I doubt anyone needs to be reminded that crack is a very bad, no good idea. However, you might appreciate a documentary that explores the ways in which the American government used a drug to exploit and manipulate a population.
Though the government itself was responsible for importing this insidious substance, it had no problem with the hypocrisy involved in blaming the victim and criminalizing a disease. Addicts were shown no mercy. In fact, these were, not coincidentally, the days of mandatory minimums, where (Black) people were being thrown in jail for decades over piddling amounts of drugs. Racial bias you say? Absofuckinglutely.
This documentary probably tries to cover too much ground and talk to too many people, not all of whom agree on all of the facts, so there are inconsistencies that might niggle at you, but that’s life. This is a complex issue and we’re still trying to follow all the threads. The constant, though, is the destruction it brought down upon a community that is still reeling and trying to recuperate.
Is Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy a perfect documentary? It is not. Perhaps a narrower focus might have improved the view. Still, it’s a worthy effort and an important subject, especially with the benefit of hindsight that allows us to take a look in the rearview and really appreciate how much it altered a culture and left an indelible stain on a country that would rather sweep these contradictions under the nearest supermax prison.
Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) is pretty much what you imagine when you hear the name – conservative, christian, Texan. She’s the church choir director, a good friend, dutiful wife, and what the hell, a little catty. She’s also shocked and heart broken to learn that her only child is dead – a gay son who’s been estranged and battling addictions since he left for San Francisco years ago.
Though husband Jeb is determined to continue on as if they never had a son at all, Maybelline’s grief and regret lead her to San Francisco where she finds Rickey’s funeral is not quite to her taste. Her son’s drag family is performing their tribute to him and it’s all a little much for this mother who has never before claimed her son in public. Her clear disdain makes a bad first impression with her son’s grieving and offended boyfriend, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who is suspicious of her sudden appearance. He suspects she’s come sniffing around for an inheritance, and indeed there is one since Nathan and Rickey were never married – the drag bar where everyone performs. The bar isn’t doing well with Rickey gone, so instead of going home, Maybelline inexplicably stays and not only whips the bar into shape, but nurtures the acts of Rickey’s drag family.
There is a heart ache to this film as Maybelline is clearly transferring the love and acceptance she was never able to show her son unto the surrogates she finds at the bar. And what a tragic comment on society that so many at the bar are indeed in need of mothering, even if it’s from someone else’s mother.
Director Thom Fitzgerald chooses not to have Maybelline wallow in self-recrimination; instead, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Perhaps being useful and creating ties to her son’s chosen family is the only way she can cope. But overall, the film doesn’t carry a dark or heavy tone, it capitalizes on drag’s new mainstream status and concentrates on making things pretty and tuneful. The other drag performers are not much more than caricatures, but this is not about the resilient queer community of San Francisco, it’s about a traditional wife rejecting her husband’s bigotry and learning to judge based on the values in her own heart instead. Stage Mother is a bit old-fashioned, perhaps a bit dated in tone, but the movie’s upbeat feel combined with a terrific performance from Weaver makes Stage Mother a worthy watch.
Growing up in Creekville, South Carolina in the 1970s, Beth (Sophia Lillis) has always felt like an outsider, even especially in her own family. The only relative to whom she relates is Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), who seldom attends the various family functions meant to bring them all together. She feels surrounded by small minds and limited experience, and she’s not wrong. Which is why she eagerly follows in Uncle Frank’s foot steps to Manhattan as soon as she graduates.
Between college and the big city, Beth is growing up and expanding her world view, but nothing hits home like finding out that Uncle Frank is gay and that his roommate Wally (Peter Macdissi) is his lover and partner of many years. She’s never known anyone gay before. No; she never knew she knew anyone gay before. As if this wasn’t milestone enough, Frank’s father (and Beth’s grandfather) Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) has died, leaving uncle and niece to get reacquainted in the context of this new information during their road trip home for the funeral. On the one hand, it’s kind of a nice opportunity to meet each other’s authentic selves, but on other hand, they’re driving toward utter disaster and they don’t even know it.
South Carolina wasn’t the happiest place to be a gay kid growing up, and if Frank isn’t exactly choked up by his father’s death, going home does stir up quite a few traumatic memories, threatening his sobriety, his relationship, and even his life. Uncle Frank is both a coming out story of sorts for Frank, and a coming of age for Beth, two misfits from the same people and place finding out whether you can go home again or if you should have stayed in NYC where you belong. Writer-director Alan Ball seasons the script with achingly realistic family dysfunction, layers of hatred as well as opportunities for healing. Young Sophia Lillis has really hit the ground running in her career, starting out already on top with several leading lady roles in a row. She’s fantastic in this, but this movie belongs to Uncle Frank, and it’s Paul Bethany’s stoic and grounded performances that really see us through. Frank has navigated his life with careful precision but his father’s death is the one iceberg he couldn’t avoid. It feels like we’d tread uncomfortably close to melodrama, but Bettany’s performance is quiet, calm, and convincing, with not one shred of over-acting in a career-defining turn.
Uncle Frank has something to say about how things were in the past, but it also implies a lot about us now, 50 years in the future, and yet somehow still living in a world full of prejudice, where in some places and for some people, Frank’s experience is still the norm. For an unspoken statement, it’s pretty profound.
J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.
Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.
Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.
Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.
No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. He and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a two-person band and they just love to bang on shit and make noise. They travel the country in their Airstream; it’s not a glamorous life or a well-remunerated one (yet, there are talks of an album), but they’re happy. Which means the universe is hiding around the corner waiting to deliver a great big wallop.
One day, Ruben wakes up deaf. It has likely been a bit more progressive than this, but this movie doesn’t document it, it just dumps us into his sudden new reality, which clearly takes him by surprise. The verdict: his hearing’s not coming back. A cochlear implant may give him some approximation of hearing (and a bill for $80 grand regardless), but Ruben is deaf, and it’s permanent. As you might imagine, being a transient drummer in a largely unsuccessful band does not come with insurance. Desperate in his new deafness, Ruben is of course fixated on the miraculous-sounding implant, but the reality is that for now, he just has to learn to live with his new situation. He’s still in denial, and he’s depressed, and Lou worries that his sobriety is about to be compromised, but traditional meetings, and even his sponsor, won’t be much help if he can’t hear them. Which is how they wind up reaching out to Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a deaf community and is an addict himself. The community has everything Ruben needs right now: a safe space to learn to be deaf. The only problem is, it needs to be a fully immersive experience, cutting him off from the rest of the world, including Lou. Ruben hasn’t just lost his hearing. He’s lost his love, his home, his music. He is a wayward soul who doesn’t know how to begin to grieve, let alone cope.
Though Ruben isn’t exactly a demonstrative person, we sense how profoundly changed his life is; his reactions feel authentic if unhelpful, and we can’t honestly say we wouldn’t do the same ourselves. Ahmed’s commitment to the role is evident in every frame; he spent 6 months learning to drum, which his character can only do for about 6 minutes of film time. He also learned American Sign Language, a vital skill not only for his character, but for communicating with his deaf colleagues on set. In his directorial debut, Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, knew the value of seeking out deaf actors for deaf parts.
Ruben is reimagining his entire identity, which can obviously be a scary process. Ahmed allows himself to be vulnerable on screen as he tries to absorb his new realities. Acceptance is key, but its path has such rough terrain. Told from a hearing perspective, or at least a former one, Sound of Metal is an interesting bridge into the deaf community. But it’s also at its just one man’s struggle with self-acceptance. He needs to let go of his past to reimagine his future, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.
Sound of Metal is in select theatres now and will be available digitally and on demand December 4th.
Patrick Nolan (Tim Realbuto) is a washed up former child actor, tainted by scandal, all but forgotten by Hollywood, addicted to any kind of numbing he can find, scraping by as an acting coach to teenage hopefuls.
He attends a high school staging of Romeo + Juliet starring his protégé and niece. He’s not sober and she’s not good, but Jeremiah (Nolan Gould), the young man playing Romeo, catches his eye, and Patrick reaches out to take him under his wing. Everyone knows about Patrick, or think they know, about the ‘perversion’ for which he was charged but never convicted, but Jeremiah meets with him anyway, anxious to hone his new craft.
Patrick’s technique may seem unorthodox to you and I, but he believes that all acting comes from a place of pain, and his lessons revolve around eliciting Jeremiah’s pain. It’s something they have in common, their tortured pasts, their private pain. Patrick is never sober, not even close, but he’s also never intoxicated enough to shake the memories that haunt him. Jeremiah’s is too young to know how to handle a profoundly depressed teacher, or the mentorship that transforms into something rather more intimate and intense.
Tim Realbuto is strangely at home in the skin of a man clearly on the brink of personal apocalypse, as he should be, having written and performed the play off-Broadway. Patrick is a portrait of barely suppressed rage, a hopeless heap of man who doesn’t believe in salvation. He dreams of the actress who played his mother on screen, and imagines her giving him the mothering he needed but never received. Gould’s portrayal is mature and nuanced, playing Jeremiah as slightly less innocent as he seems. Together, the two navigate a relationship that teeters on the fine line of inappropriate, Patrick’s disgrace so palpable it’s a third character in the room. Rob Margolies’ confident direction moves the story from stage to cinema seamlessly, soundly avoiding the temptation to over-produce.
The result is a slow build toward a well-earned finale, two restrained performances each deeply felt in different ways, and an ending that gnaws at the heart.
Darrell Hammond will go down in history as one of the greatest SNL cast members of all time – and he was the longest-tenured until Keenan Thompson unseated him recently. Both are alike in that they were never the show’s breakout stars, but their supportive performances aren’t just crucial, they are in fact the glue that makes it possible for the cast to coagulate at all. Darrell Hammond is a master impressionist and holds the record for doing the most on SNL – 105 – among them, rather famously, Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Sean Connery, and Regis Philbin.
But while Hammond was making America giggle, in private he was battling debilitating flashbacks of childhood trauma; addiction and self-injury served as coping mechanisms until it all inevitably came crumbling down. It took 50 years for a doctor to diagnose his pain correctly, unleashing the painful memories his mind couldn’t bear to address.
He wrote about this in his autobiography and he shares further in director Michelle Esrick’s documentary, which can be found on Netflix. I hope he has some appreciation for how profoundly talking so openly about these things can impact not just an audience but indeed a culture. There is power in owning your story and understanding that any associated shame is not yours: is not the victim’s, but the perpetrator’s.
Childhood trauma is a far-reaching poison. Hammond, of course, has had the privilege and the resources to pay it the kind of attention necessary for taming it. Healing may be a lifelong journey, but it’s clear Hammond has found a healthier head space and a new appreciation for and ability to celebrate the good things in his life.
Jack (Ben Affleck) is a middle-aged man sleepwalking through his life, completely numb. Once a high school basketball phenom, he’s now working a shit job, drinking constantly, isolated from his family and friends, separated from his wife. His life is sad and stuck.
So I suppose Father Devine considers it a kindness to reach out with an opportunity. Jack’s alma matter is short of a basketball coach, and his glory days have not been forgotten (nor have they been repeated in the 25+ years since he left, but that’s another story). Jack tries out many refusals before grudgingly accepting, a win that is celebrated only briefly as the catholic school soon realizes that Jack is perhaps not an ideal role model, screaming and cursing his way through games.
Still, Jack seems to come out of his shell bit by bit, as his drills start paying off and his severely losing team becomes a moderately winning one. But alcoholism is a disease with deep roots, and Jack has more skeletons in his closet than we’d previously imagined.
The Way Back is a story about suffering. It’s not about redemption, but maybe just that very small first step, the most important one, the one that feels awful and aching and may or may not lead to success. The way back for alcoholics is much more complicated than most movies can show. Healing is not linear. It’s not pretty. It’s not easy. And getting sober is not a cure – not a cure for the suffering, and not a cure for the alcoholism either. Ben Affleck knows this better than most. He’s struggled with addiction himself. He’s been in and out of rehab more than once or twice. He’s seen it wreck relationships, including his marriage to Jennifer Garner. I don’t know Ben Affleck. I don’t know if he drank to ease the pain or if addiction was just in his genes. Many people who have alcoholism in the family will never succumb themselves. Some will suffer a catalyst, an event in their lives that leads to drinking. Many of us go through these hard times, but someone with a predilection for addiction won’t be able to start. I think for many celebrities, the lifestyle itself is a trigger. it can mean a lot of events, a lot of parties, and a lot of free drinks. People in the throes of addiction will do anything to feed it, including stealing from their dear sweet grandmothers or selling their own bodies. Celebrities don’t have to do this of course. Money is no object so they have no real obstacle to their using. In fact, they probably have many enablers, covering for their absences, making excuses, managing the bumps and bruises. It’s probably difficult for a celebrity to see their addiction because that’s usually done when “hitting bottom” but when you have millions of dollars and personal assistants, they form a very large cushion that keeps you from really going splat. Of course, when you have unending access to your drug of choice, you’re also at risk for a very sad death. We’ve seen those happen to many times, proving money can’t insulate you from everything.
So when you put someone like Ben Affleck in this role, you’re sending a message. Affleck carries a heaviness, a darkness within him. His anguish in this movie is real, and I can only hope it was some sort of exorcism for him. His performance has depth and authenticity, and though the story sometimes dips too far into sports movie cliche to be satisfying or worthy, Affleck more than makes up for it.
Nick Carraway meant to be a writer but is lured by the temptation of easy money to New York City for work, and a shack to stay in outside the city, on Long Island. He’s sandwiched between mansions, and across the bay dwells the old money, including his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. But everyone’s gossiping about Nick’s mysterious neighbour, Jay Gatsby.
There’s almost no one more suited to the decadence of The Great Gatsby than director Baz Luhrmann. Certainly Gatsby’s epic parties, brimming with booze, booming music, and beaded dresses, are brought to life with enthusiasm and an orgasmic level of detail under his direction.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel isn’t just about the excess, but its flip side as well, the roaring/rotten 20s, the social upheaval and the resistance to change. But maybe a novel as ambitious as this, a book that has spoken to us for generations, belongs strictly to the page. Because as much as Baz Luhrmann gets right, the movie never quite grabs you the way it’s meant to. The way it should. Sean is a philistine who’s never actually read the novel (gasp!) and I wonder how his experience of the film differs from mine. For that matter, his experience of life.
Gatsby, you see, is the mysterious figure who haunts the pages of Fitzgerald’s genius work, but in the film, he’s all too knowable, especially when navigated by Leonardo DiCaprio, a muse of Luhrmann’s and an extremely familiar face to American moviegoers. And Tobey Maguire was already over when Luhrmann cast him as Carraway, the news just hadn’t quite made it to Australia yet. But Carey Mulligan as the luminous, quintessential, ethereal Daisy Buchanan? That was right. Inspired, even.
The best thing about this movie is and always has been Jay-Z’s genre-defying soundtrack. Luhrmann is no stranger to pairing period films with modern music to dazzling effect, but hip hop fits 1924 like it was always there, nestled between the cigarette holders and the champagne fountains and the bobbed haircuts. The costumes are a close second of course, every woman dripping with pearls and jet beads and scandalously raised hemlines. The accoutrements are perfection, so right that they almost distract from the fact that the movie itself is just wrong. And it’s not that anyone could have done it better. It’s probably just that no one should have even tried.
Lionel Macomb is the king of conservative talk radio. By shouting outlandish opinions and wildly distorting facts on hot button, right-wing issues, Lionel has made himself an empire. For 20 years he has slept on a mattress stuffed with cash but now a former protege, Whitley, is threatening his domain by presenting himself as a kinder, gentler (read: religious) right-wing alternative.
Lionel (Steve Coogan) isn’t exactly going to just let Whitley (Skylar Astin) walk away with a piece of the pie, but he’s been losing ground steadily and suddenly even his long-standing feud a Senator he dismissively refers to as “The Hyphen” (Judith Light) isn’t as fun anymore. It’s a terrible time for his life to be disrupted but it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it wasn’t. In waltzes a long-lost relation he never knew he had, 16 year old Tess (Taylor Russell). Tess challenges him and pushes his buttons, which doesn’t exactly ingratiate her to him. In fact, the only reason she’s allowed to stick around at all is an intervention by girlfriend Val (inexplicably, Neve Campbell), who is notably not as asshole but bewilderingly in love with one.
I love Steve Coogan and would happily watch him in anything. This role is great for him, caustic, wordy, with a ranty-ragey charisma. But then the script fails him. Tess arrives on the scene to humanize him, and while she does provide context, there’s not a lot of growth. It’s like writer Will Reichel forgot why movies exist. Maybe (and I’m being generous here) the point is that conservative “personalities” lack the basic human ability to change. Certainly a lack of soul is an asset to a career in punditry. But then why introduce Tess at all if he’s going to refuse to learn from her? It makes for a frustrating end because there’s no real redemption, and you get there only to realize that there’s also been very little on the journey there. Lionel Macomb is a talking head, a very good one thanks to Coogan, but a whole bunch of people spent a whole a bunch of money on this movie and nobody thought to ask: is there a point to this? Shouldn’t there be?