Tag Archives: Suicide

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

Disconnect (2012)

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Every day, untold millions of people will use the worldwide web to chat with friends, watch vines and videos, and reconnect with family. Whether Facebooking, Tweeting, or Skyping, most of these people will not see the truly bent side that sometimes lingers behind the web’s glossy facade. “Disconnect” is a movie featuring a trio of loosely interconnected stories casting the spotlight on three characters  who get a chance to experience the internet’s unsavory dark edges.

Cindy (Paula Patton) is a neglected wife who’s just suffered an unthinkable tragedy. Ben (Jonah Bobo) is an Emo teen who gets Catfished by two mocking schoolmates. Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a reporter hungry for a story, who finds her pitch on the ‘net in a handsome male sex worker Kyle (Max Theirot.) All three people are, among other things, looking for a way to bond with their fellow man, but they all at once find themselves caught up in dysfunctional, emotionally hurtful situations.

In the wake of disaster, Ben’s father Rich (Jason Bateman) looks for the faceless perpetrator behind a devastating prank, while Cindy and her Ex-Marine husband Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) face a failing marriage and a potential identity thief (Michael Nyqvist.) Nina balances her desire for fame with her need for forgiveness, but when it comes to betrayal, how much can be forgiven?

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Sometimes didactic yet relevant, real, and so well acted, “Disconnect” might do for the vast, mysterious internet what “Psycho” did for showers. Just when you thought it was safe to log into a chatroom… The key element here, though, is not fear, but human tragedy. The cast is uniformly good, even Jonah Bobo as a bullying victim (the annoying little kid from “Zathura”- who knew!) and Alexander Skarsgard, known best as sexy vampire Eric, who- I must admit- was wooden as usual, but in this case his inert acting style fit the character.

The characters here aren’t super well-developed, but they’re portrayed with steady enough brush strokes that you find yourself liking and sympathizing with them. These are people you know. These are people you’ve chatted with, worked with, gone to school with, occupying a mundane and instantly identifiable world but fighting for their sanities, their reputations, even their very lives- their sufferings coldly recorded in the dark halls of cyberspace.

The message presented here is clear- the internet does not fill the void of a life half lived. Also, watch out, you never know who you’re sharing your secrets with in a chatroom or on a message board. It is implied by the three sad yet somewhat hopeful ‘stories’ that we are living in a society that barely notices each other, that passes over meaningful human interaction for conversations with people we’ll most likely never meet, who might not be who they say they are (unlike actual people, who are always %100 legit :P) It’s a message you might not agree with, but the movie is worth watching and pondering.

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Clay Pigeons (1998)

Apparently, filmmaker David Dobkin was inspired to make this after seeing “Fargo.” Despite never reaching the creative heights as the Coens’ 1996 masterpiece, “Clay Pigeons,” set in a small Montana town peopled with idiosyncratic  characters, functions well as a unique independent film with bite and quirky oddness to spare.

Here’s the deal- loser Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) is banging his best friend Earl (Gregory Sporleder’s) white-trash girlfriend, Amanda (Georgina Cates). When Earl gets sick of being two-timed, he gets drunk and commits suicide in front of Clay, trying to frame him for his death.

This leads to a string of events that leave Clay totally shaken and out of his comfort zone, as bodies pile up, friendly serial killer Lester Long (played by Vince Vaughn, but don’t let that run you off) befriends Clay, and acerbic FBI agent Agent Shelby (Jeanane Garofelo) is on the case.

I found the beginning of this film a little shaky in terms of acting and writing, but I’m glad I hung in there because the film got a hell of a lot better after the first twenty-or-so minutes. I never fell in love with Joaquin Phoenix as Clay. I understand that maybe he was supposed to be sort of a boring, reactionary character, but I never connected with Clay or the performance.

I’ll admit, I haven’t seen Vince Vaughn in much and had no expectations except maybe low ones from the general opinion- which is, well, that Vaughn can’t act his way out of a paper bag. I was pleasantly surprised. Vaughn did great in this role as Lester Long, he was revalatory in his villain performance in the way that Matthew McConaughey was in “Killer Joe.”

Vaughn’s laugh- like a alien entity playing at being human- was particularly chilling. I will say his character may have been more compelling than either of the kidnappers in “Fargo.” My favorite character, hands down, was Detective Shelby, played by Jeanane Garafelo.

She was so smart and tough! She was a woman who was afraid to let her guard down, and had picked her job over having a regular life. I really respected her. The way she handled the amateur small town police force was hysterical.

Although I don’t think this is in the same category with “Fargo,” “Clay Pigeons” is still a intriguing comedic thriller with strong acting and character development.

I would call it the Vince Vaughn movie for people who hate Vince Vaughn, and the Jeanane Garafelo movie for people who get sick of her Liberal politics but would like to see her play a fabulous character. “Clay Pigeons,” despite it’s flaws, is an exciting debut, and a worthwhile movie.

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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Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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Ah, “Leaving Las Vegas.” I’ve seen it once and I don’t think I could bear to see it again. This movie features the absolute worst humanity has to offer and creates a skin-crawlingly lurid world of pathetic drunken sadsacks, emotionally scarred hookers, sadistic pimps, developmentally disabled rapists, all in the backdrop of a godforsaken world that just doesn’t care.

The thing is this is our world, the one we live in rather than a yuckily fascinating fantasyland, but it is this side of life that the more privileged don’t want to look at. Also, this is considered the movie where Nicolas Cage was good. How’s that for a shocking twist? Joking. Actually, Nicolas Cage has been halfway decent in a select few other movies. I liked him in “Joe,” and “Matchstick Men,” and he was okay in “Kick-Ass” I guess, though the Moretz kid ran circles around him and all the other actors.

“Leaving Las Vegas” is about pain, pure and simple. It’s about the pain that comes with being one of society’s forgotten ones, and the pain that accompanies orchestrating your own destruction. The protagonist, Ben Sanderson (Cage,) is drinking himself to death. Why? He just doesn’t give a shit. He’s been laid off from his job as a screenwriter, his wife has left him and taken his son with her.

He’s a perpetually drunk alcoholic, consumed by ennui and self-loathing, who believes he has nothing to live for. After his dismissal from his job, Ben moves to Las Vegas, burns all of his screenplays, and prepares to slowly die of alcohol poisoning. When he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue,) a beguiling prostitute abused by her pimp (Julian Sands,) Ben falls head over heels.

Not enough to change for her- no, Ben’s long past the point to chance for anybody. He is simply content to be in her company. People don’t generally hire these women for idle chit-chat, so Sera’s all too happy to accommodate her worn-out client, who soon morphs into a friend and later into a live-in boyfriend.

Sera pretends to be a hardened Dame, but like Ben, she’s vulnerable and desperate. But unlike Ben, she has some small degree of hope. She builds a strange family for Ben and her where she is the happy homemaker and the ultimate enabler. The resulting film is an interesting character piece, and I guess Nicolas Cage IS good, along with Shue.

And I didn’t find any of the ensuing horror show unnecessary, until the ending. Potential viewers, avert your eyes, because this is going to get a bit spoiler-y. *********************SPOILERS I was astounded by the climactic scene, where Shue gives Cages a pity-fuck while Cage is lying on his death bed, wheezing and hacking. I guess the tragedy that is supposed to be portrayed in this scene is that they were unable to express their love physically until this sad moment, with Cage in a truly pitiful state.

But all I could think was how lurid and gross, and yes, unnecessary the scene was. It was like watching your feeble cancer-ridden Grandpa receive a blow-job from a lithe hooker before your very eyes. If Nic Cage were your grandfather, that is. Meh. Give or take a few years. *********************END OF SPOILERS

The characters being unlikable was not a problem. Shue and Cage imbue their portrayals with more compassion than these sad people probably deserve. The film, as a whole, was well-made. Watch it to see Cage at his best, but be forewarned, it’s terribly sad.

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The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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A good movie can find humor in tragic circumstances and goodness in extremely flawed characters; “The Skeleton Twins” does both. Twins Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) have not spoken for ten years when the near-suicides of both bring them together, for better or worse. Milo is a gay, unemployed aspiring actor still enamored with the former teacher (Ty Burrell) who seduced him when he was fifteen; Maggie is a depressed, unhappily-married dental hygienist who doesn’t love her husband Lance (Luke Wilson.)

Lance is a total sweetheart and I think Maggie is in love with the idea of him (a kind, caring hubby who doesn’t treat her like shit,) but for a sexually frustrated serial adulterer like Maggie,  the idea of true love and the reality of a sparkless relationship isn’t going to cut it. Milo begrudgingly moves in with Maggie and her husband, and exacerbates Maggie’s personal drama, but it is the conflicted relationship between the two siblings, who have been torn apart by the suicide of their dad years before,  that might pull them together or destroy them.

This all sounds like some very heavy crap, and I guess it is, but director Craig Johnson sprinkles some laughs and light-heartedness among the dark drama. Milo and Maggie are extremely sarcastic and acerbic, and yes, they can be grade-A douchebags sometimes, but they end up coming through for each other and are ultimately each loyal to the other one’s needs, whether or not a loved one’s intervention is what the person in crisis was looking for.

The humor leavens the moments where the movie seems like it’s going in the direction of pure familial nastiness (I can go to my Aunt’s house and bring up politics for that.) There’s a definite realism to the proceedings and the filmmaker never tries too hard to get a sniffle or a laugh. I found the acting from everybody, from Milo and Maggie to Lance to even the “Modern Family” guy as a pedophilic schmuck, to be very effective.

Don’t go into “The Skeleton Twins” expecting belly laughs and wild escapades resembling those of Wiig’s breakout hit “Bridesmaids.” If you hadn’t guessed from all the suicide talk. “The Skeleton Twins” is rather low-key and sad. It’s real life, as filtered though the lives of some seriously troubled human beings. It’s love and family and emptiness and the trials of two fuck-ups trying to maintain their own sanity. In the end, all they have is each other. God help them.

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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To be frank, the odds were very much against me liking this this film- the sometimes painfully old-fashioned values, the copious amount of sentimentality- but I have to say it just got to me. And that’s the mark of an effective movie isn’t it… it touches people who aren’t exactly it’s target audience. That said, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is timeless, earnest, and well-made in all respects. And it is certainly a movie that does not need a big budget makeover (keep on walking, Hollywood.)

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a good man, certainly not a perfect man, but a person who is basically devoted to the business of doing the right thing. You see, George wanted to go places- travel the world and become a renowned architect- but life had other plans, keeping him indefinitely in the one-horse town of Bedford Falls, where the corrupt moneylender Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is vying for power.

George marries his true love, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed,) but the drudgery of middle age and the upkeep of his father (Samuel S. Hinds)’s building and loaning business turn George depressed and bitter. On Christmas Eve, a crisis inadvertently caused by George’s slightly dim and hard-drinking Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) and his own personal woes leave George standing on the edge of a bridge, contemplating suicide.

A angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) stops George from throwing away his life and shows him the disaster that would have fallen upon everyone George knows if he hadn’t been born. The climax is bittersweet but life-affirming and touching. Some of the gender themes are woefully outdated (like the portrayal of the unmarried Mary Hatch in the George-less reality as a frumpy old maid  and a librarian, none the less!) but the general tone of the movie is good.

James Stewart does a great acting job in this, playing a well-developed ordinary guy with a challenging life and a good heart. Donna Reed backs Stewart up nicely in a supporting love-interest role. Some of the scenes are emotionally tough and so more effective (Bailey is not above occasional cruelty, even to his adoring wife.) The only real weakness I see present is the child actor’s performances; they seemed a little fake to me.

I sincerely hope the alleged ‘sequel’ to this movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life: The Continued Story” is a hoax, though I also found out that there is TV remake called “It Happened One Christmas” featuring a female George Bailey. Both films are wrong-headed on every account. You don’t mess with the classics. I picture the quintessential modern-day remake to be directed by that Madea guy, starring the obligatory all-black cast (we’ve got to be inclusive now,) and featuring poo-poo and fart jokes. “Madea’s It’s a Wonderful Life.” Horrors.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is so effective to this day because George is not the perfect person, because no one is an ideal human being. He struggles with the moral crises and questions that plague everyone. He’s an everyman, but he comes up on top and keenly aware of his own worth, which is a happy ending anyone can root for. Because we all want to believe we matter, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” reinforces this belief.

Everyone shouls see “It’s a Wonderful Life” at least once in their lives, especially if they’re feeling down (though learning that George Bailey saves a whole town might make you feel worse, in retrospect.) It’s a classic for a reason, and it has a wonderful cast, though I’ll be damned if little Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes) does annoy the bejeezus out of me (her high-pitched squeak of “Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets it’s wings!” is enough to give anyone pause.) But mostly, it is a timeless commentary on the beauty and fragility of the human condition.

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Children of Men (2006)

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In these visions of the future, do things ever go even slightly well? Okay, okay, I’ll grant you “Star Trek,” with it’s intergalactic exploits and shows of compassion and friendship between James T. Kirk and the impeccably logical Vulcan Spock. “Star Wars” maybe, But for the most part, for every good thing that happens in a science fiction film, a hundred shitty things happen almost simultaneously.

Take the government for example. The government in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” is shady at best, completely, reprehensibly corrupt at worst. They even offer suicide kits for disillusioned citizens with which to off themselves in a pinch. “Ah, but at least there IS a government,” you say? Well in this society, even total anarchy seems preferable to this Hell on earth. Never has a post-apocalyptic future looked so bleak.

In “Children of Men”‘s world, women have become infertile, causing mankind to lose faith in our survival. Politically apathetic citizen Theo (Clive Owen) is begrudgingly hired by his ex-girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore) to smuggle the teenaged Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey,) the first pregnant woman in eighteen years, out of the ransacked Britain to a program that supposedly can help her.

Julian is a member of an underground group known as the Fish, which rebels against the government, often through acts of urban terrorism. She and Theo have a big-time history, having had and lost a child together. As Theo and Kee make a desperate bid for survival, everyone wants what Kee’s got for their own twisted agenda- including some of the Fish, who think ownership of the child will help their political cause.

“Children of Men” seems hyper realistic despite it’s mostly unreal premise, which nonetheless bears resemblance to many aspects of societal discord, including the Fish as kind of a post-apocalyptic IRA. The actors give excellent performances, including virtual unknown Ashity as Kee and Michael Caine as an amiable pothead who’s long since retreated to live apart from society’s electric eye.

I like the fact that Kee is promiscuous and not at all attempt to capture the sanctity of a Virgin Mary-type character. The girl’s got a mouth on her, and, you know, I kind of like that. However, she and Theo form a (strictly platonic) bond as they evade the corruption of futuristic Britain. There’s also a Holocaust-type vibe to the story as Illegal immigrants are caged and brutalized for the sake of the country’s ‘purity.’

I was initially not sure if I would like this movie, since it was not on my immediate radar, but “Children of Men” proved to be timeless science fiction, up to par with “Blade Runner” (I personally think “2001” is about as riveting as watching paint dry, to use a film-critique stereotype, so you won’t get my support on exulting that one.) I actually found myself tearing up at one point, which I only do occasionally, because “Children of Men” has what many apocalyptic fests lack- a heart. This is one of the few science fiction movies I would even readily describe as ‘beautiful.’

Violent but strangely sad and tender, “Children of Men”knocks it out of the ballpark and is most not just another stuff-goes-wrong-in-the-future motion picture. People with short attention spans might be disappointed, but those who approach the experience of watching a movie as akin to reading a book will instinctively know what I know- that patience, and thoughtfulness, holds its own rewards.

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Beautiful Boy (2010)

Writer’s Note- I wrote this review a couple of years ago and just posted it on this blog now, so forgive me if the writing isn’t up to par with some of the later reviews. Also, I wrote this a little while before the film “We Need to Talk About Kevin” came out.

Within a span of a couple of years, two indie films with very similar premises hit festivals, their names being We Need to Talk About Kevin and Beautiful Boy. I have just seen the latter, a tremendously acted film that deals with the aftermath of rather than the build-up to a school shooting, and concentrates on the grieving parents of the shooter.

The tagline of this movie, “Everything seemed perfect… Everything would change” is grossly inaccurate, as the group in question is not a happy family. Katie and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) are trapped in a failing marriage to the point of sleeping in separate beds, while college student Sam (Kyle Gallner) is suicidally depressed and can barely contain his tears as he talks to his parents by phone, as it turns out, for the last time.

Beautiful Boy‘s shooter does not seem to be a psychopath, as We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s promos show their angry young man to be. Rather, he seems to be a deeply unhappy person who irrationally not only wants to die, but wants to take some people with him.

Frankly, I don’t agree with the film’s statement that “it’s nobody’s fault.” Except in some rare cases, people are to some degree responsible for their own actions. If you say it is in no way the shooter’s fault, you’re taking away his role as perpetrator. Should we say the same for rapists? Pedophiles? If you don’t consider the kid a monster, fine (nor do I), but give me something here.

Paired with the son’s seemingly average home life, this makes the film’s act of violence rather puzzling. What really stands out is the acting, Maria Bello, primarily, but also Michael Sheen, Kyle Gallner, and Alan Tudyk (from the great series Firefly) as the concerned brother. The peculiarly named Moon Bloodgood and Meat Loaf are decent too, though not notably so. Some of Beautiful Boy reminded me of Todd Fields’ In The Bedroom, the guilt, the blame-placing, and the grief, without the relentless grimness of Fields film.

One plus is the minimal use of music to make a point, which is always applied with buzz kill in mainstream American films. Beautiful Boy is an emotional film — try to watch the scene where the parents receive the news without your lip a-quivering, and excellently acted, but a certain something keeps it from being an “unforgettable film.”

It may be the sentimentality or naivete placed deep within the script or the fact that, although there are many characters to care about, there are none who blow you away. I’m interested to see what We Need to Talk About Kevin does with the subject matter, and whether it surpasses this in content or style.

World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

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“World’s Worst Son” is more like it. “World’s Greatest Dad” gives political correctness the swift kick in the ass you may expect from writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait, but there’s a genuinely touching element at play here as well. Lance Cayton (played by the late Robin Williams) is a high school poetry teacher and aspiring writer who writes out of love for the craft, but also seeks validation and success from the publishing companies. Sadly, none of his many attempts have been published.

Lance’s foils are many- his much-younger girlfriend Claire (Alexie Gilmore,) who appears to be just leading him on until she can swing into a non-committal relationship with the next guy, his rival writing teacher, Mike (Henry Simmons,) who spends an exorbitant amount of time getting cozy with Claire. But Lance’s biggest foil seems to be his own son, Kyle (Daryl Sabara,) a repellent little turd who hates everything and everybody and is also a bit of a pervert and a peeping Tom.

When Kyle dies from Auto-erotic Asphyxiation, Lance hangs him in the closet and ghostwrites a suicide note out of respect as well as to spare the family embarrassment. However, when the ‘suicide note’ gets around and becomes a huge success at the school where Lance taught and Kyle attended, Kyle becomes a local hero and tragic figure and suddenly those who knew, him, those who didn’t, those who hated him begin to pretend that they were his best friend.

Lance is both pressured and driven by his own self-interest to write an angst-filled journal ‘by’ his late son, which proves to be the only successful thing Lance is ever written. Only Kyle’s one real friend, Andrew (Evan Martin,) sees past the bullshit to Lance’s lie (Andrew is a genuinely good kid, which makes you wonder why he spent any given amount of time with mental amoeba Kyle. Maybe his outcast status and messed-up home life point to the answer.)

Lance is both a somewhat sympathetic character and a weak and selfish man. What really irked me was when he jilted his lonely neighbor’s invitation to watch movies together so he could go golfing with people he really didn’t like. But he genuinely did love his son, however dreadful the little wart was. Robin Williams did a great job balancing the dark comedy and sad/disturbing elements of the screenplay, and I was surprised to see that Daryl Sabara gave a good performance too. I expected the scene where Lance finds Kyle dead to be done in a blatantly tacky way, but there was actually nuance to it. I was also surprised to see redemption hinted at for Lance.

I liked the fact that there was a positive portrayal of someone with OCD behaviors (i.e. hoarding.) Typically, Bobcat Goldthwait is more satire and less sensitivity but there are some genuinely nice moments here among the dark comedy. Robin Williams and Daryl Sabara make a father-son-relationship-from-hell work nicely. Kyle could have been utterly irredeemable (okay, he is irredeemable, there’s no skirting around that) but Daryl Sabara portrays the nightmarish adolescent cretin so that there is genuine laughs to be derived from his character, not just hate (which I do, make no mistake.)

One issue I have with the movie is that after Kyle’s dead the genuine laughs kind of dissipate. There’s something discomforting about watching a total douchebag be heralded as a martyr for a cause, and that’s definitely the point- when a person dies tragically, no matter how horrible a person, there are going to be some attention-seekers who say “I knew him when.” I did not like “World’s Greatest Dad” as much as Goldthwait’s “God Bless America” and did not find Lance to be as compelling an anti-hero as Frank, but I still recommend it to fans of dark comedy and social satire.

World's Greatest Dad Screenshot