Tag Archives: addictions

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!

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August: Osage County

Truth tellers: every family has one. They say mean shit and then hide behind its being “the truth” as if no harm ever came from telling the truth. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that the truth can be painful, can be private, and can be left unsaid. And as humans with emotional intelligence and self-control, we have no excuse not to hold back. My grandmother is a truth-teller, often leaving hurt feelings in the wake of her “plain-spokenness”.  I don’t always understand what has kept my grandparents together for 66 years (well, okay, probably Catholicism, and good old fashioned not believe in divorce), but my grandmother is not a pill-popper and my grandfather is not a suicidal alcoholic. So there’s that.

When Bev (Sam Shepard) goes missing, his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) rallies the troops. Daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is already there, always there, but it’s favoured daughter Barb (Julia Roberts) who really matters, who will make everything better when she arrives.

Favourites: every family has these too. Maybe it’s the one who reminds you most of yourself, or maybe the complete opposite. And maybe it changes over time, favouring the best achiever, and then the one who produces the most grandchildren, and then favouring the one who sticks closest to home. There isn’t always a rhyme or reason but we do seem to agree that we must never, ever admit it out loud. But your kids know, just the same as you knew it of your parents. It’s the way of life. Most people are just pretty good at being diplomatic about it.

Violet’s not. Violet’s pretty nasty about it. Ivy is the good one, but Barb is the favourite. Karen (Juliette Lewis) doesn’t really even figure, but it’s mostly nice when she shows up. And she does show up eventually, because her father’s bloated body is fished out of the river and now it’s not his disappearance they’re dealing with, it’s his death. The dynamic between the sisters is fragile, and with Violet twisted with grief and pills, she lets her truth flag fly. And you know how gets caught in the crossfire? Everyone.

The passing on of pain: Violet and her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) were abused by their mother. Violet is so self-righteous about her own pain that she can’t fathom the pain she causes others, or she doesn’t think it rates. Violet is cruel to her daughters, and Mattie Fae can’t seem to stand her son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). That’s the way abuse works, it trickles down the generations. Is Barb messing up her own daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin)? She’s suffering too.

Family secrets: What’s a family without its secrets? Maybe secrets are the cement that hold us all together. Only Ivy and Charles know they’re in love, despite being cousins. Only Mattie Fae knows that Ivy and Charles aren’t cousins, they’re siblings. Only Barb and her husband (Ewan McGregor) know they’re separated. Only the devoted nursemaid knows what Karen’t fiance is trying to do with Barb’s young daughter. And only Violet knows that Bev’s death was actually a suicide.

You’ve got to have nerves of steel to get through August: Osage County. The family drama is raw as fuck. But Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts put in incredibly strong performances amid a top-notch cast that never puts so much as a baby toe wrong. It’s note perfect, it’s just not pretty. A lifetime of pain is more poisonous than all the pills in the world. This film, based on a brilliant play by Tracy Letts, is a force.

 

 

All We Had

Katie Holmes directs herself in All We Had, and proves she isn’t afraid to paint herself in an unfavourable light. Rita Carmichael is good at loving men but terrible at picking them. When another loser reaches his expiration date, it’s her daughter Ruthie (Stefania Owen) that knows it’s time to cut ties and get the hell out of dodge. The problem is that Rita and Ruthie are chronically broke. Rita self-medicates for her crappy childhood with nullcheap booze. Between men they live out of their piece of shit car. They have almost nothing going for them but Rita makes keeping Ruthie out of child services her top priority, and so far, she’s always succeeded.

This time, though, it’s going to be extra difficult. Their car breaks down literally in front of the greasy spoon where they just dined-and-dashed and it looks like they’re stuck in whatever crummy small town this is.

All We Had is not a great movie, but it’s not bad. It’s just that Katie Holmes is so hellbent on making this an inspirational story of redemption, she leans heavily on tired formula schtick. Addictions, childhood trauma, financial crisis: this movie has it all, everything except focus. All We Had is the kind of movie you’ll make excuses for – “it means well” you’ll say, and mean  it. But that’s not quite enough. There’s not enough skill here to pull meaning from the good intentions. But if you’re willing to watch Katie Holmes try, All We Had is good for 1 hour and 45 minutes of trial and error and smudged eyeliner.

The Seventh Fire

Rob Brown takes a moment to consider his beloved Ojibwe community, and pronounces its new tradition: booze and bingo. Director  Jack Pettibone Riccobono gives us plenty of cut-away shots of the things that used to feature strongly in the aboriginal culture: water, trees, and sky, but those days are gone. Today Brown’s remote Minnesotan reserve is in the business of methamphetamine, and the meat of The Seventh Fire is in following gang leader Brown and the path of destruction he’s hewn within his own tribe.

jack%20pettibone%20riccobono%20the%20seventh%20fireBrown’s teenaged protégé Kevin is already a drug user and a drug pusher, well on his way to the life of crime exemplified by his idol. Brown is pretty blasé about his recent unlaw-abiding behavior until he’s confronted with his 5th stint in prison, a 58 month stretch that has him sweating but not quite with regret.

Riccobono and his crew are given startling access to this community, and it’s unreal how unconcerned his subjects are with being filmed at their worst. In fact, as time goes by,  you realize how mundane the drug culture has become. Fathers manufacture drugs at the kitchen table, very young children are snorting openly, kids use their culture’s very sacred tradition of pow-wow to score drugs or to sell them.

Though the word is never spoken aloud, Riccobono gives us a real sense of hopelessness from the community. Parents dejectedly feel it’s too late for their kids, not yet of legal age but already parents themselves, sixteen and sadly indifferent about their own childhoods borne in violence and addictions, and about their own kids doomed to repeat the cycle.

Rob Brown has a mea culpa while in prison, words that sound right and true, but come a little too easily when one is behind bars and untested. Whether or not he owns up to his responsibility on the outside is a matter to be seen – although if one were to judged based on footage over the past hour of the documentary, it’s not a promising picture.

The documentary manages neither to judge nor to excuse, but provides an unflinching eye toward a people who seem lost and forgotten. The Seventh Fire is a heartbreaking work about loss: loss of culture, of identity, and ultimately, of freedom.

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.

 

 

 

Moonlight

hero_moonlight-tiff-2016Moonlight is the quietest tour de force I’ve probably ever seen. Never have I rooted for a drug dealer in this way, and never have I sympathized so much with a kid who wanted to follow in that drug dealer’s footsteps. Moonlight is spectacular in its simplicity. It is also entirely different than the movie I expected.

That difference comes in its approach. This is a coming-of-age story focused on a likeable outsider named Chiron who has been dealt a terrible hand. His father is absent, his mother is barely there, and he’s a walking bully target. He’s called soft but he’s got an obvious inner strength, and I loved him right from the start. He didn’t have to say a word to get me on his side. Which is fortunate because he’s not much of a talker.

081816-celebs-janelle-monae-s-film-moonlightChiron’s adolescence is the subject of three tightly focused vignettes. It’s a wonderful storytelling choice that perfectly explains Chiron’s choices as he grows up, without having to engage in any exposition. Moonlight is brave in many ways but to me it’s the choice to let us figure things out for ourselves that makes this film great. It makes the journey more fulfilling, the experience more real, and greatly increases our empathy for Chiron. Moonlight helps us understand Chiron to a degree that I would not have thought possible. Regardless of your race, wealth, or sexual orientation, we are all a lot like Chiron.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins somehow enhances that commonality at every turn, and also finds beauty everywhere he takes us.  His efforts are supported by wonderful performances from top to bottom. moonlight_1-5-1-e1477472370758Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes each take remarkable turns as Chiron and the extent to which they feel like the same person is incredible. Mahershala Ali is not the only other actor deserving of mention (the supporting cast is consistently great) but for my money his performance as the aforementioned drug dealer shapes Chiron’s life and makes us understand his growth to a degree that is virtually unmatched in film.

Moonlight has been on my watch list for a long time. It was well worth the wait and deserves every bit of acclaim coming its way.  It’s perfect from start to finish. Go see it!

A Woman, A Part

Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy) plays Anna, a woman who wanted nothing more than to become an actress all of her life, and left her friends in the lurch in order to pursue her dreams. Now a successful TV actress, she hates her life. She’s disillusioned with her career. She wants out. But her contract says 5 more years. Burned out, she retreats to the last place she really felt engaged: New York City, where her friends have moved on and her famous face isn’t quite welcome.

It turns out that things are a little more complicated than she imagined: Oscar a_woman_a_part_john_ortiz_maggie_siff_cara_seymour_photo_by_chris_dapkins(John Ortiz), an ex lover, is married with a kid, though his relationship isn’t rock solid. He’s excited to have Anna around again, but you wonder if it’s real friendship he’s after, or the attention she can bring to his flagging career. A play wright, he’s got one ace in the whole: a new script he’s developed that revolves around a character that very closely (and unflatteringly) resembles Anna. Kate (Cara Seymour) is more reluctant to see her old friend. Is it because of the betrayal, or something else?

These three make a very complex and compelling little story that unfolds around more general themes of addiction, gentrification, sexism, burnout, and friendship.

Director Elisabeth Subrin’s appropriately looks at women in the entertainment industry, and the demands and expectations that constrain them. As the title suggests, Anna is not merely the part she plays, but seems to have trouble extricating herself from that notion. Who is she outside of Hollywood? A simple change in geography is clearly not the answer.

A Woman, A Part works best as a critique of the film industry, a theme that resonates all the more when you factor in Siff’s own most famous role (as the a-woman-a-partgirlfriend on Sons of Anarchy), which registers a double impact for every blow the film lands. Literally seen swimming amid a sea of scripts containing empty female parts, Siff is every female actress of a certain age searching for meaningful work. Anna’s opposite, Nadia (Dagmara Dominczyk), has given up her own work to be the rock of her family; her husband, Oscar, depends on her to be the stable one at home. But Nadia doesn’t want to be the rock anymore – “the rock is boring” she says, a line many of you will want to high-five because women are more than just someone else’s support (note to Jax!).

There are no big dramatics here, but a respect for the characters and their flaws, and the space for some talented actors to showcase those nuances. It’s a small film that explores not just Gender as a general theme but on an intimate scale as one woman tests her own self-perception.

 

 

The Adderall Diaries

If you dial your memory reel back a few years, you may remember the controversy surrounding James Frey’s “autobiography” A Million Little Pieces. Oprah, having endorsed the book, came down particularly hard on him for fabricating many of the juiciest bits of the book.

Stephen Elliott is a lesser-known memoirist with a similar fate: one night at a reading for his book in which he details the death of his mother, his father’s abuse, the group homes and addictions, living on the streets, and ultimately his father’s death as well, his father stands up from the crowd and declares himself alive.

adderall-diariesHm. Okay. Elliott’s publisher and agent are not terribly impressed. Book deals crumble. His integrity’s in shambles. And so he falls down a deep dark hole called writer’s block.

Before we move on, let me just state: all of this may or may not be true of the real Stephen Elliott. Elliott’s a real guy who sold the rights to The Adderall Diaries to James Franco for a good heap of money, but has since said that the material is so altered it seems strange, and dishonest, that they still call the character by his name.

Elliott’s father did heckle him at a book reading though. And he left a nasty trail of Amazon reviews to Elliott’s books. Their relationship is certainly strained, and now matter how you slice the cake, the dude has been through some shit. Writing has helped him cope, acting as a release valve for all the hurt and anger he carries around.

When faced with a bad case of writer’s block, Elliott dealt with it by a) taking Adderall, a drug for people with ADHD and b) attending the murder trial of Hans Reiser, who used a “nerd defense” to no effect and was convicted of murdering his wife. The book is subtitled A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, and all three are are intertwined messily in the film.

Lots of famous faces lined up to take part in The Adderall Diaries: Franco as Elliott of course;adderall-diaries-1 Amber Heard as his girlfriend; Cynthia Nixon as his agent; Ed Harris as his father; Christian Slater as the accused murderer. Unfortunately, the “story”, such as it were, is a jumbled mess, and you can’t make much sense of the conflicting plot lines. And James Franco just wants to swagger through it all, convinced it’s his chance to play a badass in a leather jacket when actually he’s supposed to be playing a man stunted with pain.

The film, Pamela Romanowsky’s directorial debut, neglects to make much of an impact, though it does have some interesting stuff to say about trauma’s effect on memory. But on true crime, family, forgiveness, and addiction it widely misses the mark. It’s too bad. I think there was a better film in there somewhere, between the daddy issues and the flouncy flashbacks. But it just feels ironic that a book about “retrieving memories and reordering information” gets a movie treatment that illustrates how slippery truth can be by obscuring the most basic of facts.

You can watch The Adderall Diaries on Netflix, and judge for yourself, but be warned: the only thing more subjective than truth is art.

Prescription Thugs

The War on Drugs has been waged against illegal drugs, but what about the millions of Americans taking prescription drugs illegally? Big pharma are our imagesKF77RCK1new drug dealers, and doctors the pushers. Pharmaceutical companies are more profitable than any other kind. They make HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of dollars, people get hooked, people die, and nobody ever goes to prison for it.

While Nancy Reagan preached about drug abuse, her husband was lifting bans on advertisement and loosening drug regulations. Commercials convince us to need drugs. Ask your doctor, they say, if this drug is right for you. They list a litany of vague symptoms so that you’ll identify with at least one. But how many pills do we really need? Science has proven that most cholesterol drugs are bullshit, and  having too little cholesterol is quite dangerous, but those drugs are top-sellers. Even better: the second-highest grossing drug is Viagra, which treats the impotence cause by the cholesterol drugs. Doctors are in thepushwagner-pills.jpg “business” of selling drugs, and the people who come to see them are customers, not patients.

The topic here has got a lot at stake, so it’s frustrating when film maker Chris Bell treats it so superficially. It’s not a very good documentary, even before the “conflict of interest” is revealed.

Prescription drugs are overused, there’s no doubt about that. Prescription Thugs claims that every 19 minutes in America, someone dies of a prescribed drug overdose. Has a crime been committed? What’s going on here? There are a lot of questions to be asked and I only wish it was someone other than Chris Bell doing the asking.

 

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Heath Ledger, a fabulously talented actor, died unexpectedly in January 2008 of accidental drug overdose\intoxication. Pharmaceuticals: oxycodone, maxresdefaulthydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine. Pain relief, cough suppressant, anti-anxiety, sedative. His doctors were questioned but not charged. Mary Kate Olsen was found to be “not a viable target” in an investigation. We don’t know how he got the drugs, only that he took them, in excess, and he died too soon, leaving behind a very young daughter who will never know her father.

Whistler, Day 4

Born To Be Blue: Ethan Hawke plays Chet Baker during a period of born-to-be-blue-pstr01time in the 1960s when he was approached to make a movie about his troubled life as part of a comeback effort. It’s inspired by Baker, but not a true biopic, so Hawke has plenty of room to spread his wings and make the character his own, in what is probably one the best performances of his career. His charming junkie act lends a little humour to the proceedings, surprisingly, so it’s not as bleak as you might think. His co-star, Carmen Ejogo, plays a composite character representing Baker’s “women” and is stunning, not just because she’s beautiful but because she gives a delicate and refreshing performance, a real break out, and fearless alongside such a seasoned professional. Canadian actor Callum Keith Rennie rounds out the cast as Baker’s long-suffering agent, and he attended the screening to tell us all about painting fake palm trees born-to-be-blue01to make Sudbury pass for California, and squeezing in the shots before the first snowfall of the year. This movie was a real passion project for Hawke and it took a long time, and funding from both Canada and the UK, to get the thing off the ground. It’s a real treat for jazz fans because the music permeates this film, as it should. It’s filmed in a kind of jazzy way too, a little offbeat maybe, but with plenty of sparkle. So if you can get over Hawke’s terrible Chet Baker teeth (or lackthereof), you should find lots to enjoy in this fantastic, tragic film.
 
 
685RIVER_INTERNATIONAL_ONE_SHEET_V0c

River: An American volunteer doctor in Laos becomes a fugitive when he intervenes in the rape of a young woman and her assailant’s body is later pulled from the Mekong River. It’s one of those spiralling, out of control situations, and we’re right in the heart of it thanks to writer-director (and Canadian!) Jamie M. Dagg. Fuelled by fear, the doctor makes an attempt for the US embassy. The editing has energy that propels the story forward, but it’s more than just a thrilling escape attempt. This movie leaves you wondering about the ethics of visiting or living abroad – obeying laws that may clash with your own ethics, and who pays the price when the two disagree. Sean’s got a great review of the movie here.
 
 

The Legend of Barney Thomson: Robert Carlyle directs himself in the eponymous role, an awkward and shy Glaswegian barber who just so happens to take up a new hobby: killing. An inept local thomsondetective (Ray Winstone) is on to him, and it becomes a battle of the bumbling fools to see whose luck will run out first. One thing Barney’s got going for him: his mother, played uproariously by the ever-wonderful Emma Thompson, who goes balls to the wall with her delivery. Kitted out with a prosthetic neck, her accent is through the roof and it’s the most fun I’ve seen her have with a role, maybe ever. The movie is FUNNY. The accents are a little thick to my Canadian ears, but the jokes land so quickly that I never struggled for long. It’s like the Scottish Fargo – an absurd farce that’s just a whole lot of fun. Carlyle was very humble at this, the North Emma-Thompson-On-Set-Movie-Legend-Barney-Thomson-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO-4American premiere of his movie (sidebar: this one too was funded with Canadian dollars!). He called his character’s suited look a tribute to his father – “My dad was a tie man his whole life.” He acknowledged several other personal touches, including shooting on locations where he’d grown up. He credited Danny Boyle with being a particular influence – “he just creates the right atmosphere” and taught him “not to interfere.” He also called a certain scene a “definite nod to David Lynch” (his Blue Velvet, in fact), but I won’t spoil it for you because it’s sure to make you smile. This movie was entertaining and well-executed, so I was surprised how emphatically Carlyle responded to an audience member who asked “Do you want to direct more films?”, the answer being “No!”

 

Sherrybaby

Say what you will about Maggie Gyllenhaal, she’s very comfortable showing her tits on camera. Even now that they’re low-hangers and she’s past the age where a bra is obligatory.

Sherry (Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison and is struggling to reintegrate into society. She’s struggling in a half-way home, looking for work, and trying to rekindle a sherrybaby1900x506relationship with her very young daughter. Sherry is newly clean (thanks, prison!), emotionally stunted, and pretty raw. She’d be a wholly unlikeable character if not for the measured and sympathetic portrayal by Gyllenhaal, who tries inject Sherry with some dimension.

Meanwhile, the relationship between mother and daughter flounders. The little girl has been raised by her aunt and uncle, and her mother is a virtual stranger. Though the daughter is 5 or 6 at most, it’s a struggle to say which is the more mature. Sherry is needy and narcissistic and expects her daughter to respond to her cloying Maggie-in-Sherrybaby-maggie-gyllenhaal-736578_900_602overtures every time she comes calling. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t seem to much up to what she’d been dreaming of in prison.

Writer and director Laurie Collyer doesn’t mince words. This is gritty, unpleasant stuff, and there are no easy answers to be gained here. There are two primary concerns for Sherry, and for those of us watching her: can she regain custody (and for us, perhaps, should she), and can she stay away from the drugs?

I was really riveted by Sherry’s regression. When her father shows up, the way she panders for his attention and affection is uncomfortable, and in direct competition with that of her daughter. It’s sad, and perhaps Collyer tries a little too hard to create a too-inconvenient Maggie-in-Sherrybaby-maggie-gyllenhaal-736557_1000_668checkered past to be responsible for her downward spiral. But there’s real pathos here. In fact, looking back, weighing all of Sherry’s pathologies, the dysfunctional and the desperation, I’m surprised that I didn’t come away feeling that this movie was depressing. Is there a secret vein of hope there? I’m not sure. And I’m not going to call this a great movie, but it strives to be realistic, and you have to admire it for its total abandonment of rose-coloured endings.