Film

Life, Death, and All the Rest of the Early AIDS Crisis

Dallas Buyers Club works because it doesn't over-sentimentalize its subject, and for that reason alone, it has quite the emotional impact.


Dallas Buyers Club

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn
Distributor: Universal
Rated: R
Year: 2013
DVD release date: 2014-02-04

"Ya hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?" This phrase is how we're introduced to Ron Woodruff, and it sums up just about everything you need to know about him.

Ron Woodruff is a guy's guy: a boozin', bettin', all-American rodeo gambler and champion drinker, who also just so happens to possess a rather brilliant mind when he's not doing coke, contemplating money-making schemes, or indulging in his well-bred casual racism and homophobia. Thus, after an on-the-job accident lands him in the hospital, a routine run of his bloodwork reveals that Ron has a very severe case of HIV, and he has 30 days to live.

He refuses to believe it, but being as Dallas Buyers Club takes place in the '80s at the height of the AIDS scare, his friends all turn a cold shoulder to him rather immediately, 'cos back then, if you had AIDS, you were gay. He returns home one night to see the phrase "FAGGOT BLOOD" painted on the side of his trailer home. "Fuck you!" he screams to night sky, no one else around.

Woodruff, a thin rail of a man, refuses to accept that he has 30 days left to live, and after some drug-filled parties with promiscuous women (he has the good conscious at least not to have sex with them), he winds up back in the hospital, and after hearing about the hospital's trials for a new drug called AZT, he wants in. He's unable to do so, but along the way befriends a transgender named Rayon, who not only happens to be in the AZT trials, but also has a slew of friends who are similarly diagnosed with the disease and could use help.

He does his research, realizes AZT is more toxic than it is helpful, and a long talk with disgraced former doctor (Griffin Dunne) leads Woodruff to realize there are other cures out there, and the drugs available in Mexico can't actually cross over to the States as they aren't FDA approved. Donning a priest's robe and an elaborate backstory, Woodruff partners with Rayon to create the "Dallas Buyers Club".

He doesn't sell drugs to anyone directly, no; he instead sells memberships, each membership entitling the recipient to receive a set amount of the drugs and vitamin injections that Woodruff has acquired, although even as a legal workaround, there still are more than a few hiccups along the way that prevents Woodruff from trying to get the medicine to people who need it (although they still have to pay -- Woodruff makes it abundantly clear that he is not a charity).

Dallas Buyers Club is a very logical progression for director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. very much touched on familial themes of homophobia, and managed to so with noted style and finesse. After the decently-received 2009 period piece The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club shows that he's still unafraid to give a good helping of style to a story that could have presented in a very dry tone. Certain images -- like Woodruff's being engulfed by butterflies kept in his disbarred Mexican doctor's lab -- could very well have come out of a horror movie, but here they instead show Woodruff's gradually expanding worldview. Although he doesn't have much time for gays or trans folk, he learns to respect them and their plight, one time even attacking a former friend of his in a supermarket after he rejects Woodruff's introduction to Rayon.

The film's emotional impact very much lives and dies by its two main characters, Woodruff and Rayon, played with remarkable prowess by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, returning to film after a multi-year absence to focus on his band, 30 Seconds to Mars. While much has been made about their respective shedding of pounds in order to inhabit their roles, such flamboyant gestures mean nothing unless there's actually meat and intention behind the performances.

For McConaughey, he fits into the role like a glove, his slight twang still very present, but his outright defiance and determination to his circumstances are very much apparent. Only once, during a lonely drive to nowhere shortly after he accepts his diagnosis, does he completely breakdown emotionally. Since that moment, he becomes a machine of self-preservation, and in doing so, gradually begins to see that there are more people to be saved outside of those just named Ron Woodruff.

Although Dallas Buyers Club much falls back on some tropes that are common to the issue-based Oscar-bait drama, the only reason it works is because it doesn't overplay the melodrama. During a scene near the end of the film where Rayon -- who hinders her own recovery with blatant drug use -- begins coughing up blood, she lets out a painful cry of "I don't wanna die!", refusing a demand to go to the hospital even as she is closer to death than she's ever been. That guttural cry is hard to swallow, but Vallée doesn't over-sentimentalize the moment, using music more for montages and transition shots than he does during scenes themselves, only occasionally falling back on a sharp ringing sound to land a particular point. Had the swelling strings emerged at any point, the film's impact would've been rendered inert.

Its greatest casualty falls to Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks, wherein a brilliant actress gets stuck in a thankless role. Although she plays Saks as a quiet woman who is determined to do the right thing, the only time we ever see any injections of personality outside of a simple character archetype is when she's shouting or screaming profanities, as we're shocked by such a big sound coming out of such a quiet-spoken character. For personality, though, that's it, and even her emotional climax, tearfully hammering a wall just because she can't express her frustration in any other way, falls remarkably flat.

Let's give a shoutout to Steve Zahn as Woodruff's friend Tucker, who brings a nuanced turn to a sparse but difficult role, playing an everyman who doesn't understand everything. The emotional conflict he brings into a part that is admittedly less "showy" than the headliners', but his perfromance deserves kudos.

Perhaps most surprising about the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Dallas Buyers Club, however, is just how painfully sparse the special features are. There are three deleted scenes (one, where Rayon comes to Saks' home just as Woodruff is visiting, is the only thing of consequence here), and a very stupid, very self-serving "Behind the Scenes" look at the film, which amounts to nothing more than an extended trailer interspersed with a few actor interviews. Director's commentary? More about the real-life story it's based off of? Anything about the performances of the leads? Nope.

Dallas Buyers Club tells an important story of those who lived amidst the terrifying AIDS crisis. This was a time when every day brought more information about something people were only beginning to understand. Some people followed doctor's orders, and some people took their lives into their own hands -- sometimes, in a spectacular fashion.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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