Sep 22

“Stronger”: Post-Traumatic Injury and Recovery

“Stronger” transcends your standard inspirational drama mostly through two fantastic performances, but also in the way it understands that trauma isn’t inspirational to the people who suffer it. Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com

Stronger is guaranteed to trigger our feelings about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. However, the film focuses not on the events themselves but on the aftermath, particularly in the life of Jeff Bauman, who co-wrote a (same-titled) 2014 memoir with Brett Witter.

Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter, introduces the movie:

As Bauman, [Jake] Gyllenhaal is a likable clown: A wide-eyed, working class Bostonian, he’s an ordinary guy who screws up at work and then begs to be forgiven so he can catch the Red Sox game with his buddies. He lives with his demanding, alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson), whom he finds in the bar watching the game with her equally drunk girlfriends. Jeff banters a bit with her as she falls off her stool. But his attention is fastened on his ex, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), whom he recently broke up with for the third time.

Erin is a runner prepping for the marathon and to win back her affection, he promises he will be waiting for her to cross the finish line. As she later points out to him, he never shows up when he’s supposed to — except this time, he does…

The trailer conveys a lot more:

Erin and Jeff

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “It’s through Erin that we watch Bauman’s medical and psychological battles in the first weeks after the bombing, and Maslany has a still, empathetic presence that can bring tears to your eyes — she’s the movie’s soul.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “He drinks, he yells, he cries, he misses therapy sessions, he reluctantly attends public events to be a mascot of hope for ‘Boston Strong,’ he hits his head a lot and he and Hurley’s relationship vacillates violently throughout — she moves in, they get back together, he disappoints again — culminating in a distressing shouting match in a car.”

Themes

Kate Erbland, IndieWire: “‘Stronger’ is not a film about Jeff coming to terms with his new body or learning how to walk again, but instead dealing with great personal pain while also struggling with the demands of a notoriety he never asked for. It’s a film about heroes and what we require from them, and why that often leads to wounds that may never heal.”

Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist: “The most complex and convincing element of ‘Stronger’ is its consideration of what it means to be a hero. Further absorbing is Jeff’s struggle to reconcile the nation’s admiration for his resolve with his frustrations, guilt and his acute understanding that surviving a bombing isn’t what heroism is made of.”

Selected Reviews

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “We’ve all seen plenty of inspirational recovery-from-injury dramas, but ‘Stronger’ is better than most — it mostly, if not entirely, avoids sentimental cliché — and provides an eloquent backstory to a moment many of us will recognize.”

Scott Tobias, NPR: “Stronger is an answer to inspirational dramas that treat the afflicted like the city of Boston treated Bauman after the bombing, as a victory lap instead of a human being. We may come away appreciating his effort, but with a much more clear-eyed view of what that effort entailed. It’s all the more inspirational for being accessible.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “It is, in many ways, an anti-Hollywood movie with a fittingly complicated ending. The movie cuts off on a positive note in their relationship, with them together and expecting a child. In real life, Bauman and Hurley divorced earlier this year. But this movie is not a love story. It’s about the sometimes ugly truth behind a symbol. And the most powerful moment comes late in the film with the man in the cowboy hat.”

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.