Nov 23

“Louder Than Bombs”: Deception in Grief

Louder Than Bombs is interested in the intersection between grief and memory, and how difficult it is to capture both either through photography or film. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Looking for an intense dysfunctional-family drama over your Thanksgiving break? I mean, besides at home? David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the plot of Joachim Trier‘s 2015 Louder Than Bombs, seemingly overlooked in theaters but now available on DVD:

Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It’s also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.

Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile; it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his withdrawn youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his new baby and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show.

Jesse Cataldo, Slant: “…(D)espite its status as the emotional and narrative center of the film, the exact nature of Isabelle’s death is never clarified. Possible scenarios are glimpsed via the daydreams of one character, and discussed obliquely by others, but precise explanations are avoided.”

The trailer:

Themes and Meaning

Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice: “A fractured film about a fractured family, Louder Than Bombs takes a potentially tired premise and reshapes it before our eyes…a story of parents and children in which we’re pulled by the currents and countercurrents of desperation, depression, and love.”

Sasha Stone, The Wrap: “…(W)hat are we obligated to tell our loved ones? What are we obligated to tell our wives to prevent their getting hurt by the things we do? What are the benefits of deception? What is the eventual harm?”

Oliver Lyttelton, The Playlist: “None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result.”

Selected Reviews

Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post: “Along with his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier has crafted a profoundly beautiful and strange meditation on secrets, lies, dreams, memories and misunderstanding.”

Michael Rose, Huffington Post: “Some might fault Trier for tackling subjects about people who appear to have it all. In ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ the angst of the upper middle class becomes universal as Trier takes us into their struggle to find what it takes to hold a family together.”

Guy Lodge, Time Out :

This is the stuff of unapologetic melodrama, artfully structured in such a way that the rotating stories inform and enhance each other even when only one character is in focus: absence is a presence, and that doesn’t refer only to the missing mother in the family. Yet the emotional conclusions here can be a little pat, and catharsis too easily come by. It’s more cautiously sound-proofed than its title implies. Only when Huppert’s on screen does the film feel it could detonate at any moment.

Mar 30

“Krisha”: A Family-Affair Addiction Story

If Krisha’s about more than just putting its audience through one woman’s crucible of atonement, it may be about the limits of forgiveness. How many second chances does a loved one get, especially when they refuse to either change or explain their behavior? Because we share her perspective, it’s easy to feel sympathy for Krisha, fighting for the affection and respect of a family she bailed on. But that doesn’t mean we have to ultimately cave to her emotional appeals. That might be the movie’s most powerful achievement: It literally puts us on its protagonist’s side, then dares us not to abandon it for the other one. A.A. Dowd, AV Club

Indie film Krisha is a family affair in more than one way. First, of course, there’s the (somewhat fictional) family whose story it tells. Key words from various review headlines signal what lies in wait: black sheep, recovering alcoholic, dysfunctional clan, grueling reunion, emotional horror show of a family, not your ordinary family-holiday psychodrama.

Second, many of the cast are in fact family. Title character Krisha, in her 60’s, is played by the now highly lauded non-actor Krisha Fairchild, the aunt of the film’s writer/director Trey Edward ShultsAlso featured in key roles are Trey’s mother (Robyn Fairchild) as his aunt, Trey as himself, and his grandmother (Billie Fairchild).

A couple other interesting facts: Krisha’s character is based on actual kin (though presumably not anyone who’s in the film), and both Trey’s mom and dad happen to be therapists in real life. But as Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, reassures, “…(T)his is more than a writer-director’s therapy session in the guise of a narrative.”

The setting is Robyn’s home in Austin, TX, at Thanksgiving. Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter: “Within the bustling home…relationships gradually come into focus. Key among them for Krisha is her strained connection with her son. Well played by the director, Trey is adamantly closed off to her, especially when she tries to bridge the gap.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap:

…(H)er extended family is huge, including a few 20-something guys, two brothers-in-law, an infant, and her Alzheimer’s-afflicted [for real] mom…

Despite telling herself to ‘chill,’ Krisha, a clearly deeply wounded woman who claims to be a former alcoholic, becomes increasingly anxious and returns to her guest bathroom frequently to pop pills and eventually chug some wine. ‘She’s a little jumpy,’ someone explains. ‘She lives by herself.’

David Fear, Rolling Stone: “Those days of binge-drinking and demonic behavior are behind her, she promises. Everything will be perfect from now on. Still, as her brother-in-law reminds Krisha, ‘…You are heartbreak incarnate, lady.’ Disaster is just one dropped-on-the-floor turkey away.”

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “You know, watching, that Krisha — nerve-racked, heavily medicated, aware she’s on eggshells — will eventually be at the center of a disaster…And you know that when it all goes down it’s going to hurt.”

On Krisha Succeeding As a Family Drama and Not Being a “Therapy Session”

Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter: “…Shults never indulges in therapy-speak; whether angry, sorrowful, deceitful or confessional, each word is alive, not designed to deliver a message.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Remarkably…the film sustains its intense commitment to emotional and psychological realism even as everything goes to hell.”

A.A. Dowd, AV Club: “Such aversion to easy psychoanalysis is one way that the film avoids becoming a generic recovery drama, even after an element of addiction is introduced. Intangible cast chemistry is another.”

The trailer’s below:

Jul 25

“Wish I Was Here” By Zach Braff: Reviewing the Reviews

Scan the movie reviews for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff‘s new partially crowd-funded film, and you’ll find plenty of wordplay regarding both the title—“Wish I wasn’t here, in fact”—and the star’s crowd-funding controversy—“You’ll be wanting your Kickstarter money back.”

And although consumers are often rating it higher, the reviews from top critics are largely bad and snarky. A sampling:

Scott Foundas, Variety: “After exploring twentysomething Millennial malaise in his 2004 hit ‘Garden State,’ Zach Braff shifts his attention to mid-thirties, post-marital anomie in ‘Wish I Was Here,’ a cloying compendium of follow-your-dreams platitudes, new-agey spirituality and mawkish, father-son deathbed bonding that strains so hard to recapture ‘Garden State’s’ calculating but effective blend of whimsy and pathos that it nearly gives itself a hernia.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Sophomore slumps don’t come any more irritating than ‘Wish I Was Here,’ the painfully sincere, emotionally fraudulent new comedy-drama from actor-writer-director Zach Braff.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Pretentious (it thinks it’s a comedy but descends into depression faster than you can fill a Prozac prescription) and self-indulgent (whole scenes are thrown in for no reason except to stretch a five-minute sitcom pitch into nearly two hours of phony, contrived tedium), it’s a mess begging for coherence.”

THE MAIN CHARACTERS AND PLOT

Braff’s character Aidan is married to Sarah (Kate Hudson). Aidan’s father is played by Mandy Patinkin.

Boyd van Hoeij, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the story:

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor in L.A. whose last job, from a while back, was the ‘before guy’ in a dandruff commercial. His wife, Sarah (Hudson) works in an office putting data into spreadsheets and essentially providing for their two kids, tomboyish teen Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), as well as her husband, who keeps doing the audition rounds.

The fragile status quo of the family comes apart when the paterfamilias, Gabe (Patinkin), announces he can’t pay for his grandkids’ Jewish school tuition anymore because his cancer’s come back and he needs the money for an experimental treatment. This triggers both practical problems — the kids need an education and Aidan refuses to send them to public school — as well as more spiritual ones, especially after it becomes clear that Gabe’s got little time left.

THE TRAILER:

MAIN THEMES

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘Wish I Was Here’ shows what happens when people are forced to slow down, assess their lives, and ask the big questions; face the big moments, death, and disappointment. We are stronger than we realize.”

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “Braff’s film is sincere down to its toes, expressing in forthright ways, over and over, the importance of seizing the day and being true to yourself but also being of some practical and emotional use to your loved ones.”

AIDAN

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “The real problem is that the hero is a self-absorbed child who, when his wife expresses dissatisfaction with her hellish job, whines ‘I thought you supported my dream.’ The entire male side of Aidan’s family makes a terrible impression, actually, from that judgmental father to brother Noah (Josh Gad), a misanthropic creep who lives in a trailer and who we’re apparently meant to find adorable.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…Aidan is a bona fide A-hole—a grown man with responsibilities who contributes nothing to his family or society and wastes all of his passion dreaming about stupid roles in sci-fi fantasies about space ships. He won’t get a day job. He refuses to send the kids to public school, but his attempts at home schooling are pathetic. Mr. Braff thinks Aidan is somehow a lovable jerk to be embraced for his iconoclasm, but the guy is really shallow, spineless and insincere.”

SARAH

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “…works for the L.A. Water Department, and endures sexual harassment from her cubicle-mate, but she is the bread-winner in the family, and can’t quit. Their lives have been set up to support Aidan’s dream, a dream that is slowly dying, but Aidan can’t let go of it. And Sarah is losing patience with the entire situation.”

G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he depth she [Hudson] displays here, both dramatically and comedically, is key to the success of ‘Wish I Was Here’.”

GABE

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture: “Patinkin is terrific as the dying patriarch whose judgmental jabs at his son come with such regularity that they’ve become mere background noise, a quiet drone of disappointment.”

OVERALL REVIEWS

Ian Buckwalter, NPR: “…(A)s messy as the setups are, the solutions are ludicrously neat and tidy. There’s truth to be found in platitudes, of course; in a general sense, a positive outlook can do a lot to improve one’s quality of life, forgiveness is a virtue, and coming to terms with mortality and one’s place in the universe can be a source of peacefulness. But those are simplified distillations of complex processes, and Wish I Was Here never gets beyond that surface level…”

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com:

It is sincere, funny, thoughtful and spiritual, often poignant, and with a deep strain of existential worry running underneath the whole thing. The worry is not eradicated at the end. But maybe the characters can find a life that suits them, that pleases them, in the midst of worrying about what it all means. At its best, ‘Wish I Was Here,’ (the title alone expressing the disconnect so many of us feel about actually experiencing the minutia of our own lives) is all about that. It doesn’t break new ground, but it is a personal film, something audiences are hungry for, with Braff’s particular spin on the universe. ‘Wish I Was Here’ is a good story with interesting characters, thoughtfully told.

Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times: “The story is wildly disjointed, cramming together thematic notions about parenting, family, male maturity and Jewish identity — any of which would have made for a better movie if more deeply explored.”

Jan 21

“Nebraska”: Aged Alcoholic Takes a Misguided Trip

Why does son David (Will Forte) drive his aged, possibly demented, alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern) from his home in Montana to Nebraska in Alexander Payne‘s comedy-drama of the same name? Because Woody mistakenly believes a sweepstakes letter he’s received makes him a new millionaire. So he’s now eager to get to their central office in Lincoln to collect his money.

Although David and the rest of the family know the letter is just a come-on designed to sell magazines, Woody can’t be convinced. So he keeps trying the impossible task of making it there on foot, meaning it’s David who keeps getting called to go pick him up somewhere—clearly it’s David’s role because no one else wants it.

What else is going on in David’s life? His girlfriend has recently moved out. His job involves selling audio products, which he performs in his usual low-key noncommittal way.

After a series of frustrating experiences regarding Woody’s fantasy, David decides what the heck—he calls in sick, succumbing to the idea of taking Woody on his road trip. Hey, maybe it’s a chance to bond with his inscrutable dad at last.

Meanwhile, David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and mom Kate (June Squibb), “a formidable force, a foulmouthed voice of reason” (Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com) are both angry and fed up about Woody and his chronically crazy behavior.

Ty Burr, Boston Globe, calls Nebraska “a desolate comedy-drama about fathers, sons, life’s highways and missed off-ramps.”

Tom Long, Detroit News, adds that Payne has “painted a fairly bleak portrait of losers and oddballs in American Midwestern farm towns. It’s obvious he loves small-town America, but he also likes to make fun of it.”

Check out the trailer to the film, which was shot in black and white:

More About the Trip and Family Dynamics

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “Along the way, Woody and David stop to see Mount Rushmore (dad is unimpressed) before making an extended visit to Woody’s hometown in Nebraska. The son becomes increasingly frazzled by his inability to keep his father out of his dive-bar haunts and stop him from spouting off about his alleged windfall.”

Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Woody is too closed-off to volunteer the affirmation and acceptance the forlorn David wants from him, but the return to Woody’s old homestead is like stepping into a family album…Each revelation shows David his father is someone he scarcely knows.”

During this extended-family visit, Ross and June decide to come out and meet up with everyone.

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine, about Woody: “The question hangs from first frame to last: How much is in there? How much does he know? How much does he feel? Dern gives a beautiful performance, near-­pantomime—broken with the odd expulsive obscenity.”

And Joe Williams, stltoday.com, adds that he’s “not quite as monstrous as he seems.” Furthermore, although his wife is generally miserable about her mate, “When the vultures circle, Katie is his feistiest protector.”

Overall Reviews

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Nothing miraculous happens in ‘Nebraska,’ or in Nebraska — that million dollars, as everyone but Woody knows, doesn’t materialize, and Woody doesn’t magically become a nicer guy or a better father. But it has moments of uncanny grace, made all the more beautiful by their dryness: a family, briefly, pulling together; a son suddenly understanding his father’s dream; a tiny moment, at the end, of unexpected triumph. Its final scene, both mundane and transcendent, is like a silent movie; two lives changed, however fleetingly.

David Edelstein, New York Magazine:

Nebraska has something close to a feel-good ending, and it’s not—miraculously—a cheat. Payne and screenwriter Nelson pull a rabbit out of their hat. They turn their focus inward; they go to the ­emotional source of Woody’s quest, his idée fixe. They even account—obliquely—for his dementia, which must be partly willed, the longed-for stupor of a man who doesn’t want to reckon with a half-lived life. His sudden connection with the son who sticks by him in spite of everything is worth the price of a ticket—ours and David’s. At the end of the road, you feel like a million bucks.

Jul 02

“Mother Daughter Me”: A Memoir of Turmoil By Katie Hafner

In the new memoir Mother Daughter Me that Parade called one of the top five nonfiction reads for this summer, journalist Katie Hafner writes about the year her 77-year-old mom “Helen” (not her real name) moved in with her and her teenage daughter. Hafner provides a succinct summary in a Q & A: “Mother Daughter Me asks a central question: what is our obligation to our parents as they age, particularly if those parents gave us a childhood that was far less than ideal?”

More from the publisher:

Filled with fairy-tale hope that she and her mother would become friends, and that Helen would grow close to her exceptional granddaughter, Katie embarked on an experiment in intergenerational living that she would soon discover was filled with land mines: memories of her parents’ painful divorce, of her mother’s drinking, of dislocating moves back and forth across the country,  and of Katie’s own widowhood and bumpy recovery. Helen, for her part, was also holding difficult issues at bay.

Kirkus Reviews further explains some of the family history as well as the decision to seek therapy:

Helen was the product of two brilliant but narcissistic parents who grew into a woman hungry for attention. When Hafner’s father didn’t give it to her, she had ill-concealed affairs, which led to divorce. Then Hafner and her sister Sarah watched as her mother ‘ricocheted between involvements with various men,’ drowned herself in alcohol and lost custody of her daughters. The ‘lucky one’ in her family, Hafner eventually found true love. But when her husband died suddenly, she and Zoë, who was the first to sense ‘the emotional energy of unfinished business’ that tied the author to her mother, became traumatized. Desperate to bring peace to a feuding household, Hafner engaged the services of a family therapist, and their sessions revealed the extent to which both she and her mother denied the reality of their situation.

Hafner’s new husband, Bob Wachter, excerpts on his own website a key moment in her realization of “how sideways things went” a few months into their shared living experiment. While buying groceries with her mom, Hafner struggles with such internal conflicts as whether or not the family therapy has a chance of working. She states:

…If she’s not going to give therapy an honest try—and she seems to distrust Lia already—that’s surely going to make things harder. In no mood to be agreeable, I watch her struggle with her good hand to retrieve a half-gallon of Lactaid from a high shelf. Pretending I haven’t noticed, I turn my back and, cruelly, offer no help.

When we get home, my mother pulls from her bag a receipt for something I had asked her to buy for me a few days earlier.

‘You owe me ten dollars,’ she says.

You owe me a childhood.

And with that I realize that perhaps I should have sought help before creating this situation. For years, whenever I told people about my childhood but assured them that my mother and I were now close, that I held no anger, they would ask, ‘How can you be so forgiving?’ I always responded with this: You can spend your life carrying hurt and anger toward a parent, or you can get over it and move on. All that time I had thought I resided safely in the latter category, but now I’m seeing that I’m still in the former.

I’m not over it. Not one little bit.

Below Hafner introduces her memoir video-style:

Some Reviews

Kirkus Reviews: “Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor.”

Booklist: “Hafner writes with compassion and wit about the often uneasy alliances between mothers and daughters and the surprising ways in which relationships can be redeemed even late in life.”

Publishers Weekly: “Their year of living together elicits enormous spiritual growth, though not necessarily the way they envision. Sadly, the narrative is tedious, but some well-intentioned familial reckoning emerges.”

Library Journal: “Hafner’s midlife juggling act, presented here warts-and-all, will appeal to an army of readers…”

Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain“…a beautifully written, intimately provocative, and courageous unpeeling of the deep rhythms of love, hate, fear, and redemption in three generations of females. I love this book!”