Beautiful Boy

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Written by: Luke Davies; Felix van Groeningen

Directed by: Felix van Groeningen

I think it is important to note how specific an experience Beautiful Boy describes. Closing titles reveal some alarming statistics about the pervasiveness of drug abuse in America but the film does not presume to speak for everyone. This is about how a drug addiction impacted the Sheffs, a stable, well-to-do, tight-knit Californian family. In particular this is what was true for a father and his son — the latter held hostage for years to a chronic methamphetamine addiction. Adapted from a pair of memoirs written by David (played by Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), Beautiful Boy is an exceptional story of survival and a testament to the power of unconditional love.

In his first English language film Belgian director Felix van Groeningen is fully committed to a realistic portrayal of the physical and psychological tolls associated with crystal meth use. His direction is pragmatic and sympathetic, albeit beholden to what his subjects were willing to share in their written accounts. Given some of the scenes you have to sit through, you don’t really get the impression they hold much back. The shape of the narrative assumes the cyclical pattern of addiction, relapse and recovery, Groeningen taking scissors to a scrapbook and rearranging moments non-chronologically to create a sense of disorientation and of prolonged struggle. Ultimately there is less emphasis on providing a catalyst. Beautiful Boy is driven largely by mood, evident in its almost anachronistic (and borderline over-reliance upon) song placement in certain moments. It appeals to the pathos rather than trying to be some philosophical treatise on why people do crystal meth.

Beautiful Boy is an extraordinarily well-acted relationship drama. Indeed Groeningen is fortunate to have been gifted the talents of 22-year-old Timothée Chalamet, who dives in deep here to become Nic (reportedly losing 20+ pounds for the role) as well as those of Steve Carell, who, in another impressively grounded performance, I couldn’t help but find deeply sympathetic. It is his David who we meet first, seeking a consult with an expert off-screen as he suspects Nic has been using. His son has been conspicuously absent from the house for several days. When he finally returns, David wants him to attend rehab. Nic agrees to go. Progress is soon made and it seems the problem is resolving itself. At least until the restrictions are gradually dropped and Nic transfers to a halfway house where supervision is less strict and patients can come and go as they please.

And so begins our journey down a dark and dangerous corridor where the slippery slope of recreational drug use finally gives way to a more obsessive fixation with a particular high — in this case, the mind-warping, life-in-technicolor, loose-lipped euphoria of crystal meth. Chalamet is unflinching in his physical portrayal. But the performance goes to a whole other psychic level when it comes to conveying what the drug is doing to his brain. Speaking in generalities here, his behavior becomes more erratic and more unpleasant. He turns against his own family, owning up to nothing while asking for more money to “go to New York” or “to go see mom” (Amy Ryan as David’s ex-wife Vicki) — all of which is code for “gimme my shit.”

Carell is also brilliant, though he is at his best when sharing scenes with his young co-star. His role is far more reactive, not necessarily secondary but reliant upon an exchange with some other character to really carry weight. Carell depicts a parent utterly lost and without a road map. Because this is as much his story as it is Nic’s, he has a few of his own stand-out moments, like the time he snorts coke off his home office desk to try and “get” what it is that Nic seems to find in drugs. Meanwhile, as David’s new wife Karen, Maura Tierney impresses. Even while understanding the precariousness of the situation she is at her most firm and resolute when push comes to shove, her strength suggesting things might have gone another way had she not been there.

While the indiscriminate brutality of addiction is a big part of the experience, Beautiful Boy isn’t entirely downbeat. In sharing their personal stories, David and Nic aim to provide others hope. For the Sheffs it was the will to never give up or give in that gave them hope. That resolve is what makes Beautiful Boy worthwhile enduring.

Recommendation: A very difficult film to watch due to its committed, deeply human performances. Drug abuse is portrayed in a brutally honest way, but maybe this helps: at least this isn’t as overtly graphic as Requiem for a Dream

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Everything.”

“Everything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

[YouTube]

Written by: John Hodge

Directed by: Danny Boyle

One of the things I had presumed about Danny Boyle’s iconic drug drama Trainspotting was that it was really bleak, and it was that way from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong — this film is not happy, but I wasn’t expecting so much compassion. I wasn’t anticipating something that has such a reputation for being repulsive and controversial to actually be both those things while proving to be something far more substantial.

Of course Trainspotting has been embraced more by some cultures than it has by others. The film, released three years after Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s book was published, has become a cultural touchstone in the UK, which makes sense given its unapologetically brash attitude and self-deprecatory humor, dialogue that pierces through to the soul and yet still somehow comes across charming, even poetic. Really really darkly poetic. And utterly unpretentious at that. Despite the film mostly being shot in Glasgow, Welsh set the story in his native Edinburgh, circa the 1980s.

A densely compacted crop of historic and gorgeous stone edifice gouged into rugged green hillsides that contrast dramatically against the cerulean flats of the Water of Leith to the north, the Scottish capital is actually second only to London in terms of attracting European travelers. Yet underneath this façade of wealth and diversity and leisure lie both literal and metaphorically crumbling infrastructures, themes that take root in both Welsh’s novel and Boyle’s adaptation.

Trainspotting tells the story of a group of youths who struggle to overcome terrible drug addictions and who struggle even more with the stagnation that has creeped into their lives. The characters have become British icons: Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), “Spud” (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle, a.k.a. “Crazy Asshole”) are pottering around in the ghettos that have become of the urban development projects that were rife in the 1970s. After infrastructural standards dropped many of the buildings began to deteriorate and become neglected. This crumbling backdrop fills the frame with a sense of pessimism that’s hard to escape.

Around this time as well the proliferation of synthesized heroin was on the rise and drug abuse was starting to become an issue. The introduction of heroin wasn’t so much random as it was evidence of a worsening epidemic as opiates had long been ingrained in the culture, having been brought over to the Scottish shores as early as the late 1600s. Opium use had been fairly widespread, so perhaps it was only inevitable that other, more powerful opiates would become available. When we begin our journey in the film we’re at what feels like a threshold. We’re visiting a community hanging on by a thread as the popularity of heroin and the death toll created by its usage continue to increase.

McGregor’s particularly needle-happy “Rent-Boy,” wanting to make more of his life than thieving from the sick and the helpless so he can get high, acts as the driving force of emotion in a film that’s mostly (and intentionally) numb to such dumb things. (Who needs emotion when you have heroin?) His stream-of-consciousness-like voiceover clues us in to the particulars of being not just being a heroin user, but a heroin lover. Meanwhile his so-called mates around him provide the color commentary — especially Begbie. Begbie, he who “doesn’t do drugs” but “does people.” It’s all a vicious cycle, and the script by John Hodge proves remarkably adept at revealing that harsh reality.

The thing about Trainspotting is how effortlessly it comes across as authentic. It’s authentic, but the writing is so poignant and pained with certain truths about the inequity of the world that you might assume there’d be some level of affectedness that becomes apparent. Not once did I sense the kind of artsy/social conscientiousness that often makes indie darlings, even of similar subjects, targets of derision. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The caustic, stinging barbs that is the language in which they speak, while noxious, actually confesses to the humanity that is just begging to emerge from underneath yet another stupor.

If there’s one thing I’ve truly underestimated about this film, it’s that it would ever advocate for characters that are as wayward as these. But it really does want them . . . well, most of them, to succeed. It’s far more of a sympathetic film than I thought it would be. And all of this just makes Trainspotting that much better.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: A movie that moved the needle like this needs no recommendation from me. But to fill page space, it’s good. Addictive, really. I canNOT wait to see the sequel. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “1,000 years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Blue Ruin

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

From the opening shot silence dominates, ominously foreshadowing a journey fraught with tension and dread. It doesn’t take long to realize that something is wrong, to feel the disconnect between a vagabond and his surroundings. Macon Blair’s Dwight is floating through existence, living out of his car and presumably without a job. The comforts of our typical daily lives feel far out of reach even though they are quite literally right in front of him. Despite his disheveled appearance Dwight seems functional, making use of a few odds and ends to help him get through another day of living on the streets. But he’s clearly a broken man, a scruffy beard and unkempt hair and meals derived from what he can scrape out of trash cans being the most telling.

For at least the opening 20 minutes he remains enigmatic, inspiring an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Possibly a bit of frustration too — who is this guy? Empathy towards the homeless isn’t a necessity — if you’re not empathetic I can’t say I blame you as it seems more often than not their plights are derived from a long series of poor life choices — but in this case the issue doesn’t seem to be a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Drama begins in earnest when Dwight receives the news that the man responsible for the murder of both his parents is being released from prison. A policewoman asks him to come into the station, insisting that it’d be better for him to hear this in a safe place rather than being alone on the streets and finding out in the local paper.

Unfortunately the catalyst for the blood-splattering that is to come is less dependent upon the way in which he receives the information as it does upon how he will choose to respond to it.

Given the thrill of the discovery, it’s difficult to talk plot without ruining much of the experience so I vote instead we talk about how good Blair is in the lead. Um, yeah. He’s good. Evoking an emotional instability that borders on madness, Dwight comes across as a surprisingly threatening man even though his ineptitude at handling violent situations may say otherwise. That he’s out of his depth on more than a few occasions is a brilliant manifestation of Blair’s physical performance. This is a role that, rather than relying on extensive dialogue, depends upon how his countenance reflects a steadily more desperate reality. Such change is more often than not subtle but by the end the disparity is noted. It’s an incredible performance, elevating Blue Ruin well above your average revenge tale.

As good as Blair is, however, Jeremy Saulnier might just outdo him. He isn’t just responsible for allowing his lead to flourish under intelligent writing and precise directing, he’s painting a gorgeous backdrop through crisp, colorful cinematography that ironically romanticizes the lush landscape of Virginia, particularly Dwight’s hometown, a sleepy hollow interrupted by violence. Thickly forested hills serve as creative conceals for confrontations that don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. In this film, Virginia is not for lovers; it is for survivors. It is for men who stand very little to lose.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Saulnier’s minimalist portraiture of a life gone awry it arrives upon a frozen plate.

Recommendation: Blue Ruin is a great example of minimalist storytelling. Dialogue-lite, it’s far more concerned with body language and subtle visual clues to keep viewers constantly engaged. The violence it does feature is rather vivid but it, too, is limited to moments that tend to be extremely effective. I loved this film, but I can see others having a problem with its deliberate build-up. It’s not heavy on action but it is heavy on great acting and beautiful cinematography. Give it a shot sometime. E-hem. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I would forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 11.18.51 PM

The fourth and final installment in the NBApril segment of Throwback Thursday is already here. Well, goodbye April. Sorry you couldn’t stick around for longer. . . . . . . . . . . And also, apologies that this month could not have ended on a better note. I guess this is just going to be one of those times where a little bit of forethought or organization to the list of movies I was planning on watching this month might have helped. A little secret: not all of the films on this feature are ones I have seen before and technically speaking they are brand-new films to me, and therefore some reviews may be different than the ones I might or could write if I had memories about the film in question. Therefore, I kind of am breaking my rules for the TBT set-up a little bit, but I’m young and unruly and get out of my way or you’ll pay, listen to what I say. And with that attitude in mind, let’s jump right into blabbering on about 

Today’s food for thought: The Basketball Diaries. 

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Release: April 21, 1995

[Netflix]

Less about basketball than it was about addiction to hard drugs, The Basketball Diaries was a tough film and an even tougher film to appreciate, much less enjoy. Though it boasted a thoroughly gripping performance from an incredibly young Leo and saw Markie-Mark transitioning nicely from hip-hop headphone to the grainy celluloid of the mid-90s, the film ultimately failed to amount to anything more than an aggressively anti-drug public service announcement.

The Basketball Diaries is the kind of movie I imagine would function fairly effectively as a freshman and/or sophomore phys-ed or wellness class educational film. The St. Vitus Cardinals might have gone down in high school legend as the definitive cautionary tale of students pondering a life road less traveled. . .for damn good reason. I

Granted, this was a fact-based adaptation — a loose one at that — of the autobiography written by Jim Carroll, who had later gone on to become a published writer after a brush with death when he fell into a serious drug addiction at the age of 13, quit his basketball team and dropped out of school.

Clearly, the film had no commitment to presenting any sort of crowd-pleasing elements considering it was charged with depicting such terrible and alarmingly commonplace poor decision-making in the underprivileged youth. This was (and remains) a disturbing reality for millions, though after sitting through The Basketball Diaries just one time, one wished they had had just a little more time to prepare themselves for the unexpected sermon that was to come.

An in-diapers DiCaprio was tapped to portray 12-to-16-year-old Jim Carroll, who’s first seen as part of an unstoppable high school basketball team in New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-one-year-old DiCaprio imbued Jim, a young boy with few healthy outlets or interests, with an aggressive and voracious appetite for finding trouble. Jim’s refusal to play by the rules was impressive work considering it was little Leo’s fourth or fifth big-screen appearance. Jim’s friends were perhaps even worse, particularly the loud-mouthed and brutish Mickey (Wahlberg). A quiet kid named Pedro (James Madio) and the comparatively level-headed Neutron (Patrick McGaw) — ohhh!!! I get the nick-name now! — rounded out the rat-pack of tragic city-bound gadabouts.

The Basketball Diaries made one simple but glaring error in its harrowing depiction of several lives corrupted by narcotics. It forgot to create empathetic characters. Equally possibly, it refused to. Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey in particular was impossible to care about as he remained a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. (Rare is it in a film when one finds themselves so turned off by the characters they wind up rooting for their demise.) Jim and company fall so hard the punishing scenes later on became redundant.

The film’s sloppy, underdeveloped writing didn’t help matters either. While the stalwart performances from Leo and Markie-Mark managed to make up for whatever character depiction was also probably missing in the script, the two budding actors couldn’t save the film’s lack of true suspense-building as every step of the way was one predictable fall from grace to the next. Slumming it through The Basketball Diaries felt akin to playing a game of Mario where all you do is fall down the levels, never able to catch a break and ascend back up.

Well-intentioned, The Basketball Diaries was frustratingly one-note and challenges the viewer to the extreme in terms of offering reasons to empathize, provided the obnoxious characters and the cold indifference of their self-created realities. The script made stabbing attempts at making Jim three-dimensional at the very least, using the occasional voiceover by DiCaprio to instill some sense of passion for life that the boy still clung to, even during his most desperate days. The rest, meanwhile, remained helpless as the script damned them to their predictable fates. Since getting close to these people wasn’t possible, it felt more like good riddance than it did good-bye.

Unfortunately, the film failed to go to the more thoughtful, reflective places more often. Jim’s ability to write about his world offered fleeting moments of lucidity and even hope, though wallowing in darkness and despair was favored more often, as was relying on the cold calculations of the world to provide answers to whatever it was these lost people were looking for in life. A largely unsatisfying yet jarring film experience.

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2-5Recommendation: The Basketball Diaries is an effective piece of D.A.R.E. propaganda (with which I have no arguments against, death at the hands of hard drugs like heroin is a terrible tragedy) but it borders on being too heavy-handed and monotonous. Leo DiCaprio fans should probably see it for another good, early performance but for anyone out of the loop on this, they aren’t missing much by not venturing down this dark avenue.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “You’re growing up. And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the Earth. And it’s good that there is rain. It clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions, and it clears the streets of the silent armies… so we can dance.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.soundgardenworld.com; http://www.imdb.com