Tag Archives: Drug Abuse

The Film Club by David Gilmour

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David Gilmour’s occasionally on-point, more often ever-so-slightly smug memoir is best when it focuses on the films he so clearly has a passion for. Gilmour’s rationale is dodgy (he lauds his own decision to let his fifteen-year-old son drop out of high school- but only if the boy watches three films with him a week) and he often comes off as a bit of a self-satisfied chode. The kid, a white boy rapping underachiever who doesn’t seem, in this reader’s opinion, to be the brightest light, emphatically needs all the education, public or not, he can get.

But most disturbing of all is the ugly chauvinism- the male entitlement and thinly veiled contempt for women, especially pretty women- that Gilmour seems to exhibit and passes down to his son. Early on, Gilmour desscribes his son, Jesse, leaving with a Vietnamese beauty with a barbed, and troubling metaphor- he compares the girl to a nice car that he hopes his son won’t scuff or scratch up.

However, when the memoir is all about movies, it’s magical. David Gilmour skillfully incorporates movie facts and anecdotes in his searing prose. I love movies, and never fail to be fascinated by the mechanics, the minutae, the curious hows and whys of them. But I simply didn’t care about Jesse’s teen drama, his adolescent angst, his drug and alcohol habit, his dating and relationship woes.

It was also puzzling and disturbing to me how the father constantly and unreservedly took his son’s side in these issues involving women- doesn’t he understand that relationships involve a constant give and take, that Jesse’s girlfriend Chloe might not of left him because she is a ‘bitch’ (he never directly uses this word to the best of my recollection, but, as they say, it’s right on the tip of his tongue,) but because she is unhappy in the relationship?

Did it ever occur to him that it’s none of Jesse’s business if she sleeps with another guy after she’s already told him, under no uncertain terms, that it is over? That she might not be a two-timing whore, but just human? Gilmour doesn’t says these things, mind you; it’s more what he doesn’t say that floors me. And although I’m sure Jesse’s old flame Rebecca Ng, a bona-fide drama queen, was a royal pain in the ass, do I believe she was the sly manipulative nymphet Gilmour describes her as? No, I don’t. Considering Gilmour’s impotent bitterness concerning the fairer sex, I think he’s the very incarnation of an unreliable narrator.

‘The Film Club’ is a book where the author isn’t a very nice person, which would be fine (writers don’t have to be,) but he’s also the subject, the focus of his self-involved one-man orchestration. And don’t tell me it’s about his son, because I don’t buy it. David Gilmour wants to be seen as the all-time cool dad, a kind of miracle worker for gangly underachieving kids. When the book is about David Gilmour watching movies, it’s sublime. But when it’s about David Gilmour and his self-satisfaction bordering on self-obsession concerning his peer-like relationship with his son, I found myself thoroughly unmoved, and moreover, unimpressed.

Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane

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The world can be an unforgiving, ugly place, and Dennis Lehane does a good job depicting this while also portraying the mordant sense of humor law enforcement officers and police detectives sometimes have to adopt to deal with the darkness ‘out there’ as well as inside themselves. Still, there are some things being a hardened detective with a life time of seeing some hardcore shit under your belt can’t prepare you for- for Detective Patrick Mackenzie, the events of “Gone Baby Gone” are comprised of some such times.

I went into this book warily; I have minimal experience with mysteries of any kind, and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to follow the twists and turns that made up the novel’s plot (true, to some extent; recalling many of the intricacies of the story leaves me drawing a big fat blank.) Also, it is the fourth in a series, so I’m kind of starting in the middle of a continuing storyline. However, while the former had me perpetually confused (it should be a piece of cake for seasoned mystery readers though,) the latter did not distract me from the book, which is fairly stand-alone even among it’s predecessors  and sequels.

The plot of “Gone Baby Gone” focuses on detective Patrick Mckenzie and his willful and beautiful partner/lover, Angela Gennaro, searching through Boston’s toughest neighborhoods for the abducted daughter of a neglectful addict mother. Not for the squeamish, it portrays the shadowy world of pimps, pedophiles, whores, and crooked cops in such a way that it will make you frown at humanity. Have we really evolved that much? Or we a not very funny joke God played on the hitherto unviolated earth?

I think Lehane particularly has a gift with character description, and providing character details so acute and well-observed that we can picture the creations he has offered up to us. The people making up this twisted urban world are frighteningly believable, with the possible exception of Leon and Roberta Trett, two over-the-top pedophiles; but even the sordidly kitschy moments admittedly have their place. In the search for little Amanda McCready, the two leads not only have to fret whether the’ll find her, but whether she’d be better off staying gone, possibly exposed to unspeakable horrors or maybe spared from a slow spiritual death at the hands of Helene, her selfish crack ho mother.

Sparing my visitors from major spoilers, I’ll just say that the ending really got me furious, in a good way (which is to say, the writing and plotting were not at fault.) After some seriously disturbing and shocking events existing within the plot, I was hoping I could be satisfied by an ending that seemed ‘right,’ just and appropriately comforting. But justice, as it turns out, is a double-edged sword. Would any other ending have seemed as contextually appropriate? Hell no. But I want my evildoers vanquished, my ending wrapped up, my protagonists making a final decision I don’t want to throttle them for.

I seriously wanted to kick Patrick in the nuts at the end of this book. He was a likable lead for the most part, but the final choice he makes is certainly not the one I would have picked. Then again who knows, if I was placed in a crazy situation like that? The compelling thing about the conclusion is it isn’t a simple showdown between good and evil. Both decisions have consequences, and both sets of consequences will hurt someone regardless of how carefully the final course of action is chosen. Am I fit to judge? No, probably not, but I still want to kick him in the nuts.

“Gone Baby Gone” is a quietly harrowing look of police officers working child abuse cases who often have to stand by powerlessly, even impotently, lacking the power to save damaged young people in the face of a broken system. Does society owe the Amanda McCreadys of the world to provide them with a safe place to live, to protect them from the monsters and molesters as well as the coked-up fuck-up living in their own home? Can we be expected to take on the responsibility of every such child? Are some of these kids beyond help? Toeing the line between popular fiction and literature, “Gone Baby Gone” offers a fresh, even occasionally funny voice in Patrick Mckenzie and a suspenseful plot.

Scarfies (AKA Crime 101) (1999)

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Take this film for what it is (an uneven and extremely low budget thriller and morality play) and you may find yourself enjoying the effective acting displayed within and bruising social commentary concerning the self-absorption and sometimes outright shittiness of humankind. It’s Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets early Quentin Tarantino with a distinct lack of the technical verve Tarantino showed even early on into his career.

That said, this is one of the more psychologically harrowing and disturbing ‘black comedies’ of recent times. Dark humor, or just plain dark? When the douchebag college kids glue their weed-peddling captive’s lips and hands together and force him to squat with his pants pulled halfway down and shit into a bucket, I was struck by the indignity of it all. “Scarfies” remains relatively compelling despite the almost nil production values and contemptuous cast of characters because it starts out with a somewhat sympathizable ‘what would you do?’ scenario until it takes a sudden plunge into the darkest of places, where sadistic mind games and senseless violence overtake rationality and basic human decency.

The film follows a group of college students who squat in an abandoned house that incongruously has electricity. Initially they are relatively carefree, partying and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, bonding and making love and getting high. Impulsive frat boy-type Alex (Taika Waititi) uses a monumentally awful pick-up line on the object of his affections, straight-laced Nicola (Ashleigh Seagar) and coaxes her into his bed, while Scott (Neill Rea) and Emma (Willa O’Neill) make moon eyes at each other but don’t act on their mutual attraction. Graham (Charlie Bleakley) has a crush on Nicola, but waffles around it and acts generally irritating.

It’s all fun and games until the five students open and jammed-up door in the basement of the squalid building and find a collection of pot plants, all primed and ready to smoke. After a fierce debate, they sell the lot and blow the entirety of their drug money on various electronics and personal vanities. So when the dealer (Jon Brazier) shows up volatile and royally pissed at the loss of his crop, they lock him in the basement. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Movies and literature continually show that kids are scary as hell. So why shouldn’t a group of well-groomed, outwardly innocuous college youngsters be any different? It is Alex (Waititi,) however, who makes me suspect that his brain is made of bits and bobs and cogs that render him not quite a person, at least not in the spiritual sense. Despite being good-looking, calm, seemingly ordinary, and well-liked, Alex possesses the heart of killer, a sense of apathy and sadistic glee at his misdoings, and the self-confidence to coerce his frightened roommates into obedience and stunned silence.

Graham, however, while initially appearing to be a ineffectual innocuous type (pining pitifully for Nicola and crying at the slightest provocation,) proves to be the kind of guy who held your hands behind your back as you got punched in the gut in high school. He enjoys the high-stakes excitement of having a prisoner to heckle and hurt, so he follows the smugly cruel Alex’s lead in what is essentially torture, culminating in a electronic device to control the prisoner’s behavior through electric shocks.

“Scarfies” is not really a comedy, except in the sense of ironic human indecency. However, it is an interesting study of human behavior and the innate sense of self-interest exhibited by people everywhere. “Better him than me.” How many times have we innately said that to ourselves, believing that it would be ultimately preferable that someone else take the fall for us? The acting and the story are better than you might expect, and there are a few laughs to be had among the dark sense of foreboding and transgression.

If nothing else, you’ll watch to the end hoping the ‘protagonists’ get what they deserve. Taika Waititi definitely shows early promise in a precursor to his work as a director. His not only smug and self-satisfied, but (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) downright sociopathic character’s face needed punching. Make no mistake, this movie is no masterwork of cinema, but if you like cynical social commentaries that pull no punches in regards to how they view people (superior to apes? I think not!) you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Just don’t expect a laugh riot or a glossy Hollywood film.

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Boy (2010)

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“Boy” is an appealing film and an arresting look into another time and place, so it’s a shame it relies heavily on coming-of-age cliches to tell it’s story. Never fear, though- despite the feeling of been-there done-that that pervades this feature, “Boy” has charm and sweetness to spare, and is worth watching despite it’s rather standard execution.

At the center of this sentimental picture is an 11-year-old Maori lad (James Rolleston)  who calls himself ‘boy.’ Boy’s life is far from carefree- he lives in poverty, the responsibility of his younger brother Rocky (Te Aho Eketone Whitu) and his cousins often fall into his hands, he is besieged by bullies at school, and the girl (Ricky-Lee Waipuka Russell) he likes doesn’t know he exists. But he approaches his challenges with a freshness and active fantasy life that belies the direness of his situation.

Boy is surrounded by quirky and hardscrabble characters, not least of which is his shy brother, who believes he has superpowers. While Boy’s grandmother is out at a funeral and entrusting his multitude of relatives to him for a couple of weeks, Boy’s biological father Alamein (actor/director Taika Waititi) comes crashing into his life. Boy is entranced by his charming dad, despite the man’s ne’er do well ways and gang affiliations.

Anyone but Boy can see that Alamein is a worthless chode, so it just becomes a waiting game until the big reveal where Boy realizes it too. Meanwhile, Alamein and his equally useless friends start digging for a stash of money they buried years ago. Alamein seems caring and paternal on the surface (at least to a naive kid in desperate need of a father figure like Boy,) but in reality he is concerned with people only to the point that they serve his best interests.

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The child actors perform admirably (you can keenly see the pain in Boy’s eyes when his dad hauls off and slaps him,) and the crayon ‘fantasy’ sequences add a little originality to a mostly tired plot. It actually works better in terms of story that Boy is not always a boy scout even before his father comes into the picture and changes his attitude for the worse- he torments his brother and hurls rocks at the village idiot (Waihori Shortland,) but for the most part his intentions seem to be good.

Taika Waititi does an effective job as Alamein, playing the somewhat tired character of the charming rogue with big plans and no backing-up of his multitude of promises. You kind of want to like him despite the obvious signs that he’s bad business, and you could see how an inexperienced child might be sucked into his high-wire act way of life. But it’s also bitterly clear that he’s bad business for Boy. As Boy spends more and more time with Alamein, feeding off his manic energy, Boy’s brother and cousins go without the much-needed care and concern of their young caregiver. It’s just a matter of time until something gives, and with Alamein’s unreliable ways that shift will be sooner rather than later.

There are multiple Michael Jackson fantasy dance scenes (the year is 1984, and Boy is a massive fan of the Jackster,) and they fit into the narrative more than they probably should- the movie is a surprisingly cohesive mix of laughter and sadness, fantasy and harsh reality. It’s frustratingly predictable, but also solidly sweet, charming, and well-acted, with a steady combination of nostalgia and hard times.

I can definitely see the kid actors going somewhere, and “Boy” has an abundance of warm feelings that help it through it’s more so-so parts. We know that Boy will reject his dad’s false promises and that he will give up pursuing his crush to be with the girl who’s loved him all along, triggering an inevitable coming-of-age, but it’s nice to take the journey nonetheless.

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Afterschool (2008)

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Best described as a ‘Haneke film that is not by Haneke,’ “Afterschool’ is just good enough to make you respect the filmmaker while wishing he would adopt a style of his own. Mostly though, it makes you think that director Antonio Campos has seen “Cache” and Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” way too many times, and has tried to copy their approach with middling results (although “Afterschool” is less boring and better acted than Van Sant’s supposed classic, he doesn’t hold a candle to Haneke at his best.)

In a world of prep school jerks and uncaring adults, disaffected Robert (Ezra Miller) is just trying to stay afloat while dealing with violent tendencies and teen libido- we first meet him wanking to a particularly exploitive porn video. It’s hard to feel partial to him after that. His mom is overly preoccupied with him being ‘okay’ (not applicable for medication or an extra minute of her time) and not in the least concerned with him being happy. In his fancy-schmancy boarding school, he simply floats through life- barely regarded by his group of friends, engaging in schoolwork he could care less about- he is dulled. deadened, and perhaps worst of all, bored.

Robert has a preference (I hesitate to say ‘passion’) for videos of all kinds- from laughing babies and jokester cats to videotaped schoolyard fights and amateur pornography. He is a symbol of our short attention-spanned, gratified-at-the-click-of-a-button society. Seeing these clips, the footage of giggling children seems equally as ‘wrong’ and voyeuristic as the more hardcore videos. They are rendered eerie and uncanny by the context of the movie. When two young girls (Mary and Carly Michelson) OD while Robert films, he is sucked into a fallout among the students and staff- but with how much is Robert complicit?

You won’t necessarily find the answer within this film, but “Afterschool” does prove to be an interesting (if well-worn by more established directors) experiment. Known for his roles in films such as “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of being a Wallflower, then- barely pubescent Ezra Miller is eerily apathetic and effective here. While I’d argue that the last shot was a example of breaking the fourth wall (Robert is ‘filmed’ by the complacent audience,) there’s enough of a mystery element to the conclusion to keep the viewer thinking if they wish.

However, “Afterschool”‘s preoccupation with being deliberately obtuse makes it quite a frustrating experience, and the social commentary is a little obvious for this kind of film. It’s  showy in the way of “Funny Games” (Haneke’s weakest film)- they’re pushing the bumbling incompetence of adults, the apathy of our kids, and the brokenness of our society in our faces. In the end I didn’t care too much whether Robert killed the girls or whether his friend Dave (Jeremy Allen White) was to blame- I didn’t long for it to be over, but I wasn’t exactly sucked in by it either.

Ultimately, while Campos’ cold, calculating cinematic method and long, still shots of nothing happening at all might appeal to Haneke fanboys, I found it to be too derivative of that filmmaker to be anything of consequence. It’s okay- but movie like this (art, not entertainment) can’t be just okay- it really has to pull you in, making its world yours. If anything, this movie will just make you develop a further distaste for entitled rich kids and the preppy mischief they make.

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Electricity by Ray Robinson

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Lily O’Connor’s neurology is a wild, untamed beast that knocks her on her face time and again. Afflicted with epilepsy, Lily knows the condition is more than the general public believes it be, and she determined to live as normal a life with the condition as possible. Saddled with a rough (and I mean rough) family (her mother is entirely to blame in causing the injury that led to her disorder, in an act too ghastly to mention,) Lily has learned to hide the hurt away, armed with a misanthropic wit. But the death of her beastly mother, grouped with the arrival of her gambler brother and the mystery of another sibling’s disappearance, shakes up Lily’s life in ways she never could have imagined and sends her on a quest for reconciliation on the dirty, chaotic streets of London.

So, apparently this is a movie now. It’s hard to picture how a film adaptation would work, to be honest. Electricity is a otherworldly experience, an journey through the senses shedding light on a condition no one would wish on themselves or their loved ones. How will a movie give us such an unyielding look into this woman’s mind? How will a movie explain how the seizures feel? But the miracle of this novel is that Lily O’Connor is so much more than her disability.

She’s tough, complicated, seriously flawed but fundamentally decent. The strength of Lily’s character ensures that Electricity will not a textbook slog through issues of disability and dignity. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read so much onomatopoeia in one book. The book has an interesting feminine perspective on sexuality, as well as a heartbreaking take on sexual abuse (what if I didn’t fight back! What if I liked it?)

Lily believed she was in love with her mother’s boyfriend when she was about nine years old, and appreciated the attention in a time when she was all too often ignored and overlooked. But does that make it any better? Of course not. Sexual misconduct with a preteen is abuse whether or not the child thinks they enjoy it or not. In a way, Lily has to move past her own feelings and perceptions about the event just as much as she has to move past the abuse itself.

Lily is often a hard character to like. But you can’t hate her. You just can’t. She’s too vulnerable and damaged and real for that. However, the circumstances of her upbringing seemed a little too dire at times. That coupled with her truly horrific experience with men (only her wig-donning mentor, Al, emerges unscathed) makes Electricity a sometimes disturbing read. Lily is an often sexually ambiguous character; she reports to enjoy sex with men (although she can’t climax,) while her less-than-sisterly affections for her lesbian buddy Mel makes the reader wonder what side of the fence she’s really on.

The only parts of the book I felt were lacking were the sex scenes between Lily and her boyfriend, Dave. Here we are subjected to analogies such as “He licked my breasts like lollipops” that fall short on insight into a woman’s experience of sex. They were a little corny, to be frank. They didn’t quite fit in the otherwise smooth, flawless jigsaw puzzle that was this novel. Mostly, what stands out in Electricity was the close inside view of a misunderstood condition and Lily’s unique, dialect- and profanity-salted voice. Lyrical yet not tweedy, Electricity is a engrossing read.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” works so well because you know next to nothing about the characters for the first portion of the film, making it an altogether mysterious and intriguing experience indeed. Crisply photographed in black-and-white and imbued with a truly unique soundtrack compilation, this ‘Iranian Vampire Western’ is nothing if not unpredictable.

Arash (Arash Marandi,) the stressed-out protagonist, is a hard-working young man who’s dependent, drug-addled father Houssein (Marshall Manesh) proves to be continually burdensome and exasperating to him. Houssein is being frequently visited by local thug Saeed (Dominic Rains,) a ne’er-do-well, pimp, and drug dealer to whom Houssein owes thousands of dollars of the illegal substances that service his addiction.

Saeed is the exception to the rule. You know everything you need to know about him from the moment you meet him, from his truly epic tattoos (including the word ‘SEX’ inexpertly scrawled on his throat) to his cheap gangsta haircut, Saeed is only half as frightening and twice as ridiculous as he believes himself to be, but is still a volatile hood and no one to be trifled with.

With Houssain in debt, Saeed pilfers Arash’s prized car, driving Arash to steal a pair of earrings from his alluring employer (Rome Shadanloo.) But a mysterious vampire (Sheila Vand, who manages to be all at once creepy, quirky, sexy, and sympathetic) may render Arash’s drastic action obsolete.

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” combines wry humor and nail-biting tension in a film that might seem disappointedly low on violence for avid gorehounds but proves to be a technically- and stylistically- sound film. Alternately self-satirizing and even cheesy and artsy and daring, this movie never seems awkward or tone-deaf, but straddles all the elements of the film with pleasing self-awareness and (no pun intended) bite.

Packed into the film is a strong feminist message that proves to be just what Middle Eastern cinema needs. All over the world, women are choked with the what-ifs of simple daily activities such as seeking help carrying groceries from a stranger, walking home from work, and drinking in bars. What if I get robbed? What if I get raped? What if a guy who looks outwardly legit decides to overpower me?

Although men themselves are not incapable of being victims of sexual violence,  it’s a much bigger cause of concern for girls and women. The irony here is, with a vampiress on the loose, now it is the guys, particularly the predatory ones, who have to worry. No pimp, rapist, or woman-beater’s neck is safe. And the halfway decent citizens  of the as-advertised ‘bad city’ are not entirely off the hook either.

You may wonder how this film got away with blunt social commentary and nudity in Iran. Simply put… it didn’t. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was shot in California. But it is, for all intents and purposes, a Middle Eastern film. And a pretty good one at that. Although some people might be put off by the Black-and-White photography and the subtitles, this would be a good starter movie to others unfamiliar with Middle Eastern cinema, as it is entertaining and takes little to no political background to understand

Nor is it overly gory or violent (other than a gruesome- but amusing-  finger munching scene,) and even the relatively squeamish viewers can watch and enjoy it. International film enthusiasts, and vampire fans, should love it.

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The Music Never Stopped (2011)

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Sentimental but sweet, like biting into a candied confection you haven’t tasted since the idyllic days of your youth, “The Music Never Stopped” is elevated beyond ‘disease of the week’ territory by terrific lead performances. Good storytelling leaves the viewer with a genuinely warm n’ fuzzy feeling, while J.K. Simmons’ development not only as a father, but as a man is inspirational without being too maudlin.

Henry Sawyer (Simmons) is a traditional dad and husband who provides for his wife Helen (Cara Seymour,) but is completely incompetent in handling anything to do with the management or the upkeep of the house. After many years of marriage, Henry still needs his wife to decide for him if the milk in the fridge is bad and can’t fathom the idea of Helen getting a job.

Henry and Helen have a son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci,) who has been absent for almost twenty years after having a fight with his father and running away from home. One fateful day, Henry and his wife get a life-changing phone call- Gabriel has suffered a brain tumor that destroyed his short-term memory and is lying disoriented and confused at the hospital.

Left reeling by this news, Henry initially grapples with feelings of resentment and bitterness at the prospect of seeing his son. But when it is revealed that music from the time period he broke away from his father’s interests and eventually, ran away from home help Gabriel retain memories, Henry really steps up to be the father his son needs.

Music is an extremely important component in the lives of the Sawyer family, and “The Music Never Stopped” features a fantastic old-timey folk-rock soundtrack. Initially it seems somewhat silly that Henry would take Gabriel’s decision to break free from Henry’s musical interests so badly.

But it is also important to understand that it wasn’t just Henry’s music Gabriel was rebelling against- it was his whole way of life. Henry’s politics, socioeconomic beliefs, lifestyle- Gabriel was rejecting of these in favor of the new groove that was sweeping the young people of America at that time While Henry’s thoughts and feelings were becoming old hat, Gabriel was becoming what Henry feared and hated- a hippie.

In many ways this is a standard story- there’s a mother who just wants everyone to get along, a gruff dad, a medical crisis, and even a Doctor (Scott Adsit) who exists merely to say “no, this can’t be done.” There is a sweet romance between a kind woman (Mia Maestro) and a disabled man that never goes beyond chaste PG-13 kisses. The character of music therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond) is never anything more than a stock inspiration to a desperate family who’s prayers are answered in the form of good, hard science.

However, the outstanding performances of the three leads (Simmons, Pucci, and Seymour) have  to be taken into account. You know you probably shouldn’t be moved by the somewhat predictable story, but the filmmaker hits all the right notes so that somehow you find yourself falling under its spell.

Director Jim Kohlberg incorporates genuinely heartbreaking moments into the script (such as the reunion between Gabriel’s adolescent girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard) and the addled adult Gabe,) and both Gabriel and Henry’s points of view are served well, instead of using them as an opportunity to put down a certain set of political beliefs.

Adapted from Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Last Hippie,” “The Music Never Stopped” is tender and bittersweet, an example of somewhat formulaic film-making hitting it’s mark. I’m totally looking forward to seeing J.K. Simmons play the asshole jazz teacher in “Whiplash,” for which he won an academy award. This man is one of the most incredibly versatile character actors in Hollywood!

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Birdman (2014)

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They say “Everyone’s a critic,” and this seems to be especially true for film fans. What fan-boys and -girls of all ages often seem to forget is that the movie star is a person just like us, with feelings and faults- they eat, drink, shit, screw, and breathe just like us, they are not above being selfish and rude upon occasion (therefore I urge you not to take it personally if they decline an autograph,) and they feel hate and rejection from the audience like a regular person being criticized for they manner in which they do what they love.

However, the internet seems not to take a middle ground on celebrities- either they can do no wrong in the fanboys’ eyes or he cuts them down to size with the ruthless efficiency of a horror-film slasher. And in a society where well-liked actors are respected more than law enforcement officers, men fighting for our country, humanitarians and hospital personnel, the margin for error is small. People cannot believe it when an actor says something unbecoming or adverse to the ‘image’ they are trying to build (consider when Jennifer Aniston used the ‘R’ word and the ensuing backlash.)

When a actor has a certain squeaky-clean persona, people believe in that persona even if that performer seems to be less than who they appear to be. When Bill Cosby was accused of multiple counts of rape, no one would believe it; suddenly the victims were attention seeking ‘hos whereas it might have been considered differently if the accused was Joe-Bob across the street. Certainly some women have been known to lie about rape, but at what point is the evidence just too incriminating?

On the other hand, actors that have been considered to be ‘flops’ can’t catch a break- attacks on celebrities, particularly female celebrities whose figures and faces have been deemed unpleasing to the eye by the masses, often get extremely personal. Actors get defined by that one role that made them famous, look at poor ‘Chandler’ and the rest of the “Friends” alumni (except for a select few that have been able to stake out roles of consequence in other movies.)

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Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) is Birdman. That is the role he is certainly known for; nobody remembers him in anything else, and no one certainly cares to. For Riggan, a mentally disturbed has-been with delusions of grandeur featuring an incarnation of his iconic character, life is a constant struggle to prove that he is capable of diversifying- that he can, and will, rise above his 90’s role that people have learned to love and hate him for.

With an estranged ex (Amy Ryan) and a mouthy daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone,) Riggan’s life is definitely not easy. But while writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, he believes he can rise above what people expect of him. When his costar (Jeremy Shamos) suffers an injury onstage, the pretty starlet (Naomi Watts) offers her narcissistic, impotent douchebag boyfriend, Mike, (Edward Norton) the man’s role.

Riggan and Mike clash immediately, sometimes to hilarious effect. But for the most part, “Birdman” is a dark, depressing (albeit sometimes comedic) look into one man’s delusional wreck of an existence. Most of the movie is filmed in one continuous shot, with the camera following the characters around the broken-down theater. There’s a vibe of intrusion and invasion of privacy, the cast of Riggan’s play packed together like sweaty, discontented sardines and constantly bursting into each others rooms without invitation. This contributes to the films message about the price of fame- suddenly, your life is everyone else’s.

To some extent, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are playing extreme versions of themselves, or at least the public’s’ image of themselves. Keaton is a bit of a has-been (this movie might change that,) mostly remembered for the title role in “Batman,” playing the character that Christian Bale is now famous for. Norton is known as a bit of a prima donna who micromanages the film he’s performing in’s dialogue, and while hopefully he’s not as much of a major arsehole as his character is, it can’t be an accident that Mike pompously tries to dissect the script at the expense of Riggan’s vision.

“Birdman” has a great ensemble cast which also includes Merritt Wever and Zach Galfianakis (God only knows how to pronounce that man’s name,) as Riggan’s passive and deceitful lawyer. Overall it is a darkly funny yet sad and bleak commentary on entertainment Vs. art, pretension, and the nightmare who to some is family.  However, director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2006 film “Babel” is the much better movie and I think it should have gotten far more attention than it did, the whole thing (especially the plot thread about the deaf Japanese girl) was incredible. “Birdman” was, admittedly, the less compelling work.

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Foxcatcher (2014)

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A grim psychological study of co-dependency and decompensation, “Foxcatcher” features two profoundly against-type performances from Hollywood A-listers.  Steve Carrell, star of light comedies like “Get Smart” and “The Office” and occasionally slightly darker fodder like “The Way, Way Back” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” portrays the real-life millionaire aristocrat John Du Pont, an exorbitantly rich man-child pressed under the thumb of a domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and struggling with his own demons.

When Du Pont offers to endorse up and coming wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, in another unusual performance,) it seems to Schultz, the strong, silent type, like a match made in heaven- at last he will make a name for himself and stop being regarded merely as an extension of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo,) who also wrestles competitively. To the viewer, it seems weirdly abrupt… Du Pont spirits Schultz off to his mansion to and introduces him to ‘Team Foxcatcher,’ a group of fighters that Du Pont plans to shape into an unbeatable team and send to the nationals.

For a greasy, apparently limited individual, Du Pont sure can be a manipulative sonofabitch, and Carrell plays him with a mix of childish mania and snakelike bile. “Foxcatcher” is arresting in it’s build-up. You watch Carrell, muscles tensed, waiting for him to snap like a brittle branch, but up until the finale you are unsure of why you feel this way. Schultz has serious issues of his own, and anyone who dismissed Channing Tatum as a vacuous pretty boy  up until now will be wowed by his powerhouse performance.

I’ve never seen such duel performances exuding desperation since Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan in Paddy Considine’s “Tyrannosaur.” I couldn’t help see somewhat homoerotic overtones in the relationship between John Du Pont and Mark Schultz. The way Du Pont treats Schultz is reminiscent of an abusive marital relationship, with Du Pont manipulating Schultz with promises of greatness and cutting him off from the only person who loves him, his brother Dave.

The movie is sometimes reminiscent of Haneke in it’s minimalism (without the utter clinical iciness of Haneke’s films,) with a touch of Hitchcock by way of “Psycho,” but the story it tells is all too real. I ended up feeling for all the characters and despairing for their extreme loneliness.

I’m frankly surprised this film played at the theater; it doesn’t have near the mainstream appeal of something like “The Dark Knight Rises” or “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s the kind of movie that would probably barely get a release if not for the big names who agreed to play in it. Nonetheless, it is a must-watch for independent film fans and people who like think during a movie rather than just react to the obvious implications of what’s on screen.

Don’t watch “Foxcatcher” for the wrestling; there isn’t as much as a fan of the sport might like to think. Ultimately it’s almost as much about the death of the sport as it is about isolation and desperate circumstances. Watch the cage match at the end of the movie and you’ll see what I mean. “Foxcatcher” is a surprising movie with outstanding performances, and while it’s not a film you would, say, take your kid to, it’s very worthy of praise and deserves all the awards it gets.

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