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

White Boy Rick

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Andy Weiss; Noah and Logan Miller

Directed by: Yann Demange

In his piece for the New York Observer, the innately likable Rex Reed writes of the White Boy Rick experience: “I can think of no reason any bright, witty or halfway sophisticated movie lover — or otherwise normal person — would want to spend 10 minutes with any of the criminal degenerates in this worthless load of crap.”

Understand that when I say ‘innately likable’ I’m dialing up the sarcasm to 11. I’m not exactly the biggest Rex Reed fan out there; his writing is aggressively obnoxious and true to form here he wants you to know just HOW OFFENDED he is, dealing a number of below-the-belt hits — some aimed at star Matthew McConaughey’s unfortunate “microwaved” appearance, others reserved for the quantity of newcomer Richie Merritt’s acne pimples, and the majority of which seem irresponsibly misdirected. His review is nothing short of a beating that leaves little doubt as to what this critic believes is the worst film of all of 2018. He gave the film a big fat 0 out of 4 on his scale, for whatever that’s worth.

French director Yann Demange (whose 2014 war drama ’71 I left shaken but also moved by) shares the story of Richard Wershe Jr. (Merritt), who in the mid-’80s went from being the youngest drug kingpin-turned-FBI informant in American history to the longest-serving prisoner for a non-violent crime in Michigan state history. That story, such as it is, manifests as a perpetually downward spiral that ends at rock bottom. Its chapters constructed around the spectacularly poor choices he made in the interest of saving his family — father Richard Wershe Sr. (McConaughey), sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and neighboring grandparents (cameos by Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) — from being swallowed up by Detroit’s filth and squalor at the height of the 80s crack epidemic.

Richard Jr. earns the nickname when he falls in with a black gang headed by Johnny “Little Man” Curry (Jonathan Majors). Initially acting as an intermediary between his gun-hustling father and his seedy clientele, he’s soon persuaded by the FBI (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane, both delivering convincingly cold performances) to start moving weight in an effort to capture the big, rotting fish at the center of the city’s narcotics woes — the coke-snorting mayor himself. For his cooperation, the feds promise to look the other way when it comes to bringing Richard Sr. in on hefty manufacturing/distribution of weapons charges.

White Boy Rick is a well-acted affair but the performances — namely from Team Merritt and McConaughey — aren’t quite enough to overpower the stench of misery that these characters bring to the screen. Richard Jr. is a selfish and reckless individual and as Richard Sr., McConaughey is no more sympathetic. In fact he’s arguably the least redeemable of them all as we see how his business is promoting chaos and violence throughout the city, how his lack of parenting has emboldened his son to crime — or his daughter to make the decision to walk out on the family.

I cringe to do this, but Rex Reed is actually . . . right. Maybe not 0/4 right — that’s pretty harsh, bro. He’s on to something though. White Boy Rick is a movie awkwardly lacking an empathetic hook, and more problematically, entertainment. There is a big difference between, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs — a classic case of schadenfreude — and White Boy Rick, a movie that spends two hours enumerating all the things the kid does wrong only to ask us in the end to take pity on him because he is merely a teenage victim of a broken system.

Because this family is no fun to be around, there really is no point to the exercise. White Boy Rick is based on a real life story but what exactly do we gain from all of these losses? Maybe being pointless is its raison d’être — criminal drug-dealing only leads to one place, and that place is directionless, bottomless despair (or a jail cell, take your pick). I suppose my biggest gripe with the movie is that it made me agree with Rex Reed on something for once. The movie brought us closer together and I will never forgive White Boy Rick for that.

Recommendation: White Boy Rick is a true story with little entertainment value. A cautionary tale steeped in cliché and grating characters. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “We’re goin’ for custard!”

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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 

The Infiltrator

'The Infiltrator' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ellen Brown Furman

Directed by: Brad Furman

Brad Furman wasn’t looking to infiltrate more elite groups of directors who had earlier tackled the gritty but ever fascinating subject of the drug trafficking epidemic in America when he paired up with Bryan Cranston. That much is clear just based on the relative nonchalance with which The Infiltrator plays out. Things certainly become tense, but it’s nigh on impossible believing our beloved Walter White is ever in any real danger.

That’s probably because we’ve already watched that character endure five seasons of pure adrenaline-fueled drama. Everything we watch U.S. Customs Service special agent Robert Mazur (alias ‘Bob Musella’) go through here as he gets cozy with high-ranking members within the Colombian drug cartel only to bust them in the end, is accompanied by echoes of Breaking Bad, some of which are really loud. In that way The Infiltrator does feel less threatening, and it loses even more leverage given just how strictly it adheres to formula to get the job done. Just don’t call the film uninspired because you know as well as I that Cranston would never let such a thing happen.

The actor manages to convert what ends up being by and large predictable into a fascinating study of character. Mazur enjoys his job even with the danger it brings, but he doesn’t commit to high-risk jobs as a way to escape the doldrums of his home life — he’s happily married with Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and dearly loves his daughter Andrea (Lara Decaro). He enjoys what he does for a living because he’s also very good at it. The movie, his “last assignment,” keeps the perspective limited to his own, making all the mingling and consorting and bribery a devoted family man finds himself so naturally doing all the more unsettling.

Also adept at faking the hustle is Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), a stark contrast to Mazur’s poker-faced professionalism. He’s a loose cannon who embraces the potential thrills offered by new assignments. This one could be the mother of all thrills: a take-down of high-priority Colombian drug traffickers working for the one and only Pablo Escobar, ‘El Zar de la Cocaina.’ Their target is Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), Escobar’s main merchandise handler. Leguizamo is a nice touch as he adds a vulnerability that often veers into comedic relief but the funny is never oversold. Lest we forget, there’s little time for laughter when you’re neck-deep in people who have made careers out of making other, usually more innocent people disappear, often in horrible ways.

The story is fairly straightforward and there will be no surprises for those even moderately well-versed in crime dramas. And those who are probably know that these kinds of movies are only as good as the threat that our good guys are up against. The Infiltrator comes heavily armed with Bratt’s quietly brutal Alcaino and a whole assortment of unstable, varyingly psychotic drug-addicted personalities. Villains are more than just caricatures; the seedy side of life is depicted matter-of-factly and bloodshed isn’t shown to up the thrill count. It’s there to shock and shock it does: the “auditioning” scene is a particularly blunt and cruel microcosm of the world into which Musella has stepped.

The Infiltrator is universally well-acted. On the home front, Aubrey’s Evelyn is a fiercely strong woman who must confront the realities of her husband’s unique profession. Not knowing what kind of a person she’s going to be greeted at the door with night in and night out evolves into a narrative of great concern and Aubrey sells that anguish well. Mazur/Musella reports regularly to Special Agent Bonnie Tischler, played by a possibly never-better Amy Ryan who clearly relishes the opportunity to play the golden-gun-carrying, tough-as-nails U.S. Customs special agent who takes no bullshit from anyone. And Diane Kruger rounds out a strong ensemble playing Kathy Ertz, an agent who’s never gone undercover before and finds herself helping Mazur keep his own story straight.

Stylish, genuinely gripping and sensationally well-performed, Furman’s exploration of the American drug trafficking epidemic can’t escape familiarity but it doesn’t have to when it’s so successful proving why certain well-traveled roads are the ones to take. I loved this movie for its complete and utter lack of pretense. It never tries to be anything it’s not.

Bryan Cranston gets mean in 'The Infiltrator'

Recommendation: Fun might not be the best word to throw around when talking about the escalating drug trafficking crisis but The Infiltrator makes the experience . . . shall we say, worth the while. As if there were any doubt, the performances are what make this movie a must-see for anyone who enjoys what the former Malcolm in the Middle dad is doing with his career these days.

Rated: R

Running Time: 127 mins.

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

Filth

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by:  Jon S. Baird

Directed by: Jon S. Baird 

What’s that old adage — nice guys finish last? Nice guys are also chumps.

James McAvoy as Scottish Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson added that last part. It wasn’t me. I’m not the guy bumping a line or two before work, before meetings (before anything for that matter); not the guy almost literally cutting throats to get ahead, to get that coveted Detective Inspector promotion. I would never use a woman like Bruce would over a phone. I guess never say never, because I’m not sure what I’m fully capable of.

After all, I did find myself identifying perhaps a little too easily with his self-destructiveness. I found myself enjoying Filth for what it is rather than what it could have been: this is a story that enjoys that last burning cigarette before undergoing chemotherapy for its lung cancer. Nothing like that actually happens (though Bruce enjoys a cigarette for sure) but its reckless abandon and willful sinning is undeniably infectious.

Jon S. Baird drowns his character study in a hallucinogenic spirit that’s as fun as it is toxic. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Filth starts off pessimistic and ends accordingly, somewhat miserably. But McAvoy is just so good it doesn’t even matter if the tone vacillates between bleak and upbeat, suggesting a Fear & Loathing in Edinburgh, and that his character is uncharacteristically vile. Consistency isn’t what this relatively low-budgeted production was ever aiming for. It strips away illusion to reveal the ugliness of reality, a man coping with his life after a terrible event. Overcompensating, perhaps, but dealing with it in what may be the only way he can. Rarely is he justified in his actions — his abuse of friends and lady friends is shameful — and his abuse of narcotics and abuse of power while on the job are equally outrageous.

Bruce is assigned to oversee the investigation of the murder of a Japanese student, and though he believes this is the opportunity he needs to advance himself, he begins suffering from a series of emotional setbacks that gradually spiral out of control. Filth revels in squalidity not unlike the self-inflicted nightmare Raoul Duke and his attorney experienced en route to discovering the American Dream of the 1970s. In Filth, a film that seems to try to repel rather than entice — those who like their stories upbeat and expect some sort of method to the madness ought to give this a miss — things go from bad to worse and when they don’t seem to be able to get any more disorienting there’s always Jim Broadbent as Dr. Rossi to ensure Dorothy continues tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Filth isn’t particularly ambitious, despite the commitment from its lead. Where at first Baird’s screenplay seems to suggest a complex police procedural, there comes a point where it becomes apparent the narrative has little interest in anything beyond delving deeper into the mindset of a most corrupt detective. Unfortunately it takes some time before that awareness hits; surely I’m not the only one who arrived at the end feeling somewhat duped. Of course, there’s something I should have expected to sacrifice watching McAvoy making obscene gestures towards small children in public places and being a general douche, and if this film delivers on any promise it’s ensuring he may lose a few fans. Or he may gain some. I don’t really know. I do know that the red beard suits him though.

Despite the underachieving story, the production is bolstered by all-around great performances; entertaining turns from the likes of Eddie Marsan as Clifford Blades, a member of a masonic lodge Bruce is a part of, Imogen Poots as Drummond with whom Bruce is in the fiercest competition regarding that coveted pay raise, and Broadbent’s previously mentioned doc. Each performer seems to enjoy getting their hands dirty right alongside McAvoy. Very little of this world is attractive, yet there’s something compelling about Bruce’s degeneration.

“Yeah, alright then, take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Recommendation: Gleefully unpleasant, mischievous in all the right ways and darkly comedic, Filth is undoubtedly an acquired taste. For fans of James McAvoy, consider this a must-see. It’s always a treat seeing an actor undertake a role so atypical that it becomes transformative. Bruce Robinson is certainly the glue keeping this one together, as the story leaves quite a bit to be desired. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Same rules apply.” 

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 

Inherent Vice

inherent-vice-poster

Release: January 9, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by:  Paul Thomas Anderson

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Andersonian school of thought is that one ought to at least work a little for their entertainment. A movie featuring a bunch of booze, bongs and babes doesn’t seem like it would be hard to follow along with, but if you don’t know Anderson then know this: the undertaking is going to be inherently complex.

You know when you are being told that story about someone that knew someone else by way of their sister’s bestie who had a rude neighbor and it was that neighbor’s uncle who was important — and by the time Uncle has factored in to the story your attention is well on its way out the door? A similar phenomenon has been known to occur with this already infamously meandering tale about sex, drugs, a lot of paranoia and a little Private Eye-ing.

I suggest passing on this joint if you are the type to tune out of the Uncle anecdote before we even get to the Neighbor. For there are a whole lot of people to meet, an even greater pile of Hindu Kush to burn through and a sea of narrative drift and perhaps indulgently long takes to overcome before arriving at a conclusion that really doesn’t deliver much in the way of closure.

Joaquin Phoenix is tapped to portray a character in a story everyone thought impossible to adapt to the silver screen. Though the buzz has morphed into something else now: the adaptation is possible but perhaps not without throwing a lot of people, the stoned and the sober alike, into confusion after one too many character introductions. But let’s start from the beginning. Doc Sportello is awoken on his surf-side couch in southern California by the sudden reappearance of his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him she’s got a new boyfriend.

The new Mr. Wonderful is someone of fair prominence, a shady real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). There is a plot, either perceived or actual — just like a great many other situations at hand here — by Wolfmann’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her extra-somethin’-somethin’ (Jordan Christian-Hearn) to have Mickey institutionalized for his wanting to join a clan of neo-Nazis, despite his being brought up Jewish.

This appears to be mission numero uno. On top of this, however, a smorgasbord of subplots start working their way into the fold, including one involving one of Mickey’s bodyguards, who currently owes a lot of dough to some thug named . . . ah, what’s the use with names . . . the guy is played by Michael Kenneth Williams. When Doc goes to investigate the bodyguard’s whereabouts he stumbles upon not a private home but a brothel; when he’s knocked unconscious there he awakens not to the sight of two beautiful girls fighting over his stash of smokable items but rather a disgruntled right-wing, anti-hippie detective named (this one’s important) Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (an absolutely hilarious Josh Brolin) who demands he tell him who killed the bodyguard. And, who is responsible for the recent disappearance of Wolfmann and Shasta Fay.

Ding-ding-ding. Suddenly the priorities change for Doc. But first, another puff. Given the news of his “ex old lady,” he plunges himself deep into the murky waters of the So-Cal beach scene of the early ’70s, a scene that’s loath to obfuscate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable lifestyles — weed is for losers guys, but not cocaine — and assorted other addictions. Doc is a fish-out-of-water 9 times out of 10 as he’s high 10 times out of those same 10, possessing a kind of nonchalance that manifests more often as befuddlement. And of course Bigfoot, himself a former hippie but now more interested in gaining power and prestige, has a field day taking apart and putting back together the cliché that is Doc Sportello.

Behind the year’s best mutton chops lies a surprisingly perceptive private investigator, and a remorseful ex-boyfriend. Though the complexities of Inherent Vice don’t make it easy to access anything on a very deep level, Doc is easy to love. His life choices probably aren’t acceptable to many but when compared to the filth and squalor surrounding him, a misery that encrusts itself upon these shores like barnacles on a ship hull, his vices feel harmless. As Doc works alongside Bigfoot as a favor to him rather than being converted into an informant as requested, he is aided in the unraveling of this seemingly never-ending yarn by a true friend in Sauncho Smilax (Benecio del Toro), a man posing as a criminal lawyer.

There is no point in being vague: I did not understand or keep up with everything that went on during this incredibly sprawling investigation. I could have honestly benefitted from reading the book but there’s something about being confined in a theater chair, completely engrossed by what you’re watching without really any sense of direction or a clear path to the end. Inherent Vice is mesmeric in its ambition. Poetic in its cinematography; entertaining by virtue of its thematic depravity.

Ultimately and unfortunately, not an experience everyone will get high off of though.

benecio-del-toro-and-joaquin-phoenix-in-inherent-vice

3-5Recommendation: Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, we may not have the most coherent film ever but this is quite intentional. Readers of DSB, this is also not the most coherent review ever either. Intentional? I think not. This is a damned hard film to describe and I actually really dig that about it. The fundamentals are there for me: stunning cinematography, solid performances enhanced by an incredibly entertaining wardrobe selection, humor, an interesting plot and a hell of an atmosphere. If any of that appeals, hit this one in theaters while you can.

Rated: R

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder,’ but he’s done good.”

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 

Kill the Messenger

ktm-poster

Release: Friday, October 10, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Landesman 

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Stories like this make me feel better about writing about less hardcore things than politics  . . . . like movies. Because even as a much-loathed film critic your work may come home with you, but it’s not likely to ever actually follow you home. (Unless, of course, your name is Armond White.) I don’t want to become Armond White.

Jeremy Renner puts down that fancy bow and arrow of his — at least for the moment, until Tony Stark screws up again — to pick up notepad and digital audio recorder in this grounded, tense drama about American investigative journalist Gary Webb, an ambitious man who ended up exposing one of the most controversial and disturbing sociopolitical developments of the mid-1990s and later would go on to win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for the effort.

The American ‘crack epidemic’ of the 1990s, when compared to catastrophically violent and global paranoia-inducing developments such as 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism, might now seem something dangerously close to irrelevant; merely an irregularity in the rhythm of the cultural heartbeat. To dismiss as forgettable the moment in which the public became aware of certain facts involving the United States government and the sudden discovery of a massive influx of crack-cocaine on American streets would be to crush one particular journalist’s life work under the rubble of indifference. And in this case indifference might very well be worse than the reception that was awaiting him when he first broke the news.

That, in case you were wondering, was a tidal wave of overwhelming doubt, hissing criticism and public shunning. It would all culminate in Webb’s questionable suicide ten Decembers ago.

In 1996 the San Jose Mercury News, the modest city paper Webb reported for, published his most ambitious work, a three-part, 20,000-word exposé generously detailing the corruption within the CIA as it related to Nicaraguan rebels (or Contras). It asserted the profits made off of the black market distribution to susceptible Los Angelinos (and one can only imagine how far beyond) went to funding, and perhaps even arming and supplying, the rebels. Though, Webb doesn’t quite point the finger directly. His work suggests members within the CIA were aware of the situation, and that President Reagan shielded inner-city drug dealers from prosecution in order to allow for the transactions to occur. Beyond the ego this publication, now infamously known as The Dark Alliance, is where trouble would begin in earnest for Webb.

As the titular ‘messenger,’ Renner amps up his intensity. Sufficiently a leading man — an oddly amiable one at that — he’s distinctly human but there exists beneath the surface a machine set on overdrive. Clearly something compels this character that surpasses familial duty, a persistence that doesn’t allow a father and husband to sleep well at night. Why can’t he stop digging deep into extremely treacherous affairs? Or perhaps the better question: what, if anything, would motivate him to cease and desist? If nothing else, Kill the Messenger goes to prove the lengths required to secure that most coveted of career affirmations.

Cuesta manages to set the performance against a satisfactorily researched background. We travel to dangerous prisons, hold casual (and not so casual) conversations with incredibly dangerous and idealistic extremists, and we flirt with the opposition as much as we shun our friends. Even if we pass through many security checkpoints with a little too much ease and conveniently skip through certain plot details, the development is sufficient enough to leave minimal questions about the actual investigating part. His supporting cast — Rosemarie Dewitt (who plays Webb’s dutiful wife Sue), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Webb’s editor Anna Simons), and Oliver Platt (who takes on the role as Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos) — all contribute thoroughly. Unfortunately Ray Liotta and Michael Sheen are wasted in cameos.

Considering the big picture, Renner’s staunch determination conflicted with more than his readers and the general public. When personal relations and friendships become involved, this is where Michael Cuesta’s directorial limitations are exposed as the slump into depression and the subsequent loss of virtually all personal and financial value are hardly unexpected. Not that these things aren’t difficult to experience. This is what really happened (an approximation, anyway). It’s just as incredible to watch how one story, a single idea can consume a person.

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3-5Recommendation: Kill the Messenger offers a strong lead performance for an often overlooked and steadily rising talent (original casting choices favored the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — yawn). A not-so-subtle indictment of an American society (and of news outlets most damningly) that doubted a single journalist could dig up this much dirt on this many people possessing this much power. For aspiring journalists, this movie might be a must. Not necessarily for the reminding about ethical boundaries and how not to cross them (Webb’s whistleblowing strategy is certainly not a good example) but more so for a clear illustration of the difference between healthy and unhealthy obsession.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “I thought my job was to tell the public the truth, the facts; pretty or not, and let the publishing of those facts make a difference in how people look at things, at themselves, and what they stand for. . .”

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

Lucy

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014

[Theater]

While it’s true this outing is a step up from last year’s The Family, with director Luc Besson even seeming willing to dip his toes into deeper waters as far as interesting concepts are concerned, we are, unfortunately, still not operating at 100% yet.

It might seem dismissive to rule this summer’s latest sci-fi obsession guilty of association based on who’s directing it (a man whose last effort found Robert DeNiro and Tommy Lee Jones competing to see who could look more disinterested in being involved), but at the same time it’s also clear that there has got to be some kind of three-strike rule in place for at least this reviewer. There’s only so many times one can go to a film expecting the worst, then receiving pretty much just that and then going to do it all over again another time, hoping for something different.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s the definition of insanity.

Even the great Morgan Freeman can be heard stumbling over a few awkward lines of dialogue at some of the worst times possible. An image of humanity rendered without a brain as powerful as the one it’s been given is a compelling one, but this actual idea is realized as much as the concept car you ogle over in magazines and faux advertisements is ready for the general public.

Uhh. . .it isn’t.

One is left at the end credits with the nagging thought that if anyone else had gotten into the driver’s seat of this car, maybe we might have gone to some truly cool places.  While it is at times undeniably fun, Lucy fails to engage on a more significant level as it trades out far too much potential in exchange for the quick and easy thrill, a la mainstream Hollywood. In fact there is so much left to be desired at the time of the flaccid conclusion we wonder if there was anything here that didn’t go to waste.

Well, there’s the central character for one. Scarlett Johansson’s casting indeed becomes the film’s saving grace. She instantly affords Besson and his oft intentionally-stilted screenplay a level of gravitas that helps this story gain traction as it plods ever forward, simultaneously with purpose and without any at all. Lucy is a young woman with not much of an identity seen in the film’s open getting wrangled into a drug deal she never wanted to be a part of. Now handcuffed to a briefcase containing who-knows-what, she’s wrestled into a den of some threatening-looking Asians, led by Min-sik Choi’s mean old Mr. Jang. At such time she’s informed she’s now a drug mule for them, and is subsequently sent out to board a plane for somewhere else in the world. Poor girl. Or is she?

Lucy’s intellectual journey begins quiet, innocuously, as she first sets about finding out what has happened to her. After awakening in a hotel room with a bandaged abdomen and being told she’s carrying a pouch of an extremely potent substance, she makes moves quickly to rid herself of the package. The contents of the bag are a synthesized form of the natural chemicals found in a pregnant woman during late stages of her pregnancy. Their power’s asserted to be the necessary boost that helps form bone structure in the yet-to-be-born child. Needless to say, if this drug (labeled CPH-4 in the film) can do that to an infant, what would a quadruple dose do a fully-grown person?

This is going to be, annoyingly, as confronting and as experimental as the material ever feels like becoming. Instead of detailing all of the ways in which someone’s life could be enhanced — and perhaps just as compellingly, how it might be devalued, even destroyed — by the power of being able to access 100% of one’s brain power and an ever-expanding ocean of information, we get surface-level glimpses at what Besson thinks could happen, you know. . .theoretically.

There are, admittedly, a few drool-worthy visual sequences: Lucy physically manipulating radio and electromagnetic waves to suit her needs; her ability to multitask is on a level most Bluetooth-wearing businessmen would be sorely jealous of; and then there’s the traveling through time and space as a means of exploring what we are meant to be doing here on Earth (if anything at all). To reiterate, its all eye candy for the sake of providing action sequences that immediately yank us out of an intellectual discussion and into a pseudo-summer blockbuster.

Lucy is also guilty of devolving into a somewhat plodding affair. It oftentimes holds all of the enthusiasm of a tenured history professor dragging his students through another 8 A.M. lecture. Ironically enough, this is the very character Morgan Freeman has been hired to play. Professor Norman is first seen speaking extremely National Geographic-narratively to an audience of some nondescript understanding about the fact that people only are typically able to use 10% of their brain function. He stands there apologetically, regurgitating a script that begs us to ponder what we might be able to do if we just used all of our brain. The character, despite Freeman’s unyielding watchability, is a complete cardboard cutout of a layman pondering the true depth of the thinking man’s soul. I’m not going to feign pretense here — the movie is too stupid to be taken seriously.

Norman isn’t the problem, it’s Besson’s handling of what could have been an incredibly inspiring premise. For the second time in a row (that I have seen, anyway), Besson has taken a solid concept and fumbled it at the eleventh hour. Lucy, poised to become a modern sci-fi mind-bender, exists now as a crowd-pleasing slice of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, which should be taken as no insult. But it’s a significant step down from the thought-provoking journey into the essence of what it means to be human — something that this excellent performance from Johansson more often than not hints at.

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Not a good time to become claustrophobic

2-5Recommendation: Starpower and an interesting premise unite to dupe audiences into watching a very run-of-the-mill action flick featuring some awe-inspiring visuals and a brief period of hectic violence. Lucy is not what is advertised, but unfortunately that was something that might have been foretold by the names of those involved behind the camera. I’d recommend this film on the basis of Johansson but not much else. There are some truly impressive moments but not enough of them carry through to warrant the kind of Roger Ebert two thumbs-up that I was looking to give here.

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “We never really die.”

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

Brick Mansions

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Release: Friday, April 25, 2014

[Theater]

While the last film to feature a performance from Paul Walker is as dumb as a brick, there is something haunting, almost immortalizing left behind in the rubble of this, his final role.

Maybe it’s more haunting because the last major role of his is stuck in a picture as stiff and awkward as Brick Mansions, yet another failure of a script from Luc Besson. Or maybe it’s because it features Paul driving a beautiful Mustang around the ghetto of Detroit. Whatever the reason, Paul’s presence resonates very bittersweet throughout the film and gives the film at least one reason to exist. And a pretty good one, too.

But without him, it has literally none.

Camille Delamarre’s debut feature film is short, but even shorter on entertainment and logic. Apparently a remake of Luc Besson’s much-better written District B13 in which a nuclear warhead is set on destroying Paris, to be launched from the central ghetto that has been walled off by the Parisian government for years. A cop and vigilante criminal must gain access inside the dangerous ghetto and stop the threat and rescue anyone who may be trapped inside (both films make sure this is a young, attractive girl. . .because honestly, how could they not?) In 2014, Besson took that script and scrapped whatever creativity and solid writing it possessed and replaced these things with toilet paper scribblings of ideas. This version would come to be known as Brick Mansions.

In it, Paul plays good Detroit cop Damien Collier who has been supposedly Dark Knight-ing it up around the city for years, fending off escalating crime and tension stemming from the metropolis’ long-forgotten ghetto, which remains at the heart of the city. Filled with what were once beautiful brick buildings, the zone has been completely retaken by criminals, gangsters and other, shall we say, undesirables. . .and while Officer Collier is less of a vigilante than Batman, he finds himself coming face-to-face with some pretty nasty types who wish nothing but for the most harmful. . . .er, harm to befall him.

He does come across the vigilante-esque and mysterious Lino (played by David Belle, the founder of an urban free-running style known as Parkour) who, if anything, would be Robin to Paul Walker’s Batman if we really wanted to continue with this metaphor.

Lino is an ex-con who has recently been released from prison but now finds himself in a scrap with inner-city thugs who have kidnapped his girlfriend (Catalina Denis) — seriously, did Besson just copy-and-paste his old script here? Stopping at nothing to get her back apparently is going to include teaming up with Collier, who is of course initially reluctant to work with a criminal. After all, you know. . .a criminal killed his father. After an awkward stand-off the pair agree to throw themselves into the lion’s den, seeing as they both are pursuing the same man as it turns out. Collier has been tracking down the ringleader Tremaine (RZA) for many years, and Lino only recently has had cause to find him since his girl was taken.

As the presiding ‘evil’ that rules the brick mansion territory, RZA’s Tremaine is actually suitably sinister and perhaps the most intelligently spoken of any character in this film. While his worldview is not particularly original nor even really that compelling it is at the very least believable, unlike anything else the movie has to offer. Collier is a decent man but greatly lacking in personality; Walker tries his best with what he is provided, which is skimpy at best. He’s meant to be following in the shadow of his father who was killed in the line of duty, but that story is so woefully underdeveloped it barely counts as an afterthought.

David Belle is fun to watch, if only for the extensive (bordering on self-indulgent) stunt reel he puts together for the camera. His many escapades actually comprise a good portion of the running time, which truthfully saves the story from being any worse. As a character, though, Lino’s pretty asinine as well, remaining a caricature of a desperate man trying to stay out of trouble.

Brick Mansions makes great use of its grubby and grimy set — for whatever that’s worth. Filmed as though moving throughout levels in a videogame, the camera moves us in and out of intricate spaces filled with bad guys, bullets and babes pistol-whipping one another. The use of CGI is apparent but surprisingly not among the film’s failings. Despite a gritty and somewhat interesting setting, there’s far more wrong with more important components like story and character development. When it comes to actually structuring this foundation, Brick Mansions simply crumbles.

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1-5Recommendation: Admittedly a terrible last outing for Paul, it is nonetheless the last film with Paul in a completed role, and is somewhat worth seeing on that level. Brick Mansions flirts with ideas like the ideological struggle between rich and poor societal classes, something it could have sunk its teeth into more and could possibly have become an intriguing movie as a result. But this is nowhere close to being a movie with ideas, it’s perfectly content with sitting back and being a carbon copy of much better (and still generic) action flicks. Avoid this unless you are in the middle of a mission to see every Paul Walker flick (good for you, I say). Even if that’s the case, this one can probably be placed fairly low on your list.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 90 mins.

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

TBT: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

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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.”

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