Thursday, November 28, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club and My Return to the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas

The remodeled Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas reopened on November 1.  I've been curious to see what it looks like but on two separate occasions, I have stopped by the theater but the showtimes did not suit my schedule.

Yesterday, my employer unofficially released the employees early but I stayed at work to help out on a last minute problem.  Anyway, I finally left the office a little after 5 PM and decided to see what was showing at the Embarcadero.  I arrived a few minutes after Dallas Buyers Club started.  Mildly interested in the film, I would have preferred to have seen 12 Years a Slave or Nebraska but I wanted to be out by 7:30 PM.

Taking a page from the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, the Embarcadero has implemented a reserved seating policy.  An usher escorted me to my selected seat although I immediately noticed two people were not sitting in their assigned seats.

As you enter the theater, there are self-serve kiosks where you can buy tickets and selects seats.  I had a Gold Book.  I wasn't sure if these discounted tickets would still be honored so I went to the box office which is adjacent to the concession stand.  I saw my 5:15 screening was priced at the matinee rate - $10.50.  General admission is $12.50.  They accepted my Gold Book ticket without any surcharge.  I forgot to ask if they would have been accepted it for a general admission screening.  You have to buy the tickets at box office in order to redeem the Gold Book tickets.

The Embarcadero has expanded from five to seven screens.  I believe the total seating capacity decreased but they subdivided some of the auditoriums for more screens.  As I recall, as you entered the theater, there were two screens to the left (near the men's restroom) and three screens to the right (near the women's restroom).  Now there are three screens to the left and four screens to the right.  The auditorium I was in has not been modified in terms of square footage.  The seats were new ("leather style!")  and there was more leg room.  Otherwise, there wasn't much that looked new in the auditorium.

The snack bar had a few new items.  I think I saw egg rolls on the menu.  The men's room does not appear to have been changed.  The sinks and countertops may be new but I recognized the floor tiles and urinals.

The big change is the bar and lounge.  Opposite the snack bar, where they used to have Coming Attractions posters, they now have a traditional bar that can seat 10 or so.  Around the corner, where the box office used to be, they have a lounge that can seat a dozen or so.  I didn't have time to eat so I didn't look at the menu.  I notice their on-line menu doesn't have prices.  At 7:15 PM on the night before Thanksgiving, there was one lady sitting at the bar and a half dozen young people eating in the lounge.  The lounge and snack bar have different menus.


Dallas Buyers Club starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner & Jared Leto; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; (2013) - Official Website

I grew up in Texas in the 1980s.  Dallas Buyers Club is set in The Big D during the 1980s.  As a high schooler, I thought living in Dallas would be a great life.  However, fate provided me with a job in the Bay Area where I have stayed for 20+ years.

DBC brought back a lot of memories from high school.  AIDS received a lot of press back then and it was perceived as a gay man's disease.  If you had AIDS, you must be gay.  There was a casual homophobia present in society at the time.   Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof embodies these attitudes.  He's an electrician and rodeo cowboy.  We are introduced to Woodroof as he engages in a threesome (FFM) in a bullpen at a rodeo.  Looking emaciated, Woodroof appears to be hooked on black tar heroin.  It is incomprehensible that anyone would engage in unprotected sex with a man who looks as ill as Woodroof but the 1980s were a different time.  The thought of heterosexual spread of HIV was not on many people's radar screen until Magic Johnson announced he had contracted HIV in 1991.  Even then rumors circulated about how he "really" contracted HIV.

It's clear Woodroof is ill but a workplace accident sends him to the hospital where he is informed by Drs. Sevard (Dennis O'Hare) and Saks (Jennifer Garner) that T-cell counts is extremely, he has test positive for HIV and has approximately 30 days to live.  Sevard and Saks wear face mask when they deliver the news because they don't know if the virus is airborne.  They also inform Woodroof that here are no FDA approved treatments so the best they can do is provide him with some brochures about support groups.

Woodroof is initially enraged as he interprets an HIV diagnosis as an accusation of homosexuality.  After sharing the diagnosis (by scoffing at the possibility) with a co-worker, he quickly becomes the object of harassment from friends and co-workers.  Woodroof does something you wouldn't expect of a homophobic redneck.  He begins to research the disease.  Contemplating the likelihood he contracted the disease as a result of frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners (not to mention heavy drug use), Woodroof decides to confront the disease in his inimitable fashion.  Opinionated, outspoken, a hustler and rulebreaker, Woodroof first bribes a hospital janitor to steal AZT for him.  Later, he takes treatment down in Mexico.

After an impressive recovery, he decides to smuggle non-FDA approved proteins and vitamins into the US from Mexico (masquerading as a Catholic priest).  Although he is a fervent proselytizer of his treatment and the deleterious effects of AZT, he true motivation seems to be to make some money selling his drugs to HIV sufferers.

During one of his relapses, Woodroof meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a gay, HIV positive, transvestite who happens to be a high school classmate of Dr. Saks.  Giving full voice to his homophobia, Woodroof is later dismayed when he see no choice but to cut Rayon in on his drug smuggling operation.  Most of the people who would buy the drugs are gay men and Woodroof's homophobia queers the deal too often.

Most of the film resides in this period.  Woodroof reads about club structure to make his drug dealing legal.  He establishes the Dallas Buyers Club which has a $400 per month membership fees.  For that amount, members can have as many non-FDA drugs as they want.  By not selling the drugs, he is not breaking any laws.  Woodroof is making money hand-over-fist and responding well to the treatment he selling to the members.  He is even forming a friendship with Rayon whose drug usage is negatively affecting his health.

Woodroof has made powerful enemies.  Sevard and an FDA agent are presented as being financial influenced by the pharmaceutical company which markets AZT.  They use their influence to harass Woodruff and stop the treatment he is providing.

By this juncture, Woodroof is a changed man but doesn't know it.  Nearly celibate (unless he encounters an HIV positive woman), moved by the plight of Rayon and fighting for his own life, Woodroof continues to push the legal and financial limits imposed upon him.

When you boil it down, DBC is about one man's life journey.  You start off disliking Woodroof; maybe pitying him.  As he is transformed by the prospect of his mortality and society's attitudes and actions towards him, he becomes an infinitely more admirable man.  Fortunately, the film doesn't dwell on Woodroof's suffering because I don't think McConaughey could have pulled it off.  Instead, Woodroof maintains his good ole boy charm and make-a-buck mentality which plays to McConaughey's strengths as an actor.

McConaughey's physical transformation is startling (as is Leto's).  Their gaunt and sickly appearance make their performances more believable.  Ostensibly a tragedy and/or redemption tale, I was oddly detached from the plight of the characters in DBC.  I'm not sure why.  I was impressed by McConaughey and Leto's performances.

Ron Woodroof was a real person and he lived 2000 days beyond his original 30 day prognosis.

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