Tuesday, October 30, 2018

One Day At A Time

Movies: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy, a film which combines the memoirs of David Sheff (Beautiful Boy) and Nic Sheff (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), will have a familiar feel to anyone who has struggled with addiction or loved someone who has struggled with addiction. It is repetitive, crushingly so, cycling through the stages of Nic Sheff's addiction to crystal meth which involve use, heavy use, lying, criminality, ODing, repentance and begging for help, getting sober, and relapse over and over again. Experienced through the eyes of Nic's father, David, who comes to accept the fact that he can't help Nic, Beautiful Boy is not an easy film to watch.

While an epilogue at the end of the film reveals that Nic has been sober for 8 years, the events of the film itself do not follow a simple arc or "things get bad, and then they get good. The end." Rather, they present a more realistic portrayal of addiction to hard drugs and the slow draining of hope of both the person suffering from addiction and that person's loved ones. At one point, David Sheff talks to an expert in drug addiction who explains that the odds for long-term recovery from meth addiction are in the single digits.

You might think that this sounds like a bummer of a movie and, well, it is. It's also a deeply felt portrait of the unconditional love a parent has for their child, even when the child lies to them, robs them, and is in constant peril. It's heartbreaking. Led by powerhouse performances by Steve Carell, whose innate kindness and decency shine through as David, and Timothee Chalamet, who proves that his Oscar-worthy breakthrough in last year's Call Me By Your Name was not a fluke, as Nic, Beautiful Boy is a showcase for excellent acting.

Carell has the less showy, but more difficult job here as a father who is blindsided by the 180 degree turn his intelligent, bookish, music-loving, college-bound son makes seemingly overnight. David Sheff starts off as any parent of an addict would: hopeful, full of support, scouring the internet for information. But as Nic recovers, relapses, recovers, relapses, recovers, and relapses again, David has to face the three C's of Al-Anon: You didn't cause it, you can't control it, you can't cure it. When he does surrender, there is finally a sense of peace amid the chaos. He loves his son, but he can't save him.

Luckily, Nic Sheff got the help he needed and has been in recovery for nearly a decade, but many people who struggle with the disease of addiction--especially to hard drugs like meth--are not so lucky. Addiction is misunderstood and seen as a character failing, especially when people with substance use disorders do bad things, such as steal and lie, to feed their addiction. But the fact is, human beings--usually good humans--are there, underneath the fried nerves and disrupted dopamine receptors. Beautiful Boy does its part to reveal the humanity and suffering of the addict as well as family and friends of the addict.

Grade: B

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Movies: A Star is Born

Goddamnit, I didn't want to like this re-re-remake of A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga ad Bradley Cooper (also directed by Cooper in a very strong first outing behind the camera), but fuck it, I cannot tell a lie: A Star is Born is a good movie.

While the film has its schmaltzy moments and its tired cliches (for example: a man thinks he knows what's best for female protege), A Star is Born is saved by it's authenticity and sincerity. The chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is undeniable and the film's depiction of the ravages of alcoholism is so real that it's painful to watch.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a country-rock legend who still sells out stadiums despite being somewhat washed up. Jackson is a drug addict and alcoholic who looks like he smells bad all the time. He has a handsome face hiding under gin blossoms and unkempt facial hair. He has a supportive, yet dysfunctional relationship with his manager and significantly older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott Sam Elliott-ing here).

After stumbling into a drag bar looking for more booze after a show, Jackson meets Ally, who sings "La vie en rose", showing off her unbelievable pipes. The two have an immediate connection and spend the night bar-hopping and getting to know one another. Jackson believes Ally has raw talent (she writes her own songs and plays piano as well), but Ally has been told repeatedly that her nose is too big to truly make it in our looks-obsessed culture.

When Jackson invites her to a concert and brings her onstage to sing a song she wrote ("Shallow", which has been stuck in my head since seeing the movie), it's impossible not to get goosebumps. Ally is catapulted into fame and mentored by Jackson, who is now her lover as well. He even gives up drinking as two go on tour together and fall deeply in love.

But, alas, A Star is Born is a tragedy. Ally signs on with a music producer, Rez (Ravi Gavron, excellent in a truly insidious role as the villain), who convinces her to change her entire look and put out shallow pop music instead of the deeply felt country songs she had previously been working on. These changes lead Ally to perform on Saturday Night Live and receive multiple Grammy nominations. Meanwhile, Jackson is drinking again and even more out of control than before.

The climatic scene where Jackson humiliates himself and Ally as he stumbles in full blackout onto the stage when Ally accepts her Grammy is beyond painful to watch--not just because of how Jackson behaves, but because this is Ally's moment and Jackson makes it about himself in the worst way possible. He's even worse than a Kanye stage-bomb!

His relapse leads him to rehab and once he gets out, it seems that things are on the mend: Ally love and supports him no matter what, even to the point of canceling her European tour to spend time with him. But evil Rez gets in Jackson's head, telling him that he will ruin Ally's life and make her into a joke with his pathetic addiction. Jackson takes what Rez says to heart and, tragically, takes his own life in an attempt to release Ally from the burden of being married to a washed up, alcoholic loser. Of course, the audience knows that Ally loves him more than she loves her musical career and his final act was not one of love but one of desperation.

When I think about what my "triggers" are in movies, I find that things like animals getting hurt or people getting hurt don't bother me as much as depictions of suicide do. I was just watching a TV show episode the other day where a character kills themselves and even though the character is a little shit, I found myself whimpering "No, no, no" as he put a gun to his head. Suicide, to me, is so deeply tragic because the person committing suicide is almost never in their right mind, yet they are often convinced they are doing to right thing--ending their pain, protecting others from dealing with them, etc--and they end up leaving a trail of agony and sorrow in their wake because, of course, the people who love them would do literally anything to keep them from dying. And I'm not talking about people with situations like terminal cancer or extreme old age, where assisted-suicide is a way to imbue their death with dignity. Jackson's death is so tragic because we know that his fears of being a burden on Ally are misplaced and that by killing himself he has now added to her pain instead of sparing her from it.

A Star is Born handles the subject of addiction very well: the cyclical nature of sobriety and relapse; the intense shame the addict often feels; the helplessness and anger of those who love them; and even the good times drugs and booze are connected with. I appreciated that the film elevated addiction above a simplistic after school special portrayal.

Although the film falls prey to some cliched and sexist tropes, I still felt that the genuine emotion and authenticity outweighed the cliche and maudlin drama. I left the film feeling satisfied, as if I had eaten a large, well-balanced meal and I'm still thinking about the movie a week later. If you are skeptical, I understand, and I advise you to give the film a chance.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Random Stuff I Haven't Reviewed Yet!

TV, movies: Big Mouth, Operation Finale, Halloween

The title of the entry says it all: here are some movies and shows I haven't reviewed yet.


Big Mouth

Big Mouth is such an excellent, top-shelf show, it boggles the mind that some people have yet to watch it and, further, don't want to watch it because it's animated. I kind of get it because I don't watch animated movies for the most part (my knee-jerk reaction to them is "that's a kid's movie"). But trust me, Big Mouth is different. Created by Nick Kroll (and others), it's a show about the horrors and wonders of puberty. Kroll voices about half the characters on the show, with John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jenny Slate, Jordan Peele, Jason Mantzoukas, and Maya Rudolph rounding out an excellent voice cast.

Kroll voices Nick Birch and Mulaney voices Andrew Glouberman--7th graders and best friends going through puberty at different rates. Andrew is constantly bothered by the "Hormone Monster" (also voiced by Kroll), who pesters him to jerk off pretty much all the damn time. Meanwhile, Jessie (Jessi Klein), Andrew and Nick's friend, is bothered by the Hormone Monstress (Rudolph, doing hilarious voice work here), a female version of the Monster who insists that Jessie yell at her mom, steal lipstick, and cry a lot. Are you thinking that this show sounds bizarre and annoying at best, wildly inappropriate at worst? Well, you are super wrong because it is a GODDAMN GOOD show. And very sex positive. There's an episode dedicated to consent! And another dedicated to Planned Parenthood!

Big Mouth is easily one of the best comedies I've seen in a long time. It's stupidly raunchy, but in a nice way, which is the sweet spot for my sense of humor (case in point: The 40 Year Old Virgin remains one of my favorite comedies). It's also absurd, yet strikingly accurate in its depiction of the turmoil of growing up. Do yourself a favor and watch at least a few episodes of this wonderful show. But not with your parents or your children, ok?

Grade: A+ 


Operation Finale

I saw this movie a long time ago, so forgive me if I'm fuzzy looking back on it. Directed by Chris Weitz (yeah, the same dude who directed the original American Pie movie), Operation Finale is based on the true story of a group Israeli spies who, in 1960, tracked down, captured, and brought to justice Adolf Eichmann--the "architect of the Holocaust" and high-ranking Nazi official who managed to escape justice by fleeing to Argentina after the war.

Operation Finale is a serviceable, if not particularly memorable, film with strong performances by Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, the leader of the group of Mossad spies who are tasked with bringing Eichmann to justice. There's much more talk than action as Malkin tries to get to know and earn the trust of Eichmann in order to get him to sign a confession to be transported back to Israel to face trial.

I'd recommend this movie to WWII buffs and anyone who loves a good Nazi-brought-to-justice movie, but otherwise it's not a must-see. Kingsley is, unsurprisingly, excellent as the sly, unrepentant Eichmann who is cruel even in his most helpless moments. And Eichmann's trial resulted in one of the most seminal books on WWII and the nature of human cruelty: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt.

Grade: B-


Halloween (2018)

Most things stay dead when they die. But of course, that's not true for Michael Myers, the masked killer who made his debut in John Carpenter's classic 1978 horror film. There's a reason the actors who play Myers are billed as "The Shape" in the credits of Halloween (2018): Myers is no simple serial killer. He is the Bogeyman. And in this reboot of the classic film, directed by (of all people) David Gordon Green, Myers is both a legitimate threat and also a symbol of trauma that refuses to die.

I'll say it right out the gate: Halloween (2018) is not that great of a movie. It takes everything excellent about the original film and...copies it. The tropes and cliches are reliably revisited, including the "babysitter-in-peril" and the "sexually-active-teens-are-doomed", and in some cases scenes from the original are essentially re-shot with a few twists to keep it fresh. Jamie Lee Curtis is back as the haunted Laurie Strode. Laurie is the world's most badass grandma who has been preparing for Michael Myers' inevitable return, much to the chagrin of her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, always a delight). Karen is angry that she was raised to be paranoid and constantly afraid by her mother who lives in what is basically a compound, filled with guns, ammo, and a secret entrance to a basement. Karen's daughter and Laurie's granddaughter, Allyson (newcomer Andi Matichak), tries to bridge the gap between the two stubborn women while also navigating the social bullshit of high school and boyfriends.

When Myers breaks out of police custody on (of course) Halloween--specifically on (OF COURSE) the 40th anniversary of the events of 1978, Laurie is prepared. But are Karen and Allyson? Myers is not just out to get Laurie: he makes multiple pit stops to kill many unsuspecting people and to give the audience a bit of a thrill before the final showdown at Laurie's fortress of a house. But when he gets there, he not only faces his old nemesis...but three badass generations of Strode women. Points for feminism, I guess.

Halloween (2018) is a decent horror flick, but it's nothing special. Fans of the Halloween canon (?) will for sure love it and folks who are hard-core horror fanatics will likely also want to check it out if for no other reason than to see Jamie Lee Curtis kick ass. But other moviegoers are free to give this one and pass and focus on more original, scarier movies out this Halloween season.

Grade: C+ 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hands Up, Don't Shoot

Movies: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give, directed by George Tillman Jr. and based on the novel (which I haven't read yet) by Angie Thomas, was everything I expected it to be and much, much more. I expected a difficult, yet empowering film about a young, black girl's experience witnessing the death of her friend at the hands of a trigger-happy cop. And yes, that is the moment the plot centers upon. But The Hate U Give  (which is the first half of what Tupac said "thug life" stands for: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone) also shows details and intersectionalities of black lives and black families that I had never considered before.

Though PG-13, The Hate U Give is very tense and a very difficult film overall. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg, a revelation in this star-making role) is a high school student who lives in a black neighborhood but goes to a private school with (mostly) white kids. She constantly code switches between "Starr Version One": a girl who is comfortable with her blackness and loves her supportive black community, and "Starr Version Two": a girl who downplays her blackness to avoid attention at her high school. Starr V2 is friends with a white girl who constantly drops microaggressions around her and dates a white boy (KJ Apa, who plays Archie on Riverdale and is full-blown Archie in this movie as well: sweet and oblivious) who says "I don't see color". One of these two white kids actually ends up listening to Starr and learning, while the other sinks deeper into their own racism until Starr is forced to cut them loose.

Starr has a pretty good model for code-switching in her parents. Her mom, Lisa (a luminous Regina Hall), is more concerned about her children's safety than social activism while her dad, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) gives his preteen children the Black Panther's 10-point program and expects his kids to memorize it (there WILL be a quiz). Maverick also spent time in prison for selling drugs, after he willingly took the fall for neighborhood drug lord King (Anthony Mackie, quietly menacing). This is where The Hate U Give truly reveals what a brave and layered film it is: it points out that there is violence and oppression within the black community as well as outside of it. The film is deft and unflinching in its handling of the hard truth that sometimes people who live in difficult circumstances turn to illegal means to make money and while that is wrong and can destroy an otherwise loving community from within, there are reasons--logical reasons--behind it. The Hate U Give walks the most delicate tightrope of not excusing illegal and violent behavior while also not turning it into a cliche or an excuse to be racist against people who engage in such behavior.

The central moment of The Hate U Give is devastating. Starr has recently reconnected with Khalil (Algee Smith)--a childhood friend she used to play Harry Potter with--at a party. He gives her a ride home and they share a kiss even though Starr is hesitant because she's dating Archie Chris. As they drive, police lights flash at them and they're pulled over because Khalil failed to signal a lane change. Starr, having received "the talk" from her father at a young age, immediately puts her hands on the dashboard and complies with the cop's instructions, but Khalil does not--he argues with the cop and, crucially, when told to keep his hands where the cop can see them, reaches into the car for a hairbrush, and is fatally shot.

It's important, I think, that Khalil's choice to reach into the car is ambiguous enough that you can understand on some level why a cop--trigger-happy and maybe genuinely nervous--would shoot him. There's an incredibly important scene later on where Starr discusses what happened with her Uncle Carlos (Common, who is fucking amazing in everything) who just happens to *also* be a cop. Carlos explains from the cop's point of view what might have been going through his head: Was it dark? Could he see clearly? Why was Khalil arguing with the cop in the first place? Did he have something to hide? Again, The Hate U Give walks a tightrope here: ultimately, we know the cop could have deescalated the situation but instead chose to shoot first, ask questions later, most likely because Khalil was a young black man. If Khalil had been white, he could have done the exact same thing and lived--that's racism. But also this cop wasn't presented as a sociopathic villain who took delight in killing someone. Also a good choice for the film: there is very little focus on the cop (#115 as Starr calls him, since she takes note of his badge) at all in the film. The Hate U Give isn't about whether Khalil "deserved" to be shot (he didn't), it's about Starr's harsh, yet beautiful coming of age where she realizes she needs to use her voice to give Khalil's death some meaning and to fight the racism that she encounters daily and has been turning away from as a coping mechanism.

The Hate U Give is brutally honest in it's insistence that there are no easy answers. "The world is complex" says Uncle Carlos. He's right. "It doesn't seem very complex to me" retorts Starr. She's also right. The world is both black and white and also gray. Racism can't be solved JUST with riots and protests or JUST with trials and rule of law. It needs both. Both passion and anger, as well as boring policy changes and rules. Racism must be solved quickly--and slowly. White people need to understand racism. And so do black people. All of these supposed contradictions turn out not to be contradictions at all, but sort of a fucked up knot that we need everyone's help to solve.

Throughout the film, Starr has multiple conversations about "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone". Khalil tells her it means is that children who experience racism and hate grow up to go "wild" and violent. Starr's dad asks her what she thinks it means, and she says "I think it's more than just the youth". Basically, the hate black people of all ages experience at the hands of white people fucks everybody. But at the end of the movie, with both gang violence and police brutality looking down the barrel of a gun at Starr and her family, she realizes "It's the hate we give". The hate that comes from outside of communities and from within communities that harms everyone. I didn't see this as a cop-out (pun not intended) or a "but black violence too!!!" type of whataboutism, but rather a universal message that hate from one human to another always comes back to bite everyone in the ass. It's not a one-way street. It's not a two-way street. It's one of those fucking confusing roundabouts in DC where you can't tell where to turn off and if you pick the wrong street it's an extra 20 minutes added to your trip.

I recommend The Hate U Give to anyone and everyone. From my perspective as a liberal white person who strives to be good and not be racist, I can speak to people like me: you will be uncomfortable. You will be confronted with racism and prejudice inside yourself you didn't know existed. Your comfortable white, liberal attitudes about who is wrong and who is right might be challenged and, if you're willing to lean in to the discomfort, you just might emerge with a deeper sense of these issues and have more tools in your arsenal as an ally. The Hate U Give goes beyond pat storytelling with easy answers and clear heroes and villains and victims. Because black people aren't characters on a screen to help white people learn to be better. They're human beings who are being killed for no reason at all and it's wrong to look away or pretend otherwise.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Mandy; or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Nic Cage Going Apesh*t

Movies: Mandy

Panos Cosmatos' film Mandy is definitely heavier on style than substance, but if you're ok buckling in for a trippy, ultra-violent ride, it might not matter.

Mandy takes place in 1983 in the Pacific Northwest and is heavily influenced by the imagery and music of that decade. Imagine watching Stranger Things while on a really bad LSD trip and you get the picture. The plot is pretty simple: Nic Cage is Red Miller, a blue collar man living with his artist girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Risenborough--who you might recognize from the devastating Black Mirror episode "Crocodile") in a cozy home in the woods. A few intimate scenes--pillow talk about favorite planets--help the audience invest in Red and Mandy's relationship before Mandy catches the eye of a creepy cult leader, Jeremiah (Linus Roache), and all hell breaks loose.

*spoilers spoilers spoilers*

Before I saw this film, I thought Mandy would be *abducted* by the bad guys and Cage would go on a rampage to save her. But what actually happens is that this cult kills Mandy in a violent way and Cage goes on a revenge-fueled rampage. On the one hand, I was pissed by the "woman dies to further a man's story" trope. On the other hand, the gruesome, senseless death and the many gruesome deaths that follow contribute to the nihilism of the film, which I think was the director's intent. It also gives Nic Cage all the more reason to go apeshit.

*end spoilers*

As good as Risenborough is, this really is Nic Cage's film. He finally found a movie worthy of his signature epic freakouts. There's a scene where he uncovers a bottle of vodka hidden in a bathroom drawer and oscillates between chugging it, pouring it on his wounds, and screaming incoherently. He does this while wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt and tighty-whities--the scene is Nic Cage distilled to his very essence.

Some reviews have mentioned the "occult horror" feel of the film, and I agree. I wish the director had spent more time exploring the cult that goes after Mandy because there are a lot of unanswered questions there. But no doubt that whatever this cult's deal is, its members are influenced by something malevolent and otherworldly.

There's not much else to say about Mandy except that it's not going to be for everyone. The violence is gruesome, but in a cartoonish, Quentin Tarantino-esque way (minus the snappy banter). If you're sensitive to loud noise and garish lights, you might want to sit this one out or watch it on the small screen--it's quite intense in the theatre. But I think most people who make an effort to see Mandy probably understand what they're in for: an artistically trashy, vigilante-justice mindfuck of a film where Nic Cage screams into the void and engages in chainsaw-to-chainsaw combat. Oh, and there's randomly a tiger.

Grade: B+

Oh hai