Sep 22

“Stronger” Film: Post-Traumatic Injury

“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.”

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.”

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? 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?”

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 : “…(T)he 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.’

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:

Nov 23

Holiday Family Gatherings: Prepare For the Dysfunction

That may be a stretch, but maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Although Thanksgiving has a great theme of expressing gratitude and sharing time with important others, holiday family gatherings sometimes bring not just joyful reunions but also dysfunctional misery and chaos.

After all, states therapist Harriet Lerner, Psychology Today: “Families are not fair and we don’t choose the one we are born or adopted into. Today a family is what most people are in recovery from.”

Or, as author Mary Karr once said: “I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it. ”

On the topic of survival over breaking bread together, which applies to holiday family gatherings, some wise words from author Anne Lamott, Salon: “Families: hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be…At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it’s a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”

For many, the Thanksgiving dinner is notable for all the overeating, over-imbibing, and overreacting. More quotes from some funny people:

David Letterman: “Thanksgiving is the day when you turn to another family member and say, ‘How long has Mom been drinking like this?’ My Mom, after six Bloody Marys looks at the turkey and goes, ‘Here, kitty, kitty’.”

Stephanie Howard: “My mom has a little nickname for [when I came out]. She calls it ‘the Thanksgiving that Stephanie ruined.’ All time is told in our family tree by this one day. I’ll go, ‘Hey Mom, what year did Grandpa have his heart surgery?’ ‘Well, let’s see. The Thanksgiving that you ruined was in ’92, so that means he had his surgery in ’67’.”

Bob Smith: “It wasn’t easy telling my family that I’m gay. I made my carefully worded announcement at Thanksgiving. It was very Norman Rockwell. I said, ‘Mom, would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual?’ She passed it to my father. A terrible scene followed.”

Mar 29

“Rachel Getting Married”: Rehab Interrupted, Emotional Chaos

The contemporary slice-of-life film Rachel Getting Married (2008), directed by Jonathan Demme, features Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who’s tried substance abuse rehab a number of times and hasn’t yet succeeded. In fact, she’s currently on a weekend leave from her most recent rehab—in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Cue plenty of opportunities for emotionally loaded dysfunctional-type interactions.

Here’s the trailer to get you started:

Having seen and liked the movie, I appreciated reading the following Rachel Getting Married review of Amy Biancolli‘s (Houston Chronicle) so much that I have to quote a significant chunk of it. For starters: “It hurts to watch Rachel Getting Married. It hurts because it captures, better than any film of recent vintage, the wild emotional undulations of life in a dysfunctional family.”

Why does it hurt? “It hurts because addicts are inevitably selfish, and movies about them are inevitably claustrophobic. It hurts because Anne Hathaway is rawer, bluer, meaner, truer, more broken than you’ve ever seen her — than you’ve ever seen just about anyone portraying a lost soul in recovery.”

Furthermore:

It hurts because Bill Irwin, the actor playing her father, seems to split down the middle as we watch. It hurts because Rosemarie DeWitt, as the Rachel getting married, conveys without an ounce of malice the outrage and exhaustion of loving someone who’s so far off from normal. And it hurts because our joy at seeing the warm, familiar face of Debra Winger turns to shock when her calibrated performance — as a detached mater familias — abruptly kicks into hellfire-spitting fury.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on as well, including an underlying theme of a tragic family loss—for which Kym is held responsible.

And lots lots more is packed into the few days represented in this film. Wesley MorrisBoston Globe: “Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet have given us an epic rehearsal dinner, ceremony, and reception that’s half-cabaret, half group-therapy session, and completely multiracial, multicultural, and multisensory.”

This is one of those quirkier films that the critics loved and the non-critics not so much. It seems that having to sit through loads of family dysfunction is an undesirable for many—imagine that—especially if they already have that at home.

But I feel compelled to let another critic have the last word on this one. Michael Dequina, TheMovieReport.com: “The messiness that goes with genuinely flawed and complex people is what makes the film ring so true and cut so deep.”