a generation of gay men with AZT and ddI -- and oh yeah, wild-and-crazy rodeo riders -- this film shows us just how lifesaving all those toxic chemicals really were. Who knew? Putting out heartwarming stories like this one sure does beat getting sued. But that's what's going to happen, nonetheless. Document your fraudulent "diagnosis" using the Operation Letterhead service at www.omsj.org/operation-letterhead or the free instructions at the bottom of http://www.omsj.org/blogs/unta.....et-letter, and get on with your life. Because really, "Mr. Woodruff, you have only 30 days left" is a bit much, don't you think? Save yourself all those trips to Mexico and just sue their butts to Kingdom Come.

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