Category: Reviews Page 1 of 30
Adam McKay’s new film “Vice” focuses on the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney under George W. Bush. The director of “The Big Short” previously helmed “Anchorman” (2004), “Talladega Nights” and “The Other Guy.” McKay wrote and directed this film and is nominated as both Best Director and for Best Screenplay among the 6 nods from the Golden Globe awards.
The true wheat amongst the chaff here is Christian Bale’s amazing transformation from, well, Christian Bale, into the heavyset, overweight, middle-aged, follically challenged Cheney. Hats off to the make-up crew!
Amy Adams also received a Golden Globe nod for Best Supporting Actress and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor for playing a somewhat clueless George W. Bush.
Given the fact that McKay wrote for “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and has a partnership with comic talent Will Ferrell (“Funny or Die” is their channel), this is more in the spirit of “The Big Short” than of his previously silly films, but is not nearly as story focused
Obviously, when this many nominations are given for acting, the acting is great. (Not to mention the make-up.)
As for the screenplay, it is crammed with so much that you will drown in numbers, figures, and much, much more. It was not the movie I thought I was going to see, as I thought that Hollywood directors had this “FOCUS! FOCUS!” part down, (whereas my screenplay efforts are always accused of containing too much and being all over the place, even when they win awards).
For the “good” list, let’s just mention some of the superlative performers (besides those already mentioned above) who put in an appearance:
Steve Carrell – his wife was an early improv partner of McKay’s. He plays Donald Rumsfeld.
Alison Pill – she had a fairly large role opposite Sarah Paulson on the clown episodes of “American Horror Story.” She plays Mary Cheney (the gay one).
Justin Kirk – You will recognize Justin Kirk, who plays Scooter Libby, from “Weeds.”
Jesse Plemons – Kurt – Jesse was in both “Fargo” and “Breaking Bad.” I did not like the way in which his character was integrated (or not integrated) into the plot, and I was always told that “voice over” was lazy writing. So much for that advice.
Tyler Perry – Yes, THE Tyler Perry, plays Colin Powell
So, the cast? Uniformly good. I watched a documentary (Errol Morris) on Donald Rumsfeld called “The Unknown Known” at the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival and Rummy comes off as just as big an SOB here as he did there.
The acting cannot overcome the incessant barrage of facts and data, some of which are incidental to the story. We all know that there is a drug epidemic going on, but why do we see close-ups of a victim being treated with NarCan, for example, or forest fires in California? For that matter, why did Gerry Fraser photograph it in such a herky-jerky fashion that it was like rewatching Costa Gravas’ “Z”, (which pioneered hand-held camera work) or “The Blair Witch Project.” The close-ups were not fun for the audience.
There’s just too broad a net thrown over this whale. It may be nominated for Best Picture, but it was a disappointment to me, as we drove around on Christmas Day for an hour and fifteen minutes trying to get in to a 3:10 or 3:55 showing, only to ultimately give up.
The political implications and message did not offend me, a journalist (Yahoo Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics) who did not much care for George W. Bush and thought him incompetent, but Republicans won’t like it. As for me, the film is too jam-packed with too much detail to carry the plot of how Cheney became our “acting President,” (whether he ever earned the honorary title or not).
“Bloodshot & Bruised: Crime Stories from the South & West” by Travis Richardson Entertains
(* A 180 page collection of short stories, many of them award-winning)
Travis Richardson grew up in Oklahoma, but currently lives in Los Angeles—which, (judging from some of the lines in his short stories within this slim (180 pp.) volume),he doesn’t really like all that much. But it’s where the action is, in writing and in film.
Travis has directed a handful of short films and written many award-winning short stories, such as “Incident on the 405,” which was a nominee for both the Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story, or”Quack & Dwight,” which was a Finalist in the ScreenCraft Short Story Contest, as well as a Finalist for the Derringer Award and a nominee for the Macavity and the Anthony Awards for Best Short Story.
This collection of crime stories consists of 16 short stories and some (“The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street,” or “Real-Time Retribution”) are REALLY short.
As a fellow short story writer, I can empathize with the need for some sort of organizational principle.
What should it be?
In my own case(“Hellfire & Damnation,” Vols. 1, 2 and 3) it ended up being the crimes or sins punished at each of the 9 Circles of Hell in Dante’s”Inferno.” In Travis’ case, it ended up being the geographical area of the country where the stories are set.
It’s tough to come up with a logical organizing principle for a series of short stories,especially if, as in Richardson’s case, you are dealing with Oklahoma and L.A.
In my own case, I had to be inspired to write stories that dealt with limbo,lust, gluttony, avarice & prodigality, wrath & sullenness, heresy, the violent, the fraudulent and treachery. But Travis had to come at it from a different angle. I think it works here, and I salute him for his efforts. (Mine pre-date the many works by the likes of Dan Brown that focus on Dante’s “Inferno” but nevermind about that...)
What were the”best” stories in this collection?
While all are enjoyable, it is tough to call a story of only 101 words a complete “short story.” Flash fiction, yes. A short story only if in that category. That super short one is the final story in the book, and it is not my favorite.
So, what IS my favorite?
Within”Bloodshot: Tales from the South,” I liked these in no particular order: “The Proxy,” “Cop in a Well,” “A Bro Code Violation,” and “Maybelle’s Last Stand.”
Within”Bruised: Stories from the West” I liked “Incident on the405” and “Not Sure Which Way I’m Headin’.”
The entire collection goes down easily and well; I finished it one 4-hour sitting. I enjoyed the plots that were the most fully developed, which is probably why I’m aiming my praise at those longer stories.
One thing I’ve noticed as a short story writer of about nine volumes is that the “surprise” or satisfactorily “concluded” ending is hard to pull off—[and gets harder with every story written.] There are only so many ways to”surprise” a seasoned reader, and don’t we writers know it!
In this volume we have these stories: “The Day We Shot Jesus on Main Street” -“An inspired train of thought about how mega-churches are the opposite of Jesus’ examples and how nothing, not even a blasphemous stunt, would get members to see this.” (Synopses from the author).
“The Proxy:” “Thinking about the country’s drug epidemic, the moral issues involved, and how much somebody would sacrifice for a family member.” I could see this as a film with Clint Eastwood as”the proxy” and Clint’s new movie (“The Mule”) sums up how I would expect him to appear as the lead.
“Cop in a Well” – “Written with the idea of having a character escape an impossible situation.” One of the first and one of the best.
“A Bro Code Violation” – “I hunted deer a few times in Oklahoma. What I remember most is standing still and freezing.” Also good and lengthy.
“Here’s to Bad Decisions: Red’s Longneck Hooch” – “I could hear an announcer dictating the downfall of a character while selling his product. I had to write it.”
“Getting the Yes” – “Written not long after I was engaged, it has nothing to do with my wife and more about anxiety of the ring being good enough.”
“Damn Good Dad” – “A sad take on meth addiction and skewed priorities. I had heard stories about families suffering burns while trying to provide extra income.”
“Tim’s Mother Lied” – “I sent the story to Shotgun Honey as a noir children’s sale. They sent notes that it didn’t work, so I rewrote the story straight from the child’s point of view. It turned out better.”
“Maybelle’s Last Stand” – “Not sure of the origin, but I remember a vision of a blurry, menacing man sauntering up to a porch, not unlike Once Upon a Time in the West.“
“Because” – “The working title was ‘The Boy Who Didn’t Read.’ I saw the story from the middle first with the robbery and then broke down the reasons why it happened.”
“Incident on the 405:” “I pictured two women from two different worlds colliding on Los Angeles’ biggest parking lot.”
“Quack & Dwight:” “I worked on multiple drafts to get this story right and enlisted the aid of an L.A. County Prosecutor and an expert in child services. Also, the editor, Kenneth Wishnia, called me out on putting too much starch in the Jewish meal.”
“Final Testimony:” “Started out as a longer piece that got compressed into this story. I saw a desperate cop who sacrificed everything for a case, and it could be for nothing.”
“Not Sure Which Way I’m Headin'”: “I’d wanted to write about the 1992 Los Angeles riots for quite a while. When I moved to L.A. in the late ’90s, people talked about O.J. and the riots all the time.”
“The Movement:” “I wanted to set the story with the Bohemian Club, but research proved to be difficult since it is a secretive society. So I opted for the nearby Russian River in an area where I used to work.”
“Real-Time Retribution” : “I thought of a man in an impossible situation and how he might get out of it with some pride. A fun exercise in compression.”
The very first story (and nearly all in the first half of the book) uses a lot of slang and idioms. Example: “This is a right-to-carry state, and if you don’t carry—-well, that says a lot about your character.” There was also an expression that football coach Hayden Fry of the University of Iowa, a transplant from Texas, used to use: “That bird won’t fly.” (Only, in Hayden’s case, it was “That dog won’t hunt.”) I still remember how Fry’s references to a “high-porch picnic” was incomprehensible to Iowans, but natural to a native Texan—or Oklahoma— native.
When I was writing “Hellfire & Damnation,” Vol.I, I wrote a story entitled “Amazing Andy, the Wonder Chicken.” I showed it to David Morrell, who quickly took the wind out of my proud sails by saying that he “didn’t like the use of idioms” or some such.
- Bloodshot and Bruised: Crime Stories from the South and West Nov 27, 2018 by Travis Richardson Kindle Edition$3.99$ 3 99Get it TODAY, Dec 14Paperback$14.99$ 14 99 Prime FREE Shipping on eligible orders Available to ship in 1-2 days More Buying Choices$14.53(6 used & new offers)
Nevermind: I liked it then, and I like it now, in Richardson’s stories. (There’s quite a bit of it in the first 10 stories, so my advice would be: “Don’t show these stories to David Morrell!”) It just goes to show how different writers have different standards and there is no ONE “right” way to write.
Richardson’s work is heavy on action and right on the money for description: not too much (hundreds of words describing a bicycle leaning against an ivied wall in one Joyce Carol Oates short story!) and not too little. His stories and characters are interesting and plots are his forte.
All-in-all, a very nice collection of short stories. Try them. You’ll like them!
With over 800 flights canceled out of O’Hare and Midway in Chicago, the trip back to the United States from Cabo San Lucas could have been a nightmare.
It wasn’t. Our plane was one of the few that “got out” of the airport and we arrived home slightly later than we anticipated, but not that late, really.
Since our return we’ve been watching Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin in “The Kominsky Method” on Netflix, which is clearly aimed at the “mature” generation. The themes include prostate problems, E.D., death of one’s spouse, children who are drug-addicted and require rehab, dating in one’s golden years, and failure to pay taxes.
The durable Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin have some good lines in the series, with Nancy Travis as the love interest for Douglas. Episode 6 is the best of the series, but you have to learn the backstory of the characters to get there.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimiter D. Marinov, P.J. Byrne.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly.
Length: 130 minutes
“The Green Book” was a book that actually existed in the sixties South, one which would tell black citizens where they could (and could not) stay while traveling. Its correct title was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” written by Victor Hugo Green and published annually from 1936 to 1966 as a guide outlining where black travelers in the South could stay, eat, and receive services during the days of Jim Crow. Set in 1962, the racism that “The Green Book” explores was real. The characters who traveled the South together for two months on a concert tour were also real.
Viggo Mortensen, who stars opposite Mahershala Ali as Ali’s chauffeur on his piano tour of the South, pointed out on September 11th in Toronto that the message of tolerance and learning to exist side-by-side with those who may be different from us is still very relevant today. While the green book of the title may be gone, the racism in this country is not.
Real-life pianist Don Shirley, Jamaican-born, is applauded and congratulated for his virtuoso performances before all-white audiences, but the impeccably attired and well- mannered Shirley is forced to stay in forlorn motels and flophouses when offstage. His two sidemen, Russians who drive separately in their own car, inform Tony that Shirley could have remained in Manhattan and played any number of more enlightened venues, but he purposely chose to travel the South, serving as a sort of one-man sign of hope for the downtrodden African American residents of the South. Nowhere is that made more clear than in the scene when the two stop by a field where laborers gaze at this successful man as though he is from another planet. The fact that he is being driven by a white driver who opens his door for him and dances attendance on him is certainly something that they have not seen before.
In one short scene at a YMCA, Tony bribes two cops to let Shirley go after what looks to have been a gay hook-up. This theme is never fully explored. Earlier in the film, Shirley has mentioned a marriage that did not work out when combined with his career commitments. There is also an angst-ridden scene between Ali and Mortensen where the pianist asks, “If I’m not black enough, and I’m not white enough, tell me, Tony, what am I?” You sense that there is much about his privileged life that is not satisfactory nor ever likely to be in the United States of America. You wonder if the final heart-warming scene really played out quite the way it is presented, just as you wonder about whether Ali is really playing the piano.
The ironies and injustices mount with depressing regularity the longer the tour continues in the South. In one encounter with racist police in Mississippi, Shirley saves himself and Tony from a racist jail cell only by a phone appeal to none other than then-Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. There’s also a letting-off-steam interlude when the pair goes to a black honky-tonk and Shirley gets down musically for the first time. The piano interludes that appear to show Ali in action are extremely impressive, whether he is playing polite jazz at a Southern country club (that subsequently refuses to let him eat in the dining room) or surrounded by African American bar patrons in a smoky hole-in-the-wall.
In addition to the injustices and the flat-out harassment, we see scenes where Tony introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time (in Kentucky, no less) and others where he makes the classically trained pianist aware of the great popular musicians of the day being played on the radio, like Aretha Franklin and Chubby Checker. Tony and Shirley are both stand-up guys, and that helps them to become true friends, once they get to know each other. The scenes where Ali helps Tony write romantic love letters home to his loving wife (well played by Linda Cardellini) and his two sons are both sweet and funny at the same time.
The dynamic of these objectively mismatched men is almost like that of The Odd Couple. The formal, uptight Don Shirley is gradually loosened up by the more uncouth, working-class stiff, Italian-American Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) once they grow to know one another and understand each other. It gives the audience hope that, without the constant stirring of the pot by those who get off on divisiveness and discord, we all may come to live in harmony by opening our minds and hearts and freeing ourselves of rank prejudice.
The human interchange, enlivened as it is by two fine actors in top form, makes “The Green Book” go down easily. It was the audience favorite at the Toronto Film Festival and it was one of my two favorite amusing, uplifting films of the CIFF,( the other being Melissa McCarthy’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) You can watch just so many films about drug-addicted teen-agers before you need to recharge your batteries. In these troubled times, this is the kind of film that will leave you feeling that there is hope for mankind, whether the future proves that hope true or not.
Director: Paul Dano
Writers: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s book
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp
Length: 144 minutes
British actress Carey Mulligan (“An Education,” “Never Let Me Go,” “The Great Gatsby”) stars in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, “Wildlife,” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. The “Hollywood Reporter” recently named her one of the 8 “Best Actresses Working Today” and she is very good in this film.
Gyllenhaal, too, is always a dependable leading man, to the point that audiences take him for granted. He was one of just 8 actors to win a Golden Globe, a SAG award, the BAFTA and a Critics’ Choice award and then not be nominated for an Academy Award for the part (“Nightcrawler” in 2014). Other notable Jake Gyllenhaal films: “Donnie Darko,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Southpaw.”
Carey Mulligan does a fantastic job of portraying a 1960 housewife and mother (son Joe in the film is 14), who is forced to figure out how to keep herself and her son afloat when the somewhat irresponsible father figure (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly decides to go off to fight fires 40 miles away from their home in Great Falls, Montana. The pay? $1 an hour. He had been working as a golf pro, but got fired for betting with the golfers. He is called and offered his job back, but doesn’t take it. The other opportunities in town are few and far-between.
The acting in this one is top-notch. It is shown through the eyes of the son (Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould of Australia) and he does a credible job of a son watching his parents marriage collapse (although he looks nothing like either parent). Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is always good, and he’s good here, within the constraints of the script. Some critics feel it is Carey Mulligan’s best performance to date (although I’d vote for “Never Let Me Go”). Bill Camp who plays Warren Miller, a wealthy car dealership owner (who comes on to Mulligan when Jerry leaves), is also good in his part.
ART DIRECTION & SET DIRECTION
Miles Michael and Melisa Jusufi did a great job of recreating 1960-era Great Falls, Montana. Kudos to them.
Diego Garcia gets to photograph Montana, which director Dano described as “a divine, beautiful place.” He does a fine job.
The film started at 6 p.m. At 7 p.m.. I wrote in my notes, “This is really boring so far.” It is true that there was a small amount of time at the outset of the film given over to presenting Carey Mulligan with a Career Achievement award, but, still, only 44 minutes remained for something interesting to happen.
Paul Dano—who earned praise for his work in “Let There Be Blood” and “Little Miss Sunshine”—wrote the adaptation with his partner, Zoe Kravitz (they recently had a daughter). The couple met while working on “Ruby Sparks.” The script is based on a book written by Richard Ford that Dano read in 2011. It is Dano’s first foray into directing.
The script just did not make a lot of sense at pivotal points. I have to wonder if the book would have explained things in a more comprehensible, realistic, true-to-life way. As Johnny Oleksinski of the “New York Post” put it, “Too much of the screenplay doesn’t ring true.”
In another review, Brian Tallerico said, “He keeps the audience engaged purely through the believability of their characters.” That, for me, was the problem. The things that occur seem random and unlikely and are not believable IRL. Perhaps it’s the book, or perhaps it’s the screenwriters adaptation of the book, but none of the characters’ actions really came off as “believable.” This is not the fault of the acting leads, but of the script.
Starting out as a happy sixties family, the father figure (Jake Gyllenhaal) behaves in truly incomprehensible ways when he loses his job at the local golf course. Mostly, he sits in his car and sulks. I expected him to drink heavily (and he does a bit of that later), but, at first, he is sulking by himself and then—Eureka!—the golf club calls and offers him his old job back. So, naturally, in this small rural town with barely any jobs available at all for anyone, he turns the offer down, saying he “won’t work with people like that.” (WHA-A-A-T?)
It is shortly afterwards that, without any prior discussion with his wife or young son, he announces he is leaving for the fire front and will fight fires for a pittance ($1 an hour). This causes a scene, of course, (which Mulligan and Gyllenhaal do a great job playing), but it seems utterly unlikely to occur in real life. It also takes the very competent Gyllenhaal out of the film for a large portion in the middle of this movie about a disintegrating 60s family, and that is unfortunate.
Before he leaves, Gyllenhaal makes a comment about how the snow will put out the fires, eventually, and that turns out to be a big plot moment (i.e., the snow beginning to fall.). The depiction of the forest fire at the front is also very well done, but, overall, the actions of the father are so different from what a “real life” person would do that it is difficult to relate.
As Oleksinski said “(New York Post): “Dano’s movie is, in many ways, solid and admirable, but awash in ‘duh.’ Too much of the screenplay doesn’t ring true.” The ham-handed line, “It’s a wild life, isn’t it, Son?” was also not a favorite. One I did like was this one, spoken by Mulligan to her husband as he announces he is going to be gone for months fighting fires for $1 an hour: “I’m a grown woman, Jerry. Why don’t you act like a grown man?”
Why, indeed? Maybe because the book gave us more insight into Jerry’s motivations which leave his wife and son without income for an indefinite period of time. (We see Mulligan inquiring about a job as a teacher early on, and learn that there is nothing available in this remote town.)
While Gyllenhaal is away at the fire front, even more incomprehensible actions on Mom’s part occur, with son Joe along as a spectator. From upright young matron she is dining at the home of local businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp) and flirting with the older man, her son along as an appalled witness.
When Dad comes home, HIS actions also enter the realm of the unbelievable. (*No spoiler here).
“Wildlife” was a good effort and Dano, himself, said, in an interview, that doing “a period piece” on a limited budget was quite the challenge. There is much to admire in his directorial effort, (if not in the screenplay itself.) He referenced asking Owen Moverman (“The Messenger“) for tips as he set out to direct for the first time. Maybe ask someone else to write a more coherent script next time? Because the shots of Montana are truly beautiful and the actors certainly do everything they can with such unrealistic story arcs.
Lucas Hedges is having a banner year, with starring roles in two much-talked about films, “Ben Is Back” and “Boy Erased.” “Boy Erased” is the story of the son of a Baptist minister in Arkansas who is outed to his parents (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) at age 19. As the voice-over tells us at the film’s outset: “I wish none of this had ever happened, but sometimes I thank God that it did.”
The film, written by Actor/Director Joel Edgerton (“Red Sparrow,” “Loving”) from a memoir of the same name written by Garrard Conley, deals with Jarred Eamons’ real-life experiences when he is forced to attend a gay conversion therapy program. There are 36 states where such gay conversion centers are legal and over 700,000 “patients” have been treated in them.
I was immediately reminded of Michelle Bachmann’s husband Marcus in Minnesota, who, although not a licensed therapist with the state of Minnesota, ran such a Christian conversion camp. Bachmann, who ran for President (briefly) in 2012 (she dropped out of the race in January of 2012 after placing 6th in the Iowa caucuses) once proposed an amendment to the Minneapolis Constitution that would ban gay marriage, was anti-abortion and declared global warming “all voodoo, nonsense, hoakum, a hoax.” Bachmann also helped found the House Tea Party movement while serving from Minnesota, whose actions and mind-set we see in evidence on the national scene every day.
The American Psychiatric Association has repudiated such “Christian counseling centers” and, just like Marcus Bachmann, the leader of the gay conversion center that Jared is forced to attend is not a licensed therapist. (In fact, we learn at film’s end that he is now married to a man and living elsewhere.)
This is an important step up for Lucas Hedges, although he has already appeared in several Oscar-nominated films —“Ladybird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and he was Oscar-nominated for his role in “Manchester by the Sea.” It is a foregone conclusion that this role, or his role as Ben in “Ben Is Back,” will garner him another nomination for Best Actor. The scene in his dormitory room where Jared is essentially the victim of rape is extremely good, but he is good in all of his scenes in both films. I’d pick this role, because the film, as a whole, hung together slightly better than “Ben Is Back” and, quite frankly, 3 drug addict movies in, the gay conversion theme was a change of pace. (Not to mention that Timothee Chalamet is out there this year in “Beautiful Boy,” nailing the drug addict portrayal nomination.)
Let’s not forget that 2 Oscar winners are portraying Jared’s parents. Nicole Kidman is wonderful as the courageous mother fighting for the son she loves and Russell Crowe is equally good in his scenes as the less accepting minister parent. Let’s also give a shout-out to Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), aka Michael Peter Balzary, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who does a good job playing creepy conversion camp character Brandon. In fact, with the exception of Lucas Hedges, Mr. and Mrs. Eamon, conversion therapist Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton) and Flea’s character of Brandon are all Australian.
There were many “first time” directors appearing with their films in Chicago, but this outing by Edgerton, who both adapted the memoir for the screen, acted in the film, and directed the film, was far, far better than fellow actor Paul Dano’s maiden voyage in “Wildlife,” a very disappointing film. See it if you want to have seen at least one of the nominees for Best Actor on February 24th.
Opening Night of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival featured the Amazon film “Beautiful Boy,” directed by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen and starring Timothee Chalomet, Steve Carell, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan and Andre Royo (“The Wire,” “Fringe,” “Empire”).
The film is based on two books written by David Sheff (“Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction”) and Nic Sheff: “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.” Both books were published in 2009. Their impact on director Felix van Groeningen in his first American film for Amazon, is what brought about the project.
Von Groeningen told me on Opening Night in Chicago, “It’s a real honor to be here. I’m very proud of the film and the fact that it is opening the Chicago International Film Festival.” When I asked him how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10, to have helmed this first American film, he replied, enthusiastically: “12!” Von Groeningen said, “I did another film (“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” 2012) that brought up a lot of controversial issues, and you just hope that this film will speak to people.”
Also present this night was Andre Royo, veteran character actor who plays Spencer, the sponsor of the drug-addicted Nic (Chalomet). The film recounts the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse and recovery in a family coping with addiction that stretches over many years. Dede Robinson, of Brad Pitt’s “Plan B” production company was scheduled to attend, but did not. She has won Oscars for producing “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Moonlight” and is the only female producer to have won 2 Academy Awards. (She has also been nominated pretty regularly each year since 2011).
The acting in this one is Top Notch, with Timothee Chalomet (“Call Me By Your Name”) in line for his second Oscar nomination as Best Actor in 2 years, and with the likelihood that co-star Steve Carell as his father will earn a Best Supporting Actor nod. Maura Tierney (“The Affair”) playing David Sheff’s second wife, Karen, is also strong, as is Amy Ryan as his divorced wife (and mother of Nic), Vicky. The acting in this one is superlative, and it is because of the actors’ commitment to finding the core conflict of their characters and conveying it realistically onscreen that the film has won such glowing praise, in Toronto and elsewhere.
There is no question that addressing the growing problem of drug addiction is an important and timely topic. A line onscreen at film’s end notes that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death among those under age 50. Chalomet, on Jimmy Fallon’s show on October 10th, said, “Addiction is not a recognizable face. That’s what this movie hopes to address. That’s how we get through it, by talking about it.”
Whenever you enter a film that features an addict shooting up, you think, “This will not end well.” That is true of this film. It does throw us a bit of a curve ball in that regard.
This is the director’s first English language film. I wondered if the individuals hired for areas like music were people he had worked with on previous films. I’m thinking particularly of the musical choices made by a four-person team, supervised by Gabe Helfer (Bob Bowen, executive in charge of music; Christoffer Franzen, composer; Henry van Roden). I found some of the musical choices odd, incongruous, too obvious or too cacophonous; I spoke with others who did, as well. Could it be cultural differences, or is there another valid explanation?
What do I mean? Perry Como singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” paired with a Nirvana song, “Territorial Pissing?” “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. Annoying loud jangly music at times that detracted from what was going on onscreen, rather than augmenting it or adding to it. Jazz for the snorting scene, for example. “Darling, I Need Your Love” as Nic walks into a diner (seemed too obvious). Why do I pay attention to this stuff? My daughter’s college major at Belmont was Music Business. She worked helping put music in films like “Up in the Air” in internships and, later, worked for Taylor Swift. She told me to pay better attention, so I do.
The Young Nics
There are entirely too many “young Nics” and some of them don’t look much like “teenaged Nic.” Their pictures are all over the walls. Why not use childhood pictures of the REAL Timothee Chalomet? Why use the one child (seen in the trailer) whose hair looks nothing like the wild curls of the teenaged actor? (His hair is straight, his face is the wrong shape, and I doubt if anybody is buying that this child grows up to be Timothy Chalomet.) One young actor who plays Nic as a 12-year-old is Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Eddie Kaspbrak in “It” and co-stars in television’s “Me, Myself and I.”
A poem by Charlies Bukowski is featured. It is read in part by the lead during a rehab session and in its entirety at the end of the film. Once would have been enough. It seemed more like something that an Indie film director would do…an “auteur” move. We’d already gotten the general idea from the short portion that young Nic reads in group.
The two filmgoers next to me—middle-aged women—both said, “This needed to be about a half hour shorter.” The film runs 111 minutes, but she was right that relapse after relapse after relapse begins to wear on you. I would definitely go for the stellar performances, bound to be recognized on February 24 (Oscar time) and hope that the message about how awful Meth, in particular, is for the human brain gets out there.
Black’s set reminded me of one I attended by David Brenner years ago, in that he presents less of a polished monologue and more of a riff on current events and pop culture. When Brenner performed, he would actually set up a music stand and put various articles on the stand, read them, reference them, and then riff about them to the audience. That approach was the closest to Black’s this night, and, in fact, Lewis Black did read us an article from a newspaper about a gun safety class at a Methodist Church in the South where an 81-year-old man accidentally shot both himself and his wife.
Black’s lead-in act (John Bowman) spent more time poking fun at Donald Trump than Black did. Bowman came out attired in a blonde wig (which he later removed), sang a song (“Santa Trump is coming to town”) about how we now can refrain from using terms like “Happy Holidays” and go back to the more religious greetings of yesteryear. In addition to making fun of Rudy Giuiliani, Gwyneth Paltrow and Pat Robertson, his remarks on television news these days led him to say, “I miss Ebola.” Bowen also noted, “I think we’re being whipped by the buckle end of the Bible belt.”
Lewis Black’s set mentioned Trump in passing, but did not dwell on the absurdity we are now facing in the political world. Black began with a marathon joke, since 45,000 people are in town to run in tomorrow’s event, went on to talk about how the psoriasis ads that feature celebrities are offputting (“Now I can’t listen to Cindy Lauper without thinking of her psoriasis and those pictures.”) and poked fun at the supposed memory-aiding drug made from jellyfish, Prevagen. [I was surprised that he didn’t mention how the benefits of this product have been debunked]. His prevagen comments about failing memory (he is 70) led him to talk about his elderly parents, both of whom are 100 years old. In his typically irascible fashion he said, “Remember the good old days, when I was young, and people had the common decency to die at 65?”)
Other topics that caught Black’s attention during his set:
Chicken McNuggets versus Chicken Tenders; children who don’t know that eggs come from chickens; Harry Potter’s influence; weather (“I think Mother Nature is a member of the MeToo movement”), Ben Carson (“He said his dining room set was dangerous and that’s why he needed a $33,000 new dining room set for his office. And he needed a $7,000 sideboard. I realized after listening to him that I could have been a brain surgeon.”); Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts;” Steve Bannon; John Bolton (“I think someone in Bolton’s family mated with a walrus.”) and his hospitalization last year in Cork, Ireland for pneumonia. In addition to skewering the astronomically high costs of hospitalization in this country versus Ireland’s socialized medicine cost(s), he said he liked Irish nurses because they have his dark sense of humor. “One night, I said to my nurse, ‘ I don’t think I’m going to make it through the night.'” She responded, “You’re not that lucky, Mr. Black.”
The end of the evening is a “live” stream, where people in the audience are encouraged to send topics to him on their phones prior to the start of the show; he read the most interesting or amusing ones to an audience that streamed the show “live.”
Black’s main point regarding the Trump administration (“This guy. Wow. Unbelievable.”) was that there is too much material for him to keep up with the current occupant of the Oval Office. He also marveled at Trump’s cult-like followers (one of whom bellowed loudly at least 3 times), especially in the South, who are addicted to Trump’s brand of b.s. After that, the comedian remarked, “I think the Rapture is coming soon. Maybe next Wednesday.”
It was an enjoyable evening, but not as “finely tuned” a performance as my expectation for a Chicago Theater act that ended up setting me back about $70 after the upcharge to the $40+ tickets to be handled online. I had a seat in the second row (BB). I was directly in front of a woman celebrating her birthday who had flown in from San Diego with her boyfriend or husband. (She was loud even then, talking about it, or I would not know any of this).
Apparently, this birthday girl (or woman) missed out on the opportunity to see Lewis Black when he was in her vicinity, so her boyfriend or husband flew her to Chicago as a special treat for her birthday. The problem was that she then seemed to feel obligated to be truly loud and obnoxious while reacting to ALL of his jokes, laughing hysterically, as though she HAD to to justify spending the substantial sum of money to hear the comic. (Not to mention showing off for her new seatmate friend, like your children sometimes do in the presence of their peers.)
Black’s wry remarks were amusing, yes. Some of them. But there were few that were laugh-out-loud funny. Most were moderately funny, at best. The loud braying of this woman, a constant high-pitched LOUD laugh seemingly staged for her date and an audience of one man to her left (a resident of Chicago with whom she had struck up a loud conversation about her celebratory birthday trip) was unfortunate placement, for me. She was truly annoying. I had just been thinking how great my seat was, only to wish I were far away from her as the evening progressed.
On the bright side, if you are that far down front on the main floor, there are side doors to the alley that you can exit and reach the street in time to be first to get a cab. For a woman alone, (who would otherwise probably have had to take the red line ell alone, since the cabs go fast) that was a real plus. This was the first time I’ve EVER been able to get a cab after a performance at the Chicago Theater, and I’ve seen a lot of shows there.