Jul 15

“The Confirmation”: If You Liked “Nebraska”…

Writer/director Bob Nelson‘s comedy/drama The Confirmation, difficult to find in theaters this year but now on DVD, has been described as “understated” by critics. Its lead characters are Walt as an “alcoholic deadbeat dad” and his young son Anthony, who’s sweetly dad-adoring though worried about him.

According to various reviewers, if you’ve seen Nelson’s previous screenplay, Nebraska, you’ll recognize some similarity in style and theme.

Andy Webster, New York Times, briefly summarizes the plot of The Confirmation, which “is seemingly simple: A handyman, Walt (Clive Owen), whose drinking cost him his marriage, has a weekend with his 8-year-old son, Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher), while his ex (Maria Bello) is on a church-sponsored couples retreat with her new man (Matthew Modine).”

Walt’s gotten himself a needed job, but his tools have been stolen. Rex Reed, New York Observer, taking it from there:

For the next two days, he tries to find the thief, get his toolbox back, and stay sober long enough to be a real father to the boy who loves him unconditionally. The weekend turns into something of a nightmare as Dad, struggling to be responsible, and his son, trying to be helpful, embark on a series of adventures both dangerous and funny. Not to mention contrived.

Mark Dujsik, rogerebert.com:

They encounter a collection of oddballs and, if looking at it from a moral perspective, sinners. There’s Vaughn (Tim Blake Nelson), a reformed thief who ‘found Jesus’ but still beats his young son Allen (Spencer Drever). That lead brings the pair to a comic interlude involving Drake (Patton Oswalt), another thief, whose claim to know everyone in town becomes doubtful. The only, clearly decent man of the bunch is Walt’s long-time friend Otto (Robert Forster), who comes at a moment’s notice to help Anthony with his father and to explain the effects of alcohol withdrawal to the boy.

Tom Long, Detroit News: “The quest, of course, is a rich bonding experience for father and son. Anthony sees a bigger world, and Walt at his most vulnerable and Walt realizes Anthony’s resourcefulness and surprising gumption.”

Adam Nayman, AV Club, explains the title as well as key plot development: “…The Confirmation opens with 8-year-old Anthony…reluctantly taking confession with his local priest; the joke is that, when pressed, an innocent pre-teen boy can’t really think of anything he’s done wrong. By the end of the film, Anthony will have amassed a (modest) list of sins, but more importantly, he’ll have a much better understanding of the idea of forgiveness…”

In the end Walt will have been partly responsible for this lesson, states Soren Andersen (Seattle Times), for “giving [Anthony] sound advice on how to understand religion and, more broadly, how to successfully navigate in the world: ‘Listen to what they say, then decide for yourself what you think is right’.”

The trailer for The Confirmation follows:

Selected Reviews

Tirdad Derakhshani, Philly.com: “A sparse, minimalist story set in a Raymond Carveresque world of boozy tragedy, it evokes the experience of spiritual awakening quietly, with sly subtlety and an outstanding sense of irony.”

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “The movie’s not just good but moving, funny, and true to the way people actually live in hard-times America.”

Mark Dujsik, rogerebert.com: “This is a smart, effective coming-of-age tale about a boy figuring out that there are gray areas to life’s moral choices.”

Apr 29

Artistic Legends: Mental Health Issues

The following new films portray the real-life addictions and mental health issues of four different artistic legends. *

I. BORN TO BE BLUE

Stephen Holden, New York Times, calls Born to Be Blue a “Portrait of a Trumpeter as a Heroin Addict.” The musician, played by Ethan Hawke, is Chet Baker (1929-1988).

Why the heroin? “It makes me happy,” says Chet. What does it do? “It gives me confidence.”

Sam Fragaso, The Playlist: “The movie catches up with Baker after he had fallen into a downward spiral of heroin and despondency. Come 1967, after he had essentially jettisoned every person in his life that cared about him, Baker wanted to make a comeback.”

Salamishah TilletNew York Times:

…(I)t is Baker’s relationship with Jane Azeku (Carmen Ejogo), a composite of his three wives, that is the heart of the film. That Baker did not have an African-American wife, or had a reputation for dating African-American women, as implied by his mother in the movie, matters little. Rather, Jane is both a stand-in for and safeguard against Baker’s own racial anxiety as a white trumpeter best known for his looks, his singing and his cool West Coast sound. His desire to be accepted by Miles Davis as a peer and not a white interloper might be a cause of his heroin use and subsequent physical and musical decline but that does not result in full self-annihilation. The film’s ultimate message about his drug abuse is much more ambivalent: Being high enables him, as he says, to walk through ‘the spaces inside and between notes,’ and ultimately make the best music of his career in his final decades in Europe.

II. MILES AHEAD

Don Cheadle is trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991), another of the artistic legends, in Miles AheadDavid A. Graham,The Atlantic:

In the late 1970s, after driving hard into a psychedelic, electric direction, Davis quit music, entering a reclusive haze of debauchery, pornography, cocaine, and dissolution. (Don’t take it from me, or from Cheadle. Davis described it unblinkingly in his autobiography.) Cheadle’s Davis is bitter, violent, coke-addled, physically spent, and has let his chops go so far that he can’t really play his horn. Jheri-curled, balding, and sporting a wardrobe that is (generously) an amazing period piece, he lounges around his darkened apartment, haunted by memories of his ex-wife Frances (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who left him over his violent abuse and endless philandering.

III. PAPA HEMINGWAY IN CUBA

Writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) famously committed suicide by gunshot. About Papa Hemingway in Cuba, Eric Althoff, Washington Times: “[It] follows reporter Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), who travels to Cuba to meet the mercurial scribe (Adrian Sparks) just as communist revolution is breaking out across the island. Myers encounters not only history in progress but also Hemingway’s notorious mood swings and temper and signature bouts of drinking.”

Jonathon Sturgeon, Flavorwire: “Much of the film is given over to Hemingway’s self-pitying rambles, domestic arguments with his wife, bouts of flirtation with a loaded revolver, and paranoiac mania. And here’s the thing: it’s all true, if we’re to trust the story of Denne Bart Petitclerc, the screenwriter who was Ribisi’s character in real life.”

IV. NINA

A measly 3% on Rotten Tomatoes, Nina, the new biopic about Nina Simone (1933-2003) has suffered from poor advance publicity for the choice of altering star Zoe Saldana‘s face, including darkening her skin—and now poor reviews.

Christian Holub, Entertainment Weekly: “Nina is a by-the-numbers musical biopic riddled with every conceivable cliché about ‘the tortured artist’.”

…(M)ost of the film takes place in 1995, when Simone brings psychiatric nurse Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo) to France in order to be her personal assistant. There’s a reason the position was open: Simone refuses to eat or take medicine, opting to spend her time drinking and sleeping. Clifton tries his best to get her healthy and working again, but his only reward for this effort is a slew of homophobic slurs. He tries leaving, only to get roped back into Simone’s service because … well, it’s not really clear why Clifton would want to work for Nina.

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian, compares it unfavorably to the recent documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, “an eye-opening account of the classically trained pianist-turned-High Priestess of Soul who suffered managerial/spousal abuse, alcoholism and mental illness.”

*Due to a website problem, this post was accidentally deleted earlier today. Therefore, I’ve republished it.

Jun 29

“Blackout” Drinker: Sarah Hepola’s Memoir About Recovery

As I inched into my 30s, I found myself in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage it somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked to her about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern.
“Everyone has blackouts,” I told her.
She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t.” Sarah Hepola, Blackout

Why this particular quote from Sarah Hepola‘s recently published Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget? Because as a therapist I recognize it as a fairly common scenario—the denial that precedes an altogether different discovery about one’s drinking and its effects.

As Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, comments about the perceived normalcy of certain patterns of drinking:

Blackouts aside, Hepola’s brand of alcoholism tracks with a way of drinking that’s familiar to many of us: the wine-soaked book club, the cocktails with friends, the after-work drinks…
But what’s cute in college and socially acceptable in your twenties turns ugly in your thirties. There are those who drink the book club wine, then go happily home to bed. And there are those, like Hepola, who follow it up with a six pack or two of beer…

Hepola, now 40 and a Salon editor, has a lot to say about her history of blackout drinking. The quote at the top and the next couple are from a book excerpt in The Guardian.

What is a blackout? Contrary to popular belief, an alcohol-related blackout is not the same as passing out. Rather, it’s when you forget what’s happened to you: “the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.”

Behind the scenes of a blackout: 

The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and that’s it. Shutdown. No more memories.

Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed – what a friend of mine calls ‘getting caught in the drunkard’s loop’. The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others. ‘Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,’ a boyfriend once told me. ‘It’s like you’re not there at all.’ People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.

Blackouts, by the way, come in different sizes, as it were. There are, for instance, “brownouts”—a fragmentary type; there are en bloc ones, a full-scale loss of memory for a significant period.

Felsenthal summarizes some details regarding Hepola’s drinking episodes:

She might tumble down staircases, expose herself publically, hijack a dinner party with emotional histrionics—but she wouldn’t find out until annoyed friends reported back to her in the morning. Why did she once wake up in a dog’s bed at someone else’s house? Why did she regularly wake up in the beds of strangers?

On Hepola Quitting Drinking

Aug 01

“Life Itself”: Roger Ebert, Empathic Critic

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. Roger Ebert, Life Itself

Life Itself is a new documentary about Roger Ebert (1942-2013), whose movie reviews were often featured in my blog posts, and for good reason (see “Why I Always Turned to Roger Ebert.”) In the film the words above are the first ones of Ebert’s that the audience hears.

THE TRAILER

MORE ABOUT THE MAN

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “Early in his life, he could be brusque and arrogant and thoughtless. Later, he was gentle and sweet, and had a tendency to raise depressed people’s spirits by giving them unsolicited compliments and words of support.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “He stopped drinking in 1979, but the easy, flowing panache of the barroom raconteur never left him. His thoughts, and the way that he expressed them, were catchy, infectious, contagious. Even when you did disagree with him (which, in my case, was often), the way he put things created a logic of enchantingly fused thought and passion.”

THE TWO LOVE STORIES

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com:

One is between Roger and Chaz, whom Roger met in Alcoholics Anonymous and married in 1992 and is credited with changing him from a domineering, insecure and sometimes insensitive man capable of stealing a cab away from a pregnant woman (‘He is a nice guy,’ a friend tells James, ‘but he’s not that nice’) into the mellow, reflective, generous person celebrated in obituaries and appreciations. The other love story is a bromance between Roger and the hyper-competitive Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, a print rival who became an on-camera debate partner and an off-camera business partner, then finally the brother that Roger, an only child, never had.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

‘Gene,’ an observer notes, ‘was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.’ Shouting matches and withering put-downs were hallmarks of their show — critical argument became comic performance art — but the tensions were real enough. When Ebert yells, ‘I disagree particularly about the part you like!,’ it is almost like intruding on a family argument. A series of outtakes in which they trade insults between fluffed lines is both hilarious and a bit harrowing.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

Ebert was, by his own and others’ accounts, transformed by meeting and marrying Chaz when he was 50. She was an African-American civil rights lawyer more interested, as he put it, in who he was than in what he did. He became part of her extended family, and as we watch him in home videos from the good days before his troubles started, it is like watching a man blossoming before our eyes.

HIS FINAL YEARS

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Ebert vowed, after Siskel’s death in 1999 (his colleague hadn’t discussed his brain tumor), that he would never hide an illness, and James’ camera follows him through hospital procedures, a difficult journey home, Chaz’s tears on realizing that he’s becoming unable to fight on, and his online ‘voice’ as it fades away to silence.”

Linda Holmes, NPR:

What the film crystallizes beautifully is the gravity of the gains and losses that took place in Ebert’s life after about 2008. As he got truly, verily, utterly screwed – and Chaz did, too – not just by cancer but by infections and complications, he began a stunning final act in which his connection to his writing seemed deeper, his embrace of readers and other writers seemed (even) more generous, and his omnivorous curiosity about cooking and countries and politics and writers and movies and games became more tireless.

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “In a lifetime at the movies, Roger Ebert consumed a lot of empathy, so there’s something almost luminous about seeing him take that empathy and shine it back on himself.”

OVERALL REVIEWS (The Critics Love It)

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “You don’t have to be a movie critic, or even particularly interested in movies, to be touched and enthralled by the documentary ‘Life Itself,’ a beautifully paced tribute to a life well-lived.”

Linda Holmes, NPR: “…(I)t is a celebration, but like Ebert’s own memoir of the same name, Life Itself chooses a vigorous (and often funny) portrait of a good but not perfect man over a staid painting of someone everyone thought was a great critic, or everyone thought was a fun guy to be around all the time, or everyone thought was doing great things for the culture. Not everyone believes that. Some of them say so. And none of those imperfections prevent it from operating as a machine that generates empathy.”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “‘Life Itself’ may sound like it’s a film that would only be of interest to those who knew Ebert personally or to fellow film critics, but the opposite is true. Because of Ebert’s remarkable ability to connect with individuals and enlarge their lives with his passion for film, it wasn’t just a few people who knew him that well. It was everyone.”

WHERE IT’S PLAYING

Check out this link.

Jul 16

“Begin Again”: A Music-Themed Relationship Story

Writer/director John Carney had a huge hit with the musical/romance Once (2006). His current offering, dramedy Begin Again, also has music-focused relationships at its core, though in a different way.

Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley play the leads. Steven Rea, Philly.com, sets up the plot:

[There’s]…Dan Mulligan…a divorced dad with a drinking problem who wakes up late for a big meeting at the record company he cofounded, only to find out, when he finally shows, that he’s been fired.
Drowning his sorrows at a downtown bar, he sees Gretta take the stage, pick up a guitar, and go into a dark, twangy number about contemplating a leap off the subway platform. Sure, Gretta’s ditty matches Dan’s desperate mood, but he hears something in her song. ‘I’m thinking Norah Jones, singer/songwriter thing!’ he tells her later, loonily, over beers. Beers she has to pay for because he’s broke.
So begins the professional courtship of Gretta and Dan. She’s reluctant, ready to go home to London. He sees redemption in her songs, calling in old favors to record a demo that will make Gretta famous, and make him the industry whizbang he once was.

Other characters include the wife (Catherine Keener) from whom Dan is separated, their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s rapper friend (Cee Lo Green), and Gretta’s boyfriend Dave (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine).

Watch the trailer:

What follows are review excerpts that approximate my own opinions after seeing it.

DAN

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Ruffalo plays him as a damaged guy, and though the man might be attractive, the damage is not, and it’s extensive. He’s not beaten up in the way a 30-year-old might be. This is late 40s beat up, like life has been pummeling him with a baseball every day for decades.”

GRETTA

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Next to Ruffalo, Knightley looks like the essence of freshness, and she has never been more charming onscreen. Her smile is genuine, her poise is winning, and her singing is quite good, even if she sounds like everybody else on the radio. Knightley makes us believe that Dan is right, that Greta is a person of value, who deserves success, whether or not she gets it.”

THE RELATIONSHIP

Peter Debruge, Variety: “What follows is a courtship, but not the kind you might expect. Rather, it’s a professional tango, as Dan tries to convince Gretta to trust him with her music, while she slowly comes to believe in and encourage the qualities in Dan with which he’d lost touch…”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I enjoyed, pretty consistently, was the brittle chemistry between Dan and Gretta, who are falling provisionally in love but aren’t sure how real that is and where it’s likely to lead. They have rescued each other in an unfriendly and heartbroken world and maybe that’s more than enough, especially since each of them is conspicuously still in love with someone else. This is a real love story that’s not about consummation or certainty, a variety we’ve all experienced in real life that only occasionally shows up in the movies.

THE MUSIC

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:

What I did not particularly enjoy in ‘Begin Again,’ sad to say, were the songs, which are largely written by Gregg Alexander with various collaborators. Oh, they’re OK, in an exhausted folk-pop vein, which might also describe Knightley’s capable but unmemorable singing voice. But put this movie’s intended hits, like ‘Step You Can’t Take Back’ or ‘Lost Stars,’ up against anything sung by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in ‘Once,’ and they sound essentially manufactured. Which is more than a little ironic in a movie that is purportedly about rejecting pop-music artifice and embracing authenticity. There’s a reason that the high point of Dan and Gretta’s ambiguous romance, and their obligatory late-night ramble through Manhattan, is set to ‘As Time Goes By,’ Stevie Wonder singing ‘For Once in My Life’ and Sinatra singing ‘Luck Be a Lady.’ There is no conflict between artifice and authenticity in those songs; both are in abundance. That’s always been the key to great pop.

OVERALL REVIEWS OF BEGIN AGAIN

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…Carney deserves great credit for the movie’s clever, layered structure, and for resisting a few obvious plot turns along the way. Lightning doesn’t strike, but sunshine works, too.”

Steve Pond, TheWrap: “…(T)here are times when the thing you want most is not a big, important movie but a simple, beautiful story told with sensitivity, warmth, humor and a big heart. Times when you don’t need a movie to save your life, you just need a movie to make you feel good.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “‘Begin Again’ may not always swing, but it makes up for that in sincerity and a welcome willingness to ambush expectations.”