Jul 31

12 Steps of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

The film is primarily a celebration of the 12 Steps. David Edelstein, Vulture, regarding Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

More insightful than riveting, the film is doggedly focused on the work of recovery, and Callahan’s unending quest to be real with himself—because as he comes to understand, only then can he begin to live for other people. Steve MacFarlane, Slant

The first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. This and the 11 others form the basis of the AA program, which real-life cartoonist John Callahan (1951-2010) attends in Gus Van Sant‘s new Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on Callahan’s memoir.

Why won’t he get far on foot? Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) became a quadriplegic at 21 following a car accident. Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:

His party buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), was driving when their powder-blue VW bug hit a lamppost. The fact that Callahan’s hedonistic partner-in-crime escaped without a scratch initially gnawed at him and it took years of counseling to achieve acceptance.

A.A. Dowd, AVClub, adds that this, however, is not the main theme:

Don’t worry, Don’t Worry isn’t some tearfully inspirational tribute to Callahan’s triumph over his disability. It’s a tearfully inspirational tribute to his triumph over alcoholism. Based on the artist’s memoir of the same name, which heavily chronicled his battle with the bottle, the film believes so deeply in the AA process, in its value and necessity and effectiveness, that it could reasonably be retitled 12 Steps: The Movie. (There’s a whole montage devoted to step nine, with Callahan embarking on a rather literal apology tour.)

Step Nine, by the way: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

AA meetings are actually a considerable part of the film. Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times:

Generously holding court at these meetings is Callahan’s sponsor, Donnie, a rich, world-weary gay man played by a terrific Jonah Hill, all but unrecognizable with his long hair, thick beard and magnificent wardrobe. The movie doesn’t overdo the comedy of Donnie’s trust-fund Jesus look or his extravagantly marbled estate. It’s hard to overstate the sheer affection Hill pours into this characterization, distilling fey playfulness (he calls the people he sponsors ‘my piglets’), droll cynicism and soulful intensity into a mix of philosophical wisdom and practical advice. Tough love never felt so palpable.

David Edelstein, Vulture, on the AA quasi-realism:

A film like Don’t Worry…can rise or fall on those AA group-therapy sessions, and these are the best I’ve seen. They’re actually not formal AA events, though…Unlike regular AA meetings, these have ‘cross-talk’ — i.e., lots of interruptions and opportunities to vent, and Van Sant evidently encouraged a spontaneous flow. No less than Kim Gordon plays the ex-suburban housewife and Valium addict who tells a story about wandering her neighborhood buck naked…A first-time actress, the 36-year-old musician Beth Ditto, all but takes over as the large and lovably extroverted member of the group.

A clip below that features Gordon and Ditto in an improvised scene:

And how does it all turn out for Callahan? Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times“’Maybe life’s not supposed to be as meaningful as we think it is,’ a fellow addict says during group, perhaps realizing that self-absorption can be an even tougher habit to kick than booze. Like most of us, Callahan, by movie’s end, is not quite there yet.”

Jan 30

“Her”: A Man Falls Romantically for His Operating System

Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and written/directed by Spike Jonze, has created quite a stir, including among those who find it spoof-worthy, as in a recent short film by SNL starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.

The plot is summed up pithily by IMDB: “A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.” The OS is Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Peg Streep, writing in a Psychology Today post, points out that the film takes place in a context in which the majority readily accept Theodore’s relationship status:

The ease with which everyone accepts the relationship as ‘real’ is reminiscent of how quickly the culture has accommodated itself to the ‘new normal’ of living in the digital age, where seeing a couple eating dinner together while texting other people no longer seems strange or ‘friending’ people you don’t know so you can get more attention or feel better about yourself is okay.

Significant Plot Points

Tom Shone, The Guardian, sets it up:

…(T)he film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses…and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered…while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up ‘Mom points’ for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge ‘You’ve Failed Your Children!’


Alonso DuraldeThe Wrap: “His own emotions…remain a mystery to Theodore; he’s been in a serious funk since breaking up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), to the point where his old college pal Amy (Amy Adams) invites him for a night out with friends but specifies that she’s asking the ‘old, fun’ Theodore to come.”


Scott FoundasVariety: “Lack of physical presence notwithstanding, Samantha at first seems close to the male fantasy of the perfect woman: motherly and nurturing, always capable of giving her undivided attention, and (best of all) requiring nothing in return.”

Below you can watch the trailer:

Selected Reviews

Dana Stevens, Slate: “It’s a wistful portrait of our current love affair with technology in all its promise and disappointment, a post-human Annie Hall.”

Anthony Lane, New Yorker: “What makes ‘Her’ so potent is that it does to us what Samantha does to Theodore. We are informed, cosseted, and entertained, and yet we are never more than a breath away from being creeped out. Just because someone browses your correspondence in a mood of flirtatious bonhomie doesn’t make her any less invasive; and just because you have invited her to do so doesn’t mean that you are in control.”

Christopher Orr, The Atlantic:

By turns sad, funny, optimistic, and flat-out weird, it is a work of sincere and forceful humanism…

Indeed, by the end of the film, the central question Jonze is asking seems no longer even to be whether machines might one day be capable of love. Rather, his film has moved beyond that question to ask one larger still: whether machines might one day be more capable of love—in an Eastern philosophy, higher consciousness, Alan Wattsian way—than the human beings who created them.

Oct 03

“The Master”: Effects of Being Under the Spell of “The Cause”

 “The Master is an important work of cinematic art, which means that it’s very solemn, it’s way too long, and it doesn’t include an uproarious blooper reel during the final credits.” Libby Gelman-Waxner, Entertainment Weekly, 10/5/12 issue

And those are just three of the reasons I’ve decided not to see this very-hyped new film about a “leader” preying on the neediness of a vulnerable and troubled man. Some others?

  • Friends hated it.
  • Too many critics have noted the need to see it more than once.
  • The annoying trailer. (See below.)
  • You can’t make me.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), and it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. According to David Edelstein, NPR.org, here’s what it’s about:

Alcoholic, sex-addicted Freddie can’t adjust to a society that Anderson portrays as homogenized, repressed. Then he stumbles into something extraordinary — a burgeoning cult called ‘The Cause.’ The Cause is allegedly modeled on Scientology in the days before its leader, L. Ron Hubbard, rebranded it as a religion. Why allegedly? Anderson won’t officially admit the connection, perhaps because the church is so given to suing its critics. Whatever the model, the title character is named Lancaster Dodd and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man with the soul of a child trying hard to present himself as a Brahmin-like patriarch and visionary. Freddie stows away on Dodd’s yacht after fleeing migrant workers who think he poisoned a man with his homemade booze — and he probably did, though it’s not clear. Rather than chucking Freddie overboard, The Master takes a fatherly interest. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films — Boogie NightsMagnolia, even There Will Be Blood — have surrogate families that can be wonderfully attractive to emotional orphans like Freddie. Here, disciples eagerly submit to what’s called ‘processing.’ Dodd asks questions and then repeats them over and over, at once bullying and hypnotic, until his subjects break and open up. Like a Freudian therapist, he targets past traumas — but these traumas supposedly go back to birth and before that, over the course of trillions of years…

Choosing not to see the movie isn’t the same, however, as not appreciating the subject matter or not having interest in the opinions of those who’ve been there, such as former Scientologist Lorraine Devon Wilke, who saw The Master with several other ex-members. In The Huffington Post she writes:

 Beyond its artistry — which is estimable — and its storytelling — which, while masterful, will likely be found by some to be long, baffling, even boring at times — well dissects the anatomy of such groups and how they succeed. Simply put, they tap into something being sought. Something longed for, wanted, desired; something not being addressed or provided elsewhere. For some it’s desire for a spiritual path they’ve not yet found. For others, it’s to be saved, physically, mentally, or spiritually. Many are looking for community and family, a sense of belonging. Often it’s about the philosophy, the greater good, saving the world. Some are just seduced by someone else, swept up in something they deem new and exciting, unaware of the nuances and underbelly that, later, they’ll find troubling. This was all well illustrated in the film…

Seemingly, most critics give The Master either high marks or express mixed feelings. And some reviewers find it less than impressive:

Richard CorlissTime: “The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man — a creature not worth Dodd’s time, or ours.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “137 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix’s nose hairs is not my idea of appetizing.”

A recent post by Warren Adler further comments on where both Phoenix’s character and The Master may have gone wrong:

It works too hard to be profound and barely rises to the central point it is struggling to make; there are some people who, despite every attempt at brainwashing, are too screwed up with substance abuse, mental problems and childhood traumas to ever succumb to any possibility for submission, to any cause, no matter its methods, no matter its persuasive techniques, however harebrained and irrational…

If there is a lesson to be learned by this film, it is that habitual drunks would be far better off joining a twelve-step program than seeking cure and comfort from a charlatan trying to enrich himself by brainwashing the naïve and unsuspecting into a profit making enterprise that benefits no one except the people who run the outfit.